"So I asked her to sit down, and ran up to call Mrs. Grover. She was busy with Grandpa just then, and when I went back to my lunch there sat my lady with her arms folded, water dripping out of the toes of her old boots as they hung down from the high chair, and the biggest blue eyes I ever saw fixed upon the cake and oranges on the table. I gave her a piece, and she sighed with rapture, but only picked at it till I asked if she didn't like it.
"'Oh yes, 'm, it's elegant! Only I was wishin' I could take it to Caddy and Tot, if you didn't mind. They never had frostin' in all their lives, and I did once.'
"Of course I put up a little basket of cake and oranges and figs, and while Lotty feasted, we talked. I found that their mother washed dishes all day in a restaurant over by the Albany Station, leaving the three children alone in the room they have on Berry Street. Think of that poor thing going off before light these winter mornings to stand over horrid dishes all day long, and those three scraps of children alone till night! Sometimes they had a fire, and when they hadn't they stayed in bed. Broken food and four dollars a week was all the woman got, and on that they tried to live. Good Mrs. Grover happened to be nursing a poor soul near Berry Street last summer, and used to see the three little things trailing round the streets with no one to look after them.
"Lotty is nine, though she looks about six, but is as old as most girls of fourteen, and takes good care of 'the babies,' as she calls the younger ones. Mrs. Grover went to see them, and, though a hard-working creature, did all she could for them. This winter she has plenty of time to sew, for Grandpapa needs little done for him except at night and morning, and that kind woman spent her own money, and got warm flannel and cotton and stuff, and made each child a good suit. Lotty had come for hers, and when the bundle was in her arms she hugged it close, and put up her little face to kiss Grover so prettily, I felt that I wanted to do something too. So I hunted up Min's old waterproof and rubbers, and a hood, and sent Lotty home as happy as a queen, promising to go and see her. I did go, and there was my work all ready for me. Oh, girls! such a bare, cold room, without a spark of fire, and no food but a pan of bits of pie and bread and meat, not fit for any one to eat, and in the bed, with an old carpet for cover, lay the three children. Tot and Caddy cuddled in the warmest place, while Lotty, with her little blue hands, was trying to patch up some old stockings with bits of cotton. I didn't know how to begin, but Lotty did, and I just took her orders; for that wise little woman told me where to buy a bushel of coal and some kindlings, and milk and meal, and all I wanted. I worked like a beaver for an hour or two, and was so glad I'd been to a cooking-class, for I could make a fire, with Lotty to do the grubby part, and start a nice soup with the cold meat and potatoes, and an onion or so. Soon the room was warm, and full of a nice smell, and out of bed tumbled 'the babies,' to dance round the stove and sniff at the soup, and drink milk like hungry kittens, till I could get bread and butter ready.
"It was great fun! and when we had cleared things up a bit, and I'd put food for supper in the closet, and told Lotty to warm a bowl of soup for her mother and keep the fire going, I went home tired and dirty, but very glad I'd found something to do. It is perfectly amazing how little poor people's things cost, and yet they can't get the small amount of money needed without working themselves to death. Why, all I bought didn't cost more than I often spend for flowers, or theatre tickets, or lunches, and it made those poor babies so comfortable I could have cried to think I'd never done it before."
Ida paused to shake her head remorsefully, then went on with her story, sewing busily all the while on an unbleached cotton night-gown which looked about fit for a large doll.
"I have no romantic things to tell, for poor Mrs. Kennedy was a shiftless, broken-down woman, who could only 'sozzle round,' as Mrs. Grover said, and rub along with help from any one who would lend a hand. She had lived out, married young, and had no faculty about anything; so when her husband died, and she was left with three little children, it was hard to get on, with no trade, feeble health, and a discouraged mind. She does her best, loves the girls, and works hard at the only thing she can find to do; but when she gives out, they will all have to part,--she to a hospital, and the babies to some home. She dreads that, and tugs away, trying to keep together and get ahead. Thanks to Mrs. Grover, who is very sensible, and knows how to help poor people, we have made things comfortable, and the winter has gone nicely.
"The mother has got work nearer home, Lotty and Caddy go to school, and Tot is safe and warm, with Miss Parsons to look after her. Miss Parsons is a young woman who was freezing and starving in a little room upstairs, too proud to beg and too shy and sick to get much work. I found her warming her hands one day in Mrs. Kennedy's room, and hanging over the soup-pot as if she was eating the smell. It reminded me of the picture in Punch where the two beggar boys look in at a kitchen, sniffing at the nice dinner cooking there. One says, 'I don't care for the meat, Bill, but I don't mind if I takes a smell at the pudd'n' when it's dished.' I proposed a lunch at once, and we all sat down, and ate soup out of yellow bowls with pewter spoons with such a relish it was fun to see. I had on my old rig; so poor Parsons thought I was some dressmaker or work-girl, and opened her heart to me as she never would have done if I'd gone and demanded her confidence, and patronized her, as some people do when they want to help. I promised her some work, and proposed that she should do it in Mrs. K.'s room, as a favor, mind you, so that the older girls could go to school and Tot have some one to look after her. She agreed, and that saved her fire, and made the K.'s all right. Sarah (that's Miss P.) tried to stiffen up when she learned where I lived; but she wanted the work, and soon found I didn't put on airs, but lent her books, and brought her and Tot my bouquets and favors after a german, and told her pleasant things as she sat cooking her poor chilblainy feet in the oven, as if she never could get thawed out.
