Chapter XIV. An Orphans' Home
 

"Margaret, I want a few words with you some time soon," said James Minturn to his sister.

"Why not right now?" she proposed. "I'm not busy and for days I've known you were in trouble. Tell me at once, and possibly I can help you."

"You would deserve my gratitude if you could," he said. "I've suffered until I'm reduced to the extremity that drives me to put into words the thing I have thrashed over in my heart day and night for weeks."

"Come to my room James," she said.

James Minturn followed his sister.

"Now go on and tell me, boy," she ordered. "Of course it's about Nellie."

"Yes it's about Nellie," he repeated. "Did you hear any part of what that very charming young lady had to say to me at our chosen playground, not long ago?"

"Yes I did," answered Mrs. Winslow. "But not enough to comprehend thoroughly. Did she convince you that you are mistaken?"

"No. But this she did do," said Mr. Minturn. "She battered the walls of what I had believed to be unalterable decision, until she made this opening: I must go into our affairs again. I have got to find out where my wife is, and what she is doing; and if the things Miss Leslie thinks are true. Margaret, I thought it was settled. I was happy, in a way; actually happy! No Biblical miracle ever seemed to me half so wonderful as the change in the boys."

"The difference in them is quite as much of a marvel as you think it," agreed Mrs. Winslow.

"It is greater than I would have thought possible in any circumstances," said Mr. Minturn. "Do they ever mention their mother to you?"

"Incidentally," she replied, "just as they do maids, footman or governess, in referring to their past life. They never ask for her, in the sense of wanting her, that I know of. Malcolm resembles her in appearance and any one could see that she liked him best. She always discriminated against James in his favour if any question between them were ever carried to her."

"Malcolm is like her in more than looks. He has her musical ability in a marked degree," said Mr. Minturn. "I have none, but Miss Winton suggested a thing to me that Mr. Tower has been able to work up some, and while both boys are deeply interested, it's Malcolm who is beginning to slip away alone and listen to and practise bird cries until he deceives the birds themselves. Yesterday he called a catbird to within a few feet of him, by reproducing the notes as uttered and inflected by the female."

"I know. It was a triumph! He told me about it."

"James is well named," said Mr. Minturn. "He is my boy. Already he's beginning to ask questions that are filled with intelligence, solicitude and interest about my business, what things mean, what I am doing, and why. He's going to make the man who will come into my office, who in a few more years will be offering his shoulder for part of my load. You can't understand what the change is from the old attitude of regarding me as worth no consideration; not even a gentleman, as my wife's servants were teaching my sons to think. Margaret, how am I going back even to the thought that I may be making a mistake? Wouldn't the unpardonable error be to again risk those boys an hour in the company and influence which brought them once to what they were?"

"You poor soul!" exclaimed Mrs. Winslow.

"Never mind that!" warned Mr. Minturn. "I'm not accustomed to it, and it doesn't help. Have you any faith in Nellie?"

"None whatever!" exclaimed Mrs. Winslow. "She's so selfish it's simply fiendish. I'd as soon bury you as to see you subject to her again."

"And I'd much sooner be buried, were it not that my heart is set on winning out with those boys," said Mr. Minturn. "There is material for fine men in them, but there is also depravity that would shock you inexpressibly, instilled by ignorant, malicious servants. I wish Leslie Winton had kept quiet."

"And so do I!" agreed Mrs. Winslow. "I could scarcely endure it, as I realized what was going on. While Nellie had you, there was no indignity, no public humiliation at which she stopped. For my own satisfaction I examined Elizabeth before she was laid away, and I held my tongue because I thought you didn't know. When did you find out?"

"A newsboy told me. He went with a woman who was in the park where it happened, to tell Nellie, but they were insulted for their pains. Some way my best friend Douglas Bruce picked him up and attached him, as I did William; it was at my suggestion. Of course I couldn't imagine that out of several thousand newsies Douglas would select the one who knew my secret and who daily blasts me with his scorn. If he runs into an elevator where I am, the whistle dies on his lips; his smile fades and he actually shrinks from my presence. You can't blame him. A man should be able to protect the children he fathers. What he said to me stunned me so, he thought me indifferent. In my place, would you stop him some day and explain?"

