Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XVIII. Wherein Freckles refuses Love Without Knowledge of Honorable Birth, and the Angel Goes in Quest of it
Freckles lay on a flat pillow, his body immovable in a plaster cast, his maimed arm, as always, hidden. His greedy gaze fastened at once on the Angel's face. She crossed to him with light step and bent over him with infinite tenderness. Her heart ached at the change in his appearance. He seemed so weak, heart hungry, so utterly hopeless, so alone. She could see that the night had been one long terror.
For the first time she tried putting herself in Freckles' place. What would it mean to have no parents, no home, no name? No name! That was the worst of all. That was to be lost--indeed--utterly and hopelessly lost. The Angel lifted her hands to her dazed head and reeled, as she tried to face that proposition. She dropped on her knees beside the bed, slipped her arm under the pillow, and leaning over Freckles, set her lips on his forehead. He smiled faintly, but his wistful face appeared worse for it. It hurt the Angel to the heart.
"Dear Freckles," she said, "there is a story in your eyes this morning, tell me?"
Freckles drew a long, wavering breath.
"Angel," he begged, "be generous! Be thinking of me a little. I'm so homesick and worn out, dear Angel, be giving me back me promise. Let me go?"
"Why Freckles!" faltered the Angel. "You don't know what you are asking. `Let you go!' I cannot! I love you better than anyone, Freckles. I think you are the very finest person I ever knew. I have our lives all planned. I want you to be educated and learn all there is to know about singing, just as soon as you are well enough. By the time you have completed your education I will have finished college, and then I want," she choked a second, "I want you to be my real knight, Freckles, and come to me and tell me that you--like me--a little. I have been counting on you for my sweetheart from the very first, Freckles. I can't give you up, unless you don't like me. But you do like me--just a little--don't you, Freckles?"
Freckles lay whiter than the coverlet, his staring eyes on the ceiling and his breath wheezing between dry lips. The Angel awaited his answer a second, and when none came, she dropped her crimsoning face beside him on the pillow and whispered in his ear:
"Freckles, I--I'm trying to make love to you. Oh, can't you help me only a little bit? It's awful hard all alone! I don't know how, when I really mean it, but Freckles, I love you. I must have you, and now I guess--I guess maybe I'd better kiss you next."
She lifted her shamed face and bravely laid her feverish, quivering lips on his. Her breath, like clover-bloom, was in his nostrils, and her hair touched his face. Then she looked into his eyes with reproach.
"Freckles," she panted, "Freckles! I didn't think it was in you to be mean!"
"Mean, Angel! Mean to you?" gasped Freckles.
"Yes," said the Angel. "Downright mean. When I kiss you, if you had any mercy at all you'd kiss back, just a little bit."
Freckles' sinewy fist knotted into the coverlet. His chin pointed ceilingward while his head rocked on the pillow.
"Oh, Jesus!" burst from him in agony. "You ain't the only one that was crucified!"
The Angel caught Freckles' hand and carried it to her breast.
"Freckles!" she wailed in terror, "Freckles! It is a mistake? Is it that you don't want me?"
Freckles' head rolled on in wordless suffering.
"Wait a bit, Angel?" he panted at last. "Be giving me a little time!"
The Angel arose with controlled features. She bathed his face, straightened his hair, and held water to his lips. It seemed a long time before he reached toward her. Instantly she knelt again, carried his hand to her breast, and leaned her cheek upon it.
"Tell me, Freckles," she whispered softly.
"If I can," said Freckles in agony. "It's just this. Angels are from above. Outcasts are from below. You've a sound body and you're beautifulest of all. You have everything that loving, careful raising and money can give you. I have so much less than nothing that I don't suppose I had any right to be born. It's a sure thing--nobody wanted me afterward, so of course, they didn't before. Some of them should have been telling you long ago."
"If that's all you have to say, Freckles, I've known that quite a while," said the Angel stoutly. "Mr. McLean told my father, and he told me. That only makes me love you more, to pay for all you've missed."
