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!"
They kept house together in sweet accord, and were indeed trained in the neat Quaker ways so thoroughly, that they always worked by the same methods. In opinion and emotion they were almost duplicates. Yet the world holds no absolute and perfect correspondence, and it is useless to affect to conceal--what was apparent to any intimate guest--that there was one domestic question on which perfect sympathy was wanting. During their whole lives they had never been able to take precisely the same view of the best method of grinding Indian meal. Miss Martha preferred to have it from a wind-mill; while Miss Amy was too conscientious to deny that she thought it better when prepared by a water-mill. She said firmly, though gently, that it seemed to her "less gritty."
Living their whole lives in this scarcely broken harmony by the margin of the bay, they had long built together one castle in the air. They had talked of it for many an hour by their evening fire, and they had looked from their chamber windows toward the Red Light upon Rose Island to see if it were coming true. This vision was, that they were to awake some morning after an autumnal storm, and to find an unknown vessel ashore behind the house, without name or crew or passengers; only there was to be one sleeping child, with aristocratic features and a few yards of exquisite embroidery. Years had passed, and their lives were waning, without a glimpse of that precious waif of gentle blood. Once in an October night Miss Martha had been awakened by a crash, and looking out had seen that their pier had been carried away, and that a dark vessel lay stranded with her bowsprit in the kitchen window. But daylight revealed the schooner Polly Lawton, with a cargo of coal, and the dream remained unfulfilled. They had never revealed it, except to each other.
Moved by a natural sympathy, Miss Martha went with Stephen to see the injured child. Gerty lay asleep on a rather dingy little mattress, with Mr. Comstock's overcoat rolled beneath her head. A day's illness will commonly make even the coarsest child look refined and interesting; and Gerty's physical organization was anything but coarse. Her pretty hair curled softly round her head; her delicate profile was relieved against the rough, dark pillow; and the tips of her little pink ears could not have been improved by art, though they might have been by soap and water. Warm tears came into Miss Martha's eyes, which were quickly followed from corresponding fountains in Madam Delia's.
"Thy own child?" said or rather signalled Miss Martha, forming the letters softly with her lips. Stephen had his own reasons for leaving her to ask this question in all ignorance.
"No, ma'am," said the show-woman. "Not much. Adopted."
"Does thee know her parents?" This was similarly signalled.
"No," said Madam Delia, rather coldly.
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