While Caroline Was Growing/A Little Victory for the General
A LITTLE VICTORY FOR THE GENERAL
Caroline, Miss Honey, and the General were taking the morning air. Caroline walked ahead, her chin well up, her nose sniffing pleasurably the unaccustomed asphalt, the fresh damp of the river and the watered bridle path. The starched ties at the back of her white pinafore fairly took the breeze, as she swung along to the thrilling clangor of the monster hurdy-gurdy. Miss Honey, urban and blasé, balanced herself with dignity upon her roller-skates and watched with patronizing interest the mysterious jumping of young persons with whom she was unacquainted through complicated diagrams chalked on the pavement.
The General sucked a clothespin meditatively: his eyes were fixed on something beyond his immediate surroundings. Occasionally a ravishing smile swept up from the dimples at his mou th to the yellow rings beneath his cap frill; he flapped his hands, emitting soft, vague sounds. At such times a wake of admiration bubbled behind him. Delia, who propelled his carriage, which resembled a victoria except for the rearward position of its motor power, pursed her lips consciously and affected not to hear the enraptured comments of the women who passed them.
To the left the trees, set in a smooth green carpet, threw out tiny, polished, early May leaves; graceful, white-coated children dotted the long park. Beyond them the broad blue river twinkled in the sun, the tugs and barges glided down, the yachts strained their white sails against the purple bluffs of the Palisades. To the right towered the long, unbroken rows of brick and stone: story on story of shining windows, draped and muffled in silk and lace; flight after flight of clean granite steps; polite, impersonal, hostile as the monuments in a graveyard.
Immobile ladies glided by on the great pleasure drive like large tinted statues; dressed altogether as the colored pictures in fashion books, holding white curly dogs in their curved arms; the coachmen in front of them seemed carved in plum-colored broadcloth; only by watching the groom's eyelids could one ascertain that they were flesh and blood. Young girls, two, three, and four, cantered by; their linen habits rose and fell decorously, their hair was smooth. Mounted policemen, glorious in buttons, breathing out authority, curvetted past, and everywhere and always the chug-chug-chug of the gleaming, fierce-eyed motor cars filled one's ears. They darted past, flaming scarlet, sombre olive and livid white; a crouching, masked figure, intent at the wheel, veiled, shapeless women behind a whir of dust to show where they had been a breath before.
And everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, a thin stream of white and pink and blue, a tumbling river of curls and caps and bare legs, were the children. A babble of shrill cries, of chattering laughter, of fretful screams, an undercurrent of remonstrance, of soothing patience, of angry threatening, marked their slow progress up and down the walk; in the clear spaces of the little park they trotted freely after hoops and balls, rolled and ran over the green, and hid, shouting, behind the bushes. It was a giant nursery, and the mere man who trespassed on its borders smiled deprecatingly, and steered a careful course among the parasols and tricycles, stooping now and then to rescue some startled adventurer, sprawling from the disgusted shock of encounter with this large and rapidly moving object.
To Caroline, fresh from untrammeled sporting, through neighborly suburban yards, this disciplined procession, under the escort of Delia and the General, was fascinating to a degree. Far from resenting the authority she would have scorned at home, she derived an intense satisfaction from it, and pranced ostentatiously beside the perambulator, mimicking Miss Honey's unconscious deference to a higher power in the matter of suitable crossings and preferred playfellows with the absorbed gravity of the artist.
"See! General, see the wobblybubble," Delia murmured affectionately. "(Will you see that child turn his head just like a grown person? Did you ever see anything as smart as that?) Did he like the red one best? So does Delia. We'll come over here, and then you won't get the sun in your precious eyes. Do you want me to push you frontwards, so you can see me? (Watch him look at me—he knows what I mean just as well, the rascal!) Just wait till we get across, and I will. Look out, Miss Honey! Take hold of your cousin's hand and run across together, now, like good girls."
Miss Honey made an obedient snatch at Caroline's apron strings, and darted forward with a long roll of her skates. The road was clear for a block. Delia, with a quick glance to left and right, lowered the perambulator to the road-level and forged ahead. Caroline, nose in air, studied the nearest policeman curiously.
"Look out, there! Look out!"
