Michael O'Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter X. The Wheel of Life
"What are your plans for this summer, Leslie?" asked Mr. Winton over his paper at breakfast.
"The real question is, what are yours?"
"I have none," said Mr. Winton. "I can't see my way to making any for myself. Between us, strictly, Swain has been hard hit. He gave me my chance in life. It isn't in my skin to pack up and leave for the sea-shore or the mountains on the results of what he helped me to, and allow him to put up his fight alone. If you understood, you'd be ashamed of me if I did, Leslie."
"But I do understand, Daddy!" cried the girl. "What makes you think I don't? All my life you've been telling me how you love Mr. Swain and what a splendid big thing he did for you when you were young. Is the war making business awfully hard for you men?"
"Close my girl," said Mr. Winton. "Bed rock close!"
"That is what cramps Mr. Swain?" she continued.
"It is what cramps all of us," said Mr. Winton. "It hit him with peculiar force because he had made bad investments. He was running light anyway in an effort to recoup. All of us are on a tension brought about by the result of political changes, to which we were struggling to adjust ourselves, when the war began working greater hardships and entailing millions of loss and expenses."
"I see, and that's why I said the real question was, 'what are your plans?'" explained Leslie, "because when I find out, if perchance they should involve staying on the job this summer, why I wanted to tell you that I'm on the job too. I've thought out the grandest scheme."
"Yes, Leslie? Tell me!" said Mr. Winton.
"It's like this," said Leslie. "Everybody is economizing, shamelessly--and that's a bully word, Daddy, for in most instances it is shameless. Open faced 'Lord save me and my wife, and my son John and his wife.' In our women's clubs and lectures, magazines and sermons, we've had a steady dose all winter of hard times, and economy, and I've tried to make my friends see that their efforts at economy are responsible for the very hardest crux of the hard times."
"You mean, Leslie--?" suggested Mr. Winton eagerly.
"I mean all of us quit using eggs, dealers become frightened, eggs soar higher. Economize on meat, packers buy less, meat goes up. All of us discharge our help, army of unemployed swells by millions. It works two ways and every friend I've got is economizing for herself, and with every stroke for herself she is weakening her nation's financial position and putting a bigger burden on the man she is trying to help."
"Well Leslie--" cried her father.
"The time has come for women to find out what it is all about, then put their shoulders to the wheel of life and push. But before we gain enough force to start with any momentum, women must get together and decide what they want, what they are pushing for."
"Have you decided what you are pushing for?"
"Unalterably!" cried the girl.
"And what is it?" asked her father.
"My happiness! My joy in life!" she exclaimed.
"And exactly in what do you feel your happiness consists, Leslie?" he asked.
"You and Douglas! My home and my men and what they imply!" she answered instantly. "As I figure it, it's homes that count, Daddy. If the nation prospers, the birth rate of Americans has got to keep up, or soon the immigrants will be in control everywhere, as they are in places, right now. Births imply homes. Homes suggest men to support them, women to control them. If the present unrest resolves itself into a personal question, so far as the women are concerned at least, if you are going to get to primal things, whether she realizes it or no, what each woman really wants she learns, as Nellie Minturn learned when she took her naked soul into the swamp and showed it to her God--what each woman wants is her man, her cave, and her baby. If the world is to prosper, that is woman's work, why don't you men who are doing big things realize it, and do yourselves what women are going to be forced from home to do, mighty soon now, if you don't!"
"Well Leslie!" cried Mr. Winton.
"You said that before Daddy!" exclaimed the girl. "Yet what you truly want of a woman is a home and children. Children imply to all men what I am to you. If some men have not reared their children so that they receive from them what you get from me, it is time for the men to realize this, and change their methods of rearing their daughters and sons. A home should mean to every man what your home does to you. If all men do not get from their homes what you do, in most cases it is their own fault. Of course I know there are women so abominably obsessed with self, they refuse to become mothers, and prefer a cafe, with tangoing between courses, to a home; such women should have first the ducking stool, and if that isn't efficacious, extermination; they are a disgrace to our civilization and the weakest spot we have. They are at the bottom of the present boiling discontent of women who really want to be home loving, home keeping. They are directly responsible for the fathers, sons, brothers, and lovers with two standards of morals. A man reared in the right kind of a home, by a real mother, who goes into other homes of the same kind, ruled by similar mothers, when he leaves his, and marries the right girl and establishes for himself a real home, is not going to go wrong. It is the sons, lovers, and husbands of the women who refuse home and children, and carry their men into a perpetual round of what they deem pleasure in their youth, who find life desolate when age begins to come, and who instantly rebel strongest against the very conditions they have made. I've been listening to you all my life, Daddy, and remembering mother, reading, thinking, and watching for what really pays, and believe me, I've found out. I gave Nellie Minturn the best in my heart the other day, but you should see what I got back. Horrors, Daddy! Just plain horrors! I said to Douglas that night when I read him the letter I afterward showed you, that if, as she suggested, I was 'ever faintly tempted to neglect home life for society,' in her I would have all the 'horrible example' I'd ever need, and rest assured I shall."
