A LONELY GIRL

The forlorn, tumble-down place of the Kleins was on what had once been
its own private road, the road that led into a large, well-kept farm of
thrifty German immigrants. But this was long ago. A worthless son and a
still more worthless grandson had scattered the holdings. The woodland
and nearly all of the farm besides had been sold off for debts and
living. All that was left numbered a few acres and those badly kept in
the intervals of Jacob Klein’s drinking.
Mrs. Klein, Jacob’s wife, was almost as far from German thrift and
ideas of cleanliness as her husband, though, if some one else did the
work, she was capable of having things done. And it was the girl known
as Greta Klein that did them, for Greta did not even go to school.
The district was thinly populated, or had been until people began to
build cottages on the farther end of the lake. No one took an interest
in these unattractive people and though it was quite probable that a
school census had been taken and a visitor had called, possibly more
than once, so far as Greta might have known, no one summoned her to
school, no one passed that way to go to school, and Greta had never
seen the quite distant spot where learning was the central idea.
As the speech of the family was German, Greta spoke their poor dialect
of that language, though she had recently found an old German Bible, of
her great-grandmother’s, she supposed, in an ancient trunk which was
in the queer little attic. But aside from this and a few papers, the
trunk was empty, for everything which could possibly be used in the way
of clothing had long since been put into use. But after the Bible was
found, Greta’s German improved.
The house consisted of a one-story cottage, the first building of the
original immigrant, and built solidly by the farmer himself. To this
two-roomed cottage an addition had once been made, with one room on the
first floor, a low room above and a tiny attic. The addition had never
been painted. The paint upon the first cottage had worn off with the
years and the storms until the shabby, dilapidated house looked all of
one piece with its dark, dingy exterior.
Birthdays were never celebrated in the Klein family, but when Greta
once asked her mother when she was born she was told that so far as
her mother remembered it was the fifteenth of June. This Greta did
not forget, though she never mentioned it again. For some reason her
parents did not like her, she was sure. There was a little boy of five
and a little girl of three, for whom her mother seemed to have some
affection, but Jacob Klein paid scant attention to any of them except
to threaten and be as abusive as a man who drinks can be. For Greta
there was only hard work with an effort to avoid her father as far as
possible. In this her mother helped her. More than once she had sent
Greta into the woods with the younger children and taken a severe
beating herself from the quarrelsome Jacob.
“I’m going to go off by myself on my birthday,” Greta promised herself.
She had never done it before, and she was not sure just what would
happen if she did; but she would. Probably the campers would have come
by this time at the cottages and Mrs. Klein would get some washing to
do, or, rather, for Greta to do. But that would not matter. She would
take one day. If she only dared walk into town! But that was a long
way off, and then her clothes were so queer that she was ashamed to be
seen. Once in a great while Jacob Klein would take his wife and the two
younger children in the old wagon, behind the bony horse, and drive to
the village. But since some one had asked why he did not send Greta to
school she had never been taken, and that was as much as three years
before.
Unloved and unloving except for a sort of affection for the two
ill-natured children, Greta was an unhappy child, often puzzled over
many things, odd things that had happened. For the woods and the river
and most of all the lake that shimmered its blue in these early summer
days, Greta had a great love. There clothes did not matter, nor whether
she had enough to eat, and with a feeling that she must be personally
clean, a feeling not shared by the other Kleins, she had gotten into
the habit of slipping out of the house in the summer days, before the
rest had wakened, and of taking a plunge into the often cold water of
the lake. Then, refreshed, she would return, ready for the hard work of
the day, or for the tiresome task of looking after the children.
It was about four o’clock one morning when Greta flew through the woods
on the opposite side of the road past the Klein house. Mrs. Klein had
told her that she must catch some fish before there would be anything
to eat for breakfast. They were out of flour and there would be no more
killing of the few hens they had, whatever Jacob had to say about it.
He could work a little.
Through the trees Greta darted while the birds sang and the life of the
woods stirred about her. She carried a little bundle beside her fishing
pole and when she came to a large willow that hung over the water, she
stopped, stepped among some screening bushes and threw off the dingy
clothes she was wearing, to put on a queer patchwork of a bathing suit
which she had sewed together from pieces. She did not dare to wear any
of the clothes her mother knew about, and as there was an occasional
early fisherman on the lake she must have something in the way of a
water garment.
