Chapter XXII.
 

Edith's life, as we have seen, became lost, so to speak, in charities. Her work lay chiefly with children, She was active in mission-schools and in two or three homes for friendless little ones, and did much to extend their sphere of usefulness. Her garments were plain and sombre, her fair young face almost colorless, and her aspect so nun-like as often to occasion remark.

Her patience and tender ways with poor little children, especially with the youngest, were noticed by all who were associated with her. Sometimes she would show unusual interest in a child just brought to one of the homes, particularly if it were a boy, and only two or three years old. She would hover about it and ask it questions, and betray an eager concern that caused a moment's surprise to those who noticed her. Often, at such times, the pale face would grow warm with the flush of blood sent out by her quicker heartbeats, and her eyes would have a depth of expression and a brightness that made her beauty seem the reflection of some divine beatitude. Now and then it was observed that her manner with these little waifs and cast-adrifts that were gathered in from the street had in it an expression of pain, that her eyes looked at them sadly, sometimes tearfully. Often she came with light feet and a manner almost cheery, to go away with eyes cast down and lips set and curved and steps that were slow and heavy.

Time had not yet solved the mystery of her baby's life or death; and until it was solved, time had no power to abate the yearning at her heart, to dull the edge of anxious suspense or to reconcile her to a Providence that seemed only cruel. In her daily prayers this thought of cruelty in God often came in to hide his face from her, and she rose from her knees more frequently in a passion of despairing tears than comforted. How often she pleaded with God, weeping bitter tears, that he would give her certainty in place of terrible doubts! Again, she would implore his loving care over her poor baby, wherever it might be.

So the days wore on, until nearly three years had elapsed since Edith's child was born.

It was Christmas eve, but there were no busy hands at work, made light by loving hearts, in the home of Mr. Dinneford. All its chambers were silent. And yet the coming anniversary was not to go uncelebrated. Edith's heart was full of interest for the children of the poor, the lowly, the neglected and the suffering, whom Christ came to save and to bless. Her anniversary was to be spent with them, and she was looking forward to its advent with real pleasure.

"We have made provision for four hundred children, said her father. "The dinner is to be at twelve o'clock, and we must be there by nine or ten. We shall be busy enough getting everything ready. There are forty turkeys to cut up and four hundred plates to fill."

"And many willing hands to do it," remarked Edith, with a quiet smile; "ours among the rest."

"You'd better keep away from there," spoke up Mrs. Dinneford, with a jar in her voice. "I don't see what possesses you. You can find poor little wretches anywhere, if you're so fond of them, without going to Briar street. You'll bring home the small-pox or something worse."

Neither Edith nor her father made any reply, and there fell a silence on the group that was burdensome to all. Mrs. Dinneford felt it most heavily, and after the lapse of a few minutes withdrew from the room.

"A good dinner to four hundred hungry children, some of them half starved," said Edith as her mother shut the door. "I shall enjoy the sight as much as they will enjoy the feast."

A little after ten o'clock on the next morning, Mr. Dinneford and Edith took their way to the mission-school in Briar street. They found from fifteen to twenty ladies and gentlemen already there, and at work helping to arrange the tables, which were set in the two long upper rooms. There were places for nearly four hundred children, and in front of each was an apple, a cake and a biscuit, and between every four a large mince pie. The forty turkeys were at the baker's, to be ready at a little before twelve o'clock, the dinner-hour, and in time for the carvers, who were to fill the four hundred plates for the expected guests.

At eleven o'clock Edith and her father went down to the chapel on the first floor, where the children had assembled for the morning exercises, that were to continue for an hour.

Edith had a place near the reading-desk where she could see the countenances of all those children who were sitting side by side in row after row and filling every seat in the room, a restless, eager, expectant crowd, half disciplined and only held quiet by the order and authority they had learned to respect. Such faces as she looked into! In scarcely a single one could she find anything of true childhood, and they were so marred by suffering and evil! In vain she turned from one to another, searching for a sweet, happy look or a face unmarked by pain or vice or passion. It made her heart ache. Some were so hard and brutal in their expression, and so mature in their aspect, that they seemed like the faces of debased men on which a score of years, passed in sensuality and crime, had cut their deep deforming lines, while others were pale and wasted, with half-scared yet defiant eyes, and thin, sharp, enduring lips, making one tearful to look at them. Some were restless as caged animals, not still for a single instant, hands moving nervously and bodies swaying to and fro, while others sat stolid and almost as immovable as stone, staring at the little group of men and women in front who were to lead them in the exercises of the morning.

