"'Most breaks my heart to tell you," he said, "but I ain't the boy you're expecting. I'm just taking a walk and I thought maybe you'd let me have a drink. I've wanted one past the last three houses, but none looked as if they'd have half such good, cool water as this."
"Now don't that beat the nation!" exclaimed the woman. "The Multiopolis papers are just oozing sympathy for the poor city children who are wild for woods and water; and when I'd got myself nerved up to try one and thought it over till I was really anxious about it, and got my children all worked up too, here for the second time Peter knocks off plowing and goes to the trolley to meet one, and he doesn't come. I've got a notion to write the editor of the Herald and tell him my experience. I think it's funny! But you wanted water, come this way."
Mickey followed a footpath white with pear petals around the big house and standing beside a pump waited while the woman stepped to the back porch for a cup. He took it, drinking slowly.
"Thank you ma'am," he said as he handed it back, turning to the path.
Yesterday had weakened his nerve. He was going to cry again. He took a quick step forward, but the woman was beside him, her hand on his shoulder.
"Wait a minute," she said. "Sit on this bench under the pear tree. I want to ask you something. Excuse me and rest until I come back."
Mickey leaned against the tree, shutting his eyes, fighting with all his might. He was too big to cry. The woman would think him a coward as Mr. Bruce had. Then things happened as they actually do at times. The woman hurriedly came from the door, sat on the bench beside him, and said: "I went in there to watch you through the window, but I can't stand this a second longer. You poor child you, now tell me right straight what's the matter!"
Mickey tried but no sound came. The woman patted his shoulder. "Now doesn't it beat the band?" she said, to the backyard in general. "Just a little fellow not in long trousers yet, and bearing such a burden he can't talk. I guess maybe God has a hand in this. I'm not so sure my boy hasn't come after all. Who are you, and where are you going? Don't you want to send your ma word you will stay here a week with me?"
Mickey lifted a bewildered face.
"Why, I couldn't, lady," he said brokenly, but gaining control as he went on. "I must work. Mr. Bruce needs me. I'm a regular plute compared with most of the 'newsies'; you wouldn't want to do anything for me who has so much; but if you're honestly thinking about taking a boy and he hasn't come, how would you like to have a little girl in his place? A little girl about so long, and so wide, with a face like Easter church flowers, and rings of gold on her head, and who wouldn't be half the trouble a boy would, because she hasn't ever walked, so she couldn't get into things."
"Oh my goodness! A crippled little girl?"
"She isn't crippled," said Mickey. "She's as straight as you are, what there is of her. She had so little food, and care, her back didn't seem to stiffen, so her legs won't walk. She wouldn't be half so much trouble as a boy. Honest, dearest lady, she wouldn't!"
"Who are you?" asked the woman.
Mickey produced a satisfactory pedigree, and gave unquestionable references which she recognized, for she slowly nodded at the names of Chaffner and Bruce.
"And who is the little girl you are asking me to take?"
Mickey studied the woman and then began to talk, cautiously at first. Ashamed to admit the squalor and the awful truth of how he had found the thing he loved, then gathering courage he began what ended in an outpouring. The woman watched him, listening, and when Mickey had no further word: "She is only a tiny girl?" she asked wonderingly.
"The littlest girl you ever saw," said Mickey.
"Perfectly helpless?" marvelled the woman.
"Oh no! She can sit up and use her hands," said Mickey. "She can feed herself, write on her slate, and learn her lessons. It's only that she stays put. She has to be lifted if she's moved."
"You lift her?" queried the woman.
"Could with one hand," said Mickey tersely.
"You say this young lawyer you work for, whose name I see in the Herald connected with the investigation going on, is at the club house now?" she asked.
"Yes," answered Mickey.
"He's coming past here this evening?" she pursued.
"About how much waiting on would your little girl take?" she asked next.
"Well just at present, she does the waiting on me," said Mickey. "You see, dearest lady, I have to get her washed and fix her breakfast and her lunch beside the bed, and be downtown by seven o'clock, and I don't get back 'til six. Then I wash her again to freshen her up and cook her supper. Then she says her lesson, her prayers and goes to sleep. So you see it's mostly her waiting on me. A boy couldn't be less trouble than that, could he?"
"It doesn't seem like it," said the woman, "and no matter how much bother she was, I guess I could stand it for a week, if she's such a little girl, and can't walk. The difficulty is this: I promised my son Junior a boy and his heart is so set. He's wild about the city. He's going to be gone before we know it. He doesn't seem to care for anything we have, or do. I don't know just what he hoped to get out of a city boy; but I promised him one. Then I felt scared and wrote Mr. Chaffner how it was and asked him to send me a real nice boy who could be trusted. If it were not for Junior— Mary and the Little Man would be delighted."
"Well never mind," said Mickey. "I'll go see the Nurse Lady and maybe she can think of a plan. Anyway I don't know as it would be best for Lily. If she came here a week, seems like it would kill me to take her back, and I don't know how she'd bear staying alone all day, after she had got used to company. And pretty soon now it's going to get so hot, top floors in the city, that if she had a week like this, going back would make her sick."
"You must give me time to think," said the woman. "Peter will soon be home to supper. I'll talk it over with him and with Junior and see what they think. Where could you be found in Multiopolis? We drive in every few days. We like to go ourselves, and there's no other way to satisfy the children. They get so tired and lonesome in the country."
Mickey was aghast. "They do? Why it doesn't seem possible! I wish I could trade jobs with Junior for a while. What is his work?"
"He drives the creamery wagon," answered the woman.
"O Lord!" Mickey burst forth. "Excuse me ma'am, I mean——Oh my! Drives a real live horse along these streets and gathers up the cream cans we pass at the gates, and takes them to the trolley?"
"Yes," she said.
"And he'd give up that job for blacking somebody's shoes, or carrying papers, or running errands, or being shut up all summer in a big hot building! Oh my!"
"When will you be our way again?" asked the woman. "I'll talk this over with Peter. If we decided to try the little girl and she did the 'waiting' as you say, she couldn't be much trouble. I should think we could manage her, and a boy too. I wish you could be the boy. I'd like to have you. I've been thinking if we could get a boy to show Junior what it is he wants to know about a city, he'd be better satisfied at home, but I don't know. It's just possible it might make him worse. Now such an understanding boy as you seem to be, maybe you could teach Junior things about the city that would make him contented at home. Do you think you could?"
"Dearest lady, I get you," said Mickey. "Do I think I could? Well if you really wished me to, I could take your Junior to Multiopolis with me for a week and make him so sick he'd never want to see a city again while his palpitator was running."
"Hu'umh!" said the lady slowly, her eyes on far distance. "Let me think! I don't know but that would be a fine thing for all of us. We have land enough for a nice farm for both boys, and the way things look now, land seems about as sure as anything; we could give them a farm apiece when we are done with it, and the girl the money to take to her home when she marries—I would love to know that Junior was going to live on land as his father does; but all his life he's talked about working in the city when he grows up. Hu'umh!"
"Well if you want him cured of that, gimme the job," he grinned. "You see lady, I know the city, inside out and outside in again. I been playing the game with it since I can remember. You can't tell me anything I don't know about the lowest, poorest side of it. Oh I could tell you things that would make your head swim. If you want your boy dosed just sick as a horse on what a workingman gets in Multiopolis 'tween Sunrise Alley and Biddle Boulevard, just you turn him over to me a week. I'll fix him. I'll make the creamery job look like 'Lijah charioteering for the angels to him, honest I will lady; and he won't ever know it, either. He'll come through with a lump in his neck, and a twist in his stummick that means home and mother. See?"
The woman looked at Mickey in wide-eyed and open-mouthed amazement: "Well if I ever!" she gasped.
"If you don't believe me, try it," said Mickey.
"Well! Well! I'll have to think," she said. "I don't know but it would be a good thing if it could be done."
"Well don't you have any misgivings about it being done," said Mickey. "It's being done every day. I know men, hundreds of them, just scraping, and slaving and half starving to get together the dough to pull out. I hear it on the cars, on the streets, and see it in the papers. They're jumping their jobs and going every day, while hundreds of Schmeltzenschimmers, O'Laughertys, Hansons, and Pietros are coming in to take their places. Multiopolis is more than half filled with crowd-outs from across the ocean now, instead of home folks' cradles, as it should be. If Junior has got a hankering for Multiopolis that is going to cut him out of owning a place like this, and bossing his own job, dearest lady, cook him! Cook him quick!"
"Would you come here?" she questioned.
"Would I?" cried Mickey. "Well try me and see!"
"I'm deeply interested in what you say about Junior," she said. "I'll talk it over to-night with Peter."
"Well I don't know," said Mickey. "He might put the grand kibosh on it. Hard! But if Junior came back asking polite for his mush and milk, and offering his Christmas pennies for the privilege of plowing, or driving the cream wagon, believe me dear lady, then Peter would fall on your neck and weep for joy."
"Yes, in that event, he would," said the lady, "and the temptation is so great, that I believe if you'll give me your address, I'll look you up the next time I come to Multiopolis, which will be soon. I'd like to see your Lily before I make any promises. If I thought I could manage, I could bring her right out in the car. Tell me where to find you, and I'll see what Peter thinks."