"I most certainly would," said Mrs. Winslow. "A child's scorn is withering, and you don't deserve it."

"I have often wondered what or how much he told Bruce," said Mr. Minturn.

"Could you detect any change in Mr. Bruce after the boy came into his office?" asked Mrs. Winslow.

"Only that he was kinder and friendlier than ever."

"That probably means that the boy told him and that Mr. Bruce understood and was sorry."

"No doubt," he said. "You'd talk to the boy then? Now what would you do about Nellie?"

"What was it Miss Winton thought you should do?"

"See Nellie! Take her back!" he exclaimed. "Give her further opportunity to exercise her brand of wifehood on me and motherhood on the boys!"

"James, if you do, I'll never forgive you!" cried his sister. "If you tear up this comfortable, healthful place, where you are the honoured head of your house, and put your boys back where you found them, I'll go home and stay there; and you can't blame me."

"Miss Winton didn't ask me to go back," he explained; "that couldn't be done. I saw and examined the deed of gift of the premises to the city. The only thing she could do would be to buy it back, and it's torn up inside, and will be in shape for opening any day now, I hear. The city needed a Children's Hospital; to get a place like that free, in so beautiful and convenient a location--and her old friends are furious at her for bringing sickness and crooked bodies among them. No doubt they would welcome her there, but they wouldn't welcome her anywhere else. She must have endowed it liberally, no hospital in the city has a staff of the strength announced for it."

"James, you are wandering!" she interrupted. "You started to tell me what Miss Winton asked of you."

"That I bring Nellie here," he explained. "That I make her mistress of this house. That I put myself and the boys in her hands again."

"Oh good Lord!" ejaculated Mrs. Winslow. "James, are you actually thinking of that? Mind, I don't care for myself. I have a home and all I want. But for you and those boys, are you really contemplating it?"

"No!" he said. "All I'm thinking of is whether it is my duty to hunt her up and once more convince myself that she is heartless vanity personified, and utterly indifferent to me personally, as I am to her."

"Suppose you do go to her and find that through pique, because you made the move for separation yourself, she wants to try it over, or to get the boys again--she's got a mint of money. Do you know just how much she has?"

"I do not, and I never did," he replied. "Her funds never in any part were in my hands. I felt capable of making all I needed myself, and I have. I earn as much as it is right I should have; but she'd scorn my plan for life and what satisfies me; and she'd think the boys disgraced, living as they are."

"James, was there an hour, even in your honeymoon, when Nellie forgot herself and was a lovable woman?"

"It is painful to recall, but yes! Yes indeed!" he answered. "Never did a man marry with higher hope!"

"Then what----?" marvelled Mrs. Winslow.

"Primarily, her mother, then her society friends, then the power of her money," he answered.

"Just how did it happen?" she queried.

"It began with Mrs. Blondon's violent opposition to children; when she knew a child was coming she practically moved in with us, and spent hours pitying her daughter, sending for a doctor at each inevitable consequence, keeping up an exciting rush of friends coming when the girl should have had quiet and rest, treating me with contempt, and daily holding me up as the monster responsible for all these things. The result was nervousness and discontent bred by such a course at such a time, until it amounted to actual pain, and lastly unlimited money with which to indulge every fancy.

"In such circumstances delivery became the horror they made of it, although several of the doctors told me privately not to have the slightest alarm; it was simply the method of rich selfish women to make such a bugbear of childbirth a wife might well be excused for refusing to endure it. Sifted to the bottom that was exactly what it was. I didn't know until the birth of James that they had neglected to follow the instructions of their doctors and made no preparation for nursing the child; as a result, when I insisted that it must be done, shrieks of pain, painful enough as I could see, resulted in a nervous chill for the mother, more inhumanity in me, and the boy was turned over to a hired woman with his first breath and to begin unnatural life. I watched the little chap all I could; he was strong and healthy, and while skilled nurses were available he upset every rule by thriving; which was one more count against me, and the lesson pointed out and driven home that no young wife could give a child such attention, so the baby was better off in the hands of the nurse. That he was reared without love, that his mother took not an iota of responsibility in his care, developed not a trait of motherhood, simply went on being a society belle, had nothing to do with it.

