From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1936 –
The Littlest One
By Olive Maiben Nicholes
Linda Tallifer looked searchingly at her own haggard reflection in the mottled depth of the old mirror. She had been awake since three o’clock, turning the idea over and over in her mind; but at last she had come to the one conclusion – the only reasonable way out. She had thought of it once or twice in a vague sort of way, but that had been before she had known for sure. Now she knew as she should have known in the past four months – she who had been a mother ten times in twice as many years. If she had only been sure at first! How was she to know that a woman of forty-seven who hadn’t borne a child for six years was to begin all over again. But now she knew and her knowledge would set her free!
She crushed the shabby, brown hat down over her faded hair and gathered the black cotton gloves into her shaking hand. Tom was still asleep; she had made sure of that. Poor, dear Tom! The decision strengthened within her as she looked at the pale lids closed over the sightless eyes. He had been so handsome and strong when he had courted her. She had waited each night at the crossing to wave at him when the Flier thundered through Brighton with Tom Tallifer at the throttle. They had married with every prospect bright for the future. The children had come along with the regularity of the seasons and life had been sweet and strong. Then the fearful wreck ten years ago when Tom had become the tragic victim of another’s carelessness. To be sure, Donelly had paid with his life, but to Tom there had come no such swift respite. He had been doomed to a living death that seemed to intensify with the years.
She carefully drew the shade as she slipped by him into the adjoining room where her two boys lay stretched out in the deep untroubled sleep of childhood. These two boys must have their chance – selling papers was no way out for them.
She could hear the little girls talking quietly in the front room where the three of them shared the big couch together. She turned back and went out at the side gate and crossed behind the old round house. She was more than anxious to avoid Dan who would be coming home now from his work as nightwatch at the shops. Well, he wouldn’t be there much longer. Helen would be ready to teach next month and together they would send him to law school.
She walked rapidly on with fresh determination until she reached the big elm beside the doctor’s gate. That Dr. McGan was “in” was borne out by his horse and carriage at the hitching post. The drowsy horse and mud-spattered wheels told her he had just returned from an all-night ride. She hesitated an instant, a little fearful to disturb him, but the insistent tapping beneath her heart forced her through the gate and up the path to the door.
Old Jessica, who had been the Doctor’s nurse and then his housekeeper, opened the door with a belligerent glint in her eye.
“The Doctor’s not for seein’ yez this mornin’,” she announced.
“I won’t be long,” Linda murmured, twisting the cotton gloves; and trying not to break down before the austere gaze of the old woman.
“Why, Linda! It’s Dan Steven’s girl, isn’t it?” The doctor had heard her voice and had come in to the vestibule that opened out from his office.
“I wanted to see you for a minute,” she began apologetically, feeling all at once very tired and futile and heart-sick.
He waved the stony-eyed Jessica aside and took Linda’s hand and led her into the office.
“Tom worse?” he asked kindly as he settled her gently in his great leather chair.
She shook her head and looked at him tearfully. She had meant to be brave and commanding, to win him over by the sane logic of her request. But somehow she could not find words to begin. Her tongue seemed paralyzed, her brain numb, her voice dead.
“In trouble, Linda?” he asked, searching her tortured face for an answer.
Then she seemed to find speech all at once and poured out the entire, unhappy story: – her plans for the children, poverty, hard work, and then the new baby’s coming that spelled nothing but disaster to all her hopes. He must help her; he could if he would. She couldn’t let this intruder ruin all their lives.
He listened to her in silence, his heart torn between pity and despair.
“I couldn’t, Linda,” he said huskily when she had finished. “Even if I had no fear of the law, I could never face Alice and the boy – over there. You must let me help you in some other way. Help your children to help themselves. You mustn’t let Helen foist her ideas on Dan. You would let her make a poor lawyer out of a good mechanic. Have you really wondered why she wanted to stay on to school all summer after her graduation?”
“Why, she needed another course to get into a high school position; it will pay better than the grades,” she retorted.
“Helen will never teach school, Linda; she is too busy planning her trousseau,” he answered kindly.
“How dare you say that?” she demanded, all “mother” at once.
“You mustn’t be hard on her, Linda; love is selfish as well as blind. She couldn’t leave and come home last spring with Charlie Kennedy still so uncertain as to his matrimonial inclinations. It’s a good match, Linda. He has ability – to make money. Helen has the brains to spend it.”
