A Daughter of Martha
By Ivy Williams Stone
Gloria had a better house now in a better neighborhood. Nancy was out of High School and had a job in an office. She ran a machine – how her fingers flew over the keys! and the keys didn’t run in order like the alphabet – they were all mixed up. The e by the r, the a next to the s. It was all strange to Gloria, but this was an age of marvels. Peter was at last free to follow his own ambition. He no longer acted as clerk of the court. He went East to study medicine. Only his hands, his health, and his head to make his way, but he rejoiced in that privilege. The twins were finishing High School, still looking alike, still confusing their friends, their teachers, their beaux. There was no longer need for Gloria to take in washing, nor to pick berries at fifteen cents per acre. The baking sales had increased until it took all her time. Some women were willing to pay fancy prices for home-made pastries.
Gloria’s vision had come true. Those autos, like Francis had boasted, became more plentiful. Better styles, larger, faster. They had tops now and a round wheel to steer with. And the corner lot had been leased. Men had come offering her a nominal purchase price, telling her how she was eating up twice its value in taxes. but Peter, remembering the peddlers, took a keen delight in feeling for their purpose in buying such a narrow strip of land, with frontage on two streets.
“We will pay you five hundred dollars,” the agent’s tones implied it was a marvelous sum. “Cash, and will we will take care of the taxes for this year.”
“I think,” replied Peter, with a far away expression which made Gloria realize how like his father he looked, “I think we will build a station there, a place where you sell gasoline for autos.” The bidding became higher, running up until Gloria feared they would lose because they desired too much. But in the end she held a signed contract, her land leased for ten years, at a hundred dollars a month. This freed Peter from responsibility. He was penniless, but fired with ambition.
True to his word, Bruce had sent each of the children a money order for one dollar. Peter had flared in anger, but Gloria had simply replied, “Bruce will not prosper from such ill-gotten gain. The Lord reserves vengeance to Himself.”
“Well, I’m going East to study preventive medicine. Aunt Catherine always used to be telling about the princess who kissed a diphtheria-stricken child. Twelve years later a German doctor perfected anti-toxin. In the Spanish-American war more soldiers died from yellow fever than were killed in battle. Look what happened to the English soldiers in South Africa. People don’t have smallpox any more, nor diphtheria, like they used to. They don’t know yet what causes yellow fever, nor how typhoid fever spreads so. I’m going to find out. Nancy can help you now, in her turn, and you don’t need ever to work again.”
Gloria smiled bravely at his going. Peter of course felt that her working days were over. He thought a hundred dollars a month could do marvels. But a secret ambition had crept into Gloria’s mind. Judge Conrad, white-haired now, but still active in his work, had come back from a court session in the valley.
“Do you know, Mrs. Whitman, that the homestead of your husband, and all his other land holdings are shortly going to tax sale?”
“Why, they belong to Bruce Knight,” Gloria reminded him. “You should remember, you probated the will.”
“Yes, but Bruce has not paid his taxes. He lives on, apparently oblivious to the fact that taxes are levied and remain a lien on real property until paid. His neighbors tell me that he and One Eye, I suppose that must be some cherished pet, lead a mere existence. He seems to lack initiative. He was in imminent danger of losing his water right from disuse, but some neighbors took pity on him and helped him clean out his ditches, and together they got the water down, just before the disuse limit had elapsed. But he has disregarded his tax notices, and the place will go to tax deed.”
“One Eye,” Gloria half choked over the explanation, “is his daughter. She lost an eye when a mere baby. Her father has kept her there on the farm constantly.”
“Well, you seem to have a gift for divining wise purchases,” laughed Judge Conrad. “Who ever would think of a widow woman having the first service station in town? By the way, Francis is coming home from South America for a short visit – then he will be off again. He is on the trail of some unusual bugs that are a menace to the cotton industry. It has a name six inches long. I can’t understand why he can’t settle down and live a normal life like other people. He could be a respected lawyer, and a comfort to two old people in their declining years. But no, some forty-legged bug thousands of miles away holds his every thought.”
