Junior, passing, remembered he had promised Jud Jason to bring a bundle he had left there, and stopped for it. He stepped into the small front door and bent for the package lying in sight, when clearly and distinctly arose Mickey's voice lifted to reach Peter, at another task.
"Course I meant him to get enough to make him good and sick of it, like we agreed on; but I never intended him to get any such a dose as he had."
Junior straightened swiftly, and his lower jaw dropped. His father's reply was equally audible.
"Of course I understand that, Mickey."
"Surest thing you know!" said Mickey. "I like Junior. I like him better than any other boy I ever knew, and I've known hundreds. I tell you Peter, he was gamer than you'll ever believe to hang on as long as he did."
"Yes I think that too," said Peter.
"You know he didn't come because he was all in," explained Mickey. "You can take a lot of pride in that. He'd about been the limit when he quit. And he quit, not because he was robbed and knocked out, but because what he had seen showed him that Multiopolis wasn't the job he wanted for a life sentence. See?"
"I hope you are right about that," said Peter. "I'm glad to my soul to get him home, cured in any way; but it sort of gags me to think of him as having been scared out. It salves my vanity considerable to feel, as you say, that he had the brains to sense the situation, and quit because he felt it wasn't the work for which he was born."
Then Mickey's voice came eagerly, earnestly, warming the cockles of Junior's heart.
"Now lemme tell you Peter; I was there, and I know. It was that way. It was just that way exact! He wasn't scared out, he'd have gone at it again, all right, if he'd seen anything in it he wanted. It was just as his mother felt when she first talked it over with me, and the same with you later: that if he got to the city, and got right up against earning a living there, he would find it wasn't what he wanted; and he did, like all of us thought. Course I meant to put it to him stiff; I meant to 'niciate him in the ancient and honourable third degree of Multiopolis all right, so he'd have enough to last a lifetime; but I only meant to put him up against what I'd. had myself on the streets; I was just going to test his ginger; I wasn't counting on the robbing, and the alleys, and the knockout, and the morgue. Gee, Peter!"
Then they laughed. A dull red surged up Junior's neck, and flooded his face. He picked up the bundle, went silently from the barn, and climbed on the wagon. The jerk of the horse stopping at its accustomed place told him when to load the first can. He had been thinking so deeply he was utterly oblivious to everything save the thought that it had been prearranged among them to "cure" him; even his mother knew about, if he heard aright, had been the instigator of the scheme to let him go, to be what Mickey called "initiated in the ancient and honourable third degree of Multiopolis."
Once he felt so outraged he thought of starting the horse home, taking the trolley, going back to Multiopolis and fighting his way to what his father would be compelled to acknowledge success. He knew that he could do it; he was on the point of vowing that he would do it; but in his heart he knew better than any one else how repulsed he was, how he hated it, and against a vision of weary years of fighting, came that other vision of himself planning and working beside his father to change and improve their home life.
"Say Junior are you asleep?" called Jud Jason. "You sit there like you couldn't move. D'ye bring my bundle?"
"Yes, it's back there," answered Junior. "Get it!"
"How'd you like Multiopolis?" asked Jud.
Junior knew he had that to face.
"It's a cold-blooded sell, Jud," he said promptly. "I'm glad I went when I did, and found out for myself. You see it's like this, Jud: I could have stayed and made my way; but I found out in a few days that I wouldn't give a snap for the way when it was made. We fellows are better off right where we are, and a lot of us are ready to throw away exactly what many of the men in Multiopolis are wild to get. Now let me tell you——"
Junior told him, and through putting his experience into words, he eased his heart and cleared his brain. He came to hints of great and wonder- working things that were going to happen soon. There was just a possibility that Jud gleaned an idea that the experience in Multiopolis had brought his friend home to astound and benefit the neighbourhood. At any rate Junior picked up the lines with all the sourness gone from his temperament, which was usually sweet, except that one phrase of Mickey's, and the laughter. Suddenly he leaned forward.
"Jud, come here," he said. Junior began to speak, and Jud began to understand and sympathize with the boy he had known from childhood.
"Could we?" asked Junior.
"'Could we?' Well, I just guess we could!"
"When?" queried Junior.
"This afternoon, if he's going to be off," said Jud.
"Well I don't know what his plans are, but I could telephone from here and by rustling I could get back by two. I've done it on a bet. Where will we go, and what for?"
"To Atwater. Fishing is good enough excuse."
"All right! Father will let me take the car."
"Hayseed! Isn't walking good enough to suit you? What's the matter with the Elkhart swale, Atwater marsh, and the woods around the head of the lake——"
"Hold the horse till I run in and 'phone him."
When he came down the walk he reported: "He wants to go fishing awful bad, and he'll be ready by two. That's all settled then. We'll have a fine time."
"Bully!" said Jud laconically, and started to the house of another friend, where a few words secured a boy of his age a holiday. Junior drove fast as he dared and hurried with his work; so he reached home a little before two, where he found Mickey with poles and a big can of worms ready. Despite the pressing offer of the car, they walked, in order to show Mickey the country which he was eager to explore on foot. Junior said the sunfish were big as lunch plates at Atwater, the perch fine, and often if you caught a grasshopper or a cricket for bait, you got a big bass around the shore, and if they had the luck to reach the lake, when there was no one ahead of them, and secured a boat they were sure of taking some.
"Wouldn't I like to see Lily eating a fish I caught," said Mickey, searching the grass and kicking rotting wood as he saw Junior doing to find bass bait.
"Minnies are the real thing," explained Junior. "When we get the scheme father laid out going, before we start fishing, you and I will take a net and come to this creek and catch a bucketful of right bait, and then we'll have man's sport, for sure. Won't it be great?"
"Exactly what the plutes are doing," said Mickey. "Gee, Junior, if your Pa does all the things he said he was going to, you'll be a plute yourself!"
"Never heard him say anything in my life he didn't do," said Junior, "and didn't you notice that he put you in too? You'll be just as much of a plute as I will."
"Not on your bromide," said Mickey. "He is your father, and you'll be in business with him; I'll just be along sometimes, as a friend, maybe."
"I usually take father at just what he says. I guess he means you to stay in our family, if you like."
"I wonder now!" said Mickey.
"Looks like it to me. Father and mother both like you, and they're daffy about Peaches."
"It's because she's so little, and so white, and so helpless," Mickey hastened to explain, "and so awful sweet!"
"Well for what ever it is, it is," said Junior, "and I'm just as crazy about her as the rest. Look out kid! That fellow's coming right at us!"
Junior dashed for the fence, while Mickey lost time in turning to see what "that fellow" might be; so he faced the ram that had practised on Malcolm Minturn. With lowered head, the ram sprang at Mickey. He flew in air, and it butted space and whirled again, so that before the boy's breath was fully recovered he lifted once more, with all the agility learned on the streets of Multiopolis; but that time the broad straw hat he wore to protect his eyes on the water, sailed from his head; he dropped the poles, and as the ram came back at him he hit it squarely in the face with the bait can, which angered rather than daunted it. Then for a few minutes Mickey was too busy to know exactly what happened, and movements were too quick for Junior. When he saw that Mickey was tiring, and the ram was not, he caught a rail from the fence and helped subdue the ram. Panting they climbed the fence and sat resting.
"Why I didn't know Higgins had that ram," said Junior. "We fellows always crossed that field before. Say, there ain't much in that
'Gentle sheep pray tell me why, In the pleasant fields you lie?'
business, is there?"
"Not much but the lie," said Mickey earnestly.
Junior dropped from the fence and led the way toward a wood thick with underbrush, laughing until his heart pained. As they proceeded they heard voices.
"Why that sounds like my bunch," said Junior.
He whistled shrilly, which brought an immediate response, and soon two boys appeared.
"Hello!" said Junior.
"Hello!" answered they.
"Where're you going?" asked Junior.
"To Atwater Lake, fishing. Where you?"
"There too!" said Junior. "Why great! We'll go together! Sam, this is Mickey."
Mickey offered his hand and formalities were over.
"But I threw our worms at the ram," said Mickey.
"Well that was a smart trick!" cried Junior.
"Wasn't it?" agreed Mickey. "But you see the ram was coming and I had the worms in my strong right, so I didn't stop to think I'd spent an hour digging them; I just whaled away—"
"Never mind worms," said Jud. "I guess we got enough to divide; if you fellows want to furnish something for your share, you can find some grubs in these woods, and we'll get more chance at the bass."
"Sure!" said Mickey. "What are grubs and where do you look for them?"
"Oh anywhere under rotting wood and round old logs," said Jud. "B'lieve it's a good place right here, Mickey; dig in till I cut a stick to help with."
Mickey pushed aside the bushes, dropped on his knees and "dug in." A second later, with a wild shriek, he rolled over and over striking and screaming.
"Yellow jackets!" shouted Jud. "Quick fellers, help Mickey! He's got too close to a nest!"
Armed with branches they came beating the air and him; until Mickey had a fleeting thought that if the red-hot needles piercing him did not kill, the boys would. Presently he found himself beside a mudhole and as the others "ouched" and "o-ohed" and bewailed their fate, and grabbed mud and plastered it on, he did the same. Jud generously offered, as he had not so many stings, to help Mickey. Soon even the adoring eyes of Peaches could not have told her idol from the mudhole. He twisted away from an approaching handful crying: "Gee Jud! Leave a feller room to breathe! If you are going to smother me, I might as well die from bites!"
