A Village Ophelia and Other Stories/A Story Of The Vere De Vere
The landlord called it an apartment-house, the tenants called their three or four little closets of rooms, flats, and perhaps if you or I had chanced to be in West —— Street, near the river, and had glanced up at the ugly red brick structure, with the impracticable fire-escape crawling up its front, like an ugly spider, we should have said it was a common tenement house.
Druse, however, had thought it, if a trifle dirty, a very magnificent and desirable dwelling. The entrance floor was tesselated with diamonds of blue and white; there was a row of little brass knobs and letter-boxes, with ill-written names or printed cards stuck askew in the openings above them. Druse did not guess their uses at first, how should she? She had never in all her fifteen years, been in the city before. How should one learn the ways of apartment-houses when one had lived always in a little gray, weather-beaten house, on the very outskirts of a straggling village in Eastern Connecticut?
It happened like this. One day, Tom, the fourth of the nine hungry and turbulent children, sent to the store on an errand, returned, bringing a letter. A letter, that was not a circular about fertilizers, or one of those polite and persuasive invitations to vote for a certain man for a town office, which penetrated even to the Hand's little gray kennel of a house toward election-time, was such a rarity that Mrs. Hand forgot the bread just done in the oven, and sank down wearily on the door-step to read it.
"Well, you ain't a-goin'," she said to Drusilla, who stood quite patiently by, with a faint color in her pale face. "No, sir, you ain't a-goin' one step. She was too stuck-up to come here when she was alive, 'n' you ain't a-goin' to take care of her children dead, 'n' that's the end of it."
Druse made no reply. She never did. Instead, she bent her thin, childish back, and pulled the burning bread out of the oven.
None the less, Druse went.
It was all Pop's work. Pop was meek and soft; he cried gently of a Sunday evening at church, the tears trickling down the furrowed leather-colored skin into the sparse beard, and on week-days he was wont to wear a wide and vacuous smile; yet somehow, if Pop said this or that should be, it was,—at least in the little house on the edge of the village.
And Pop had said Druse should go. For after all, the case is hard, even if one is occupying a lofty position to rural eyes as a carpenter in "York," with a city wife, who has flung her head contemptuously at the idea of visiting his ne'er-do-weel brother; the case is hard, no matter how high one's station may be, to be left with three motherless children, over-fond of the street, with no one to look after them, or make ready a comfortable bit of dinner at night. And so, considering that Elviry was fourteen, and stronger than Druse, any way, and that John Hand had promised to send a certain little sum to his brother every month, as well as to clothe Druse, Druse went to live in the fourth flat in the Vere de Vere.
Perhaps that was not just the name, but it was something equally high-sounding and aristocratic; and it seemed quite fitting that one of the dirty little cards that instructed the postman and the caller, should bear the pleasing name, "Blanche de Courcy." But Druse had never read novels. Her acquaintance with fiction had been made entirely through the medium of the Methodist Sunday School library, and the heroines did not, as a rule, belong to the higher rank in which, as we know, the lords and ladies are all Aubreys, and Montmorencis, and Maudes, and Blanches. Still even Druse's untrained eye lingered with pleasure on the name, as she came in one morning, after having tasted the delights of life in the Vere de Vere for a couple of weeks. She felt that she now lived a very idle life. She had coaxed the three children into a regular attendance at school, and her uncle was always away until night. She could not find enough work to occupy her, though, true to her training, when there was nothing else to do she scrubbed everything wooden and scoured everything tin. Still there were long hours when it was tiresome to sit listening to the tramping overhead, or the quarrels below, watching the slow hands of the clock; and Druse was afraid in the streets yet, though she did not dare say so, because her bold, pert little cousins laughed at her. She was indeed terribly lonely. Her uncle was a man of few words; he ate his supper, and went to sleep after his pipe and the foaming pitcher of beer that had frightened Druse when she first came. For Druse had been a "Daughter of Temperance" in East Green. She had never seen any one drink beer before. She thought of the poem that the minister's daughter (in pale blue muslin, tucked to the waist) had recited at the Temperance Lodge meeting. It began:
"Pause, haughty man, whose lips are at the brim
Of Hell's own draught, in yonder goblet rare—"
She wished she had courage to repeat it. She felt if Uncle John could have heard Lucinda recite it—. Yet he might not think it meant him; he was not haughty, although he was a carpenter, and the beer he drank out of one of the children's mugs. But it troubled Druse. She thought of it as she sat one afternoon, gravely crotcheting a tidy after an East Green pattern, before it was time for the children to be back from school. It was a warm day in October, so warm that she had opened the window, letting in with the air the effluvia from the filthy street, and the discordant noises. The lady in the flat above was whipping a refractory child, whose cries came distinctly through the poor floors and partitions of the Vere De Vere.
