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When the father was told it was a girl he went out of the house and slammed the door behind him.
He did not come back for twelve hours. Indeed, he did not come back then; he was brought.
It was the first "glorious drunk" he had enjoyed for a whole year; but in no other way could he punctuate his disgust.
The desire of his heart was to be the father of ten boys. Five had already made their advent when his proud dreams of a round half dozen were rudely dispelled by the appearance of this unwelcome girl. The mother lay and cried upon her pillow. She felt like a wrong-doer, and was crushed with humiliation.
Long ago she had been taught that a woman was of no earthly account in the world, save to be the mother of men. In her humble way she had grown to feel a spark of personal pride when she looked upon her five sturdy boys.
Now it was all lost in self-abasement.
She could never again lift up her head in her husband's presence.
Over and over, he had heard him say he had no possible use for girls in his family; that they were no better than ants or roaches devouring but never replenishing supplies.
"Until the wenches are able to be wives and mothers they are nothing but an expense and a worry," he would say, "and more than likely to go to the devil before that time arrives."
And now here was a girl in his own family. A useless extravagance, a care and a trouble.
He never forgave the child for being a girl. Until she was fourteen months old he hated her. Then another boy arrived and he ceased to hate and merely ignored her.
The mother, who was but a weak echo of her husband, felt a sense of unjust irritation toward this girl child, who had been the cause of so much mortification.
She bore all the misdoings of her herd of boys with a certain patience, which sometimes verged into admiration of their smart naughtiness. But any slight misbehavior on the part of this wee girl met with a quick and sharp rebuke.
She was not absolutely maltreated, but she was either unmercifully snubbed or unnecessarily scolded, until she vibrated between regarding herself as a nonentity or a miscreant.
As if to add mortification to the insult she had shown her parents, in being a girl, Vey's luxuriant tresses were so vividly chestnut in color that the ordinary observer denominated them red. She was startlingly pale and large-eyed and solemn visaged, and in striking contrast to her herd of black-haired, ruddy-faced brothers.
Many a time she caught her mother's critical gaze fixed upon her face, and heard her remark, as if to herself, "What a pity--what a pity--what a pity--the poor child is so plain!"
The growing boys were quick to catch the color of older minds, and they regarded her as a small handmaiden born to wait upon them and otherwise of no more account than the kitten on the hearth.
They were rough fellows, full of animal life, and selfish as only boys who are taught no delicate regard for others can be.
The weak and indolent mother performed her round of household duties like a horse upon the tread-mill, and considered man as the natural monarch of the earth and woman his slave.
She was fond of her stalwart boys in a servile way, and always ready to do their bidding.
Vey (she had been christened as if her parents begrudged her even a second useless syllable to her name) looked upon them as young gods, and would have died to serve them. And, oh! how her passionate young heart craved some tender token of recognition for this love--a token which never came.
Any member of this family who had been detected in bestowing a loving word or caress upon another would have instantly lost caste in the eyes of all his k in.
This is no fancy picture. I have known more than one family of children reared in as loveless conditions.
In many a hard-working rural locality, apart form the refining influences which invariably accrue to a large congregation of people, children are often taught to regard all demonstrations of affection between members of a family as an evidence of weakness.
Among my childhood's playmates was a round dozen of children who were valued by their parents only for the amount of work they could do. They grew up like weeds in a neglected garden, rough and thorny leaved, striving and contending among themselves, save one girl, who, full of vague, restless longing for a love that she never knew, died, and found it--I trust.
From the hour this girl ceased to be carried in her mother's arms, an infant, never had she known a parent's caress until she lay in the coffin robed for the grave.
She died from over-taxing herself--she was "too ambitious" they said. She taught school, and studied incessantly and endured any hardship cheerfully which took her away from the irritable, fault-finding mother, and coarse, loud-voiced men who comprised her home circle.
They were money-making and well-to-do people, yet the increase of means seemed only to increase their contentions and striving among themselves. The sons of that family are all married now; each has an independent portion, and each is what his early home life made him--an unkind husband and a cruel father. And to the third and fourth generation the loveless influences of that home life shall descend--influences which the young girl died in striving to escape.