"Poor woman!" exclaimed Mr. Winton.
"Exactly!" cried Leslie. "And the poorest thing about it is that she is not to blame in the least. You and my mother could have made the same kind of a woman of me. If you had fed me cake instead of bread; if you had given me candy instead of fruit; if you had taken me to the show instead of entertaining me at home; if you had sent me to summer resorts instead of summering with me in the country, you'd have had another Nellie on your hands. The world is full of Nellies, but where one woman flees too strict and monotonous a home, to make a Nellie out of herself, ten are taken out and deliberately moulded, drilled and fashioned into Nellies by their own parents. I have lain awake at nights figuring this, Daddy; some woman is urging me every day to join different movements, and I've been forced to study this out. I know the cause of the present unrest among women."
"And it is--?" suggested Mr. Winton.
"It is the rebound from the pioneer lives of our grandmothers! They and their mothers were at one extreme; we are at the widest sweep of the other. They were forced to enter the forest and in most cases defend themselves from savages and animals; to work without tools, to live with few comforts. In their determination to save their children from hardships, they lost sense, ballast and reason. They have saved them to such an extent they have lost them. By the very method of their rearing, they have robbed their children of love for, and interest in, home life, and with their own hands sent them to cafes and dance halls, when they should be at their homes training their children for the fashioning of future homes. I tell you, Daddy----"
"Leslie, tell me this," interposed Mr. Winton. "Did you get any small part of what you have been saying to me, from me? Do you feel what I have tried to teach you, and the manner in which I have tried to rear you, have put your love for me into your heart and such ideas as you are propounding into your head?"
"Of course, Daddy!" cried the girl. "Who else? Mother was dear and wonderful, but I scarcely remember her. What you put into the growth of me, that is what is bound to come out, when I begin to live independently."
"This is the best moment of my life!" said Mr. Winton. "From your birth you have been the better part of me, to me; and with all my heart I have tried to fashion you into such a woman for a future home, as your mother began, and you have completed for me. Other things have failed me; I count you my success, Leslie!"
"Oh Daddy!" cried the happy girl.
"Now go back to our start," said Mr. Winton. "You have plans for the summer, of course! I realized that at the beginning. Are you ready to tell me?"
"I am ready to ask you," she said.
"Thank you," said Mr. Winton. "I appreciate the difference. Surely a man does enjoy counting for something with his women."
"Spoiled shamelessly, dearest, that's what you are," said Leslie. "A spoiled, pampered father! But to conclude. Mr. Swain helped you. Pay back, Daddy, no matter what the cost; pay back. You help him, I'll help you! My idea was this: for weeks I've foreseen that you wouldn't like to leave business this summer. Douglas is delving into that investigation Mr. Minturn started him on and he couldn't be dragged away. He's perfectly possessed. Of course where my men are, like Ruth, 'there will be I also,' so for days I've been working on a plan, and now it's all finished and waiting your veto or approval."
"Thrilling, Leslie! Tell quickly. I'm all agog!"
"It's this: let's not go away and spend big sums on travel, dress, and close the house, and throw our people out of work. Do you realize, Daddy, how long you've had the same housekeeper, cook, maid and driver? Do you know how badly I'd feel to let them go, and risk getting them back in the fall? My scheme is to rent, for practically nothing, a log cabin I know, a little over an hour's run from here--a log cabin with four rooms and a lean-to and a log stable, beside a lake where there is grand fishing and swimming."
"But Leslie----" protested Mr. Winton.
"Now listen!" cried the girl. "The rent is nominal. We get the house, stable, orchard, garden, a few acres and a rented cow. The cabin has two tiny rooms above, one for you, the other for Douglas. Below, it has a room for me, a dining-room and a kitchen. The big log barn close beside has space in the hay-mow for the women, and in one side below for our driver, the other for the cars. Over the cabin is a grapevine. Around it there are fruit trees. There is a large, rich garden. If I had your permission I could begin putting in vegetables tomorrow that would make our summer supply. Rogers----"
"You are not going to tell me Rogers would touch a garden?" queried Mr. Winton.
