Chapter II. A Runaway Couple
 

"Courage mounteth with occasion."

For two years Lovey Mary cared for Tommy: she bathed him and dressed him, taught him to walk, and kissed his bumps to make them well; she sewed for him and nursed him by day, and slept with him in her tired arms at night. And Tommy, with the inscrutable philosophy of childhood, accepted his little foster-mother and gave her his all.

One bright June afternoon the two were romping in the home yard under the beech-trees. Lovey Mary lay in the grass, while Tommy threw handfuls of leaves in her face, laughing with delight at her grimaces. Presently the gate clicked, and some one came toward them.

"Good land! is that my kid?" said a woman's voice. "Come here, Tom, and kiss your mother."

Lovey Mary, sitting up, found Kate Rider, in frills and ribbons, looking with surprise at the sturdy child before her.

Tommy objected violently to this sudden overture and declined positively to acknowledge the relationship. In fact, when Kate attempted to pull him to her, he fled for protection to Lovey Mary and cast belligerent glances at the intruder.

Kate laughed.

"Oh, you needn't be so scary; you might as well get used to me, for I am going to take you home with me. I bet he's a corker, ain't he, Lovey? He used to bawl all night. Sometimes I'd have to spank him two or three times."

Lovey Mary clasped the child closer and looked up in dumb terror. Was Tommy to be taken from her? Tommy to go away with Kate?

"Great Scott!" exclaimed Kate, exasperated at the girl's manner. "You are just as ugly and foolish as you used to be. I'm going in to see Miss Bell."

Lovey Mary waited until she was in the house, then she stole noiselessly around to the office window. The curtain blew out across her cheek, and the swaying lilacs seemed to be trying to count the china buttons on her back; but she stood there with staring eyes and parted lips, and held her breath to listen.

"Of course," Miss Bell was saying, measuring her words with due precision, "if you feel that you can now support your child and that it is your duty to take him, we cannot object. There are many other children waiting to come into the home. And yet--" Miss Bell's voice sounded human and unnatural--"yet I wish he could stay. Have you thought, Kate, of your responsibility toward him, of--"

"Oh! Ough!" shrieked Tommy from the playground, in tones of distress.

Lovey Mary left her point of vantage and rushed to the rescue. She found him emitting frenzied yells, while a tiny stream of blood trickled down his chin.

"It was my little duck," he gasped as soon as he was able to speak. "I was tissin' him, an' he bited me."

At thought of the base ingratitude on the part of the duck, Tommy wailed anew. Lovey Mary led him to the hydrant and bathed the injured lip, while she soothed his feelings. Suddenly a wave of tenderness swept over her. She held his chubby face up to hers and said fervently:

"Tommy, do you love me?"

"Yes," said Tommy, with a reproachful eye on the duck. "Yes; I yuv to yuv. I don't yuv to tiss, though!"

"But me, Tommy, me. Do you love me?"

"Yes," he answered gravely, "dollar an' a half."

"Whose little boy are you?"

"Yuvey's 'e boy."

Satisfied with this catechism, she put Tommy in care of another girl and went back to her post at the window. Miss Bell was talking again.

"I will have him ready to-morrow afternoon when you come. His clothes are all in good condition. I only hope, Kate, that you will care for him as tenderly as Mary has. I am afraid he will miss her sadly."

"If he's like me, he'll forget about her in two or three days," answered the other voice. "It always was 'out of sight, out of mind' with me."

Miss Bell's answer was indistinct, and in a few minutes Lovey Mary heard the hall door close behind them. She shook her fists until the lilacs trembled. "She sha'n't have him!" she whispered fiercely. "She sha'n't let him grow up wicked like she is. I won't let him go. I'll hide him, I'll--"

Suddenly she grew very still, and for a long time crouched motionless behind the bushes. The problem that faced her had but one solution, and Lovey Mary had found it.

The next morning when the sun climbed over the tree-tops and peered into the dormitory windows he found that somebody else had made an early rise. Lovey Mary was sitting by a wardrobe making her last will and testament. From the neatly folded pile of linen she selected a few garments and tied them into a bundle. Then she took out a cigar-box and gravely contemplated the contents. There were two narrow hair- ribbons which had evidently been one wide ribbon, a bit of rock crystal, four paper dolls, a soiled picture-book with some other little girl's name scratched out on the cover, and two shining silver dollars. These composed Lovey Mary's worldly possessions. She tied the money in her handkerchief and put it in her pocket, then got up softly and slipped about among the little white beds, distributing her treasures.

"I'm mad at Susie," she whispered, pausing before a tousled head; "I hate to give her the nicest thing I've got. But she's just crazy 'bout picture-books."

The curious sun climbed yet a little higher and saw Lovey Mary go back to her own bed, and, rolling Tommy's clothes around her own bundle, gather the sleeping child in her arms and steal quietly out of the room. Then the sun got too high up in the heavens to watch little runaway orphan girls. Nobody saw her steal through the deserted playroom, down the clean bare steps, which she had helped to wear away, and out through the yard to the coal-shed. Here she got the reluctant Tommy into his clothes, and tied on his little round straw hat, so absurdly like her own.

"Is we playin' hie-spy, Yuvey?" asked the mystified youngster.

"Yes, Tommy," she whispered, "and we are going a long way to hide. You are my little boy now, and you must love me better than anything in the world. Say it, Tommy; say, 'I love you better 'n anybody in the whole world.'"