"He did so well, Nellie escaped so much better than many of her friends, that in time she seemed to forget it and didn't rebel at Malcolm's advent, or Elizabeth's, but by that time I had been practically ostracized from the nursery; governesses were empowered to flout and insult me; I scarcely saw my children, and what I did see made me furious, so I vetoed more orphans bearing my name, and gave up doing anything. Then came the tragedy of Elizabeth. Surely you understand 'just how' it was done Margaret?"

"Of course I had an idea, but I never before got just the perfect picture, and now I have it, though it's the last word I want to say to you, God made me so that I'm forced to say it, although it furnishes one more example of what is called inconsistency."

"Be careful what you say, Margaret!"

"I must say it," she replied. "I've encouraged you to talk in detail, because I wanted to be sure I was right in the position I was taking; but you've given me a different viewpoint. Why James, think it over yourself in the light of what you just have told me. Nellie never has been a mother at all! Her heart is more barren than that of a woman to whom motherhood is physical impossibility, yet whose heart aches with maternal instinct!"

"Margaret!" cried James Minturn.

"James, it's true!" she persisted. "I never have understood. For fear of that, I led you on and now look what you've told me. Nellie never had a chance at natural motherhood. The thing called society made a foolish mother to begin with, while she in turn ruined her daughter, and if Elizabeth had lived it would have been passed on to her. You throw a new light on Nellie. As long as she was herself, she was tender and loving, and you adored her; if you had been alone and moderately circumstanced, she would have continued being so lovable that after ten years your face flushes with painful memory as you speak of it. I've always thought her abandoned as to wifely and motherly instinct. What you say proves she was a lovable girl, ruined by society, through the medium of her mother and friends."

"If she cared for me as she said, she should have been enough of a woman----" began Mr. Minturn.

"Maybe she should, but you must take into consideration that she was not herself when the trouble began; she was, as are all women, even those most delighted over the prospect, in an unnatural condition, in so far that usual conditions were unusual, and probably made her ill, nervous, apprehensive, not herself at all."

"Do you mean to say that you are changing?"

"Worse than that!" she said emphatically. "I have positively and permanently changed. Even at your expense I will do Nellie justice. James, your grievance is not against your wife; it is against the mother who bore her, the society that moulded her."

"She should have been woman enough----" he began.

"Left alone, she was!" insisted Mrs. Winslow. "With the ills and apprehensions of motherhood upon her, she yielded as most young, inexperienced women would yield to what came under the guise of tender solicitude, and no doubt eased or banished pain, which all of us avoid when possible; and the pain connected with motherhood is a thing in awe of which the most practised physicians admit themselves almost stunned. The woman who would put aside pampering and stoically endure what money and friends could alleviate is rare. Jim, pain or no pain to you, you must find your wife and learn for yourself if she is heartless; or whether in some miraculous way some one has proved to her what you have made plain as possible to me. You must hunt her up, and if she is still under her mother's and society's influence, and refuses to change, let her remain. But--but if she has changed, as you have just seen me change, then you should give her another chance if she asks it."

"I can't!" he cried.

"You must! The evidence is in her favour."

"What do you mean?" he demanded impatiently.

"Her acquiescence in your right to take the boys and alter their method of life; her agreement that for their sakes you might do as you chose with no interference from her; both those are the acknowledgment of failure on her part and willingness for you to repair the damages if you can," she explained. "Her gift of a residence, the furnishings of which would have paid for the slight alterations necessary to transform a modern home into the most beautiful of modern hospitals, in a wonderfully lovely location, and leave enough to start it with as fine a staff as money can provide-- that gift is a deliberately planned effort at reparation; the limiting of patients to children under ten is her heart trying to tell yours that she would atone."

