"That winter we first met Willis Starr. He was a newcomer, and nobody knew much about him, but one or two of the best families took him up, and his own fascinations did the rest. He became what you would call the rage. He was considered very handsome, his manners were polished and easy, and people said he was rich.
"I don't think, Amy, that I ever trusted Willis Starr. But like all the rest, I was blinded by his charm. Mother was almost the only one who did not worship at his shrine, and very often she dropped hints about penniless adventurers that made Eliza very indignant.
"From the first he had paid Eliza marked attention and seemed utterly bewitched by her. Well, his was an easy winning. Eliza loved him with her whole impulsive, girlish heart and made no attempt to hide it.
"I shall never forget the night they were first engaged. It was Eliza's birthday, and we were invited to a ball that evening. This yellow gown is the very one she wore. I suppose that is why she put it away here—the gown she wore on the happiest night of her life. I had never seen her look more beautiful—her neck and arms were bare, and she wore this string of pearls and carried a bouquet of her favourite white roses.
"When we reached home after the dance, Eliza had her happy secret to tell us. She was engaged to Willis Starr, and they were to be married in early spring.
"Willis Starr certainly seemed to be an ideal lover, and Eliza was so perfectly happy that she seemed to grow more beautiful and radiant every day.
"Well, Amy, the wedding day was set. Eliza was to be married from the Grange, as her own mother was dead, and I was to be bridesmaid. We made her wedding dress together, she and I. Girls were not above making their own gowns then, and not a stitch was set in Eliza's save those put there by loving fingers and blessed by loving wishes. It was I who draped the veil over her sunny curls—see how yellow and creased it is now, but it was as white as snow that day.
"A week before the wedding, Willis Starr was spending the evening at the Grange. We were all chattering gaily about the coming event, and in speaking of the invited guests Eliza said something about the other Eliza Laurance, the great heiress, looking archly at Willis over her shoulder as she spoke. It was some merry badinage about the cousin whose namesake she was but whom she so little resembled.
"We all laughed, but I shall never forget the look that came over Willis Starr's face. It passed quickly, but the chill fear that it gave me remained. A few minutes later I left the room on some trifling errand, and as I returned through the dim hall I was met by Willis Starr. He laid his hand on my arm and bent his evil face—for it was evil then, Amy—close to mine.
"'Tell me,' he said in a low but rude tone, 'is there another Eliza Laurance who is an heiress?'
"'Certainly there is,' I said sharply. 'She is our cousin and the daughter of our Uncle George. Our Eliza is not an heiress. You surely did not suppose she was!'
"Willis stepped aside with a mocking smile.
"'I did—what wonder? I had heard much about the great heiress, Eliza Laurance, and the great beauty, Eliza Laurance. I supposed they were one and the same. You have all been careful not to undeceive me.'
"'You forget yourself, Mr. Starr, when you speak so to me,' I retorted coldly. 'You have deceived yourself. We have never dreamed of allowing anyone to think that Eliza was an heiress. She is sweet and lovely enough to be loved for her own sake.'
"I went back to the parlour full of dismay. Willis Starr remained gloomy and taciturn all the rest of the evening, but nobody seemed to notice it but myself.
"The next day we were all so busy that I almost forgot the incident of the previous evening. We girls were up in the sewing room putting the last touches to the wedding gown. Eliza tried it and her veil on and was standing so, in all her silken splendour, when a letter was brought in. I guessed by her blush who was the writer. I laughed and ran downstairs, leaving her to read it.
"When I returned she was still standing just where I had left her in the middle of the room, holding the letter in her hand. Her face was as white as her veil, and her wide-open eyes had a dazed, agonized look as of someone who had been stricken a mortal blow. All the soft happiness and sweetness had gone out of them. They were the eyes of an old woman, Amy.
"'Eliza, what is the matter?' I said. 'Has anything happened to Willis?'
"She made no answer, but walked to the fireplace, dropped the letter in a bed of writhing blue flame and watched it burn to white ashes. Then she turned to me.
"'Help me take off this gown, Winnie,' she said dully. 'I shall never wear it again. There will be no wedding. Willis is gone.'
"'Gone!' I echoed stupidly.
"'Yes. I am not the heiress, Winnie. It was the fortune, not the girl, he loved. He says he is too poor for us to dream of marrying when I have nothing. Oh, such a cruel, heartless letter! Why did he not kill me? It would have been so much more merciful! I loved him so—I trusted him so! Oh, Winnie, Winnie, what am I to do!'
"There was something terrible in the contrast between her passionate words and her calm face and lifeless voice. I wanted to call Mother, but she would not let me. She went away to her own room, trailing along the dark hall in her dress and veil, and locked herself in.
"Well, I told it all to the others in some fashion. You can imagine their anger and dismay. Your father, Amy—he was a hot-blooded, impetuous, young fellow then—went at once to seek Willis Starr. But he was gone, no one knew where, and the whole country rang with the gossip and scandal of the affair. Eliza knew nothing of this, for she was ill and unconscious for many a day. In a novel or story she would have died, I suppose, and that would have been the end of it. But this was in real life, and Eliza did not die, although many times we thought she would.
"When she did recover, how frightfully changed she was! It almost broke my heart to see her. Her very nature seemed to have changed too—all her joyousness and light-heartedness were dead. From that time she was a faded, dispirited creature, no more like the Eliza we had known than the merest stranger. And then after a while came other news—Willis Starr was married to the other Eliza Laurance, the true heiress. He had made no second mistake. We tried to keep it from Eliza but she found it out at last. That was the day she came up here alone and packed this old chest. Nobody ever knew just what she put into it. But you and I see now, Amy—her ball dress, her wedding gown, her love letters and, more than all else, her youth and happiness—this old chest was the tomb of it all. Eliza Laurance was really buried here.
"She went home soon after. Before she went she exacted a promise from Mother that the old chest should be left at the Grange unopened until she came for it herself. But she never came back, and I do not think she ever intended to, and I never saw her again.
"That is the story of the old chest. It was all over so long ago—the heartbreak and the misery—but it all seems to come back to me now. Poor Eliza!"
My own eyes were full of tears as Aunt Winnifred went down the stairs, leaving me sitting dreamily there in the sunset light, with the old yellowed bridal veil across my lap and the portrait of Eliza Laurance in my hand. Around me were the relics of her pitiful story—the old, oft-repeated story of a faithless love and a woman's broken heart—the gown she had worn, the slippers in which she had danced light-heartedly at her betrothal ball, her fan, her pearls, her gloves—and it somehow seemed to me as if I were living in those old years myself, as if the love and happiness, the betrayal and pain were part of my own life. Presently Aunt Winnifred came back through the twilight shadows.
"Let us put all these things back in their grave, Amy," she said. "They are of no use to anyone now. The linen might be bleached and used, I dare say—but it would seem like a sacrilege. It was Mother's wedding present to Eliza. And the pearls—would you care to have them, Amy?"
"Oh, no, no," I said with a little shiver. "I would never wear them, Aunt Winnifred. I should feel like a ghost if I did. Put everything back just as we found it—only her portrait. I would like to keep that."
Reverently we put gowns and letters and trinkets back into the old blue chest. Aunt Winnifred closed the lid and turned the key softly. She bowed her head over it for a minute and then we went together in silence down the shadowy garret stairs of Wyther Grange.
The Osbornes' Christmas
Cousin Myra had come to spend Christmas at "The Firs," and all the junior Osbornes were ready to stand on their heads with delight. Darby—whose real name was Charles—did it, because he was only eight, and at eight you have no dignity to keep up. The others, being older, couldn't.
But the fact of Christmas itself awoke no great enthusiasm in the hearts of the junior Osbornes. Frank voiced their opinion of it the day after Cousin Myra had arrived. He was sitting on the table with his hands in his pockets and a cynical sneer on his face. At least, Frank flattered himself that it was cynical. He knew that Uncle Edgar was said to wear a cynical sneer, and Frank admired Uncle Edgar very much and imitated him in every possible way. But to you and me it would have looked just as it did to Cousin Myra—a very discontented and unbecoming scowl.
"I'm awfully glad to see you, Cousin Myra," explained Frank carefully, "and your being here may make some things worth while. But Christmas is just a bore—a regular bore."
That was what Uncle Edgar called things that didn't interest him, so that Frank felt pretty sure of his word. Nevertheless, he wondered uncomfortably what made Cousin Myra smile so queerly.
"Why, how dreadful!" she said brightly. "I thought all boys and girls looked upon Christmas as the very best time in the year."
"We don't," said Frank gloomily. "It's just the same old thing year in and year out. We know just exactly what is going to happen. We even know pretty well what presents we are going to get. And Christmas Day itself is always the same. We'll get up in the morning, and our stockings will be full of things, and half of them we don't want. Then there's dinner. It's always so poky. And all the uncles and aunts come to dinner—just the same old crowd, every year, and they say just the same things. Aunt Desda always says, 'Why, Frankie, how you have grown!' She knows I hate to be called Frankie. And after dinner they'll sit round and talk the rest of the day, and that's all. Yes, I call Christmas a nuisance."
"There isn't a single bit of fun in it," said Ida discontentedly.
"Not a bit!" said the twins, both together, as they always said things.
"There's lots of candy," said Darby stoutly. He rather liked Christmas, although he was ashamed to say so before Frank.
Cousin Myra smothered another of those queer smiles.
"You've had too much Christmas, you Osbornes," she said seriously. "It has palled on your taste, as all good things will if you overdo them. Did you ever try giving Christmas to somebody else?"
The Osbornes looked at Cousin Myra doubtfully. They didn't understand.
"We always send presents to all our cousins," said Frank hesitatingly. "That's a bore, too. They've all got so many things already it's no end of bother to think of something new."
"That isn't what I mean," said Cousin Myra. "How much Christmas do you suppose those little Rolands down there in the hollow have? Or Sammy Abbott with his lame back? Or French Joe's family over the hill? If you have too much Christmas, why don't you give some to them?"
The Osbornes looked at each other. This was a new idea.
"How could we do it?" asked Ida.
Whereupon they had a consultation. Cousin Myra explained her plan, and the Osbornes grew enthusiastic over it. Even Frank forgot that he was supposed to be wearing a cynical sneer.
