John Gayther's Garden and the Stories Told Therein
by Frank R. Stockton
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6
Home - Random Browse

"The next morning I was possessed with an overwhelming desire to go to see Miss Temple. Why I should do so I could not tell myself. I certainly did not want to see her; I did not wish to speak to her; I did not want her to say anything to me: but I felt that I must go; and I went. She received me very pleasantly, and did not say one word about our conversation of the day before. There were a good many things I should have liked to say, but I did not know how, unless she gave me the opportunity. But she did not, and so it happened that we talked only about something she was sewing—I do not know whether it was a shirt-waist or an army blanket. In fact, I did not hear one word she said about her stupid work, whatever it was, I was so busy re-studying her face, her character, and everything about her. I now found she was much more than satisfactory—she was really good-looking. Her eyes were not very large, but they were soft and dark. Her voice was clear and sweet. I had noticed this before, but, until now, I had not thought of it as an objection. There were a good many other things that might be very effective to a man, especially to one with half-healed sorrows. I acknowledged to myself that I had been mistaken in her, and I did not doubt she had deceived a good many other people in that neighborhood.

"When I rose to leave, she stood for a moment, looking at me as though she expected me to say something on the subject which was certainly interesting to her as well as to me. But now I did not want to talk, and I gave her no chance to say anything. I walked rapidly home, feeling as jealous of Margaret Temple as any woman could feel of another.

"I was glad that day that Bernard liked to go fishing, for my mind was in such a condition that I did not think of anything that might happen to him—at least, anything but just one thing, and that was awful. Emily Cheston supposed I had a headache, and I let her think so, for it gave me more time to myself. I looked at the thing that threatened to crush all my happiness, on every possible side. Early in the morning a ray of relief had come to my troubled mind, and this was that I did not believe he would have her, anyway. But I had seen her since, and no such ray comforted me now.

"I knew, as I had not known before, what a power she might have over a man. Widowers, I thought, are generally ready enough to marry again; but, no matter what they think about it, they mostly wait a good while, for the sake of appearances. But this would be different. When a man knows that his wife had selected some one as her successor—and he would be sure to know this, the woman would see to that—he would not feel it necessary to wait. He would be carrying out his dead wife's wishes, and of course in this there should be no delay. Oh, horrible! When I thought of myself as Bernard's dead wife, and that woman living, I actually kicked the stool my feet were resting on. I vowed in my mind the thing should never be. I felt better after I had made this vow, although I had not thought of any way by which I could carry it out. Certainly I was not going to say anything to Bernard about it, one way or another."

Here the Next Neighbor paused again. And at that moment the red thrush gave a little low trill, as much as to say: "Listen to me now." Then he twittered and chirped in a tentative way as if he had not made up his mind about singing, and the party on the terrace felt like clapping to encourage him.

"I wonder if he knows he has an audience," said the Daughter of the House, in a very low tone.

"He knows it is impolite to interrupt the story," said her father. "No; there he goes!"

And, sure enough, the bird, having decided that on the whole it would help matters in whatever direction he wished them to be helped, sang out, clear and loud, what seemed to his audience the most delightful song he had yet given them.

When he had finished, the Next Neighbor said: "That was so full of soul I hate to go on with my very material story."

"It strikes me," said the Old Professor, "that there is a good deal of soul in your story."

"Thank you," said the Next Neighbor, as she again took up the thread of her narrative.

"That evening, prompted by a sudden impulse, I went up to Bernard, and, looking into his face, I declared that I would never leave him.

"'What!' he exclaimed. 'Has any one been asking you to leave me?'

"'Of course not,' said I, a little irritated—he has such queer ways of taking what I say. 'I mean I am not going to die before you do. I am not going to leave you in this world to take care of yourself.'

"He looked at me as though he did not understand me, and I do not suppose he did, although he only said: 'I am delighted to hear that, my dear girl. But how are you going to manage it? How about that hereditary disease you were talking of the other day?'

"'I have nothing to say about that,' I answered; 'but if I live as long as my grandfather did, I do not believe that your being a little older than I am would—I mean that you would not be left alone. Don't you understand?'

"Bernard did not laugh. 'You are the dearest little woman in the world,' he said, 'and I believe you would do anything to make me happy—you would even be willing to survive me, so that I should never lose you. But don't let us talk any more about such doleful things. We are both going to live to be a great deal older than your grandfather. Now I will tell you something pleasant: I had a letter this morning, just as I was starting out. I put it in my pocket, and did not have time to open it until we were eating our lunch. It is from my brother George, who is going to England next month, you know; and as he wants to see something of us before he starts, he intends to spend a few days in the village, so that he can be with us. He is coming to-morrow.'

"A ray of hope shot into my heart so bright that I could almost feel it burn.

"'Well,' said Bernard, 'what have you to say to this? Aren't you glad that George is coming?'

"'Glad!' I replied. 'I am more than delighted.'

"Bernard looked as though he did not understand this extraordinary ecstasy; but as he was used to not understanding me, I do not suppose he thought it worth while to bother himself about it.

"George was a fine young fellow, and, next to Bernard, I thought he was the best man in the world. It will be remembered that I had no brother, and George was always as kind and brotherly as he could be. I was fond of him even before I was married; in fact, I knew him quite well before I became acquainted with Bernard; and I was always glad to see him. But I had never been so delighted to think he was coming as I was then. My face must have shown this, for Bernard laughingly said:

"'You must be awfully glad to see George.'

"'I am glad,' I answered; and as I spoke I thought that if he knew everything he would understand why my eyes glistened, as I am sure they did.

"The reason of my great joy was that a plan had suddenly come into my mind. George had spoken to me several times about marrying, and he had told me just what kind of a wife he wanted; and now, as I remembered what he had said on the subject, it seemed to me he had been describing Margaret Temple. He wanted a wife who was good-looking but not a belle, and she must be sensible and practical, a good housekeeper, and a charming hostess. Besides, she must be intellectual, and fond of books, and appreciate art, and all that. Moreover, he had said he would like her to be just about a year older than himself, because he thought that was a good proportion in a young couple. It was apt to make the man look up to his wife a little, which might not be the case if he were the elder. I remembered this, because when he told me I wished very much that I were a year older than Bernard.

