Read Chapter VIII of The Very Small Person , free online book, by Annie Hamilton Donnell, on

The Promise

Murray was not as one without hope, for there was the Promise. The remembrance of it set him now to exulting, in an odd, restrained little way, where a moment ago he had been desponding. He clasped plump, brown little hands around a plump, brown little knee and swayed gently this way and that.

“Maybe she’ll begin with my shoes,” Murray thought, and held his foot quite still. He could almost feel light fingers unlacing the stubbed little shoe; Sheelah’s fingers were rather heavy and not patient with knots. Hers would be patient there are some things one is certain of.

“When she unbuttons me,” Murray mused on, sitting absolutely motionless, as if she were unbuttoning him now “when she unbuttons me I shall hold in my breath this way,” though he could hardly have explained why.

She had never unlaced or unbuttoned him. Always, since he was a little, breathing soul, it had been Sheelah. It had never occurred to him that he loved Sheelah, but he was used to her. All the mothering he had ever experienced had been the Sheelah kind thorough enough, but lacking something; Murray was conscious that it lacked something. Perhaps perhaps to-night he should find out what. For to-night not Sheelah, but his mother, was going to undress him and put him to bed. She had promised.

It had come about through his unprecedented wail of grief at parting, when she had gone into the nursery to say good-bye, in her light, sweet way. Perhaps it was because she was to be gone all day; perhaps he was a little lonelier than usual. He was always rather a lonely little boy, but there were worse times; perhaps this had been a worse time. Whatever had been the reason that prompted him, he had with disquieting suddenness, before Sheelah could prevent it, flung his arms about the pretty mother and made audible objection to her going.

“Why, Murray!” She had been taken by surprise. “Why, you little silly! I’m coming back to-night; I’m only going for the day! You wouldn’t see much more of me if I stayed at home.” Which, from its very reasonableness, had quieted him. Of course he would not see much more of her. As suddenly as he had wailed he stopped wailing. Yet she had promised. Something had sent her back to the nursery door to do it.

“Be a good boy and I’ll come home before you go to bed! I’ll put you to bed,” she had promised. “We’ll have a regular lark!”

Hence he was out here on the door-step being a good boy. That Sheelah had taken unfair advantage of the Promise and made the being good rather a perilous undertaking, he did not appreciate. He only knew he must walk a narrow path across a long, lonely day.

There were certain things one especial certain thing he wanted to know, but instinct warned him not to interrupt Sheelah till her work was done, or she might call it not being good. So he waited, and while he waited he found out the special thing. An unexpected providence sent enlightenment his way, to sit down beside him on the door-step. Its other name was Daisy.

“Hullo, Murray! Is it you?” Daisy, being of the right sex, asked needless questions sometimes.

“Yes,” answered Murray, politely.

“Well, le’s play. I can stay half a hour. Le’s tag.”

“I can’t play,” rejoined Murray, caution restraining his natural desires. “I’m being good.”

“Oh, my!” shrilled the girl child derisively. “Can’t you be good tagging? Come on.”

“No; because you might I might get no-fairing, and then Sheelah’d come out and say I was bad. Le’s sit here and talk; it’s safer to. What’s a lark, Daisy? I was going to ask Sheelah.”

“A lark? Why, it’s a bird, of course!”

“I don’t mean the bird kind, but the kind you have when your mother puts you when something splendid happens. That kind, I mean.”

Daisy pondered. Her acquaintance with larks was limited, unless it meant

“Do you mean a good time?” she asked. “We have larks over to my house when we go to bed ”

“That’s it! That’s the kind!” shouted delighted Murray. “I’m going to have one when I go to bed. Do you have reg’lar ones, Daisy?” with a secret little hope that she didn’t. “I’m going to have a reg’lar one.”

“Huh! chase all ‘round the room an’ turn somersaults an’ be highway robberers? An’ take the hair-pins out o’ your mother’s hair an’ hide in it what?”

Murray gasped a little at the picture of that kind of a lark. It was difficult to imagine himself chasing ’round the room or being a highwayman; and as for somersaults he glanced uneasily over his shoulder, as if Sheelah might be looking and read “somersaults” through the back of his head. For once he had almost turned one and Sheelah had found him in the middle of it and said pointed things. In Sheelah’s code of etiquette there were no somersaults in the “s” column.

