Ernest Poole.

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than a moment. The war was so remote and dim. And soon she would turn back
again to her own beloved children, whose lives, so full of happiness, so
rich in promise hitherto, were now so cramped and thwarted. Each day was
harder than the last. It was becoming unbearable!

No, they must go back to school. But how to manage it? How? How? It would
cost eight hundred dollars, and this would take nearly all the money she
would be able to secure by the sale of her few possessions. And then what?
What of sickness, and the other contingencies which still lay ahead of her?
How old her father seemed, these days! In his heavy shock of hair the
flecks of white had doubled in size, were merging one into the other, and
his tall, stooping, massive frame had lost its look of ruggedness. Suppose,
suppose.... Her breath came fast. Was his life insured, she wondered.

On such afternoons, in the upstairs room as the dusk crept in and
deepened, she would bend close to her sewing - planning, planning, planning.
At last she would hear the children trooping merrily into the house. And
making a very real effort, which at times was in truth heroic, to smile,
she would rise and light the gas, would welcome them gaily and join in
their chatter and bustle about on the countless tasks of washing them,
getting their suppers, undressing the small ones and hearing their prayers.
With smiling good-night kisses she would tuck her two babies into their
cribs. Afterward, just for a moment or two, she would linger under the gas
jet, her face still smiling, for a last look. A last good-night. Then
darkness.

Darkness settling over her spirit, together with loneliness and fatigue.
She would go into Betsy's room and throw herself dressed on her daughter's
bed, and a dull complete indifference to everything under the moon and the
stars would creep from her body up into her mind. At times she would try to
fight it off. To-night at dinner she must not be what she knew she had been
the night before, a wet blanket upon all the talk. But if they only knew
how hard it was - what a perfect - hell it was! Her breath coming faster, she
would dig her nails into the palms of her hands. One night she noticed and
looked at her hand, and saw the skin was actually cut and a little blood
was appearing. She had read of women doing this, but she had never done it
before - not even when her babies were born. She had gripped Bruce's hand
instead.




CHAPTER XXVII


Roger found her like that one evening. He heard what he thought was a sob
from the room, for she had forgotten to close the door. He came into the
doorway but drew back, and closed the door with barely a sound. Frowning
and irresolute, he stood for a moment in the hall, then turned and went
into his room. Soon he heard Deborah enter the house and come slowly up the
stairs. She too had had a hard day, he recalled, a day all filled with
turbulence, with problems and with vexing toil, in her enormous family. And
he felt he could not blame her for not being of more help at home. Still,
he had been disappointed of late in her manner toward her sister. He had
hoped she would draw closer to Edith, now that again they were living
together in their old home where they had been born. But no, it had worked
just the opposite way. They were getting upon each other's nerves. Why
couldn't she make overtures, small kindly proffers of help and advice and
sympathy, the womanly things?

From his room he heard her knock softly at the same door he had closed. And
he heard her low clear voice:

"Are you there, Edith dear?" He listened a moment intently, but he could
not hear the reply. Then Deborah said, "Oh, you poor thing. I'm awfully
sorry. Edith - don't bother to come downstairs - let me bring you up your
supper." A pause. "I wish you would. I'd love to."

He heard Deborah come by his door and go up the second flight of stairs to
the room she had taken on the third floor.

"I was wrong," he reflected, "she has been trying - but it doesn't do any
good. Women simply haven't it in 'em to see each other's point of view.
Deborah doesn't admire Edith - she can't, she only pities her and puts her
down as out of date. And Edith feels that, and it gets her riled, and she
sets herself like an angry old hen against all Deborah's new ideas. Why the
devil can't they live and let live?"

And he hesitated savagely between a pearl gray _and_ a black cravat. Then
he heard another step on the stairs. It was much slower than Deborah's, and
cautious and dogged, one foot lifted carefully after the other. It was
John, who had finished his kitchen supper and was silently making his way
up through the house to his room at the top, there to keep out of sight for
the evening. And it came into Roger's mind that John had been acting in
just this fashion ever since Edith had been in the house.