Mickey grinned widely. "You ain't no suffragette lady, are you?" he commented.
"Well I don't know about that," said the lady. "There are a good many things to think of these days."
"Yes I know," said Mickey, "but as long as everything you say swings the circle and rounds up with Peter, it's no job to guess what's most important in your think-tank. Peter must be some pumpkins!"
"Come to think of it, he is, Mickey," she said. "Come to think of it, I do sort of revolve around Peter. We always plan together. Not that we always think alike: there are some things I just can't make Peter see, that I wish I could; but I wouldn't trade Peter——"
"No I guess he's top crust," laughed Mickey.
"He is so!" said the woman. "How did you say I could reach you?"
"Well, the easiest way would be this. Here, I'll write the number for you."
"Fine!" said the woman. "I'll hurry through my shopping and call you—when would it suit you best?"
"Never mind me," said Mickey. "For this, I'll come when you say."
"What about three in the afternoon, then?"
"Sure!" cried Mickey. "Suits me splendid! Mostly quit for the day then. But ma'am, I don't know about this. Lily isn't used to anybody but me, she may be afraid to come with you."
"And I may think I would scarcely want to try to take care of her for a week, when I see her," said the woman.
"You may think that now, but you'll change your mind when you see her," said Mickey. "Dearest lady, when you see a little white girl that hasn't ever walked, smiling up at you shy and timid, you won't be any more anxious for Orphings' Homes and Charity Palaces to swallow her up than I am; not a bit! All I must think of is what Lily will say about coming. She's never been out of my room since I found her, and she hasn't seen any one but Mr. Bruce, so she'll be afraid, and worried. Seeing her is all I ask of you! What I'm up against is what she's going to say; and how I'm going to take her back after a week here, when it will be hotter there and lonesomer than ever."
"You surely give one things to think about," commented the woman.
"Do I?" queried Mickey. "Well I don't know as I should. Probably with Peter, and three children of your own, and this farm to run, you are busy enough without spending any of your time on me."
"The command in the good book is plain: 'Bear ye one another's burdens,'" quoted the woman.
"Oh yes! 'Burdens,' of course!" agreed Mickey. "But that couldn't mean Lily, 'cause she's nothing but joy! Just pure joy! All about her is that a fellow loves her so, that it keeps him laying awake at nights thinking how to do what would be best for her. She's mine, and I'm going to keep her; that's the surest thing you know. If I take you to see Lily, and if I decide to let you have her a few days to rest her and fresh her up, you wouldn't go and want to put her 'mong the Orphings' Home kids, would you? You wouldn't think she ought to be took from me and raised in a flock of every kind, from every place. Would you lady?"
"No, I wouldn't," said the lady. "I see how you feel, and I am sure I wouldn't want that for one of mine."
"Well, there's no question about her being mine!" said Mickey. "But I like you so, maybe I'll let you help me a little. A big boy that can run and play doesn't need you, dearest lady, half so much as my little girl. Do you think he does?"
"No, I think the Lord sent you straight here. If you don't stop I'll be so worked up I can't rest. I may come to-morrow."
Mickey arose, holding out his hand.
"Thank you dearest lady," he said. "I must be getting out where the car won't pass without my seeing it."
"You wait at the gate a minute," she said, "I want to send in a little basket of things to-night. I'll have it ready in a jiffy."
Mickey slowly walked to the gate. When the woman came with a basket covered with a white cloth, he thanked her again; as he took it he rested his head against her arm, smiling up at her with his wide true eyes.
"A thing I can't understand is," he said, "why when the Lord was making mothers, he didn't cut all of them from the same piece he did you. I'll just walk on down the road and smell June beside this clover field. Is it yours?"
"Yes," she said.
"Would you care if I'd take just a few to Lily? I know she never saw any."
"Take a bunch as big as your head if you want them."
"Lily is so little, three will do her just as well; besides, she's got to remember how we are fixed, so she needn't begin to expect things to come her way by baskets and bunches," said Mickey. "She's bound to be spoiled bad enough as it is. I can't see how I'm going to come out with her, but she's mine, and I'm going to keep her."
"Mickey," laughed the woman, "don't you think you swing around to Lily just about the way I do to Peter?"
"Well maybe I do," conceded Mickey.
"What kind of a car did you say Mr. Bruce has?"
"Oh the car is dark green, and the driver has sandy hair; and Mr. Bruce— why you'd know him anywhere! Just look for the finest man you ever saw, if you are out when he goes by, and that will be Mr. Douglas Bruce."
"I guess I'll know him if I happen to be out."
"Sure lady, you couldn't miss him," replied Mickey.
Carefully holding his basket he went down the road. The woman made supper an hour late standing beside the gate watching for a green car. Many whirled past, then at last one with the right look came gliding along; so she stepped out and raised her hand for a parley. The car stopped.
"Mr. Douglas Bruce?" she asked.
"At your service, Madam!" he answered.
"Just a word with you," she said.
He arose instantly, swung open the car door, and stepping down walked with her to the shade of a big widely branching maple. The woman looked at him, and said flushing and half confused: "Please to excuse me for halting you, but I had a reason. This afternoon such an attractive little fellow stopped here to ask for a drink in passing. Now Peter and I had decided we'd try our hand at taking a city boy for a week or so for his vacation, and twice Peter has left his work and gone to the trolley station to fetch him, and he failed us. I supposed Peter had missed him, so when I saw the boy coming, just the first glimpse my heart went right out to him——"
"Very likely——" assented Mr. Bruce.
"He surely is the most winning little chap I ever saw with his keen blue eyes and that sort of light on his forehead," said the woman.
"I've noticed that," put in the man.
"Yes," she said, "anybody would see that almost the first thing. So I thought he was the boy I was to mother coming, and I went right at the job. He told me quick enough that I was mistaken, but I could see he was in trouble. Someway I'd trust him with my character or my money, but I got to be perfectly sure before I trust him with my children. You see I have three, and if ever any of them go wrong, I don't want it to be because I was careless. I thought I'd like to have him around some; my oldest boy is bigger, but just about his age. He said he might be out this way with you this summer and I wanted to ask him in, and do what I could to entertain him; but first I wanted to inquire of you——"
"I see!" said Douglas Bruce. "I haven't known Mickey so long, but owing to the circumstances in which I met him, and the association with him since, I feel that I know him better than I could most boys in a longer time. The strongest thing I can say to you is this: had I a boy of my own, I should be proud if Mickey liked him and would consider being friends with him. He is absolutely trustworthy, that I know."
"Then I won't detain your further," she said.
Mickey, cheered in mind and heart, had walked ahead briskly with his basket, while as he went he formulated his plans. He would go straight to the Sunshine Nurse, tell her about the heat and this possible chance to take Lily to the country for a week, and consult with her as to what the effect of the trip might be, and what he could do with her afterward, then he would understand better. He kept watching the clover field beside the way. When he decided he had reached the finest, best perfumed place, he saw a man plowing on the other side of the fence and thought it might be Peter and that Peter would wonder what he was doing in his field, so Mickey set the basket in a corner and advanced.
He was wonderfully elated by what had happened to him and the conclusions at which he had arrived, as he came across the deep grasses beside the fence where the pink of wild rose and the snow of alder commingled, where song sparrows trilled, and larks and quail were calling. He approached smiling in utter confidence. As he looked at the man, at his height, his strong open face, his grip on the plow, he realized why the world of the little woman revolved around Peter. Mickey could have conceived of few happier fates than being attached to Peter, so he thought in amazement of the boy who wanted to leave him. Then a slow grin spread over his face, for by this time Peter had stopped his horses and was awaiting him with an answering smile and hand outstretched.
"Why son, I'm glad to see you!" he cried. "How did I come to miss you? Did you get off at the wrong stop?"
Mickey shook his head as he took the proffered hand.
"You are Peter?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm Peter," confirmed the man.
"Well you're making the same mistake your pleasant lady did," explained Mickey. "She thought I was the boy who had been sent to visit you, so she gave me the glad hand too. I wish I was in his shoes! But I'm not your boy. Gee, your lady is a nice gentle lady."
"You're all correct there," agreed Peter. "And so you are not the boy who was to be sent us. Pshaw now! I wish you were. I'm disappointed. I've been watching you coming down the road, and the way you held together and stepped up so brisk and neat took my eye."
"I been 'stepping up brisk and neat' to sell papers, run errands, hop cars, dodge cars and automobiles, and climbing fire-escapes instead of stairs, and keeping from under foot since I can remember," laughed Mickey. "You learn on the streets of Multiopolis to step up, and watch sharp without knowing you are doing it."
"You're a newsboy?" asked Peter.
"I was all my life 'til a few days ago," said Mickey. "Then I went into the office of Mr. Douglas Bruce. He's a corporation lawyer in the Iriquois Building."
"Hum, I've been reading about him," said Peter. "If I ever have a case, I'm going to take it to him."
