As years ago we carried to your knees
"Well, we couldn't have much worse weather than this for the last week of school, could we?" Margaret Paget said in discouragement. She stood at one of the school windows, her hands thrust deep in her coat pockets for warmth, her eyes following the whirling course of the storm that howled outside. The day had commenced with snow, but now, at twelve o'clock, the rain was falling in sheets, and the barren schoolhouse yard, and the play-shed roof, ran muddy streams of water.
Margaret had taught in this schoolroom for nearly four years now, ever since her seventeenth birthday, and she knew every feature of the big bare room by heart, and every detail of the length of village street that the high, uncurtained windows commanded. She had stood at this window in all weathers: when locust and lilac made even ugly little Weston enchanting, and all the windows were open to floods of sweet spring air; when tie dry heat of autumn burned over the world; when the common little houses and barns, and the bare trees, lay dazzling and transfigured under the first snowfall, and the wood crackled in the schoolroom stove; and when, as to-day, midwinter rains swept drearily past the windows, and the children must have the lights lighted for their writing lesson. She was tired of it all, with an utter and hopeless weariness. Tired of the bells, and the whispering, and the shuffling feet, of the books that smelled of pencil-dust and ink and little dusty fingers; tired of the blackboards, cleaned in great irregular scallops by small and zealous arms; of the clear-ticking big clock; of little girls who sulked, and little girls who cried after hours in the hall because they had lost their lunch baskets or their overshoes, and little girls who had colds in their heads, and no handkerchiefs. Looking out into the gray day and the rain, Margaret said to herself that she was sick of it all!
There were no little girls in the schoolroom now. They were for the most part downstairs in the big playroom, discussing cold lunches, and planning, presumably, the joys of the closely approaching holidays. One or two windows had been partially opened to air the room in their absence, and Margaret's only companion was another teacher, Emily Porter, a cheerful little widow, whose plain rosy face was in marked contrast to the younger woman's unusual beauty.
Mrs. Porter loved Margaret and admired her very much, but she herself loved teaching. She had had a hard fight to secure this position a few years ago; it meant comfort to her and her children, and it still seemed to her a miracle of God's working, after her years of struggle and worry. She could not understand why Margaret wanted anything better; what better thing indeed could life hold! Sometimes, looking admiringly at her associate's crown of tawny braids, at the dark eyes and the exquisite lines of mouth and forehead, Mrs. Porter would find herself sympathetic with the girl's vague discontent and longings, to the extent of wishing that some larger social circle than that of Weston might have a chance to appreciate Margaret Paget's beauty, that "some of those painters who go crazy over girls not half as pretty" might see her. But after all, sensible little Mrs. Porter would say to herself, Weston was a "nice" town, only four hours from New York, absolutely up-to-date; and Weston's best people were all "nice," and the Paget girls were very popular, and "went everywhere,"—young people were just discontented and exacting, that was all!
She came to Margaret's side now, buttoned snugly into her own storm coat, and they looked out at the rain together. Nothing alive was in sight. The bare trees tossed in the wind, and a garden gate halfway down the row of little shabby cottages banged and banged.
"Shame—this is the worst yet!" Mrs. Porter said. "You aren't going home to lunch in all this, Margaret?"
"Oh, I don't know," Margaret said despondently. "I'm so dead that I'd make a cup of tea here if I didn't think Mother would worry and send Julie over with lunch."
"I brought some bread and butter—but not much. I hoped it would hold up. I hate to leave Tom and Sister alone all day," Mrs. Porter said dubiously. "There's tea and some of those bouillon cubes and some crackers left. But you're so tired, I don't know but what you ought to have a hearty lunch."
"Oh, I'm not hungry." Margaret dropped into a desk, put her elbows on it, pushed her hair off her forehead. The other woman saw a tear slip by the lowered, long lashes.
"You're exhausted, aren't you, Margaret?" she said suddenly.
The little tenderness was too much. Margaret's lip shook.
