THE HERMIT THRUSH

Keefe O’Connor had slept for hours, heavily, and Miss Zillah, stealing in
every few minutes to look at him, was not well satisfied.

“I’d give anything if we had a good doctor at hand,” she said to the
girls. “Rest is a fine thing, of course, but it isn’t always enough.
Keefe seems badly in need of stimulation. I don’t believe his heart
would have been strained like that, great as the exertion of carrying
poor Mr. Panther was, if he hadn’t been run down. Probably he hasn’t
been having half enough to eat, for one thing. Cooking for himself the
way he has is a bad thing. We ought to have had him in here with us
oftener. I blame myself very much. But I hesitated to act, knowing so
little of him and being responsible for you two girls.”

In course of time Mrs. McEvoy came over, and she, too, tiptoed into the
room to look at the sleeping youth.

“I’ve got medicine for almost everything that can ail a body,” she said
when she had joined the others on the porch, “but the trouble is, I don’t
know what _is_ the matter with him. He seems clean beat out. Now, if
only Mrs. Rowantree was here she might be able to give us some notion of
what to do. She reads doctor books so that she can care for her
children.”

Azalea snatched at the idea.

“Let’s do have Mrs. Rowantree come,” she said. “Now that Mrs. McEvoy
speaks of it, I realize that I’ve been wanting Mary Cecily Rowantree all
day.”

“What a queer girl you are, Azalea,” smiled Carin. “Every little while
you put on a mysterious look and say something eerie, as if you had been
talking with spooks.”

“I’m not one bit spooky, Carin, and you know it,” said Azalea rather
indignantly, “but now and then I do have feelings—” she did not try to
finish her sentence, but stared before her.

“That’s what I meant,” retorted Carin. “You have feelings! And you look
as if you did.”

“We are all mysteriously moved to do certain things,” said the gentle
Miss Zillah, who did not like her girls even to make a pretense of
teasing each other. “I myself would like to have Mrs. Rowantree here.
She knew Keefe before we did, and she is of the same nationality, and so
possibly might have some peculiar sympathy with him. I also think we
should send for a physician.”

“There doesn’t seem to be any use in sending for physicians to come up
here,” Carin put in. “Just think how hard I tried to get one for Mr.
Panther. Let’s have Mrs. Rowantree over by all means.”

So Miles McEvoy, a much busier man these days than he had been for years
before, undertook to go for Mrs. Rowantree, though he was only just back
from carrying Haystack Thompson and Mr. and Mrs. Panther to the station.

Carin decided to walk down the road a way to meet the wagon bringing Mary
Cecily Rowantree; and Miss Zillah, seeing the prospect of another guest,
went into the kitchen to stir up a cake and compound a custard. But
Azalea did not move. She sat near the door and from time to time looked
in at the delicate face of the sleeping youth. It appeared almost
transparent as he lay there, his eyes closed and yet not quite closed,
his lips trembling a little from the fluttering of his over-taxed heart.

“Oh, I don’t want anything to happen to him,” her heart cried within her.
“How sunny and brave he is—and yet how sad, in that strange quiet way.
We know him, and yet we don’t know him. If he should die, we wouldn’t be
able to send word to any of his friends, for we haven’t an idea who they
are. But of course he mustn’t die. There’s no reason why he should when
he’s so young and all. And yet—”

The boy opened his eyes drowsily and looked about him. At first he
failed to remember where he was, and half-raised himself on his elbow.
Then he sank back, white and trembling. Azalea poured a glass of water
from the jar they kept on the window sill, and hastening to him, lifted
his head and gave him the cool drink.

Keefe smiled gratefully.

“You’re good,” he said simply. Then, after a pause: “Sit down, please.”

Azalea took a low mountain chair and brought it near, so that she could
face him. That mysterious feeling which had been hanging over her all
day, whispering to her that something strange was about to happen,
deepened curiously. Little chills ran lightly over her frame and she had
to close her hands to keep her fingers from twitching.

“It must seem particularly silly to you that a fellow can’t do a little
job like the one I did yesterday without going to pieces over it,” Keefe
began. “But I don’t believe I’ve ever been very strong. I have color in
my face, and that rather fools people. It fools me too, and makes me
think I’m of more account than I am.”