"O Lord!" cried James Minturn.

"Yes I know," said Mrs. Winslow. "Call on Him! You need Him! There is no question but that He put into her head the idea of setting a home for the healing of little children, in the most exclusive residence district of Multiopolis, where women of millions are forced to see it every time they look from a window or step from their door. Have you seen it yourself, James?"

"Naturally I wouldn't haunt the location."

"I would, and I did!" said Mrs. Winslow. "A few days ago I went over it from basement to garret. You go and see it. And I recall now that her lawyer was there, with sheets of paper in his hand, talking with workmen. I think he's working for Nellie and that she is probably directing the changes and personally evolving a big, white, shining reparation."

"It's a late date to talk about reparation," he said.

"Which simply drives me to the truism, 'better late than never!' and to the addition of the comment that Nellie is only thirty and that but ten years of your lives have been wasted; if you hurry and save the remainder, you should have fifty apiece coming to you, if you breathe deep, sleep cool, and dine sensibly," said Mrs. Winslow.

She walked out of the room and closed the door. James Minturn sat thinking a long time, then called his car and drove to Atwater alone. He found Leslie in the orchard, a book of bird scores in her hands, and several sheets of music beside her. Her greeting was so cordial, so frankly sweet and womanly, he could scarcely endure it, because his head was filled with thoughts of his wife.

"You are still at your bird study?" he asked.

"Yes. It's the most fascinating thing," she said.

"I know," he conceded. "I want the titles of the books you're using. I mentioned it to Mr. Tower, our tutor, and he was interested instantly, and far more capable of going at it intelligently than I am, because he has some musical training. Ever since we talked it over he and the boys have been at work in a crude way; you might be amused at their results, but to me they are wonderful. They began hiding in bird haunts and listening, working on imitations of cries and calls, and reproducing what they heard, until in a few weeks' time--why I don't even know their repertoire, but they can call quail, larks, owls, orioles, whip-poor-wills, so perfectly they get answers. James will never do anything worth while in music, he's too much like me; but Malcolm is saving his money and working to buy a violin; he's going to read a music score faster than he will a book. I'm hunting an instructor for him who will start his education on the subjects which interest him most. Do you know any one Leslie?"

"No one who could do more than study with him. It's a branch that is just being taken up, but I have talked of it quite a bit with Mr. Dovesky, the harmony director of the Conservatory. If you go to him and make him understand what you want along every line, I think he'd take Malcolm as a special student. I'd love to help him as far as I've gone, but I'm only a beginner myself, and I've no such ability as it is very possible he may have."

"He has it," said Mr. Minturn conclusively. "He has his mother's fine ear and artistic perception. If she undertook it, what a success she could make!"

"I never saw her so interested in anything as she was that day at the tamarack swamp," said Leslie, "and her heart was full of other matters too; but she recognized the songs I took her to hear. She said she never had been so attracted by a new idea in her whole life."

"Leslie, I came to you this morning about Nellie. I promised you to think matters over, and I've done nothing else since I last saw you, hateful as has been the occupation. You're still sure of what you said about her then?"

"Positively!" cried Leslie.

"Do you hear from her?" he asked.

"No," she answered.

"You spoke of a letter----" he suggested.

"A note she wrote me before leaving," explained Leslie. "You see I'd been with her all day and we had raced home so joyously; and when things came out as they did, she knew I wouldn't understand."

"Might I see it?" he asked.

"Surely," said Leslie. "I spoke of that the other day. I'll bring it."

When Leslie returned James Minturn read the missive several times; then he handed it back, saying: "What is there in that Leslie, to prove your points?"

"Three things," said Leslie with conviction: "The statement that for an hour after she reached her decision she experienced real joy and expected to render the same to you; the acknowledgment that she understood that you didn't know what you were doing to her, in your reception of her; and the final admission that life now held so little for her that she would gladly end it, if she dared, without making what reparation she could. What more do you want?"