"Dead!" she said unsteadily. Presently she added, with an effort at cheerfulness, "I'm just cross, I guess, Emily; don't mind me! I'm tired out with examinations and—" her eyes filled again—"and I'm sick of wet cold weather and rain and snow," she added childishly. "Our house is full of muddy rubbers and wet clothes! Other people go places and do pleasant things," said Margaret, her breast rising and falling stormily; "but nothing ever happens to us except broken arms, and bills, and boilers bursting, and chicken-pox! It's drudge, drudge, drudge, from morning until night!"
With a sudden little gesture of abandonment she found a handkerchief in her belt, and pressed it, still folded, against her eyes. Mrs. Porter watched her solicitously, but silently. Outside the schoolroom windows the wind battered furiously, and rain slapped steadily against the panes.
"Well!" the girl said resolutely and suddenly. And after a moment she added frankly, "I think the real trouble to-day, Emily, is that we just heard of Betty Forsythe's engagement—she was my brother's girl, you know; he's admired her ever since she got into High School, and of course Bruce is going to feel awfully bad."
"Betty engaged? Who to?" Mrs. Porter was interested.
"To that man—boy, rather, he's only twenty-one—who's been visiting the Redmans," Margaret said. "She's only known him two weeks."
"Gracious! And she's only eighteen—"
"Not quite eighteen. She and my sister, Julie, were in my first class four years ago; they're the same age," Margaret said. "She came fluttering over to tell us last night, wearing a diamond the size of a marble! Of course,"—Margaret was loyal,—"I don't think there's a jealous bone in Julie's body; still, it's pretty hard! Here's Julie plugging away to get through the Normal School, so that she can teach all the rest of her life, and Betty's been to California, and been to Europe, and now is going to marry a rich New York man! Betty's the only child, you know, so, of course, she has everything. It seems so unfair, for Mr. Forsythe's salary is exactly what Dad's is; yet they can travel, and keep two maids, and entertain all the time! And as for family, why, Mother's family is one of the finest in the country, and Dad's had two uncles who were judges—and what were the Forsythes! However,"—Margaret dried her eyes and put away her handkerchief,—"however, it's for Bruce I mind most!"
"Bruce is only three years older than you are, twenty-three or four," Mrs. Porter smiled.
"Yes, but he's not the kind that forgets!" Margaret's flush was a little resentful. "Oh, of course, you can laugh, Emily. I know that there are plenty of people who don't mind dragging along day after day, working and eating and sleeping—but I'm not that kind!" she went on moodily. "I used to hope that things would be different; it makes me sick to think how brave I was; but now here's Ju coming along, and Ted growing up, and Bruce's girl throwing him over—it's all so unfair! I look at the Cutter girls, nearly fifty, and running the post-office for thirty years, and Mary Page in the Library, and the Norberrys painting pillows,—and I could scream!"
"Things will take a turn for the better some day, Margaret," said the other woman, soothingly; "and as time goes on you'll find yourself getting more and more pleasure out of your work, as I do. Why, I've never been so securely happy in my life as I am now. You'll feel differently some day."
"Maybe," Margaret assented unenthusiastically. There was a pause. Perhaps the girl was thinking that to teach school, live in a plain little cottage on the unfashionable Bridge Road, take two roomers, and cook and sew and plan for Tom and little Emily, as Mrs. Porter did, was not quite an ideal existence.
"You're an angel, anyway, Emily," said she, affectionately, a little shamefacedly. "Don't mind my growling. I don't do it very often. But I look about at other people, and then realize how my mother's slaved for twenty years and how my father's been tied down, and I've come to the conclusion that while there may have been a time when a woman could keep a house, tend a garden, sew and spin and raise twelve children, things are different now; life is more complicated. You owe your husband something, you owe yourself something. I want to get on, to study and travel, to be a companion to my husband. I don't want to be a mere upper servant!"
"No, of course not," assented Mrs. Porter, vaguely, soothingly.
"Well, if we are going to stay here, I'll light the stove," Margaret said after a pause. "B-r-r-r! this room gets cold with the windows open! I wonder why Kelly doesn't bring us more wood?"
