Lulu Comes Home
ALLEN ROY EVANS
WHEN Ma Bowden moved along Main Street the loafers in the chairs on the verandah of the Carlton House nudged each other and said: “Lulu’s Ma.” The barber-shop boys and the post-office gossips likewise whispered: “Lulu’s Ma.” When Sam Bowden had been alive he was “Lulu’s Pa” or “Lulu’s Old Man.” Bill Bowden was “Lulu’s older brother” and Fred “Lulu’s kid brother.” The Bowden family undoubtedly lacked spirit; probably its members had little pride whether or no they preserved their complete identities. After the easygoing manner of the inhabitants of Prairie Bluff, they were content to revolve about the shining Lulu.
Pa Bowden had been “in insurance”—fire, theft, hail and other lesser risks. He had protection against everything but his own taking off, so that the Bowden family benefitted as little by his passing as it had by his living.
At twenty-four Brother Bill had acquired a vague interest in a nice quiet garage where he kept watch while Ned Flallam, whom he called “The Chief,” took a turn at Pat’s Pool Parlor. Miraculously he acquired enough to turn in $4.50 a week to Ma Bowden and still retain something for his small indulgences. The village believed that Bill had settled into his lifework.
Fred, the kid, still maintained a precarious school connection, but his devotion to Gluck’s Drug Emporium and Accessories was much greater. Every day after school, each holiday and many other days, he became a young merchant. The others called him the “Soda King” or the “Chocolate Soldier” and decided that he also had probably found his life’s niche.
With the work of her sons Ma Bowden was satisfied. They lived in a backwash of a village, a sudden budding of boom days that had never quite blossomed into the status of a town. With the incomprehensible perversity of railways, the decision to make Prairie Bluff a divisional point was altered in favor of a town farther west. Gradually the square white stakes marking the streets and comer lots of a dream city rotted and the farmers sadly plowed them under. Cows wandered in fields that had been marked for busy factories.
Hope died hard. The Prairie Bluff Weekly News printed hopeful stories of mysterious agents who were about to buy industrial sites, of a financier who had practically decided to build a bank, of a near-decision of the Government to erect a court-house, of chain stores and gift libraries, of a
hospital and a brewery. The possibilities seemed most convincing the way the Weekly News told them, but somehow the important buildings were always secured by other towns; the peaceful pastures were never disturbed for the hum of factories. In this atmosphere of perennial hope and futility the Bowdens had been reared and had flourished in their small way. But the futility rather than the hope had predominated and there had been an early “settling down” into village obscurity. A leisurely moving to the depot to watch the coming of the combined freight and passenger train became the high event of each day.
Although Ma Bowden knew that Lulu had not once missed the daily trek to the depot since she finished school, she was not worried. The daughters of other village mothers made the same pilgrimage. There was a fascination in this brief contact with the outer world. Somewhere the bright rails sliding away endlessly over the level prairie led to great cities where thrilling experiences known as “life” awaited each fortunate inhabitant. That was something Ma Bowden understood, and she understood how daughters, almost grown, might dream the dreams of youth, might build the airy castles which she dimly remembered from her own girlhood.
The permanent residents of Prairie Bluff were necessarily circumspect. Deviations from the narrow path were, too, immediately reported to wife or mother, to aunt or cousin. The village women maintained a hawklike vigilance of morals; no easy post-war tolerance had penetrated from the lax cities. But the railroad men and the travelling men had no immediate feminine judges; their homes were far beyond the reach of local gossip.
NO MOTHER could be quite unconscious of the fact that her daughter bloomed like a lily in a cabbage field. Ma Bowden’s daughter thus bloomed amid the audience on the depot platform. Not the way she stood, not her clothes, not her expression of utter indifference, but an indefinable combination of all these things caused roving glances to become fixed. Here was a rare wild bird among the domestics of a barnyard; a bird poised for flight to brighter and more appreciative skies. The hardware drummers, the implement salesmen, the itinerant book agents had vague impulses to aid Lulu in her inevitable departure to larger fields.
With elaborate carelessness they enquired from shop-
keepers about Lulu, offered cigars and plunged into the more immediate business of selling stoves and plows and books. Out of the volume of these enquiries there came to Ma Bowden various quips and scraps of information. She overheard the village men ask Lulu about fan mail and imaginary beauty contests. She heard Sim Berger of Shelf and Heavy Hardware call out: “Hi, Lulu, the traveller was in this
morning. Asked about you kinda anxious.” And she saw Lulu toss her head as Sim cackled at his own humor.
