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   Chapter 17 SONIA

The Three Midshipmen By William Henry Giles Kingston Characters: 19049

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


"O dear, I did hope it wouldn't be awfully hot when we got back, but it is," Lizette Stone sighed on the day they returned from camp. "Just think of the breeze on the Lookout this very minute!"

Olga glanced over her shoulder with a smile as she threw open her door. "Let's pretend it's cool here too," she said. "I'm so thankful to be well and strong again that I'm determined to be satisfied with things as they are. The camp was lovely and Miss Laura and the girls were dear, but this is home, and my work is waiting for me, and I'm able to do it. And you have your lovely work too, Lizette, and your home corner across the hall."

Lizette looked at her half wondering, half envious, as she slowly pulled out her hatpins. "I never knew a fever to change a girl as that one changed you, Olga Priest," she said.

"Is the change for the better?"

"Yes, it is, but--"

"But what?" Olga questioned, half laughing, yet a little curious too.

"Just think of the Lookout this very minute!"

"Well-all is, I can't keep up with you," Lizette dropped unconsciously into one of her country phrasings. "I can't help getting into the doleful dumps sometimes, and I can't-I just can't be happy and contented with the mercury at ninety-three. I guess it's easier for some folks to stand the heat than it is for others."

"I think it is," Olga admitted. "Give me your hat. Now take that fan and sit there by the window till I come back. I'm not so tired as you are, and I must get something for our supper."

While she was gone Lizette sat thinking of the Camp with its shady woods and blue water and wishing herself back there. She had had three weeks there, but a hateful little imp was whispering in her ear that some of the girls were staying four or five weeks, and it wasn't fair-it wasn't fair! Of course it was better to earn her living doing embroidery than in Goldstein's store, but still, some girls didn't have to earn their living at all, and--

The door opened and Olga came breezily in, her hands full of bundles. "I really ought to have taken a basket," she said. "There's the nicest little home bakery opened just around the corner-I got bread there."

"I'm not a bit hungry," Lizette said listlessly, then started up, crying out, "Well, I am ashamed of myself! I meant to have the table set when you came back, and I forgot all about it."

"Never mind-I'll have it ready in a minute. Sit still, Lizette."

But Lizette insisted upon helping, and her face brightened as Olga set forth fresh bread, nut cakes, ice cold milk, and a dish of sliced peaches.

"Weren't you mistaken?" Olga asked with a laugh. "Aren't you a little bit hungry?"

"Yes, I am. How good that bread looks-and the peaches."

"After all it is rather nice to be back here at our own little table, isn't it?" Olga asked as they lingered over the meal.

Lizette looked at her curiously. "Olga Priest, what makes you so happy to-night?" she demanded. "I never saw you so before."

"Maybe not quite so happy, but wasn't I happy all the time at camp? Wasn't I, Lizette?"

"Yes-yes, you were, only I didn't notice it so much there with all the girls, and something always going on. You never were so here before. Sometimes you wouldn't smile for days at a time."

"I know. I hadn't realised then that I could be happy if I'd let myself be-and that I had no right not to."

"No right not to," Lizette echoed with a puzzled frown. "I don't see that. I should think anybody might have the privilege of being blue if she likes."

"No." Olga shook her head with decision. "No, not when she has health, and work that she likes, and friends. A girl has no right to be unhappy under those conditions-and I've found it out at last. I'm going to keep my Camp Fire promises now as I never have done."

After a little silence she went on, "I've such beautiful plans for our Camp Fire this year! One of them is to learn all we can about our country. We can't have Jim," laughter flashed into her eyes as she thought of him, "thinking us less patriotic than his beloved Scouts. And we can see and learn so much right here in Washington! I'm ashamed to think how little I know about this beautiful city where I've lived all my life. I mean to 'know my Washington' thoroughly before I'm a year older."

Lizette did not seem much interested in patriotism, but she laughed over the remembrance of the indignation of the girls at Jim's remark about their lack of it. "He did look so plucky, facing us all that day, didn't he!" she said. "And he was scared too at the rumpus he had raised; but all the same he didn't back down."

"No, Jim wouldn't back down if he thought he was right no matter how scared he might be inside."