She was crying wildly now and he waited a moment before he pulled the little table between them and placed the tray of hot food, the repentant Jessica had left outside his door.
“Come now,” he demanded with his best operating-room voice. “Let’s thrash this thing out. Here you’ve been planning your children’s lives and ruining yours and Tom’s. Do you ever realize you are giving them all you have and asking nothing in return?”
“They will help me out when I’m old and done for,” she bridled. “Every one of them will pay me back ‘heaped up and running over.’ If Helen doesn’t now, she will. You just wait and see.”
He offered her the bowl of hot soup and bided his time. At last warmed by the good food and the gentle tones of his big voice, she began to relax and smile a little.
“I guess I have spoiled her,” she admitted. “Losing the first two made us so careful of her.”
“Too careful,” he affirmed. “Parents often confuse their motives. But you can use your experience to advantage with the others. Let’s count them.”
She leaned back against the cushions, tired, but at peace. “Dan’s nineteen, with his job in the shops. Jeanne’s seventeen, clerking in Gibbon’s; Ben and Craige – selling papers. Irene and Chloe just turned eleven and eight – still in the grades, and little Beth – she begins next week.”
He tabulated their names, ages and occupations neatly. “Now for inclinations and ability,” he said severely.
“I couldn’t bear to have Dan an engineer,” she protested.
“Pretty good mechanic,” he reminded her. “This new automobile business might amount to something some day. If he ever takes a notion, don’t squelch it.”
She twisted her soggy handkerchief about her calloused finger. “I’d like Ben to be a doctor, though.”
“Good,” he affirmed, and wrote, “Physician and Surgeon” beside “Benjamin Tallifer, age 15, newsboy.”
“Craige loves to read. I thought maybe he’d be an author,” – and she dared not look up until she heard his assent.
“Might be a newspaper writer,” he smiled as he wrote the word beside Craige’s name. “We’ll rig up a news stand; let him sell magazines as well as papers. Ben can come with me and go to high school. I need an office boy. If the treatment I’ll give him ‘takes,’ I’ll help – mind you help – him into the medical college.”
“Jeanne loves art; she’s like me – though I’ve never had a chance. I was married young and the babies came along,” she sighed. “I’d like her to be an artist.”
He wrote the word beside Jeanne’s name, but added, “In her own home.”
“Irene can sing and Chloe loves to act. She’s always saying pieces,” she smiled, reminiscent of the home-dramatics on the back porch. “And Beth loves to dance. She’s always dancing.”
“Well, we’ll let the prima-donna, actress, danseuse grow up before we give them a rating. Meanwhile,” he said, taking her rough hands between his big, sensitive fingers, “we must look out for the ‘Littlest One.’ You have no right, Linda, now you have called his body into being, to send his spirit hurtling out into space. He, too, must have his chance. You won’t go to someone else, will you? I trust you to put up a good fight. When Dan Stevens went into a burning building, he never looked back, Linda. He was a brave friend, and true. I’ll never forget the day the warehouse burned down. He went up and came out fifteen times with a man or boy. Then someone shouted about Hegenson’s dog. It was there in the window two stories up. He went up the ladder and tossed the dog down into the blanket and then the floor sank and he went down. Linda, you can’t fail your father now. He’d grieve to know you were a quitter.
“I’ll stand by. But you must give up the long hours in the restaurant kitchen. You’re a good cook, Linda, but you’re a better mother. And Tom needs you, too. When Beth starts to school, he’ll be alone unless you stay.”
“I promise,” she whispered, as she passed out into the September sunshine.
Linda kept her word as best she could. Helen’s letter, two days later, confirmed Dr. McGan’s suspicions, so she smothered her heartache and wrote a happy letter and sent the paisley shawl and the bronze andirons that had been in the family for a century or more.
She had meant to use the thirty dollars for some other purpose now Helen no longer needed it. But Dan had come in jubilantly that morning with the big news that Bert Jones was selling these new automobiles and wanted to start a shop in the city – a “garage” he called it – where they mended and repaired. Bert wanted Dan. He said he’d need twenty dollars to start on and some clothes. She gave him the money and he kissed her awkwardly and went away as happy as a prince.