“It’s a reg’lar lark to hide in your mother’s hair,” was going on the girl child’s voice. “Yes, sir, that’s the reg’larest kind!”

Murray gasped again, harder. For that kind took away his breath altogether and made him feel a little dizzy, as if he were were doing it now hiding in his mother’s hair! It was soft, beautiful, gold-colored hair, and there was a great deal of it oh, plenty to hide in! He shut his eyes and felt it all about him and soft against his face, and smelled the faint fragrance of it. The dizziness was sweet.

Yes, that must be the reg’larest kind of a lark, but Murray did not deceive himself, once the dream was over. He knew that kind was not waiting for him at the end of this long day. But a lark was waiting, anyway a plain lark. It might have been the bird kind in his little heart now, singing for joy at the prospect.

Impatience seized upon Murray. He wanted this little neighbor’s half-hour to be up, so that he could go in and watch the clock. He wanted Sheelah to come out here, for that would mean it was ten o’clock; she always came at ten. He wanted it to be noon, to be afternoon, to be night! The most beautiful time in his rather monotonous little life was down there at the foot of the day, and he was creeping towards it on the lagging hours. He was like a little traveller on a dreary plain, with the first ecstatic glimpse of a hill ahead.

Murray in his childish way had been in love a long time, but he had never got very near his dear lady. He had watched her a little way off and wondered at the gracious beauty of her, and loved her eyes and her lips and her soft, gold-colored hair. He had never oh, never been near enough to be unlaced and unbuttoned and put to bed by the lady that he loved. She had come in sometimes in a wondrous dress to say good night, but often, stopping at the mirror on the way across to him, she had seen a beautiful vision and forgotten to say it. And Murray had not wondered, for he had seen the vision, too.

“Your mamma’s gone away, hasn’t she? I saw her.”

Daisy was still there! Murray pulled himself out of his dreaming, to be polite.

“Yes; but she’s coming back to-night. She promised.”

“S’posing the cars run off the track so she can’t?” Daisy said, cheerfully.

“She’ll come,” Murray rejoined, with the decision of faith. “She promised, I said.”

“S’posing she’s killed ’most dead?”

“She’ll come.”

Puffickly dead s’posing?”

Murray took time, but even here his faith in the Promise stood its ground, though the ground shook under it. Sheelah had taught him what a promise was; it was something not to be shaken or killed even in a railroad wreck.

“When anybody promises, they do it,” he said, sturdily. “She promised an’ she’ll come.”

“Then her angel will have to come,” remarked the older, girl child, coolly, with awful use of the indicative mood.

When the half-hour was over and Murray at liberty, he went in to the clock and stood before it with hands a-pocket and wide-spread legs. A great yearning was upon him to know the mystery of telling time. He wished oh, how he wished he had let Sheelah teach him! Then he could have stood here making little addition sums and finding out just how long it would be till night. Or he could go away and keep coming back here to make little subtraction sums, to find out how much time was left now and now and now. It was dreadful to just stand and wonder things.

Once he went up-stairs to his own little room out of the nursery and sat down where he had always sat when Sheelah unlaced him, before he had begun to unlace himself, and stood up where he had always stood when Sheelah unbuttoned him. He sat very still and stood very still, his grave little face intent with imagining. He was imagining how it would be when she did it. She would be right here, close if he dared, he could put out his hand and smooth her. If he dared, he could take the pins out of her soft hair, and hide in it

He meant to dare!

“Little silly,” perhaps she would call him; perhaps she would remember to kiss him good-night. And afterwards, when the lark was over, it would stay on, singing in his heart. And he would lie in the dark and love Her.

For Her part, it was a busy day enough and did not lag. She did her shopping and called on a town friend or two. In the late afternoon she ran in to several art-stores where pictures were on exhibition. It was at the last of these places that she chanced to meet a woman who was a neighbor of hers in the suburbs.

“Why, Mrs. Cody!” the neighbor cried. “How delightful! You’ve come in to see Irving, too?”

“No,” with distinct regret answered Murray’s mother, “but I wish I had! I’m only in for a little shopping.”

“Not going to stay! Why, it will be wicked to go back to-night unless, of course, you’ve seen him in Robespierre.”

