Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XIX. Wherein Freckles Finds His Birthright and the Angel Loses Her Heart
The nurse left the room quietly, as the Angel entered, carrying the bundle and picture. When they were alone, she turned to Freckles and saw that the crisis was indeed at hand.
That she had good word to give him was his salvation, for despite the heavy plaster jacket that held his body immovable, his head was lifted from the pillow. Both arms reached for her. His lips and cheeks flamed, while his eyes flashed with excitement.
"Angel," he panted. "Oh Angel! Did you find them? Are they white? Are the little stitches there? Oh Angel! Did me mother love me?"
The words seemed to leap from his burning lips. The Angel dropped the bundle on the bed and laid the picture face down across his knees. She gently pushed his head to the pillow and caught his arms in a firm grasp.
"Yes, dear heart," she said with fullest assurance. "No little clothes were ever whiter. I never in all my life saw such dainty, fine, little stitches; and as for loving you, no boy's mother ever loved him more!"
A nervous trembling seized Freckles.
"Sure? Are you sure?" he urged with clicking teeth.
"I know," said the Angel firmly. "And Freckles, while you rest and be glad, I want to tell you a story. When you feel stronger we will look at the clothes together. They are here. They are all right. But while I was at the Home getting them, I heard of some people that were hunting a lost boy. I went to see them, and what they told me was all so exactly like what might have happened to you that I must tell you. Then you'll understand that things could be very different from what you always have tortured yourself with thinking. Are you strong enough to listen? May I tell you?"
"Maybe 'twasn't me mother! Maybe someone else made those little stitches!"
"Now, goosie, don't you begin that," said the Angel, "because I know that it was!"
"Know!" cried Freckles, his head springing from the pillow. "Know! How can you know?"
The Angel gently soothed him back.
"Why, because nobody else would ever sit and do it the way it is done. That's how I know," she said emphatically. "Now you listen while I tell you about this lost boy and his people, who have hunted for months and can't find him."
Freckles lay quietly under her touch, but he did not hear a word that she was saying until his roving eyes rested on her face; he immediately noticed a remarkable thing. For the first time she was talking to him and avoiding his eyes. That was not like the Angel at all. It was the delight of hearing her speak that she looked one squarely in the face and with perfect frankness. There were no side glances and down-drooping eyes when the Angel talked; she was business straight through. Instantly Freckles' wandering thoughts fastened on her words.
"--and he was a sour, grumpy, old man," she was saying. "He always had been spoiled, because he was an only son, so he had a title, and a big estate. He would have just his way, no matter about his sweet little wife, or his boys, or anyone. So when his elder son fell in love with a beautiful girl having a title, the very girl of all the world his father wanted him to, and added a big adjoining estate to his, why, that pleased him mightily.
"Then he went and ordered his younger son to marry a poky kind of a girl, that no one liked, to add another big estate on the other side, and that was different. That was all the world different, because the elder son had been in love all his life with the girl he married, and, oh, Freckles, it's no wonder, for I saw her! She's a beauty and she has the sweetest way.
"But that poor younger son, he had been in love with the village vicar's daughter all his life. That's no wonder either, for she was more beautiful yet. She could sing as the angels, but she hadn't a cent. She loved him to death, too, if he was bony and freckled and red-haired--I don't mean that! They didn't say what color his hair was, but his father's must have been the reddest ever, for when he found out about them, and it wasn't anything so terrible, he just caved!
"The old man went to see the girl--the pretty one with no money, of course--and he hurt her feelings until she ran away. She went to London and began studying music. Soon she grew to be a fine singer, so she joined a company and came to this country.
