Chapter XXVIII.
 

Every home for friendless children, every sin or poverty-blighted ward and almost every hovel, garret and cellar where evil and squalor shrunk from observation were searched for the missing child, but in vain. No trace of him could be found. The agony of suspense into which Edith's mind was brought was beginning to threaten her reason. It was only by the strongest effort at self-compulsion that she could keep herself to duty among the poor and suffering, and well for her it was that she did not fail here; it was all that held her to safe mooring.

One day, as she was on her way home from some visit of mercy, a lady who was passing in a carriage called to her from the window, at the same time ordering her driver to stop. The carriage drew up to the sidewalk.

"Come, get in," said the lady as she pushed open the carriage door. "I was thinking of you this very moment, and want to have some talk about our children's hospital. We must have you on our ladies' visiting committee."

Edith shook her head, saying, "It won't be possible, Mrs. Morton. I am overtaxed now, and must lessen, instead of increasing, my work."

"Never mind, about that now. Get in. I want to have some talk with you."

Edith, who knew the lady intimately, stepped into the carriage and took a seat by her side.

"I don't believe you have ever been to our hospital," said the lady as the carriage rolled on. "I'm going there now, and want to show you how admirably everything is conducted, and what a blessing it is to poor suffering children."

"It hurts me so to witness suffering in little children," returned Edith, "that it seems as if I couldn't bear it much longer. I see so much of it."

"The pain is not felt as deeply when we are trying to relieve that suffering," answered her friend. "I have come away from the hospital many times after spending an hour or two among the beds, reading and talking to the children, with an inward peace in my soul too deep for expression. I think that Christ draws very near to us while we are trying to do the work that he did when he took upon himself our nature in, the world and stood face to face visibly with men--nearer to us, it may be, than at any other time; and in his presence there is peace--peace that passeth understanding."

They were silent for a little while, Edith not replying. "We have now," resumed the lady, "nearly forty children under treatment--poor little things who, but for this charity, would have no tender care or intelligent ministration. Most of them would be lying in garrets or miserable little rooms, dirty and neglected, disease eating out their lives, and pain that medical skill now relieves, racking their poor worn bodies. I sat by the bed of a little girl yesterday who has been in the hospital over six months. She has hip disease. When she was brought here from one of the vilest places in the city, taken away from a drunken mother, she was the saddest-looking child I ever saw. Dirty, emaciated, covered with vermin and pitiable to behold, I could hardly help crying when I saw her brought in. Now, though still unable to leave her bed, she has as bright and happy a face as you ever saw. The care and tenderness received since she came to us have awakened a new life in her soul, and she exhibits a sweetness of temper beautiful to see. After I had read a little story for her yesterday, she put her arms about my neck and kissed me, saying, in her frank, impulsive way, 'Oh, Mrs. Morton, I do love you so!' I had a great reward. Never do I spend an hour among these children without thanking God that he put it into the hearts of a few men and women who could be touched with the sufferings of children to establish and sustain so good an institution."

The carriage stopped, and the driver swung open the door. They were at the children's hospital. Entering a spacious hall, the two ladies ascended to the second story, where the wards were located. There were two of these on opposite sides of the hall, one for boys and one for girls. Edith felt a heavy pressure on her bosom as they passed into the girls' ward. She was coming into the presence of disease and pain, of suffering and weariness, in the persons of little children.

There were twenty beds in the room. Everything was faultlessly clean, and the air fresh and pure. On most of these beds lay, or sat up, supported by pillows, sick or crippled children from two years of age up to fifteen or sixteen, while a few were playing about the room. Edith caught her breath and choked back a sob that came swiftly to her throat as she stood a few steps within the door and read in a few quick glances that passed from face to face the sorrowful records that pain had written upon them.

"Oh, there's Mrs. Morton!" cried a glad voice, and Edith saw a girl who was sitting up in one of the beds clap her hands joyfully.

"That's the little one I was telling you about," said the lady, and she crossed to the bed, Edith following. The child reached up her arms and put them about Mrs. Morton's neck, kissing her as she did so.

It took Edith some time to adjust herself to the scene before her. Mrs. Morton knew all the children, and had a word of cheer or sympathy for most of them as she passed from bed to bed through the ward. Gradually the first painful impressions wore off, and Edith felt herself drawn to the little patients, and before five minutes had passed her heart was full of a strong desire to do whatever lay in her power to help and comfort them. After spending half an hour with the girls, during which time Edith talked and read to a number of them, Mrs. Morton said,

"Now let us go into the boys' ward."

