"And how's our sweet little lady to-day? She's looking as pretty as a picture, so it's a pleasure to look at her. How are you feeling, dearie?"
It was a woman's voice that spoke, soft and wheedling, yet with a certain unpleasant twang in it. She spoke to Melody, who sat still, with folded hands, and head bowed as if in a dream.
"I am well, thank you," answered the child; and she was silent again.
The woman glanced over her shoulder at a man who had followed her into the room,--a dark man with an eager face and restless, discontented eyes; the same man who had watched Melody over the wall of the old burying-ground, and heard her sing. He had never heard her sing since, save for that little snatch of "Robin Ruff," which she had sung to the children the day when he stood and pleaded with Vesta Dale to sell her soul for her sister's comfort.
"And here's Mr. Anderson come to see you, according to custom," said the woman; "and I hope you are glad to see him, I'm sure, for he's your best friend, dearie, and he does love you so; it would be quite surprising, if you weren't the sweet lamb you are, sitting there like a flower all in the dark."
She paused, and waited for a reply; but none came. The two exchanged a glance of exasperation, and the woman shook her fist at the child; but her voice was still soft and smooth as she resumed her speech.
"And you'll sing us a little song now, dearie, won't you? To think that you've been here near a week now, and I haven't heard the sound of that wonderful voice yet, only in speaking. It's sweet as an angel's then, to be sure; but dear me! if you knew what Mr. Anderson has told me about his hearing you sing that day! Such a particular gentleman as he is, too, anybody would tell you! Why, I've seen girls with voices as they thought the wonder of the world, and their friends with them, and Mr. Anderson would no more listen to them than the dirt under his feet; no, indeed, he wouldn't. And you that he thinks so much of! why, it makes me feel real bad to see you not take that comfort in him as you might. Why, he wants to be a father to you, dearie. He hasn't got any little girl of his own, and he will give you everything that's nice, that he will, just as soon as you begin to get a little fond of him, and realize all he's doing for you. Why, most young ladies would give their two eyes for your chance, I can tell you."
She was growing angry in spite of herself, and the man Anderson pulled her aside.
"It's no use," he said. "We shall just have to wait. You know, my dear," he continued, addressing the child, "you know that you will never see your aunts again unless you _do_ sing. You sense that, do you?"
No reply. Melody shivered a little, then drew herself together and was still,--the stillest figure that ever breathed and lived. Anderson clenched his hands and fairly trembled with rage and with the effort to conceal it. He must not frighten the child too much. He could not punish her, hurt her in any way; for any shock might injure the precious voice which was to make his fortune. He was no fool, this man. He had some knowledge, more ambition. He had been unsuccessful on the whole, had been disappointed in several ventures; now he had found a treasure, a veritable gold-mine, and-he could not work it! Could anything be more exasperating? This child, whose voice could rouse a whole city--a city! could rouse the world to rapture, absolutely refused to sing a note! He had tried cajolery, pathos, threats; he had called together a chosen company of critics to hear the future Catalani, and had been forced to send them home empty, having heard no note of the marvellous voice! The child would not sing, she would not even speak, save in the briefest possible fashion, little beyond "yes" and "no."
What was a poor impresario to do? He longed to grasp her by the shoulders and shake the voice out of her; his hands fairly itched to get hold of the obstinate little piece of humanity, who, in her childishness, her helplessness, her blindness, thus defied him, and set all his cherished plans at nought.
And yet he would not have shaken her probably, even had he dared to do so. He was not a violent man, nor a wholly bad one. He could steal a child, and convince himself that it was for the child's good as well as his own; but he could not hurt a child. He had once had a little girl of his own; it was quite true that he had intended to play a father's part to Melody, if she would only have behaved herself. In the grand drama of success that he had arranged so carefully, it was a most charming role that he had laid out for himself. Anderson the benefactor, Anderson the discoverer, the adopted father of the prodigy, the patron of music. Crowds hailing him with rapturous gratitude; the wonder-child kneeling and presenting him with a laurel crown, which had been thrown to her, but which she rightly felt to be his due, who had given her all, and brought her from darkness into light! Instead of this, what part was this he was really playing? Anderson the kidnapper; Anderson the villain, the ruffian, the invader of peaceful homes, the bogy to scare naughty children with. He did not say all this to himself, perhaps, because he was not, save when carried away by professional enthusiasm, an imaginative man; but he felt thoroughly uncomfortable, and, above all, absolutely at sea, not knowing which way to turn. As he stood thus, irresolute, the woman by his side eying him furtively from time to time, Melody turned her face toward him and spoke.
"If you will take me home," she said, "I will sing to you. I will sing all day, if you like. But here I will never sing. It would not be possible for you to make me do it, so why do you try? You made a mistake, that is all."
"Oh, that's all, is it?" repeated Anderson.
"Yes, truly," the child went on. "Perhaps you do not mean to be unkind,--Mrs. Brown says you do not; but then why _are_ you unkind, and why will you not take me home?"
"It is for your own good, child," repeated Anderson, doggedly. "You know that well enough. I have told you how it will all be, a hundred times. You were not meant for a little village, and a few dull old people; you are for the world, the great world of wealth and fashion and power. If you were not either a fool or--or--I don't know what, you would see the matter as it really is. Mrs. Brown is right: most girls would give their eyes, and their ears too, for such a chance as you have. You are only a child, and a very foolish child; and you don't know what is good for you. Some day you will be thankful to me for making you sing."
Melody smiled, and her smile said much, for Anderson turned red, and clenched his hands fiercely.