Linda stayed on at home for weeks, the fifty dollars pension and Craige’s and Jeanne’s stray pennies helping to keep the home expenses up. She asked nothing of Ben. He lived at McGan’s and saved his wages toward that rosy, medicated future he was so anxious to attain. Jeanne was taking art, although she had little to show for it. She went out a great deal with a boy from the shops – a good boy, Linda thought, but not quite good enough for her Jeanne. Irene’s vocal lessons and Chloe’s “elocution’ came high, and now Beth wanted ballet slippers for the “Toddlers’ Dancing Class.”
So it was that Linda went back to the café kitchen – for the night shift. She could be home by seven in the morning and help the girls and Craige off to school. Jeanne saw to their breakfasts and Linda and Tom ate alone. She read to him and filled his morning with the breezy gossip of the kitchen, slept and tidied up the house and left at six o’clock for work. She had meant to quit before Christmas, but the management had urged her with increased wages to stay on for the festivities and she, tempted with what the money could do for her children, had yielded.
So it was that the tiny boy had come, gasping for breath through little, blue lips, two months before his time. A sleety morning, a frozen apple paring on the sidewalk had sent her headlong into the slushy gutter. She had managed to get home and to bed without help, and lay there alternately sweating and shivering until Tom had wakened and sensing a danger he could only feel had called Jeanne and Craige for help.
Doctor McGan had shaken his head over the poor little mite, but Linda had set her Stevens mouth in a firm, hard line and fought for him day after day. All the bitterness of his coming was burned away in the intense fire of her love – and after weary weeks, love triumphed.
The twisted knee called out all the skill and tenderness her hands and heart could give. She studied and read and asked for information. To the other children she gave scant attention, so it was with little opposition Jeanne married the boy from the shops and settled down in a home across the railroad tracks.
She and Tom took Tommy for long walks. The father pushed the carriage with a new assurance in his step, Linda’s hand resting lightly on the handle to give him direction.
At last Tommy learned to walk and went hobbling off to school, his knee braced and stiff. Then Craige went away to College, and they planted a garden to help along. With one small hand clasped around his father’s finger, Tommy guided the older Tom about the garden and amongst the flowers. The father was happy, and Linda coming out often to watch them working saw the old Tom revive and live again.
Then the War roused the world to ominous activity. Ben – just ready for his internship – went to the training camps, and Craige went into the front line trenches with notebooks and pen. Jeanne and John and their three little boys went back to the farm, for crops were needed and the prices were high.
Tommy saved his pennies for the soldiers; Irene and Chloe sang and read for the Red Cross and little Beth danced her way right into the soldiers’ hearts.
Then, before anyone was aware of the menacing scourge, the plague was upon them. Thousands went down in the holocaust. In training camp, in schools and homes the devastating sickness raged. Little Beth danced on, and then, the little dancing feet were stilled forever. The rest were somehow spared, and Tommy played through the long spring days, strangely untouched.
Chloe found her soldier lover, and followed him to France, but the shrapnel that took his life shattered her own, and Death rung down the curtain on the last act of her little drama.
No word came from Craige. He had last been seen before an attack. She refused to hang a gold-starred flag in her window; she never gave him up as lost. At night she listened for his step on the walk, and a knock on the door brought her heart fluttering into her throat. Many a late delivery boy or hungry tramp wondered at the radiant face that looked out to them from the doorway.
To Irene success came fluttering on butterfly wings. At last Linda’s hopes seemed to be fulfilled. This child would fill her mother’s aging years with comfort. But love, too, came singing, and before the golden voice had reached its destiny, Irene was married to the “first violin.”
Linda told herself over and over again that everything would be all right. Even when the panic swept their meager savings away and Irene and Ivan came home for a year, she kept up her courage. There was no work for Ivan; “canned music” had crowded his kind out, and he was glad to work at anything. They found work at last, and she helped them on their way with her last ten dollars and her tenderest prayers.
Life that had seemed to crawl suddenly found wings, and she was an old woman past seventy, and Tom was seventy-five. He suddenly seemed to shrivel within himself, to spend long hours dozing before the fire, to talk of earlier years, and his “run” on the road. Younger men came into the offices. They had never known Tom Tallifer, and the pension was often a long time coming.
Tommy was working in Gibbons and but for him there would not have been bread in the house. Jeanne sent crates of vegetables and fruits – there was no sale for them – and Tommy paid the postage. Sometimes Linda turned off a rug or two and bought small shoes at the sales to send to Jeanne’s youngest children, for there was no money on the farm.