"Bites!" cried the boys while all of them laughed wildly, so wildly that Mickey flushed with shame to think he had so little appreciation of the fun calling a sting a bite, when it was explained to him.
"Well they sure do get down to business," he chattered, chilling from the exquisite pain of a dozen yellow-jacket stings, one of which on his left eyelid was rapidly closing that important organ. He bowed a willing head for Jud's application of cold mud.
Finally they gathered up their poles and bait and again started toward the lake. The day was warm, and there was little air in the marsh, and on the swampy shore they followed. Suddenly Jud cried: "I tell you fellows, what's the use of walking all the way round the lake? Bet the boats will be taken when we get there! Let's cut fishing and go swimming right here where there's a cool, shady place. It will be good for you Mickey, it will cool off your stings a lot."
Mickey promptly began to unbutton, and the others did the same. Then they made their way through the swamp tangle lining the shore at the head of the lake, and tried to reach the water beside the tamaracks. Sam and Junior found solid footing, and waded toward deep water. Jud piloted Mickey to a spot he thought sufficiently treacherous, and said: "Looks good here; you go ahead Mickey, and I'll come after you."
Mickey was unaccustomed to the water. He waded in with the assurance he had seen the others use, but suddenly he cried: "Gee boys, I'm sucking right down!"
Then on his ears fell a deafening clamour. "Help! Help! Quicksands! Mickey's sinking! Help him!"
Mickey threw out his arms. He grabbed wildly; while a force, seemingly gentle but irresistible, sucked him lower and lower, and with each inch it bore him down, gripped tighter, and pulled faster. When he glanced at the boys he saw panic in their faces, and he realized that he was probably lost, and they were terror stricken. The first gulp of tepid shore water that strangled him in running across his gasping lips made him think of Peaches. Struggling he threw back his head and so saw a widespreading branch of a big maple not far above him. All that was left of Mickey went into the cry: "Junior! Bend me that branch!" Junior swiftly climbed the tree, crept on the limb, and swayed it till it swept the water, then Mickey laid hold; just a few twigs, and then as Junior backed, and the branch lifted higher and higher, Mickey worked, hand over hand, and finally grasped twigs that promised to stand a gentle pull.
Then Jud began to shout instructions: "Little lower, Junior! Get a better grip before you pull hard, Mickey! Maple is brittle! Easy! It will snap with you! Kind of roll yourself and turn to let the water in and loosen the sand. Now roll again! Now pull a little! You're making it! You are out to your shoulders! Back farther, Junior! Don't you fall in, or you'll both go down!"
Mickey was very quiet now. His small face was pallid with the terror of leaving Peaches forever with no provision for her safety. The grip of the sucking sand was yet pulling at his legs and body; while if the branch broke he knew what it meant; that sucking, insistent pulling, and caving away beneath his feet told him. Suddenly Mickey gave up struggling, set his teeth, and began fighting by instinct. He moved his shoulders gently, until he let the water flow in, then instead of trying to work his feet he held them rigid and flattened as he could, and with the upper part of his body still rolling, he reached higher, and kept inching up the branch as Junior backed away, until with sickening slowness he at last reached wood thick as his wrist. Then he dragged his helpless body after him to safety, where he sank in a heap to rest.
"Jud, it's a good thing I went in there first," he said. "Heavy as you are, you'd a-been at the bottom by now, if there is any bottom."
Mickey's gaze travelled slowly over his lumpy, purple frame, and then he looked closely at the others. "Why them stingers must a-give about all of it to me," he commented. "I don't see any lumps on the rest of you."
"Oh we are used to it," scoffed Jud. "They don't show on you after you get used to them. 'Sides most all mine are on my head, I kept 'em off with the bushes."
"So did I," chimed in Sam and Junior with one voice.
"I guess I did get a lot the worst of it," conceded Mickey. "But if they only stung your heads, it's funny you didn't know where to put your mud!"
"Well I'll tell you," said Jud earnestly. "On your head they hurt worst of all. They hurt so blame bad, you get so wild like you don't know where you are stung, and you think till you cool off a little, you got them all over."
"Yes I guess you do," agreed Mickey.
The boys were slowly putting on their clothing and Junior was scowling darkly. Jud edged close.
"Gosh!" he whispered. "I thought it was only a little spring! I didn't think it was a quicksand!"
"You cut out anything more!" said Junior tersely.
Jud nodded. After a while they started home, walking slowly and each one being particularly careful of and good to Mickey. When he had rested, he could see that it was only an accident; such an astounding one he forgot his bites and could talk of little else.
They made another long pause under a big tree, and Mickey felt so much better as they again started home, that Junior lagged behind, and Jud seeing, joined him. Junior asked softly: "Have any more?"
"What?" whispered Junior.
Jud told him.
"Oh that! Nothing in that! Go on!"
So they struck into the path they had followed from the swamp to the woods, when suddenly a warm, yielding, coiling thing slipped under Mickey's feet. With a wild cry he leaped across the body of a big rattlesnake that had been coiled in the path. As he arose, clear cut against the light launched the ugly head and wide jaws of the rattler, then came the sickening buzz of its rattles in mad recoil for a second stroke.
"Run Mickey! Jump!" screamed Junior.
"What is it?" asked Mickey bewildered.
"Rattlesnakes! Sure death!" yelled Jud. "Run fool!"
But Mickey stood perfectly still, and looked, not where the increasing buzz came from, but at them. They had no choice. Jud carried a heavy club; he threw himself in front of Mickey and as the second stroke came, he swung at the snake's head. The other boys collected their senses and beat it to pulp, then the dead mate it watched beside. Junior glared at Jud, but when he saw how frightened he was, he knew what had happened.
Mickey gazed at the snakes in horror.
"Ain't that a pretty small parcel to deal out sudden death in?" he asked. "And if they're laying round like that, ain't we taking an awful risk to be wading through here, this way? Gee, they're the worst sight I ever saw!"
Mickey became violently ill. He lay down for a time, while the boys waited on him, and at last when he could slowly walk toward home, they went on. Jud and Sam left them at the creek, and Junior and Mickey started up the Harding lane. Suddenly Mickey sat down in a fence corner, leaned against the rails, and closed his eyes.
"Gee!" he said. "Never felt so rotten in all my life."
"Maybe that snake grazed you."
"If it did, would it kill me?" asked Mickey dully.
"Well after the yellow-jacket poison in your blood, and being so tired and hot, you wouldn't stand the chance you'd had when we first started," said Junior. "Do you know where it came closest to you?"
"Back of my legs, I s'pose," said Mickey.
"If it had hit you, it would leave two places like needles stuck in, just the width of its head apart. I can't find any-thing that looks like it, thank the Lord!"
"Here too!" said Mickey. "You see if it or the quicksands had finished me, I haven't things fixed for Lily. They might 'get' her yet. If anything should happen to me, she would be left with no one to take care of her."
"Father would," offered Junior. "Mother never would let anybody take her. I know she wouldn't."
"Well I don't," said Mickey, "and here is where guessing doesn't cut any ice. I must be sure. To-night I'll ask him. I'd like to know how it happens that sudden death has just been rampaging after me all this trip, anyway. I seemed to get it coming or going."
Junior did not hide his grin quickly enough.
"Aw-w-w-ah!" grated Mickey, suddenly tense and alert.
He sprang to his feet. So did Junior.
"Say, look here——" cried Mickey.
"All right, 'look here,'" retorted Junior. His face flamed Ted, then paled, and his hands gripped, while his jaw protruded in an ugly scowl. Then slowly and distinctly he quoted: "Course I meant to put it to you stiff; I meant to 'niciate you in the ancient and honourable third degree of the Country all right, so's you'd have enough to last a lifetime; but I only meant to put you up against what I'd had myself in the fields and woods; I was just going to test your ginger; I wasn't counting on the quicksand, and the live snake, finding its dead mate Jud fixed for you."
"So you were sneaking in the barn this morning, when we thought you were gone?" demanded Mickey.
"Easy you!" cautioned Junior. "Going after the bundle I promised Jud was not sneaking——"
"So 'twasn't," conceded Mickey, instantly. "So 'twasn't!"
He looked at Junior a second.
"You heard us, then?" he demanded. "All of it?"
"I don't know," answered Junior. "I heard what I just repeated, and what you said about my being game, and exactly why I came back; thank you for that, even if I lick you half to death in a minute—and I heard that my own mother first fixed it up with you, and then father agreed. Oh I heard enough——!"
"And so you got a grouch?" commented Mickey.
"Yes I did," admitted Junior. "But I got over all of it, after I'd had time to think, but that third degree business; that made me so sore I told Jud about it, and he said he'd help me pay you up; but we struck the same rock you did, in giving you a bigger dose than we meant to. Honest Mickey, Jud didn't know there was a real quicksand there, and of course we didn't dream a live snake would follow and find the one the boys hunted, killed, and set for you this morning——"
"Awful innocent!" scoffed Mickey. "'Member you didn't know about the ram either?"
"Honest I didn't, Mickey," persisted Junior. "I thought steering you into the yellow jackets was to be the first degree! Cross my heart, I did."
Suddenly Mickey whooped. He tumbled on the grass in the fence corner and twisted in wild laughter until he was worn out. Then he struggled up, and held out his hand to Junior.
"If you're willing," he said, "I'll give you the grip, and the password will be, 'Brothers!'"
Malcolm and the Hermit Thrush
"Mr. Dovesky, I want a minute with you," said James Minturn.
"All right, Mr. Minturn, what is it?"