"Now, as I said before, all this seemed as though he had been talking of Miss Temple; and I, knowing her so well, could see other points than those he mentioned in which she would suit him as no other woman could. If George would fall in love with Miss Temple,—and there was no earthly reason why he should not, for Bernard told me he was going to make him stay a week,—then everything would be all right; all my anxieties, my forebodings, and my jealousies would be gone, and I should be as happy as I was before I met that dear girl, Miss Temple.

"This was not all idle fancy. My plan was founded on good, practical ideas. If George married Margaret everything would be settled in an absolutely perfect way. If I should die Bernard would not need to marry anybody; in fact, I did not believe that in this case he would want to. He would go to live with George and Margaret; their home would be his home, and he would always have both of them to take care of him and to make him happy in every possible way in which anybody could make him happy. In my mind's eye I could see him in the best room in the house, with all sorts of comforts and luxuries about him—our present comforts and luxuries would make a great show gathered together in one room; and then I saw Margaret and George standing at the open door, asking if there were anything he would like, and what they could do for him. As this mental picture came before me my eyes involuntarily went around that room to see if there were a picture of me on the wall; and there it was, and no portrait of any other woman anywhere about.

"In a flash the whole thing became so horrible to me that I threw myself on the bed and began to cry convulsively. Bernard heard me, and came up-stairs, and I was obliged to tell him I had a sudden pain. He does not like sudden pains, and sat down and talked to me a good while about what I had been eating. Before long, however, I grew calm, and was able to think about my plans in a common-sense, practical way. Truly there could be nothing better for my present comfort and Bernard's future happiness: Margaret and George to take care of him, and my image undimmed in his heart. I felt like one who has insured his life for the benefit of a loved one, so, no matter what might happen to him, he would have, as long as he lived, the joy of knowing what he had done for the loved one.

"When George came the next day he was just the same splendid old George, and I do not believe any one ever received a warmer welcome from a sister-in-law than I gave him. Bernard made a little fun of me, as usual, and said he believed I would rather see George than him.

"'Nonsense,' said I; 'I am always glad to see you, but I am especially glad to see George.'

"Bernard whistled, and looked at me in the same queer way that he looked at me when he once had said laughingly that he believed if I had never met him I would have married George, and I had answered that if I had been sure he did not exist it might have been a good thing for me to marry George.

"Miss Temple did not come to the house that morning, as she so often did, but I asked Emily to send over and invite her to tea; for I did not wish to lose any time in the carrying out of my plans. It was about the middle of the afternoon when Bernard and his brother came in from a walk. I had been anxious to see George, because I wanted to talk with him about Margaret before he met her. I was going to speak very guardedly, of course; but I knew it would be well to prepare his mind, and I had made up my mind exactly what I was going to say.

"I artfully managed so that George and I walked over the lawn to a bench in the shade of a big tree where there was something or other—I entirely forget what it was—which I said I would show him. Mr. and Mrs. Cheston and Bernard were on the piazza, but I did not ask them to join us.

"We sat down on the bench, and, in a general sort of way, I asked him what he had been doing, meaning presently to bring up the subject of Margaret, for I did not know what time she might drop in. But George was just as anxious to talk as I was, and, being a man, he was a little more pushing, and he said:

"'Now, little Rosa, I am so glad you came down here with me, for I have something on my mind I want to tell you, and I want to do it myself, before anybody else interferes. It is just this: I am engaged to be married, and as soon as I get back from England I am going to—' And then he opened his eyes very wide and looked hard at me. 'What is the matter, Rosa?' he exclaimed. 'Don't you feel well?'

"In one instant all my plans and hopes and happy dreams of the future had dropped to the ground, and had been crushed into atoms.

"'Well!' said I, and I think I spoke in a queer voice. 'I am very well. There is nothing the matter with me. What is her name?'

"He told me; but I had never heard it before, and it was of no more importance to me than the buzzing of a bee.

"'It will be very nice,' I said; 'and now let us go up to the house and tell the others.'

"I think that for a woman who had just received such a blow as had been dealt to me I behaved very well indeed. But I was cold and, I suspect, pale. I listened as the others talked, but I did not say much myself; and, as soon as I could make some excuse, I went up to my room. There I threw myself into a great chair, and gently cried myself to sleep. I did not sob loudly, because I did not want Bernard to come up again. When I awoke I had a dreadful headache, and I made up my mind I would not go down to tea. I could do no good by going down, and, so far as I was concerned, it did not matter in the least whether Margaret was there or not. In fact, I did not care about anything. Let George marry whoever he pleased. If I should die Margaret Temple had promised to take care of Bernard. Everything was settled, and there was no sense in making any more plans. So I got ready for another nap, and when Bernard came up I told him I had a headache, and did not want any tea.

"That evening Bernard sat and looked at me without speaking, as was sometimes his habit, and then he said:

"'Rosa, I do not understand this at all, and I want you to tell me why you were so extravagantly glad when you found my brother George was coming here, and why you were so overcome by your emotions when you heard of his engagement.'

"'Oh, Bernard,' I cried, 'if it were anybody else I might tell everything, but I cannot tell you—I cannot tell you!' And I am sure I spoke truly, for how could I have told that dear man what I had said to Margaret Temple; and how jealous I had been of her afterwards; and how I had planned for her to marry George; and that, after my funeral, he should go to live with them; and about my picture on the wall; and all the rest of it? It was simply impossible. And if he did not know all this, how could he understand my feelings when I heard that George was engaged?

"I could not answer him; I could only sob, and repeat what I had said before—that if it were anybody else I might speak, but that I could never tell him. Soon after that he went down-stairs, and I went to sleep.

"Bernard was never cross with me,—I do not believe he could be if he tried,—but the next morning he was very quiet, and soon after breakfast he and Mr. Cheston and George went fishing. If the incidents of the day before had not occurred I suppose they would have done something in which Emily and I could have joined; but some sort of change had come over things, and it was plain enough that even George did not want me. So I sat alone under the tree where George had told me of his engagement, feeling very much troubled and very lonely. I wanted to tell everything to somebody, but there was no one to tell. It would be impossible to speak to Emily; she would have no sympathy with me; and if I should tell her everything I had planned, I knew she would laugh at me unmercifully. I think it would have pleased me better to speak to George than to any one else; he had always been so sympathetic and kind; but now things were changed, and he would not care to interest himself in the affairs of any woman except the one to whom he was engaged. It was terrible to sit there and think that there was not a person in the world, not even my husband, to whom I could look for sympathy and comfort. If I had not been out in the open air, where people could have seen me, I should have cried.