"I move we do it, Osbornes," said he.
"If Father and Mother are willing," said Ida.
"Won't it be jolly!" exclaimed the twins.
"Well, rather," said Darby scornfully. He did not mean to be scornful. He had heard Frank saying the same words in the same tone, and thought it signified approval.
Cousin Myra had a talk with Father and Mother Osborne that night, and found them heartily in sympathy with her plans.
For the next week the Osbornes were agog with excitement and interest. At first Cousin Myra made the suggestions, but their enthusiasm soon outstripped her, and they thought out things for themselves. Never did a week pass so quickly. And the Osbornes had never had such fun, either.
Christmas morning there was not a single present given or received at "The Firs" except those which Cousin Myra and Mr. and Mrs. Osborne gave to each other. The junior Osbornes had asked that the money which their parents had planned to spend in presents for them be given to them the previous week; and given it was, without a word.
The uncles and aunts arrived in due time, but not with them was the junior Osbornes' concern. They were the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Osborne. The junior Osbornes were having a Christmas dinner party of their own. In the small dining room a table was spread and loaded with good things. Ida and the twins cooked that dinner all by themselves. To be sure, Cousin Myra had helped some, and Frank and Darby had stoned all the raisins and helped pull the home-made candy; and all together they had decorated the small dining room royally with Christmas greens.
Then their guests came. First, all the little Rolands from the Hollow arrived—seven in all, with very red, shining faces and not a word to say for themselves, so shy were they. Then came a troop from French Joe's—four black-eyed lads, who never knew what shyness meant. Frank drove down to the village in the cutter and brought lame Sammy back with him, and soon after the last guest arrived—little Tillie Mather, who was Miss Rankin's "orphan 'sylum girl" from over the road. Everybody knew that Miss Rankin never kept Christmas. She did not believe in it, she said, but she did not prevent Tillie from going to the Osbornes' dinner party.
Just at first the guests were a little stiff and unsocial; but they soon got acquainted, and so jolly was Cousin Myra—who had her dinner with the children in preference to the grown-ups—and so friendly the junior Osbornes, that all stiffness vanished. What a merry dinner it was! What peals of laughter went up, reaching to the big dining room across the hall, where the grown-ups sat in rather solemn state. And how those guests did eat and frankly enjoy the good things before them! How nicely they all behaved, even to the French Joes! Myra had secretly been a little dubious about those four mischievous-looking lads, but their manners were quite flawless. Mrs. French Joe had been drilling them for three days—ever since they had been invited to "de Chrismus dinner at de beeg house."
After the merry dinner was over, the junior Osbornes brought in a Christmas tree, loaded with presents. They had bought them with the money that Mr. and Mrs. Osborne had meant for their own presents, and a splendid assortment they were. All the French-Joe boys got a pair of skates apiece, and Sammy a set of beautiful books, and Tillie was made supremely happy with a big wax doll. Every little Roland got just what his or her small heart had been longing for. Besides, there were nuts and candies galore.
Then Frank hitched up his pony again, but this time into a great pung sleigh, and the junior Osbornes took their guests for a sleigh-drive, chaperoned by Cousin Myra. It was just dusk when they got back, having driven the Rolands and the French Joes and Sammy and Tillie to their respective homes.
"This has been the jolliest Christmas I ever spent," said Frank, emphatically.
"I thought we were just going to give the others a good time, but it was they who gave it to us," said Ida.
"Weren't the French Joes jolly?" giggled the twins. "Such cute speeches as they would make!"
"Me and Teddy Roland are going to be chums after this," announced Darby. "He's an inch taller than me, but I'm wider."
That night Frank and Ida and Cousin Myra had a little talk after the smaller Osbornes had been haled off to bed.
"We're not going to stop with Christmas, Cousin Myra," said Frank, at the end of it. "We're just going to keep on through the year. We've never had such a delightful old Christmas before."
"You've learned the secret of happiness," said Cousin Myra gently.
And the Osbornes understood what she meant.
The Romance of Aunt Beatrice
Margaret always maintains that it was a direct inspiration of Providence that took her across the street to see Aunt Beatrice that night. And Aunt Beatrice believes that it was too. But the truth of the matter is that Margaret was feeling very unhappy, and went over to talk to Aunt Beatrice as the only alternative to a fit of crying. Margaret's unhappiness has nothing further to do with this story, so it may be dismissed with the remark that it did not amount to much, in spite of Margaret's tragical attitude, and was dissipated at once and forever by the arrival of a certain missent letter the next day.
Aunt Beatrice was alone. Her brother and his wife had gone to the "at home" which Mrs. Cunningham was giving that night in honour of the Honourable John Reynolds, M.P. The children were upstairs in bed, and Aunt Beatrice was darning their stockings, a big basketful of which loomed up aggressively on the table beside her. Or, to speak more correctly, she had been darning them. Just when Margaret was sliding across the icy street Aunt Beatrice was bent forward in her chair, her hands over her face, while soft, shrinking little sobs shook her from head to foot.
When Margaret's imperative knock came at the front door, Aunt Beatrice started guiltily and wished earnestly that she had waited until she went to bed before crying, if cry she must. She knew Margaret's knock, and she did not want her gay young niece, of all people in the world, to suspect the fact or the cause of her tears.
"I hope she won't notice my eyes," she thought, as she hastily plumped a big ugly dark-green shade, with an almond-eyed oriental leering from it, over the lamp, before going out to let Margaret in.
Margaret did not notice at first. She was too deeply absorbed in her own troubles to think that anyone else in the world could be miserable too. She curled up in the deep easy-chair by the fire, and clasped her hands behind her curly head with a sigh of physical comfort and mental unhappiness, while Aunt Beatrice, warily sitting with her back to the light, took up her work again.
"You didn't go to Mrs. Cunningham's 'at home,' Auntie," said Margaret lazily, feeling that she must make some conversation to justify her appearance. "You were invited, weren't you?"
Aunt Beatrice nodded. The hole she was darning in the knee of Willie Hayden's stocking must be done very carefully. Mrs. George Hayden was particular about such matters. Perhaps this was why Aunt Beatrice did not speak.
"Why didn't you go?" asked Margaret absently, wondering why there had been no letter for her that morning—and this was the third day too! Could Gilbert be ill? Or was he flirting with some other girl and forgetting her? Margaret swallowed a big lump in her throat, and resolved that she would go home next week—no, she wouldn't, either—if he was as hateful and fickle as that—what was Aunt Beatrice saying?
"Well, I'm—I'm not used to going to parties now, my dear. And the truth is I have no dress fit to wear. At least Bella said so, because the party was to be a very fashionable affair. She said my old grey silk wouldn't do at all. Of course she knows. She had to have a new dress for it, and, we couldn't both have that. George couldn't afford it these hard times. And, as Bella said, it would be very foolish of me to get an expensive dress that would be no use to me afterward. But it doesn't matter. And, of course, somebody had to stay with the children."
"Of course," assented Margaret dreamily. Mrs. Cunningham's "at home" was of no particular interest. The guests were all middle-aged people whom the M.P. had known in his boyhood and Margaret, in her presumptuous youth, thought it would be a very prosy affair, although it had made quite a sensation in quiet little Murraybridge, where people still called an "at home" a party plain and simple.
"I saw Mr. Reynolds in church Sunday afternoon," she went on. "He is very fine-looking, I think. Did you ever meet him?"
"I used to know him very well long ago," answered Aunt Beatrice, bowing still lower over her work. "He used to live down in Wentworth, you know, and he visited his married sister here very often. He was only a boy at that time. Then—he went out to British Columbia and—and—we never heard much more about him."
"He's very rich and owns dozens of mines and railroads and things like that," said Margaret, "and he's a member of the Dominion Parliament, too. They say he's one of the foremost men in the House and came very near getting a portfolio in the new cabinet. I like men like that. They are so interesting. Wouldn't it be awfully nice and complimentary to have one of them in love with you? Is he married?"
"I—I don't know," said Aunt Beatrice faintly. "I have never heard that he was."
"There, you've run the needle into your finger," said Margaret sympathetically.
"It's of no consequence," said Aunt Beatrice hastily.
She wiped away the drop of blood and went on with her work. Margaret watched her dreamily. What lovely hair Aunt Beatrice had! It was so thick and glossy, with warm bronze tones where the lamp-light fell on it under that hideous weird old shade. But Aunt Beatrice wore it in such an unbecoming way. Margaret idly wondered if she would comb her hair straight back and prim when she was thirty-five. She thought it very probable if that letter did not come tomorrow.
From Aunt Beatrice's hair Margaret's eyes fell to Aunt Beatrice's face. She gave a little jump. Had Aunt Beatrice been crying? Margaret sat bolt upright.
"Aunt Beatrice, did you want to go to that party?" she demanded explosively. "Now tell me the truth."
"I did," said Aunt Beatrice weakly. Margaret's sudden attack fairly startled the truth out of her. "It is very silly of me, I know, but I did want to go. I didn't care about a new dress. I'd have been quite willing to wear my grey silk, and I could have fixed the sleeves. What difference would it have made? Nobody would ever have noticed me, but Bella thought it wouldn't do."
She paused long enough to give a little sob which she could not repress. Margaret made use of the opportunity to exclaim violently, "It's a shame!"
"I suppose you don't understand why I wanted to go to this particular party so much," went on Aunt Beatrice shyly. "I'll tell you why—if you won't laugh at me. I wanted to see John Reynolds—not to talk to him—oh, I dare say he wouldn't remember me—but just to see him. Long ago—fifteen years ago—we were engaged. And—and—I loved him so much then, Margaret."
"You poor dear!" said Margaret sympathetically. She reached over and patted her aunt's hand. She thought that this little bit of romance, long hidden and unsuspected, blossoming out under her eyes, was charming. In her interest she quite forgot her own pet grievance.
"Yes—and then we quarrelled. It was a dreadful quarrel and it was about such a trifle. We parted in anger and he went away. He never came back. It was all my fault. Well, it is all over long ago and everybody has forgotten. I—I don't mind it now. But I just wanted to see him once more and then come quietly away."
"Aunt Beatrice, you are going to that party yet," said Margaret decisively.
"Oh, it is impossible, my dear."