Suddenly there was a loud, clumsy knock at the door. She opened it, and a small boy with a great basket of frilled and ruffled clothes, peeping from under the cover, confronted her.
"Say, lady," he asked, red and cross, "Is yer name De Courcy?"
"No, it ain't," replied Druse. "She's the back flat to the right, here. I'll show you," she added, with the country instinct of "neighboring."
The boy followed her, grumbling, through the long narrow hall, and as Druse turned to go, after his loud pound on the door, it suddenly flew open. Druse stood rooted to the ground. A dirty pink silk wrapper, with a long train covered with dirtier lace, is not a beautiful garment by full daylight. Yet to untrained eyes it looked almost gorgeous, gathered about the handsome form. Miss De Courcy had failed to arrange her hair for the afternoon, and it fell in heavy black folds on her shoulders, and her temples were bandaged by a white handkerchief. Perhaps it was not strange that Druse stood and gazed at her. The dark, brilliant eyes fixed themselves on the slight, flat-chested little form, clad in brown alpaca, on the pale hair drawn straight back from the pale face, and arranged in a tight knob at the back of the head.
A whim seized the fair wearer of the negligée. "Come in and sit down, I want to talk to you. There, leave the clothes, boy. I'll pay your mother next time," and she pushed the boy out, and drew the young girl in with easy audacity.
Druse looked around the room in bewilderment. It was not exactly dirty, but things seemed to have been thrown in their places. The carpet was bright, and much stained, rather than worn; hideous plaques and plush decorations abounded. A crimson chair had lost a leg, and was pushed ignominiously in a corner of the tiny room; a table was crowded with bottles and fragments of food, and a worn, velvet jacket and much-beplumed hat lay amongst them. A ragged lace skirt hung over the blue sofa, on one corner of which Miss De Courcy threw herself down, revealing a pair of high heeled scarlet slippers. "Sit down," she said, in a rather metallic voice, that ill accorded with the rounded curves of face and figure. "I've got a beastly headache," pushing up the bandage on her low brow. "What did you run for, when I opened the door? Did your folks tell you not to come in here, ever?"
"Why, no, ma'am!" said Druse, raising her blue, flower-like eyes wonderingly.
"Oh! well," responded Miss De Courcy, with a hoarse little laugh of amusement. "I thought they might have—thought maybe they objected to your making 'cquaintances without a regular introduction, you know. Haven't been here long, have you?"
"No," said Druse, looking down at her tidy, with a sudden homesick thrill. "No, I—I come from East Green, Connecticut. I ain't got used to it here, much. It's kind o' lonesome, days. I s'pose you don't mind it. It's different if you're used to it, I guess."
Somehow Druse did not feel as timid as usual, though her weak little voice, thin, like the rest of her, faltered a trifle, but then she had never called on a lady so magnificently dressed before.
"Yes, I'm pretty well used to it by this," replied Miss De Courcy, with the same joyless little laugh, giving the lace skirt an absent-minded kick with her red morocco toe. "I lived in the country before—when I was little."
"You did!" exclaimed Druse. "Then I guess you know how it is at first. When you think every Friday night (there ain't been but two, yet) 'There, they're gettin' ready for Lodge meetin';' and every Sunday evenin' 'bout half-past seven: 'I guess it's mos' time for the Meth'dis' bell to ring. I must get my brown felt on, and—'"
"Your what?" asked Miss De Courcy.