Vey Volney did not die, but her young heart starved for the affection which was not given. She was ten years old when her mother died. Weak woman though she was, her influence wholly once gone, the father yielded fully to his partially restrained appetites and soon lost all respectability.
Two of Vey's older brothers were married, and the younger children found homes with them.
Again Vey was ushered into a family where her presence was as undesired as on her natal day. For four lonely years she bore the indignities and hardships which an ignorant and overworked woman with an irritable temper dealt out to all who were so unfortunate as to dwell within sound of her high-keyed and ever-complaining voice.
She had not seen her father for two years, when he was one day brought home dead and disfigured by a railroad accident.
Vey mourned for him with passionate sorrow. She had felt lonely and sad over the loss of her mother, but that same mother had impressed upon very young mind that women were but the chaff of the earth, men the wheat.
If a good woman died the world did not suffer one tithe of the loss which befell it when a worthless man passed away--even as the unripe or water soaked kernel of grain was of more value than the husk which enveloped it.
A woman was only the husk which God created to enfold and protect the infant man until he cast her aside.
So she wept night and day for the father who never gave her an hour's consideration in her poor life.
For the first time in all her fourteen years she made a request for an article of wearing apparel. Her brother's wife, who was burdened with an ever increasing family of her own, kept Vey appareled in Turkey red calico, as it was a "durable color and washed well." Vey had grown to loathe the color, and after she saw her father brought home with the cruel red stains on breast and brow it was hideously suggestive to her.
The world seemed draped in darkness, and she begged for the luxury of a new black calico gown.
To this extravagance her sister-in-law objected, and that night, after the work was done, Vey walked two miles and asked for employment in the house of Mrs. Adams, who was mistress over a large dairy farm.
Mrs. Adams looked at the odd, under-sized little figure in its ill-fitting ugly calico gown, with its tangle of red curls about a pale, large-eyed face, and asked:
"My child, what can you do? I need help, as my girl left me yesterday--the ungrateful hussy--but you are too small to do much work, I fear."
"Indeed, I can do a great many things," cried Vey earnestly, "and I must--oh, I must get something to do right away!"
Mrs. Adams was impressed by the girl's earnestness and touched by her pathos and pallor.
"You are the little Volney girl, ain't you?" she asked. "It is two or three years since I saw you last. And your pa was brought home dead last week, they say!"
The tears sprang to Vey's eyes and she put her hands over her face, nodding her head slowly.
"Has your sister turned you out?" questioned Mrs. Adams. "Just like the nasty-tempered thing. My men folks say as they can hear her scold clear into the medder lot when they're getting up hay." Vey shook her head.
"No," she began, "but I--I wanted a black dress to wear after--after he died, and she said I could not have it, and that I was old enough to earn my own clothes; that if I was not satisfied, and so--" but her she broke down into genuine sobs.
"There, there, dear, don't cry; you shall stay awhile and work for the dress anyway," Mrs. Adams said, and her own eyes were moist.
The Volneys had always been considered a "queer lot" by the community.
They were not popular. In spite of the mother's shiftlessness and the father's vices and the sons' roughness, they had always seemed to consider themselves superior to their neighbors in some indefinable way. This the various circles of society in Herringville resented.
Every rustic community boasts its ultra, middle and lower grades of society, with quite as much cause as the greatest metropolis.
Has not the man whose father left him an inheritance of ten cows and a full pig-sty just as good reason to ignore his neighbor who has by his own exertions only succeeded in possessing one pig and no cow, as the inheritant of a million to snub the struggling clerk?
The "best circles" of Herringville, therefore, felt a constant irritation in the air of nameless superiority which this ne'er-do-well family carried over them.
It had been whispered about that Mr. Volney was the descendant of an ancient foreign family of decayed wealth, and that it was because he felt out of his sphere that he became so worthless. It was a small excuse for his worthlessness, even if it was true, the people said, and said truly. But the tale did not lessen their dislike of the Volneys.