"Then I'm wondering at you," said Freckles in a voice of awe. "Can't you see that if you were willing and your father would come and offer you to me, I couldn't be touching the soles of your feet, in love--me, whose people brawled over me, cut off me hand, and throwed me away to freeze and to die! Me, who has no name just as much because I've no right to any, as because I don't know it. When I was little, I planned to find me father and mother when I grew up. Now I know me mother deserted me, and me father was maybe a thief and surely a liar. The pity for me suffering and the watching over me have gone to your head, dear Angel, and it's me must be thinking for you. If you could be forgetting me lost hand, where I was raised, and that I had no name to give you, and if you would be taking me as I am, some day people such as mine must be, might come upon you. I used to pray ivery night and morning and many times the day to see me mother. Now I only pray to die quickly and never risk the sight of her. 'Tain't no ways possible, Angel! It's a wildness of your dear head. Oh, do for mercy sake, kiss me once more and be letting me go!"
"Not for a minute!" cried the Angel. "Not for a minute, if those are all the reasons you have. It's you who are wild in your head, but I can understand just how it happened. Being shut in that Home most of your life, and seeing children every day whose parents did neglect and desert them, makes you sure yours did the same; and yet there are so many other things that could have happened so much more easily than that. There are thousands of young couples who come to this country and start a family with none of their relatives here. Chicago is a big, wicked city, and grown people could disappear in many ways, and who would there ever be to find to whom their little children belonged? The minute my father told me how you felt, I began to study this thing over, and I've made up my mind you are dead wrong. I meant to ask my father or the Bird Woman to talk to you before you went away to school, but as matters are right now I guess I'll just do it myself. It's all so plain to me. Oh, if I could only make you see!"
She buried her face in the pillow and presently lifted it, transfigured.
"Now I have it!" she cried. "Oh, dear heart! I can make it so plain! Freckles, can you imagine you see the old Limberlost trail? Well when we followed it, you know there were places where ugly, prickly thistles overgrew the path, and you went ahead with your club and bent them back to keep them from stinging through my clothing. Other places there were big shining pools where lovely, snow-white lilies grew, and you waded in and gathered them for me. Oh dear heart, don't you see? It's this! Everywhere the wind carried that thistledown, other thistles sprang up and grew prickles; and wherever those lily seeds sank to the mire, the pure white of other lilies bloomed. But, Freckles, there was never a place anywhere in the Limberlost, or in the whole world, where the thistledown floated and sprang up and blossomed into white lilies! Thistles grow from thistles, and lilies from other lilies. Dear Freckles, think hard! You must see it! You are a lily, straight through. You never, never could have drifted from the thistle-patch.
"Where did you find the courage to go into the Limberlost and face its terrors? You inherited it from the blood of a brave father, dear heart. Where did you get the pluck to hold for over a year a job that few men would have taken at all? You got it from a plucky mother, you bravest of boys. You attacked single-handed a man almost twice your size, and fought as a demon, merely at the suggestion that you be deceptive and dishonest. Could your mother or your father have been untruthful? Here you are, so hungry and starved that you are dying for love. Where did you get all that capacity for loving? You didn't inherit it from hardened, heartless people, who would disfigure you and purposely leave you to die, that's one sure thing. You once told me of saving your big bullfrog from a rattlesnake. You knew you risked a horrible death when you did it. Yet you will spend miserable years torturing yourself with the idea that your own mother might have cut off that hand. Shame on you, Freckles! Your mother would have done this----"
The Angel deliberately turned back the cover, slipped up the sleeve, and laid her lips on the scars.
"Freckles! Wake up!" she cried, almost shaking him. "Come to your senses! Be a thinking, reasoning man! You have brooded too much, and been all your life too much alone. It's all as plain as plain can be to me. You must see it! Like breeds like in this world! You must be some sort of a reproduction of your parents, and I am not afraid to vouch for them, not for a minute!
"And then, too, if more proof is needed, here it is: Mr. McLean says that you never once have failed in tact and courtesy. He says that you are the most perfect gentleman he ever knew, and he has traveled the world over. How does it happen, Freckles? No one at that Home taught you. Hundreds of men couldn't be taught, even in a school of etiquette; so it must be instinctive with you. If it is, why, that means that it is born in you, and a direct inheritance from a race of men that have been gentlemen for ages, and couldn't be anything else.
