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The Ghostly Counselors by Rupert Hughes

I

In a little hall bedroom in a big city lay a little woman in a big trouble. She had taken the room under an assumed name, and a visitor had come to her there—to little her in the big city, from the bigger unknown.

She had taken the room as “Mrs. Emerton.” The landlady, Mrs. Rotch, had had her doubts. But then she was liberal-minded—folks had to be in that street. Still, she made it an invariable rule that “no visitors was never allowed in rooms,” a parlor being kept for the purpose up to ten o'clock, when the landlady went to bed in it, “her having to have her sleep as well as anybody.”

But, in spite of the rules, a visitor had come to “Mrs. Emerton's” room—a very, very young man. His only name as yet was “the Baby.” She dared not give the young man his father's name, for then people would know, and she had come to the city to keep people from knowing. She had come to the wicked city from the sweet, wholesome country, where, according to fiction, there is no evil, but where, according to fact, people are still people and moonlight is still madness. In the country, love could be concealed but not its consequence.

Her coadjutor in the ceremony of summoning this little spirit from the vasty deep had not followed her to the city where the miracle was achieved. He was poor, and his parents would have been brokenhearted; his employer in the village would have taken away his seven-dollar-a-week job.

So the boy sent the girl to town alone, with what money he had saved up and what little he could borrow; and he stayed in the village to earn more.

The girl's name was Lightfoot—Hilda Lightfoot—a curiously prophetic name for her progress in the primrose path, though she had gone heavy-footed enough afterward. And now she could hardly walk at all.

Hilda Lightfoot had come to the city in no mood to enjoy its frivolities, and with no means. She had climbed the four flights to her room a few days ago for the last time. In all the weeks and weeks she had never had a caller, except, the other day, a doctor and a nurse, who had taken away most of her money and left her this little clamorous youth, whose victim she was as he was hers.

To-night she was desperately lonely. Even the baby's eternal demands and uproars were hushed in sleep. She felt strong enough now to go out into the wonderful air of the city; the breeze was as soft and moonseeped as the blithe night wind that blew across the meadows at home.

The crowds went by the window and teased her like a circus parade marching past a school.

But she could not go to circuses—she had no money. All she had was a nameless, restless baby.

She grew frantically lonely. She went almost out of her head from her solitude, the jail-like loneliness, with no one to talk to except her little fellow-prisoner who could not talk.

Her homesick heart ran back to the home life she was exiled from. She was thinking of the village. It was prayer-meeting night, and the moon would wait outside the church like Mary's white-fleeced lamb till the service was over, and then it would follow the couples home, gamboling after them when they walked, and, when they paused, waiting patiently about.

The moon was a lone white lamb on a shadowy hill all spotted with daisies. Everything in the world was beautiful except her fate, her prison, her poverty, and her loneliness.

If only she could go down from this dungeon into the streets! If only she had some clothes to wear and knew somebody who would take her somewhere where there was light and music! It was not much to ask. Hundreds of thousands of girls were having fun in the theaters and the restaurants and the streets. Hundreds of thousands of fellows were taking their best girls places.

If only Webster Edie would come and take her out for a walk! She had been his best girl, and he had been her fellow. Why must he send her here, alone? It was his duty to be with her, now of all times. A woman had a right to a little petting, now of all times. She had written him so yesterday, begging him to come to her at any cost. But her letter must have crossed his letter, and in that he said that he could not get away and could not send her any money for at least another week, and then not much.

She was doomed to loneliness—indefinitely. If only some one would come in and talk to her! The landlady never came except about the bill. The little slattern who brought her meals had gone to bed. She knew nobody—only voices, the voices of other boarders who went up and down the stairs and sometimes paused outside her door to talk and laugh or exchange gossip. She had caught a few names from occasional greeting or exclamation: “Good morning, Miss Marland!” “Why, Mrs. Elsbree!” “How was the show last night, Miss Bessett?” “Oh, Mrs. Teed, would you mind mailing these letters as you go out?” “Not at all, Mrs. Braywood.”