“Oh, Lulu, just a minute! ’Member that guy with the polished hair and tan shoes? Tried to get your address off me yesterday,” Jick Judson called as he sauntered past.
Ma saw and heard, but as yet she felt no reason for alarm. She was secretly proud of Lulu’s triumphal progress along Main Street. Fiere was a daughter who had her public just like the movie stars, without the least effort on Lulu’s part; Ma could see people were interested. They looked at Lulu; they asked about her; they tried to pass near her; they went so far as to write occasional letters. Ma Bowden sometimes saw these letters, which always carried a general delivery address and probably a fictitious name. The writers asked for a reply. They offered in a vague way “to do anything” for Lulu whenever she was ready to leave Prairie Bluff. Lulu’s mother felt sure these unknowns were never answered. Fier daughter might be a native of the village, but she was no easy village maiden. From the weekly movies at the Trocadero and from various “confession” magazines of Lulu’s which Ma Bowden sometimes opened, she trusted that the girl had a fair idea of what happened to beautiful trusting females. Once Lulu had confided in her that she would not lightly barter her tremendous supply of “It” (whatever that meant), although Lulu felt the time was nearing when she must go to market with whatever she had.
The easy absorption of Bill and Fred into village industries had been altogether satisfactory to Ma Bowden. The boys had given her almost no trouble ; she had never worried about them at night. But Lulu had “notions” which Ma Bowden admitted only to herself she could not understand. Each had tried to talk to the other but they had made little progress. Almost every shop—millinery, bakery, dress goods, groceries, drugs and ready-to-wear—had made tentative attempts to secure Lulu. She would attract custom.
“So many girls would jump at chances,” Ma had said.
“That’s fine. Ma,” Lulu defended herself. "Let ’em jump. I won’t stand in the way.”
“But it wouldn’t be for always,” Ma argued. “Just till you’re a little older. Some nice boy comes along then. Look at Josie Beeman and Gertie Miller.”
“Yes, look at ’em, if you can see through the raft of kids and dishes and washings.” Lulu’s voice took on an edge as she described such futile careers.
“Why, that’s nice, Lulu,” Ma persuaded. “What more could a girl ask for?”
“If you don’t know, Ma, it wouldn’t do any good for me to explain.” As if she hadn’t tried to explain many times.
“You’re the prettiest girl in Prairie Bluff. You could marry anyone. You could get most as fine a man as your pa.”
This was always the climax of Ma’s argument. But as Lulu looked at the narrow confines of the Bowden cottage and at the unlovely village sweltering in the heat of the vast prairie, she had her own private opinion of her father’s ability. Ma Bowden remembered the day she had said: “I’ve always been happy, Lulu. Your father was a good man—”
“I hate good men!” Lulu had stormed and rushed from the house.
MA WATCHED her hurrying across the railway track and on to Hallett’s slough, south of the town. The slough was a shallow, stagnant water, overgrown with rushes and coarse grass. Sometimes if the moon was just right it was possible to find a bit of water sufficiently clear of growth to give back a dim reflection. Or if the wind whispered, the reeds made a rustling murmur. They were not just reeds in the dirty water of a prairie slough, but feathery palm trees on a coral isle of the South Seas. The strip of water on which the moon shone was a Grand Canal, and the steady grating of the frogs a serenade beneath the tower of an ancient palace. This was something Mrs. Bowden knew little about. She could only ponder vaguely that in some way this spot seemed to soothe Lulu’s romantic longings.
From her kitchen window Ma Bowden could not see Lulu moving slowly along the old hay trail skirting the slough’s edge. Sometimes if the mood was strong upon her. Lulu flung herself face down in the deep grass and shook with soundless weeping. Once Willie Anderson had followed her, and again Hoot Graham and perhaps others, hoping to make contacts to their later advantage. But each had been
repulsed with such fierce scorn that no second attempt had ever been made. These were experiences of which Ma Bowden knew nothing. She had a simple trust that Lulu had the romance of the slough to herself. It was a trust that many mothers might have found difficult to maintain.