"When the younger son found that she had left London, he followed her. When she got here all alone, and afraid, and saw him coming to her, why, she was so glad she up and married him, just like anybody else would have done. He didn't want her to travel with the troupe, so when they reached Chicago they thought that would be a good place, and they stopped, while he hunted work. It was slow business, because he never had been taught to do a useful thing, and he didn't even know how to hunt work, least of all to do it when he found it; so pretty soon things were going wrong. But if he couldn't find work, she could always sing, so she sang at night, and made little things in the daytime. He didn't like her to sing in public, and he wouldn't allow her when he could help himself; but winter came, it was very cold, and fire was expensive. Rents went up, and they had to move farther out to cheaper and cheaper places; and you were coming--I mean, the boy that is lost was coming--and they were almost distracted. Then the man wrote and told his father all about it; and his father sent the letter back unopened with a line telling him never to write again. When the baby came, there was very little left to pawn for food and a doctor, and nothing at all for a nurse; so an old neighbor woman went in and took care of the young mother and the little baby, because she was so sorry for them. By that time they were away in the suburbs on the top floor of a little wooden house, among a lot of big factories, and it kept growing colder, with less to eat. Then the man grew desperate and he went just to find something to eat and the woman was desperate, too. She got up, left the old woman to take care of her baby, and went into the city to sing for some money. The woman became so cold she put the baby in bed and went home. Then a boiler blew up in a big factory beside the little house and set it on fire. A piece of iron was pitched across and broke through the roof. It came down smash, and cut just one little hand off the poor baby. It screamed and screamed; and the fire kept coming closer and closer.
"The old woman ran out with the other people and saw what had happened. She knew there wasn't going to be time to wait for firemen or anything, so she ran into the building. She could hear the baby screaming, and she couldn't stand that; so she worked her way to it. There it was, all hurt and bleeding. Then she was almost scared to death over thinking what its mother would do to her for going away and leaving it, so she ran to a Home for little friendless babies, that was close, and banged on the door. Then she hid across the street until the baby was taken in, and then she ran back to see if her own house was burning. The big factory and the little house and a lot of others were all gone. The people there told her that the beautiful lady came back and ran into the house to find her baby. She had just gone in when her husband came, and he went in after her, and the house fell over both of them."
Freckles lay rigidly, with his eyes on the Angel's face, while she talked rapidly to the ceiling.
"Then the old woman was sick about that poor little baby. She was afraid to tell them at the Home, because she knew she never should have left it, but she wrote a letter and sent it to where the beautiful woman, when she was ill, had said her husband's people lived. She told all about the little baby that she could remember: when it was born, how it was named for the man's elder brother, that its hand had been cut off in the fire, and where she had put it to be doctored and taken care of. She told them that its mother and father were both burned, and she begged and implored them to come after it.
"You'd think that would have melted a heart of ice, but that old man hadn't any heart to melt, for he got that letter and read it. He hid it away among his papers and never told a soul. A few months ago he died. When his elder son went to settle his business, he found the letter almost the first thing. He dropped everything, and came, with his wife, to hunt that baby, because he always had loved his brother dearly, and wanted him back. He had hunted for him all he dared all these years, but when he got here you were gone--I mean the baby was gone, and I had to tell you, Freckles, for you see, it might have happened to you like that just as easy as to that other lost boy."
Freckles reached up and turned the Angel's face until he compelled her eyes to meet his.
"Angel," he asked quietly, "why don't you look at me when you are telling about that lost boy?"
"I--I didn't know I wasn't," faltered the Angel.
"It seems to me," said Freckles, his breath beginning to come in sharp wheezes, "that you got us rather mixed, and it ain't like you to be mixing things till one can't be knowing. If they were telling you so much, did they say which hand was for being off that lost boy?"
The Angel's eyes escaped again.
"It--it was the same as yours," she ventured, barely breathing in her fear.
Still Freckles lay rigid and whiter than the coverlet.
"Would that boy be as old as me?" he asked.
"Yes," said the Angel faintly.
"Angel," said Freckles at last, catching her wrist, "are you trying to tell me that there is somebody hunting a boy that you're thinking might be me? Are you belavin' you've found me relations?"
Then the Angel's eyes came home. The time had come. She pinioned Freckles' arms to his sides and bent above him.
"How strong are you, dear heart?" she breathed. "How brave are you? Can you bear it? Dare I tell you that?"
"No!" gasped Freckles. "Not if you're sure! I can't bear it! I'll die if you do!"
The day had been one unremitting strain with the Angel. Nerve tension was drawn to the finest thread. It snapped suddenly.
"Die!" she flamed. "Die, if I tell you that! You said this morning that you would die if you didn't know your name, and if your people were honorable. Now I've gone and found you a name that stands for ages of honor, a mother who loved you enough to go into the fire and die for you, and the nicest kind of relatives, and you turn round and say you'll die over that! You just try dying and you'll get a good slap!"
