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 A brown faced, tangle-haired, barefooted little girl; a long country road, its yellow clay beaten into powder, which rose with every gust of wind into whirling eddies, and spitefully enveloped each passer-by in a grimy cloak, and followed after each vehicle like an abhorrent specter. Long rows of maple cast their cool shadows from either side; raspberries and blackberries grew in the corners of the old rail fence; a narrow footpath cut like a yellow thread into the thick green sod; here and there a sweet-william held up its fragrant head; and in the field beyond the long rows of corn rustled their broad leaves, and murmured together. Thella swung her sunbonnet by the strings, and gave a little hop-skip-and-jump for very joy of living. She stopped instantly, as she heard, “Thella! Thella!” called in a fretful, rasping tone.
“Yes’m,” answered she, at the top of a high-pitched, young voice, as she ran rapidly toward a stout, red-faced woman, who stood leaning over the top of the gate.
“I declare to goodness, you make me think of a turkey! It’s no wonder that you are the ugliest young one living! Look at that mop of 100hair, and that slit in your dress!” said she, her voice raised to a shrill scream.
Thella dropped her head, and drew her black brows together sullenly. “Why don’t you put that sunbonnet on your head? Oh, drat you, get out of my sight, you little imp!”
Thella had been digging one brown toe in the dust, but at the conclusion of the tirade she darted past the woman, dextrously dodged a blow and ran into the house. She flew upstairs into the attic; there was a little square window, draped over with cobwebs; Thella had rubbed the grime off the lower panes, but she left the cobwebs—she called them her curtains, and the spiders her little lace makers. From out the rubbish she had long ago hunted a mirror, with a very wavy surface. She crouched on the floor with her head bowed upon the window-sill, sobbing bitterly; the most forlorn little thing imaginable.
Her stepmother’s voice faintly reached her:
“Thella! Thella! Drat the child! she’d wear the patience out of a saint!” whether she intended to imply that she was a saint or not, I do not know.
Thella only gave a little flout: “You can split your old throat for all that I care.”
Anger dried her tears; she softly crept across the loose boards of the floor, and brought her looking-glass to the window. She sat looking at herself mournfully; it was not a pretty picture upon which she gazed; a grimy, tear-stained face, as brown as a coffee-berry, heavy black eyebrows, arched over a pair of intense gray eyes; 101the wavy glass had a trick of elongating the visage which made it very comical; added to this, her hair hung like a black cloud all about her face. She threw down the glass in disgust:
“Thella Armitage, you do look like a little Indian! Oh, what shall I do?” her chin beginning to quiver again; but presently she rested her face on her hand, and sat gazing at the fleecy clouds chasing each other across the sky, and wandered off into dreamland; these were her soldiers, and the great white cloud with a rose-colored border was her chariot, and she was going:
“Thella! Thella Armitage! If you don’t come down here and wash these dishes I’ll skin you,” called her stepmother, up the stairs.
“All right, maybe a decent skin would grow on then,” muttered Thella. She went down into the hot kitchen and washed the dishes; but every minute she stole a glance at her pretty clouds through the open window. “What are you gawping at? ’tend to your work,” said Mrs. Armitage crossly. She did not mean to be actually unkind, but she had no appreciation of another’s feelings, much less of Thella’s dreamy, poetic temperament. Thella shot her an angry look, and sullenly went on with her work, the beauty all taken out of the clouds, her fairylike day dreams buried in gloom.
No sooner were the dishes washed than Thella was set to knit her stint; oh, how she hated that interminable stocking! The rounds seemed endless; and if she thought about something nice for just one little minute the stitches would 102drop and run away down; then Mrs. Armitage would angrily yank the stocking out of her hand, pull the needles out, and ravel out all her evening’s work. When at last the hateful task was accomplished, and the old clock sitting in its little niche in the wall—like a miniature shrine for the Virgin Mary—rang out its nine slow strokes, she would run up to the old east chamber where she slept, in an agony of stifled rage.
Mrs. Armitage would allow her only a small bit of candle: “You’re not going to read those good-for-nothing books; you jest go to bed and go to sleep; I want you to be fit for something in the morning.”