"I am going to tell you that Rogers has been with me in every step of my investigations," replied Leslie. "Yesterday I called in my household and gave them a lecture on the present crisis; I found them a remarkably well- informed audience. They had a very distinct idea that if I economized by dismissing them for the summer, and leaving the house with a caretaker, what it would mean to them. Then I took my helpers into the car and drove out the Atwater road--you know it well Daddy, the road that runs smooth over miles of country and then instead of jumping into a lake as it seems to be going to, it swings into corduroy through a marsh, runs up on a little bridge spanning the channel between two lakes, lifts to Atwater lake shore, than which none is more lovely--you remember the white sand floor and the clean water for swimming--climbs another hill, and opposite beautiful wood, there stands the log cabin I told you of, there I took them and explained. They could clean up in a day; Rogers could plant the garden and take enough on one truck load, for a beginning. We may have wood for the fireplace by gathering it from the forest floor. Rogers again!"
"Are you quite sure about Rogers?"
"Suppose you ride with him going down and ask him yourself," suggested Leslie. "Rogers is anxious to hold his place. You see it's like this: all of them get regular wages, have a chance at the swimming, rowing, gardening and the country. The saving comes in on living expenses. Out there we have the cow, flour, fish, and poultry from the neighbours, fresh eggs, butter and the garden--I can cut expenses to one-fourth; lights altogether. Moonshine and candles will serve; cooking fuel, gasoline. Daddy will you go to-night and see?"
"No, I won't go to-night and see, I'll go swim and fish," said Mr. Winton. "Great Heavens, Leslie, do you really mean to live all summer beside a lake, where a man can expand, absorb and exercise? I must get out my fishing tackle. I wonder what Douglas has! I've tried that lake when bass were slashing around wild thorn and crab trees shedding petals and bugs. It is man's sport there! I like black bass fishing. I remember that water. Fine for swimming! Not the exhilaration of salt, perhaps, but grand, clean, old northern Indiana water, cooled by springs. I love it! Lord, Leslie! Why don't we own that place? Why haven't we homed there, and been comfortable for years?"
"I shall go ahead then?" queried Leslie.
"You shall go a-hurry, Miss, hurry!" cried Mr. Winton. "I'll give you just two days. One to clean, the other to move; to-morrow night send for me. I want a swim; and cornbread, milk, and three rashers of bacon for my dinner and nothing else; and can't the maids have my room and let me have a blanket on the hay?"
"But father, the garden!" cautioned Leslie.
"Oh drat the garden!" cried Mr. Winton.
"But if you go dratting things, I can't economize," the girl reminded him. "Rogers and I have that garden down on paper, and it's late now."
"Leslie, don't the golf links lie half a mile from there?"
"Closer Daddy," said the girl, "right around the corner."
"I don't see why you didn't think of it before," he said. "Have you told Douglas?"
"Not a word!" exclaimed Leslie. "I'm going to invite him out when everything is in fine order."
"Don't make things fine," said Mr. Winton. "Let's have them rough!"
"They will be rough enough to suit you, Daddy," laughed Leslie, "but a few things have got to be done."
"Then hurry, but don't forget the snake question."
"People are and have been living there for generations; common care is all that is required," said Leslie. "I'll be careful, but if you tell Bruce until I am ready, I'll never forgive you."
Mr. Winton arose. "'Come to me arms,'" he laughed, spreading them wide. "I wonder if Douglas Bruce knows what a treasure he is going to possess!"
"Certainly not!" said Leslie emphatically. "I wouldn't have him know for the world! I am going to be his progressive housekeeping party, to which he is invited every day, after we are married, and each day he has got a new surprise coming, that I hope he will like. The woman who endures and wears well in matrimony is the one who 'keeps something to herself.' It's my opinion that modern marriage would be more satisfactory if the engaged parties would not come so nearly being married, for so long before they are. There is so little left for afterward, in most cases, that it soon grows monotonous."
"Leslie, where did you get all of this?" he asked.
"I told you. From you, mostly," explained the girl, "and from watching my friends. Go on Daddy! And send Rogers back soon! I want to begin buying radish seed and onion sets."
So Leslie telephoned Douglas Bruce that she would be very busy with housekeeping affairs the coming two days. She made a list of what would be required for that day, left the maids to collect it, and went to buy seeds and a few tools; then returning she divided her forces and leaving part to pack the bedding, old dishes and things absolutely required for living, she took the loaded car and drove to Atwater Lake.