At length one face of the many before her fixed the eyes of Edith. It was the face of a little boy scarcely more than three years old. He was only a few benches from her, and had been hidden from view by a larger boy just in front of him. When Edith first noticed this child, he was looking at her intently from a pair of large, clear brown eyes that had in them a wistful, hungry expression. His hair, thick and wavy, had been smoothly brushed by some careful hand, and fell back from a large forehead, the whiteness and smoothness of which was noticeable in contrast with those around him. His clothes were clean and good.

As Edith turned again and again to the face of this child, the youngest perhaps in the room, her heart began to move toward him. Always she found him with his great earnest eyes upon her. There seemed at last to be a mutual fascination. His eyes seemed never to move from her face; and when she tried to look away and get interested in other faces, almost unconsciously to herself her eyes would wander back, and she would find herself gazing at the child.

At eleven o'clock Mr. Paulding announced that the exercises for the morning would begin, when silence fell on the restless company of undisciplined children. A hymn was read, and then, as the leader struck the tune, out leaped the voices of these four hundred children, each singing with a strange wild abandon, many of them swaying their heads and bodies in time to the measure. As the first lines of the hymn,

"Jesus, gentle Shepherd, lead us, Much we need thy tender care,"

swelled up from the lips of those poor neglected children, the eyes of Edith grew blind with tears.

After a prayer was offered up, familiar addresses, full of kindness and encouragement, were made to the children, interspersed with singing and other appropriate exercises. These were continued for an hour. At their close the children were taken up stairs to the two long school-rooms, in which their dinner was to be served. Here were Christmas trees loaded with presents, wreaths of evergreen on the walls and ceilings, and illuminated texts hung here and there, and everything was provided to make the day's influence as beautiful and pleasant as possible to the poor little ones gathered in from cheerless and miserable homes.

Meantime, the carvers had been very busy at work on the forty turkeys--large, tender fellows, full of dressing and cooked as nicely as if they had been intended for a dinner of aldermen--cutting them up and filling the plates. There was no stinting of the supply. Each plate was loaded with turkey, dressing, potatoes that had been baked with the fowls, and a heaping spoonful of cranberry sauce, and as fast as filled conveyed to the tables by the lady attendants, who had come, many of them, from elegant homes, to assist the good missionary's wife and the devoted teachers of the mission-school in this labor of love. And so, when the four hundred hungry children came streaming into the rooms, they found tables spread with such bounty as the eyes of many of them had never looked upon, and kind gentlemen and beautiful ladies already there to place them at these tables and serve them while eating.

It was curious and touching, and ludicrous sometimes, to see the many ways in which the children accepted this bountiful supply of food. A few pounced upon it like hungry dogs, devouring whole platefuls in a few minutes, but most of them kept a decent restraint upon themselves in the presence of the ladies and gentlemen, for whom they could not but feel an instinctive respect. Very few of them could use at fork except in the most awkward manner. Some tried to cut their meat, but failing in the task, would seize it with their hands and eagerly convey it to their hungry mouths. Here and there would be seen a mite of a boy sitting in a kind of maze before a heaped-up dinner-plate, his hands, strangers, no doubt, to knife or fork, lying in his lap, and his face wearing a kind of helpless look. But he did not have to wait long. Eyes that were on the alert soon saw him; ready hands cut his food, and a cheery voice encouraged him to eat. If these children had been the sons and daughters of princes, they could not have been ministered to with a more gracious devotion to their wants and comfort than was shown by their volunteer attendants.

