Chapter IV.
 

Out of this furnace Edith came with a new and purer spirit. She had been thrust in a shrinking and frightened girl; she came out a woman in mental stature, in feeling and self-consciousness.

The river of her life, which had cut for itself a deeper channel, lay now so far down that it was out of the sight of common observation. Even her mother failed to apprehend its drift and strength. Her father knew her better. To her mother she was reserved and distant; to her father, warm and confiding. With the former she would sit for hours without speaking unless addressed; with the latter she was pleased and social, and grew to be interested in what interested him. As mentioned, Mr. Dinneford was a man of wealth and leisure, and active in many public charities. He had come to be much concerned for the neglected and cast-off children of poor and vicious parents, thousands upon thousands of whom were going to hopeless ruin, unthought of and uncared for by Church or State, and their condition often formed the subject of his conversation as well at home as elsewhere.

Mrs. Dinneford had no sympathy with her husband in this direction. A dirty, vicious child was an offence to her, not an object of pity, and she felt more like, spurning it with her foot than touching it with her hand. But it was not so with Edith; she listened to her father, and became deeply interested in the poor, suffering, neglected little ones whose sad condition he could so vividly portray, for the public duties of charity to which he was giving a large part of his time made him familiar with much that was sad and terrible in human suffering and degradation.

One day Edith said to her father,

"I saw a sight this morning that made me sick. It has haunted me ever since. Oh, it was dreadful!"

"What was it?" asked Mr. Dinneford.

"A sick baby in the arms of a half-drunken woman. It made me shiver to look at its poor little face, wasted by hunger and sickness and purple with cold. The woman sat at the street corner begging, and the people went by, no one seeming to care for the helpless, starving baby in her arms. I saw a police-officer almost touch the woman as he passed. Why did he not arrest her?"

"That was not his business," replied Mr. Dinneford. "So long as she did not disturb the peace, the officer had nothing to do with her."

"Who, then, has?"

"Nobody."

"Why, father!" exclaimed Edith. "Nobody?"

"The woman was engaged in business. She was a beggar, and the sick, half-starved baby was her capital in trade," replied Mr. Dinneford. "That policeman had no more authority to arrest her than he had to arrest the organ-man or the peanut-vender."

"But somebody should see after a poor baby like that. Is there no law to meet such cases?"

"The poor baby has no vote," replied Mr. Dinneford, "and law-makers don't concern themselves much about that sort of constituency; and even if they did, the executors of law would be found indifferent. They are much more careful to protect those whose business it is to make drunken beggars like the one you saw, who, if men, can vote and give them place and power. The poor baby is far beneath their consideration."

"But not of Him," said Edith, with eyes full of tears, "who took little children in his arms and blessed them, and said, Suffer them to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven."

"Our law-makers are not, I fear, of his kingdom," answered Mr. Dinneford, gravely, "but of the kingdom of this world."

A little while after, Edith, who had remained silent and thoughtful, said, with a tremor in her voice,

"Father, did you see my baby?"

Mr. Dinneford started at so unexpected a question, surprised and disturbed. He did not reply, and Edith put the question again.

"No, my dear," he answered, with a hesitation of manner that was almost painful.

After looking into his face steadily for some moments, Edith dropped her eyes to the floor, and there was a constrained silence between them for a good while.

"You never saw it?" she queried, again lifting her eyes to her father's face. Her own was much paler than when she first put the question.

"Never."

"Why?" asked Edith.

She waited for a little while, and then said,

"Why don't you answer me, father?"

"It was never brought to me."

"Oh, father!"

"You were very ill, and a nurse was procured immediately."

"I was not too sick to see my baby," said Edith, with white, quivering lips. "If they had laid it in my bosom as soon as it was born, I would never have been so ill, and the baby would not have died. If--if--"

She held back what she was about saying, shutting her lips tightly. Her face remained very pale and strangely agitated. Nothing more was then said.

A day or two afterward, Edith asked her mother, with an abruptness that sent the color to her face, "Where was my baby buried?"

"In our lot at Fairview," was replied, after a moment's pause.

Edith said no more, but on that very day, regardless of a heavy rain that was falling, went out to the cemetery alone and searched in the family lot for the little mound that covered her baby--searched, but did not find it. She came back so changed in appearance that when her mother saw her she exclaimed,

"Why, Edith! Are you sick?"

"I have been looking for my baby's grave and cannot find it," she answered. "There is something wrong, mother. What was done with my baby? I must know." And she caught her mother's wrists with both of her hands in a tight grip, and sent searching glances down through her eyes.