The owner of the land, a cultured, refined gentleman, who spoke the same brand of English used by the Wintons, and evinced a knowledge of the same books, was genuinely interested in Leslie and her plans. It was a land owner's busiest season, but he spared a man an hour with a plow to turn up the garden, and came down himself and with practiced hand swung the scythe, and made sure about the snakes. Soon the maids had the cabin walls swept, the floors scrubbed, the windows washed, and that was all that could be done. The seeds were earth enfolded in warm black beds, with flower seeds tucked in for borders. The cut grass was raked back, and spread to dry for the rented cow.
When nothing further was to be accomplished there, they returned to Multiopolis to hasten preparations for the coming day. It was all so good Leslie stopped at her father's office and poured a flood of cloverbloom, bird notes and water shimmer into his willing ears.
She seldom went to Douglas Bruce's offices, but she ran up a few moments to try in person to ease what she felt would be disappointment in not spending the evening with her. The day would be full far into the night with affairs at home, he would notice the closing of the house, and she could not risk him spoiling her plans by finding out what they were, before she was ready. She found him surrounded with huge ledgers, delving and already fretting for Mickey. She stood laughing in his doorway, half piqued to find him so absorbed in his work, and so full of the boy he was missing, that he seemed to take her news that she was too busy to see him that night with quite too bearable calmness; but his earnestness about coming the following night worked his pardon, so Leslie left laughing to herself over the surprise in store for him.
Bruce bent over his work, praying for Mickey. Everything went wrong without him. He was enough irritated by the boy who was not Mickey, that when the boy who was Mickey came to his door, he was delighted to see him. He wanted to say: "Hello, little friend. Come get in the game, quickly!" but two considerations withheld him: Mickey's manners were a trifle too casual; at times they irritated Douglas, and if he took the boy into his life as he hoped to, he would come into constant contact with Leslie and her friends, who were cultured people of homing instincts. Mickey's manners must be polished, and the way to do it was not to drop to his level, but to improve Mickey. And again, the day before, he had told Mickey to sit down and wait until an order was given him. To invite him to "get in the game" now, was good alliteration; it pleased the formal Scotch ear as did many another United States phrase of the street, so musical, concise and packed with meaning as to become almost classic; but in his heart he meant as Mickey had suspected, "to do him good"; so he must lay his foundations with care. What he said was a cordial and cheerful, "Good morning!"
"Noon," corrected Mickey. "Right ye are! Good it is! What's my job? 'Scuse me! I won't ask that again!"
"Plenty," Douglas admitted, "but first, any luck with the paper route?"
"All over but killing the boy I sold it to, if he doesn't do right. I ain't perfectly crazy about him. He's a papa's boy and pretty soft; but maybe he'll learn. It was a fine chance for me, so I soaked it."
"To whom did you sell, Mickey?" asked Douglas.
"To your driver, for his boy," answered Mickey. "We talked it over last night. Say, was your driver 'the same continued,' or did you detect glimmerings of beefsteak and blood in him this morning?"
"Why?" asked Douglas curiously.
"Oh he's such a stiff," explained Mickey. "He looks about as lively as a salted herring."
"And did you make an effort to enliven him, Mickey?"
"Sure!" cried Mickey. "The operation was highly successful! The patient made a fine recovery. Right on the job, right on the street, right at the thickest traffic corner, right at 'dead man's crossing,' he let out a whoop that split the features of a copper who hadn't smiled in years. It was a double play and it worked fine. What I want to know is whether it was fleeting or holds over."
"It must be 'over,' Mickey," said Douglas. "Since you mention it, he opened the door with the information that it was a fine morning, while I recall that there was colour on his face, and light in his usually dull eyes."
"Good!" cried Mickey. "Then there's some hope that his kid may go and do likewise."
"The boy who takes your route has to smile, Mickey?"
"Well you see most of my morning customers are regulars, so they are used to it," said Mickey. "The minute one goes into his paper, he's lost 'til knocking off time; but if he starts on a real-wide-a-wake-soulful smile, he's a chance of reproducing it, before the day is over, leastwise he has more chance than if he never smiles."
"So it is a part of the contract that the boy smiles at his work?" questioned Douglas.
