Chapter VIII. A Strange Visitor.
 

It was about eleven o'clock in the forenoon, Mrs. Crump was in the kitchen, busy in preparations for dinner, when a loud knock was heard at the door.

"Who can it be?" ejaculated Mrs. Crump. "Aunt Rachel, there's somebody at the door; won't you be kind enough to see who it is?"

"People have no business to call at such an hour in the morning," grumbled Aunt Rachel, as she laid down her knitting reluctantly, and rose from her seat. "Nobody seems to have any consideration for anybody else. But that's the way of the world."

Opening the outer door, she saw before her a tall woman, dressed in a gown of some dark stuff, with marked, and not altogether pleasant features.

"Are you the lady of the house?" inquired the visitor.

"There ain't any ladies in this house," said Rachel. "You've come to the wrong place. We have to work for a living here."

"The woman of the house, then. It doesn't make any difference about names. Are you the one I want to see?"

"No, I ain't," said Rachel, shortly.

"Will you lead me to your mistress, then?"

"I have none."

The visitor's eyes flashed, as if her temper was easily roused.

"I want to see Mrs. Crump," she said, impatiently. Will you call her, or shall I go and announce myself?"

"Some folks are mighty impatient," muttered Rachel. "Stay here, and I'll call her to the door."

In a short time Mrs. Crump presented herself.

"Won't you come in?" she asked, pleasantly.

"I don't care if I do," was the reply. "I wish to speak to you on important business."

Mrs. Crump, whose interest was excited, led the way into the sitting-room.

"You have in your family," said the stranger, after seating herself, "a girl named Ida."

Mrs. Crump looked up suddenly and anxiously. Could it be that the secret of Ida's birth was to be revealed at last!

"Yes," she said.

"Who is not your child."

"But whom I love as such; whom I have always taught to look upon me as a mother."

"I presume so. It is of her that I wish to speak to you."

"Do you know anything of her parentage?" inquired Mrs. Crump, eagerly.

"I was her nurse," said the other, quietly.

Mrs. Crump examined, anxiously, the hard features of the woman. It was a relief at least to know, though she could hardly have believed, that there was no tie of blood between her and Ida.

"Who were her parents?"

"I am not permitted to tell," was the reply.

Mrs. Crump looked disappointed.

"Surely," she said, with a sudden sinking of heart, "you have not come to take her away?"

"This letter will explain my object in visiting you," said the woman, drawing a sealed envelope from a bag which she carried on her arm.

The cooper's wife nervously broke open the letter, and read as follows:--

"MRS. CRUMP;

"Eight years ago last New Year's night, a child was left on your door-steps, with a note containing a request that you would care for it kindly as your own. Money was sent, at the same time, to defray the expenses of such care. The writer of this note is the mother of the child Ida. There is no need to say, here, why I sent the child away from me. You will easily understand that only the most imperative circumstances would have led me to such a step. Those circumstances still prevent me from reclaiming the child, and I am content, still, to leave Ida in your charge. Yet, there is one thing of which I am (sic) desirious. You will understand a mother's desire to see, face to face, the child who belongs, of right, to her. With this view, I have come to this neighborhood. I will not say where, for concealment is necessary to me. I send this note by a trustworthy attendant,--Mrs. Hardwick, my little Ida's nurse in her infancy,--who will conduct Ida to me, and return her again to you. Ida is not to know whom she is visiting. No doubt she believes you her mother, and it is well. Tell her only, that it is a lady who takes an interest in her, and that will satisfy her childish curiosity. I make this request as

"IDA'S MOTHER."

Mrs. Crump read this letter with mingled feelings. Pity for the writer; a vague curiosity in regard to the mysterious circumstances which had compelled her to resort to such a step; a half feeling of jealousy, that there should be one who had a claim to her dear adopted daughter superior to her own; and a strong feeling of relief at the assurance that Ida was not to be permanently removed,--all these feelings affected the cooper's wife.

"So you were Ida's nurse," she said, gently.

"Yes, ma'am," said the stranger. "I hope the dear child is well."

"Perfectly well. How much her mother must have suffered from the separation!"

"Indeed, you may say so, ma'am. It came near to break her heart."

"So it must," said sympathizing Mrs. Crump. "There is one thing I would like to ask," she continued, hesitating and reddening. "Don't answer it unless you please. Was--is Ida the child of shame?"

"She is not," answered the nurse.

Mrs. Crump looked relieved. It removed a thought from her mind which would now and then intrude, though it had never, for an instant, lessened her affection for the child.

At this point in the conversation, the cooper entered the house. He had just come home on an errand.

"It is my husband," said Mrs. Crump, turning to her visitor, by way of explanation. "Timothy, will you come in a moment?"

Mr. Crump regarded his wife's visitor with some surprise. His wife hastened to introduce her as Mrs. Hardwick, Ida's nurse, and handed to the astonished cooper the letter which the latter had brought with her.

He was not a rapid reader, and it took him some time to get through the letter. He laid it down on his knee, and looked thoughtful. The nurse regarded him with a slight uneasiness.

"This is, indeed, unexpected," he said, at last. "It is a new development in Ida's history. May I ask, Mrs. Hardwick, if you have any further proof. I want to be prudent with a child that I love as my own,--if you have any further proof that you are what you claim to be?"

"I judged that this letter would be sufficient," said the nurse; moving a little in her chair.

"True; but how can we be sure that the writer is Ida's mother?"

"The tone of the letter, sir. Would anybody else write like that?"

"Then you have read the letter?" said the cooper, quickly.

"It was read to me, before I set out."

