The Homeliest Child
The Homeliest Child
BY INEZ HAYNES GILLMORE
"I WANT a pretty baby," Mrs. Thornton said, "about two years old—a happy, wholesome, healthy baby—and preferably a baby with golden curls—but, above all, a pretty baby."
Miss Ladd did not say: "You are asking, my dear lady, for exactly what everybody else asks. All babies can't be happy, wholesome, healthy, pretty, and golden-haired." In fact, she did not say any of the things that on these occasions invariably recurred to her. She had had charge of the State's orphans for five years, had learned to suppress her college-bred free-spokenness. Her shrewd eyes only deepened non-committally as she forced back these unvoiced comments.
Perhaps she would not have said them to Mrs. Thornton in any case. Mrs. Thornton was one of those women with whom one does not remonstrate. She had plenty of presence, although she looked so ill and crushed. Miss Ladd thought she had never seen such weight and elegance of mourning. It was as if Mrs. Thornton had retired from the world by building about herself a little black cell of crêpe and broad-tail. A thickly figured black veil clung so close to her face that it might have been glued. Over that hung a more ample, thin, crêpe-edged one. The sallow emaciation of her features was barely visible through them—only the stunned despair of her big, gray eyes came out clear. A string of pearls close to her throat offered the only touch of a relieving white.
"And I'd like to take the baby away before Christmas," Mrs. Thornton went on, in her dead voice. "My house is so big and empty since my husband's death. And there are no children in the family. It will make such a difference at Christmas-time if there's a baby there."
"That can be easily arranged," Miss Ladd reassured her. "If you will come up-stairs—" she suggested. "As it happens," she went on, leading the way across the hall, "we have plenty of babies at present. The one we call the Prettiest Baby is golden-haired—he just came yesterday. He won't be with us long."
A muted babble of children's voices filled the air as they stepped into the hall. It grew as they ascended the stairs. It doubled its volume as Miss Ladd vigorously threw open the door. To Mrs. Thornton, stepping inside, the long, sunny room seemed filled with babies. Babies lay in cribs kicking ecstatic heels, babies sat on the floor waving ecstatic arms, babies wobbled on uncertain feet making perilous journey from chair to chair. Babies little and babies big, babies fat and babies thin, babies with curly hair, babies with straight hair, babies with no hair at all, babies pretty and babies plain, babies solemn and babies gay, babies black-eyed and brown, babies blue-eyed and gray, they gazed at the visitor in varying degrees of unwinking wonder, and then, with the nonchalance of childhood, went on with their play.
In point of fact, they were not all babies. A half-dozen children, much older, were helping a pair of white-uniformed nurses to keep order. One of these—a little girl of about nine, Mrs. Thornton would have said—turned as they entered the door. She looked straight into Mrs. Thornton's face—looked with a direct, piercing scrutiny that seemed to cut to her very soul. Then inexplicably the child blushed and her eyes dropped. Mrs. Thornton returned the gaze. At first glance the child was only a nondescript little brown thing. Then she turned, and Mrs. Thornton caught the great purple-red birthmark that covered one cheek. She looked away quickly.
"Who is that little girl with the—the disfigurement?" Mrs. Thornton asked, in a low voice.
"Her name is Ellen," Miss Ladd answered. "She's an unfortunate little thing—our homeliest child. She's been with us ever since she was two. It is a State law that children cannot be kept in the Orphanage after they're fourteen. Then if nobody adopts them, they're bound out. Ellen is little for her age, but she'll be fourteen next week. I've tried my best to place her, poor little thing! for she's a good child. But she's terribly handicapped. She understands now, and has tried to reconcile herself to it. She never seems to expect it any longer."
Ellen had, in fact, retreated in docile self-effacement to a corner. She climbed on to a high stool there, settled her scant skirt neatly, folded her hands in her lap, and sat, a little drooped, watching.
Miss Ladd busied herself at her desk, looking up only to answer Mrs. Thornton's questions. Mrs. Thornton asked many. Ignoring the older children, she devoted herself only to the babies. She patted this little head and touched that little hand. With a gentle finger under soft chins, she lifted round little faces and gazed into the lucid depths of innocent eyes. She picked this one up for one instant, only to put it down in favor of another toddling busily past, deserting both later for a third who clutched at her. skirt for balance. Circling and interweaving, she came back oftenest to one who played happily alone by himself in his crib. He was undoubtedly the Prettiest Baby. Smiling, cooing, golden-haired, and blue-eyed, he was so fat that when he smiled a line of dimples stretched from cheek to chin; he was so healthy that the skin of his creasy little throat and wrists had the luster of pearl. Mrs. Thornton suddenly scooped him out from his crib and seated herself in a rocking-chair. The Prettiest Baby accommodated himself to this startling change with the philosophy of babyhood. He inserted a thumb into the perforated rosebud that served for a mouth, and ruminated. Mrs. Thornton pressed her lips again and again to the ringleted head. In the pale, repressed, elegant woman some dormant spark of maternity burst into devouring flame.