"It is so!" exclaimed Mickey. "I asked Mr. Chaffner at the Herald office what was a fair price for my route. You see I've sold the Herald from the word go, and we're pretty thick. So he told me what he thought. It lifted my lid, but when I communicated it to Henry, casual like, he never batted an eye, so I am going to try his boy 'til I'm satisfied. If he can swing the job it's a go."
"Your customers should give you a vote of thanks!"
"And so they will!" cried Mickey. "You see the men who buy of me are the top crust of Multiopolis, the big fine men who can smile, and open their heads and say a pleasant word, and they like to. It does them good! I live on it! I always get my papers close home as I can so I have time coming down on the cars to take a peep myself, and nearly always there are at least three things on the first page that hit you in the eye. Once long ago I was in the Herald office with a note to Chaffner the big chief, and I gave him a little word jostle as I passed it over. He looked at me and laughed good natured like, so I handed him this: 'Are you the big stiff that bosses the make-up?' He says, 'Mostly! I can control it if I want to.' 'All right for you,' I said. 'I live by selling your papers, but I could sell a heap more if I had a better chance.' 'Chance in what way?' said he. 'Building your first page,' said I. He said, 'Sure. What is it that you want?' 'I'll show you,' said I. 'I'll give you the call I used this morning.' Then I cut loose and just like on the street I cried it, and he yelled some himself. 'What more do you want?' he asked me. 'A lot,' I said. 'You see I only got a little time on the cars before my men begin to get on, and my time is precious. I can't read second, third, and forty- eleventh pages hunting up eye-openers. I must get them first page, 'cause I'm short time, and got my pack to hang on to. Now makin'-up, if you'd a-put that "Germans driven from the last foot of Belgian soil," first, it would a-been better, 'cause that's what every living soul wants. Then the biggest thing about ourselves. Place it prominent in big black letters, where I get it quick and easy, and then put me in a scream. Get me a laugh in my call, and I'll sell you out all by myself. Folks are spending millions per annum for the glad scream at night, they'll pay just the same morning, give them a chance. I live on a laugh,' said I, to Chaffner. He looked me over and he said: 'When you get too big for the papers, you come to me and I'll make a top-notch reporter out of you.' 'Thanks Boss,' said I, 'you couldn't graft that job on to me, with asphaltum and a buzz saw. I'm going to be on your front page 'fore you know it, but it's going to be a poetry piece that will raise your hair; I ain't going to frost my cake, poking into folks' private business, telling shameful things on them that half kills them. Lots of times I see them getting their dose on the cars, and they just shiver, and go white, and shake. Nix on the printing about shame, and sin, and trouble in the papers for me!' I said, and he just laughed and looked at me closer and he said, 'All right! Bring your poetry yourself, and if they don't let you in, give them this,' and he wrote a line I got at home yet."
"Is that all about Chaffner?" asked Douglas.
"Oh no!" said Mickey. "He said, 'Well here is a batch of items being written up for first page to-morrow. According to you, I should give "Belgian citizens flocking back to search for devastated homes," the first place?' 'That's got the first place in the heart of every man in God's world. Giving it first place is putting it where it belongs.' 'Here's the rest of it,' said he, 'what do you want next?' 'At the same glance I always take, this,' said I, pointing to where it said, 'Movement on foot to eliminate graft from city offices.' 'You think that comes next?' said he. 'Sure!' said I. 'Hits the pocketbook! Sure! Heart first! Money next!' 'Are you so sure it isn't exactly the reverse?' asked he. 'Know it!' said I. 'Watch the crowds any day, and every clip you'll see that loving a man's country, and his home, and his kids, and getting fair play, comes before money.' 'Yes, I guess it does!' he said thoughtful like, 'least it should. We'll make it the policy of this paper to put it that way anyhow. What next?' 'Now your laugh,' said I. 'And while you are at it, make it a scream!' 'All right,' he said, 'I haven't anything funny in yet, but I'll get it. Now show me where you want these spaced.' So I showed him, and every single time you look, you'll see Mr. Herald is made up that way, and you ought to hear me trolling out that Belgian line, soft and easy, snapping in the graft quicklike, and then yelling out the scream. You bet it catches them! If I can't get that kid on to his job, 'spect I'll have to take it back myself; least if he can't get on, he's doomed to get off. I gave him a three days' try, and if he doesn't catch by that time, he never will."
"But how are you going to know?" asked Douglas.
"I'm going down early and follow him and drill him like a Dutch recruit, and he'll wake up my men, and interest them and fetch the laugh or he'll stop!"
"You think you got a fair price?" asked Douglas.
