The Queer Little Thing

By Eleanor Hoyt Brainerd

Bonita Allen was a queer little thing. Everyone in the school, from Miss Ryder down to the chambermaid, had made remarks to that effect before the child had spent forty-eight hours in the house, yet no one seemed able to give a convincing reason for the general impression.

The new pupil was quiet, docile, moderately well dressed, fairly good looking. She did nothing extraordinary. In fact, she effaced herself as far as possible; yet from the first she caused a ripple in the placid current of the school, and her personality was distinctly felt.

"I think it's her eyes," hazarded Belinda, as she and Miss Barnes discussed the new-comer in the Youngest Teacher's room. "They aren't girl eyes at all."

"Fine eyes," asserted the teacher of mathematics with her usual curtness.

Belinda nodded emphatic assent. "Yes, of course; beautiful, but so big and pathetic and dumb. I feel ridiculously apologetic every time the child looks at me, and as for punishing her—I'd as soon shoot a deer at six paces. It's all wrong. A twelve-year-old girl hasn't any right to eyes like those. If the youngster is unhappy she ought to cry twenty-five handkerchiefs full of tears, as Evangeline Marie did when she came, and then get over it. And if she's happy she ought to smile with her eyes as well as with her lips. I can't stand self-repression in children."

"She'll be all right when she has been here longer and begins to feel at home," said Miss Barnes. But Belinda shook her head doubtfully as she went down to superintend study hour.

Seated at her desk in the big schoolroom she looked idly along the rows of girlish heads until she came to one bent stoically over a book. The new pupil was not fidgeting like her comrades. Apparently her every thought was concentrated upon the book before her. Her elbows were on her desk, and one lean little brown hand supported the head, whose masses of straight black hair were parted in an unerring white line and fell in two heavy braids. The face framed in the smooth shining hair was lean as the hand, yet held no suggestion of ill-health. It was clean cut, almost to sharpness, brown with the brownness that comes from wind and sun, oddly firm about chin and lips, high of cheekbones, straight of nose.

As Belinda looked two dark eyes were raised from the book and met her own—sombre eyes with a hurt in them—and an uncomfortable lump rose in the Youngest Teacher's throat. She smiled at the sad little face, but the smile was not a merry one. In some unaccountable way it spoke of the sympathetic lump in her throat, and the Queer Little Thing seemed to read the message, for the ghost of an answering smile flickered in the brown depths before the lids dropped over them.

When study hour was over the Youngest Teacher moved hastily to the door, with some vague idea of following up the successful smile, and establishing diplomatic relations with the new girl; but she was not quick enough. Bonita had slipped into the hall and hurried up the stair toward the shelter of her own room.

Shrugging her shoulders, Belinda turned toward the door of Miss Ryder's study and knocked.

"Come in."

The voice was not encouraging. Miss Lucilla objected to interruptions in the late evening hours, when she relaxed from immaculately fitted black silk to the undignified folds of a violet dressing gown.

When she recognized the intruder she thawed perceptibly.

"Oh, Miss Carewe! Come in. Nothing wrong, is there?"

Belinda dropped into a chair with a whimsical sigh.

"Nothing wrong except my curiosity. Miss Ryder, do tell me something about that Allen child."

Miss Lucilla eyed her subordinate questioningly.

"What has she been doing?"

"Nothing at all. I wish she would do something. It's what she doesn't do, and looks capable of doing, that bothers me. There's simply no getting at her. She's from Texas, isn't she?"

The principal regarded attentively one of the grapes she was eating, and there was an interval of silence.

"She is a queer little thing," Miss Lucilla admitted at last. "Yes, she's from Texas, but that's no reason why she should be odd. We've had a number of young ladies from Texas, and they were quite like other school girls only more so. Just between you and me, Miss Carewe, I think it must be the child's Indian blood that makes her seem different."

"Indian?" Belinda sat up, sniffing romance in the air.

"Yes, her father mentioned the strain quite casually when he wrote. It's rather far back in the family, but he seemed to think it might account for the girl's intense love for nature and dislike of conventions. Mrs. Allen died when the baby was born, and the father has brought the child up on a ranch. He's completely wrapped up in her, but he finally realized that she needed to be with women. He's worth several millions and he wants to educate her so that she'll enjoy the money—'be a fine lady,' as he puts it. I confess his description of the girl disturbed me at first, but he was so liberal in regard to terms that——"

Miss Lucilla left the sentence in the air and meditatively ate another bunch of grapes.

"Did her father come up with her?" Belinda asked.

"No, he sent her with friends who happened to be coming—highly respectable couple, but breezy, very breezy. They told me that Bonita could ride any broncho on the ranch and could shoot a jack-rabbit on the run. They seemed to think she would be a great addition to our school circle on that account. Personally I'm much relieved to find her so tractable and quiet, but I've noticed something—well—unusual about her."

