Out of the Mouth of Babes

by Florence Finch Kelly

Perhaps it was a mere matter of nerves, but it seemed to me that morning that it was the cliffs of the Valley. Those mighty, overshadowing, everlasting walls and towers of the Yosemite seem to be endowed with the power to produce numberless changes of feeling.

Sometimes you gaze at them, and they lift up your spirit and hold it aloft in the free air, and send it up, and up, and up, until it reaches the very blue of heaven, and you know that you are free and powerful and ennobled, made one with the saints and mighty ones of earth.

The next morning you go forth and look up at those silent granite heights, and expect them to repeat their miracle. But they will not. They frown upon you and crush you down into the earth you are made of. Like an accusing conscience, they lift their stern, forbidding faces above you on all sides and look you steadily in the eyes with their insistence upon your unworthiness, until, in despair, you are ready to shut yourself up to escape their persecutions.

Of course, as I said before, it may not be the cliffs at all. It may be nothing but nerves. But I think it is the walls of the Valley.

On that particular morning they had made me bite the dust until I could no longer endure the sight of them. To escape their solemn, contemptuous faces I ran down a little path which led into a dense thicket of young pines and cedars. The trees grew so close together that they shut out all view of everything beyond a few feet on each side of the path. The ground was brown with their cast-off needles, and the air was pungent with their fragrance. Overhead there were glimpses of a smiling blue sky, and the cool, fragrant shadows of the thicket were brightened by patches of gleaming sunshine. The friendly sounds of woodpeckers hammering the trees, and of birds singing among the branches, pleased my ears and diverted my thoughts.

The only reminder of those towering granite Preachers, with their everlasting "All is vanity," was the roaring and crashing of the Yosemite Falls, which filled the Valley with their thunder and made the air tremble.

The sights, the sounds, the odors, enveloped my senses and filled me with delighted, languorous content. It was very comforting, and I sat down on a log in the edge of a little opening, all pink and fragrant with wild roses, to enjoy the sensuous delight of it all and so take revenge upon the great stone Preachers waiting for me outside the thicket.

Presently there came from beyond the glade a soft, crooning noise, which in an instant more became that sweetest of sounds, the voice of a happy child alone with nature.

A little girl, perhaps four or five years old, came slowly down the path. She was talking to herself and to the trees and birds and squirrels, and even to the brown pine-needles under her feet. Her hat, which she had stuck full of wild roses, hung at the back of her head, the ends of her brown curls just peeping below it. Without the least trace of childish shyness she came straight to where I sat, mounted the log beside me, and asked me to take a thorn from her finger.

"Did it hurt you?" I asked, as I patted the chubby brown fist after the operation. "You are a very brave little girl not to cry."

"Yes, I know it," she replied, looking at me with big violet eyes, frank and confiding. She was a beautiful child, with a glorious perfection of feature and complexion. "I 'm always brave. My papa says so, and my new mamma says so, too. I 've got two mammas—my new mamma and my gone-away mamma. But I like my new mamma best."

"Do you? Why?"

"'Cause she's always and always dust as good as she can be. And she never and never says 'Stop this minute!' er 'at I make her head ache, er 'at I 'm naughty, er anything. She dust puts her arms all 'round me and says, 'Dear little girl.' An' 'en I 'm good. And I love my new mamma, I do, better than my gone-away mamma." And she gave a decided little nod, as if in defiance of some privately urged claim.

"Where has your other mamma gone?" I asked, expecting to hear but the one answer. She raised her long lashes and looked at me seriously.

"You 're a tourist lady, ain't you? That's why you don't know. Well, it was a tourist man, 'at stayed a long time, who tooked my gone-away mamma away."

"A tourist man? Why did he do that?"

"'Cause he did n't want me 'round, I guess. When the flowers was here that other time he comed to the store where my mamma sold all the pretty things my papa made dust every day an' every day. An' I did n't like him a bit, I did n't."

"Why didn't you like him?"

"'Cause he did n't like me, and did n't want me 'round. When my mamma was there and I was there, he would come and talk to my mamma, an' 'en he would tell her to send me away. An' 'en she would put me in the back room; an' if I cried an' kicked the door, she would put me in the closet. If the tourist man wasn't there, she loved me most all the time."

"Did n't she love you all the time, anyway?"

For answer the small maiden shut her eyes tightly and shook her head rapidly and decidedly.

"Why do you think she did n't love you all the time?"

"'Cause sometimes she was n't good to me."

"Did you love her all the time?"

Another decided head-shaking.

"You did n't? Why?"

"I did n't love her when she did n't love me. But my new mamma loves me all the time an' all day an' all night an' every day an' every night an' always. An' we dust have the bestest times togevver, an' I love her dust all I can love anybody." She hugged her chubby arms close up to her breast as if she had them around the loved one's neck, screwed up her pretty face, and gave the little grunt with which childhood expresses the fulness of its affection.

"Did you see the tourist man take your gone-away mamma away?"

"No, I didn't see him, but he did, 'cause once she went to take a walk an' 'en he never came back any more."

"And did n't she ever come back?"

"'Course not!" She looked at me in wide-eyed amazement at my ignorance. "One day she said for me to stay there 'cause she was going to take a walk. An' I cried to go too, an' 'en she picked me up quick an' hugged me tight an' kissed me. An' 'en she put me down an' said no, she was going too far. An' she took off her ring, her pretty gold ring, 'at she never let me have before, an' said to play wif it and when papa come give it to him. An' I did, an' papa readed a letter 'at was on the table, an' 'en he fell down on the bed an' cried. An' I put my hand on his face an' said, 'Poor papa, what's 'e matter?' An' 'en he took me up in his arms, an' we bofe cried, an' cried, an' cried. An' he said, 'Poor little girl!'"