"Then there's your singing. I don't believe there ever was a mortal with a sweeter voice than yours, and while that doesn't prove anything, there is a point that does. The little training you had from that choirmaster won't account for the wonderful accent and ease with which you sing. Somewhere in your close blood is a marvelously trained vocalist; we every one of us believe that, Freckles.
"Why does my father refer to you constantly as being of fine perceptions and honor? Because you are, Freckles. Why does the Bird Woman leave her precious work and come here to help look after you? I never heard of her losing any time over anyone else. It's because she loves you. And why does Mr. McLean turn all of his valuable business over to hired men and watch you personally? And why is he hunting excuses every day to spend money on you? My father says McLean is full Scotch-close with a dollar. He is a hard-headed business man, Freckles, and he is doing it because he finds you worthy of it. Worthy of all we all can do and more than we know how to do, dear heart! Freckles, are you listening to me? Oh! won't you see it? Won't you believe it?"
"Oh, Angel!" chattered the bewildered Freckles, "are you truly maning it? Could it be?"
"Of course it could," flashed the Angel, "because it just is!"
"But you can't prove it," wailed Freckles. "It ain't giving me a name, or me honor!"
"Freckles," said the Angel sternly, "you are unreasonable! Why, I did prove every word I said! Everything proves it! You look here! If you knew for sure that I could give you a name and your honor, and prove to you that your mother did love you, why, then, would you just go to breathing like perpetual motion and hang on for dear life and get well?"
A bright light shone in Freckles' eyes.
"If I knew that, Angel," he said solemnly, "you couldn't be killing me if you felled the biggest tree in the Limberlost smash on me!"
"Then you go right to work," said the Angel, "and before night I'll prove one thing to you: I can show you easily enough how much your mother loved you. That will be the first step, and then the remainder will all come. If my father and Mr. McLean are so anxious to spend some money, I'll give them a chance. I don't see why we haven't comprehended how you felt and so have been at work weeks ago. We've been awfully selfish. We've all been so comfortable, we never stopped to think what other people were suffering before our eyes. None of us has understood. I'll hire the finest detective in Chicago, and we'll go to work together. This is nothing compared with things people do find out. We'll go at it, beak and claw, and we'll show you a thing or two."
Freckles caught her sleeve.
"Me mother, Angel! Me mother!" he marveled hoarsely. "Did you say you could be finding out today if me mother loved me? How? Oh, Angel! Nothing matters, if only me mother didn't do it!"
"Then you rest easy," said the Angel, with large confidence. "Your mother didn't do it! Mothers of sons such as you don't do things like that. I'll go to work at once and prove it to you. The first thing to do is to go to that Home where you were and get the clothes you wore the night you were left there. I know that they are required to save those things carefully. We can find out almost all there is to know about your mother from them. Did you ever see them?"
"Yis," he replied.
"Freckles! Were they white?" she cried.
"Maybe they were once. They're all yellow with laying, and brown with blood-stains now" said Freckles, the old note of bitterness creeping in. "You can't be telling anything at all by them, Angel!"
"Well, but I just can!" said the Angel positively. "I can see from the quality what kind of goods your mother could afford to buy. I can see from the cut whether she had good taste. I can see from the care she took in making them how much she loved and wanted you."
"But how? Angel, tell me how!" implored Freckles with trembling eagerness.
"Why, easily enough," said the Angel. "I thought you'd understand. People that can afford anything at all, always buy white for little new babies--linen and lace, and the very finest things to be had. There's a young woman living near us who cut up her wedding clothes to have fine things for her baby. Mothers who love and want their babies don't buy little rough, ready-made things, and they don't run up what they make on an old sewing machine. They make fine seams, and tucks, and put on lace and trimming by hand. They sit and stitch, and stitch--little, even stitches, every one just as careful. Their eyes shine and their faces glow. When they have to quit to do something else, they look sorry, and fold up their work so particularly. There isn't much worth knowing about your mother that those little clothes won't tell. I can see her putting the little stitches into them and smiling with shining eyes over your coming. Freckles, I'll wager you a dollar those little clothes of yours are just alive with the dearest, tiny handmade stitches."
