The Apple of Her Eye
The Apple of Her Eye
It rained. It had rained all day. To Helen Raymond, spatting along the wet slipperiness of the drenched pavements, it seemed as if it had always rained, and always would rain.
Helen was tired, blue, and ashamed—ashamed because she was blue; blue because she was tired; and tired because—wearily her mind reviewed her day.
She had dragged herself out of bed at half-past five, but even then her simple toilet had been hastened to an untidy half completion by the querulous insistence of her mother's frequent "You know, Helen,—you must know how utterly impossible it is for me to lift my head until I've had my coffee! Are n't you nearly ready?" Mrs. Raymond had wakened earlier than usual that morning, and she could never endure to lie in bed when not asleep.
With one shoe unbuttoned and no collar on, Helen had prepared the coffee; then had come the delicate task of getting the semi-invalid up and dressed, with hair smoothed to the desired satiny texture. The hair had refused to smooth, however, this morning; buttons had come off, too, and strings had perversely knotted until Helen's patience had almost snapped—almost, but not quite. In the end her own breakfast, and the tidying of herself and the little four-room flat, had degenerated into a breathless scramble broken by remorseful apologies to her mother, in response to which Mrs. Raymond only sighed:
"Oh, of course, it does n't matter; but you know how haste and confusion annoy me, and how bad it is for me!"
It had all resulted as Helen had feared that it would result—she was late; and tardiness at Henderson & Henderson's meant a sharp reprimand, and in time, a fine. Helen's place in the huge department store was behind a counter where spangled nets and embroidered chiffons were sold. It had seemed to Helen today that half the world must be giving a ball to which the other half was invited, so constant—in spite of the rain—were the calls for her wares. The girl told herself bitterly that it would not be so unendurable were she handling anything but those filmy, glittering stuffs that spoke so loudly of youth and love and laughter. If it were only gray socks and kitchen kettles that she tended! At least she would be spared the sight of those merry, girlish faces, and the sound of those care-free, laughing voices. At least she would not have all day before her eyes the slender, gloved fingers which she knew were as fair and delicate as the fabrics they so ruthlessly tossed from side to side.
Annoyances at the counter had been more frequent to-day than usual, Helen thought. Perhaps the rain had made people cross. Whatever it was, the hurried woman had been more hurried, and the insolent woman more unbearable. There had been, too, an irritating repetition of the woman who was "just looking," and of her sister who "did n't know"; "was n't quite sure"; but "guessed that would n't do." Consequently Helen's list of sales had been short in spite of her incessant labor—and the list of sales was what Henderson & Henderson looked at when a promotion was being considered.
And through it all, hour after hour, there had been the shimmer of the spangles, the light chatter of coming balls and weddings, the merry voices of care-free girls—the youth, and love, and laughter.
"Youth, and love, and laughter." Unconsciously Helen repeated the words aloud; then she smiled bitterly as she applied them to herself. Youth?—she was twenty-five. Love?—the grocer? the milkman? the floorwalker? oh, yes, and there was the postman. Laughter?—she could not remember when she had seen anything funny—really funny enough to laugh at.
Of all this Helen thought as she plodded wearily homeward; of this, and more. At home there would be supper to prepare, her mother to get to bed, and the noon dishes to clear away. Helen drew in her breath sharply as she thought of the dinner. She hoped that it had not been codfish-and-cream to-day. If it had, she must speak to Mrs. Mason. Codfish twice a week might do, but five times! (Mrs. Mason was the neighbor who, for a small sum each day, brought Mrs. Raymond her dinner fully cooked.) There was a waist to iron and some mending to do. Helen remembered that. There would be time, however, for it all, she thought; that is, if it should not unfortunately be one of her mother's wakeful evenings when talking—and on one subject—was the only thing that would soothe her.
