Ilsa knew the loneliness of this child who did not belong, for she could never forget the pain of her own childhood
JUST after the party ice cream was served lisa went upstairs for a minute. She went slowly, listening to the cheerful din of the children downstairs, making little noise herself. When she got to the top of the stairs she could see directly into her room, and she could see the child standing by her bureau. She had lisa’s purse open in her hands, and she was going through it with a desperate, guilty haste.
Ilsa said, gently, “You should have asked me, Diana,” One hand closed firmly over the purse; she put the other on the child’s thin shoulders. “Did you need the money for something special?” she said. “I would have lent it to you.”
The child stared up at her and for a minute there was nothing on her face but fear. Then, just as suddenly, there was nothing there but anger. Anger and hate, and out of the depths of it she struck at lisa. Struck her hard in the stomach, and then again on the arm. And then she had collapsed into a flood of tears; her whole thin body was shaken and torn by the terrible, hiccuping sobs.
Ilsa sat down in the low rocking chair behind her and pulled the child down onto her lap. She had been knocked almost breathless by the blow in her stomach, so that for a minute she could do nothing but sit and hold t he child in silence. After a minute she found her handkerchief and wiped the wet little face; she brushed the dark hair away from the round forehead and felt how wet it was. The child was far too hot; she had come dressed as a medieval queen, in an elaborate satin costume, and she was worn out with the weight of it.
Usa sat, rocking her silently, soothing her with her silence and her gentle hands.
It w'as funny. There were children downstairs to whom a dime was a week's riches; there were children who got no money at all unless they worked for it. But the only one who had tried to steal was Diana, who would never know what it was like to need money.
Ilsa said, “What was it, Diana? Do you need some money?”
The words came out between the sobs, and they were not an answer at all, and yet they were a complete answer. “I hate them!” Diana said. “I hate them all!”
Ilsa nodded; she could understand. Diana hated them, so she tried to hurt them in the only way that seemed important to her by taking their money. “You don’t need to hate them,” Ilsa said mildly. “They don’t hate you.”
“'1'hey do too!” For a minute the sobs grew wilder; they were so choking that no words would corne at all.
“Why should they?” Ilsa said.
The words came choking out. “I—I’m not like any of them.”
Ilsa knew that it was true; Diana, daughter of a famous actress, was not like the others, who were the.children of grocers and druggists and hardware merchants. She knew that to a child being different from the others is one of the world’s worst tragedies. She did not try to minimize it.
“I know,” she said. “It’s hard. When I was a little girl l wasn’t like the others either.”
She felt the child’s head turn up toward her slightly.
“I was even more different than you are,” Ilsa said. “Because I didn’t even talk like the others, you see. 1 had a little accent, because my mother had not lived here long. Sometimes when I meant to say ‘nothing’ l would say ‘nossing,’ and then they would laugh.”
She rocked in silence for a minute; she felt the child, beginning to relax a little, let her breath out in a long shuddering sigh.
“And once I was invited to a party,” ilsa said. “A costume party, like this one. And 1 didn’t know what to wear, and 1 didn’t have the money to buy anything, and 1 knew that whatever L wore l would st ill he different.”
Diana was really looking up at her now.
“You sit here and rest,” Ilsa said, “and I will tell you about it.”
It was the lirst time she had ever been invited to a party on that street on Elm Street, where all the big houses were. It was the first time, for that matter, that she had ever been invited to a
party at all—really invited, that is, with a printed invitation, asking her to Martha Redlock’s party. On the invitation, in Martha’s laborious handwriting, it said, “Please wear a costume.”
The costume, she knew, was important.
She had finally dared to ask some of the girls about it, managing to say it, she thought, just right. “What costume are you wearing?” she had said languidly, as though everybody, of course, had loads of them and just had to decide between them. And Nancy had said, “I’m going as a witch,” and Gertrude had said, “I’m going as a nurse.” And then they had laughed and told her the most wonderful thing of all Peter was going as a dog. He had a dog’s head that you could hardly tell from a real one, really, with a jaw that moved and everything, and he wore a long tail with it and he was the funniest thing you ever saw. He always wore it at costume parties.
