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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Poor Little Rich Girl By Eleanor Gates Characters: 18924

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


There was a high wind blowing, and the newly washed garments hanging on the roofs of nearby buildings were writhing and twisting violently, and tugging at the long swagging clothes-lines. Gwendolyn, watching from the side window of the nursery, pretended that the garments were so many tortured creatures, vainly struggling to be free. And she wished that two or three of the whitest and prettiest might loose their hold and go flying away-across the crescent of the Drive and the wide river-to liberty and happiness in the forest beyond.

Among the flapping lines walked maids-fully a score of them. Some were taking down wash that was dry and stuffing it into baskets. Others were busy hanging up limp pieces, first giving them a vigorous shake; then putting a small portion of each over the line and pinching all securely into place with huge wooden pins.

It seemed cruel.

Yet the faces of the maids were kind-kinder than the faces of Miss Royle and Jane and Thomas. Behind Gwendolyn the heavy brocade curtains hung touching. She parted them to make sure that she was alone in the nursery. After which she raised the window-just a trifle. The roofs that were white with laundry were not those directly across from the nursery, but over-looked the next street. Nevertheless, with the window up, Gwendolyn could hear the crack and snap of the whipping garments, and an indistinct chorus of cheery voices. One maid was singing a lilting tune. The rest were chattering back and forth. With all her heart Gwendolyn envied them-envied their freedom, and the fact that they were indisputably grown-up. And she decided that, later on, when she was as big and strong, she would be a laundry-maid and run about on just such level roofs, joyously hanging up wash.

Presently she raised the window a trifle more, so that the lower sill was above her head. Then, "Hoo-hoo-oo-oo!" she piped in her clear voice.

A maid heard her, and pointed her out to another. Soon a number were looking her way. They smiled at her, too, Gwendolyn smiled in return, and nodded. At that, one of a group snatched up a square of white cloth and waved it. Instantly Gwendolyn waved back.

One by one the maids went. Then Gwendolyn suddenly recalled why she was waiting alone-while Miss Royle and Jane made themselves extra neat in their respective rooms; why she herself was dressed with such unusual care-in a pink muslin, white silk stockings, and black patent-leather pumps, the whole crowned by a pink-satin hair-bow. With the remembrance, the pretend-game was forgotten utterly: The lines of limp, white creatures on the roofs flung their tortured shapes about unheeded.

At bed-time the previous evening Potter had telephoned that Madam would pay a morning visit to the nursery. The thought had kept Gwendolyn awake for a while, smiling into the dark, kissing her own hands for very happiness; it had made her heart beat wildly, too. For she reviewed all the things she intended broaching to her mother-about eating at the grown-up table, and not having a nurse any more, and going to day-school.

Contrary to a secret plan of action, she slept late. At breakfast, excitement took away her appetite. And throughout the study-hour that followed, her eyes read, and her lips repeated aloud, several pages of standard literature for juveniles that her busy brain did not comprehend. Yet now as she waited behind the rose hangings for the supreme moment, she felt, strangely enough, no impatience. With three to attend her, privacy was not a common privilege, and, therefore, prized. She fell to inspecting the row of houses across the way-in search for other strange but friendly faces.

There were exactly twelve houses opposite. The corner one farthest from the river she called the gray-haired house. An old lady lived there who knitted bright worsted; also a fat old gentleman in a gay skull-cap who showed much attention to a long-leaved rubber-plant that flourished behind the glass of the street door. Gwendolyn leaned out, chin on palm, to canvass the quaintly curtained windows-none of which at the moment framed a venerable head. Next the gray-haired house there had been-up to a recent date-a vacant lot walled off from the sidewalk by a high, broad bill-board. Now a pit yawned where formerly was the vacant space. And instead of the fascinating pictures that decorated the bill-board (one week a baby, rosy, dimpled and laughing; the next some huge lettering elaborately combined with a floral design; the next a mammoth bottle, red and beautiful, and flanked by a single gleaming word: "Catsup") there towered-above street and pit, and even above the chimneys of the gray-haired house-the naked girders of a new steel structure.

The girders were black, but rusted to a brick-color in patches and streaks. They were so riveted together that through them could be seen small, regular spots of light. Later on, as Gwendolyn knew, floors and windowed walls and a tin top would be fitted to the framework. And what was now a skeleton would be another house!

