"Look at Grandfather Bullfrog!" said Rose. "He is shocked at our behavior. We are big enough to know better, aren't we, sir?" She addressed with deep respect an enormous brown bullfrog, who had come up to see what was the matter, and who sat on a stone surveying the pair with a look of indignant amazement.
"Coax! coax! Brek-ke-ke-kex!" cried Hildegarde. "That is the only sentence of frog-talk I know. It is in a story of Hans Andersen's. Do you see, Rose? He understands; he winked in a most expressive manner. Whom did you get for a wife, when you found Tommelise had run away from you; and what became of the white butterfly?"
The bullfrog evidently resented this inquiry into his most private affairs, and disappeared with an indignant "Glump!"
"Now you shall see me perform the great Nose and Toe Act!" said Hildegarde, jumping from the seat and swimming to the end of the wharf. "I promised to show it to you, you remember." She seized the great toe of her left foot with the right hand, and grasping her nose with the left, threw herself backward into the water.
Rose waited in breathless suspense for what seemed an interminable time; but at length there was a glimmer under the water, then a break, and up came the dauntless diver, gasping but triumphant, still grasping the nose and toe.
"I didn't—let go!" she panted. "I didn't—half—think I could do it, it is so long since I tried."
"I thought you would never come up again!" cried Rose. "It is a dreadful thing to do. You might as well be the Great Northern Diver at once. Are you sure there isn't a web growing between your toes?"
"Oh, that is nothing!" said Hildegarde, laughing. "You should see Papa turn back somersaults in the water. That is worth seeing! Look!" she added, a moment after, "there is a log floating down. I wonder if I can walk on it." She swam to the log, which was coming lazily along with the current; tried to climb on it, and rolled over with it promptly, to Rose's great delight. But, nothing daunted, she tried again and yet again, and finally succeeded in standing up on the log, holding out her arms to balance herself. A pretty picture she made,—lithe and slender as a reed, her fair face all aglow with life and merriment, and the sunshine all round her. "See!" she cried, "I am Taglioni, the queen of the ballet. I had—a—oh! I nearly went over that time—I had a paper-doll once, named Taglioni. She was truly—lovely! You stood her on a piece of wood—just like this; only there was a crack which held her toes, and this has no crack. Now I will perform the Grand Pas de Fee! La-la-tra-la—if I can only get to this end, now! Rose, I forbid you to laugh. You shake the log with your empty mirth. La-la-la—" Here the log, which had its own views, turned quietly over, and the queen of the ballet disappeared with a loud splash, while Rose laughed till she nearly lost hold of her rope.
But now the water-frolic had lasted long enough, and it was nearly breakfast-time. Very reluctantly the girls left the cool delight of the water, and shaking themselves like two Newfoundland dogs, ran into the boat-house, with many exclamations over the good time they had had.
At breakfast they found Miss Wealthy looking a little troubled over a note which she had just received by mail. It was from Mrs. Murray, the matron of the Children's Hospital.
"Perhaps you would read it to me, Hilda dear!" she said. "I cannot make it out very well. Mrs. Murray's hand is very illegible, or it may be partly because I have not my reading-glasses." So Hilda read as follows:—
DEAR MISS BOND,—Is there any one in your neighborhood who would take a child to board for a few weeks? Little Benny May, a boy of four years, very bright and attractive, is having a slow recovery from pneumonia, and has had one relapse. I dare not send him home, where he would be neglected by a very careless mother; nor can we keep him longer here. I thought you might possibly know of some good, motherly woman, who would take the little fellow, and let him run about in the sunshine and drink milk, for that is what he needs.
With kind regards to your niece, whom I hope we shall see again,
Always sincerely yours, ELIZABETH MURRAY.
Miss Wealthy listened attentively, and shook her head; buttered a muffin, stirred her tea a little, and shook her head again. "I can't think," she said slowly and meditatively, "of a soul. I really—" But here she was interrupted, though not by words. For Hildegarde and Rose had been exchanging a whole battery of nods and smiles and kindling glances; and now the former sprang from her seat, and came and knelt by Miss Wealthy's chair, and looked up in her face with mute but eloquent appeal.
"My dear!" said the old lady. "What is it? what do you want? Isn't the egg perfectly fresh? I will call—" But Hildegarde stayed her hand as it moved toward the bell.
"I want Benny!" she murmured, in low and persuasive tones, caressing the soft withered hand she had taken.
"A penny!" cried Miss Wealthy. "My dear child, certainly! Any small amount I will most gladly give you; though, dear Hilda, you are rather old, perhaps,—at least your mother might think so,—to—"
"Oh, Cousin Wealthy, how can you?" cried Hildegarde, springing up, and turning scarlet, though she could not help laughing. "I didn't say penny, I said Benny! I want the little boy! Rose and I both want him, to take care of. Mayn't we have him, please? We may not be motherly, but we are very sisterly,—at least Rose is, and I know I could learn,—and we would take such good care of him, and we do want him so!" She paused for breath; and Miss Wealthy leaned back in her chair, and looked bewildered.
"A child! here!" she said; and she looked round the room, as if she rather expected the pictures to fall from the walls at the bare idea. In this survey she perceived that one picture hung slightly askew. She sighed, and made a motion to rise; but Hildegarde flew to straighten the refractory frame, and then returned to the charge.
"He is very small!" she said meekly. "He could sleep in my room, and we would wash and dress him and keep him quiet all the time."
"A child!" repeated Miss Wealthy, speaking as if half in a dream; "a little child, here!" Then she smiled a little, and then the tears filled her soft blue eyes, and she gave something like a sob. "I don't know what Martha would say!" she cried. "It might disturb Martha; otherwise—"
But Martha was at her elbow, and laid a quiet hand on her mistress's arm. "Sure we would all like it, Mam!" she said in her soothing, even tones. "'T would be like a sunbeam in the house, so it would. You'd better let the child come, Mam!"
So it was settled; and the very next day Hildegarde and Rose, escorted by Jeremiah, went to Fairtown, and returned in triumph, bringing little Benny with them.
Benny's eyes were naturally well opened, but by the time he reached the house they were staring very wide indeed. He held Hildegarde's hand very tight, and looked earnestly up at the vine-clad walls of the cottage. "Don't want to go in vere!" he said, hanging back, and putting his finger in his mouth. "Want to go back!"
"Oh, yes!" said Hildegarde. "You do want to come in here, Benny. That is what we have come for, you know. I am going to show you all sorts of pretty things,—picture-books, and shells, and a black kitty—"
But here she had touched a string that wakened a train of reflection in Benny's mind; his lip began to quiver. "Want—my—Nelephant!" he said piteously. "He's lef' alone—wiv fits. Want to go back to my Nelephant." An ominous sniff followed; an outbreak of tears was imminent.
Hildegarde caught him up in her arms and ran off toward the garden. She could not have him cry, she thought, just at the first moment. Cousin Wealthy would be upset, and might never get rid of the first impression. It would spoil everything! The little fellow was already sobbing on her shoulder, and as she ran she began hastily to repeat the first thing that came into her mind.
"Come, take up your hats, and away let us haste To the Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast. The trumpeter Gadfly has summoned the crew, And the revels are now only waiting for you!
"On the smooth-shaven grass by the side of the wood, Beneath a broad oak that for ages has stood, See the children of earth and the tenants of air For an evening's amusement together repair."
The sobs had ceased, and Hildegarde paused for breath; but the arm tightened round her neck, and the baby voice, still tearful, cried, "Sing! Sing-girl want to sing!"
"Oh me!" cried Hildegarde, laughing. "You little Old Man of the Sea, how can I run and sing too?" She sat down under the laburnum-tree, and taking the two tiny hands in hers, began to pat them together, while she went on with the "Butterfly's Ball," singing it now to the tune of a certain hornpipe, which fitted it to perfection. She had not heard the verses since she was a little girl, but she could never forget the delight of her childhood.
"And there came the Beetle, so blind and so black, Who carried the Emmet, his friend, on his back. And there came the Gnat, and the Dragon-fly too, With all their relations, green, orange, and blue.
"And there came the Moth—"
At this moment came something else, more welcome than the moth would have been; for Rose appeared, bearing a mug in one hand, and in the other—what?
"Cow!" cried Benny, sitting upright, and stretching out both arms in rapture. "My cow! mine! all mine!"
"Yes, your cow, dear, for now!" said Rose, setting the treasure down on the table. "Look, Benny! she is such a good cow! She is going to give you some milk,—nice, fresh milk!"
The brown crockery cow was indeed a milk-jug; and Benny's blue eyes and Hildegarde's gray ones opened wide in amazement as Rose, grasping the creature's tail and tilting her forward, poured a stream of milk from her open mouth into the mug. The child laughed, and clapped his hands with delight.
"Where did you get it?" asked Hildegarde in a low tone, as she held the mug to Benny's lips.
"Saint Martha!" replied Rose, smiling. "It belonged to her grandmother. She brought it down just now, and said she had seen many a child quieted with it, and the little one would very likely be for crying at first, in a strange place! Isn't it nice?"
"Nice!" said Hildegarde; "I never want to drink out of anything else but a brown cow. Dear Martha! and observe the effect!"