They crossed the hall together, and entered the room on the other side. Here, as in the opposite ward, Mrs. Morton was recognized as welcome visitor. Every face that happened to be turned to the door brightened at her entrance.

"There's a dear child in this ward," said Mrs. Morton as they stood for a moment in the door looking about the room. "He was picked up in the street about a week ago, hurt by a passing vehicle, and brought here. We have not been able to learn anything about him."

Edith's heart gave a sudden leap, but she held it down with all the self-control she could assume, trying to be calm.

"Where is he?" she asked, in a voice so altered from its natural tone that Mrs. Morton turned and looked at her in surprise.

"Over in that corner," she answered, pointing down the room.

Edith started forward, Mrs. Morton at her side.

"Here he is," said the latter, pausing at a bed on which child with fair face, blue eyes and golden hair was lying. A single glance sent the blood back to Edith's heart. A faintness came over her; everything grew dark. She sat down to keep from falling.

As quickly as possible and by another strong effort of will she rallied herself.

"Yes," she said, in a faint undertone in which was no apparent interest, "he is a dear little fellow."

As she spoke she laid her hand softly on the child's head, but not in a way to bring any response. He looked at her curiously, and seemed half afraid.

Meanwhile, a child occupying a bed only a few feet off had started up quickly on seeing Edith, and now sat with his large brown eyes fixed eagerly upon her, his lips apart and his hands extended. But Edith did not notice him. Presently she got up from beside the bed and was turning away when the other child, with a kind of despairing look in his face, cried out,

"Lady, lady! oh, lady!"

The voice reached Edith's ears. She turned, and saw the face of Andy. Swift as a flash she was upon him, gathering him in her arms and crying out, in a wild passion of joy that could not be repressed,

"Oh, my baby! my baby! my boy! my boy! Bless God! thank God! oh, my baby!"

Startled by this sudden outcry, the resident physician and two nurses who were in the ward hurried down the room to see what it meant. Edith had the child hugged tightly to her bosom, and resisted all their efforts to remove him.

"My dear madam," said the doctor, "you will do him some harm if you don't take care."

"Hurt my baby? Oh no, no!" she answered, relaxing her hold and gazing down upon Andy as she let him fall away from her bosom. Then lifting her eyes to the physician, her face so flooded with love and inexpressible joy that it seemed like some heavenly transfiguration, she murmured, in a low voice full of the deepest tenderness,

"Oh no. I will not do my baby any harm."

"My dear, dear friend," said Mrs. Morton, recovering from the shock of her first surprise and fearing that Edith had suddenly lost her mind, "you cannot mean what you say;" and she reached down for the child and made a movement as if she were going to lift him away from her arms.

A look of angry resistance swept across Edith's pale face. There was a flash of defiance in her eyes.

"No, no! You must not touch him," she exclaimed; "I will die before giving him up. My baby!"

And now, breaking down from her intense excitement, she bent over the child again, weeping and sobbing. Waiting until this paroxysm had expended itself, Mrs. Morton, who had not failed to notice that Andy never turned his eyes for an instant away from Edith, nor resisted her strained clasp or wild caresses, but lay passive against her with a look of rest and peace in his face, said,

"How shall we know that he is your baby?"

At this Edith drew herself up, the light on her countenance fading out. Then catching at the child's arm, she pulled the loose sleeve that covered it above the elbow with hands that shook like aspens. Another cry of joy broke from her as she saw a small red mark standing out clear from the snowy skin. She kissed it over and over again, sobbing,

"My baby! Yes, thank God! my own long-lost baby!"

And still the child showed no excitement, but lay very quiet, looking at Edith whenever he could see her countenance, the peace and rest on his face as unchanging as if it were not really a living and mobile face, but one cut into this expression by the hands of an artist.

"How shall you know?" asked Edith, now remembering the question of Mrs. Morton. And she drew up her own sleeve and showed on one of her arms a mark as clearly defined and bright as that on the child's arm.

No one sought to hinder Edith as she rose to her feet holding Andy, after she had wrapped the bed-clothes about him.

"Come!" she spoke to her friend, and moved away with her precious burden.

"You must go with us," said Mrs. Morton to the physician.

They followed as Edith hurried down stairs, and entering the carriage after her, were driven away from the hospital.