"No, it isn't. Nothing is impossible when I make up my mind. You must go. I'll drag you there by main force if it comes to that. Oh, I have such a jolly plan, Auntie. You know my black and yellow dinner dress—no, you don't either, for I've never worn it here. The folks at home all said it was too severe for me—and so it is. Nothing suits me but the fluffy, chuffy things with a tilt to them. Gil—er—I mean—well, yes, Gilbert always declared that dress made me look like a cross between an unwilling nun and a ballet girl, so I took a dislike to it. But it's as lovely as a dream. Oh, when you see it your eyes will stick out. You must wear it tonight. It's just your style, and I'm sure it will fit you, for our figures are so much alike."
"But it is too late."
"'Tisn't. It's not more than half an hour since Uncle George and Aunt Bella went. I'll have you ready in a twinkling."
"But the fire—and the children!"
"I'll stay here and look after both. I won't burn the house down, and if the twins wake up I'll give them—what is it you give them—soothing syrup? So go at once and get you ready, while I fly over for the dress. I'll fix your hair up when I get back."
Margaret was gone before Aunt Beatrice could speak again. Her niece's excitement seized hold of her too. She flung the stockings into the basket and the basket into the closet.
"I will go—and I won't do another bit of darning tonight. I hate it—I hate it—I hate it! Oh, how much good it does me to say it!"
When Margaret came flying up the stairs Aunt Beatrice was ready save for hair and dress. Margaret cast the gown on the bed, revealing all its beauty of jetted lace and soft yellow silk with a dextrous sweep of her arm. Aunt Beatrice gave a little cry of admiration.
"Isn't it lovely?" demanded Margaret. "And I've brought you my opera cape and my fascinator and my black satin slippers with the cunningest gold buckles, and some sweet pale yellow roses that Uncle Ned gave me yesterday. Oh, Aunt Beatrice! What magnificent arms and shoulders you have! They're like marble. Mine are so scrawny I'm just ashamed to have people know they belong to me."
Margaret's nimble fingers were keeping time with her tongue. Aunt Beatrice's hair went up as if by magic into soft puffs and waves and twists, and a golden rose was dropped among the bronze masses. Then the lovely dress was put on and pinned and looped and pulled until it fell into its simple, classical lines around the tall, curving figure. Margaret stepped back and clapped her hands admiringly.
"Oh, Auntie, you're beautiful! Now I'll pop down for the cloak and fascinator. I left them hanging by the fire."
When Margaret had gone Aunt Beatrice caught up the lamp and tiptoed shamefacedly across the hall to the icy-cold spare room. In the long mirror she saw herself reflected from top to toe—or was it herself! Could it be—that gracious woman with the sweet eyes and flushed cheeks, with rounded arms gleaming through their black laces and the cluster of roses nestling against the warm white flesh of the shoulder?
"I do look nice," she said aloud, with a little curtsey to the radiant reflection. "It is all the dress, I know. I feel like a queen in it—no, like a girl again—and that's better."
Margaret went to Mrs. Cunningham's door with her.
"How I wish I could go in and see the sensation you'll make, Aunt Beatrice," she whispered.
"You dear, silly child! It's just the purple and fine linen," laughed Aunt Beatrice. But she did not altogether think so, and she rang the doorbell unquailingly. In the hall Mrs. Cunningham herself came beamingly to greet her.
"My dear Beatrice! I'm so glad. Bella said you could not come because you had a headache."
"My headache got quite better after they left, and so I thought I would get ready and come, even if it were rather late," said Beatrice glibly, wondering if Sapphira had ever worn a black-and-yellow dress, and if so, might not her historic falsehood be traced to its influence?
When they came downstairs together, Beatrice, statuesque and erect in her trailing draperies, and Mrs. Cunningham secretly wondering where on earth Beatrice Hayden had got such a magnificent dress and what she had done to herself to make her look as she did—a man came through the hall. At the foot of the stairs they met. He put out his hand.
"Beatrice! It must be Beatrice! How little you have changed!"
Mrs. Cunningham was not particularly noted in Murraybridge for her tact, but she had a sudden visitation of the saving grace at that moment, and left the two alone.
Beatrice put her hand into the M.P.'s.
"I am glad to see you," she said simply, looking up at him.
She could not say that he had not changed, for there was little in this tall, broad-shouldered man of the world, with grey glints in his hair, to suggest the slim, boyish young lover whose image she had carried in her heart all the long years.
But the voice, though deeper and mellower, was the same, and the thin, clever mouth that went up at one corner and down at the other in a humorous twist; and one little curl of reddish hair fell over his forehead away from its orderly fellows, just as it used to when she had loved to poke her fingers through it; and, more than all, the deep-set grey eyes looking down into her blue ones were unchanged. Beatrice felt her heart beating to her fingertips.
"I thought you were not coming," he said. "I expected to meet you here and I was horribly disappointed. I thought the bitterness of that foolish old quarrel must be strong enough to sway you yet."
"Didn't Bella tell you I had a headache?" faltered Beatrice.
"Bella? Oh, your brother's wife! I wasn't talking to her. I've been sulking in corners ever since I concluded you were not coming. How beautiful you are, Beatrice! You'll let an old friend say that much, won't you?"
Beatrice laughed softly. She had forgotten for years that she was beautiful, but the sweet old knowledge had come back to her again. She could not help knowing that he spoke the simple truth, but she said mirthfully,
"You've learned to flatter since the old days, haven't you? Don't you remember you used to tell me I was too thin to be pretty? But I suppose a bit of blarney is a necessary ingredient in the composition of an M.P."
He was still holding her hand. With a glance of dissatisfaction at the open parlour door, he drew her away to the little room at the end of the hall, which Mrs. Cunningham, for reasons known only to herself, called her library.
"Come in here with me," he said masterfully. "I want to have a long talk with you before the other people get hold of you."
When Beatrice got home from the party ten minutes before her brother and his wife, Margaret was sitting Turk fashion in the big armchair, with her eyes very wide open and owlish.
"You dear girlie, were you asleep?" asked Aunt Beatrice indulgently.
Margaret nodded. "Yes, and I've let the fire go out. I hope you're not cold. I must run before Aunt Bella gets here, or she'll scold. Had a nice time?"
"Delightful. You were a dear to lend me this dress. It was so funny to see Bella staring at it."
When Margaret had put on her hat and jacket she went as far as the street door, and then tiptoed back to the sitting-room. Aunt Beatrice was leaning back in the armchair, with a drooping rose held softly against her lips, gazing dreamily into the dull red embers.
"Auntie," said Margaret contritely, "I can't go home without confessing, although I know it is a heinous offence to interrupt the kind of musing that goes with dying embers and faded roses in the small hours. But it would weigh on my conscience all night if I didn't. I was asleep, but I wakened up just before you came in and went to the window. I didn't mean to spy upon anyone—but that street was bright as day! And if you will let an M.P. kiss you on the doorstep in glaring moonlight, you must expect to be seen."
"I wouldn't have cared if there had been a dozen onlookers," said Aunt Beatrice frankly, "and I don't believe he would either."
Margaret threw up her hands. "Well, my conscience is clear, at least. And remember, Aunt Beatrice, I'm to be bridesmaid—I insist upon that. And, oh, won't you ask me to visit you when you go down to Ottawa next winter? I'm told it's such a jolly place when the House is in session. And you'll need somebody to help you entertain, you know. The wife of a cabinet minister has to do lots of that. But I forgot—he isn't a cabinet minister yet. But he will be, of course. Promise that you'll have me, Aunt Beatrice, promise quick. I hear Uncle George and Aunt Bella coming."
Aunt Beatrice promised. Margaret flew to the door.
"You'd better keep that dress," she called back softly, as she opened it.
The Running Away of Chester
Chester did the chores with unusual vim that night. His lips were set and there was an air of resolution as plainly visible on his small, freckled face as if it had been stamped there. Mrs. Elwell saw him flying around, and her grim features took on a still grimmer expression.
"Ches is mighty lively tonight," she muttered. "I s'pose he's in a gog to be off on some foolishness with Henry Wilson. Well, he won't, and he needn't think it."
Lige Barton, the hired man, also thought this was Chester's purpose, but he took a more lenient view of it than did Mrs. Elwell.
"The little chap is going through things with a rush this evening," he reflected. "Guess he's laying out for a bit of fun with the Wilson boy."
But Chester was not planning anything connected with Henry Wilson, who lived on the other side of the pond and was the only chum he possessed. After the chores were done, he lingered a little while around the barns, getting his courage keyed up to the necessary pitch.
Chester Stephens was an orphan without kith or kin in the world, unless his father's stepsister, Mrs. Harriet Elwell, could be called so. His parents had died in his babyhood, and Mrs. Elwell had taken him to bring up. She was a harsh woman, with a violent temper, and she had scolded and worried the boy all his short life. Upton people said it was a shame, but nobody felt called upon to interfere. Mrs. Elwell was not a person one would care to make an enemy of.
She eyed Chester sourly when he went in, expecting some request to be allowed to go with Henry, and prepared to refuse it sharply.
"Aunt Harriet," said Chester suddenly, "can I go to school this year? It begins tomorrow."
"No," said Mrs. Elwell, when she had recovered from her surprise at this unexpected question. "You've had schoolin' in plenty—more'n I ever had, and all you're goin' to get!"
"But, Aunt Harriet," persisted Chester, his face flushed with earnestness, "I'm nearly thirteen, and I can barely read and write a little. The other boys are ever so far ahead of me. I don't know anything."
"You know enough to be disrespectful!" exclaimed Mrs. Elwell. "I suppose you want to go to school to idle away your time, as you do at home—lazy good-for-nothing that you are!" Chester thought of the drudgery that had been his portion all his life. He resented being called lazy when he was willing enough to work, but he made one more appeal.
"If you'll let me go to school this year, I'll work twice as hard out of school to make up for it—indeed, I will. Do let me go, Aunt Harriet. I haven't been to school a day for over a year."
"Let's hear no more of this nonsense," said Mrs. Elwell, taking a bottle from the shelf above her with the air of one who closes a discussion. "Here, run down to the Bridge and get me this bottle full of vinegar at Jacob's store. Be smart, too, d'ye hear! I ain't going to have you idling around the Bridge neither. If you ain't back in twenty minutes, it won't be well for you."
