What Answer?


7. Chapter VII

"The plain, unvarnished tale of my whole course of love."


"What a handsome girl that is who always waits on us!" Francesca had once said to Clara Russell, as they came out of Hyacinth's with some dainty laces in their hands.

"Very," Clara had answered.

The handsome girl was Sallie.

At another time Francesca, admiring some particular specimen of the pomps and vanities with which the store was crowded, was about carrying it away, but first experimented as to its fit.

"O dear!" she cried, in dismay, "it is too short, and"--rummaging through the box--"there is not another like it, and it is the only one I want."

"How provoking!" sympathized Clara.

"I could very easily alter that," said Sallie, who was behind the counter; "I make these up for the shop, and I'll be glad to fix this for you, if you like it so much."

"Thanks. You are very kind. Can you send it up to-morrow?"

"This evening, if you wish it." "Very good; I shall be your debtor."

"Well!" exclaimed Clara, as they turned away, this is the first time in all my shopping I ever found a girl ready to put herself out to serve one. They usually act as if they were conferring the most overwhelming favor by condescending to wait upon you at all."

"Why, Clara, I'm sure I always find them civil."

"I know they seem devoted to you. I wonder why. Oh!"--laughing and looking at her friend with honest admiration,--"it must be because you are so pretty."

"Excellent,--how discerning you are!" smiled Francesca, in return.

If Clara had had a little more discernment, she would have discovered that what wrought this miracle was a friendly courtesy, that never failed to either equal or subordinate.

Six weeks after the Seventh had marched out of New York, Francesca, sitting in her aunt's room, was roused from evidently painful thought by the entrance of a servant, who announced, "If you please, a young woman to see you."


"She gave none, miss."

"Send her up."

Sallie came in. "Bird of Paradise" Francesca had called her more than once, she was so dashing and handsome; but the title would scarcely fit now, for she looked poor, and sad, and woefully dispirited.

"Ah, Miss Sallie, is it you? Good morning."

"Good morning, Miss Ercildoune." She stood, and looked as though she had something important to say. Presently Francesca had drawn it from her,--a little story of her own sorrows and troubles.

"The reason I have come to you, Miss Ercildoune, when you are so nearly a stranger, is because you have always been so kind and pleasant to me when I waited on you at the store, and I thought you'd anyway listen to what I have to say."

"Speak on, Sallie."

"I've been at Hyacinth's now, over four years, ever since I left school. It's a good place, and they paid me well, but I had to keep two people out of it, my little brother Frank and myself; Frank and I are orphans. And I'm very fond of dress; I may as well confess that at once. So the consequence is, I haven't saved a cent against a rainy day. Well," blushing scarlet, "I had a lover,--the best heart that ever beat,--but I liked to flirt, and plague him a little, and make him jealous; and at last he got dreadfully so about a young gentleman,--a Mr. Snipe, who was very attentive to me,--and talked to me about it in a way I didn't like. That made me worse. I don't know what possessed me; but after that I went out with Mr. Snipe a great deal more, to the theatre and the like, and let him spend his money on me, and get things for me, as freely as he chose. I didn't mean any harm, indeed I didn't,--but I liked to go about and have a good time; and then it made Jim show how much he cared for me, which, you see, was a great thing to me; and so this went on for a while, till Jim gave me a real lecture, and I got angry and wouldn't listen to anything he had to say, and sent him away in a huff"--here she choked--"to fight; to the war; and O dear! O dear!" breaking down utterly, and hiding her face in her shawl, "he'll be killed,--I know he will; and oh! what shall I do? My heart will break, I am sure."

Francesca came and stood by her side, put her hand gently on her shoulder, and stroked her beautiful hair. "Poor girl!" she said, softly, "poor girl!" and then, so low that even Sallie could not hear, "You suffer, too: do we all suffer, then?"

Presently Sallie looked up, and continued: "Up to that time, Mr. Snipe hadn't said anything to me, except that he admired me very much, and that I was pretty, too pretty to work so hard, and that I ought to live like a lady, and a good deal more of that kind of talk that I was silly enough to listen to; but when he found Jim was gone, first, he made fun of him for 'being such a great fool as to go and be shot at for nothing,' and then he--O Miss Ercildoune, I can't tell you what he said; it makes me choke just to think of it. How dared he? what had I done that he should believe me such a thing as that? I don't know what words I used when I did find them, and I don't care, but they must have stung. I can't tell you how he looked, but it was dreadful; and he said, 'I'll bring down that proud spirit of yours yet, my lady. I'm not through with you,--don't think it,--not by a good deal'; and then he made me a fine bow, and laughed, and went out of the room.