So she was forced to hurry in between the sheets, after blowing out the light, often to lie there wakeful; dreaming such lovely, impossible dreams by the hour. On moonless nights the skurry of a rat, or the cracking of the old timbers in cold weather, would send little shivers creeping up and down her back; but when the silvery moon shone in at the curtainless window she would lie wide-eyed, riding to strange, unheard of countries on its silver bars.
One happy day a neighbor loaned her the “Arabian Knights;” she hurried through her tasks, which were neither short nor easy, and ran joyously up to the garret; a pane of glass had been broken, and a pewee had flown in and built her nest in an old basket suspended from the rafters. So careful was Thella not to frighten the mother bird, that she fearlessly sat on the window-sill and called to her four little children: “Phebe! Phebe!”
103Thella rested her chin on her hand thoughtfully:
“I don’t see how you know them apart if they are all named Phebe,” said she.
She was far away in an enchanted land with Alladin, and did not hear Mrs. Armitage creep up to her; the first intimation she had of her presence was an awful blow on the ear which made her see stars, and knocked the book half across the room.
“You lazy, trifling trollope! I’ll learn you to spend your time reading such trash. Now you march downstairs, and if you can’t find anything else to do go out in the garden and weed them onion beds,” saying which she pounced viciously upon the book.
“Pa said I need not weed them until the sun went down, and it got cooler,” faltered Thella.
“Your father is learnin’ you to be as lazy as he is himself,” snapped Mrs. Armitage; “you march, now, and no more of your sass.”
Thella rose and pushed back her heavy hair, preparatory to following her.
“Will you please let me put away the book?” she said.
“I’ll please put it in the fire,” she replied viciously.
“Oh, no, no! Don’t, it isn’t mine!” she cried frantically as she made a vain endeavor to reach it.
Mrs. Armitage gave her another resounding slap: “There, take that, you little cat!”
As she commenced descending the stairs Thella darted before her, and hurriedly ran to 104the field to her father; she caught hold of his hands and pulled the hoe away from him.
“Don’t daughter, ma will be mad if I don’t keep to work,” he said pathetically.
“Oh, pa, I’ll hoe in your place; do go and take my book away from her, she’s going to burn it, and it isn’t mine at all; it’s Willie Burt’s!” she cried in agitated incoherence. “Oh, hurry, pa! Don’t let her burn it,” her voice full of tears. He stooped for one instant and laid his hand caressingly upon her head.
“Poor little Thella,” he murmured, then walked hurriedly up to the house. Thella looked after him sorrowfully:
“Poor pa!” she said, with a quiver in her voice.
Presently he came slowly back through the broiling sunshine and took the hoe from her hand.
“Well?” said Thella interrogatively.
He shook his head: “’Twasn’t no use, she had it in the stove.”
“The mean, old thing—” began Thella.
“Tut-tut; she’s your mother,” said pa gently.
“She isn’t my mother; my little mother is dead!” She began very hotly, but ended with choking sobs.
“I wouldn’t cry, little daughter; we must make the very best of things when we can’t change them,” he said with a sad resignation more pathetic by far than tears. He took his old red bandana from his pocket and wiped the drops from her flushed cheeks, compassionately.
“Well! You are the shif’lesses pair I ever did 105see,” said Mrs. Armitage shrilly. “Thella, if you don’t go at that onion bed I’ll take a strap to you.”
Thella gave her a look of bitter hatred, and walked sullenly to her work. The sun beat down with terrible force; Thella knelt unprotected on the edge of the bed, and pulled the offending weeds; her father hoed the long rows of corn steadily, only pausing to wipe away the perspiration as it trickled down his face. Mrs. Armitage, under the shade of an apple tree whose boughs bent low with yellow fruit, gossiped with a neighbor.
“Pa! pa!” called Thella softly, he paused and looked at her. “Can’t I have an apple? I’m so warm and thirsty.”
Low as was the call, Mrs. Armitage heard it; “’Tend to your work; you always want to be chankin’ something. Warm! it’s just nice and pleasant.”
