A Child's Heart

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Author of "The Heart's Country," etc.


THIS story was told me by an old friend of mine—told me to use, so I can give it without scruple. But, after all, I don't know if one could call it a story, for life, as it happens, fails often to have a recognizable pattern, like the orderly things called stories which we print in books; for you may bleed your heart out and finally die of the wound, and yet the pain of which you die, the drama which caused your heart to bleed, will have had neither logical beginning nor definite end, and in the whole course of it, though it has been life and death to you, there will have been none of those first aids to the reader—suspense, dramatic contrast, or plot. You have suffered and died, but it has n't made a story.

So instead of pretending that this is a story at all, I will call it "A Child's Heart"; for, as I listened, it seemed to me that I saw deep into the heart of a very little girl, but a different sort of child from the one I had been. So, after all, this tale without beginning or end had given me a new horizon about childhood, since we are apt to interpret by our own all the psychological happenings in the heads of children.

When my friend first said that little girls have not changed very much since the days of the Renaissance, when great poets fell in love with slender little things of fourteen, and when fifteen seemed not the moment for nursery tea and bread and butter, but for great romance in the eyes of writers, I smiled; but she smiled back at me with the serene eyes of one sure of her ground, since she had been one of those tragic children to whom love comes too soon.

When you come down to it, how punctilious are the keeping of ages and records! At such an age, say the miscellaneous body of people known as the school-board, a child is old enough to study this thing; at such an age to study that. All children should begin algebra at the average age of so-and-so. As we try to find a common denominator for their various minds, so do we find one of emotions of young people. Young girls, it is evident, should not begin to think of young men "seriously" until they are out of school. Having decided this, we let our daughters go their way with a peaceful heart.

Yet who can be sure that her little girl of thirteen is a hard-hearted, undeveloped being or a woman with a madly beating heart?

When I first saw him, I was only a little girl. I ran down the stairs of my house, dashed out of the front door and down the three shallow steps that led to our brick walk, and there I almost ran into him. As I looked at him, I felt all the blood rush into my heart. I suppose I stared at him with frightened, questioning eyes, for he laughed and said:

"I'm nothing to be afraid of. I'm only Paul Lewis."

I just said, "Oh!" and then was like to die of shame at my own stupidity, for all power of speech was taken from me. I had no idea why no words could come to me and why the blood ebbed to my heart, or why, at his words, a rush of gladness that was almost triumph swept over me as I thought: "He is coming here to live! He is going to stay here with us!" For how could I know that all at once he had unlocked my closed heart, and I, who had started at the top of the stairs a little girl intent on play, at the sight of him had become a woman? I only knew then that I was disturbed as I had never been disturbed in my life before, that something immeasurably sweet and terrifying had happened at the sight of him.

I have lived many years since then, and, believe it or not, there is no picture in all the gallery of memory that is so vivid to me as Paul coming up the walk. He was straight and clean and manly; round him was an atmosphere of joy and youth. Yes, the picture of Paul striding up our walk will always seem to me a picture of Youth the Conqueror,—Youth with the magic power of the thing unbeaten and unhurt by life, Youth with all its loyalties and its passionate desire to spend itself.

"Who are you?" he asked next, smiling at me.

"I'm Mildred Woods," I told him.

"Oh, how jolly!" he said. "I 've got two kid sisters at home, and I did n't know how I was going to get along without the kids."

"I'm not a kid," I replied with severity. "I'm in my second year at high school, and I'm over fifteen." I drew myself up. I wished ardently that I had had on my longest dress and my highest heels and a wide, grown-up young-ladyish hat instead of being bareheaded, with sneakers on my feet.

"Why don't you want to be a kid?" he asked me. "It's the bulliest thing in life, I think." All at once I was warmly reconciled to my little-girl clothes. "Anyway, just to look at you I know we are going to be great friends, you and I, are n't we?" This somewhat took me off my feet. I felt myself blushing. Then suddenly the desire of my heart found words.

"I will be your friend always," I said.

"Shake on it!" he said, and put out his brown hand, and I put my tanned little paw in his. At the touch of his hand it was as though a new and troubling wave of life had flooded my whole being. I never sealed a more solemn pact in my life, or gave my word more utterly, than I did with my faint little pressure on his kind hand.