A man's voice like a pistol shot crashed behind them. Caroline heard quick steps and a woman's scream, looked up at the huge, blood-red bulk of an automobile that swooped around the corner and dashed forward. But Miss Honey's hand was clutching her apron string, and Miss Honey's weight as she fell, tangled in the skates, dragged her down. Caroline, toppling, caught in one dizzy backward glance a vision of a face in the automobile staring down on her, white as chalk, under a black moustache and staring goggles, and another face, Delia's, white too, with eyes more strained and terrible than the goggles themselves. One second that look swept her and Miss Honey, and then, shifting, fell upon the General strapped securely into his carriage. Even as Caroline caught her breath, he flew by her like an arrow, his blue eyes round with surprise under a whirl of white parasol, the wicker body of the perambulator swaying and lurching. With that breath still in her nostrils, she was pushed violently against Miss Honey, who was dragged over her from the other side by a large hairy hand. A sharp blow from her boot heel struck Caroline's cheek, and she screamed with the pain; but her cry was lost in the louder one that echoed around her as the dust from the red monster blew in her eyes and shut out Delia's figure, flat on the ground, one arm over her face as the car rushed by.
"My God! She's down!" That was the man.
"Take his number!" a shrill voice pierced the growing confusion.
Caroline, crying with pain, was forced to her feet and stumbled along, one apron string twisted fast in Miss Honey's hand. Instantly they were surrounded by a crowd of nurses, and Miss Honey, dazed and obedient, was shoved and pulled from one to another.
"Here, get out o' this—don't let the children see anything! Let's get home."
"No, wait a minute. Let's see if she's alive. Have they got the ambulance?"
"Look out, there, Miss Dorothy, you just stop by me, or you'll be run over, too!"
"See! She's moving her head! Maybe she's not—"
Sobbing with excitement, Caroline wrenched herself free from the tangle of nurses and carriages, and pushed her way through the crowd. Against the curb, puffing and grinding, stood the great red engine; on the front seat a tall policeman sat, one woman in the back leaned over another, limp against the high cushions, and fanned her with the stiff vizor of her leather cap.
"It's all right, dear, it's all right," she repeated monotonously, with set lips, "the doctor's coming. It wasn't Pullton's fault. It's all right."
Caroline wriggled between two policemen, and made for a striped blue and white skirt that lay motionless on the ground. Across the white apron ran a broad dirty smudge.
Caroline ran forward.
"Delia! Delia!" she gulped. "Is she—is she dead?"
A little man with eyeglasses looked up from where he knelt beside the blue and white skirt.
"I don't believe so, my dear," he said briskly; "is this your nurse? See, she's opening her eyes, now—speak to her gently."
As he shifted a leather-covered flask from one hand to the other, Caroline saw a strange face with drawn purplish lids when she had always known two merry gray eyes, and tight thin lips she could not believe Delia's. The head moved a little from side to side, the lips parted slightly. A nervous fear seized her and she turned to run away; but she remembered suddenly how kind Delia had been to her; how that very morning—it seemed so long now—Delia had helped her with her stubby braids of hair, and chided Miss Honey for laughing at her ignorance of the customs of the park. She gathered her courage together and crouched down by the silent, terrifying figure.
"Hel—hello, Delia!" she began jerkily, wincing as the eyes opened and stared stupidly at the ring of anxious faces. "How do you f-feel, Delia?"
"Lean down," said the little man softly, "she wants to say something."
Caroline leaned lower.
"General," Delia muttered. "Where's General?"
The little man frowned.
"Do you know what she means?" he asked.
Caroline patted her bruised cheek.
"Of course I do," she said shortly. "That's the baby. Oh," as she remembered, "where is the General?"
"Here—here's the baby," called some one. "Push over that carriage," and a woman breathing heavily, crowded through the ring with the general, pink and placid, under his parasol.
"Lift him out," said the little man, and as the woman fumbled at the strap, he picked the baby out neatly, and held him down by the girl on the ground.
"Here's your baby, Delia," he said, with a kind roughness in his voice. "Safe and sound—not a scratch! Can you sit up and take him?"
And then, while the standing crowd craned their necks and even the steady procession moving in the way the police kept clear for them, paused a moment to stare, while the little doctor held his breath and the ambulance came clanging up the street, Delia sat up as straight as the mounted policeman beside her and held out her arms.