"My brown felt, my hat, an'—oh! well, there's lots o' things I kind o' forget, and start to get ready for. An' I can't sleep much on account of not having Bell an' Virey an' Mimy to bed with me. It's so lonesome without 'em. The children here won't sleep with me. I did have Gusty one night, but I woke her up four times hangin' on to her. I'm so used to holding Mimy in! Oh! I guess I'll get over it all right, but you know how it is yourself."
Miss De Courcy did not reply. She had closed her eyes, and now she gave the bandage on her head an angry twich. "Oh, how it aches!" she said through her shut teeth. "Here, give me that bottle on the stand, will you? It'll make it worse, but I don't care. My doctor's medicine don't seem to do me much good, but I sort of keep on taking it," she said to Druse, grandly as she poured out a brownish liquid into the cloudy glass that the good little housekeeper had eyed dubiously, before giving it to her.
Miss De Courcy's doctor evidently believed in stimulants; a strong odor of Scotch whiskey filled the room.
"It smells quite powerful, does'nt it?" she said. "It has something in it to keep it, you know. It's very unpleasant to take," she added, rolling up her brown eyes to Druse's compassionate face.
"I do' know as it would do you any good, prob'ly it wouldn't," said Druse shyly, shifting the glass from one hand to the other, "but I used to stroke Ma's head lots, when she had a chance to set down, and it ached bad."
Miss De Courcy promptly stretched herself at full length, and settled her feet comfortably in the lace skirts, in which the high, sharp heels tore two additional rents, and pulled the bandage from her forehead.
"Go ahead," she said, laconically. Druse dragged a chair to the side of the couch, and for some minutes there was silence—that is, the comparative silence that might exist in the Vere De Vere—while she deftly touched the burning smooth flesh with her finger tips.
Miss De Courcy opened her eyes drowsily. "I guess I'm going to get a nap, after all. You're doing it splendid. You'll come and see me again, won't you? Say, don't tell your folks you was here to-day, will you? I'll tell you why. I—I've got a brother that drinks. It's awful. He comes to see me evenings a good deal, and some daytimes. They'd be afraid he'd be home, 'n' they wouldn't let you come again. He's cross, you see 'n' they'd never—let you come again 'f you—"
Miss De Courcy was almost overpowered by sleep. She roused herself a moment and looked at Druse with dull pleading. "Don't you tell 'em, will you? Promise! I want you to come again. A girl isn't to blame if her father—I mean her brother—"
"Yes, ma'am, I'll promise, of course I will," said Druse hastily, her thin little bosom swelling with compassion. "I won't never let 'em know I know you, if you say so. No, ma'am, it's awful cruel to blame you for your brother's drinkin'. I've got some pieces about it at home, about folkses' families a-sufferin' for their drinkin'. I'd like to come again if you want me. I'm afraid I ain't much company, but I could stroke your head every time you have a headache. It's awful nice to know somebody that's lived in the country and understands just how it is when you first—"
Druse looked down. The doctor's remedy was apparently successful this time, for with crimson cheeks and parted lips, Miss Blanche De Courcy had forgotten her headache in a very profound slumber. Druse gazed at her with mingled admiration and pity. No wonder the room seemed a little untidy. She would have liked to put it to rights, but fearing she might waken her new friend, who was now breathing very heavily, she only pulled the shade down, and with a last compassionate glance at the victim of a brother's intemperance, she picked up her crocheting and tip-toed lightly from the room.
After that life in the Vere De Vere was not so dreary. Druse was not secretive, but she had the accomplishment of silence, and she kept her promise to the letter. Druse could not feel that she could be much consolation to so elegant a being. Miss De Courcy was often distraite when she brought her crocheting in of an afternoon, or else she was extremely, not to say boisterously gay, and talked or laughed incessantly, or sang at the upright piano that looked too large for the little parlor. The songs were apt to be compositions with such titles as, "Pretty Maggie Kelly," and "Don't Kick him when He's Down," but Druse never heard anything more reprehensible, and she thought them beautiful.