Gloria smiled patiently. Her father had followed diamonds – Jonas had coveted land – Rodney had cut his own destiny, Peter was studying long hours in a little stuffy laboratory, and Francis was following the elusive trail of an insect. “Cedars must have the wind,” she smiled. “At least I can keep my daughters with me.”
Because of the crowded conditions in the little house, and the steam and the heat, she had kept the gourds shut up in the old canvas suit case. Now in the new home, they could have a place of honor. There was no what-not and no piano, but a little at a time the girls and she were getting the living room furnished. Parlors were out of style. It wasn’t good taste to keep a room shut up, opening it only for company. Nancy had purchased a victrola, one of those improved music boxes. You couldn’t tell it from the real human voice. Even after death, the voice of musical stars lived on. There was a book case – Peter’s last gift. It was in parts. You could buy more to fit when you need them. That was a beautiful setting for the beloved gourds. So Gloria unpacked and dusted them, her fingers lingering over the carvings, her memory flitting back to the incidents which were depicted.
“I declare, Mother,” Florence pouted and looked at the array of gourds with marked displeasure, “I don’t see what you see in these old gourds. They’re not so dreadful uncommon. They’re so terribly old, too. That grinning monkey never takes his eyes off of me. Last night the boys laughed at what they called our curio shop. Our friends aren’t interested in them just because they came from Africa.”
But Gloria scarcely heard her. Her mind was racing wildly under a sudden, strange impulse. Bruce could not pay his taxes. Ever since she had known him he had managed to evade decisive issues. Perhaps he still felt that some unseen power would save his property. Perhaps he had not bothered to read the tax notices when they came. Perhaps he did not fully understand, for Jonas had always attended to every detail of his business, and no one had ever given Bruce any responsibility, probably. But whatever the cause, her great opportunity had arrived. That was the way she had acquired the gas station lot – by paying delinquent taxes.
Revenge was suddenly born in her brain. The rent from the station would meet the payments on her own home and care for the needs of the girls. Through personal effort Peter had achieved far more than had come to Bruce through dependency. Nancy would have to keep working. She would have to help with the home expenses. They knew the value of education. Bread without butter, one dress a week, no spending money, all these things had served as a goading impetus to urge her children on to greater achievement.
She, Gloria, could still keep on working. She would not stop, as Peter thought she should. She would continue to bake – those idle society women were good customers – she didn’t really need any new clothes. She would borrow money on the corner lot to pay those back taxes, and would pay it back gradually. Then she would be the actual owner of the old home. She would turn Bruce out. What a revenge for the accumulated years of inappreciation, of neglect, of indolence, of his refusal to carry out the last wish of the man who had given him a home and a livelihood for so many years.
She laughed aloud at the prospect. Nancy was off with Francis Conrad, helping him to enjoy his brief vacation. The twins were decorating their class room for a party. A little at a time, Gloria had been saving money for dental work. The dandelion greens and the pig weeds, the water cress and whole wheat, the foods which necessity had thrust upon her, had saved their teeth remarkably. Still, they needed care now. Bridge work, the dentist called it. That could wait. Everything could wait. Everything but the taxes.
Revenge! The things which Bruce had done, or failed to do, flooded her memory, danced before her vision, increasing, growing in enormity as they moved in array. The wood she had been forced to cut became a forest. The water she had carried became a lake. The cold rooms, the chillblains, the death of Anna, the treatment he accorded to little Claire, his refusal to share Jonas’ property with Jonas’ children, all crowded together into one great sin.