SHE had gone home and had told her mother about the witch and the nurse and the dog’s head, and Mama had looked amazed, the way she so often did, and said, “A dog’s head, really? From a real dog, do you think?” And they had all laughed at her and shouted, “Of course not, Mama! From a real dog!” and then they had laughed some more, and Mama had shaken her head and shrugged her shoulders and laughed too. She knew’, really, that costumes weren’t made from real dogs, but so many things in this country kept surprising her that nothing ever seemed too surprising. And she never minded when they laughed at her; it w^as all part of the fun they had together.
Sometimes, Ilsa suspected. Mama asked the funny questions just to keep them laughing. On days when Papa was laid off, and there hadn’t been much for supper, it was good to have something to laugh about. It warmed you up.
“A witch, now,” Mama said thoughtfully, when they w’ere through laughing. “That would be easy.”
“But I can’t go as a witch!” Ilsa wailed. “Nancy’s going as a w’itch! I can’t be a witch, too!”
And Mama had looked thoughtful, and puzzled
too, and then she had said, “Well, then? What?” It was hard to say. She knew exactly what she wanted to he. She wanted to go as a fairy, and in her mind she could see just how it would be. She would have a tiny, tight blouse, and her skirt would be made of yards and yards of something very sheer, all in different colors, and she would carry a wand, and wear a shiny star in her hair.
The cheapest and coarsest muslin could be dyed and turned into something sheer and beautiful. It would take a lot, of course, but down at Timmers they had some muslin for only 15 cents a yard. And Mama could sew it easily. Mama could sew anything.
SHE told Mama about it at last, and even sat down and tried to draw a picture of it, but Mama only shook her head. “A long black skirt, I have,” she said. “Fancy sheer material, I have not.”
“They have it at Timmers,” lisa said eagerly. “And we could dye it at home. I could do all the dyeing
Mama only shook her head again.
Even telling Papa did no good; in fact, it made things worse, for Papa looked so sad that she knew how much he wanted to take the money out of his pocket and say, “Here. Go and buy it.” The only trouble was, he did not have the money in his pocket.
And the day of the party came a Saturday —
“1 v/on’t wear it!” lisa sobbed. “I’d rather be dead!”
and after breakfast Mama left the dishes right where they were and went up to her room for a while. And when she came down she was carrying a big box and she looked very pleased. She looked tired, too, as though she had just been under a strain, and her big hands shook a little as she opened the box.
“Not for everybody would I do this,” she said, and smiled at lisa. “But for my oldest daughter —well, maybe.”
lisa stared unbelievingly. Could it be —it had to be Mama had been making the costume all this time, keeping it a secret, making a surprise for her .’
“There!” Mama said, and threw off the lid of the box. Usa took one look inside and burst into tears.
In the box, in all its starched glory, lay the festival costume of Mama’s youth. The elaborate headdress, with its yards of handmade lace, the bright skirts, the stiff, beautifully embroidered petticoats. It was as European as anything could ever be, and she hated every inch of it.
“That is a costume worth wearing,” Mama said. “But, lisa, why cry? I don’t mind if you wear it, child— you are old enough now to be careful.”
“I w'on’t wear it!” lisa sobbed. “I’d rather be dead than wrear that old thing!”
Mama’s hands were caressing the embroidery, but her eyes were turned toward lisa, puzzled and hurt now. “I could hardly decide to let you wear it,” she said, “and now to you it is an old thing.” “1 just won’t go,” lisa sobbed. “I won’t, wear that ! 1 just won’t go!”
Papa had come in at the sound of her angry voice. “And what is wrong with the costume, Usa?” he said. “What is wrong with wearing it?” “How could 1 wear it?” Usa screamed. “Wear it and look like a hunky!”
She knew at once t hat she should not have said it. Papa’s shoulders drooped; Marna sat down very suddenly, her hands still reaching into the box.
“For this I came to this country,” Papa said slowly. “For my own daughter to call me that.” He fumbled in his pocket for his pipe, not even seeming to know that he held it. in his other hand. “1 came for nothing,” he said, and walked slowly toward the door. “For worse than nothing.” Mama’s head came up suddenly. “That is Brussels lace,” she said. “It was made by my grandmother, and worn by my mother, and given to me. That, lace is good enough for anybody. It is good enough for you, lisa. You will wear it.” When Mama talked like that the argument was over. lisa knew she would wear it.