"The next day Mr. Dodd--that's one of our firm--gave me a week's notice to quit: 'work was slack,' he said, 'and they didn't want so many girls.' But I'm just as sure as sure can be that Mr. Snipe's at the bottom of it, for I've been at the store, as I told you, four years and more, and they always reckoned me one of their best hands, and Mr. Dodd and Mr. Snipe are great friends. Since then I've done nothing but try to get work. I must have been into a thousand stores, but it's true work is slack; there's not a thing been doing since the war commenced, and I can't get any place. I've been to Miss Russell and some of the ladies who used to come to the store, to see if they'd give me some fine sewing; but they hadn't any for me, and I don't know what in the world to do, for I understand nothing very well but to sew, and to stand in a store. I've spent all my money, what little I had, and--and--I've even sold some of my clothes, and I can't go on this way much longer. I haven't a relative in the world; nor a home, except in a boarding-house; and the girls I know all treat me cool, as though I had done something bad, because I've lost my place, I suppose, and am poor.

"All along, at times, Mr. Snipe has been sending me things,--bouquets, and baskets of fruit, and sometimes a note, and, though I won't speak to him when I meet him on the street, he always smiles and bows as if he were intimate; and last night, when I was coming home, tired enough from my long search, he passed me and said, with such a look, 'You've gone down a peg or two, haven't you, Sallie? Come, I guess we'll be friends again before long.' You think it's queer I'm telling you all this. I can't help it; there's something about you that draws it all out of me. I came to ask you for work, and here I've been talking all this while about myself. You must excuse me; I don't think I would have said so much, if you hadn't looked so kind and so interested"; and so she had,--kind as kind could be, and interested as though the girl who talked had been her own sister.

"I am glad you came, Sallie, and glad that you told me all this, if it has been any relief to you. You may be sure I will do what I can for you, but I am afraid that will not be a great deal, here; for I am a stranger in New York, and know very few people. Perhaps--Would you go away from here?"

"Would I?--O wouldn't I? and be glad of the chance. I'd give anything to go where I couldn't get sight or sound of that horrid Snipe. Can't I go with you, Miss Ercildoune?"

"I have no counter behind which to station you," said Francesca, smiling.

"No, I know,--of course; but"--looking at the daintily arrayed figure--"you have plenty of elegant things to make, and I can do pretty much anything with my needle, if you'd like to trust me with some work. And then--I'm ashamed to ask so much of you, but a few words from you to your friends, I'm sure, would send me all that I could do, and more."

"You think so?" Miss Ercildoune inquired, with a curious intonation to her voice, and the strangest expression darkening her face. "Very well, it shall be tried."

Sallie was nonplussed by the tone and look, but she comprehended the closing words fully and with delight. "You will take me with you," she cried. "O, how good, how kind you are! how shall I ever be able to thank you?"

"Don't thank me at all," said Miss Ercildoune, "at least not now. Wait till I have done something to deserve your gratitude."

But Sallie was not to be silenced in any such fashion, and said her say with warmth and meaning; then, after some further talk about time and plans, went away carrying a bit of work which Miss Ercildoune had found, or made, for her, and for which she had paid in advance.

"God bless her!" thought Sallie; "how nice and how thoughtful she is! Most ladies, if they'd done anything for me, would have given me some money and made a beggar of me, and I should have felt as mean as dish-water. But now"--she patted her little bundle and walked down the street, elated and happy.

Francesca watched her out of the door with eyes that presently filled with tears. "Poor girl!" she whispered; "poor Sallie! her lover has gone to the wars with a shadow between them. Ah, that must not be; I must try to bring them together again, if he loves her dearly and truly. He might die,"--she shuddered at that,--"die, as other men die, in the heat and flame of battle. My God! my God! how shall I bear it? Dead! and without a word! Gone, and he will never know how well I love him! O Willie, Willie! my life, my love, my darling, come back, come back to me."

Vain cry!--he cannot hear. Vain lifting of an agonized face, beautiful in its agony!--he cannot see. Vain stretching forth of longing hands and empty arms!--he is not there to take them to his embrace. Carry thy burden as others have carried it before thee, and learn what multitudes, in times past and in time present, have learned,--the lesson of endurance when happiness is denied, and of patience and silence when joy has been withheld. Go thou thy way, sorrowful and suffering soul, alone; and if thy own heart bleeds, strive thou to soothe its pangs, by medicining the wounds and healing the hurts of another.