"You are well acquainted with Mrs. Minturn?"
"Very well indeed!" said Mr. Dovesky. "I have had the honour of working with her in many concerts."
"And of her musical ability you are convinced?"
"Brilliant is the only word," exclaimed the Professor.
"My reason for asking is this," said Mr. Minturn: "one of our boys, the second, Malcolm, is like his mother, and lately we discovered that he has her gift in music. We ran on it through Miss Leslie Winton, who interested Mrs. Minturn in certain wild birds."
"Yes I know," cried the Professor eagerly.
"When she became certain that she had heard a—I think she said Song Sparrow, sing Di Provenza from Traviata—correct me if I am wrong—until she felt that Verdi copied the bird or the bird copied the master, she told my wife, and Nellie was greatly interested."
"Yes I know," repeated the musician. "She stopped here one day in passing and told me what she had heard from Miss Winton. She asked me if I thought there were enough in the subject to pay for spending a day investigating it. I knew very little, but on the chance that she would have a more profitable time in the woods than in society, I strongly urged her to go. She heard enough to convince her, for shortly after leaving for her usual summer trip she wrote me twice concerning it."
"You mean she wrote you about studying bird music?"
"Yes," said the Professor, "the first letter, if I remember, came from Boston, where she found much progress had been made; there she heard of a man who had gone into the subject more deeply than any one ever before had investigated, and written a book. Her second letter was from the country near Boston, where she had gone to study under his direction. I have thought about taking it up myself at odd times this spring."
"That is why I am here," said Mr. Minturn. "I want you to begin at once, and go as far as you are able, taking Malcolm with you. The boys have been spending much of their time in the country lately, hiding in blinds, selecting a bird and practising its notes until they copy them so perfectly they induce it to answer. They are proud as Pompey when they succeed; and it teaches them to recognize the birds. I believe this is setting their feet in the right way. But Malcolm has gone so fast and so far, that he may be reproducing some of the most wonderful of the songs, for all I know, for the birds come peering, calling, searching, even to the very branch which conceals him. Isn't it enough for a beginning?"
"Certainly," said the musician.
"He's been badly spoiled by women servants," said Mr. Minturn, "but the men are taking that out of him as fast as it can be eliminated. I believe he is interested enough to work. I think his mother will be delighted on her return to find him working at what she so enjoys. Does the proposition interest you?"
"Deeply!" cried the Professor. "Matters musical are extremely dull here now, and I can't make my usual trip abroad on account of the war; I should be delighted to take up this new subject, which I could make serve me in many ways with my advanced Conservatory pupils."
"May I make a suggestion?" asked Mr. Minturn.
"Most assuredly," exclaimed the Professor.
"You noticed I began by admitting I didn't know a thing about it, so I'll not be at all offended if you indorse the statement. My boys are large, and old for the beginning they must make. I have to go carefully to find what they care for and will work at; so that I get them started without making them feel confined and forced, and so conceive a dislike for the study to which I think them best adapted. Would you find the idea of going to the country, putting a tuned violin in the hands of the lad, and letting him search for the notes he hears, and then playing the composers' selections to him, and giving his ear a chance, at all feasible?"
"It's a reversal, but he could try it."
"Very well, then," said Mr. Minturn rising. "All I stipulate is that you allow the other boys and the tutor to go along and assimilate what they can, and that when you're not occupied with Malcolm, their tutor shall have a chance to work in what he can in the way of spelling, numbers, and nature study. Is it a bargain?"
"A most delightful one on my part, Mr. Minturn," said Mr. Dovesky. "When shall I begin?"
"Whenever you have selected the instrument you want the boy to have, call Mr. Tower at my residence and arrange with him to come for you," said Mr. Minturn. "You can't start too soon to suit the boy or me."
"Very well then, I'll make my plans and call the first thing in the morning," said the Professor.
James Minturn went home and told what he had done.
"Won't that be great, Malcolm?" cried James Jr. "Maybe you can do the music so well you can be a birdman and stand upon a stage before a thousand people and make all of them think you're a bird."
"I believe I'd like to do it," said Malcolm. "If I find out the people who make music have gone and copied in what the birds sing, and haven't told they did it, I'll tell on them. It's no fair way, 'cause of course the birds sang their songs before men, didn't they father?"
"I think so, but I can't prove it," said Mr. Minturn.
"Can you prove it, Mr. Tower?" asked Malcolm.
"Yes," said Mr. Tower, "science proves that the water forms developed first. Crickets were singing before the birds, and both before man appeared."
"Then that's what I think," said Malcolm.
"When are they to begin, James?" asked Mrs. Winslow.
"Mr. Dovesky is to call Mr. Tower in the morning and tell him what arrangements he has been able to make," answered Mr. Minturn. "Malcolm, you are old enough to recognize that he is a great man, and it is a big thing for him to leave his Conservatory and his work, and go to the woods to help teach one small boy what the birds say. You'll be very polite and obey him instantly, will you not?"
"Do I have to mind him just like he was Mr. Tower?"
"I don't think you are obeying Mr. Tower because you must," said Aunt Margaret. "Seems to me I saw you with your arms around his neck last night, and I think I heard you tell him that you'd give him all your money, except for your violin, if he wouldn't go away this winter. Honestly, Malcolm, do you obey Mr. Tower because you feel forced to?"
"No!" cried Malcolm. "We have dandy times! And we are learning a lot too! I wonder if Mr. Dovesky will join our campfire?"
"Very probably he'll be eager to," said Mrs. Winslow, "and more than likely you'll obey him, just as you do father and Mr. Tower, because you love to."
"Father, are William and I going to study the birds?" asked James.
"If you like," said Mr. Minturn. "It would please me greatly if each of you would try hard to understand what Mr. Dovesky teaches Malcolm, and to learn all of it you can, and to produce creditable bird calls if possible; and of course these days you're not really educated unless you know the birds, flowers, and animals around you. It is now a component and delightful part of life."
"Gee, it's a pity mother isn't here," said Malcolm. "I bet she knows more about it than Mr. Dovesky."
"I bet she does, too," agreed James. "But she wouldn't go where we do. There isn't a party there, and if a mosquito bit her she'd have a fit."
"Aw! She would if she wanted to!" insisted Malcolm.
"Well she wouldn't want to!" said James.
"Well she might, smarty," said Malcolm. "She did once! I saw the boots and skirt she was going to wear. Don't you wish she liked the things we do better than parties, father?"
"Yes, I wish she did," said Mr. Minturn. "Maybe she will."
"If she'd hear me call the quail and the whip-poor-will, she'd like it," said Malcolm.
"She wouldn't like it well enough to stay away from a party to go with you to hear it," said James.
"She might!" persisted Malcolm. "She didn't know about this when she went to the parties. When she comes back I'm going to tell her; and I'm going to take her to hear me, and I'll show her the flowers and my fish-pond, and yours and father's. Wouldn't it be fun if she'd wear the boots again, and make a fish-pond too?"
"Yes, she'd wear boots!" scoffed James.
"Well she would if she wanted to," reiterated Malcolm. "She wore them when she wanted to hear the birds; if she did once, she would again, if she pleased."
"Well she wouldn't please," laughed James.
"Well she might," said Malcolm stubbornly. "Mightn't she, father?"
"If she went once, I see no reason why she shouldn't again," said Mr. Minturn.
"Course she'll go again!" triumphed Malcolm. "I'll make her, when she comes."
"Yes 'when' she comes!" jeered James. "She won't ever live here! She wouldn't think this was good enough for Lucette and Gretchen! And she gave away our house for the sick children, and she hates it at grandmother's! Bet she doesn't ever come again!"
"Bet she does!" said Malcolm instantly.
"Would you like to have mother come here, Malcolm?" interrupted Mr. Minturn quietly.
"Why——" he said and shifted his questioning gaze toward Aunt Margaret, "why—why—well, I'll tell you, father: if she would wear boots and go see the birds and the flowers—if she would do as we do——Sometimes in the night I wake up and think how pretty she is, and I just get hungry to see her—but of course it would only kick up a row for her to come here—of course she better stay away—but father, if she would come, and if she would wear the boots—and if she'd let old slapping Lucette go, and live as we do, father, wouldn't that be great?"
"Yes I think it would," said James Minturn conclusively, as he excused himself and arose from the table.
"James," said Malcolm, when they went to their schoolroom, "if Mr. Dovesky goes to shutting us up in the study and won't let us play while we learn, what will we do to him to make him sick of his job?"
"Oh things would turn up!" replied James. "But Malcolm, wouldn't you kind o' hate to have him see you be mean?"
"Well father saw us be mean," said Malcolm.
"Yes, but what would you give if he hadn't?"
"I'm not proud of it," replied Malcolm.
"Yes and that's just it!" cried James. "That's just what comes of living here. All of them are so polite, and if you are halfway decent they are so good to you, and they help you to do things that will make you into a man who needn't be ashamed of himself—that's just it! How would you like to go back and be so rough and so mean nobody at all would care for us?"
"Father wouldn't let us, would he?" asked Malcolm.
"He wouldn't if he could help it," said James. "He didn't used to seem as if he could help it. Don't you remember he would tell us it was not the right way, and try to have us be decent, and Lucette would tell mother, and mother would fire him? I wonder how she could! And if she could then, why doesn't she now? I guess he doesn't want to stop her party to bother with us; but if she ever conies and wants to take us back like we were, Malcolm, I'm not going. I like what we got now. Mother always said we were to be gentlemen; but we never could be that way. Father and Mr. Tower and Mr. Dovesky are gentlemen, just as kind, and easy, and fine. When we were mean as could be, and acted like fight-cats, you remember father and Mr. Tower only held us; they didn't get mad and beat us. If mother comes you may go with her if you want to."