Indeed, Benny was laughing, and patting the cow, and chattering to it, as if no such thing as a gray rubber elephant had ever existed. So fickle is childhood!
Benny took possession of his kingdom, and ruled it with a firm, though for the most part an indulgent hand. Miss Wealthy succumbed from the first moment, when he advanced boldly toward her, and laying a chubby hand on her knee, said, "I like you. Is you' hair made of spoons? it is all silver."
Martha was his slave, and lay in wait for him at all hours with gingerbread-men and "cooky"-cows; while the two girls were nurses, playmates, and teachers by turns. Jeremiah wheeled him in the wheelbarrow, and suffered him to kick his shins, and might often be seen sedately at work hoeing or raking, with the child sitting astride on his shoulders, and drumming with sturdy heels against his breast. One member of the family alone resisted the sovereign charm of childhood; one alone held aloof in cold disdain, refusing to touch the little hand or answer the piping voice. That one was Samuel Johnson. The great Doctor was deeply offended at the introduction of this new element into the household. He had not been consulted; he would have nothing to do with it! So when Miss Wealthy introduced Benny to him the day after the child arrived, and waited anxiously for an expression of his opinion, the Doctor put up his great back, expanded his tail till it looked like a revolving street-sweeper, and uttering an angry "Fsss! spt!" walked away in high dudgeon.
Benny was delighted. "Funny old kyat!" he cried, clapping his hands. "Say 'Fsss' some more! Hi, ole kyat! I catch you."
Hildegarde caught him up in her arms as he was about to pursue the retiring dignitary, and Miss Wealthy looked deeply distressed.
"My dears, what shall we do?" she said. "This is very unfortunate. If I had thought the Doctor—but the little fellow is so sweet, I thought he would be pleased and amused. We must try to keep them away from each other. Or perhaps, if the little dear would try to propitiate the Doctor,—you have no idea how sensitive he is, and how he feels anything like disrespect,—if he were to try to propitiate him, he might—"
"Vat ole kyat, He's too fat!"
shouted Benny, stamping his feet to emphasize the metre,—
"Vat ole kyat He's too fat! He ought to go AND catch a rat!"
"Come, Benny!" said Hildegarde, hastily, as she caught a glare from the Doctor's yellow eyes that fairly frightened her. "Come out with me and get some flowers." And as they went she heard Miss Wealthy's voice addressing the great cat in humble and deprecatory tones. As she walked about in the garden holding the child's hand, Hildegarde tried to explain to him that he must be very polite to Dr. Johnson, who was not at all a common cat, and should be treated with great respect.
But Benny's bump of reverence was small. "Huh!" he said. "I isn't 'fraid of kyats, sing-girl! You 's 'fraid, but I isn't. I had brown kitties, only I never seed 'em. Dr. Brown is a liar!" he added suddenly, with startling emphasis.
"Why, Benny!" cried Hildegarde. "What do you mean? You mustn't say such things, dear child."
"He is a liar!" Benny maintained stoutly. "He said ve brown kitties was in my froat. Vey wasn't; so he's a liar. P'r'aps he's 'fraid too, but I isn't."
For several days the greatest care was taken to keep Benny out of Dr. Johnson's way. When the imperious mew was heard at the dining-room door after dinner, the child was hurried through with the last spoonfuls of his pudding, and whisked away to the parlor before the cat was let in. Nor would Miss Wealthy herself go into the parlor when the Doctor had finished his dessert, till she was sure that Benny had been taken out of doors. Hildegarde was inclined to remonstrate at this course of action, but Miss Wealthy would not listen to her.
"My dear," she said, "it does not do to trifle with a character like the Doctor's. I tremble to think what he might do if once thoroughly roused to anger. He is accustomed to respect, and demands it; and we must remember, my dear, that even in the domestic cat lies dormant the spirit of the Royal Bengal Tiger. No, my dear Hildegarde, we are responsible for this child's life, and we must at any cost keep him out of the Doctor's way."
But fate, which rules both cats and tigers, had ordained otherwise. One day Hildegarde had gone out to the stable to give a message to Jeremiah, and had left Benny playing by the back door, where Martha had promised to "have an eye to him" as she shelled the peas.
On her return, Hildegarde found that the child had run round to the front of the house; and she followed in that direction, led by the sound of his voice, which resounded loud and clear. Whom was he talking to? Hildegarde wondered. Rose was upstairs writing letters, and Cousin Wealthy was taking a nap. But now the words were plainly audible. "Dee ole kitty! Oh, such a dee ole kitty! Ole fat kyat, I lubby you."
Holding her breath, Hildegarde peeped round the corner of the house. There on the piazza, lay Dr. Johnson, fast asleep in the sunshine; and beside him stood Benny, regarding him with affectionate satisfaction. "I ain't seed you for yever so long, ole fat kyat!" he continued; "where has you been? You is so fat, you make a nice pillow for Benny. Benny go to sleep with ole fat kyat for a pillow." And to Hildegarde's mingled horror and amusement, the child curled himself up on the piazza floor, and deliberately laid his head on the broad black side of the sleeping lexicographer. The great cat opened his yellow eyes with a start, and turned his head to see "what thing upon his back had got." There was a moment of suspense. Hildegarde's first impulse was to rush forward and snatch the child away; her second was to stand perfectly still. "Dee ole kitty!" murmured Benny, in dulcet tones. "P'ease don't move! Benny so comfortable! Benny lubs his sweet ole pillow-kyat! Go to s'eep again, dee ole kitty!"
The Doctor lay motionless. His eyes wandered over the little figure, the small hands nestled in his own thick fur, the rosy face which smiled at him with dauntless assurance. Who shall say what thoughts passed in that moment through the mind of the representative of the Royal Bengal Tiger? Presently his muscles relaxed. His magnificent tail, which had again expanded to thrice its natural size, sank; he uttered a faint mew, and the next moment a sound fell on Hildegarde's ear, like the distant muttering of thunder, or the roll of the surf on a far-off sea-beach. Dr. Johnson was purring!
After this all was joy. The barriers were removed, and the child and the cat became inseparable companions. Miss Wealthy beamed with delight, and called upon the girls to observe how, in this most remarkable animal, intellect had triumphed over the feline nature. She was even a little jealous, when the Doctor forsook his hassock beside her chair to go and play at ball with Benny; but this was a passing feeling. All agreed, however, that a line must be drawn somewhere; and when Benny demanded to have his dinner on the floor with his "sweet ole kyat," four heads were shaken at him quite severely, and he was told that cats were good to play with, but not to eat with. In spite of which Rose was horrified, the next day, to find him crouched on all-fours, lapping from one side of the Doctor's saucer, while he, purring like a Sound steamer, lapped on the other.
Benny did another thing one day. Oh, Benny did another thing! Rose was teaching him his letters in the parlor, and he was putting them into metre, as he was apt to put everything,—
"A, B, C, D, Fiddle, diddle, Yes, I see!"
And with each emphasis he jumped up and down, as if to jolt the letters into his head.
"Try to stand still, Benny dear!" said gentle Rose.
But Benny said he couldn't remember them if he stood still. "A, B, C, D! E, F, jiggle G!" This time he jumped backward, and flung his arms about to illustrate the "jiggle;" and—and he knocked over the peacock glass vase, and it fell on the marble hearth, and broke into fifty pieces. Oh! it was very dreadful. Mrs. Grahame had brought the peacock vase from Paris to Miss Wealthy, and it was among her most cherished trifles; shaped like a peacock, with outspread tail, and shining with beautiful iridescent tints of green and blue. Now it lay in glittering fragments on the floor, and timid Rose felt as if she were too wicked to live, and wished she were back at the Farm, where there were no vases, but only honest blue willow-ware.
At this very moment the door opened, and Miss Wealthy came in. Rose shrank back for a moment behind the tall Japanese screen; not to conceal herself, but to gather her strength together for the ordeal. Her long years of illness had left her sensitive beyond description; and now, though she knew that she had done nothing, and that the child would meet only the gentlest of plaintive reproofs, her heart was beating so hard that she felt suffocated, her cheeks were crimson, her eyes suffused with tears. But Benny was equal to the emergency. His cheeks were very red, too, and his eyes opened very wide; but he went straight up to Miss Wealthy and said in a clear, high-pitched voice,—
"I've broke vat glass fing which was a peacock. I'm sorry I broke vat glass fing which was a peacock. I shouldn't fink you would leave glass fings round for little boys to hit wiv veir little hands and break vem. You is old enough to know better van vat. I know you is old enough, 'cause you' hair is all spoons, and people is old when veir hair is spoons,—I mean silver." Having said this with unfaltering voice, the child suddenly and without the slightest warning burst into a loud roar, and cried and screamed and sobbed as if his heart would break.
Rose was at his side in an instant, and told the story of the accident. And Miss Wealthy, after one pathetic glance at the fragments of her favorite ornament, fell to wiping the little fellow's eyes with her fine cambric handkerchief, and telling him that it was "no matter! no matter at all, dear! Accidents will happen, I suppose!" she added, turning to Rose with a sad little smile. "But, my dear, pray get the dust-pan at once. The precious child might get a piece of glass into his foot, and die of lockjaw."