They were as formless to her as ghosts, but she could not help imagining bodies and faces and clothes to fit the voices. She could not help forming likes and dislikes. She would have been glad to have any of them come to see her, to ask how she was or admire the baby, or to borrow a pin or lend a book.

If somebody did not come to see her she would go mad. If only she dared, she would leave the baby and steal down the stairs and out of the front door and slip along the streets. They called her; they beckoned to her and promised her happiness. She was like a little yacht held fast in a cove by a little anchor. The breeze was full of summons and nudgings; the water in the bay was dancing, every ripple a giggle. Only her anchor held her, such a little anchor, such a gripping anchor!

If only some one would come in! If only the baby could talk, or even listen with understanding! She was afraid to be alone any longer, lest she do something insane and fearful. She sat at the window, with one arm stretched out across the sill and her chin across it, and stared off into the city's well of white lights. Then she bent her head, hid her hot face in the hollow of her elbow, and clenched her eyelids to shut away the torment. She was loneliest staring at the city, but she was unendurably lonely with her eyes shut. She would go crazy if somebody did not come.

There was a knock at the door. It startled her.

She sat up and listened. The knock was repeated softly. She turned her head and stared at the door. Then she murmured, “Come in.”

The door whispered open, and a woman in soft black skirts whispered in. The room was lighted only by the radiance from the sky, and the mysterious woman was mysteriously vague against the dimly illuminated hall.

She closed the door after her and stood, a shadow in a shadow. Even her face was a mere glimmer, like a patch of moonlight on the door, and her voice was stealthy as a breeze. It was something like the voice she heard called “Mrs. Elsbree.”

Hilda started to rise, but a faint, white hand pressed her back and the voice said:

“Don't rise, my dear. I know how weak you are, what you have gone through, alone, here in this dreary place. I know what pain you have endured, and the shame you have felt, the shame that faces you outside in the world. It is a cruel world. To women—oh, but it is cruel! It has no mercy for a woman who loves too well.

“If you had a lot of money you might fight it with its own weapon. Money is the one weapon it respects. But you haven't any money, have you, my dear? If you had, you wouldn't be here in the dark alone, would you?

“I'm afraid there is nothing ahead of you, either, but darkness, my dear. The man you loved has deserted you, hasn't he? He is a poor, weak thing, anyway. Even if he married you, you would probably part. He'd always hate you. Nobody else will want you for a wife, you poor child; you know that, don't you? And nobody will help you, because of the baby. You couldn't find work and keep the baby with you, could you? And you couldn't leave it. It is a weight about your neck; it will drown you in deep waters.

“Even if it lived, it would have only misery ahead of it, for your story would follow it through life. The older it grew, the more it would suffer. It would despise you and itself. How much happier you would be not to be alive at all, both of you, you poor, unwelcome things!

“There are many problems ahead of you, my dear; and you'll never solve them, except in one way. If you were dead and asleep in your grave with your poor little one at your breast, all your troubles would be over then, wouldn't they? People would feel sorry for you; they wouldn't sneer at you then. And you wouldn't mind loneliness or hunger or pointing fingers or anything.

“Take my advice, dearie, and end it now. There are so many ways; so many things to buy at drug-stores. And that's the river you can just see over there. It is very peaceful in its depths. Its cool, dark waters will wash away your sorrows. Or if that is too far for you to go, there's the window. You could climb out on the ledge with your baby in your arms and just step off into—peace. Take my advice, poor, lonely, little thing. It's the one way; I know. The world will forgive you, and Heaven will be merciful. Didn't Christ take the Magdalen into His own company and His mother's? He will take you up into heaven, if you go now. Good-by. Don't be afraid. Good-by. Don't be afraid.”