“I haven’t. Cicely Howe has been teasing me to stop over and go with her. It’s a ‘sure-enough’ temptation, as Fred says. Fred’s away, so that part’s all right. Of course there’s Murray, but there’s also Sheelah ” She was talking more to herself now than to the neighbor. The temptation had taken a sudden and striking hold upon her. It was the chance of a lifetime. She really ought

“I guess you’ll stop over!” laughed the neighbor. “I know the signs.”

“I’ll telephone to Sheelah,” Murray’s mother decided, aloud, “then I’ll run along back to Cicely’s. I’ve always wanted to see Irving in that play.”

But it was seven o’clock before she telephoned. She was to have been at home at half-past seven.

“That you, Sheelah? I’m not coming out to-night not until morning. I’m going to the theatre. Tell Murray I’ll bring him a present. Put an extra blanket over him if it comes up chilly.”

She did not hang up the receiver at once, holding it absently at her ear while she considered if she ought to say anything else to Sheelah. Hence she heard distinctly an indignant exclamation.

“Will you hear that, now! An’ the boy that certain! ‘She’s promised,’ he says, an’ he’ll kape on ‘She’s-promising’ for all o’ me, for it’s not tell him I will! He can go to slape in his poor little boots, expectin’ her to kape her promise!”

The woman with the receiver at her ear uttered a low exclamation. She had not forgotten the Promise, but it had not impressed her as anything vital. She had given it merely to comfort Little Silly when he cried. That he would regard it as sacred that it was sacred came to her now with the forcible impact of a blow. And, oddly enough, close upon its heels came a remembrance picture of a tiny child playing with his soldiers on the floor. The sunlight lay over him she could see it on his little hair and face. She could hear him talking to the “Captain soldier.” She had at the time called it a sermon, with a text, and laughed at the child who preached it. She was not laughing now.

“Lissen, Cappen Sojer, an’ I’ll teach you a p’omise. A p’omise a p’omise why, when anybody p’omises, they do it!

Queer how plainly she could hear Little Silly say that and could see him sitting in the sun! Just the little white dress he had on tucks in it and a dainty edging of lace! She had recognized Sheelah’s maxims and laughed. Sheelah was stuffing the child with notions.

“If anybody p’omises, they do it.” It seemed to come to her over the wire in a baby’s voice and to strike against her heart. This mother of a little son stood suddenly self-convicted of a crime the crime of faithlessness. It was not, she realized with a sharp stab of pain, faith in her the little child at the other end of the line was exercising, but faith in the Promise. He would keep on “She-promising” till he fell asleep in his poor little boots

“Oh!” breathed in acute distress the mother of a little son. For all unexpectedly, suddenly, her house built of cards of carelessness, flippancy, thoughtlessness, had fallen round her. She struggled among the flimsy ruins.

Then came a panic of hurry. She must go home at once, without a moment’s delay. A little son was waiting for her to come and put him to bed. She had promised; he was waiting. They were to have a regular little lark that she remembered, too, with distinctness. She was almost as uncertain as Murray had been of the meaning of a “lark”; she had used the word, as she had used so many other words to the child, heedlessly. She had even and odd, uncertain little feeling as to what it meant to put a little son to bed, for she had never unlaced or unbuttoned one. She had never wanted to until now. But now she could hardly wait to get home to do it. Little Silly was growing up the bare brown space between the puffs of his little trousers and the top rims of his little socks were widening. She must hurry, hurry! What if he grew up before she got there! What if she never had a chance to put a little son to bed! She had lost so many chances; this one that was left had suddenly sprung into prominence and immense value. With the shock of her awakening upon her she felt like one partially paralyzed, but with the need upon her to rise and walk to run.

She started at once, scarcely allowing herself time to explain to her friend. She would listen to no urgings at all.

“I’ve got to go, Cicely I’ve promised my little son,” was all she took time to say; and the friend, knowing of the telephone message, supposed it had been a telephone promise.

At the station they told her there was another train at seven-thirty, and she walked about uneasily until it came. Walking about seemed to hurry it along the rails to her.

Another woman waited and walked with her. Another mother of little sons, she decided whimsically, reading it in the sweet, quiet face. The other woman was in widow’s black, and she thought how merciful it was that there should be a little son left her. She yielded to an inclination to speak.

“The train is late,” she said. “It must be.”

“No.” The other woman glanced backward at the station clock. “It’s we who are early.”

“And in a hurry,” laughed Murray’s mother, in the relief of speech. “I’ve got to get home to put my little son to bed! I don’t suppose you are going home for that?”