"We'll have trouble there, too!" he told himself, as he jerked the black
satin cravat into place, a tie he thoroughly disliked. Yes, black, by
George, he felt like it to-night! These women! These evenings! This worry!
This war! This world gone raving, driveling mad!

And frowning with annoyance, Roger went down to his dinner.

As he waited he grew impatient. He had eaten no lunch, he was hungry; and
he was very tired, too, for he had had his own hard day. Pshaw! He got up
angrily. _Somebody_ must be genial here. He went into the dining room and
poured himself a good stiff drink. Roger had never been much of a drinker.
Ever since his marriage, cigars had been his only vice. But of late he had
been having curious little sinking spells. They worried him, and he told
himself he could not afford to get either too tired or too faint.

Nevertheless, he reflected, it was setting a bad example for George. But
glancing into his study he saw that the lad was completely absorbed. With
knees drawn up, his long lank form all hunched and huddled on the lounge,
hair rumpled, George was reading a book which had a cover of tough gray
cloth. At the sight of it his grandfather smiled, for he had seen it once
before. Where George had obtained it, the Lord only knew. Its title was
"Bulls and Breeding." A thoroughly practical little book, but nothing for
George's mother to see. As his grandfather entered behind him, the boy
looked up with a guilty start, and resumed with a short breath of relief.

Young Elizabeth, too, had a furtive air, for instead of preparing her
history lesson she was deep in the evening paper reading about the war
abroad. Stout and florid, rather plain, but with a frank, attractive face
and honest, clear, appealing eyes, this curious creature of thirteen was
sitting firmly in her chair with her feet planted wide apart, eagerly
scanning an account of the work of American surgeons in France. And again
Roger smiled to himself. (He was feeling so much better now.) So Betsy was
still thinking of becoming a surgeon. He wondered what she would take up
next. In the past two years in swift succession she had made up her mind to
be a novelist, an actress and a women's college president. And Roger liked
this tremendously.

He loved to watch these two in the house. Here again his family was
widening out before him, with new figures arising to draw his attention
this way and that. But these were bright distractions. He took a deep,
amused delight in watching these two youngsters caught between two fires,
on the one side their mother and upon the other their aunt; both obviously
drawn toward Deborah, a figure who stood in their regard for all that
thrilling outside world, that heaving sparkling ocean on which they too
would soon embark; both sternly repressing their eagerness as an insult to
their mother, whom they loved and pitied so, regarding her as a brave and
dear but rapidly ageing creature "well on in her thirties," whom they must
cherish and preserve. They both had such solemn thoughts as they looked at
Edith in her chair. But as Roger watched them, with their love and their
solemnity, their guilt and their perplexity, with quiet enjoyment he would
wait to see the change he knew would come. And it always did. The sudden
picking up of a book, the vanishing of an anxious frown, and in an instant
their young minds had turned happily back into themselves, into their own
engrossing lives, their plans, their intimate dreams and ambitions, all so
curiously bound up with memories of small happenings which had struck them
as funny that day and at which they would suddenly chuckle aloud.

And this was only one stage in their growth. What would be the next, he
asked, and all the others after that? What kind of world would they live
in? Please heaven, there would be no wars. Many old things, no doubt, would
be changed, by the work of Deborah and her kind - but not too many, Roger
hoped. And these young people, meanwhile, would be bringing up children in
their turn. So the family would go on, and multiply and scatter wide, never
to unite again. And he thought he could catch glimpses, very small and far
away but bright as patches of sunlight upon distant mountain tops, into the
widening vista of those many lives ahead. A wistful look crept over his
face.

"In their lives too we shall be there, the dim strong figures of the past."

* * * * *

Deborah came into the room, and at once the whole atmosphere changed. Her
niece sprang up delightedly.

"Why, Auntie, how lovely you look!" she exclaimed. And Roger eyed Deborah
in surprise. Though she did not believe in mourning, she had been wearing
dark gowns of late to avoid hurting Edith's feelings. But to-night she had
donned bright colors instead; her dress was as near décolleté as anything
that Deborah wore, and there was a band of dull blue velvet bound about
her hair.

"Thanks, dearie," she said, smiling. "Shall we go in to dinner now?" she
added to her father. "Edith said not to wait for her - and I'll have to be
off rather early this evening."