Nancy had told her mother the story of the Frankenstein. Well, Bruce had built one too! This ranch would revert to his own destruction. What would he do when notice of eviction was served upon him? Where would he go? She remembered perfectly how in Bruce’s absence Lulu had signed papers at Jonas’ bidding, which transferred all her property to the Whitman holdings. Nothing had ever been done to have them transferred back to Bruce, except through the will. It would all revert to Gloria now. Hers for taxes – hers to will to Peter and Nancy and Florence and Flora. Again she laughed harshly and reached into the little dresser drawer for the account book which Peter had taught her to keep. A vindictive, revengeful smile spread over her face as she visioned Bruce walking down the dusty — or it might be frozen – road, empty-handed, bound for where? As she replaced the bank book she caught her own reflection in the mirror. Already the lust for revenge had altered her features. Through her years of toil and struggles she had remembered how to smile – she had looked unchangeably young, erect and straight. Now a hard, steely expression was creeping into her eyes, crowding out the smiles. But she checked her accounts ruthlessly. No poverty could be too severe to thwart her purpose. No clothes too old to divert money from this set purpose. But as she figured, planning an economy here, an elimination there, another vision pushed itself into her mind. Bruce might be forced to walk down the road empty handed, but he would not walk alone. Little Claire – with her one eye – would be forced to walk with him.
It was late when she had finished her plans, and Nancy was still out with Francis. The twins came home, breezily happy and youthful. Their dance programs were all filled for the party. Ice cream and punch and wafers would be served. Some of the boys had clubbed together and rented a seven-passenger car. Then could crowd into it easily. Their teacher had a hobble skirt, and the boys were wearing peg top trousers. Flora giggled and explained to Florence that she had seen a rat sticking out of their teacher’s hair. Both the girls wanted new dresses for the dance. Gloria could not see why their older ones could not serve. The twins went sleepily to bed. Gloria waited up for Nancy. Funny of Francis to keep her out so long. She must have rest. She had to render real service at her work – better wages were needed – Nancy would have to contribute generously to the family budget.
While she waited for Nancy, Gloria dreamed and planned her revenge. It was no fault of hers that Claire would be homeless. It wasn’t much of a home that Bruce provided, anyway, and he treated her like a slave. If it hadn’t been for Gloria’s intervention, the steer would have killed the child. Lulu was no mother. If Gloria could care for three girls, she guessed Bruce should manage to care for one.
At midnight Nancy and Francis Conrad arrived. The boy had his father’s family car – glass doors with windows that rolled up or down; a cut glass flower vase and a an electric light in the roof. Their feet lagged over the cement walk. Cement. that was another of the wonders of this age. They had it on the down town streets, were talking of putting it past her corner lot. Francis was altogether too close to Nancy. How slowly they walked!
“O, Mother, why did you wait up?” Nancy was all concern, but Francis smiled his old good natured, superior, confident smile. “She might as well be up, for we would have wakened her anyway. Look, Mother Whitman,” he held out Nancy’s left hand. “You know that chasing bugs and bees and butterflies in South America is an awfully lonesome job.” The hand that had performed wonders over a keyboard was now adorned with a single, brilliant stone. “We’re to be married!” he announced happily, and Nancy broke down and started to weep.
“But you can’t do that!” cried Gloria. “Nancy has to help with the home – the twins are not out of school yet. I have other plans.”
“O, Mother, I want to go. Francis said when he first came to the ranch I was ever so little, but that I always smiled at him. My smile was the first he’d had since he ran away. He’s lonesome. I can help him. I can mount his specimens. I will be there with him if he gets one of those jungle fevers – besides, we’re engaged!”
John Kirkman chasing diamonds – Jonas acquiring land. Peter in a laboratory – Rodney in a store. Francis chasing elusive bugs through infected jungles. The Glorias with the Jonases. The Victorias with the Rodneys. The Nancies with the Francis Conrads. The treadmill of life. Youth demanding, moving in an irrevocable circle.
“Cedars must have the wind.” She, like the Judge, must take comfort in that. “I suppose it has to be. When you decide just where you are going to settle, I will give you three of the gourds. It will be your only dowry.”
Gloria was glad for diversion. It conquered the lump in her throat.
“Nancy will see plenty of monkeys down there,” laughed Nancy’s fiance. “They’re just like the coyotes here. One can make so much noise you think it’s a million.”
