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The Potato Child
It was certain that Elsie had a very hard and solitary life.
When Miss Amanda had selected her from among the girls at "The Home," the motherly matron felt sorry.
"She is a tender-hearted little thing, and a kind word goes a great way with Elsie."
Miss Amanda looked at the matron as if she were speaking Greek, and said nothing. It was quite plain that few words, either kind or unkind, would pass Miss Amanda's lips. But "The Home" was more than full, and Miss Amanda Armstrong was a person well known as the leading dressmaker in the city, a person of some money; not obliged to work now if she didn't wish to. "If cold, she is at least perfectly just," they all said.
So Elsie went to work for Miss Amanda, and lived in the kitchen. She waited on the door, washed the dishes, cleaned the vegetables, and set the table (Miss Amanda lived alone, and ate in the kitchen). Every Friday she swept the house. Her bed was in a little room in the back attic.
When she came, Miss Amanda handed her a dress and petticoat, and a pair of shoes. "These are to last six months," she said, "and see you keep yourself clean." She gave her also one change of stockings and underclothes.
"Here is your room; you do not need a light to go to bed by, and it is not healthy to sleep under too many covers."
It wasn't so much what Miss Amanda did to her, for she never struck her, nor in any way ill-treated her; nor was it so much what she said, for she said almost nothing. But she said it all in commands, and the loving little Elsie was just driven into herself.
She had had a darling mother, full of love and tenderness, and Elsie would say to herself, "I must not forget the things mama told me, 'Love can never die, and kind words can never die.'" But she had no one to love, and she never heard any kind words; so she was a bit worried. "I shall forget how kind words sound, and I shall forget how to love," sighed the little girl.
She used to long for a doll or cat or something she could call her own and talk to. She asked Miss Amanda, who said "No." She added, "I have no money to give for such foolishness as a doll, and a cat would eat its head off."
Miss Amanda had been blessed with no little-girl time. When she was young, she always had been forced to work hard, and she thought it was no worse for Elsie than it had been for herself. I don't suppose it was; but one looking in on these two could not but feel for both of them.
Elsie would try to talk to herself a little at night, but it was cheerless. Then she would lift up her knee, and draw the sheet about it for a hood, and call it a little girl. She named it Nancy Pullam, and would try to love that; but it almost broke her back when she tried to hug Nancy. "Oh, if I had something to be good to"! she said.
So she began greeting the ladies, when she opened the door, with a cheerful little "Good morning" or "Good afternoon."
"I wouldn't do that," said Miss Amanda, "it looks forward and pert. It is their place to say 'Good morning,' not yours. You have no occasion to speak to your betters, and, anyway, children should be seen and not heard."
One day, a never-forgotten day, she went down cellar to the bin of potatoes to select some for dinner. She was sorting them over and laying out all of one size, when she took up quite a long one, and lo! it had a little face on it and two eyes and a little hump between for a nose and a long crack below that made a very pretty mouth.
Elsie looked at it joyfully. "It will make me a child," she said, "no matter if it has no arms or legs; the face is everything."
She carefully placed it at the end of the bin, and whenever she could slip away without neglecting her work would run down cellar and talk softly to it.
But one day her potato-child was gone! Elsie's heart gave a big jump, and then fell like lead, and seemed to lie perfectly still; but it commenced to beat again, beat and ache, beat and ache!
She tried to look for the changeling; but the tears made her so that she couldn't see very well; and there were so many potatoes! She looked every moment she had a chance all the next day, and cried a great deal. "I can never be real happy again," she thought.
"Don't cry any more," said Miss Amanda," it does not look well when you open the door for my customers. You have enough to eat and wear; what more do you want?"
"Something to love," said Elsie, but not very loud.
She tried not to cry again, and then she felt worse not-to shed tears, when, perhaps, her dear little potato-child was eaten up.
Two days after, as she was still searching, a little piece of white paper in the far dark corner attracted her attention. She went over and lifted it up. Behind it was a hole, and partly in and partly out of the hole lay her potato-child. I think a rat had dragged it out of the bin. She hugged it to her heart, and cried for joy.
"Oh, my darling, you have come back to me, you have come back! And then it seemed as if the pink eyes of the potato-child looked up into Elsie's in affectionate gratitude; and it became plain to Elsie that her child loved her. She was so thankful that she even kissed the little piece of white paper. "If it hadn't been for you I would never have found my child. I mean to keep you always," she said, and she wrapped it about her potato-child, and put them in her bosom. "We must never be parted again," she murmured.
At supper, with many misgivings, she unwrapped her treasure for Miss Amanda, and asked if she could keep it as her own. "I won't eat any potato for dinner tomorrow if you will give me this," she said.
"Well," answered Miss Amanda, "I don't know as it will do any harm; why do you want it?"
"It is my potato-child. I want to love it."
"See you lose no time, then," said Miss Amanda.
And afterward, Elsie never called the potato it, but always "my child."