It was a lovely August morning. Hildegarde and Rose had the peas to shell for dinner, and had established themselves under the great elm-tree, each with a yellow bowl and a blue-checked apron. Hildegarde was moreover armed with a book, for she had found out one can read and shell peas at the same time, and some of their pleasantest hours were passed in this way, the primary occupation ranging from pea-shelling to the paring of rosy apples or the stoning of raisins. So on this occasion the sharp crack of the pods and the soft thud of the "Champions of England" against the bowl kept time with Hildegarde's voice, as she read from Lockhart's ever-delightful "Life of Scott." The girls were enjoying the book so much! For true lovers of the great Sir Walter, as they both were, what could be more interesting than to follow their hero through the varying phases of his noble life,—to learn how and where and under what circumstances each noble poem and splendid romance was written; and to feel through his own spoken or written words the beating of one of the greatest hearts the world ever knew.
Hildegarde paused to laugh, after reading the description of the first visit of the Ettrick Shepherd to the Scotts at Lasswade; when the good man, seeing Mrs. Scott, who was in delicate health, lying on a sofa, thought he could not do better than follow his hostess's example, and accordingly stretched himself at full length, plaid and all, on another couch.
"What an extraordinary man!" cried Rose, greatly amused. "How could he be so very uncouth, and yet write the 'Skylark'?"
"After all, he was a plain, rough shepherd!" replied Hildegarde. "And remember,
'The dewdrop that hangs from the rowan bough Is fine as the proudest rose can show.'
Leyden was a shepherd, too, who wrote the 'Mermaid' that I read you the other day; and Burns was a farmer's boy. What wonderful people the Scots are!"
"On the whole," said Rose, after a pause, "perhaps it isn't so strange for a shepherd to be a poet. They sit all day out in the fields all alone with the sky and the sheep and the trees and flowers. One can imagine how the beauty and the stillness would sink into his heart, and turn into music and lovely words there. No one ever heard of a butcher-poet or a baker-poet—at least, I never did!—but a shepherd! There was the Shepherd Lord, too, that you told me about, and the Shepherd of Salisbury Plain, in a funny little old book that Father had; by Hannah More, I think it was. And wasn't there a shepherd painter?"
"Of course! Giotto!" cried Hildegarde. "He was only ten years old when Cimabue found him drawing a sheep on a smooth stone."
"It was in one of my school-readers," said Rose. "Only the teacher called him Guy Otto, and I supposed it was a contraction of the two names, for convenience in printing. Then," she added, after a moment, "there was David, when he was 'ruddy, and of a beautiful countenance.'"
"And Apollo," cried Hildegarde, "when he kept the flocks of Admetus, you know."
"I don't know!" said Rose. "I thought Apollo was the god of the sun."
"So he was!" replied Hildegarde. "But Jupiter was once angry with him, and banished him from Olympus. His sun-chariot was sent round the sky as usual, but empty; and he, poor dear, without his golden rays, came down to earth, and hired himself as a shepherd to King Admetus of Thessaly. All the other shepherds were very wild and savage, but Apollo played to them on his lyre, and sang of all the beautiful things in the world,—of spring, and the young grass, and the birds, and—oh! everything lovely. So at last he made them gentle, like himself, and taught them to sing, and play on the flute, and to love their life and the beautiful world they lived in. And so shepherds became the happiest people in the world, and the most skilful in playing and singing, and in shooting with bow and arrows, which the god also taught them; till at last the gods were jealous, and called Apollo back to Olympus. Isn't it a pretty story? I read it in 'Telemaque,' at school last winter."
"Lovely!" said Rose. "Yes, I think I should like to be a shepherd." And straightway she fell into a reverie, this foolish Rose, and fancied herself wrapped in a plaid, lying in a broad meadow, spread with heather as with a mantle, and here and there gray rocks, and sheep moving slowly about nibbling the heather.
And as Hildegarde watched her pure sweet face, and saw it soften into dreamy languor and then kindle again with some bright thought, another poem of the Ettrick Shepherd came to her mind, and she repeated the opening lines, half to herself:—
"Bonny Kilmeny gaed up the glen; But it wasna to meet Duneira's men, Nor the rosy monk of the isle to see, For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be."
"Oh, go on, please!" murmured Rose, all unconscious that she was the Kilmeny of her friend's thoughts:—
"It was only to hear the yorlin sing, And pu' the cress-flower round the spring; The scarlet hypp and the hindberrye, And the nut that hung frae the hazel-tree: For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be. But lang may her minny look o'er the wa', And lang may she seek i' the greenwood shaw; Lang the Laird of Duneira blame, And lang, lang greet or Kilmeny come hame.
"When many a day had come and fled, When grief grew calm, and hope was dead; When mass for Kilmeny's soul had been sung, When the bedesman had prayed and the dead-bell rung; Late, late in a gloamin', when all was still, When the fringe was red on the westlin hill, The wood was sear, the moon i' the wane, The reek o' the cot hung over the plain, Like a little wee cloud in the world its lane; When the ingle lowed with an eiry leme, Late, late in the gloamin' Kilmeny cam hame."
Here Hildegarde stopped suddenly; for some one had come along the road, and was standing still, leaning against the fence, and apparently listening. It was a boy about eleven years old. He was neatly dressed, but his clothes were covered with dust, and his broad-brimmed straw hat was slouched over his eyes so that it nearly hid his face, which was also turned away from the girls. But though he was apparently gazing earnestly in the opposite direction, still there was an air of consciousness about his whole figure, and Hildegarde was quite sure that he had been listening to her. She waited a few minutes; and then, as the boy showed no sign of moving on, she called out, "What is it, please? Do you want something?"
The boy made an awkward movement with his shoulders, and without turning round replied in an odd voice, half whine, half growl, "Got any cold victuals, lady?"
"Come in!" said Hildegarde, rising, though she was not attracted either by the voice, nor by the lad's shambling, uncivil manner,—"come in, and I will get you something to eat."
The boy still kept his back turned to her, but began sidling slowly toward the gate, with a clumsy, crab-like motion. "I'm a poor feller, lady!" he whined, in the same disagreeable tone. "I ain't had nothin' to eat for a week, and I've got the rheumatiz in my j'ints."
"Nothing to eat for a week!" exclaimed Hildegarde, severely. "My boy, you are not telling the truth. And who ever heard of rheumatism at your age? Do you think we ought to let him in, Rose?" she added, in a lower tone.
But the boy continued still sidling toward the gate. "I've got a wife and seven little children, lady! They're all down with the small-pox and the yeller—" But at this point his eloquence was interrupted, for Rose sprang from her seat, upsetting the basket of pods, and running forward, seized him by the shoulders.
"You scamp!" she cried, shaking him with tender violence. "You naughty monkey, how could you frighten us so? Oh, my dear, dear little lad, how do you do?" and whirling the boy round and tossing off his hat, she revealed to Hildegarde's astonished gaze the freckled, laughing face and merry blue eyes of Zerubbabel Chirk.
Bubble was highly delighted at the success of his ruse. He rubbed his hands and chuckled, then went down on all-fours and began picking up the pea-pods. "Sorry I made you upset the basket, Pink!" he said. "I say! how well you're looking! Isn't she, Miss Hilda? Oh! I didn't suppose you were as well as this."
He gazed with delighted eyes at his sister's face, on which the fresh pink and white told a pleasant tale of health and strength. She returned his look with one of such beaming love and joy that Hildegarde, in the midst of her own heartfelt pleasure, could not help feeling a momentary pang. "If my baby brother had only lived!" she thought. But the next moment she was shaking Bubble by both hands, and telling him how glad she was to see him.
"And now tell us!" cried both girls, pulling him down on the ground between them. "Tell us all about it! How did you get here? Where do you come from? When did you leave New York? What have you been doing? How is Dr. Flower?"
"Guess I've got under Niag'ry Falls, by mistake!" said Bubble, dryly. "Let me see, now!" He rumpled up his short tow-colored hair with his favorite gesture, and meditated. "I guess I'll begin at the beginning!" he said. "Well!" (it was observable that Bubble no longer said "Wa-al!" and that his speech had improved greatly during the year spent in New York, though he occasionally dropped back into his former broad drawl.) "Well! it's been hot in the city. I tell you, it's been hot. Why, Miss Hilda, I never knew what heat was before."
"I know it must be dreadful, Bubble!" said Hildegarde. "I have never been in town in August, but I can imagine what it must be."
"I really don't know, Miss Hilda, whether you can," returned Bubble, respectfully. "It isn't like any heat I ever felt at home. Can you imagine your brains sizzling in your head, like a kettle boiling?"
"Oh, don't, Bubble!" cried Rose. "Don't say such things!"
"Well, it's true!" said the boy. "That's exactly the way it felt. It was like being in a furnace,—a white furnace in the day-time, and a black one at night; that was all the difference. I had my head shaved,—it's growed now, but I'm going to have it done again, soon as I get back,—and wore a flannel shirt and those linen pants you made, Pinkie. I tell you I was glad of 'em, if I did laugh at 'em at first—and so I got on. I wrote you that Dr. Flower had taken me to do errands for him during vacation?" The girls nodded. "Well, I stayed at his house,—it's a jolly house!—and 't was as cool there as anywhere. I went to the hospital with him every day, and I'm going to be a surgeon, and he says I can."