Chester did his errand at the Bridge with a heart full of bitter disappointment and anger.
"I won't stand it any longer!" he muttered. "I'll run away—I don't care where, so long as it's away from her. I wish I could get out West on the harvest excursions."
On his return home, as he crossed the yard in the dusk, he stumbled over a stick of wood and fell. The bottle of vinegar slipped from his hand and was broken on the doorstep. Mrs. Elwell saw the accident from the window. She rushed out and jerked the unlucky lad to his feet.
"Take that, you sulky little cub!" she exclaimed, cuffing his ears soundly. "I'll teach you to break and spill things you're sent for! You did it on purpose. Get off to bed with you this instant."
Chester crept off to his garret chamber with a very sullen face. He was too used to being sent to bed without any supper to care much for that, although he was hungry. But his whole being was in a tumult of rebellion over the injustice that was meted out to him.
"I won't stand it!" he muttered over and over again. "I'll run away. I won't stay here."
To talk of running away was one thing. To do it without a cent in your pocket or a place to run to was another. But Chester had a great deal of determination in his make-up when it was fairly roused, and his hard upbringing had made him older and shrewder than his years. He lay awake late that night, thinking out ways and means, but could arrive at no satisfactory conclusion.
The next day Mrs. Elwell said, "Ches, Abner Stearns wants you to go up there for a fortnight while Tom Bixby is away, and drive the milk wagon of mornings and do the chores for Mrs. Stearns. You might as well put in the time 'fore harvest that way as any other. So hustle off—and mind you behave yourself."
Chester heard the news gladly. He had not yet devised any feasible plan for running away, and he always liked to work at the Stearns' place. To be sure, Mrs. Elwell received all the money he earned, but Mrs. Stearns was kind to him, and though he had to work hard and constantly, he was well fed and well treated by all.
The following fortnight was a comparatively happy one for the lad. But he did not forget his purpose of shaking the dust of Upton from his feet as soon as possible, and he cudgelled his brains trying to find a way.
On the evening when he left the Stearns' homestead, Mr. Stearns paid him for his fortnight's work, much to the boy's surprise, for Mrs. Elwell had always insisted that all such money should be paid directly to her. Chester found himself the possessor of four dollars—an amount of riches that almost took away his breath. He had never in his whole life owned more than ten cents at a time. As he tramped along the road home, he kept his hand in his pocket, holding fast to the money, as if he feared it would otherwise dissolve into thin air.
His mind was firmly made up. He would run away once and for all. This money was rightly his; he had earned every cent of it. It would surely last him until he found employment elsewhere. At any rate, he would go; and even if he starved, he would never come back to Aunt Harriet's!
When he reached home, he found Mrs. Elwell in an unusual state of worry. Lige had given warning—and this on the verge of harvest!
"Did Stearns say anything about coming down tomorrow to pay me for your work?" she asked.
"No, ma'am. He didn't say a word about it," said Chester boldly.
"Well, I hope he will. Take yourself off to bed, Ches. I'm sick of seeing you standing there, on one foot or t'other, like a gander."
Chester had been shifting about uneasily. He realized that, if his project did not miscarry, he would not see his aunt again, and his heart softened to her. Harsh as she was, she was the only protector he had ever known, and the boy had a vague wish to carry away with him some kindly word or look from her. Such, however, was not forthcoming, and Chester obeyed her command and took himself off to the garret. Here he sat down and reflected on his plans.
He must go that very night. When Mr. Stearns failed to appear on the morrow, Mrs. Elwell was quite likely to march up and demand the amount of Chester's wages. It would all come out then, and he would lose his money—besides, no doubt, getting severely punished into the bargain.
His preparations did not take long. He had nothing to carry with him. The only decent suit of clothes he possessed was his well-worn Sunday one. This he put on, carefully stowing away in his pocket the precious four dollars.
He had to wait until he thought his aunt was asleep, and it was about eleven when he crept downstairs, his heart quaking within him, and got out by the porch window. When he found himself alone in the clear moonlight of the August night, a sense of elation filled his cramped little heart. He was free, and he would never come back here—never!
"Wisht I could have seen Henry to say good-by to him, though," he muttered with a wistful glance at the big house across the pond where the unconscious Henry was sleeping soundly with never a thought of moonlight flittings for anyone in his curly head.
Chester meant to walk to Roxbury Station ten miles away. Nobody knew him there, and he could catch the morning train. Late as it was, he kept to fields and wood-roads lest he might be seen and recognized. It was three o'clock when he reached Roxbury, and he knew the train did not pass through until six. With the serenity of a philosopher who is starting out to win his way in the world and means to make the best of things, Chester curled himself up in the hollow space of a big lumber pile behind the station, and so tired was he that he fell soundly asleep in a few minutes.
* * * * *
Chester was awakened by the shriek of the express at the last crossing before the station. In a panic of haste he scrambled out of his lumber and dashed into the station house, where a sleepy, ill-natured agent stood behind the ticket window. He looked sharply enough at the freckled, square-jawed boy who asked for a second-class ticket to Belltown. Chester's heart quaked within him at the momentary thought that the ticket agent recognized him. He had an agonized vision of being collared without ceremony and haled straightway back to Aunt Harriet. When the ticket and his change were pushed out to him, he snatched them and fairly ran.
"Bolted as if the police were after him," reflected the agent, who did not sell many tickets and so had time to take a personal interest in the purchasers thereof. "I've seen that youngster before, though I can't recollect where. He's got a most fearful determined look."
Chester drew an audible sigh of relief when the train left the station. He was fairly off now and felt that he could defy even curious railway officials.
It was not his first train ride, for Mrs. Elwell had once taken him to Belltown to get an aching tooth extracted, but it was certainly his first under such exhilarating circumstances, and he meant to enjoy it. To be sure, he was very hungry, but that, he reflected, was only what he would probably be many times before he made his fortune, and it was just as well to get used to it. Meanwhile, it behooved him to keep his eyes open. On the road from Roxbury to Belltown there was not much to be seen that morning that Chester did not see.
The train reached Belltown about noon. He did not mean to stop long there—it was too near Upton. From the conductor on the train, he found that a boat left Belltown for Montrose at two in the afternoon. Montrose was a hundred miles from Upton, and Chester thought he would be safe there. To Montrose, accordingly, he decided to go, but the first thing was to get some dinner. He went into a grocery store and bought some crackers and a bit of cheese. He had somewhere picked up the idea that crackers and cheese were about as economical food as you could find for adventurous youths starting out on small capital.
He found his way to the only public square Belltown boasted, and munched his food hungrily on a bench under the trees. He would go to Montrose and there find something to do. Later on he would gradually work his way out West, where there was more room for an ambitious small boy to expand and grow. Chester dreamed some dazzling dreams as he sat there on the bench under the Belltown chestnuts. Passers-by, if they noticed him at all, saw merely a rather small, poorly clad boy, with a great many freckles, a square jaw and shrewd, level-gazing grey eyes. But this same lad was mapping out a very brilliant future for himself as people passed him heedlessly by. He would get out West, somehow or other, some time or other, and make a fortune. Then, perhaps, he would go back to Upton for a visit and shine in his splendour before all his old neighbours. It all seemed very easy and alluring, sitting there in the quiet little Belltown square. Chester, you see, possessed imagination. That, together with the crackers and cheese, so cheered him up that he felt ready for anything. He was aroused from a dream of passing Aunt Harriet by in lofty scorn and a glittering carriage, by the shrill whistle of the boat. Chester pocketed his remaining crackers and cheese and his visions also, and was once more his alert, wide-awake self. He had inquired the way to the wharf from the grocer, so he found no difficulty in reaching it. When the boat steamed down the muddy little river, Chester was on board of her.
He was glad to be out of Belltown, for he was anything but sure that he would not encounter some Upton people as long as he was in it. They often went to Belltown on business, but never to Montrose.
There were not many passengers on the boat, and Chester scrutinized them all so sharply in turn that he could have sworn to each and every one of them for years afterwards had it been necessary. The one he liked best was a middle-aged lady who sat just before him on the opposite side of the deck She was plump and motherly looking, with a fresh, rosy face and beaming blue eyes.
"If I was looking for anyone to adopt me I'd pick her," said Chester to himself. The more he looked at her, the better he liked her. He labelled her in his mind as "the nice, rosy lady."
The nice, rosy lady noticed Chester staring at her after awhile. She smiled promptly at him—a smile that seemed fairly to irradiate her round face—and then began fumbling in an old-fashioned reticule she carried, and from which she presently extracted a chubby little paper bag.
"If you like candy, little boy," she said to Chester, "here is some of my sugar taffy for you."
Chester did not exactly like being called a little boy. But her voice and smile were irresistible and won his heart straightway. He took the candy with a shy, "Thank you, ma'am," and sat holding it in his hand.
"Eat it," commanded the rosy lady authoritatively. "That is what taffy is for, you know."
So Chester ate it. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted in his life, and filled a void which even the crackers and cheese had left vacant. The rosy lady watched every mouthful he ate as if she enjoyed it more than he did. When he had finished the taffy she smiled one of her sociable smiles again and said, "Well, what do you think of it?"
"It's the nicest taffy I ever ate," answered Chester enthusiastically, as if he were a connoisseur in all kinds of taffies. The rosy lady nodded, well pleased.
"That is just what everyone says about my sugar taffy. Nobody up our way can match it, though goodness knows they try hard enough. My great-grandmother invented the recipe herself, and it has been in our family ever since. I'm real glad you liked it."
She smiled at him again, as if his appreciation of her taffy was a bond of good fellowship between them. She did not know it but, nevertheless, she was filling the heart of a desperate small boy, who had run away from home, with hope and encouragement and self-reliance. If there were such kind folks as this in the world, why, he would get along all right. The rosy lady's smiles and taffy—the smiles much more than the taffy—went far to thaw out of him a certain hardness and resentfulness against people in general that Aunt Harriet's harsh treatment had instilled into him. Chester instantly made a resolve that when he grew stout and rosy and prosperous he would dispense smiles and taffy and good cheer generally to all forlorn small boys on boats and trains.
It was almost dark when they reached Montrose. Chester lost sight of the rosy lady when they left the boat, and it gave him a lonesome feeling; but he could not indulge in that for long at a time. Here he was at his destination—at dark, in a strange city a hundred miles from home.