A few days thereafter, when Miss Ercildoune went over to Philadelphia, Sallie and Frank bore her company. She had become as thoroughly interested in them as though she had known and cared for them for a long while; and as she was one who was incapable of doing in an imperfect or partial way aught she attempted, and whose friendship never stopped short with pleasant sounding words, this interest had already bloomed beautifully, and was fast ripening into solid fruit.

She had written in advance to desire that certain preparations should be made for her protégés,--preparations which had been faithfully attended to; and thus, reaching a strange city, they felt themselves not strangers, since they had a home ready to receive them, and this excellent friend by their side.

The home consisted of two rooms, neat, cheerful, high up,--"the airier and healthier for that," as Sallie decided when she saw them.

"I believe everything is in order," said the good-natured-looking old lady, the mistress of the establishment. "My lodgers are all gentlemen who take their meals out, and I shall be glad of some company. Any one whom Friend Comstock recommends will be all right, I know."

As Mrs. Healey's style of designation indicated, Friend Comstock was a Quakeress, well known, greatly esteemed, an old friend of Miss Ercildoune, and of Miss Ercildoune's father. She it was to whom Francesca had written, and who had found this domicile for the wanderers, and who at the outset furnished Sallie with an abundance of fine and dainty sewing. Indeed, without giving the matter special thought, she was surprised to discover that, with one or two exceptions, the people Miss Ercildoune sent her were of the peaceful and quiet sect. This bird of brilliant plumage seemed ill assorted with the sober-hued flock.

She found in this same bird a helper in more ways than one. It was not alone that she gave her employment and paid her well, nor that she sent her others able and willing to do the same. She found Frankie a good school, and saw him properly installed. She never came to them empty-handed; through the long, hot summer-time she brought them fruit and flowers from her home out of town; and when she came not herself, if the carriage was in the city it stopped with these same delightful burdens. Sallie declared her an angel, and Frank, with his mouth stuffed full, stood ready to echo the assertion.

So the heated term wore away,--before it ended, telling heavily on Sallie. Her anxiety about Jim, her close confinement and constant work, the fever everywhere in the spiritual air through that first terrible summer of the war, bore her down.

"You need rest," said Miss Ercildoune to her one day, looking at her with kindly solicitude,--"rest, and change, and fresh air, and freedom from care. I can't give you the last, but I can the first if you will accept them. You need some country living."

"O Miss Ercildoune, will you let me do your work at your own home? I know it would do me good just to be under the same roof with you, and then I should have all the things you speak of combined and another one added. If you only will!"

This was not the plan Francesca had proposed to herself. She had intended sending Sallie away to some pleasant country or seaside place, till she was refreshed and ready to come to her work once more. Sallie did not know what to make of the expression of the face that watched her, nor of the exclamation, "Why not? let me try her." But she had not long to consider, for Miss Ercildoune added, "Be it so. I will send in for you to-morrow, and you shall stay till you are better and stronger, or--till you please to come home,"--the last words spoken in a bitter and sorrowful tone.

The next day Sallie found her way to the superb home of her employer. Superb it was, in every sense. Never before had she been in such a delightful region, never before realized how absolutely perfect breeding sets at ease all who come within the charm of its magic sphere,--employed, acquaintance, or friend.

There was a shadow, however, in this house,--a shadow, the premonition of which she had seen more than once on the face of its mistress ere she ever beheld her home; a shadow to which, for a few days, she had no clew, but which was suddenly explained by the arrival of the master of this beautiful habitation; a shadow from which most people would have fled as from the breath of a pestilence, or the shade of the tomb; nay, one from which, but a few short months before, Sallie herself would have sped with feet from which she would have shaken the very dust of the threshold when she was beyond its doors,--but not now. Now, as she beheld it, she sat still to survey it, with surprise that deepened into indignation and compassion, that many a time filled her eyes with tears, and brought an added expression of respect to her voice when she spoke to these people who seemed to have all the good things that this world can offer, upon whom fortune had expended her treasures, yet--

Whatever it was, Sallie came from that home with many an old senseless prejudice destroyed forever, with a new thought implanted in her soul, the blossoming of which was a noxious vapor in the nostrils of some who were compelled to inhale it, but as a sweet-smelling savor to more than one weary wayfarer, and to that God to whom the darkness and the light are alike, and who, we are told by His own word, is no respecter of persons.

"Poor, dear Miss Ercildoune!" half sobbed, half scolded Sallie, as she sat at her work, blooming and, fresh, the day after her return. "What a tangled thread it is, to be sure," jerking at her knotty needleful. "Well, I know what I'll do,--I'll treat her as if she was a queen born and crowned, just so long as I have anything to do with her,--so I will." And she did.