The Mate of the Daylight
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A LITTLE TRAVELER.
Sarah Orne Jewett
The day I met this little friend of mine (whom I never shall forget) I had just left some other friends, and I was sorry that my pleasant visit to them was over. I had a long journey to take before I reached home, and I was to take it alone. I did not mind this, in one way, for I had grown used to traveling by myself. I was lucky in having a most comfortable section in the sleeping-car, and I was well provided with books and lunch and pleasant thoughts. So, after I had looked out of the window for half an hour, I began to settle myself comfortably for the day or two I must spend in the train. There were several passengers, but no one whom I had ever seen before, and it was some time before I lost the feeling that I was with a company of unknown people, and began to take an interest in my fellow travelers separately. There was the usual young couple in very new clothes who tried to make us believe that they had been married these ten years, and there were two comfortable elderly women who knew each other and were journeying together, loudly talking over parish and neighborhood matters by the way. Not far from me was a round, red-cheeked old lady in a somewhat fantastic dress, with a big bonnet all covered with ends of narrow ribbon and lustreless bugles. I am sure she had made it herself and was proud and conscious of it. She had a great deal of small luggage in the compartment with her, and I thought she must be changing her home, for she never could be taking away so many and such curious looking packages just for a visit. Beside these people there were four or five business men and a Catholic priest, and just opposite my own place was a little girl.
For some time I supposed she must belong to some one in the car, and had chosen to sit by herself for a while and look out of the window. Then I thought her father must have left her to go to some other part of the train where he had found some one to talk with. But two hours went by, and it was toward noon, and I watched the little thing grow sleepy and at last put her head down on the seat, and the doll she had held so carefully slid to the floor. I picked it up and put it on her arm again so she might find it when she waked. I had noticed that the conductor had spoken to her and I thought I would ask him about her when he next came by.
She did not sleep very long; the stopping of the train startled her, and when she opened her eyes I smiled at her and beckoned her to come to me. So she climbed the seat beside me, still holding the doll, and I asked her what its name was, and if she were all alone, and where she was going. She looked up gravely into my face and told me the doll's name and her own, and then she did not say anything more. She was younger than I had thought at first, and yet she was grave and sober and saddened. "Isn't your papa with you?" said I, but she only shook her head and looked up at me again as she sat beside me. I was strangely drawn to the little thing, she puzzled me, and she was so wistful. She seemed contented, and we both looked out of the window, and talked now and then about the things we saw. She sat in my lap so she could see better.
After some time she said to me, "Mother is dead," in a half-questioning way, as if she expected me to say something; but what could I say, except that I was sorry? - though there was all that wonder in her face at having been brought in contact with so great a mystery. This new, undreamed-of, uncomfortable change was almost too much for her mind to recognize at all, but she had been shocked by it, and everything was different from what it used to be. She knew that at any rate.
"She said she was going to die," the child told me, still watching me with her sad and curious eyes as if everybody knew the secret of it all and would not tell her.
"You will know all about it when you are older, dear, and you will see her again by and by," I said; but she shook her head.
"She isn't coming back any more," she answered, as if she were sure of that at any rate.
There seemed to be no one to look after her, so presently I gave her some of my own luncheon. She was very hungry, and I pitied her more than ever, for the fact of her friendlessness grew more and more plain. She had pretty manners; she evidently had been brought up carefully, and there was a quaint dignity and reserve about her; she did nothing in a hurry, as if she had never been with other children at all and had learned no childish or impatient ways. I noticed her clothes, which were beginning to look worn and outgrown, but were very clean and well kept. It was on the edge of winter, but she still wore what must have been her last summer's hat, a little leghorn hat trimmed with white ribbon, and over her shoulders she had one of the very smallest of plaid shawls folded corner wise, and pinned over neatly. She had some mittens, but she had taken those off and put them together on the window ledge.
Presently the conductor came in, evidently in a hurry, and when he saw that we had been lunching together he looked as if a weight were taken off his mind.
"I'm very much obliged to you," he said to me; "I meant to take her out and give her some dinner when we stopped, but I got a message that something had gone wrong up the road, and I had to fly round as fast 's I could. I only got part of a cup o' coffee myself."
"Is she under your care?" I asked.