"You're very sure you are drawing the right deductions?" he asked.

"I wish you would sit down and let me tell you of that day," said Leslie.

"I have come to you for help," said James Minturn. "I would be more than glad, if you'd be so kind."

At the end: "I don't think I've missed a word," said Leslie. "That day is and always will be sharply outlined."

"You've not heard from her since that note?" he asked. "You don't know where she is?"

"No," said Leslie. "I haven't an idea where you could find her; but because of her lawyer superintending the hospital repairs, because of the wonderful way things are being done, Daddy thinks it's sure that the work is in John Haynes' hands, and that she is directing it through him."

"If it were not for the war, I would know," said Mr. Minturn. "But understanding her as I do----"

"I think instead of understanding her so well, you scarcely know her at all," said Leslie gently. "You may have had a few months of her real nature to begin with, but when her rearing and environment ruled her life, the real woman was either perverted or had small chance. Do you ever stop to think what kind of a man you might have been, if all your life you had been forced and influenced as Nellie was?"

"Good Lord!" cried Mr. Minturn.

"Exactly!" agreed Leslie. "That's what I'm telling you! She had got to the realization of the fact that her life had been husks and ashes; so she went to beg you to help her to a better way, and you failed her. I'm not saying it was your fault; I'm not saying I blame you; I'm merely stating facts."

"Margaret blames me!" said Mr. Minturn. "She thinks I'm enough at fault that I never can find happiness until I locate Nellie and learn whether she is with her mother and friends, or if she really meant what she said about changing, enough to go ahead and be different from principle."

"Her change was radical and permanent."

"I've got to know," said Mr. Minturn, "but I've no faith in her ability to change, and no desire to meet her if she has."

"Humph!" said Leslie. "That proves that you need some changing yourself."

"I certainly do," said James Minturn. "If I could have an operation on my brain which would remove that particular cell in which is stored the memory of the past ten years----"

"You will when you see her," said Leslie, "and she'll be your surgeon."

"Impossible!" he cried.

"Go find her," said Leslie. "You must to regain peace for yourself."

James Minturn returned a troubled man, but with viewpoint shifting so imperceptibly he did not realize what was happening. On his way he decided to visit the hospital, repugnant as the thought was to him. From afar he was amazed at sight of the building. He knew instantly that it must have been the leading topic of conversation among his friends purposely avoided in his presence. Marble pillars and decorations had been freshly cleaned, the building was snowdrift white; it shone through the branches of big trees surrounding it like a fairy palace. At the top of the steps leading to the entrance stood a marble group of heroic proportions that was wonderful. It was a seated figure of Christ, but cut with the face of a man of his station, occupation, and race, garbed in simple robe, and in his arms, at his knees, leaning against him, a group of children: the lean, sick and ailing, such as were carried to him for healing. Cut in the wall above it in large gold-filled letters was the admonition: "Suffer little children to come unto me."

That group was the work of a student and a thinker who could carry an idea to a logical conclusion, and then carve it from marble. The thought it gave James Minturn, arrested before it, was not the stereotyped idea of Christ, not the conventional reproduction of childhood. It impressed on Mr. Minturn's brain that the man of Galilee had lived in the form of other men of his day, and that such a face, filled with infinite compassion, was much stronger and more forceful than that of the mild feminine countenance he had been accustomed to associating with the Saviour.

He entered the door to find his former home filled with workmen, and the opening day almost at hand. Everywhere was sanitary whiteness. The reception hall was ready for guests, his library occupied by the matron; the dining-hall a storeroom, the second and third floors in separate wards, save the big ballroom, now whiter than ever, its touches of gold freshly gleaming, beautiful flowers in tubs, canaries singing in a brass house filling one end of the room, tiny chairs, cots, every conceivable form of comfort and amusement for convalescing little children. The pipe organ remained in place, music boxes and wonderful mechanical toys had been added, rugs that had been in the house were spread on the floor. No normal man could study and interpret the intention of that place unmoved. All over the building was the same beautiful whiteness, the same comfort, and thoughtful preparation for the purpose it was designed to fill. The operating rooms were perfect, the whole the result of loving thought, careful execution, and uncounted expense.