One day Tom called to her, but before she had reached him, his sightless eyes had opened upon another world. Helen sent roses – she was going abroad and couldn’t come. Dan drove down in his big gray car. Business was bad and his wife was ill. Dan’s wife had spent weeks at a time in the hospitals for everything under the sun.
“Lucky Tommy’s got a steady job. He’ll be able to keep things going,” he said, proffering a five dollar bill.
Linda accepted it, secretly planning to buy shoes and hose for Jeanne’s youngest children. Jeanne could not come, but sent five dollars “to help with expenses.” Linda knew what sacrifices had gone into the worn bill. With wool and cattle down to “bedrock” and eggs and butter going for a song, it was worth ten times its face value to the struggling family in the country.
Irene and Ivan sent regrets. A new baby was coming and they could not afford a trip. They wrote at length about Ivan’s work – small pay at the Broadcasting Station but one could manage with no further expenses.
Linda read the letter through hot tears. Well, she would never bother them, nor Helen and Dan neither. Jeanne’s hands were already too full to carry any extra burdens. There were only Ben and Tommy left. Ben had remained in France doing wonderful things to distorted faces and broken bodies. By now he would be somewhere in Africa searching for the cause and remedy of the fever that was cutting down the Foreign Legion. It would be months before the news of his father’s death would reach him.
“But Tommy’ll have his chance,” she muttered fiercely to herself. “His painting is all he’s got to take him along in the world.”
She was sitting alone before the little heater two days after the funeral. The canary hopped dejectedly from perch to swing. The flowers in the windows shrank away from the frosty glass. Icicles that fringed the roof glittered like steel in the waning light.
“I’ll sell the house to the railroad; they want ground back for a spur to the main line, and they’ll be glad to give me eight hundred for the house. I’ll give Tommy five and the other three will get me in at the ‘Home.’ I’ll see Mrs. Finny about taking the canary. She’ll be real kind to him. I guess they wouldn’t want him at the ‘Home.’ Maybe I can take my ivy geranium and the white rose, but I’ll let Sam Brown’s Emmy have the rest. No doubt, she’ll let ‘em die or get aphids or run out; but I’ll try to remember them as I saw them last.”
She heard a familiar, halting step on the porch and rose hastily to tie on her clean white apron. She wouldn’t let Tommy know. After he got away to the art school, she would pack her things and leave. She opened the door with one of her sunniest smiles.
“I’ve watched out of the window for you, but missed you, somehow,” she chided happily, unwinding the scarf from about his neck and ears.
“Cold as Greenland!” he laughed, stamping his feet. “The reason you didn’t see me, Mums, was that I came in our car.”
She blinked up at him, “Car? The cold’s addled your brain, lad.”
He led her to the window. There in the shelter of the old roundhouse was a little green roadster.
“Why, that’s old Doctor McGan’s, she protested.
“Ours now. He says he wants to end his days riding round with his horse and buggy, so when he dozes he won’t end up in a ditch. Says he’ll sell it to me on time.”
“Time?” she reiterated. “But, Tommy, your education, your painting. You forget you’ll be leaving for the big city soon.”
“I’ll be staying right here, my young lady,” he laughed, struggling into the big apron he always wore when they got supper together. “Haven’t told you of the promotion I’ve had, either, nor of the night classes I’ve taken on the sly.”
He stood erect and beat his chest with a clenched fist, “I, Thomas Stevens Tallifer, Window Decorator for Gibbons & Gibbons, assistant floor manager and buyer in the arts goods department – all for 150 iron men per month.”
She gasped and sat down abruptly. “But, Tommy, your education, your painting?”
“I’m at it every day,” he answered, spreading butter on the crisp toast. “I’ve a studio in the top of the store – free heat, free light and free air. Out on the drive by the Park I’ve rented a bungalow for you. There’s a patch of grass – under the snow at present – a flower garden and a place for my prize bunnies; besides a garage for our car and a bit of a place for your hens.”
“Does the Doctor know?” she demanded weakly.
“I’ll say he knows. In fact he’s ‘egged’ me on for ten years or more. Poor old fellow, he’s getting childish of late. Says the queerest things.”
“Childish? Queer?” She visualized the big white-haired man, alert and active at eighty.
“Yes, ma’am – childish and queer. Why, just tonight when he handed me the keys to the car he patted me on the back and said, “Tommy, I knew you were going to be a good lad to your mother. I knew it for weeks before you were born.’”