Suddenly Mrs. Thornton started. That is to say, psychologically she started; physically she did not move. She had the feeling that she had heard a cry for help. But nobody spoke. It was only that her preoccupied gaze had encountered little Ellen's. Ellen's eyes were neither big nor beautiful, but they had an astonishing eloquence. They were speaking for her now. The effect was as if a single voice, inaudible to all the others, rilled the room with its volume.
"Oh, dear, good, kind lady," it called, poignantly. "Take me! There are only a few days more, and then all my chances to be a real little girl with a real mother will be gone forever. I have sat here so many years and watched so many much prettier little girls taken away to happy homes. I have so hoped it would come to me. I have so prayed it would come to me. And you understand better than anybody, I know. Dear, good, kind lady, take me!"
A half-hour went by—three-quarters—an hour. Then Mrs. Thornton roused herself. "I shall not make my decision to-day, Miss Ladd," she said. "But I think it will be—" She did not finish, but her hand went to the head of the Prettiest Baby.
Mrs. Thornton spent a tranquil afternoon and evening for the first time in months. She herself marveled at the new look in her eyes when she went to bed that night, and smiled into her mirror to welcome it. She lay awake for a happy half-hour, building air-castles. In imagination the Prettiest Baby lay in the crook of her arm. She slept deeply and unbrokenly for a few hours. Then she awoke with a start. It seemed to her that little Ellen was there in the room. Her eyes, glowing out of the darkness, fixed themselves upon her, begging, entreating, beseeching. Mrs. Thornton did not sleep again.
Ten o'clock found her at the Orphanage. "I've come to see my baby again," she announced.
"The Prettiest Baby never was so cunning as this morning. Ellen looks rather washed out, though," Miss Ladd explained. "She cried herself to sleep last night, and we couldn't seem any of us to stop her. For many reasons I shall be glad when she's gone—I do so hate to see her constantly disappointed. She knows, of course, what a handicap her disfigurement is. We've tried to tell her that it is not beauty that counts in this world—only character, that beauty is only skin-deep—oh, you know the lies with which the world comforts ugliness." There was a sudden passion of revolt in Miss Ladd's voice. Mrs. Thornton nodded with a quick, curt sympathy. "And Ellen really tries to be content. She is a good child. Time after time she's trotted out for visitors, her heart full of hope, but nobody ever has even considered her. I talked everything all over with her last night, and now she says she's glad for the Prettiest Baby. She asked me such a strange question—if she were ever married and had children, if they'd have her scar."
"It's too bad," Mrs. Thornton said, mechanically. She tried to forget Ellen in the joy of her reunion with the Prettiest Baby—and succeeded. More beautiful than ever, radiant from sleep, dewy-lipped, dewy-eyed, he submitted with sunny docility to be held and caressed. The pull of his nap still maintained. The moment Mrs. Thornton took him on to her lap, the fat thumb went into the round mouth, he heaved himself against her breast as if he had finished a hard day's play, and went to sleep again. Mrs. Thornton lost herself in a maternal ecstasy, fell to dreaming.
She came out of it as stirred by another electric shock. Again it was little Ellen. The child had seated herself in a corner. She, too, nursed a baby on her lap, was lulling it to sleep. This time her eyes were not fixed on Mrs. Thornton. They rested on the Prettiest Baby. And they shone with a wistful envy, entirely lacking in rancor.
"Oh, Prettiest Baby," they seemed to say. "I'm glad for you—I truly am. But, oh, how I wish I were like you!"
The gaze of the Homeliest Child came back to her own little charge. She pressed her disfigured cheek against the warm, rosy, baby face. Her deformity hidden, Mrs. Thornton realized that with her delicate slenderness, the softness of a brown coloring, and a really beautiful line of profile, Ellen might have been a pretty child. The matron arose expectantly as Mrs. Thornton started to leave. "I am ashamed to tell you that I haven't made up my mind yet," Mrs. Thornton said. "But I'm coming in to-morrow again. Of course I feel almost sure it's going to be the Prettiest Baby, but I do want to be certain."