Pa dropped his hoe between the long rows, and gathering half a dozen apples off the tree, called Thella to him: “It is nice and cool here, under the shade of the tree.”
He sat on the green bank, and took his little daughter on his knee; he pushed the thick hair from her warm face; she ate her apple, her head lying contentedly on her father’s shoulder. Mrs. Armitage went on gossiping with the neighbor, interspersing her remarks with flings about “People too lazy to breathe—humoring that good-for-nothing,” etc. If Pa Armitage heard, he made no sign, beyond pressing his arm a little closer about Thella’s waist.
106Time went on. Thella was fourteen; her life was a horrible routine—up before dawn in the winter, and before the sun in summer, to milk and churn, cook and scrub; no thoughts expressed in her hearing except those relating to eating, working, and the continuous bad conduct of the neighbors—this last always sufficient for a whole day’s tirade. In summer it was not so bad; there were always the whispering trees, and the fragrant flowers; the green grass, and the busy booming of the bumble bees; the lowing of the solemn-eyed cows, that came at her call. Best of all was the walk down the long, shady lane, through the grassy dell, where, in the limpid brook, the funny crabs crawled backward; and the saucy, gray squirrel chattered at her from the beech and chestnut trees on the hillside; still an added joy when “pa” followed his little girl, telling her of his coming by putting his crooked little finger in his mouth, and thus whistling shrilly. Fast as her nimble feet could carry her she ran to him, and nestling her hand in his begged him to tell her of her very own mamma. Oh, the delightful walks and talks; the sun hanging low in the west and the soft wind just stirring the leaves; a little later the softly falling dew, the gathering shadows, a belated bird hopping from branch to branch with drowsy chirp; a rabbit darting across the path, causing Thella to glance over her shoulder in quick affright and cling a little closer to “pa’s” hand at sight of the dark shadows all around her; then the great red moon lifting his round face above the treetops, lighting up the 107openings, and leaving the shadows darker by contrast. The sweet silence seemed deepened by the shrill cry of the cicada, and the plaintive call of the whip-poor-will; at last pa would say, “We must hurry home, we shall get a scolding.”
Thella would sigh and answer: “Yes, pa, but this is so nice,” with a loving cuddle closer to his side.
Well they knew the remark Mrs. Armitage was sure to make about their “trapezing” all over the fields.
Not long after this, all through the day Thella had been working very hard, and in the edge of the evening sat down on the porch to rest. Pa had just come in from the field looking worn out; Thella’s heart ached as she looked at him: “Poor pa, you are tired out,” she said.
“Yes, pretty tired, daughter!” he answered; hearing Mrs. Armitage coming they said no more.
She was in a fearful humor; she had quarreled with one of the neighbors, and seemed to think that the fight extended to her own family. It was quite dark on the porch, and Thella sat in the shadow so that she did not observe her.
“Where is Thella?” she angrily asked of pa, as she came in.
“Not very far away, I guess,” he answered mildly.
“Out trapezing somewhere, I suppose! I seen her whispering to that Judd Tompkins, more’n once; she’ll come to no good, I’ll tell you!”
“Sho! Sho! What’s the use of bein’ so hard, 108ma? Didn’t you never talk to the boys when you was young?” asked pa very mildly.
“I wish to goodness I’d never seen a pesky man; of all the shif’less, onery things a man’s the wust; and you’re about the laziest of the whole bilin’.”
Pa made no reply, but Thella rose up, white and wrathful; it is not the great things which rouse us to the depth of feeling, but the continued pin-pricking; the nag-nagging which drives us to desperation. Thella could take anything directed against herself; she thought many times that she had grown so used to it that it did not hurt much, but pa, poor pa, she could not hear the good patient soul nagged so, without a word of protest.
“You just let pa alone! You can abuse me all you like, but you needn’t misuse him on my account, he is not to blame for my shortcomings;” she sidled up to him, and clasped his arm with her two hands.
“Hoity-toity! I’m glad I have your permission to express my feelings to you, my high-flown miss; and with or without your consent, I’ll say what I please to your pa—you little trollope, you!”