Hildegarde smiled approval, and Rose patted the flaxen head, and said, "Yes, I am sure you can, dear boy. Do you remember how you set the chicken's leg last year?"
"I told the doctor about that," said Bubble, "and he said I did it right. Wasn't I proud! I held accidents for him two or three times this summer," he added proudly. "It never made me faint at all, though it does most people at first."
"Held accidents?" asked Hildegarde, innocently. "What do you mean, laddie?"
"People hurt in accidents!" replied the boy. "While he set the bones, you know. There were some very fine ones!" and he kindled with professional enthusiasm. "There was one man who had fallen from a staging sixty feet high, and was all—"
"Don't! don't!" cried both girls, in horror, putting their fingers in their ears.
"We don't want to hear about it, you dreadful boy!" said Hildegarde. "We are not going to be surgeons, be good enough to remember."
"Oh, it's all right!" said Bubble, laughing. "He got well, and is about on crutches now. Then there was a case of trepanning. Oh, that was so beautiful! You must let me tell you about that. You see, this man was a sailor, and he fell from the top-gallantmast, and struck—" But here Rose's hand was laid resolutely over his mouth, and he was told that if he could not refrain from surgical anecdotes, he would be sent back to New York forthwith.
"All right!" said the embryo surgeon, with a sigh; "only they're about all I have to tell that is really interesting. Well, it grew hotter and hotter. Dr. Flower didn't seem to mind the heat much; but Jock and I—well, we did."
"Oh, my dear little Jock!" cried Hildegarde, remorsefully. "To think of my never having asked for him. How is the dear doggie?"
"He's all right now," replied Bubble, "But there was one hot spell last month, that we thought would finish the pup. Hot? Well, I should—I mean, I should think it was! You had to put your boots down cellar every night, or else they'd be warped so you couldn't put 'em on in the morning."
"Bubble!" said Hildegarde, holding up a warning finger. But Bubble would not be repressed again.
"Oh, Miss Hilda, you don't know anything about it!" he said; "excuse me, but really you don't. The sidewalks were so hot, the bakers just put their dough out on them, and it was baked in a few minutes. All the Fifth Avenue folks had fountain attachments put on to their carriages, and sprinkled themselves with iced lavender water and odycolone as they drove along; and the bronze statue in Union Square melted and ran all over the lot."
"Rose, what shall we do to this boy?" cried Hildegarde, as the youthful Munchausen paused for breath. "And you aren't telling me a word about my precious Jock, you little wretch!"
"One night," Bubble resumed,—"I'm in earnest now, Miss Hilda,—one night it seemed as if there was no air to breathe; as if we was just taking red-hot dust into our lungs. Poor little Jock seemed very sick; he lay and moaned and moaned, like a baby, and kept looking from the doctor to me, as if he was asking us to help him. I was pretty nigh beat out, too, and even the doctor seemed fagged; but we could stand it better than the poor little beast could. I sat and fanned him, but that didn't help him much, the air was so hot. Then the doctor sent me for some cracked ice, and we put it on his head and neck, and that took hold! 'The dog's in a fever!' says the doctor. 'We must watch him to-night, and if he pulls through, I'll see to him in the morning,' says he. Well, we spent that night taking turns, putting ice on that dog's head, and fanning him, and giving him water."
"My dear Bubble!" said Hildegarde, her eyes full of tears. "Dear good boy! and kindest doctor in the world! How shall I thank you both?"
"We weren't going to let him die," said Bubble, "after the way you saved his life last summer, Miss Hilda. Well, he did pull through, and so did we; but I was pretty shaky, and the morning came red-hot. The sun was like copper when it rose, and there seemed to be a sort of haze of heat, just pure heat, hanging over the city. And Dr. Flower says, 'You're going to git out o' this!' says he."
"I don't believe he said anything of the kind!" interrupted Rose, who regarded Dr. Flower as a combination of Bayard, Sidney, and the Admirable Crichton.
"Well, it came to the same thing!" retorted Bubble, unabashed. "Anyhow, we took the first train after breakfast for Glenfield."
"Oh, oh, Bubble!" cried both girls, eagerly. "Not really?"
"Yes, really!" said Bubble. "I got to the Farm about ten o'clock, and went up and knocked at the front door, thinking I'd give Mrs. Hartley a surprise, same as I did you just now; but nobody came, so I went in, and found not a soul in the house. But I knowed—I knew she couldn't be far off; for her knitting lay on the table, and the beans—it was Saturday—were in the pot, simmering away. So I sat down in the farmer's big chair, and looked about me. Oh, I tell you, Miss Hilda, it seemed good! There was the back door open, and the hens picking round the big doorstep, just the way they used, and the great willow tapping against the window, and a pile of Summer Sweetings on the shelf, all warm in the sunshine, you know,—only you weren't there, and I kept kind o' hoping you would come in. Do you remember, one day I wanted one of them Sweetings, and you wouldn't give me one till I'd told you about all the famous apples I'd ever heard of?"
"No, you funny boy!" said Hildegarde, laughing. "I have forgotten about it."
"Well, I hain't—haven't, I mean!" said the boy. "I couldn't think of a single one, 'cept William Tell's apple, and Adam and Eve, of course, and three that Lawyer Clinch's red cow choked herself with trying to swallow 'em all at once, being greedy, like the man that owned her. So you gave me the apple, gave me two or three; and while I was eating 'em, you told me about the Hesperides ones, and the apple of discord, and that—that young woman who ran the race: what was her name?—some capital of a Southern State! Milledgeville, was it?"
"Atlanta!" cried Hildegarde, bursting into a peal of laughter; and "Atlanta! you goosey!" exclaimed Rose, pretending to box the boy's ears. "And it wasn't named for Atalanta at all, was it, Hildegarde?"
"No!" said the latter, still laughing heartily. "Bubble, it is delightful to hear your nonsense again. But go on, and tell us about the dear good friends."
"I'm coming to them in a minute," said Bubble; "but I must just tell you about Jock first. You never saw a dog so pleased in all your life. He went sniffing and smelling about, and barking those little, short 'Wuffs!' as he does when he is tickled about anything. Then he went to look for his plate. But it wasn't there, of course; so he ran out to see the hens, and pass the time o' day with them. They didn't mind him much; but all of a sudden a cat came out from the woodshed,—a strange cat, who didn't know Jock from a—from an elephant. Up went her back, and out went her tail, and she growled and spit like a good one. Of course Jock couldn't stand that, so he gave a 'ki-hi!' and after her. They made time round that yard, now I tell you! The hens scuttled off, clucking as if all the foxes in the county had broke loose; and for a minute or two it seemed as if there was two or three dogs and half-a-dozen cats. Well, sir!—I mean, ma'am! at last the cat made a bolt, and up the big maple by the horse-trough. I thought she was safe then; but Jock, he gave a spring and caught hold of the eend of her tail, and down they both come, kerwumpus, on to the ground, and rolled eend over eend." (It was observable that in the heat of narration Bubble dropped his school English, and reverted to the vernacular of Glenfield.) "But that was more than the old cat could stand, and she turned and went for him. Ha, ha! 't was 'ki, hi!' out of the other side of his mouth then, I tell ye, Miss Hildy! You never see a dog so scairt. And jest then, as 't would happen, Mis' Hartley came in from the barn with a basket of eggs, and you may—you may talk Greek to me, if that pup didn't bolt right into her, so hard that she sat down suddent on the doorstep, and the eggs rolled every which way. Then I caught him; and the cat, she lit out somewhere, quicker 'n a wink, and Mis' Hartley sat up, and says she, 'Well, of all the world! Zerubbabel Chirk, you may just pick up them eggs, if you did drop from the moon!"
TELEMACHUS GOES A-FISHING.
At this point Bubble's narrative was interrupted by the appearance of Martha, making demand for her peas. Bubble was duly presented to her; and she beamed on him through her spectacles, and was delighted to see him, and quite sure he must be very hungry.
"I never thought of that!" cried Hildegarde, remorsefully. "When did you have breakfast, and have you had anything to eat since?"
Bubble had had breakfast at half-past six, and had had nothing since. The girls were horrified.
"Come into the kitchen this minute!" said Martha, imperatively. So he did; and the next minute he was looking upon cold beef and johnny-cake and apple-pie, and a pile of doughnuts over which he could hardly see Martha's anxious face as she asked if he thought that would stay him till dinner. "For boys are boys!" she added, impressively, turning to Hildegarde; "and girls they are not, nor won't be."
When he had eaten all that even a hungry boy could possibly eat, Bubble was carried off to be introduced to Miss Wealthy. She, too, was delighted to see him, and made him more than welcome; and when he spoke of staying a day or two in the neighborhood, and asked if he could get a room nearer than the village, she was quite severe with him, forbade him to mention the subject again, and sent Martha to show him the little room in the ell, where she said he could be comfortable, and the longer he stayed the better. It was the neatest, cosiest little room, just big enough for a boy, the girls said with delight, when they went to inspect it. The walls were painted bright blue, which had rather a peculiar effect; but Martha explained that Jeremiah had half a pot of blue paint left after painting the wheelbarrow and the pails, and thought he might as well use it up. Apparently the half pot gave out before Jeremiah came to the chairs, for one of them was yellow, while the other had red legs and a white seat and back. But the whole effect was very cheerful and pleasant, and Bubble was enchanted.