"Happening to look up, I saw some one on the piazza. It was that horrible Margaret Temple; and when she gazed about from side to side she saw me under the tree, and as I, apparently, took no notice of her, she stepped down from the piazza and came walking across the lawn toward me. If I had been a man I should have cursed my fate; not only was I deprived of every comfort, but here came the disturber of my peace to make me still more unhappy.

"I do not remember what she said when she reached me, but I know she spoke very pleasantly; nor do I remember what I replied, but I am sure I did not speak pleasantly. I was out of humor with the whole world, and particularly with her. She brought a little chair that was near by, and sat down by me. She was a very straightforward person about speaking, and so she said, without any preface:

"'Have you told your husband of that arrangement you made with me if he should survive you?'

"'Of course I have not!' I exclaimed. 'Do you think I would tell him a thing like that, especially when I said I would not? The fact is,' I continued,—and it was very hard for me to keep from crying as I spoke,—'I am just loaded down with trouble, and I cannot tell anybody.'

"'I knew you were troubled,' she replied, 'and that is the reason I came this morning. Why can't you tell me what is the matter?'

"At first this made me angry, and I felt like bouncing off to the house and never speaking to her again; but in the next instant I changed my mind. It would serve her right if I told her everything; and so I did. I made her feel exactly how I had felt when I had thought of her in my place, and how I had determined that it should never be. Then I went on and told her all my plans about George and herself; and how Bernard was to board with them if I died. I made the story a good deal longer than I have made it here. Then I finished by telling her of George's engagement, and how nothing had come of the whole thing except that Bernard had supposed that I thought too much of George, and had gone away that morning as cold as a common acquaintance; and that I felt as though my whole life had been wrecked, and that she had done it.

"It was easy to see that she was not affected as she should have been by what I said. In fact, she looked as though she wanted to laugh; but her respect for me prevented that.

"'I do not see,' she said, 'how I have wrecked your life.'

"'That may be so,' I answered, 'but it is because you do not want to see it. I should think that even you would admit that it is enough to drive me crazy to see any woman waiting and longing for the day which would give her that which I prize more than anything else in the world. And to think what you are aspiring to! None of the old left-overs that other people have offered to you, but my Bernard, the very prince of men! I do not wonder you were so quick to promise me you would take him!'

"She jumped up, and I thought she was going away; but she did not go, and turned again toward me, and remarked, just as coolly as anybody could speak: 'Well, I do not wonder, either. Your Bernard is a most estimable man, and if nothing should happen in any way or at any time to interfere in the case of his surviving you I shall be happy to marry him. I think I would make him a very good wife.'

"At this I sprang to my feet, and I am sure my eyes and cheeks were blazing. 'Do you mean,' I cried, 'that you would make him a better wife than I do?'

"'That is a question,' she said, 'that is not easy to answer, and needs a good deal of consideration.' And she spoke with as much deliberation as if she were trying to decide whether it would be better to cover a floor with matting or carpet. 'For one thing, I do not believe I would nag him.'

"'Nag!' I exclaimed. 'What do you mean by that? Do you suppose I nag him?'

"'I do not know anything about it,' she answered, 'except what you told me yourself; and what you said was my reason for agreeing so quickly to your proposition.'

"'Nag!' I cried. But then I stopped. I thought it would be better to wait until I could think over what I had said to her before I pursued this subject. 'But I can tell you one thing,' I continued, 'and that is that you need not have any hopes in the direction of my husband. I am going to tell him everything just as soon as he comes home, even about you and George; and I am going to make him promise that, no matter what happens, he will never marry you.'

"I think these words made some impression on her, for she answered very quickly: 'I am not sure that it will be wise to tell him everything; but if you are determined to do so, I must insist that you will tell him something more; and that is that I am engaged to be married, and have been for nearly a year.'

"'And you have been deceiving all these anxious wives?' I cried.

"'I never made promises to any one but to you,' she answered; 'and I would not have done that if I had not liked you so much.'

"'You have a funny way of liking,' I remarked.

"She merely smiled, and went on: 'And I should not have told you of my engagement if I had not thought it would be safer to do so, considering the story you are going to tell your husband.'

"'And it is because I consider it safer that I am going to tell him that story,' I replied.

* * * * *

"That afternoon, as soon as I was alone with Bernard,—I did not give him any time to show me any of his common-acquaintance coolness,—I told him the whole thing from beginning to end. He listened so earnestly that one might have thought he was in church; but when I came to the part about his boarding with George and Miss Temple he could not help laughing. He excused himself, however, and told me to go on. He looked very happy when I had told him my story, and no one would have supposed that he had ever assumed the air of a mere common acquaintance.

"'You are such a good little wife!' he exclaimed. 'And you are always trying to do things to make me happy. But you must not take so much labor and anxiety upon yourself. I want to help you in every way that I can, and in such a case you ought to let me do it.'

"'But how could you help me in the trouble I have been telling you about?' I asked.

"'Easily enough,' he answered. 'Now, if you had taken me into your confidence, I would have told you that I consider Miss Temple too tall a woman for my fancy.'

"'She is,' I said. 'I did not think so at first, but I can see it plainly now.'

"'Then, again, she is too practical-minded.'

"'Entirely too much so,' I agreed.

"'And in other respects she is not up to my standard,' continued Bernard. 'So I think, Rosa, that if you should ever take up such a scheme again we should act together. I am sure my opinion would be of great advantage to you in helping you to select some one who should take up the work of making me happy—'

"'You are perfectly horrid!' I exclaimed; and I stopped his mouth.

"That was the end of the matter; but I never learned to like Margaret Temple. To be sure, I thought seriously of some things she had said; but then, people can consider things people say without liking the people who say them. I pity her husband."

Just then came the summons to luncheon, and this story was not commented upon.







John Gayther and the Daughter of the House walked in the garden. The melons were ripe now, and it was a pleasure to push aside the coarse leaves and find beneath them the tropical-looking fruit with the pretty network tracery covering the gray-green rind. The grape-vines, too, were things of beauty, hanging full of great white, yellow, red, and purple clusters. The tomatoes gleamed scarlet and purple-red thickly among the plants. The cabbages had curled themselves up into compact heads that looked like big folded roses set in an open cluster of leaves. There were rows of green-leaved turnips, red-leaved beets, and feathery-leaved carrots. The ears were standing stiff in the corn rows.