It was even worse than she had thought it would be. lisa had known that she would be wretched when she got fo the party, but she had not even
thought about getting
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there. Her short coat did not begin to cover the long skirts and the yards of lace had to hang on the outside of it. She had to walk along the street alone that way in broad daylight and it was torture such as she had never known before. At the last minute she almost turned back to beg Mama to go with her, but Mama was too far away and hurt and there was nothing to do but go alone. She looked straight ahead, her cheeks flaming, her eyes stinging, knowing that every eye was turned toward her.
The party was dreadful. She had never been in a house like that before, and when the maid opened the door she thought she was Martha’s mother, and she shook hands and dropped a curtsey, the way Mama had taught her to do.
All the other children had come running to the door when she came; the party had just begun and they still felt stiff and strange, and they just stood and stared at her without much to say. They had acted that way as each child had come, but she had no way of knowing that. She felt the constraint in the air, but she thought it was only around her.
She seemed to stand about forever, alone on the edge of the group. Mrs. Redlock came at last and greeted her, taking both lisa’s hands in hers. “What a really beautiful costume,” she said, and to lisa her kind smile was a laugh and her words were mocking. “We must get a picture of it. Martha, Nancy, isn’t it lovely?” She tried to draw lisa into the group, but the stiff little figure stood immobile.
TEETER came at last in his dog 1 costume, and he was almost as funny as they had said he would be, and he ran around the room and barked and jumped at people, and the other girls shrieked and ran and scrambled up on chairs. But in the heavy skirts lisa could not run, and she had been taught not to scramble up on chairs.
Mrs. Redlock said at last that it was time for games, and they played blindman’s buff, lisa was easy to find; her skirts rustled when she moved and she was caught almost at once, making it her turn to be the blind man. Mrs. Redlock held out the blindfold to her, smiling; in the moment’s silence lisa heard herself saying—in a voice that was high and prissy and not at all like her own ‘T don’t think I’d better. Because of my headdress, you see.”
The floor did not open and swallow her up. She had done the last, the unforgivable thing. She had been a bad sport. She had not meant to do it; she did not even know where the words had come from, except from the depths of her wretched self-consciousness.
But Mrs. Redlock said, smoothly, “You’re perfectly right, dear, I should have thought. Martha, you be the blind man then—all right, dear, hold still while I tie it—” And the party went on, past her and away from her, leaving her there alone.
She turned and walked stiffly toward the stairs. As soon as she was out of sight, of course, she did not need to cry at all. She went into Mrs. Redlock’s bedroom, where all their coats had been left; she wras going to find her own and put it on and run down the stairs and out the door and never come back, never go to school again, never see any of them again. She was going to take the headdress off and wad it into a bundle and carry it home under her coat, and never mind Mama’s hurt eyes, never mind what Papa said.
She took it off and laid it across the bed, and dug through the pile of coats for her own. She had to move Nancy’s green velure with the little fur collar; she had to move Gertrude’s navy blue with the bright gold buttons. She touched the fur collar; it was softer than anything she had ever felt. She looked at the little fur-trimmed hat that went with it; after a minute she picked it up and put it on and then, quickly ashamed, did not dare look into the mirror. She found her own coat without even looking at it; it was made from an old rough suit of Papa’s, and she could tell it by the feel.
And in that moment she wasn’t hurt any more; she was only angry. She hated them all; she hated them for having so much that she did not have, and she hated them for being so right, and she hated them because, whatever she did, she would always be different from them. She hated their soft warm coats, and she hated their pretty hats, and she hated their pretty homes. She wanted to hurt them all.
On Mrs. Redlock’s dressing table there was a pair of small, sharp scissors.
She moved softly back to the bed and stood looking down at the coats. For a minute she hesitated between the dark green and the bright gold; then she put the scissors behind one of the gold buttons and pressed hard on them. The button popped off and rolled across the floor, and as she stood and watched it she heard the footsteps and the voices on the stairs.
In her panic she did not even think of the bathroom. Instead, she found herself standing, the scissors still in her hand, in Mrs. Redlock’s closet. The door would not stay closed and there was no knob on the inside; she held it together as much as she could with her fingers, praying they did not show, praying the footsteps would go by.