"You 're a nice kid!" he broke out. "You know, this just makes me feel as if I were coming home to find you here. Say, have you got a dog?"

I had a dog, a mongrel Yorkshireman, sagacious, good-mannered, and bellicose. I gave vent to a shrill, piercing, boylike whistle, to which Mattie came running.

"Say, this is what I call something like!" he said. "Do you know, I almost took a room over at the Hitchcock's? It was bigger, but I liked the view here, and the house over there was sort of formal."

I was shaken at his words. It seemed to me as if I myself had just escaped some frightful disaster. The breathless feeling which had overwhelmed me when I first saw him again menaced my power of speech, but I managed to reply firmly:

"They have no girls and no dogs over there. Nothing but the most grown-up kind of people." He had sat down on the front door-step, and I had sat down beside him.

"I have luck," he said. "You know, I 've always had luck." He took off his straw hat and laid it beside him, and breathed in deeply the lilac-scented air.

That night I sat for a long time on my window-seat, my whole soul flooded with a light of happiness as sweet, caressing, and all-pervasive as the shimmering country before me. My heart went out in a sort of litany of love to all live things, in a kind of child's Magnificat. That night, as I sat there, my heart went streaming out to God, for so alike are the love of God and the love of man that who can say they are not one?

I felt that all the little voices of the night were lifting up their voices to God with me. I looked and listened until it seemed to me that my very soul had gone out of my body and that I was one with all things—one with the least of chirping things in the grass, one with the most distant star. The terrible wonder of the universe enthralled me, and yet I was it, and it was me.

Then floodingly I understood the longing man has for the immortality of the soul. That had been an abstract thing before, but now I felt that inevitably this soul of me must live forever.

It was when man first became aware of love that the desire for immortality must have been born in him, for when one loves God, or when one truly loves man, eternity is none too long.

I went to bed and slept wonderfully, the marvel of the night enfolding me. I woke again, and went to the window as though drawn there without any conscious effort of my own. The night was still clear and bright with moonlight, but down in the valley a fog had arisen as flooding and luminous as a sea, the tops of hills appearing as though they were islands. At times of flood I could glimpse a silver streak that was the river behind the hills. And now it was as though the river had overflowed its banks and flooded the valley as it must have done in ancient days. My mind traveled back to the vast mysteries of time, and out again into the immeasurable vastness of the future.

Again I slept sweetly and dreamlessly, and opened my eyes to the sunlight with a vast, comforting sense of harmony with all things.

All through that night I was not aware that the actual thought of Paul walked through my mind at any moment.

The inner light that I felt must have shone through me, for my mother kissed me tenderly and said, "How happy you seem, sweetheart!" As I went about my small household tasks before school I felt that I wished to flood the house with song, and it was physical pain to me that I had very little voice and could not sing. When at last I took my books and went to school, I went into the world as though I was walking into some holy church.

On my way home from school I saw coming toward me Paul himself, and at the sight of him swinging along with his gallant walk, his head thrown back, my knees felt weak, and all of a sudden there was not enough air in the world to breathe. My heart gave a glad throb, and then stopped beating for a second. I do not think I ever saw him after this without that troubling gladness, without a lovely surprise that was so piercing that it hurt me.

A wave of shyness engulfed me, and I would have passed him with no more than the nod of a tongue-tied little girl, but he cried to me joyfully:

"Hello! Well met!" And then, as always after, my shyness melted in a sudden flood of delicious understanding.

"What are these posters?" he asked, pointing to a yellow poster attached to an elm-tree which announced an alumni dance of the high school at the town hall. "Do you dance?"

It was the thing I did best in the world.

"I do, indeed," I told him.

"I am going to take you to that dance, if you 'll go," he said.

"Oh," I cried, "mother does n't let me go to grown-up dances!"

"She 'll let you go to this one." He had the easy cock-sureness of a youth well beloved of mothers. "I 'll get around her; you 'll see."

I was sure he would; I was sure he could get around anybody, and indeed I knew by the dimpling smile about my mother's soft mouth when she first refused him that the victory was already won.

