Cast Adrift by T.S. Arthur
When Mr. Dinneford and the policeman sent by the mayor at his solicitation visited Grubb's court, the baby was not to be found. The room in which it had been seen by Mr. Paulding was vacant. Such a room as it was!--low and narrow, with bare, blackened walls, the single window having scarcely two whole panes of glass, the air loaded with the foulness that exhaled from the filth-covered floor, the only furniture a rough box and a dirty old straw bed lying in a corner.
As Mr. Dinneford stood at the door of this room and inhaled its fetid air, he grew sick, almost faint. Stepping back, with a shocked and disgusted look on his face, he said to the policeman,
"There must be a mistake. This cannot be the room."
Two or three children and a coarse, half-clothed woman, seeing a gentleman going into the house accompanied by a policeman, had followed them closely up stairs.
"Who lives in this room?" asked the policeman, addressing the woman.
"Don't know as anybody lives there now," she replied, with evident evasion.
"Who did live here?" demanded the policeman.
"Oh, lots!" returned the woman, curtly.
"I want to know who lived here last," said the policeman, a little sternly.
"Can't say--never keep the run of 'em," answered the woman, with more indifference than she felt. "Goin' and comin' all the while. Maybe it was Poll Davis."
"Had she a baby?"
The woman gave a vulgar laugh as she replied: "I rather think not."
"It was Moll Fling," said one of the children, "and she had a baby."
"When was she here last?" inquired the policeman.
The woman, unseen by the latter, raised her fist and threatened the child, who did not seem to be in the least afraid of her, for she answered promptly:
"She went away about an hour ago."
"And took the baby?"
"Yes. You see Mr. Paulding was here asking about the baby, and she got scared."
"Why should that scare her?"
"I don't know, only it isn't her baby."
"How do you know that?"
"'Cause it isn't--I know it isn't. She's paid to take care of it."
"Who's Pinky Swett?"
"Don't you know Pinky Swett?" and the child seemed half surprised.
"Where does Pinky Swett live?" asked the policeman.
"She did live next door for a while, but I don't know where she's gone."
Nothing beyond this could be ascertained. But having learned the names of the women who had possession of the child, the policeman said there would be no difficulty about discovering them. It might take a little time, but they could not escape the vigilance of the police.
With this assurance, Mr. Dinneford hastened from the polluted air of Grubb's court, and made his way to the mission in Briar street, in order to have some further conference with Mr. Paulding.
"As I feared," said the missionary, on learning that the baby could not be found. "These creatures are as keen of scent as Indians, and know the smallest sign of danger. It is very plain that there is something wrong--that these women have no natural right to the child, and that they are not using it to beg with."
"Do you know a woman called Pinky Swett?" asked the policeman.
"I've heard of her, but do not know her by sight. She bears a hard reputation even here, and adds to her many evil accomplishments the special one of adroit robbery. A victim lured to her den rarely escapes without loss of watch or pocket-book. And not one in a hundred dares to give information, for this would expose him to the public, and so her crimes are covered. Pinky Swett is not the one to bother herself about a baby unless its parentage be known, and not then unless the knowledge can be turned to advantage."
"The first thing to be done, then, is to find this woman," said the policeman.
"That will not be very hard work. But finding the baby, if she thinks you are after it, would not be so easy," returned Mr. Paulding. "She's as cunning as a fox."
"We shall see. If the chief of police undertakes to find the baby, it won't be out of sight long. You'd better confer with the mayor again," added the policeman, addressing Mr. Dinneford.
"I will do so without delay," returned that gentleman.
"I hope to see you here again soon," said the missionary as Mr. Dinneford was about going. "If I can help you in any way, I shall do so gladly."
"I have no doubt but that you can render good service." Then, in half apology, and to conceal the real concern at his heart, Mr. Dinneford added, "Somehow, and strangely enough when I come to think of it, I have allowed myself to get drawn into this thing, and once in, the natural persistence of my character leads me to go on to the end. I am one of those who cannot bear to give up or acknowledge a defeat; and so, having set my hand to this work, I am going to see it through."
When the little girl who had taken Edith to the mission-house in Briar street got home and told her story, there was a ripple of excitement in that part of Grubb's court where she lived, and a new interest was felt in the poor neglected baby. Mr. Paulding's visit and inquiries added to this interest. It had been several days since Pinky Swett's last visit to the child to see that it was safe. On the morning after Edith's call at the mission she came in about ten o'clock, and heard the news. In less than twenty minutes the child and the woman who had charge of it both disappeared from Grubb's court. Pinky sent them to her own room, not many squares distant, and then drew from the little girl who was in Edith's sewing-class all she knew about that young lady. It was not much that the child could tell. She was very sweet and good and handsome, and wore such beautiful clothes, was so kind and patient with the girls, but she did not remember her name, thought it was Edith.
"Now, see here," said Pinky, and she put some money into the child's hand; "I want you to find out for me what her name is and where she lives. Mind, you must be very careful to remember."
"What do you want to know for?" asked the little girl.
"That's none of your business. Do what I tell you," returned Pinky, with impatience; "and if you do it right, I'll give you a quarter more. When do you go again?"
"Next week, on Thursday."
"Not till next Thursday!" exclaimed Pinky, in a tone of disappointment.
