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Devotion: A Romance
"Devotion" may be inspired by the beginning of The Hermit of Far End, by Margaret Pedler, as well as a particular scene in The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
“Be it in a short month from now or half a century, we shall be reunited—I shall search to the four corners and the ends of the earth, dearest, until I discover you.”
This phrase, or variants of it, may be extraordinarily common in romantic fiction, but perhaps it is not quite so very frequently that the promise is or must be fulfilled. Some time ago, long enough ago that the setting is romantic, the promise did indeed draw a man to seek out a lady. Rather, his admiration drew him, for he would not have held to his word if he no longer loved her. Some forty-odd years before the conclusion of the story, an extended prelude took place, beginning in the following manner.
William Baltimore's father demanded that the son move to another city, name of no importance, to learn how to manage the business he was to inherit, which was a mere excuse to remove him from the company of a certain Florencia Carr, whom he admired, but who was not wealthy enough for his mother's taste. Any proper lover would have refused to leave, as did William, but his father manipulated words to convince his son that, in a year to two, or three, he would be allowed to marry Miss Carr. Having always been a docile, easily-ruled child, having not realized that he was now a young man of age, he agreed, with this vow to Florencia:
“Flora, the words are trite, and the usual sentiment may be, as well, but I am in earnest as I assure you—no, I will promise to you—that I will return to you after this time of business. Wait, Flora, with all your patience, for—”
“My patience shall be everlasting, William,” she replied seriously and sweetly. “Only when I die, if I die before I am with you again, will I cease to watch and to listen for you—and even then, perchance, I shall have hope of finding you 'beyond.'”
They did not speak for very long; they parted in but five minutes, for each supposed that a sharper, shorter pain was preferable to a deeper, longer ache. William went to --------------- (city), and Flora remained in her home city—and Mr. Baltimore set to a devious work. He was quite wealthy, so he bought the business in which Mr. Carr was employed, and he promptly dismissed him—drastic measures, only to rid William of the girl whose money did not satisfy Mrs. Baltimore.
When Mr. Carr lost employment, he was blacklisted by Mr. Baltimore, so that he could only work for small, little-profitable businesses which needed workers but could pay little for their salaries. The Carr family moved again and again, from comfortable enough, to cheap, to poor lodgings, and their respectable appearance faded and wore away with their clothes. Flora went to work in a factory, where she bruised and roughened her little hands for a few pennies each day; her sister and brother worked, as well, as did her mother. The latter's care for their abode was not missed, because the place was so spare and small that it did not often “get out of order.”
Flora was the only young Carr whose education was completed, so she spent her evenings in tutoring her siblings, yawning and pinching herself all the while to keep awake. She still had a few of her schoolbooks, which she valued as gold, and the pages of which were turned with not a little reverence during their lessons. She would not permit the soiled, grubby Samuel to touch even their covers until she had fairly scoured his hands with a bristle brush.
A decade passed. Flora turned thirty, single as ever. Samuel, now twenty, had left his home a year ago to seek a fortune; they heard from him only rarely, for he had not usually money enough to afford paper and a stamp. Priscilla, the youngest, was a factory girl like her thirteen years-elder sister, but less nimble, and so worse paid. Rents rose, salaries fell, Mr. Carr weakened, and the family toiled on, knowing no forward thought but worry and no recollection at all, for they had not the time for such luxury in their working hours, while the remaining few were tightly budgeted for dining and uncomfortable repose.
All wore rags, gray, patched, and grimy, the grime becoming one with the cloth and never washing out, though Mrs. Carr scrubbed as hard as she dared. Granted, she could not scrub as vigorously as she might have, as that would have torn the frail material to shreds. All their clothes were in such a state, except for one dress which Flora kept, folded in a sheet of muslin, in a trunk in the low-raftered attic. She kept it aside so that she would have something fine—fine by her present standard—to wear for William, when he came back to her. Aye, it was now out of style, but it was still clean, its color still becoming to her.
Six years later, she was glad she had kept the gown, when Priscilla was married and she could give her something pretty to wear on that day. The garment was not white, but pink, but beggars are not often choosers, and Priscilla was thankful. Florencia was half jealous, until she curbed herself, forced herself to ignore her own thoughts. Only a year after that, Mr. and Mrs. Carr went to the city in which their younger daughter had taken up residence, pulling their elder along, she dragged against will to care for them, because they were growing old and ailing. Were she yet twenty, she would have had utter faith in William's promise, but as a grown woman, she lost her gilding of romanticism and gained a rust of dreary reality; she expected him no longer. Yet loss of romanticism is hardly loss of love, and she never ceased yearning to behold him picking his way down the littered alleyway to knock on her door and lead her away from her tenement life.