"Well you'll have a man that will hang on and dig in and sweat for you," said Mickey. "Just now he's after some of them big office-holders who are bleeding the taxpayers of Multiopolis. Some of these days if you watch your Herald sharp, you're going to see the lid fly off of two or three things at once. He's on a hot trail now."
"Why I have seen that in the papers," said Peter. "He was given the job of finding who is robbing the city, by James Minturn; I remember his name. And you work for him? Well, well! Sit down here and tell me about it."
"I can't now," said Mickey. "I must get back to the road. His car may pass any minute, and I'm to be ready. Your pleasant lady said I might take a few clover flowers to my little sick girl, and just as I came to the finest ones in the field, I saw you so I thought maybe I'd better tell you what I was doing before you fired me."
"Take all you want," said Peter. "I'd like to send the whole field, larks and all, to a little sick girl. I'd like especial to send her some of these clowny bobolink fellows to puff up and spill music by the quart for her; I guess nothing else runs so smooth except water."
"I don't know what she'd say," said Mickey gazing around him. "You see she hasn't ever walked, so all she's seen in her life has been the worst kind of bare, dark tenement walls, 'til lately she's got a high window where she can see sky, and a few sparrows that come for crumbs. This!"—Mickey swept his arm toward the landscape—"I don't know what she'd say to this!"
"Pshaw, now!" cried Peter. "Why bring her out! You bring her right out! That's what we been wanting to know. Just what a city child would think of country things she'd never seen before. Bring her to see us!"
"She's a little bit of a thing and she can't walk, you know," explained Mickey.
"Poor little mite! That's too bad," lamented Peter. "Wonder if she couldn't be doctored up. It's a shame she can't walk, but taking care of her must be easy!"
"Oh she takes care of herself," said Mickey. "You see she is alone all day from six 'til six; she must take care of herself, so she studies her lesson, and plays with her doll—I mean her Precious Child."
"Too bad!" said Peter. "By jacks that's a sin! Did you happen to speak to Ma about her?"
"We did talk a little," admitted Mickey. "She was telling me of the visitor boy who didn't come, and your son who doesn't think he'll want to stay; so we got to talking. She said just what you did about wanting to see how a city child who hadn't ever seen a chicken, or a cow, or horse would act——"
"Good Lord!" cried Peter. "Is there a child in Multiopolis who hasn't ever seen a little chicken, or a calf?"
"Hundreds of them!" said Mickey. "I've scarcely seen a cow myself. I've seen hens and little chickens in shop windows at Easter time——"
"But not in the orchard in June?" queried Peter.
"No, 'not in the orchard in June!'" said Mickey.
"Well, well!" marvelled Peter. "There's nothing so true as that 'one half doesn't know how the other half lives.' I've heard that, but I didn't quite sense it, and I don't know as I do yet. You bring her right out!"
"Your pleasant lady talked about that; but you see bringing her out and showing her these things, and getting her used to them is one thing; then taking her back to a room so hot I always sleep on the fire-escape, and where she has to stay all day alone, is another. I don't know but so long as she must go back to what she has now, it would be better to leave her there."
"Humph! I see! What a pity!" exclaimed Peter. "Well, if you'll be coming this way again, stop and see us. I'll talk to Ma about her. We often take a little run to Multiopolis. Junior wouldn't be satisfied till we got a car, and I can't say we ain't enjoying it ourselves. What was that you were saying about my boy not thinking he'll stay?"
"She told me," said Mickey, "about the city bug he had in his system. Why don't you swat it immediate?"
"What do you mean?" inquired Peter.
"Turn him over to me a week or two," suggested Mickey. "I can give him a dose of working in a city that will send him hiking back to home and father."
"It's worth considering," said Peter.
"I know that what I got of Multiopolis would make me feel like von Hindenberg if I had the job of handling the ribbons of your creamery wagon; and so I know about what would put sonny back on the farm, tickled 'most to death to be here."
"By gum! Well, I'll give you just one hundred dollars if you'll do it!" exclaimed Peter. "You see my grandfather and father owned this land before me. We've been on the plowing job so long we have it reduced to a system, so it comes easy for me, and I take pride and pleasure in it; I had supposed my boys would be the same. Do you really think you could manage it?"
"Sure," said Mickey. "Only, if you really mean it, not now, nor ever, do you want son to know it. See! The medicine wouldn't work, if he knew he took it."
"Well I'll be jiggered!" laughed Peter. "I guess you could do it, if you went at it right."
"Well you trust me to do it right," grinned Mickey. "Loan me sonny for a week or two, and you can have him back for keeps."
"Well it's worth trying," said Peter. "Say, when will you be this way again?"
"'Most any day," said Mickey. "And your lady said she'd be in Multiopolis soon, so we are sure to have a happy meeting before long. I think that is Mr. Bruce's car coming. Goodbye! Be good to yourself!"
With a spring from where he was standing Mickey arose in air, alighted on the top rail of the division fence, then balancing, he raced down it toward the road. Peter watched him in astonishment, then went back to his plowing with many new things on his mind. Thus it happened that after supper, when the children were in bed, and he and his wife went to the front veranda for their usual evening visit, and talk over the day, she had very little to tell him.
As was her custom, she removed her apron, brushed her waving hair and wore a fresh dress. She rocked gently in her wicker chair, while her voice was moved to unusual solicitude as she spoke. Peter also had performed a rite he spoke of as "brushing up" for evening. He believed in the efficacy of soap and water, so his body, as well as his clothing, was clean. He sat on the top step leaning against the pillar where the moonlight emphasized his big frame, accented the strong lines of his face and crowned his thick hair, as Nancy Harding thought it should be, with glory.
"Peter," she said, "did you notice anything about that boy, this afternoon, different from other boys?"
"Yes," answered Peter slowly, "I did Nancy. He didn't strike me as being one boy. He has the best of three or four concealed in his lean person."
"He's had a pretty tough time, I judge," said Nancy.
"Yet you never saw a boy who took your heart like he did, and neither did I," answered Peter.
Mickey holding his basket and clover flowers was waiting when the car drew up, and to Bruce's inquiry answered that a lady where he stopped for a drink had given him something for Lily. He left the car in the city, sought the nurse and luckily found her at leisure. She listened with the greatest interest to all he had to say.
"It's a problem," she said, as he finished. "To take her to such a place for a week, and then bring her back where she is, would be harder for her than never going."
"I got that figured," said Mickey; "but I've about made up my mind, after seeing the place and thinking over the folks, that it wouldn't happen that way. Once they see her, and find how little trouble she is, they're not people who would send her back 'til it's cool, if they'd want to then. And there's this, too: there are other folks who would take her now, and see about her back. Have I got the right to let it go a day, waiting to earn the money myself, when some one else, maybe the Moonshine Lady, or Mr. Bruce, would do it now, and not put her in an Orphings' Home, either?"
"No Mickey, you haven't!" said the nurse.
"Just the way I have it figured," said Mickey. "But she's mine, and I'm going to keep her. If her back is fixed, I'm going to have it done. I don't want any one else meddling with my family. You haven't heard anything from the Carrel man yet?"
"No," she said.
"My, I wish he'd come!" cried Mickey.
"So do I," said the nurse. "But so far Mickey, I think you are doing all right. If she must be operated, she'd have to be put in condition for it; and while I suspect I could beat you at your job, I am positive you are far surpassing what she did have."
"Well I know that too," said Mickey. "But surpassing nothing at all isn't going either far or fast. I must do something."
"If you could bring yourself to consent to giving her up——" suggested the nurse.
"Well I can't!" interposed Mickey.
"Just for a while!" continued the nurse.
"Not for a minute! I found her! She's mine!"
"Yes, I know; but——" began the nurse.
"I know too," said Mickey. "Gimme a little time." He studied the problem till he reached his grocery. There he thriftily lifted the cloth to peep, and with a sigh of satisfaction pursued his way. Presently he opened his door, to be struck by a wave of hot air and to note a flushed little face and drawn mouth as he went into Peaches' outstretched arms. Then he delivered the carefully carried clover and the following:
"I got these from a big, pink field bewildering, That God made a-purpose for cows and childering. Her share is being consumed by the cow, Let's go roll in ours right now."
"Again!" demanded Peaches.
Mickey repeated slowly.
"How could we?" asked Peaches.
"Easy!" said Mickey.
"'Easy?'" repeated Peaches.
"Just as easy!" reiterated Mickey.
"Did you see it?" demanded Peaches.
"Yes, I saw it to-day," said Mickey. "It's like this: you see some folks live in houses all built together, and work at selling things to eat, and wear, and making things, and doing other work that must be done like doctors, and lawyers, and hospitals; that's a city. Then to feed them, other folks live on big pieces of land; the houses are far apart, with streets between, and beside them the big fields where the wheat grows for our bread, and our potatoes, and the grass, and the clover like this to feed the cows. To-day Mr. Bruce didn't play long, so I went walking and stopped at a house for a drink, and there was the nicest lady; we talked some and she give me our supper in that pretty basket; and she sent you the clovers from a big pink field so sweet smelly it would 'most make you sick; and there are trees through it, and lots of birds sing, and there are wild roses and fringy white flowers; and it's quiet 'cept the birds, and the roosters crowing, and the wind comes in little perfumery blows on you, and such milk!"