But it was fun to dive from the long, heavy limb that extended into
the water. It was deep enough for a good dive at this point, and Greta
enjoyed a short swim before she landed a little further down, ran to
the bushes and dressed again. Then she hung her shapeless bathing suit
on a high limb, to dry, and hurried to where an old boat was moored.
In a few minutes she was far from the shore, sending her boat to the
fishing ground where she thought she would have the best and quickest
success.
This took her near a point that ran out into the lake, a low point,
wooded and beautiful with its tall trees and thick bushes. A clatter of
some sort drew her attention from her line after a while. Looking along
the shore, she saw, in a comparatively open space a team of horses,
apparently attached to a wagon, and a large truck backing around. The
clatter, she now saw, had been made by a pile of lumber, thrown from
the truck. More was being put in a different spot.
Greta’s clear eyes needed no field glass to determine that a number of
boys were running about, directing, calling, looking up and down the
shore, and while she looked two of them hugged each other and performed
an impromptu dance of exultation in an open spot. Greta laughed in
spite of her small acquaintance with laughter. Boys, building a shack,
of course for a summer camp! Well, she would have to keep out of sight
more carefully than ever. Greta sighed as she drew in her line and
took from it a fat lake trout. She rowed farther away and cast again,
waiting patiently and thinking of many things. At present her ambition
was to help, either with housework or with children at some of the
summer cottages. But when she had asked her mother if she might, she
had met with a sharp refusal, though the money from such work would
have helped at home.
If she only could earn a little money with all the hard work she had
learned to do! She could have some decent shoes, perhaps and one whole,
respectable dress!
One other fish, and there was enough for a good breakfast. It was six
o’clock when she reached home, to be scolded for being so late. Jacob
Klein was still in a drunken sleep. Mrs. Klein was just getting up and
the children were clamoring for attention. Roughly their mother spoke
to them, telling Greta to do the milking and the feeding outside first,
then to clean the fish and get breakfast.
Greta had friends in the lean cow, whose chief feed was the grass by
the roadside, the hens, a straggling lot, a few baby chicks, and a
couple of gaunt pigs in an ill-smelling sty at the rear of the yard.
Two dogs, shut in the old barn for the night, came leaping out upon
Greta as she opened the door. She was the only one who never kicked or
abused them.
So Greta Klein’s day began, much better than the winter days when there
was a hunt for fuel, chiefly taken from the woods which did not now
belong to them and where good trees would be missed. Fishing could be
done by cutting the ice in the lake, but flour was often low and they
lived on the cheapest of food.
The children had milk for their breakfast. Not until the ill-tempered
man who actually ruled this family stirred and demanded something to
eat did Greta cook the fish, dodging a slap from the great hand, so
ready with a blow, and not daring to take a taste of the fish which
she had caught. A glass of warm milk, taken from the pail before she
brought it in, since objection might be made later, was a satisfying
breakfast to Greta. She welcomed the order to go down the lake to the
cottages, get the clothes from the one family who had the courage to
give their washing to Mrs. Klein, and see what other cottages were
occupied. Greta was to ask for more work.
As the patched clothes Greta wore were neither whole nor clean, Mrs.
Klein brought out Greta’s best dress, a hideous plaid gingham with a
tight waist and a full skirt, poorly gathered on. The only reason for
this was that people would be more likely to send the washing if the
girl asking the work looked fairly clean herself. “This ought to be
washed, Mother,” said Greta, though in German.
“And wear it out!” replied her mother. “Talk your best English to
them and get me two washings if you can. It is a lucky thing that you
learned the English before you were sick.”
That was always a funny thing to Greta, that in some way she had
learned English before she was sick, that sickness that was brain
fever, she was told and made her forget all about when her little
brother had been born and made her speak German so poorly, and yet she
could speak English! She must have gone to school some time, though her
mother would give her no satisfaction about when or where. “You have
had enough schooling,” was all that she would say.
Nothing in the way of English papers or books were ever brought into
the house, yet Greta saw both sometimes at the cottages where she took
back or gathered the clothes. Her eyes devoured them while she waited,
and if she edged near some table she could read a few lines. Once a
woman asked her if she liked to read, and on the girl’s reply that
she did, she handed her one of the newspapers. “We’ve read that. It’s
several days old, for we have to get our papers by mail, but the news
is fairly late.”
