The Gate of the Giant Scissors by Annie Fellows Johnston
Chapter VII. Old "Number Thirty-One."
No sooner had the gate closed upon the subdued little ghost, shorn now of its terrors, than the old man strode forward to the place where Brossard crouched in the straw, still crossing himself. This sudden appearance of his master at such a time only added to Brossard's fright. As for Jules, his knees shook until he could scarcely stand.
Henri, his curiosity lending him courage, cautiously opened the kitchen door to peer out again. Emboldened by the silence, he flung the door wide open, sending a broad stream of lamplight across the little group in the barnyard. Without a word of greeting monsieur laid hold of the trembling Jules and drew him nearer the door. Throwing open the child's blouse, he examined the thin little shoulders, which shrank away as if to dodge some expected blow.
"Go to my room," was all the old man said to him. Then he turned fiercely towards Brossard. His angry tones reached Jules even after he had mounted the stairs and closed the door. The child crept close to the cheerful fire, and, crouching down on the rug, waited in a shiver of nervousness for his uncle's step on the stair.
Meanwhile, Joyce, hurrying home all a-tingle with the excitement of her adventure, wondered anxiously what would be the result of it. Under cover of the dusk she slipped into the house unobserved. There was barely time to dress for dinner. When she made her appearance monsieur complimented her unusually red cheeks.
"Doubtless mademoiselle has had a fine promenade," he said.
"No," answered Joyce, with a blush that made them redder still, and that caused madame to look at her so keenly that she felt those sharp eyes must be reading her inmost thoughts. It disturbed her so that she upset the salt, spilled a glass of water, and started to eat her soup with a fork. She glanced in an embarrassed way from madame to monsieur, and gave a nervous little laugh.
"The little mademoiselle has been in mischief again," remarked monsieur, with a smile. "What is it this time?"
The smile was so encouraging that Joyce's determination not to tell melted away, and she began a laughable account of the afternoon's adventure. At first both the old people looked shocked. Monsieur shrugged his shoulders and pulled his gray beard thoughtfully. Madame threw up her hands at the end of each sentence like horrified little exclamation points. But when Joyce had told the entire story neither of them had a word of blame, because their sympathies were so thoroughly aroused for Jules.
"I shall ask Monsieur Ciseaux to allow the child to visit here sometimes," said madame, her kind old heart full of pity for the motherless little fellow; "and I shall also explain that it was only your desire to save Jules from ill treatment that caused you to do such an unusual thing. Otherwise he might think you too bold and too--well, peculiar, to be a fit playmate for his little nephew."
"Oh, was it really so improper and horrid of me, madame?" asked Joyce, anxiously.
Madame hesitated. "The circumstances were some excuse," she finally admitted. "But I certainly should not want a little daughter of mine to be out after dark by herself on such a wild errand. In this country a little girl would not think it possible to do such a thing."
Joyce's face was very sober as she arose to leave the room. "I do wish that I could be proper like little French girls," she said, with a sigh.
Madame drew her towards her, kissing her on both cheeks. It was such an unusual thing for madame to do that Joyce could scarcely help showing some surprise. Feeling that the caress was an assurance that she was not in disgrace, as she had feared, she ran up-stairs, so light-hearted that she sang on the way.
As the door closed behind her, monsieur reached for his pipe, saying, as he did so, "She has a heart of gold, the little mademoiselle."
"Yes," assented madame; "but she is a strange little body, so untamed and original. I am glad that her cousin returns soon, for the responsibility is too great for my old shoulders. One never knows what she will do next."
Perhaps it was for this reason that madame took Joyce with her when she went to Tours next day. She felt safer when the child was in her sight.
"It is so much nicer going around with you than Marie," said Joyce, giving madame an affectionate little pat, as they stood before the entrance of a great square building, awaiting admission. "You take me to places that I have never seen before. What place is this?" She stooped to read the inscription on the door-plate:
"LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR."
Before her question could be answered, the door was opened by a wrinkled old woman, in a nodding white cap, who led them into a reception-room at the end of the hall.
"Ask for Sister Denisa," said madame, "and give her my name."
The old woman shuffled out of the room, and madame, taking a small memorandum book from her pocket, began to study it. Joyce sat looking about her with sharp, curious glances. She wondered if these little sisters of the poor were barefoot beggar girls, who went about the streets with ragged shawls over their heads, and with baskets in their hands. In her lively imagination she pictured row after row of such unfortunate children, marching out in the morning, empty-handed, and creeping back at night with the results of the day's begging. She did not like to ask about them, however, and, in a few minutes, her curiosity was satisfied without the use of questions.