"By----"

"By Ida's mother. I do not blame you for your caution," she continued. "You must be so interested in the happiness of the dear child of whom you have taken such (sic) excelent care, I don't mind telling you that I was the one who left her at your door eight years ago, and that I never left the neighborhood until I found that you had taken her in."

"And it was this, that enabled you to find the house, to-day."

"You forget," said the nurse, "that you were not then living in this house, but in another, some rods off, on the left-hand side of the street."

"You are right," said the cooper. "I am disposed to believe in the genuineness of your claim. You must pardon my testing you in such a manner, but I was not willing to yield up Ida, even for a little time, without feeling confident of the hands she was falling into."

"You are right," said the nurse. "I don't blame you in the least. I shall report it to Ida's mother, as a proof of your attachment to your child."

"When do you wish Ida to go with you?" asked Mrs. Crump.

"Can you let her go this afternoon?"

"Why," said Mrs. Crump, hesitating, "I should like to have a chance to wash out some clothes for her. I want her to appear as neat a possible, when she meets her mother."

The nurse hesitated.

"I do not wish to hurry you. If you will let me know when she will be ready, I will call for her."

"I think I can get her ready early to-morrow morning."

"That will answer excellently. I will call for her then."

The nurse rose, and gathered her shawl about her.

"Where are you going, Mrs. Hardwick?" asked the cooper's wife.

"To a hotel," was the reply.

"We cannot allow that," said Mrs. Crump, kindly. "It is a pity if we cannot accommodate Ida's old nurse for one night, or ten times as long, for that matter."

"My wife is quite right," said the cooper; "we must insist upon your stopping with us."

The nurse hesitated, and looked irresolute. It was plain she would have preferred to be elsewhere, but a remark which Mrs. Crump made, decided her to accept the invitation.

It was this. "You know, Mrs. Hardwick, if Ida is to go with you, she ought to have a little chance to get acquainted with you before you go."

"I will accept your kind invitation," she said; "but I am afraid I shall be in your way."

"Not in the least. It will be a pleasure to us to have you here. If you will excuse me now, I will go out and attend to my dinner, which I am afraid is getting behindhand."

Left to herself, the nurse behaved in a manner which might be regarded as singular. She rose from her seat, and approached the mirror. She took a full survey of herself as she stood there, and laughed a short, hard laugh.

Then she made a formal courtesy to her own reflection, saying, "How do you do, Mrs. Hardwick?"

"Did you speak?" asked the cooper, who was passing through the entry on his way out.

"No," said the nurse, a little awkwardly. "I believe I said something to myself. It's of no consequence."

"Somehow," thought the cooper, "I don't fancy the woman's looks, but I dare say I am prejudiced. We're all of us as God made us."

While Mrs. Crump was making preparations for the noon-day meal, she imparted to Rachel the astonishing information, which has already been detailed to the reader.

"I don't believe a word of it," said Rachel, resolutely.

"She's an imposter. I knew she was the very first moment I set eyes on her."

This remark was so characteristic of Rachel, that Mrs. Crump did not attach any special importance to it. Rachel, of course, had no grounds for the opinion she so confidently expressed. It was consistent, however, with her general estimate of human nature.

"What object could she have in inventing such a story?"

"What object? Hundreds of 'em," said Rachel, rather indefinitely. "Mark my words, if you let her carry off Ida, it'll be the last you'll ever see of her."

"Try to look on the bright side, Rachel. Nothing is more natural than that her mother should want to see her."

"Why couldn't she come herself?" muttered Rachel.

"The letter explains."

"I don't see that it does."

"It says that the same reasons exist for concealment as ever."

"And what are they, I should like to know? I don't like mysteries, for my part."

"We won't quarrel with them, at any rate, since they enable us to keep Ida with us."

Aunt Rachel shook her head, as if she were far from satisfied.

"I don't know," said Mrs. Crump, "but I ought to invite Mrs. Hardwick in here. I have left her alone in the front room."

"I don't want to see her," said Aunt Rachel. Then changing her mind, suddenly, "Yes, you may bring her in. I'll find out whether she is an imposter or not."

Mrs. Crump returned with the nurse. "Mrs. Hardwick," said she, "this is my sister, Miss Rachel Crump."

"I am glad to make your acquaintance, ma'am," said the nurse.

"Aunt Rachel, I will leave you to entertain Mrs. Hardwick," said Mrs. Crump. "I am obliged to be in the kitchen."

Rachel and the nurse eyed each other with mutual dislike.

"I hope you don't expect me to entertain you," said Rachel. "I never expect to entertain anybody again. This is a world of trial and tribulation, and I've had my share. So you've come after Ida, I hear?" with a sudden change of subject.

"At her mother's request," said the nurse.

"She wants to see her, then?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I wonder she didn't think of it before," said Aunt Rachel, sharply. "She's good at waiting. She's waited eight years."

"There are circumstances that cannot be explained," commenced the nurse.

"No, I dare say not," said Rachel, dryly. "So you were her nurse?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Mrs. Hardwick, who evidently did not relish this cross-examination.

"Have you lived with the mother ever since?"

"No,--yes," stammered the nurse. "Some of the time," she added, recovering herself.

"Umph!" grunted Rachel, darting a sharp glance at her.

"Have you a husband living?" inquired Rachel, after a pause.

"Yes," said Mrs. Hardwick. "Have you?"

"I!" repeated Aunt Rachel, scornfully. "No, neither living nor dead. I'm thankful to say I never married. I've had trials enough without that. Does Ida's mother live in the city?"

"I can't tell you," said the nurse.

"Humph, I don't like mystery."

"It isn't my mystery," said the nurse. "If you have any objection to make against it, you must make it to Ida's mother."

The two were not likely to get along very amicably. Neither was gifted with the best of tempers, and perhaps it was as well that there should have been an interruption as there was.