This was the great party of my life. It had come to me unexpectedly, a sheer gift of the gods. My little heart almost burst itself open with pride when I walked on to the smooth floor of the town hall, my mother on one side of me and Paul on the other. When we got in they were playing the waltz "Santiago," and Paul, who, like myself, was an impassioned dancer, could hardly wait for the formality of seating my mother before he put his arm about me and swung me off into space, it seemed to me—space where there was simply rhythm and music and the joy of motion. We did not talk as we danced; we both gave ourselves up to the pleasure of it, only now and then Paul said to me things that set my heart beating even faster. Little good-tempered appreciations of my dancing were all they were.

In the pause between the dances he sat beside me and looked about at the crowd, chatting with my mother. He embraced the whole group of young people with his friendly eyes.

Then all at once I realized his attention was not on what he was saying and that his eyes were on a girl who had just come in and was standing near the door. He let his voice trail off and continued to stare at her, unaware of what he was doing. After a moment he turned to me and asked with an entirely different note in his voice:

"Who is that girl?"

My mother answered for me:

"That's Rose Gibson."

"Rose," Paul repeated—"Rose! She looks like a rose. I'm going to meet her."

I saw him talking to her on the opposite side of the hall. I saw her smiling at him, and watched them as they swung out in a waltz, and my eyes followed them as they danced. I knew that she had attracted him as no one else had, and I watched them without a pang of jealousy. It appeared quite natural to me that he should have singled her out, she seemed to me so lovely. They talked and smiled into each other's eyes as they danced. Then a great wistfulness came over me that I was not grown-up; I felt no envy, only wistfulness.

I do not know when it was that I realized that I loved him. I know now that I loved him from the first moment I saw him, that I have never felt that terrible sweet breathlessness at the sight of any other man since then. The least touch of him made all my heart sing with joy and a kind of exquisite fear. What I felt was not a woman's passion, for even the knowledge of passion was still years away, awaiting me. But I know that at his friendly hand-clasp the joy of heaven descended on me sweet and enfolding, and again I know that the nearness of no other human being has so swept me out of myself, so filled my life to overflowing.

My memory of the next few weeks was of sheer happiness. He was so kind! He was so full of friendliness! He was so good! He was so good that my mother never put the slightest bar to our intimacy; and, indeed, why should she? He was all good for me. He opened so many doors to me. He was a home-loving lad, and when his work was over at five, he would come rushing in to take me to walk or to play tennis, and in the evenings we read aloud. We read "Alice," I remember, and the "Bab Ballads," my mother and Paul and I chuckling together like children. We read Matthew Arnold and Keats and Shelley; all sorts of poetry we read in the unselective, omnivorous fashion of the young.

We had long serious talks, Paul thrown full length on the moss under the apple-trees, and he would explain to me his theories of life and his philosophy—his sweet boy's philosophy, full of a touching desire for all the gallant loyalties. He had the need of hearing his thoughts in words, and he found in me the perfect creative listener. Then in the middle of his talk he would break off to romp with Mattie or to play stick-knife, in which game I was an adept. Paul was one of those who could never be far from boyhood, and I think of him now playing with his own boys and girls as delightfully and in the same warmly intimate fashion as he played with me.

He played the heart out of my trembling little body, and it was never mine all the days of my life to give again.

I said that my memory of those weeks was of happiness; they seem now, as I look back on them, swimming in light. I remember, too, that I was very good. I embraced the world in my new joy. I tried to please exacting and difficult teachers. By instinct I felt that I must give to life that which love had suddenly given to me with such radiant fullness.

There was no room in me for any small emotion; everything but happiness and goodness was crowded out. The smallest act of life, tiresome lessons, the routine of housework, had now a meaning, since I was trying to be worthy of life.

I had discovered the meaning of life, and that was to give myself utterly. It must have been when I put that into words that I also put into words my love for Paul. The conscious thought of him was not always in my mind, but he was always and forever there, the way the sun is there on a bright day, whether you think about it or not. Then from one moment to another it flashed into my mind:

"I love Paul!"

That was the answer to this high happiness that had come to me. I thought, "I am in love!" and at once I blushed and trembled at the thought of it. This thing that had been in my heart and that had no name, this desire to love and serve all the world and especially to serve him, was love.