"General, oh, General!" she cried, and buried her face in his fat warm neck.
The men coughed, the women's faces twisted, but the little doctor watched her intently.
"Move your leg," he said sharply. "Now the other. Hurt you? Not at all?"
He turned to the young man in a white jacket, who had jumped from the back of the ambulance.
"I thought so," he said. "Though it didn't seem possible. I saw the thing go over her. Right over her apron—never touched her. Half an inch more—"
"Please, is Miss—the other little girl—is she—"
This was Delia's old voice, and Caroline smiled happily at her.
"She's all right, Delia—here she is!"
Miss Honey limped across on one roller-skate, pale, but conscious of her dramatic value, and the crowd drew a long breath of relief.
"You are a very brave girl," said the doctor, helping Delia to her feet and tucking the General, who alternately growled and cooed at his clothespin, into the perambulator. "You have undoubtedly saved the lives of all three of these children, and their parents will appreciate it, you may be sure. The way you sent that baby wagon flying across the street...! Well, any time you're out of a job, just come to me, that's all. Dr. Gibbs, West Forty-ninth. Can you walk now? How far do you have to go?"
The crowd had melted like smoke. Only the most curious and the idlest lingered and watched the hysteria of the woman in the automobile, who clutched her companion, weeping and laughing. The chauffeur sat stolid, but Caroline's keen round eyes saw that he shook, from the waist down, like a man in a chill.
"Yes, sir, I'm all right. It's not so very far." But Delia leaned on the handle she pushed, and the chug-chug of the great car sent the blood out of her cheeks. The little doctor frowned.
"Look here," he said, "I'll tell you what you'll do. You come down these steps with me, there aren't but three of them, you see, and we'll just step in here a moment. I don't know what house it is, but I guess it'll be all right. Oh, yes, you can take him out; he is safe, you know. Come on, youngsters."
Before Delia could protest he had pressed the button, and a man in livery was opening the door.
"We've just escaped a nasty accident out here," said the little doctor easily. "You were probably looking out of the window? Yes. Well, this young woman is a sort of a patient of mine—Dr. Gibbs, West Forty-ninth Street—and though she's very plucky and perfectly uninjured, I want her to rest a moment in the hall here and have a drink of water, if your mistress doesn't object. Just take up this card and explain the circumstances, and"—his hand went into his pocket a moment—"that's about all. Sit down, my dear."
The man took in at a glance the neat uniform of the nurse, the General's smart, if diminutive, apparel, and the unmistakable though somewhat ruffled exterior of Miss Honey.
"Very well, sir," he said politely, taking the card. "It will be all right, sir, I'm sure. Thank you, sir. Sit down, please. It will be all right. I will tell Madame Nicola."
"Well, well, so this is Madame Nicola's!" The little doctor looked around him appreciatively, as the servant ran up the stairs.
"I wish I could stay with you, chickens, but I'm late for an appointment as it is. I must rush along. Now, mind you, stay here half an hour, Delia, and sit down. You're no trouble at all, and Madame Nicola knows who I am — if she remembers. I sprayed her throat once, if I'm not mistaken—she was on a tour, at Pittsburg. She'll take care of you." He opened the door. "You're a good girl, you biggest one," he added, nodding at Caroline. "You do as you're told. Good-by."
The door shut, and Caroline, Miss Honey and Delia looked at each other in a daze. Tears filled Delia's eyes, but she controlled her voice, and only said huskily, "Come here, Miss Honey, and let me brush you off—you look dreadful. Let me take your handkerchief. Did it—were you—are you hurt, dear?"
"No, but you pushed me awful hard, Delia, and a nasty big man grabbed me and tore my guimpe—see! I wish you'd told me what you were going to do," began Miss Honey irritably.
"And you gave me a big kick—it was me he grabbed—look at my cheek!" Caroline's lips began to twitch; she felt hideously tired, suddenly.
"Children, children, don't quarrel. General, darling, won't you sit still, please? You hurt Delia's knees, and you feel so heavy. Oh, I wish we were all home!"
The man in livery came down the stairs. "Will you step up, Madame says, and she has something for you up there. I'll take the baby," as Delia's eyes measured the climb. "Lord, I won't drop her—I've got two o' my own. 'Bout a year, isn't she?"