"I guess—I'll stay!" Mrs. Porter said uncertainly, following her to the big book closet off the schoolroom, where a little gas stove and a small china closet occupied one wide shelf. The water for the tea and bouillon was put over the flame in a tiny enamelled saucepan; they set forth on a fringed napkin crackers and sugar and spoons.
At this point, a small girl of eleven with a brilliant, tawny head, and a wide and toothless smile, opened the door cautiously, and said, blinking rapidly with excitement,—
"Mark, Mother theth pleath may thee come in?"
This was Rebecca, one of Margaret's five younger brothers and sisters, and a pupil of the school herself. Margaret smiled at the eager little face.
"Hello, darling! Is Mother here? Certainly she can! I believe,"—she said, turning, suddenly radiant, to Mrs. Porter,—"I'll just bet you she's brought us some lunch!"
"Thee brought uth our luncheth—eggth and thpith caketh and everything!" exulted Rebecca, vanishing, and a moment later Mrs. Paget appeared.
She was a tall woman, slender but large of build, and showing, under a shabby raincoat and well pinned-up skirt, the gracious generous lines of shoulders and hips, the deep-bosomed erect figure that is rarely seen except in old daguerreotypes, or the ideal of some artist two generations ago. The storm to-day had blown an unusual color into her thin cheeks, her bright, deep eyes were like Margaret's, but the hair that once had shown an equally golden lustre was dull and smooth now, and touched with gray. She came in smiling, and a little breathless.
"Mother, you didn't come out in all this rain just to bring us our lunches!" Margaret protested, kissing the cold, fresh face.
"Well, look at the lunch you silly girls were going to eat!" Mrs. Paget protested in turn, in a voice rich with amusement. "I love to walk in the rain, Mark; I used to love it when I was a girl. Tom and Sister are at our house, Mrs. Potter, playing with Duncan and Baby. I'll keep them until after school, then I'll send them over to walk home with you."
"Oh, you are an angel!" said the younger mother, gratefully. And "You are an angel, Mother!" Margaret echoed, as Mrs. Paget opened a shabby suitcase, and took from it a large jar of hot rich soup, a little blue bowl of stuffed eggs, half a fragrant whole-wheat loaf in a white napkin, a little glass full of sweet butter, and some of the spice cakes to which Rebecca had already enthusiastically alluded.
"There!" said she, pleased with their delight, "now take your time, you've got three-quarters of an hour. Julie devilled the eggs, and the sweet-butter man happened to come just as I was starting."
"Delicious!—You've saved our lives," Margaret said, busy with cups and spoons. "You'll stay, Mother?" she broke off suddenly, as Mrs. Paget closed the suitcase.
"I can't, dear! I must go back to the children," her mother said cheerfully. No coaxing proving of any avail, Margaret went with her to the top of the hall stairs.
"What's my girl worrying about?" Mrs. Paget asked, with a keen glance at Margaret's face.
"Oh, nothing!" Margaret used both hands to button the top button of her mother's coat. "I was hungry and cold, and I didn't want to walk home in the rain!" she confessed, raising her eyes to the eyes so near her own.
"Well, go back to your lunch," Mrs. Paget urged, after a brief pause, not quite satisfied with the explanation. Margaret kissed her again, watched her descend the stairs, and leaning over the banister called down to her softly:
"Don't worry about me, Mother!"
"No—no—no!" her mother called back brightly. Indeed, Margaret reflected, going back to the much-cheered Emily, it was not in her nature to worry.
No, Mother never worried, or if she did, nobody ever knew it. Care, fatigue, responsibility, hard long years of busy days and broken nights had left their mark on her face; the old beauty that had been hers was chiselled to a mere pure outline now; but there was a contagious serenity in Mrs. Paget's smile, a clear steadiness in her calm eyes, and her forehead, beneath an unfashionably plain sweep of hair, was untroubled and smooth.