"I wish she'd come with us!" said Malcolm.
"Not mother! We ain't her kind of a party."
"I know it," admitted Malcolm slowly. "Sometimes I want her just awful. I wonder why?"
"I guess it's 'cause a boy is born wanting his mother. I want her myself a lot of times, but I wouldn't go with her if she'd come today, so I don't know why I want her, but I do sometimes."
"I didn't know you did," said Malcolm.
"Well I do," said James, "but I ain't ever going. Often I think the queerest things!"
"What queer things do you think, James?"
"Why like this," said James. "That it ain't safe to let children be jerked, and their heads knocked. You know what Lucette did to Elizabeth? I think she hit her head too hard. She gave me more cake, and said I was a good boy for saying the ice made her sick, but all the time I thought it was hitting her head. I wouldn't be the boy who said that again, if I had to be shot for not saying it, like the French boy was about the soldiers. 'Member that day?"
"Yes I do," said Malcolm shortly.
"You know you coaxed her off the bench, and I pushed her in!" said James, slowly.
"Yes," said Malcolm. "And I kicked her. And I wasn't mad at her a bit. I wonder why I did it!"
"I guess you did it because you were more of an animal than a decent boy, same as I pushed her," said James. "I guess I won't ever forget that I pushed her."
"Pushing her wasn't as bad as what I did," said Malcolm. "I guess ain't either one of us going to feel right about Elizabeth again, long as we live."
"Malcolm, we can't get her back," said James, "but if any way happens that we ever get another little sister, we'll take care of her like father wanted to."
"You bet we will!" said Malcolm.
Next morning the boys had the car ready. They packed in all their bird books, their flower records, and botanies, and were eagerly waiting when the call from Mr. Dovesky came. At once they drove to his home for him, and from there to a music store where a violin was selected for Malcolm.
Mr. Dovesky was so big, the boys stood in awe of his size. He was so clean, no boy would want him to see him dirty. He was so handsome, it was good to watch his face, because you had to like him when he smiled. He was so polite, that you never for a minute forgot that soon you were going to be a man, and if you could be the man you wished, you would be exactly like him. Both boys were very shy of him and very much afraid his entrance into their party would spoil their fun.
When they left the music store, Malcolm carefully carrying his new violin, Mr. Dovesky his, and a roll of music, the boys with anxious hearts awaited developments.
"Now Mr. Tower," said Mr. Dovesky, "suppose we drive wherever you are likely to find the birds you have been practising on, and for a start let me hear just what you have done and can do, and then I can plan better to work in with you."
When they reached the brook they stopped to show the fish pools and then entered an old orchard, long abandoned for fruit growing and so worm infested as to make it a bird Paradise. Cuckoos, jays, robins, bluebirds, thrashers, orioles, sparrows, and vireos, nested there, singing on wing, among the trees, on the fences, and from bushes in the corners.
Malcolm and Mr. Dovesky secreted themselves on a board laid across the rails of an alder-filled fence corner, then the boy began pointing out the birds he knew and giving his repetition of their calls, cries, bits of song, sometimes whistled, sometimes half spoken, half whistled, any vocal rendition that would produce the bird tones. He had practised carefully, he was slightly excited, and sooner than usual he received replies. Little feathered folk came peeping, peering, calling, and beyond question answering Malcolm's notes. In an hour Mr. Dovesky was holding his breath with interest, suggesting corrections, trying notes himself, and when he felt he had whistled accurately and heard a bird reply, he was as proud as the boy.
Then a thing happened that none of them had mentioned, because they were not sure enough that it would. A brown thrush, catching the unusual atmosphere of the orchard that morning, selected the tallest twig of an apple tree and showed that orchard what real music was.
The thrush preened, flirted his feathers, opened his beak widely and sang his first liquid notes. "Starts on C," commented Mr. Dovesky softly.
"Three times, and does it over, to show us we needn't think it was an accident and he can't do it as often as he pleases," whispered Malcolm. Mr. Dovesky glanced at the boy and nodded.
"There he goes from C to E," he commented an instant later, "repeats that —C again, falls to B, up to G, repeats that—I wish he would wait till I get my pencil."
"I can give it to you," said Malcolm. "He does each strain over as soon as he sings it. I know his song!"
On the back of an envelope, Mr. Dovesky was sketching a staff of music in natural key, setting off measures and filling in notes. As the bird confused him with repetitions or trills on E or C so high he had to watch sharply to catch just what it was, his fingers trembled when he added lines to the staff for the highest notes. For fifteen minutes the blessed bird sang, and at each rendition of its full strain, it seemed to grow more intoxicated with its own performance. Finishing the last notes perfectly, the bird gave a hop, glanced around as if he were saying: "Now any one who thinks he can surpass that, has my permission to try." From a bush a small gray bird meouwed in derision and accepted the challenge. The watchers could not see him, but he came so close singing the same song that he deceived Mr. Dovesky, for he said: "He's going to do it over from the bushes now!"
"Listen!" cautioned Malcolm. "Don't you hear the difference? He starts the same, but he runs higher, he drops lower, and does it quicker, and I think the notes clearer and sweeter when the little gray fellow sings them, and you should see his nest! Do you like him better?"
"Humph!" said Mr. Dovesky. "Why I was so entranced with the first performance I didn't suppose anything could be better. I must have time to learn both songs, and analyze and compare."
"I can't do gray's yet," said Malcolm. "It's so fine, and cut up, with going up and down on the jump, but I got the start of it, and the part that goes this way——"
"This is my work!" cried Mr. Dovesky. "Is there any chance the apple-tree bird will repeat his performance?"
"Mostly he doesn't till evening," answered Malcolm. "He's pretty sure to again to-morrow morning, but old cat of the bushes, he sings any time it suits him all day. His nest isn't where he sings, and he doesn't ever perch up so high and make such a fuss about it, but I think mother would like his notes best."
"First," said Mr. Dovesky, "I'll take down what Mr. Brown Bird sang, and learn it. I'd call that a good start, and when I get his song so I can whistle, and play it on the instruments, then we'll go at Mr. Cat's song, and see if I can learn why, and in what way you think it finer."
"Oh, it goes from high to low quicker, more notes in a bunch, and sweeter tones trilling," explained Malcolm. Mr. Dovesky laughed, saying in a question of music that would constitute quite a difference. They went to the brook and lunched and made easy records of syllabic calls that could be rendered in words and by whistling. Then all of them gathered around Mr. Dovesky while he drew lines, crossed them with bands and explained the staff, and different time, and signatures, and together they had their first music lesson.
Malcolm whistled the thrush song while Mr. Dovesky copied the notes, tuned the violin, and showed the boy how the strings corresponded to the lines he had made, where the notes lay on them, and how to draw them out with the bow. He could not explain fast enough to satisfy the eager lad. After Mr. Dovesky had gone as far as he thought wise, and left off with music, he wandered with Mr. Tower hunting flowers in which he seemed almost as much interested as the music. Malcolm clung to the violin, and over and over ran the natural scale he had been taught; then slowly, softly, with wavering awkward bow, he began whistling plain easy calls, and hunting up and down the strings for them.
That day was the beginning. Others did not dawn fast enough to suit Malcolm, while the ease with which he mastered the songs of the orchard and reproduced them, in a few days set him begging to be taken to the swamp to hear the bird that sang "from the book." Leslie Winton was added to the party that day. Malcolm came from the land of the tamarack obsessed. James, William, and the tutor did not care for that location, but Malcolm and Mr. Dovesky wanted to erect a tent and take provisions and their instruments and live among the dim coolness, where miracles of song burst on the air at any moment. They heard and identified the veery. They went on their knees at their first experience with the clear, bell-toned notes of the wood thrush. With a little practice Malcolm could reproduce the "song from the book." He talked of it incessantly, sang and whistled it, making patent to every member of the family that what was in his heart was fully as much a desire to do the notes so literally that he would win the commendation of his mother, as to obtain an answer from an unsuspecting bird; for that was the sport. The big thing for which to strive! They worked to obtain a record so accurately, to reproduce it so perfectly that the bird making it would answer and come at their call. The day Malcolm, hidden in the tamarack swamp, coaxed the sparrow, now flitting widely in feeding its young, he knew not how far, to the bush sheltering him, and with its own notes set it singing against him as a rival, the boy was no happier than Mr. Dovesky.
Mr. Minturn could not quite agree to the camp at the swamp, but he provided a car and a driver and allowed them to go each morning and often to remain late at night to practise owl and nighthawk calls, veery notes, chat cries, and the unsurpassed melody of the evening vespers of the Hermit bird. This song once heard, comprehended, copied, and reproduced, the musician and the boy with music in his heart, brain, and finger tips, clung to each other and suffered the exquisite pain of the artist experiencing joy so poignant it hurt. After a mastery of those notes as to time, tone, and grouping, came the task of perfecting them so that the bird would reply.
Hours they practised until far in the night, and when Malcolm felt he really had located a bird, gained its attention, and set it singing against him, he was wild, and nothing would satisfy him but that his father should go to the swamp with him, and well hidden, hear and see that he called the bird. Gladly Mr. Minturn assented. Whether the boy succeeded in this was a matter of great importance to his father, but it was not paramount. The thing that concerned him most was that Malcolm's interest in what he was doing, his joy in the study he was making, had bred a deep regard in his heart for his instructor. The boy loved the man intensely in a few days, and immediately began studying with him, watching him, copying him. He moved with swift alertness, spoke with care to select the best word, and was fast becoming punctiliously polite.