"Better 'an our milk?" asked Peaches.
"Their milk is so rich it makes ours look like a poorhouse relation," scoffed Mickey.
"Tell me more," demanded Peaches.
"Wait 'til I get the water to wash you, you are so warm."
"Yes, it's getting some hot; but 'tain't nothing like on the rags last summer. It's like a real lady here."
"A pretty warm lady, just the same," said Mickey.
Then he brought water and leaving the door ajar for the first time, he soon started a draft; that with the coming of cooler evening lowered the child's temperature, and made her hungry. As he worked Mickey talked. The grass, the blooming orchard, the hen and her little downy chickens, the big cool porch, the wonderful woman and man, the boy whom they expected and who did not come; and then cautiously, slowly, making sure she understood, he developed his plan to take her to the country. Peaches drew back and opened her lips. Mickey promptly laid the washcloth over them.
"Now don't begin to say you 'won't' like a silly baby," he said. "Try it and see, then if you don't like it, you can come right back. You want to ride in a grand automobile like a millyingaire lady, don't you? All the swells go away to the country for the summer, you got to be a swell lady! I ain't going to have you left way behind!"
"Mickey, would you be there?" she asked.
"Yes lady, I'd be right on the job!" said Mickey. "I'd be there a lot more than I am here. You go the week they wanted that boy, and he didn't come; then if you like it, I'll see if they won't board you, and you can have a nice little girl to play with, and a fat, real baby, and a boy bigger than me—and you should see Peter!"
Peaches opened her lips, Mickey reapplied the cloth.
"Calm down now!" he ordered. "I've decided to do it. We got to hump ourselves. This is our chance. Why there's milk, and butter, and eggs, and things to eat there like you never tasted, and to have a cool breeze, and to lie on the grass——"
"Oh Mickey, could I?" cried Peaches.
"Sure silly! Why not?" said Mickey. "There's big fields of it, and the cows don't need it all. You can lie on the grass, or the clover, and hear the birds, and play with the children. I'll take a day and get things started right before I leave you to come to work, like I'll have to. When I come at night, I'll carry your outdoors; why I'll take you down to the water and you can kick your feet in it, where it's nice and warm; all the time you can have as many flowers as your hands will hold; and such bird singing, why Lily Peaches O'Halloran, there are birds as red as blood, yes ma'am, and yellow as orange peel and light blue like this ribbon and dark blue like that—hold still 'til I fix you—and such singing!"
"Mickey, would you hold me?" wavered Peaches.
"Smash anybody that lays a finger on you, unless you say so," said Mickey promptly.
"And you'd stay a whole day?" she asked anxiously.
"Sure!" cried Mickey.
"An' if I was afraid you'd bring me back?" she went on.
"Sure! Right away!" he promised.
"An' they wouldn't anybody 'get' me there?"
"'Way out there 'mong the clover?" scoffed Mickey. "Why it's here they'll 'get' you if they are going to. Nobody out there wants you, but me."
"Mickey, when will you take me?" she asked eagerly.
"Before so very long," promised Mickey. "You needn't be surprised to hear me coming with the nice lady to see you any day now, and to be wrapped in a sheet, and put in a big car, and just scooted right out to the very place that God made especial for little girls. To-night we put in another blesses, Lily. We'll pray, 'Bless the nice lady who sent our supper,' won't we?"
"Yes Mickey, and 'fore you came I didn't want any supper at all, and now I do," said Peaches.
"You were too warm honey," said Mickey. "We'll just fix this old hot city. We'll run right away from it. See? Now we'll have the grandest supper we ever had."
Mickey brought water, plates, and forks, and opened the basket. Peaches bolstered with her pillows cried out and marvelled. There was a quart bottle of milk wrapped in a wet cloth. There was a big loaf of crusty brown country bread. There was a small blue bowl of yellow butter, a square of honey even yellower, a box of strawberries, and some powdered sugar, and a little heap of sliced, cold boiled ham. Mickey surveyed the table.
"Now Miss Chicken, here's how!" he warned. "I found you all warm and feverish. If you load up with this, you'll be sick sure. You get a cup of milk, a slice of bread and butter, some berries and a teeny piece of meat. We can live from this a week, if the heat doesn't spoil it."
"You fix me," said Peaches.
Then they had such a supper as they neither one ever had known, during which Mickey explained wheat fields and bread, bees and honey, cows and clover, pigs and ham, as he understood them. Peaches repeated her lesson and her prayers and then as had become her custom, demanded that Mickey write his last verse on the slate, so she might learn and copy it on the morrow. She was asleep before he finished. Mickey walked softly, cleared the table, placed it before the window, and taking from his pocket an envelope Mr. Bruce had given him drew out a sheet of folded paper on which he wrote long and laboriously, then locking Peaches in, he slipped down to the mail-box and posted this letter:
DEAR MISTER CARREL:
I saw in papers I sold how you put different legs on a dog. I have a little white flowersy-girl that hasn't ever walked. It's her back. A Nurse Lady told me at the "Star of Hope" how you came there sometimes, and the next time you come, I guess I will let you see my little girl; and maybe I'll have you fix her back. When you see her you will know that to fix her back would be the biggest thing you ever did or ever could do. I got a job that I can pay her way and mine, and save two dollars a week for you. I couldn't pay all at once, but I could pay steady; and if you'd lose all you have in any way, it would come in real handy to have that much skating in steady as the clock every week for as long as you say, and soon as I can, I'll make it more. I'd give all I got, or ever can get, to cure Lily's back, and because you fixed the dog, I'd like you to fix her. I do hope you will come soon, but of course I don't wish anybody else would get sick so you'd have to. You can ask if I am square of Mr. Douglas Bruce, Iriquois Building, Multiopolis, Indiana, or of Mr. Chaffner, editor of the Herald, whose papers I've sold since I was big enough.
With vigour renewed by a night of rest Leslie began her second day at Atwater Cabin. She had so many and such willing helpers that before noon she could find nothing more to do. After lunch she felt a desire to explore her new world. Choosing the shady side, she followed the road toward the club house, but one thought in her mind: she must return in time to take the car and meet Douglas Bruce as she had promised.
She felt elated that she had so planned her summer as to spend it with her father, while of course it was going to be delightful to have her lover with her. So going she came to a most attractive lane that led from the road between tilled fields, back to a wood on one side, and open pasture on the other. Faintly she heard the shouts of children, and yielding to sudden impulse she turned and followed the grassy path. A few more steps, then she stopped in surprise. An automobile was standing on the bank of a brook. On an Indian blanket under a tree sat a woman of fine appearance holding a book, but watching with smiling face the line of the water, which spread in a wide pool above a rudely constructed dam, overflowing it in a small waterfall.
On either bank lay one of the Minturn boys, muddy and damp, trying with his hands to catch something in the water. Below the dam, in a blue balbriggan bathing suit, stood James Minturn, his hands filled with a big piece of sod which he bent and applied to a leak. Leslie untied the ribbons of her sunshade and rumpling her hair to the light breeze came forward laughing.
"Well Mr. Minturn!" she cried. "What is going to become of the taxpayers of Multiopolis while their champion builds a sod dam?"
Whether the flush on James Minturn's face as he turned to her was exertion, embarrassment, or unpleasant memory Leslie could not decide; but she remembered, after her impulsive greeting, that she had been with his wife in that early morning meeting the day of the trip to the swamp. She thought of many things as she went forward. James Minturn held out his muddy hands as he said laughingly: "You see I'm not in condition for our customary greeting."
"Surely!" cried Leslie. "It is going to wash off, isn't it? If from you, why not from me?"
"Of course if you want to play!" he said.
"Playing? You? Honestly?" queried Leslie.
"Honestly playing," answered the man. "The 'honestest' playing in all the world; not the political game, not the money game, not anything called manly sport, just a day off with my boys, being a boy again. Heavens Leslie, I'm wild about it. I could scarcely sleep last night for eagerness to get started. But let me make you acquainted with my family. My sister, Mrs. Winslow, a friend of mine, Miss Leslie Winton; my sons' tutor, Mr. Tower; my little brother, William Minturn; my boys, Junior and Malcolm."
"Anyway, we can shake hands," said Leslie to Mrs. Winslow. "The habit is so ingrained I am scandalized on meeting people if I'm forced to neglect it."
"Will you share my blanket?" asked Mrs. Winslow.
"Thanks! Yes, for a little time," said Leslie. "I am greatly interested in what is going on here."
"So am I," said Mrs. Winslow. "We are engaged in the evolution of an idea. A real 'Do-the-boy's-hall.'"
"It seems to be doing them good," commented Leslie.
"Never mind the boys," said Mr. Minturn. "I object to such small men monopolizing your attention. Look at the 'good' this is doing me. And would you please tell me why you are here, instead of disporting yourself at, say Lenox?"
"How funny!" laughed Leslie. "I am out in search of amusement, and I'm finding it. I think I'm perhaps a mile from our home for the summer."
