Chapter XXVIII

Mother Gray and her husband were sitting before a cheery fire in their little parlor, at the Institution for Helping the Unemployed. The cold November rain without came beating against the window panes in heavy gusts, and the wind sighed and moaned about the corners of the house and down the chimney.

"Winter's coming, wife," said Mr. Gray, as he aroused himself and stirred the fire. "We'll not be having such an easy time as we did this summer. When cold weather gets here in earnest the poor will begin calling on us."

"Yes, but that's the time people need kindling wood the worst, so there will be enough to feed them," answered the good wife brightly, as she too aroused and began knitting with great vigor.

"I fear we are going to have a hard winter this year, mother; my old bones begin to complain a little now; but thank God, we're sure of a comfortable home and enough to eat. What we'd a done without this place is more than I know, with Joe away and me not able to do heavy work in the mines. If Maggie were only with us." And the old man wiped a tear from his eyes.

"Yes, father, but Maggie is better off than we. It's Joe that hurts my heart. To think that he may be hungry and cold like some of the poor fellows we fed here last spring. Hark. Isn't that someone knocking at the door?" She dropped her knitting to listen.

The old man arose and stepped into the next apartment, which was used as a kind of reception hall and office. A faint rapping sounded more clearly from there; and crossing the room, he opened the door, and in the light streaming out, saw a woman. "Come in," he cried, reaching forth and taking her by the arm. "Come in out of the rain. Why, you're soaked through."

"Oh please sir, can I stay here all night? They told me this was a place for people to stop. I'm so hungry and tired."

And indeed she looked it, poor thing. Her dress, though of good material and nicely made, was soiled with mud and rain. Beneath the sailor hat, from which the water ran in sparkling drops, her hair hung wet and disheveled; her eyes were wild and pleading; her cheeks sunken and ashy pale; while the delicately turned nostrils and finely curved, trembling lips, were blue with cold. Beyond all doubt, she had once been beautiful.

Mr. Gray, old in experience, noted more than all this, as he said, "We are not allowed to keep women here, but it's a little different in your case, and I'll see my wife. Sit down and wait a minute."

He gave her a chair and went back to the sitting-room, returning a moment later with Mother Gray at his heels.

"My poor dear," said the good woman, "of course you must stay here. I know, I know," as the girl looked at her in a questioning manner. "Anyone can see your condition; but bless your heart, our Master befriended a poor woman, and why should not we?"

And soon the girl was in the other room and Mrs. Gray was removing her hat and loosening her clothing.

"Father," whispered the old lady, "I think you had better go for Dr. Jordan. He'll be needed here before morning."

When the doctor returned with Mr. Gray, the patient, dry and clean, was wrapped in the soft blankets of Mother Gray's own bed, with one of Maggie's old night-dresses on, and hot bricks at her tired feet. But warmth and kindness had come too late. The long, weary tramp about the streets of the city, in the rain; the friendless shutting of doors in her face; the consciousness that she was a mark for all eyes; and the horror of what was to come, with the cold and hunger, had done their work. When the morning sun, which has chased away the storm clouds, peeped in at the little chamber window, Dr. Jordan straightened up with a long breath, "She will suffer no more pain now, mother, until the end."

"And when will that be, Doctor?"

"In a few hours, at most; I cannot tell exactly."

"And there is no hope?" asked Mrs. Gray, smoothing the marble brow on the pillow, as she would have touched her Maggie.

"Absolutely no hope, Mother," said the physician, who knew her well.

"Ah well, tis better so," murmured the old lady. "This world is not the place for such as she. Christ may forgive, but men won't. The man alone can go free. And the little one too--surely God is good to take them both together. Will she come to, do you think, Doctor, before she goes?"

"Yes, it is probable that she will rally for a little while, and you may find out her name perhaps. There was no mark on her clothing, you say?"

"Not the sign of a mark, and she would tell me nothing; and see, there is no wedding ring."

They were silent for some time, and then: "She is awakening," said the doctor.

The blue eyes opened slowly and looked wonderingly about the room. "Mother," she said, in a weak voice, "Mother--who are you?--" looking at the doctor and Mrs. Gray. "Where am I?" and she tried to raise her head.

"There, there, dear; lie still now and rest. You have been sick you know. We are your friends and this is the doctor. Your mother shall come when you tell us where to send for her."

The poor creature looked for a full minute into the kind old face above her, and then slowly the look of wonder in her eyes gave place to one of firmness, pain and sorrow, and the lips closed tightly, as though in fear that her secret would get out.

"Oh honey, don't look like that, don't. Tell us who you are. Have you no mother? I know you have. Let us send for her at once, that she may come to you."

The lips parted in a sweet, sad smile. "I'm going to die then? You would not look so if I were not. Oh, I am so glad, so glad." And in a moment she was sleeping like a child.

"Poor girl," muttered Doctor Jordan, wiping his own eyes. Very sharp professional eyes they were too. "I fear you will have to take her mother's place. I must go now, but I will look in again during the day. Don't have any false hopes; there is nothing to be done, save to make the end easy."

For an hour the stranger slept, with a smile on her lips; and then opened her eyes again. But there was no pain, no fear in them now; only just a shadow of trouble, as she asked in a whisper, "Where is it?"

The woman, with one hand smoothed back the hair from the forehead of her patient, and with the other pointed upward; the troubled shadow passed from the eyes of the young mother, and she slept again. Later in the day, the doctor called, and once more she awoke.

"I thank you, doctor," she said, in a weak voice; but shook her head when he offered her medicine.

"But, dear child, it is only to relieve you from any pain."

She answered, "you said I must go; let me go as I am. Oh, this world is cold and harsh. God knows that I do not fear to die. Christ, who welcomed little children, has my babe, and he knows that in my heart I am innocent."