"Know it! All it's worth, and it looks like a margin to me," said Mickey.
"That's all right then, and thank you for telling me about the papers," said Douglas. "I enjoyed it immensely. I see you are a keen student of human nature."
"'Bout all the studying I get a chance at," said Mickey.
"You'll have opportunity at other things now," said Douglas. "Since you mention it, I see your point about the papers, and if that works on business men going to business, it should work on a jury. I think I've had it in mind, that I was to be a compendium of information and impress on a judge or jury what I know, and why what I say is right. You give me the idea that a better way would be to impress on them what they know. Put it like this: first soften their hearts, next touch their pockets, then make them laugh; is that the idea?"
"Duck again! You're doing fine! I ain't made my living selling men papers for this long not to know the big boys some, and more. Each man is different, but you can cod him, or bluff him, or scare him, or let down the floodgates; some way you can put it over if you take each one separate, and hit him where he lives. See? Finding his dwelling place is the trouble."
"Mickey, I do see," cried Douglas. "What you tell me will be invaluable to me. You know I am from another land so I have personal ways of thinking and the men I'm accustomed to are different. What I have been centring on is myself, and what I can do."
"Won't work here! What you got to get a bead on here is the other fellow, and how to do him. See?"
"Take these books and fly," said Douglas. "I've spent one of the most profitable hours of my life, but concretely it is an hour, and we're going to the Country Club to-night and may stay as long as we choose and we're going to have a grand time. You like going to the country, don't you?"
"Ain't words for telling," said Mickey, gathering his armload of books and racing down the hall.
When the day's work was finished, with a load of books to deliver before an office closed, they started on the run to the club house. Bruce waited in the car while Mickey sped in with the books, and returning, to save opening the door and crossing before the man he was fast beginning to idolize, Mickey took one of his swift cuts across the back end of the car. While his hand was outstretched and his foot uplifted to enter, from a high-piled passing truck toppled a box, not a big box, but large enough to knock Mickey senseless and breathless when it struck him between the shoulders. Douglas had Mickey in the car with orders for the nearest hospital, toward which they were hurrying, when the boy opened his eyes and sat up. He looked inquiringly at Douglas, across whose knees he had found himself.
"Wha--what happened?" he questioned with his first good indrawing of recovered breath.
"A box fell from a truck loaded past reason and almost knocked the life out of you!" cried Douglas.
"'Knocked the life out of me?'" repeated Mickey.
"You've been senseless for three blocks, Mickey."
A slow horror spread over Mickey's face.
"Wha--what was you going to do?" he wavered.
"Running for a hospital," said Douglas.
"S'pose my head had been busted, and I'd been stretched on the glass table and maybe laid up for days or knocked out altogether?" demanded Mickey.
"You'd have had the best surgeon in Multiopolis, and every care, Mickey," assured Douglas.
"Ugh!" Mickey collapsed utterly.
"Must be hurt worse than I thought," was Douglas' mental comment. "He couldn't be a coward!"
But Mickey almost proved that very thing by regaining his senses again, and immediately falling into spasms of long-drawn, shuddering sobbing. Douglas held him carefully, every moment becoming firmer in his conviction of one of two things: either he was hurt worse or he was----He would not let himself think it; but never did boy appear to less advantage. Douglas urged the driver to speed. Mickey heard and understood.
"Never mind," he sobbed. "I'm all right Mr. Bruce; I ain't hurt. Not much! I'll be all right in a minute!"
"If you're not hurt, what is the matter with you?"
"A minute!" gasped Mickey, as another spasm of sobbing caught him.
"I am amazed!" cried Douglas. "A little jolt like that! You are acting like a coward, Mickey!"
The word straightened Mickey.
"Coward! Who? Me!" he cried. "Me that's made my way since I can remember? Coward, did you say?"
"Of course not, Mickey!" cried Douglas. "Excuse me. I shouldn't have said that. But it is unlike you. What the devil is the matter with you?"
"I helped carry in a busted head and saw the glass table once," he cried. "Inch more and it would a-been my head--and I might have been knocked out for days. O Lord! What will I do?"
"Mickey you're not afraid?" asked Douglas.
"'Fraid? Me? 'Bout as good as coward!"
"What is the matter with you?" demanded Douglas.
Mickey stared at him amazedly.
"O Lord!" he panted. "You don't s'pose I was thinking about myself, do you?"
"I don't know what to think!" exclaimed Douglas.
"Sure! How could you?" conceded Mickey.
He choked back another big dry sob.
