"He looks the thoroughbred, through and through," declared Mrs. Davenport. "See how majestically he moves. Duke would be a good name for him. Here, Duke. Here, Duke."
At the call, the dog raised his head and came bounding up to the carriage. By a strange coincidence, Mrs. Davenport had hit upon his name.
"Come here, Duke," cried Beth.
Large as the dog was, he jumped into the back part of the carriage where Marian and Beth sat. Both children were wild with delight.
"Papa, let's take him home with us," begged Marian.
Mr. Davenport, however, would not listen to the suggestion.
"He is a very valuable dog, and it would not be honorable," he declared. "Push him out immediately."
Both children began pleading, but Mr. Davenport proved relentless. Therefore, Duke was finally put out of the carriage.
"Go home, Duke," cried Mr. Davenport, driving on.
The children looked back to see if the dog obeyed. To their joy, they saw him following as unconcerned as before. Mr. Davenport took out the whip and waved it at him. Duke stopped a second or two, and then started after them at a little greater distance.
"Well," said Mr. Davenport, "all we can do is to let him come with us now. To-morrow, I shall inquire in town and find his owner."
So Duke lodged at the Davenports that night, and was treated by the children as a royal guest. He captivated their hearts from the first, and he fully responded to their love.
At breakfast the next morning, Mr. Davenport looked up from his paper and said:
"Well, here is a notice of Duke's loss. I do not wonder that he ran away. This Brown who advertises is one of the hardest drinkers in town. Poor dog, to have such a master."
"Papa, couldn't you buy Duke?" asked Beth.
"I may consider the matter. Don't set your heart on the dog, however. He is very valuable, and Brown may not wish to part with him."
That day, at noon, Beth and Duke were frolicing near the barn. Suddenly, without seeming cause, Duke rushed towards the house, looking crestfallen. Beth, however, soon saw why Duke had run. She beheld a man walking up the driveway towards her. She had grown accustomed to Southern politeness, and resented the man's not raising his hat when he said:
"Hello, little un. I've come after my dog. Where is he?"
Beth's heart sank. "Who are you?" she stammered.
"My name is Brown, and I've come after Duke."
"But I thought my papa was going to buy him."
The man laughed. "The old fellow did offer to buy him, but I wouldn't sell. I told him I wouldn't take a hundred dollars for the dog. But hurry up, little un, and get Duke for me."
Beth felt more resentful than ever. The man had dared to call her father "old fellow," and herself "little un." Besides, he had come for Duke. There were tears in her eyes, but she brushed them angrily away, and declared defiantly:
"You can hunt him up for yourself. I don't know where he is."
The man swore under his breath, and muttered something about having no use for people who tried to steal dogs. However, he moved on towards the house.
Beth was so anxious about the outcome of his errand that she followed at a cautious distance.
The man met Maggie at the kitchen door.
"Hello, mammy," he said. "Where is my dog Duke?"
Maggie caught sight of Beth's eyes, and intuitively felt the child's solicitude. She was up in arms in a minute.
"Yo' needn't mammy me; I ain't yo'r mammy; and what's more if I cotch yo' takin' any dog from here, I'se gwineter give yo' the worst frailin' yo' ever had. So yo' jes' bettah be skeedadlin'."
At this instant, Mrs. Davenport came to the door.
"If you wish Duke, you'll have to come into the house and get him. He's hiding behind the bed in the spare room, and I can't get him to come out."
Brown, unmindful of Maggie's threat, perhaps realizing that her bark was worse than her bite, went with Mrs. Davenport to the spare room. Beth followed after them. Brown got down upon his knees and tried to entice the dog out. Duke, however, would not budge.
"Beth, if you called him perhaps he'd come," suggested Mrs. Davenport.
Beth burst into tears. "Mamma, I can't do it. It breaks my heart to have him go."
The man arose. There was a kindlier light in his eyes. "Little un, get him for me and I'll promise not to whip him."
"Dear," whispered Mrs. Davenport, "call him; it is a kindness to Duke. He belongs to the man."
So Beth called, and immediately Duke answered the summons. However, he shrank from his owner.
"Duke," said Beth, "we'd like to keep you, but we can't. You must go quietly."
Mr. Brown had a leather collar which he fastened on the dog. Then he led him quietly away. Beth cried, and even Mrs. Davenport's eyes were suspiciously moist.
That night it rained, and the Davenports had a wood-fire around which they gathered. Beth was just saying, "I wish I could have kept Duke," when she was interrupted by a noise upon the piazza.
"It sounds like a convict with chains," suggested Marian, who had a lively imagination.
Beth looked towards the front window and cried:
Sure enough, with his paws upon the window ledge, and his great intelligent eyes looking at them, there was Duke looking very triumphant.
Marian and Beth rushed to the front door, and called him into the house. He came all wet and muddy, dragging a great chain which he had evidently broken. Notwithstanding his drabbled condition, both children were demonstrative in their greeting, and their parents could not find it in their hearts to object. In fact, Duke was brought in beside the fire and made much of that night.
The next forenoon his owner came to carry Duke away. In leaving, he remarked to Maggie that he'd see—well, that the dog didn't get away again.
That day passed without any new developments, but the next morning the Davenport family was wakened by a series of barks.
Marian and Beth immediately jumped out of bed, and rushed out upon the upper piazza. In the yard below, looking as conscious as a truant child, was Duke.
Beth, not waiting to put on anything over her night-dress, rushed down-stairs and opened the door for the dog. At once, she noticed an ugly gash on the front of his chest. The Davenports could not imagine how he received it, but they doctored and petted him to his great delight.
Soon after breakfast, Mr. Brown again appeared, very indignant over Duke's truancy.
"I'll make the ugly beast pay for all the trouble he has caused me," he muttered, flourishing before the cowering dog a riding whip which he carried.
"You shan't whip him," declared Marian, her eyes blazing. "I'll—I'll have you arrested if you do."
Beth looked as if she would like to hug Marian for her boldness. The man laughed.
