The Step One

Annie Hamilton Donnell

From Harper's Monthly (June, 1907)

 

The new wife's face was alert with intense interest.

“Are we getting pretty near, — Davy?” with the shy little halt still before the name.

It was taking longer than she had expected to get used to calling this great, grave, Reverend David “Davy.” But she was bent upon persisting — David now would be David always, and a David was no kind of a person to live all of one's life with, — and play little wife-jokes upon, — and kiss good-night! From the first she had known she must call him Davy.

“Pretty, real near — Davy? Because I've saved up some questions to ask you on the home-stretch. I must have time enough.”

Very gently this great, grave Reverend David groaned — so gently that he kept it to himself. Had he not been dreading those questions ever since they started away from the pleasant place of their two weeks' honeymoon? He had felt them coming — and now here they were.

“The first one — I've got them methodically numbered,” laughed the sweet, low voice — “the first one, — Davy, is, How many? (Of course I know, but you must make believe I didn't. I want to be introduced all over again.) And the second one is, How do they look? And the thir —”

“One at a time, Mary,” he smiled; “you mustn't rush me! Answer to number one: Six.”

“Six,” she murmured, and the color flooded her face softly. Six was so — many! Of course she had known, — of course she had. But even a little three-letter word like that can sound different at different times — little sometimes, sometimes big. How big it sounded now!

“Six,” she repeated under her breath, and did not speak again at once. Then, smiling up at him, “Now answer number two, please!”

He pretended dismay. “It's a big contract,” he said; “you are certainly rushing me! As if a man could remember six separate looks! — and five of them girl ones!”

“Are girl ones harder to remember? Then I'll put the question in another way. Like this: What are they like? Aren't some of them like you, Davy? Just one or two?” She was scarcely conscious that she held her breath for the answer, but he knew. More than mere knowing, he understood.

“Mary is like me,” he said gently but a little uncertainly. Then, as if making a rapid mental inventory of Mary's characteristics, “Yes, Mary is like me,” with assurance.

“Mary?” She caught her breath quickly. “Then one of them is Mary? why, I never expected — I never thought —”

“Her mother's name was Mary,” the great, grave, reverend man said quietly, but he winced at the hurt he knew he was giving her — he knew her so well. They had never mentioned the dead wife's name; she had never asked, he never volunteered it.

“Then call me Molly!” her heart cried out within her. “Not Mary! — no, no, not Mary!” But she uttered no sound with her lips, but with infinite effort made them smile. It was a full moment before she spoke.

“It's a good name,” stoutly. “It — it bears repeating. I never would let anybody but home folks nickname me, — they called me Molly at home. That's rather a funny little name, don't you think? I — I don't suppose you like the name of Molly?”

And because he understood, he smiled and called her Molly. It was a distinct relief to them both. After that, she found that Davy came more easily.

“Davy,” — then again, practising it, “Davy.”

“Yes, — Molly.”

“Isn't it queer I never would let you tell me their names before? I always was ‘just that’ whimsey! And now, honest, I'm a little frightened, — six names are so many to learn in a hurry! Are we getting very awfully near?”

“Pretty near, — shall I teach them to you now?”

“Yes, — oh, yes, hurry! I've learned Mary, — now the rest, Davy. Be quick!”

He smiled and held up his big brown fingers, ticking the names off monotonously. “Mary, Margaret, — Judith, Jean, — Hop o' My Thumb and The Boy.”

“Oh, The Boy — I'm glad there's a Boy!” she laughed. “Maybe the other — Hop o' My Thumb is a —”

“Girl. All girl ones but The Boy.”

“And he is the baby one? I'm glad The Boy is the baby one! I'm sure I don't know why, but I am. Does he wear little Russian frocks and his hair chopped off — oh, Davy, if he doesn't, you'll let me chop it off round the ears, won't you? Say I may!”

The great, grave, Reverend David gasped softly. “Er — yes, — no, — that is, you must ask him. He wears it something like that now, since he began to play football.”

“Football! Davy, how old is he?” she demanded.

“Ten, in his stocking feet.”

“Oh, — ten!” She was palpably disgusted. The little Russian frocks melted into the background. This was The Boy she had been going to snuggle in her arms. This was the Baby One!

“There's Hop o' Thumb,” he ventured appeasingly, anxious to comfort. “Hop o' Thumb is six. Six is rather small.”