"You amaze me!" cried Mr. Minturn. "I saw Douglas this morning, and told him where I was coming, but he never said a word."
"He didn't know one to say on this subject," explained Leslie. "You see I rented a cabin over at Atwater and had my plans made before I told even father what a delightful thing was in store for him."
"But how did it happen?"
"Through my seeing how desperately busy Daddy and Douglas have been all spring, Daddy especially," replied Leslie. "Douglas is bad enough, but father's just obsessed, so much so that I think he's carrying double."
"I know he is," said Mr. Minturn. "And so you made a plan to allow him to proceed with his work all day and then have the delightful ride, fishing and swimming in Atwater morning and evening. How wonderful! And of course Douglas will be there also?"
"Of course," agreed Leslie. "At least he shall have an invitation. I'm going to surprise him with it this very evening. How do you think he'll like it?"
"I think he will be so overjoyed he won't know how to express himself," said James Minturn. "But isn't it going to be lonely for you? Won't you miss your friends, your frocks, and your usual summer round?"
"You forget," said Leslie. "My friends and my frocks always have been for winter. All my life I have summered with father."
"How will you amuse yourself?" he asked.
"It will take some time each day to plan what to do the next that will bring most refreshment and joy; I often will be compelled to drive in of mornings with orders for my house-keeping, and when other things are exhausted, I am going to make an especial study of wild-bird music."
"That is an attractive subject," said Mr. Minturn. "Have you really made any progress?"
"Little more than verifying a few songs already recorded," replied Leslie. "I hear smatterings and snatches, but they are elusive, while I'm not always sure of the identity of the bird. But the subject is thrillingly tempting."
"It surely is," conceded Mr. Minturn. "I could see that Nellie was alert the instant you mentioned it. Come over here to the shade and tell me how far you have gone. You see I've undertaken the boys' education. Malcolm inherits his mother's musical ability to a wonderful degree. It is possible that he could be started on this, and so begin his work while he thinks he's playing."
Leslie walked to the spot indicated, far enough away that conversation would not interrupt Mrs. Winslow's reading, and near enough to watch the boys; she and Mr. Minturn sat on the grass and talked.
"It might be the very thing," said Leslie. "Whatever gives even a faint hope of attracting a boy to an educational subject is worth testing."
"One thing I missed, I always have regretted," said Mr. Minturn, "I never had educated musical comprehension. Nellie performed and sang so well, and in my soul I knew what I could understand and liked in music she scorned. Sometimes I thought if I had known only enough to appreciate the right thing at the right time, it might have formed a slender tie between us; so I want the boys both to recognize good music when they hear it; but they have so much to learn all at once, poor little chaps, I scarcely see where to begin, and in a musical way, I don't even know how to begin. Tell me about the birds, Leslie. Just what is it you are studying?"
"The strains of our famous composers that are lifted bodily for measures at a time, from the song of a bird or indisputably based upon it," answered Leslie.
"Did you and Nellie have any success?"
"Indeed yes! We had the royal luck to hear exactly the song I had hoped; and besides we talked of many things and Nellie settled her future course in her mind. When she went into the swamp alone and came out with an armload of lavender fringed orchids she meant to carry to Elizabeth, and her heart firmly resolved to begin a new life with you, she told me she felt like flying; that never had she been so happy."
Leslie paused, glancing at James Minturn. He seemed puzzled: "I don't understand. But nothing matters now. Tell me about the birds," he said.
"And it is what you admit you don't understand that I must tell you of," said Leslie. "I've been afraid, horribly afraid you didn't understand, and that you took some course you wouldn't have taken if you did. What happened in the swamp was all my fault!"
"The birds, Leslie, tell me of the birds," commanded James Minturn. "You can't possibly know what occurred that separated Nellie and me."
"No, I don't know your side of it; but I do know hers, and I don't think you do," persisted Leslie. "Now if you would be big enough to let me tell you how it was with her that day, and what she said to me, your mind would be perfectly at rest as to the course you have taken."
"My mind is 'perfectly at rest now as to the course I have taken,'" said Mr. Minturn. "I realize that a man should meet life as it comes to him. I endured mine in sweating humiliation for years, and I would have gone on to the end, if it had been a question of me only, but when the girl was sacrificed and the boys in a fair way to meet a worse fate than hers, the question no longer hinged on me. You have seen my sons during their mother's regime, when they were children of wealth in the care of servants; look at them now and dare to tell me that they are not greatly improved."
"Surely they are!" said Leslie. "You did right to rescue them from their environment; all the fault that lies with you so far is, that you did not do from the start what you are now doing. The thing that haunts me is this, Mr. Minturn, and I must get it out of my mind before I can sleep soundly again—you will let me tell you—you won't think me meddling in what must be dreadful heartache? Oh you won't will you?"
"No, I won't," said Mr. Minturn, "but it is prolonging heartache to discuss this matter, and wasting time better used in the building of a sod dam—indeed Leslie, tell me about the birds."
"I will, if you'll answer one question," said Leslie.
"Dangerous, but I'll risk it," replied Mr. Minturn.
"I must ask two or three minor ones to reach the real one," explained the girl.
"Oh Leslie," laughed Mr. Minturn. "I didn't think you were so like the average woman."
"A large number of men are finding 'the average woman' quite delightful," said Leslie. "Men respect a masculine, well-balanced, argumentative woman, but every time they love and marry the impulsive, changeable, companionable one."
"Provided she be endowed with truth, character, and common mother instinct enough to protect her young—yes—I grant it, and glory in it," said Mr. Minturn. "I can furnish logic for one family, and most men I know feel qualified to do the same."
"Surely!" agreed Leslie. "You were waiting for Nellie the night she came from the tamarack swamp with me, and she told me you had a little box, and that with its contents you had threatened to 'freeze her soul,' if she had a soul. I'll be logical and fair, and ask but the one question I first stipulated. Here it is: did you wait until you made sure she had a soul, worthy of your consideration, before you froze it?"
James Minturn's laugh was ugly to hear.
"My dear girl," he said. "I made sure she had not three years ago."
"And I made equally sure that she had," said Leslie, "in the tamarack swamp when she wrestled as Jacob at Peniel against her birth, her environment, her wealth, and triumphed over all of them for you and her sons. I can't go on with my own plan for personal happiness, until I know for sure if you perfectly understand that she came to you that night to confess to you her faults, errors, mistakes, sins, if need be, and ask you to take the head of your household, and to help her fashion each hour of her life anew. Did she have a chance to tell you all this?"
"No," said Mr. Minturn. "But it would have made no difference, if she had. It came too late."
"You have not the right to say that to any living, suffering human being!" protested Leslie.
"I have a perfect right to say it to her," said Mr. Minturn. "A right that would be justified in any court in the world, either of lawyers or people."
"Then thank God, Nellie gets her trial higher. He will understand, and forgive her."
"You don't know what she did," said Mr. Minturn. "What she stood before me and the officers of the law, and admitted she did."
"I don't care what she did! There were men forgiven on the cross; because they sincerely repented, God had mercy on them, so He will on her, and what's more, He won't have any on you, unless you follow His example and forgive when you are asked, by a woman who is as deeply repentant as she was."
"Her repentance comes too late," said Mr. Minturn with finality. "Her error is not reparable."
"There is no such thing as true repentance being too late," insisted Leslie. "You are distinctly commanded to forgive; you have got to do it! There is no error that is reparable. Since you hint tragedy, I will concede it. If she had been directly responsible for the death of her child, it was a mistake, criminal carelessness, but not a thing purposely planned; so she could atone for it by doing her best for you and the boys."
"Any mother who once did the things she did is not fit to be trusted again!"
"What nonsense! James Minturn, you amaze me!" said Leslie. "That is a little too cold masculine logic. That is taking from the whole human race the power to repent of and repair a mistake."
"There are some mistakes that cannot be repaired!"
"I grant it," said Leslie. "There are! You are making one right now!"
"That's the most strictly feminine utterance I ever heard," said Mr. Minturn, with a short laugh.
"Thank you," retorted Leslie. "The compliment is high, but I accept it. I ask nothing better at the hands of fate than to be the most feminine of women. And I've told you what I feel forced to. You can now go on with your plans, knowing they are exactly what she had mapped out, hastily, but surely. She said to me that she must build from the foundations, which meant a new home."
"You are fatuously mistaken!" said Mr. Minturn.
"She said to me," reiterated Leslie forcefully, "that for ten years she had done exactly what she pleased, lived only for her own pleasure, now she would do as you dictated for a like time, live your way—I never was farther from a mistake in my life. If you think it doesn't take courage to tell you this, and if you think I enjoy it, and if you think I don't wish I were a mile away——"
"I still maintain I know the lady better than you do," said Mr. Minturn. "But you are wonderful Leslie, and I always shall respect and honour you for your effort in our behalf. It does credit to your head and heart. I envy Douglas Bruce. If ever an hour of trial comes to you, I would feel honoured for a chance to prove to you how much I appreciate——"
"Don't talk like that!" wailed Leslie. "It's all a failure if you do! Promise me that you will think this over. Let me send you the note Nellie wrote me before she went away. Won't you try to imagine what she is suffering to-day, in the change from what she went to you hoping, and what she received at your hands?"
