Read CHAPTER II - THE ACTRESS-LITTLE GEORGIA of The Actress's Daughter A Novel, free online book, by May Agnes Fleming, on ReadCentral.com.

      “Death is the crown of life.” 
    “She was a strange and willful sprite
    As ever startled human sight.”

The road to the old house was as familiar to Miss Jerusha as a road could well be to any one, yet she found it extremely difficult to make her way to it to-night.  The piercing sleet dashed into her very eyes, blinding her, as she floundered on, and the raw, cutting wind penetrated even the warm folds of her thick woolen mantle.  Now and then she would have to stop and catch hold of a tree, to brace her body against the fierce, cutting blasts, and then, with bent head and closed eyes, plunge on through the huge snow-heaps and thick drifts.

She had not fully realized the violence of the storm until now, and she thought, with a sharp pang of remorse, of the slight, delicate child she had turned from her door to brave its pitiless fury.

“Poor little feller! poor little feller!” thought Miss Jerusha, piteously.  “Lor’, what a nasty old dragon I am, to be sure!  Should admire to know where I’ll go to, if I keep on like this.  Yar-r! you thought you did it, didn’t you?  Just see what it is to be mistaken.”

This last apostrophe was addressed to a sudden blast of wind that nearly overset her; but, by grasping the trunk of a tree, she saved herself, and now, with a contemptuous snarl at its foiled power, she plunged and sank, and rose and floundered on through the wild December storm, until she approached the old ruined cottage, from the window of which streamed the light.

The window was still sound, and Miss Jerusha, cautiously approaching it, began prudently to reconnoiter before going any farther.

Desolate indeed was the scene that met her eye.  The room was totally without furniture, the plastering had in many places fallen off and lay in drifts all along the floor.  A great heap of brush was piled up in the chimney-corner, and close by it crouched a small, dark figure feeding the slender flame that burned on the hearth.  Opposite lay extended the thin, emaciated form of a woman, wrapped in a shawl, almost her only covering.  As the firelight fell on her face, Miss Jerusha started to see how frightfully ghastly it was, with such hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, and projecting bones.  So absorbed was she in gazing on that skeleton face, that she did not observe the little figure crouching over the fire start up, gaze on her a moment, and then approach the window, until, suddenly turning round, she beheld a small, dark, elfish face, with wild, glittering eyes, gleaming through masses of uncombed elf locks, pressed close to the window, with its goblin gaze fixed full upon her.

Miss Jerusha was not nervous nor superstitious, but at the sudden vision of that face from elf-land she uttered a shriek that might have awakened the dead, and shrank back in dismay from the window.

While she still stood, horror-struck, the door opened, and a high, shrill voice called: 

“Now, then, whoever you are, come in if you want to!”

It was the voice of a mortal child, and Miss Jerusha was re-assured.  Thoroughly ashamed of herself, and provoked at having betrayed so much fear, she approached the open door, passed in, and it was closed after her.

“So I scared you, did I?  Well, it serves you right, you know, for staring in people’s windows,” said the shrill little voice; and Miss Jerusha, looking down, saw the same small, thin, dark face, with its great, wild, glittering black eyes, long, tangled masses of coal-black hair, high, broad brow, and a slight lithe figure.

It was a strange, unique face for a child, full of slumbering power, pride, passion, strength, and invincible daring; but Miss Jerusha did not see this, and looking down only beheld an odd-looking, rather ugly child, of twelve or thirteen, or so, with what she regarded as an impudent, precocious gaze, disagreeable and unnatural in one so young.

“Little gal, don’t be sassy,” said Miss Jerusha, sharply:  “you ought to hev more respect for your elders, and not stand there and give them such empidence.  Pretty broughten you must hev got, I know-a sassy little limb.”

The latter part of this address was delivered in a muttered soliloquy, as she pushed the hood back from her face and shook the snow off her cloak.  The “little limb,” totally unheeding the reprimand, still stood peering up in her face, scanning its iron linéaments with an amusing mixture of curiosity and impudence.