Directly opposite the nursery, on that part of the side street which sloped, were ten narrow houses, each four stories high, each with brown-stone fronts and brown-stone steps, each topped by a large chimney and a small chimney. In every detail these ten houses were precisely alike. Jane, for some unaccountable reason, referred to them as private dwellings. But since the roof of the second brown-stone house was just a foot lower than the roof of the first, the third roof just a foot lower than the roof of the second, and so on to the very tenth and last, Gwendolyn called these ten the step-houses.

The step-houses were seldom interesting. As Gwendolyn's glances traveled now from brown-stone front to brown-stone front, not one presented even the relief of a visiting post-man.

Her progress down the line of step-houses brought her by degrees to the brick house on the Drive-a large vine-covered house, the wide entrance of which was toward the river. And no sooner had she given it one quick glance than she uttered a little shout of pleased surprise. The brick-house people were back!

All the shades were up. There was smoke rising from one of the four tall chimneys. And even as Gwendolyn gazed, all absorbed interest, the net curtains at an upper window were suddenly drawn aside and a face looked out.

It was a face that Gwendolyn had never seen before in the brick house. But though it was strange, it was entirely friendly. For as Gwendolyn smiled it a greeting, it smiled her a greeting back!

She was a nurse-maid-so much was evident from the fact that she wore a cap. But it was also plain that her duties differed in some way from Jane's. For her cap was different-shaped like a sugar-bowl turned upside-down; hollow, and white, and marred by no flying strings.

And she was not a red-haired nurse-maid. Her hair was almost as fair as Gwendolyn's own, and it framed her face in a score of saucy wisps and curls. Her face was pretty-full and rosy, like the face of Gwendolyn's French doll. Also it seemed certain-even at such a distance-that she had no freckles. Gwendolyn waved both hands at her. She threw a kiss back.

"Oh, thank you!" cried Gwendolyn, out loud. She threw kisses with alternating finger-tips.

The nurse-maid shook the curtains at her. Then-they fell into place. She was gone.

Gwendolyn sighed.

The next moment she heard voices in the direction of the hall-first, Thomas's; next, a woman's-a strange one this. Disappointed, she turned to face the screening curtains. But she was in no mood to make herself agreeable to visiting friends of Miss Royle's-and who else could this be?

She decided to remain quietly in seclusion; to emerge for no one except her mother.

A door opened. A heavy step advanced, followed by the murmur of trailing skirts upon carpet. Then Thomas spoke-his tone that full and measured one employed, not to the governess, to Jane, to herself, or to any other common mortal, but to Potter, to her father and mother, and to guests. "This is Miss Gwendolyn's nursery," he announced.

Beyond the curtains were persons of importance!

She shrank against the window, taking care not to stir the brocade.

"We will wait here,"-the voice was clear, musical.

"Thank you." Thomas's heavy step retreated. A door closed.

There was a moment of perfect stillness. Then that musical voice began again:

"Where do you suppose that young one is?"

A second voice rippled out a low laugh.

Gwendolyn laughed too,-silently, her face against the glass. The fat old gentleman in the gray-haired house chanced to be looking in her direction. He caught the broad smile and joined in.

"In the school-room likely,"-it was the first speaker, answering her own inquiry-"getting stuffed."

Stuffed! Gwendolyn could appreciate that. She choked back a giggle with one small hand.

Someone else thought the declaration amusing, for there was another well-bred ripple; then once more that murmur of trailing skirts, going toward the window-seat; going the opposite way also, as if one of the two was making a circuit of the room.

Presently, "Just look at this dressing-table, Louise! Fancy such a piece of furniture for a child! Ridiculous!"

Gwendolyn cocked her yellow head to one side-after the manner of her canary.

"Bad taste." Louise joined her companion. "Crystal, if you please! Must've cost a fab

ulous sum."

One or two articles were moved on the dresser. Then, "Poor little girl!" observed the other woman. "Rich, but-"

Gwendolyn puckered her brows gravely. Was the speaker referring to her? Clasping her hands tight, she leaned forward a little, straining to catch every syllable. As a rule when gossip or criticism was talked in her hearing, it was insured against being understood by the use of strange terms, spellings, winks, nods, shrugs, or sudden stops at the most important point. But now, with herself hidden, was there not a likelihood of plain speech?