I lay awake far into the night, wondering at the marvel of it, as a young mother may wonder over the marvel of the birth of a child. I did not then, or at any other time, want anything of Paul. I only wanted to do what I was then doing, pour out my whole nature toward him—pour it about him like sunshine. I prayed passionately to God to make him happy and to make me good. It never once occurred to me that he could love me in any other than in the way he did, and yet, when I went down to breakfast the next morning, it was with a shrinking modesty, as though I had gone down naked, as though they might guess the secret within my heart. I felt they must guess, and it was with a sort of astonishment and a dumb wonder that I realized they had guessed nothing at all, and that my heart was a garden inclosed and my secret safe within it. I would have died sooner than have said the word aloud to any human being, least of all to him.

I do not know at what moment it came to me that Paul had singled out Rose Gibson among the other girls. I think that my self-knowledge gave me a clairvoyance. I became aware there had been born in Paul's soul the same miracle that had been born in mine. He used to lie on his back under the trees and talk to me about her in an indirect sort of fashion.

But while I felt no jealousy, this knowledge of mine had for me a keen anguish, as though Paul had been translated to another planet. There was poignant suffering for me and yet a poignant sweetness that his soul came out shyly to mine in confidences that he scarcely knew were confidences. I think he talked to me almost as though he were talking to himself, so near was I to him. In some blind and wordless way I realized how near I was, so near that I felt that had I been three years older he would have loved me. I knew this so deeply that I never put it into words. Now I was as far from him as though a whole life's span separated us, and yet I was near enough to him so that he could talk to me as to himself.

At first all went well between them. Indeed, it never occurred to me that it could go any other way, at that moment they both seemed to me so perfect. As I watched the progress of their love the thought of self so died in me that there flowered in my soul one of those white blossoms of self-abnegation, of delight in another's joy even at one's own expense, that usually find place only in the soul of a mother who loses her dear son with joy if only his joy is complete enough.

I knew the affection Paul gave Rose was brother to my love for him; I think it had the same youth in it, for I do not believe that his heart had been touched before, and he gave it to her filled with the wine of his love to drink from as she chose.

Then one day I saw that he was troubled, puzzled rather. He seemed to frown as a little boy does at something which has hurt him, but which he does not understand. Trouble grew in his soul, and I saw the bitter waters of doubt rising about his heart. It was not anger at anything that had happened; he was just grieved. It was my fate that I must know all the things that happened in his heart without knowing anything of the cause. He never told me anything or let a criticism of her pass his lips, but I walked along with him on his journey of disillusion, and I began to hate Rose fiercely. She seemed to me the embodiment of evil, a terrible and menacing thing. When I saw her passing the house with a group of girls, laughing and talking, I marveled at her. My mind did not compass how she could laugh when she had hurt anything as sweet as Paul.

One night I heard the gate click and Paul walk up the path. He did not pause on the piazza, but turned and went into the orchard; I heard his footstep on the damp grass. I waited for him to come in, my heart beating. I waited, it seemed to me, throughout eternity. I knew down there in the darkness of the garden he was suffering by himself alone.

My heart aged as I waited. I waited as those do outside a sick-room where suffering is within, and at last I went down and out into the soft velvet of the night among the twinkling fire-flies.

I found him lying underneath an apple-tree: a tiny muffled sound as of a child weeping led me to him. I put my hand on him, and felt his shoulder heave up and down. It shocked me inexpressibly. His grief tore my heart to shreds. He took my hand in his and clung to it, and I felt the warm rain of tears upon it.

"She won't read my letter," he finally whispered to me. "She won't listen. If I could only make her read my letter! Then it would be all right. Oh, there's just some dreadful mistake!"

I did not know then that this has been through the ages the torture-cry of those whom love has suddenly and deeply wounded. Then in that moment flamingly I became a woman, flamingly I desired to comfort him of his hurt. I think, there in the darkness, had I spoken somehow, I could have wiped away the years that so separated us.

I was a woman and yet I was a child, and there came to me a flaming certainty of what I must do to help him. I knew before me was only one course, and that my feet must tread the most thorny path a woman can know, and that is when she must deliver up her beloved into the unworthy hands of another. Quietly I said to him:

"Give me the letter. I 'll take it to her and make her read it." I knew could do it. I knew for his sake I could do anything.

His soul was drowning, and I had to save it even though I saved it for some one who seemed to me so evil. During the few moments that had elapsed my soul had gone through a mortal conflict. My own desire, my new knowledge, my new feeling of age, had struggled with the absolute necessity of helping him and giving him the thing he wished for most. I knew I could have comforted him, and that my comforting would have been sweet and perhaps in the days that followed he might have seen the woman in the child.