“Oh!” she brightened, “six is lovely! Why didn't you tell me there was a six one — oh, of course, I wouldn't let you. Davy, I guess I was a — goose!”

“I guess so,” he agreed, smiling down at her from his great height. But in his heart he called himself something worse than a goose — a coward. It had been such a relief when she had put her finger on his lips and bidden him: “No, no, not yet! I want to wait, — just for this little while pretend there is only you!” And they had “pretended,” while the short, sweet space of their honeymoon sped by. He had reasoned that perhaps it was better so, — better to wait. The relief of it blinded his better judgment; he wanted to give himself more time.

But now, — he could not wait any longer now, and his heart sank within him at what he must tell her. It was terrible to look into her earnest face and say cruelly, brutally: “They won't be glad to see you, dear. They don't want a stepmother.”

They would be polite. Oh, he knew how polite they would be! He could see them standing in a stiff little row, with Mary at the head — Mary, who had drilled them painstakingly. They would put out limp hands properly, the hands growing smaller and smaller down the line to Hop o' Thumb's little cushioned hand with the dimple-pricks in it. Hop o' Thumb's hand would be terribly clean — he could see just how scrubbed and polished it would be. But Hop o' Thumb's little scrubbed face would be unfriendly, dignified and cold, a ludicrous copy of all the faces up the line to Mary's. Mary had drilled them. As well as if he had been there, he knew what she had said at the drills. Something terrible, like this: “We must be polite, but we sha'n't love her, of course. Nobody could expect that of us. She will be our stepmother and we must make the best of her. But, children, remember! We must always be polite!”

He was not much concerned about ultimate results. This sweet-faced little new wife there on the seat opposite him would attend to those. He had faith in her sweetness to break all barriers down ultimately. But now — it was now he was concerned about. He longed so intensely to make her home-coming pleasant, and he knew so well about the line of dignified little faces and limp little hands that would be there waiting. And she would see the dignity and feel the limpness instantly; he could not deceive her a moment.

While he thought his thoughts like this, she was thinking hers. And oddly enough, they were both much alike. With a woman's swift intuition she had read his thoughts and marshalled them into file to be considered. There was not much time to do it in; she must hurry. There were six children on ahead in the new home, and his brooding eyes and the frown between them told her plainly enough the truth. They were six little hostiles — they did not want any of her. And poor Davy, it was going to hurt him as much as her. Well? — She thought fast.

“Isn't there any one there with them? — they're not there all alone, Davy?” she said aloud.

“No,” — he came out of his anxious thoughts bewilderedly and slowly, — “No, oh no; that is, they are just now, but they haven't been all the time, of course. The old housekeeper had to go on account of sickness, Mary wrote. She said not to worry; they could get on alone the rest of the time. Mrs. Pond only left two or three days ago. I wrote back I should send them a new housekeeper immediately, but it was such short notice — I haven't found any one yet. A neighbor was to stay with them nights and help Mary get ready for us —”

She broke into the long speech brightly. “Aren't we beginning to slow up?” she said. “Anyway, we shall very soon, sha'n't we? Well, I have a speech to make first. Listen hard, dear, and don't dare to be surprised! You married me just as I was, didn't you? Well, I was a queer little thing, Davy, apt any minute to do something unexpected. I'm going to now! — Davy, I want you to let me go first alone.”

“Go first — alone —” He did not understand.

“Yes, — home, you know. I don't want you along! You are to go on somewhere and not come back for a week. Of course — of course it's a crazy way for a new wife to go to her husband's home and get acquainted with his children! No one ever did it before. I'm the first one, — I'm going to do it, Davy. You will let me have my way, dear? It was in the ‘contract,’ wasn't it, — ‘to love, honor and let her have her way’?”

“Mary!” He could not seem to say another word. The unusualness — impossibility — of the scheme took his breath away. Yet there was something in her face, smiling-mouthed but serious-eyed, that let in light upon him. He began to see — he saw uncertainly, then with sudden, dazzling vividness, what this thing she wanted to do, this astounding, unheard-of thing, meant. Her startling little plan opened to him.

“But I can't let you, dear!” he faltered. “Not this — some other thing, dear.”