"Let me see," said James Minturn. "At this hour she is probably enduring the pangs of wearing the most tasteful afternoon gown on the veranda of whatever summer resort suits her variable fancy, also the discomfiture of the woman she induced to bid high and is now winning from at bridge. I am particularly intimate with her forms of suffering; you see I judge them by my own and my children's during the past years."
"Then you think I'm not sincere?" asked Leslie.
"Surely, my dear girl!" said Mr. Minturn. "With all my heart I believe you! I know you are loyal to her, and to me! It isn't you I disbelieve, child, it is my wife."
"But I've told you over and over that she's changed."
"And I refuse to believe in her power to undergo the genuine and permanent change that would make her an influence for good with her sons, or anything but an uncontrollable element in my home," said Mr. Minturn. "Why Leslie, if I were to hunt her up and ask her to come to my house, do you think she would do it?"
"I know she would be most happy," said Leslie.
"Small plain rooms, wait on herself, children over the house and lawn at all times—Nellie Minturn? You amuse me!" he said.
"There's no amusement in it for me, it is pitiful tragedy," said Leslie. "She is willing, she has offered to change, you are denying her the opportunity."
"You don't think deeply enough!" said the man. "Suppose, knowing her as I do, I agreed to her coming to my house. Suppose I filled it with servants to wait on her, and ruin and make snobs of the boys; it could only result in a fiasco all around, and bring me again to the awful thing I have been through once, in forcing a separation. The present is too good for the boys, and now they are my first consideration."
"So I see," said Leslie. "Nellie isn't getting a particle and she is their mother, and once she really awakened to the situation, she was hungry to mother them, and to take her place in their hearts. I don't know where she is, but feeling as she did when we parted, I know she's not at any summer resort playing bridge at this minute."
"You are a friend worth having, Leslie; I congratulate my wife on so staunch an advocate," said James Minturn. "And I'll promise you this: I'll go back to the hateful subject, just when I felt I was free from it. I'll think on both sides, and I'll weigh all you've said. If I see a glimmering, I will do this much—I will locate her, and learn how genuine was the change you witnessed, and I rather think I'll manage for you to see also. Will that satisfy you?"
"That will make me radiant, because the change I witnessed was genuine. I know that wherever Nellie is to-day and whatever she is doing, she is still firm as when she left me in her desire for reparation toward you and her sons. Please think fast, and find her quickly."
"Leslie, you're incorrigible! Go bring Douglas to his surprise. He has a right to be happy."
"So have you," insisted Leslie. "More than he, because you have had such deep sorrow. Good-bye."
Then Leslie took leave of the others, returned to the cabin, and hurried to her room to dress for her trip to bring her lover. Douglas Bruce was waiting when she stopped at the Iriquois and his greeting was joyous. Mr. Winton was cordial, but Douglas noticed that he seemed tired and worried, and inquired if he were working unusually hard. He replied that he was, and beginning to feel the heat a little.
"Then we will drive to the country before dinner to cool off," said Leslie, seeing her opportunity.
Both men agreed that would be enjoyable. After a few minutes of casual talk they relaxed while making smooth passage over city streets and the almost equally level highways of the country. At the end of half an hour Douglas sat upright, looking around him.
"I don't recognize this," he said. "Have we been here before, Leslie?"
"I think not," she answered. "I don't know why. It is one of my best loved drives. Always before we have taken the road to the club house, or some of its branches."
They began a gentle ascent, when directly across their way stretched the blue water of a lake.
"Is here where we take the plunge?" inquired Douglas.
"No indeed!" answered Leslie. "Here we speed until we gather such momentum that we shoot across the water and alight on the opposite bank without stopping. Make your landing neatly, Rogers!"
"Why have we never been here before?" marvelled Douglas. "I don't remember any other road one-half so inviting. Just look ahead here! See what a beautiful picture!" He indicated a vine of creeping blackberry spreading over gold sand, its rough, deeply serrated leaves of most artistic cutting, with tufts of snowy bloom surrounding dark-tipped stamens in their centres.
"Isn't it!" answered Mr. Winton. "You know what Whitman said of it?"
"I'm not so well read in Whitman as you are."
"Which is your distinct loss," said Mr. Winton. "It was he who wrote, 'A running blackberry would adorn the parlours of Heaven.'"
"And so it would!" exclaimed Douglas. "What a frieze that would make for a dining-room! Have you ever seen it used?"
"Never," answered Leslie, "or many other of our most exquisite forms of wild growth."
"What beautiful country!" Douglas commented a minute later as the car sped from the swamp, ran uphill, and down a valley between stretches of tilled farm land on either side, sloping back to the lakes now growing distant, then creeping up a gradual incline until Atwater flashed into sight.
"Man! That's fine!" he said, rising in the car to better admire the view, at which Leslie signalled the driver to run slower. "I don't remember that I ever saw anything quite so attractive as this. And if ever water invited a swimmer—that white sand bed seems to extend as far into the lake as you can see. Jove! Wasn't that a black bass under that thorn bush?"
Leslie's eyes were shining while her laugh was as joyous as any of the birds. He need not say more. There was a bathing suit in his room; in ten minutes he could be cleaving the water to the opposite shore and have time to return before dinner. The car sped down where the road ran level with the water. A flock of waders arose and circled the lake. On the right was the orchard, the newly made garden, the tiny cabin with green lawn, hammocks swinging between trees, Indian blankets spread, and the odour of cooking food in the air. The car stopped, Douglas sprang out and offered his hand as he saw Leslie intended descending. She took the hand and kept it in her left. With her right she included woods, water, orchard and cabin.
"These are my surprise for you," she said. "I am going to live here this summer, and keep house for you and Dad while you run and reform the world. Welcome home, Douglas!"
He slowly looked around, then at Mr. Winton.
"Do you believe her?" he asked incredulously.
"Yes indeed! Leslie has the faculty of making good. And I'm one day ahead of you. She tried this on me last night. Hurry into your bathing suit; we'll swim before dinner, and then we'll fish. It was great going in this morning! I'm sure you'll enjoy it!"
"Enjoy it!" cried Douglas. "Here is where the paucity of our language is made manifest."
Too happy herself for the right word, Leslie showed Douglas to his room, with its white bed, and row of hooks, on one of which hung the bathing suit; then she went to put on her own, and they hurried to the lake.
"You are happy here, Leslie?" asked Douglas.
"Never in my life have I been so happy as I am this moment," said Leslie, skifting the clear water with her hands while she waited for her father before starting the swim to the opposite shore. "I've got the most joyous thing to tell you."
"Go on and tell, 'Bearer of Morning,'" he said. "I am so delighted I'm maudlin."
"Right over there, on the road to the club house, while 'seeking new worlds to conquer' this afternoon, I ran into James Minturn wearing a bathing suit, to his knees in mud and water, building a sod dam for his boys."
"You did?" cried Douglas.
"I did!" said Leslie. "Here's the picture: a beautiful winding stream, big trees like these on the banks, shade and flowers, birds, and air a-plenty, a fine appearing woman he introduced as his sister, a Minturn boy catching fish with his bare hands on either bank, the brother Minturn must have adopted legally, since he gave him his name——"
"He did," interrupted Douglas. "He told me so——"
"I was sure of it," said Leslie. "And an interesting young man, a tutor, bringing up more sod; the boys acted quite like any other agreeably engaged children—but Minturn himself, looking like a man I never saw before, down in the sand and water building a sod dam—a sod dam I'm telling you——"
"I notice what you are telling me," cried Douglas. "It is duly impressing me. 'Dam' is all I can think of."
"It's no wonder!" exclaimed Leslie.
"What did he say to you?" queried Douglas.
"It wasn't necessary for him to say anything," said Leslie. "I could see. He is making over his boys and in order to do it sympathetically, and win their confidence and love, he is being a boy himself again. He has the little chaps under control now. There are love and admiration in their tones when they speak to him, while they obey him. Think of it!"
"It is something worth thinking of," said Douglas. "He was driven to action, but his methods must have been heroic; for they seem to have worked."
"Yes, for him and the boys," said Leslie, "but they are not all his family."
"The remainder of his family always has looked out for herself to the exclusion of everything else in life, you have told me; I imagine she is still doing it with wonderful success," hazarded Douglas.
"It amazes me how men can be so unfeeling."
"So you talked to him about her?"
"I surely did!" asserted Leslie.
"And I'll wager you wasted words," said Douglas.
"Not one!" cried the girl. "He will remember each one I spoke. If I don't hear of him taking some action soon, I'll find another occasion, and try again. He shall divide the joy of remaking those boys with their mother."
"She will respectfully—I mean disdainfully, decline!"
"You don't believe she was in earnest in what she said to me then?" asked the girl.
"I am quite sure she was," he answered, "but a few days of her former life with her old friends will take her back to her previous ways with greater abandon than ever. You mark my words."
"Bother your words!" cried Leslie emphatically. "I tell you Douglas, I went through the fire with her. I watched her soul come out white. Promise me that if ever he talks to you, you won't say anything against her."