Edith, entering into the spirit of the scene, gave herself to the work in hand with an interest that made her heart glow with pleasure. She had lost sight of the little boy in whom she had felt so sudden and strong an interest, and had been searching about for him ever since the children came up from the chapel. At last she saw him, shut in and hidden between two larger boys, who were eating with a hungry eagerness and forgetfulness of everything around them almost painful to see. He was sitting in front of his heaped-up plate, looking at the tempting food, with his knife and fork lying untouched on the table. There was a dreamy, half-sad, half-bewildered look about him.

"Poor little fellow!" exclaimed Edith as soon as she saw him, and in a moment she was behind his chair.

"Shall I cut it up for you?" she asked as she lifted his knife and fork from the table.

The child turned almost with a start, and looked up at her with a quick flash of feeling on his face. She saw that he remembered her.

"Let me fix it all nicely," she said as she stooped over him and commenced cutting up his piece of turkey. The child did not look at his plate while she cut the food, but with his head turned kept his large eyes on her countenance.

"Now it's all right," said Edith, encouragingly, as she laid the knife and fork on his plate, taking a deep breath at the same time, for her heart beat so rapidly that her lungs was oppressed with the inflowing of blood. She felt, at the same time, an almost irresistible desire to catch him up into her arms and draw him lovingly to her bosom. The child made no attempt to eat, and still kept looking at her.

"Now, my little man," she said, taking his fork and lifting a piece of the turkey to his mouth. It touched his palate, and appetite asserted its power over him; his eyes went down to his plate with a hungry eagerness. Then Edith put the fork into his hand, but he did not know how to use it, and made but awkward attempts to take up the food.

Mrs. Paulding, the missionary's wife, came by at the moment, and seeing the child, put her hand on him, and said, kindly,

"Oh, it's little Andy," and passed on.

"So your name's Andy?"

"Yes, ma'am." It was the first time Edith had heard his voice. It fell sweet and tender on her ears, and stirred her heart strangely.

"Where do you live?"

He gave the name of a street she had never heard of before.

"But you're not eating your dinner. Come, take your fork just so. There! that's the way;" and Edith took his hand, in which he was still holding the fork, and lifted two or three mouthfuls, which he ate with increasing relish. After that he needed no help, and seemed to forget in the relish of a good dinner the presence of Edith, who soon found others who needed her service.

The plentiful meal was at last over, and the children, made happy for one day at least, were slowly dispersing to their dreary homes, drifting away from the better influences good men and women had been trying to gather about them even for a little while. The children were beginning to leave the tables when Edith, who had been busy among them, remembered the little boy who had so interested her, and made her way to the place where he had been sitting. But he was not there. She looked into the crowd of boys and girls who were pressing toward the door, but could not see the child. A shadow of disappointment came over her feelings, and a strange heaviness weighed over her heart.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said to herself. "I wanted to see him again."

She pressed through the crowd of children, and made her way down among them to the landing below and out upon the street, looking this way and that, but could not see the child. Then she returned to the upper rooms, but her search was in vain. Remembering that Mrs. Paulding had called him by name, she sought for the missionary's wife and made inquiry about him.

"Do you mean the little fellow I called Andy?" said Mrs. Paulding.

"Yes, that's the one," returned Edith.

"A beautiful boy, isn't he?"

"Indeed he is. I never saw such eyes in a child. Who is he, Mrs. Paulding, and what is he doing here? He cannot be the child of depraved or vicious parents."

"I do not think he is. But from whence he came no one knows. He drifted in from some unknown land of sorrow to find shelter on our inhospitable coast. I am sure that God, in his wise providence, sent him here, for his coming was the means of saving a poor debased man who is well worth the saving."

Then she told in a few words the story of Andy's appearance at Mr. Hall's wretched hovel and the wonderful changes that followed--how a degraded drunkard, seemingly beyond the reach of hope and help, had been led back to sobriety and a life of honest industry by the hand of a little child cast somehow adrift in the world, yet guarded and guided by Him who does not lose sight in his good providence of even a single sparrow.

"Who is this man, and where does he live?" asked Mr. Dinneford, who had been listening to Mrs. Paulding's brief recital.

"His name is Andrew Hall," was replied.

"Andrew Hall!" exclaimed Mr. Dinneford, with a start and a look of surprise.