"The first thing is to find somewhere to sleep," he said to himself, resolutely declining to feel frightened, although the temptation was very strong.
Montrose was not really a very big place. It was only a bustling little town of some twenty thousand inhabitants, but to Chester's eyes it was a vast metropolis. He had never been in any place bigger than Belltown, and in Belltown you could see one end of it, at least, no matter where you were. Montrose seemed endless to Chester as he stood at the head of Water Street and gazed in bewilderment along one of its main business avenues—a big, glittering, whirling place where one small boy could so easily be swallowed up that he would never be heard of again.
Chester, after paying his fare to Montrose and buying his cheese and crackers, had just sixty cents left. This must last him until he found work, so that the luxury of lodgings was out of the question, even if he had known where to look for them. To be sure, there were benches in a public square right in front of him; but Chester was afraid that if he curled up on one of them for the night, a policeman might question him, and he did not believe he could give a very satisfactory account of himself. In his perplexity, he thought of his cosy lumber pile at Roxbury Station and remembered that when he had left the boat he had noticed a large vacant lot near the wharf which was filled with piles of lumber. Back to this he went and soon succeeded in finding a place to stow himself. His last waking thought was that he must be up and doing bright and early the next morning, and that it must surely be longer than twenty-four hours since he had crept downstairs and out of Aunt Harriet's porch window at Upton.
* * * * *
Montrose seemed less alarming by daylight, which was not so bewildering as the blinking electric lights. Chester was up betimes, ate the last of his cheese and crackers and started out at once to look for work. He determined to be thorough, and he went straight into every place of business he came to, from a blacksmith's forge to a department store, and boldly asked the first person he met if they wanted a boy there. There was, however, one class of places Chester shunned determinedly. He never went into a liquor saloon. The last winter he had been allowed to go to school in Upton, his teacher had been a pale, patient little woman who hated the liquor traffic with all her heart. She herself had suffered bitterly through it, and she instilled into her pupils a thorough aversion to it. Chester would have chosen death by starvation before he would have sought for employment in a liquor saloon. But there certainly did not seem room for him anywhere else. Nobody wanted a boy. The answer to his question was invariably "No." As the day wore on, Chester's hopes and courage went down to zero, but he still tramped doggedly about. He would be thorough, at least. Surely somewhere in this big place, where everyone seemed so busy, there must be something for him to do.
Once there seemed a chance of success. He had gone into a big provision store and asked the clerk behind the counter if they wanted a boy.
"Well, we do," said the clerk, looking him over critically, "but I hardly think you'll fill the bill. However, come in and see the boss."
He took Chester into a dark, grimy little inner office where a fat, stubby man was sitting before a desk with his feet upon it.
"Hey? What!" he said when the clerk explained. "Looking for the place? Why, sonny, you're not half big enough."
"Oh, I'm a great deal bigger than I look," cried Chester breathlessly. "That is, sir—I mean I'm ever so much stronger than I look. I'll work hard, sir, ever so hard—and I'll grow."
The fat, stubby man roared with laughter. What was grim earnest to poor Chester was a joke to him.
"No doubt you will, my boy," he said genially, "but I'm afraid you'll hardly grow fast enough to suit us. Boys aren't like pigweed, you know. No, no, our boy must be a big, strapping fellow of eighteen or nineteen. He'll have a deal of heavy lifting to do."
Chester went out of the store with a queer choking in his throat. For one horrible moment he thought he was going to cry—he, Chester Stephens, who had run away from home to do splendid things! A nice ending that would be to his fine dreams! He thrust his hands into his pockets and strode along the street, biting his lips fiercely. He would not cry—no, he would not! And he would find work!
Chester did not cry, but neither, alas, did he find work. He parted with ten cents of his precious hoard for more crackers, and he spend the night again in the lumber yard.
Perhaps I'll have better luck tomorrow, he thought hopefully.
But it really seemed as if there were to be no luck for Chester except bad luck. Day after day passed and, although he tramped resolutely from street to street and visited every place that seemed to offer any chance, he could get no employment. In spite of his pluck, his heart began to fail him.
At the end of a week Chester woke up among his lumber to a realization that he was at the end of his resources. He had just five cents left out of the four dollars that were to have been the key to his fortune. He sat gloomily on the wall of his sleeping apartment and munched the one solitary cracker he had left. It must carry him through the day unless he got work. The five cents must be kept for some dire emergency.
He started uptown rather aimlessly. In his week's wanderings he had come to know the city very well and no longer felt confused with its size and bustle. He envied every busy boy he saw. Back in Upton he had sometimes resented the fact that he was kept working continually and was seldom allowed an hour off. Now he was burdened with spare time. It certainly did not seem as if things were fairly divided, he thought. And then he thought no more just then, for one of the queer spells in his head came on. He had experienced them at intervals during the last three days. Something seemed to break loose in his head and spin wildly round and round, while houses and people and trees danced and wobbled all about him. Chester vaguely wondered if this could be what Aunt Harriet had been wont to call a "judgement." But then, he had done nothing very bad—nothing that would warrant a judgement, he thought. It was surely no harm to run away from a place where you were treated so bad and where they did not seem to want you. Chester felt bitter whenever he thought of Aunt Harriet.
Presently he found himself in the market square of Montrose. It was market day, and the place was thronged with people from the surrounding country settlements. Chester had hoped that he might pick up a few cents, holding a horse or cow for somebody or carrying a market basket, but no such chance offered itself. He climbed up on some bales of pressed hay in one corner and sat there moodily; there was dejection in the very dangle of his legs over the bales. Chester, you see, was discovering what many a boy before him has discovered—that it is a good deal easier to sit down and make a fortune in dreams than it is to go out into the world and make it.
Two men were talking to each other near him. At first Chester gave no heed to their conversation, but presently a sentence made him prick up his ears.
"Yes, there's a pretty fair crop out at Hopedale," one man was saying, "but whether it's going to be got in in good shape is another matter. It's terrible hard to get any help. Every spare man-jack far and wide has gone West on them everlasting harvest excursions. Salome Whitney at the Mount Hope Farm is in a predicament. She's got a hired man, but he can't harvest grain all by himself. She spent the whole of yesterday driving around, trying to get a couple of men or boys to help him, but I dunno if she got anyone or not."
The men moved out of earshot at this juncture, but Chester got down from the bales with a determined look. If workers were wanted in Hopedale, that was the place for him. He had done a man's work at harvest time in Upton the year before. Lige Barton had said so himself. Hope and courage returned with a rush.
He accosted the first man he met and asked if he could tell him the way to Hopedale.
"Reckon I can, sonny. I live in the next district. Want to go there? If you wait till evening, I can give you a lift part of the way. It's five miles out."
"Thank you, sir," said Chester firmly, "but I must go at once if you'll kindly direct me. It's important."
"Well, it's a straight road. That's Albemarle Street down there—follow it till it takes you out to the country, and then keep straight on till you come to a church painted yellow and white. Turn to your right, and over the hill is Hopedale. But you'd better wait for me. You don't look fit to walk five miles."
But Chester was off. Walk five miles! Pooh! He could walk twenty with hope to lure him on. Albemarle Street finally frayed off into a real country road. Chester was glad to find himself out in the country once more, with the great golden fields basking on either side and the wooded hills beyond, purple with haze. He had grown to hate the town with its cold, unheeding faces. It was good to breathe clear air again and feel the soft, springy soil of the ferny roadside under his tired little feet.
Long before the five miles were covered, Chester began to wonder if he would hold out to the end of them. He had to stop and rest frequently, when those queer dizzy spells came on. His feet seemed like lead. But he kept doggedly on. He would not give in now! The white and yellow church was the most welcome sight that had ever met his eyes.
Over the hill he met a man and inquired the way to Mount Hope Farm. Fortunately, it was nearby. At the gate Chester had to stop again to recover from his dizziness.
He liked the look of the place, with its great, comfortable barns and quaint, roomy old farmhouse, all set down in a trim quadrangle of beeches and orchards. There was an appearance of peace and prosperity about it.
If only Miss Salome Whitney will hire me! thought Chester wistfully, as he crept up the slope. I'm afraid she'll say I'm too small. Wisht I could stretch three inches all at once. Wisht I wasn't so dizzy. Wisht—
What Chester's third wish was will never be known, for just as he reached the kitchen door the worst dizzy spell of all came on. Trees, barns, well-sweep, all whirled around him with the speed of wind. He reeled and fell, a limp, helpless little body, on Miss Salome Whitney's broad, spotless sandstone doorstep.
* * * * *
In the Mount Hope kitchen Miss Salome was at that moment deep in discussion with her "help" over the weighty question of how the damsons were to be preserved. Miss Salome wanted them boiled; Clemantiny Bosworth, the help, insisted that they ought to be baked. Clemantiny was always very positive. She had "bossed" Miss Salome for years, and both knew that in the end the damsons would be baked, but the argument had to be carried out for dignity's sake.
"They're so sour when they're baked," protested Miss Salome.
"Well, you don't want damsons sweet, do you?" retorted Clemantiny scornfully. "That's the beauty of damsons—their tartness. And they keep ever so much better baked, Salome—you know they do. My grandmother always baked hers, and they would keep for three years."
Miss Salome knew that when Clemantiny dragged her grandmother into the question, it was time to surrender. Beyond that, dignity degenerated into stubbornness. It would be useless to say that she did not want to keep her damsons for three years, and that she was content to eat them up and trust to Providence for the next year's supply.
"Well, well, bake them then," she said placidly. "I don't suppose it makes much difference one way or another. Only, I insist—what was that noise, Clemantiny? It sounded like something falling against the porch door."
"It's that worthless dog of Martin's, I suppose," said Clemantiny, grasping a broom handle with a grimness that boded ill for the dog. "Mussing up my clean doorstep with his dirty paws again. I'll fix him!"
Clemantiny swept out through the porch and jerked open the door. There was a moment's silence. Then Miss Salome heard her say, "For the land's sake! Salome Whitney, come here."
What Miss Salome saw when she hurried out was a white-faced boy stretched on the doorstep at Clemantiny's feet.
"Is he dead?" she gasped.