The girls left him to wash his face and hands, and brush the roadside dust from his clothes. As he was plunging his face into the cool, sparkling water in the blue china basin, he heard a small but decided voice addressing him; and looking up, became aware of a person in kilts standing in the doorway and surveying him with manifest disapprobation.
"Hello, young un!" said Bubble, cheerily. "How goes the world with you?"
"Vat basin ain't your basin!" responded the person in kilts, with great severity.
Bubble looked from him to the basin, and back again, with amused perplexity. "Oh! it isn't, eh?" he said. "Well, that's a pity, isn't it?"
"Vis room ain't your room!" continued the new-comer, with increased sternness; "vis bed ain't your bed! I's ve boy of vis house. Go out of ve back door! Go 'WAY!"
At the last word Benny stamped his foot, and raised his voice to a roar which fairly startled his hearer. Bubble regarded him steadfastly for a moment, and then sat down on the bed and began feeling in his pockets. "I found something so funny to-day!" he said. "I was walking along the road—"
"Go out of ve back door!" repeated Benny, in an appalling shout.
"And I came," continued Bubble, in easy, conversational tones, regardless of the vindictive glare of the blue eyes fixed upon him,—"I came to a great bed of blue clay. Not a bed like this, you know,"—for Benny's glare was now intensified by the expression of scorn and incredulity,—"but just a lot of it in the road and up the side of the ditch. So I sat down on the bank to rest a little, and I made some marbles. See!" he drew from his pocket some very respectable marbles, and dropped them on the quilt, where they rolled about in an enticing manner. Benny was opening his mouth for another roar; but at sight of the marbles he shut it again, and put his hand in his kilt pocket instinctively. But there were no marbles in his pocket.
"Then," Bubble went on, taking apparently no notice of him, "I thought I would make some other things, because I didn't know but I might meet some boy who liked things." Benny edged a little nearer the bed, but spoke no word. "So I made a pear,"—he took the pear out and laid it on the bed,—"and a hen,"—the hen lay beside the pear,—"and a bee-hive, and a mouse; only the mouse's tail broke off." He laid the delightful things all side by side on the bed, and arranged the marbles round them in a circle. "And look here!" he added, looking up suddenly, as if a bright idea had struck him; "if you'll let me stay here a bit, I'll give you all these, and teach you to play ring-taw too! Come now!" His bright smile, combined with the treasures on the bed, was irresistible. Benny's mouth quivered; then the corners went up, up, and the next moment he was sitting on the bed, chuckling over the hen and the marbles, and the two had known each other for years.
"But look here!" said the person in kilts, breaking off suddenly in an animated description of the brown crockery cow, "you must carry me about on your back!"
"Why, of course!" responded Bubble. "What do you suppose I come here for?"
"And go on all-fours when I want you to!" persisted the small tyrant. "'Cause Jeremiah has a bone in his leg, and them girls"—oh, black ingratitude of childhood!—"won't. I don't need you for a pillow, 'cause I has my sweet old fat kyat for a pillow."
"Naturally!" said Bubble. "But if you should want a bolster any time, just let me know."
"Because I's ve boy of ve house, you see!" said Benny, in a tone of relief.
"You are that!" responded Bubble, with great heartiness.
By general consent, the second half of Zerubbabel's narrative was reserved for the evening, when Miss Wealthy could hear and enjoy it. Hildegarde and Rose, of course, found out all about their kind friends at the Farm; and the former looked very grave when she heard that Mr. and Mrs. Hartley were expecting Rose without fail early in September, and were counting the days till her return. But she resolutely shook off all selfish thoughts, and entered heartily into the pleasure of doing the honors of the place for the new-comer.
Bubble was delighted with everything. It was the prettiest place he had ever seen. There never was such a garden; there never were such apple-trees, "except the Red Russet tree at the Farm!" he said. "That tree is hard to beat. 'Member it, Miss Hilda,—great big tree, down by the barn?"
"Indeed I do!" said Hilda. "Those are the best apples in the world, I think; and so beautiful,—all golden brown, with the bright scarlet patch on one cheek. Dear apples! I wish I might have some this fall."
Bubble smiled, knowing that Farmer Hartley was counting upon sending his best barrel of Russets to his favorite "Huldy;" but preserved a discreet silence, and they went on down to the boat-house.
When evening came, the group round the parlor-table was a very pleasant one to see. Miss Wealthy's chair was drawn up near the light, and she had her best cap on, and her evening knitting, which was something as soft and white and light as the steam of the tea-kettle. Near her sat Hildegarde, wearing a gown of soft white woollen stuff, which set off her clear, fresh beauty well. She was dressing a doll, which she meant to slip into the next box of flowers that went to the hospital, for a little girl who was just getting well enough to want "something to cuddle;" and her lap was full of rainbow fragments of silk and velvet, the result of Cousin Wealthy's search in one of her numerous piece-bags. On the other side of the table sat Rose, looking very like her name-flower in her pale-pink dress; while Bubble, on a stool beside her, rested his arm on his sister's knee, and looked the very embodiment of content. A tiny fire was crackling on the hearth, even though it was still August; for Miss Wealthy thought the evening mist from the river was dangerous, and dried her air as carefully as she did her linen. Dr. Johnson was curled on his hassock beside the fire; Benny was safe in bed.
"And now, Bubble," said Hildegarde, with a little sigh of satisfaction as she looked around and thought how cosey and pleasant it all was, "now you shall tell us about your fishing excursion."
"Well," said Bubble, nothing loath, "it was this way, you see. When I came back from the Farm, leaving Jock there, I found the doctor in his study, and the whole room full of rods and lines and reels, and all kinds of truck; and he was playing with the queerest things I ever saw in my life,—bits of feather and wool, and I don't know what not, with hooks in them. When he called me to come and look at his flies I was all up a tree, and didn't know what he was talking about; but he told me about 'em, and showed me, and then says he, 'I'm going a-fishing, Bubble, and I'm going to take you, if you want to go.' Well, I didn't leave much doubt in his mind about that. Fishing! Well, you know, Pinkie, there's nothing like it, after all. So we started next morning, Doctor and I, and three other fel—I mean gentlemen. Two of 'em was doctors, and the third was a funny little man, not much bigger'n me. I wish 't you could ha' seen us start! Truck? Well, I should—say so! Rods, and baskets, and bait-boxes, and rugs, and pillows, and canned things, and camp-stools, and tents, and a cooking-stove, and a barrel of beer, and—"
"How much of this are you making up, young man?" inquired Hildegarde, calmly; while Miss Wealthy paused in her knitting, and looked over her spectacles at Bubble in mild amazement.
"Not one word, Miss Hilda!" replied the boy, earnestly. "Sure as you're sitting there, we did start with all them—those things. Doctor, of course, knew 't was all nonsense, and he kept telling the others so; but they was bound to have 'em; and the little man, he wouldn't be separated from that beer-barrel, not for gold. However, it all turned out right. We were bound for Tapsco stream, you see; and when we came to the end of the railroad, we hired a sledge and a yoke of oxen, and started for the woods. Seven miles the folks there told us it was, but it took us two whole days to do it; and by the time we got to the stream, the city chaps, all 'cept Dr. Flower (and he really ain't half a city chap!) were pretty well tired out, I can tell you. Breaking through the bushes, stumbling over stumps and stones, and h'isting a loaded sledge over the worst places, wasn't exactly what they had expected; for none of 'em but the doctor had been in the woods before. Well, we got to the stream; and there was the man who was going to be our guide and cook, and all that. He had two canoes,—a big one and a little one; he was going to paddle one, and one of us the other. Well, the little man—his name was Packard—said he'd paddle the small canoe, and take the stove and the beer-barrel, ''cause they'll need careful handling,' says he. The old guide looked at him, when he said that, pretty sharp, but he didn't say nothing; and the rest of us got into the other canoe with the rest of the truck, after we'd put in his load. We started ahead, and Mr. Packard came after, paddling as proud as could be, with his barrel in the bow, and he and the stove in the stern. I wish't you could ha' seen him, Miss Hilda! I tell you he was a sight, with his chin up in the air, and his mouth open. Presently we heard him say, 'This position becomes irksome; I think I will change'—but that was all he had time to say; for before the guide could holler to him, he had moved, and over he went, boat and barrel and stove and all. Ha! ha! ha! Oh, my! if that wasn't the most comical sight—"
"Oh, but, Bubble," cried Hildegarde, hastily, as a quick glance showed her that Miss Wealthy had turned pale, dropped her knitting, and put her hand up to the pansy brooch, "he wasn't hurt, was he? Poor little man!"