“It was a terribly hard piece of work you did yesterday,” replied Azalea
softly. “But perfect rest will make you all right, Aunt Zillah thinks.
If I were you, I wouldn’t talk, boy. Aunt Zillah says you’re not to move
a finger, and I’m sure that means you’re not to move your tongue either.”

Keefe shook his head.

“Never mind what anybody wants, Azalea. I’ve something to tell you and
I’m going to do it now.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t, Keefe, really—”

Keefe lifted a languid hand, but it had authority in it.

“I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time,” he said. “You know,
Zalie, if I wait—it may possibly be too late.”

[Picture: Keefe lifted a languid hand. “I’ve been wanting to tell you
for a long time,” he said]

“No, no, Keefe, I won’t have you—”

“Keep still, please. I’m going to tell you now, quickly, before anybody
comes.”

“Go on then. Speak quietly. I’ll listen.”

She realized suddenly that it was kinder and wiser to let him have his
way. So she folded her hands in her lap, and sat as still as a stone—no,
as still as a rosebush, for the wind rustled her pale green frock, and
lifted the tendrils of her brown hair.

“Zalie,” he began, his voice at once uncertain yet determined, “I told
you, didn’t I, that I knew neither my name nor my kin? I am a waif, but
not because I was not loved. That is what is queer and sad about it all.
That is what keeps me always looking and hoping that some day—” he broke
off and rested for a minute. “I must begin at the beginning,” he
recommenced. “I must tell you what I remember. There was a pleasant
home, somewhere, with a low window from which I could look down the
street if I stood on my toes. There was a father, a mother, and a sister
who played with me, and whom I adored. Matey was what I called her.
That little name is all I have to remember her by. I cannot even tell
you my own last name. I was ‘Little Brother.’ When any of the three
said it, I was happy. ‘Little Brother!’ It is the thing I have loved
best in all the memories—the way they said that. But father went away.
There were darkened windows, a long black box, and all the house was
changed. It was as terrible as if the sun had gone out of heaven. I was
so lonely and sad it seemed as if I would die, and I remember always
clinging to black skirts—sometimes my mother’s, sometimes my Matey’s.”

He paused for a moment longer, his dark eyes darkening yet more, and
throwing into relief the pallor of his face. Azalea was still immovable,
but the look of her face changed. A warm, wild surmise banished
something of the anxiety in it and flushed it with excitement.

“Then next, I remember the ship. Mother and Matey and I were on it with
hundreds and hundreds of others, all crowded together sickeningly.
Mother was always in her bed, and Matey and I sat together, creeping out
of people’s way, wrapped in an old plaid shawl. I would go to sleep
beneath the shawl; and under the shelter of it she told me stories, while
the wind flapped it against us. Then there came a day when—when my
mother would not answer either Matey or myself. I heard Matey screaming
and I screamed with her, and some women were good to us. One kept
kissing me, though I didn’t want to be kissed. After that, I saw no more
of mother. I know now they must have dropped her in the sea, but of
course they told me nothing of that. There were only Matey and me
crouching out of the wind beneath that old shawl, Matey crying in my hair
and on my face, and trying to laugh and play with me.”

He saw the changed look on Azalea’s face and could not quite make it out.

“So then, the landing day came, and sister and I were pushed down the
gangplank with the others. I remember falling and losing hold of her
hand, and getting up and catching at her skirt again. At least I thought
it was her skirt. I ran down the wharf as fast as I could, holding on to
that dress. Then I remember some one shrieking: ‘It ain’t Jimmy at all!
It’s another boy altogether!’ And with that a woman seized me by the arm
and shook me till I screamed. ‘Who air you that’s takin’ the place of me
Jimmy?’ she asked.

