Grandmother Elsie by Martha Finley
"Filial ingratitude? Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand For lifting food to 't?" --Shaks. Lear.
"This is a very sudden resolve of yours, mother, isn't it?" Dr. Conly asked, as they drove through the great gates at Ion, into the highway.
"It is, Arthur, for I had not dreamed of such a wild scheme on the part of those two silly children until I heard of it from their grandfather's lips; nor could have believed he would sanction such folly. They ought to make Elsie stay where she is, and if young Leland dies it will but rid the family of a prospective plebeian alliance."
"Very possibly of the sweet girl also," was Arthur's grave response.
"Nonsense! it is only in novels that girls die of broken hearts."
"Granting that for argument's sake, it must be very hard to live with one."
"Well; it seems she is to be allowed to go, and my offer removes the most serious objection; yet I have no idea that the sacrifice on my part will be at all appreciated."
"Then why make it, mother? I can readily find a substitute; there is Mrs. Foster, whose health would be greatly benefited by a long sea voyage. She, I feel certain, would think it a great boon to be allowed this opportunity of going without expense and in the company of two young people of whom she is very fond. And you know, mother, that though poor now she was formerly wealthy, is a perfect lady, and her having been to Europe once or twice would make her all the more valuable companion to them."
"You are quite too late with your suggestion, Arthur," was the coldly spoken reply. "I have passed my word and shall not break it."
Her son gave her a look of keen scrutiny, then turned his face from her with a scarcely audible sigh. He read her motives and feelings far more clearly than she suspected.
The truth was she was weary of the dulness of home now that the shadow of bereavement was upon it, and the etiquette of mourning forbade her attendance upon public assemblages of whatever kind, except church, and did not allow even so much as a formal call upon strangers or acquaintance. The society of her now old, feeble, and depressed father was wearisome to her also.
Beside she had long had a hankering after a European tour, and this was too good an opportunity to let slip. Also it would give her a chance to see for herself what was the trouble with Virginia, whose letters of late had been of a very disquieting kind; full of reproaches and vague hints of unhappiness and disappointment in her new life.
There would probably be a few hours between their arrival in New York and the sailing of the steamer, in which she could call to see Virginia and learn with certainty exactly how she was situated.
Mrs. Travilla received the news of her aunt's offer with a gratitude which it by no means merited, and the younger Elsie, though not fond of her Aunt Louise's society, felt that her presence might prove a comfort and support when she and Edward should find themselves strangers in a foreign land.
The mother sought this dear eldest child with loving words of cheer and counsel whenever she could be spared from the sick-room, and Violet, Harold, and Herbert hung about her as a treasure soon to be snatched from them, each eager to render any assistance in his or her power.
The hour of parting came all too soon, and with many tears and embraces the young travellers were sent on their way.
The mother's last words to Elsie, as she held her close to her heart with many a tear and tender caress, were: "'Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them, for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee, he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.' To him, the God of your fathers, do I trust you, my precious child."
"You also, my dear, dear boy!" taking Edward's hand: "but rejoice in the thought that you are together, mutual helpers and comforters."
"Be sure to telegraph us from New York, Edward, again as soon as possible after landing on the other side, and a third time when you have seen Lester and can report his exact condition," was Mr. Dinsmore's parting injunction, as with a most affectionate farewell he left them in the sleeping-car.
Mrs. Conly had joined them at the depot, according to promise.
All three retired at once to their berths, and Elsie wept herself to sleep, thinking of the dear ones left behind; especially the mother who had so tenderly cherished her from her birth and the sick little ones who, she feared, might not be there to welcome her return. Thinking too of him to whom she was going, his probable suffering, and the dread possibility that at her journey's end she should find only his grave.
They reached New York in good season, having met with no accident or detention. The steamer would not leave for some hours, but it was Elsie's desire to go directly on board.
"I think that will be your best plan," said Mrs. Conly. "You can then settle yourself in your state-room at once; and while Dinah unpacks what you will need on the voyage, you can lie in your berth and rest. You are looking greatly fatigued."
"You will come with us, Aunt Louise, will you not?" both the young people asked.
"No, I must see Virginia. I shall have time for an hour's chat with her and yet to reach the vessel some time before the hour fixed for her sailing. Edward, you will see that my luggage is taken on board?"
"Certainly, aunt; but shall we not first drive to Virginia's residence and leave you there? And I return for you after seeing my sister and the luggage on board the steamer?"