In the orchard the peaches were rosy and downy, the plums ready to drop with lusciousness; ruddy-cheeked pears were crowded on the drooping branches; the apples, not so plentiful, were taking on the colors that proclaimed their near fruition; and even the knotty quinces were growing fair and golden. On the upper terrace the stately, delicate cosmos was waving in the wind; great beds of low marigolds were flaunting their rich colors in the bright sunlight; the dahlias lifted into the air, stiffly and proudly, their great blossoms of varying forms; the clove-pinks, lowly and delicate in color, gave forth the fragrance of the springtime which they had held stored up in their tender blossoms; and the early chrysanthemums were unfolding their plumes.

"I love the late August-time," said John Gayther, as the two sat down to rest in the summer-house after a long stay in the garden. "I have a singular feeling, which I hope is not irreverent, that the great Creator is pleased with me for having brought this work to perfection, and the thought gives me great peace of mind."

"It does sound a little presumptuous, John," said the young lady.

"Not in the way I mean it," replied John. "We are told that God gives abundantly of the fruits and blossoms that gladden our hearts and eyes. But this is only partly true. There may be some lands where nothing need be done to these God-given fruits and vegetables and flowers. I do not know. But in this happy land, although he does abundantly give us the material to work upon, he expects us to do the work. Else what would be the use of gardens? And if there were no need of gardens there would be no gardens; and how desolate would life be without gardens!"

"I see what you mean, John," said the young lady. "We could not go into the woods, or on to the plains, and find the fruits and vegetables that grow so well in this garden. If they were there at all they would be poor and undeveloped."

"Exactly so," said John. "And in my garden I garner up God's gifts; and I select the best, and then the best of the best, and so on and on; and I watch, oh, so carefully, for everything hurtful; and I water; and I prune off the dead branches; and enrich the ground. And so I work and work, with God's help of the sunshine and the rain; and at last, when it all comes to what we see to-day, I cannot but feel that God is pleased with me for bringing about the fruition he knew I could accomplish with the material given by what some people call nature and I call God. That is what a garden is for, and in that way it glorifies him."

They were both silent for some time. The young girl was thinking that while all that John had said was true, she could not, like him, love this season best of all. Its very perfection and full fruition were saddening, for that must inevitably be followed by decay. The old man was thinking that while youth and its promise for the future was beautiful, the resignation and peacefulness of an accomplished life was far more beautiful.

The red thrush broke into song and startled them both. The old man listened to it as if it were a paean of thanksgiving for the garden and all that it had given, and wished he were able to join his voice with the music of the bird. As the young girl listened it seemed to her that the song was as clear and sweet and happy as it had been in the spring. And she marvelled.

"What a pity! We have missed the bird!" A voice broke into the stillness that had followed the song. It was the Mistress of the House who was approaching, followed by the Master of the House, the Next Neighbor, and the Old Professor.

"I was wondering why you were not all here some time ago," said the Daughter of the House.

"Kept by company," said the Master of the House, as they all came forward and took their accustomed places. "Not half as agreeable as the bird, nor as interesting as the story John promised to tell. I hope it will not be as solemn as your countenance, John."

Nobody was ever solemn long when the Master of the House was present, and John Gayther's countenance immediately was lighted up by a smile. "I could not think of telling you a solemn story," he said, "and this one is about a peculiar character I knew. His name was Abner Batterfield, and he was a farmer. One day he was forty-five years old. He was also tired. Having finished hoeing his last row of corn, he sat down on a bench at his front door, took off his wide and dilapidated straw hat, and wiped his brow. Presently his wife came out. She was a little more than forty-five years old, and of phenomenal physical and mental endurance. She had lived seventeen years with Abner, and her natural vigor was not impaired.

"'Supper's ready,' said she.

"Her husband heaved a sigh, and stretched out his weary legs in unison.

"'Supper,' he repeated; 'it's allus eat, and work, and sleep!'

"'Perhaps you'd like to leave out the eatin',' said Mrs. Batterfield; 'that would save lots.'

"Her husband ignored this remark. His farm was small, but it was too big for him. He had no family except himself and wife, but the support of that family taxed his energies. There was a certain monotony connected with coming out short at the end of the year which was wearisome to his soul.

"'Mrs. B.,' said he, 'I've made up my mind to start over again.'

"'Goin' back to the corn-field?' she asked. 'You'd better have your supper first.'

"'No,' said he; 'it's different. I've been thinkin' about it all day, and I'm goin' to begin life over ag'in.'

"'At your age it would be more fit fer you to consider the proper endin' of it,' said she.

"'I knew you'd say that, Mrs. B.; I knew you'd say that! You never do agree with me in any of my plans and undertakin's.'

"'Which accounts fer our still havin' a roof over our heads,' said she.

"'But, I can tell you, this time I'm a-goin' ahead. I don't care what people say; I don't care what they do, or what they don't do; I'm goin' ahead. It'll be blackgum ag'in' thunder this time, and I'm blackgum. You've heard about the thunder and lightnin' tacklin' a blackgum-tree?'

"'Ever since I was born,' said she.

"'Well, there's a awful scatterin' of dust and chips when that sort of a fight is on; but nobody ever yet heard of thunder gettin' the better of a blackgum-tree. And I'm goin' to be a blackgum!'

"Mrs. Batterfield made no reply to this remark, but in her heart she said: 'And I'm goin' to be thunder.'

"The next morning, Abner Batterfield put on his best clothes, and walked to the little town about two miles distant. He didn't enter the business part of the place, but turned into a shady side street where stood a small one-story building, almost by itself. This was the village library, and the librarian was sitting in the doorway, reading a book. He was an elderly man of comfortable contour, and wore no glasses, even for the finest print.

"'Mornin', Abner,' said the librarian; 'have you brought back that book?'

"Abner seated himself on the door-step. 'No, I haven't, Mr. Brownsill,' said he; 'I forgot it. I forgot it, but I remember some things that's in it, and I've come to talk about 'em.'

"'Very good,' said the librarian, closing the volume of Salmon's Geographical Grammar with his finger at page 35, treating of paradoxes, and remarked: 'Well, Abner, what is it?'

"Then Abner Batterfield told his tale. He was going to make a fresh start; he was going to spend the rest of his life in some manner worthy of him. He hadn't read much of the book he had taken out of the library, for in his present way of spending his life there didn't seem to be any very good time for reading, but he had read enough of it to make him feel that it was time for him to make a fresh start, and he was going to do it.