"He's a boy," panted Delia, as she rested her weight on the rail, "and he's only eight months last week," with a proud smile at the General's massive proportions.
"Well, he is a buster, isn't he? Here is the nurse, Madame, and the children. The doctor has gone."
Caroline stretched her eyes wide and abandoned herself to a frank inspection of her surroundings. For this she must be pardoned, as every square inch of the dark, deep-colored room had been taken bodily from Italian palaces of the most unimpeachable Renaissance variety. With quick intuition, she immediately recognized a background for many a tale of courts and kings hitherto unpictured to herself, and smiled with pleasure at the Princess who advanced, most royally clad in long shell pink, lace-clouded draperies, to meet them.
"You are the brave nurse my maid told me about," said the Princess; "she saw it all. You ought to be very proud of your quick wits. I have some sherry for you, and you must lie down a little and then I will send you home."
Delia blushed and sank into a high carved chair, the General staring curiously about him. "It wasn't anything at all," she said, awkwardly, "if I could have a drink—"
Caroline checked the Princess as she moved toward a wonderful colored decanter with wee sparkling tumblers like curved bits of rainbow grouped about it.
"She means a drink of water," she explained politely. "She only drinks water—sometimes a little tea, but most usu'lly water."
"The sherry will do her more good, I think," the Princess returned, noticing Caroline for the first time, apparently, her hand on the decanter.
At this point Miss Honey descended from a throne of faded wine-colored velvet, and addressed the Princess with her most impressive and explanatory manner.
"It won't do you any good at all to pour that out," she began, with her curious little air of delivering a set address, prepared in private some time before, "and I'll tell you why. Delia knew a nurse once that drank some beer, and the baby got burned, and she never would drink anything if you gave her a million dollars. Besides, it makes her sick."
The Princess looked amused and turned to a maid who appeared at that moment with apron strings rivalling Caroline's.
"Get me a glass of water, please," she said, "and what may I give you—milk, perhaps? I don't know very well what children drink."
"Thank you, we'd like some water, too," Miss Honey returned primly, "we had some soda-water, strawberry, once to-day."
Caroline cocked her head to one side and tried to remember what the lady's voice made her think of; she scowled in vain while Delia drank her water and smiled her thanks at the maid. Suddenly it came to her. It was not like a person talking at all, it was like a person singing. Up and down her voice traveled, loud and soft; it was quite pleasant to hear it.
"Do you feel better now? I am very glad. Bring in that reclining chair, Ellis, from my room; these great seats are rather stiff," said the Princess, and Delia, protesting, was made comfortable in a large curved lounging basket, with the General, contentedly putting his clothespin through its paces, in her arm.
"How old is it?" the Princess inquired, after an interval of silence, during which Miss Honey and Caroline regarded her with a placid interest, and Delia stroked the General's hair, from which she had taken the absurd lace cap.
"He's eight months, Madam, last week—eight months and ten days, really."
"That's not very old, now, is it?" pursued the lady. "I suppose they don't know very much, do they, so young?"
"Indeed he does, though," Delia protested, "You'll be surprised. Just watch him, now. Look at Delia, darlin'; where's Delia?"
The General withdrew his lingering gaze from the clothespin, and turned his blue eyes wonderingly up to her. The corner of his mouth trembled, widened, his eyelids crinkled, and then he smiled delightfully, straight into the eyes of the nurse, stretched up a wavering pink hand, and patted her cheek. A soft, gurgling monosyllable, difficult of classification but easy to interpret, escaped him.
The Princess smiled appreciatively, and moved with a stately, long step toward them.
"That was very pretty," she said, but Delia did not hear her.
"My baby, my own baby!" she murmured with a shiver, and hiding her face in the General's neck she sobbed aloud.
Miss Honey, shocked and embarrassed, twisted her feet nervously and looked at the inlaid floor. Caroline shared these feelings, but though she turned red, she spoke sturdily.
"I guess Delia feels bad," she suggested shyly, "when she thinks about—about what happened, you know. She don't cry usu'lly."
The Princess smiled again, this time directly at Caroline, who fairly blinked in the radiance. With her long brown eyes still holding Caroline's round ones, she patted Delia's shoulder kindly, and both the children saw her chin tremble.