"Well," Lizette yawned, "I'm so sleepy I can hardly hold my eyes open. Let's wash the dishes and then I'm going straight to bed."

She came in to breakfast the next morning in a different mood.

"Didn't we have a glorious rain in the night!" she cried gaily. "And it left a lovely cool breeze behind it. Last night I felt like a wet rag, but this morning I'm a different creature. It is good to be 'home' again, Olga, and I don't mind going back to the shop."

"That's good!" Olga's eyes were shining as they had shone the night before.

The two set off together after breakfast, and wished each other good luck as they parted at the door of Miss Bayly's shop. Lizette came back at night jubilant. "I got my good luck, Olga," she cried. "I'm to have eight a week now. Isn't that fine?"

"Indeed it is-congratulations, Lizette. And I had my good luck too-better than I dared hope for-two splendid orders. Now we can both settle down to work and get a nice start before the next Camp Fire meeting. I'm going to try to keep half a day a week free for our 'learning Washington' trips."

"Personally conducted?" Lizette laughed.

"Personally conducted. Your company is solicited, Miss Stone, whenever your other engagements will permit."

Over the tea-table they talked of work and Camp Fire plans, and then Lizette went off to her own "corner" and Olga took up a book. She had been reading for an hour when her quick ears caught the sound of hesitating steps outside her door-steps that seemed to linger uncertainly. Thinking that some stranger might have wandered in from the street, she rose and quietly slipped her bolt. As she did so there came a knock at the door. She stood still, listening intently. No one ever came to her door except the landlady or the Camp Fire Girls, and none of them would knock in this hesitating fashion. She was not in the least timid, and when the knock was repeated she opened the door. She found herself facing a woman, young, in a soiled and wrinkled dress and shabby hat, and carrying a baby in her arms.

"Olga-it is Olga?" the woman exclaimed half doubtfully.

Olga did not answer. She stood staring into the woman's face and suddenly her own whitened and her eyes widened with dismay.

"You?" she said under her breath. "You!"

"Yes, I-Sonia. Aren't you going to let me in?"

For an instant Olga hesitated, then she stood aside, but in that moment all the happy hopefulness seemed to melt out of her heart. It was as if a black shadow of disaster had entered the quiet room at the heels of the draggled woman and her child.

"This is a warm welcome, I must say, to your own sister," Sonia said in a querulous tone, as she dropped into the easiest chair and laid the child across her knees. It made no sound, but lay as it was placed, its eyes half closed and its tiny face pinched and colourless.

"I-I can't realise that it is really-you," Olga said. "Where did you come from, and how did you find me?"

"I came from-many places. As to finding you-that was easy. You are not so far from the old neighbourhood where I left you."

"Yes-you left me," Olga echoed slowly, her face dark with the old sombre gloom. "You left me, a child of thirteen, with no money, and mother-dying!"

"I suppose it was rather hard on you, but you were always a plucky one, and I knew well enough you would pull through somehow. As to mother, of course I didn't know-she'd been ailing so long," Sonia defended herself, "and Dick wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. I had to go with him."

Olga was silent, but in her heart a fierce battle was raging. She knew her sister-knew her selfish disregard of the rights or wishes of others, and she realised that much might depend on what was said now.

"Well?" Sonia questioned, breaking the silence abruptly.

Olga drew a long weary breath. "I-I can't think, Sonia," she said. "You have taken me so by surprise. I don't know what to say."

"I suppose you're not going to turn us into the street to-night-the baby and me?"

"Of course not," Olga answered, and added, "Is the baby sick?"

Sonia's eyes rested for a moment on the small pallid face, but there was no softening in them when she looked up again. "She's never been well. The first one died-the boy. This one cried day and night for weeks after she came. Dick couldn't stand it, and no wonder. That's the reason he cleared out-one reason."

"His own child!" cried Olga indignantly, and as she looked at the pitiful white face her heart warmed towards the little creature, She held out her hands. "Let me take her."

Sonia promptly transferred the baby to her sister's arms, and rising, crossed to the small sleeping-room.

"You're pretty well fixed here, with two rooms," she remarked.

"It's hardly more than one-the bedroom i

s so small."