"I ain't going to whip him. It wouldn't do no sort of good. But I'll outwit the ugly beast yet. It seems as if I couldn't keep him from you, but I'll get the better of him yet. Last night I locked him in a room in the barn where all the lower sashes are barred with iron. He kept me awake howling most of the night. Not till morning was he quiet. I thought I'd conquered him, but when I went to the barn my dog was gone. I found the upper glass in one of the windows broken, and saw that he must have jumped and escaped that way, though it seems incredible."
"That's the way he cut himself," declared Marian, giving Duke a parting love pat.
That day, Mr. Brown, by means of a heavy chain, led Duke down to one of the river boats.
"Keep an eye on this dog," he said to the captain; "I'll chain him up well here. At Silver Lake a man'll come aboard for him. I'm sending him there because he runs away."
Duke howled so pitifully that after the boat was well under way from Jacksonville one of the sailors took pity on him and unloosed him, supposing him perfectly safe aboard boat in midwater.
However, Duke was not to be hindered by obstacles. With one bound, he leaped to the side of the boat and jumped overboard.
"Well," the captain muttered, "I don't know what Brown'll say, but it can't be helped."
Duke swam immediately to shore. There one of the wharf hands saw him as he landed, and exclaimed:
"Why, that's Brown's dog. Perhaps he'll give me something if I take him home."
So the wharf hand caught Duke and took him up to Brown's home at noon. Brown, who had been drinking and was in a very unpleasant mood, was struck with amazement at sight of the dog. He gave the wharf hand some small change, and, when he was gone, took Duke into the back yard and beat him. Next, he tied the dog with an extra heavy chain.
"There," he exclaimed, "you're stronger than I think you are if you break that."
Ill-usage had thoroughly aroused Duke. When Mr. Brown was out of sight, he struggled so vigorously that the collar around his neck worked into the raw flesh. Undaunted, however, he struggled on until he again broke his fetters. Away he bounded over the four miles to the Davenports'. Needless to say, the children were overjoyed to see him.
To their surprise, Mr. Brown did not appear that day, nor the following morning. Consequently, Mr. Davenport went up to his house at noon, and asked to see him. Brown by this time was sober, and at heart ashamed of his treatment of Duke.
"Brown," said Mr. Davenport in greeting, "I've come to tell you that your dog is out at our place again."
"I supposed as much," he answered curtly.
"Well, why haven't you been out for him?"
"It's labor lost. I can't keep the dog."
Mr. Davenport hesitated a moment.
"Brown, perhaps we've been somewhat to blame in this matter, but, really, I couldn't help the children's making a fuss over the dog. Beth, my youngest child, was grieving herself sick over the death of a favorite dog, and Duke won her heart at once. For her sake, I'd be very glad if you'd sell the dog."
"I won't sell the dog."
Mr. Davenport walked to the door.
"I don't see that there is anything that I can do then except to send Duke back to you. I'll have one of my darkies bring him in to-morrow morning."
Mr. Brown did not answer a word. However, when Mr. Davenport was halfway down the steps, he stopped him and said:
"I'm the only one to blame. I see that love is more powerful that hate. Tell your little girl to keep the dog. I make her a present of him with one condition. If you ever leave Florida, I want the dog back. Good-morning."
Before Mr. Davenport could utter a word, Brown closed the door as if fearful of gratitude.
One day, a strange white dog appeared at the Davenports'. No one knew whence she came. Perhaps Duke enticed her to the house. He tried to bespeak Beth's interest by barking vigorously and jumping up and down wildly, as if begging the child to keep her.
At first, it was hard for Beth to feel any interest in the dog. It was fearfully thin, and always acted as if it expected to be kicked. It had one redeeming feature in that its eyes were very beautiful. They were large and brown, with a mildly pathetic look that appealed to Beth's soft heart so that she decided to keep the dog.
For the first few days the newcomer sneaked under the house when any one was around. When she saw, however, that she was left unmolested, she gained courage. Duke was all devotion, and the white dog thrived under such attention. She freshened up so well that Beth wondered how she ever thought the dog ugly. Kindness and good food work wonders with dogs as well as with people. The days of her stay lengthened into months.
One morning, Beth came running in from the barn, her eyes brilliant from excitement.
"Mamma, mamma," she called, "what do you think? White dog"—they had never given her a name—"has seven of the cutest little puppies you ever saw. Duke took me out and showed them to me."
"Duke took you out?"
"Yes, mamma. When I went out to play with him this morning he caught hold of my dress and tried to pull me towards the barn. I thought he was just playing; but when he did it the second time, I followed him, and he led me to white dog and the puppies. Oh, they're the cutest things you ever saw."
Beth watched the growth of the puppies with great interest. She was delighted when their eyes opened, and when they began to run around she was almost too happy for words.
That night she said to her papa: "I've been thinking about Mr. Brown. He must miss Duke awfully. He wasn't such a horrid man after all, or he wouldn't have let me keep Duke."
Mr. Davenport smiled. "Beth, a man was talking to me about him to-day. The man said Brown was trying to reform; that he hadn't taken any liquor for some time past. I was very glad to hear it."
Beth pondered a minute or two, then asked:
"Do you think if he had a dog now he'd be nice to it?"
"Yes, I believe he would. Brown wasn't half bad except when he drank. But you're not thinking of giving Duke back to him, are you?"
Beth shook her head very vigorously. "I couldn't do that, papa. I love Duke too much."
She said no more but got out paper and pencil. She was backward in all schooling at this time, and could only print. However, she sat down at the table beside her father and went to work. It proved a very difficult task to her, but she persevered until she finished. Most of the correctly spelled words she learned from her father.
This is what she wrote:
"To dukes master duke has puppies wood you like a pup i havent thanked you for duke but i love duke very much and think you a nice man to give duke to me
"your little friend
She put the note in an envelope and sealed it. Then she said to her father:
"Papa, will you give this to Mr. Brown? He's to have one of Duke's puppies if he wants it."
Mr. Davenport delivered the note as desired.
The next afternoon, Beth saw a buggy turn in at their place, and presently she discerned Mr. Brown within it. She waited, half-bashful, until he drove up.
He leaped from the buggy and raised his hat. Beth was delighted because in every way he seemed so much improved.
"I've come for the puppy."
"It's in the barn, I'll get it for you," cried Beth, running there as fast as she could.