Sometimes, quite often indeed, her hostess had the headaches that forced her to resort to the doctor's disagreeable remedy from the black bottle, or was sleeping off a headache on the sofa. Miss De Courcy did not seem to have many women friends. Once, it is true, two ladies with brilliant golden hair, and cheeks flushed perhaps by the toilsome ascent to the fourth floor, rustled loudly into the parlor. They were very gay, and so finely dressed, one in a bright green plush coat, and the other in a combination of reds, that Druse made a frightened plunge for the door and escaped, but not before one of the ladies had inquired, with a peal of laughter, "Who's the kid?" Druse had flushed resentfully, but she did not care when her friend told her afterward, with a toss of the head, "They're nothing. They just come here to see how I was fixed."
After a little Druse offered timidly to clean up the room for her, and quite regularly then, would appear on each Wednesday with her broom and duster, happy to be allowed to bring order out of chaos.
"Well, you are a good little thing," Miss De Courcy would say, pulling on her yellow gloves and starting for the street when the dust began to fly. She never seemed to be doing anything. A few torn books lay about, but Druse never saw her open them. She had warned Druse not to come in of an evening, for her brother might be home in a temper. Druse thought she saw him once, such a handsome man with his hair lightly tinged with gray; he was turning down the hall as Druse came wearily up the stairs, and she saw him go in Miss De Courcy's room; but then again when Gusty was sick, and she had to go down at night and beg the janitress to come up and see if it were the measles, there was a much younger man, with reddened eyes, from whose glance Druse shrank as she passed him, and he certainly reeled a little, and he also went in Miss De Courcy's door, and from motives of delicacy she did not ask which was he,—though she felt a deep curiosity to know. Not that Miss De Courcy refrained from mentioning him. On the contrary, she told heart-rending incidents of his cruelty, as she tilted back and forth lazily in her rocking-chair, while Druse sat by, spellbound, her thin hands clasped tightly over the work in her lap, neglecting even the bon-bons that Miss De Courcy lavished upon her.
One morning there was a cruel purple mark on the smooth dark skin of Miss De Courcy's brow, and the round wrist was red and swollen. Druse's eyes flashed as she saw them. "I expect I'm as wicked as a murderer," she said, "for I wish that brother of yours was dead. Yes, I do, 'n' I'd like to kill him!" And the self-contained and usually stoical little thing burst into passionate tears, and hid her face in Miss De Courcy's lap.
A dark flush passed over that young lady's face, and something glittered in the hard blue eyes. She drew Druse tight against her heart, as though she would never let her go, and then she laughed nervously, trying to soothe her. "There, there, it ain't anything. They're all brutes, but I was ugly myself last night, 'n' made him mad. Tell me something about the country, Druse, like you did the other day—anything. I don't care."
"Do you wish you was back there, too?" asked homesick Druse, wistfully. Druse could no more take root in the city than could a partridge-berry plant, set in the flinty earth of the back-yard.
"Wish I was back? Yes, if I could go back where I used to live," said Miss De Courcy with her hoarse, abrupt little laugh. "No, I don't either. Folks are pretty much all devils, city or country."
Druse shivered a little. She looked up with dumb pleading into the reckless, beautiful face she had learned to love so well from her humble tendings and ministerings. She had the nature to love where she served. She had no words to say, but Miss De Courcy turned away from the sorrowful, puzzled eyes of forget-me-not blue, the sole beauty of the homely, irregular little face.
"I was only a-joking, Druse," she added, smiling. "Come, let's make some lemonade."
But Druse did not forget these and other words. She pondered over them as she lay in her stifling little dark bedroom at night, or attended to her work by day, and she waged many an imaginary battle for the beautiful, idle woman who represented the grace of life to her.
The fat janitress sometimes stopped to gossip a moment with Druse.
"Ever seen Miss De Courcy on your floor?" she asked, one day, curiously.
"Yes, ma'am, I—I've seen her," replied Druse, truthfully, the color rising to her pale cheeks.
"O Lord!" ejaculated the janitress, heaving a portentous sigh from the depths of her capacious, brown calico-covered bosom, "if I was the owner of these here flats, instead of the old miser that's got 'em, wouldn't I have a clearin' out! Wouldn't I root the vice and wickedness out of some of 'em! Old Lowder don't care what he gits in here, so long's they pay their rent!"