"What do you do for a living?" Sonia demanded.

Olga told her.

"Hm. Any money in it?"

"I make a living, but I had a long sickness last summer and it took all I had and more to pay the bills."

"O well," replied Sonia carelessly, "you'll earn more. You look well enough now." She stretched her arms and yawned. "I'm dead tired. How about sleeping? That single bed won't hold the three of us."

"You can sleep there-I'll sleep on the floor to-night. There's no other way," Olga answered.

"All right then. I'll get to bed in a hurry," and taking the child from her sister, Sonia undressed it as carelessly as if it had been a doll. The baby half opened its heavy eyes and whimpered a little, but did not really awaken.

When Sonia and the child were in bed, Olga went across to Lizette's room. Lizette's welcoming smile vanished at sight of the stern set face, and she drew Olga quickly in and shut the door.

"O, what is it? What has happened, Olga?" she cried anxiously.

"My sister has come with her baby. I don't know how long she will stay." Olga spoke in a dull lifeless voice. "I came to tell you, so that you could get your breakfast somewhere else. You wouldn't enjoy having it with me-now."

"O Olga, I'm so sorry-so sorry!" Lizette cried, her hands on her friend's shoulders, her voice full of warm sympathy.

"I know, Lizette," Olga answered, a quivering smile stirring for an instant the old hard line of her set lips. Then she turned away, forgetting to say good-night. When the door closed behind her, Lizette's eyes were full of tears.

"O, it's a shame-a shame!" she said aloud. "To think how happy she was only last night, and now-now she looks as she did a year ago before Elizabeth went to the camp. O, I wonder why that sister had to come back!"

Lizette lay awake long that night, her heart full of sympathy for her friend, and Olga, lying on her hard bed on the floor, did not sleep at all. She went out early to the market, and coming back, prepared breakfast, but when she called her sister, Sonia answered drowsily:

"I'm too tired to get up, Olga. Bring me some coffee and toast here, will you?"

Olga carried her a tray, and Sonia ate and drank and then turned over and went to sleep again, and Olga, having washed the dishes, went off to the school. All day she worked steadily, forcing back the thoughts that crowded continually into her mind; but when she turned homewards the dark thoughts swooped down upon her like a flock of ravens, blotting out all her happy hopes and joyous plans, for she knew-only too well she knew-what she had to expect if Sonia remained.

"Well, you've come at last!" was her sister's greeting. "I hope you've brought something nice for supper. I'm nearly starved. And you didn't leave half enough milk for the baby."

"I left plenty for your dinner," Olga answered, "and I thought you could get more milk for the baby if you wanted it."

"Get more! How could I get it without money? And you didn't leave me a penny," Sonia complained.

Olga brought out a bottle of malted milk. "That will do for to-night, won't it?" she said, trying to speak cheerfully.

"I don't know anything about this stuff." Sonia was reading the label with a scowl. "You'll have to fix it; and do hurry, for she's been fretting for an hour."

Without a word, Olga prepared the food and handed it to her sister; then she set about getting supper; but when it was ready she felt suddenly too tired to eat. Sonia ate heartily, however, remarking with a glance at Olga's empty plate, "I suppose you got a good dinner down town."

"I haven't eaten a mouthful since breakfast," Olga told her wearily.

"O well," Sonia returned, "some folks don't need much food, but I do. If I don't have three solid meals a day I'm not fit for anything." Then looking at the baby lying on a pillow in a chair beside her, she added, "Really she seems to like that malted stuff. You'd better bring back another bottle to-morrow. There isn't much left in this one."

"Isn't that my dress you have on?" Olga asked suddenly.

"Yes, I had to have something fresh-mine was so mussed and dirty," Sonia replied lightly. "Lucky for me we're about the same size."

"But not lucky for me," was Olga's thought.

For a week things went on so-Sonia occasionally offering to wash the dishes, but leaving her sister to do everything else. Then one night Olga found her best suit in a heap on the closet floor. Picking it up she spoke sharply. "Sonia, have you been wearing this suit of mine?"

"Well, what if I have? You needn't look so savage about it!" Sonia retorted. "I have to have something decent to wear on the street, don't I?"

