Hands That Speak
Miss Caroline Winters slipped the last golden-brown pie out of the over, and setting it on the shelf beside three others, stood a moment or so viewing her handiwork with unconcealed pride. Then, her work completed for the afternoon, she sat herself down in the coziest rocker on her back porch, her hands busy with a bit of tatting, as she listened to the snatches of music that floated out from the open windows of the little house next door.
Once in awhile, across the green hedge that separated her house from the Winslows', Miss Caroline could see Lisa's bare, bronzed arms, flashing in the sunlight as she energetically shook her duster out of the window. Mostly, though, she could only hear her neighbor whistling cheerfully to herself, as she swept and dusted and baked. That merry whistle always told Miss Caroline whether things were going well with Lisa; it was the most infallible of barometers.
For many months now, ever since the little mother had gone away and left the care of the three youngsters to her capable eldest daughter, Miss Caroline had kept her weather eye--no, ear on that barometer for signs of storm.
Naturally, there had been many times during those months when the whistling had stopped for a little while--times when Lisa needed just a bit of encouragement--and once or twice there had been a long interval of silence. Once, right at the beginning of things, when it seemed for day after day that nothing Lisa tried to cook would turn out right, and once, later on, when little Bobby had the Whooping cough.
And every time when the little house was still, Miss Caroline managed to find some excuse that would take her through the hedge. Lisa often wondered how Miss Caroline always happened to be on hand just when she needed her most, but she never guessed that she, herself, sent out the trouble call.
Today everything had been running smoothly. A few minutes more and Lisa would be through with her work, ready to go up to her room to dress for the afternoon. Miss Caroline had been "listening" so long that she knew practically every move Lisa made during the day. Yes, she had figured things out correctly this time, for here was Lisa at the window, giving the duster a last vigorous shake, with an extra gay flourish in Miss Caroline's direction.
And then something happened, for the whistling died away in the middle of a note. Miss Caroline peered out of her back porch, and caught a glimpse of Mary Ellen Tracy just turning up the Winslows' walk.
Mary Ellen Tracy, in her new yellow frock, was delightfully in accord with the sunshiny afternoon, and exceedingly pretty to look at, yet Miss Caroline frowned at the sight of her.
So that was what had choked off the whistle! Lisa must have caught sight of Mary Ellen when she came to the window to give her duster that last shake before putting it away. Poor Lisa, with her morning dress still unchanged, and a dust cap covering her pretty hair--it was more than thoughtless, it was downright mean, of Mary Ellen to come before Lisa was ready to receive callers, and flaunt her lovely clothes and dainty slippers in front of this other girl who loved pretty things equally as well, but who had so little time to wear them.
After what seemed an interminable wait, Mary Ellen went dancing off down the walk, all unconcernedly, and Miss Caroline say and listened. But there was not a sound from the little house across the hedge.
The frown deepened in Miss Caroline's face, and was supplanted, after a moment of study, by a look of comprehension.
At once she went into her kitchen, and selecting the crispest and most golden brown of the pies on the shelf, marched herself over to the Winslows; and in through the back door, without so much as knocking.
Exactly as she had guessed, Lisa was sitting there at the kitchen table, her head on her arms.
"What is the matter, child?" asked Miss Caroline, understandingly--"Are you worried about your clothes?"
"No, not clothes," denied Lisa, lifting her head, and bravely attempting a smile, which was a failure. "Hands!"
"Hands!" exclaimed Miss Caroline, taking one of Lisa's in both of hers, and stroking it soothingly. "What on earth is the matter with this small hand, I wish you would tell me? It is strong and capable and healthy and beautifully shaped--"
"And scratched and burned and bruised and sunburned--look!" She held out her other hand and disclosed a big bandage around one finger. "I cut that just a little white before Ellen came--"
"Ah!" nodded Miss Caroline, "I was right. Mary Ellen had something to do with it. Surely you are not envying her, dear child?"
"Oh, but I am!" admitted Lisa. "Have you ever noticed her hands? They are too beautiful and exquisite to be truthful, white and smooth and soft and tiny!"
