From The Youth's Companion (November 24, 1898)
“If you could stand a little stiller, Miss Belle — ”
But the slender figure still twitched and shifted under the seamstress's tired hands. Belle was cross, and she always twitched and jerked when she was cross. Besides, it really mattered so very little about the lounging wrapper. Having a dress fitted at madame's was different.
“There are some wrinkles over one shoulder. You don't keep still — I — I cannot smooth them out!” little Mehitty — the seamstress's name was Mehitty — sighed, patiently. The lounging robe mattered so very much to her! If Miss Belle's mother discovered the wrinkles!
“You must stand still, Miss Belle!” she said, firmly.
The sunlight streamed into the big, beautiful room, made little barred patterns on the rich rug and on the polished floor, and shining on the little seamstress's neat hair, made it look like burnished gold. Miss Belle was gazing at it. That was the chief reason for her crossness. She never could see Mehitable Hook's hair with perfect equanimity — and with the sun on it! Belle jerked her shoulders under the filmy gown, and multiplied the wrinkles by three.
Across the room the long mirror gave back the girl's slight, graceful figure, but all Belle saw in it was the “common hair” that topped the prettily poised head. It was “cinnamon brown” hair, it was straight hair, it was stiff and coarse and horrid hair — ugh! And Mehitable Hook's hair was gold in the sun, and lay in soft waves all over her small head.
“I do wish mother would employ a seamstress with ordinary hair! There are plenty of them in the market!” fussed Belle in her thoughts. “Then I needn't be continually making odious contrasts.”
The windows were all open, and the noises of the great city drifted in through them, oddly muffled and far away. No harsh sound or clatter of wheels was to be heard.
“As if it was padded with cotton-wool, and the streets were padded, too,” the little tired seamstress thought. Where Mehitable Hook lived there was endless clatter and din.
“There, that will do for this time, Miss Belle. You'd better not hook up your dress. I shall have to try it on again when I've basted some of the seams over.”
“Well,” Belle said, listlessly.
She took up a magazine and pretended to read, but her eyes kept wandering over the pages to the small, well-set golden head bending over the lounging robe. The gold and the delicate blue of the dress blended together harmoniously. A stray lock or two of the hair had loosened, and stirred gently in the breeze from the open window.
“It's the loveliest hair in the world!” thought Belle, impulsively. Then she said aloud, a very little crossly, “I envy you, Mehitty Hook!”
The golden head lifted in surprise. “Me, Miss Belle? You envy — me?”
The little seamstress's voice was quiet, but her face had a queer little grim smile on it.
“Yes, you — I envy you. Why should your hair be the color of gold and mine be dirt color? Why does yours wave and curl, and mine hang stiff and lanky and straight? It isn't fair!”
Belle laughed at her own little speech, but the laugh had an unpleasant ring. She looked grave enough.
Mehitty waited to thread her needle and take a few swift, even stitches. Then she dropped the pretty dress in her lap, and looked up with a flush in her cheeks.
“I envy you, too, Miss Belle,” she said, slowly. “I envy you the asphalt pavement in front of your house.”
“You envy me what?” Belle's face was the astonished one now.
“The asphalt. Why should you have it in front of your house, and I have cobblestones in front of mine? Why should the carriages and wagons go by you softly, and rattle and clash by me? It isn't — is it fair?”
The little seamstress took up her work again, and plied her needle very fast. The flush was still in her cheeks. Belle sat and watched it in surprise. She wanted to laugh — or cry. Such a funny thing to envy anybody for! If it had been wealth or beautiful clothes or friends, but an asphalt pavement!
“It's such a queer thing to envy me for,” she said, thinking her thoughts aloud. “I don't see what made you think of that. Tell me.”
“I will,” said Mehitty Hook, quietly. “I'll tell you why, Miss Belle. If your mother — your mother — was sick, and always suffering; if the clattering of the omnibuses and carts forever and ever past her window and the jar and roar of the elevated trains hurt her and shook her cruelly; and if you couldn't help it, but had to look on and see the torture in her sweet, smiling face — Miss Belle, can't you see why I envy you your asphalt pavements? I don't ask for your beautiful home or your luxuries and riches. I only ask for that. That isn't fair!”
The girl's voice quivered with excitement, bitterness and tenderness. She got up suddenly and left the room. Belle sat quite still in the sunny, luxurious place and thought it over.
“Why,” she murmured, “why, I didn't know there were things like that in the world! I knew there were elevated trains and cobblestones, of course, but not the rest of it. Not the mothers who were sick and tortured. Oh no, not the mothers!”
A vision of her own mother's dear, rosy, well face came to her, and in sudden longing to kiss it and thank God, she hurried away to find it.
The lounging robe was finished and hung up with other beautiful, soft gowns in Belle's clothes-press, and the little seamstress went away. There was nothing else just then for her to do. All the street dresses and silken church suits were made at madame's, of course. Only the plainer work was left for Mehitty to do, and the plainer work was all done now. So Mehitty went away, and Belle soon forgot her amazing little outbreak of speech. A girl's memory is not long, and besides, there was so much else to think about. The long summer-time stretched ahead in a pleasant, long perspective.
At the other end of the summer Belle came back to her city home refreshed and brown. It had been such a beautiful holiday beside the sea! She had “run wild” and worn out all her clothes, her mother said. So she sent for little Mehitty Hook again. There was a plain school dress or two that she could make — not as well as madame, of course, but well enough. Madame's prices were so high, and these were hard times.