"Take all the time you need," Miss Ladd said, cheerily, "It's a pretty serious matter. And as long as there's no immediate demand for babies," she added, jocosely, "we can give you the refusal even of our bargains."
Mrs. Thornton smiled faintly. But her face bore a perplexed look as she stepped into her motor. Indeed, her expression grew in perplexity until it became definitely melancholy. All the rest of the day she seemed trying to settle some inner conflict. She read during the evening, but at intervals her gaze, hurdling the print, would leap off into space, would fix there. "I ought to," she said once, aloud. "I ought to. But I can't."
She slept badly. When she arose the next morning she looked jaded. She ordered her motor as usual for ten o'clock. But when it arrived she dismissed it. She spent the long day and the evening alone, thinking. She slept less even than the night before. Whenever she started out of her brief naps it was to mutter: "I can't! I can't!" And once, "I will not!"
At ten she was back at the Orphanage. "I've made up my mind," she announced at once to Miss Ladd.
"Yes, of course—the Prettiest Baby," Miss Ladd said, and she sighed.
"No," Mrs. Thornton answered. "At first I wanted the Prettiest Baby very much. But I have decided to take little Ellen."
"Ellen!" the matron repeated. "Ellen!" And then very joyously, a third time: "Ellen! Oh, I am so glad—I am so glad. It restores one's faith somehow to think— When will you take her?" Miss Ladd had almost the air of one hurrying a purchaser for fear she might repent of her bargain.
Mrs. Thornton smiled. "Now," she said.
Miss Ladd dashed out of the room. She reappeared in an instant, Ellen holding her hand. Miss Ladd herself did not speak. She looked expectantly at Mrs. Thornton.
"Ellen," Mrs. Thornton said, "come here, dear. I've something to tell you."
Ellen came and stood before her—a little, brown, wistful-eyed, droop-shouldered soldier at attention.
"Ellen," Mrs. Thornton went on, "I'm going to take you away from here this morning to my home. You're going to be my little girl, and I'm going to be your mother forever and ever as long as we both live. I know that I'm going to love you with all my heart. Do you think you could love me?"
The Homeliest Child did not speak. For a moment she only stared. Then she put her trembling hand into the one that Mrs. Thornton held out. She melted into Mrs. Thornton's embrace.
And we're going straight down-town from here and order the things for the Christmas tree," Mrs. Thornton went on. "We're going to buy—" she named the whole catalogue of Christmas wonders.
Presently Miss Ladd despatched Ellen to make ready for her flight into the world. Miss Ladd herself seemed a little upset.
"I shall miss that child," she said. "She was here when I came. And I've had her for five years. She's been a great help to me. I have even considered adopting her myself—but I have two little orphan nieces—" She paused an instant and meditated as if she were considering the advisability of putting the question that seemed to come presently in spite of her. "Mrs. Thornton," she said, "so many people have passed Ellen by because of her disfigurement—rare little creature that she is—I would like to ask you how you came to choose her—when you seemed so delighted with the Prettiest Baby."
Mrs. Thornton did not answer at once. But she began to unfasten her veil. There was something deliberate in her action; Miss Ladd waited mystified.
Mrs. Thornton threw up the thin outer veil. She busied herself with the thickly figured, close, inner one. Suddenly she pulled it off. Over one cheek burned a big, purple-blue birthmark.
She did not speak. Miss Ladd did not speak. But Miss Ladd's eyes filled slowly with tears.
"You see now why I wanted a pretty baby—it was because I had been so unfortunate myself. I worship beauty—I've always worshipped it. But after I saw Ellen I began to have doubts as to what my duty was. I knew better than anybody else in the world that I could make her happy. I knew I could save her so much—foolish, morbid self-consciousness and wicked, wasteful bitterness. I knew I could teach her to forget. I knew I could make her little life blossom like a rose."
Suddenly outside there was the soft patter of Ellen's return. A knock came. Miss Ladd looked questioningly at her visitor. Mrs. Thornton nodded. "Come in," Miss Ladd called.
Mrs. Thornton turned her face directly toward Ellen.
"Ellen dear," she said, "I want you to realize that your mother is not beautiful."
Ellen's face did not change. She flew across the room and nestled her disfigured cheek against Mrs. Thornton's.
"I saw it through your veil the first day—mother," she whispered.