Duke was playing with the puppies. When Beth appeared and took one he followed her out, but at sight of his former owner, he stopped still. Mr. Brown, however, called out pleasantly:
"Hello, Duke, I'm not going to take you away. Won't you come to me? Come, nice dog."
Duke must have felt the transformation in his former master, for he allowed Mr. Brown to pat him. Beth did not say a word, but held out the puppy. Mr. Brown took it, and said a little brokenly:
"I'm not used to making nice speeches to little girls, but you're very good to give this puppy to me."
"Why, it's nothing at all. Didn't you give me Duke?" murmured Beth.
He hesitated an instant. "But it means a great deal to me. It shows that you trust me. Missy, I promise never to strike this one as long as I have him. Good-bye."
Thereupon he jumped into the buggy and drove away.
Beth returned to the barn with Duke. January as usual was idling. He had his fiddle and was playing "Dixie." Beth sat down on the hay near him, while the dog family frolicked around her. She was happy, so happy that from sheer light-heartedness she began to sing.
Duke pricked up his ears. White dog cocked her head to one side, and the six puppies followed their parents' example. Duke uttered a low deep howl that chimed in with Beth's singing. White dog howled in a high soprano and the six little dogs did likewise, but in shriller tones. Beth was so surprised that she stopped singing, and the dogs immediately ceased howling, evidently waiting for Beth to lead them.
She began to sing again, and the dogs began to howl, swaying their heads from side to side.
Their howling was so funny that Beth had to laugh, January joining in. Beth then ran into the house for Mrs. Davenport.
"Mamma, come and hear the concert," she cried.
"Come with me and you'll see, if they'll do it again. It's the funniest singing you ever heard."
Beth led her mother to the barn.
"Where are the singers?" asked Mrs. Davenport.
"Wait," answered Beth, calling the dogs to her. Then she began singing and the dogs began howling, holding their heads high in the air. Duke, however, proved lazy. He would come in only once in a while with his deep bass, but this made the effect more funny.
Mrs. Davenport laughed over the performance until her sides ached. That afternoon Beth and the dogs had another concert for the benefit of Mr. Davenport and Marian. In the evening the Gordons and the Bakers called, and, hearing of the wonderful concert, they insisted upon a repetition of it. The lantern was brought in, therefore, and, with Beth heading the procession, the party adjourned to the barn. The dogs were asleep, but at the first sound of Beth's shrill little voice, they all, even to the smallest pup, pricked up their ears, and then howled in concert. After that Beth's concert became famous. People drove out from Jacksonville to see and hear the canine musicale. After a time Beth trained the dogs so that they would sit up in a row on their hind legs while they sang. They were apparently carried away by the music, and appeared quite human in their vanity, swaying their bodies and rolling their eyes in a very ludicrous manner, while howling an accompaniment to Beth's singing.
Duke greatly endeared himself to the Davenports by his wonderful sagacity. He could almost talk. One of the very smartest things he ever did happened in this wise:
Beth had a sudden attack of fever.
"We must have a doctor," said Mrs. Davenport.
Beth overheard the remark. Since her experience of the stitches under her nose, she hated all doctors; so she declared:
"I don't want any horrid doctor. I'll get well without one. Really I will."
Mrs. Davenport laid a cooling hand on her head, and said soothingly:
"Can't you trust mamma to do what is best?"
Thereupon she gave private instructions to Mr. Davenport to get a doctor as soon as possible, after which she neglected all work, trying to keep Beth quiet.
Two little kittens, brothers of those brought by Gustus in the winter, crawled up on the lounge ready for play. Even their antics tired Beth. When the doctor came, he looked serious over the child's condition.
"She must be put to bed immediately," was his first order.
"I'll have her carried up-stairs," said Mrs. Davenport.
The doctor was a very blunt man and declared plainly:
"She's too sick to be moved. Have a bed brought in here if you can."
Without arguing the question, Mrs. Davenport ordered the servants to bring down an iron cot. Her commands were carried out quietly and with haste, and soon Beth was undressed and in bed. She was delirious by this time, and did not even note that a doctor was present.
He studied the case silently for a few minutes. He was a well-meaning man, but a doctor of the old school. He believed that if medicine was a good thing, the more one took the better. Also, if dieting was good, semi-starvation was better.
He therefore wrote out five or six prescriptions, all of very strong drugs. He also ordered that she should be fed only on gruels.
Duke seemed to grieve over Beth's illness extremely. He would not play with the puppies, and would eat hardly anything. At first, he walked into the room where Beth was and lay down beside her cot. When he saw he was in the way there, he took up his position on the piazza outside the door, and could hardly be induced to move. Even white dog failed to entice him away.
Anxious times followed for the Davenports. The fear of losing Beth made each member of the family realize, as never before, how very dear the little, mischievous child was to them. She was mischievous no longer, however. She was so patient that Mrs. Davenport feared more than ever that she would die. Often Beth would smile so beatifically that her mother thought she must be thinking of angels and heaven.
"Dearie, of what are you thinking?" she once asked.
Beth's face was illumined with a more heavenly light than ever as she drew a long breath and answered:
"Oh mamma, I was thinking how good some Bologna sausage, or anything besides horrid old gruel, would taste."
The truth of the matter was that the child was half-starved. Still the doctor insisted that she should have nothing but mutton or rice gruel, and those only in very small quantities. Under such treatment she wasted to a mere shadow of her former chubby self.
She proved a tyrant in one respect, in that she would have no one but her mother to watch her. If Mrs. Davenport left the room when Beth was awake, Beth at once worried herself into a high fever. The strain was telling upon Mrs. Davenport, but so great was her anxiety that she would hardly take needed rest.
One day Beth was asleep, and Maggie tip-toed into the room and whispered to Mrs. Davenport:
"Dear Miss Mary, won't yo' please let dis ole mammy watch de honey lamb for jes' a little while. Yo' knows I lub her wid all my heart, an' I wouldn't let nuffin harm de pet for de world. Yo' go into de odder room an' rest awhile. If de precious lamb wants yo', I'll call right away, honest."
Thus urged, Mrs. Davenport decided to grant Maggie's request, and she left the room without disturbing Beth's slumbers.