She found a fragment of calico, large enough for a dress and skirt, with enough over, a queer, three-cornered piece, which she pinned about the unequal shoulders for a shawl. Upon the bonnet she worked for days.
All this sewing was a great joy to her. Last of all, she begged a bit of frayed muslin from the sweepings for a night-dress. Then she could undress her baby every night.
She must have heard a tiny tuber-voice, for she said, "Now I can never forget the sound of loving words, and the world is full of joy."
Elsie had a candle-box in her room, with the cover hung on hinges. It served the double purpose of a trunk and a seat. She put her child's clothes and the scrap of white paper in this box. In the daytime she let her child sit upon the window-sill so she could see the blue sky; but when the weather grew colder she took her down to the kitchen each morning, lest she should suffer.
Sometimes, Miss Amanda watched her closely. "She does her work well, but she is a queer thing. She makes me uneasy," she thought.
Christmas was coming. Elsie and her mother had always loved Christmas, and had invariably given some gift to each other. After their stockings were hung side by side, Christmas Eve, her mother would take her in her lap and tell her the Christmas story. So now it was a great mercy for Elsie that she had her child to work for.
One day, when she had scrubbed the pantry floor unusually clean, Miss Amanda gave her the privilege of the rag barrel. This resulted in a new Christmas suit of silk and velvet for baby; and this she made.
When Elsie left "The Home" the matron had given her a little needle-book containing a spool of thread and thimble for a good-by present. These now came into good play. She used the lamp shears to cut with.
When all was done the babe looked beautiful, except that it had no stockings. It had not even legs. "I'll make her a wooden leg, and let her be a cripple, then I shall love her all the better."
But after she had made the leg, and a very good one, too, she hadn't the heart to break the skin of her child, and push it in.
"I'll make the stockings without legs," she said, and so she did.
Elsie was very careful never to let her child see, or mention before her, how busy she was for Christmas.
She felt very sorry for Miss Amanda, and wished she had something to give her, but she could think of nothing except the piece of white paper she found with her potato-child. The afternoon before Christmas she took it from the candle-box, and smoothed it out upon the cover. It had some writing upon one side. Elsie thought it was very pretty writing - it had so many flourishes. Elsie could not read it, of course, but she hoped Miss Amanda would like it.
How should she give it to her? She didn't dare hand it to her outright, and she was certain Miss Amanda wouldn't hang any stocking; so just before dark she slipped into Miss Amanda's sleeping-room, and laid it on the brown cushion just in front of the mirror.
When Elsie had finished her work she went to her room, pinned her child's stocking to the foot of the bed and slyly tucked in the new suit she had made. Her own stockings lay flat upon the floor. Her breath caught a little bit as she noticed them. "But it doesn't matter," she said, "parents never care for themselves if they can give their children pleasure."
She crept into bed and took her child on her arm. The night was very cold. The frost made mysterious noises on the roof in the nail-holes and on the glass. She went to bed early because the kitchen was so cold. She thought "we can talk in bed." The lock of her door was broken, and she could not shut it tight. Through this the air came chilly.
* * * * * * *
Miss Amanda put on her flannel wrapper and her bed-slippers and sat down before the open fire in her sleeping-room. Some way she couldn't keep her thoughts from that little back attic room. She went into the hall, silently up the stairs, and stood outside the door. Elsie was talking softly, but Miss Amanda could hear every word, thanks to the broken lock.
"I have much to tell you to-night, dear child," she heard the waif say, "the whole story of the Christmas Child. It was years ago. His mother was very young, I guess about twice as old as I am. They hadn't any house; they were in a barn. I think there were no houses to rent in that town. But she fixed a little cradle for Him in the feed-box, and wrapped Him in long clothes, as I do you, my darling. The angels sang a new song for Him. A new star shone in the East for Him. Some men with sheep came to visit Him, and some rich men brought Him lovely presents. My mother told me all these things, and I mustn't forget them; it helps me to remember to tell it to you. So now, this lovely Christmas Child was born in a little bit of a town, the town of - oh, my child" - with a mournful cry - "I've forgotten the name of the town! I used to say it to my mother - it's the town of, the town of - I can't remember."
Miss Amanda could hear her crying a little softly.
"Never mind," she said presently. "I am very sorry; I have not told the story often enough. I wish I had some one to teach me a little, but perhaps it don't make so much difference if I have forgotten the name of the town. He came to teach us. Sure I won't forget that. Love can never die. That's the present He gave to everybody. So if nobody else gives us a Christmas present, we always have the one He gave us."
Silence for a little.
"I am very sorry for Miss Amanda, dear. She has no child to love. She has a very sad and lonely life."
Her teeth chattered a little. "It seems like a very cold night; the covers are quite thin, but we can never really suffer while our hearts are so warm. I'm glad you feel real well, and are just as plump as ever, but your little skin is just one bit wrinkled. You are not going to take cold or be sick? Oh, I couldn't give you up! I should miss you so much, you happy, good little child."
Miss Amanda heard a kiss. "Good-night, dear. I'm so tired. God bless us all, and help us to remember Miss Amanda, and let her find her present to-night."