Still, I took the letter, and with an exaltation that can be born only of mortal pain I went to her.

She was sitting under an electric light on the piazza looking wonderfully pretty, with a fantastic background of black and green vines behind her. I 've forgotten what I said to her, but the faint mockery of her first greeting changed to gravity, and gravity to something almost like tenderness as I talked. She took the letter and read. She read it gravely, and there was both triumph and sweetness in her expression—triumph, I suppose, in the depth of affection she had aroused, sweetness because its depth had suddenly touched some depth in her that had never before been stirred.

"Tell him to come to me," she said, and I fled back through the night.

When I brought him the tidings, he looked at me with new eyes, and for a moment our souls stood out naked before each other.

"Wonderful little girl!" he said, and kissed me, and sped away as though he had seen a vision of everlasting joy, and I was left alone in my fiery and terrible exaltation.

I lived through more emotion those weeks and that night than I did in many years that followed. For many years all other emotions seemed pale to me and without meaning. I had seen Love, that terrible and devastating god, face to face. I had gone through the dolorous stations of the cross to a supreme sacrifice. I had seen the possibility of possession, and had thrown it from me so that my beloved might have his heart's desire.

From that moment Rose and he were always together. Soon the summer was at an end, and Rose went away back to the city. Paul was called home suddenly.

With his departure came to me the terrible knowledge that I did not know where he lived. I knew his city, how he turned up his street, how his sisters looked; the room in which he lived would have seemed to me a familiar place. I could have called to his dog in a voice that the dog would have known, but in the hurry of his departure he had forgotten to give me his address. The worst of it was that he sent me several postals and one sweet little letter, but all without addresses. I had seen him off, and stood on the platform waving to him as long as the train was in sight.

The world was full of Paul to me. Years afterward, whenever I found myself in a crowd, my eyes searched for him.

I waited through that winter and through the spring for the return of Rose. At last in early summer I saw her walking down the street. I joined her. We talked of this and that, but Paul's name never came up. At last, with my heart beating so painfully that I could hardly speak the words, I said:

"Is Paul coming back?"

"Paul? Oh, to be sure," she answered. "I'd forgotten all about him! How should I know if Paul 's coming back?"

"Are n't you going to marry him?" I gasped.

She gave an affected little laugh.

"When you are older, my dear," she said patronizingly, "you 'll know you don't marry every nice boy you have a little flirtation with in summer. He came to see me two or three times, and then because I would n't do every little thing he wanted me, he got angry, and I sent him away for good."

I looked at her. As she talked I had grown, not old, but mature. I judged her as a woman half a dozen years her senior might have judged her, and saw her as she was, pretty, artificial, cheap, a shallow child. I saw her as Paul might have seen her at the end of his disillusion. I had lost my Paul and gone through my fiery ordeal for this, just because I was a little girl, just because I was not old enough, just because I had been so young a girl that all older girls seemed wonderful to me. Poor Rose! Now I knew she had not depth enough to be evil.

That sense of comedy that is worse than any tragedy assailed me. A desire for laughter arose in me and choked me.

I managed to ask her where Paul lived. I faltered forth some pale excuse of his having left some of his things in our house, but she no longer knew where he lived. He had moved. She left me with all the flowers of my spirit withered.

There seemed to me only blackness ahead. Through the loneliness and despair which followed my dear mother walked beside me; my hand lay in hers. She was at peace, she was glad I was "developing normally." She rejoiced that I was n't one of those girls who are "boy-crazy." No, I was n't boy-crazy, for I had walked too young through those grave and somber portals of supreme sacrifice. I had felt too soon the loss and loneliness of all that is best in life to be "boy-crazy."

I who had loved, how could I care for lesser loves? Love came to me then, and never again did I feel the great and over whelming delight of life.

Not even when I married did love in its great and overwhelming fullness return to me. I know now that I was not alone in my loneliness. I know that there walked beside me other children carrying hidden burdens, some who even carried the terrible burden of shame.

When I see them walking from school I must always wonder, "Which are you, a child at play or a child with a woman's heart, and has love already laid its heavy burden on your fragile shoulders?"

We cannot know. They will not tell us. They have no words in which to do it if they would, for the desires of their hearts are shyer than shy birds.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1966, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.