As Miss Jerusha again turned round and encountered the piercing stare of those great, dark, bright eyes fixed so unwinkingly on her face, she felt, for the first time in her life, perhaps, restless and uneasy under the infliction.

“My conscience! little gal, don’t stare so!  I ’clare to gracious I never see sich a child!  I don’t know what she looks like,” said Miss Jerusha.

The latter sentence was not intended for the child’s ears, but it reached those sharp little organs nevertheless, and, still keeping her needle-like gaze fixed on the wrinkled face of the spinster, she said: 

“Well, if you don’t, I know what you look like, anyway-I do!”

“And what do I look like?” said Miss Jerusha, in rising anger, having a presentiment something impudent was coming.

“Why just exactly like one of the witches in Macbeth.”

Now, our worthy maiden lady had never heard of the “Noble Thane,” but she had a pretty strong idea of what witches riding on broomsticks were like, and here this little black goblin girl had the audacity to compare her to one of them.  For one awful moment Miss Jerusha glared upon the daring little sinner in impotent rage, while her fingers fairly ached to seize her and pound her within an inch of her life.  Her face must have expressed her amiable desire, for the elf sprang back, and throwing herself into a stage attitude, uttered some words in a tragic voice, quite overpowering, coming from so small a body.

The noise awoke the sleeper near the fire.  She turned restlessly, opened her eyes, and called: 

“Georgia!”

“Here, mamma; here I am,” said the elf, springing up and bending over her.  “Do you want anything?”

“No, dear.  I thought I heard you talking.  Hasn’t Warren come yet?”

“No, mamma.”

“Then who were you talking to a moment ago?  Is there any one here?”

“Yes, mamma, the funniest looking old woman-here, you!” said the elf, beckoning to Miss Jerusha.

Mechanically that lady obeyed the peremptory summons, too completely stunned and shocked by this unheard-of effrontery to fully realize for a moment that her ears had not deceived her.

She approached and bent over the sufferer.  Two hollow eyes were raised to her face, and feeling herself in the awful presence of death, all Miss Jerusha’s indignation faded away, and she said, in a softened voice: 

“I am sorry to see you in this wretched place.  Can I do anything for you?”

“Who are you?” said the woman, transfixing her with a gaze quite as uncompromising as her little daughter’s had been.

“My name is Jerusha Skamp.  I saw a light in this here cottage, and came over to see who was here.  What can I do for you?”

“Nothing for me-I am dying,” said the woman, in a husky, hollow voice.  “Nothing for me; nothing for me.”

“Oh, mamma! oh, mamma!” screamed the child, passionately.  “Oh, not dying!  Oh, mamma!”

“Oh, Georgia, hush!” said the woman, turning restlessly.  “Don’t shriek so, child; I cannot bear it.”

But Georgia, who seemed to have no sort of self-control, or any other sort of control, still continued to scream her wild, passionate cry, “Oh, not dying! oh, mamma!” until Miss Jerusha, losing all patience, caught her arm in a vise-like grip, and, giving her a furious shake, said, in a deep, stern whisper: 

“You little limb!  Do you want to kill your mother?  Hold your tongue, afore I shake the life out of you!”

The words had the effect of stilling the little tempest before her, who crouched into the corner and buried her face in her hands.

“Poor Georgia! poor little thing! what will become of her when I am gone?” said the sufferer, while a spasm of intense pain shot across her haggard face.

“The Lord will provide,” said Miss Jerusha, rolling up the whites, or, more properly speaking, the yellows of her eyes.  “Don’t take on about that.  Tell me how you came to be here!  But first let me give you a drink.  You look as if you needed something to keep life in you.  Wait a minute.”

Miss Jerusha’s hawk-like eye went roving round the room until it alighted on a little tin cup.  Seizing this, she filled it with the currant wine she had brought, and held it to the sick woman’s lips.

Eagerly she drank, and then Miss Jerusha folded the shawl more closely around her, and, sitting down on the floor, drew her head upon her lap, and, with a touch that was almost tender, smoothed back the heavy locks of her dark hair.