"Gimme a minute to think!" he said. "O God! What have I been doing? I see now what I'm up against!"
"Mickey," said Douglas Bruce, suddenly filled with compassion, "I am beginning to understand. Won't you tell me?"
"I guess I got to," panted Mickey. "But I'm afraid! O Lord, I'm so afraid!"
"Afraid of me, Mickey?" asked Douglas gently now.
"Yes, afraid of you," said Mickey, "and afraid of her. Afraid of her, more than you."
"You mean Miss Winton?" pursued Douglas.
"Yes, I mean Miss Winton," replied Mickey. "I guess I don't risk her, or you either. I guess I go to the Nurse Lady. She's used to folks in trouble. She's trained to know what to do. Why sure! That's the thing!"
"Your back hurts, Mickey?" questioned Douglas.
"My back hurts? Aw forget my back!" cried Mickey roughly. "I ain't hurt, honest I ain't."
Douglas took a long penetrating look at the small shaking figure, then he said softly: "I wish you wanted to confide in me, Mickey! I can't tell you how glad I'd be if you'd trust me; but if you have some one else you like better, where is it you want to be driven?"
"Course there ain't any one I like better than you, 'cept----" he caught a name on the tip of his tongue and paused. "You see it's like this: I've been to this Nurse Lady before, and I know exactly what she'll say and think. If you don't think like I do, and if you go and take----"
"Gracious Heaven Mickey, you don't think I'd try to take anything you wanted, do you?" demanded Douglas.
"I don't know what you'd do," said Mickey. "I only know what one Swell Dame I struck wanted to do."
"Mickey," said Douglas, "when I don't know what you are thinking about, I can't be of much help; but I'd give considerable if you felt that you had come to trust me."
"Trust you? Sure I trust you, about myself. But this is----" cried Mickey.
"This is about some one else?" asked Douglas casually.
Mickey leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his head bent with intense thinking.
"Much as you are doing for me," he muttered, "if you really care, if it makes a difference to you--of course I can trust you, if you don't think as I do!"
"You surely can!" cried Douglas Bruce. "Now Mickey, both of us are too shaken to care for the country; take me home with you and let's have supper together and become acquainted. We can't know each other on my ground alone. I must meet you on yours, and prove that I'm really your friend. Let's go where you live and have supper."
"Go where I live? You?" cried Mickey.
"Yes! You come from where you live fresh and clean each day, so can I. Take me home with you. I want to go dreadfully, Mickey. Please?"
"Well, I ain't such a cad I'm afraid for you to see how I live," he said. "Though you wouldn't want to come more than once; that ain't what I was thinking about."
"Think all you like, Mickey," said Douglas. "Henry, drive to the end of the car line where you've gone before."
On the way he stopped at a grocery, then a cafe, and at each place piles of tempting packages were placed in the car. Mickey's brain was working fast. One big fact was beginning to lift above all the others. His treasure was slipping from him, and for her safety it had to be so. If he had been struck on the head, forced to undergo an operation, and had lain insensible for hours--Mickey could go no further with that thought. He had to stop and proceed with the other part of his problem. Of course she was better off with him than where she had been; no sane person could dispute that; she was happy and looking improved each day but--could she be made happier and cared for still better by some one else, and cured without the long wait for him to earn the money? If she could, what would be the right name for him, if he kept her on what he could do? So they came at last as near as the car could go to Mickey's home in Sunrise Alley. At the foot of the last flight Mickey paused, package laden.
"Now I'll have to ask you to wait a minute," he said.
He ascended, unlocked the door and stepped inside. Peaches' eyes gleamed with interest at the packages, but she waved him back. As Mickey closed the door she cried: "My po'try piece! Say it, Mickey!"
"You'll have to wait again," said Mickey. "I got hit in the back with a box and it knocked the poetry out of me. You'll have to wait 'til after supper to-night, and then I'll fix the grandest one yet. Will that do?"
"Yes, if the box hit hard, Mickey," conceded Peaches.
"It hit so blame hard, Miss Chicken, that it knocked me down and knocked me out, and Mr. Bruce picked me up and carried me three blocks in his car before I got my wind or knew what ailed me."
Peaches' face was tragic; her hands stretched toward him. Mickey was young, and his brain was whirling so it whirled off the thought that came first.
"And if it had hit me hard enough to bust my head, and I'd been carried to a hospital to be mended and wouldn't a-knowed what hurt me for days, like sometimes, who'd a-fed and bathed you, Miss?"
Peaches gazed at him wordless.