Greta was glad to get anything to read, whether the news was late or
old. In the shelter of the willow, before she took out the clothes for
which her mother was waiting, she read almost every word and put the
paper in her hiding place, a hollow tree near by. But a storm came up
that very night. Her hollow tree was felled, the paper blown out and
destroyed! That was a calamity of the preceding summer.
But Greta was beginning to feel that she must rouse herself a little
from the conditions at home. Her father’s drunkenness was growing
unbearable. Always of a cruel disposition, with a feeling that he had a
right to beat his wife or children as freely as he beat his horse, he
was often dangerous, Greta thought. How long her mother would stand it
was a question, yet she seemed to take it as a matter of course, though
doing her share of the quarreling. The German Bible was a help in the
worst of Greta’s troubles. Her great-grandmother must have been a good
woman. But some time she would go away and then try to earn money to
help her mother and the children.
Now Greta Klein was a pretty girl. Had she been dressed as well as
Jean Gordon she might have looked not unlike the impulsive Jean. But
her large, dark brown eyes had a sad look in them and her face was
worn; for while the hard work she had been forced to do had given her a
certain strength, there had been enough of it to amount to over-work,
which is not good for growing girls. Her mother said that she would be
sixteen on her next birthday and that would be on the fifteenth, for
which Greta was having plans.
Again the rowboat made its way out into the lake. Again Greta took a
look at the pile of lumber on the peninsula. Perhaps the boys would
want their clothes washed, but she would not tell her mother about it.
It would be terrible to go there for them.
Greta made her way to the cottage, where an energetic, keen-eyed woman
answered her knocking. “After this please come to the back door, Greta.
I always have the clothes there for you. And I see that I shall have
to have them done every week for the children get so dirty. Please be
careful with the colored clothes. Last week that red handkerchief ran
into Buddy’s blouse and that will never do.”
“I will try to be careful, Mrs. Smith.”
Greta took the large bundle which Mrs. Smith gave her. It was too large
to carry around. Why hadn’t she thought to go to the other houses
first? “Are there any other families where you think Mother could get
washing to do, Mrs. Smith?” she asked.
“Yes. Mrs. Bliss next door wants some one. They came day before
yesterday. If you like you may leave the clothes on the back porch
while you go to see her. I’ll keep an eye on them, of course.”
“Oh, thank you, I’ll hurry.”


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“Poor child,” thought Mrs. Smith, “she looks half tired to death all
the time. But I couldn’t have her coming to the front door, and I must
have my clothes done properly!”

Fortunately, the cottages were closely set and along the shore. Two big
bundles Greta lugged along, knowing that her mother would be satisfied
to add another washing, and thinking to herself that it was all she
could do herself, especially if she spent her birthday as she intended.
From her window Mrs. Smith was watching her, again wishing that she had
not spoken so sharply. Then she had a thought.
“Greta! Greta Klein!” she called, just as Greta was arranging the
bundles in the boat. Greta looked up and saw Mrs. Smith waving at her.
“Wait a minute, Greta.”
It was several minutes, while Greta stood at the home-made, funny
little dock that ran out narrowly into the lake. Then Mrs. Smith came
running down to her with a bundle in her hand. “I thought that you
might like some sugar cookies to eat on the way home. I want you to eat
them yourself, remember, and I’m going to ask you if you did!”
Greta smiled and looked surprised.
“And here is a book that I found in the cottage. A young cousin of
mine left it here last summer. If you can’t read it,–though you speak
such good English that I suppose you can,–you will find some pretty
pictures through it. It’s a story of girls about your age.”
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Smith, very, very much. I can read it and I
haven’t any books of my own! You are so kind!” Greta’s eyes were full
of tears at the unexpected warmth in Mrs. Smith’s tones. She had not
minded much being told to go to the back door. She ought to have
thought of it herself.
A happier girl rowed the boat back. She had a book of her own. She
would read it on her birthday. The only thing that troubled her was how
to keep it from being found and destroyed. She would hide it in the
barn this time, or perhaps she could get it into the attic, where the
Bible was. They let that alone.