After Nancy’s marriage there was her check less, so Gloria economized even more. She did not buy new dresses for the twins’ dance. They gazed in wonderment at this new mother, who counted all the pennies. Peter had seen that they had things – but now, mother even watched the butter they ate. Why, they lived in poverty! Mother baked all day long in the kitchen. The house was terribly hot at night. Her clothes were getting so shabby they were ashamed to bring their friends home. But her hair remained in tight ringlets, adding a softening charm to her face.
Finally she made a mysterious trip with Judge Conrad to the county seat, past their old home. She said she had certain legal matters to attend to. They could rearrange the sitting room in her absence, but they could not store the gourds away.
When Gloria returned, she seemed her old sweet self. The twins sighed in relief. Whatever the mystery had been, it seemed past and solved. She had a bulky envelop which she put away in her drawer.
That night when she was safely alone and the bakery was closed and the yeast sponges had all been set for the tomorrow’s mixings, Gloria got out pencil and paper and began the composition of a very important letter. After many attempts she finally produced what she considered a masterpiece in sarcasm. Wouldn’t Bruce be surprised? Wouldn’t he rave in anger? Perhaps he would blame Claire, vowing he had never seen the tax notices. Well, the land was hers. She paid the taxes, with interest and cost of court. She had mortgaged her lot – she had mortgaged the future – but revenge was sweet – she would drink till she drained the cup!
What a letter! Would Bruce understand that he was homeless and penniless? She got out good paper and ink, and meticulously began to copy her stinging composition.
Mr. Bruce Whitman:
This will advise you that I have this day purchased all of your former real estate, by virtue of a tax sale deed. I paid all accumulated taxes, interest and cost of court. You are advised to move –
A timid, almost imperceptible knock stopped the scratching of Gloria’s pen. She poised her arm in mid air to listen. There it was again. Who could be coming at this hour of the night? She would not open the bakery, no matter who needed bread. But the knock was persistent. Gloria opened the door in resentment. There on the threshold stood a fantastic, almost grotesque figure – half child – half woman. The shoulders were slightly stooped, the ill fitting dress was spattered with mud, the face was slightly twisted, an eye was missing.
“Aunty Glory,” it was the childish term Claire had always used, “I run away. Father was going to whip me, cause I got into the library to read and forgot to go for the cows. I walked all the way.” The hesitant, faltering voice ceased and the exhausted girl fell into Gloria’s arms. Blistered feet, shod in coarse shoes, ill fitting dress of her own designing. The left eye closed, one cheek pulled backward, giving the mouth an unlovely distorted expression. The natural olive of her skin had an added murkiness, due to sameness of foods. Hands that were roughed and stained. With all his inheritance, all his acres, all his creek of water, how did Bruce Whitman feel when he was forced to say, “This is my child!”
Gloria was still young, but it did not take much strength to carry that frail figure to the couch. As she laid her down, her arm brushed the unfinished letter to the floor. In that second a real vision came to Gloria. What was revenge, anyway, but cankerous sore that ate into your own heart. What good would it do to take Bruce’s farm? She couldn’t run it – Rodney would laugh at her attempt. Peter’s career was already chosen. Nancy was gone. The frivolous twins would never care to settle down to the life of isolation. Here before her on the couch lay a real purpose. Bruce’s child had voluntarily run away. She had come to the one friend she felt she had. Here was work to do. Claire needed care.
“Vengeance is mine.” That was what the Lord had said. He had reserved unto Himself the right to chasten Bruce. In His mysterious way He had chosen Claire as the means of diverting Gloria’s energy from hatred to service. Gloria put a pillow under Claire’s head and, gathering up the letter, stuffed it into the warm stove.
“She is suffering from malnutrition.” The doctor’s verdict was prompt. “She needs proper food, better clothes, laughter and song. She is suffering from an inferiority complex. In a year you can hope for improvement. Teach her to laugh – to smile – to love herself.”
Inferiority complex. Gloria could not find that word in her dictionary. Flora, who was studying psychology, remembered the expression, but didn’t exactly know what it meant. Was it a disease? Was it contagious? She would ask Peter.