"'And I may have a tough time,' said Abner; 'but it'll be blackgum ag'in' thunder, and I'm blackgum!'

"The librarian smiled. 'What are you going to do?' said he.

"'That's a thing,' said Abner, 'I'm not so certain about. I've been thinkin' of enterin' the ministry; but the bother about that is, I can't make up my mind which particular denomination to enter. There's such a difference in 'em.'

"'That's true,' said Mr. Brownsill; 'that's very true! But haven't you a leaning for some one of them in particular?'

"'In thinkin' it over,' said Abner, 'I've been drawn to the Quakers. So far's I kin find out, there's nothin' a Quaker preacher has to do if he don't want to.'

"'But then, on the other hand,' said the librarian, 'there's no pay.'

"'Which won't work at all,' said Abner, 'so that's got to be dropped. As to the Methodists, there's too much work. A man might as well stick to hoein' corn.'

"'What do you think of the Catholics?' asked the librarian, meditatively. 'I should think a monk in a cell might suit you. I don't believe you'd be expected to do much work in a cell.'

"Abner cogitated. 'But there ain't no pay to that, no more'n if I was a Quaker. And there's Mrs. B. to be considered. I tell you, Mr. Brownsill, it's awful hard makin' a ch'ice.'

"The librarian opened his book and took a good look at the number of the page on which paradoxes were treated, so that he might remember it; then he rose and put the book upon the table, and, turning to Abner, he looked at him steadfastly.

"'Abner Batterfield,' said he, 'I understand the state of your mind, and it is plain enough that it's pretty hard for you to make a choice of a new path in life; but perhaps I can help you. How would you like to be a librarian?'

"'Me!' exclaimed Abner, amazed.

"'I don't mean,' said Mr. Brownsill, 'that you should take up this business for life without knowing whether you like it or not, but I can offer you what might be called a sample situation. I want to go away for a couple of weeks to visit my relations, and if you will come and attend to the library while I am gone, it might be a good thing for both of us. Then, if you don't like the business of a librarian, you might sample some other calling or profession.'

"Abner rose from the door-step, and, entering the room, stood before Mr. Brownsill. 'That's the most sensible thing,' said he, 'that I ever heard said in all my life. Sample first, and go into afterwards; that's sound reason. Mr. Brownsill, I will do it.'

"'Good!' said the librarian. 'And the duties are not difficult.'

"'And the pay?' asked Abner.

"'Just what I get,' said Mr. Brownsill.

"The bargain was made, and Abner immediately began taking lessons in the duties of a librarian.

"When he went home he told his tale to Mrs. B. 'I have hoed my last row of corn,' said he, 'and when it's fit to cut and shock we'll hire a man. There's librarians, Mrs. B., so Mr. Brownsill told me, that gets thousands a year. Think of that, Mrs. B.—thousands a year!'

"Mrs. Batterfield made no reply to this remark, but in her heart she said: 'And I am thunder.'

"Early the next morning, long before the ordinary time for opening the library, Abner was at his post. He took the key from the concealed nail where Mr. Brownsill was wont to hang it. He opened the door and windows, as the librarian told him he must do; he swept the floor; he dusted the books; and then he took the water-pail, and proceeded to the pump hard by. He filled it, then he sat down and wiped his brow. He had done so much sitting down and brow-wiping in his life that it had become a habit with him, even when he was neither hot nor tired.

"This little library was certainly a very pleasant place in which to earn one's living—ten thousand times more to his taste than the richest corn-field. Around the walls were book-shelves, some of them nearly filled with books, most of which, judging from their bindings, were of a sober if not a sombre turn of mind.

"'Some of these days,' said Abner, 'I am goin' to read those books; I never did have time to read books.'

"From the ceiling there hung, too high to be conveniently dusted, a few stuffed birds, and one small alligator. 'Some of these days,' said Abner to himself, 'I am goin' to get on a step-ladder and look at them birds and things; I never did properly know what they was.'

"Now footsteps were heard on the sidewalk, and Abner jumped up quickly and redusted a book upon the table. There entered two little girls, the elder one with her hair plaited down her back. They looked in surprise at Abner, who smiled.

"'I guess you want to see Mr. Brownsill,' he said. 'Well, I am in his place now, and all you got to do is to tell me what book you want.'

"'Please, sir,' said the one with plaits, 'mother wants to know if you can change a quarter of a dollar.'

"This proposed transaction seemed to Abner to be a little outside of a librarian's business, but he put his hand in his pocket and said he would see. When he had extracted all the change that pocket contained he found that he was the owner of three nickels and five copper cents. He tried some other pockets, but there was no money in any of them. He was disappointed; he did not want to begin his intercourse with the townspeople by failing to do the first favor asked of him. He looked around the room; he rubbed his nose. In a moment an idea struck him.

"'How much do you want to get out of this quarter?' said he.

"'Ten cents, sir,' said the girl with the plaits. 'The woman's waitin' fer it now.'

"'I'll tell you,' said Abner, 'what I can do. All I have got is twenty cents. Two of these nickels will do for the woman, and then for the other five cents you can take out a book for a week. A duodecimo volume for a week is five cents. Is there any duodecimo volume you would like?'

"The girl with the plaits said she didn't know, and that all she wanted was change for a quarter.

"'Which this will be,' said Abner.

"Asking the little girls to follow him, he approached the book-shelves. 'Now here's something,' said he, presently, taking down a book. 'It's Buck's Theological Dictionary, and it's got a lot of different things in it. Some of them your mother might like to read to you, and some of them she might like to read to herself. I once read one piece in that book myself. It is about the Inquisition, and when I began it I couldn't stop until I got to the end of it. I guess your mother might like to read that, even if she don't read it to you.'

"The little girl said she didn't know whether her mother would like it or not, but what she had been sent for was change for a quarter.

"'This will be the same thing,' said Abner; 'twenty cents in money, and five cents for a duodecimo for one week. So take the money and the book, my dear, and tell your mother that if she keeps it out longer than one week there'll be a fine.'

"The child and the duodecimo departed, and Abner sat down again, and wiped his brow. 'There's one customer,' said he, 'and that's the way to do business. They come to get you to do somethin' for them, and before they know it they're doin' business with you, payin' cash in advance. But there's one thing I forgot. I oughter asked them young ones what their mother's name was. But I'll remember 'em, specially the one with the plaited hair, so it's all the same.'