"What is it to-night?" he inquired.

"A big meeting at Cooper Union."

And at dinner she went on to say that in her five schools the neighborhood
clubs had combined to hold this meeting, and she herself was to preside. At
once her young niece was all animation.

"Oh, I wish I could go and hear you!" she sighed.

"Afraid you can't, Betsy," her aunt replied. And at this, with an
instinctive glance toward the door where her mother would soon come in to
stop by her mere presence all such conversation, Elizabeth eagerly threw
out one inquiry after the other, pell mell.

"How on earth do you do it?" she wanted to know. "How do you get a speech
ready, Aunt Deborah - how much of it do you write out ahead? Aren't you just
the least bit nervous - now, I mean - this minute? And how will you feel on
the platform? _What on earth do you do with your feet?_"

As the girl bent forward there with her gaze fixed ardently on her aunt,
her grandfather thought in half comic dismay, "Lord, now she'll want to be
a great speaker - like her aunt. And she will tell her mother so!"

"What's the meeting all about?" he inquired. And Deborah began to explain.

In her five schools the poverty was rapidly becoming worse. Each week more
children stayed away or came to school ragged and unkempt, some without any
overcoats, small pitiful mites wearing shoes so old as barely to stick on
their feet. And when the teachers and visitors followed these children into
their homes they found bare, dirty, chilly rooms where the little folk
shivered and wailed for food and the mothers looked distracted, gaunt and
sullen and half crazed. Over three hundred thousand workers were idle in
the city. Meanwhile, to make matters worse, half the money from uptown
which had gone in former years into work for the tenements was going over
to Belgium instead. And the same relentless drain of war was felt by the
tenement people themselves; for all of them were foreigners, and from their
relatives abroad, in those wide zones of Europe already blackened and laid
waste, in endless torrents through the mails came wild appeals for money.

In such homes her children lived. And Deborah had set her mind on vigorous
measures of relief. Landlords must be made to wait and the city be
persuaded to give work to the most needy, food and fuel must be secured. As
she spoke of the task before her, with a flush of animation upon her bright
expressive face at the thought that in less than an hour she would be
facing thousands of people, the gloom of the picture she painted was
dispelled in the spirit she showed.

"These things always work out," she declared, with an impatient shrug of
her shoulders. And watching her admiringly, young Betsy thought, "How
strong she is! What a wonderful grown-up woman!" And Roger watching
thought, "How young."

* * * * *

"What things?" It was Edith's voice at the door, and among those at the
table there was a little stir of alarm. She had entered unnoticed and now
took her seat. She was looking pale and tired. "What things work out so
finely?" she asked, and with a glance at Deborah's gown,

"Where are you going?" she added.

"To a meeting," Deborah answered.

"Oh." And Edith began her soup. In the awkward pause that followed, twice
Deborah started to speak to her sister, but checked herself, for at other
dinners just like this she had made such dismal failures.

"By the way, Edith," she said, at last, "I've been thinking of all that
furniture of yours which is lying in storage." Her sister looked up at her,
startled.

"What about it?" she asked.

"There's so much of it you don't care for," Deborah answered quietly. "Why
don't you let a part of it go? I mean the few pieces you've always
disliked."

"For what purpose?"

"Why, it seems such a pity not to have Hannah back in the house. She would
make things so much easier." Roger felt a glow of relief.

"A capital plan!" he declared at once.

"It would be," Edith corrected him, "if I hadn't already made _other_
plans." And then in a brisk, breathless tone, "You see I've made up my
mind," she said, "to sell not only part but _all_ my furniture - very
soon - and a few other belongings as well - and use the money to put George
and Elizabeth and little Bob back in the schools where they belong."

"Mother!" gasped Elizabeth, and with a prolonged "Oh-h" of delight she ran
around to her mother's chair.

"But look here," George blurted worriedly, "I don't like it, mother, darned
if I do! You're selling everything - just for school!"

"School is rather important, George," was Edith's tart rejoinder. "If you
don't think so, ask your aunt." "What do you think of it, Auntie?" he
asked. The cloud which had come on Deborah's face was lifted in an instant.