The children's mother was a simple woman; so absorbed in the hourly problems attendant upon the housing and feeding of her husband and family that her own personal ambitions, if she had any, were quite lost sight of, and the actual outlines of her character were forgotten by every one, herself included. If her busy day marched successfully to nightfall; if darkness found her husband reading in his big chair, the younger children sprawled safe and asleep in the shabby nursery, the older ones contented with books or games, the clothes sprinkled, the bread set, the kitchen dark and clean; Mrs. Paget asked no more of life. She would sit, her overflowing work-basket beside her, looking from one absorbed face to another, thinking perhaps of Julie's new school dress, of Ted's impending siege with the dentist, or of the old bureau up attic that might be mended for Bruce's room. "Thank God we have all warm beds," she would say, when they all went upstairs, yawning and chilly.
She had married, at twenty, the man she loved, and had found him better than her dreams in many ways, and perhaps disappointing in some few others, but "the best man in the world" for all that. That for more than twenty years he had been satisfied to stand for nine hours daily behind one dingy desk, and to carry home to her his unopened salary envelope twice a month, she found only admirable. Daddy was "steady," he was "so gentle with the children," he was "the easiest man in the world to cook for." "Bless his heart, no woman ever had less to worry over in her husband!" she would say, looking from her kitchen window to the garden where he trained the pea-vines, with the children's yellow heads bobbing about him. She never analyzed his character, much less criticised him. Good and bad, he was taken for granted; she was much more lenient to him than to any of the children. She welcomed the fast-coming babies as gifts from God, marvelled over their tiny perfectness, dreamed over the soft relaxed little forms with a heart almost too full for prayer. She was, in a word, old-fashioned, hopelessly out of the modern current of thoughts and events. She secretly regarded her children as marvellous, even while she laughed down their youthful conceit and punished their naughtiness.
Thinking a little of all these things, as a girl with her own wifehood and motherhood all before her does think, Margaret went back to her hot luncheon. One o'clock found her at her desk, refreshed in spirit by her little outburst, and much fortified in body. The room was well aired, and a reinforced fire roared in the little stove. One of the children had brought her a spray of pine, and the spicy fragrance of it reminded her that Christmas and the Christmas vacation were near; her mind was pleasantly busy with anticipation of the play that the Pagets always wrote and performed some time during the holidays, and with the New Year's costume dance at the Hall, and a dozen lesser festivities.
Suddenly, in the midst of a droning spelling lesson, there was a jarring interruption. From the world outside came a child's shrill screaming, which was instantly drowned in a chorus of frightened voices, and in the schoolroom below her own Margaret heard a thundering rush of feet, and answering screams. With a suffocating terror at her heart she ran to the window, followed by every child in the room.
The rain had stopped now, and the sky showed a pale, cold, yellow light low in the west. At the schoolhouse gate an immense limousine car had come to a stop. The driver, his face alone visible between a great leather coat and visored leather cap, was talking unheard above the din. A tall woman, completely enveloped in sealskins, had evidently jumped from the limousine, and now held in her arms what made Margaret's heart turn sick and cold, the limp figure of a small girl.
About these central figures there surged the terrified crying small children of the just-dismissed primer class, and in the half moment that Margaret watched, Mrs. Porter, white and shaking, and another teacher, Ethel Elliot, an always excitable girl, who was now sobbing and chattering hysterically, ran out from the school, each followed by her own class of crowding and excited boys and girls.
With one horrified exclamation, Margaret ran downstairs, and out to the gate. Mrs. Porter caught at her arm as she passed her in the path.
"Oh, my God, Margaret! It's poor little Dorothy Scott!" she said. "They've killed her. The car went completely over her!"
"Oh, Margaret, don't go near, oh, how can you!" screamed Miss Elliot. "Oh, and she's all they have! Who'll tell her mother!"
With astonishing ease, for the children gladly recognized authority, Margaret pushed through the group to the motor-car.
"Stop screaming—stop that shouting at once—keep still, every one of you!" she said angrily, shaking various shoulders as she went with such good effect that the voice of the woman in sealskins could be heard by the time Margaret reached her.
"I don't think she's badly hurt!" said this woman, nervously and eagerly. She was evidently badly shaken, and was very white. "Do quiet them, can't you?" she said, with a sort of apprehensive impatience. "Can't we take her somewhere, and get a doctor? Can't we get out of this?"