“Now, then,” she said, “tell me all about it.”

“You are very kind,” said the sick woman, looking up gratefully.  “I feared I should die all alone here.  I sent my little boy to the nearest house in search of help, but he has not yet returned.”

“Ah! you’re a widder, I suppose?” said Miss Jerusha, trying to keep down a pang of remorse and dread, as she thought of the child she had so cruelly turned out into the bitter storm.

“Yes, I have been a widow for the last seven years.  My name is Alice Randall Darrell.”

“And hain’t you got no friends nor nothin’, Mrs. Darrell, when you come to this old place, not fit for pigs, let alone human Christians?”

“No; no friends-not one friend in all this wide world,” said the dying woman, in a tone so utterly despairing that Miss Jerusha’s hand fell soothingly and pityingly on her forehead.

“Sho, now, sho!  I want ter know,” said Miss Jerusha, quite unconscious that she was making rhyme, a species of literature she had the profoundest contempt for.  “That’s too bad, ’clare if it ain’t!  Are they all dead?”

“I do not know-they are all dead to me.”

“Why, what on airth hed you done to them?” said Miss Jerusha, in surprise.

“I married against my father’s consent.”

“Ah! that was bad; but then he needn’t hev made a fuss.  He didn’t ask your consent when he got married, I s’pose.  Didn’t like the young man you kept company with, eh?”

“No; he hated him.  My father was rich, and I ran off with a poor actor.”

“A play-acter!  Why, you must hev bin crazy!”

“Oh, I was-I was!  I was a child, and did not know what I was doing.  I thought my life with him would have been all light, and music, and glitter, and dazzle, such as I saw on the stage; but I soon found out the difference.”

“’Spect you did.  Law, law! what fools there is in this ’ere world!” said Miss Jerusha, in a moralizing tone.

“My father disowned me.” ("And sarved you right, too!” put in Miss Jerusha sotto voce.) “My family cast me off.  I joined the company to which my husband belonged, and did the tragedy business with him; and so for eight years we wandered about from city to city, from town to town, always poor and needy, for Arthur drank and gambled, and as fast as we earned money it was spent.”

“And you’re a play-acter, too!” cried Miss Jerusha recoiling in horror.

Miss Jerusha, trained in the land of “steady habits,” had, from her earliest infancy, been taught to look upon theaters as only a little less horribly wicked than the place unmentionable to ears polite, and upon all “play-actors” as the immediate children and agents of the father of evil himself.  She had never until now had the misfortune to come in contact with one personally, having only heard of them as we hear of goblins, warlocks, demons, and other “children of night.”  What wonder, then, that at this sudden, awful revelation she started back and almost hurled the frail form from her in loathing and horror.  But a fierce clutch was laid on her shoulder-she almost fancied for an instant it was Satan himself come for his child-until, looking up, she saw the fiercely blazing eyes and witch-like face of little Georgia gleaming upon it.

“You ugly, wicked old woman!” she passionately burst out with, “if you dare to hurt my mamma, I’ll-I’ll kill you!”

And so dark, and fierce, and elfish did she look at that moment, that Miss Jerusha fairly quailed before the small, unearthly looking sprite.

“I’m not a-going to tetch your ma.  Get out o’ this, and leave me go!” said Miss Jerusha, shaking off with some difficulty the human burr who clung to her with the tenacity of a crab, and glared upon her with her shining black eyes.

“Georgia, love, go and sit down.  Oh, you wild, stormy, savage child, what ever will become of you when I am gone?  Do, pray, excuse her,” said the woman, faintly, lifting her eyes pleadingly to Miss Jerusha’s angry face; “she has had no one to control her, or subdue her wild, willful temper, and has grown up a crazy, mad-headed, half-tamed thing.  If you have children of your own, you will know how to make allowance for her.”

“I have no children of my own, and I thank goodness that I haven’t!” said Miss Jerusha, shortly; “a set of plagues, the whole of ’em!  Ef that there little gal was mine, I’d spank her while I could stand, and see ef that wouldn’t take some of the nonsense out of her.”