Peter made it quite plain. A complete absence of egotism, a fear of failure – a lack of self confidence. Then Peter’s letter abruptly changed the subject. They knew now what spread yellow fever. Mosquitos carried it from one person to another, infecting with their stings. They had also learned that flies, more than water, were the cause of typhoid fever spreading. They carried the germs on their feet. He also added that an Italian named Marconi had discovered wireless telegraphy. Ships could send messages. A wrecked ship had summoned aid in that manner. Also, a Madame Curie who lived in France, carrying on the work of her dead husband, had discovered radium. No telling what this marvelous element might do. Some doctors thought it might cure cancer.
“I’m glad it was a woman who discovered something,” sighed Aunt Catherine. “If she had been English now, it would have been perfect. But France has no king – they can’t make her a lady or a duchess, and I don’t suppose they’ll even give her a coat-of-arms!”
“Claire,” admonished Gloria when she felt the child was recuperated enough for instruction, “never again in all your life let any person call you One Eye. You are Miss Claire Knight. As soon as you are strong enough, I’ll take you to a hospital and have a glass eye fitted for you.”
“Do I have to go back to father?” As she put the question fear leaped into the one pale blue eye.
“When you do, it will be of your own free will.” Gloria considered carefully before she made this weighty answer. Claire was a minor. Bruce was her father. Judge Conrad could advise and suggest, of course, but in the end Bruce could prove his rights. But the right to live and enjoy, to get education was a heritage of every child, and Gloria felt she would make any sacrifice to allow the child to make her own choice.
Bruce, however, was not long in locating his lost daughter. He came to town, aggrieved and offended. Claire lay on the couch in the living room, a late breakfast tray beside her, a magazine in her hand, a bright coverlet adding color to the face which was just learning to smile.
“A fine appreciative girl you are,” began Bruce in the tone of authority he always assumed to Claire. “Running away from a good home. Did you stop to think of the worry you caused me? No note – no thing. Just gone.” He stalked over to the couch and at his glowering look, Claire turned paler.
“Sit here, Bruce,” Gloria pushed forward the one comfortable rocker which the room boasted.
“Sit nothing,” mocked Bruce. “I’m taking her back with me – now.”
“Not if she does not want to go, Bruce.” Gloria spoke quietly, but in the nights of wondering what to do, even after Judge Conrad assured her she could not forcibly take a child away from a parent, Gloria had found a way.
“Not take my own child?” Bruce looked incredulous. “You’ve had your way in lots of things, Gloria, but this time I guess you can’t do just as you wish. I’m taking her home with me.”
Claire rose to a sitting posture, her face quivering with fear. “I never want to speak to you again,” she said.
“Do you think I can run a farm and turn water and go for cows and care for chickens and chop wood and draw water and mix bread?” demanded Bruce, making one of the longest speeches he had ever undertaken. “What will I do alone in that big house?”
“Claire shall decide.” Gloria spoke calmly, hoping to make Bruce see that he could no longer force obedience upon the child who had once tasted freedom.
“I shan’t go with you!” cried Claire. “If you carry me back, I’ll run away again. If you make me go, I won’t watch the calves from the lucern; I won’t milk the cows. I won’t cut wood – I’ll let the yeast spoil; I’ll let the garden dry up. The doctor says glasses will let me see as good as most people with two eyes.”
“We are going home tonight.” Bruce was again master of short sentences. “I can’t waste no more time with you.”
Gloria knew that persuasion would be useless. A stronger force than love would have to be imposed before Bruce would relinquish the child. So she used the solution which had come to her in her nights of worry and prayer.
“Just what do you mean by going home, Bruce?” she asked sweetly. “Where is your home?”
“What do you mean by that silly question?” countered Bruce.
“I doubt if you have a real home for Claire,” added Gloria. “I happen to know that you failed to comply with certain legal requirements in order to hold your home.”
“I have the deeds from Jonas Whitman’s estate, all properly recorded,” flared Bruce. “His title was as clear as a mountain lake.”