Every Saturday night the pictures at the Trocadero supplied another emotional outlet, if they were of the right type. The possessors of wealth and beauty moving through imixissible luxury, reaching pinnacles of fame through the genius of music or art or other high-grade talents, brought Lulu a momentary resolve to emulate their easy examples. Undoubtedly these pictured heroines brought the same resolve to other village girls with suppressed desires. But the later reaction was almost worse than if these fortunate ones of the pictures had never been seen at all. They seemed to reach their shining goals with such effortless assurance; their mysterious supplies of money never failed but carried them on and on to the summit of every ambition. Ma Bowden could always tell by Lulu’s rapt expression how deeply she had been affected.
But she could not understand why such a popular girl always indulged in her movie debauches alone. Invitations came all through the week, but the presence of a whispering or hand-holding companion would destroy all illusions. Ma marvelled why Lulu liked to walk home alone absorbed in a haze of imagination. Alone, Lulu could move like the heroine of the screen, her poise regal. When others spoke to her they felt that she brought her mind back from a great distance before she could answer them.
“Sure, she high-hats us in a way, but she doesn't do it a-purpose,” explained Sid White. “She’s just that way—natural.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I guess that’s it,” Ted Grauer admitted. “She kinda looks down on us, but somehow I’m proud of her. She’ll do something different, I guess.”
“Yes, maybe.” And the handful of audience scattered along the dark Prairie Bluff streets. After a weekly show Lulu caused more comment than the screen stars. Ma Bowden sitting on the dark verandah heard scraps of talk:
“Wish I could have seen Lulu’s eyes when that fade-away come on.”
“Guess that would touch her a bit; and that big love scene, too.”
“Anybody see her home this time?”
“Say, she spoke to me real friendly. I’m goin’ up there soon.”
“She wouldn’t be home, Dave; not to you, she wouldn’t. Save your feet.”
AND THE mother of such a daughter sat up just a little straighter in her old rocking chair. Other mothers might whisper and shake their heads as Lulu passed. Mrs. Bowden felt no warning premonitions. If other mothers talked, it must be their own envy or regret that prompted them.
The reflected glory of being the mother of a village personality was abundant recompense for having been the wife of Lulu’s inadequate father. Her daughter had grown up in the village. She was the prize sample of what Prairie Bluff could produce. The inhabitants had no champion ball team, no village brass band, not even a fire engine—but they had Lulu, her daughter. There was no jealousy in Ma’s mind when the townspeople took to themselves a vicarious credit, as if in some indefinable way they were displaying in Lulu the result of their combined effort.
“That’s the way they come in this town.” explained Willie Anderson as Lulu moved past his shop door. But the
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traveller for barbers’ supplies had been critical.
“Swaggers a bit, doesn’t she?” he smiled.
“Oh, I don’t know, just her way, I guess,” Willie defended.
“Clothes a little vivid maybe, lips toó. Guess she’s trying to put your eyes out, Willie, with a splash of elegance, eh?”
“Oh, I guess not; she just looks that way, that’s all.”
“Yeah, she just looks that way; she can’t help it,” and the man laughed. But he hadn’t been too critical; he understood village prejudice and he intended to sell Willie an order of soap.
After a time, brothers Bill and Fred became grumblingly rebellious. The Bowden home, small and plain as it was, had to be maintained.
“Ma, couldn’t Lulu bring in a few shekels for a change?” Bill had complained when Ma Bowden and her sons had gathered for a conference over the yearly tax money.
“Sure she could,” young Fred piped up. “She could pull down more than me and Bill together if she’d stop walking in her sleep.”
“Boys,” Ma reproved. “Lulu isn’t just set yet. What she’ll do some day will surprise us all.”
“Yeah, it will. I’ll be surprised a whole lot,” scoffed Bill.
“Me, too,” said Fred.
But the boys turned over enough for the small tax, as Ma knew they would, and another mild crisis had passed.
She never called Lulu into these family gatherings when money must be talked about, ii’fvla felt it would disturb Lulu’s “ideas,” and these unrealities of her daughter’s were infinitely precious to Ma Bowden. Some children were just naturally “late bloomers,” Mrs. Swingle had once said. But undoubtedly when the bloom did come there would be a flower of which any mother could be proud.