Helen sighed now. She was almost home, but involuntarily her speed slackened. She became suddenly more acutely aware of the dreary flapping of her wet skirts against her ankles, and of the swish of the water as it sucked itself into the hole at the heel of her left overshoe. The wind whistled through an alleyway in a startling swoop and nearly wrenched her umbrella from her half-numbed fingers, but still her step lagged. The rain slapped her face smartly as the umbrella careened, but even that did not spur her to haste. Unmistakably she dreaded to go home—and it was at this realization that Helen's shame deepened into a dull red on her cheeks; as if any girl, any right-hearted girl, should mind a mother's talk of her only son!
At the shabby door of the apartment house Helen half closed her umbrella and shook it fiercely. Then, as if freeing herself from something as obnoxious as was the rain, she threw back her head and shook that, too. A moment later, carefully carrying the dripping umbrella, she hurried up three flights of stairs and unlocked the door of the rear suite.
"My, but it sprinkles! Did you know it?" she cried cheerily to the little woman sitting by the west window.
"'Sprinkles'! Helen, how can you speak like that when you know what a dreadful day it is!" fretted the woman. "But then, you don't know. You never do know. If you had to just sit here and stare and stare and stare at that rain all day, as I do, perhaps you would know."
"Perhaps," smiled Helen oddly—she was staring just then at the havoc that that same rain had wrought in what had been a fairly good hat.
Her mother's glance followed hers.
"Helen, that can't be—your hat!" cried the woman, aghast.
Helen smiled quizzically. "Do you know that's exactly what I was thinking myself, mother! It can't be—but it is."
"But it's ruined, utterly ruined!"
"And you have n't any other that's really decent!"
The woman sighed impatiently. "Helen, how can you answer like that when you know what it means to spoil that hat? Can't anything dampen your absurd high spirits?"
"'High spirits'!" breathed the girl. A quick flash leaped to her eyes. Her lips parted angrily; then, as suddenly, they snapped close shut. In another minute she had turned and left the room quietly.
Clothed in dry garments a little later, Helen set about the evening's tasks. At the first turn in the little room that served for both kitchen and dining-room she found the dinner dishes waiting to be cleared from the table—and there were unmistakable evidences of codfish-and-cream. As she expected, she had not long to wait.
"Helen," called a doleful voice from the sitting-room.
"She brought codfish again to-day—five times this week; and you know how I dislike codfish!"
"Yes, I know, dear. I'm so sorry!"
"'Sorry'! But that does n't feed me. You must speak to her, Helen. I can't eat codfish like that. You must speak to-night when you take the dishes back."
"Very well, mother; but—well, you know we don't pay very much."
"Then pay more. I'm sure I should n't think you'd grudge me enough to eat, Helen."
"Mother! How can you say a thing like that!" Helen's voice shook. She paused a moment, a dish half-dried in her hands; but from the other room came only silence.
Supper that night was prepared with unusual care. There was hot corncake, too,—Mrs. Raymond liked hot corncake. It was a little late, it is true; Helen had not planned for the corncake at first—but there was the codfish. If the poor dear had had nothing but codfish! … Helen opened a jar of the treasured peach preserves, too; indeed, the entire supper table from the courageous little fern in the middle to the "company china" cup at Mrs. Raymond's plate was a remorseful apology for that midday codfish. If Mrs. Raymond noticed this, she gave no sign. Without comment, she ate the corncake and the peach preserves, and drank her tea from the china cup; with Mrs. Raymond only the codfish of one's daily life merited comment.
It was at the supper table that Helen's mother brought out the letter.
"You don't ask, nor seem to care," she began with a curious air of injured triumph, "but I've got a letter from Herbert."
The younger woman flushed.
"Why, of course, I care," she retorted cheerily. "What does he say?"
"He wrote it several days ago. It got missent. But it's such a nice letter!"
"They always are."
"It asks particularly how I am, and says he's sorry I have to suffer so. He cares."
Only the swift red in Helen's cheeks showed that the daughter understood the emphasis.
"Of course he cares," she answered smoothly.