"Hurt? not a mite!" responded Bubble. "He come up next minute, puffing and blowing like a two-ton grampus, and struck out for our canoe. We were all laughing so we could hardly stir to help him in; but the doctor hauled him over the side, and then we paddled over and righted his canoe. He was in a great state of mind! 'You ought to be indicted,' he says to the guide, 'for having such a canoe as that. It's infamous! it's atrocious! I—I—I—how dare you, sir, give me such a rickety eggshell and call it a boat?' Old Marks, the guide, looked at him again, and didn't say anything for a while, but just kept on paddling. At last he says, very slow, as he always speaks, 'I—guess—it's all right, Squire. This is a prohibition State, you know; and that's a prohibition boat, that's all.' Well, there was some talk about fishing the things up; but there was no way of doing it, and Dr. Flower said, anyhow, he didn't come to fish for barrels nor yet for cook-stoves; so we went on, and there they be—are yet, I suppose. Bimeby we came to Marks's camp, where we were to stay. It was a bark lean-to, big enough for us all, with a nice fire burning, and all comfortable. Doctor and I liked it first-rate; but the city chaps,—they said they must have their tents up, so we spent a good part of a day getting the things up."
"And were they more comfortable?" asked Rose. "I suppose the gentlemen were not used to roughing it."
"Humph!" responded Bubble, with sovereign contempt. "Mr. Packard set his afire, trying to build what he called a scientific fire, and came near burning himself up, and the rest of us, let alone the whole woods. And the second night it came on to rain,—my! how it did rain! and the second tent was wet through, and they were all mighty glad to come into the lean-to!"
"This seems to have been a severe experience, my lad," said Miss Wealthy, with gentle sympathy. "I trust that none of the party suffered in health from all this exposure."
"Oh, no, ma'am!" Bubble hastened to assure her. "It was splendid fun! splendid! I never had such a good time. I could fish for a year without stopping, I do believe."
Miss Wealthy's sympathetic look changed to one of mild disapproval, for she did not like what she called "violent sentiments." "So exaggerated a statement, my boy," she said gently, "is doubtless not meant to be taken literally. Fishing, or angling, to use a more elegant word, seems to be a sport which gives great pleasure to those who pursue it. Dr. Johnson, it is true, spoke slightingly of it, and described a fishing-rod as a stick with a hook at one end, and—ahem! he was probably in jest, my dears—a fool at the other. But Izaak Walton was a meek and devout person; and my dear father was fond of angling, and—and—others I have known. Go on, my lad, with your lively description."
Poor Bubble was so abashed by this little dissertation that his liveliness seemed to have deserted him entirely for the moment. He hung his head, and looked so piteously at Hildegarde that she was obliged to take refuge in a fit of coughing, which made Miss Wealthy exclaim anxiously that she feared she had taken cold.
"Go on, Bubble!" said Hildegarde, as soon as she had recovered herself, nodding imperatively to him. "How many fish did you catch?"
"Oh, a great many!" replied the boy, rather soberly. "Dr. Flower is a first-rate fisherman, and he caught a lot every day; and the other two doctors caught some. But Mr. Packard,"—here his eyes began to twinkle again, and his voice took on its usual cheerful ring,—"poor Mr. Packard, he did have hard luck. The first time he threw a fly it caught in a tree, and got all tangled up, so 't he was an hour and more getting his line free. Then he thought 't would be better on the other side of the stream; so he started to cross over, and stepped into a deep hole, and down he sat with a splash, and one of his rubber boots came off, and he dropped his rod. Of all the unlucky people I ever saw! I tell you, 't was enough to make a frog laugh to see him fish! Then, of course, he'd got the water all riled—"
"All—I beg your pardon?—riled?" asked Miss Wealthy, innocently.
"All muddy!" said Bubble, hastily; "so he couldn't fish there no more for one while. And just then I happened to come along with a string of trout—ten of 'em, and perfect beauties!—that I'd caught with a string and a crooked pin; and that seemed to finish Mr. Packard entirely. Next day he had rheumatism in his joints, and stayed in camp all day, watching Marks making snow-shoes. The day after that he tried again, and fished all the morning, and caught one yellow perch and an eel. The eel danced right up in his face,—it did, sure as I'm alive, Pink!—and scairt him so, I'm blessed if he didn't sit down again—ho! ho! ho!—on a point o' rock, and slid off into the water, and lost his spectacles. Oh, dear! it don't seem as if it could be true; but it is, every word. The next day he went home. He'll never go a-fishing again."
"Poor man! I should think not!" said Rose, compassionately. "But is Dr. Flower—are all the others still there?"
"Gone home!" said Bubble. "We came out of the woods three days ago, and took the train yesterday. I never thought of such a thing as stopping; supposed I must go right back to work. But when the brakeman sung out, 'Next station Bywood!' Doctor just says quietly, 'Get your bag ready, Bubble! You're going to get out at this station.' And when I looked at him, all struck of a heap, as you may say, he says, 'Shut your mouth! you look really better with it shut. There is a patient of mine staying at this place, Miss Chirk by name. I want you to look her up, make inquiries into her case, and if you can get lodgings in the neighborhood, stay till she is ready to be escorted back to New York. It is all arranged, and I have a boy engaged to take your place for two weeks. Now, then! do not leave umbrellas or packages in the train! Good-by!' And there we were at the station; and he just shook hands, and dropped me off on the platform, and off they went again. Isn't he a good man? I tell you, if they was all like him, there wouldn't be no trouble in the world for anybody." And Rose thought so too!
THE GREAT SCHEME.
In the latter days of August came a hot wave. It started, we will say, from the Gulf, which was heated sevenfold on purpose, and which simmered and hissed like a gigantic caldron. It came rolling up over the country, scorching all it touched, spreading its fiery billows east and west. New York wilted and fell prostrate. Boston wiped the sweat from her intellectual brow, and panted in all the modern languages. Even Maine was not safe among her rocks and pine-trees; and a wavelet of pure caloric swept over quiet Bywood, and made its inhabitants very uncomfortable. Miss Wealthy could not remember any such heat. There had been a very hot season in 1853,—she remembered it because her father had given up frills to his shirts, as no amount of starch would keep them from hanging limp an hour after they were put on; but she really did not think it was so severe as this. She was obliged to put away her knitting, it made her hands so uncomfortable; and took to crocheting a tidy with linen thread, as the coolest work she could think of. Hildegarde and Rose put on the thin muslins which had lain all summer in their clothespress drawers, and did their best to keep Benny cool and quiet; read Dr. Kane's "Arctic Voyages," and discussed the possibility of Miss Wealthy's allowing them to shave Dr. Johnson.
Bubble spent much of his time in cracking ice and making lemonade, when he was not on or in the river.
As for Martha, she devoted herself to the concoction of cold dishes, and fed the whole family on jellied tongue, lobster-salad, ice-cream, and Charlotte Russe, till they rose up and blessed her.
When Flower-Day came, the girls braved the heat, and went to Fairtown with the flowers; Miss Wealthy reluctantly allowing them to go, because she was anxious, as they were, to know how the little patients bore the heat. They brought back a sad report. The sick children were suffering much; the hospital was like a furnace, in spite of all that could be done to keep it cool. Mrs. Murray sighed for a "country week" for them all, but knew no way of attaining the desired object, as most of the people interested in the hospital were out of town.
"Oh, if we could only find a place!" cried Hildegarde, after she had told about the little pallid faces and the fever-heat in town. "If there were only some empty house,"—she did not dare to look at Miss Wealthy as she said this, but kept her eyes on the river (they were all sitting on the piazza, waiting for the afternoon breeze, which seldom failed them),—"some quiet place, like Islip, where the poor little souls could come, for a week or two, till this dreadful heat is past." Then she told the story of Islip, with its lovely Seaside Home, where all summer long the poor children come and go, nursed and tended to refreshment by the black-clad Sisters. Miss Wealthy made no sign, but sat with clasped hands, her work lying idle in her lap. Rose was very pale, and trembled with a sense of coming trouble; but Hildegarde's cheeks were flushed, and her eyes shone with excitement.
There were a few moments of absolute silence, broken only by the hot shrilling of a locust in a tree hard by; then Zerubbabel Chirk, calmly unconscious of any thrill in the air, any tension of the nerves, any crisis impending, paused in his whittling, and instead of carving a whistle for Benny, cut the Gordian knot.
"Why, there is a house, close by here," he said; "not more 'n half a mile off. I was going to ask you girls about it. A pretty red house, all spick and span, and not a soul in it, far as I could see. Why isn't it exactly the place you want?" He looked from one to the other with bright, inquiring eyes; but no one answered. "I'm sure it is!" he continued, with increasing animation. "There's a lawn where the children could play, and a nice clear brook for 'em to paddle and sail boats in, and gravel for 'em to dig in,—why, it was made for children!" cried the boy. "And as for the man that owns it, why, if he doesn't want to stay there himself, why shouldn't he let some one else have it?—unless he's an old hunks; and even if he is—" He stopped short, for Rose had seized his arm with a terrified grasp, and Hildegarde's clear eyes flashed a silent warning.
Miss Wealthy tottered to her feet, and the others rose instinctively also. She stood for a moment, her hand at her throat, her eyes fixed on Bubble, trembling as if he had struck her a heavy blow; then, as the frightened girls made a motion to advance, she waved them back with a gesture full of dignity, and turned and entered the house, making a low moan as she went.