Only Ma Bowden knew of a certain small sum which the deceased head of the family had left behind him. Ma regarded this as a kind of trust fund, and occasionally she put a little of this precious amount in Lulu’s small purse. Oddly, no mention of this had ever been made between mother and daughter. The purse was always left on top of Lulu’s bureau and sometimes Ma Bowden put something in it. That was all. This had gone on for so long that discussion of it now would have been embarrassing to both. Ma loved to do it as she watched her Lulu miraculously develop from among the village ducklings into an incredible swan.
But Pa Bowden’s sad little accumulation was growing smaller. The end was actually in sight. The time for humiliating explanation was not far off unless Ma could succeed in getting a little more “off the boys,” as she told herself. This would be difficult. They were singularly unimpressed by Lulu’s abilities; they were beginning to go with girls and they wanted their own money. But why should they spend it on dull, commonplace girls when they might help their own sister to achieve some great objective? Ah, but Ma would get it some way !
Thenone morning n Prairie Bluff there was no Lulu on Main Street; no proud little ¡chin going into Segal’s bakery; no foolish young duchess at the postoffice waiting for mail; no absurd hat on the platform at the station when the train came in.
BEFORE anyone really asked about Lulu, Ma Bowden had time to pull herself together and concoct a pitiful explanation full of contradictions. The neighbors were kindly; they pretended to believe Ma Bowden when she told them she knew all about Lulu’s going. It was too hard for her to confess that the pride of her family had left without a word. Men, mostly young, spread over the prairie trails, singly or together. They searched with system, through the long grasses and weeds of Hallett’s slough
and far down the railway track almost to the next village. No one ever knew just why, or exactly where she went. They knew only that she was gone.
There was various muttered talk and vague threatening among the men. There was foolish boasting of what would happen to certain itinerant males who had made too pointed enquiry of Lulu’s name and nature. But nothing ever came of it. There was nothing definite, only vague suspicion and surmise.
When the trainmen put careless questions and the drummers stopped off on their regular calls, they were all told indefinitely that Lulu had “gone down to the city for a spell.” Even the villagers would not admit they knew no more than strangers. There was less interest now in gathering on the station platform, in standing about the waiting room of the postoffice, or even in the Saturday show at the Trocadero. A bright and promising sunlight had become suddenly overcast.
Ma Bowden began to age noticeably. If the villagers had thought about it at all, they had considered her as barely middleaged. She had been a busy hen scratching for a demanding brood. Now not one of the little family depended on her. She became slow and stooped, and seemed to shrink before the sympathetic eyes of old neighbors. It was a distress to her, the knowledge of this sympathy, this pity, where once she had been envied as the mother of Lulu.
There began a pathetic conspiracy of delusion. To continue her assertion of knowledge regarding Lulu, it became necessary for Ma Bowden to hear from the absent one. She persuaded Fred to borrow a car and drive to the next town to mail self-addressed letters. This consumed time and money, and in a few weeks Fred simplified matters by dropping the letter in the local postoffice. Sometimes Fred forgot and old Andrew Slater, the postmaster, addressed the letter himself and gravely handed it through the wicket to Ma Bowden.
The villagers gradually came to know of the strange collusion between Ma Bowden and Andrew Slater. They entered into an unspoken agreement to aid Ma in her harmless deceit. They made a point of seeing her Friday afternoons after the mail had been distributed. This was the day she carried the letter that all might see.
“Well, how’s Lulu this week?” Abner Rose might ask.
“Oh, she’s fine.” It was wonderful how much enthusiasm Ma could simulate.
“Still doin’ good, I guess?”
“Yes, Abner, she’s—she’s singin’ now— in a theatre.” Ma had a slow imagination; she was a poor liar. Her memory was not keen enough. Sometimes she had Lulu singing, sometimes acting, and once she spoke of a picture she was presumably painting. But Ma could always manage a smile and assure the enquirer it would be a proud day for them all when Lulu came home. Some of Lulu’s school friends threatened to question Ma on the discrepancies in the letters, but older counsel prevailed and Ma Bowden’s inventions were not disturbed.
AS THE seasons passed, Bill married dx Annie Snider, the butcher’s daughter, and Fred’s hours at the drug store were so late he had a cot at the back and often did not come home. For the first time in almost thirty years. Ma Bowden was really alone in the old cottage. She was alone with her memories and her dreams of Lulu’s mythical city conquests.