"Your baby is dead," returned Mrs. Dinneford, speaking slowly and with a hard deliberation. "As for its grave--well, if you will drag up the miserable past, know that in my anger at your wretched mesalliance I rejected even the dead body of your miserable husband's child, and would not even suffer it to lie in our family ground. You know how bitterly I was disappointed, and I am not one of the kind that forgets or forgives easily. I may have been wrong, but it is too late now, and the past may as well be covered out of sight."

"Where, then, was my baby buried?" asked Edith, with a calm resolution of manner that was not to be denied.

"I do not know. I did not care at the time, and never asked."

"Who can tell me?"

"I don't know."

"Who took my baby to nurse?"

"I have forgotten the woman's name. All I know is that she is dead. When the child died, I sent her money, and told her to bury it decently."

"Where did she live?"

"I never knew precisely. Somewhere down town."

"Who brought her here? who recommended her?" said Edith, pushing her inquiries rapidly.

"I have forgotten that also," replied Mrs. Dinneford, maintaining her coldness of manner.

"My nurse, I presume," said Edith. "I have a faint recollection of her--a dark little woman with black eyes whom I had never seen before. What was her name?"

"Bodine," answered Mrs. Dinneford, without a moment's hesitation.

"Where does she live?"

"She went to Havana with a Cuban lady several months ago."

"Do you know the lady's name?"

"It was Casteline, I think."

Edith questioned no further. The mother and daughter were still sitting together, both deeply absorbed in thought, when a servant opened the door and said to Mrs. Dinneford,

"A lady wishes to see you."

"Didn't she give you her card?"

"No ma'am."

"Nor send up her name?"

"No, ma'am."

"Go down and ask her name."

The servant left the room. On returning, she said,

"Her name is Mrs. Bray."

Mrs. Dinneford turned her face quickly, but not in time to prevent Edith from seeing by its expression that she knew her visitor, and that her call was felt to be an unwelcome one. She went from the room without speaking. On entering the parlor, Mrs. Dinneford said, in a low, hurried voice,

"I don't want you to come here, Mrs. Bray. If you wish to see me send me word, and I will call on you, but you must on no account come here."

"Why? Is anything wrong?"

"Yes."

"What?"

"Edith isn't satisfied about the baby, has been out to Fairview looking for its grave, wants to know who her nurse was."

"What did you tell her?"

"I said that your name was Mrs. Bodine, and that you had gone to Cuba."

"Do you think she would know me?"

"Can't tell; wouldn't like to run the risk of her seeing you here. Pull down your veil. There! close. She said, a little while ago, that she had a faint recollection of you as a dark little woman with black eyes whom she had never seen before."

"Indeed!" and Mrs. Bray gathered her veil close about her face.

"The baby isn't living?" Mrs. Dinneford asked the question in a whisper.

"Yes."

"Oh, it can't be! Are you sure?"

"Yes; I saw it day before yesterday."

"You did! Where?"

"On the street, in the arms of a beggar-woman."

"You are deceiving me!" Mrs. Dinneford spoke with a throb of anger in her voice.

"As I live, no! Poor little thing! half starved and half frozen. It 'most made me sick."

"It's impossible! You could not know that it was Edith's baby."

"I do know," replied Mrs. Bray, in a voice that left no doubt on Mrs. Dinneford's mind.

"Was the woman the same to whom we gave the baby?"

"No; she got rid of it in less than a month."

"What did she do with it?"

"Sold it for five dollars, after she had spent all the money she received from you in drink and lottery-policies."

"Sold it for five dollars!"

"Yes, to two beggar-women, who use it every day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, and get drunk on the money they receive, lying all night in some miserable den."

Mrs. Dinneford gave a little shiver.

"What becomes of the baby when they are not using it?" she asked.

"They pay a woman a dollar a week to take care of it at night."

"Do you know where this woman lives?"

"Yes."

"Were you ever there?"

"Yes."

"What kind of a place is it?"

"Worse than a dog-kennel."

"What does all this mean?" demanded Mrs. Dinneford, with repressed excitement. "Why have you so kept on the track of this baby, when you knew I wished it lost sight of?"

"I had my own reasons," replied Mrs. Bray. "One doesn't know what may come of an affair like this, and it's safe to keep well up with it."

Mrs. Dinneford bit her lips till the blood almost came through. A faint rustle of garments in the hall caused her to start. An expression of alarm crossed her face.

"Go now," she said, hurriedly, to her visitor; "I will call and see you this afternoon."

Mrs. Bray quietly arose, saying, as she did so, "I shall expect you," and went away.

There was a menace in her tone as she said, "I shall expect you," that did not escape the ears of Mrs. Dinneford.

Edith was in the hall, at some distance from the parlor door. Mrs. Bray had to pass her as she went out. Edith looked at her intently.