The Angel stood glaring at him. One second Freckles lay paralyzed and dumb with astonishment. The next the Irish in his soul arose above everything. A laugh burst from him. The terrified Angel caught him in her arms and tried to stifle the sound. She implored and commanded. When he was too worn to utter another sound, his eyes laughed silently.
After a long time, when he was quiet and rested, the Angel commenced talking to him gently, and this time her big eyes, humid with tenderness and mellow with happiness, seemed as if they could not leave his face.
"Dear Freckles," she was saying, "across your knees there is the face of the mother who went into the fire for you, and I know the name--old and full of honor--to which you were born. Dear heart, which will you have first?"
Freckles was very tired; the big drops of perspiration ran together on his temples; but the watching Angel caught the words his lips formed, "Me mother!"
She lifted the lovely pictured face and set it in the nook of his arm. Freckles caught her hand and drew her beside him, and together they gazed at the picture while the tears slid over their cheeks.
"Me mother! Oh, me mother! Can you ever be forgiving me? Oh, me beautiful little mother!" chanted Freckles over and over in exalted wonder, until he was so completely exhausted that his lips refused to form the question in his weary eyes.
"Wait!" cried the Angel with inborn refinement, for she could no more answer that question than he could ask. "Wait, I will write it!"
She hurried to the table, caught up the nurse's pencil, and on the back of a prescription tablet scrawled it: "Terence Maxwell O'More, Dunderry House, County Clare, Ireland."
Before she had finished came Freckles' voice: "Angel, are you hurrying?"
"Yes," said the Angel; "I am. But there is a good deal of it. I have to put in your house and country, so that you will feel located."
"Me house?" marveled Freckles.
"Of course," said the Angel. "Your uncle says your grandmother left your father her dower house and estate, because she knew his father would cut him off. You get that, and all your share of your grandfather's property besides. It is all set off for you and waiting. Lord O'More told me so. I suspect you are richer than McLean, Freckles."
She closed his fingers over the slip and straightened his hair.
"Now you are all right, dear Limberlost guard," she said. "You go to sleep and don't think of a thing but just pure joy, joy, joy! I'll keep your people until you wake up. You are too tired to see anyone else just now!"
Freckles caught her skirt as she turned from him.
"I'll go to sleep in five minutes," he said, "if you will be doing just one thing more for me. Send for your father! Oh, Angel, send for him quick! How will I ever be waiting until he comes?"
One instant the Angel stood looking at him. The next a crimson wave darkly stained her lovely face. Her chin began a spasmodic quivering and the tears sprang into her eyes. Her hands caught at her chest as if she were stifling. Freckles' grasp on her tightened until he drew her beside him. He slipped his arm around her and drew her face to his pillow.
"Don't, Angel; for the love of mercy don't be doing that," he implored. "I can't be bearing it. Tell me. You must tell me."
The Angel shook her head.
"That ain't fair, Angel," said Freckles. "You made me tell you when it was like tearing the heart raw from me breast. And you was for making everything heaven--just heaven and nothing else for me. If I'm so much more now than I was an hour ago, maybe I can be thinking of some way to fix things. You will be telling me?" he coaxed, moving his cheek against her hair.
The Angel's head moved in negation. Freckles did a moment of intent thinking.
"Maybe I can be guessing," he whispered. "Will you be giving me three chances?"
There was the faintest possible assent.
"You didn't want me to be knowing me name," guessed Freckles.
The Angel's head sprang from the pillow and her tear-stained face flamed with outraged indignation.
"Why, I did too!" she cried angrily.
"One gone," said Freckles calmly. "You didn't want me to have relatives, a home, and money."
"I did!" exclaimed the Angel. "Didn't I go myself, all alone, into the city, and find them when I was afraid as death? I did too!"