The General, smothered in that sudden hug, whimpered a little and kicked out wildly with his fat white-stockinged legs. Seen from the rear he had the appearance of a neat, if excited, package, unaccountably frilled about with embroidered flannel. Delia straightened herself, dabbed apologetically at her eyes, and coughed.
"It's bottle-time," she announced in horror-stricken tones, consulting a large nickel watch hanging from her belt, under the apron. "It's down in the carriage. Could I have a little boiling water to heat it, if you please?"
"Assuredly," said the Princess. "Ellis, will you get the—the bottle from the baby's carriage and some boiling water, please. Do you mix it here?"
"Mix—the food is all prepared, Madam." Delia spoke with repressed scorn. "I only want to heat it for him."
"Oh, in that case, Ellis, take it down and have it heated, or," as the nurse half rose, "perhaps you would feel better about it if you attended to it yourself?"
"Yes, I think I will go down if you don't mind — when persons aren't used to 'em they're apt to be a little careless, and I wouldn't have it break, and him losing his three o'clock bottle, for the world. You know how it is...."
The Princess shook her head whimsically. "But surely you will leave the baby," and she moved toward them again. "I will hold it," with a half grimace at her own condescension. "It seems so very good and cheerful—I thought they cried. Will it come to me?"
Delia loosened her arms, but tightened them again as the little creature leaned forward to catch at the swinging lace on the lady's gown.
"I—I think I'll take baby with me. Thank you just the same, and he'll go to any one—yes, indeed—but I feel so sort of nervous, I think I'd better take him. If anything should happen.... Wave your hand good-by—now, General!"
The General flapped his arms violently, and bestowed a toothless but affectionate grin upon the wearer of the fascinating, swaying lace, before he disappeared with the delighted Ellis in the van.
"And can you buy all that devotion for twenty, thirty, or is it forty dollars a month, I wonder?" mused the Princess.
"Dear me," she added petulantly. "It really makes one actually want to hold it! It seems a jolly little rat—they're not all like that, are they? They howl, I'm sure."
Again Miss Honey took the floor.
"When babies are sick, or you don't treat them right," she announced didactically, "they cry, but not a well baby, Delia says. I"—with conscious pride—"screamed night and day for two weeks!"
"Really!" observed the Princess. "That must have been—er—trying for your family!"
"Worried to death!" Miss Honey rejoined airily, with such an adult intonation that the Princess started.
"The General, he just laughs all the time," Caroline volunteered, "unless you tease him," she added guiltily, "and then he squawks."
"Yes, indeed," Miss Honey bore witness, jealous of the lady's flashing smile to Caroline, "my mother says I'm twice the trouble he is!"
The Princess laughed aloud. "You're all trouble enough, I can well believe," she said care lessly, "though you particular three are certainly amusing little duds—for an afternoon. But for a steady diet—I'm afraid I'd get a bit tired of you, eh?"
She tapped their cheeks lightly with a cool, sweet-smelling finger. Miss Honey smiled uncertainly, but Caroline edged away. There was something about this beautiful tall lady she could not understand, something that alternately attracted and repelled. She was grown up, certainly; her skirts, her size and her coiled hair proved that conclusively, and the servants obeyed her without question. But what was it? She was not like the other grown up people one knew. One moment she sparkled at you and the next moment she forgot you. It was perfectly obvious that she wanted the General only because Delia had not wanted to relinquish him, which was not like grown people; it was like—yes, that was it: she was like a little girl herself, even though she was so tall and had such large red and blue rings on her fingers.
Vaguely this rushed through Caroline's mind, and it was with an unconscious air of patronage, that she said, as one making allowances for inexperience, "When you get married, then you'll have to get tired of them, you know."
"But you'll be glad you've got 'em, when they're once in bed," Miss Honey added encouragingly. "My mother says I'm a real treasure to her, after half past seven!"
The Princess flushed; her straight dark eyebrows quivered and met for an instant.
"But I am married," she said.
There was an utter silence.
"I was married five years ago yesterday, as it happens," she went on, "but it's not necessary to set up a day nursery, you know, under those circumstances."
