The Axminster Path
 

"There, dear, here we are, all dressed for the day!" said the girl gayly, as she led the frail little woman along the strip of Axminster carpet that led to the big chair.

"And Kathie?" asked the woman, turning her head with the groping uncertainty of the blind.

"Here, mother," answered a cheery voice. "I'm right here by the window."

"Oh!" And the woman smiled happily. "Painting, I suppose, as usual."

"Oh, I'm working, as usual," returned the same cheery voice, its owner changing the position of the garment in her lap and reaching for a spool of silk.

"There!" breathed the blind woman, as she sank into the great chair. "Now I am all ready for my breakfast. Tell cook, please, Margaret, that I will have tea this morning, and just a roll besides my orange." And she smoothed the folds of her black silk gown and picked daintily at the lace in her sleeves.

"Very well, dearie," returned her daughter. "You shall have it right away," she added over her shoulder as she left the room.

In the tiny kitchen beyond the sitting-room Margaret Whitmore lighted the gas-stove and set the water on to boil. Then she arranged a small tray with a bit of worn damask and the only cup and saucer of delicate china that the shelves contained. Some minutes later she went back to her mother, tray in hand.

"'Most starved to death?" she demanded merrily, as she set the tray upon the table Katherine had made ready before the blind woman. "You have your roll, your tea, your orange, as you ordered, dear, and just a bit of currant jelly besides."

"Currant jelly? Well, I don't know,--perhaps it will taste good. 'T was so like Nora to send it up; she's always trying to tempt my appetite, you know. Dear me, girls, I wonder if you realize what a treasure we have in that cook!"

"Yes, dear, I know," murmured Margaret hastily. "And now the tea, Mother--it's getting colder every minute. Will you have the orange first?"

The slender hands of the blind woman hovered for a moment over the table, then dropped slowly and found by touch the position of spoons, plates, and the cup of tea.

"Yes, I have everything. I don't need you any longer, Meg. I don't like to take so much of your time, dear--you should let Betty do for me."

"But I want to do it," laughed Margaret. "Don't you want me?"

"Want you! That isn't the question, dear," objected Mrs. Whitmore gently. "Of course, a maid's service can't be compared for an instant with a daughter's love and care; but I don't want to be selfish--and you and Kathie never let Betty do a thing for me. There, there! I won't scold any more. What are you going to do to-day, Meg?"

Margaret hesitated. She was sitting by the window now, in a low chair near her sister's. In her hands was a garment similar to that upon which Katherine was still at work.

"Why, I thought," she began slowly, "I'd stay here with you and Katherine a while."

Mrs. Whitmore set down her empty cup and turned a troubled face toward the sound of her daughter's voice.

"Meg, dear," she remonstrated, "is it that fancy-work?"

"Well, isn't fancy-work all right?" The girl's voice shook a little.

Mrs. Whitmore stirred uneasily.

"No, it--it isn't--in this case," she protested. "Meg, Kathie, I don't like it. You are young; you should go out more--both of you. I understand, of course; it's your unselfishness. You stay with me lest I get lonely; and you play at painting and fancy-work for an excuse. Now, dearies, there must be a change. You must go out. You must take your place in society. I will not have you waste your young lives."

"Mother!" Margaret was on her feet, and Katherine had dropped her work. "Mother!" they cried again.

"I--I shan't even listen," faltered Margaret. "I shall go and leave you right away," she finished tremulously, picking up the tray and hurrying from the room.

It was hours later, after the little woman had trailed once more along the Axminster path to the bed in the room beyond and had dropped asleep, that Margaret Whitmore faced her sister with despairing eyes.

"Katherine, what shall we do? This thing is killing me!"

The elder girl's lips tightened. For an instant she paused in her work-- but for only an instant.

"I know," she said feverishly; "but we mustn't give up--we mustn't!"

"But how can we help it? It grows worse and worse. She wants us to go out--to sing, dance, and make merry as we used to."

"Then we'll go out and--tell her we dance."

"But there's the work."

"We'll take it with us. We can't both leave at once, of course, but old Mrs. Austin, downstairs, will be glad to have one or the other of us sit with her an occasional afternoon or evening."

Margaret sprang to her feet and walked twice the length of the room.

"But I've--lied so much already!" she moaned, pausing before her sister. "It's all a lie--my whole life!"

"Yes, yes, I know," murmured the other, with a hurried glance toward the bedroom door. "But, Meg, we mustn't give up--'twould kill her to know now. And, after all, it's only a little while!--such a little while!"

Her voice broke with a half-stifled sob. The younger girl shivered, but did not speak. She walked again the length of the room and back; then she sat down to her work, her lips a tense line of determination, and her thoughts delving into the few past years for a strength that might help her to bear the burden of the days to come.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ten years before, and one week after James Whitmore's death, Mrs. James Whitmore had been thrown from her carriage, striking on her head and back.

When she came to consciousness, hours afterward, she opened her eyes on midnight darkness, though the room was flooded with sunlight. The optic nerve had been injured, the doctor said. It was doubtful if she would ever be able to see again.