"Yes, sir. That is his name, and he is now living alone with the child of whom we have been speaking, not very far from here, but in a much better neighborhood. He brought Andy around this morning to let him enjoy the day, and has come for him, no doubt, and taken him home."

"Give me the street and number, if you please, Mr. Paulding," said Mr. Dinneford, with much repressed excitement. "We will go there at once," he added, turning to his daughter.

Edith's face had become pale, and her father felt her hand tremble as she laid it on his arm.

At this moment a man came up hurriedly to Mrs. Paulding, and said, with manifest concern,

"Have you seen Andy, ma'am? I've been looking all over, but can't find him."

"He was here a little while ago," answered the missionary's wife. "We were just speaking of him. I thought you'd taken him home."

"Mr. Hall!" said Edith's father, in a tone of glad recognition, extending his hand at the same time.

"Mr. Dinneford!" The two men stood looking at each other, with shut lips and faces marked by intense feeling, each grasping tightly the other's hand.

"It is going to be well with you once more, my dear old friend!" said Mr. Dinneford.

"God being my helper, yes!" was the firm reply. "He has taken my feet out of the miry clay and set them on firm ground, and I have promised him that they shall not go down into the pit again. But Andy! I must look for him."

And he was turning away.

"I saw Andy a little while ago," now spoke up a woman who had come in from the street and heard the last remark.

"Where?" asked Mr. Hall.

"A girl had him, and she was going up Briar street on the run, fairly dragging Andy after her. She looked like Pinky Swett, and I do believe it was her. She's been in prison, you know but I guess her time's up."

Mr. Hall stopped to hear no more, but ran down stairs and up the street, going in the direction said to have been taken by the woman. Edith sat down, white and faint.

"Pinky Swett!" exclaimed Mrs. Paulding. "Why, that's the girl who had the child you were looking after a long time ago, Mr. Dinneford."

"Yes; I remember the name, and no doubt this is the very child she had in her possession at that time. Are you sure she has been in prison for the last two years?" and Mr. Dinneford turned to the woman who had mentioned her name.

"Oh yes, Sir; I remember all about it," answered the woman. "She stole a man's pocket-book, and got two years for it."

"You know her?"

"Oh yes, indeed! And she's a bad one, I can tell you. She had somebody's baby round in Grubb's court, and it was 'most starved to death. I heard it said it belonged to some of the big people up town, and that she was getting hush-money for it, but I don't know as it was true. People will talk."

"Do you know what became of that baby?" asked Edith, with ill-repressed excitement. Her face was still very pale, and her forehead contracted as by pain.

"No, ma'am. The police came round asking questions, and the baby wasn't seen in Grubb's court after that."

"You think it was Pinky Swett whom you saw just now?"

"I'm dead sure of it, sir," turning to Mr. Dinneford, who had asked the question.

"And you are certain it was the little boy named Andy that she had with her?"

"I'm as sure as death, sir."

"Did he look frightened?"

"Oh dear, yes, sir--scared as could be. He pulled back all his might, but she whisked him along as if he'd been only a chicken. I saw them go round the corner of Clayton street like the wind."

Mr. Paulding now joined them, and became advised of what had happened. He looked very grave.

"We shall find the little boy," he said. "He cannot be concealed by this wretched woman as the baby was; he is too old for that. The police will ferret him out. But I am greatly concerned for Mr. Hall. That child is the bond which holds him at safe anchorage. Break this bond, and he may drift to sea again. I must go after him."

And the missionary hurried away.

For over an hour Edith and her father remained at the mission waiting for some news of little Andy. At the end of this time Mr. Paulding came back with word that nothing could be learned beyond the fact that a woman with a child answering to the description of Andy had been seen getting into an up-town car on Clayton street about one o'clock. She came, it was said by two or three who professed to have seen her, from the direction of Briar street. The chief of police had been seen, and he had already telegraphed to all the stations. Mr. Hall was at the central station awaiting the result.

After getting a promise from Mr. Paulding to send a messenger the moment news of Andy was received, Mr. Dinneford and Edith returned home.