"Not if you have nothing decent of your own," Olga flashed back. "Sonia, you have no right to wear my things so-without asking!"

With a provoking smile Sonia responded, "I knew better than to ask. I knew you'd make a fuss about it. If you don't want me to wear your clothes why don't you give me money to buy something decent for myself? Then I wouldn't need to borrow."

Olga's thoughts were in such an angry whirl that for a moment she dared not trust herself to speak. She shook out the suit and hung it up, then she went slowly across the room and sat down facing her sister.

"Sonia," she began, "we can't go on in this way-I cannot endure it. Now let us have a plain understanding. You came here of your own choice-not on my invitation. What are your plans? Do you mean to stay on here indefinitely?"

"Why, of course. Where else should I stay?"

"Then," said Olga decidedly, "you must help pay our expenses. You are well and strong. Why should you expect me to support you?"

"Why? Because you have a trade and I have not, for one reason. And besides, there's the baby-I can't leave her to go out to work." There was a note of triumph in Sonia's voice.

"You could get work to do at home-sewing, embroidery, knitting-or something."

"'Or something!'" There was fretful impatience now in Sonia's tone. "I hate sewing-any kind of sewing. You know I always did."

"Then what will you do?"

Sonia sat looking down in sulky silence at the baby.

Olga went on, "If there is no work you can do at home, you must find something outside. You can go into a store as you did before you were married."

"And I guess," Sonia broke out angrily, "if you'd ever stood behind a counter from eight in the morning to six at night, you'd know how nice that is! You earn enough. I think it's real mean and stingy of you to grudge a share of it to this poor sick baby-and me. I do so!"

"I don't grudge anything to the baby, Sonia, though I do think it is your business to provide for her, not mine. But I say again it is not right for me to have to support you, and I am not willing to do it. It is best to speak plainly once for all."

"Well, I should say you were speaking plainly," Sonia flung out with an unpleasant smile. She rocked with a quick motion, her brows drawn into a frown. "How can I go into a store, even if I could get a place? I couldn't take the baby with me," she muttered.

"I could bring my work home-most of it-and you could leave the baby with me."

"Ah ha! I knew it. I knew you could do your work here if you wanted to," Sonia triumphed, pointing to the bench in the corner. "You just don't want to stay here with me." Olga made no denial and her sister went on in a complaining tone, "Anyhow I'd like to know how I'm going to get a place anywhere when I've no decent clothes. You know it makes all the difference how one is dressed."

"That is true," Olga admitted, "but, Sonia, I cannot buy you a suit. I haven't the money."

"You could borrow it."

Olga's face flushed. "I've never borrowed a cent in my life or bought anything on credit, except-mother's coffin," she said passionately. "And I did night work till I paid for that. I cannot run in debt. I will not!"

Sonia shrugged her shoulders. "Well then, if you want me to get a place, you'll just have to let me wear that suit of yours that you are so choice of."

Olga was silent. It was true that Sonia's chance of securing employment would be small if she sought it in the shabby clothes which she had. But Olga needed that suit. The money which would have bought a new one had paid her doctor's bill. Still-the important thing was to get Sonia to work. "I suppose," she said slowly, "I shall have to let you wear it, but, Sonia, you must realise how it is, and do your best to find a place soon. Will you do that?"

"Why, of course," returned Sonia with the light laugh that always irritated her sister. "You don't suppose I like being dependent on you, do you?"

"I don't think you'd mind, if I would give you money whenever you want it."

Again Sonia laughed. "But that's not imaginable, you know," she answered airily. "It's like drawing eyeteeth to get a dollar out of you. You're a perfect miser, Olga Priest."

Olga let that pass. "I had intended to keep my suit in Lizette's closet after this, but I will leave it here if you will promise to begin to-morrow to look for work. Will you promise?"

"You certainly are the limit!" Sonia cried impatiently. "I believe you grudge me every mouthful I eat, and the baby her milk too-poor little soul!" She caught up the baby and kissed it.

"Will you promise, Sonia?" Olga repeated.

Sonia dropped the baby on her lap again. "Of course I promise. I told you so before. Now for pity's sake give me a little peace!" she exclaimed.

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