"Will I det on de rollin' honor?" asked Tommy, thinking he was learning his golden text.

But Lovey Mary had forgotten her question. She was taking a farewell look at the home, every nook and corner of which had suddenly grown dear. Already she seemed a thing apart, one having no right to its shelter and protection. She turned to where Tommy was playing with some sticks in the corner, and bidding him not to stir or speak until her return, she slipped back up the walk and into the kitchen. Swiftly and quietly she made a fire in the stove and filled the kettle with water. Then she looked about for something more she might do. On the table lay the grocery book with a pencil attached. She thought a moment, then wrote laboriously under the last order: "Miss Bell I will take kere Tommy pleas don't be mad." Then she softly closed the door behind her.

A few minutes later she lifted Tommy out of the low shed window, and hurried him down the alley and out into the early morning streets. At the corner they took a car, and Tommy knelt by the window and absorbed the sights with rapt attention; to him the adventure was beginning brilliantly. Even Lovey Mary experienced a sense of exhilaration when she paid their fare out of one of the silver dollars. She knew the conductor was impressed, because he said, "You better watch Buddy's hat, ma'am." That "ma'am" pleased her profoundly; it caused her unconsciously to assume Miss Bell's tone and manner as she conversed with the back of Tommy's head.

"We'll go out on the avenue," she said. "We'll go from house to house till I get work. 'Most anybody would be glad to get a handy girl that can cook and wash and sew, only--I ain't very big, and then there's you."

"Ain't that a big house?" shouted Tommy, half way out of the window.

"Yes; don't talk so loud. That's the court-house."

"Where they make court-plaster at?" inquired Tommy shrilly.

Lovey Mary glanced around uneasily. She hoped the old man in the corner had not heard this benighted remark. All went well until the car reached the terminal station. Here Tommy refused to get off. In vain Lovey Mary coaxed and threatened.

"It'll take us right back to the home," she pleaded. "Be a good boy and come with Lovey. I'll buy you something nice."

Tommy remained obdurate. He believed in letting well enough alone. The joys of a street-car ride were present and tangible; "something nice" was vague, unsatisfying.

"Don't yer little brother want to git off?" asked the conductor, sympathetically.

"No, sir," said Lovey Mary, trying to maintain her dignity while she struggled with her charge. "If you please, sir, would you mind holding his feet while I loosen his hands?"

Tommy, shrieking indignant protests, was borne from the car and deposited on the sidewalk.

"Don't you dare get limber!" threatened Lovey Mary. "If you do I'll spank you right here on the street. Stand up! Straighten out your legs! Tommy! do you hear me?"

Tommy might have remained limp indefinitely had not a hurdy-gurdy opportunely arrived on the scene. It is true that he would go only in the direction of the music, but Lovey Mary was delighted to have him go at all. When at last they were headed for the avenue, Tommy caused another delay.

"I want my ducky," he announced.

The words brought consternation to Lovey Mary. She had fearfully anticipated them from the moment of leaving the home.

"I'll buy you a 'tend-like duck," she said.

"No; I want a sure-'nough ducky; I want mine."

Lovey Mary was exasperated. "Well, you can't have yours. I can't get it for you, and you might as well hush."

His lips trembled, and two large tears rolled down his round cheeks. When he was injured he was irresistible. Lovey Mary promptly surrendered.

"Don't cry, baby boy! Lovey'll get you one someway."

For some time the quest of the duck was fruitless. The stores they entered were wholesale houses for the most part, where men were rolling barrels about or stacking skins and hides on the sidewalk.

"Do you know what sort of a store they sell ducks at?" asked Lovey Mary of a colored man who was sweeping out an office.

"Ducks!" repeated the negro, grinning at the queerly dressed children in their round straw hats. "Name o' de Lawd! What do you all want wif ducks?"

Lovey Mary explained.

"Wouldn't a kitten do jes as well?" he asked kindly.

"I want my ducky," whined Tommy, showing signs of returning storm.

"I don' see no way 'cept'n' gwine to de mahket. Efen you tek de cah you kin ride plumb down dere."

Recent experience had taught Lovey Mary to be wary of street-cars, so they walked. At the market they found some ducks. The desired objects were hanging in a bunch with their limp heads tied together. Further inquiry, however, discovered some live ones in a coop.

"They're all mama ducks," objected Tommy. "I want a baby ducky. I want my little ducky!"

When he found he could do no better, he decided to take one of the large ones. Then he said he was hungry, so he and Mary took turn about holding it while the other ate "po' man's pickle" and wienerwurst.

It was two o'clock by the time they reached the avenue, and by four they were foot-sore and weary, but they trudged bravely along from house to house asking for work. As dusk came on, the houses, which a few squares back had been tall and imposing, seemed to be getting smaller and more insignificant. Lovey Mary felt secure as long as she was on the avenue. She did not know that the avenue extended for many miles and that she had reached the frayed and ragged end of it. She and Tommy passed under a bridge, and after that the houses all seemed to behave queerly. Some faced one way, some another, and crisscross between them, in front of them, and behind them ran a network of railroad tracks.

"What's the name of this street?" asked Lovey Mary of a small, bare- footed girl.

"'T ain't no street," answered the little girl, gazing with undisguised amazement at the strange-looking couple; "this here is the Cabbage Patch."