"Who is that woman?" she asked, confronting her mother, after the visitor was gone.

"If you ask the question in a proper manner, I shall have no objection to answer," said Mrs. Dinneford, with a dignified and slightly offended air; "but my daughter is assuming rather, too much."

"Mrs. Bray, the servant said."

"No, Mrs. Gray."

"I understood her to say Mrs. Bray."

"I can't help what you understood." The mother spoke with some asperity of manner. "She calls herself Gray, but you can have it anything you please; it won't change her identity."

"What did she want?"

"To see me."

"I know." Edith was turning away with an expression on her face that Mrs. Dinneford did not like, so she said,

"She is in trouble, and wants me to help her, if you must know. She used to be a dressmaker, and worked for me before you were born; she got married, and then her troubles began. Now she is a widow with a house full of little children, and not half bread enough to feed them. I've helped her a number of times already, but I'm getting tired of it; she must look somewhere else, and I told her so."

Edith turned from her mother with an unsatisfied manner, and went up stairs. Mrs. Dinneford was surprised, not long afterward, to meet her at her chamber door, dressed to go out. This was something unusual.

"Where are you going?" she asked, not concealing her surprise.

"I have a little errand out," Edith replied.

This was not satisfactory to her mother. She asked other questions, but Edith gave only evasive answers.

On leaving the house, Edith walked quickly, like one in earnest about something; her veil was closely drawn. Only a few blocks from where she lived was the office of Dr. Radcliffe. Hither she directed her steps.

"Why, Edith, child!" exclaimed the doctor, not concealing the surprise he felt at seeing her. "Nobody sick, I hope?"

"No one," she answered.

There was a momentary pause; then Edith said, abruptly,

"Doctor, what became of my baby?"

"It died," answered Doctor Radcliffe, but not without betraying some confusion. The question had fallen upon him too suddenly.

"Did you see it after it was dead?" She spoke in a firm voice, looking him steadily in the face.

"No," he replied, after a slight hesitation.

"Then how do you know that it died?" Edith asked.

"I had your mother's word for it," said the doctor.

"What was done with my baby after it was born?"

"It was given out to nurse."

"With your consent?"

"I did not advise it. Your mother had her own views in the case. It was something over which I had no control."

"And you never saw it after it was taken away?"

"Never."

"And do not really know whether it be dead or living?"

"Oh, it's dead, of course, my child. There is no doubt of that," said the doctor, with sudden earnestness of manner.

"Have you any evidence of the fact?"

"My dear, dear child," answered the doctor, with much feeling, "it is all wrong. Why go back over this unhappy ground? why torture yourself for nothing? Your baby died long ago, and is in heaven."

"Would God I could believe it!" she exclaimed, in strong agitation. "If it were so, why is not the evidence set before me? I question my mother; I ask for the nurse who was with me when my baby was born, and for the nurse to whom it was given afterward, and am told that they are dead or out of the country. I ask for my baby's grave, but it cannot be found. I have searched for it where my mother told me it was, but the grave is not there. Why all this hiding and mystery? Doctor, you said that my baby was in heaven, and I answered, 'Would God it were so!' for I saw a baby in hell not long ago!"

The doctor was scared. He feared that Edith was losing her mind, she looked and spoke so wildly.

"A puny, half-starved, half-frozen little thing, in the arms of a drunken beggar," she added. "And, doctor, an awful thought has haunted me ever since."

"Hush, hush!" said the doctor, who saw what was in her mind. "You must not indulge such morbid fancies."

"It is that I may not indulge them that I have come to you. I want certainty, Dr. Radcliffe. Somebody knows all about my baby. Who was my nurse?"

"I never saw her before the night of your baby's birth, and have never seen her since. Your mother procured her."

"Did you hear her name?"

"No."

"And so you cannot help me at all?" said Edith, in a disappointed voice.

"I cannot, my poor child," answered the doctor.

All the flush and excitement died out of Edith's face. When she arose to go, she was pale and haggard, like one exhausted by pain, and her steps uneven, like the steps of an invalid walking for the first time. Dr. Radcliffe went with her in silence to the door.

"Oh, doctor," said Edith, in a choking voice, as she lingered a moment on the steps, "can't you bring out of this frightful mystery something for my heart to rest upon? I want the truth. Oh, doctor, in pity help me to find the truth!"

"I am powerless to help you," the doctor replied. "Your only hope lies in your mother. She knows all about it; I do not."

And he turned and left her standing at the door. Slowly she descended the steps, drawing her veil as she did so about her face, and walked away more like one in a dream than conscious of the tide of life setting so strongly all about her.