“Yes, but your title is not as clear as my husband’s. I can show tax sale deeds from the sheriff, for all the property of Mr. Bruce Whitman. All his acres, all his water rights are mine, for paying delinquent taxes which have accrued over a period of five years, and which he has ignored. Of course, you may have another home to take Claire to – then I will have to let her go.” Gloria brought out the legal envelope with all the separate deeds. The old homestead; Lulu’s lands; the railroad section, the point of gravel.
Bruce looked them over, incredulous, disbelieving, then as the full portent of their meaning dawned upon him, he became frightened.
“Jonas always did everything. I didn’t really understand about taxes. I thought I could pay them most any time that was convenient. You can’t have my land, Gloria. I tell you it’s mine. You left – Rodney left. Me, me alone, of all the family stayed with the old man.”He rose to his slight height. For all of his trembling anxiety, his shabby suit and his worn shoes, Bruce was more of a man than he had ever been before. Gloria felt a pity surge through her, but her purpose was not yet accomplished.
“It is already mine. Deeds recorded. Money paid. Everything legal. I am working hard every day of my life to earn the money which I borrowed for this purpose. Your one time farm is mine!”
Bruce, after his momentary assertion of individuality, sank into the rocker. He leaned his head on his hands, propped his elbow upon his knee. His battered felt hat fell from his hands to the floor.
“I am beaten,” he muttered. “For years I catered to Jonas Whitman. I never really did the things I wanted to do. I thought only the things he wanted me to think. He thought for me – planned for me. Now my reward is this – no land – no wife – no child – no manhood.” A tear trickled down his hands, fell upon the felt hat.
“I will trade your farm back to you, Bruce, for your daughter.”
Bruce looked up, incredulous. “You mean you will give it back to me if I will let Claire stay with you for a while?”
“If you will give her to me for always,” corrected Gloria. ‘You will have to sign papers. In other words, you deed me the child, I will deed you the farm. I will put her in school. I will purchase a glass eye for her. She will have pretty clothes and proper foods. She will lose that inferiority complex. Now, I can’t argue any longer. I have rolls waiting to be baked, and bread to mix.”
“It seems unbelievable,” remarked Judge Conrad to his wife when they settled down to a long, lonesome evening before their grate, “that Mrs. Whitman would trade that valuable farm for the chance to care for a crippled child. She’s already got two girls to support. The child gives me the creeps. She’s thin and emaciated, underfed and undersized. Her distorted smile is a grimace! Now Mrs. Whitman has the child to care for, and the additional burden of clearing off the mortgage she put on her lot in order to pay the taxes for that Bruce! Women are incomprehensible to me!”
“Always were and always will be,” commented Mrs. Conrad. “I will bring the matter up to my club. I feel sure the ladies will increase their orders for bread and rolls!”
Homeward bound, Bruce Whitman felt conflicting emotions. What would he really do without Claire? He who had taken orders all his life, who had never enjoyed independence, had felt a keen joy in his first taste of dictatorship. Here was someone who had to obey him; he had experienced a queer, distorted pleasure in watching Claire cower before his authority. Now she was gone. There would be no one to scold when things went wrong. No one to cook his meals. True, she had been unlovely to look at; but he had always known she was there. Tonight the house would be empty; the cows would be waiting at the pasture gate. If he wanted a drink, he would have to pull a bucket up those forty feet. Perhaps he could have the water put in the house. Gloria had it. Surely, he, a man, could do what a mere woman had done.
Slowly he walked the three miles to the house. He was hungry, but no supper awaited him. He would have to carry wood for a fire, and he doubted if there was any cut. It was hardly worth the trouble. He would milk and drink some of that, and go to bed. He had need to put his hand on the bulging deeds in his pocket, in order to quell the lump which rose in his throat.