This, Davy,” she rejoined firmly, “you will let me do it. I want to meet them alone and get acquainted a little before you come. Never mind how queer it is, or how unconventional, — I want to do it. I want to, Davy. Trust me and let me have my way. You wouldn't refuse your wife before you've been married to her a month? Well, then, listen, — go on somewhere and manage to get along a week — no, you may come on Saturday. That will be only five days. There are things enough in your bag for that time. Saturday, Davy, you may come!”

She could not put her hands on his shoulders and coax him in her own way, on account of the curious eyes about her, but she put it all as well as she could into her eyes. He saw it there and read it a little blunderingly after a man's fashion. But he got to the truth in his way. He understood why she asked this strange thing of him.

When the train slowed into the next station he made himself sit still and let her get out alone. She would not even have him go out on the platform with her and put her into a carriage. Some one, she said, would recognize him, and it was a part of her plan not to have him recognized. But she leaned to his ear as she left him, and what she said a little paid him for this hard thing he was doing for her. He nodded and smiled, because her coaxing eyes asked for a nod and a smile.

“Trust me, dear,” she said. And he sat there trusting her against his will.


“There's somebody a-coming,” The Boy reported from his watch-tower, “but it's only one somebody.”

They're one now,” responded Mary, with no hint of joking, but rather great bitterness in her tone. Mary was getting her line ready to form at the word from the lookout.

“Well, this one's a woman-person all alone. She's going by — she's coming here! Can't Judy or Jeanie go to the door, 'cause I dassent stop looking?”

“Both of you go,” commanded the head of the little family. Judith and Jean usually did things, by virtue perhaps of their twinship, together. “Tell whoever it is that we don't want any. We are very busy to-day,” added Mary.

“We don't want any,” quavered one twin shyly. She was hurriedly reinforced by the other twin: “'Cause we're getting ready for a stepmother an' it's awful.”

“Poor things!” murmured the woman-person on the door-step softly. But she did not offer to go away. “I am the new housekeeper,” she said with a sunny smile. “You are not going to send the new housekeeper away? I came on purpose to help you to — to get ready for the new mother.”

“Stepmother,” corrected the twins promptly. “She isn't anything but a step. Come right in and we'll call Mary. We'd given you up and have done our own cooking — gracious, I'm glad you've come!”

“Do you like griddle-cakes?” the new housekeeper inquired without waste of ceremony. “The goldy-brown kind you eat with syrup? Because I can make —”

“Mary! Mary, come down quick! She's come and she's going to griddle-cake us! With syrup on! Come quick!”

“Judy, Jeanie, what do you mean!” Mary was coming down the stairs with pale horror in her face. Tragedy seemed imminent. If she had really come and those terrible twins were receiving her with wide-open arms — mouths, like this!

“It's the new housekeeper — the new housekeeper! This is Mary,” introduced the twins. And Mary's color came flooding back. She held out a slender hand to the stranger.

“You're perfectly wel — I mean you're very welcome,” she said, and then their eyes met and they laughed together at the thin little joke. It was a relief to Mary, after all these grave days, to laugh. She could not have explained the feeling, but it was instant relief. Her heavy little burden of care slid from her shoulders to the stranger's. Now she need not worry any more about the supper and the beds and the cold in Hop o' Thumb's throat. With an impulsive little motion Mary caught the new housekeeper's hand and squeezed it. It meant the things her halting tongue would not say.

“I must explain,” the stranger said rather unsteadily. “I have seen your father and he is not coming to-day. Not until Saturday. There has been a — a change of plan. We have almost a week to get ready for him in. Don't you think in a week we can get ready?” She was taking off her wraps, smiling at them in turn in an odd, wistful way. They liked her at once.

“Go up and tell Boy he needn't watch out any more. Tell him to come down here — he likes griddle-cakes, too!” Mary laughed. “I guess we're all about starved. I've been housekeeping.”

“Yes, she's cooked us,” the spokesman twin called down over her shoulder as they scrambled up-stairs to call The Boy. And there was that in the child's tone that sent Mary and the stranger laughing again, whereby a new link of friendship was forged.

They swarmed about her, eager to get acquainted and more eager still to see the griddle-cakes materialize. One set the table, while all the rest, captained by Mary, introduced the new housekeeper to her field of labor. As they buzzed about they talked.

“It's fine, isn't it, that we've got most another week!” Margaret remarked. “Of course we want to see daddy,” she added hastily, “but it's a great relief to have our stepmother put off.”