"You belong to the world, I tell you!" he cried again. "The world has a right to you."
"To the world?" the child repeated softly. "Yes, it is true; I do belong to the world,--to God's world of beauty, to the woods and fields, the flowers and grasses, and to the people who love me. When the birds sing to me I can answer them, and they know that my song is as sweet as their own. The brook tells me its story, and I tell it again, and every ripple sounds in my voice; and I know that I please the brook, and all who hear me,--little beasts, and flowers that nod on their stems to hear, and trees that bend down to touch me, and tell me by their touch that they are well pleased. And children love to hear me sing, and I can fill their little hearts with joy. I sing to sick people, and they are easier of their pain, and perhaps they may sleep, when they have not been able to sleep for long nights. This is my life, my work. I am God's child; and do you think I do not know the work my Father has given me to do?" With a sudden movement she stepped forward, and laid her hand lightly on the man's breast. "You are God's child, too!" she said, in a low voice. "Are you doing His work now?"
There was silence in the room. Anderson was as if spellbound, his eyes fixed on the child, who stood like a youthful prophetess, her head thrown back, her beautiful face full of solemn light, her arm raised in awful appeal. The woman threw her apron over her head and began to cry. The man moistened his lips twice or thrice, trying to speak, but no words came. At length he made a sign of despair to his accomplice; moved back from that questioning, warning hand, whose light touch seemed to burn through and through him,--moved away, groping for the door, his eyes still fixed on the child's face; stole out finally, as a thief steals, and closed the door softly behind him.
Melody stood still, looking up to heaven. A great peace filled her heart, which had been so torn and tortured these many days past, ever since the dreadful moment when she had been forced away from her home, from her life, and brought into bondage and the shadow of death. She had thought till to-day that she should die. Not that she was deserted, not that God had forgotten,--oh, no; but that He did not need her any longer here, that she had not been worthy of the work she had thought to be hers, and that now she was to be taken elsewhere to some other task. She was only a child; her life was strong in every limb; but God could not mean her to live here, in this way,--that would not be merciful, and His property was always to have mercy. So death would come,--death as a friend, just as Auntie Joy had always described him; and she would go hence, led by her Father's hand.
But now, what change was coming over her? The air seemed lighter, clearer, since Anderson had left the room. A new hope entered her heart, coming she knew not whence, filling it with pulses and waves of joy. She thought of her home; and it seemed to grow nearer, more distinct, at every moment. She saw (as blind people see) the face of Rejoice Dale, beaming with joy and peace; she felt the strong clasp of Miss Vesta's hand. She smelt the lilacs, the white lilacs beneath which she loved to sit and sing. She heard--oh, God! what did she hear? What sound was this in her ears? Was it still the dream, the lovely dream of home, or was a real sound thrilling in her ears, beating in her heart, filling the whole world with the voice of hope,--of hope fulfilled, of life and love?
"I've travelled this country all over, And now to the next I must go; But I know that good quarters await me, And a welcome to Rosin the Beau."
Oh, Father of mercy! never doubted, always near in sorrow and in joy! oh, holy angels, who have held my hands and lifted me up, lest I dash my foot against a stone! A welcome,--oh, on my knees, in humble thanksgiving, in endless love and praise,--a welcome to Rosin the Beau!
* * * * *
An hour later Mrs. Brown stood before her employer, flushed and disordered, making her defence.
"I couldn't have helped it, not if I had died for it, Mr. Anderson. You couldn't have helped it yourself, if you had been there. When she heard that fiddle, the child dropped on her knees as if she had been shot, and I thought she was going to faint. But the next minute she was at the window, and such a cry as she gave! the sound of it is in my bones yet, and will be till I die."
She paused, and wiped her fiery face, for she had run bareheaded through the blazing streets.
"Then he came in,--the old man. He was plain dressed, but he came in like a king to his throne; and the child drifted into his arms like a flake of snow, and there she lay. Mr. Anderson, when he held her there on his breast, and turned and looked at me, with his eyes like two black coals, all power was taken from me, and I couldn't have moved if it had been to save my own life. He pointed at me with his fiddle-bow, but it might have been a sword for all the difference I knew; anyway, his voice went through and through me like something sharp and bright. 'You cannot move,' he said; 'you have no power to move hand or foot till I have taken my child away. I bid you be still!' Mr. Anderson, sir, I _had_ no power! I stood still, and they went away. They seemed to melt away together,--he with his arm round her waist, holding her up like; and she with her face turned up to his, and a look like heaven, if I ever hope to see heaven. The next minute they was gone, and still I hadn't never moved. And now I've come to tell you, sir," cried Mrs. Brown, smoothing down her ruffled hair in great agitation;" and to tell you something else too, as I would burst if I didn't. I am glad he has got her! If I was to lose my place fifty times over, as you've always been good pay and a kind gentleman too, still I say it, I'm glad he has got her. She wasn't of your kind, sir, nor of mine neither. And--and I've never been a professor," cried the woman, with her apron at her eyes, "but I hope I know an angel when I see one, and I mean to be a better woman from this day, so I do. And she asked God to bless me, Mr. Anderson, she did, as she went away, because I meant to be kind to her; and I did mean it, the blessed creature! And she said good-by to you too, sir; and she knew you thought it was for her good, only you didn't know what God meant. And I'm so glad, I'm so glad!"
She stopped short, more surprised than she had ever been in her life; for Edward Anderson was shaking her hand violently, and telling her that she was a good woman, a very good woman indeed, and that he thought the better of her, and had been thinking for some time of raising her salary.