Druse did not reply. She felt sure that the janitress meant Miss De Courcy's drunken brother, and she was very glad that "old Lowder" was not so particular, for she shuddered to think how lonely she should be were it not for the back flat to the right. Even the janitress, who seemed so kind, was heartless to Miss De Courcy because she had a drunken brother!
Druse began to find the world very, very cruel. The days went on, and the two lives, so radically unlike, grew closer entwined. Druse lost none of her stern, angular little ways. She did not learn to lounge, or to desire fine clothing. If either changed, an observer, had there been one, might have noticed that Miss De Courcy did not need as much medicine as formerly, that the hard ring of her laugh was softened when Druse went by, and that never an oath—and we have heard that ladies of the highest rank have been known to swear under strong provocation—escaped the full red lips in Druse's presence.
One morning Druse went about the household duties with aching limbs and a dizzy head. For the first since she had acted as her uncle's housekeeper, she looked hopelessly at the kitchen floor, and left it unscrubbed: it was sweeping day, too, but the little rooms were left unswept, and she lay all the morning in her dark bedroom, in increasing dizziness and pain. For some days she had been languid and indisposed, and now real illness overcame her; her head was burning, and vague fears of sickness assaulted her, and a dread of the loneliness of the black little room. She dragged herself down the hall. Miss De Courcy opened the door. Her own eyes were red and swollen as with unshed tears. She pulled Druse in impetuously.
"I'm so glad you're come. I—Why, child, what is the matter with you? What ails you, Druse?"
She took Druse's hot little hand in her's and led her to the mirror. Druse looked at herself with dull, sick eyes; her usually pallid face was crimson, and beneath the skin, purplish angry discolorations appeared in the flesh.
"I guess I'm goin' to be sick," she said, with a despairing cadence. "I expect it's somethin' catchin'. I'll go home. Let me go home."
She started for the door, but her limbs suddenly gave way, and she fell, a limp little heap on the floor.
Miss De Courcy looked at her a moment in silence. Her eyes wandered about the room, and fell on a crumpled letter on the table. She paused a moment, then she turned decisively, and let down the folding-bed that stood in the corner by day. She lifted the half-conscious Druse in her strong young arms, and laid her on the bed. It was only a few minutes' work to remove the coarse garments, and wrap her in a perfumed, frilled nightdress, that hung loosely on the spare little form. Miss De Courcy surveyed the feverish face against the pillows anxiously. Druse half opened her dull eyes and moaned feebly; she lifted her thin arms and clasped them around Miss De Courcy's neck. "Ain't you good!" she said thickly, drawing the cool cheek down against her hot brow.
"I'm going for the doctor, Druse," said Miss De Courcy, coaxingly. "Now, you lay right still, and I'll be back in no time. Don't you move; promise, Druse!"
And Druse gave an incoherent murmur that passed for a promise.
The doctor, who lived on the corner, a shabby, coarse little man, roused her from a fevered dream. He asked a few questions perfunctorily, turned the small face to the light a moment, and cynically shrugged his shoulders.
"Small-pox," was his laconic remark, when he had followed Miss De Courcy into the next room.
"Then she's going to stay right here," said that young woman firmly.
"Well, I guess not" replied the doctor, looking her over. "How about your own complexion if you take it?" he added, planting a question he expected to tell.
Miss De Courcy's remark was couched in such forcible terms that I think I had better not repeat it. It ought to have convinced any doctor living that her complexion was her own affair.
"Oh! that's all right," replied the man of science, unoffended, a tardy recognition of her valor showing through his easy insolence. "But how about the Board of Health, and how about me? She's better off in a hospital, any way. You can't take care of her," with a scornful glance at the draggled finery and striking hat. "What do you want to try it for? I can't let the contagion spread all over the house, you know; how would you get anything to eat? No, it's no use. She's got to go. I'm not going to ruin my reputation as a doctor, and—"
Miss De Courcy smiled sweetly into the doctor's hard, common face. She drew a purse from her pocket, and selected several bills from a roll that made his small eyes light up greedily, and pressing the little packet into his not too reluctant fingers, she remarked significantly, as she sat down easily on the top of a low table:
"You're mistaken about what's the matter with her, doctor. She's got the chicken-pox. You just look at her again as you go out, and you'll see that I am right. But it's just as well to be careful. You might mail a note for me when you go out, and my wash-woman will buy things for me, and bring them up here to the door. I'll swear I won't go out till you say I may, or till you take me to the hospital. And then, as you go along, you can step into the front flat left, and tell her uncle she's took bad with chicken-pox. He's got a lot of young ones, and he'll be glad enough to let me do it, see? And of course, chicken-pox is quite serious sometimes. I should expect to pay a doctor pretty well to bring a patient out of it," she added, with a placid smile.