“I have forgotten all the other words of that day, but I remember those.
The people kept pouring and pouring along, and I think the woman left me
to look for her Jimmy. So after a while I found myself in the street
with the people and the carts and carriages dashing every way about me.
I ran about like a crazy boy, too frightened to ask questions. Finally a
man who was going along with a tin pail on his arm, stopped and picked me
up. He tried to talk to me, but I was too frantic to listen, and anyway,
I was only a baby. He took me to a poor home, a dark place with two
rooms or maybe three, and there was a woman there who was good to me. I
used to hear the two of them talking and saying that whoever I belonged
to couldn’t have cared much for me or they’d have been looking for me.
But afterward, I came to believe that they were not very anxious to have
my people find me. They were homesick folk with no little ones, and they
thought I was one of a great brood and would not be missed. So I lived
with them, Azalea, till I was seven years of age.”

“Till you were seven!” breathed Azalea, leaning forward a little now.
“And then, Keefe?”

“And then good Bridget O’Connor, who had, in her way, been a mother to
me, died. Mike O’Connor was fond of me, too, but how could he be looking
after me, and himself away every day working on the street? Besides,
said he to me: ‘You be different from us O’Connors, boy. It would be a
shame to tie you down all your life to a man like me. Bridget knew it,
God save her, but she wanted the sound of your voice in the house. I’ll
put you with the good Sisters, and they’ll find a new fayther and mother
for ye.’ So he did. He put me in an orphan asylum, and there I lived
for three months, and at the end of that time I was taken by another
lonely woman who wanted a child in her house.”

“Oh,” breathed Azalea, “was she good to you, Keefe? You were so
little—so dreadfully little! Was she good to you?”

A slight color had come back to Keefe’s face. His lips were no longer so
blue and unnatural as they had been. He put out his hand and caught a
little fold of Azalea’s frock between his fingers and held on to it as
children hold on to the dresses of the women they depend upon.

“She was good to me,” he said simply, “with a wise goodness which did not
let me be spoiled. She was not a married woman. Her name was Harriet
Foster, and the name tells what she was like, simple and straightforward
and practical. She had lost all of her family and was tired of living
alone. She had been looking for some time for a child to help fill her
life, and when she saw me, she seemed satisfied. I was satisfied, too,
and not at all afraid of her even at first.”

“Won’t you rest awhile now, Keefe?” broke in Azalea, trying desperately
to do her duty. Keefe looked at the parted lips and shining eyes which
betrayed her breathless inquisitiveness, and shook his head.

“Miss Foster did not make me her son by legal adoption,” he went on.
“She left my name as it was. Bridget had named me Keefe, which was her
name before she was married, and dear old Mike had lent me the honorable
name of O’Connor. So Keefe O’Connor I remained. But instead of the foul
basement home I had known, here was a quiet, staid, respectable home; a
three-storied red brick structure, cared for by self-respecting servants,
furnished with pleasing old furniture, and presided over by Harriet
Foster. She had a group of quiet, gracious friends like herself, whom
she entertained at tea once a week, bringing me in to be shown off. I
passed their teacups and sang little songs for them sometimes, and after
I had begun to draw, was told to show them my drawings.”

“Did you love her?” broke in Azalea. “Did she seem like a mother to
you?”

“Love her? I felt contented with her; but she seldom kissed me even when
I was a little fellow. She taught me to be very self-reliant and
thorough, and gave me a fine discipline. We liked to be together. It
was always a great day when we went out to the sea, or to the picture
galleries. We could laugh together and be patient together over
troubles. If that is loving, then we loved each other. But no, she
didn’t seem like a mother to me. She seemed like Miss Foster, and that
is what I called her.”




“Oh, poor little boy!”

“Not so poor, Azalea, not so poor. Children aren’t poor when they’re
given a chance to be themselves and aren’t driven from pillar to post by
some tyrant. Miss Foster let me grow up to be myself. She fed me,
clothed me, housed me, and taught me her ideas of honor and kindness and
right living. When she found that I wanted to be an artist, she put me
in the way of becoming one. I lived with her till I was seventeen years
of age. Then she, too, like my poor little mother and dear blowsy
Bridget O’Connor, left me, and since then, I have been alone.”

“Alone!” repeated Azalea beneath her breath. “And never a word of your
sister all these years, Keefe?”

She smiled at him so beautifully, bending forward, questioning him as it
seemed, so almost gayly, that he looked at her in amazement.