Sister Denisa entered the room. She was a beautiful woman, in the plain black habit and white head-dress of a sister of charity.
"Oh, they're nuns!" exclaimed Joyce, in a disappointed whisper. She had been hoping to see the beggar girls. She had often passed the convent in St. Symphorien, and caught glimpses of the nuns, through the high barred gate. She had wondered how it must feel to be shut away from the world; to see only the patient white faces of the other sisters, and to walk with meekly folded hands and downcast eyes always in the same old paths.
But Sister Denisa was different from the nuns that she had seen before. Some inward joy seemed to shine through her beautiful face and make it radiant. She laughed often, and there was a happy twinkle in her clear, gray eyes. When she came into the room, she seemed to bring the outdoors with her, there was such sunshine and fresh air in the cheeriness of her greeting.
Madame had come to visit an old pensioner of hers who was in the home. After a short conversation, Sister Denisa rose to lead the way to her. "Would the little mademoiselle like to go through the house while madame is engaged?" asked the nun.
"Oh, yes, thank you," answered Joyce, who had found by this time that this home was not for little beggar girls, but for old men and women. Joyce had known very few old people in her short life, except her Grandmother Ware; and this grandmother was one of those dear, sunny old souls, whom everybody loves to claim, whether they are in the family or not. Some of Joyce's happiest days had been spent in her grandmother's country home, and the host of happy memories that she had stored up during those visits served to sweeten all her after life.
Old age, to Joyce, was associated with the most beautiful things that she had ever known: the warmest hospitality, the tenderest love, the cheeriest home-life. Strangers were in the old place now, and Grandmother Ware was no longer living, but, for her sake, Joyce held sacred every wrinkled face set round with snow-white hair, just as she looked tenderly on all old-fashioned flowers, because she had seen them first in her grandmother's garden.
Sister Denisa led the way into a large, sunny room, and Joyce looked around eagerly. It was crowded with old men. Some were sitting idly on the benches around the walls, or dozing in chairs near the stove. Some smoked, some gathered around the tables where games of checkers and chess were going on; some gazed listlessly out of the windows. It was good to see how dull faces brightened, as Sister Denisa passed by with a smile for this group, a cheery word for the next. She stopped to brush the hair back from the forehead of an old paralytic, and pushed another man gently aside, when he blocked the way, with such a sweet-voiced "Pardon, little father," that it was like a caress. One white-haired old fellow, in his second childhood, reached out and caught at her dress, as she passed by.
Crossing a porch where were more old men sitting sadly alone, or walking sociably up and down in the sunshine, Sister Denisa passed along a court and held the door open for Joyce to enter another large room.
"Here is the rest of our family," she said. "A large one, is it not? Two hundred poor old people that nobody wants, and nobody cares what becomes of."
Joyce looked around the room and saw on every hand old age that had nothing beautiful, nothing attractive. "Were they beggars when they were little?" she asked.
"No, indeed," answered the nun. "That is the saddest part of it to me. Nearly all these poor creatures you see here once had happy homes of their own. That pitiful old body over by the stove, shaking with palsy, was once a gay, rich countess; the invalid whom madame visits was a marquise. It would break your heart, mademoiselle, to hear the stories of some of these people, especially those who have been cast aside by ungrateful children, to whom their support has become a burden. Several of these women have prosperous grandchildren, to whom we have appealed in vain. There is no cruelty that hurts me like such cruelty to old age."
Just then another nun came into the room, said something to Sister Denisa in a low voice, and glided out like a silent shadow, her rosary swaying back and forth with every movement of her clinging black skirts. "I am needed up-stairs," said Sister Denisa, turning to Joyce. "Will you come up and see the sleeping-rooms?"
They went up the freshly scrubbed steps to a great dormitory, where, against the bare walls, stood long rows of narrow cots. They were all empty, except one at the farthest end, where an old woman lay with her handkerchief across her eyes.
"Poor old Number Thirty-one!" said Sister Denisa. "She seems to feel her unhappy position more than any one in the house. The most of them are thankful for mere bodily comfort,--satisfied with food and shelter and warmth; but she is continually pining for her old home surroundings. Will you not come and speak to her in English? She married a countryman of yours, and lived over thirty years in America. She speaks of that time as the happiest in her life. I am sure that you can give her a great deal of pleasure."