Maggie sat down by the cot. The sight of Beth so emaciated melted Maggie almost to tears. She thus soliloquized:
"Dat horrid ole medicine man, he jes' ought to be made to live on gruels de rest of his life, so he ought. It's jes' ter'ble to starve de chile de way he does. I'd like to be her doctah awhile. I'd order chicken and possum, an'——"
Suddenly Beth's eyes opened. "Maggie, what did you cook for dinner to-day?"
Maggie confided to her husband afterwards:
"Law, Titus, does yo' tink I could sit up dar an' tell dat precious chile we had chicken when I knew her little stomack was jes' groanin' for chicken? No, 'deed. Do I am deaconess, I'd rather be burned for a lie. So I jes' answers as pert-like as pos'ble. 'Law, honey, we jes' had mutton like yo'r brof is made of.'"
Beth, however, was not to be deceived. Her senses had grown unusually acute during her sickness. She pointed her finger at Maggie and said:
"Maggie, that's not true. You had chicken and biscuits, for I smelled them. Oh, I'm so hungry."
Maggie sighed sympathetically. "Law, honey, would yo' like some brof?"
"Broth," repeated Beth almost in tears. "I hate broth. I'll starve before I eat any more. I want chicken. Please, please get me some."
The appeal melted Maggie completely. She arose and called Duke from the doorway.
"Duke," she said, pointing to the cot, "don't yo' let any one come near missy till I come back. Do yo' understand?"
The delighted dog wagged his tail, and Maggie left the room.
Duke's first impulse was to rush up to the cot, and show his joy in true dog fashion. He longed to cover Beth's face and hands with kisses. He knew, however, that excitement was bad for her. He therefore walked quietly up to the cot and laid his head down beside his little playmate as if inviting a caress. She put a weak little hand on his head.
"Yes, Dukie, I know you love me."
Maggie re-entered the room. In her hand was a plate, and on that plate was a large slice of white chicken meat. Beth's eyes glistened at sight of it.
"Dar, honey chile, dey jes' shan't starve yo' to death. Here am a whole lot ob chicken for yo'."
Beth grabbed the plate. "Oh, Maggie, it's—it's heavenly."
Suddenly, Maggie heard Mrs. Davenport approaching. Her eyes rolled tragically.
"Law, honey, it's yo'r maw. Hide de chicken under yo'r pillow. I'll get rid of her, an' den yo' can eat de chicken in peace. Quick, honey, or she'll take it away from yo'."
Beth put the plate with the chicken under her pillow. Maggie tried to look unconcerned.
Mrs. Davenport entered the room. "Well, my dearie is awake, is she?"
"Oh, mamma, I'm so hungry. I do wish I could have a piece of chicken."
"No, no, dearie, that would never do. I'll get you some lovely mutton broth."
Tears rose in Beth's eyes. "I don't want broth."
"Oh, yes, you do, dearie." Mrs. Davenport left the room to get the broth. Maggie went to the bed and drew out the chicken.
"Quick, honey, yo' eat it while she's gone and she need neber know."
Beth's eyes feasted on the chicken for a second or two. She halfway put out a hand for it, but quickly drew it back again.
"No, Maggie, it wouldn't be honorable."
"Law, child, yo'd bettah eat it. Yo'r maw'll find me with it, and den she'll blame me."
Beth held out her hand for the plate. She looked at the chicken very longingly, and Maggie thought that she had made up her mind to eat it. She did take up the meat, but she held it out to Duke, saying:
"It'll be honorable for you to eat it. Duke, and then mamma'll never blame Maggie. It was very nice of you, Maggie, to get it for me, but I couldn't deceive mamma."
Duke gulped the meat down at one swallow much to the envy of Beth. She held out the empty plate to Maggie.
"Take it away, Maggie. The smell of it makes me so dreadfully hungry."
Maggie took it and left the room, muttering:
"It's a ter'ble shame, a ter'ble shame."
Mrs. Davenport came in with the steaming broth.
"Here, dearie, is your broth."
Beth burst into tears. "I can't eat it. I just can't touch the horrid stuff. Please take it away."
Her mother did not attempt to argue the question. That afternoon, when the doctor came, she asked:
"Isn't there something else we can feed her on, doctor?"
He pondered for a moment. "Well, she seems to be improving a little, and if we could get a bird or a rabbit we might make her some broth out of that."
"I think rabbit broth would be delicious," cried Beth rapturously.
Mrs. Davenport said:
"We'll send January to town to see if we can get a rabbit or a quail."
An hour later January returned and reported: "Dere ain't no rabbit or no bird in de market, Miss Mary."
Beth was very much disappointed, but was pacified, however, by the assurance that darkies would be sent out to hunt rabbits in the morning. She even consented to take a little rice gruel, cheered by the prospects of having something better on the morrow.
In the morning, when the darkies were ready for hunting rabbits, Mrs. Davenport said to Duke:
"Go with them, old fellow. Perhaps you can chase a rabbit down for your little mistress. She wants a rabbit very, very much."
He seemed to understand, for he rose and went with the hunters. Rabbit hunting was his favorite pastime. Therefore he displayed the first signs of joy that he had shown since Beth's sickness. He bounded lightly across the fields, sniffing the ground expectantly.
At first the darkies were encouraged by his manner, and followed him on and on. When, however, they had gone many miles, and most of the forenoon passed without Duke's scaring up a single rabbit for them, they became discouraged. In fact, they returned to the house and reported their ill-luck to Mrs. Davenport.
"I reckon dis ain't time for rabbits. We didn't see a single one all dis time."
"Where is Duke?" asked Mrs. Davenport.
The darkies grinned. "Oh, dat fool dog, he ain't no sense at all. We tried to get him to come wid us, but he went on sniffin' as if he was jes' bound to have a rabbit, even when dar ain't none."
"Well," said Mrs. Davenport, with feeling, "I only wish you had half the perseverance of Duke. If he could understand like you, he would go until he dropped before he'd give up."
She therefore had to go to Beth and report their failure. The poor child cried and cried, she was so very much disappointed.
"I'll—I'll starve, and I'm so terribly hungry," she moaned.
"Dearie, if you'll only take some gruel, I'll get you the most beautiful doll you ever saw, or a ring, or anything you wish."