The conductor moved the little girl to the seat facing mine, and bent over to tell me. "She's left all alone in the world. Father was a friend of mine, freight conductor on the road, and he was killed pretty near two years ago. Wife was a nice little woman, and the company helped her some, and she sewed and got along very well for a while, but she never had any health, and she died last Sunday of the pneumonia very sudden, - buried day before yesterday. The folks in the house sent a dispatch to a sister in Boston they'd heard her speak of, and she answered right off she'd take the child. They can't sell off what little stuff there is until they hear from her. My wife told me how things were and I spoke to the superintendent and said I'd take her on free, I believed. I'd a-taken her home myself and welcome, but long 's she's got some folks of her own she'd better go to 'em. I don't much believe in fetching up other folks' children, but I told my wife last thing as I came out of the house that if I didn't like the looks of the woman that comes for her I'm just going to fetch her back again. She's the best little thing I ever saw; seems as if she knew what had happened and was trying to make the best of it. I found this Pullman wasn't full, and I thought she could move round in here more than in one of the other cars. There ain't much travel at this time of year."
"I'll take the best care I can of her," said I; "I'm going to Boston;" and the conductor nodded and touched Nelly's cheek and disappeared.
She seemed to look upon everybody as her friend. She walked with unsteady, short steps to the other end of the car, and the bride, who was a pleasant looking young woman, spoke to her kindly and gave her some candy; but I was sure that presently the child said, as she had said to me, that her mother was dead, for I saw the girl bend over her and flush a little, while her eyes filled with tears. I dare say she thought of her own mother whom she had so lately left, and she put her arm close round the child and kissed her, and afterwards seemed to be telling her a story at which Nelly smiled now and then.
I read for a while, but in the middle of the afternoon I fell asleep, and when I waked again the car lamps were lighted, and I looked for the little traveler, who was standing in the passage way of the car. She had taken off her hat and there was evidently something wrong with it, for she was looking at it anxiously and trying to fasten something which had broken. I tried to beckon her to me, but in the seat just beside her was the priest, a stout, unsympathetic looking old gentleman, and I was half amused and half touched to see her give the hat to him and show him where to fasten the strap of it. He was evidently much confused; he even blushed, but he did what she asked him with clumsy fingers and then put the hat on for her, as she stood before him and bent down her head as if he would have had to reach up to it. She was going away then, but he stopped her and gave her some bits of money from his pocket; she came a step or two nearer to him and held up her face to kiss him, and then he looked out of the window a minute and afterward turned and looked at his neighbors appealingly. It had been like a flower dropped into his prosaic life, I imagine; he was evidently quite surprised and pleased by so touching a confidence.
It must have been a long, dull day for a child to spend, but she was as good as possible, and did not give anybody the least trouble. We talked with each other about her, and felt as if she were under the care of every one of us. I could not help thinking how often we are at each other's mercy as we go through this world, and how much better it would be if we were as trustful and unsuspicious as this little child, and only looked for kindness at our neighbors' hands.
Just as it was growing dark she came to me and put her hand into mine and gave it a little pull.
"Come and see the birds," said she, and I suddenly became aware of the chirping of a robin somewhere near us. It was a funny sound to hear in the winter twilight, with the rattling of the train and shriek of the whistles, for it was really the note of a robin who was going to sleep on his nest in an apple-tree, or high on an elm bough, some early summer evening. But Nelly led me toward the old lady with so many bundles, and I found one of her treasures was a bird cage, and there sure enough was the red-breast, a fat fellow with smooth feathers, who winked and blinked at us and stopped his chirping as we stood beside him.
"She seems pleased with him, the little girl does," said the bird's owner. "I'd like to have her see the rest of my birds. Twenty-three I've got in all; thirteen of 'em 's canaries. The woman in the other part of the house is taking care of 'em while I'm gone. I'm going on to Stockbridge to spend Thanksgiving with my niece. It was a great piece o' work to get started and I didn't feel at first 's if I could leave the birds, but I knew Martha's folks would feel hurt if I put 'em off again this year about coming. But I had to take the old robin along with me. Some folks said it might be the death of him, but he's never been one mite scared. His cage stands in a window at home where he sees a sight o' passing. He's the tamest thing you ever saw. Now I'm so fur on my way I'm glad I did make up my mind to start, though it'll be bad getting there in the night. I think a change is good for anybody, and then I'm so tied down most of the time with the birds that I don't get out much, and there's nobody to fetch in the news."