She was gone so softly that Hilda did not see her go. She had been staring off into that ocean of space, and when she turned her head the woman was gone. But her influence was left in the very air. Her words went on whispering about the room. Under their influence the girl rose, tottered to the bed, gathered the sleeping baby to her young bosom, kissed his brow without waking him, and stumbled to the window.

She pushed it as high as it would go and knelt on the ledge, peering down into the street. It was a fearful distance to the walk.

She hoped she would not strike the stone steps or the area rail. And yet what difference would it make? It would only assure her peace the quicker. She must wait for those people below to walk past. But they were not gone before others were there. She could not hurl herself upon them.

As she waited, it grew terrible to take the plunge. She had always been afraid of high places. She grew dizzy now, and must cling hard to keep from falling before she said her prayers and was ready. And, now the pavement was clear. She kissed her baby again. She drew in a deep breath, her last sip of the breath of life. How good it was, this clear, cool air flowing across this great, beautiful, heartless city that she should never see again! And now—

There was a knock at the door. It checked her. She lost impulse and impetus and crept back and sank into a chair. She was pretending to be rocking the baby to sleep when she murmured, “Come in.”

Perhaps it would be Mrs. Elsbree, returned to reproach her for her cowardice and her delay. But when she dared to look up it was another woman. At least it was another voice—perhaps Miss Marland's.

“I've been meaning to call on you, Mrs. Emerton, but I haven't had a free moment. Of course I've known all along why you were here. We all have. There's been a good deal of backbiting. But that's the boarding-house of it. This evening, at dinner, there was some mention of you at the table, and some of the women were ridiculing you and some were condemning you. Oh, don't wince, my dear; everybody is always being ridiculed or condemned or both for something. If you were one of the saints they would burn you at the stake or put you to the torture.

“Anyway, I spoke up and told them that the only one who had a right to cast a stone at you was one without sin, and I despaired of finding such a person in this boarding-house—or outside, either, for that matter. I spoke up and told them that you were no worse than the others. They all had their scandals, and I know most of them. There's some scandal about everybody. We're all sinners—if you want to call it sin to follow your most sacred instincts.

“Why should you be afraid of a little gossip or a few jokes or a little abuse from a few hypocrites? They're all sinners—worse than you, too, most of them, if the truth were known.

“Why blame yourself and call yourself a criminal? You loved the boy—loved him too much, that's all. If you had been really wicked you would have refused to love him or to give yourself up to his plea. If you had been really bad you'd have known too much to have this child. You'd have got rid of it at all costs.

“You are really a very good little woman with a passion for being a mother. It's the world outside that's bad. Don't be ashamed before it. Hold your head up. The world owes you a living, and it will pay it if you demand it. It will pay for you and your child, too. Just demand your rights. You'll soon find a place. You're too young and beautiful to be neglected. You're young and beautiful and passionate. You can make some man awfully happy. He'll be glad to have your baby and you—disgrace and all. He may be very rich, too. Go find him. The baby may grow up to be a wonderful man. You could make enough to give the boy every advantage and a fine start in the world.

“The world is yours, if you'll only take it. Remember the Bible, 'Ask and it shall be given unto you.' Think it over, my dear. Don't do anything foolish or rash. You're too young and too beautiful. And now I must ran along. Good-by and good luck.”

While Hilda was breathing deep of this wine of hope and courage the woman was gone.

Hilda glanced out of the window again. She shuddered. A moment more and she would have been lying below there, broken, mangled, unsightly—perhaps not dead, only crippled for life and arrested as a suicide that failed; perhaps as a murderess, since the fall would surely have killed her child—her precious child. She held him close, her great man-baby, her son; he laughed, beat the air with his hands, chuckled, and smote her cheek with palms like white roses. She would take him from this gloomy place. She would go out and demand money, fine clothes, attention.

She put on her hat, a very shabby little hat. She began to wrap the baby in a heavy shawl. They would have finer things soon.