At the moment, even this promise failed in appealing to Beth. She desired rabbit more than anything else in the world.
"Won't you please try some gruel, dear? Won't you, to please me?"
"I'll—I'll try, but I don't believe I can swallow a bit of the nasty stuff. I want rabbit."
Mrs. Davenport hurried away to get the gruel.
Left to herself, Beth continued to cry.
"I don't believe God cares for me, or He'd have sent me a rabbit. I asked Him last night when I prayed. Miss Smith"—her Sunday-school. teacher—"says God always answers prayer if it is good for one, and I'm sure rabbit is good for me."
The tears came a little faster.
"She says, though, one must ask awfully hard. Perhaps I don't ask hard enough. I'll ask again."
Beth folded her hands and closed her eyes.
"Dear God, I can't eat gruel any more. I'll die if I have to eat gruel, and I don't want to die. I want rabbit."
It would seem that the days of miracles had not passed; for even while she prayed, she felt two paws rest on her cot. She opened her eyes and there was Duke waiting impatiently for her to notice him. She could hardly believe her eyes, for in his mouth he held a little live rabbit as if for her to take it. To make sure she was not dreaming, she stretched forth her hand for the rabbit. Duke let her take it without offering the least resistance. In fact, he looked at her as much as to say:
"I heard them say that my little mistress wanted a rabbit. I was bound she should have a rabbit, and here it is."
Mrs. Davenport entered the room. "Here is your broth, dear."
"Take it away," cried Beth exultingly. "I'm going to have a rabbit. God sent Duke to bring me one. Wasn't he good not to eat it himself—he always used to eat them when he caught them, and God was so good to me, too."
The speech appeared a little ambiguous to Mrs. Davenport, but it was all very plain to the child.
Never did a stew seem more delicious to any one than did that rabbit stew to Beth. In fact, it proved a turning point with her, the fever subsiding thereafter very rapidly.
With the elasticity of childhood, Beth grew well rapidly, and was once more her mischievous self.
One evening about the middle of May, Mr. and Mrs. Davenport and Marian went up the river a short distance to a party, and invited the Gordons to drive with them.
Julia came over to spend the night with Beth, and Mrs. Davenport arranged for Maggie to stay in the house, that the girls might not be alone. Duke, also, was kept within doors for protection.
The girls passed a pleasant evening, and retired rather late. Duke followed them up to their room, and went to sleep just outside the door, which they left open on his account. Maggie slept in a room at the end of the hall.
Gustus that night had sneaked out to see some of his friends. He had stayed so late that he feared to return through the dark. Still he dreaded even more the scolding that he would get if he were missed in the morning. So he started home, whistling as he went, to keep up his spirits. Suddenly his attention was attracted by a reddened sky in the direction of the Davenport home.
"Foh de Lawd's sake," he muttered, "dat do look like our home wuz burnin' for sure. Jes' s'pose it wuz. Little missy am thar an' might burn. I'd jes' bettah take to my heels, an' run as fas' as ever I kin, an' see." He ran a few steps, and then stopped. Besides the red in the sky, he thought he saw sparks flying. His heart rose in his mouth.
"Jes' s'pose dat dar fire am de work ob de debbil. He might be waitin' dar spoutin' out fire to kotch me. Dat's it. I won't go near dar all by myself. I'll jes' go back."
He turned, and ran a few steps the other way, and then halted again.
"Jes' s'pose dat ain't de debbil, but a real shure nuff fire. Den missy'll burn, an' I'll be to blame. I jes' ought to go an' see, but what if it am de debbil? Den he'll hab me sure nuff, an' dat'd be worser dan burnin'."
The Davenports' home was really on fire. It was never discovered how the fire started. The only plausible explanation was a defective flue in the kitchen stove, but it could never be proved.
The house was built of fat pine, and the fire spread with alarming rapidity. First the kitchen burst into a mass of flames that leaped along the roof of the piazza to the main part of the building. There had been no rain for some time, and the dry wood proved as combustible as if oil had been applied. The sparks flew over all the house until it was one blaze of fire. The servants were sleeping in their quarters, and did not discover the terrible danger of the inmates of the house.
Maggie and the children slept on, and it seemed as if there would be no awakening until it was too late, unless Gustus ran to the rescue.
The flames crackled as if trying to rouse the poor, innocent sleepers, but still they slept. The fire rushed on and on as if anxious to wipe out the precious human lives before help arrived. Even Duke slept, and the silly superstition of Gustus might prove the death of those he loved.
"White folks ain't scared ob de debbil like us black people. Dey nebber see tings de way we do. Maybe de debbil only 'pears to us kose we's black like he am. If dar wuz only a white person wid me, dey wouldn't be scared to go an' see if it were a fire or de debbil. I ought to find out which it am. De fire might burn Missy Beth, and de debbil might carry her off if he don't kotch me. De debbil nebber goes 'way empty-handed."
Gustus tarried, harrowed by his superstition, but with love trying to master fear. Unless love conquered quickly, he would be too late to save her whom he worshiped.
"Missy Beth's been powerful good to me," he moralized to himself. "She wouldn't let me burn, nor she wouldn't let de debbil carry me off. She always tells me dar's nuffin to fear only my own b'liefs, but if she was black like me she'd know bettah. She's white like an angel, an' angels only see glory. Yes, she's an angel, an' God will save her. He won't let de debbil hab her nor de fire scorch her."
Trying to ease his conscience thus, he once more turned away from the fire as if the struggle were ended, but real love is never conquered. It still tugged at the heart strings of Gustus.
"God's far, far away. It's night, an' maybe He sometimes snoozes like de rest ob us. Den Missy Beth's in danger, an' unless I help her. God won't know anything 'bout it. I have it. I'll go an' wake Massa Harvey. He'll know what to do."
Gustus ran towards the Baker homestead which was the next place to the Davenports'. Love had gained a half victory, but half victories are always dangerous. He might rouse Harvey, but unless God intervened in some way, Harvey would be too late, and his friend would burn.
On ran Gustus, while the fire raged more and more fiercely. Its fiery tongues leaped out nearer and nearer the children, Maggie, and Duke, sure to devour them unless God vouchsafed some other warning besides the one that had been given Gustus. He had been tried and found wanting.