As Belinda went up to bed she met a slim little figure in a barbaric red and yellow dressing gown crossing the hall. There was a shy challenge in the serious child face, although the little feet, clad in soft beaded moccasins, quickened their steps; and Belinda answered the furtive friendliness by slipping an arm around the girl's waist and drawing her into the tiny hall bedroom.

"You haven't been to see me. It's one of the rules that every girl shall have a cup of cocoa with me before she has been here three evenings," she said laughingly.

The Queer Little Thing accepted the overture soberly and, curled up in the one big chair, watched the teacher in silence.

The cocoa was soon under way. Then the hostess turned and smiled frankly at her guest. Belinda's smile is a reassuring thing.

"Homesick business, isn't it?" she said abruptly, with a warm note of comradeship in her voice.

The tense little figure in the big chair leaned forward with sudden, swift confidence.

"I'm going home," announced Bonita in a tone that made no reservations.

Belinda received the news without the quiver of an eyelash or a sign of incredulity.

"When?" she asked with interest warm enough to invite confession and not emphatic enough to rouse distrust.

"I don't know just when, but I have to go. I can't stand it and I've written to Daddy. He'll understand. Nobody here knows. They're all used to it. They've always lived in houses like this, with little back yards that have high walls around them, and sidewalks and streets right outside the front windows, and crowds of strange people going by all the time, and just rules, rules, rules, everywhere. Everybody has so many manners, and they talk about things I don't know anything about, and nobody would understand if I talked about the real things."

"Perhaps I'll understand a little bit," murmured Belinda. The Queer Little Thing put out one hand and touched the Youngest Teacher's knee gently in a shy, caressing fashion.

"No, you wouldn't understand, because you don't know; but you could learn. The others couldn't. The prairie wouldn't talk to them and they'd be lonesome—the way I am here. Dick says you have got to learn the language when you are little, or else have a gift for such languages, but that when you've once learned it you don't care to hear any other."

"Who's Dick?" Belinda asked.

"Dick? Oh he's just Dick. He taught me to ride and to shoot, and he used to read poetry to me, and he told me stories about everything. He used to go to a big school called Harvard, but he was lonesome there—the way I am here."

"The way I am here" dropped into the talk like a persistent refrain, and there was heartache in it.

"I want to go home," the child went on. Now that the dam of silence was down the pent-up feeling rushed out tumultuously. "I want to see Daddy and the boys and the horses and the cattle, and I want to watch the sun go down over the edge of the world, not just tumble down among the dirty houses, and I want to gallop over the prairie where there aren't any roads, and smell the grass and watch the birds and the sky. You ought to see the sky down there at night, Miss Carewe. It's so big and black and soft and full of bright stars, and you can see clear to where it touches the ground all around you, and there's a night breeze that's cool as cool, and the boys all play their banjos and guitars and sing, and Daddy and I sit over on our veranda and listen. There's only a little narrow strip of sky with two or three stars in it out of my window here, and it's so noisy and cluttered out in the back yards—and I hate walking in a procession on the ugly old streets, and doing things when bells ring. I hate it. I hate it."

Her voice hadn't risen at all, had only grown more and more vibrant with passionate rebellion. The sharp little face was drawn and pale, but there were no tears in the big tragic eyes.

Belinda had consoled many homesick little girls, but this was a different problem.

"I'm sorry," she said softly. "Don't you think It will be easier after a while?"

The small girl with the old face shook her head.

"No, it won't. It isn't in me to like all this. I'm so sorry, because Daddy wants me to be a lady. He said it was as hard for him to send me as it was for me to come, but that I couldn't learn to be a lady with lots of money to spend down there with only boys and him. There wasn't any lady there on the ranch at all, except Mammy Lou, the cook, and she didn't have lots of money to spend, so she wasn't the kind he meant. I thought I'd come and try, but I didn't know it would be like this. I don't want to be a lady, Miss Carewe. I don't believe they can be very happy. I've seen them in carriages and they don't look very happy. You're nice. I like you, and I'm most sure Daddy and Dick and the boys would like you, but then you haven't got lots of money, have you? And you were born up here and you don't know any better anyway. I'm going home."

The burst of confidence ended where it had begun. She was going home, and she was so firm in the faith that Belinda, listening, believed her.

"But if your father says no?"

The dark little face was quiet again, all but the great eyes.

"I'll have to go," the Queer Little Thing slowly said.

Four days later Miss Lucilla Ryder called the Youngest Teacher into the study.