They had been “hard times” all summer to the poor of the city. Crowded in close, hot tenements, they had gasped all summer. Wagons and omnibuses had rattled unceasingly, and worn mothers had borne the heat and endless torture with faces that smiled for their children.
Mehitty came back with a little shorn head and pale, steady face. There was even joy in it because her mother had not died with the rest. But how queer Mehitty looked! Belle cried out in horror.
“Your hair — O Mehitty, where's your hair?” she gasped.
Mehitty put up her hands and rubbed her shorn head a little ruefully; but she smiled. “Some of it's left,” she said, “and hair will grow. That's one comfort.”
“Grow! But it'll take a lifetime, Mehitty Hook! Are you crazy? That beautiful, beautiful hair!”
“No,” Mehitty smiled back. “I'm only sane. That's what I did it for — a ‘lifetime.’”
Belle instantly remembered the little speech of long ago, and knew why the beautiful hair had been sacrificed.
“Oh!” she murmured softly.
Mehitty's scissors clipped on industriously, and when she spoke again her voice sounded unnatural between the pins she held with her lips.
“It didn't do — everything,” she said, in a little burst of confidence, “but it did something. It gave mother a week at the sea — a whole week! She says it will last a lifetime. She says now, when she hears the roaring of the carts and things, she can make believe it's the sound of the sea! It's such a help — she says.”
“Oh!” cried Belle.
“Yes — now do you wonder I sold my hair, Miss Belle? And when it grows out again, I'll sell it again for another week for her; and again — and again! If — the Lord will only let mother stay long enough.”
The last sentence was broken; and to Belle's surprise the little shorn, golden head sank on the table, and Mehitty was crying.
“If mother will only wait!” she sobbed.
Belle stole across the room on tiptoe, and put her brown head down beside the golden one. Belle was crying, too.
“Is — is — she getting worse?” she whispered.
“No! No! she shall not get worse!” Mehitty cried, sharply; but Belle read the truth in her pitiful face.
After a while, when both girls were calmer and the scissors were clipping again, steadily, Mehitty said:
“The hardest part of all is the noise. It goes on forever, and the making-believe doesn't count. That's only mother's way of comforting me. O Miss Belle, it's hard to have your mother die in such a noise as that!”
“Oh yes,” murmured Belle, “it's hard; but don't you hear the dreadful clack-clack of the horseshoes on our asphalt? Is the noise on your pavement so much worse than that?”
“Worse!” cried Mehitty; “it is roar and din and twenty times more clacking. Here the little clack comes only often enough to remind one of the long, blessed silences between. Mother would think this street a sort of heaven on earth.”
That night at dinner-time Belle established herself in her old child-fashion, on her father's knee. She stroked his thin hair lovingly.
“Father,” she began, “I'm going to ask a favor.”
“Yes, of course — these are tokens,” laughed her father. “Fire away, Puss, only don't go in too steep. These are hard times, remember.”
“Yes, I remember. I've been remembering all day, father. That's what it's about — the favor, you know.”
“No, I don't know, Puss.”
“Well, you will in a minute — listen with both ears, father. You know the new rug I was going to have for my room, and the draperies, and the new paper? Well, I don't want them now.”
“Ah, I can breathe freely again!”
“But I want something else, something sacred, father,” she said, with a strange gravity of tone which impressed him with a vague fear.
“Yes, little girl, go on.”
“I want my room made soft and easy and pleasant for Mehitty's mother, father.”
“For Mehitty's mother!”
He pushed her a little away, and looked down into her sweet face in amazement. It looked back at him, earnest and steady.
“Yes, Mehitty's mother — Mehitty is the seamstress, you know. She is dying — I mean, the mother. She lies all day and tries to make believe the noise and clattering is the sea — she does that to comfort Mehitty, you know. It doesn't comfort her. Everything tortures her — it is dreadful, father! Mehitty sold her beautiful hair for her mother.”
It was an incoherent little story, and the jolts in Belle's voice made it harder yet to comprehend, but after awhile her father understood.
“Yes, Puss, go ahead,” he said, gently.
“I can sleep with Bess, you know, daddy, just as well as not. And — and — can Mehitty stay, too, to nurse her mother? She could sew a good deal, between times, to help along. Mehitty sews beautifully. I — I could sew, too, father — truly. It's hard times, you know.”
Her father drew her suddenly closer to him. She could not see his face when he answered her.
“Can Mehitty come, too, father?”
“Yes, Puss,” he said.
Some one else leaned over and kissed the little “dirt-colored” hair softly, three times. It was Belle's mother.
“Yes, little girl,” she whispered.
And so, a few days later, Mehitty's mother came, and Mehitty, too. They were established luxuriously in Belle's beautiful, airy room with the hushed voice of the great city coming into it pleasantly, through the open windows; and all day long the invalid lay on her soft pillows and listened, in silent comfort. There was no more torture — there was no more anguish of harassed nerves. She said she liked the little clacking. Mehitty's mother could die peacefully; and when her chastened soul went out to the Infinite, even Mehitty could look on the beautiful, quiet face without hopeless woe.
“She'll be so happy, mother will,” Mehitty said. “She'll have such a long, long rest. So quiet — so quiet it must be in heaven; and how well she rested in the quiet here! O Miss Belle, God bless you for your goodness to my mother.”