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- Little Miss By-The-Day - 1/39 -
LITTLE MISS BY-THE-DAY
BY LUCILLE VAN SLYKE
_Author of "Eve's Other Children"_
_With A Frontispiece In Color By MABEL HATT_
PROLOGUE I IN THE BARRED GARDEN II THE HOUSE IN THE WOODS III LOST DREAMS IV THE UNFINISHED SONG V "CERTAIN LEGAL MATTERS" VI THE LAST PRETENDING
The older I get the more convinced I become that the most fascinating persons in this world are those elusive souls whom we know perfectly well but whom we never, as children say, "get to meet." They slip out of countries, or towns--_or rooms even,_--just before we arrive, leaving us with an inexplicable feeling of having been cheated of something that was rightfully and divinely ours. That's the way I still feel about little Miss By-the-Day. Perhaps you, too, have been baffled by the will-o'-the-wispishness of that whimsical young person. Perhaps you, too, tried to find her but never did.
She sounded so casual and commonplace when I first began hearing about her that I let her slip through my fingers. She was just a little seamstress who had a "vairee" odd way of speaking; it was quite a long time before I realized that everybody who spoke about her was unconsciously trying to imitate her drawling voice. And then I noticed that everybody who mentioned her smiled dreamily and wondered where on earth she'd come from. I kept hearing, just as you probably did, odd scraps of things she had said, droll adventures in which she had figured, extraordinary and fantastic tales about the house in which she lived. And presently, when it was too late, I found myself listening to regretful murmurings of scores of baffled persons who couldn't find out what had become of her. She suddenly vanished, leaving nothing behind her save her delectable house.
If you'll lend me your pencil a minute I'll show you on the back of this envelope just how that house was situated. You can understand the whole amazing story better if you keep in mind how the church on the corner and the rectory were tucked in beside that great house. For it _is_ a big house, so huge that the six prim brownstones across the street from it look like toy houses. But I've been told that in Brooklyn's early days there was no street, just a long terraced garden that sloped down to the river.
For all that the streets have crowded so disrespectfully about it the whole place still has a sort of "world-with-out-end-amen" air--perhaps because of the impressive squareness of its structure, great blocks of brownstone joined solidly; perhaps because of the enormous gnarled wistaria vines that stretch above its massive cornices--but one does feel as Felicia Day herself did when some one asked her how long she thought it had been there. She said she thought it must have been there "Much, much more than Always--it must have been _jamais au grand_ --forevaire and more than evaire!"
Maybe, like me, you've passed that house a dozen times and shuddered at the filth of the little street.
[Illustration: Town map.]
I used to hold my breath as I hurried by that dismal old rookery. I thought it the most hideous purgatory that ever sheltered a horde of miserable humans. But you needn't be afraid to pass it now! The immaculate sweetness and serenity of that wee street is like a miracle and the old house is a fairy dream come true.
Its marble steps are softly yellowed with age, an exquisitely wrought iron balcony stretches across the front above the high ceilinged basement and great carved walnut doors open into a wide vestibule with a marble floor exactly like a bit of a gigantic chessboard. The transformation had so astounded me that I was almost afraid to touch the neatly polished beaten silver bell for fear the whole house would vanish.
"Coom in!" cried a Scotchy voice from the basement. So I stepped across the tessellated floor of the hall into the broad drawing-room and stared out through the long French doors of the glass room at the green smudge of Battery Park beyond the river. There wasn't a soul in sight in any of the rooms and yet I felt as if some one was there. Perhaps it was just that I was awed by the disconcerting loveliness of the portrait of the brunette lady that hung in a tarnished oval frame above the drawing-room mantel. I looked at her and waited. Presently I coughed apologetically.
"Could I please find out if a--er--Miss Day lives here? Or--if anybody here knows her?"
The Scotchy voice lifted itself grudgingly above the vigorous swish of a scrubbing brush.
"I dinna think ony one's home but th' Sculptor Girl--she's on th' top floor an' it's not I that knows whether she's in a speaking humor, but you're weelcoom to try her--"
It was raining, a miserable spring drizzle, yet the spacious hall seemed flooded with sunlight. There's an oval skylight fitted with amber glass; silhouetted against its leaded rims are outlined flying birds.
"Hark, hark! The lark at heaven's gate sings!" I read beneath the margins when I looked up to find the sunlight. I knew that I ought to feel like an impertinent intruder but I just couldn't! And I defy any one to go up those wonderful circling stairs and not smile! For at the head of each flight of steps is a recessed niche such as used to be built to hold statuary and in the one near the second floor is a flat vase filled with flowers--little saffron rosebuds the day I passed by --with an ever so discreet card engraved in sizable old English script that hinted:
"One's for you."
I was still sniffing at my buttonhole when I reached the second niche. There was a black varnished wicker tray heaped with fruit and a Brittany platter filled with raison cookies.
"Aren't you hungry?" the card above them suggested. I nibbled an apricot all the way up the third flight and almost laughed aloud when I reached the top, though of course I was expecting something. There's a yellow glazed vase there,
"For pits and stones Or skins and bones"
and above it in the back of the niche through a marble dolphin's mouth cold water trickles into a bronze holder with a basket of cups beside it.
"Thirsty?" asks the dolphin.
"Dulcie Dierck" I read on the Sculptor Girl's doorplate. It took me a full minute to get the courage to tap her gargoyle knocker because I was so awestricken at remembering that she was the girl who won the Ambrose Medal and the Pendleton Prize and goodness only knows how much other loot and glory.
The door jerked open to let me peer into the cleanest, barest skylit spot,--with flat creamy walls and a little old fireplace with a Peggoty grate just like the pictures in "David Copperfield." And a trig young person who didn't look a bit like an artist, because she was so neatly belted and so smoothly coiffed, waved a clayey thumb tip toward a bench by the fire.
"Sit down and get your breath," she suggested chirkily, "then you won't feel quite so dumfoundered--"
An overwhelming sense of my colossal cheekiness made me stammer.
"Do--do you h-happen to know--" I burst forth desperately, "if there's really any such person as a--a Miss Day?"
"Does that fire look real?"
"Well, then put another stick on that fire and hang the kettle on the hob--" she was washing the clay from her hands in an old brass basin. "Don't get peeved with me because I'm grouchy and bossy--" she flung over her shoulder at me. "I always start off badly when I'm tired and that fool question always makes me just darned tireder!"
She reached for a fat brown teapot and dumped in tea-leaves recklessly. "I'll be decenter directly I'm fed. I'm a beast just before tea--you won't find me half bad half an hour from now--"
We were both silent while the water boiled. She shoved her table nearer the fire, so near that I found myself looking down at the writing things that were arranged so primly at one end. There was an ink bottle on a gray blotter, a pewter tray for pens and a queer shaped lump of bronze, a paper weight I supposed. I wouldn't have been human if I could have kept my fingers off that bit of metal. I pretended to pick it up accidentally but I did it as guiltily as a
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