A new light dawned in Freckles' eyes. A tinge of warm color swept into his face. Renewed strength was noticeable in his grip of her hands.
"Oh Angel! Will you go now? Will you be hurrying?" he cried.
"Right away," said the Angel. "I won't stop for a thing, and I'll hurry with all my might."
She smoothed his pillow, straightened the cover, gave him one steady look in the eyes, and went quietly from the room.
Outside the door, McLean and the surgeon anxiously awaited her. McLean caught her shoulders.
"Angel, what have you done?" he demanded.
The Angel smiled defiance into his eyes.
"`What have I done?'" she repeated. "I've tried to save Freckles."
"What will your father say?" groaned McLean.
"It strikes me," said the Angel, "that what Freckles said would be to the point."
"Freckles!" exclaimed McLean. "What could he say?"
"He seemed to be able to say several things," answered the Angel sweetly. "I fancy the one that concerns you most at present was, that if my father should offer me to him he would not have me."
"And no one knows why better than I do," cried McLean. "Every day he must astonish me with some new fineness."
He turned to the surgeon. "Save him!" he commanded. "Save him!" he implored. "He is too fine to be sacrificed."
"His salvation lies here," said the surgeon, stroking the Angel's sunshiny hair, "and I can read in the face of her that she knows how she is going to work it out. Don't trouble for the boy. She will save him!"
The Angel laughingly sped down the hall, and into the street, just as she was.
"I have come," she said to the matron of the Home, "to ask if you will allow me to examine, or, better yet, to take with me, the little clothes that a boy you called Freckles, discharged last fall, wore the night he was left here."
The woman looked at her in greater astonishment than the occasion demanded.
"Well, I'd be glad to let you see them," she said at last, "but the fact is we haven't them. I do hope we haven't made some mistake. I was thoroughly convinced, and so was the superintendent. We let his people take those things away yesterday. Who are you, and what do you want with them?"
The Angel stood dazed and speechless, staring at the matron.
"There couldn't have been a mistake," continued the matron, seeing the Angel's distress. "Freckles was here when I took charge, ten years ago. These people had it all proved that he belonged to them. They had him traced to where he ran away in Illinois last fall, and there they completely lost track of him. I'm sorry you seem so disappointed, but it is all right. The man is his uncle, and as like the boy as he possibly could be. He is almost killed to go back without him. If you know where Freckles is, they'd give big money to find out."
The Angel laid a hand along each cheek to steady her chattering teeth.
"Who are they?" she stammered. "Where are they going?"
"They are Irish folks, miss," said the matron. "They have been in Chicago and over the country for the past three months, hunting him everywhere. They have given up, and are starting home today. They----"
"Did they leave an address? Where could I find them?" interrupted the Angel.
"They left a card, and I notice the morning paper has the man's picture and is full of them. They've advertised a great deal in the city papers. It's a wonder you haven't seen something."
"Trains don't run right. We never get Chicago papers," said the Angel. "Please give me that card quickly. They may escape me. I simply must catch them!"
The matron hurried to the secretary and came back with a card.
"Their addresses are there," she said. "Both in Chicago and at their home. They made them full and plain, and I was to cable at once if I got the least clue of him at any time. If they've left the city, you can stop them in New York. You're sure to catch them before they sail--if you hurry."
The matron caught up a paper and thrust it into the Angel's hand as she ran to the street.
The Angel glanced at the card. The Chicago address was Suite Eleven, Auditorium. She laid her hand on her driver's sleeve and looked into his eyes.
"There is a fast-driving limit?" she asked.
"Will you crowd it all you can without danger of arrest? I will pay well. I must catch some people!"
Then she smiled at him. The hospital, an Orphans' Home, and the Auditorium seemed a queer combination to that driver, but the Angel was always and everywhere the Angel, and her methods were strictly her own.
"I will take you there as quickly as any man could with a team," he said promptly.
The Angel clung to the card and paper, and as best she could in the lurching, swaying cab, read the addresses over.
"O'More, Suite Eleven, Auditorium."