She paused a moment, and then, with the air of one summing up a long discourse, she exclaimed, "An' that's why I 've got a gone-away mamma!"

I stroked the little one's hand, which nestled confidingly in mine, and said, half absently, "And she never came back?"

The child had fallen into a reverie, her big violet eyes fastened on the ground at our feet, but my words roused her into sociability again and she chattered on:

"No, 'course not, she never comed back. But one day 'ere was a letter, all alone dust for me, an' my papa called me an' said, 'Here is a letter for my little girl; now, I wonder who it's from?' She said this with the quaintest imitation of grown-up condescension addressing a child, waited a moment, as if to give to suspense its proper effect, and then went on:

"He tored it open an' inside the en'lope was dust a tiny bit of a letter wif just a little bit of reading and writing on it. An' 'en my papa dropped it 's if it was a yellow-jacket an' he said, great big an' loud, 'Money! from them! Don't touch it, child!' An' he frowed it in the fire. But I did n't see no money and I wanted to keep my letter, 'cause it was all mine. But I had my new mamma then, an' when I cried she writed me another letter."

"Yes," I said, "it's very queer to have two mammas, is n't it? But when did you get your new mamma?"

"Well, one day, after there was n't any more snow, we all went to church. And I had on my new white dress—it's awful pretty—and a new ribbon on my hair, and a new hat—not this old one—prettier than this, lots, with pretty flowers on it. And papa and—and—her, they stood up and talked wif the preacher, an' I would n't sit still. I dust runned right up side of my papa and held on to his leg all the time. An' when the preacher did n't talk any more she picked me up an' hugged me tight, an' kissed me an' said, 'I 'm going to be your mamma now, darling.'

"An' she 's been my new mamma ever since, an' I 'm going to keep her for my mamma always and always, and I don't want my gone-away mamma ever to come back, 'cause I love my new mamma best."

Just then there burst upon the warm, soft air a babel of shouts and yells and loud hurrahs. The wee maiden turned a brightening face in the direction of the uproar, and announced:

"That's wecess. I must go now. I 'spect my mamma will want me. She is n't dust my new mamma, she is n't. She's the teacher, too. An' I go to school wif her every day. But I don't have to stay in the schoolhouse 'less I want to."

She slipped off the log and started down the path, and then came back to kiss me good-bye. The hurried tread of a woman rustled through the thicket, and a Madonna-like face appeared between the branches.

"Come, dearie," she called, and the child ran across the glade, jumped into her arms and nestled upon her neck with a cry of delight.

Months afterward, in a city on the other side of the continent, I met a beautiful woman. She was a little overdressed and over-jewelled, but I thought as I talked with her that never before had I seen a woman of such glorious perfection of features and complexion and figure.

My visit to the Yosemite, the previous summer, chanced to be mentioned, and at once she began to ask me question after question about the Valley, and about those who live in it and cater to the comfort of travellers. Her husband, tall, athletic-looking, and handsome, leaned upon the back of her chair and made tactful efforts to divert the conversation into other channels. She yielded for the moment, but soon managed to lead me away to a quiet nook where she at once re-commenced her inquiries. Her beautiful face haunted and teased me with suggestions of previous sight. But I could not recall any former meeting, and so I decided that some chance street view of her countenance had impressed its beauty upon my memory.

As she rapidly poured forth question after question, I could not help noticing and wondering about the pathetic wistfulness in her eyes and the nervous eagerness of her manner. Presently she said she hoped to visit the Yosemite herself some time, and then hurriedly asked if I had seen any of the people who live there during the winter, and if any of them had children, and if the little ones, too, were subjected to that hardship.

There was intense longing in her lovely violet eyes as she asked these questions, but she quickly dropped her lids, and only her hands, trembling in her lap, betrayed that she felt more than casual interest.

I told her everything I could remember, facts, incidents, and anecdotes, that I thought would interest her. It did not occur to me that her eagerness for information was anything more than an unusually keen curiosity about a mode of life so different from her own. Chancing to recall my adventure with the little maid I told her about it.

I dwelt on the child's beauty and precocity, and repeated her account of why she had two mammas. The red blood was dyeing my listener's face a deep crimson, but still I did not understand, and went on lightly—

"She was as charming a little thing as I ever saw, but she was not at all complimentary to the 'gone-away mamma,' for she declared, emphatically, that she loved her new mamma best, and meant to keep her always, and did n't want her gone-away mamma ever to come back, because the new mamma loved her so much, and they had such good times together."

The surging color flowed in a quick tide from her face and left there a gray pallor, like that of granite cliffs when the sun goes down, and her hands were so tightly locked that her fingers looked white and ghastly. I thought it was indignation against that distant and unknown woman who had yielded to temptation that was moving her so strongly, and expected to hear from her parted lips some sweeping sentence of fiery feminine scorn and contempt.

But it was a low moan that came through their paling curves as she swayed once in her chair and then fell to the floor.

The physician, who was hurriedly summoned, said that it was a case of heart failure, and that she must have died instantly from some sudden shock.

And then, looking again at the beautiful, cold face, I understood at last. For death had completed the likeness which life had only suggested, and the faultless features, lying now in their eternal, expressionless calm, were exactly those of the beautiful child.

Her friends wondered much at her strange and sudden death. But I knew that remorse had had its perfect work, and that the sudden vision of a sweet child-face out of whose rosy lips came the accusing words, "I love my new mamma best, and I don't want my gone-away mamma ever to come back," had pierced her heart through and through.