"It would be a temptation," he said. "Minturn is a different man."
"So is she a different woman! Come on Dad, we are waiting for you," called Leslie. "What kept you so?"
"A paper fell from my pocket, so I picked it up and in glancing at it I became interested in a thought that hadn't occurred to me before, and I forgot. You must forgive your old Daddy; his hands are about full these days. Between my job for the city, and my own affairs, and those of a friend, I have all I can carry. Now let me forget business. I call this great of the girl. And one of the biggest appeals to me is the bill of fare. I had a dinner for a king last night. What have we to-night?"
"But won't anticipation spoil it?" she asked.
"Not a particle," he declared.
"It's the fish we caught last night, baked potatoes, cress salad from Minturn's brook, strawberries from Atwaters, cream from our rented cow, real clover cream, Mrs. James says, and biscuit. That's all."
"Glory!" cried Mr. Winton. "Doesn't that thrill you? Let's head for the tallest tamarack of the swamp and then have a feast."
On the opposite bank they rested a few minutes, then returned to dinner. Afterward, with Rogers rowing for Mr. Winton, and Leslie for Douglas, they went bass fishing. When the boats passed on the far shore Leslie and Douglas had three, and Mr. Winton five. This did not prove that he was the better fisherman, only that he worked constantly; they lost much time in conversation which interested them; but as they enjoyed what they had to say more than the sport, while Leslie only wished them to take the fish they would use, it was their affair. The girl soon returned to the Minturns and secured a promise from Douglas that if Mr. Minturn talked with him, at least he would say nothing to discourage his friend about the sincerity of his wife's motives. Leslie's thoughts then turned to the surprise Douglas had mentioned.
"Oh, that pretty girl?" he inquired casually.
"Yes, Lily," she said. "Of course Mickey took you to see her! Is she really a lovable child, and attractive? Could you get any idea of what is her trouble?"
Douglas carefully reeled while looking at Leslie with a speculative smile. "You refuse to consider an attractive young lady of greater beauty than I have previously seen?" he queried.
"Absolutely! Don't waste time on it," she said.
"You'll have to begin again and ask me one at a time," he laughed. "What was your first?"
"Is she really a lovable child?" repeated Leslie.
"She most certainly is," said Douglas. "I could love her dearly. It's plain that Mickey adores her. Why when a boy gives up trips to the country, the chance to pick up good money, in order to stand over, wash, and cook for a little sick girl, what is the answer?"
"The one you have given—that he adores her," conceded Leslie. "The next was, 'Is she attractive?'"
"Wonderfully!" cried Douglas. "And what she would be in health with flesh to cover her bones and colour on her lips and cheeks is now only dimly foreshadowed."
"She must have her chance," said Leslie. "I was thinking of her to-day. I'll go to see her at once and bring her here. I will get the best surgeon in Multiopolis to examine her and a nurse if need be; then Mickey can come out with you."
"Would you really, Leslie?" asked Douglas.
"But why not?" cried she. "That's one of the things worth while in the world."
"I'd love to go halvers with you," proposed Douglas. "Let's do it! When will you go to see her?"
"In a few days," said Leslie. "The last one was, 'Could you get any idea of what is the trouble?'"
"Very little," said Douglas. "She can sit up and move her hands. He is teaching her to read and write. She had her lesson very creditably copied out on her slate. She practises in his absence on poems Mickey makes."
"Doggerel," explained Douglas. "Four lines at a time. Some of it is pathetic, some of it is witty, some of it presages possibilities. He may make a poet. She requires a verse each evening, so he recites it, then writes it out, and she uses it for copy the next day. The finished product is to have a sky-blue cover and be decorated either with an English sparrow, the only bird she has seen, or a cow. She likes milk, and the pictures of cows give her an idea that she can handle them like her doll——"
"Oh Douglas!" protested Leslie.
"I believe she thinks a whole herd of cows could be kept on her bed, while she finds them quite suitable to decorate Mickey's volume," said Douglas.
"Why, hasn't she seen anything at all?"
"She has been on the street twice in her life that she knows of," answered Douglas. "It will be kind of you to take her, and cure her if it can be done, but you'll have to consult Mickey. She is his find, so he claims her, belligerently, I might warn you!"
"Claims her! He has her?" marvelled Leslie.
"Surely! In his room! On his bed! Taking care of her himself, and doing a mighty fine job of it! Best she ever had I am quite sure," said Douglas.
"But Douglas!" cried Leslie in amazement.
"'But me no buts,' my lady!" warned Douglas. "I know what you would say. Save it! You can't do anything that way. Mickey is right. She is his. He found her in her last extremity, in rags, on the floor in a dark corner of an attic. He carried her home in that condition, to a clean bed his mother left him. Since, he has been her gallant little knight, lying on the floor on his winter bedding, feeding her first and most, not a thought for himself. God, Leslie! I don't stand for anything coming between Mickey and his child, his 'family' he calls her. He's the biggest small specimen I ever have seen. I'll fight his cause in any court in the country, if his right to her is questioned, as it will be the minute she is taken to a surgeon or a hospital."
"How old is she?" asked Leslie.
"Neither of them knows. About ten, I should think."
"How has he managed to keep her hidden this long?"
"He lives in an attic. The first woman he tried to get help from started the Home question, and frightened him; so he appealed to a nurse he met through being connected with an accident; she gave him supplies, instructions and made Lily gowns."
"But why didn't she——?" began Leslie.
"She may have thought the child was his sister," said Douglas. "She's the loveliest little thing, Leslie!"
"Very little?" asked Leslie.
"Tiny is the word," said Douglas. "It's the prettiest sight I ever saw to watch him wait on her, and to see her big, starved, scared eyes follow him with adoring trust."
"Adoration on both sides, then," laughed Leslie.
"You imply I'm selecting too big words," said Douglas. "Wait till you see her, and see them together."
"It's a problem!" said Leslie.
"Yes, I admit that!" conceded Douglas, "but it isn't your problem."
"But they can't go on that way!" cried Leslie.
"I grant that," said Douglas. "All I stipulate is that Mickey shall be left to plan their lives himself, and in a way that makes him happy."
"That's only fair to him!" said Leslie.
"Now you are grasping and assimilating the situation properly," commented Douglas.
When they returned to the cabin they found Mr. Winton stretched in a hammock smoking. Douglas took a blanket and Leslie a cushion on the steps, while all of them watched the moon pass slowly across Atwater.
"How are you progressing with the sinners of Multiopolis?" asked Mr. Winton of Douglas.
"Fine!" he answered. "I've found what I think will turn out to be a big defalcation. Somebody drops out in disgrace with probably a penitentiary sentence."
"Oh Douglas! How can you?" cried Leslie.
"How can a man live in luxury when he is stealing other people's money to pay the bills?" he retorted.
"Yes I know, but Douglas, I wish you would buy this place and plow corn, or fish for a living."
"Sometimes I have an inkling that before I finish with this I shall wish so too," replied he.
"What do you think, Daddy?" asked Leslie.
"I think the 'way of the transgressor is hard,' and that as always he pays in the end. Go ahead son, but let me know before you reach my office or any of my men. I hope I have my department in perfect order, but sometimes a man gets a surprise."
"Of course!" agreed Douglas. "Look at that water, will you? Just beyond that ragged old sycamore! That fellow must have been a whale. Isn't this great?"
"The best of life," said Mr. Winton, stooping to kiss Leslie as he said good-night to both.
A Safe Proposition
When Mickey posted his letter, in deep thought he slowly walked home. That night his eyes closed with a feeling of relief. He was certain that when Peter and his wife and children talked over the plan he had suggested they would be anxious to have such a nice girl as Lily in their home for a week. He even went so far as the vague thought that if they kept her until fall, they never would be able to give her up, and possibly she could remain with them until he could learn whether her back could be cured, and make arrangements suitable for her. In his heart he felt sure that Mr. Bruce or Miss Leslie would help him take care of her, but he had strong objections to them. He thought the country with its clean air, birds, flowers and quiet the best place for her; if he allowed them to take her, she would be among luxuries which would make all he could do unappreciated.
"She wasn't born to things like that; what's the use to spoil her with them?" he argued. "Course they haven't spoiled Miss Leslie, but she wasn't a poor kid to start on, and she has a father to take care of her, and Mr. Bruce. Lily has only me and I'm going to manage my family myself. Pretty soon those nice folks will come, and if she likes them, maybe I'll let them take her 'til it's cooler."
Mickey had thought they would come soon, but he had not supposed it would be the following day. He went downtown early, spent some time drilling his protege in the paper business, and had the office ready when Douglas Bruce arrived an hour late. During that hour, Mickey's call came. He made an appointment to meet Mr. and Mrs. Peter Harding at Marsh & Jordan's at four o'clock.
"Peter must have wanted to see her so bad he quit plowing to come," commented Mickey, as he hung up the receiver. "He couldn't have finished that field last night! They're just crazy to see Lily, and when they do, they'll be worse yet; but of course they wouldn't want to take her from me, 'cause they got three of their own. I guess Peter is the safest proposition I know. Course he wouldn't ever put a little flowersy-girl in any old Orphings' Home. Sure he wouldn't! He wouldn't put his own there, course he wouldn't mine!"