She grew dizzy with excitement and the exertion, and sank back in the chair a moment, to regain her strength. The chair creaked. No, it was a knock at the door. It proved what the last woman had said. “Ask, and it shall be given unto you.”

She had wished for some one to call on her. The whole boarding-house was coming. She was giving a party.

This time it was another voice out of the darkness. It must have been Miss Bessett's. She spoke in a cold, hard, hasty tone. “Going out, my dear? Alone, I hope? No, the baby's wrapped up! You're not going to be so foolish as to lug that baby along? He brands you at once. Nobody will want you round with a squalling baby. Oh, of course he's a pretty child; but he's too noisy. He'll ruin every chance you have.

“You're really very pretty, my dear. The landlady said so. If she noticed it, you must be a beauty, indeed. This is a great town for pretty girls. There's a steady market for them.

“The light is poor here, but beauty like yours glows even in darkness, and that's what they want, the men. The world will pay anything for beauty, if beauty has the brains to ask a high price and not give too much for it.

“Think of the slaves who have become queens, the mistresses who have become empresses. There are rich women all over town who came by their money dishonestly. You should see some of them in the Park with their automobiles. You'd be ashamed even to let them run over you. Yet, if you were dressed up, you'd look better than any of the automobile brigade.

“You might be a great singer. I've heard you crooning to the baby. You find a rich man and make him pay for your lessons, and then you make eyes at the manager and, before you know it, you'll be engaged for the opera and earning a thousand dollars a night—more than that, maybe.

“Think how much that means. It would make you mighty glad you didn't marry that young gawp at home. He's a cheap skate to get you into this trouble and not help you out.

“But I'll set you in the way of making a mint of money. There's only one thing: you must give up the baby and never let anybody know you ever had it. Don't freeze up and turn away. There are so many ways of disposing of a baby. Send it to a foundling asylum. No questions will be asked. The baby will have the best of care and grow so strong that some rich couple will insist on adopting it, or you could come back when you are married to a rich man and pretend you took a fancy to it and adopt it yourself.

“And there's a lot of other ways to get rid of a baby. You could give it the wrong medicine by mistake, or just walk out and forget it. And there's the river; you could drop it into those black waters. And then you're free—baby would never know. He would be ever so much better off. And you would be free.

“You must be free. You must get a little taste of life. You've a right to it. You lived in a little stupid village all your years—and now you're in the city. Listen to it! It would be yours for the asking. And it gives riches and glory to the pretty girls it likes. But you must go to it as a girl, not as a poor, broken, ragged thing, lugging a sickly baby with no name. Get rid of the baby, my dear. It will die, anyway. It will starve and sicken. Put it out of its misery. That medicine on your wash-stand—an overdose of that and you can say it was a mistake. Who can prove it wasn't? Then you are free. You'll have hundreds of friends, and a career, and a motor of your own, and servants, and a beautiful home. Don't waste your youth, my dear. Invest your beauty where it will bring big proceeds.

“See those lights off there—the big lights with the name of that woman in electric letters? She came to town poorer than you and with a worse name. Now she is rich and famous. And the Countess of—What's-her-name? She was poor and bad, but she didn't let any old-fashioned ideas of remorse hold her back. Go on; get rid of the brat. Go on!”

Hilda clutched the baby closer and moved away to shield her from this grim counselor. When she turned again she was alone. The woman had gone, but the air trembled with her fierce wisdom. She was ruthless, but how wise!

The lights flaring up into the sky carried that other woman's name. Her picture was everywhere. She had been poor and wicked. Now she was a household word, respected because she was rich. She had succeeded.

There came a lilting of music on a breeze. They were dancing, somewhere. The tango “coaxed her feet.” Her body swayed with it.

If she were there, men would quarrel over her, rush to claim her—as they had done even in the village before she threw herself away on the most worthless, shiftless of the lot, who got her into trouble and deserted her. It was not her business to starve for his baby.