They did not; Mrs. Redlock and another lady came into the room. The other lady went, into the bathroom and Mrs. Redlock stayed in the bedroom, standing by her dressing table. “1 think it’s going pretty well, don’t you?” she said, looking at herself in the mirror, talking to the lady in the bathroom.
“Couldn’t be better,” the other lady said. “Of course, they’re always a little stiff at first.” She came out of the bathroom and came across the room; she stopped by the bed and looked down at lisa’s headdress lying on it. “Well, thank goodness,” she said. “She took it off.”
Even in the darkness and loneliness of the closet lisa felt the shame flooding her face.
Mrs. Redlock glanced around at it and laughed. “Have you been worrying too?” she said. “Fve been simply frantic for. fear something would happen to it.”
The other lady was touching the lace gently. “Not to this.” she said. “This was made to last a thousand years.” She picked it up and looked at it. “Honestly, Gwen, look at it! They really knew what they were doing, didn’t they?”
Mrs. Redlock got up and went over to stand beside her. As she turned from the dressing table lisa was certain, for a horrible second, that her eyes rested on the closet door, but she went right on past. She saw the bright gold button on the floor and bent and picked it up; she stood holding it in her hand for a miaute, looking at it thoughtfully, and then she tucked it into the pocket of the navy-blue coat. “You go on down, Kate,” she said. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
The other lady went out, and Mrs Redlock went into the bathroom. She closed the door all the way. For a
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minute or two lisa was too frightened to move; she knew that the time was now, and that she could escape, but she could not bring herself to do it. By the time she had made up her mind it was too late; as she stepped out of the closet Mrs. Redlock was coming out of the bathroom.
She did not seem to notice where Usa had been. She just said, “Hello, Usa. I was wondering where you were, dear,” as though it were quite all right to spend the afternoon in a closet. She came over and stood beside Usa and took the scissors out of her hand. She said, gently, “Those aren’t safe to have around while you’re in your lovely costume. If anything happened to that, Usa, I should feel terrible. It was a real honor to me for your mother to let you wear it here.”
The words meant nothing to lisa. T he tears, that should have come while she was alone, came t hen. T here was no stopping them. Mrs. Redlock did not try to. She pushed the coats aside and sat down on the bed, drawing lisa down beside her; she put her arm around her, held her head against her shoulder, and let her cry, blowing her nose when it was necessary.
After a while, when it was nearly over, she said, “What’s the matter, dear? Aren’t you having fun?”
The words were hard to say, but they had to be said. “They don’t like me!” Usa said.
“But, dear,” Mrs. Redlock said, “they do. Why else do you think Martha asked you? You’re the only child she asked who doesn’t live right here in the neighborhood. But she especially wanted you.”
Now that she thought of it, lisa knew that she had wondered herself why Martha had asked her. She had wondered, but she hadn’t dared ask herself.
“I’m—” she said, and her hand was twisting frantically, unknowingly, at the tufts on the bedspread—“I’m not like any of them.”
“But they like that,” Mrs. Redlock said. She touched one of Usa’s long honey-colored braids, that lisa had for so long begged Mama to cut. ‘Do you know what Martha told me? ’ she said. “She came home and said, ‘There’s a girl in our class has the longest hair in school.’
“I want it cut off, lisa said.
There was something about the way she said it; you had to answer. “It looks—it makes me look so foreign,” lisa said.
Mrs. Redlock smiled. “And so does the costume,” she said. “And that’s why you don’t like it, isn’t it?”
Usa nodded dumbly.
“But there’s nothing wTong with being foreign,” Mrs. Redlock said. “It’s a beautiful costume, and it was made in a beautiful country. There’s nothing wrong with being whatever you are, Usa—rich or poor or Canadian or foreign— as long as you do it well, and you’re not ashamed of it.” She stood up. “Now, dear, come on—let me put your headdress on for you.”
She w'as so gentle about it, and yet so firm, it would have been impossible to say no. She really acted as though the headdress were something precious. Once or twice she stopped to point out some particularly involved and intricate work in the pattern that lisa had not even noticed. When she had finished, smiling, she dusted a tiny bit of powder over Usa’s small nose. “That’s absolutely perfect,” she said. “Come now, they’re all waiting for you.”