Nor was this all. There were breaks and bruises, and a bad injury to the spine. It was doubtful if she would ever walk again. To the little woman lying back on the pillow it seemed a living death--this thing that had come to her.

It was then that Margaret and Katherine constituted themselves a veritable wall of defense between their mother and the world. Nothing that was not inspected and approved by one or the other was allowed to pass Mrs. Whitmore's chamber door.

For young women only seventeen and nineteen, whose greatest responsibility hitherto had been the selection of a gown or a ribbon, this was a new experience.

At first the question of expense did not enter into consideration. Accustomed all their lives to luxury, they unhesitatingly demanded it now; and doctors, nurses, wines, fruits, flowers, and delicacies were summoned as a matter of course.

Then came the crash. The estate of the supposedly rich James Whitmore was found to be deeply involved, and in the end there was only a pittance for the widow and her two daughters.

Mrs. Whitmore was not told of this at once. She was so ill and helpless that a more convenient season was awaited. That was nearly ten years ago--and she had not been told yet.

Concealment had not been difficult at first. The girls had, indeed, drifted into the deception almost unconsciously, as it certainly was not necessary to burden the ears of the already sorely afflicted woman with the petty details of the economy and retrenchment on the other side of her door.

If her own luxuries grew fewer, the change was so gradual that the invalid did not notice it, and always her blindness made easy the deception of those about her.

Even the move to another home was accomplished without her realizing it --she was taken to the hospital for a month's treatment, and when the month was ended she was tenderly carried home and laid on her own bed; and she did not know that "home" now was a cheap little flat in Harlem instead of the luxurious house on the avenue where her children were born.

She was too ill to receive visitors, and was therefore all the more dependent on her daughters for entertainment.

She pitied them openly for the grief and care she had brought upon them, and in the next breath congratulated them and herself that at least they had all that money could do to smooth the difficult way. In the face of this, it naturally did not grow any easier for the girls to tell the truth--and they kept silent.

For six years Mrs. Whitmore did not step; then her limbs and back grew stronger, and she began to sit up, and to stand for a moment on her feet. Her daughters now bought the strip of Axminster carpet and laid a path across the bedroom, and another one from the bedroom door to the great chair in the sitting-room, so that her feet might not note the straw matting on the floor and question its being there.

In her own sitting-room at home--which had opened, like this, out of her bedroom--the rugs were soft and the chairs sumptuous with springs and satin damask. One such chair had been saved from the wreck--the one at the end of the strip of carpet.

Day by day and month by month the years passed. The frail little woman walked the Axminster path and sat in the tufted chair. For her there were a china cup and plate, and a cook and maids below to serve. For her the endless sewing over which Katherine and Margaret bent their backs to eke out their scanty income was a picture or a bit of embriodery, designed to while away the time.

As Margaret thought of it it seemed incredible--this tissue of fabrications that enmeshed them; but even as she wondered she knew that the very years that marked its gradual growth made now its strength.

And in a little while would come the end--a very little while, the doctor said.

Margaret tightened her lips and echoed her sister's words: "We mustn't give up--we mustn't!"

Two days later the doctor called. He was a bit out of the old life.

His home, too, had been--and was now, for that matter--on the avenue. He lived with his aunt, whose heir he was, and he was the only one outside of the Whitmore family that knew the house of illusions in which Mrs. Whitmore lived.

His visits to the little Harlem flat had long ceased to have more than a semblance of being professional, and it was an open secret that he wished to make Margaret his wife. Margaret said no, though with a heightened color and a quickened breath--which told at least herself how easily the "no" might have been a "yes."

Dr. Littlejohn was young and poor, and he had only his profession, for all he was heir to one of the richest women on the avenue; and Margaret refused to burden him with what she knew it would mean to marry her. In spite of argument, therefore, and a pair of earnest brown eyes that pleaded even more powerfully, she held to her convictions and continued to say no.

All this, however, did not prevent Dr. Littlejohn from making frequent visits to the Whitmore home, and always his coming meant joy to three weary, troubled hearts. To-day he brought a great handful of pink carnations and dropped them into the lap of the blind woman.

"Sweets to the sweet!" he cried gayly, as he patted the slim hand on the arm of the chair.

"Doctor Ned--you dear boy! Oh, how lovely!" exclaimed Mrs. Whitmore, burying her face in the fragrant flowers. "And, doctor, I want to speak to you," she broke off earnestly. "I want you to talk to Meg and Kathie. Perhaps they will listen to you. I want them to go out more. Tell them, please, that I don't need them all the time now."

"Dear me, how independent we are going to be!" laughed the doctor. "And so we don't need any more attention now, eh?"

"Betty will do."

"Betty?" It was hard, sometimes, for the doctor to remember.

"The maid," explained Mrs. Whitmore; "though, for that matter, there might as well be no maid--the girls never let her do a thing for me."

"No?" returned the doctor easily, sure now of where he stood. "But you don't expect me to interfere in this housekeeping business!"

"Somebody must," urged Mrs. Whitmore. "The girls must leave me more. It isn't as if we were poor and couldn't hire nurses and maids. I should die if it were like that, and I were such a burden."