"Massa Harvey, Massa Harvey," Gustus cried a few minutes later, under the window of the room where he knew Harvey slept. "For God's sake, come an' save Missy Beth."
Harvey wakened out of a sound sleep. He thought he was dreaming, but again he heard the agonized appeal:
"Massa Harvey, for God's sake, save Missy Beth."
Harvey sprang to the window. "What's the matter, Gustus?"
"I think de debbil am after Missy Beth," moaned Gustus, who had decided that it was the Evil One instead of a real fire.
His words gave Harvey no lucid idea of the situation. He feared Beth was in danger, but he little realized the urgency of the case. However, he did not stop to question, but slipped into his clothes as fast as he could, and went below to join Gustus. His parents had gone to the party, and he did not waken any of the servants.
The minute he opened the front door, one look to the right revealed the awful truth to him.
"Is Beth there?" he gasped to Gustus who had run around to the door to join him.
"I reckon so. Yo' won't let de debbil get her."
"The devil? It's worse. It's fire. She'll burn," cried Harvey in agony, tearing across the fields as fast as he could. Gustus followed trembling in every limb. He realized now that he had been a coward, that if his beloved little "missy" burned, he would be greatly to blame.
"I didn't know," he moaned to himself, and then his cry changed to a prayer, "Dear God, don't let her burn. Don't let her burn," he pleaded as he ran, pitifully penitent.
As Harvey flew towards the burning house, his thought dwelt on the other fire from which he and Beth had been saved.
"God won't let her burn. He won't do it," he cried to himself, and yet half fearful that the fire demon which seemed to pursue Beth might conquer this time.
"De Good Book says dat if we ask anything, an' believe, dat it will be granted us," gasped Gustus as if reading Harvey's doubts. "Let's both pray as hard as ever we kin dat God'll save Missy Beth, an' He'll do it."
The faith expressed by the superstitious colored boy heartened Harvey somewhat. He ran on as fast as ever, but both in his heart and in that of Gustus was the prayer that Beth might be saved.
That prayer was answered. After the colored boy was found wanting, an animal was used as God's messenger. The fire awakened Duke. The air all around him was full of smoke that almost choked him. He realized there was danger, but he thought more of another that he loved than of his own safety. With a bound, he sprang through the open doorway barking wildly. He leaped up on the bed where the children slept. He had no words in which to warn them of danger, but the ways of God are above those of men, and weak instruments prove strong in His hands.
Julia and Beth wakened at the same instant.
"What is it, Duke?" cried Beth only half awake, for the dog was pulling wildly at her night-dress. The smoke answered her question. Both of the girls knew that Duke was warning them that the house was on fire. They jumped out of bed, and ran to the door. The fire now was fast breaking into the house.
"What shall we do?" gasped Beth at sight of the smoke and flames circling around the stairs at the end of the hall.
"We can climb down the piazza," answered Julia turning towards it. Beth started to follow her, but a thought stopped her.
"If we go that way Maggie'll burn. I must try to warn her."
"But we'll choke to death," cried Julia, carried away for a moment by the terror fire has for the bravest.
"I can't help it. I can't let Maggie burn. You can climb down the piazza, but I'm going to try to reach Maggie," answered Beth, going towards the hall, with Duke at her heels.
It was a terrible temptation to Julia to take Beth at her words. She feared that Death waited in the hall. The thought made Julia shiver notwithstanding the sickening heat that was beginning to fill the house. Her face blanched, but it was no whiter than that of Beth, who felt fully as strongly as Julia the danger she ran in trying to save Maggie.
"Let's wrap ourselves in blankets," cried Julia seizing two from the bed, and throwing one to Beth. She had conquered her fear sufficiently to make a supreme effort to save Maggie. She was too brave to let Beth outshine her in daring.
"Maggie, Maggie, wake," yelled Beth, wrapping the blanket around her and rushing out into the smoke and fire towards the room where Maggie slept.
"Fire, fire, fire," screamed Julia, the smoke half choking her.
Their cries wakened Maggie. She jumped out of bed, and rushed out into the hall.
"Oh, de good Lo'd," she moaned, trembling all over in sudden horror; "dis house is burnin', an' we'll die." Then she saw the two girls. Their danger calmed her fears.
"No, we won't die, honeys," she cried more calmly. "We kin get down de stairs, I know. Come on, my honeys. I won't leave yo'. We'll jes' keep our mouths shut, an' we'll be all right."
She, too, seized a blanket to protect herself from the fire.
She was nearest the stairs, but she waited until the girls came up to her. Not another word was said. The smoke was drying up their throats and lungs, and they felt that they needed every bit of air just to breathe.
Fortunately, in the main part of the building, the fire was worse on the outside than the inside. Their greatest foe was the smoke that grew more dense every instant. Down the stairs they flew. Once at the bottom, the door leading outside seemed very far away. Still they did not make a sound, but used every effort to escape. There was no thought of trying to save anything but their lives. That was the one mercy that was asked of God. Other possessions could be replaced. On, on they flew. Thank God, the door is almost within reach. They gasp for breath. Even Duke pants. Will their strength last until they can reach God's pure air?
Maggie now proved leader. Her trembling hands unbarred the door that alone stood between them and liberty. With a last mighty effort, she swung it open. Out they flew, and now the flames which curled in wild fury about the piazza almost scorched them. Thank God, this fiery trial is but for a moment. They dash through the flames, and are safe. Breathing is no longer a pain. They make their way beyond the reach of the sparks. Maggie fell on her knees crying:
"Praise to de Lo'd. Praise to de Lo'd."
Julia looked at the piazza down which she had wished to climb.
"Beth, if we had tried to come that way we couldn't have done it," she said, and there was thankfulness in her heart that she had conquered her fear. Otherwise precious time would have been lost, and she might have been burned to death.
"Our home is gone," sobbed Beth, for at that instant the roof fell. Duke howled as if he, too, knew that something had been lost that never again could be exactly the same. His howls attracted Beth's attention.
"You dear, dear fellow," she cried, the tears flowing faster than ever. "If it hadn't been for you we'd all be dead."
He poked his nose into her outstretched hand, and looked up at her as if he would like to comfort her. At that instant Harvey and Gustus rushed upon the scene.
