“Oh, you dear!” Rose-Marie exclaimed again, and went down on her knees on the dirty floor—real women will always kneel before a beautiful child.
Lily might have been four years old. Her hair, drawn back from her white little face, was the colour of pale gold, and her lips were faintly coral. But it was her deep eyes, with their vague expression, that clutched, somehow, at Rose-Marie’s heart.
“Tell me that you’re going to like me, Lily!” she almost implored. “I love little girls.”
The child did not answer—indeed, she did not seem to hear. But one thin little hand, creeping out, touched Rose-Marie’s face with a gesture that was singularly appealing, singularly full of affection. When the fingers touched her cheek, Rose-Marie felt a sudden suspicion, a sudden dread. She noticed, all at once, that no one was speaking—that the room was quite still, except for the beastial grunts of the sleeping Pa.
“Why,” she asked, quite without meaning to, “why doesn’t she answer me? She isn’t afraid of me, is she? Why doesn’t she say something?”
It was, curiously enough, Mrs. Volsky who answered. Even her voice—that was usually so dull and monotonous—held a certain tremor.
“Lily,” she said slowly, “can’t spick—’r hear.... An’ she’s—blind!”
A LILY IN THE SLUMS
Rose-Marie started back from the child with a sickening sense of shock. All at once she realized the reason why Bennie’s eyes grew tender at the mention of his little sister—why Ella forgot anger and suspicion when Lily came into the room. She understood why Mrs. Volsky’s dull voice held love and sorrow. And yet, as she looked at the small girl, it seemed almost incredible that she should be so afflicted. Deaf and dumb and blind! Never to hear the voices of those who loved her, never to see the beautiful things of life, never—even—to speak! Rose-Marie choked back a sob, and glanced across the child’s cloud of pale golden hair at Ella. As their eyes met she knew that they were, in some strange way, friends.
With a sudden, overwhelming pity, her arms reached out again to Lily. As she gathered the child close she was surprised at the slenderness of the tiny figure, at the neatness of the faded gingham frock that blended in tone with the great, sightless eyes. All at once she remembered what Bennie had said to her, the day before, in the park.
“I love Lily,” he had told her, “I wouldn’t let nobody hurt Lily! If any one—even Pa, so much as spoke mean to her—I’d kill him....”
Glancing about the room, at the faces of the others, she sensed a silent echo of Bennie’s words. Mrs. Volsky, who would keep neither her flat nor herself neat, quite evidently saw to it that Lily’s little dress was spotless. Ella, whose temper would flare up at the slightest word, cared for the child with the tender efficiency of a professional nurse; Bennie’s face, as he looked at his tiny sister, had taken on a cherubic softness. And Jim ... Rose-Marie glanced at Jim and was startled out of her reflections. For Jim was not looking at Lily. His gaze was fixed upon her own face with an intensity that frightened her. With a sudden impulse she spoke directly to him.