"Miss Carewe, I'm puzzled about this little Miss Allen. I had a letter from her father this morning. He says that she has written that she is very homesick and unhappy and doesn't want to stay. He feels badly about it, of course, but he very wisely leaves the matter in our hands—says he realizes she'll have to be homesick and he'll have to be lonesome if she's to be a lady. But he wants us to do all we can to make her contented. He very generously sends a check for five hundred dollars, which we are to use for any extra expense incurred in entertaining her and making her happy. Now, I thought you might take her to the theater and the art museum, and the—a—the aquarium, and introduce her to the pleasures and advantages of city life. She'll soon be all right."

With sinking heart Belinda went in search of the girl. She found her practicing five-finger exercises drearily in one of the music-rooms. As Belinda entered the child looked up and met the friendly, sympathetic eyes. A mute appeal sprang into her own eyes, and Belinda understood. The thing was too bad to be talked about, and the Youngest Teacher said no word about the homesickness or the expected letter. In this way she clinched her friendship with the Queer Little Thing.

But, following the principal's orders, she endeavored to demonstrate to Bonita the joy and blessedness of life in New York. The child went, quietly wherever she was taken—a mute, pathetic little figure to whom the aquarium fish and the Old Masters and the latest matinee idol were all one—and unimportant. The other girls envied her her privileges and her pocket-money, but they did not understand. No one understood save Belinda, and she did her cheerful best to blot out old loves with new impressions; but from the first she felt in her heart that she was elected to failure. The child was fond of her, always respectful, always docile, always grave. Nothing brought a light into her eyes or a spontaneous smile to her lips. Anyone save Belinda would have grown impatient, angry. She only grew more tender—and more troubled. Day by day she watched the sad little face grow thinner. It was pale now, instead of brown, and the high cheek bones were strikingly prominent. The lips pressed closely together drooped plaintively at the corners and the big eyes were more full of shadow than ever; but the child made no protest or plea, and by tacit consent she and Belinda ignored their first conversation and never mentioned Texas.

Often Belinda made up her mind to put aside the restraint and talk freely as she would to any other girl, but there was something about the little Texan that forbade liberties, warned off intruders, and the Youngest Teacher feared losing what little ground she had gained.

Finally she went in despair to Miss Ryder.

"The Indian character is too much for me," she confessed with a groan half humorous, half earnest. "I give it up."

"What's the matter?" asked Miss Ryder.

"Well, I've dragged poor Bonita Allen all over the borough of Manhattan and the Bronx and spent many ducats in the process. She has been very polite about it, but just as sad over Sherry's tea hour as over Grant's tomb, and just as cheerful over the Cesnola collection as over the monkey cages at the Zoo. The poor little thing is so unhappy and miserable that she looks like a wild animal in a trap, and I think the best we can do with her is to send her home.

"Nonsense," said Miss Lucilla. "Her father is paying eighteen hundred dollars a year."

Belinda was defiant.

"I don't care. He ought to take her home."

"Miss Carewe, you are sentimentalizing. One would think you had never seen a homesick girl before."

"She's different from other girls."

"I'll talk with her myself," said Miss Lucilla sternly.

She did, but the situation remained unchanged, and when she next mentioned the Texan problem to Belinda, Miss Lucilla was less positive in her views.

"She's a very strange child, but we must do what we can to carry out her father's wishes."

"I'd send her home," said Belinda.

It was shortly after this that Katherine Holland, who sat beside Bonita at the table, confided to Belinda that that funny little Allen girl didn't eat a thing. The waitress came to Belinda with the same tale, and the Youngest Teacher sought out Bonita and reasoned with her.

"You really must eat, my dear," she urged.

"Why?"

"You'll be ill if you don't."

"How soon?"

Belinda looked dazed.

"I'm afraid I don't understand."

"How soon will I be sick?"

"Very soon, I'm afraid," the puzzled teacher answered.

"That's good. I don't feel as if I could wait much longer."

Belinda gasped.

"Do you mean to say you want to be ill?"

"If I get very sick Daddy will come for me."

The teacher looked helplessly at the quiet, great-eyed child, then launched into expostulation, argument, entreaty.

Bonita listened politely and was profoundly unimpressed.

"It's wicked, dear child. It would make your father wretchedly unhappy."

"He'd be awfully unhappy if he understood, anyway. He thinks I'm not really unhappy and that it's his duty to keep me here and make a lady of me, no matter how lonely he is without me. He wrote me so—but I know he'd be terribly glad if he had a real excuse for taking me home."

Belinda exhausted her own resources and appealed to Miss Lucilla, who stared incredulously over her nose-glasses and sent for Bonita.

After the interview she called for the Youngest Teacher, and the two failures looked at each other helplessly.