"But won't you tell us of your friends?"

"No, no," she whispered. "I have no friends but you and God; and I have doubted even his love until you told me that he would take me."

Nor could any argument prevail upon her to change her mind; her only answer was a shake of the head.

That evening, just after dusk, she whispered to her kind nurse, who sat by the bedside, "Won't you tell me your name, please?"

"They call me Mother Gray."

"And may I call you that too?"

"Yes honey, of course you may," answered the old woman. "Of course you may."

"And why do you cry, mother?" as the tears rolled down the wrinkled face. "Are you not glad that God is good to me? Oh, I forgot, you are afraid for me. You don't understand." And she turned her face away.

"Is there anything I can do for you, dear? Brother Cameron is coming to see you just as soon as he gets home. Would you like to talk to him?"

"Brother Cameron--Brother Cameron--I have no brother," she answered, turning to Mother Gray again. "Who is he?"

"Brother Cameron is our pastor; a minister you know."

The lips parted in a scornful smile, and the eyes flashed with a spark of fire that must have once been in them. "Oh, a church member; no, I beg of you, don't let him come here; I want nothing to do with him."

"But, my dear, he is a good man."

"Yes I know," said the girl. "I have met these good church people before."

"But honey, I'm a church member."

"You are a Christian, mother; I love Christ and his people; but a man can't prove himself a Christian simply by being a church member. But I am tired. Forgive me if I pain you, mother, but I cannot see the minister. He is a good man, a Christian perhaps, but he can do me no good now; and I would rather die alone with you. The church has driven me from its doors so many, many times. It was always so cold and unfeeling. They bestow their pity on the dead bodies of people, and by their manner, freeze the souls of men."

Exhausted with the effort of so long a speech, she dropped into a stupor again.

Later, after Rev. Cameron had come and gone without seeing her, she suddenly opened her eyes and whispered, "mother, I have been thinking; would you be happier in knowing that I'm not afraid to die?"

The good old woman tightened her grasp on the white hand she held, and made no other answer but to bow her gray head and press her lips to the forehead of the girl.

"I know you would; and I'll tell you."

"I lived--" She was interrupted by a low knock at the door and a sweet voice calling gently: "May I come in, Mother Gray?"

It was Amy, who had come at Cameron's request.

The sufferer half rose in her bed. "Who is it?" she gasped. "I--I--know that voice."

"There, there, dearie," returned the nurse, gently pushing her back on the pillows. "There, there, lie down again; it's only Miss Amy."

"Yes, come in," she called; and Miss Goodrich softly pushed open the door and entered.

"I thought perhaps I could help you, Mother Gray," she said, as she removed her hat and arranged a beautiful bunch of flowers on a little stand in the center of the room. Then turning to the sufferer, she was about to speak again when she paused and her face grew as white as the colorless face upon the pillow.

The wide eyes of the dying girl stared back at her in doubting wonder, while the trembling lips tried to whisper her name.

The next instant, Amy had thrown herself on her knees, her arms about the wasted form upon the bed. "Oh Kate; Kate;" she cried. "How did this happen? How came you here?"

It was Kate Cushman, from Oak Springs Farm.

Mother Gray quickly recovered from her surprise, and with the instinct of a true nurse, calmed Amy and soothed the patient.

"There, there, my dears," she said. "God is good--God is good. Let us thank Him that He has brought you together. You must be brave and strong, Miss Amy. This poor dear needs our help. Yes, yes, dear, be brave and strong."

Amy controlled herself with an effort, and rising from her knees, sat down on the edge of the bed, still holding Kate's hand, while she assisted Mother Gray to soothe her.

When she grew more quiet, Amy said, "We must send for your father and mother at once; they can--"

"No, no, you must not--you shall not--they do not know--in mercy, don't tell them--it would kill them. Promise; oh promise me you will never tell them how I died. In pity for them, promise me."

Mother Gray bowed her gray head, while the tears streamed down her wrinkled cheeks. "Yes, yes, dearie, we'll promise. It's better that they do not know until it's all over; and they need never know all." And whispering to Amy, she added, "The poor child can't last but a little longer."

Reassured, the sufferer sank back again with a long sigh, and closed her eyes wearily, but a moment later, opened them once more to look at Amy.

"I'm so glad you're here," she said feebly; "but I can't bear to have you think that I am all bad." And then in whispered, halting words, with many a break and pause, she told her story; a story all too common. And Amy, listening with white horror-stricken face, guessed that which Mother Gray could not know, and which the sufferer tried to conceal, the name of her betrayer.

"And so we were married in secret, or I thought we were," she concluded. "I know now that it was only a farce. He came to visit me twice after the sham ceremony that betrayed me, and I never saw him again until last night. Oh God, forgive him; forgive him, I--I loved him so."

The poor wronged creature burst into a fit of passionate sobbing that could not be controlled. In vain did Mother Gray try to soothe her. It was of no use. Until at last, exhausted, she sank again into a stupor, from which she roused only once near morning, and then she whispered simply, "Good-bye Mother; Goodbye Miss Amy. Don't let father know." And just as the day dawned in all its glory, her soul, pure and unstained as that of her babe, took its flight, and the smile of innocent girlhood was upon her lips.

When Amy reached home early in the forenoon, she met her brother in the hallway, just going out.

"You look like you'd been making a night of it," he said, with a contemptuous sneer. "Been consoling some wanderer I suppose."

The young woman made no reply, but stood with her back to the door, her eyes fixed on his face.

"Well, get out of my way," he said roughly; "can't you see I want to go out?"

Amy spoke--"I have been at the Institution all night. Kate Cushman and the baby are both dead. Go look at your work."

Frank started as though she had struck him; and then as she stepped aside, he fairly ran from the house as though in fear of his life.