The sweet face for an instant lost its quietness. Something like a spasm of mortal pain crossed it and twisted it. The woman walked away abruptly, but came back. “I’ve been home and put him to bed,” she said, slowly “in his last little bed.”

Then Murray’s mother found herself hurrying feverishly into a car, her face feeling wet and queer. She was crying.

“Oh, the poor woman!” she thought, “the poor woman! And I’m going home to a little live one. I can cover him up and tuck him in! I can kiss his little, solemn face and his little, brown knees. Why haven’t I ever kissed his knees before? If I could only hurry! Will this car ever start?” She put her head out of the window. An oily personage in jumpers was passing.

“Why don’t we start?” she said.

“Hot box,” the oily person replied, laconically.

The delay was considerable to a mother going home to put her little child to bed. It seemed to this mother interminable. When at length she felt a welcome jar and lurch her patience was threadbare. She sat bolt upright, as if by so doing she were helping things along.

It was an express and leaped ahead splendidly, catching up with itself. Her thoughts leaped ahead with it. No, no, he would not be in bed. Sheelah was not going to tell him, so he would insist upon waiting up. But she might find him asleep in his poor little boots! She caught her breath in half a sob, half tender laugh. Little Silly!

But if an express, why this stop? They were slowing up. It was not time to get to the home station; there were no lights. Murray’s mother waylaid a passing brakeman.

“What is it? What is it?”

“All right, all right! Don’t be scairt, lady! Wreck ahead somewheres freight-train. We got to wait till they clear the track.”

But the misery of waiting! He might get tired of waiting, or Sheelah might tell him his mother was not coming out to-night; he might go to bed, with his poor little faith in the Promise wrecked, like the freight on there in the dark. She could not sit still and bear the thought; it was not much easier pacing the aisle. She felt a wild inclination to get off the train and walk home.

At the home station, when at last she reached it, she took a carriage. “Drive fast!” she said, peremptorily. “I’ll pay you double fare.”

The houses they rattle past were ablaze with light down-stairs, not up-stairs where little sons would be going to bed. All the little sons had gone to bed.

They stopped with a terrific lurch. It threw her on to the seat ahead.

“This is not the place,” she cried, sharply, after a glance without.

“No’m; we’re stopping fer recreation,” drawled sarcastically the unseen driver. He appeared to be assisting the horse to lie down. She stumbled to the ground and demanded things.

“Yer’ll have to ax this here four-legged party what’s doin’. I didn’t stop I kep’ right on goin’. He laid down on his job, that’s all, marm. I’ll get him up, come Chris’mas. Now then, yer olé fool!”

There was no patience left in the “fare” standing there beside the plunging beast. She fumbled in her purse, found something, dropped it somewhere, and hurried away down the street. She did not walk home, because she ran. It was well the streets were quiet ones.

“Has he gone to bed?” she came panting in upon drowsy Sheelah, startling that phlegmatic person out of an honest Irish dream.

“Murray Little Silly has he gone to bed? Oh no!” for she saw him then, an inert little heap at Sheelah’s feet. She gathered him up in her arms.

“I won’t! I won’t go, Sheelah! I’m waiting. She promis ” in drowsy murmur.

“She’s here she’s come, Murray! Mamma’s come home to put you to bed Little Silly, open your eyes and see mamma!”

And he opened them and saw the love in her eyes before he saw her. Sleep took instant wings. He sprang up.

“I knew you’d come! I told Sheelah! When anybody promises, they Come on quick up-stairs! I can unlace myself, but I’d rather ”

“Yes, yes!” she sobbed.

“And we’ll have a lark, won’t we? You said a lark; but not the reg’larest kind I don’t suppose we could have the reg’larest kind?”

“Yes yes!”

“Oh! why!” His eyes shone. He put up his hand, then drew it shyly back. If she would only take out the pins herself if he only dared to

“What is it, Little Silly darling?” They were up in his room. She had her cheek against his little, bare, brown knees. It brought her soft, gold-colored hair so near if he only dared

“What is it you’d like, little son?” And he took courage. She had never called him Little Son before. It made him brave enough.

“I thought the reg’larest kind your hair if you’d let it tumble all down, I’d hide in it,” he breathed, his knees against her cheek trembling like little frightened things.

It fell about him in a soft shower and he hid in it and laughed. Sheelah heard them laughing together.