Still silence. Miss Honey studied the floor, and Caroline, after an astonished stare at the Princess, directed her eyes from one tapestry to another.
"I suppose you understand that, don't you?" demanded the Princess sharply. She appeared unnecessarily irritated, and as a matter of fact embarrassed her guests to such an extent that they were utterly unable to relieve the stillness that oppressed them quite as much as herself.
The Princess uttered an angry exclamation and paced rapidly up and down the room, looking more regal and more unlike other people than ever.
"For heaven's sake, say something, you little sillies!" she cried. "I suppose you want me to lose my temper?"
Caroline gulped and Miss Honey examined her shoe ties mutely.
Suddenly a well-known voice floated toward them.
"Was his nice bottle all ready? Wait a minute, only a minute now, General, and Delia'll give it to you!"
The procession filed into the room, Delia and the General, Ellis deferentially holding a tiny white coat, the man in livery bearing a small copper saucepan in which he balanced a white bottle with some difficulty. His face was full of anxious interest.
Delia thanked them both gravely, seated herself on the foot of the basket chair, arranged the General flat across her knees, and amid the excited silence of her audience, shook the bottle once or twice with the air of an alchemist on the brink of an epoch-making discovery.
"Want it? Does Delia's baby want it?" she asked enticingly. The General waved his arms and legs wildly; wreathed in smiles, he opened and shut his mouth in quick alternation, chirping and clucking, as she held it up before him; an ecstatic wriggling pervaded him, and he chuckled unctuously. A moment later only his deep-drawn, nozzling breaths could be heard in the room. They watched him in hushed satisfaction; once, as he smiled gratefully at Delia, Ellis sighed with pleasure.
"Ain't he sweet, though!" she murmured, and then glancing at the butler, giggled impressibly as the strained attitudes of the circle struck her.
"That will do, thank you, Haddock," said the Princess quickly, drawing a long breath and seating herself, and the two servants withdrew. Delia noted nothing, her eyes fixed on her charge; clearly, it would not have surprised her in the least if they had all stood, rapt, till the meal was over.
"He takes it beautiful," she said in low tones, looking confidentially at the Princess; "I didn't know but being in a strange place might make a difference with him, but he's the best baby!—"
She wiped his mouth and lifting him, still horizontal, approached her hostess.
"You can hold him now," she said superbly, "but keep him flat for twenty minutes, please. I'll go and take the bottle down, and get his carriage ready. He'll be good. He'll take a little nap, most likely."
She laid him across the rose-colored lap of the Princess, who looked curiously down on him, and offered him her finger tentatively. "I never held one before," she explained. "I—I don't know...." The General smiled lazily and patted the finger, picking at the great sapphire.
"How soft its hands are," said the Princess. "They slip off, they are so smooth! And how good—does it never cry?" This she said half to herself, and Caroline and Miss Honey, knowing there was no need to answer her, came and leaned against her knee unconsciously, and twinkled their fingers at the baby.
"Hello, General! Hello!" they cried softly, and the General smiled impartially at them and caressed the lady's finger.
The Princess stroked his cheek. "What a perfectly exquisite skin!" she said, and bending over him, kissed him delicately.
"How good it smells—how—how different!" she murmured. "I thought they—I thought they didn't."
Miss Honey had taken the lady's other hand, and was examining the square ruby with a diamond on either side.
"My mother says that's the principal reason to have a baby," she remarked, absorbed in the glittering thing. "You sprinkle 'em all over with violet powder—just like doughnuts with sugar—and kiss 'em. Some people think they get germs that way, but my mother says if she couldn't kiss 'em she wouldn't have 'em!"
The Princess bent over the baby again.
"It's going to sleep here!" she said, half fearfully, with an inquiring glance at the two. "Oughtn't one to rock it?"
Miss Honey shook her head severely. "Not General," she answered, "he won't stand it. My mother tried again and again—could I take that blue ring a minute? I'd be awful careful—but he wouldn't. He sits up and he lies down, but he won't rock."
"I might sing to him," suggested the Princess, brushing a damp lock from the General's warm forehead and slipping her ringless finger into his curved fist carefully. "Would he like it?"
"No, he wouldn't," said Miss Honey bluntly, twisting the ring around her finger. "He only likes two people to sing—Delia and my mother. Was that ruby ring a 'ngagement ring?"
