Violets and Other Tales/Little Miss Sophie
When Miss Sophie knew consciousness again, the long, faint, swelling notes of the organ were dying away in distant echoes through the great arches of the silent church, and she was alone, crouching in a little, forsaken, black heap at the altar of the Virgin. The twinkling tapers seemed to smile pityingly upon her, the beneficent smile of the white-robed Madonna seemed to whisper comfort. A long gust of chill air swept up the aisles, and Miss Sophie shivered, not from cold, but from nervousness.
But darkness was falling, and soon the lights would be lowered, and the great, massive doors would be closed, so gathering her thin little cape about her frail shoulders, Miss Sophie hurried out, and along the brilliant noisy streets home.
It was a wretched, lonely little room, where the cracks let the boisterous wind whistle through, and the smoky, grimy walls looked cheerless and unhomelike. A miserable little room in a miserable little cottage in one of the squalid streets of the Third District that nature and the city fathers seemed to have forgotten.
As bare and comfortless the room, so was Miss Sophie's lonely life. She rented these four walls from an unkempt little Creole woman, whose progeny seemed like the promised offspring of Abraham,—multitudinous. The flickering life in the pale little body she scarcely kept there by the unceasing toil of a pair of bony hands, stitching, stitching, ceaselessly, wearingly on the bands and pockets of pants. It was her bread, this monotonous, unending work, and though while days and nights constant labor brought but the most meagre recompense, it was her only hope of life.
She sat before the little charcoal brazier and warmed her transparent, needle-pricked fingers, thinking meanwhile of the strange events of the day. She had been up town to carry the great, black bundle of pants and vests to the factory and receive her small pittance, and on the way home stopped in at the Jesuit Church to say her little prayer at the altar of the calm, white Virgin. There had been a wondrous burst of music from the great organ as she knelt there, an over-powering perfume of many flowers, the glittering dazzle of many lights, and the dainty frou-frou of silken skirts of wedding guests filing and tripping. So Miss Sophie stayed to the wedding, for what feminine heart, be it ever so old and seared, does not delight in one? And why shouldn't a poor little Creole old maid be interested too?
When the wedding party had filed in solemnly, to the rolling, swelling, pealing tones of the organ. Important-looking groomsmen, dainty, fluffy, white-robed maids, stately, satin-robed, illusion-veiled bride, and happy groom. She leaned forward to catch a better glimpse of their faces. Ah!—
Those near the Virgin's altar who heard a faint sigh and rustle on the steps glanced curiously as they saw a slight, black-robed figure clutch the railing and lean her head against it. Miss Sophie had fainted.
"I must have been hungry," she mused over the charcoal fire in her little room, "I must have been hungry," and she smiled a wan smile, and busied herself getting her evening meal of coffee and bread and ham.
If one were given to pity, the first thought that would rush to one's lips at sight of Miss Sophie would have been: Poor little Miss Sophie! She had come among the bareness and sordidness of this neighborhood five years ago, robed in crepe, and crying with great sobs that seemed to fairly shake the vitality out of her. Perfectly silent, too, about her former life, but for all that, Michel, the quarter grocer at the corner, and Mme. Laurent, who kept the rabbe shop opposite, had fixed it all up between them, of her sad history and past glories. Not that they knew, but then Michel must invent something when the neighbors came to him, their fountain head of wisdom.
One morning little Miss Sophie opened wide her dingy windows to catch the early freshness of the autumn wind as it whistled through the yellow-leafed trees. It was one of those calm, blue-misted, balmy, November days that New Orleans can have when all the rest of the country is fur-wrapped. Miss Sophie pulled her machine to the window, where the sweet, damp wind could whisk among her black locks.
Whirr, whirr, went the machine, ticking fast and lightly over the belts of the rough jean pants. Whirr, whirr, yes, and Miss Sophie was actually humming a tune! She felt strangely light to-day.
"Ma foi," muttered Michel, strolling across the street to where Mme. Laurent sat sewing behind the counter on blue and brown-checked aprons, "but the little ma'amselle sings. Perhaps she recollects."
"Perhaps," muttered the rabbe woman.
But little Miss Sophie felt restless. A strange impulse seemed drawing her up town, and the machine seemed to run slow, slow, before it would stitch the endless number of jean belts. Her fingers trembled with nervous haste as she pinned up the unwieldy black bundle of the finished work, and her feet fairly tripped over each other in their eagerness to get to Claiborne Street, where she could board the up-town car. There was a feverish desire to go somewhere, a sense of elation,—foolish happiness that brought a faint echo of color into her pinched cheeks. She wondered why.
No one noticed her in the car. Passengers on the Claiborne line are too much accustomed to frail, little black-robed women with big, black bundles; it is one of the city's most pitiful sights. She leaned her head out of the window to catch a glimpse of the oleanders on Bayou Road, when her attention was caught by a conversation in the car.
"Yes, it's too bad for Neale, and lately married too," said the elder man, "I can't see what he is to do."
Neale! she pricked up her ears. That was the name of the groom in the Jesuit church.
"How did it happen?" languidly inquired the younger. He was a stranger, evidently; a stranger with a high regard for the faultlessness of male attire, too.
"Well, the firm failed first; he didn't mind that much, he was so sure of his uncle's inheritance repairing his lost fortunes, but suddenly this difficulty of identification springs up, and he is literally on the verge of ruin."
"Won't some of you fellows who've known him all your lives do to identify him?"
"Gracious man, we've tried, but the absurd old will expressly stipulates that he shall be known only by a certain quaint Roman ring, and unless he has it—no identification, no fortune. He has given the ring away and that settles it."
"Well, you're all chumps. Why doesn't he get the ring from the owner?"