She made an angry dive at Thella, who only threw up her arm and warded off the blow: “You had best not strike me,” she said in a peculiarly quiet tone.
“Come away, come away, daughter; don’t quarrel with her. Make the best of it! We can’t seem to alter things, so let’s make the best of it,” said the old man tremulously.
109Thella was trembling with anger; she realized that she had made it worse for pa instead of helping him, and her heart was filled with regret and bitterness.
“Pa, you don’t have to endure such abuse; set your foot down and make her behave herself.”
“Oh, Thella, I couldn’t! Don’t you see, daughter, that I can’t quarrel with a woman? Let us take a walk down the lane,” and hand in hand they went. Nothing further was said on the subject until they turned to go in; pa drew a long sigh: “I wish your ma had a lived, but I made my bed—” he broke off abruptly, then continued in a trembling tone, “I thought I was doing the best for my little girl to give her a new ma—you see, a man that’s had a good wife is lonely, and beside, he don’t know just what to do for a little girl—and I thought—I thought—” the old voice quavered into silence piteously.
Thella stopped short and laid her hands upon his shoulders affectionately: “Yes, I know—dear pa, you are so kind; but pa—you are mistaken—you are not making the best of it; there is no good at all in this way of living; it’s just slavery for the bite you eat, and a bed to sleep in—that’s full of thorns; even your food is thrown at you as though you were a dog, and where are all the books we used to have? One might as well be a fool, if they can have no use for their brains,” she ended bitterly.
“Yes; she’s put all the books away; I’m afraid she’s burned them. Your ma liked books, Thella; we used to take such comfort reading together, 110but Mandy says it makes me lazy—p’raps it does. Mandy is a wonderful manager, Thella.”
“Very wonderful! She can make everybody else work while she gossips with the neighbors,” answered Thella indignantly.
“Sho, sho! Daughter you mustn’t talk that way! She’s your ma—no, she’s your stepma, you know. We must make the best of it,” he iterated weakly. Thella made no reply, though her heart burned hotly; what could she say to this crushed spirit that would not add to his trouble?
Before she let him go in she said hesitatingly; “Pa, I am going away; she is cross to you on my account, and—and—oh, pa, I do want to go to school; there’s so much that I want to know!” she said breathlessly.
He stood as though stunned: “What shall I do without you?” he cried despairingly.
Thella trembled with excitement; her heart was torn between the desire to go and the longing to remain; how could she leave her poor, heartbroken old father? but—she honestly believed that she—Thella never called her anything else if she could avoid it—would be less unkind to pa, if she were gone. Thella knew very well that a rancorous jealousy added force to her misuse of him; and—oh, she could not go on in this way; empty day dreams no longer sufficed her bright intelligence; she hungered and thirsted for knowledge; he had a vague understanding of higher and better things than met her everyday sight. She could no longer 111keep her eyes earthward; even when she cast them down for one instant, all things spoke to her of that higher life, and filled her with unutterable longing. Something of this she tried to tell pa between her sobs.
He let his hand wander gently over her crown of hair, as he said, “Yes—yes, daughter; I know how you feel. I used to have just such thoughts, and ma—your ma—used to make me feel as though I could see right up into God’s heart, and I knew—I knew—that I could live well enough to reach Him, sometime, I should if ma hadn’t have died; but now—I just have to make the best of it,” he finished despondently.
“But pa, hadn’t you ought to try now—for ma’s sake?”
“How can I? I never have time even to think. No, no, daughter, I must just make the best of it,” he reiterated wearily.
She had no words of comfort that had not in them a sound of mockery, so she said nothing beyond thanking him for his consent, and as she kissed him lovingly, she patted his withered cheek with her toil-roughened palms: “Poor pa! Poor pa! I love you dearly,” she said.
A tear stole down his furrowed face and wet her hands; he tremblingly murmured, “God bless my daughter!”
The next morning Mrs. Armitage screamed in vain to Thella:
“Drat her, I’ll take a strap to her, if she’s bigger’n the side of a house.”