Margaret took the child in her own arms. Little Dorothy roared afresh, but to Margaret's unspeakable relief she twisted about and locked her arms tightly about the loved teacher's neck. The other woman watched them anxiously.
"That blood on her frock's just nosebleed," she said; "but I think the car went over her! I assure you we were running very slowly. How it happened—! But I don't think she was struck."
"Nosebleed!" Margaret echoed, with a great breath. "No," she said quietly, over the agitated little head; "I don't think she's much hurt. We'll take her in. Now, look here, children," she added loudly to the assembled pupils of the Weston Grammar School, whom mere curiosity had somewhat quieted, "I want every one of you children to go back to your schoolrooms; do you understand? Dorothy's had a bad scare, but she's got no bones broken, and we're going to have a doctor see that she's all right. I want you to see how quiet you can be. Mrs. Porter, may my class go into your room a little while?"
"Certainly," said Mrs. Porter, eager to cooperate, and much relieved to have her share of the episode take this form. "Form lines, children," she added calmly.
"Ted," said Margaret to her own small brother, who was one of Mrs. Porter's pupils, and who had edged closer to her than any boy unprivileged by relationship dared, "will you go down the street, and ask old Doctor Potts to come here? And then go tell Dorothy's mother that Dorothy has had a little bump, and that Miss Paget says she's all right, but that she'd like her mother to come for her."
"Sure I will, Mark!" Theodore responded enthusiastically, departing on a run.
"Mama!" sobbed the little sufferer at this point, hearing a familiar word.
"Yes, darling, you want Mama, don't you?" Margaret said soothingly, as she started with her burden up the schoolhouse steps. "What were you doing, Dorothy," she went on pleasantly, "to get under that big car?"
"I dropped my ball!" wailed the small girl, her tears beginning afresh, "and it rolled and rolled. And I didn't see the automobile, and I didn't see it! And I fell down and b-b-bumped my nose!"
"Well, I should think you did!" Margaret said, laughing. "Mother won't know you at all with such a muddy face and such a muddy apron!"
Dorothy laughed shakily at this, and several other little girls, passing in orderly file, laughed heartily. Margaret crossed the lines of children to the room where they played and ate their lunches on wet days. She shut herself in with the child and the fur-clad lady.
"Now you're all right!" said Margaret, gayly. And, Dorothy was presently comfortable in a big chair, wrapped in a rug from the motor-car, with her face washed, and her head dropped languidly back against her chair, as became an interesting invalid. The Irish janitor was facetious as he replenished the fire, and made her laugh again. Margaret gave her a numerical chart to play with, and saw with satisfaction that the little head was bent interestedly over it.
Quiet fell upon the school; the muffled sound of lessons recited in concert presently reached them. Theodore returned, reporting that the doctor would come as soon as he could and that Dorothy's mother was away at a card-party, but that Dorothy's "girl" would come for her as soon as the bread was out of the oven. There was nothing to do but wait.
"It seems a miracle," said the strange lady, in a low tone, when she and Margaret were alone again with the child. "But I don't believe she was scratched!"
"I don't think so," Margaret agreed. "Mother says no child who can cry is very badly hurt."
"They made such a horrible noise," said the other, sighing wearily. She passed a white hand, with one or two blazing great stones upon it, across her forehead. Margaret had leisure now to notice that by all signs this was a very great lady indeed. The quality of her furs, the glimpse of her gown that the loosened coat showed, her rings, and most of all the tones of her voice, the authority of her manner, the well-groomed hair and skin and hands, all marked the thoroughbred.
"Do you know that you managed that situation very cleverly just now?" said the lady, with a keen glance that made Margaret color. "One has such a dread of the crowd, just public sentiment, you know. Some odious bystander calls the police, they crowd against your driver, perhaps a brick gets thrown. We had an experience in England once—" She paused, then interrupted herself. "But I don't know your name?" she said brightly.
Margaret supplied it, was led to talk a little of her own people.