As he rounded the little dugway and climbed the hillside from the creek to the house, he was amazed to see a light. Not alone in the kitchen, but in the parlor and the dining room. What could have happened? Had Claire repented of her decision and come by one of those autos? Had she really returned? He quickened his gait to the pasture. No restless, neglected cows greeted him with reproachful eyes. They were in the corral, peacefully chewing their cues. Someone had milked. a spark of light showed that smoke rose from the chimney. Surely Claire had been playing him a practical joke. But it was too late to change now. The bulky package was still in his pocket.
He hurried on to the kitchen door. Force of habit sent him to the back. He could not remember any occasion important enough to send him to the front door. He opened the door quickly.
What a transformation had taken place, even in that one room! The stove was burning brightly, the teakettle, freshly polished, was singing. Enticing odors permeated the room. The room was clean, in a manner far beyond Claire’s pitiful attempts. The table, covered with a fresh cloth, was carefully laid for three.
“Claire!” called Bruce, then he hastily called again. “Claire! Claire – where are you?”
There was no answer, but the door to the seldom used dining room opened and a woman stood hesitantly upon the threshold. She had no slattern beauty – no yellow ribbon around her neck – no dash of red in her hair; no saucy, enticing smile. A neat house dress covered a well-proportioned figure; her olive skin had lost that murky cloud, now showing clear and fine. Her smile was no longer alluring. It was the smile of a woman who had suffered, and through suffering had learned much of the wisdom of life.
“I have come back, Bruce.” The modulated voice had lost its coyness and lilt. “I have come to stay if you will let me. I will care for you and Claire for the rest of my life.”
“There is no Claire, Lulu,” Bruce felt his words were hollow and meaningless. “Claire has gone away – forever. Only I am left.”
“Then I will care for you.”
Bruce suddenly felt a new urge to accomplish. A woman to meet him at night, a woman willing to listen to his ideas, his plans. Jonas had never consulted – he had always ordered. Claire had never had an original idea in her life. Now he could think, with someone to push him on to his better self. The farm was his, to plan, to manage, to operate, as he willed. This woman before had had a half reason to run away. He had kept her in dependency, when she really had plenty in her own right. He had subjected her to the indignities of near beggary.
“I have been waiting for you, Lulu,” he answered, suddenly conscious that her ready laughter, her spontaneous smile had left a vacancy in his life which he had never bothered to diagnose. Lulu walked to the table and without a word of questioning, she removed the third plate.
* * *
Flora and Florence did not have any urge to be singers like Jenny Lind. They never played actor to imaginary audiences as Gloria had done. They could not, as they laughingly explained, “draw a straight line.” They could play a little, but the years had been hard and the piano had come so late. After high school they both entered training as nurses. It was severe and exacting. But the urge which had spurred John Kirkman into the diamond fields, the determination which kept his father at the side of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo, combined with an inherent pity for all suffering things which had so marked their little half-sister Anna, gave them the impetus to see it through.
They were away from home most of the time now and the sales had increased so much that Gloria transformed the little parlor into a bakery sales room. Here Claire found herself. It was so nice to have glasses; to have that aching pain gone from your own good eye; to know that people did not know one eye was glass. The eyelid was not so withered now, although the twist still remained. Even the kind doctor admitted his inability to cure that. She had full liberty to read, to study, to play. But her greatest pleasure came through meeting people in the little store room. Here her word was authority. She knew who really wanted Parker House rolls; what husbands preferred the larger biscuits, who had a weakness for iced rolls, who wanted whole wheat bread. She knew all about the merits of bran bread, or whole wheat, or plain white. Who wanted fresh bread, who wanted stale. It was nice to meet new people; she loved the rustle of paper sacks, and the feel of twine through her fingers. What a thrill to have people call her Miss Knight. The inferiority complex was vanishing.
“I declare, Gloria,” Aunt Catherine had a faint tone of injury in her voice, “if you had told me you wanted someone to help you tend store, I could have done that! You needn’t have taken that child in here with you, adding to your expense. I guess I could hand out biscuits,” she glanced longingly toward a fresh batch as Gloria iced them. “Victoria simply won’t bake. She says it takes too much gas.”