"The school's only once a week."
Pinky chafed a good deal, but it was of no use; she must wait.
"You'll be sure and go next Thursday?" she said.
"If Mother lets me," replied the child.
"Oh, I'll see to that; I'll make her let you. What time does the school go in?"
"At three o'clock."
"Very well. You wait for me. I'll come round here at half-past two, and go with you. I want to see the young lady. They'll let me come into the school and learn to sew, won't they?"
"I don't know; you're too big, and you don't want to learn."
"How do you know I don't?"
"Because I do."
Pinky laughed, and then said,
"You'll wait for me?"
"Yes, if mother says so."
"All right;" and Pinky hurried away to take measures for hiding the baby from a search that she felt almost sure was about being made. The first thing she did was to soundly abuse the woman in whose care she had placed the hapless child for her neglect and ill treatment, both of which were too manifest, and then to send her away under the new aspect of affairs she did not mean to trust this woman, nor indeed to trust anybody who knew anything of the inquiries which had been made about the child. A new nurse must be found, and she must live as far away from the old locality as possible. Pinky was not one inclined to put things off. Thought and act were always close together. Scarcely had the woman been gone ten minutes, before, bundling the baby in a shawl, she started off to find a safer hiding-place. This time she was more careful about the character and habits of the person selected for a nurse, and the baby's condition was greatly improved. The woman in whose charge she placed it was poor, but neither drunken nor depraved. Pinky arranged with her to take the care of it for two dollars a week, and supplied it with clean and comfortable clothing. Even she, wicked and vile as she was, could not help being touched by the change that appeared in the baby's shrunken face, and in its sad but beautiful eyes, after its wasted little body had been cleansed and clothed in clean, warm garments and it had taken its fill of nourishing food.
"It's a shame, the way it has been abused," said Pinky, speaking from an impulse of kindness, such as rarely swelled in her evil heart.
"A crying shame," answered the woman as she drew the baby close against her bosom and gazed down upon its pitiful face, and into the large brown eyes that were lifted to hers in mute appeal.
The real motherly tenderness that was in this woman's heart was quickly perceived by the child, who did not move its eyes from hers, but lay perfectly still, gazing up at her in a kind of easeful rest such as it had never before known. She spoke to it in loving tones, touched its thin cheeks with her finger in playful caresses, kissed it on its lips and forehead, hugged it to her bosom; and still the eyes were fixed on hers in a strange baby-wonder, though not the faintest glinting of a smile played on its lips or over its serious face. Had it never learned to smile?
At last the poor thin lips curved a little, crushing out the lines of suffering, and into the eyes there came a loving glance in place of the fixed, wondering look that was almost a stare. A slight lifting of the hands, a motion of the head, a thrill through the whole body came next, and then a tender cooing sound.
"Did you ever see such beautiful eyes?" said the woman. "It will be a splendid baby when it has picked up a little."
"Let it pick up as fast as it can," returned Pinky; "but mind what I say: you are to be mum. Here's your pay for the first week, and you shall have it fair and square always. Call it your own baby, if you will, or your grandson. Yes, that's better. He's the child of your dead daughter, just sent to you from somewhere out of town. So take good care of him, and keep your mouth shut. I'll be round again in a little while."
And with this injunction Pinky went away. On the next Thursday she visited the St. John's mission sewing-school in company with the little girl from Grubb's court, but greatly to her disappointment, Edith did not make her appearance. There were four or five ladies in attendance on the school, which, under the superintendence of one of them, a woman past middle life, with a pale, serious face and a voice clear and sweet, was conducted with an order and decorum not often maintained among a class of children such as were there gathered together.
It was a long time since Pinky had found herself so repressed and ill at ease. There was a spiritual atmosphere in the place that did not vitalize her blood. She felt a sense of constriction and suffocation. She had taken her seat in the class taught usually by Edith, with the intention of studying that young lady and finding out all she could about her, not doubting her ability to act the part in hand with perfect self-possession. But she had not been in the room a minute before confidence began to die, and very soon she found herself ill at ease and conscious of being out of her place. The bold, bad woman felt weak and abashed. An unseen sphere of purity and Christian love surrounded and touched her soul with as palpable an impression as outward things give to the body. She had something of the inward distress and pain a devil would feel if lifted into the pure air of heaven, and the same desire to escape and plunge back into the dense and impure atmosphere in which evil finds its life and enjoyment. If she had come with any good purpose, it would have been different, but evil, and only evil, was in her heart; and when this felt the sphere of love and purity, her breast was constricted and life seemed going out of her.
It was little less than torture to Pinky for the short time she remained. As soon as she was satisfied that Edith would not be there, she threw down the garment on which she had been pretending to sew, and almost ran from the room.
"Who is that girl?" asked the lady who was teaching the class, looking in some surprise after the hurrying figure.
"It's Pinky Swett," answered the child from Grubb's court. "She wanted to see our teacher."
"Who is your regular teacher?" was inquired.
"Don't remember her name."
"It's Edith," spoke up one of the girls. "Mrs. Martin called her that."
"What did this Pinky Swett want to see her about?"
"Don't know," answered the child as she remembered the money Pinky had given her and the promise of more.
The teacher questioned no further, but went on with her work in the class.