"Seven of you, eh? Seven's too many," said the visitor, with the assurance that Margaret was to learn characterized her. "I've two myself, two girls," she went on. "I wanted a boy, but they're nice girls. And you've six brothers and sisters? Are they all as handsome as you and this Teddy of yours? And why do you like teaching?"
"Why do I like it?" Margaret said, enjoying these confidences and the unusual experience of sitting idle in mid-afternoon. "I don't, I hate it."
"I see. But then why don't you come down to New York, and do something else?" the other woman asked.
"I'm needed at home, and I don't know any one there," Margaret said simply.
"I see," the lady said again thoughtfully. There was a pause. Then the same speaker said reminiscently, "I taught school once for three months when I was a girl, to show my father I could support myself."
"I've taught for four years," Margaret said.
"Well, if you ever want to try something else,—there are such lots of fascinating things a girl can do now!—be sure you come and see me about it," the stranger said. "I am Mrs. Carr-Boldt, of New York."
Margaret's amazed eyes flashed to Mrs. Carr-Boldt's face; her cheeks crimsoned.
"Mrs. Carr-Boldt!" she echoed blankly.
"Why not?" smiled the lady, not at all displeased.
"Why," stammered Margaret, laughing and rosy, "why, nothing—only I never dreamed who you were!" she finished, a little confused.
And indeed it never afterward seemed to her anything short of a miracle that brought the New York society woman—famed on two continents and from ocean to ocean for her jewels, her entertainments, her gowns, her establishments—into a Weston schoolroom, and into Margaret Paget's life.
"I was on my way to New York now," said Mrs. Carr-Boldt.
"I don't see why you should be delayed," Margaret said, glad to be able to speak normally, with such a fast-beating and pleasantly excited heart. "I'm sure Dorothy's all right."
"Oh, I'd rather wait. I like my company," said the other. And Margaret decided in that instant that there never was a more deservedly admired and copied and quoted woman.
Presently their chat was interrupted by the tramp of the departing school children; the other teachers peeped in, were reassured, and went their ways. Then came the doctor, to pronounce the entirely cheerful Dorothy unhurt, and to bestow upon her some hoarhound drops. Mrs. Carr-Boldt settled at once with the doctor, and when Margaret saw the size of the bill that was pressed into his hand, she realized that she had done her old friend a good turn.
"Use it up on your poor people," said Mrs. Carr-Boldt, to his protestations; and when he had gone, and Dorothy's "girl" appeared, she tipped that worthy and amazed Teuton, and after promising Dorothy a big doll from a New York shop, sent the child and maid home in the motor-car.
"I hope this hasn't upset your plans," Margaret said, as they stood waiting in the doorway. It was nearly five o'clock, the school was empty and silent.
"No, not exactly. I had hoped to get home for dinner. But I think I'll get Woolcock to take me back to Dayton; I've some very dear friends there who'll give me a cup of tea. Then I'll come back this way and get home, by ten, I should think, for a late supper." Then, as the limousine appeared, Mrs. Carr-Boldt took both Margaret's hands in hers, and said, "And now good-bye, my dear girl. I've got your address, and I'm going to send you something pretty to remember me by. You saved me from I don't know what annoyance and publicity. And don't forget that when you come to New York I'm going to help you meet the people you want to, and give you a start if I can. You're far too clever and good-looking to waste your life down here. Good-bye!"
"Good-bye!" Margaret said, her cheeks brilliant, her head awhirl.
She stood unmindful of the chilly evening air, watching the great motor-car wheel and slip into the gloom. The rain was over; a dying wind moaned mysteriously through the dusk. Margaret went slowly upstairs, pinned on her hat, buttoned her long coat snugly about her. She locked the schoolroom door, and, turning the corner, plunged her hands into her pockets, and faced the wind bravely. Deepening darkness and coldness were about her, but she felt surrounded by the warmth and brightness of her dreams. She saw the brilliant streets of a big city, the carriages and motor-cars coming and going, the idle, lovely women in their sumptuous gowns and hats. These things were real, near—almost attainable—to-night.
"Mrs. Carr-Boldt!" Margaret said, "the darling! I wonder if I'll ever see her again!"