The doctor had turned, and was looking with deep interest at a chromo on the wall.
"I'll take another look at her. I may have been mistaken, doctors sometimes are—symptoms alike—and—m—m—you can get that letter ready for me to mail."
Strange days and nights ensued. Druse had a dim knowledge of knocks at the door at night, of curses and oaths muttered in the hall, of Miss De Courcy's pleading whispers, of a final torrent of imprecations, and then of a comparative lull; of days and nights so much alike in their fevered dull monotony that one could not guess where one ended and another began; of an occasional glimpse that melted into the general delirium, of Miss De Courcy's face, white, with heavy, dark-ringed eyes, bending over her, and of Miss De Courcy's voice, softened and changed, with never a harsh note; of her hand always ready with cooling drink for the blackened, dreadful mouth. Yes, in the first few days Druse was conscious of this much, and of a vague knowledge that the rocking ship on which she was sailing in scorching heat, that burnt the flesh from the body, was Miss De Courcy's bed; and then complete darkness closed in upon the dizzy little traveller, sailing on and on in the black, burning night, further and further away from the world and from life.
How could she guess how many days and nights she sailed thus? The ship stopped, that was all she knew; but still it was dark, so dark; and then she was in a strange land where the air was fire, and everything one touched was raging with heat, and her hands, why had they bandaged her hands, so that she could not move them?
"I can't see," said Druse, in a faint, puzzled whisper. "Is it night?"
And Miss De Courcy, bending over the bed, haggard and wan, and years older in the ghostly gray dawn, said soothingly:
"Yes, Druse, it's night," for she knew Druse would never see the light again.
"Miss De Courcy!"
"I expect I've kept your brother out all this time. I hope he won't be mad."
"No, no, Druse; be quiet and sleep."
"I can't sleep. I wish it would be morning. I want to see you, Miss De Courcy. Well, never mind. Somehow, I guess I ain't goin' to get better. If what I've had—ain't catchin'—I suppose you wouldn't want to—to kiss me, would you?"
Without hesitation, the outcast bent her face, purified and celestial with love and sacrifice; bent it over the dreadful Thing, loathsome and decaying, beyond the semblance of human form or feature, on the bed,—bent and kissed, as a mother would have kissed.
The gray dawn crept yet further into the room, the streets were growing noisier, the Elevated trains rushed by the corner, the milkmen's carts rumbled along the Avenue, the sparrows twittered loudly on the neighboring roofs. And yet it seemed so solemnly silent in the room. "Well, now!" said Druse, with pleased surprise, "I didn't expect you would. What a long time it is gettin' light this mornin'. To think of you, a-takin' care of me, like this! An' I ain't never done a thing for you excep' the headaches and sweepin', an' even that was nicer for me than for you. I knew you was awful good, but I never knew you was religious before, Miss De Courcy. Nobody but folks that has religion does such things, they say. I wish I could remember my prayers. Ain't it strange, I've forgot them all? Couldn't you say one? Just a little one?"
And Miss De Courcy, her face buried in her hands, said, "Lord, have mercy upon us," and said no more.
"Thank you," said Druse, more feebly, and quite satisfied. "We won't forget each other, an' you'll promise to come by'm'by. Won't you? I'll be so pleased when you come!"
"Yes, Druse," whispered Miss De Courcy, "I promise."
And then the terrible form that had been Druse sat up in bed with a mighty effort, and turned its sightless eyes joyfully toward Miss De Courcy's tear-stained face.
"It's morning! I can see you!" it said, and fell back into the faithful arms and upon the faithful breast.
And so Druse, not having lived and died in vain, passed away forever from the Vere De Vere.