"`O'More,'" she repeated. "Seems to fit Freckles to a dot. Wonder if that could be his name? `Suite Eleven' means that you are pretty well fixed. Suites in the Auditorium come high."
Then she turned the card and read on its reverse, Lord Maxwell O'More, M. P., Killvany Place, County Clare, Ireland.
The Angel sat on the edge of the seat, bracing her feet against the one opposite, as the cab pitched and swung around corners and past vehicles. She mechanically fingered the pasteboard and stared straight ahead. Then she drew a deep breath and read the card again.
"A Lord-man!" she groaned despairingly. "A Lord-man! Bet my hoecake's scorched! Here I've gone and pledged my word to Freckles I'd find him some decent relatives, that he could be proud of, and now there isn't a chance out of a dozen that he'll have to be ashamed of them after all. It's too mean!"
The tears of vexation rolled down the tired, nerve-racked Angel's cheeks.
"This isn't going to do," she said, resolutely wiping her eyes with the palm of her hand and gulping down the nervous spasm in her throat. "I must read this paper before I meet Lord O'More."
She blinked back the tears and spreading the paper on her knee, read: "After three months' fruitless search, Lord O'More gives up the quest of his lost nephew, and leaves Chicago today for his home in Ireland."
She read on, and realized every word. The likeness settled any doubt. It was Freckles over again, only older and well dressed.
"Well, I must catch you if I can," muttered the Angel. "But when I do, if you are a gentleman in name only, you shan't have Freckles; that's flat. You're not his father and he is twenty. Anyway, if the law will give him to you for one year, you can't spoil him, because nobody could, and," she added, brightening, "he'll probably do you a lot of good. Freckles and I both must study years yet, and you should be something that will save him. I guess it will come out all right. At least, I don't believe you can take him away if I say no."
"Thank you; and wait, no matter how long," she said to her driver.
Catching up the paper, she hurried to the desk and laid down Lord O'More's card.
"Has my uncle started yet?" she asked sweetly.
The surprised clerk stepped back on a bellboy, and covertly kicked him for being in the way.
"His lordship is in his room," he said, with a low bow.
"All right," said the Angel, picking up the card. "I thought he might have started. I'll see him."
The clerk shoved the bellboy toward the Angel.
"Show her ladyship to the elevator and Lord O'More's suite," he said, bowing double.
"Aw, thanks," said the Angel with a slight nod, as she turned away.
"I'm not sure," she muttered to herself as the elevator sped upward, "whether it's the Irish or the English who say: `Aw, thanks,' but it's probable he isn't either; and anyway, I just had to do something to counteract that `All right.' How stupid of me!"
At the bellboy's tap, the door swung open and the liveried servant thrust a cardtray before the Angel. The opening of the door created a current that swayed a curtain aside, and in an adjoining room, lounging in a big chair, with a paper in his hand, sat a man who was, beyond question, of Freckles' blood and race.
With perfect control the Angel dropped Lord O'More's card in the tray, stepped past his servant, and stood before his lordship.
"Good morning," she said with tense politeness.
Lord O'More said nothing. He carelessly glanced her over with amused curiosity, until her color began to deepen and her blood to run hotly.
"Well, my dear," he said at last, "how can I serve you?"
Instantly the Angel became indignant. She had been so shielded in the midst of almost entire freedom, owing to the circumstances of her life, that the words and the look appeared to her as almost insulting. She lifted her head with a proud gesture.
"I am not your `dear,'" she said with slow distinctness. "There isn't a thing in the world you can do for me. I came here to see if I could do something--a very great something--for you; but if I don't like you, I won't do it!"
Then Lord O'More did stare. Suddenly he broke into a ringing laugh. Without a change of attitude or expression, the Angel stood looking steadily at him.
There was a silken rustle, then a beautiful woman with cheeks of satiny pink, dark hair, and eyes of pure Irish blue, moved to Lord O'More's side, and catching his arm, shook him impatiently.
"Terence! Have you lost your senses?" she cried. "Didn't you understand what the child said? Look at her face! See what she has!"
