Story type: Literature
A CHARACTER SKETCH
They called her Treesa. She was not young. That she had ever been was hard to realize. Whatever her childhood, and however the years had brought her up to woman’s estate, there was no footprint upon the worn face of the gladsome time we call youth. No light in the eye of other and happier days. No echo in the quiet heart, of bounding pulses, or ever a sweet enthusiasm. The treadmill of duty in life’s most trivial task, enthralled her every faculty. Her daily round was in a large hotel–an arena of toil circumscribed by four brick walls. Her domain was the parlor floor; that sacred area of rosy vistas and costly suites, where she was as proud to tread as a king in his royal glory. Where beauty and fashion made for her a panorama of short glimpses amid pauses of broom and duster.
The maids on the other floors might earn the wage just as honorably; Treesa permitted no trespass upon her exalted territory. The bridal chambers, the private sitting rooms, the luxurious sleeping apartments–these were her pride and her joy. The Excelsior had a reputation, national and international. Princes and potentates had slumbered in Treesa’s chambers. The “nobility and the gentry” had been feted there. Year after year her pale eyes had watched over the welfare of distinguished visitors, American and foreign. They had seen the help come and go; she was still the “girl of the parlor floor.” Discreet, silent, honest, they might well allow her a share of caprice. “Cranky” they called her, yet no one found fault. She neglected no duty. The lady manager of the interior was not always the same. She changed from time to time; Treesa was always the same, and always there. At length there came a dainty little woman, full of native pluck, who was born to rule, and rule she did, to the limit of her jurisdiction. Though so far apart, a kindred chord was struck between mistress and maid. The high spirit that smouldered in these two never crossed; but with the smallest tangible demonstration they were fast friends. The girl’s horizon now bordered a triune interest;–the church, the mistress, and the parlor floor. Gaunt and spare, she trod her beat. Shy of manner, with eyes looking nowhere, she seemed a human machine of the broom. A woman without kith or kin, without a history, and apparently without a memory. Never sick, never absent, never a letter from friends, never a visit away. The old habitues of the house liked her. She gave no sign of favor or disfavor, till at last it was their way to respect her and leave her alone. But whenever a mission of trust was needed Treesa was the one called upon.
But as the calmest stream is ruffled at some time on its course, so there comes to every human life a shock that upturns hidden forces. And this came to Treesa. It was when she was one day summoned to the private office downstairs: that dread tribunal for the wrongdoers of the large household–a locality as little heeded by the girl as any other foreign place, albeit there had been new and strange proprietors as the years went by. Without so much as a ripple of excitement upon her homely features, she came down and stood within the door, respectfully awaiting orders. The two arbiters of her destiny were in close conference upon ways and means. Expense must be cut down. There must be a weeding out. Raising his head and looking in some curiosity at the queer apparition, the new partner said: “Are you Teresa O’Toole?”
“Me name is that same, sir,” she said, meeting the eyes. “An’ what thin, sir?” she added, as for a moment he was silent.
“Yes–ah–” he went on, this time not exactly confronting the expectant face–“We’ve been thinking, Teresa–we were just saying–that you are getting along in years now, and–ah–the fact is, we think you ought to have a rest. Some one younger, and stronger, ought to relieve you, and give you a chance to pick up. You are a good girl,” with encouraging justice, “a very good girl, and have been faithful and honest. But we–” he hesitated, as Treesa’s lean face suddenly darkened with an unwonted flush. Then she broke out:
“An’ is it me dischairge ye’d be afther givin’ me, sir?”
“Well, yes, about that, it amounts to that, I suppose,” admitted the great man. “You see, my good woman,” he ventured softly, noting the breakers ahead, “the fact is–“
“Well, thin,” she burst forth in righteous wrath, placing her hard, red arms akimbo, and struggling to loose her tongue, “I’ll be afther tellin’ yees, I’ll not take a dischairge from yees, sir! It’s here I’ve been this fifty year, an’ more. I was the first gurll in the house, for sure I come before the likes of yees was born an’ before yees iver darkened the doors. It’s no fault can be found with me. I’ll stay right here!” and turning, she went out.
There was silence in the office. Then the senior partner, his eye twinkling, spoke:
“What are we going to do about it?”
“Why, nothing”, drily said the other, “nothing, I suppose; you heard what she said, I presume she will stay on.”
And stay on she did, her one dominant idea as fixed as the polar star. As the years rolled by she might have rested from her labors, but for this sense of devotion to duty. Even a monthly pittance will count through the ages; so Treesa’s savings came at last to foot up into the thousands. Not even good Father Clement could have told the amount, or where she kept it. Like herself, it was a mystery. She continued to hoard and to hide, with no misgiving of loss by thief, or by accident; with no forewarning of danger. Yet dire calamity was impending.