"The little girls went home. 'It's a new man at the library,' said the one with the plaits, 'and he hadn't got no more'n twenty cents in money; but he sent you a book for the other five cents.'

"The mother, with her baby in her lap, sent the ten cents to the woman who was waiting, and then took the book, which opened quite naturally at the article on the Inquisition, and began to read. And, although the baby grew restless and began to cry, she didn't stop reading until she had finished that article. 'It's fully worth five cents,' she said to herself, as she put it on the shelf for future perusal.

"It was not long before the thought struck Abner that he was losing opportunities which spread themselves around him, so he jumped up and took down a book. The volume proved to be one of 'Elegant Extracts'; but after reading certain reflections 'Upon Seeing Mr. Pope's House at Binfield' he thought he would like something more in the nature of a story, and took up a thinner volume entitled 'Dick's Future State.' He turned over the leaves, hoping to meet with some of the adventures of Dick; but his attention was arrested by a passage which asserted that arithmetic would be one of the occupations to be followed in heaven. He was about to put away the book in disgust—for to him there was no need of a man's being good in this world if he were to be condemned to arithmetic in the next—when the light from the open door was darkened by a large body who approached in carpet slippers, making no noise. This proved to be a round and doleful negro woman, a greater part of her face wrapped up in a red-and-green handkerchief. Her attire was somewhat nondescript, and entirely unsuggestive of literary inclinations. She groaned as she entered the room.

"'Whar Mr. Bro'nsill?' she asked, with one hand to her face.

"Abner was amazed. Was it possible that this woman could read, and that she cared for books? He explained the situation, and assured her that he could attend to her just as well as the regular librarian.

"'I's mighty glad to hear dat,' said the woman, 'I's mighty glad to hear dat, for I hasn't slep' one wink for dis tooth. Mr. Bro'nsill he allus pulls my teeth, and dey nebber has been one what ached as bad as dis.'

"With this she began to unwrap her swollen face.

"'You needn't do that,' cried Abner. 'I can't pull teeth. You must go to the dentist.'

"'That'll be fifty cents,' said the woman, 'and Mr. Bro'nsill he don' charge nothin'. I know whar he keeps his pinchers. Dey's in dat drawer in de table. And you kin pull it out jes as well as anudder pusson. I'd pull hit out ef I wuz anudder pusson.'

"Abner shook his head. 'I never pulled a tooth,' he said. 'I don't know nothin' about it.'

"'Don' dey tell somethin' about pullin' teeth in dese here books?' said the woman.

"Abner shook his head. 'There may be,' he said, 'but I don't know where to find it.'

"'And you's de librarian,' said she, in a tone of supreme contempt, 'and don' know how to fin' what's in de books!' And with this she re-wrapped her face and wabbled away.

"'I hope the next one will want a book,' said Abner to himself, 'and won't want nothin' else. If I'm to be librarian I want to fork out books.'

"The morning passed, and no one else appeared. The forenoon was not the time when people generally came for books in that town.

"After he had eaten the dinner he had brought, Abner sat down to meditate a little. He was not sure that the life of a librarian would suit him. It was almost as lonesome as hoeing corn.

"Some time after these reflections—it might have been a minute, it might have been an hour—he was awakened by a man's voice, and suddenly started upright in his chair.

"'Hello!' said the voice. 'You keepin' library for old Brownsill?'

"'That's what I'm doin',' said Abner; 'he's away for his holiday.'

"The new-comer, Joe Pearson, was an odd creature. I remember him well. He had been assistant to the town clerk, but was now out of a position. He was a stout man with little eyes, and wore a shiny black coat, and no collar.

"'I am glad to hear it,' he said. 'Mr. Brownsill's a little too sharp for my fancy; I'd rather do business with you. Have you got any books on eggs?'

"'I don't know,' said Abner, 'but I can look. What kind of eggs?'

"'I don't suppose there's a different book for every kind of egg,' said Joe; 'I guess they're lumped.'

"'All right,' said Abner; 'step up to the shelves, and we'll take a look. Now here's one that I've just been glancin' over myself. It seems to have a lot of different things in it: it's called "Elegant Extracts."'

"'"Elegant Extracts" won't do,' said Joe; 'they ain't eggs.'

"'E, E, E,' said Abner, looking along the line, and anxious to make a good show in the eyes of his acquaintance, who had the reputation of being a man of considerable learning. '"Experimental Christianity"—but that won't do.'

"After fifteen or twenty minutes occupied in scrutiny of backs of books, Joe Pearson gave up the search. 'I don't believe there's a book on eggs in the whole darned place,' said he. 'That's just like Brownsill; he hasn't got no fancy for nothin' practical.'

"'What do you want to know about eggs?' said Abner.

"Mr. Pearson did not immediately answer, but after a few moments of silent consideration he walked to the door and closed it. Then he sat down, and invited Abner to sit by him. 'Look here, Abner Batterfield,' said he; 'I've got a idee that's goin' to make my fortune. I want somebody to help me, and I don't see why you couldn't do it as well as anybody else. For one thing, you've got a farm.'

"As he said this Abner started back. 'Confound the farm!' he said. 'I've given up farmin', and I don't want nothin' more to do with it.'

"'Yes, you will,' said Pearson, 'when I've told you what I'm goin' to do. But it won't be common farmin': it'll be mighty different. There's money in this kind of farmin', and no work, nuther, to mention.'

"Abner now became interested.

"'It concerns eggs,' said Pearson. 'Abner, did you ever hear about the eggs of the great auk?'

"'Great hawk!' said Abner.

"'Not hawk! Auk—a-u-k.'

"'Never seen the bird,' said Abner.

"'I reckon not,' said the other. 'They say they disappeared some time before the war; but I don't believe that. I've been readin' a piece about 'em, Abner, and I tell you it just roused me up, and that's the reason I've come here s'posin' I might find a book that might give me some new p'ints. But I reckon I know enough to work on.'

"'Is there anything uncommon about 'em?' asked Abner.

"'Uncommon!' exclaimed the other. 'Do you know what a great auk's egg is wuth? It's one thousand eight hundred dollars!'

"'A car-load?' asked Abner.

"'Stuff!' ejaculated Mr. Pearson. 'It's that much for one; and that one blowed—nothin' but a shell—not a thing inside. And eighteen hundred dollars!'

"'By George!' exclaimed Abner. 'Eighteen hundred dollars!'