Her simple reasoning ran in two channels. Either Lulu was marvellously successful or she had made a tremendous failure. She would be intense and definite in either event. It was hard for Ma Bowden to believe that Lulu could fail, her daughter who had had the whole village at her feet and Continued on page 31^
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yet—and this was the hardest thought of all—if success had come, why had Lulu kept the knowledge of her triumph from Prairie Bluff and, most of all, from her longing mother. It was strange.
It was Mrs. Schrader, a recent arrival, who first put the question to Ma Bowden. Mrs. Schrader did not know the subtleties and subterfuges of the Lulu story when she bluntly asked Ma why she did not live with her daughter. In an unguarded moment of invention, Ma claimed she had been thinking of that very possibility. As Mrs.
I Schrader had not seemed sufficiently impressed, Ma Bowden, in a still wilder burst of imagination, related how Lulu had sent her money for that identical purpose.
The news of Ma’s projected visit gradually seeped through the village. The oldtimers smiled indulgently and the newcomers were puzzled over the fact and fiction of the whole matter. Some even doubted that any such romantic daughter had ever lived in Prairie Bluff.
At last the talk of Ma Bowden’s city visit became so definite it was embarrassing for her not to go, especially with all that money on hand of which Ma had so unthinkingly told Mrs. Schrader. She, Ma Bowden, would be an ungrateful mother if she did not yield to the growing insistence of the weekly letter. It seemed as if Ma could really delay no longer.
There were still the remains of the small sum which Ma had been secretly putting in Lulu’s purse. She could use that. There was a serene confidence about her preparations, a quiet assurance of success. Although the letters had been illusion, was there any good reason why she could not find Lulu? Undoubtedly Lulu had gone to the only city within easy access of Prairie Bluff. Ma decided to take Lulu’s best photo to show it to the city people and they would direct her. She believed it would be simple.
Now that the great decision had been made, she was impatient to be off. She wondered that she had not gone long before. It was the event of a lifetime. Not many villagers saw her go; they believed her going would be as mythical as her letters. But at last Ma actually climbed into the train she had watched for so many years.
It was not long before she began to talk with a man across the aisle. No traveller finds it hard to listen to a little, pleasantfaced woman with hair almost white. And, in addition to these interests, Ma also carried Lulu’s picture, which she presented with the slightest encouragement or with none.
The man was interested. Yes, he remembered seeing Lulu at Prairie Bluff when he had stopped off some years before. He looked at the picture a long time. Not exactly beauty, perhaps, but personality, eagerness, intensity and—inexperience. He was a shrewd man. Ma had no definite address; it was clear she did not know just where to go and what to do. The man looked at the picture again. He wondered what had happened to that little village girl with the intense eyes. What had the city done to her in all the years of inevitable struggle? From Ma’s incoherent story it was obvious the girl had achieved no success. The man spoke again :
“If you have any trouble finding Lulu, call at the police station, ma’am,” he advised. “Be sure and do that; the city police are there to find persons and places.” He could not tell this trusting old lady just why he feared the police might possibly know just the district and the house where Lulu could be found. His guess might be wrong, but it was as good as any ; he feared it might be too correct.
“I’ll do that—if I need to,” admitted Ma. “And thank you for tell in’ me.” It was obvious from Ma’s relieved expression that it was the first thing she would do.
“Be sure,” the man urged again. “You’ll save a lot of time and maybe some trouble. Here, I’ll write it on the back of Lulu’s picture.” He wrote: “Deputy’s Office, Harrison Street Police Station.” Then he told her: “Show that to anyone and they’ll tell you.” The man picked up his bag arid got off.
EVERYONE seemed willing to help the quaint old lady with the wistful smile. Ma Bowden always produced Lulu’s picture when she asked directions. She thought: “I guess they know Lulu; that’s why they’re so friendly.”
At an officer’s desk in the police station. Ma made her appeal for Lulu’s address. She did not know why the man on the train had sent her to the station; but undoubtedly the police knew everyone, even in a big city. The officer studied Ma and the picture for a moment. Then he beckoned to another man in uniform.
“Mac, see if Connel has this one in his files,” and he passed over Lulu’s picture. Ma did not know that Connel was in the morality department across the corridor. A row of benches ran along the wall, and Ma sat down to wait.