"Dead? No," sniffed Clemantiny. "He's fainted, that's what he is. Where on earth did he come from? He ain't a Hopedale boy."
"He must be carried right in," exclaimed Miss Salome in distress. "Why, he may die there. He must be very ill."
"Looks more to me as if he had fainted from sheer starvation," returned Clemantiny brusquely as she picked him up in her lean, muscular arms. "Why, he's skin and bone. He ain't hardly heavier than a baby. Well, this is a mysterious piece of work. Where'll I put him?"
"Lay him on the sofa," said Miss Salome as soon as she had recovered from the horror into which Clemantiny's starvation dictum had thrown her. A child starving to death on her doorstep! "What do you do for people in a faint, Clemantiny?"
"Wet their face—and hist up their feet—and loosen their collar," said Clemantiny in a succession of jerks, doing each thing as she mentioned it. "And hold ammonia to their nose. Run for the ammonia, Salome. Look, will you? Skin and bone!"
But Miss Salome had gone for the ammonia. There was a look on the boy's thin, pallid face that tugged painfully at her heart-strings.
When Chester came back to consciousness with the pungency of the ammonia reeking through his head, he found himself lying on very soft pillows in a very big white sunny kitchen, where everything was scoured to a brightness that dazzled you. Bending over him was a tall, gaunt woman with a thin, determined face and snapping black eyes, and, standing beside her with a steaming bowl in her hand, was the nice rosy lady who had given him the taffy on the boat!
When he opened his eyes, Miss Salome knew him.
"Why, it's the little boy I saw on the boat!" she exclaimed.
"Well, you've come to!" said Clemantiny, eyeing Chester severely. "And now perhaps you'll explain what you mean by fainting away on doorsteps and scaring people out of their senses."
Chester thought that this must be the mistress of Mount Hope Farm, and hastened to propitiate her.
"I'm sorry," he faltered feebly. "I didn't mean to—I—"
"You're not to do any talking until you've had something to eat," snapped Clemantiny inconsistently. "Here, open your mouth and take this broth. Pretty doings, I say!"
Clemantiny spoke as sharply as Aunt Harriet had ever done, but somehow or other Chester did not feel afraid of her and her black eyes. She sat down by his side and fed him from the bowl of hot broth with a deft gentleness oddly in contrast with her grim expression.
Chester thought he had never in all his life tasted anything so good as that broth. The boy was really almost starved. He drank every drop of it. Clemantiny gave a grunt of satisfaction as she handed the empty bowl and spoon to the silent, smiling Miss Salome.
"Now, who are you and what do you want?" she said.
Chester had been expecting this question, and while coming along the Hopedale road he had thought out an answer to it. He began now, speaking the words slowly and gaspingly, as if reciting a hastily learned lesson.
"My name is Chester Benson. I belong to Upton up the country. My folks are dead and I came to Montrose to look for work, I've been there a week and couldn't get anything to do. I heard a man say that you wanted men to help in the harvest, so I came out to see if you'd hire me."
In spite of his weakness, Chester's face turned very red before he got to the end of his speech. He was new to deception. To be sure, there was not, strictly speaking, an untrue word in it. As for his name, it was Chester Benson Stephens. But for all that, Chester could not have felt or looked more guilty if he had been telling an out-and-out falsehood at every breath.
"Humph!" said Clemantiny in a dissatisfied tone. "What on earth do you suppose a midget like you can do in the harvest field? And we don't want any more help, anyway. We've got enough."
Chester grew sick with disappointment. But at this moment Miss Salome spoke up.
"No, we haven't, Clemantiny. We want another hand, and I'll hire you, Chester—that's your name, isn't it? I'll give you good wages, too."
"Now, Salome!" protested Clemantiny.
But Miss Salome only said, "I've made up my mind, Clemantiny."
Clemantiny knew that when Miss Salome did make up her mind and announced it in that very quiet, very unmistakable tone, she was mistress of the situation and intended to remain so.
"Oh, very well," she retorted. "You'll please yourself, Salome, of course. I think it would be wiser to wait until you found out a little more about him."
"And have him starving on people's doorsteps in the meantime?" questioned Miss Salome severely.
"Well," returned Clemantiny with the air of one who washes her hands of a doubtful proposition, "don't blame me if you repent of it."
By this time Chester had grasped the wonderful fact that his troubles were ended—for a while, at least. He raised himself up on one arm and looked gratefully at Miss Salome.
"Thank you," he said. "I'll work hard. I'm used to doing a lot."
"There, there!" said Miss Salome, patting his shoulder gently. "Lie down and rest. Dinner will be ready soon, and I guess you'll be ready for it."
To Clemantiny she added in a low, gentle tone, "There's a look on his face that reminded me of Johnny. It came out so strong when he sat up just now that it made me feel like crying. Don't you notice it, Clemantiny?"
"Can't say that I do," replied that energetic person, who was flying about the kitchen with a speed that made Chester's head dizzy trying to follow her with his eyes. "All I can see is freckles and bones—but if you're satisfied, I am. For law's sake, don't fluster me, Salome. There's a hundred and one things to be done out of hand. This frolic has clean dundered the whole forenoon's work."
After dinner Chester decided that it was time to make himself useful.
"Can't I go right to work now?" he asked.
"We don't begin harvest till tomorrow," said Miss Salome. "You'd better rest this afternoon."
"Oh, I'm all right now," insisted Chester. "I feel fine. Please give me something to do."
"You can go out and cut me some wood for my afternoon's baking," said Clemantiny. "And see you cut it short enough. Any other boy that's tried always gets it about two inches too long."
When he had gone out, she said scornfully to Miss Salome, "Well, what do you expect that size to accomplish in a harvest field, Salome Whitney?"
"Not very much, perhaps," said Miss Salome mildly. "But what could I do? You wouldn't have me turn the child adrift on the world again, would you, Clemantiny?"
Clemantiny did not choose to answer this appeal. She rattled her dishes noisily into the dishpan.
"Well, where are you going to put him to sleep?" she demanded. "The hands you've got will fill the kitchen chamber. There's only the spare room left. You'll hardly put him there, I suppose? Your philanthropy will hardly lead you as far as that."
When Clemantiny employed big words and sarcasm at the same time, the effect was tremendous. But Miss Salome didn't wilt.
"What makes you so prejudiced against him?" she asked curiously.
"I'm not prejudiced against him. But that story about himself didn't ring true. I worked in Upton years ago, and there weren't any Bensons there then. There's more behind that he hasn't told. I'd find out what it was before I took him into my house, that's all. But I'm not prejudiced."
"Well, well," said Miss Salome soothingly, "we must do the best we can for him. It's a sort of duty. And as for a room for him—why, I'll put him in Johnny's."
Clemantiny opened her mouth and shut it again. She understood that it would be a waste of breath to say anything more. If Miss Salome had made up her mind to put this freckled, determined-looking waif, dropped on her doorstep from heaven knew where, into Johnny's room, that was an end of the matter.
"But I'll not be surprised at anything after this," she muttered as she carried her dishes into the pantry. "First a skinny little urchin goes and faints on her doorstep. Then she hires him and puts him in Johnny's room. Johnny's room! Salome Whitney, what do you mean?"
Perhaps Miss Salome hardly knew what she meant. But somehow her heart went out warmly to this boy. In spite of Clemantiny's sniffs, she held to the opinion that he looked like Johnny. Johnny was a little nephew of hers. She had taken him to bring up when his parents died, and she had loved him very dearly. He had died four years ago, and since that time the little front room over the front porch had never been occupied. It was just as Johnny had left it. Beyond keeping it scrupulously clean, Miss Salome never allowed it to be disturbed. And now a somewhat ragged lad from nowhere was to be put into it! No wonder Clemantiny shook her head when Miss Salome went up to air it.
* * * * *
Even Clemantiny had to admit that Chester was willing to work. He split wood until she called him to stop. Then he carried in the wood-box full, and piled it so neatly that even the grim handmaiden was pleased. After that, she sent him to the garden to pick the early beans. In the evening he milked three cows and did all the chores, falling into the ways of the place with a deft adaptability that went far to soften Clemantiny's heart.
"He's been taught to work somewheres," she admitted grudgingly, "and he's real polite and respectful. But he looks too cute by half. And his name isn't Benson any more than mine. When I called him 'Chester Benson' out there in the cow-yard, he stared at me fer half a minute 'sif I'd called him Nebuchadnezzar."
When bedtime came, Miss Salome took Chester up to a room whose whiteness and daintiness quite took away the breath of a lad who had been used to sleeping in garrets or hired men's kitchen chambers all his life. Later on Miss Salome came in to see if he was comfortable, and stood, with her candle in her hand, looking down very kindly at the thin, shrewd little face on the pillow.
"I hope you'll sleep real well here, Chester," she said. "I had a little boy once who used to sleep here. You—you look like him. Good night."
She bent over him and kissed his forehead. Chester had never been kissed by anyone before, so far as he could remember. Something came up in his throat that felt about as big as a pumpkin. At the same moment he wished he could have told Miss Salome the whole truth about himself. I might tell her in the morning, he thought, as he watched her figure passing out of the little porch chamber.
But on second thought he decided that this would never do. He felt sure she would disapprove of his running away, and would probably insist upon his going straight back to Upton or, at least, informing Aunt Harriet of his whereabouts. No, he could not tell her.
Clemantiny was an early riser, but when she came into the kitchen the next morning the fire was already made and Chester was out in the yard with three of the five cows milked.
"Humph!" said Clemantiny amiably. "New brooms sweep clean."
But she gave him cream with his porridge that morning. Generally, all Miss Salome's hired hands got from Clemantiny was skim milk.
Miss Salome's regular hired man lived in a little house down in the hollow. He soon turned up, and the other two men she had hired for harvest also arrived. Martin, the man, looked Chester over quizzically.
"What do you think you can do, sonny?"
"Anything," said Chester sturdily. "I'm used to work."
"He's right," whispered Clemantiny aside. "He's smart as a steel trap. But just you keep an eye on him all the same, Martin."
Chester soon proved his mettle in the harvest field. In the brisk three weeks that followed, even Clemantiny had to admit that he earned every cent of his wages. His active feet were untiring and his wiry arms could pitch and stock with the best. When the day's work was ended, he brought in wood and water for Clemantiny, helped milk the cows, gathered the eggs, and made on his own responsibility a round of barns and outhouses to make sure that everything was snug and tight for the night.
