Chapter XII. Reaction
 

"Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie."

When the paint and powder had been washed off, and Tommy had with difficulty been extracted from his new trousers and put to bed, Lovey Mary sat before the little stove and thought it all over. It had been the very happiest time of her whole life. How nice it was to be praised and made much of! Mrs. Wiggs had started it by calling everybody's attention to her good points; then Mrs. Redding had sought her out and shown her continued attention; to-night was the great climax. Her name had been on every tongue, her praises sung on every side, and Billy Wiggs had given her everything he got off the Christmas tree.

"I wisht I deserved it all," she said, as she got up to pull the blanket closer about Tommy. "I've tried to be good. I guess I am better in some ways, but not in all--not in all." She knelt by the bed and held Tommy's hand to her cheek. "Sometimes he looks like Kate when he's asleep like this. I wonder if she's got well? I wonder if she ever misses him?"

For a long time she knelt there, holding the warm little hand in hers. The play, the success, the applause, were all forgotten, and in their place was a shame, a humiliation, that brought the hot tears to her eyes.

"I ain't what they think I am," she whispered brokenly. "I'm a mean, bad girl after all. The canker-worm's there. Miss Viny said there never would be a sure-'nough beautiful flower till the canker-worm was killed. But I want to be good; I want to be what they think I am!"

Again and again the old thoughts of Kate rose to taunt and madden her. But a new power was at work; it brought new thoughts of Kate, of Kate sick and helpless, of Kate without friends and lonely, calling for her baby. Through the night the battle raged within her. When the first gray streaks showed through the shutters, Lovey Mary cleaned her room and put on her Sunday dress. "I'll be a little late to the factory," she explained to Miss Hazy at breakfast, "for I've got to go on a' errand."

It was an early hour for visitors at the city hospital, but when Lovey Mary stated her business she was shown to Kate's ward. At the far end of the long room, with her bandaged head turned to the wall, lay Kate. When the nurse spoke to her she turned her head painfully, and looked at them listlessly with great black eyes that stared forth from a face wasted and wan from suffering.

"Kate!" said Lovey Mary, leaning across the bed and touching her hand. "Kate, don't you know me?"

The pale lips tightened over the prominent white teeth. "Well, I swan, Lovey Mary, where'd you come from?" Not waiting for an answer, she continued querulously: "Say, can't you get me out of this hole someway? But even if I had the strength to crawl, I wouldn't have no place to go. Can't you take me away? Anywhere would do."

Lovey Mary's spirits fell; she had nerved herself for a great sacrifice, had decided to do her duty at any cost; but thinking of it beforehand in her little garret room, with Tommy's hand in hers, and Kate Rider a mere abstraction, was very different from facing the real issue, with the old, selfish, heartless Kate in flesh and blood before her. She let go of Kate's hand.

"Don't you want to know about Tommy?" she asked. "I've come to say I was sorry I run off with him."

"It was mighty nervy in you. I knew you'd take good care of him, though. But say! you can get me away from this, can't you? I ain't got a friend in the world nor a cent of money. But I ain't going to stay here, where there ain't nothing to do, and I get so lonesome I 'most die. I'd rather set on a street corner and run a hand-organ. Where are you and Tommy at?"

"We are in the Cabbage Patch," said Lovey Mary, with the old repulsion strong upon her.

"Where?"

"The Cabbage Patch. It ain't your sort of a place, Kate. The folks are good and honest, but they are poor and plain. You'd laugh at 'em."

Kate turned her eyes to the window and was silent a moment before she said slowly:

"I ain't got much right to laugh at nobody. I'd be sorter glad to get with good people again. The other sort's all right when you're out for fun, but when you're down on your luck they ain't there."

Lovey Mary, perplexed and troubled, looked at her gravely.

"Haven't you got any place you could go to?"

Kate shook her head. "Nobody would be willing to look after me and nurse me. Lovey,"--she stretched her thin hand across to her entreatingly,--"take me home with you! I heard the doctor tell the nurse he couldn't do nothing more for me. I can't die here shut up with all these sick people. Take me wherever you are at. I'll try not to be no trouble, and--I want to keep straight."