"Beth, Beth," cried Harvey wildly.
"We're here," she answered.
Tears of thankfulness rushed into the eyes of Harvey and Gustus, and for once they were not ashamed of crying.
"Beth," repeated Harvey, running up to her and seizing her hands. His emotion choked back the words that rose. Never had he been more grateful, and never had he less power of expression.
"Little missy, I done feared yo'd went up in de flames," cried Gustus, and added, "but I had dat dar grain of mustard seed dat made me b'lieve de Lo'd would somehow save yo'."
"Somehow, even when I'm awfully scared, I don't think I'm going to be killed," said Beth.
"I jes' reckon yo' has dat grain of mustard seed I'se tellin' 'bout."
"I reckon it's a good thing to have, Gustus," put in Harvey. "But instead of letting the mustard seed do everything by itself, I believe we'd better rouse the servants. Unless care is taken their quarters and the barn may burn."
This proved a happy suggestion; for while these buildings were far distant from the house, it was found the sparks had already set the barn afire. However, the servants managed to put the fire out.
The glare from the fire illuminated the sky, and attracted the attention of the Davenports and the Gordons returning in a merry mood from the party.
"It looks like a house burning," said Mrs. Davenport. "Supposing it were ours," she added forebodingly.
Mr. Davenport had experienced a like fear for some moments, but had refrained from letting any of the party know. They had remarked that he was driving the spirited span to their full speed, but supposed he was hurrying because of the lateness of the hour.
"It is a fire," cried Mrs. Gordon. "Our daughters—God keep them."
Moments seemed hours to the anxious parents. As dread became certainty, they felt as if the horses were almost standing still, whereas they were going as fast over the hard shell road as was possible. Ambulance or fire horses could not have passed the ones Mr. Davenport drove, urged both by his voice and by the whip.
"Beth—Julia," cried two mothers the same second, as they rushed from the carriage and gathered two blanketed figures to their hearts. Tears of relief and thankfulness flowed thick and fast.
"It's terrible that our lovely home is gone," cried Beth.
"In evil there is good. You are safe, my darling," her mother murmured.
The fathers felt no less keenly the escape of their beloved children, but expressed themselves less emotionally. Marian could get hardly any one to notice her, but finally managed to say so as to be heard:
"I don't think they ought to be standing around with bare feet, and blankets wrapped around them."
"You must all come home with us," cried Mrs. Gordon. "I will not accept a refusal. We have a great abundance of room."
Already the fire was beginning to die down, and Mr. Davenport saw that no good could be accomplished by remaining longer.
"January, I want you to watch to see that no damage is done by sparks," he said.
"Sparks won't have no sort of chance wid me aroun', massa."
Room was made in the carriage for the two children, and the horses were started in the direction of the Gordon homestead. For a few moments, in the excitement of telling about the fire, Beth forgot all about Duke. They were almost at the Gordons' door when she thought of him. She looked hastily back, half hoping he might be following, and to her joy saw him directly behind the carriage. Beth pleaded to be allowed to take her beloved dog up to Julia's room with them. Julia added her entreaties, and the children were permitted to do as they wished in the matter.
Once the children were in bed, they talked awhile of their fortunate deliverance. Duke came in for a big share of praise. Then Julia fell asleep, but Beth felt very wide awake. Presently, even Duke on the floor near their bed also slept. Beth knew that he was sleeping because he moaned as if he were haunted by a nightmare of the fire.
"Poor, poor fellow, he feels almost as bad as I," thought Beth. For a long time she lay awake wondering what her father would do now that their home with all its contents was burned.
"Just s'posing—just s'posing——" With these words Beth fell into a troubled sleep.
About ten minutes afterwards, she began crying in her sleep, which wakened Julia.
"Why, Beth dear, what's the matter?" and Julia twined her arm lovingly around her friend.
Beth wakened with a start. She sat up in bed. "Where am I, Julia? In Florida?"
"Of course, dear. What made you——"
"Oh, I'm so glad I'm here. I went to sleep s'posing——"
"Supposing what, Beth?"
"Oh, I don't like to tell for fear it may come true. I dreamed that it did come true and it made me very miserable."
"You're just nervous over the terrible fire. All the bad that can happen has already happened to you."
"I don't know about that," murmured Beth, but could not be persuaded to tell Julia more about her dream. Julia therefore sank back into slumberland, and forgot all about her friend's dream, but not so Beth. The fear of what she dreamed haunted her, waking and sleeping.
The next morning, Beth had quite a time dressing. Most of Julia's clothes proved a very tight fit.
"I'll have to pretend I'm a young lady. Then I shall not mind if it is tight," Beth said as she struggled into Julia's blue dress.
"It's a little short, but then short dresses are the style now," commented Julia in an effort to be polite.
Immediately after breakfast, the Davenports and the Gordons started over to view the fire. For some reason known only to herself, Beth did not care to go. She even refused to be moved by Julia's entreaties, and insisted that Julia go without her.
Duke remained to keep Beth company. When the two were alone, Beth put her arms around the faithful dog. He looked up into her eyes and whined.
"I believe you know," cried Beth. "Are you afraid of it, too?"
Again Duke whined.
"You do know, Duke." There were tears in Beth's eyes. "If it happens, they'll take you from me. Don't you remember what Mr. Brown said?"
Duke looked as if he understood.
"They shan't take you from me. I'll go in town and see Mr. Brown. You shall go with me, Duke."
He wagged his tail as if pleased, at the promise. Beth ran for a hat, and then, with Duke, started down the road towards town.
The day was extremely sultry, and the warmth in combination with the excitement of the night before soon caused Beth to tire, but she would not give up her undertaking.
"You'd do as much to stay with me, wouldn't you, Duke?" she asked, to encourage herself.
Duke barked. Perhaps it was because he did not mind the heat and was anxious for a frolic. Beth envied his spirits. To her the way seemed very long and dusty, but on and on she trudged. She did not know exactly where Mr. Brown lived, but thought by asking she could easily find out, and so it proved.
It was a very tired, warm, and dusty little girl who finally turned in at the Browns'.