It came.

The voice went on: "This is the first time you've met the mother, isn't it?"

"I think so,"-indifferently. "Who is she, anyhow?"

"Nobody."

Gwendolyn stared.

"Nobody at all-absolutely. You know, they say-" She paused for emphasis.

Now, Gwendolyn's eyes grew suddenly round; her lips parted in surprise. They again!

"Yes?" encouraged Louise.

Lower-"They say she was just an ordinary country girl, pretty, and horribly poor, with a fair education, but no culture to speak of. She met him; he had money and fell in love with her; she married him. And, oh, then!" She chuckled.

"Made the money fly?"

The two were coming to settle themselves in chairs close to the side window.

"Not exactly. Haven't you heard what's the matter with her?"

Gwendolyn's face paled a little. There was something the matter with her mother?-her dear, beautiful, young mother! The clasped hands were pressed to her breast.

"Ambitious?" hazarded Louise, confidently.

"It's no secret. Everybody's laughing at her,-at the rebuffs she takes; the money she gives to charity (wedges, you understand); the quantities of dresses she buys; the way she slaps on the jewels. She's got the society bee in her bonnet!"

Gwendolyn caught her breath. The society bee in her bonnet?

"Ah!" breathed Louise, as if comprehending. Then, "Dear! dear!"

"She talks nothing else. She hears nothing else. She sees nothing else."

"Bad as that?"

"Goes wherever she can shove in-subscription lectures and musicales, hospital teas, Christmas bazars. And she benches her Poms; has boxes at the Horse Show and the Opera; gives gold-plate dinners, and Heaven knows what!"

"Ha! ha! You haven't boosted her, dear?"

"Not a bit of it! Make a point of never being seen anywhere with her."

"And he?"

Gwendolyn swallowed. He was her father.

"Well, it has kept the poor fellow in harness all the time, of course. You should have seen him when he first came to town-straight and boyish, and very handsome. (You know the type.) He's changed! Burns his candles at both ends."

"Hm!"

Gwendolyn blinked with the effort of making mental notes.

"You haven't heard the latest about him?"

"Trying to make some Club?"

Whispering-"On the edge of a crash."

"Who told you?"

"Oh, a little bird."

Up came both palms to cover Gwendolyn's mouth. But not to smother mirth. A startled cry had all but escaped her. A little bird! She knew of that bird! He had told things against her-true things more often than not-to Jane and Miss Royle. And now here he was chattering about her father!

"It's the usual story," commented Louise calmly, "with these nouveaux riches."

"Sh!" A moment of stillness, as if both were listening. Then, "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"

"I-er-read it fairly well."

"Parlez-vous Francais?"

"Oh, oui! Oui!"

"Allors." And there followed, in undertones, a short, spirited conversation in the Gallic.

Gwendolyn made a silent resolution to devote more time and thought to the peevish and staccato instruction of Miss Du Bois.

The two were interrupted by a light, quick step outside. Again the hall door opened.

"Oh, you'll pardon my having to desert you, won't you?" It was Gwendolyn's mother. "I didn't intend being so long."

Gwendolyn half-started forward, then stopped.

"Why, of course!"-with sounds of rising.

"Certainly!"

"Differences below stairs, I find, require prompt action."

"I fancy you have oceans of executive ability," declared Louise, warmly. "That Orphans' Home affair-I hear you managed it tremendously!"

"No! No!"

"Really, my dear,"-it was the other woman-"to be quite frank, we must confess that we haven't missed you! We've been enjoying our glimpse of the nursery."

"It's simply lovely!" cried Louise.

"And what a perfectly sweet dressing-table!"

"Have you seen my little daughter?-Thomas!"

"Yes, Madam."

"There's a draught coming from somewhere-"

"It's the side window, Madam."

Instinctively Gwendolyn flattened herself against the wood-work at her back.

Three or four steps brought Thomas across the floor. Then his two big hands appeared high up on the hangings. The next moment, the hands parted, sweeping the curtains with them.

To escape detection was impossible. A quick thought made Gwendolyn raise a face upon which was a forced expression that bore only a faint resemblance to a smile.