"Two gone," said Freckles. "You didn't want the beautifulest girl in the world to be telling me.----"
Down went the Angel's face and a heavy sob shook her. Freckles' clasp tightened around her shoulders, while his face, in its conflicting emotions, was a study. He was so stunned and bewildered by the miracle that had been performed in bringing to light his name and relatives that he had no strength left for elaborate mental processes. Despite all it meant to him to know his name at last, and that he was of honorable birth--knowledge without which life was an eternal disgrace and burden the one thing that was hammering in Freckles' heart and beating in his brain, past any attempted expression, was the fact that, while nameless and possibly born in shame, the Angel had told him that she loved him. He could find no word with which to begin to voice the rapture of his heart over that. But if she regretted it--if it had been a thing done out of her pity for his condition, or her feeling of responsibility, if it killed him after all, there was only one thing left to do. Not for McLean, not for the Bird Woman, not for the Duncans would Freckles have done it--but for the Angel--if it would make her happy--he would do anything.
"Angel," whispered Freckles, with his lips against her hair, "you haven't learned your history book very well, or else you've forgotten."
"Forgotten what?" sobbed the Angel.
"Forgotten about the real knight, Ladybird," breathed Freckles. "Don't you know that, if anything happened that made his lady sorry, a real knight just simply couldn't be remembering it? Angel, darling little Swamp Angel, you be listening to me. There was one night on the trail, one solemn, grand, white night, that there wasn't ever any other like before or since, when the dear Boss put his arm around me and told me that he loved me; but if you care, Angel, if you don't want it that way, why, I ain't remembering that anyone else ever did--not in me whole life."
The Angel lifted her head and looked into the depths of Freckles' honest gray eyes, and they met hers unwaveringly; but the pain in them was pitiful.
"Do you mean," she demanded, "that you don't remember that a brazen, forward girl told you, when you hadn't asked her, that she"--the Angel choked on it a second, but she gave a gulp and brought it out bravely--"that she loved you?"
"No!" cried Freckles. "No! I don't remember anything of the kind!"
But all the songbirds of his soul burst into melody over that one little clause: "When you hadn't asked her."
"But you will," said the Angel. "You may live to be an old, old man, and then you will."
"I will not!" cried Freckles. "How can you think it, Angel?"
"You won't even look as if you remember?"
"I will not!" persisted Freckles. "I'll be swearing to it if you want me to. If you wasn't too tired to think this thing out straight, you'd be seeing that I couldn't--that I just simply couldn't! I'd rather give it all up now and go into eternity alone, without ever seeing a soul of me same blood, or me home, or hearing another man call me by the name I was born to, than to remember anything that would be hurting you, Angel. I should think you'd be understanding that it ain't no ways possible for me to do it."
The Angel's tear-stained face flashed into dazzling beauty. A half-hysterical little laugh broke from her heart and bubbled over her lips.
"Oh, Freckles, forgive me!" she cried. "I've been through so much that I'm scarcely myself, or I wouldn't be here bothering you when you should be sleeping. Of course you couldn't! I knew it all the time! I was just scared! I was forgetting that you were you! You're too good a knight to remember a thing like that. Of course you are! And when you don't remember, why, then it's the same as if it never happened. I was almost killed because I'd gone and spoiled everything, but now it will be all right. Now you can go on and do things like other men, and I can have some flowers, and letters, and my sweetheart coming, and when you are sure, why, then you can tell me things, can't you? Oh, Freckles, I'm so glad! Oh, I'm so happy! It's dear of you not to remember, Freckles; perfectly dear! It's no wonder I love you so. The wonder would be if I did not. Oh, I should like to know how I'm ever going to make you understand how much I love you!"
Pillow and all, she caught him to her breast one long second; then she was gone.
Freckles lay dazed with astonishment. At last his amazed eyes searched the room for something approaching the human to which he could appeal, and falling on his mother's portrait, he set it before him.
"For the love of life! Me little mother," he panted, "did you hear that? Did you hear it! Tell me, am I living, or am I dead and all heaven come true this minute? Did you hear it?"
He shook the frame in his impatience at receiving no answer.
"You are only a pictured face," he said at last, "and of course you can't talk; but the soul of you must be somewhere, and surely in this hour you are close enough to be hearing. Tell me, did you hear that? I can't ever be telling a living soul; but darling little mother, who gave your life for mine, I can always be talking of it to you! Every day we'll talk it over and try to understand the miracle of it. Tell me, are all women like that? Were you like me Swamp Angel? If you were, then I'm understanding why me father followed across the ocean and went into the fire."