"It's an extraordinary thing," said Miss Lucilla in her most magisterial tone—"a most extraordinary thing. In all my experience I've seen nothing like it. Nothing seems to make the slightest impression upon the child. She's positively crazy."

"You will tell her father to send for her, won't you?"

Miss Lucilla shook her head stubbornly.

"Not at all. It would be the ruination of the child to give in to her whims and bad temper now. If she won't listen to reason she must be allowed to pay for her foolishness. When she gets hungry enough she will eat. It's a shame to talk about a child of twelve having the stoicism to starve herself into an illness just because she is homesick at boarding-school."

Belinda came back to her thread-worn argument.

"But Bonita is different, Miss Ryder."

"She's a very stubborn, selfish child," said Miss Ryder resentfully, and turning to her desk she changed the conversation.

Despite discipline, despite pleadings, despite cajolery, Bonita stood firm. Eat she would not, and when, on her way to class one morning the scrap of humanity with the set lips and the purple shadows round her eyes fainted quietly, Belinda felt that a masterly inactivity had ceased to be a virtue.

James, the house man, carried the girl upstairs, and the Youngest Teacher put her to bed, where she opened her eyes to look unseeingly at Belinda and then closed them wearily and lay quite still, a limp little creature whose pale face looked pitifully thin and lifeless against the white pillow. The Queer Little Thing's wish had been fulfilled and illness had come without long delay.

For a moment Belinda looked down at the girl. Then she turned and went swiftly to Miss Ryder's study, her eyes blazing, her mouth so stern that Amelia Bowers, who met her on the stairs, hurried to spread the news that Miss Carewe "was perfectly hopping mad about something."

Once in the presence of the August One the little teacher lost no time in parley.

"Miss Ryder," she said crisply—and at the tone her employer looked up in amazement—"I've told you about Bonita Allen. I've been to you again and again about her. You knew that she was fretting her heart out and half sick, and then you knew that for several days she hasn't been eating a thing. I tried to make you understand that the matter was serious and that something radical needed to be done, but you insisted that the child would come around all right and that we mustn't give in to her. I begged you to send for her father and you said it wasn't necessary. I'm here to take your orders, Miss Ryder, but I can't stand this sort of thing. I know the girl better than any of the rest of you do, and I know it isn't badness that makes her act so. Now she is ill—really ill. I've just put her to bed, and honestly, Miss Ryder, if we don't send for her father we'll have a tragedy on our hands. It sounds foolish, but it is true. If nobody else telegraphs to Mr. Allen I am going to do it."


When the doctor came there were bright red spots on the Queer Little Thing's cheeks, and she was babbling incoherently about prairie flowers and horses and Dick and Daddy.

Meanwhile a telegram had gone to Daddy and the messenger who delivered it heard a volume of picturesque comment that was startling even on a Texas ranch.

"Am coming," ran the answering dispatch received by Miss Ryder that night; but it was not until morning that Bonita was able to understand the news.

"He's scared, but I know he's glad," she said and she swallowed without a murmur the broth against which even in her delirium she had fought.

One evening, three days later, a hansom dashed up to the school and out jumped a tall, square-shouldered man in a wide-brimmed hat, and clothes that bore only a family resemblance to the clothing of the New York millionaires, though they were good clothes in their own free-and-easy way.

A loud, hearty voice inquiring for "My baby" made itself heard even in the sickroom, and a sudden light flashed into the little patient's eyes—a light that was an illumination and a revelation.

"Daddy," she said wearily, and the word was a heart-throb.

Mr. Allen wasted no time in a polite interview with Miss Ryder. Hypnotized by his masterfulness, the servant led him directly up to the sick-room and opened the door.

The man filled the room; a high breeze seemed to come with him, and vitality flowed from him in tangible waves. Belinda smiled, but there were tears in her eyes, for the big man's heart was in his face.

"Baby!"

"Daddy!"

Belinda remembered an errand downstairs.

When she returned the big Texan was sitting on the side of the bed with both the lean little hands in one of his big brawny ones, while his other hand awkwardly smoothed the straight black hair.

"When will you take me home, Daddy?" said the child with the shining eyes.

"As soon as you're strong enough, Honey. The boys wanted me to let them charge New York in a bunch and get you. It's been mighty lonesome on that ranch. I wish to heaven I'd never been fool enough to let you come away."

He turned to Belinda with a quizzical smile sitting oddly on his anxious face.

"I reckon she might as well go, miss. I sent her to a finishing school, and by thunder, she's just about finished."

There was a certain hint of pride in his voice as he added reflectively:

"I might have known if she said she'd have to come home she meant it. Harder to change her mind than to bust any broncho I ever tackled. Queer Little Thing, Baby is."