"No, not at all!" she answered stiffly. "I am obliged for your offer, but where would be the use? You may tell Ben to call a hack for me. I'll have it wait at Virginia's door and drive me to the wharf when I am ready to go."
Edward, thinking he had never known her so considerate and kind, hastened to carry out her wishes, bidding Ben engage two hacks--one for Mrs. Conly and another for themselves.
Consideration for her nephew and niece had nothing to do with Mrs. Conly's plans and arrangements. If, as she greatly feared, Virginia were living in other than aristocratic style, she would not for the world have it known among the relatives who had heard her boasts in regard to Virgie's grand match; "so much better than Isa had been led into while under the care of her grandfather and uncle."
She had never before heard of the street mentioned in Virginia's last letter, and her heart misgave her as to its being one of the most fashionable for the abodes of the wealthy. The curiously scrutinizing look and odd smile of the hack-driver when she gave him the address did not tend to reassure her.
"Drive me there as quickly as you can," she ordered, drawing herself up and flashing an indignant glance at him. "I have no time to waste."
"Sure, mum, I'll do that same," he returned, touching his horses with the whip.
"Where are you taking me? What do you mean by bringing me into such a vile region as this?" she demanded presently, as the hack turned into a narrow and very dirty street.
"It's the shortest cut to the place ye said ye wanted to go till, mum," he answered shortly.
She sank back with a sigh and closed her eyes for a moment. She was very weary with her long journey and more depressed than she had ever been in her life before.
The drive seemed the longest and most unpleasant she had ever undertaken; she began to wish she had been content to sail for Europe without trying to find Virginia. But at last the vehicle stopped, the driver reached down from his seat and opened the door.
His passenger put out her head, glanced this way and that, scanned the house before her, and angrily demanded, "What are you stopping here for?"
"Bekase ye tould me to, mum; it's the place ye said ye wanted to come till."
Mrs. Conly looked at the number over the door, saw that it was the one she had given him, then in a voice she vainly tried to make coldly indifferent, inquired of some children who had gathered on the sidewalk to gaze in open-mouthed curiosity at her and the hack, if this were ---- street.
The answer confirmed the driver's assertion, and she hastily alighted.
The house was a large tenement swarming with inhabitants, as was evidenced by the number of heads in nearly every front window, drawn thither by the unusual event of the stopping of a hack before the door of entrance. It stood wide open, giving a view of an unfurnished hall and stairway, both of which were in a very untidy condition.
"Does Mr. Henry Neuville live here?" Mrs. Conly asked, addressing the group of staring children.
"Dunno," said one. "Guess not," said another.
"Mebbe thems the grand folks as moved intill the second story front t'other week," observed a third. "I'll show ye the way, lady," and he rushed past her into the house and ran nimbly up the dirty stairs.
Mrs. Conly lifted her skirts and followed, her heart sinking like lead in her bosom. Could it be possible that Virginia had come to this?
Halting before the door of the front room on the second floor, the lad gave a thundering rap, then opened it, shouting, "Here's a old lady to see ye, Mrs. Novel; if that's yer name."
"What do you mean by rushing in on me in this rude way, you young rascal?" demanded a shrill female voice, which Mrs. Conly instantly recognized as that of her daughter. "Begone instantly! begone, I say!"
"Go, go!" Mrs. Conly said to the boy, in half smothered tones, putting a small coin into his hand; then staggering into the room she dropped into a chair, gasping for breath.
"Virginia, Virginia! can it be possible that I find you in such a place as this?" she cried, as the latter started up from a lounge on which she had been lying with a paper-covered novel in her hand.
Her hair was in crimping-pins, her dress most slatternly, and her surroundings were in keeping with her personal appearance.
"Mamma!" she exclaimed in utter astonishment and confusion. "How did you get here? how did you come? You should have sent me word. I have no way to accommodate you."
"Don't be alarmed, I have no intention of staying more than an hour. I start for Europe by to-day's steamer, with Elsie and Edward Travilla. Lester Leland's ill, dying I presume, and the silly love-sick girl must needs rush to the rescue."
"And why are you to go with her? why don't the mother and grandfather and the whole family accompany her, after their usual fashion of all keeping together?"
"Because Rosie and Walter are down with the measles; much too ill to travel."
"And you are going to Europe to enjoy yourself, while I must live here in a New York tenement house occupied by the very dregs of society, and as the wife of a drunkard, gambler, and rake; a man--or rather a brute--who lives by his wits, abuses me like the pickpocket that he is, half starves me, and expects me to do all the work, cooking, cleaning, and everything else, even to washing and ironing of the few clothes he hasn't pawned; me! a lady brought up to have servants to wait upon her at every turn!"