When at last she threw open the door of the poor, bare little chamber, she found it empty. 112For once words failed her—she sat down on the stairs gasping.
Pa wisely kept out of her way. She missed her servant, but poor pa went about more silent than ever; it seemed that in one short month he grew visibly gray and bent; he worked on hopelessly through heat and cold. The only smile that ever crossed his face was when he received a thick letter from the village postmaster; he would hide it away in his inside pocket with trembling hands for fear Mandy would see it; a little spot of color coming into his thin old cheeks at the thought; at nightfall he would wander down the lane where he used to walk with Thella, and just to make believe that she would come to meet him, he would crook his little finger and whistle shrilly. Oh, the comfort those letters were to him; after reading them over and over again, he would hide them away in a hollow log.
Thella always wrote to him that she was well and happy; she told him nothing of the hard labor and bitter disappointments she met; her situation had been assured to her before she left home, but there were many things that were hard to bear; not the least of which was a terrible homesickness. Then, too, when she came to go to school, she found that others of the same age were far in advance of her in their studies, and consequently looked down upon her. Patient effort at last brought success; by this time her homesick feeling had worn away; she still longed to see her father, but had ever the hope before her of a home in which “pa” 113should have the warmest corner in winter and the brightest window when he wished it.
Later on she wrote that she was teaching; pa whispered it softly to himself: “My Thella is a schoolmam!” Such innocent pride as pa took in the fact.
After four years she wrote to him that she was married.
“Married! My little girl, married!” His old face puckered up queerly; he did not know whether to laugh or cry. She wrote that she was very happy. After that the burden of every letter was, “Pa, do come and see me.”
Sitting by the fire one evening, late in the fall, pa said, “Mandy, I am going to Adairville to-morrow.”
“I should like to know if you are possessed, you’ll do no such thing! What do you want to go there for?”
“I want to see Thella; it’s a long time since I seen her!” deprecatingly.
“Well, you won’t go trapezing after her; she run away, and you’ll not follow her.”
“She’s my child, you hadn’t ought to be so hard, Mandy,” quavered the old man.
“Well, you’ll not go, I tell you! you ain’t goin’ to spend no money running after that trollope!” answered she.
Pa sighed, but said no more; he had submitted to her rule so long that the thought of opposition did not occur to him; his shoulder seemed to bend as if beneath a heavy load; his gray head drooped lower and lower; a heavy 114tear or two followed the deep furrows down his cheek.
The next morning he seemed scarcely able to stir, and though her wrath enveloped him all day he seemed not to mind; he appeared like one in a dream.
When chore-time came again, she said sharply, “Ain’t you goin’ to get them cows to-night? you act as though your wits was wool-gatherin’—or like a tarnal fool!”
“Mandy, I’ve always did the best I could!” he said quaveringly, as he turned away.
“It’s poor enough, the Lord knows,” snapped she.
When pa reached the entrance to the lane he stood lost in thought for several minutes—he had forgotten all about the cows—suddenly he straightened up: “I’ve a good mind to do it! I vum, I will!” he laughed outright—a cracked, cackling laugh, that had a pitiful sound; his weak, watery eyes began to glisten; this time instead of whistling once, he whistled twice shrilly.
“Daughter, I’m coming; your old pa’s coming!” he cried gleefully.
He sat down on the hollow log where he kept his letters; he took them out, handling them over fondly; from the last one received he drew out a bill; he spelled the letter out laboriously:
“Dear Pa: Here is a little money to get you a suit of new clothes; and in my next letter I will send you enough for your fare, for, dear pa, I must see you.”
115He laid the letter on his knee, smoothing it caressingly.
“Yes, daughter, so you shall; I couldn’t never wait ’till I got another letter; so I will go just as far as this money’ll carry me and I’ll walk the rest of the way. Lord! What’ll Mandy say?”
Poor pa did not know as much about traveling as do some children, so he had very little idea of his undertaking.