"Easily said—but—It seems that Neale had some little Creole love-affair some years ago and gave this ring to his dusky-eyed fiancee. But you know how Neale is with his love-affairs, went off and forgot the girl in a month. It seems, however, she took it to heart,—so much so until he's ashamed to try to find her or the ring."
Miss Sophie heard no more as she gazed out into the dusty grass. There were tears in her eyes, hot blinding ones that wouldn't drop for pride, but stayed and scalded. She knew the story with all its embellishments of heartaches. The ring, too; she remembered the day she had kissed and wept and fondled it, until it seemed her heart must burst under its load of grief before she took it to the pawn broker's that another might be eased before the end came,—that other, her father. The "little Creole love affair" of Neale's had not always been poor and old and jaded-looking; but reverses must come, even Neale knew that—so the ring was at the Mont de Piete.
Still he must have it, it was his; it would save him from disgrace and suffering, and from trailing the proud head of the white-gowned bride into sorrow. He must have it,—but how?
There it was still at the pawn-broker's, no one would have such a jewel, and the ticket was home in the bureau drawer. Well, he must have it; she might starve in the attempt. Such a thing as going to him and telling him that he might redeem it was an impossibility. That good, straight-backed, stiff-necked Creole blood would have risen in all its strength and choked her. No; as a present had the quaint Roman circlet been placed upon her finger,—as a present should it be returned.
The bumping car rode heavily, and the hot thoughts beat heavily in her poor little head. He must have the ring—but how—the ring—the Roman ring—the white-robed bride starving—she was going mad—ah yes,—the church.
Right in the busiest, most bustling part of the town, its fresco and bronze and iron quaintly suggestive of mediæval times. Within, all cool and dim and restful, with the faintest whiff of lingering incense rising and pervading the gray arches. Yes, the Virgin would know and have pity; the sweet, white-robed Virgin at the pretty flower-decked altar, or the one away up in the niche, far above the golden dome where the Host was. Holy Mary, Mother of God. Poor little Miss Sophie.
Titiche, the busy-body of the house, noticed that Miss Sophie's bundle was larger than usual that afternoon. "Ah, poor woman!" sighed Titiche's mother, "she would be rich for Christmas."
The bundle grew larger each day, and Miss Sophie grew smaller. The damp, cold rain and mist closed the white-curtained window, but always there behind the sewing machine drooped and bobbed the little black-robed figure. Whirr, whirr went the wheels, and the coarse jean pants piled in great heaps at her side. The Claiborne street car saw her oftener than before, and the sweet, white Virgin in the flowered niche above the gold-domed altar smiled at the little penitent almost every day.
"Ma foi," said the slatternly landlady to Madame Laurent and Michel one day, "I no see how she live! Eat? Nothing, nothing, almost, and las' night when it was so cold and foggy, eh? I hav' to mek him build fire. She mos' freeze."
Whereupon the rumor spread that Miss Sophie was starving herself to death to get some luckless relative out of jail for Christmas,—a rumor which enveloped her scraggy little figure with a kind of halo to the neighbors when she appeared on the streets.
November had verged into December and the little pile of coins were yet far from the sum needed. Dear God! how the money did have to go. The rent, and the groceries and the coal,—though, to be sure, she used a precious bit of that. All the work and saving and skimping,—maybe, yes, maybe by Christmas. What a gift!
Christmas Eve night on Royal Street is no place for a weakling, for the shouts and carousals of the roisterers will strike fear into the brave. Yet amid the cries and yells, the deafening blow of horns and tin whistles and the really dangerous fusillade of fireworks, the little figure hurried along, one hand clutching tight the battered hat that the rude merry-makers would have torn off, the other grasping under the thin, black cape a worn little pocketbook.
Into the Mont de Piete, breathless, eager. The ticket? Here, worn, crumpled. The ring? It was not gone? No, thank Heaven! It was really a joy well worth her toil, she thought, to have it again.
Had Titiche not been shooting crackers on the banquette instead of peering into the crack, as was his wont, his big, round, black eyes would have grown saucer-wide to see little Miss Sophie kiss and fondle a ring, an ugly clumsy band of gold.
"Ah, dear ring," she murmured, once you were his, and you shall be his again. You shall be on his finger, and perhaps touch his heart. Dear ring, ma chere petite, de ma coeur, cheri, de ma coeur. Je t'aime, je t'aime, oui, oui. You are his, you were mine once too. To-night, just one night, I'll keep you—then—tomorrow, where you can save him.
"Ah, the Virgin—she smiles at me because I did right, did I not sweet mother? She smiles—and—I grow—faint—"
The loud whistles and horns of the little ones rose on the balmy air next morning. No one would doubt it was Christmas Day, even if doors and windows are open wide to let in cool air.
Why, there was Christmas even in the very look of the mules on the poky cars; there was Christmas noise in the streets, and Christmas toys and Christmas odors, savory ones that made the nose wrinkle approvingly, issuing from the kitchen. Michel and Mme. Laurent smiled greetings across the street at each other, and the salutation from a passer-by recalled the many progenied landlady to herself.
"Miss Sophie, well, poor soul, not very much Christmas for her. Mais, I'll just call her in to spend the day with me. It'll cheer her a bit."
So clean and orderly within the poor little room. Not a speck of dust or a litter of any kind on the quaint little old-time high bureau, unless you might except a sheet of paper lying loose with something written on it. Titiche had evidently inherited his prying propensities for the landlady turned it over and read:
"Louis. Here is the ring. I return it to you. I heard you needed it, I hope it comes not too late. Sophie."
"The ring, where?" muttered the landlady. There it was, clasped between her fingers on her bosom. A bosom, white and cold, under a cold, happy face. Christmas had indeed dawned for Miss Sophie—the eternal Christmas.