"Exactly!" snorted Miss Caroline indignantly. "They are too exquisite to be true, just as you say. They are also too exquisite to be any good on earth!"
"Why, Miss Caroline," exclaimed Lisa in amazement, "do you not like Mary Ellen's hands?"
"I do not, " declared Miss Caroline firmly. "Neither do I like curly white lap dogs, or statuettes or tramps or anything else that is of no use in the world."
"But do you not think they are beautiful?"
"I do not," repeated Miss Caroline. "Pretty to look at, yes. But beautiful, no indeed!"
"Oh, Miss Caroline, how can you say that?"
"Why I mean it, child. You are forgetting what true beauty is. Do you not know that every blessed scar on these hands of yours is a mark of service given, and every scratch is a symbol of work well done? And you would exchange them for hands like Mary Ellen's that have nothing to say for themselves--just soft and smooth and white--and expressionless as a retouched photograph!"
Miss Caroline's voice was eloquent with righteous scorn.
"Beautiful?" Why, your hands are just like your mother's hands, child, and I always said that she had the most beautiful hands I ever saw. There never were hands more exquisitely shaped than hers--yet not for one moment did she consider them too fine to perform any act of service that was needed."
"Mother did have lovely hands," agreed Lisa, reflectively. "I always thought so; they were so firm and strong and, oh, so willing. And they could do anything. I guess they must have been scarred, too, but I never thought about that. I never thought about mine, either, until I saw them next to Mary Ellen's."
"Take a look at yours again," suggested Miss Caroline, "and see if they do not speak of work well done and service rendered."
Lisa held her hands out in front of her and looked at them through new eyes.
"They do, do they not?" she admitted. "Maybe you are right, Miss Caroline. Mary Ellen is always afraid to do things, for fear she will hurt her hands. I would hate to be like that!"
"Of course! And the time will come when you will be thankful that, instead of being soft and white and helpless like Mary Ellen's, your hands are strong and willing and unafraid to do tasks that others would fear to attempt. And Mary Ellen will realize some day, that never, never can her hands be so beautiful as yours."
At the end of her prophecy, Miss Caroline suddenly seemed to remember that she had a home of her own, and started to go. At the door she turned and said, offhandedly, "I made too many pies today. Do you suppose this one will come in handy for supper?"
"Oh, you darling!" exclaimed Lisa. "I just know you made too many on purpose. And is that how you happened to come in, just now?"
But her visitor, who had already reached the hedge, only turned and smiled.
Miss Caroline's prophecy did come true--and a great deal sooner than she had anticipated.
It was only a week later that she saw Mary Ellen again turn primly up the walk to the little house next door. With Mary Ellen was her five-year-old sister, Gertrude, a small, rosy cherub of a youngster, all daintily dressed.
"More trouble for Lisa," thought Miss Caroline, grimly. "Now, why could not Mary Ellen have had sense enough to leave Gertrude home?" For golden curls, her wide blue eyes, and her angelic smile, could think up more mischief even than Bobby Winslow--and Bobby, all by himself, could manage to keep Lisa well occupied thwarting the wild stunts he invented.
Miss Caroline could well imagine Lisa's mental comments as she caught sight of her small visitor, but not for an instant did she betray herself to her guests.
Bobby and Gertrude jumped eagerly at her suggestion that they play hopscotch up and down the walk, and the two older girls settled themselves comfortable on the veranda.
"Now tell me about your New York trip," Lisa commanded, then interrupted herself, as a sudden howl of distress came from Gertrude. "But, Mary Ellen, Bobby is so strenuous; perhaps you had better not let Gertrude play with him. It is a shame to have her get all mussed up--"
And immediately Mary Ellen's protest, "Oh, what does that matter if she does spoil things?"
"I suppose it does not matter," came Lisa's voice, "if you do not have to make them yourself, or wash and iron them."
Poor Lisa. Miss Caroline longed to spank Mary Ellen for the little, self-satisfied, commiserating way she laughed.
Indignantly, she gathered up her work and went inside. Once there, a thousand tasks claimed her attention, and for a time she half forgot the trials of her young next-door neighbor.
