“No,” I said, “I am not sick. I am all right—now.”
“But something has happened,” she insisted. “You are weak as well as pale. Let me do something for you. What was it?”
“A snake,” I said, for an excuse. “A rattlesnake. It struck at me and missed. It almost struck me. I’ll be all right now.”
The longer I live the surer I am that I told her very nearly the truth.
That night we sat up late and talked. She was only a dear little child, now, with a bit of the mother in her. She was really affectionate to me, more so than ever before, and sometimes I turned cold as I thought of how her affection might have been twisted into deviltry had it not been so strangely brought home to me that she was a child, with a good deal of the mother in her. I turned cold as I thought of her playing with her doll while I had been out on the prairie laying poison plots against her innocence, her defenselessness, her trust in me.
Why, she was like my mother! I had not thought of my mother for days. When she had been young like Virginia, she must have been as beautiful; and she had played with dolls; but never except while she was an innocent child, as Virginia now was.
For the first time I talked of mother to Virginia. I told her of my mother’s goodness to me while Rucker was putting me out to work in the factory—and Virginia grew hot with anger at Rucker, and very pitiful of the poor little boy going to work before daylight and coming home after dark. I told her of my running away, and of my life on the canal, with all the beautiful things I had seen and the interesting things I had done, leaving out the fighting and the bad things. I told her of how I had lost my mother, and my years of search for her, ending at that unmarked grave by the lake. Virginia’s eyes shone with tears and she softly pressed my hand.
I took from my little iron-bound trunk that letter which I had found in the old hollow apple-tree, and we read it over together by the flickering light of a small fire which I kindled for the purpose; and from the very bottom of the trunk, wrapped in a white handkerchief which I had bought for this use, I took that old worn-out shoe which I had found that dark day at Tempe—and I began telling Virginia how it was that it was so run over, and worn in such a peculiar way.
My mother had worked so hard for me that she had had a good deal of trouble with her feet—and such a flood of sorrow came over me that I broke down and cried. I cried for my mother, and for joy at being able to think of her again, and for guilt, and with such a mingling of feeling that finally I started to rush off into the darkness—but Virginia clung to me and wiped away my tears and would not let me go. She said she was afraid to be left alone, and wanted me with her—and that I was a good boy. She didn’t wonder that my mother wanted to work for me—it must have been almost the only comfort she had.