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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Madam Delia's Expectations

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"The way is, you see," said Mr. De Marsan, "to take a place like Providence, that's a good showtown, right along, and pitch your tent and live there. Keep-still pays, they say. You'd have to hire a piece of ground anywhere, for five or six dollars a day, and it don't cost much more by the week. You can board for four or five dollars a week, but if you board by the day it's a dollar and a half." To which words of practical wisdom Stephen listened with pleased interest. It was not so very many years since he had been young enough to wish to run away with a circus; and by encouraging these simple confidences, he brought round the conversation to the children.

But here he was met by a sheer absence of all information as to their antecedents. The original and deceitful Comstock had brought them and left them two years before. Madam Delia had received flattering offers to take her snakes and Gerty into circuses and large museums, but she had refused for the child's own sake. Did Gerty like it? Yes, she would like to be posturing all day; she could do anything she saw done; she "never needed to be taught nothin'," as Mr. De Marsan asserted with vigorous accumulation of negatives. He thought her father or mother must have been in the business, she took to it so easily; but she was just as smart at school in the winter, and at everything else. Was the life good for her? Yes, why not? Rough company and bad language? They could hear worse talk every day in the street. "Sometimes a feller would come in with too much liquor aboard," the showman admitted, "and would begin to talk his nonsense; but Comstock wouldn't ask nothin' better than to pitch such a feller out, especially if he should sarce the little gals. They were good little gals, and Delia set store by 'em."

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When Stephen and his sister went back that night to their kind hostesses, Miss Martha and Miss Amy, the soft hearts of those dear old ladies were melted in an instant by the story of Gerty's courage and self-sacrifice. They had lived peacefully all their lives in that motherly old house by the bay-side, where successive generations had lived before them. The painted tiles around the open fire looked as if their fops and fine ladies had stepped out of the Spectator and the Tatler; the great mahogany chairs looked as hospitable as when the French officers were quartered in the house during the Revolution, and its Quaker owner, Miss Martha's grand-uncle, had carried out a seat that the weary sentinel might sit down. Descended from one of those families of Quaker beauties whom De Lauzun celebrated, they bore the memory of those romantic lives, as something very sacred, in hearts which perhaps held as genuine romances of their own. Miss Martha's sweet face was softened by advancing deafness and by that gentle, appealing look which comes when mind and memory grow a little dimmer, though the loving nature knows no change. "Sister Amy says," she meekly confessed, "that I am losing my memory. But I do not care very much. There are so few things worth remembering!"

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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