On their return Mr. Dovesky had fallen into the habit of lunching with the Minturns. The things of which he and the boy reminded each other, the notes they reproduced by whistling, calling, or a combination, the execution of these on the violin, the references Mr. Dovesky made to certain bird songs which recalled to his mind passages in operas, in secular and sacred productions, his rendition of the wild music, and then the human notes, his comparison of the two, and his remarks on different composers, his mastery of the violin, and his ability to play long passages preceding and following the parts taken from the birds, were intensely absorbing and educative to all of them. Then Mr. Tower would add the description and history of each bird in question. Mr. Minturn started the boys' library with interesting works on ornithology, everything that had been written concerning strains in bird and human music; the lives and characters of the musicians in whose work the bird passages appeared, or who used melodies so like the birds it made the fact apparent the feathered folk had inspired them. This led to minute examination of the lives of the composers, in an effort to discover which of them were country born and had worked in haunts where birds might be heard. The differing branches of information opened up seemed endless. The change this work made in the boys appeared to James Minturn and his sister as something marvellous. That the work was also making a change in the heart of the man himself, was an equal miracle he did not realize.
As each day new avenues opened, he began to understand dimly how much it would have meant to him in his relations with his wife, if he had begun long ago under her tuition and learned, at least enough to appreciate the one thing outside society, which she found absorbing. He began to see that if he had listened, and tried, and had induced her to repeat to him parts of the great composers she so loved, on her instruments, when they reached home, he soon could have come to recognize them, and so an evening at the opera with her would have meant pleasure to himself instead of stolid endurance. Ultimately it might have meant an effective wedge with which to pry against the waste of time, strength and money on the sheer amusement of herself in society. Once he started searching for them, he found many ways in which he might have made his life with his wife different, if indeed he had not had it in his power to effect a complete change by having been firm in the beginning.
Of this one thing he was sure to certainty: that if he had been able to introduce any such element of interest into his wife's residence as he had, through merely saying the word, in his own, it surely would have made some of the big difference then it was making now. He found himself brooding, yearning over his sons, and his feeling for them broadening and deepening. As he daily saw James seeking more and more to be with him, to understand what he was doing, his pride in being able to feel that he had helped if it were no more than to sit in court and hand a marked book at the right moment, he began to make a comrade of, and to develop a feeling of dependence on, the boy.
He watched Malcolm with his quicker intellect, his daily evidence of temperament, his rapidly developing musical ability, and felt the tingle of pride in his lithe ruddy beauty, so like his mother, and his talent, so like hers. The boy, under the interest of the music, and with the progress he was making in doing a new, unusual thing, soon began to develop her mannerisms; when he was most polite, her charm was apparent; when he was offended, her hauteur enveloped him. When he was pleased and happy, her delicate tinge of rose flushed his transparent cheek, while the lights on his red-brown hair glinted with her colour. He shut himself in his room and worked with his violin until time to start to the tamarack swamp. When Mr. Minturn promptly appeared with the car, he found Malcolm had borrowed Mr. Dovesky's khaki suit and waders for him, and on the advice of the boy he wore the stiff coarse clothing, which the tamaracks would not tear, the mosquitoes could not bite through, and muck and water would not easily penetrate—there were many reasons.
When they reached the swamp both of them put on boots and then, following his son and doing exactly what he was told, James Minturn forgot law, politics, and business. With anxious heart he prayed that the bird the lad wished to sing would evolve its sweetest notes, and that his high hope of reproducing the music perfectly enough to induce the singer to answer would be fulfilled. Malcolm advanced softly, slipping under branches, around bushes, over deep moss beds that sank in an ooze of water at the pressure of a step and sprung back on release. Imitating every caution, stepping in the boy's tracks, and keeping a few rods behind, followed his father. He had rolled his sleeves to the elbow, left his shirt open at the throat, while for weeks the joy of wind and weather on his bared head had been his, so that as he silently followed his son he made an impressive figure. At a certain point Malcolm stopped, motioning his father to come to him.
"Now this is as far as I've gone yet," he whispered. "You stay here, and we'll wait till the music begins. If I can do it as well as I have for three nights, and get an answer, I'm going to try to call the Hermit bird I sing with. If a hen answers, I'll do the male notes, and try to coax her where you can see. If a male sings, I'll do his song once or twice to show you how close I can come, and then I'll do the hen's call note, and see if I can coax him out for you. If I creep ahead, you keep covered as much as you can and follow; but stay as far as that big tree behind me, and don't for your life move or make a noise when I'm still. I'll go far ahead as I want to be, to start on. Now don't forget to be quiet, and listen hard!"
"I won't forget!" said James Minturn.
"Oh but it will be awful if one doesn't sing to-night!"
"Not at all!" answered Mr. Minturn. "This is a new experience for me; I'll get the benefit of a sight of the swamp that will pay for the trip, if I don't even see a bird."
By the boy's sigh of relief the father knew he had quieted his anxiety. Malcolm went softly ahead a few yards, and stopped, sheltering himself in a clump of willow and button bushes. His father made himself as inconspicuous as he could and waited. He studied the trunks of the big scaly trees, the intermingled branches covered with tufts of tiny spines, and here and there the green cones nestling upright. The cool water rising around his feet called his attention to the deep moss bed, silvery green in the evening light. Here and there on moss mounds at the tree bases he could see the broad leaves and ripening pods that he thought must be moccasins seeding. Then his eye sought the crouching boy, and he again prayed that he would not be disappointed; with his prayer came the answer. A sweep of wings overhead, a brown flash through the tamaracks, and then a burst of slow, sweet notes, then silence.
James Minturn leaned forward, his eyes on his son, his precious little lad. How the big strong man hoped, until it became the very essence of prayer, that he would be granted the pride and pleasure, the triumph, of success; for his ears told him that to reproduce the notes he had just heard would undoubtedly be the crowning performance of bird music; surely there could be no other songster gifted like that! The bird made a short flight and sang again. Across the swamp came a repetition of his notes from another of his kind, so the brown streak moved in that direction. At its next pause its voice arose again, sweeter for the mellowing distance, and then another bird, not so far away, answered. The bird replied and came winging in sight, this time peering, uttering a short note, unlike its song; and not until it came searching where he could see it distinctly, did James Minturn awake to the realization that the last notes had been Malcolm's. His heart swelled big with prideful possession. What a wonderful accomplishment! What a fine boy! How careful he must be to help and to guide him.
Again the bird across the swamp sang and the one in sight turned in that direction. Then began a duet that was a marvellous experience. The far bird called. Malcolm answered. Soon they heard a reply. Mr. Minturn saw the boy beckoning him, and crept to his side.
"It's a female," whispered Malcolm. "I'm going to sing the male notes and calls, and try to toll her. You follow, but don't get too close and scare her."
The father could see the tense poise of Malcolm, stepping lightly, avoiding the open, stooping beneath branches, hiding in bushes, making his way onward, at every complete ambush sending forth those wonderful notes. At each repetition it seemed to the father that the song grew softer, more pleading, of fuller intonation; and then his heart almost stopped, for he began to realize that each answer to the boy's call was closer than the one before. Malcolm would sleep that night with a joyful heart. He was tolling the bird he imitated; it was coming at his call, of that there could be no question. His last notes came from a screen of spreading button bushes and northern holly. At the usual interval they heard the reply, but recognizably closer. Malcolm raised his hand without moving or looking back, but his father saw, and interpreted the gesture to mean that the time had come for him to stop. He took a few steps to conceal himself, for he was between trees when the signal came, and paused, already so elated he wanted to shout; he scarcely could restrain the impulse. What was the use in going farther? His desire was to race back to Multiopolis at speed limit to tell Mr. Dovesky, Margaret, and Mr. Tower what a triumph he had witnessed. He wanted to talk about it to his men friends and business associates.
Distinctly, through the slowly darkening green, he could see the boy putting all his heart into the song. James Minturn watched so closely he was not mistaken in thinking he could see the lad's figure grow tense as he delivered the notes, and relax when the answer relieved his anxiety as to whether it would come again, and then gather for another trial. At the last call the reply came from such a short distance that Mr. Minturn began intently watching from his shelter to witness the final triumph of seeing the bird Malcolm had called across the swamp, come into view. He could see that the boy was growing reckless, for as he delivered the strain, he stepped almost into the open, watching before him and slowly going ahead. With the answer, there was a discernible movement a few yards away. Mr. Minturn saw the boy start, and gazed at him. With bent body Malcolm stared before him, and then his father heard his amazed, awed cry: "Why mother! Is that you, mother?"
"Malcolm! Are you Malcolm?" came the incredulous answer.
James Minturn was stupefied. Distinctly he could see now. He did not recognize the knee boots, the outing suit of coarse green material, but the beautiful pink face slowly paling, the bright waving hair framing it, he knew very well. Astonishment bound him. Malcolm advanced another step, still half dazed, and cried: "Why, have I been calling you? I thought it was the bird I saw, still answering!"
"And I believed you were the Hermit singing!" she said.
"But you fooled the bird," said the boy. "Close here it answered you."
"And near me it called you," said Mrs. Minturn. "Your notes were quite as perfect."