"Send Martha to her, quick!" said Hildegarde, in an imperative whisper. "Fly, Bubble! the back door!"
Bubble flew, as if he had been shot from a gun, and returned, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, to find his sister in tears, and his adored Miss Hilda pacing up and down the piazza with hasty and agitated steps.
"What is it?" he cried in dismay. "What did I do? What is the matter with everybody? Why, I never—"
Hildegarde quieted him with a gesture, and then told him, briefly, the story of the house in the wood. Poor Bubble was quite overcome. He punched his head severely, and declared that he was the most stupid idiot that ever lived.
"I'd better go away!" he cried. "I can't see the old lady again. As kind as she's been to me, and then for me to call her a—I guess I'll be going, Miss Hilda; I'm no good here, and only doing harm."
"Be quiet, Bubble!" said Hildegarde, smiling in the midst of her distress. "You shall do nothing of the kind. And, Rose, you are not to shed another tear. Who knows? This may be the very best thing that could have happened. Of course I wouldn't have had you say it, Bubble, just in that way; but now that it is said, I—I think I am glad of it. I should not wonder—I really do hope that it may have been just the word that was wanted."
And so it proved. For an hour after, as the three still sat on the piazza,—two of them utterly disconsolate, the third trying to cheer them with the hope that she was feeling more and more strongly,—Martha appeared. There were traces of tears in her friendly gray eyes, but she looked kindly at the forlorn trio.
"Miss Bond is not feeling very well!" she said. "She is lying down, and thinks she will not come downstairs this evening. Here is a note for you, Miss Hilda, and a letter for the post."
Hildegarde tore open the little folded note, and read, in Miss Wealthy's pretty, regular hand, these words:—
MY DEAR HILDA,—Please tell the boy that I do not mean to be an old hunks, and ask him to post this letter. We will make our arrangements to-morrow, as I am rather tired now.
Your affectionate cousin, WEALTHY BOND.
The letter was addressed to Mrs. Murray at the Children's Hospital; and at sight of it Hildegarde threw her arms round Martha's neck, and gave her a good hug. Her private desire was to cry; but tears were a luxury she rarely indulged in, so she laughed instead.
"Is it all right, Martha," she asked,—"really and truly right? Because if it is, I am the happiest girl in the world."
"It is all right, indeed, Miss Hilda!" replied Martha, heartily; "and the best thing that could have happened, to my mind. Dear gracious! so often as I've wished for something to break up that place, so to speak, and make a living house 'stead of a dead one! And it never could ha' been done, in my thinking, any other way than this. So it's a good day's work you've done, and thankful she'll be to you for it when the shock of it is over." Then, seeing that the young people were still a little "trembly," as she called it, this best of Marthas added cheerfully: "It's like to be a very warm evening, I'm thinking. And as Miss Bond isn't coming down, wouldn't it be pleasant for you to go out in the boat, perhaps, Miss Hilda, and take your tea with you? There's a nice little mould of pressed chicken, do you see, and some lemon jelly on the ice; and I could make you up a nice basket, and 't would be right pleasant now, wouldn't it, young ladies?"
Whereupon Martha was called a saint and an angel and a brick, all in three breaths; and she went off, well pleased, to pack the basket, leaving great joy behind her.
Late that evening, when Hildegarde was going to bed, she saw the door of Miss Wealthy's room ajar, and heard her name called softly. She went in, and found the dear old lady sitting in her great white dimity armchair.
"Come here, my dear," said Miss Wealthy, gently. "I have something to show you, which I think you will like to see."
She had a miniature in her hand,—the portrait of a young and handsome man, with flashing dark eyes, and a noble, thoughtful face.
"It is my Victor!" said the old lady, tenderly. "I am an old woman, but he is always my true love, young and beautiful. Look at it, my child! It is the face of a good and true man."
"You do not mind my knowing?" Hildegarde asked, kissing the soft, wrinkled hand.
"I am very glad of it," replied Miss Wealthy,—"very glad! And in—in a little while—when I have had time to realize it—I shall no doubt be glad of this—this projected change. You see"—she paused, and seemed to seek for a word,—"you see, dear, it has always been Victor's house to me. I never—I should not have thought of making use of it, like another house. It is doubtless—much better. In fact, I am sure of it. It has come to me very strongly that Victor would like it, that it would please him extremely. And now I blame myself for never having thought of such a thing before. So, my dear," she added, bending forward to kiss Hildegarde's forehead, "besides the blessings of the sick children, you will win one from me, and—who knows?—perhaps one from a voice we cannot hear."
The girl was too much moved to speak, and they were silent for a while.
"And now," Miss Wealthy said very cheerfully, "it is bedtime for you, and for me too. But before you go, I want to give you a little trinket that I had when I was just your age. My grandmother gave it to me; and though I am not exactly your grandmother, I am the next thing to it. Open that little cupboard, if you please, and bring me a small red morocco box which you will find on the second shelf, in the right-hand corner. There is a brown pill-box next to it; do you find it, my love?"
Hildegarde brought the box, and on being told to open it, found a bracelet of black velvet, on which was sewed a garland of miniature flowers, white roses and forget-me-nots, wrought in exquisite enamel.
"I thought of it," said the old lady, as Hildegarde bent over the pretty trinket in wondering delight, "when I saw your forget-me-not room last winter. The clasp, you see, is a turquoise; I believe, rather a fine one. My grandfather brought it from Constantinople. A pretty thing; it will look well on your arm. The Bonds all have good arms, which is a privilege. Good-night, dear child! Sleep well, and be ready to elaborate your great scheme to-morrow."
THE WIDOW BRETT.
So it came to pass that at the breakfast-table next morning no one was so bright and gay as Miss Wealthy. She was full of the new plan, and made one suggestion after another.
"The first thing," she said, "is to find a good housekeeper. There is nothing more important, especially where children are concerned. Now, I have thought of precisely the right person,—pre-cisely!" she added, sipping her tea with an air of great content. "Martha, your cousin Cynthia Brett is the very woman for the place."
"Truly, Mam, I think she is," said Martha, putting down the buttered toast on the exact centre of the little round mat where it belonged; "and I think she would do it too!"
"A widow," Miss Wealthy explained, turning to Hildegarde, her kind eyes beaming with interest, "fond of children, neat as wax, capable, a good cook, and makes butter equal to Martha's. My dears, Cynthia Brett was made for this emergency. Zerubbabel, my lad, are you desirous of attracting attention? We will gladly listen to any suggestion you have to make."
The unfortunate Bubble, who had been drumming on the table with his spoon, blushed furiously, muttered an incoherent apology, and wished he were small enough to dive into his bowl of porridge.
"And this brings me to another plan," continued the dear old lady. "Bixby, where Cynthia Brett lives, is an extremely pretty little village, and I should like you all to see it. What do you say to driving over there, spending the night at Mrs. Brett's, and coming back the next day, after making the arrangements with her? Zerubbabel could borrow Mr. Rawson's pony, I am sure, and be your escort. Do you like the plan, Hilda, my dear?"
"Oh, Cousin Wealthy," cried Hildegarde, "it is too delightful! We should enjoy it above all things. But—no!" she added, "what would you do without the Doctor? You would lose your drive. Is there no other way of sending word to Mrs. Brett?"
But Miss Wealthy would not hear of any other way. It was a pity if she could not stay at home one day, she said. So when Mr. Brisket, the long butcher from Bixby, came that morning, and towering in the doorway, six feet and a half of blue jean, asked if they wanted "a-any ni-ice mut-ton toda-a-ay," he was intrusted with a note from Martha to her cousin, telling of the projected expedition, and warning her to expect the young ladies the next day but one.
The day came,—a day of absolute beauty, and though still very hot, not unbearable. Dr. Abernethy had had an excellent breakfast, with twice his usual quantity of oats, so that he actually frisked when he was brought round to the door. The whole family assembled to see the little party start. Miss Wealthy stood on the piazza, looking like an ancient Dresden shepherdess in her pink and white and silver beauty, and gave caution after caution: they must spare the horse up hill, and never trot down hill; "and let the good beast drink, dearie, when you come to the half-way trough,—not too much, but enough moderately to quench his thirst;" etc.
Martha beamed through her silver-rimmed spectacles, and hoped she'd given them enough lunch; while Benny, with his hand resting on the head of his "ole fat kyat," surveyed them with rather a serious air.
The girls had been troubled about Benny. They did not want to leave the little fellow, who had announced his firm intention of going with them; yet it was out of the question to take him. The evening before, however, Bubble had had a long talk with "ve boy of ve house;" and great was the relief of the ladies when that youthful potentate announced at breakfast his determination to stay at home and "take care of ve womenfolks, 'cause Jim-Maria [the name by which he persistently called the melancholy prophet], he's gettin' old, an' somebody has to see to fings; and I's ve boy of ve house, so I ought to see to vem."