"This summer the whole batch are to go to Uncle Frank's farm and pick berries, and get strong. He hires dozens of women and children during the fruit season, and Mrs. Grover said it was just what they all needed. So off they go in June, as merry as grigs, and I shall be able to look after them now and then, as I always go to the farm in July. That's all,--not a bit interesting, but it came to me, and I did it, though only a small chore."
"I'm sure the helping of five poor souls is a fine work, and you may well be proud of it, Ida. Now I know why you wouldn't go to matinees with me, and buy every pretty thing we saw as you used to. The pocket money went for coal and food, and your fancy work was little clothes for these live dolls of yours. You dear thing! how good you were to cook, and grub, and prick your fingers rough, and give up fun, for this kind work!"
Maggie's hearty kiss, and the faces of her friends, made Ida feel that her humble task had its worth in their eyes, as well as in her own; and when the others had expressed their interest in her work, all composed themselves to hear what Marion had to tell.
"I have been taking care of a scarlet runner,--a poor old frost-bitten, neglected thing; it is transplanted now, and doing well, I'm happy to say."
"What do you mean?" asked Ella, while the rest looked very curious.
Marion picked up a dropped stitch in the large blue sock she was knitting, and continued, with a laugh in her eyes: "My dears, that is what we call the Soldiers' Messenger Corps, with their red caps and busy legs trotting all day. I've had one of them to care for, and a gorgeous time of it, I do assure you. But before I exult over my success, I must honestly confess my failures, for they were sad ones. I was so anxious to begin my work at once, that I did go out and collar the first pauper I saw. It was an old man, who sometimes stands at the corners of streets to sell bunches of ugly paper flowers. You've seen him, I dare say, and his magenta daisies and yellow peonies. Well, he was rather a forlorn object, with his poor old red nose, and bleary eyes, and white hair, standing at the windy corners silently holding out those horrid flowers. I bought all he had that day, and gave them to some colored children on my way home, and told him to come to our house and get an old coat Mamma was waiting to get rid of. He told a pitiful story of himself and his old wife, who made the paper horrors in her bed, and how they needed everything, but didn't wish to beg. I was much touched, and flew home to look up the coat and some shoes, and when my old Lear came creeping in the back way, I ordered cook to give him a warm dinner and something nice for the old woman.
"I was called upstairs while he was mumbling his food, and blessing me in the most lovely manner; and he went away much comforted, I flattered myself. But an hour later, up came the cook in a great panic to report that my venerable and pious beggar had carried off several of Papa's shirts and pairs of socks out of the clothes-basket in the laundry, and the nice warm hood we keep for the girl to hang out clothes in.
"I was very angry, and, taking Harry with me, went at once to the address the old rascal gave me, a dirty court out of Hanover Street No such person had ever lived there, and my white-haired saint was a humbug. Harry laughed at me, and Mamma forbade me to bring any more thieves to the house, and the girls scolded awfully.
"Well, I recovered from the shock, and, nothing daunted, went off to the little Irishwoman who sells apples on the Common,--not the fat, tosey one with the stall near West Street, but the dried-up one who sits by the path, nodding over an old basket with six apples and four sticks of candy in it. No one ever seems to buy anything, but she sits there and trusts to kind souls dropping a dime now and then; she looks so feeble and forlorn, 'on the cold, cold ground.'
"She told me another sad tale of being all alone and unable to work, and 'as wake as wather-grewl, without a hap-worth av flesh upon me bones, and for the love of Heaven gimme a thrifle to kape the breath av loife in a poor soul, with a bitter hard winter over me, and niver a chick or child to do a hand's turn.' I hadn't much faith in her, remembering my other humbug, but I did pity the old mummy; so I got some tea and sugar, and a shawl, and used to give her my odd pennies as I passed. I never told at home, they made such fun of my efforts to be charitable. I thought I really was getting on pretty well after a time, as my old Biddy seemed quite cheered up, and I was planning to give her some coal, when she disappeared all of a sudden. I feared she was ill, and asked Mrs. Maloney, the fat woman, about her.
"'Lord love ye, Miss dear, it's tuk up and sint to the Island for tree months she is; for a drunken ould crayther is Biddy Ryan, and niver a cint but goes for whiskey,--more shame to her, wid a fine bye av her own ready to kape her daycint.'
"Then I was discouraged, and went home to fold my hands, and see what fate would send me, my own efforts being such failures."
"Poor thing, it was hard luck!" said Elizabeth, as they sobered down after the gale of merriment caused by Marion's mishaps, and her clever imitation of the brogue.
"Now tell of your success, and the scarlet runner," added Maggie.
"Ah! that was sent, and so I prospered. I must begin ever so far back, in war times, or I can't introduce my hero properly. You know Papa was in the army, and fought all through the war till Gettysburg, where he was wounded. He was engaged just before he went; so when his father hurried to him after that awful battle, Mamma went also, and helped nurse him till he could come home. He wouldn't go to an officer's hospital, but kept with his men in a poor sort of place, for many of his boys were hit, and he wouldn't leave them. Sergeant Joe Collins was one of the bravest, and lost his right arm saving the flag in one of the hottest struggles of that great fight. He had been a Maine lumberman, and was over six feet tall, but as gentle as a child, and as jolly as a boy, and very fond of his colonel.