"O Virgie, Virgie! it can't be so bad as that!" cried her mother, clasping her hands in an agony of distress, and gazing piteously at her, the hot tears streaming down her face.
"I tell you it is that and worse! and all your fault, for you made the match! you hurried me into it lest grandpa, uncle, or brothers should interfere, find out that the man's morals were not good according to their high standard, and prevent me from marrying him."
"You were in as great haste and as much opposed to their interference as I, Virginia!" the mother retorted, drawing herself up in proud anger.
"Well, and what of that! you brought me up, and I was only following out the teachings you have given me from my cradle. I tell you it was your doing; but I must reap what you have sowed. I wish I was dead!" She flung her book from her as she spoke, turned and paced the room, her hands clenched, her eyes flashing, her teeth set hard.
She had not drawn near her mother, or given her one word of welcome or thanks for having turned aside from her journey to inquire into her welfare.
"'Oh, sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!'" exclaimed Mrs. Conly in anguished accents, rising as if to go, but instantly falling heavily to the floor.
Virginia rushed to her side, half frantic with terror.
"Oh, mother, mother, what is it? What have I done! what have I done! I know you're the best friend I have in the world!" she cried, stooping over her, loosening her bonnet-strings and dress, and trying vainly to lift her to the lounge, for she was a large, heavy woman and now in a state of utter insensibility, her face purple, her breathing stertorous.
The sound of her fall and Virginia's terrified shriek had brought the neighbors flocking upon the scene; some of the boldest opening the door and ushering themselves in without the ceremony of knocking.
"The lady's in a fit!" cried a woman, hurrying to Virginia's assistance; "you've druv her to distraction; you shouldn't a ben so abusive; I could hear ye clear into my room a scoldin' and accusin' of her of makin' your match fer ye."
"Run for a doctor, some of you!" cried Virginia, standing by the couch where, with the woman's help, she had laid her mother, and wringing her hands in helpless distress. "Oh, she'll die! she'll die! Mother, mother! I'm sorry I was so cruel! Oh, I take it all back. Oh, mother, speak to me!"
"'Tain't no use," said the woman, "she don't hear ye. An' if she did she couldn't speak. I've seen folks struck down with apoplexy afore."
"Oh, will she die? will she die?" groaned the wretched daughter, dropping on her knees beside the couch.
"Can't tell, mum; sometimes they die in a little bit, and sometimes they get purty well over it and live on for years. Here, let me put another pillar under her head, and some o' ye there run and fetch the coldest water that ever ye can git."
Some one had summoned a physician, and he presently came hurrying in. His first act was to send every one from the room except the patient and her two attendants.
With tears and sobs Virginia besought him to save her mother's life.
"I shall certainly do my best, madam," he said, "but very little can be done at present. What was the immediate cause of the attack?"
Virginia answered vaguely that her mother was fatigued with a long journey and had been worried and fretted.
"This is not her home?" glancing around the meanly furnished dirty room.
"No; neither she nor I have been accustomed to such surroundings," answered Virginia haughtily. "Can you not see that we are ladies? We are from the South, and mother has but just arrived. Oh, tell me, is she going to die?"
"Her recovery is doubtful. If she has other near relatives who care to see her alive, I advise you to summon them with all speed."
"Oh dear! oh dear! you must save her!" cried Virginia frantically, wringing her hands. "I can't have her die. They'll say I killed her! But every word I said was true; she did all in her power to make the match that has ruined my happiness and all my prospects for life."
"So you, her own daughter, have brought this on by cruel taunts and reproaches!" the physician said in a tone of mingled contempt and indignation. "I hope you feel that the least you can do now is to take the best possible care of her."
"How can I?" sobbed Virginia. "I've no money to pay a nurse or buy comforts for mother, and I know nothing about nursing or cooking for sick or well. I wasn't brought up to work."
A boy now came to the door with a message from the hackman; "he couldn't stay any longer if the lady wasn't going to the steamer, and he wanted his pay."
Virginia opened a small satchel that had dropped from her mother's hand, found her purse, paid the man his dues, and counting the remainder told the doctor there was enough to provide what would be needed for the patient until other relatives could be summoned, and that should be done at once by telegrams to be paid by the recipients.
The doctor approved, and kindly offered to attend to sending the messages for her.