The last words did not reach the invalid’s ear, and the little tempest-in-a-teapot retreated again to her corner, scowling darkly on Miss Jerusha, whom she evidently suspected of some sinister designs on her mother, which it was her duty to frustrate.

“Is she a play-acter, too?” said Miss Jerusha, after a sullen pause.

“Who?  Georgia?  Oh, yes; she plays juvenile parts, and dances and sings, and was a great favorite with the public.  She has a splendid voice, and dances beautifully, and whenever she appeared she used to receive thunders of applause.  Georgia will make a star actress if she ever goes on the stage again,” said the woman, with more animation than she had yet shown.

“And do you want your darter to grow up a wicked good-for-nothing hussy of a play-acter?” said Miss Jerusha, sternly.  “Mrs. Darrell, you ought for to be ashamed of yourself.  Ef she was mine, I would sooner see her starve decently first.”

The dying woman turned away with a groan.

“She won’t starve here, though,” said Miss Jerusha, feeling called upon to administer a little consolation; “there’s trustees and selectmen, and one thing and another to look arter poor folks and orphans.  She’ll be took care of.  And now, how did it happen you came here?”

“I came with the company to which I belong, and we stopped at a town about fifty miles from here.  Georgia, as you can see, has a dreadful temper-poor little fiery, passionate thing-and the manager of the theater, being an insolent, overbearing man, was always finding fault with her, and scolding about something, whereupon Georgia would fly into one of her fits of passion, and a dreadful scene would ensue.  I strove to keep them apart as much as I could, but they often met, as a matter of course, and never parted without a furious quarrel.  He did not wish to part with her, for I-and it is with little vanity, alas!  I say it-was his best actress, and Georgia’s name in the bills never failed to draw a crowded house.  I used to talk to Georgia, and implore her to restrain her fierce temper, and she would promise; but when next she would meet him, poor child, and listen to his insulting words, all would be forgotten, and Georgia would stamp and scold, and call him all manner of names, and sometimes go so far as to refuse appearing at all, and that last act of disobedience never failed to put him fairly beside himself with rage.  I foresaw how it would end, but I could do nothing with her.  Poor little thing!  Nature cursed her with that fierce, passionate temper, and she could not help it.”

“Humph!” muttered Miss Jerusha; “couldn’t help it!  That’s all very fine; but I know one thing, ef I had anything to do with her, I’d take the fierceness out of her, or know for why-a ugly tempered, savage little limb!”

“One night,” continued the sick woman, “Georgia had been dancing, and when she left the stage the whole house shook with the thunders of applause.  They shouted and shouted for her to reappear, but I was sick that night, and Georgia was in a hurry to get home, and would not go.  The manager ordered her in no very gentle tone to go back, and Georgia flatly and peremptorily refused.  Then a dreadful scene ensued.  He caught her by the arms, and dragged her to her feet, as if he would force her out, and when she resisted he struck her a blow that sent her reeling across the room.

“Aha! that was good for you, my lady!” said Miss Jerusha, with a grim chuckle, as she glanced at the little dancing girl.

“It was the first time any one had ever struck her,” said Mrs. Darrell, in a sinking voice, “and a very fury seemed to seize her.  A large black bottle lay on a shelf near, and with a perfect shriek of passion she seized it and hurled it with all her strength at his head.”

“My gracious!” ejaculated the horrified Miss Jerusha.

“It struck him on the forehead, and laid it open with a frightful gash.  He attempted to spring upon her, but some of the men interposed, and Georgia was forced off by the rest.  Her brother Warren was there, and, almost terrified to death, he brought her home with him, and that very night we were told our services were no longer needed, and, what was more, Mr. B., the manager, refused to pay us what he owed us, and even threatened to begin an action against us for assault and battery, and I don’t know what besides.  I knew him to be an unprincipled, vindictive man, and the threat terrified me nearly to death, terrified me so much that, with my two children, I fled the next morning from the town where we were stopping, fled away with only one idea-that of escaping from his power.  I had a little money remaining, but it was soon spent, and I was so weak and ill that but for my poor children I felt at times as if I could gladly have lain down and died.