"'And that's the lowest figure. Great auk eggs is wuth twenty-one thousand and six hundred dollars a dozen!'

"Abner rose from his chair. 'Joe Pearson,' he said, 'what are you talkin' about?'

"'I'm talkin' about makin' the biggest kind of money, and if you choose to go in with me you can make big money too. I'm all correct, and I can show you the figures.'

"Abner now sat down and leaned over toward Pearson. 'Whar's it likely to fin' nests?' said he.

"'Nests!' exclaimed Pearson, in disdain. 'If I could find two of 'em—fresh ones—I'd call my fortune made.'

"'I should say so,' said Abner, 'sellin' for thirty-six hundred dollars! But what is there so all-fired good about 'em to make 'em sell like that?'

"'Scerceness,' said Joe. 'Apart from scerceness they ain't no better'n any other egg. But there's mighty few of 'em in market now, and all of them's blowed.'

"'And no good?' said Abner.

"'They say not,' said the other. 'For scerceness they're better blowed than stale, which they're bound to be if they're kept.'

"'But what's your idea about 'em?' said Abner.

"'That's what I'm goin' to tell you,' replied Pearson. 'There's a general notion that there ain't no more great auks, specially hen great auks, and that's why their eggs are so scerce. But I don't see the p'int of that. It don't stand to reason; for now and then somebody gets a great auk egg. If you find 'em they've got to be laid; and if they're laid there's got to be hen great auks somewhere. Now the p'int is to find out where them great auks lay. It may be a awful job to do it, but if I can do it, and get just two eggs, my fortune's made, and yourn too.'

"'Would you divide the thirty-six hundred dollars even?'—now very much interested.

"'Divide!' sneered Pearson. 'Do you suppose I'd sell 'em? No, sir; I'd set 'em under a turkey, or perhaps a big hen. Then, sir, I'd go into the great auk business. I'd sell auk eggs, and make my fortune, and yourn too.'

"'And young ones, if we get a lot?'

"'No, sir!' exclaimed Pearson. 'Nobody'd own no auks but me. You can't catch 'em alive. And I wouldn't sell no eggs at all till they'd first been blowed. I'd keep the business all in my own hands. Abner, I've been thinkin' a great deal about this thing. You've heard about the lively sixpence and the slow dollar? Well, sir, I'm goin' to sell them auk eggs for sixteen hundred dollars, two for three thousand.'"

"John Gayther," said the Master of the House, "you will not make me believe that you ever knew two such fools."

"In the course of my life," said the Old Professor, "I have known several of them."

"Not looking for auks' eggs?" inquired the Next Neighbor.

"Something just as impracticable," he said.

"The North Pole, for instance," suggested the Mistress of the House.

"I think," said John, "they are more likely to find that than my friends were to find what they sought. But we shall see. Abner looked at his companion. 'That would be better than 'most any other kind of business,' said he. 'Where do you go to get them eggs?'

"''Way up north,' said Pearson; 'and the furder north you go the more likely you are to find 'em.'

"'I don't know about goin' north,' said Abner, reflectively; 'there's Mrs. B. to consider.'

"'But I don't want you to go,' said Pearson. 'I'm goin' north. And when I've found a couple o' auk eggs, I'll pack 'em up nice and warm in cotton, and send 'em down to you, and have 'em hatched. That's where your farm'll come in. You've got to have a farm and turkeys or big hens if you want to raise auks. Then I'll go on lookin', and, most likely, I'll get a couple more.'

"'That'll be a good thing,' said Abner; 'the more the merrier. I'll go in with you, Joe Pearson. That's the sort of business that'll just suit me. But I'll tell you one thing, Joe: I wouldn't put the price of them eggs down at first; I'd wait until a couple of dozen had been laid and blowed, and then, perhaps, I'd put the price down.'

"'No, sir,' said Joe; 'I'll put the price down at the very beginning. Sixteen hundred dollars, or three thousand for two, is enough for any eggs, and we oughter be satisfied with it.'

"'And when are you goin' to start north?' asked Abner.

"'That's the p'int,' said Pearson, 'that's the p'int. You see, Abner, I ain't got no family, and I can start north whenever I please, as far as that's concerned. But there's obstacles. For one thing, I ain't got the right kind of clothes; and then there's other things. It's awful hard lines startin' out on a business like this, and the more money there is in it the harder the lines.'

"'But you can do it, Joe,' said Abner. 'I feel in my bones you can do it. It'll be blackgum ag'in' thunder, but you'll be blackgum, and you'll come out all right.'

"'I can't be blackgum nor nothin' else,' said Pearson, 'if I don't get no help; specially if I don't get no help from the party what's goin' to get a lot of the money.'

"Abner reflected. 'If we was to set any auk eggs next month, it'll be well on into next summer before we'd have eggs to sell.'

"Pearson also reflected. 'Yes,' he said; 'and it might be a little later than that. You've got to leave a margin. I allus leave a margin. Then I'm safe.'

"'Yes,' said Abner; 'then you're safe.'

"Joe Pearson was a man of resourceful discretion. He rose now. 'Abner,' said he, 'I've got to go; I've got a lot of things on my hands. And I want you to remember that what I've said to you I said to you, and I wouldn't have no other man know nothin' about it. If anybody else should hear of this thing, and go north, and get ahead of me, it would be—well, I don't know what to say it would be, I've such feelin's about it. I've offered to take you in because you've got a farm, and because I think you're a good man, and would know how to take care of auks when they was hatched. But there's a lot for me to do. There's maps to look over, and time-tables; and I must be off. But I'll stop in to-morrer, Abner, and we'll talk this over again.'

"When Pearson had gone, Abner sat and stared steadily at a knot-hole in the floor. 'Mrs. B.,' he said to himself, 'has allus been a great one on eggs. She's the greatest one on eggs I ever knowed. If she'd go in, now, the thing 'u'd be just as good as done. When she knows what's ahead of us she oughter go in. That's all I've got to say about it.'

"The significance of these reflections depended upon the fact that Mrs. Batterfield had a small income. It was upon this fact that there depended the other fact that there were three meals a day in the Batterfield household. It was this fact, also, which was the cause of Mr. Joe Pearson's visit to the library. He was very well acquainted with Abner, although he knew Mrs. Batterfield but slightly; but he was aware of her income.