The sugar cookies were good and with them was an apple. The fruit on
the Klein place was very limited now. Greta thought of saving it for
her brother, but questions would be asked. She would do what Mrs. Smith
told her to do. The book she could scarcely wait to open. Suppose
something should happen to it before she read it! She was almost
tempted to stop before taking home the clothes; but concealing the
volume as well as she could, she lugged home the bundles from a rude
dock nearer than the one by the willow.
Fortune favored her. Her mother and the children were out in the
pasture. Something was the matter with the horse. It lay on the ground,
she saw, but she flew to the attic with her treasure and tucked it
under the ragged quilt and old comforter that covered the cot where she
slept now. Even in the cold winter she often came here, for she was
afraid of her father when he came home so intoxicated; and sometimes
her mother would bring the smaller children to her there.
She supposed that her father had gone to see if a veterinary surgeon,
the “horse-doctor,” would come, and with such opportunity she
hesitated about leaving the book. But no, her mother would be angry if
she did not start the washing, late as it was. She ran down the stairs
and out into the shed for the tubs, unfortunately colliding slightly
with Jacob Klein when she opened the shed door quickly and stepped out.
Out of sorts about the horse and irritated by the sight of Greta and
her little bump against him, he roared out loudly in German, asking
her what she was doing and why she wasn’t doing her work, enforcing
his words with a blow that sent her stumbling to the other side of
the shed, where she hit her head against the metal tub hanging there
and fell unconscious. The man hesitated, with all his brutality, this
was the first time that Greta had not been able to dodge a blow. He
recalled his wife’s threat, a potent one, but the girl would be up in a
minute. What was he going to do about that horse?
When Greta regained consciousness, she was lying on the old cot in the
front room and some one was leaning over her. It was the horse-doctor!
“There; she’s coming around all right, Mrs. Klein. Tell her to keep
her head tied up if she doesn’t want a scar, and give her some more of
that medicine. I’m glad Jake told me about her before I started with
nothing but medicine for his horse. To tell the truth, Mrs. Klein, I
thought he was more anxious about the nag than about the girl. He said
that his oldest girl ran into a tub and cut her head and fell down in a
faint. How did it happen?”
“I didn’t see it. She slipped and fell, Jake said. He was in the house.
I was watching the horse.” This was all that Mrs. Klein would tell, in
her broken English, and Greta had no desire to tell more, though she
asked, “Will I have to wash to-day?”
“I should say not,” said the old doctor. “Get her to bed.” With this,
the doctor picked up a German paper that had come, as one did every
week to Jacob Klein, and prepared to remain until that child was put to
bed. Such unfeeling parents he never saw.
Greta, meanwhile, thought of the book. She did not want her mother in
the attic. She sat on the edge of the cot, dizzy and sick. But she had
often worked when she felt as much so. “I can get upstairs alone,” she
said, “I feel better now.” And upstairs she went, though slowly, taking
the bottle of medicine and a spoon, with a glass of water which her
mother handed her. To think of it! It was almost worth the blow to be
alone in her attic. She would feel better after a while, and read!
That night there was an unusually loud quarrel in the room below
Greta’s attic. “What did I tell you? You leave Greta alone unless you
want to go to jail. I will tell what I know!” This was the substance of
the German words that Greta Klein heard. What had her father done? Her
mother must care a little for her or she would not want her husband to
leave her alone. No, it was just that Greta could work! So the woman
went on to say. While he was drinking himself to death whenever he
could get anything to drink, Greta could do the work and earn the money
by washing and ironing. Jacob was to let Greta alone. She would manage
her. “She isn’t your child,–you are not her father!” Greta heard, and
sat up in bed to listen.
But after that the voices were lowered, and Greta heard the door of
their bedroom closed tightly. Her own door was ajar. That she rose to
close and latch as the old-fashioned fastening would permit.
If what Mrs. Klein said was true, it explained a good deal. Probably
her mother had been married before. And possibly, possibly, she was
only a step-daughter to Mrs. Klein herself. Greta felt ashamed that she
would be glad if that were true. And oh, how good it was,–not Jacob
Klein’s daughter! Then her name would not be Klein, even. Would she
dare ask her mother about it? Mrs. Klein was quite capable of telling
her that she had misunderstood what was said. Where had Greta gotten
these different ideas of what was square and right to do? All at once
she knew that she was different. But her head ached so. She had not
been able to read the story. She could think better to-morrow.