Tears were in her eyes, and her lips trembled. There was a queer little spasm at Lovey Mary's heart. The canker-worm was dead.

When a carriage drove up to Miss Hazy's door and the driver carried in a pale girl with a bandaged head, it caused untold commotion.

"Do you s'pose Mary's a-bringin' home a smallpox patient?" asked Miss Hazy, who was ever prone to look upon the tragic side.

"Naw!" said Chris, who was peeping under the window-curtain; "it looks more like she's busted her crust."

In less than an hour every neighbor had been in to find out what was going on. Mrs. Wiggs constituted herself mistress of ceremonies. She had heard the whole story from the overburdened Mary, and was now prepared to direct public opinion in the way it should go.

"Jes another boarder for Miss Hazy," she explained airily to Mrs. Eichorn. "Lovey Mary was so well pleased with her boardin'-house, she drummed it up among her friends. This here lady has been at the hospittal. She got knocked over by a wagon out there near the factory, an' it run into celebrated concussion. The nurse told Lovey Mary this mornin' it was somethin' like information of the brain. What we're all goin' to do is to try to get her well. I'm a-goin' home now to git her a nice dinner, an' I jes bet some of you'll see to it that she gits a good supper. You kin jes bank on us knowin' how to give a stranger a welcome!"

It was easy to establish a precedent in the Cabbage Patch. When a certain course of action was once understood to be the proper thing, every resident promptly fell in line. The victim of "celebrated concussion" was overwhelmed with attention. She lay in a pink wrapper in Miss Hazy's kitchen, and received the homage of the neighborhood. Meanwhile Lovey Mary worked extra hours at the factory and did sewing at night to pay for Kate's board.

In spite, however, of the kind treatment and the regular administration of Miss Viny's herbs and Mrs. Wiggs's yellowroot, Kate grew weaker day by day. One stormy night when Lovey Mary came home from the factory she found her burning with fever and talking excitedly. Miss Hazy had gotten her up-stairs, and now stood helplessly wringing her hands in the doorway.

"Lor', Lovey Mary! she's cuttin' up scandalous," complained the old lady. "I done ever'thing I knowed how; I ironed the sheets to make 'em warm, an' I tried my best to git her to swallow a mustard cocktail. I wanted her to lemme put a fly-blister on to her head, too, but she won't do nothin'."

"All right, Miss Hazy," said Lovey Mary, hanging her dripping coat on a nail. "I'll stay with her now. Don't talk, Kate! Try to be still."

"But I can't, Lovey. I'm going to die, and I ain't fit to die. I've been so bad and wicked, I'm 'fraid to go, Lovey. What'll I do? What'll I do?"

In vain the girl tried to soothe her. Her hysteria increased; she cried and raved and threw herself from side to side.

"Kate! Kate!" pleaded Lovey Mary, trying to hold her arms, "don't cry so. God'll forgive you. He will, if you are sorry."

"But I'm afraid," shuddered Kate. "I've been so bad. Heaven knows I'm sorry, but it's too late! Too late!" Another paroxysm seized her, and her cries burst forth afresh.

Mary, in desperation, rushed from the room. "Tommy!" she called softly down the steps.

The small boy was sitting on the stairs, in round-eyed wonder at what was going on.

"Tommy," said Lovey Mary, picking him up, "the sick lady feels so bad! Go in and give her a love, darling. Pet her cheeks and hug her like you do me. Tell her she's a pretty mama. Tell her you love her."

Tommy trotted obediently into the low room and climbed on the bed. He put his plump cheek against the thin one, and whispered words of baby- love. Kate's muscles relaxed as her arms folded about him. Gradually her sobs ceased and her pulse grew faint and fainter. Outside, the rain and sleet beat on the cracked window-pane, but a peace had entered the dingy little room. Kate received the great summons with a smile, for in one fleeting moment she had felt for the first and last time the blessed sanctity of motherhood.