Caroline interfered diplomatically. "General would be very much obliged," she explained politely, "except that my Aunt Deedee is a very good singer indeed, and Uncle Joe says General's taste is ruined for just common singing."
The Princess stared at her blankly.
"Oh, indeed!" she remarked. Then she smiled again in that whimsical expressive way. "You don't think I could sing well enough for him—as well as your mother?"
With a great sweep of her arm, she brushed aside a portière and disappeared.Miss Honey laughed carelessly. "My mother is a singer," she said, "a real one. She used to
sing in concerts—real ones. In theatres. Real theatres, I mean," as the lady appeared to be still amused.
"If you know where the Waldorf Hotel is," Caroline interrupted, "she has sung in that, and it was five dollars to get in. It was to send the poor children to a Fresh Air Fund. It—it's not the same as you would sing—or me," she added politely.
The lady arose suddenly and deposited the General, like a doll, with one swift motion in the basket chair. Striding across the room she turned, flushed and tall, and confronted the wondering children.
"I will sing for you," she said haughtily, "and you can judge better!"
With a great sweep of her half bare arm, she brushed aside a portière and disappeared.
A crashing chord rolled out from a piano behind the curtains and ceased abruptly.
"What does your mother sing?" she demanded, not raising her voice, it seemed, and yet they heard her as plainly as when they had leaned against her knee.
"She sings, 'My Heart's Own Heart,'" Miss Honey called back defiantly.
"And it's printed on the song, 'To Madame Edith Holt!'" shrilled Caroline.
The familiar prelude was played with a firm, elastic touch, the opening chords struck, and a great shining voice, masterful, like a golden trumpet, filled the room. Caroline sat dumb; Miss Honey, instinctively humming the prelude, got up from her foot-stool and followed the music, unconscious that she walked. She had been privileged to hear more good singing in her eight years than most people have in twenty-four, had Miss Honey, and she knew that this was no ordinary occasion. She did not know she was listening to one of the greatest voices her country had ever produced—perhaps in time to be known for the head of them all—but the sensitive little soul swelled in her and her childish jealousy was drowned deep in that river of wonderful sound.
Higher and sweeter and higher yet climbed the melody; one last triumphant leap, and it was over.
"My heart—my heart—my heart's own heart!"
The Princess stood before them in the echoes of her glory, her breath quick, her eyes brilliant.
"Well?" she said, looking straight at Miss Honey, "do I sing as well as your mother?"
Miss Honey clenched her fists and caught her breath. Her heart was breaking, but she could not lie.
"You—you—" she motioned blindly to Caroline, and turned away.
"You sing better," Caroline began sullenly; but the lady pointed to Miss Honey.
"No, you tell me," she insisted remorselessly.
Miss Honey faced her.
"You—you sing better than my m-mother," she gulped, "but I love her better, and she's nicer than you, and I don't love you at all!"
She buried her face in the red velvet throne, and sobbed aloud with excitement and fatigue. Caroline ran to her: how could she have loved that cruel woman? She cast an ugly look at the Princess as she went to comfort Miss Honey, but the Princess was at the throne before her.
"Oh, I am abominable," she cried. "I am too horrid to live! It wasn't kind of me, chérie, and I love you for standing up for your mother. There's no one to do as much for me, when I'm down and out—no one!" Sorrow swept over her flexible face like a veil, and seizing Miss Honey in her strong nervous arms she wept on her shoulder.
Caroline, worn with the strain of the day, wept, too, and even the General, abandoned in the great chair, burst into a tiny warning wail.
Quick as thought the Princess was upon him, and had raised him against her cheek.
"Hush, hush, don't cry—don't cry, little thing," she whispered, and sank into one of the high carved chairs with him.
"No, no, I'll hold him," she protested, as Delia entered, her arms out. "I'm going to sing to him. May I? He's sleepy."
Delia nodded indulgently. "For half an hour," she said, as one allowing a great privilege, "and then we must go. The children are tired."
"What do you sing to him?" the Princess questioned humbly.
"I generally sing 'Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,'" the nurse answered. "Do you know it?"
"I think so," and the Princess began a sort of glorified humming, like a great drowsy bee, all resonant and tremulous.