"Mother, dearest!" broke in Margaret feverishly, with an imploring glance toward her sister and the doctor.

"Oh, by the way," interposed the doctor airily, "it has occurred to me that the very object of my visit to-day is right along the lines of what you ask. I want Miss Margaret to go driving with me. I have a call to make out Washington Heights way."

"Oh, but--" began Margaret, and paused at a gesture from her mother.

"There aren't any 'buts' about it," declared Mrs. Whitmore. "Meg shall go."

"Of course she'll go!" echoed Katherine. And with three against her, Margaret's protests were in vain.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mrs. Whitmore was nervous that night. She could not sleep.

It seemed to her that if she could get up and walk, back and forth, back and forth, she could rest afterward. She had not stepped alone yet, to be sure, since the accident, but, after all, the girls did little more than guide her feet, and she was sure that she could walk alone if she tried.

The more she thought of it the more she longed to test her strength. Just a few steps back and forth, back and forth--then sleep. She was sure she could sleep then. Very quietly, that she might not disturb the sleepers in the bedroom beyond, the blind woman sat up in bed and slipped her feet to the floor.

Within reach were her knit slippers and the heavy shawl always kept at the head of her bed. With trembling hands she put them on and rose upright.

At last she was on her feet, and alone. To a woman who for ten years had depended on others for almost everything but the mere act of breathing, it was joy unspeakable. She stepped once, twice, and again along the side of her bed; then she stopped with a puzzled frown--under her feet was the unyielding, unfamiliar straw matting. She took four more steps, hesitatingly, and with her arms outstretched at full length before her. The next instant she recoiled and caught her breath sharply; her hands had encountered a wall and a window--and there should have been no wall or windows there!

The joy was gone now.

Shaking with fear and weakness, the little woman crept along the wall and felt for something that would tell her that she was still at home. Her feet made no sound, and only her hurried breathing broke the silence.

Through the open door to the sitting-room, and down the wall to the right-on and on she crept.

Here and there a familiar chair or stand met her groping hands and held them hesitatingly for a moment, only to release them to the terror of an unfamiliar corner or window-sill.

The blind woman herself had long since lost all realization of what she was doing. There was only the frenzied longing to find her own. She did not hesitate even at the outer door of the apartment, but turned the key with shaking hands and stepped fearlessly into the hall. The next moment there came a scream and a heavy fall. The Whitmore apartment was just at the head of the stairs, and almost the first step of the blind woman had been off into space.

       *       *       *       *       *

When Mrs. Whitmore regained consciousness she was alone in her own bed.

Out in the sitting-room, Margaret, Katherine, and the doctor talked together in low tones. At last the girls hurried into the kitchen, and the doctor turned and entered the bedroom. With a low ejaculation he hurried forward.

Mrs. Whitmore flung out her arm and clutched his hand; then she lay back on the pillow and closed her eyes.

"Doctor," she whispered, "where am I?"

"At home, in your own bed."

"Where is this place?"

Dr. Littlejohn paled. He sent an anxious glance toward the sitting-room door, though he knew very well that Margaret and Katherine were in the kitchen and could not hear.

"Where is this place?" begged the woman again.

"Why, it--it--is--" The man paused helplessly.

Five thin fingers tightened their clasp on his hand, and the low voice again broke the silence.

"Doctor, did you ever know--did you ever hear that a fall could give back--sight?"

Dr. Littlejohn started and peered into the wan face lying back on the pillow. Its impassiveness reassured him.

"Why, perhaps--once or twice," he returned slowly, falling back into his old position, "though rarely--very rarely."

"But it has happened?"

"Yes, it has happened. There was a case recently in England. The shock and blow released the pressure on the optic nerve; but--"

Something in the face he was watching brought him suddenly forward in his chair. "My dear woman, you don't mean--you can't--"

He did not finish his sentence. Mrs. Whitmore opened her eyes and met his gaze unflinchingly. Then she turned her head.

"Doctor," she said, "that picture on the wall there at the foot of the bed--it doesn't hang quite straight."

"Mrs. Whitmore!" breathed the man incredulously, half rising from his chair.

"Hush! Not yet!" The woman's insistent hand had pulled him back. "Why am I here? Where is this place?"

There was no answer.

"Doctor, you must tell me. I must know."

Again the man hesitated. He noted the flushed cheeks and shaking hands of the woman before him. It was true, she must know; and perhaps, after all, it was best she should know through him. He drew a long breath and plunged straight into the heart of the story.

Five minutes later a glad voice came from the doorway.

"Mother, dearest--then you're awake!" The doctor was conscious of a low- breathed "Hush, don't tell her!" in his ears; then, to his amazement, he saw the woman on the bed turn her head and hold out her hand with the old groping uncertainty of the blind.

"Margaret! It is Margaret, isn't it?"

Days afterward, when the weary, painracked body of the little mother was forever at rest, Margaret lifted her head from her lover's shoulder, where she had been sobbing out her grief.

"Ned, I can't be thankful enough," she cried, "that we kept it from Mother to the end. It's my only comfort. She didn't know."

"And I'm sure she would wish that thought to be a comfort to you, dear," said the doctor gently. "I am sure she would."