"I think, George," she answered gently, "that you'd better let your mother
do what she thinks best for you. It _will_ make things easier here in the
house," she added, to her sister, "but I wish you could have Hannah, too."

"Oh, I'll manage nicely now," said Edith. And with a slight smile of
triumph she resumed her dinner.

"The war won't last forever," muttered Roger uneasily. And to himself: "But
suppose it _should_ last - a year or more." He did not approve of Edith's
scheme. "It's burning her bridges all at once, for something that isn't
essential," he thought. But he would not tell her so.

Meanwhile Deborah glanced at the clock.

"Oh! It's nearly eight o'clock! I must hurry or I'll be late," she said.
"Good-night, all - "

And she left them.

Roger followed her into the hall.

"What do you think of this?" he demanded. Her reply was a tolerant shrug.

"It's her own money, father - "

"All her money!" he rejoined. "Every dollar she has in the world!"

"But I don't just see how it can be helped."

"Can't you talk to her, show her what folly it is?"

"Hardly," said Deborah, smiling. Already she had on her coat and hat and
was turning to go. And her father scowled with annoyance. She was always
going, he told himself, leaving him to handle her sister alone. He would
like to go out himself in the evenings - yes, by George, this very night - it
would act like a tonic on his mind. Just for a moment, standing there, he
saw Cooper Union packed to the doors, he heard the ringing speeches, the
cheers. But no, it was not to be thought of. With this silent war going on
in his house he knew he must stay neutral. Watchful waiting was his course.
If he went out with Deborah, Edith would be distinctly hurt, and sitting
all evening here alone she would draw still deeper into herself. And so it
would be night after night, as it had been for many weeks. He would be
cooped up at home while Deborah did the running about.... In half the time
it takes to tell it, Roger had worked himself into a state where he felt
like a mighty badly used man.

"I wish you _would_ speak to her," he said. "I wish you could manage to
find time to be here more in the evenings. Edith worries so much and she's
trying so hard. A little sympathy now and then - "

"But she doesn't seem to want any from me," said his daughter, a bit
impatiently. "I know it's hard - of course it is. But what can I do? She
won't let me help. And besides - there are other families, you
know - thousands - really suffering - for the lack of all that we have here."
She smiled and kissed him quickly. "Good-night, dad dear, I've got to run."

And the door closed behind her.




CHAPTER XXVIII


After dinner that night, in the living room the two older children studied
their lessons and Edith sat mending a pair of rompers for little Tad.
Presently Roger came out from his den with the evening paper in his hand
and sat down close beside her. He did this conscientiously almost every
evening. With a sigh he opened his paper to read, again there was silence
in the room, and in this silence Roger's mind roamed far away across the
sea.

For the front page of his paper was filled with the usual headlines,
tidings which a year before would have made a man's heart jump into his
throat, but which were getting commonplace now. Dead and wounded by the
thousands, famine, bombs and shrapnel, hideous atrocities, submarines and
floating mines, words once remote but now familiar, always there on the
front page and penetrating into his soul, becoming a part of Roger Gale, so
that never again when the war was done would he be the same man he was
before. For he had forever lost his faith in the sanity and steadiness of
the great mind of humanity. Roger had thought of mankind as mature, but
there had come to him of late the same feeling he had had before in the
bosom of his family. Mankind had suddenly unmasked and shown itself for
what it was - still only a precocious child, with a terrible precocity. For
its growth had been one sided. Its strength was growing at a speed
breathless and astounding. But its vision and its poise, its sense of human
justice, of kindliness and tolerance and of generous brotherly love, these
had been neglected and were being left behind. Vaguely he thought of its
ships of steel, its railroads and its flaming mills, its miracles, its
prodigies. And the picture rose in his mind of a child, standing there of
giant's size with dangerous playthings in its hands, and boastfully
declaring,

"I can thunder over the earth, dive in the ocean, soar on the clouds! I can
shiver to atoms a mountain, I can drench whole lands with blood! I can look
up and laugh at God!"

And Roger frowned as he read the news. What strange new century lay ahead?
What convulsing throes of change? What was in store for his children?
Tighter set his heavy jaw.