"And he sent me a present, too—money!" Mrs. Raymond's usually fretful whine carried a ring of exultation.
Helen lifted her head eagerly.
"Yes. A new crisp dollar bill. He told me to get something pretty—some little trinket that I'd like."
"But, a dollar—only a dollar," murmured Helen. "Now you're needing a wrapper, but that—"
"A wrapper, indeed!" interrupted Mrs. Raymond in fine scorn. "A wrapper is n't a 'trinket' for me! I'd have wrappers anyway, of course. He said to buy something pretty; something I'd like. But then, I might have known. You never think I need anything but wrappers and—and codfish! I—I'm glad I've got one child that—that appreciates!" And Mrs. Raymond lifted her handkerchief to her eyes.
Across the table Helen caught her lower lip between her teeth. For a moment she did not speak; then very gently she said:—
"Mother, you did n't quite mean that, I'm sure. You know very well that I—I'd dress you in silks and velvets, and feed you on strawberries and cream, if I could. It's only that—that— But never mind. Use the dollar as you please, dear. Is n't there something—some little thing you would like?"
Mrs. Raymond lowered her handkerchief. Her grieved eyes looked reproachfully across at her daughter.
"I'd thought of—a tie; a lace tie with pretty ends; a nice tie. You know how I like nice things!"
"Of course, you do; and you shall have it, too," cried Helen. "I'll bring some home tomorrow night for you to select from. Now that will be fine, won't it?"
The other drew a resigned sigh.
"'Fine'! That's just like you, Helen. You never appreciate—never realize. Perhaps you do think it's 'fine' to stay mewed up at home here and have ties brought to you instead of going out yourself to the store and buying them, like other women!"
"Oh, but just don't look at it that way," retorted Helen in a cheerful voice. "Just imagine you're a queen, or a president's wife, or a multi-millionairess who is sitting at home in state to do her shopping just because she wishes to avoid the vulgar crowds in the stores; eh, mother dear?"
"Mother dear" sniffed disdainfully.
"Really, Helen," she complained, "you are impossible. One would think you might have some sympathy, some consideration for my feelings! There's your brother, now. He's all sympathy. Look at his letter. Think of that dollar he sent me—just a little thing to give me happiness. And he's always doing such things. Did n't he remember how I loved peppermints, and give me a whole box at Christmas?"
Helen did not answer. As well she knew, she did not need to. Her mother, once started on this subject, asked only for a listener. Wearily the girl rose to her feet and began to clear the table.
"And it is n't as if he did n't have his hands full, just running over full with his business and all," continued Mrs. Raymond. "You know how successful he is, Helen. Now there's that club—what was it, president or treasurer that they made him? Anyhow, it was something; and that shows how popular he is. And you know every letter tells us of something new. I'm sure it is n't any wonder I 'm proud of him; and relieved, too—I did hope some one of my children would amount to something; and I'm sure Herbert has."
There was a pause. Herbert's sister was washing the dishes now, hurriedly, nervously. Herbert's mother watched her with dissatisfied eyes.
"Now there's you, Helen, and your music," she began again, after a long sigh. "You know how disappointed I was about that."
"Oh, but piano practice does n't help to sell goods across the counter," observed Helen dully. "At least, I never heard that it did."
"'Sell goods,'" moaned the other. "Always something about selling goods! Helen, can't you get your mind for one moment off that dreadful store, and think of something higher?"
"But it's the store that brings us in our bread and butter—and codfish," added Helen, half under her breath.
It was a foolish allusion, born of a much-tried spirit; and Helen regretted the words the moment they had left her lips.
"Yes, that's exactly what it brings—codfish," gloomed Mrs. Raymond. "I'm glad you at least realize that."
There was no reply. Helen was working faster now. Her cheeks were pink, and her hands trembled. As soon as possible she piled Mrs. Mason's dinner dishes neatly on the tray and hurried with them to the outer door of the suite.