“Not a word, Azalea, in all these years—not one word. I used to hope and
pray to meet her, but after a time I tried to put it out of my mind. I
didn’t want it to undermine me. We Irish are queer folk, Azalea. We can
wear ourselves out with longing. I didn’t want to do that. Miss Foster
had left me a little fortune; enough to let me keep on with my art
studies and to give me a little start in life. I had to leave the
comfortable old house where I had spent such contented years, because
that went to make a home for old ladies. But I lived on well enough in
my attic—Oh, don’t be frightened at the word. I lived in an attic by
choice. Then perhaps I overworked. At any rate, the doctor said I must
get out of the city and live in these mountains for two or three years.
So here I am, piling up canvases in Miles McEvoy’s barn and as happy as
anyone need be, especially since I met you—you people, Zalie. It may
seem odd to you, but these few weeks here with the Rowantrees and
‘you-all’ at Oriole’s Nest, have been the happiest of my life.”

“I don’t think it odd at all,” cried Azalea. “Oh, Keefe, I think it the
most natural thing in the world.”

“Why?” he asked, astonished at her tone. But she remembered that dragged
and wearied heart of his and putting her lips tight together, would say
nothing. He had to take her smiling silences for his answer.

Then, before he could urge her, some one stood on the doorstep without
the room. Azalea, seeing the shadow fall across the floor guessed who it
was.

“Oh, you!” she cried happily, “you, of all people! Come in, Mrs.
Rowantree. Keefe’s fallen ill and Aunt Zillah said that you’d be just
the person to know what to do for him.”

“I hope I’ll know,” said Mary Cecily in her sweet Irish voice, “but how
can we be sure of that at all? Still, it’s myself that must confess to
some experience, what with the rearing of the four children and the being
so far from a medical man. What’s ailing you, Mr. Keefe, dear?” she
asked with beautiful gentleness, stooping over him, sister-fashion, and
taking his hand in hers.

And then Azalea knew beyond all doubt! She wondered that she had not
always known. Each had reminded her of the other, and yet with a strange
stupidity she had not realized it, no doubt because it had seemed so
certain that they must be strangers whose paths never had crossed.

She tried to be calm, to take the scene as a matter of course, but those
two who had so longed for each other being there, so near, so unlike in
some ways, yet so like with their sad-glad faces, made her put her hands
to her eyes to hide the sight of them. She almost forgot that they did
not yet know. She all but forgot Keefe’s heart and his need for quiet.

“I didn’t know they’d sent for you, Mrs. Rowantree, and I’m sorry you’ve
been put to the trouble,” Keefe was saying.

“I met Miss Carin down the road and I know what a hero you’ve been, lad,”
she said under her breath. “It was beautiful—helping a man out of his
‘prison house of pain’ like that. Maybe you’ll have to pay by being laid
up for a time, but I know you’re thinking to yourself that it’s worth
it.”

Keefe nodded. “If poor Panther gets well—”

“Ah, I hope for that—I pray for that—the poor man!”

Keefe said nothing more. He seemed very weary. Mary Cecily sat beside
him, looking down at him, and he, half-closing his eyes, watched her
changeful face. Azalea had sunk on the doorstep and sat there, her heart
beating so she thought the others must hear it. All her thoughts and
wishes were pouring out toward them, willing them to speak.

Somewhere in the woodland a hermit thrush sent out its liquid, lovely
note. It seemed above all sounds in the world, the one that suited the
moment.

“Why don’t they speak? Why don’t they speak?” Azalea asked the question
over and over to herself. “They _must_ speak. They will be so happy
when they know! Oh, how lonely they’ve been. Oh, poor dears! But _why_
don’t they speak?”

It seemed as if the very air palpitated with her passionate desire.

Then: “I wish you were my sister, Mrs. Rowantree,” said the boy’s wistful
voice. “I’ve just been telling Miss Azalea how I once had a sister.
Matey, she was called. Isn’t it a sweet little name? We were on a ship
crossing the sea, my sister and my little mother and myself. It’s just a
little bit of a boy I was—”

Azalea heard a low cry of utter happiness, of amazed, yet undoubting
faith. She slipped from the room and ran down the path. Her tears fell
as she fled, but her heart was singing.

The hermit thrush kept up its deep and tender song, but Azalea was
certain that the words being spoken in that room were more beautiful and
wonderful by far.