"Boo!" she said, jumping out at him.

Startled, he fell back. "Why, Miss Gwendolyn!"

"Gwendolyn?" repeated her mother, surprised. "Why, what were you doing there, darling?"

"Gwendolyn!"-this in a faint gasp from both visitors.

Gwendolyn came slowly forward. She did not raise her eyes; only curtsied.

"So this is your little daughter!" A gloved hand was reached out, and Gwendolyn was drawn forward. "How cunning!"

Gwendolyn recognized the voice of Louise. Now, she looked up. And saw a pleasant face, young, but not so pretty as her mother's. She shook hands bashfully. Then shook again with an older woman, whose plain countenance was dimly familiar. After which, giving a sudden little bound, and putting up eager arms, she was caught to her mother.

"My baby!"

"Moth-er!"

Cheek caressed cheek.

"She's six, isn't she, my dear?" asked the plain, elderly one.

"Oh, she's seven." A soft hand stroked the yellow hair.

"As much as that? Really?"

The inference was not lost upon Gwendolyn. She tightened her embrace. And turning her head on her mother's breast, looked frank resentment.

The visitors were not watching her. They were exchanging glances-and smiles, faint and uneasy. Slowly now they began to move toward the hall door, which stood open. Beside it, waiting with an impressive air, was Miss Royle.

"I think we must go, Louise."

"Oh, we must,"-quickly. "Dear me! I'd almost forgot! We've promised to lunch with one or two people down-town."

"I wish you were lunching here," said Gwendolyn's mother. She freed herself gently from the clinging arms and followed the two. "Miss Royle, will you take Gwendolyn?"

As the governess promptly advanced, with a half-bow, and a set smile that was like a grimace, Gwendolyn raised a face tense with earnestness. Until half an hour before, her whole concern had been for herself. But now! To fail to grow up, to have her long-cherished hopes come short of fulfillment-that was one thing. To know that her mother and father had real and serious troubles of their own, that was another!

"Oh, moth-er! Don't you go!"

"Mother must tell the ladies good-by."

"What touching affection!" It was the elder of the visiting pair.

Miss Royle assented with a simper.

"Will you come back?" urged Gwendolyn, dropping her voice. "Oh, I want to see you"-darting a look sidewise-"all by myself."

There was a wheel and a flutter at the door-another silent exchange of comment, question and exclamation, all mingled eloquently. Then Louise swept back.

"What a bright child!" she enthused. "Does she speak French?"

"She is acquiring two tongues at present," answered Gwendolyn's mother proudly, "-French and German."

"Splendid!" It was the elder woman. "I think every little girl should have those. And later on, I suppose, Greek and Latin?"

"I've thought of Spanish and Italian."

"Eventually," informed Miss Royle, with a conscious, sinuous shift from foot to foot, "Gwendolyn will have seven tongues at her command."

"How chic!" Once more the gloved hand was extended-to pat the pink-satin hair-bow.

Gwendolyn accepted the pat stolidly. Her eyes were fixed on her mother's face.

Now, the elder of the strangers drew closer. "I wonder," she began, addressing her hostess with almost a coy air, "if we could induce you to take lunch with us down-town. Wouldn't that be jolly, Louise?"-turning.

"Awfully jolly!"

"Do come!"

"Oh, do!"

"Moth-er!"

Gwendolyn's mother looked down. A sudden color was mounting to her cheeks. Her eyes shone.

"We-e-ell," she said, with rising inflection.

It was acceptance.

Gwendolyn stepped back the pink muslin in a nervous grasp at either side. "Oh, won't you stay?" she half-whispered.

"Mother'll see you at dinnertime, darling. Tell Jane, Miss Royle."

A bow.

Louise led the way quickly, followed by the elderly lady. Gwendolyn's mother came last. A bronze gate slid between the three and Gwendolyn, watching them go. The cage lowered noiselessly, with a last glimpse of upturned faces and waving hands.

Gwendolyn, lips pouting, crossed toward the school-room door. The door was slightly ajar. She gave it a smart pull.

A kneeling figure rose from behind it. It was Jane, who greeted her with a nervous, and somewhat apprehensive grin.

"I was waitin' to jump out at Miss Royle and give her a scare when she'd come through," she explained.

Gwendolyn said nothing.

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