Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch
THE "CHRISTMAS LADY"
"The rosy glow of summer
"But this shall change hereafter,
LATE the next afternoon a man and a girl were standing in the Olcott reception hall. The lamps had not been lighted, but the blaze from the back-log threw a cozy glow of comfort over the crimson curtains and on the mass of bright-hued pillows in the window-seat.
Robert Redding, standing with his hat in his hand, would have been gone long ago if the "Christmas Lady" had not worn her violet gown. He said it always took him half an hour to say good-by when she wore a rose in her hair, and a full hour when she had on the violet dress.
"By Jove, stand there a minute just as you are! The fire-light shining through your hair makes you look like a saint. Little Saint Lucinda!" he said teasingly, as he tried to catch her hand. She put it behind her for safe-keeping.
"Not a saint at all?" he went on, in mock surprise; "then an iceberg—a nice, proper little iceberg."
Lucy Olcott looked up at him for a moment in silence; he was very tall and straight, and his face retained much of its boyishness, in spite of the firm, square jaw.
"Robert," she said, suddenly grown serious, "I wish you would do something for me."
"All right; what is it?" he asked.
She timidly put her hand on his, and looked up at him earnestly.
"It's about Dick Harris," she said. "I wish you would not be with him so much."
Redding's face clouded. "You aren't afraid to trust me?" he asked.
"Oh, no; it isn't that," she said hurriedly; "but, Robert, it makes people think such wrong things about you; I can't bear to have you misjudged."
Redding put his arm around her, and together they stood looking down into the glowing embers.
"Tell me about it, little girl; what have you heard?" he asked.
She hesitated. "It wasn't true what they said. I knew it wasn't true, but they had no right to say it."
"Well, let's hear it, anyway. What was it?"
"Some people were here last night from New Orleans; they asked if I knew you—said they knew you and Dick the year you spent there."
"Well?" said Redding.
Lucy evidently found it difficult to continue. "They said some horrid things then, just because you were Dick's friend."
"What were they, Lucy?"
"They told me that you were both as wild as could be; that your reputation was no better than his; that—forgive me, Robert, for even repeating it. It made me very angry, and I told them it was not true—not a word of it; that it was all Dick's fault; that he—"
"Lucy," interrupted Redding, peremptorily, "wait until you hear me! I have never lied to you about anything, and I will not stoop to it now. Four years ago, when those people knew me, I was just what they said. Dick Harris and I went to New Orleans straight from college. Neither of us had a home or people to care about us, so we went in for a good time. At the end of the year I was sick of it all, braced up, and came here. Poor Dick, he kept on."
At his first words the color had left Lucy's face, and she had slipped to the opposite side of the fire, and stood watching him with horrified eyes.
"But you were never like Dick!" she protested.
"Yes," he continued passionately, "and but for God's help I should be like him still. It was an awful pull, and Heaven only knows how I struggled. I never quite saw the use of it all, until I met you six months ago; then I realized that the past four years had been given me in which to make a man of myself."
As he finished speaking he saw, for the first time, that Lucy was crying. He sprang forward, but she shrank away. "No, no, don't touch me! I'm so terribly disappointed, and hurt, and—stunned."
"But you surely don't love me the less for having conquered these things in the past?"
"I don't know, I don't know," she said, with a sob. "I honored and idealized you, Robert I can never think of you as being other than you are now."
"But why should you?" he pleaded. "It was only one year out of my life; too much, it's true, but I have atoned for it with all my might."
The intensity and earnestness of his voice were beginning to influence her. She was very young, with the stern, uncompromising standards of girlhood; life was black or white to her, and time had not yet filled in the canvas with the myriad grays that blend into one another until all lines are effaced, and only the Master Artist knows the boundaries.
She looked up through her tears. "I'll try to forgive you," she said, tremulously; "but you must promise to give up your friendship for Dick Harris."
Redding frowned and bit his lip. "That's not fair!" he said. "You know Dick's my chum; that he hasn't the least influence over me; that I am about the only one to stand by him."
"I am not afraid of his influence, but I don't want people to see you together; it makes them say things."
"But, Lucy, you wouldn't have me go back on him? Dick has a big heart; he's trying to brace up—"
"Oh, nonsense!" cried Lucy, impatiently. The fire in her eyes had dried the tears. "He could straighten up if he wanted to. He likes to drink and gamble, so he does it, and you keep him in countenance by your friendship. Are you hesitating between us?" she demanded angrily.