Passing by a window, Miss Caroline glanced across the lawn and saw Gertrude and Bobby coming out the back door, carrying a box of matches. Quickly she started for her neighbor's backyard.
Luckily, however, the girls were ahead of her.
Lisa, warned in the middle of a sentence by the ominous silence (silence she had found, was always ominous where small brothers were concerned), decided to investigate.
She and Mary Ellen had just rounded the corner of the house in time to see Gertrude strike a match from the forbidden box in Bobby's hand and, holding the top of a long curl in the flame, laugh with impish glee as it sizzled; then, as she caught sight of the older girls, instinctively let the match slip from her fingers as she started to run.
The lighted match, as it fell to the ground, caught the flimsy material of Gertrude's dress, and it flamed up as she ran.
Mary Ellen started after her, then stopped short, seemingly rooted to the spot and quite voiceless, as she saw what had happened. Little Gertrude, discovering her flaming dress, started for her sister. But Mary Ellen, her tongue suddenly loosed, cried out in horror: "Do not come near me, do not--you will set me on fire, too. Oh, no, do not come here."
The mischief was done. At the terror in her sister's voice, Gertrude turned and fled, shrieking at the top of her lungs.
"Gertrude, lie down; lie down on the ground," commanded Lisa, trying to cut across her path as she ran, but Gertrude only ran faster.
It was just then that Miss Caroline arrived at the hedge and headed her off. Turning, Gertrude ran straight into Lisa.
Without an instant's hesitation, Lisa caught the child, and laying her on the ground, slipped down on tope of her, beating out, with her hands, the flames that she would not smother with her body.
It was all over in two minutes--but they were two minutes that brought Mary Ellen to her senses. A most illuminating mirror had been held up on front of her, and she shrank from looking at the picture of her real self that it presented to her.
Miss Caroline was bending tenderly over Lisa, who lay there motionless on the grass. She raised her head as Mary Ellen spoke.
"You must not judge yourself too harshly, my dear," she answered gently, trying to take the sting out of Mary Ellen's bitter discovery. "You had been brought up to think of yourself first. Now, come and help me please."
Mary Ellen helped the best she knew how, and waited, scarcely breathing, as Miss Caroline pronounced the little sister practically unharmed, except for a few burns on her arms and legs, and the loss of her beautiful curls.
"But, if it had not been for Lisa--" Mary Ellen Shuddered. Then she knelt and lifted one of the hands that had saved her sister. Involuntarily, she shut her eyes at the pitiful sight.
Then she held her own white hands out in front of her and looked at them as if they were something loathsome. "Oh, I shall never, never be able to look at my hands again without hating them! Is there not something, anything, that I could to try to make atonement?"
Miss Caroline bathed the poor, bruised, blistered fingers with oil, and started to bandage them before she answered. "It will be days before Lisa will be able to use her hands again. You might, if you are sure you really want to, give up your New York trip and help keep house for her until she is able to do it once more," she suggested.
Some time later, after the doctor had been there to see Lisa and had pronounced that the scars would not be disfiguring, as they had feared, Miss Caroline and Mary Ellen were in the kitchen. Miss Caroline had been showing her how to get supper.
"Miss Caroline," began Mary Ellen, as she lifted the lid off the carrots and set it down on the stove while she tested them with a fork, "What was it that Lisa kept muttering all the time she was delirious, about 'hands that speak'?"
Miss Caroline told her as kindly as she could.
"Why, how could I ever have thought that my hands were beautiful," marveled Mary Ellen, "When they were just speechless?"
Thoughtlessly she started to pick up the cover again--and dropped it with a sudden scream.
"Ouch! That burned!" she exclaimed. Suddenly a thought struck her, and she looked at the finger searchingly. Had it left a mark? It had, decidedly.
"I do believe, yes, Miss Caroline, I do believe the silence is over for good and all." Proudly she displayed the burn on her rosy forefinger.
"It's the first word, Miss Caroline,--the very first word they have said--but," and Miss Caroline smiled tenderly to herself at the determination in Mary Ellen's voice, "I can promise you that it is not going to be the last."