Lord O'More opened his eyes widely and sat up. He did look at the Angel's face intently, and suddenly found it so good that it was difficult to follow the next injunction. He arose instantly.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "The fact is, I am leaving Chicago sorely disappointed. It makes me bitter and reckless. I thought you one more of those queer, useless people who have thrust themselves on me constantly, and I was careless. Forgive me, and tell me why you came."
"I will if I like you," said the Angel stoutly, "and if I don't, I won't!"
"But I began all wrong, and now I don't know how to make you like me," said his lordship, with sincere penitence in his tone.
The Angel found herself yielding to his voice. He spoke in a soft, mellow, smoothly flowing Irish tone, and although his speech was perfectly correct, it was so rounded, and accented, and the sentences so turned, that it was Freckles over again. Still, it was a matter of the very greatest importance, and she must be sure; so she looked into the beautiful woman's face.
"Are you his wife?" she asked.
"Yes," said the woman, "I am his wife."
"Well," said the Angel judicially, "the Bird Woman says no one in the whole world knows all a man's bignesses and all his littlenesses as his wife does. What you think of him should do for me. Do you like him?"
The question was so earnestly asked that it met with equal earnestness. The dark head moved caressingly against Lord O'More's sleeve.
"Better than anyone in the whole world," said Lady O'More promptly.
The Angel mused a second, and then her legal tinge came to the fore again.
"Yes, but have you anyone you could like better, if he wasn't all right?" she persisted.
"I have three of his sons, two little daughters, a father, mother, and several brothers and sisters," came the quick reply.
"And you like him best?" persisted the Angel with finality.
"I love him so much that I would give up every one of them with dry eyes if by so doing I could save him," cried Lord O'More's wife.
"Oh!" cried the Angel. "Oh, my!"
She lifted her clear eyes to Lord O'More's and shook her head.
"She never, never could do that!" she said. "But it's a mighty big thing to your credit that she thinks she could. I guess I'll tell you why I came."
She laid down the paper, and touched the portrait.
"When you were only a boy, did people call you Freckles?" she asked.
"Dozens of good fellows all over Ireland and the Continent are doing it today," answered Lord O'More.
The Angel's face wore her most beautiful smile.
"I was sure of it," she said winningly. "That's what we call him, and he is so like you, I doubt if any one of those three boys of yours are more so. But it's been twenty years. Seems to me you've been a long time coming!"
Lord O'More caught the Angel's wrists and his wife slipped her arms around her.
"Steady, my girl!" said the man's voice hoarsely. "Don't make me think you've brought word of the boy at this last hour, unless you know surely."
"It's all right," said the Angel. "We have him, and there's no chance of a mistake. If I hadn't gone to that Home for his little clothes, and heard of you and been hunting you, and had met you on the street, or anywhere, I would have stopped you and asked you who you were, just because you are so like him. It's all right. I can tell you where Freckles is; but whether you deserve to know--that's another matter!"
Lord O'More did not hear her. He dropped in his chair, and covering his face, burst into those terrible sobs that shake and rend a strong man. Lady O'More hovered over him, weeping.
"Umph! Looks pretty fair for Freckles," muttered the Angel. "Lots of things can be explained; now perhaps they can explain this."
They did explain so satisfactorily that in a few minutes the Angel was on her feet, hurrying Lord and Lady O'More to reach the hospital. "You said Freckles' old nurse knew his mother's picture instantly," said the Angel. "I want that picture and the bundle of little clothes."
Lady O'More gave them into her hands.
The likeness was a large miniature, painted on ivory, with a frame of beaten gold. Surrounded by masses of dark hair was a delicately cut face. In the upper part of it there was no trace of Freckles, but the lips curving in a smile were his very own. The Angel gazed at it steadily. Then with a quivering breath she laid the portrait aside and reached both hands to Lord O'More.
"That will save Freckles' life and insure his happiness," she said positively. "Thank you, oh thank you for coming!"
She opened the bundle of yellow and brown linen and gave only a glance at the texture and work. Then she gathered the little clothes and the picture to her heart and led the way to the cab.
Ushering Lord and Lady O'More into the reception room, she said to McLean, "Please go call up my father and ask him to come on the first train."
She closed the door after him.
"These are Freckles' people," she said to the Bird Woman. "You can find out about each other; I'm going to him."