Malcolm straightened and seemed reassured.
"Why mother!" he exclaimed. "When did you study bird music? Have you just come back?"
"I've been away only two weeks, Malcolm," she answered, "and if it hadn't been for learning the bird notes, I'd have returned sooner."
"But where have you been?" cried the boy.
"At home. I reserved my suite!" she answered.
"But home's all torn up, and pounding and sick people, and you hate pounding and sick people," he reminded her.
"There wasn't so very much noise, Malcolm," she said, "and I've changed about sickness. You have to suffer yourself to do that. Once you learn how dreadful pain is, you feel only pity for those who endure it. Every night when the nurses are resting, I change so no one knows me, and slip into the rooms of the suffering little children who can't sleep, and try to comfort them."
"Mother, who takes care of you?" he questioned.
"A very sensible girl named Susan," she answered.
The boy went a step closer.
"Mother, have you changed about anything besides sickness?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes Malcolm," said his mother. "I've changed about every single thing in all this world that I ever said, or did, or loved, when you knew me."
"You have?" he cried in amazement. "Would you wear that dress and come to the woods with us now, and do some of the things we like?"
"I'd rather come here with you, and sing these bird notes than anything else I ever did," she answered.
Malcolm advanced another long stride.
"Mother, is Susan a pounding, beating person like Lucette?" he asked anxiously.
"No," she said softly. "Susan likes children. When she's not busy for me, she goes into the music room and plays games, and sings songs to little sick people."
"Because you know," said Malcolm, "James and I talk it over when we are alone, we never let father hear because he loved Elizabeth so, and he's so fine—mother you were mistaken about father not being a gentleman, not even Mr. Dovesky is a finer gentleman than father—and father loved her so; but mother, James and I saw. We believe if it had been the cream, it would have made us sick too, and we're so ashamed of what we did; if we had another chance, we'd be as good to a little sister as father is to us. Mother, we wish we had her back so we could try again——"
Nellie Minturn shut her eyes and swayed on her feet, but presently she spoke in a harsh, breathless whisper, yet it carried, even to the ears of the listening man.
"Yes Malcolm, I'd give my life, oh so gladly if I could bring her back and try over——"
"You wouldn't have any person like Lucette around, would you mother?" he questioned.
"Not ever again Malcolm," she answered. "I'd have Little Sister back if it were possible, but that can't ever be, because when we lose people as Elizabeth went, they never can come back; but I'll offer my life to come as near replacing her as possible, and everywhere I've neglected you, and James, and father. I'll do the best there is in me, if any of you love me, or want me in the least, or will give me an opportunity to try."
"Mother, would you come where we are? Would you live as we do?" marvelled the boy.
"Gladly," she answered. "It's about the only way I could live now, I've given away so much of the money."
"Then I'll ask father!" cried the boy. "Why I forgot! Father is right back here! Father! Father! Father come quick! Father it wasn't the Hermit bird at all, it was mother! And oh joy, father, joy! She's just changed and changed, till she's most as changed as we are! She'll come back, father, and she'll go to the woods with us, oh she will! Father, you're glad, aren't you?"
When Nellie Minturn saw her husband coming across the mosses, his arms outstretched, his face pain-tortured, she came swiftly forward, and as she reached Malcolm, Mr. Minturn caught both of them in his arms crying: "My sweetheart! My beautiful sweetheart, give me another chance, and this time I'll be the head of my family in deed and in truth, and I'll make life go right for all of us."
"I'm sorry no end!" said Mickey. "First time I ever been late. I was helping Peter; we were so busy that the first thing I knew I heard the hum of her gliding past the clover field, so I was left. I know how hard you're working. It won't happen again."
Mickey studied his friend closely. He decided the time had come to watch. Douglas Bruce was pale and restless, he spent long periods in frowning thought. He aroused from one of these and asked: "What were you and Peter doing that was so very absorbing?"
"Well about the most interesting thing that ever happened," said Mickey. "You see Peter is one of the grandest men who ever lived; he's so fine and doing so many big things, in a way he kind of fell behind in the little ones."
"I've heard of men doing that before," commented Douglas. "Can't you tell me a new one?"
"Sure!" said Mickey. "You know the place and how good it seems on the outside—well it didn't look so good inside, in the part that counted most. You've noticed the big barns, sheds and outbuildings, all the modern conveniences for a man, from an electric lantern to a stump puller; everything I'm telling you—and for the nice lady, nix! Her work table faced a wall covered with brown oilcloth, and frying pans heavy enough to sprain Willard, a wood fire to boil clothes and bake bread, in this hot weather, the room so low and dark, no ice box, with acres of ice close every winter, no water inside, no furnace, and carrying washtubs to the kitchen for bathing as well as washing, aw gee—you get the picture?"
"I certainly do," agreed Douglas, "and yet she was a neat, nice-looking little woman."
"Sure!" said Mickey. "If she had to set up housekeeping in Sunrise Alley in one day you could tell her place from anybody else's. Sure, she's a nice lady! But she has troubles of her own. I guess everybody has."
"Yes, I think they have," assented Douglas. "I could muster a few right now, myself."
"Yes?" cried Mickey. "That's bad! Let's drop this and cut them out."
"Presently," said Douglas. "My head is so tired it will do me good to think about something else a few minutes. You were saying Mrs. Harding had trouble; what is it?"
Mickey returned to his subject with a chuckle.
"She was 'bout ready to tackle them nervous prostrations so popular with the Swell Dames," he explained, "because every morning for fifteen years she'd faced the brown oilcloth and pots and pans, while she'd been wild to watch sunup from under a particular old apple tree; when she might have seen it every morning if Peter had been on his job enough to saw a window in the right place. Get that?"
"Yes, I get it," conceded Douglas. "Go on!"
"Well I began her work so she started right away, and before she got back in comes Peter. When he asks where she was and why she went, I was afraid, but for her sake I told him. I told him everything I had noticed. At first he didn't like it."
"It's a wonder he didn't break your neck."
"Well," said Mickey judicially, "as I size Peter up he'd fight an awful fight if he was fighting, but he ain't much on starting a fight. I worked the separator steady, and by and by when I 'summed up the argument,' as a friend of mine says, I guess that cream separator didn't look any bigger to Peter, set beside a full house and two or three sheds for the stuff he'd brought to make his work easier, than it did to me."
"I'll wager it didn't," laughed Douglas.
"No it didn't!" cried Mickey earnestly. "And when he stood over it awhile, that big iron stove made his kitchen, where his wife lived most of her day, seem 'bout as hot as my room where he was raving over Lily having been; and when he faced the brown oilcloth and the old iron skillets for a few minutes of silent thought, he bolted at about two. Peter ain't so slow!"
"What did he do?" asked Douglas.
"Why we planned to send her on a visit," said Mickey, "and cut that window, and move in the pump, and invest in one of those country gas plants, run on a big tank of gasoline away outside where it's all safe, and a bread-mixer, and a dishwasher, and some lighter cooking things; but we got interned."
"How Mickey?" interestedly inquired Douglas.
"Remember I told you about Junior coming in to hunt work because he was tired of the country, and how it turned out?" said Mickey.
"Yes I recall perfectly," answered Douglas.
"There's a good one on me about that I haven't told you yet, but I will," said Mickey. "Well when son came home, wrapped in a comfort, there was a ripping up on the part of Peter. He just 'hurled back the enemy,' and who do you think he hit the hardest?"
"I haven't an idea," said Douglas.
"In your shoes, I wouldn't a-had one either," said Mickey. "Well, he didn't go for Junior, or his Ma, or me. Peter stood Mister Peter Harding out before us, and then didn't leave him a leg to stand on. He proved conclusive he'd used every spare moment he'd had since Junior was in short clothes, carrying him to Multiopolis to amuse him, and feed him treats, and show him shows; so he was to blame if Junior developed a big consuming appetite for such things. How does the argument strike you?"
"Sound!" cried Douglas. "Perfectly sound! It's precisely what the land owners are doing every day of their lives, and then wailing because the cities take their children. I've had that studied out for a year past."
"Well Peter figured it right there for us in detail," said Mickey. "Then he tackled Ma Harding and her sunup, and then he thought out a way to furnish entertainment and all the modern comforts right there at home."
"What entertainment?" said Douglas.
"Well he specified saddles and horses to ride," grinned Mickey, "and swimming, and a fishing-boat and tackle for all of us, a launch on whatever lake we like best, a big entertainment house with a floor for skating and dancing, and a stage for plays we will get up ourselves, and a movie machine. I'm to find out how to run one and teach them, and then he'll rent reels and open it twice a week. The big hole that will cave in on the north side of Multiopolis soon now will be caused by the slump when our neighbourhood withdraws its patronage and begins being entertained by Peter. And you'll see that it will work, too!"
"Of course it will," agreed Douglas. "Once the country folk get the idea it will go like a landslide. So that's what made you late?"
"Well connected with that," explained Mickey. "Peter didn't do a thing but figure up the price he'd paid for every labour-saver he ever bought for himself, and he came out a little over six thousand. He said he wouldn't have wanted Ma in a hardware store selecting his implements, so he guessed he wouldn't choose hers. He just drew a check for what he said was her due, with interest, and put it in her name in the bank, and told her to cut loose and spend it exactly as she pleased."
"What did she do?" marvelled Douglas.