"Mickey, what do you think?" asked Douglas as he entered. "I've moved to the country!"
Mickey stared. Then came his slow comment: "Gee! The cows an' the clover gets all of us!"
"I can beat that," said Douglas. "I'm going to live beside a lake where I can swim every night and morning, and catch big bass, and live on strawberries from the vines and cream straight from the cow——"
"I thought you'd get to the cow before long."
"And you are invited to go out with me as often as you want to, and you may arrange to have Lily out too! Won't that be fine?"
Mickey hesitated while his eyes grew speculative, before he answered with his ever ready: "Sure!"
"Miss Winton made a plan for her father and me," explained Douglas. "She knew we would lose our vacations this summer, so she took an old cabin on Atwater, and moved out. We are to go back and forth each morning and evening. I never was at the lake before, but it's not far from the club house and it's beautiful. I think most of all I shall enjoy the swimming and fishing."
"I haven't had experience with water enough to swim in," said Mickey. "A tub has been my limit. You'll have a fine time all right, and thank you for asking me. I think Miss Winton is great. Ain't it funny how many fine folks there are in the world? 'Most every one I meet is too nice for any use; but I don't know any Swell Dames, my people are just common folks."
"You wouldn't call Miss Winton a 'Swell Dame,' then?"
"Well I should say nix!" cried Mickey. "You wouldn't catch her motoring away to a party and leaving her baby to be slapped and shook out of its breath by a mad nurselady, 'cause she left it herself where the sun hurt its eyes. She wouldn't put a little girl that couldn't walk in any Orphings' Home where no telling what might happen to her! She'd fix her a Precious Child and take her for a ride in her car and be careful with her."
"Are you quite sure about that Mickey?"
"Surest thing you know," said Mickey emphatically. "Why look her straight in the eyes, and you can tell. I saw her coming away down the street, and the minute I got my peepers on her I picked her for a winner. I guess you did too."
"I certainly did," said Douglas. "But it is most important that I be perfectly sure, so I should like to have your approval of my choice."
"I guess you're kidding now," ventured Mickey.
"No, I'm in earnest," said Douglas Bruce. "You see Mickey, as I have said before, your education and mine have been different, but yours is equally valuable."
"What shall I do now? 'Scuse me, I mean—what do I mean?" asked Mickey.
"To wait until I'm ready for you," suggested Douglas.
"Sure!" conceded Mickey. "It's because I'm used to hopping so lively on the streets."
"Do you miss the streets?" inquired Douglas.
"Well not so much as I thought I would," said Mickey, "'sides in a way I'm still on the job, but I guess I'll get Henry's boy so he can go it all right. He seems to be doing fairly well; so does the old man."
"Have you got him in training too?" asked Douglas.
"Oh it's his mug," explained Mickey impatiently. "S'pose you do own a grouch, what's the use of displaying it in your show window? Those things are dangerous. They're contagious. Seeing a fellow on the street looking like he'd never smile again, makes other folks think of their woes, so pretty soon everybody gets sorry for themselves. I'd like to see the whole world happy."
"Mickey, what makes you so happy to-day?"
"I scent somepin' nice in the air," said Mickey. "I hear the rumble of the joy wagon coming my way."
"You surely look it," declared Douglas. "It's a mighty fine thing to be happy. I am especially thinking that, because it looks like this last batch you brought me has a bad dose in it for a man I know. He won't be happy when he sees his name in letters an inch high on the front page of the Herald."
"No, he won't," agreed Mickey, his face dulling. "That comes in my line. I've seen men forced to take it right on the cars. Open a paper, slide down, turn white, shiver, then take a brace and try to sit up and look like they didn't care, when you could see it was all up with them. Gee, it's tough! I wish we were in other business."
"But what about the men who work hard for their money, not to mince matters, that these men you are pitying steal?" asked Douglas.
"Yes, I know," said Mickey. "But there's a big bunch of taxpayers, so it doesn't hit any one so hard. It's tough on them, but honest, Mr. Bruce, it ain't as tough to lose your coin as it is to lose your glad face. You can earn more money or slide along without so much; but once you get the slick, shamed look on your show window, you can't ever wash it off. Since your face is what your friends know you by, it's an awful pity to spoil it."
"That's so too, Mickey," laughed Bruce, "but keep this clearly in your mind. I'm not spoiling any one's face. If any man loses his right to look his neighbour frankly in the eye, from the job we're on, it is his fault, not ours. If men have lived straight we can't find defalcations in their books, can we?"
"Nope," agreed Mickey. "Just the same I wish we were plowing corn, 'stead of looking for them. That plowing job is awful nice. I watched a man the other day, the grandest big bunch of bone and muscle, driving a team it took a gladiator to handle. First time I ever saw it done at close range and it got me. He looked like a man you'd want to tie to and stick 'til the war is over. If he ever has a case he is going to bring it to you. But where he'll get a case out there ten miles from anybody, with the bluest sky you ever saw over his head, and black fields under his feet, I can't see. Yes, I wish we were plowing for corn 'stead of trouble."
"You little dunce," laughed Douglas. "We'd make a fortune plowing corn."
"What's the difference how much you make if something black keeps ki-yi- ing at your heels 'bout how you make it?" asked Mickey.
"There's a good strong kick in my heels, and the 'ki-yi-ing' is for the feet of the man I'm after."
"Yes, I know," said Mickey, "but 'fore we get through with this I just got a hunch that you'll wish we had been plowing corn, too."
"What makes you so sure, Mickey?" said Douglas.
"Oh things I hear men say when I get the books keep me thinking," replied Mickey.
"What things?" queried Douglas.
"Oh about who's going to get the axe next!" said Mickey.
"But what of that?" asked Douglas.
"Why it might be somebody you know!" he cried. "When you find these wrong entries you can't tell who made them."
"I know that the man who made them deserves what he gets," said Douglas.
"Yes, I guess he does," agreed Mickey. "Well go on! But when I grow up I'm going to plow corn."
"What about the poetry?" queried Douglas.
"They go together fine," explained Mickey. "When the book is finished, I'd like clover on the cover better than the cow; but if Lily wants the live stock it goes!"
"Of course," assented Douglas. "But when she sees a real cow she may change her mind."
"Right in style! Ladies do it often," conceded Mickey. "I've seen them so changeful they couldn't tell when they called a taxi where they wanted to be taken." "Mickey, your observations on human nature would make a better book than your poetry."
"Oh I don't know," said Mickey. "You see I ain't really got at the poetry job yet. I have to be educated a lot to do it right. What I do now I wouldn't show to anybody else, it's just fooling for Lily. But I got an address that gives me a look-in on the paper business if I ever want it. I ain't got at the poetry yet, but I been on the human-nature job from the start. When you go cold and hungry if you don't know human nature—why you know it, that's all!"
"You surely do," said Douglas. "Now let's hustle this forenoon, and then you may have the remainder of the day. I am going fishing."
"Thank you," said Mickey, "I hope you get a bass as long as your arm, and I hope the man you are chasing breaks his neck before you get him."
Mickey grinned at Douglas' laugh, and went racing about his work, then he helped on his paper route until four, when he hurried to his meeting with Nancy and Peter.
"When everybody is so nice if you give them any show at all, I can't understand where the grouchers get their grouch," muttered Mickey, as he hopped from one toe to the other and tried to select the car at the curb which would be Peter's.
"Hey you!" presently called a voice from one of them. Mickey sent a keen glance over a boy who had come up and entered the car.
"Straw you!" retorted Mickey, landing on the curb in a flying leap.
"Is your name Mickey?" inquired the boy.
"Yep. Is your father's name Peter?" asked Mickey.
"Yep. And mine is Peter too. So to avoid two Peters I am Junior. Come on in 'til the folks come."
Formalities were over. Mickey laughed as he entered the car and straightway began an investigation of its machinery. Now any boy is proud to teach another something he wants to know and does not, so by the time the car was thoroughly explained any listener would have thought them acquaintances from birth.
"Hurry!" cried Junior when his parents came. "I want to get home with Mickey. I want him to show me——"
"Don't you hurry your folks, Junior," said Mickey, "I'll show you all right!"
"Well it's about time I was seeing something."
"Sure it is," agreed Mickey. "Come on with me here, and I'll show you what real boys are!"
"Say father, I'm coming you know," cried Junior. "I'm tired poking in the country. Just look what being in the city has made of Mickey."
"Yes, just look!" cried Mickey, waving both hands and bracing on feet wide apart. "Do look! Your age or more, and about half your beefsteak and bone."
"But you got muscle. I bet I couldn't throw you!"
"I bet you couldn't either," retorted Mickey, "'cause I survived Multiopolis by being Johnny not on the spot! I've dodged for my life and my living since I can remember. I'm champeen on that. But you come on with me, and I'll get you a job and let you try yourself."
"I'm coming," said Junior. Then remembering he was not independent he turned to his mother. "Can't I take a job and work here?"