"Now, Helen, don't stay," called her mother. "You know how much I'm alone, and I just simply can't go to bed yet. I'm not one bit sleepy."
"No, mother." The voice was calm, and the door shut quietly; but in the hall Helen paused at the head of the stairs, flushed and palpitating.
"I wonder—if it would do any good—if I should—throw them!" she choked hysterically, the tray raised high in her hands. Then with a little shamed sob she lowered the tray and hurried downstairs to the apartment below.
"It's only me, Mrs. Mason, with the dishes," she said a moment later, as her neighbor peered out into the hall in answer to the knock at the door. "I'm a little late to-night."
"Oh, to be sure, Miss Raymond; come in—come in. Why, child, what ails you?" cried the woman, as Helen stepped into the light.
"Ails me? Why, nothing," laughed the girl evasively. "Shall I put the things here?"
As she set the tray down and turned to go, the elder woman, by a sudden movement, confronted her.
"See here, Miss Helen, it ain't none o' my business, I know, but I've just got to speak. Your eyes are all teary, and your cheeks have got two red spots in 'em. You've been cryin'. I know you have. You're so thin I could just blow you over with a good big breath. And I know what's the matter. You're all wore out. You're doin' too much. No mortal woman can work both day and night!"
"But I don't—quite," stammered the girl "Besides, there is so much to be done. You know, mother—though she is n't very sick—can do but little for herself."
"Yes, I know she don't—seem to. But is n't there some one else that could help?"
The girl stirred restlessly. Her eyes sought for a means of escape.
"Why, no, of course not. There is n't any one," she murmured. "You are very kind, really, Mrs. Mason, but I must go—now."
The other did not move. She was standing directly before the hall door.
The girl lifted her head quickly. A look that was almost fear came into her eyes.
"Why, how did you know that I had—a brother?"
"Know it!" scoffed Mrs. Mason. "I have known your mother for a year—ever since she moved here; and as if a body could know her and not hear of him! He's the very apple of her eye. Why can't he—help? Would n't he, if he knew?"
"Why, Mrs. Mason, of course! He has—he does," declared the girl quickly, the red deepening in her cheeks. "He—he sent her money only to-day."
"Yes, I know; she told me—of that." Mrs. Mason's voice was significant in its smoothness. "Your mother said she was going to get her—a tie."
"Yes, a tie," repeated Helen, with feverish lightness; "lace, you know. Mother does so love pretty things! Oh, and by the way," hurried on the girl breathlessly, "if you don't mind—about the dinners, you know. Mother does n't care for codfish-and-cream, and if you could just substitute something else, I'll pay more, of course! I'd expect to do that. I've been thinking for some time that you ought to have at least ten cents a day more—if you could manage—on that. And—thank you; if you would remember about—the codfish, and now I really must—go!" she finished. And before Mrs. Mason knew quite what had happened a flying figure had darted by her through the half-open doorway.
"Well, of all things! Now what have I said?" muttered the puzzled woman, staring after her visitor. "Ten cents a day more, indeed! And where, for the land's sake, is the poor lamb going to find that?"
Long hours later in the Raymond flat, after the mending was done, the waist ironed, and the mother's querulous tongue had been silenced by sleep, the "poor lamb" sat down with her little account book and tried to discover just that—where she was going to find the extra ten cents a day to buy off Mrs. Mason's codfish.
It did not rain the next morning. The sun shone, indeed, as if it never had rained, and never would rain. In Helen Raymond's soul a deeper shame than ever sent the blue devils skulking into the farthermost corners—as if it were anything but a matter for the heartiest congratulations that one's mother had at least one child who had proved not to be a disappointment to her! And very blithely, to cheat the last one of the little indigo spirits, the girl resolutely uptilted her chin, and began her day.
It was not unlike the days that had gone before. There was the same apologetic rush in the morning, the same monotonous succession of buyers and near-buyers at the counter, the same glitter and sparkle and chatter—the youth, and love, and laughter. Then at night came the surprise.