"Well she was tickled silly, but she didn't lose her head; she began investigating what had been put on the market to meet her requirements. At present we are living on the threshing floor mostly, and the whole house is packed up; when it is unpacked, there'll be a bathroom on the second floor, and a lavatory on the first. There'll be a furnace in one room of the basement, and a coal bin big enough for a winter's supply. We can hitch on to the trolley line for electric lights all over the house, and barn, and outbuildings, and fireless cooker, iron, and vacuum cleaner, and a whole bunch of conveniences for Ma, including a washing machine, and stationary tubs in the basement. Gee! Get the picture?"
"I surely do! What else Mickey?" asked Douglas. "You know I've a house to furnish soon myself."
"Well a new kitchen on the other end of the building where there's a breeze, and a big clover field, and a wood, and her work table right where it is in line with her private and particular sunup. There's a big sink with hot and cold water, and a dishwasher. There's a bread-mixer and a little glass churn, both of which can be hitched to the electricity to run. There's a big register from the furnace close the work table for winter, and a gas cook stove that has more works than a watch."
"What does the lady say about it?"
"Mighty little!" said Mickey. "She just stands and wipes the shiny places with her apron or handkerchief, and laughs and cries, 'cause she's so glad. It ain't set up yet, but you can see just standing before it what it's going to mean for her. And there's a chute from the upstairs to the basement, to scoot the wash down to the electric machine to rub them, and a little gas stove with two burners to boil them, and the iron I told you of. Hanging it up is the hardest part of the wash these days, and since they have three big rooms in the basement, Peter thought this morning that he could put all the food in one, and stretch her lines in the winter for the clothes to dry in the washroom. The furnace will heat it, and it's light and clean; we are going to paint it when everything is in place."
"Is that all?" queried Douglas.
"It's a running start," said Mickey; "I don't know as Peter will ever get to 'all'. The kitchen is going to have white woodwork, and blue walls and blue linoleum, and new blue-and-white enamelled cooking things from start to finish, with no iron in the bunch except two skillets saved for frying. Even the dishpan is going to be blue, and she's crying and laughing same time while she hems blue-and-white wash curtains for the windows. All the house is going to have hardwood floors, the rooms cut more convenient; out goes the old hall into just a small place to take off your wraps, and the remainder added to the parlour. All the carpets and the old heavy curtains are being ground up and woven into rugs. Gee, it's an insurrection! Ma Harding and I surely started things when we planned to dose Junior on Multiopolis, and let her 'view the landscape o'er.' You can tell by her face she's seeing it! If she sails into the port o' glory looking more glorified, it'll be a wonder! And Peter! You ought to see Peter! And Junior! You should see Junior planning his room. And Mickey! You must see Mickey planning his! And Mary and Bobbie! And above all, you should see Lily! Last I saw of her, Peter was holding her under her arms, and she was shoving her feet before her trying to lift them up a little. We've most rubbed them off her with fine sand, and then stuck them in cold water, and then sanded them again, and they're not the same feet—that's a cinch!"
"Is that the sum of the Harding improvements?" asked Douglas, drawing fine lines on a sheet of figures before him.
"Well it's a fair showing," said Mickey. "We ain't got the new rugs, and the music box, and the books; or the old furniture rubbed and oiled yet. When the house is finished, Peter expressly specified that his lady was to get her clothes so she could go to the club house, and not be picked for a country woman by what she wore."
"Mickey, this is so interesting it has given my head quite a rest. Maybe now I can see my way clearly. But one thing more: how long are you planning to stay there? You talk as if——"
"'Stay there?'" said Mickey. "Didn't you hear me say there was a horse and saddle and a room for me, and a room for Lily? 'Stay there!' Why for ever and ever more! That's home! When I got into trouble and called on Peter to throw a lifeline, he did it up browner than his job for Ma. A line was all I asked; but Peter established a regular Pertectorate—nobody can 'get' us now——"
"You mean Peter adopted both of you?" cried Douglas.
"Sure!" indorsed Mickey with a flourish. "You see it was like this: when we dosed Junior with Multiopolis, the old threshing machine took a hand and did some things to him that wasn't on the program; he found out about it, and it made him mad. When he got his dander up he hit back by turning old Miss Country loose on me. First I tried a ram and yellow jackets; then only a little bunch of maple twigs was all the pull I had to keep me from going to the bottomless pit by the way of the nastiest quicksand on Atwater Lake. Us fellows went back one day and fed it logs bigger than I am, and it sucked them down like Peter does a plate of noodles. Then Junior thought curling a big dead rattler in the path, and shunting me so I'd step right on it, would be a prime joke; but he didn't figure on the snake he had fixed for me having a mate as big and ugly as it was, that would follow and coil zipping mad over the warm twisting body——"
"Mickey!" gasped Douglas.
"Just so! Exactly what I thought—and then some. When I dragged what was left of me home that night, and figured out where I'd been if the big maple hadn't spread its branch just as wide as it did, or if the snake had hit my leg 'stead of my britches—when I took my bearings and saw where I was at, the thing that really hurt me worst was that if I'd gone, either down or up, I hadn't done anything for Lily but give her a worse horror than she had, of being 'got' by them Orphings' Home people, when I should have made her safe forever. I took Peter to the barn and told him just how it was, 'cause I felt mighty queer. I wasn't so sure that one scratch on my leg that looked ugly mightn't a-been the snake striking through the cloth and dosing me some, I was so sick and swelled up; it turned out to be yellow jackets, but it might a-been snakes, and I was a little upset. As man to man I asked him what I ought to do for my family 'fore I took any more risks. A-body would have thought the jolt the box gave me would have been enough, but it wasn't! It took the snake and the quicksand to just right real wake me up. First I was some sore on Junior; but pretty quick I saw how funny it was, so I got over it——"
"He should have had his neck broken!"
"Wope! Wope! Back up!" cautioned Mickey. "Nothing of the kind! You ain't figuring on the starving, the beating, being knocked senseless, robbed of all his clothes twice, and landing in the morgue with the cleaning-house victims. Gee, Junior had reasons for his grouch!"
Douglas Bruce suddenly began to laugh wildly.
"Umhum! That's what I told you," said Mickey. "Well, that night I laid the case before Peter, out on the hay wagon in the barnyard, so moon white you could have read the Herald, the cattle grunting satisfied all around us, katydids insisting on it emphatic, crickets chirping, and the old rooster calling off the night watches same as he did for that first Peter, who denied his Lord. I thought about that, as I sat and watched the big fellow slowly whittling the rack, and once in a while putting in a question, and when I'd told him all there was to tell, he said this: he said sure Lily was mine, and I had a perfect right to keep her; but the law might butt in, 'cause there was a law we couldn't evade that could step in and take her any day. He said too, that if she had to go to the hospital, sudden, first question a surgeon would ask was who were her parents, and if she had none, who in their place could give him a right to operate. He said while she was mine, and it was my right, and my job, the law and the surgeon would say no, 'cause we were not related, and I was not of age. He said there were times when the law got its paddle in, and went to fooling with red tape, it let a sick person lay and die while it decided what to do. He said he'd known a few just exactly such cases; so to keep the law from making a fool of itself, as it often did, we'd better step in and fix things to suit us before it ever got a showdown."
"What did he do?" asked Douglas Bruce eagerly.
"Well, after we'd talked it over we moved up to the back porch and Peter explained to Ma, who is the boss of that family, only she doesn't know it, and she said for him to do exactly what his conscience and his God dictated. That's where his namesake put it over that first Peter. Our Peter said: 'Well if God is to dictate my course, you remember what He said about "suffering the little children to come to Him," and we are commanded to be like Him, so there's no way to twist it, but that it means suffer them to come to us,' he said.
"Ma she spoke quick and said: 'Well we've got them!'
"Peter said, 'Yes, we've got them; now the question is whether we keep them, or send them to an Orphings' Home.'
"The nice lady she said faster than I can tell you: 'Peter Harding, I'm ashamed of you! There's no question of that kind! There's never going to be!'
"'Well don't get het up about it,' said Peter. 'I knew all the time there wasn't, I just wanted to hear you say so plain and emphatic. So far as I'm concerned, my way is clear as noonday sun,' said Peter. 'Then you go first thing in the morning and adopt them, and adopt them both,' said Ma. 'Lily will make Mary just as good a sister as she could ever have,' said she, and then she reached over and put her arms right around me and she said, 'And if you think I'm going to keep on trying to run this house without Mickey, you're mistaken.' I began to cry, 'cause I had had a big day, and I was shaking on my feet anyway. Then Peter said, 'Have you figured it out to the end? Is it to be 'til they are of age, or forever?' She just gripped tighter and said fast as words can come, 'I say make it forever, and share and share alike. I'm willing if you are.' Peter, he said, 'I'm willing. They'll pay their way any place. Forever, and share and share alike, is my idea. Do you agree, Mickey?' 'Exactly what do you mean?' I asked, and Peter told me it was making me and Lily both his, just as far as the law could do it; we could go all the farther we wanted to ourselves. He said it meant him getting the same for me and Lily as he did for his own, and leaving us the same when he died. I told him he needn't do that, if he'd just keep off the old Orphings' Home devil, that's had me scared stiff all my days, I'd tend to that, so now me and Lily belong to Peter; he's our Pertectorate."
"Mickey, why didn't you tell me?" asked Douglas. "Why didn't you want me to adopt you?"