With all their shiftless ways, the Volneys had never asked any favors of their neighbors. They had lived among themselves, bearing their own burdens and sorrows stoically and keeping their own counsels.
Now here sat the only direct female descendant of the race in Mrs. Adams' kitchen, crying nervously and asking for the position of servant in her household.
It never would have happened if they had not been worn out with sleepless nights of tears and loneliness. She had reached the point of human endurance when her sister-in-law's refusal of her first request roused her to insurrection.
She had reached, too, that important era in a young girl's life when the poet so beautifully describes her as "standing with reluctant feet where the brook and river meet."
Her whole nature--mental, moral and physical--felt the approach of coming womanhood as the earth in April feels the approach of Spring. She had been reared in that cruel ignorance of all things pertaining to her sex which so frequently proves disastrous to the woman's whole future well being.
She marveled at her own excitable and nervous sensations, as often at night she lay awake, unable to sleep, longing unutterably for some one to talk to her and comfort her, to soothe and protect her from some nameless fear. Again she would weep wildly, at the same time wondering why she wept; and then for hours she would luxuriate in emotions of the most delicious languor, when the very act of breathing seemed an ecstasy and the world seemed bathed in gold and crimson splendor, and her heart throbbed with an inexplicable happiness which almost suffocated her.
She needed the tender care and protecting solicitude of a mother's love; she needed the delicate instruction and counsel of some older sister or friend; she needed the gentle, firm clasp of some loving hand to hold her own, while life unfolded to her one of its most marvelous and holy phases. But all this was denied her.
Unprotected, neglected, ignorant and alone, she trod the dangerous pathway that leads from childhood into womanhood.
She had passed a sleepless night of nervousness and undefined fear before she asked her brother's wife for the gown.
Her request was met by an angry and sarcastic refusal, and all the slumbering fires of her awakening nature flashed into momentary flame.
That very day she had heard some rumor of Mrs. Adams having need of help, which directed her steps when she left her brother's house.
She did not understand systematic house-work very well, but she could wash dishes, prepare vegetables, run errands, and rock a baby to sleep.
Mrs. Adams found her willing minded, quick motioned and anxious to please, and before a week passed by she realized that the girl was a treasure. The cross baby would be quiet a whole half day, if he could sit tied in his high chair where Vey was at work, and would cry in his mother's arms to go to the young girl.
"You have put a spell on him," she said laughingly to Vey, who responded simply, "I have always been used to babies and I know their ways, you see."
Although Vey roomed with a fractious, growing limbed child of five she had more comforts in the house of Mrs. Adams than ever before, and fewer troubles.
She learned how to make bread, how to mend neatly and do plain sewing, and for these services, in addition to her other duties, Mrs. Adams paid her fifty cents a week and clothed her comfortably. She had always been poorly, often grotesquely attired, and the neat well-fitting garments which Mrs. Adams provided her, although plain and inexpensive, seemed luxuries to her simple taste.
Then Mrs. Adams was kinder than anyone she had ever known, and the poor child felt as if she could gladly and thankfully be content to dwell forever under the shelter of this friendly roof.
She felt a sick fear at the possibility of ever having to make another change. Yet the change came before long.
She had been with Mrs. Adams a year and a half, and during that time she had developed from an immature child to an attractive young miss of almost sixteen.
If she herself was unconscious of the fact, Theodore Adams, nicknamed "Toad" by his family, was not.
During the first year which Vey passed under his mother's roof Toad had regarded her as a child quite beneath his notice. But of late his observant eye noted a roundness of outline, an increase of stature, and a fullness of cheek which was interesting. He began to loiter about the house evenings and proffer assistance in bringing in wood and water, and even insisted upon wiping the dishes for Vey occasionally.
She wondered at it, and thought to herself that he was growing to be "a regular girl-boy" and not half so manly as her brothers, who were always out among the men from the time they could walk.
She never imagined that she herself was the attraction which kept Toad in the house. She never thought of herself as anybody.