She sat with an air of pathetic patience as if wondering why all this trouble and waiting should be necessary before a mother could visit her daughter. Perhaps it was the way of such things in a great city. Then a young man saw Ma and spoke to her:
“I’m Bert Jaffers, police reporter on the NewsHerald.”
Ma looked doubtful and the young man explained:
“I write stories for a paper; stories about people that come down here.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t any story,” Ma excused herself. “I’m only here from Prairie Bluff to find Lulu—that’s my daughter. I’ll show you her picture when the policeman brings it back. You might know her.” “Yes, I might.” The young man smiled. “Anyway I can find her; I can find anyone.” He sat down so friendly-like that before she knew it Ma was telling him the whole story.
“There’s the man now. the man with the picture,” Ma said.
“Wait here,” Bert told her. “I'll get the picture.” He hurried to the desk. The man with the picture was making his report.
“Yes, she’s an old-timer; been picked up on the street for years. A Mrs. Bammer always pays the fine. She’ll be out in a house on Decamp Street; 1327 is the number.” The man put the picture and a slip of paper on the desk and went away.
“You care to take the mother out there and get the story, Bert?” the officer asked.
“Leave her to me, Phil. It’ll be a rough jolt on the old lady, but she’ll have to know. That’s what she came for.”
The writer of stories about people who came to the station helped Ma into a taxi. They made a weaving passage through traffic that kept Ma gasping but fascinated.
“We’re on the East Side now,” explained Bert. “This is Decamp Street where your daughter lives—about a mile on. You must expect to find her a bit changed, ma’am.” He must prepare this eager old mother.
“I’m not expecting much change —unless she’s got prettier,” Ma admitted. “I always tell the folks they’ll be proud of Lulu when she comes home.”
“You must remember city life is hard on young people, young girls. They get to look old, kind of worn-out like.” It was hard to tell Ma what she would see. There would be a dramatic meeting that might add another story to the day’s news.
They mounted the steps of the run-down house at 1327. Bert opened the door and they went in without knocking. “Another of the strange city customs,” Ma thought. Bert took her into a huge shabby front room that needed fresh air.
“You sit here, Mrs. Bowden, while I scout around.” Ma sat down. It was very quiet. No one seemed to be stirring, although it was almost noon. How hard it would be to get used to city ways! The young man had taken Lulu’s picture with him and Ma could hear him calling:
“Mrs. Bammer! Mrs. Bammer!”
There was a long wait and Ma felt hot and stuffy. She took off her hat and kept on waiting. Then Bert came in; he spoke almost in a whisper:
“Don’t give way, ma’am, when I tell you,” he began. “There’s been a—a kind of accident.”
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Ma did not jump or cry out, but sat on quieter than before.
“I don’t know how it happened; I don’t know the story yet. We can go to the hospital this afternoon.”
“She’s not here then?” Ma breathed. “We can see her very soon, ma’am; in the hospital, very soon.” He began to help Ma prepare for the street again.
“There’s a waiting room and a restaurant at the station,” he explained. “You wait for me and we’ll go out together. Emergency, I think, is where we’ll go.”
V\7’HEN MA was disposed of in the wait*V ing room, Bert sought the desk. “There’s a mess out at that DecampStreet house. It was the address of this Lulu girl all right, but she wasn’t there. The Bammer woman that runs the place had a phone call—Lulu got tangled in an accident. She’d been out all night and was no doubt on her way home; likely full of dope or gin; the I Bammer woman said the girl had been hitting it a bit hard lately.”
“We got the report while you had the mother out. Small child injured. Maybe the car swerved trying to miss the girl. A quick mix-up, nobody saw just what happened.” The officer looked at Bert. “How’s the old woman?”
“She doesn’t know a thing; doesn’t need to.”
“What can you do? We’ve got to report the case—certificate, inquest, everything. Got to be regular.” The officer was friendly, but he was also official.
“Let me fix it,” Bert urged.
“I thought it out partly on the way in from Bammer’s. I write the story with Lulu’s name. The child helps a lot. Lulu rescues the child; sacrifices life for unknown child; see?”
“Yeah; maybe she did at that.” The ( officer smiled.
“Sure she did.” Bert smiled too. “This Ma Bowden from Prairie Bluff got under my tough hide a bit. If I could give the old ' lady a kind of heroic last memory—‘Dancing Daughter Defies Death,’ or ‘Brave Beauty from Prairie Bluff,’—you know? It wouldn’t make the home-going quite so i rough for Ma.”