"You close your mouth and tell me, Miss," demanded Mickey, brutal with emotion. "If I hadn't come, what would you have done?"
Peaches shut her mouth and stared while it was closed. At last she ventured a solution.
"You'd a-told our Nurse Lady," she said.
Mickey made an impatient gesture.
"Hospitals by the dozen, kid," he said, "and not a chance in a hundred I'd been took to the 'Star of Hope,' and times when your head is busted, you don't know a thing for 'most a week. What would you do if I didn't come for a week?"
"I'd have to slide off the bed if it killed me, and roll to the cupboard, and make the things do," said Peaches.
"You couldn't get up to it to save your life," said Mickey, "and there's never enough for a week, and you couldn't get to the water--what would you do?"
"Mickey, what would I do?" wavered Peaches.
"Well, I know, if you don't," said Mickey, "and I ain't going to tell you; but I'll tell you this much: you'd be scared and hurt worse than you ever was yet; and it's soon going to be too hot for you here, so I got to move you to a cooler place, and I don't risk being the only one knowing where you are another day; or my think-tank will split. It's about split now. I don't want to do it, Miss, but I got to, so you take your drink and lemme straighten you, and wash your face, and put your pretties on; then Mr. Douglas Bruce, that we work for now, is coming to see you and he's going to stay for supper--Now cut it out! Shut right up! Here, lemme fix you, and you see, Miss, that you act a lady girl, and don't make me lose my job with my boss, or we can't pay our rent. Hold still 'til I get your ribbon right, and slip a fresh nightie on you. There!"
"Mickey----" began Peaches.
"Shut up!" said Mickey in desperation. "Now mind this, Miss! You belong to me! I'm taking care of you. You answer what he says to you pretty or you'll not get any supper this night, and look at them bundles he got. Sit up and be nice! This is a party!"
Mickey darted around arranging the room, then he flung the door wide and called: "Ready!"
Douglas Bruce climbed the stairs and entered the door. As Mickey expected, his gaze centred and stopped. Mickey began taking packages from his hands; still gazing Douglas yielded them. Then he stepped forward when Mickey placed the chair, and said: "Mr. Douglas Bruce, this is Lily. This is Lily Peaches O'Halloran. Will you have a chair?" He turned to Peaches, putting his arm around her as he bent to kiss her.
"He's all right, Flowersy-girl," he said. "We like to have him come. He's our friend. Our big, nice friend who won't let a soul on earth get us. He doesn't even want us himself, 'cause he's got one girl. His girl is the Moonshine Lady that sent you the doll. Maybe she will come some day too, and maybe she'll make the Precious Child a new dress."
Peaches clung to Mickey and past him peered at her visitor, and the visitor smiled his most winning smile. He recognized Leslie's ribbon, and noted the wondrous beauty of the small white face, now slowly flushing the faintest pink with excitement. Still clinging she smiled back. Wordless, Douglas reached over to pick up the doll. Then the right thought came at last.
"Has the Precious Child been good to-day?" he asked.
Peaches released Mickey, dropping back against her pillows, her smile now dazzling. "Jus' as good!" she said.
"Fine!" said Douglas, straightening the long dress.
"An' that's my slate and lesson," said Peaches.
"Fine!" he said again as if it were the only adjective he knew. Mickey glanced at him, grinning sympathetically, "She does sort of knock you out!" he said.
"'Sort' is rather poor. Completely, would be better," said Douglas. "She's the loveliest little sister in all the world, but she doesn't resemble you. Is she like your mother?"
"Lily isn't my sister, only as you wanted me for a brother," said Mickey. "She was left and nobody was taking care of her. She's my find and you bet your life I'm going to keep her!"
"Oh! And how long have you had her, Mickey?"
"Now that's just what the Orphings' Home dame asked me," said Mickey with finality, "and we are nix on those dames and their askings. Lily is mine, I tell you. My family. Now you visit with her, while I get supper."
Mickey pushed up the table, then began opening packages and setting forth their contents. Watching him as he moved swiftly and with assurance, his head high, his lips even, a slow deep respect for the big soul in the little body began to dawn in the heart of Douglas Bruce. Understanding of Mickey came in rivers swift and strong, so while he wondered and while he watched entranced, over and over in his head went the line: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." With every gentle act of Mickey for the child Douglas' liking for him grew. When he went over the supper and with the judgment of a nurse selected the most delicate and suitable food for her, in the heart of the Scotsman swelled the marvel and the miracle that silenced criticism.