He came in time to the locked door of his wife's suite, and before he left the building he met her lawyer. He offered his hand and said heartily: "My sister told me of the wonderful work going on here; she advised me to come and see for myself. I am very glad I did. There's something bigger than the usual idea in this that keeps obtruding itself."

"I think that too," agreed John Haynes. "I've almost quit my practice to work out these plans."

"They are my wife's, by any chance?"

"All hers," said Mr. Haynes. "I only carry out her instructions as they come to me."

"Will you give me her address?" asked Mr. Minturn. "I should like to tell her how great I think this."

"I carry a packet for you that came with a bundle of plans this morning," said Mr. Haynes. "Perhaps her address is in it. If it isn't, I can't give it to you, because I haven't it myself. She's not in the city, all her instructions she sends some one, possibly at her mother's home, and they are delivered to me. I give my communications to the boy who brings her orders."

"Then I'll write my note and you give it to him."

"I'm sorry Minturn," said Mr. Haynes, "but I have my orders in the event you should wish to reach her through me."

"She doesn't wish to hear from me?"

"I'm sorry no end, Mr. Minturn, but----"

"Possibly this contains what I want to know," said Mr. Minturn. "Thank you, and I congratulate you on your work here. It is humane in the finest degree."

James Minturn went to his office and opened the packet. It was a complete accounting of every dollar his wife was worth, this divided exactly into thirds, one of which she kept, one she transferred to him, and the other she placed in his care for her sons to be equally divided between them at his discretion. He returned and found the lawyer had gone to his office. He followed and showed him the documents.

"What she places to my credit for our sons, that I will handle with the utmost care," he said. "What she puts at my personal disposal I do not accept. We are living comfortably, and as expensively as I desire to. There is no reason why I should take such a sum at her hands, even though she has more than I would have estimated. You will kindly return this deed of transfer to her, with my thanks, and a note I will enclose."

"Sorry Minturn, but as I told you before, I haven't her address. I'm working on a salary I should dislike to forfeit, and my orders are distinct concerning you."

"You could give me no idea where to find her?"

"Not the slightest!" said the lawyer.

"Will you take charge of these papers?" he questioned.

"I dare not," replied Mr. Haynes.

"Will you ask her if you may?" persisted Mr. Minturn.

"Sorry Minturn, but perhaps if you should see my instructions in the case, you'd understand better. I don't wish you to think me disobliging."

Mr. Minturn took the sheet and read the indicated paragraph written in his wife's clear hand:

Leslie Winton was very good to me my last day in Multiopolis. She was with me when I reached a decision concerning my future relations with Mr. Minturn, as I would have arranged them; and I am quite sure when she knows of our separation she will feel that it would not have occurred had James known of this decision of mine. It would have made no difference; but I am convinced Leslie will think it would, and that she will go to James about it. I doubt if it will change his attitude; but if by any possibility it should, and if in any event whatever he comes to you seeking my address, or me, I depend on you to in no way help him, if it should happen that you could. For this reason I am keeping it out of your power, unless I make some misstep that points to where I am. I don't wish to make any mystery of my location, or to disregard any intention that it is barely possible Leslie could bring Mr. Minturn to, concerning me. I merely wish to be left alone for a time; to work out my own expiation, if there be any; and to test my soul until I know for myself whether it is possible for a social leopard to change her spots. I have got to know absolutely that I am beyond question a woman fit to be a wife and mother, before I again trust myself in any relation of life toward any one.

Mr. Minturn returned the sheet, his face deeply thoughtful. "I see her point," he said. "I will deposit the papers in a safety vault until she comes, and in accordance with this, I shall make no effort to find her. My wife feels that she must work out her own salvation, and I am beginning to realize that a thorough self-investigation and revelation will not hurt me. Thank you. Good morning."