A great, overgrown puppy rushed at Beth and Duke as they opened the gate. At first, Beth could hardly believe her own eyes. It scarcely seemed possible that it was the same puppy she had given Mr. Brown such a short time before. The little fellow had outgrown all his brothers and sisters, and could no longer be rightly termed little. Duke was unaffectedly glad to see his son. Away they ran together.
"Duke, Duke, come back."
Beth's call did not bring him, but Mr. Brown came around the corner of the house.
"Why, missy," his face lighted up in greeting. Beth wondered how she ever thought him ugly-looking. "You saw my puppy, didn't you? I tell you he's a fine fellow. Duke never compared with him."
"Do you really like the puppy the best?" cried Beth, eagerly rushing up to him in her excitement.
"Not a doubt of it." He smiled at her evident delight. "Gift——"
"Is that what you call him?"
"Yes. The name is to remind me of your kindness. I——"
"Was I really kind?" she interrupted wistfully. She did not wait for an answer. "Then perhaps you'd be willing to do me a very, very great favor."
"What is it you want? But you'd better sit down first. You look tired."
"I am a little tired. It was pretty hot walking."
"You don't mean you walked here?—and on such a hot day?"
When he found that she had, he seated her in the shade on the cool piazza, and would not listen to another word until he went into the house and returned with a bottle of orangeade for her.
"Now while you drink, I'll tell you why I like Gift better than Duke. In the first place, Gift really loves me—why, I don't believe that even such a charming little lady as you could get Gift to leave me. Let's try and see. Here, Gift; come, Gift."
The two dogs came running at his call.
"He always answers just so promptly." Beth noted how proud he looked. "Now little missy, call Gift and make friends with him."
Beth did as bidden. Gift proved very friendly in response. Duke seemed inclined to be jealous.
"Now missy, rise as if to go and call Gift to follow. It will be as big a temptation as he ever had. He doesn't usually make friends the way he has with you and Duke. Perhaps I'm a fool to try him so."
"Then I will not——"
"No, no. I want to know if Gift cares for me as much as I think he does. You must try him."
Beth was growing nervous over the situation. Somehow, she realized that the love of Gift meant more to the man before her than almost anything in his life. If the dog failed him at this point it might have a very disastrous effect.
"Come, come; do as I say," cried Brown with somewhat of his original curtness of manner.
Beth did not dare refuse, but trembled for the result. She arose. Duke wagged his tail in delight that she was going.
"Come on, Gift." He paid no heed, but his master saw that she was not calling as if she really wanted the dog.
"Call as if you meant it."
She saw that she could not fool him. She felt compelled to act under his direction, but it seemed the irony of fate that once she had unwittingly taken his dog from him, and that now she should be made to try again when neither of them wished the dog to leave him. Tears were in her eyes, but she clapped her hands as if ready for a frolic. "Come on, Gift; come on." Duke also barked an invitation. Gift leaped down the steps and was by their side in an instant.
"Oh, please call him back, or let me come back."
"Go on. Don't you dare let him see that you don't want him. If he follows you home, I never want to see any of you again. Both dogs then are yours forever," growled Gift's owner.
Tears now blinded poor Beth so that she could hardly see to open the gate. Duke did not wait for it to be opened, but leaped over the fence. Gift hesitated about following. He was perfectly able to make the jump, but he evidently thought of his master for the first time. He looked back undecided what to do.
"Oh, if he only would call him," but Brown stood as if turned to stone. Suddenly Gift ran back to his side. Beth never felt more grateful.
"Call him. I am not sure of him yet," cried Brown in a strange voice.
"It's cruel to the dog and to me," thought Beth. She now held the gate open. "Come, Gift." Again Duke barked.
"I'm ashamed of you, Duke Davenport, for tempting your own son," thought Beth.
Gift looked up at his master as if for a word of instruction. He received no word or sign in reply. Then Gift made a slight move as if to follow Beth, but suddenly turned and licked his master's hand. Next, he settled down on the porch for a sleep as if the matter were settled once and forever.
Beth now expected to see Mr. Brown show some emotion, but he simply called, "Missy, come back."
She would have thought that she had overestimated his feelings in the matter if she had not caught sight of tears in his eyes when she returned.
"Gift is the best friend I have," he said quietly when Beth was reseated. "Do you know he helps keep me from saloons. If he is with me and I start in one, he growls. Now, what favor do you want to ask of me?"
She had almost forgotten the object of her visit, and the abruptness with which it was recalled to her embarrassed her.
"I—I want to pay you for Duke. I have some money of my own in the bank and I think——"
"But I gave Duke to you." He looked grieved. "I accepted Gift from you, I don't see——"
"You don't understand. Do you remember what you said when you gave me Duke? You said if I ever left Florida I'd have to give him back to you."
"That was before I had Gift."
"And you wouldn't take Duke from me?" She sprang to her feet.
"Not for the world."
Suddenly Beth seized Duke, and danced around and around with him. "Oh, goody. Duke, you old dear, we needn't stay awake nights worrying over that part any more."
Mr. Brown hitched up and drove Beth back. On the way, she told him of the fire, and how Duke had saved their lives. Duke and Gift were following the carriage, and perhaps Duke was telling his son of his own heroism, because Gift often barked as if excited over something.
Mr. Brown said he would like to see the ruins and so Beth drove with him to the homestead. They found Mr. Davenport, Julia, Harvey, Maggie, and Gustus out near the stables.
"Why Beth, where have you been?" cried her father.
She jumped out of the carriage and ran and threw herself into her father's arms. "Papa, now that our house is gone, I was afraid you'd take us back North to live. I don't want to go, but if I had to go, it would have broken my heart to part with Duke, but now, I'll never, never have to part with him, no matter what happens. Mr. Brown says he's mine forever."
"Dear, I do not expect to go back North. Next fall, we'll build a fine new house, and you shall be a little Florida lady the rest of your life, if you wish."
"I'm to live South always," cried Beth, turning a radiant face toward her friends.
"Three cheers for our little Florida lady," proposed Harvey. All present joined in the hurrahing that followed. Gustus's voice rang out the loudest of any.
Beth's face was radiant. The sun was shining once more for her. Her two great fears had proved groundless. Duke was hers, and henceforth she was to remain A Little Florida Lady.