Aye, she would have been wholly glad to see him. It would not have been an embarrassment in the least, nor a degradation; she knew that he valued the girl—or the woman—rather than her surroundings, and she knew that the social and economic descent had been the doing of neither herself nor her people. It had been chance, for she knew naught of Mr. Baltimore's scheme.
And time passed on and on, years flying from the calendar like autumn leaves, three decades elapsing before anything occurred which is important to this tale. In this time, Florencia turned from Miss Carr, middle-aged woman of the aristocratic raise of chin, to “Old Florrie,” the woman who, upon growing too feeble for factory work, took up mending for a low rate. She was a strange woman: she looked sour and careless as anything; she was hunched of shoulder; her dirty, grey hair was ever piled in a sagging bun; and her every joint was nearly as stiff as starched linen—and if a girl, collecting her mother's new-mended fabrics, dropped a bit of chit-chat about her admirer, the woman's wrinkled lips would turn up at one corner, and her squinted eyes would blink slowly. She could speak like an educated woman, as well, though she usually used the tenement dialect, fluently as though she has been born in that district.
That peculiar old woman is the same body who once smiled under the sun in a well-to-do neighborhood, who told William Baltimore that “her patience would be everlasting.” It has, indeed. She was pretty, and many of the men whom she met, even when she was in her forties, would have taken her in a trice, but she refused and discouraged them, not quite with a vengeance, but with immoveable decision. She is the same body who lived so glad a life; could she be the same spirit and mind? Truly, she has been embroiled in a regular battle, a war between her girlhood and womanhood environments, in which she has fought with figurative tooth and claw to remain Florencia Carr, of “gentle breeding” and cultured ways. At heart she won, but few of those amongst whom she abides are refined enough to be her confidants. And I believe this overview of the past thirty years is complete enough for me to continue my narration.
Mr. William Baltimore inherited his father's business, increased it significantly, and consequently increased his affluence by the same factor. He was prominent in society, and for a good many years he was viewed as a challenge—almost every wealthy, single girl and woman with any sense of competition in her at all attempted to give him cause to forget the unknown girl to whose memory he was loyal. However, not one of them succeeded, and Mr. Baltimore aloofly overlooked all their endearments, et cetera, to remember and search for Miss Florencia Carr, even when he was considered “elderly.”
At long last, he stumbled upon the intelligence that she had quite left the city and moved to another, and not much later, he discovered someone who knew to which she had gone. After much searching through that haystack, and many wrong “Floras” discovered, he heard of a woman by name of Old Florrie, which was not a name by which he would have expected to find Florencia called. Near desperate, however, he decided to seek out this personage, telling himself that even a half chance was better than none.
Thus, one October day, two distinguished, well-dressed men, one elderly and one on the cusp of it, walked steadily through the narrow, icy, snowy, slushy, filthy, garbage-littered streets of a neighborhood that was all in smoke and soot.
“What address did the man give?” asked Mr. Baltimore of his valet.
“He said three-nineteen Somerset Place,” said the valet, “but, sir, I cannot observe either street names or numbers on buildings.”
They resigned themselves to knocking on doors and making inquiries, which led them up one street and down another, until they finally found fortune enough to be informed that their object's abode was “up two floors and at the far end of the hall, on the left—or was it the right?”
They discovered it to be the left, there being nothing to the right but a closet of some variety. The valet shook his head as they climbed up two sets of creaky and uneven stairs to a dim hall, low of ceiling, with a floor scuffed and bare but for a coating of dirt, at which the poor man muttered his disgust at the entire area.
Mr. Baltimore knocked on the decrepit left-hand door, which was answered by a girl of about twelve years old. She cowered behind the door when she beheld their grandeur, whispering nervously, “What do you want?”
“Do you know, Miss, anyone by the name of—Old Florrie?” the dash signifying his hesitation to speak such a hideous name. With some dread, he added, “Might she be your grandmother?”
“My Auntie's name is Flora... I think some of the others call her Florrie. Why—why do you want her?”
Why did he want her! She was but the dearest, quickest, fairest girl with whom he had ever met, the girl to whom he had vowed to return—but he thought it less alarming to reply that he had once met her, and he had some business with her, which perplexed the niece, although it answered her question sufficiently. She gave a shy, “Come in,” and held the door open for them.
The previous events had more or less flown, the morning having been spent in a hurry and flutter, with travel here, there, and everywhere until the man and valet located this building. Now, as Mr. Baltimore entered the one-room apartment, he got his feet back under him, so to speak, and put his thoughts to rights, and felt the rush ease, and so he then observed his surroundings.