"Well so far as 'adopting' is concerned," said Mickey, "I ain't crazy about it, with anybody. But that's the law you men have made; a boy must obey it, even if he'd rather be skinned alive, and when he knows it ain't right or fair. That's the law. I was up against it, and I didn't know but I did have the snake, and Peter was on hand and made that offer, and he was grand and big about it. I don't love him any more than I do you; but I've just this minute discovered that it ain't in my skin to love any man more than I do Peter; so you'll have to get used to the fact that I love him just as well, and say, Mr. Bruce, Peter is the finest man you ever knew. If you'll come out and get acquainted, you'll just be tickled to have him in the Golf Club, and to come to his house, and to have him at yours. His nice lady is exactly like Miss Winton, only older. Say, she and Peter will adopt you too, if you say so, and between us, just as man to man, Peter is a regular lifesaver! If you got a chance you better catch on! No telling what you might want of him!"
"Mickey, you do say the most poignant things!" cried Douglas. "I'd give all I'm worth to catch on to Peter right now, and cling for much more than life; but what I started, I must finish, and Peter isn't here."
"Well what's the matter with me?" asked Mickey. "Have you run into the yellow jackets too? 'Cause if you have, I'm ahead of you, so I know what to do. Just catch on to me!"
"Think you are big enough to serve as a straw for a drowning man, Mickey?" inquired Douglas.
"Sure! I'm big enough to establish a Pertectorate over you, this minute. The weight of my body hasn't anything to do with the size of my heart, or how fast I can work my brains and feet, if I must."
"Mickey," said Douglas despairingly, "it's my candid opinion that no one can save me, right now."
Mickey opened his lips, and showed that his brain was working by shutting them abruptly on something that seemed very much as if it had started to be: "Sure!"
"Is that so?" he substituted.
"Yes, I'm in the sweat box," admitted Douglas.
"And it's uncomfortable and weakening. What's the first thing we must do to get you out?"
"What I'm facing now is the prospect that there's no way for me to get out, or for my friends to get me out," admitted Douglas. "I wish I had been plowing corn."
The boy's eyes were gleaming. He was stepping from one foot to the other as if the floor burned him.
"Gosh, we must saw wood!" he cried. "You go on and tell me. I been up against a lot of things. Maybe I can think up something. Honest, maybe I can!"
"No Mickey, there's nothing you or any one can do. A miracle is required now, and miracles have ceased."
"Oh I don't know!" exclaimed Mickey. "Look how they been happening to me and Lily right along. I can't see why one mightn't be performed for you just as well. I wish you wouldn't waste so much time! I wish you hadn't spent an hour fooling with what I was telling you; that would keep. I wish you'd give me a job, and let me get busy."
Douglas Bruce smiled forlornly.
"I'd gladly give you the job of saving me, my dear friend," he said, "but the fact is I haven't a notion of how to go to work to achieve salvation."
"Is somebody else getting ahead of you?"
"Not that I know of! No I don't think so. That isn't the trouble," said Douglas.
"I do wish you'd just plain tell me," said Mickey. "Now that I got the Pertectorate all safe over Lily, I'd do anything for you. Maybe I could think up some scheme. I'm an awful schemer! I wish you'd trust me! You needn't think I'd blab! Come on now!"
Suddenly Douglas Bruce's long arms stretched across the table before him, his head fell on them, and shuddering sobs shook him. Mickey's dance steps became six inches high, while in desperation he began polishing the table with his cap. Then he reached a wiry hand and commenced rubbing Douglas up and down the spine. The tears were rolling down his cheeks, but his voice was even and clear.
"Aw come on now!" he begged. "Cut that out! That won't help none! What shall I do? Shall I call Mr. Minturn? Shall I get Miss Leslie on the wire?"
Bruce arose and began walking the floor.
"Yes," he said. "Yes! 'Bearer of Morning,' call her!"
Mickey ran to the telephone. In a minute, "Here she is," he announced. "Shall I go?"
"No! Stay right where you are."
"Hello Leslie! Are you all right? I'm sorry to say I am not. I'm up against a proposition I don't know how to handle. Why just this: remember your father told me in your presence that if in the course of my investigations I reached his office, I was to wait until he got back? Yes. I thought you'd remember. You know the order of the court gave me access to the records, but the officials whose books I have gone over haven't been pleased about it, although reflection would have told them if it hadn't been I, it would have been some other man. But the point is this: I'm almost at the finish and I haven't found what obviously exists somewhere. I'm now up to the last office, which is your father's. The shortage either has to be there, or in other departments outside those I was delegated to search; so that further pursuit will be necessary. Two or three times officials have suggested to me that I go over your father's records first, as an evidence that there was no favouritism; now I have reached them, and this proposition: if I go ahead in his, as I have in other offices, I disobey his express order. If I do not, the gang will set up a howl in to-morrow morning's paper, and they will start an investigation of their own. Did you get anything from him this morning Leslie? Not for four days? And he's a week past the time he thought he would be back? I see! Leslie, what shall I do? In my morning's mail there is a letter from the men whose records I have been over, giving me this ultimatum: 'begin on Winton's office immediately, or we will.'
"Tell them to go ahead? But Leslie! Yes I know, but Leslie——Yes! You are ordering me to tell them that I propose to conduct the search in his department as I did theirs, and if they will not await his return from this business trip, they are perfectly free to go ahead——You are sure that is the thing you want said? But Leslie——Yes, I know, but Leslie it is disobeying him, and it's barely possible there might be a traitor there; better men than he have been betrayed by their employees. I admit I'm all in. I wish you would come and bring your last letter from him. We'll see if we can't locate him by wire. It's an ugly situation. Of course I didn't think it would come to this. Yes I wish you would! If you say so, I will, but——All right then. Come at once! Good-bye!"
Douglas turned to his desk, wrote a few hasty lines and said to Mickey: "Deliver that to Muller at the City Hall."
Mickey took the envelope and went racing. In half the time he would have used in going to the City Hall he was in the Herald Building, making straight for the office of the editor. Mr. Chaffner was standing with a group of men earnestly discussing some matter, when his eye was attracted by Mickey, directly in range, and with the tip of his index finger he was cutting in air letters plainly to be followed: "S.O.S." Chaffner nodded slightly, and continued his talk. A second later he excused himself, and Mickey followed to the private room.
"Well?" he shot at the boy.
"Our subm'rine has sunk our own cotton."
"Humph!" said Chaffner. "I've known for two weeks it was heading your way. Just what happened?"
Mickey explained and produced the letter. Chaffner reached for it. Mickey drew back.
"Why I wouldn't dare do just that," he said. "But I know that's what's in it, because I heard what he said, and by it you could tell what she said. I've told you every word, and you said the other day you knew; please tell me if I should deliver this letter?"
"If you want to give me a special with the biggest scoop of ten years," said Chaffner, "and ruin Douglas Bruce and disgrace the Wintons, take it right along."
"Aw gee!" wailed Mickey, growing ghastly. "Aw gee, Mr. Chaffner! Why you can't do that! Not to them! Why they're the nicest folks; and 'tain't two weeks ago I heard Miss Leslie say to Mr. Bruce right in our office, 'losing money I could stand, disgrace would kill me.' You can't kill her, Mr. Chaffner! Why she's the nicest, and the prettiest——She found me, and sent me to the boss, like I told you. Honest she did! Why you can't! You just can't! Why Mr. Chaffner, I can see by your nice eyes you can't! Aw gee, come on now!"
Mickey's chin hooked over the editor's elbow, his small head was against his arm, his eyes were dripping tears, but his voice controlled and steady was entreating.
"You know there's a screw loose somewhere," explained Mickey. "You know 'darling old Daddy' couldn't ever have done it; and if somebody under him has gone wrong, maybe he could make it up, if he was here and had an hour or so. That day, Miss Leslie said he should give all he had for his friend, and he could have all of hers. If she'd be willing for the money to go for her 'dear old Daddy's' friend, course she'd be glad to use it for her Daddy, and she's got a lot from her mother, and maybe Daddy has sold the land he went to sell, and all of that ought to be enough; and if it isn't, I know who will help them. Honest I do!"
"Who, Mickey?" demanded Mr. Chaffner, instantly.
"Mr. Minturn! Mr. James Minturn!" said Mickey. "He's Mr. Bruce's best friend, and he told me he would do anything for Miss Leslie, that day right after I saw you, for if his home ever came right again, it would be 'cause she made it; and she did make it, and it is right, and he's so crazy happy he can't hardly keep on the floor. Course he'd pay Miss Leslie back. He said he would. He's the nicest man!"
"Isn't your world rather full of nice men, Mickey?"
Mickey renewed his grip. His eyes were pleading, the white light on his brow was shining, his voice was irresistibly sweet: "You just bet my world is full of nice men, packed like sardines; but they'll all scrooge up a little and make room for you on the top layer among the selects! Come on now! Rustle for your place before we revolve and leave you. All your life you'll be sorry if you make that scoop, and kill Miss Leslie, and shame 'darling old Daddy,' and ruin my boss. Oh I say Mr. Chaffner, you can't! You can't ever sleep nights again, if you do! They haven't ever done anything to you. You'll be the nicest man of all, if you'll tell me what to do. 'Twon't take you but a second, 'cause you know. Oh tell me, for the love of God tell me, Mr. Chaffner! You'll be the nicest man I know, if you'll tell me."
The editor looked down in Mickey's compelling eyes. He laid his hand on the lad's brow and said: "That would be worth the price of any scoop I ever pulled off, Mickey. Are you going to be a lawyer or write that poetry for me?"
"If I'd ever even thought of law, this would cook me," said Mickey. "Poetry it is, as soon as I earn enough to pay for finding out how to do it right."