It was past midnight when the veteran chambermaid was awakened by the sound of crackling wood and the smell of stifling smoke. To spring out of bed was the work of a moment, the aged limbs obedient to her call; then all her faculties alert, she thrust her hand into a hidden recess of the mattress, and clutching a bulky package from its depths, made her way out into the corridor, where the smoke was still thicker, on down the stairs from the servants’ dormitory to the floor below. Staggering to the manager’s door she pounded with all her strength till those within were aroused; and dizzy from fright and half-suffocation, she ran to the fire alarm, banging the gong till doors flew open right and left, and the halls were alive with people. The cry of “Fire!” on all sides now added to the din. More alarms were turned in till ample help was at hand. While the hotel manager’s orders were being obeyed, and the guests were deserting their rooms for greater safety in the lobby below, Treesa was struggling to get back to the servant’s floor, whence now issued screams of terror, as, for the first time, the flames were seen creeping in close proximity to the maid’s quarters. In vain the firemen, who were now cutting holes in the floor to insert the hose, tried to intercept her. Bent upon serving her fellow-servants, she disappeared through the blinding smoke Crawling flat upon her face up the stairs to avoid the onset of the fumes, the girl reached the glass door that imprisoned the terrified creatures, burst it through with one powerful blow, and forced them out upon the fire escape, where now, too, the firemen’s ladders were seen manned by the helmeted brigade. All bruised and bleeding from the splintered glass, and still clutching fast the rescued package, Treesa turned to retrace her steps, her only thought now being to save the parlor floor and its treasures. Again she eluded those who would have guarded her from danger, and made a hurried dash for the stairway, when a sudden rush of flame, now fanned by the air, blinded her, and she fell to the landing, dropping the bulk of her holdings, where the fire greedily licked it to destruction.
Tender hands lifted her and conveyed her, crushed and unconscious, to a temporary couch, where it was found, when the surgeon came, that her hip was dislocated. To the mistress alone would she unloose what her bleeding hand still held, as she whispered, “Put it away, safe–Masses for me soul–Father Clement.”
But Treesa did not die. The morning papers rang with her heroism, but none then knew that she had lost the hoarded earnings of a life-time; that the one package saved represented but a small proportion of her treasure. She was taken to a hospital, and, fortunately for her peace of mind, the house was closed for repairs. During the weeks of building, the old bones were mending. The sufferer counted the days with jealous watching. When an agony of fear seized upon her lest she might never go back, only the mistress or the kindly priest had power to quiet her, She was promised over and over again that she should not be supplanted.
When the hotel opened anew, the daily press blazoned to the world the fact, giving a personal paragraph to the officials, and including a list of well-known names, among them the humble one of Teresa O’Toole, who had been a chambermaid there during sixty years. This scrap of paper was held fast in the horny fingers, and seemed to the fevered senses to keep alive the link between her and the only home she knew.
Hither she was borne at last to a small room that was to be her portion and her pension forevermore. Her old quarters, austere and clean and bare, had been effaced by the carpenter’s hammer, and this corner retreat had been partitioned from a domestic recess in the rear. But it was on the parlor floor, that fetich of a devoted life. Crippled and useless, Treesa was an object of unobtrusive care. She kept her shrunken savings about her person, more unwilling than ever to trust the unexplored fields of finance. She grew querulous. She must be getting to her work again. Would the mistress be after letting her earn something–on the parlor floor, she tremulously added. Smiling sadly, permission was granted. Fondly the old creature took up her broom and duster–bought anew for her–and limped painfully toward the beloved rooms–the bridal chambers–the choicest suites where beauty and fashion came. What a journey now! The grand parlors and long corridors were interminable vistas of elegance and luxury. And–ah! what was that clinging to the velvet carpet pile? A bit of paper carelessly let fall? And–yes, was there dust on the polished marble of yon table? Alas! that her dim eyes should live to behold the desecration. What shiftless wretch was doing the parlor floor, and she a useless block in her room!
The shock told. She staggered to a gorgeous sofa near the offending bit of rubbish, and sunk down in the act of reaching for it. This was the beginning of the end. Lying on her bed sleep deserted the fading eyes. An attendant was provided, who grew accustomed to mutterings she could not understand. She ceased to listen. In pity the mistress came often and sat beside the couch. She listened and understood. She gathered the last wishes of the dying, and received as a sacred charge all that the sufferer had to leave. Still the angel of death tarried, until sweet peace shed a radiance over the departing soul, whose faith was steadfast to church and heaven.
At the first faint ray of dawn the mistress arose and went to her. The bed was empty, the nurse asleep. Following the instinct of the moment, the lady hastened along the quiet corridors to where the night taper showed the still form of the devoted veteran stretched out on the thick, soft carpet, her cold fingers clasping the new broom and duster.