She had been ready and willing to wait upon Toad, and to anticipate his wants. She believed it her duty as a "woman-child" to serve the males in any way, no matter how menial.
Now, Toad thought of all these kind offices which she had performed, and construed them as delicate proofs of the complete conquest his manly charms had achieved.
One evening Vey was mixing up a large sponge of bread to set for the morning baking. From neatly rolled up sleeves her arms protruded, bare and beautiful, and in the exertion of her labor she displayed the supple grace of her perfect form and increased the pink flush which of late had begun to stain the pallor of her cheek.
Toad watched her from his seat in the chimney corner with leering admiration in his uncouth face; then suddenly tiptoeing across the room, he stood behind her and clasped both arms about her waist in a bear-like hug, at the same time imprinting a noisy kiss upon her gleaming flesh between the elbow and the shoulder. Vey shrieked and tried to shake him off, but she could not instantly disengage her hands from the yeasty pulp, and Toad saw his advantage. He drew her still closer, struggling to kiss her cheek, which had grown deathly white with fear and disgust.
Toad's clothing was redolent with the odors of the barn, and his breath reeked with poor tobacco.
Vey gave a violent jerk, which sent the bread sponge splashing over the kitchen floor, and then with her doughy hands she beat, clawed, scratched and slapped poor Toad, until he flung her from him as he might a vicious wild cat, and ran screaming from the room.
His mother met him in the doorway, and a sorry sight he was for a mother's eyes. His face was bleeding, through its frost of flour, and his torn coat was covered with a plaster of dough.
"Turn that little red-headed cat out of the house to-night," he shrieked, "or else I go! We can't both stay here, and if I go I'll never come back, you bet."
Mrs. Adams' mother-heart was touched at the sight of her son's condition, and her sense of housewifely thrift was outraged when she beheld the great sponge of bread--a week's baking--soaking up the dust of the kitchen floor, and the cat feasting contentedly out of its center.
Vey was given two hours in which to pack up and leave the house.
In less than one hour she walked out of the kitchen door, without having made any adieus, save to the sleeping baby and her small room-mate. She carried her wardrobe in a comfortably sized bundle, and walked toward the country railway station, three miles distant. Here she bought a ticket for New York, and sat down to wait for the coming of the late and slow accommodation train, which would reach the great city in the early morning.
She had made her plans quickly and quietly. She felt a strange sense of fear and desolation as she sat there, but no hesitation.
She could not remain in Herringville after her recent humiliation.
She could not return to her brother's house and say that she was turned out of doors by Mrs. Adams.
Her sister-in-law had never spoken to her since she left the house.
Her indifferent and careless brothers never troubled themselves about her, and she could not go and throw herself upon their mercy now.
By the merest accident the way seemed open to her for a new life, far away from these miserable, troubled memories.
A former servant of Mrs. Adams had married a stone mason and gone to New York to reside.
Recently she had paid a visit to her old employer whom she had urgently invited to repay the visit and "see the sights of New Yor-rk." In return for this invitation she had gone back to the city laden with butter and fresh eggs, as he had perhaps anticipated.
She had given Mrs. Adams explicit directions how to find her "residence" on West Broadway Place, near Grand street. Vey had asked what 'west' meant, and the explanation had still further impressed the matter on her mind.
Mrs. Murphy had also incidentally remarked to Vey that she ought to come to New York once and get a place as a 'figger."
What's a figger?" queried Vey, and Mrs. Murphy explained that all large dry goods "stores" employed young ladies with fine figures to try on their cloaks and wraps and display them to customers.
"I have a young lady friend on Grand street who gets $6 a week, and she hasn't half the figure that you have, nor face either, and all that helps, you know," continued voluble Mrs. Murphy; "for every old woman with her face like a mummy thinks she'll be after lookin' just loike the pretty girl wid the fine cloak if she buys it."
All this Vey remembered now in the time of need, and laid her plans accordingly.
The Adventures of Miss Volneyby Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
Tumwater, WA: The Ella Wheeler Wilcox Society, 2006.
Based on the printing by Street & Smith, c1900.
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