"Tell me the words," she said, and Delia recited them, as a mother would, to humor a petted child.
The Princess lifted her voice and pressing the General to her, began the song,
"Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes, Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise."
Soft the great voice was, soft and widely flowing; to Caroline, who had retreated to the further end of the music-room, so that Delia should not see her tears, it seemed as if Delia herself, a wonderful new Delia, were singing her, a baby again, to sleep. She felt soothed, cradled, protected by that lapping sea of melody that drifted her off her moorings, out of the room....
Vaguely she saw Miss Honey, relaxed on the red throne, smile in her sleep, one arm falling over the broad seat. Was it in her dream that some one in a blue and white apron—not Delia, for Delia was singing—leaned back slowly in the long basket chair and closed her tired eyes? Who was it that held the General close in her arms, and smiled as he patted her cheek at the familiar song and mumbled her fingers with happy cooing noises?
"My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream, Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream!"
Soft as plush, sweet as honey, the warm voice dipped and rose to the old tune. The General's head was growing heavy, but he smiled confidingly into the dark eyes above him and stretched himself out in full-fed, drowsy content. One hand slipped through the lace under his cheek and rested on the singer's soft breast. She started like a frightened woman, and her voice broke.
Down in the hall the butler and the maid sat on the lower stair.
"Ain't it grand?" she whispered, and Haddock nodded dreamily.
"Mother used to sing us that in the old country," he said. "There was Tom and 'Enry an' me—Lord, Lord!"
The General was asleep. Sometimes a tiny frown drew his eyebrows together. Sometimes she clenched and uncurled his warm hands. Sometimes he sucked softly at nothing, with moist, reminiscent lips. But on and on, over and over, rose and fell the quaint old song,
"My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream!"
It flooded the listening house, it spread a net of dreams about the happy people and coaxed them back to childhood and a child's protected sleep. It seemed a song that could not stop, that must return on its simple refrain so long as there were arms to encircle and breasts to lean upon.
Two men came softly up a smaller stair than the grand entrance flight, and paused in amazement at sight of Caroline stretched, full length, across the threshold. The older and smaller of the men had in fact stepped on her, and confused and half awake she listened to his apologies.
"Sh! sh!" he whispered excitedly, "not a vordt! not a vordt! Mein Gott! but it is marvellous! A voice of velvet! Hey? A voice of the heart. My friend, what is this?"
He peeped behind the drawn curtains, and withdrew a face of wonder.
"It is nothing but children—and they sleep!" he whispered. "Oh, but listen, listen! And I offered her fifteen hundred dollars for two hours only of that!"
The other man peeped behind the curtain in his turn, and seizing Caroline by the arm tip-toed with her to a further room.
"What—who—what is the meaning of this?" he whispered hoarsely. "That child—where—"
Caroline rubbed her eyes. The golden voice rose and fell around her.
"General—Delia," she muttered, and stumbled against him. He lifted her limp little body and laid it gently on a leather sofa.
"Another time," he said softly to the other man, "I—we cannot talk with you now. Will you excuse us?"
The man looked longingly at the curtains.
"She will never do more well than that. Never!" he hissed. "Oh, my friend, hear it grow soft! Yes, yes, I am going."It seemed to Caroline that in a dream some one
with a red face and glasses askew, shook her by the shoulder and said to her sternly, "Sh! sh! Listen to me. To-day you hear a great artist—hey? Will you forget it? I must go because they do not vant me, but you will stay and listen. There is here no such voice. Velvet! Honey! Sh! sh!" and he went the way of dreams.
The man who stayed looked long through the curtains.
As a swing droops slow and slower, as the ripples fade from a stone thrown in the stream, the song of the Princess softened and crooned and hushed. Now it was a rich breath, a resonant thread,
"Flow gently, sweet Afton—"
The man stepped across the room and sank below the General at her feet. With her finger on her lips she turned her eyes to his and looked deep into them. He caught his breath with a sob, and wrapping his arm about her as he knelt, hid his face on her lap, against the General. She laid her hand on his head, across the warm little body, and patted it tenderly. Around them lay the sleepers; the General's soft breath was in their ears. The man lifted his head and looked adoringly at the Princess: her hand caressed his cheek, but her eyes looked beyond him into the future.