"Freckles-and-Bones has been well trained somewhere," said Clemantiny again.
It was hardly fair to put the bones in now, for Chester was growing plump and hearty. He had never been so happy in his life. Upton drudgery and that dreadful week in Montrose seemed like a bad dream. Here, in the golden meadows of Mount Hope Farm, he worked with a right good will. The men liked him, and he soon became a favourite with them. Even Clemantiny relented somewhat. To be sure, she continued very grim, and still threw her words at him as if they were so many missiles warranted to strike home. But Chester soon learned that Clemantiny's bark was worse than her bite. She was really very good to him and fed him lavishly. But she declared that this was only to put some flesh on him.
"It offends me to see bones sticking through anybody's skin like that. We aren't used to such objects at Mount Hope Farm, thank goodness. Yes, you may smile, Salome. I like him well enough, and I'll admit that he knows how to make himself useful, but I don't trust him any more than ever I did. He's mighty close about his past life. You can't get any more out of him than juice out of a post. I've tried, and I know."
But it was Miss Salome who had won Chester's whole heart. He had never loved anybody in his hard little life before. He loved her with an almost dog-like devotion. He forgot that he was working to earn money—and make his fortune. He worked to please Miss Salome. She was good and kind and gentle to him, and his starved heart thawed and expanded in the sunshine of her atmosphere. She went to the little porch room every night to kiss him good night. Chester would have been bitterly disappointed if she had failed to go.
She was greatly shocked to find out that he had never said his prayers before going to bed. She insisted on teaching him the simple little one she had used herself when a child. When Chester found that it would please her, he said it every night. There was nothing he would not have done for Miss Salome.
She talked a good deal to him about Johnny and she gave him the jack-knife that Johnny had owned.
"It belonged to a good, manly little boy once," she said, "and now I hope it belongs to another such."
"I ain't very good," said Chester repentantly, "but I'll try to be, Miss Salome—honest, I will."
One day he heard Miss Salome speaking of someone who had run away from home. "A wicked, ungrateful boy," she called him. Chester blushed until his freckles were drowned out in a sea of red, and Clemantiny saw it, of course. When did anything ever escape those merciless black eyes of Clemantiny's?
"Do you think it's always wrong for a fellow to run away, Miss Salome?" he faltered.
"It can't ever be right," said Miss Salome decidedly.
"But if he wasn't treated well—and was jawed at—and not let go to school?" pleaded Chester.
Clemantiny gave Miss Salome a look as of one who would say, You're bat-blind if you can't read between the lines of that; but Miss Salome was placidly unconscious. She was not really thinking of the subject at all, and did not guess that Chester meant anything more than generalities.
"Not even then," she said firmly. "Nothing can justify a boy for running away—especially as Jarvis Colemen did—never even left a word behind him to say where he'd gone. His aunt thought he'd fallen into the river."
"Don't suppose she would have grieved much if he had," said Clemantiny sarcastically, all the while watching Chester, until he felt as if she were boring into his very soul and reading all his past life.
When the harvest season drew to a close, dismay crept into the soul of our hero. Where would he go now? He hated to think of leaving Mount Hope Farm and Miss Salome. He would have been content to stay there and work as hard as he had ever worked at Upton, merely for the roof over his head and the food he ate. The making of a fortune seemed a small thing compared to the privilege of being near Miss Salome.
"But I suppose I must just up and go," he muttered dolefully.
One day Miss Salome had a conference with Clemantiny. At the end of it the latter said, "Do as you please," in the tone she might have used to a spoiled child. "But if you'd take my advice—which you won't and never do—you'd write to somebody in Upton and make inquiries about him first. What he says is all very well and he sticks to it marvellous, and there's no tripping him up. But there's something behind, Salome Whitney—mark my words, there's something behind."
"He looks so like Johnny," said Miss Salome wistfully.
"And I suppose you think that covers a multitude of sins," said Clemantiny contemptuously.
* * * * *
On the day when the last load of rustling golden sheaves was carried into the big barn and stowed away in the dusty loft, Miss Salome called Chester into the kitchen. Chester's heart sank as he obeyed the summons.
His time was up, and now he was to be paid his wages and sent away. To be sure, Martin had told him that morning that a man in East Hopedale wanted a boy for a spell, and that he, Martin, would see that he got the place if he wanted it. But that did not reconcile him to leaving Mount Hope Farm.
Miss Salome was sitting in her favourite sunny corner of the kitchen and Clemantiny was flying around with double briskness. The latter's thin lips were tightly set and disapproval was writ large in every flutter of her calico skirts.
"Chester," said Miss Salome kindly, "your time is up today."
Chester nodded. For a moment he felt as he had felt when he left the provision store in Montrose. But he would not let Clemantiny see him cry. Somehow, he would not have minded Miss Salome.
"What are you thinking of doing now?" Miss Salome went on.
"There's a man at East Hopedale wants a boy," said Chester, "and Martin says he thinks I'll suit."
"That is Jonas Smallman," said Miss Salome thoughtfully. "He has the name of being a hard master. It isn't right of me to say so, perhaps. I really don't know much about him. But wouldn't you rather stay here with me for the winter, Chester?"
"Ma'am? Miss Salome?" stammered Chester. He heard Clemantiny give a snort behind him and mutter, "Clean infatuated—clean infatuated," without in the least knowing what she meant.
"We really need a chore boy all the year round," said Miss Salome. "Martin has all he can do with the heavy work. And there are the apples to be picked. If you care to stay, you shall have your board and clothes for doing the odd jobs, and you can go to school all winter. In the spring we will see what need be done then."
If he would care to stay! Chester could have laughed aloud. His eyes were shining with joy as he replied, "Oh, Miss Salome, I'll be so glad to stay! I—I—didn't want to go away. I'll try to do everything you want me to do. I'll work ever so hard."
This, of course, was from Clemantiny, as she set a pan of apples on the stove with an emphatic thud. "Nobody ever doubted your willingness to work. Pity everything else about you isn't as satisfactory."
"Clemantiny!" said Miss Salome rebukingly. She put her arms about Chester and drew him to her. "Then it is all settled, Chester. You are my boy now, and of course I shall expect you to be a good boy."
If ever a boy was determined to be good, that boy was Chester. That day was the beginning of a new life for him. He began to go to the Hopedale school the next week. Miss Salome gave him all Johnny's old school books and took an eager interest in his studies.
Chester ought to have been very happy, and at first he was; but as the bright, mellow days of autumn passed by, a shadow came over his happiness. He could not help thinking that he had really deceived Miss Salome, and was deceiving her still—Miss Salome, who had such confidence in him. He was not what he pretended to be. And as for his running away, he felt sure that Miss Salome would view that with horror. As the time passed by and he learned more and more what a high standard of honour and truth she had, he felt more and more ashamed of himself. When she looked at him with her clear, trustful, blue eyes, Chester felt as guilty as if he had systematically deceived her with intent to do harm. He began to wish that he had the courage to tell her the whole truth about himself.
Moreover, he began to think that perhaps he had not done right, after all, in running away from Aunt Harriet. In Miss Salome's code nothing could be right that was underhanded, and Chester was very swiftly coming to look at things through Miss Salome's eyes. He felt sure that Johnny would never have acted as he had, and if Chester now had one dear ambition on earth, it was to be as good and manly a fellow as Johnny must have been. But he could never be that as long as he kept the truth about himself from Miss Salome.
"That boy has got something on his mind," said the terrible Clemantiny, who, Chester felt convinced, could see through a stone wall.
"Nonsense! What could he have on his mind?" said Miss Salome. But she said it a little anxiously. She, too, had noticed Chester's absent ways and abstracted face.
"Goodness me, I don't know! I don't suppose he has robbed a bank or murdered anybody. But he is worrying over something, as plain as plain."
"He is getting on very well at school," said Miss Salome. "His teacher says so, and he is very eager to learn. I don't know what can be troubling him."
She was fated not to know for a fortnight longer. During that time Chester fought out his struggle with himself, and conquered. He must tell Miss Salome, he decided, with a long sigh. He knew that it would mean going back to Upton and Aunt Harriet and the old, hard life, but he would not sail under false colours any longer.
* * * * *
Chester went into the kitchen one afternoon when he came home from school, with his lips set and his jaws even squarer than usual. Miss Salome was making some of her famous taffy, and Clemantiny was spinning yarn on the big wheel.
"Miss Salome," said Chester desperately, "if you're not too busy, there is something I'd like to tell you."
"What is it?" asked Miss Salome good-humouredly, turning to him with her spoon poised in midair over her granite saucepan.
"It's about myself. I—I—oh, Miss Salome, I didn't tell you the truth about myself. I've got to tell it now. My name isn't Benson—exactly—and I ran away from home."
"Dear me!" said Miss Salome mildly. She dropped her spoon, handle and all, into the taffy and never noticed it. "Dear me, Chester!"
"I knew it," said Clemantiny triumphantly. "I knew it—and I always said it. Run away, did you?"
"Yes'm. My name is Chester Benson Stephens, and I lived at Upton with Aunt Harriet Elwell. But she ain't any relation to me, really. She's only father's stepsister. She—she—wasn't kind to me and she wouldn't let me go to school—so I ran away."
"But, dear me, Chester, didn't you know that was very wrong?" said Miss Salome in bewilderment.
"No'm—I didn't know it then. I've been thinking lately that maybe it was. I'm—I'm real sorry."
"What did you say your real name was?" demanded Clemantiny.
"And your mother's name before she was married?"
"Mary Morrow," said Chester, wondering what upon earth Clemantiny meant.
Clemantiny turned to Miss Salome with an air of surrendering a dearly cherished opinion.
"Well, ma'am, I guess you must be right about his looking like Johnny. I must say I never could see the resemblance, but it may well be there, for he—that very fellow there—and Johnny are first cousins. Their mothers were sisters!"
"Clemantiny!" exclaimed Miss Salome.
"You may well say 'Clemantiny.' Such a coincidence! It doesn't make you and him any relation, of course—the cousinship is on the mother's side. But it's there. Mary Morrow was born and brought up in Hopedale. She went to Upton when I did, and married Oliver Stephens there. Why, I knew his father as well as I know you."