Redding's face was clouded, and he spoke slowly: "You wouldn't ask this of me, Lucy, if you understood. Dick and I have been chums since we were boys. He came to Kentucky three months ago, sick and miserable. One day he came into the office and said, 'Bob, you 've pulled through all right; do you think it's too late for me to try?' What would you have said?"
"What you did, probably," answered Lucy; "but I would have profited by the one experience, for he has hardly drawn a sober breath since." She looked out of the window across the snowy landscape, and in her face was something of the passionless purity of the scene upon which her eyes rested.
"You are mistaken," he cried fiercely. "Because you have seen him several times in that condition, you have no right to draw such a conclusion. He is weak, nobody denies it; but what can you know of the struggle he makes, of his eagerness to do better, of the fight that he is constantly making with himself?"
His words fell on deaf ears.
"Then you choose Mr. Harris?"
"Lucy, this is madness; it is not like you in the least!"
The girl was cold with anger and excitement. "It is bad enough," she said, "to know that my defense of you last night was worse than useless, but to have you persist in a friendship with a man who is beneath you in every way is more than I can stand." She slipped a ring from her finger, and held it toward him. "I could never marry a man of whom I was ashamed."
The shot went home; there was a white line about Redding's mouth as he turned away.
"I would not ask you to," he said, with simple dignity, as he opened the door.
"Please, ma'am, is this Miss Olcott's?" asked a trembling voice on the piazza. A shabby woman stood looking at them with wild eyes; her gray hair had escaped from the torn shawl that was pinned over her head, and stray locks blew across her face.
Lucy did not recognize her. "I will speak to you in a moment," she said.
An awkward pause followed, each waiting for the other to speak.
"I will come when you send for me," said Redding, without looking at her, and, turning abruptly, he strode down the steps and out into the dusk.
Lucy caught her breath and started forward, then she remembered the woman.
"What is it?" she asked listlessly.
The woman stepped forward, and put out a hand to steady herself against the door; her face was distorted, and her voice came in gasps.
"You said I was to come if I needed you. It's Jimmy, ma'am—he's dead!"
IT may be experience of suffering makes one especially tender to the heart-aches of others; at any rate, the article that Lucy Olcott wrote for the paper that night held the one touch of nature that makes the whole world kin. She had taken Aunt Chloe, the old colored servant, and gone home with Mrs. Wiggs, relieving as far as possible the immediate need of the family. Then she had come home and written their story, telling it simply, but with the passionate earnestness of one who, for the first time, has come into contact with poverty and starvation. She told of the plucky struggle made by the boy, of his indomitable courage, of his final defeat, and she ended by asking help of any kind for the destitute family.
A week later she sat at her desk bewildered. Her article, written on the impulse of the moment, with the one thought of making people understand, had fulfilled its mission. For seven days she had done nothing but answer questions and notes, and receive contributions for the Wiggs family. Money had arrived from all over the State, and from every class of society. Eichenstine Bros. sent fifty dollars, and six ragged newsboys came to present thirty cents. A lavender note, with huge monogram and written in white ink, stated that some of the girls of the "Gay Burlesque Troupe" sent a few dimes to the "kid's" mother. The few dimes amounted to fifteen dollars. Mrs. Van Larkin's coachman had to wait with her note while Lucy answered the questions of a lame old negro who had brought a quarter.
"Maria done tole me what was writ in de papah 'bout dat pore Chile," he was saying. "I sutenly do feel sorry fer he's maw. I ain't got much, but I tole Maria I guess we could do without somethin' to gib a quahter."
So it continued. Old and young, rich and poor, paid their substantial tribute of respect to Jimmy Wiggs.
Lucy counted up the long line of figures. "Three hundred and sixty-five dollars!" she exclaimed; "and food, clothes, and coal enough to last them a year!"
It was like a direct answer to her prayer, and yet this poor little suppliant, instead of being duly exalted, put her head on the desk and wept bitterly. Now that the need of the Wiggs family had been met, another appeal, silent and potent, was troubling her heart.
Redding had neither come nor written, and she was beginning to realize the seriousness of their misunderstanding.