Miss Amanda crept back to her warm room, and waited until she was sure the child was fast asleep. Then she took a down quilt off the foot of her own bed, picked up her candle, and retraced her way up-stairs.
She softly dropped the comforter upon Elsie. She heard, as a sort of echo, a soft sigh of content. Miss Amanda waited a moment, then shading the candle with one hand, she looked at the sleeping child.
The face was pale and thin. The lashes lay dark upon the white cheeks. They were quite wet; but, pressed close to them, and carefully covered by little, toil-hardened hands, was the grotesque potato in its white night-gown.
Miss Amanda was surprised by a queer click in her throat, and hurried out of the room.
She stood before her fire, candle in hand, and bitterly compressed her lips. She hopes "I'll find my Christmas present to-night. Who will send it to me, and what will it be? Whom do I care for, and who cares for me? No one. Not one human being."
She crossed the room, and, placing her candle upon the dressing-table, gazed at herself in the glass. "I am growing old, old and hard, and perfectly friendless."
But why that start and cry? There before her eyes, in the big, flourishing, boyish handwriting so well remembered, she reads: "Our love can never die. We have nothing in the world except each other, dear sister, and no matter what may come, our love can never change."
She snatched up the paper and threw herself into a chair.
"Where did it come from"? she cried. "What evil genius placed it here this night? Haven't I, years ago, torn and destroyed every word that wretched boy ever wrote me?"
She tossed her arms over her head, and rocked back and forth, and groaned aloud. She could not help her thoughts now, or keep them from going back over the past. Her heart softened as she remembered, and the scalding tears fell.
She was only a child, not much older than the one up-stairs, when her dying mother had placed her baby-brother in her arms, saying:
"He is all I have to leave you, Amanda. I know you love him. Don't ever be harsh or unforgiving to him."
How had she kept her trust? She had loved him. She had worked early and worked late for him. She had given up everything; but she had been ill-repaid.
"Ill," do I say? Verily, is this not true of Love: that it brings its own blessedness?
The fire burned low, and the room settled cold and still. She seemed to feel a pair of boyish arms about her neck and a boy's rough kiss upon her cheek.
When she was but a young woman she had moved to the big city, and started her dressmaker's shop, so that he could have a better chance at school. What a loving boy he was! So full of fun!
The wind whistled outside. She thought it was he, and she heard him again: "You're my handsome sister. Not one of the fellows have as handsome a sister as I."
How proud she had felt when she had started him off to college. "It only means a few years of a little harder work, and then I'll see my boy able to take his stand with anybody."
But now she wept and groaned afresh. "Oh, how could he treat me so, how could he! The wretched disgrace!"
He had been expelled. The president's letter was severe; but the young man's letter regretted it as only a boyish prank. He was sorry. He had never expected anything so serious would come of it. He deserved the disgrace. It only hurt him through his love for her. But only forgive him, and he would show her what he could yet do.
What had he done?
He had tied a calf to the president's door-bell.
She remembered her answer to this letter, asking for her forgiveness. It stood before her, written in characters of flame.
Had she in this been harsh to the boy, the only legacy her dying mother had to leave her?
"Never speak to me, nor see my face again. You have disgraced yourself and me."
It was not so long a letter but that she could easily remember it.
Afterward, the president himself had written again to her. He thought he had been too hasty. It was truly only a boy's prank. It was, of course, ungentlemanly, but the trick was played on All-Fool's Night, and that should have had greater weight than it did. The faculty were willing, after proper apologies were made, to excuse it, and take her brother back.
Where was her brother? He could not be found, and not one word had she heard of him since she sent that dreadful letter. He might be dead. Oh, how often she thought that! Now she wrung her hands and covered her wet cheeks with them. Her hair fell about her shoulders, as she shook in her agony of remorse.
* * * * * * *
What noise is this? the door-bell pealing through the silent house. Again and again it rings.
She did not hear this bell. She was listening to another, and how it rang! Louder and louder, how it rang, and well it might, with a calf jumping about, trying to get away from it. Even in all her misery - so near together are the ecstasies of emotion - she laughed aloud and then shuddered at the thought that she should never again hear any noise quite so loud as this of the past.
Then she felt in the silent, chill room a tattered presence, a little half-frozen hand upon her own. She turned her streaming eyes, and they were met by the big, wide eyes of Elsie.
"Miss Amanda, didn't you hear the door-bell ringing? There is something - no, there is somebody - waiting down-stairs for you."
Half dazed, half afraid, ashamed of her tears, Miss Amanda left the room, led by the child as by an unearthly presence into an unearthly presence.
Who was this bearded man that folded her in his strong, true arms?
* * * * * * *
"I have so much to tell you, dear child. I am such a happy little girl. Miss Amanda's dear brother has come home. She is so happy, and she loves him so much. And, oh darling, they both love me! And it was all you! You did it all! Oh, there is no knowing how much good one sweet, loving, contented potato-child can do in a house."