Life was tranquil and smooth for Gloria. She worked early and late, but she had no worry. The world was peaceful and prosperous. Others had taken up the invention of Marconi’s. It was now more than wireless. They had fussed around, just like Edison did with electricity, until they had contrived what they called a radio. Rodney had one. He had what he called “ear phones.” You put them over your head, while he turned many handles and bulbs on a little box and pretty soon you heard things – music – voices – static – out of the air! An airplane had flown over their house. What else was there left to improve the world?
Suddenly upon this peace and sense of security came a thunderbolt that shook the world. A boy somewhere over in Serbia, wherever that was, had shot a prince. That had been the rocket needed to explode a world of suppressed fireworks. Germany had been waiting for just such an excuse. Like Napoleon of a hundred years ago, the Kaiser had dreams of world supremacy. His armies were upon Belgium and France – England, good old England, had resented Germany’s treatment of Belgium, and she was in the fracas too.
Thank Heaven, thought Gloria with a sense of smugness, her country wasn’t involved. All of Europe could fight to the death – she couldn’t help it. Her children were safe. She was glad Peter was getting his training in America. Glad Nancy was away off in South America – glad her twins were girls. Doctors and girls and men who studied bugs, biologists, they called them, were never taken for soldiers.
The price of wheat went up. Gloria had to raise the retail price of her breads and cakes. Well, those Europeans couldn’t fight and farm at the same time. Who was it said: “Hammer your swords into plow shares.”
Claire was straighter now. She laughed voluntarily. She played with a spontaneity that was a joy to watch. Gloria laughed to watch her. She was worth a thousand farms. If only something could be done to cure that twist in her face.
But suddenly the smile was gone from Claire’s face – gone from Gloria’s; gone from the faces of the grim visaged men and women who passed the little bakery. The spring blossoms held no perfume – the grass did not look green. The war had gone beyond Europe, humanity demanded intervention. It was no longer “they” but “we” who were fighting. Even Marconi’s wireless invention had not been able to save the Lusitania.
The special delivery letter from Peter seemed superfluous. Gloria knew what it contained. Already he was on his way. Doctors were needed at the front. He had learned a good deal in his years in that little laboratory. While Gloria sat with his letter in her lap, wondering at life, rejoicing that he had gone, suppressing that dread which sprang up in her sub-conscious mind, the bell on the little shop door tinkled violently and Flora and Florence rushed in.
“We’re going!” they cried in unison. “Can’t even stay for graduation. Perhaps we will get a chance to work with Peter.” A few, the merest few clothes in traveling bags, a hasty kiss, a parting injunction to Claire to “take care of Mother” and they were gone. To Chicago – to New York – to a boat – to France – to battle fields – to hospitals. She had no time to think – they were gone.
Gloria was glad for the years which had steeled her to endure. Glad for Claire to care for – glad for the necessity that made her work – glad for fatigue that made her able to sleep. Creeping wearily into bed a week alter, she glanced at the gourds, now transferred to the book case in their mutual bedroom.
“War, Clair,” Gloria pointed to the gourd where a kafir stood in full painted array. “War with the French, where one grandfather was killed, where one saw three hundred men buried in one well. War with the Dutch over land; war with the kafirs. War with the Indians. War with the Spanish – and now war that reaches over the whole world.” Of her four children only Nancy was safe!
She held out the gourd to Claire that she might better inspect the tattooed Kafir. Clair reached for it, fumbled and dropped the precious gourd upon the hard, uncarpeted floor. The old brittle pod broke into may pieces, the seeds rattled in the silence.
“O, Aunty Glory,” she cried in contrition, “I have broken your treasured gourd!” She climbed out of bed, running about to pick up the shattered pieces.
“O,” she cried again, “I stepped on one of the seeds. It’s sharp. I never saw such a queer seed in all my life.”
She dropped a small hard object into Gloria’s hand. Even in the dim light of the bedroom Gloria knew it was not a time-hardened gourd seed. Although it was rough and unpolished, she knew she held a diamond in her hand.