When the final moment came, however, it seemed very dreadful to see his own Sing-girl drive away, and Posy, and the other boy too; and Benny's lip began to quiver, and his eyes to grow large and round, to make room for the tears. At this very moment, however, Jim-Maria, who had disappeared after bringing the horse to the door, came round the corner, bringing the most wonderful hobby-horse that ever was seen. It was painted bright yellow, for that was the color Jeremiah was painting the barn. Its eyes were large and black, which gave it a dashing and spirited appearance; and at sight of it the Boy of the House forgot everything else in heaven and earth. "Mine horse!" he cried, rushing upon it with outstretched arms,—"all mine, for to wide on! Jim-Maria, get out ov ve way! Goo-by, Sing-girl! goo-by, ev'ryboggy! Benny's goin' to ve Norf Pole!" and he cantered away, triumphant.
Then Hildegarde and Rose, seeing that all was well, made their adieus with a light heart, and Bubble waved his hat, and Miss Wealthy kissed her hand, and Martha shook her blue checked apron violently up and down, and off they went.
* * * * *
The little village of Bixby was in its usual condition of somnolent cheerfulness, that same afternoon. The mail had come in, being brought in Abner Colt's green wagon from the railway-station two miles away. The appearance of the green wagon, with its solitary brown bag, not generally too well filled, and its bundle of newspapers, was the signal for all the village-loungers to gather about the door of the post-office. The busy men would come later, when the mail was sorted; but this was the supreme hour of the loungers. They did not often get letters themselves, but it was very important that they should see who did get letters; and most of them had a newspaper to look for. Then the joy of leaning against the door-posts, and waiting to see if anything would happen! As a rule, nothing did happen, but there was no knowing what joyful day might bring a new sensation. Sometimes there was a dog-fight. Once—thrilling recollection!—Ozias Brisket's horse had run away ("Think 't 's likely a bumble-bee must ha' stung him; couldn't nothin' else ha' stirred him out of a walk, haw! haw!") and had scattered the joints of meat all about the street.
To-day there seemed little chance of any awakening event beyond the arrival of the green cart. It was very warm; the patient post-supporters were nearly asleep. Their yellow dogs slumbered at their feet; the afternoon sun filled the little street with vivid golden light.
Suddenly the sound of wheels was heard,—of unfamiliar wheels. The post-supporters knew the creak or rattle or jingle of every "team" in Bixby. There was a general stir, a looking up the street, in the direction whence the sound came; and then a gaping of mouths, an opening of eyes, a craning of long necks.
A phaeton, drawn by a comfortable-looking gray horse, was coming slowly down the street. It approached; it stopped at the post-office door. In it sat two young girls: one, tall, erect, with flashing gray eyes and brilliant color, held the reins, and drew the horse up with the air of a practised whip; the other leaned back among the cushions, with a very happy, contented look, though she seemed rather tired. Both girls were dressed alike in simple gowns of blue gingham; but the simplicity was of a kind unknown to Bixby, and the general effect was very marvellous. The spectators had not yet shut their mouths, when a clattering of hoofs was heard, and a boy on a black pony came dashing along the street, and drew up beside the phaeton.
"No, it wasn't that house," he said, addressing the two girls. "At least, there was no one there. Say," he added, turning to the nearest lounger, a sandy person of uncertain age and appearance, "can you tell us where Mrs. Brett lives?"
"The Widder Brett?" returned the sandy person, cautiously. "Do ye mean the Widder Brett?"
"Yes, I suppose so," answered the boy. "Is there any other Mrs. Brett?"
"No, there ain't!" was the succinct reply.
"Well, where does she live?" cried the boy, impatiently.
"The Widder Brett lives down yender!" said the sandy person, nodding down the street. "Ye can't see the house from here, but go clear on to the eend, and ye'll see it to yer right,—a yaller house, with green blinds, an' a yard in front. You 'kin to the Widder Brett?"
"No," said the tall young lady, speaking for the first time; "we are no relations. Thank you very much! Good-morning!" and with a word to the boy, she gathered up the reins, and drove slowly down the little street.
The post-supporters watched them till the last wheel of the phaeton disappeared round the turn; then they turned eagerly to one another.
"Who be they? What d'ye s'pose they want o' the Widder Brett?" was the eager cry. "Says they ain't no blood relation o' Mis' Brett's." "Some o' Brett's folks, likely!" "I allus heerd his folks was well off."
Meanwhile the phaeton was making its way along slowly, as I said, for Rose was tired after the long drive.
"But not too tired!" she averred, in answer to Hildegarde's anxious inquiry. "Oh, no, dear! not a bit too tired, only just enough to make rest most delightful. What a funny little street!—something like the street in Glenfield, isn't it? Look! that might be Miss Bean's shop, before you took hold of it."
"Oh, worse, much worse!" cried Hildegarde, laughing. "These bonnets are positively mildewed. Rose, I see the mould on that bunch of berries."
"Mould!" cried Rose, in mock indignation. "It is bloom, Hilda,—a fine purple bloom! City people don't know the difference, perhaps."
"See!" said Hildegarde; "this must be 'the Widder Brett's' house. What a pretty little place, Rose! I am sure we shall like the good woman herself. Take the reins, dear, while I go and make sure. No, Bubble, I will go myself, thank you."
She sprang lightly out, and after patting Dr. Abernethy's head and bidding him stand still like the best of dears, she opened the white gate, which stuck a little, as if it were not opened every day. A tidy little wooden walk, with a border of pinks on either side, led up to the green door, in front of which was one broad stone doorstep. Beyond the pinks was a bed of pansies on the one hand; on the other, two apple-trees and a pleasant little green space; while under the cottage windows were tiger-lilies and tall white phlox and geraniums, and a great bush of southernwood; altogether, it was a front yard such as Miss Jewett would like.
Hildegarde lifted the bright brass knocker,—she was so glad it was a knocker, and not an odious gong bell; she could not have liked a house with a gong bell,—and rapped gently. The pause which followed was not strictly necessary, for the Widow Brett had been reconnoitring every movement of the new-comers through a crack in the window-blind, and was now standing in the little entry, not two feet from the door. The good woman counted twenty, which she thought would occupy just about the time necessary to come from the kitchen, and then opened the door, with a proper expression of polite surprise on her face.
"Good-day!" she said, with a rising inflection.
"How do you do?" replied Hildegarde, with a falling one. "Are you Mrs. Brett, and are you expecting us?"
"My name is Brett," replied the tall, spare woman in the brown stuff gown; "but I wasn't expectin' any one, as I know of. Pleased to see ye, though! Step in, won't ye?"
"Oh!" cried Hildegarde, looking distressed. "Didn't you—haven't you had a letter from Martha? She promised to write, and said she was sure you would take us in for the night. I don't understand—"
"There!" cried Mrs. Brett. "Step right in now, do! and I'll tell you. This way, if you please!" and much flurried, she led the way into the best room, and drew up the hair-cloth rocking-chair, in which our heroine entombed herself. "I do declare," the widow went on, "I ought to be shook! There was a letter come last night; and my spectacles was broken, my dear, and I can't read Martha's small handwriting without 'em. I thought 't was just one of her letters, you know, telling how they was getting on, and I'd wait till one of the neighbors came in to read it to me. Well, there! and all the time she was telling me something, was she? and who might you be, dear, that was thinking of staying here?"
"I am Hilda Grahame!" said the girl, suppressing an inclination to cry, as the thought of Rose's tired face came over her. "If you will find the letter, Mrs. Brett, I will read it to you at once. It was to tell you that I was coming, with my friend, who is in the carriage now, and her young brother; and Martha thought there was no doubt about your taking us in. Perhaps there is some other house—"
"No, there isn't," said the Widow Brett, quickly and kindly,—"not another one. The idea! Of course I'll take you in, child, and glad enough of the chance. And you Miss Hildy Grahame, too, that Marthy has told me so much about! Why, I'm right glad to see ye, right glad!" She took Hildegarde's hand, and moved it up and down as if it were a pump-handle, her homely face shining with a cordiality which was evidently genuine. "Only,"—and here her face clouded again,—"only if I'd ha' known, I should have had everything ready, and have done some cleaning, and cooked up a few things. You'll have to take me just as I am, I expect! However—"
"Oh, we like things just as they are!" cried Hildegarde, in delight. "You must not make any difference at all for us, Mrs. Brett! We shall not like it if you do. May I bring my friend in now?"
"Well, I should say so!" cried the good woman. "She's out in the carriage, you say? I'll go right out and fetch her in."
Rose was warmly welcomed, and brought into the house; while Hilda fastened Dr. Abernethy to the gate-post, and got the shawls and hand-bags out from under the seat.
"I expect you'd like to go right upstairs and lay off your things!" was Mrs. Brett's next remark. "I declare! I do wish 't I'd known! I swep' the spare chamber yesterday, but I hadn't any idea of its being used. Well, there! you'll have to take me as I am." She bustled upstairs before the girls, talking all the way. "I try to keep the house clean, but I don't often have comp'ny, and the dust doos gather so, this dry weather, and not keeping any help, you see—well, there! this is the best I've got, and maybe it'll do to sleep in."
She threw open, with mingled pride and nervousness, the door of a pleasant, sunny room, rather bare, but in exquisite order. The rag carpet was brilliant with scarlet, blue, and green; the furniture showed no smallest speck of dust; the bed looked like a snowdrift. Nevertheless, the good hostess went peering about, wiping the chairs with her apron, and repeating, "The dust doos gather so! I wouldn't set down, if I was you, till I've got the chairs done off!"