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- Across the Years - 5/34 -

* * * * *

Ten years before, and one week after James Whitmore's death, Mrs. James Whitmore had been thrown from her carriage, striking on her head and back.

When she came to consciousness, hours afterward, she opened her eyes on midnight darkness, though the room was flooded with sunlight. The optic nerve had been injured, the doctor said. It was doubtful if she would ever be able to see again.

Nor was this all. There were breaks and bruises, and a bad injury to the spine. It was doubtful if she would ever walk again. To the little woman lying back on the pillow it seemed a living death--this thing that had come to her.

It was then that Margaret and Katherine constituted themselves a veritable wall of defense between their mother and the world. Nothing that was not inspected and approved by one or the other was allowed to pass Mrs. Whitmore's chamber door.

For young women only seventeen and nineteen, whose greatest responsibility hitherto had been the selection of a gown or a ribbon, this was a new experience.

At first the question of expense did not enter into consideration. Accustomed all their lives to luxury, they unhesitatingly demanded it now; and doctors, nurses, wines, fruits, flowers, and delicacies were summoned as a matter of course.

Then came the crash. The estate of the supposedly rich James Whitmore was found to be deeply involved, and in the end there was only a pittance for the widow and her two daughters.

Mrs. Whitmore was not told of this at once. She was so ill and helpless that a more convenient season was awaited. That was nearly ten years ago--and she had not been told yet.

Concealment had not been difficult at first. The girls had, indeed, drifted into the deception almost unconsciously, as it certainly was not necessary to burden the ears of the already sorely afflicted woman with the petty details of the economy and retrenchment on the other side of her door.

If her own luxuries grew fewer, the change was so gradual that the invalid did not notice it, and always her blindness made easy the deception of those about her.

Even the move to another home was accomplished without her realizing it --she was taken to the hospital for a month's treatment, and when the month was ended she was tenderly carried home and laid on her own bed; and she did not know that "home" now was a cheap little flat in Harlem instead of the luxurious house on the avenue where her children were born.

She was too ill to receive visitors, and was therefore all the more dependent on her daughters for entertainment.

She pitied them openly for the grief and care she had brought upon them, and in the next breath congratulated them and herself that at least they had all that money could do to smooth the difficult way. In the face of this, it naturally did not grow any easier for the girls to tell the truth--and they kept silent.

For six years Mrs. Whitmore did not step; then her limbs and back grew stronger, and she began to sit up, and to stand for a moment on her feet. Her daughters now bought the strip of Axminster carpet and laid a path across the bedroom, and another one from the bedroom door to the great chair in the sitting-room, so that her feet might not note the straw matting on the floor and question its being there.

In her own sitting-room at home--which had opened, like this, out of her bedroom--the rugs were soft and the chairs sumptuous with springs and satin damask. One such chair had been saved from the wreck--the one at the end of the strip of carpet.

Day by day and month by month the years passed. The frail little woman walked the Axminster path and sat in the tufted chair. For her there were a china cup and plate, and a cook and maids below to serve. For her the endless sewing over which Katherine and Margaret bent their backs to eke out their scanty income was a picture or a bit of embriodery, designed to while away the time.

As Margaret thought of it it seemed incredible--this tissue of fabrications that enmeshed them; but even as she wondered she knew that the very years that marked its gradual growth made now its strength.

And in a little while would come the end--a very little while, the doctor said.

Margaret tightened her lips and echoed her sister's words: "We mustn't give up--we mustn't!"

Two days later the doctor called. He was a bit out of the old life.

His home, too, had been--and was now, for that matter--on the avenue. He lived with his aunt, whose heir he was, and he was the only one outside of the Whitmore family that knew the house of illusions in which Mrs. Whitmore lived.

His visits to the little Harlem flat had long ceased to have more than a semblance of being professional, and it was an open secret that he wished to make Margaret his wife. Margaret said no, though with a heightened color and a quickened breath--which told at least herself how easily the "no" might have been a "yes."

Dr. Littlejohn was young and poor, and he had only his profession, for all he was heir to one of the richest women on the avenue; and Margaret refused to burden him with what she knew it would mean to marry her. In spite of argument, therefore, and a pair of earnest brown eyes that pleaded even more powerfully, she held to her convictions and continued to say no.

All this, however, did not prevent Dr. Littlejohn from making frequent visits to the Whitmore home, and always his coming meant joy to three weary, troubled hearts. To-day he brought a great handful of pink carnations and dropped them into the lap of the blind woman.

"Sweets to the sweet!" he cried gayly, as he patted the slim hand on the arm of the chair.

"Doctor Ned--you dear boy! Oh, how lovely!" exclaimed Mrs. Whitmore, burying her face in the fragrant flowers. "And, doctor, I want to speak to you," she broke off earnestly. "I want you to talk to Meg and Kathie. Perhaps they will listen to you. I want them to go out more. Tell them, please, that I don't need them all the time now."

"Dear me, how independent we are going to be!" laughed the doctor. "And so we don't need any more attention now, eh?"

"Betty will do."

"Betty?" It was hard, sometimes, for the doctor to remember.

"The maid," explained Mrs. Whitmore; "though, for that matter, there might as well be no maid--the girls never let her do a thing for me."

"No?" returned the doctor easily, sure now of where he stood. "But you don't expect me to interfere in this housekeeping business!"

"Somebody must," urged Mrs. Whitmore. "The girls must leave me more. It isn't as if we were poor and couldn't hire nurses and maids. I should die if it were like that, and I were such a burden."

"Mother, dearest!" broke in Margaret feverishly, with an imploring glance toward her sister and the doctor.

"Oh, by the way," interposed the doctor airily, "it has occurred to me that the very object of my visit to-day is right along the lines of what you ask. I want Miss Margaret to go driving with me. I have a call to make out Washington Heights way."

"Oh, but--" began Margaret, and paused at a gesture from her mother.

"There aren't any 'buts' about it," declared Mrs. Whitmore. "Meg shall go."

"Of course she'll go!" echoed Katherine. And with three against her, Margaret's protests were in vain.

* * * * *

Mrs. Whitmore was nervous that night. She could not sleep.

It seemed to her that if she could get up and walk, back and forth, back and forth, she could rest afterward. She had not stepped alone yet, to be sure, since the accident, but, after all, the girls did little more than guide her feet, and she was sure that she could walk alone if she tried.

The more she thought of it the more she longed to test her strength. Just a few steps back and forth, back and forth--then sleep. She was sure she could sleep then. Very quietly, that she might not disturb the sleepers in the bedroom beyond, the blind woman sat up in bed and slipped her feet to the floor.

Within reach were her knit slippers and the heavy shawl always kept at the head of her bed. With trembling hands she put them on and rose upright.

At last she was on her feet, and alone. To a woman who for ten years had depended on others for almost everything but the mere act of breathing, it was joy unspeakable. She stepped once, twice, and again along the side of her bed; then she stopped with a puzzled frown--under her feet was the unyielding, unfamiliar straw matting. She took four more steps, hesitatingly, and with her arms outstretched at full length before her. The next instant she recoiled and caught her breath sharply; her hands had encountered a wall and a window--and there should have been no wall or windows there!

The joy was gone now.

Shaking with fear and weakness, the little woman crept along the wall and felt for something that would tell her that she was still at home. Her feet made no sound, and only her hurried breathing broke the silence.

Through the open door to the sitting-room, and down the wall to the right-on and on she crept.

Across the Years - 5/34

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