“Go to it,” the officer rumbled. “But : don’t get this department in any trouble.” The young man who wrote stories called the Emergency Hospital on the phone:
“Get me Dr. Fisher; yes, I’ll hold the phone.” Then later: “That you, doc?
Bert calling. How’s that Lulu girl?. . . Passed out, you say?. . . No, no friend of mine; but her mother is. Say, doc, fix the girl up a bit, can you? You know, so the mother won’t see anything. She doesn’t know a thing. Daughter bumped off saving kid. . . That’s the story. . . Thanks, doc; we’ll soon be up.”
In the late afternoon Ma Bowden moved along the white corridors of Emergency Hospital.
“You’re taking a lot of trouble over an old woman,” she whispered.
“No more than I hope somebody might take for my own mother.” Bert guided her along a quiet passage. “Here’s the doc I know.” The doctor saw them and waited.
“This is Lulu’s mother, the Mrs. Bowden I phoned you about.” explained Bert.
“We’re sorry to meet you like this, Mrs. Bowden.” The doctor took Ma’s hand and held it a moment. “Everything possible was done. That was a wonderful thing your daughter did.” The doctor glanced at Pert who nodded. “You’ll always have that last splendid memory—and that’s more than most mothers can have.”
Ma managed a pathetic smile behind her tears.
“Lulu always dreamed about something big,” she quavered proudly.
“You keep right on being proud of her, Mrs. Bowden.” The doctor turned to leave. “You know where to go, Bert?”
“Yes, I know. Thanks, a lot.”
When the two came to a door, Bert said : “You might like to see her alone, Ma?” “No! No! You’ve been so—so good to me. I’d like you ...”
They went in together. The experienced eye of the young man saw something of what he expected to see. but Ma saw only the little girl of Prairie Bluff. The curious metamorphosis of death which often turns back the years had been kind to Lulu. There were still traces of one who had tossed a proud head on Main Street and sought comfort for life’s problems in the whisperings of prairie grass. There was no least suspicion in the mind of Ma Bowden that these problems had ever become too hard for one who had ruled in Prairie Bluff. For Ma the years between were blotted out.
“Here’s a handful of papers. Ma,” Bert explained the next morning. They were in the big echoing depot waiting for the Prairie Bluff train. “You can read about the brave thing your daughter did as you ride along.” Ma put the papers in her old bag with the shirred string around the top.
Bert said again:
“You remember what I said yesterday? Well, it’s all right. You and Lulu are on the same train. She’ll be just a car or two ahead of you—but you’re going home together.” Bert looked away for a moment. Then he went on: “I managed to find a little more I forgot to tell you about. Just a few little things—kind things, she did for people— and just a line or two about how fine a chance she had with her—singing. I thought you’d like to show the folks back home what the city thought about Lulu.”
“It’s—it’s just wonderful!” Ma always whispered in big buildings. “It’s exactly what I wanted to do.”
“Good-by, Ma Bowden, and don’t forget a new friend.”
TN THE blazing August sunshine the procession crawled through the dust to the slight rise on the far side of Hallet’s slough. Old Andrew Slater, the postmaster, rode with Abner Rose, the station agent.
Abner looked back at the long line and rumbled:
“It’s thé ' biggest funeral, the biggest Prairie Bluff ever had.”
Old Andrew shook his grey head.
“I can’t account for it. Why, Ma Bowden didn’t hardly know what city—” He stopped abruptly.
“I know, Andrew: leastways I’ve guessed. But the piece in the city papers—it’s all beyont me, way beyont.”
“I can’t understand it either,” admitted old Andrew. “But whatever happened, it’s a grand funeral, Abner. And Ma Bowden’s earned it.”
Near the head of the line Ma sat with son Bill and son Fred. She wept softly but not hopelessly, and she whispered only once:
“I always said when Lulu came home everybody’d be proud of my girl.”
The people of the village and the people of the country for miles around—all who knew the story of Ma Bowden’s undying faith—came and stood with heads bared to the beating sun. They listened once again to great and simple words and they stood around, awkward and embarrassed, then slowly drifted away. Before the red sun dropped from sight all sound had passed. Only the tall dried grass, the grass that had whispered dreams to a puzzled girl, kept on whispering that Lulu had at last come home.