"Why don't you bring up a few carrier pigeons with the rest of your family?" said I, and this seemed to amuse her very much.
"Sakes alive! I don't want no more," said she; "but then I've said that all along; all the folks that keeps canaries in our place comes to me if anything ails 'em. Then I take 'em to doctor and get so attached to 'em I can't let 'em go again. I was telling this little girl if I'd known I was going to see her I'd have brought along a nice little linnet for her; he'll sing all day long, but him and the one I put him with is always fighting each other, and all my other cages is too full a'ready. I reckon you'd be good to the little bird, wouldn't you now, dear?" The little traveler smiled eagerly, while I suddenly thought of the two sparrows that are sold for a farthing of this world's money.
I think we were all anxious to see what kind of woman the aunt would be, and I was half afraid she would look hard-hearted, and I knew in that case I should always be sorry when I thought of the little girl whose hand I was so sorry to let go. I had looked after her at night. I had waked a dozen times to look at her sweet little shadowed face as she slept, with the doll held fast in her arms.
At the station in the morning I found some one waiting to meet me, but I could not go until I saw the aunt. I waited with the conductor for a few minutes, and I was beginning to fear I must say good-by to my little traveler and never know her fortunes. Every one of the passengers had given her something, I believe - picture-papers and fruit and candy and I do not know what else - and I had seen even the old priest kiss her good-by most tenderly, and lay his hand on her head in what I am sure was a heart-felt blessing. I do not know whether it was some grand old Latin benediction, or a simple longing that God would be near to the lonely child and that His saints would defend her as she goes through the world.
I was glad when I saw just the woman I had wished and hoped for coming hurriedly toward us - there was no doubt that it was all right, she was sure of the child at a glance. I had fancied all the time that she must look like her mother.
"My dear baby!" the woman said with a sob, and caught her in her arms, while the little girl, with a quick, instinctive love, put out her short arms and they clung to each other without a word.
It was all right, as the conductor said again, half to himself and half to me. After a minute the woman said brokenly that she thanked him for his kindness. Poor Ellen! she never knew she was sick till the news came she was gone. He must tell the people out there that Nelly would have a good home. They stopped to talk longer and Nelly stood gravely by, but I had to hurry away, and after I was in the carriage I wished I could go back to kiss the little thing again.
"The Little Traveler" first appeared in Good Company (4:453-456) in March 1880. This text is from the reprinting in The Mate of the Daylight (1883). If you find errors in this text or notice items you believe should be annotated, please contact the site manager.
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leghorn hat: The Oxford English Dictionary gives one definition of leghorn as "The name of a straw plaiting for hats and bonnets, made from a particular kind of wheat, cut green and bleached, and so called because imported from Leghorn in Tuscany; a hat or bonnet made of this plaiting or some imitation of it. (Used both simply and in attrib. use, as Leghorn bonnet, chip, hat, plait).
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Pullman: George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897), "was an American industrialist who developed the railroad sleeping car. Trained as a cabinetmaker, he moved to Chicago in 1855 and began to remodel old railroad coaches. In 1863 he built the first modern sleeping car, the Pioneer, which had a folding upper berth and seat cushions that could be extended to create a lower berth. In 1867, Pullman organized the Pullman Palace Car Company to manufacture his sleeping cars and then developed other types of railroad cars, including the dining car (1868)." (Source: Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia).
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trustful and unsuspicious as this little child: See Matthew 18:1-7.
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Stockbridge: A town in western Massachusetts.
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Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving is an annual holiday celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November. It originated in three days of prayer and feasting by the Plymouth colonists in 1621, although an earlier thanksgiving was offered in prayer alone by members of the Berkeley plantation near present-day Charles City, Va., on Dec. 4, 1619. The first national Thanksgiving Day, proclaimed by President George Washington, was celebrated on Nov. 26, 1789. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made it an annual holiday to be commemorated on the last Thursday in November (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia).
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two sparrows ... sold for a farthing: See Matthew 10:29.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
The Mate of the Daylight
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