"It shall be good," he told himself with a grim determination. "For them
there shall be better things. Something great and splendid shall come out
of it at last. They will look back upon this time as I look on the French
Revolution."

He tried to peer into that world ahead, dazzling, distant as the sun. But
then with a sigh he returned to the news, and little by little his mind
again was gripped and held by the most compelling of all appeals so far
revealed in humanity's growth, the appeal of war to the mind of a man. He
frowned as he read, but he read on. Why didn't England send over more men?

The clock struck nine.

"Now, George. Now, Elizabeth," Edith said. With the usual delay and
reluctance the children brought their work to an end, kissed their mother
and went up to bed. And Edith continued sewing. Presently she smiled to
herself. Little Tad had been so droll that day.

On the third page of his paper, Roger's glance was arrested by a full
column story concerning Deborah's meeting that night. And as in a long
interview he read here in the public print the same things she had told him
at supper, he felt a little glow of pride. Yes, this daughter of his was a
wonderful woman, living a big useful life, taking a leading part in work
which would certainly brighten the lives of millions of children still
unborn. Again he felt the tonic of it. Here was a glimmer of hope in the
world, here was an antidote to war. He finished the column and glanced up.

Edith was still sewing. He thought of her plan to sell all she possessed in
order to put her children back in their expensive schools uptown.

"Why can't she save her money?" he thought. "God knows there's little
enough of it left. But I can't tell her that. If I do she'll sell
everything, hand me the cash and tell me she's sorry to be such a burden.
She'll sit like a thundercloud in my house."

No, he could say nothing to stop her. And over the top of his paper her
father shot a look at her of keen exasperation. Why risk everything she had
to get these needless frills and fads? Why must she cram her life so full
of petty plans and worries and titty-tatty little jobs? For the Lord's
sake, leave their clothes alone! And why these careful little rules for
every minute of their day, for their washing, their dressing, their eating,
their napping, their play and the very air they breathed! He crumpled his
paper impatiently. She was always talking of being old-fashioned. Well
then, why not be that way? Let her live as her grandmother had, up there in
the mountain farmhouse. _She_ had not been so particular. With one hired
girl she had thought herself lucky. And not only had she cooked and sewed,
but she had spun and woven too, had churned and made cheese and pickles and
jam and quilts and even mattresses. Once in two months she had cut Roger's
hair, and the rest of the time she had let him alone, except for something
really worth while - a broken arm, for example, or church. She had stuck to
the essentials!... But Edith was not old-fashioned, nor was she alive to
this modern age. In short, she was neither here nor there!

Then from the nursery above, her smallest boy was heard to cry. With a
little sigh of weariness, quickly she rose and went upstairs, and a few
moments later to Roger's ears came a low, sweet, soothing lullaby. Years
ago Edith had asked him to teach her some of his mother's cradle songs. And
the one which she was singing to-night was a song he had heard when he was
small, when the mountain storms had shrieked and beat upon the rattling old
house and he had been frightened and had cried out and his mother had come
to his bed in the dark. He felt as though she were near him now. And as he
listened to the song, from the deep well of sentiment which was a part of
Roger Gale rose memories that changed his mood, and with it his sense of
proportions.

Here was motherhood of the genuine kind, not orating in Cooper Union in the
name of every child in New York, but crooning low and tenderly, soothing
one little child to sleep, one of the five she herself had borne, in agony,
without complaint. How Edith had slaved and sacrificed, how bravely she had
rallied after the death of her husband. He remembered her a few hours ago
on the bed upstairs, spent and in anguish, sobbing, alone. And remorse came
over him. Deborah's talk at dinner had twisted his thinking, he told
himself. Well, that was Deborah's way of life. She had her enormous family
and Edith had her small one, and in this hell of misery which war was
spreading over the earth each mother was up in arms for her brood. And, by
George, of the two he didn't know but that he preferred his own flesh and
blood. All very noble, Miss Deborah, and very dramatic, to open your arms
to all the children under the moon and get your name in the papers. But
there was something pretty fine in just sitting at home and singing to one.

"All right, little mother, you go straight ahead. This is war and panic and
hard times. You're perfectly right to look after your own."


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Online LibraryErnest PooleHis Family → online text (page 14 of 22)