“Why? — does she bite?” queried the new housekeeper innocently. “I had one once and mine didn't.”

“Did you hate her?” propounded Mary with sudden energy. She swung about and waited for her answer. It came very gently.

“No; oh no! I loved mine.”

“Gracious!” from the awed twins in a breath.

“I never s'posed folks could,” The Boy muttered. “The idea!”

“It was rather easy after just the first — ‘just the firsts’ are always a little hard, I guess,” the gentle voice kept on evenly; “but when she began to cuddle me bedtimes —”

Hop o' Thumb uttered a hasty croak in her sore little throat. It would be so nice to be cuddled bedtimes!

“Then I left off the ‘step’ and called her mother. Now somebody show me where the baking-powder is,” briskly, with an end to sentiment. The supper preparations went ahead without further interruption.

Hop o' Thumb's small brown face turned slowly red-brown, then a deep feverish red that alarmed the new housekeeper. She was not unacquainted with sickness, but here was new responsibility connected with it.

“Get a tub of hot water for her feet, and mustard, and one of you go for the doctor.” She issued orders calmly, but she was not calm. Dread was pinching her heart.

All night she held the little body against her breast, rocking and crooning. Hop o' Thumb grew a little delirious after a while and talked in a weary, monotonous little strain of many things. By and by she settled down upon stepmothers and talked of them.

“Take 'em away!” she implored; “don't let one get me! I haven't been a single bit naughty — promise you'll hide me if you see one coming!”

“It's nice to be cuddled bedtimes, isn't it? What was that you was talkin' 'bout? You said — you said you had one once, didn't you? A step one? Or else you said you was one — I keep a-forgettin'.”

“I had one once, dear.”

“An' you loved her? Didn't you say you loved yours?”

“Yes, dear, very much.”

“Then — then I'm a-goin' to love mine. Where's Mary? — I want Mary! — No, I guess I'll go to sleep instead. You tell her I'm a-goin' to love mine.”

“Yes, darling. Now go to sleep.”

“But I wish she was like you! — I wish she was like you!”

“She is, dear.”

“An' cuddles you bedtimes?”

“Just like this, darling.”

“Oh! — oh, tell Mary. What 'll Mary say!”

“Mary says then we'd all love her,” a girl-voice murmured sobbingly; “we'd all do it, Hop o' Thumb, if she was this kind.”

For five days the fever had its way, in spite of the doctor and the new housekeeper. Then in the sudden fashion of children's ailments it subsided and the danger was past. In those days and nights Mary and the stranger-woman had come very close together.

“I'm so glad it was you came and not — and not — her!” the girl cried thankfully.

“She would have done just what I have,” retorted the other fiercely. She was very tired.

“She couldn't — she's a stepmother!” Mary flung back. Mary was tired, too.

“I am a stepmother.”

You!” It did not seem possible.

“And you said you'd love her if she was like me — you said you would —”

“But she isn't, — she can't be,” Mary insisted.

“She is just like me, I tell you! Could you love me, dear?” The impatience had gone now and in its stead had crept in tenderness. Mary flung herself into the other's arms.

“I do! I do! I want you for a stepmother instead of her!

“Then take me —” began the other, but got no farther, for there in the doorway stood David, — daddy. He had been listening; they saw it in his face. He did not speak a word.

“Davy!” She laid the sleeping child in Mary's arms and ran to the door. A strange thing happened then.

“Davy, Davy, Davy! Oh, I'll never do it again! The next time you marry me, you shall come, too, — I've been so anxious, Davy! But she's better now; she is getting well. And you're here — we'll all be happy together now.”

Mary stole away. They did not even know when she passed them in the door. She went down-stairs and rounded up the children.

“Listen to me,” she said; “every one of you listen to me! Something has happened — we've had a stepmother nearly a week and didn't know it! She's been taking care of Hop o' Thumb and we've been loving her. And we're not going to stop. We're going up-stairs and — hug her. We'll go in a procession and I'll be the first —”

But suddenly, quite unexpectedly, The Boy assumed the rights of sex. Undeterred by considerations of courtesy, he went to the head of the little procession and led it up-stairs with the calm mien of a conqueror. With a swift onslaught he “bear-hugged” the little new mother, and one by one they followed him. In the midst woke up Hop o' Thumb and claimed precedence weakly.

“I did it long ago!” she triumphed.