The room was not more than twelve feet by the same, though hardly crowded at that. There was an old stove, quite small, on which was a small pot of something, cooking quietly—he thought it might be cabbage, perhaps with potatoes, or oats. There was a pallet in one corner, raised on barrels and covered by a moth-eaten blanket; and on the wall parallel the door was a set of knocked together shelves adorned by two chipped canisters, a broken basket half full of partially rotten potatoes, and a small stack of dishes, also chipped. To a wobbly table were drawn two old stools, one occupied by a bony figure with a sagging bun of grey, free of tangles but not of general filth. She sewed slowly and neatly on a cloth of some sort, reaching stiffly over to stir the cabbage from time to time, her fingers clumsy as they grasped a battered spoon. Her wrinkles were emphasized by the soot in their crevices, and the effect of the dark lines in the skin that seemed draped over bone was strange. Through this disguise, however, William Baltimore could see that she was Florencia Carr; he felt some pain and some anger, the latter at circumstance when he realized how poor was her life, and though he was no hot-headed, impetuous young man, he was rather hard-put to prevent himself from taking up the poor lady in his arms, to shield her from her surroundings as he took her away from them.
Instead of this action, he said quietly, “Flora.”
She was not deaf in the least, and her memory for this—her love-memory—was well nigh perfect—and she, Florencia, turned her head, cast her eyes up with hope, followed by joy, and put down her work on the table. As steadily as ever a body could, the woman stepped forward to William, and then, in falling against him and embracing him with what strength she had, she told him all that even the most eloquent could not have vocalized, glorying all the more in the meeting because of the misery from which she came.
And lovers will be lovers, no matter their ages. William may have numbered his years at one and seventy, but that made him no less a man who had searched the world for his beloved and found her at long last. Nor was Florencia any less a woman whose dearest hope had been realized, who smiled to her core when William exclaimed, “Flora, Flora! How did you wait so long? Never did I suppose your discovery would not occur for more than forty years—forty years! Dear woman, Flora, with such patience and faith!”
“Dear man—William—with such perseverance and love.”
Is it not miraculous that they took no notice of squalor or company? The valet was certainly shocked, although not precisely appalled, when his master took it into his head to kiss this “Flora” of the grimy aspect. Aye, the dignified, proper, generally staid old man took it into his head to kiss the raggedy, neglected old woman's thin and wrinkled lips, before the dutiful valet and the innocent niece—but I think a wait of nearly fifty years justifies him; do not you? At any rate, Florencia did.
In a moment or two, William asked, “And will you come from here, now?”
“May I take my niece, Prissy?” asking only for the sake of politeness, for she knew that he would not refuse.
“Indeed! Is there anything else you should like to take?”
Florencia looked about her, espied no treasures but the dear man and the timid girl, and shook her head slowly, as if oddly hesitant to go. How lovely it would feel to resume her old status, but also how strange. It would be like stepping from a cavern to the cloudless day outside, to shiver from the new warmth even as she relished it, and to squint though she loved to see the sunlit world.
“Oh, William,” she cried suddenly, “I cannot go, for I look such a sight, so dirty, so worn!”
Which was hardly anything of a problem, when William sent his valet off to purchase two clean gowns and some gently soap, which the all-enduring man did, utterly straight of face, as quickly as he could. He returned by late afternoon, and then Florencia and Prissy bathed in warm water, using the last of their coal to heat it, and made themselves respectable enough to be seen in the better areas of the city.
A neighbor happened to open her door as the party passed, and she called, “Florrie—Prissy! What—what are you about?”
Florencia turned, her hair catching light from a hallway lamp and shining to match her eyes. “I am about my former business,” she replied, as she shook the other woman's grubby hand in her own, which was now clean.
“With whom! Who is that man, in his fine things and such?”
“Mr. William Baltimore,” said Florencia, with a countenance and tone which gave the neighbor to understand that “Old Florrie's” life was ended, while Miss Carr would be an old maid no more. Yes, the woman saw the future in every word, glance, and gesture between the two as she enviously and happily watched them down the hall. She saw Flora stumble on her way down the stairs, at which William, whose limbs and heart were yet strong, lifted her up and conveyed her to the bottom and out to the street, where was a coach, summoned thence by the valet. And, after that man had guided little Prissy into the vehicle, his master lifted in the lady, and all left the tenements behind them in life, if not in thought and conversation.
And at the Baltimore Residence, on Fifth Avenue, one could for years see the queer family—the old man and lady who almost seemed as though they were no older than thirty; and the merry, lovely niece who knew not whether to call them uncle and aunt, father and mother, or grandfather and grandmother; and, of course, there was the valet, who wondered at it all but could scarcely lament.