"Is she ill?" said Joyce, timidly drawing back as the nun started across the room.
"No, I think not," was the answer. "She says she can't bear to be herded in one room with all those poor creatures, like a flock of sheep, with nothing to do but wait for death. She has always been accustomed to having a room of her own, so that her greatest trial is in having no privacy. She must eat, sleep, and live with a hundred other old women always around her. She comes up here to bed whenever she can find the slightest ache for an excuse, just to be by herself. I wish that we could give her a little spot that she could call her own, and shut the door on, and feel alone. But it cannot be," she added, with a sigh. "It taxes our strength to the utmost to give them all even a bare home."
By this time they had reached the cot, over the head of which hung a card, bearing the number "Thirty-one."
"Here is a little friend to see you, grandmother," said Sister Denisa, placing a chair by the bedside, and stooping to smooth back the locks of silvery hair that had strayed out from under the coarse white night-cap. Then she passed quickly on to her other duties, leaving Joyce to begin the conversation as best she could. The old woman looked at her sharply with piercing dark eyes, which must have been beautiful in their youth. The intense gaze embarrassed Joyce, and to break the silence she hurriedly stammered out the first thing that came to her mind.
"Are you ill, to-day?"
The simple question had a startling effect on the old woman. She raised herself on one elbow, and reached out for Joyce's hand, drawing her eagerly nearer. "Ah," she cried, "you speak the language that my husband taught me to love, and the tongue my little children lisped; but they are all dead now, and I've come back to my native land to find no home but the one that charity provides."
Her words ended in a wail, and she sank back on her pillow. "And this is my birthday," she went on. "Seventy-three years old, and a pauper, cast out to the care of strangers."
The tears ran down her wrinkled cheeks, and her mouth trembled pitifully. Joyce was distressed; she looked around for Sister Denisa, but saw that they were alone, they two, in the great bare dormitory, with its long rows of narrow white cots. The child felt utterly helpless to speak a word of comfort, although she was so sorry for the poor lonely old creature that she began to cry softly to herself. She leaned over, and taking one of the thin, blue-veined hands in hers, patted it tenderly with her plump little fingers.
"I ought not to complain," said the trembling voice, still broken by sobs. "We have food and shelter and sunshine and the sisters. Ah, that little Sister Denisa, she is indeed a smile of God to us all. But at seventy-three one wants more than a cup of coffee and a clean handkerchief. One wants something besides a bed and being just Number Thirty-one among two hundred other paupers."
"I am so sorry!" exclaimed Joyce, with such heartfelt earnestness that the sobbing woman felt the warmth of her sympathy, and looked up with a brighter face.
"Talk to me," she exclaimed. "It has been so long since I have heard your language."
While she obeyed Joyce kept thinking of her Grandmother Ware. She could see her outdoors among her flowers, the dahlias and touch-me-nots, the four-o'clocks and the cinnamon roses, taking such pride and pleasure in her sweet posy beds. She could see her beside the little table on the shady porch, making tea for some old neighbor who had dropped in to spend the afternoon with her. Or she was asleep in her armchair by the western window, her Bible in her lap and a smile on her sweet, kindly face. How dreary and empty the days must seem to poor old Number Thirty-one, with none of these things to brighten them.
Joyce could scarcely keep the tears out of her voice while she talked. Later, when Sister Denisa came back, Joyce was softly humming a lullaby, and Number Thirty-one, with a smile on her pitiful old face, was sleeping like a little child.
"You will come again, dear mademoiselle," said Sister Denisa, as she kissed the child good-by at the door. "You have brought a blessing, may you carry one away as well!"
Joyce looked inquiringly at madame. "You may come whenever you like," was the answer. "Marie can bring you whenever you are in town."
Joyce was so quiet on the way home that madame feared the day had been too fatiguing for her. "No," said Joyce, soberly. "I was only thinking about poor old Number Thirty-one. I am sorrier for her than I was for Jules. I used to think that there was nothing so sad as being a little child without any father or mother, and having to live in an asylum. I've often thought how lovely it would be to go around and find a beautiful home for every little orphan in the world. But I believe, now, that it is worse to be old that way. Old people can't play together, and they haven't anything to look forward to, and it makes them so miserable to remember all the things they have had and lost. If I had enough money to adopt anybody, I would adopt some poor old grandfather or grandmother and make'm happy all the rest of their days."