The baby began to fret again, to squawk with vicious explosions of ugly rage; it puled and yowled. It was a nuisance. It caught a fistful of her hair and wrenched till the tears of pain rushed to her eyes. She unclasped the little talons, ran to the wash-stand, took up an ugly bottle and poured out enough to put an end to that nauseating wail.

She bent over to lift the baby to the glass. Its lips touched her bosom. Its crying turned to a little chortle like a brook's music. It pommeled her with hands like white roses. The moon rested on its little head and made its fuzz of hair a halo. She paused, adoring it sacredly like another Madonna.

A soft tap at the door. She put the fatal glass away and turned guiltily. A dark little woman was there, and a soft, motherly voice spoke. It must be Mrs. Braywood's. She could not have suspected, for her tone was all of affection.

“I heard your child laughing, my dear—and crying. I don't know which went to my heart deeper. I just had to come to see it. It is so marvelous to be a mother. I've been married for ten years, and my husband and I have prayed and waited. But God would not send us a baby. He saved that honor for you. And such an honor and glory and power! To be a mother! To be a rose-bush and have a white bud grow upon your stem, and bloom! Oh, you lucky child, to be selected for such a privilege! You must have suffered; you must be suffering now; but there's nothing worth while that doesn't cost pain.

“It occurred to me that—don't misunderstand me, my child, but—well, the landlady said you were poor; she was in doubt of the room rent; so I thought—perhaps you might not want the baby as much as I do.

“I hoped you might let me take him. I'd be such a good mother to him. I'd love him as if he were my own, and my husband would pay you well for him. We'd give him our own name, and people should never know that he—that you—that we weren't really his parents. Give him to me, won't you? Please! I beg you!”

Hilda whirled away from her pleading hands and clenched the baby so hard that it cried a little. The sound was like that first wail of his she had ever heard. Again it went into her heart like a little hand seizing and wringing it.

Mrs. Braywood—if it were Mrs. Braywood—was not angry at the rebuff, though she was plainly disheartened. She tried to be brave, and sighed.

“Oh, I don't wonder you turn away. I understand. I wouldn't give him up if I were in your place. The father must come soon. He won't stay away long. Just let him see the baby and hear its voice and know it is his baby, and he will stand by you.

“He will come to you. He will hear the voice wherever he is, and he will make you his wife. And the baby will make a man of him and give him ambition and inspiration. Babies always provide for themselves, they say. You will have trouble, and you will suffer from the gibes of self-righteous people, and you will be cruelly blamed; but there is only one way to expiate sin, my child, and that is to face its consequences and pay its penalties in full. The only way to atone for a wrong deed is to do the next right thing. Take good care of your precious treasure. Good-by. His father will come soon. He will come. Good-by. Oh, you enviable thing, you mother!”

And now she was gone. But she had left the baby's value enhanced, and the mother's, too.

She had offered a price for the baby, and glorified the mother. The lonely young country girl felt no longer utterly disgraced. She did not feel that the baby was a mark of Heaven's disfavor, but rather of its favor. She felt lonely no longer. The streets interested her no more. Let those idle revelers go their way; let them dance and laugh. They had no child of their own to adore and to enjoy.

If the baby's father came they would be married. If he delayed—well, she would stumble on alone. The baby was her cross. She must carry it up the hill.

Hilda felt entirely content, but very tired, full of hope that Webster Edie would come to her, but full of contentment, too. She talked to the baby, and he seemed to understand her now. She could not translate his language, but he translated hers.

She slipped out of her day clothes and into her nightgown—and so to bed. She fell asleep with her baby in her arms. Her head drooped back and her parted lips seemed to pant and glow. The moon reached her window and sent in a long shaft of light. It found a great tear on her cheek. It gleamed on her throat bent back; it gleamed on one bare shoulder where the gown was torn; it gleamed on her breast where the baby drowsily clung.

There was a benediction in the moonlight.

 
 
 

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