Two weeks later Thella was one afternoon sitting in her pleasant room. The postman had just passed, which set her to wondering why she did not hear from pa; she ever had the dread before her that his burden would become greater than he could bear, and that she would see him no more. A servant came hurriedly into the room:
“Mrs. Webster, there is an old man at the door who insists upon seeing you; I think he is crazy, he acts so queer.”
“Where is he?” asked Thella, rising.
“At the front door, where he has no business to be, of course! Oh, he said tell you that his name is Armitage——”
“Oh, it is pa—it’s pa!” cried Thella, wildly oblivious that she had nearly thrown the astonished girl over.
She seized the toilworn hands of the forlorn-looking old man; she threw her arms around his sunburned neck, and hugged him ecstatically; she fairly dragged him into the room, so great was her excited joy; she pulled forward the easiest chair, and playfully pushed him into it; 116she patted his hands, and kissed his snowy, straggling hair; she had no words to express her joy, grief, and surprise, except to say over and over again, “Poor pa! Poor pa! Oh, I am so glad to see you!”
He looked at her with dim old eyes, his shaking hand held in hers; “Is this pretty lady my little daughter?” he asked with a happy laugh.
“Oh, you awful flatterer,” cried Thella gayly.
Pa leaned back in his chair with a sigh of satisfaction: “This chair is awful comfortable,” he closed his eyes wearily.
“You are tired, pa, and I do not let you rest!” she said with quick compunction.
“Yes, I am tired; it was a long walk. Mandy wouldn’t let me come, so I ran away; I wouldn’t quarrel with her, so I had to make the best of it.”
“Walk! Did you walk?”
“’Most a hundred miles; it took me a long spell, but I’m glad I come. When I shut my eyes it seems as though I’m talking to your ma; your voice sounds just as hers did.”
The next morning when Thella went to call him to breakfast, he lay babbling of the green lane and Thella, his little girl; occasionally crying out piteously, “Don’t be so hard, Mandy; she’s only a little girl!” Then again, tears would course down his worn cheeks: “Oh, if ma had only lived!” Another time: “Yes, daughter; it is hard to bear, but we must make the best of it.”
It was a whole month later, and pa was lying back in an invalid chair, his head propped with 117soft cushions, his old face looking very placid. “What a sight of nice books you have, daughter; it would be a pleasure to stay here all my life!”
“That’s just what you are going to do, pa.” “Oh, I can’t! You know how Mandy will scold, but I’m goin’ to take all the comfort I can, while I do stay.”
Thella leaned over him, smoothing his thin, gray hair as though he were a child, a wistful tenderness in her tone:
“Mandy’ll never scold you again, pa.”
Pa sat upright, a fitful color coming into his thin cheeks: “What do you mean? Has—something—” stammered he, nervously.
“There, pa, don’t fret; yes, Mandy is—dead;” caressing the hand she held tenderly. “She took a severe cold, and was sick only three or four days.” A tear coursed down his cheek:
“Poor Mandy! Perhaps she didn’t mean to be so hard; we mustn’t judge for others, must we, now?” he questioned tremulously.
He sat silent for a long time, at last he said, “You’ve everything nice here, and the best man that ever lived; you’ve learned so many things—I don’t ’spose you would care to walk in the old lane where my little girl and I used to walk; but I should like to see it once more, and then I’d be content to stay with you the rest of my days.”
Thella gave his hand a loving little pat: “Just hurry up and get well, and we will go and make believe that it is old times once more.”
It was months before pa was able to go, but at 118last they walked down the lane in the sweet June twilight; as of old, “bob-white” whistled to his shy brown mate; and the gray rabbit lifted his long ears inquiringly, exactly as in the past; the yellow buttercups laughed up amid the short, sweet grass just the same, and yet Thella felt a depressing sadness, and pa sighed sorrowfully: “One kind of gets used to things, Thella—no need to hurry home now, is there? It makes me sorry and lonesome.” Thella pressed his arm sympathetically, and they silently walked up the lane, past the cows, ruminatively chewing their cud; past the flock of chickens, with their many bickerings, as they sought their roost; past the silent house and into the street, closing the gate softly and reverently behind them, even as they closed the door of the past life.

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