Helen Raymond went home to find the little flat dominated by a new presence, a presence so big and breezy that unconsciously she sniffed the air as if she were entering a pine grove instead of a stuffy, four-room city flat.
"Helen, he knows Herbert, my Herbert," announced Mrs. Raymond rapturously; and as she seemed to think no further introduction was necessary, the young man rose to his feet and added with a smile:—
"My name is Carroll—Jack Carroll; Miss Raymond, I suppose. Your brother—er—suggested that I call, as I was in the city."
"Of course you'd call," chirruped Mrs. Raymond. "As if we were n't always glad to see any friend of my boy's. Helen, why don't you say something? Why don't you welcome Mr. Carroll?"
"I have n't had much chance yet, mother," smiled the girl, in some embarrassment. "Perhaps I—I have n't caught my breath."
"Not that Mr. Carroll ought to mind, of course," resumed Mrs. Raymond plaintively. "And he won't when he knows you, and sees how moderate you are. You know Herbert is so quick," she added, turning to Herbert's friend.
"Is he?" murmured the man; and at the odd something in his voice Helen looked up quickly to find the stranger's eyes full upon her. "You see, I'm not sure, after all, that I do know Herbert," he continued lightly, still with that odd something in his voice. "Herbert's mother has been telling me lots of things—about Herbert."
"Yes; we've been having such a nice visit together," sighed Mrs. Raymond. "You see, he understands, Helen,—Mr. Carroll does."
Again Helen glanced up and met the stranger's eyes. She caught her breath sharply and looked away.
"Of course he understands," she cried, in a voice that was not quite steady. "If he knew you better, mother dear, he would know that there could n't be any nicer subject than Herbert to talk about—Herbert and the fine things he has done!" There was no bitterness, no sarcasm, in tone or manner. There was only a frightened little pleading, a warding-off, as of some unknown, threatening danger. "Of course, Mr. Carroll understands," she finished; and this time she turned and looked straight into the stranger's eyes unswervingly.
"I understand," he nodded gravely.
And yet—it was not of Herbert that he talked during the next ten minutes. It was of Mrs. Raymond and her daughter, of their life at home and at the store. It was a gay ten minutes, for the man laughed at the whimsical playfulness with which Miss Raymond set off the pitiful little tale of the daily struggle for existence. If he detected the nervousness in the telling, he did not show it. He did frown once; but that was when Herbert's mother sighed apologetically:—
"You must n't mind all she says, Mr. Carroll. Helen never did seem to realize the serious side of life, nor what I suffer; but that is Helen's way."
"After all, it must be a way that helps smooth things over some," he had retorted warmly.
And there the matter had ended—except in Helen's memory: there it bade fair to remain long, indeed.
At the end of the ten minutes, Herbert's friend rose to his feet and said that he must go. He added that he would come again, if he might; and to Miss Raymond he said very low—but very impressively—that she would see him soon, very soon. It was no surprise, therefore, to Helen, to encounter the big, tall fellow not twenty feet from her doorway when she started for the store the next morning.
His clean-cut face flushed painfully as he advanced; but the girl did not change color.
"Good-morning. I thought you'd do this," she began hurriedly. "We can talk as we walk. Now, tell me, please, quick. What is it about—Herbert?"
"Not much; only suspect. I know everything is n't quite—right."
"But your mother does n't know—even that much?"
"No, no! You saw that, did n't you? I was so glad you did, and did n't speak! He is her pet, and she's so proud of him!"
"Yes, I know," nodded the man grimly. "I saw—that."
The girl lifted her chin.
"And mother has a right to be proud of him. Herbert is fine. It is only that—that—" She weakened perceptibly. "Was it—money?" she faltered.
"Y-yes." Carroll spoke with evident reluctance. His eyes looked down almost tenderly at the girl with the still bravely uptilted chin. "It—it is rather serious this time. He asked me to call and—and make it plain to you. I had told him I was coming up to town on business, and I promised. But—good Heavens, Miss Raymond, I—I can't tell you!"