"After reflecting for about twenty minutes or half an hour upon the exciting proposition which had been made to him, Abner grew very impatient. 'No use of my stayin' here,' he said; 'there's nobody goin' to get out books in this hot weather; so I'll just shut up shop and go home. I never did want to see Mrs. Batterfield as much as I want to see her now.'

"'Libraries seem to shut up early,' said Mrs. Batterfield, as her husband walked into the front yard.

"'Yes, they do,' said Abner, 'in summer-time.'

"All the way from town he had been rehearsing to himself the story he was going to tell; but he hadn't finished it yet, and he wanted to get it all straight before he began, so he walked over to the barn and sat down on an inverted horse-bucket to get his story all straight before he began. When he got it all straight he concluded not to tell it until after supper. But when that meal was finished, and everything had been cleared away, and Mrs. Batterfield had gone to sit on the front porch, as was her evening custom, he sat down by her and told his story.

"He made the tale as attractive as he possibly could make it. He even omitted the fact that Joe Pearson intended to sell his first eggs for sixteen hundred dollars instead of eighteen hundred, and he diminished by very many hundred miles the length of Joe Pearson's probable journey to the north. In fact, had his suppositions been nearly correct, the remaining specimens of the great auk would have been birds of very temperate dispositions, so far as latitude was concerned.

"Mrs. Batterfield listened with great attention. She was engaged upon some sewing on which her eyes were fixed, but her ears drank in every word that Abner said. When he had finished, she laid down her sewing, for it was beginning to get a little dark for even her sharp eyes, and remarked: 'And he wants some warm clothes? Furs, I suppose?'

"'Yes,' said Abner; 'I expect they'd be furs.'

"'And travelling expenses?' she asked.

"'Yes; I suppose he'd want help in that way. Of course, since he's makin' me such a big offer, he'll expect me to put in somethin'.'

"Mrs. Batterfield made no reply, but folded up her sewing and went indoors. He waited until she had time to retire, then he closed the house and went up himself.

"'She'll want to sleep on that,' said he; 'it'll be a good thing for her to sleep on it. She mayn't like it at first, but I'll go at her ag'in to-morrer, and I'm goin' to stick to it. I reckon it'll be the worst rassle we ever had; but it's blackgum ag'in' thunder, and I'm blackgum.'

"When Abner reached his chamber he found his wife sitting quietly by the table, on which burned a lamp.

"'Hello!' said he. 'I thought you'd be abed and asleep!'

"'I didn't want to do my talkin' out front,' said she, 'for there might be people passin' along the road. I think you said this was to be a case of blackgum ag'in' thunder!'

"'Yes,' said Abner, in a somewhat uncertain tone.

"'Well, then,' said Mrs. Batterfield, 'I'm thunder.'

"It was very late when that couple went to bed, but it was very early the next morning when Abner rose. He split a great deal of fire-wood before breakfast, and very soon after that meal he put his hoe on his shoulder and went to his corn-field. He remembered that there were three rows of corn which he had hoed upon only one side.

"The library was not opened that day, and it remained closed until Mr. Brownsill returned. The failure in the supply of books did not occasion very much comment in the town, for everybody agreed that Mr. Brownsill was a good man and ought to have a holiday. There were four persons in the place—a little girl with plaited hair and a sister; a colored woman with a bad tooth; and Joe Pearson—who knew that Abner Batterfield had held, for a time, the office of librarian.

"When his vacation had expired, Mr. Brownsill came home, and on the second morning after his arrival, Abner Batterfield appeared before him.

"'I had to come in town,' said Abner, 'and so I thought I'd step in here and see about my pay.'

"The librarian looked at him. 'How long were you here?' he asked. 'I've been told that the library was shut up for two weeks.'

"'I was here for three quarters of a day,' said Abner. 'That's about as near as I can calculate.'

"The librarian took up a pencil and made a calculation.

"'By the way,' said he, 'you must have done some business. I miss our copy of Buck's Theological Dictionary; but I find no entry about it.'

"'That was took out as change,' said Abner. 'Five cents for a duodecimo for a week, and the rest in change. If the woman hasn't brought it back she owes a week's fine.'

"'Who was the woman?' asked the librarian.

"'I don't know,' said Abner; 'but she has a daughter with plaited hair and a small sister. While I'm in town I'll try to look 'em up.'

"'In the meantime,' said Mr. Brownsill, 'I'll have to charge you for the book; and, deducting your pay for three quarters of a day, you now owe me seventy-five cents. I don't suppose there's any use talking about the fines I have got down against you?'

"'I don't believe there is,' said Abner.

"The librarian could not help smiling, so dejected was the tone in which these last words were spoken.

"'By the way,' said he, 'how about your great fight you were talking about—blackgum ag'in' thunder? How did that turn out?'

"Abner in his turn smiled.

"'Blackgum was split as fine as matches,' said he."

"I can't help feeling sorry for the old fellow," said the Next Neighbor, when John had concluded his story. "I always have sympathy with great ambitions."

"And if Joe Pearson had got far enough north," said the Mistress of the House, "he would have found no eggs, but he might have stumbled over the North Pole."

"It is a pity the old fellow had to tell his wife," said the Master of the House. "Women ruin great ambitions by too much common-sense. A great many of the inventions we now consider necessary would have been utterly lost to us if some men's brains had not been a little addled. A woman would have set them straight, and that would have been the end. That is the reason so few women are inventors; they have too much sense."

"That is a very left-handed compliment," said the Daughter of the House. "You are always decrying inventions, which is strange. How would you like to sail a ship without steam?"

"It would be a great deal pleasanter, my dear, and much cleaner."

"There are patent contrivances for garden-work," said John Gayther, "and I don't say that they don't help, especially in planting-time; but, like the captain, I prefer the old ways that bring the gardener and the earth close together. The old, simple instruments seem like friends. I feel as if something went from me through the hoe-handle to the plants; and when the seed drops from my hands instead of from a seeder, it seems to me it takes a message direct from me to the earth that receives it."

* * * * *

The stories are all told. The winter has come. The orchard is stripped of its leaves, and, sere and brown, they cover the garden paths and are strewn over the box borders. The fruits are all garnered. The bare vines that cover the summer-house are like dead memories of what has been. The vegetable-beds are empty. The black frost has settled upon bloom and foliage on the upper terrace. The sweet, blithe song of the red thrush has ceased. The family have gone to a sunnier clime. And John Gayther walks alone in his garden.


Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6
Home - Random Browse