"This is wonderful," said Miss Salome. Then she added sorrowfully, "But it doesn't make your running away right, Chester."
"Tell us all about it," demanded Clemantiny, sitting down on the wood-box. "Sit down, boy, sit down—don't stand there looking as if you were on trial for your life. Tell us all about it."
Thus adjured, Chester sat down and told them all about it—his moonlight flitting and his adventures in Montrose. Miss Salome exclaimed with horror over the fact of his sleeping in a pile of lumber for seven nights, but Clemantiny listened in silence, never taking her eyes from the boy's pale face. When Chester finished, she nodded.
"We've got it all now. There's nothing more behind, Salome. It would have been better for you to have told as straight a story at first, young man."
Chester knew that, but, having no reply to make, made none. Miss Salome looked at him wistfully.
"But, with it all, you didn't do right to run away, Chester," she said firmly. "I dare say your aunt was severe with you—but two wrongs never make a right, you know."
"No'm," said Chester.
"You must go back to your aunt," continued Miss Salome sadly.
Chester nodded. He knew this, but he could not trust himself to speak. Then did Clemantiny arise in her righteous indignation.
"Well, I never heard of such nonsense, Salome Whitney! What on earth do you want to send him back for? I knew Harriet Elwell years ago, and if she's still what she was then, it ain't much wonder Chester ran away from her. I'd say 'run,' too. Go back, indeed! You keep him right here, as you should, and let Harriet Elwell look somewhere else for somebody to scold!"
"Clemantiny!" expostulated Miss Salome.
"Oh, I must and will speak my mind, Salome. There's no one else to take Chester's part, it seems. You have as much claim on him as Harriet Elwell has. She ain't any real relation to him any more than you are."
Miss Salome looked troubled. Perhaps there was something in Clemantiny's argument. And she hated to think of seeing Chester go. He looked more like Johnny than ever, as he stood there with his flushed face and wistful eyes.
"Chester," she said gravely, "I leave it to you to decide. If you think you ought to go back to your aunt, well and good. If not, you shall stay here."
This was the hardest yet. Chester wished she had not left the decision to him. It was like cutting off his own hand. But he spoke up manfully.
"I—I think I ought to go back, Miss Salome, and I want to pay back the money, too."
"I think so, too, Chester, although I'm sorry as sorry can be. I'll go back to Upton with you. We'll start tomorrow. If, when we get there, your aunt is willing to let you stay with me, you can come back."
"There's a big chance of that!" said Clemantiny sourly. "A woman's likely to give up a boy like Chester—a good, steady worker and as respectful and obliging as there is between this and sunset—very likely, isn't she! Well, this taffy is all burnt to the saucepan and clean ruined—but what's the odds! All I hope, Salome Whitney, is that the next time you adopt a boy and let him twine himself 'round a person's heart, you'll make sure first that you are going to stick to it. I don't like having my affections torn up by the roots."
Clemantiny seized the saucepan and disappeared with it into the pantry amid a whirl of pungent smoke.
Mount Hope Farm was a strangely dismal place that night. Miss Salome sighed heavily and often as she made her preparations for the morrow's journey.
Clemantiny stalked about with her grim face grimmer than ever. As for Chester, when he went to bed that night in the little porch chamber, he cried heartily into his pillows. He didn't care for pride any longer; he just cried and didn't even pretend he wasn't crying when Miss Salome came in to sit by him a little while and talk to him. That talk comforted Chester. He realized that, come what might, he would always have a good friend in Miss Salome—aye, and in Clemantiny, too.
Chester never knew it, but after he had fallen asleep, with the tears still glistening on his brown cheeks, Clemantiny tiptoed silently in with a candle in her hand and bent over him with an expression of almost maternal tenderness on her face. It was late and an aroma of boiling sugar hung about her. She had sat up long after Miss Salome was abed, to boil another saucepan of taffy for Chester to eat on his journey.
"Poor, dear child!" she said, softly touching one of his crisp curls. "It's a shame in Salome to insist on his going back. She doesn't know what she's sending him to, or she wouldn't. He didn't say much against his aunt, and Salome thinks she was only just a little bit cranky. But I could guess."
Early in the morning Miss Salome and Chester started. They were to drive to Montrose, leave their team there and take the boat for Belltown. Chester bade farewell to the porch chamber and the long, white kitchen and the friendly barns with a full heart. When he climbed into the wagon, Clemantiny put a big bagful of taffy into his hands.
"Good-by, Chester," she said. "And remember, you've always got a friend in me, anyhow."
Then Clemantiny went back into the kitchen and cried—good, rough-spoken, tender-hearted Clemantiny sat down and cried.
It was an ideal day for travelling—crisp, clear and sunny—but neither Chester nor Miss Salome was in a mood for enjoyment.
Back over Chester's runaway route they went, and reached Belltown on the boat that evening.
They stayed in Belltown overnight and in the morning took the train to Roxbury Station. Here Miss Salome hired a team from the storekeeper and drove out to Upton.
Chester felt his heart sink as they drove into the Elwell yard. How well he knew it!
Miss Salome tied her hired nag to the gatepost and took Chester by the hand. They went to the door and knocked. It was opened with a jerk and Mrs. Elwell stood before them. She had probably seen them from the window, for she uttered no word of surprise at seeing Chester again. Indeed, she said nothing at all, but only stood rigidly before them.
Dear me, what a disagreeable-looking woman! thought Miss Salome. But she said courteously, "Are you Mrs. Elwell?"
"I am," said that lady forbiddingly.
"I've brought your nephew home," continued Miss Salome, laying her hand encouragingly on Chester's shrinking shoulder. "I have had him hired for some time on my farm at Hopedale, but I didn't know until yesterday that he had run away from you. When he told me about it, I thought he ought to come straight back and return your four dollars, and so did he. So I have brought him."
"You might have saved yourself the trouble then!" cried Mrs. Elwell shrilly. Her black eyes flashed with anger. "I'm done with him and don't want the money. Run away when there was work to do, and thinks he can come back now that it's all done and loaf all winter, does he? He shall never enter my house again."
"That he shall not!" cried Miss Salome, at last finding her tongue. Her gentle nature was grievously stirred by the heartlessness shown in the face and voice of Mrs. Elwell. "That he shall not!" she cried again. "But he shall not want for a home as long as I have one to give him. Come, Chester, we'll go home."
"I wish you well of him," Mrs. Elwell said sarcastically.
Miss Salome already repented her angry retort. She was afraid she had been undignified, but she wished for a moment that Clemantiny was there. Wicked as she feared it was, Miss Salome thought she could have enjoyed a tilt between her ancient handmaid and Mrs. Elwell.
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Elwell, if I have used any intemperate expressions," she said with great dignity. "You provoked me more than was becoming by your remarks. I wish you good morning."
Mrs. Elwell slammed the door shut.
With her cheeks even more than usually rosy, Miss Salome led Chester down to the gate, untied her horse and drove out of the yard. Not until they reached the main road did she trust herself to speak to the dazed lad beside her.
"What a disagreeable women!" she ejaculated at last. "I don't wonder you ran away, Chester—I don't, indeed! Though, mind you, I don't think it was right, for all that. But I'm gladder than words can say that she wouldn't take you back. You are mine now, and you will stay mine. I want you to call me Aunt Salome after this. Get up, horse! If we can catch that train at Roxbury, we'll be home by night yet."
Chester was too happy to speak. He had never felt so glad and grateful in his life before.
They got home that night just as the sun was setting redly behind the great maples on the western hill. As they drove into the yard, Clemantiny's face appeared, gazing at them over the high board fence of the cow-yard. Chester waved his hand at her gleefully.
"Lawful heart!" said Clemantiny. She set down her pail and came out to the lane on a run. She caught Chester as he sprang from the wagon and gave him a hearty hug.
"I'm glad clean down to my boot soles to see you back again," she said.
"He's back for good," said Miss Salome. "Chester, you'd better go in and study up your lessons for tomorrow."
The Strike at Putney
The church at Putney was one that gladdened the hearts of all the ministers in the presbytery whenever they thought about it. It was such a satisfactory church. While other churches here and there were continually giving trouble in one way or another, the Putneyites were never guilty of brewing up internal or presbyterial strife.
The Exeter church people were always quarrelling among themselves and carrying their quarrels to the courts of the church. The very name of Exeter gave the members of presbytery the cold creeps. But the Putney church people never quarrelled.
Danbridge church was in a chronic state of ministerlessness. No minister ever stayed in Danbridge longer than he could help. The people were too critical, and they were also noted heresy hunters. Good ministers fought shy of Danbridge, and poor ones met with a chill welcome. The harassed presbytery, worn out with "supplying," were disposed to think that the millennium would come if ever the Danbridgians got a minister whom they liked. At Putney they had had the same minister for fifteen years and hoped and expected to have him for fifteen more. They looked with horror-stricken eyes on the Danbridge theological coquetries.
Bloom Valley church was over head and heels in debt and had no visible prospect of ever getting out. The moderator said under his breath that they did over-much praying and too little hoeing. He did not believe in faith without works. Tarrytown Road kept its head above water but never had a cent to spare for missions or the schemes of the church.
In bright and shining contradistinction to these the Putney church had always paid its way and gave liberally to all departments of church work. If other springs of supply ran dry the Putneyites enthusiastically got up a "tea" or a "social," and so raised the money. Naturally the "heft" of this work fell on the women, but they did not mind—in very truth, they enjoyed it. The Putney women had the reputation of being "great church workers," and they plumed themselves on it, putting on airs at conventions among the less energetic women of the other churches.
They were especially strong on societies. There was the Church Aid Society, the Girls' Flower Band, and the Sewing Circle. There was a Mission Band and a Helping Hand among the children. And finally there was the Women's Foreign Mission Auxiliary, out of which the whole trouble grew which convulsed the church at Putney for a brief time and furnished a standing joke in presbyterial circles for years afterwards. To this day ministers and elders tell the story of the Putney church strike with sparkling eyes and subdued chuckles. It never grows old or stale. But the Putney elders are an exception. They never laugh at it. They never refer to it. It is not in the wicked, unregenerate heart of man to make a jest of his own bitter defeat.