“Coming from Burnfield to-night, we were overtaken by this storm, and must have perished had not Warren discovered this old hut.  The exposure of this furious storm completed what sorrow and suffering had long ago begun, and I felt I was dying.  It was terrible to think of leaving poor little Warren and Georgia all alone without one single friend in the world, and at last I sent Warren out to the nearest house in the hope that some hospitable person might come who would procure some sort of employment for them that would keep them at least from starving. You came, thank Heaven! but my poor Warren has not returned.  Oh!  I fear, I fear he has perished in this storm,” cried the dying woman, wringing her pale fingers.

“Oh, I guess not,” said Miss Jerusha, more startled than she chose to appear; “most likely he’s gone some place else and stayed there to get warm; but you, you, what are we to do for you?  It doesn’t seem Christian like nor proper no ways to leave you to die here in this miserable old shed.”

“Dear, kind friend, never mind me,” said the invalid, gratefully; “my short span of life is nearly run, and oh! what does it matter whether for the few brief moments yet remaining where they are spent.  But my children, my poor, poor children!  Oh, madam, you have a kind heart, I know you have,”-(Miss Jerusha gave a skeptical “humph!")-“do, do, for Heaven’s sake, try if some charitable person will not take them and give them their food and clothing.  Not so much for Warren do I fear, for he is quiet and sensible, very wise indeed for his age; but for the wild, stormy Georgia.  Oh, madam, do something for her, and my dying thanks will be yours!”

“Well, there, don’t take on!  I’ll see what can be done,” said Miss Jerusha, fidgeting, and glancing askance at the wild eyed, tempestuous little spirit, “and though you don’t seem to mind it much, still it don’t seem right nor decent for you to die here like I don’t know what,” (Miss Jerusha’s favorite simile), “so I’ll jest step over to Deacon Brown’s and get him to look arter you, and maybe he will hev an eye to the children, too.”

“But you will be exposed to the storm,” feebly remonstrated the dying woman.

“Bah! who keers for the storm?” said Miss Jerusha, glancing out of the window with a look of grim defiance.  “Besides, its clarín’ off, and Deacon Brown’s ain’t more than two miles from here.  There, keep up your sperrits, and I’ll be back in an hour or two with the deacon.”

So saying, Miss Jerusha, who once she considered it her duty to do anything, would have gone through fire and flood to do it, stepped resolutely out to brave once more the cold, wintry blast.

The storm had abated considerably, but it was still piercingly cold, and Miss Jerusha’s fingers and toes tingled as she walked rapidly over the hard, frosty ground.  It had ceased snowing, and a pale, watery moon, appearing at intervals from behind a cloud, cast a faint, sickly light over the way.  The high, leafless trees sent long black, ominous shadows across the road, and Miss Jerusha cast apprehensive glances on either side as she walked.

Not the fear of ghosts, nor the fear of robbers troubled the stout-hearted spinster; but the dread of seeing a slight, boyish form, stark and frozen, across her path.  In mingled dread and remorse, she thought of what she had done and only the hope of finding him in the old cottage on her return could dispel for an instant her haunting fear.

Deacon Brown’s was reached at last, and great was the surprise of that orthodox pillar of the church at beholding his un-looked-for visitor.  In very few words Miss Jerusha gave him to understand the object of her visit, and, rather ruefully, the good man rose to harness up his old gray mare and start with Miss Jerusha on this charitable errand.

A quick run over the hard, frozen ground brought them to the cottage, and, fastening his mare to a tree, the deacon followed Miss Jerusha into the old house.

And there a pitiful sight met his eyes.  The fire had gone out, and the room was scarcely warmer than the freezing atmosphere without.  Mother and child lay clasped in each other’s arms, still and motionless.  With a stifled ejaculation, Miss Jerusha approached and bent over them.  The child was asleep, and the mother was dead!