As she moved away from the mirror lisa touched the two long braids, and then glanced back at the mirror. After
all, it was true. She did have the longest hair in school.
T>EFORE the party was over Mrs. .U Redlock sat down and wrote a note to Mama. “Just to thank her,” she said, “for letting you come. And I do so hope she’ll lend us the costume for our charity benefit.”
lisa did not have to walk all the way home alone, as she had come. Nancy and Gertrude walked part of the way with her, and Peter ran along beside them, wearing his dog costume and barking now and then, and all the people turned and laughed as they went
lisa ran the last half block home, skirts and all. She ran through the door, the headdress swaying behind her, and as she came in Mama looked sharply at the flushed cheeks and the bright eyes, and the dark and hn expression went out of her own. ÍE . gave her the note, too excited to speak and Mama smoothed it out flat on the kitchen table and read it.
Usually when anything was written in English she asked lisa to read it to her, but this time she did not. She read it herself, spelling the words out carefully, and it took a very long time. When she had finished she looked up at Papa.
“She would like to borrow the costume,” she said, “to put on exhibition. Well, I guess we could spare it for a while, Papa?” She turned to look at Usa, and her eyes were bright with the deepness and warmth of her pride. “You see, lisa,” she said. “I knew you would look lovely in it.”
1LSA took her hand away from Dig* -, and put it up to touch her 1; She still had the honey-colored braid-, though she wore them around her heart now. She had never cut them, nor had a permanent, and she knew that in any gathering she stood out as the woman with the beautiful hair.
“So my mother was right, you see,” she said.
Diana had stopped crying long before; she was relaxed now against Usa’s shoulder, and her head was moving gently in time to the rocking. “And where’s the costume now?” she said.
“I still have it,” Usa said. “I put it away to give to my daughter, as my mother gave it to me. Only I have no daughter, but I keep it still. Tommy or Peter—one of them will have a daughter, and then she shall have it. A thing like that,” lisa said, “was made to last a long time.”
“The rest of the party,” Diana said, “did you really have a good time?”
“I did,” lisa said. “I really had a good time. And I made myself remember that they would not have asked me if they did not like me, and I didn’t mind being different, because I knew they liked me even if I was.”
Diana said, “But I don’t have long hair.”
lisa knew enough of children to understand the remark, and to hide her smile. “Your mother is a great actress,” she said. “You have been often to the theatre, and that’s a lot for a little girl to have done. None of the others have.” She looked appraisingly at the small dark face. “You can act too,” she said. “You have the look.” She put the child down gently and stood up. “Come, wfe will brush your hair and go back downstairs. And the rest of the afternoon I know what we will do—we will have a play, and you shall be the queen. And the others will be your subjects. Y our costume is just right for it. like a princess. And 1 know you can act it.”
The rest of the afternoon was almost too easy. The children took the play
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far beyond anything she could have thought up; once their imaginations got to working on it there was no end to it. And through it all Diana presided, the beautiful queen, the gracious monarch, the great actress, not remembering for a minute that she was just a little girl named Diana.
When Miss Peters, the governess, came to call for Diana the play had reached a point that simply could not be interrupted. Kven Miss Peters could see that, and she agreed to wait a few minutes. Usa brought her a cup of coffee, and sat beside her while she drank it.
Usually she was a little afraid of Miss Peters. She was so stiff, so correct, so brisk. Today, seeing Miss Peters sitting here in her own home, she found she was not afraid of her at all. And suddenly she saw Miss Peters for
what she really was—a woman who lived in other people’s homes, who brought up other people’s children, who had nothing of her own at all.
lisa looked around her own living room. The furniture was old, but it was comfortable. The boys had patches on their pants sometimes but they always had enough to eat. Things were better for the boys than they had been for her, and things were better for her than they had been for Mama and for Papa. And for the boys’ sons things could be even better. With all they had behind them there was no limit to how far they could go.
She looked at Diana, happy and flushed in the centre of the group, and she looked at her own sons, playing with Diana without any thought of the difference that lay between them.
No, Papa hadn’t come to Canada for nothing. -jç