"But you must. I'll have to know," cried the girl sharply. All the pride had fled now. "And you need n't fear. I know what it is. He wants money to settle debts. I've sent it before—once. That is it—that is it?"
"Yes, only it's—it's a particularly bad job this time," stammered the other. "You see, it—it's club money—a little club among the boys, of which he is treasurer—and he sto—used part of the—funds."
The man choked over the wretched tale, and instinctively laid his hand on the girl's arm. She would faint or cry, of course, and he wondered what he could do. But there was no fainting, no crying. There was only the pitiful whitening of a set little face, and the tense question:
"How much—was it?"
Carroll sighed in relief.
"Miss Raymond, you're a—a brick—to take it like that," he cried brokenly. "I don't know another girl who— It was—well, a hundred dollars will cover it; but he's got to have it—to-morrow."
"I'll send it."
"But how—forgive me, Miss Raymond, but last night you were telling me that—that—" He flushed, and came to a helpless pause.
"How can I get it?" she supplied wearily. "We've a little in the bank—a very little laid by for a rainy day; but it will cover that. We never think of touching it, of course, for—for ordinary things. But—this." She shuddered, and Carroll saw her shabbily gloved hand clinch spasmodically. "Mr. Carroll, how did he come to—do it?"
It was a short story, soon told—the usual story of a pleasure-loving, thoughtless youth, tempted beyond his strength. Carroll softened it where he could, and ended with:—
"I asked Bert to let me make it good, somehow, but he would n't, Miss Raymond. He—he just would n't!"
"Of course he would n't," exclaimed the girl sharply. Then, in a softer voice: "Thank you, just the same. But, don't you see? 'T would have done no good. I'd have had to pay you. … No, no, don't say any more, please," she begged, in answer to the quick words that leaped to his lips. "You have been kind—very kind. Now, just one kindness more, if you will," she hurried on. "Come tonight. I must leave you now—it's the store, just around the corner. But to-night I 'll have the money. It's in my name, and I can get it without mother's—knowing. You understand? Without—mother's—knowing."
"I understand," he nodded gravely, as he wrung her hand and turned chokingly away.
When Helen reached home that night she found the little flat dominated once again by the big, breezy presence of Herbert's friend.
"I've been telling him more about Herbert," Mrs. Raymond began joyously, as soon as Helen entered the room. "I've been telling him about his letters to me, and the peppermints and the lace tie, you know, and how good Herbert is to me. We've had such a nice visit!"
"Have you? I'm so glad!" returned Helen, a little unsteadily; and only the man knew the meaning of the quick look of relieved gratitude that came to her face.
At the door some minutes later, Carroll found a small packet thrust into his fingers. He caught both the hand and the packet in a firm clasp.
"You're true blue, little girl," he breathed tremulously, "and I'm going to keep tabs on Bert after this. I'll make him keep straight for her—and for you. He's only a bit weak, after all. And you'll see me again soon—very soon," he finished, as he crushed her hand in a grip that hurt. Then he turned and stumbled away, as if his eyes did not see quite clearly.
"Now, was n't he nice?" murmured Mrs. Raymond, as the girl closed the hall door. "And—did n't he say that he'd call again sometime?"
"Well, I'm sure, I hope he will. He is n't Herbert, of course, but he knows Herbert."
"He—does, mother." There was a little break in Helen's voice, but Mrs. Raymond did not notice it.
"Dearie me! Well, he's gone now, and I am hungry. My dinner did n't seem to please, somehow."
"Why, mother, it was n't—codfish; was it?"
"N-no. It was chicken. But then, like enough it will be codfish to-morrow."
Helen Raymond dreamed that night, and she dreamed of love, and youth, and laughter. But it was not the shimmer of spangled tulle nor the chatter of merry girls that called it forth. It was the look in a pair of steadfast blue eyes, and the grip of a strong man's hand.