All of a sudden, sharp, exacting, and staccato-like, the telephone sounded; seemed like it said, "Quick—trouble—help!" By the merest chance—a lucky chance—Jim Woppit happened to be close by, and he reached for the telephone and answered the summons.
"Yes." "Where?" "You bet—right away!"
That was what Jim said; of course, we heard only one side of the talk. But we knew that something—something remarkable had happened. Jim was visibly excited; he let go the telephone, and, turning around, full over against us, he said, "By ——, boys! the stage hez been robbed!"
A robbery! The first in the Red Hoss Mountain country! Every man leapt to his feet and broke for the door, his right hand thrust instinctively back toward his hip pocket. There was blood in every eye.
Hank Eaves' broncho was tied in front of Casey's.
"Tell me where to go," says Hank, "and I 'll git thar in a minnit. I 'm fixed."
"No, Hank," says Jim Woppit, commanding like, "I 'll go. I 'm city marshal, an' it's my place to go—I 'm the repersentive of law an' order an' I 'll enforce 'em—damn me ef I don't!"
"That's bizness—Jim's head 's level!" cried Barber Sam.
"Let Jim have the broncho," the rest of us counselled, and Hank had to give in, though he hated to, for he was spoiling for trouble—cussedest fellow for fighting you ever saw! Jim threw himself astride the spunky little broncho and was off like a flash.
"Come on, boys," he called back to us; "come on, ez fast ez you kin to the glen!"
Of course we could n't anywhere near keep up with him; he was soon out of sight. But Magpie Glen was only a bit away—just a trifle up along the main road beyond the Woppit cabin. Encouraged by the excitement of the moment and by the whooping of Jake Dodsley, who opined (for being a poet he always opined) that some evil might have befallen his cherished Miss Woppit—incited by these influences we made all haste. But Miss Woppit was presumably safe, for as we hustled by The Bower we saw the front room lighted up and the shadow of Miss Woppit's slender figure flitting to and fro behind the white curtain. She was frightened almost to death, poor girl!
It appeared from the story of Steve Barclay, the stage-driver, that along about eight o'clock the stage reached the glen—a darkish, dismal spot, and the horses, tired and sweaty, toiled almost painfully up the short stretch of rising ground. There were seven people in the stage: Mr. Mills, superintendent of the Royal Victoria mine; a travelling man (or drummer) from Chicago, one Pryor, an invalid tenderfoot, and four miners returning from a round-up at Denver. Steve Barclay was the only person outside. As the stage reached the summit of the little hill the figure of a man stole suddenly from the thicket by the roadside, stood directly in front of the leading horses, and commanded a halt. The movement was so sudden as to terrify the horses, and the consequence was that, in shying, the brutes came near tipping the coach completely over. Barclay was powerless to act, for the assailant covered him with two murderous revolvers and bade him throw up his hands.
Then the men in the coach were ordered out and compelled to disgorge their valuables, the robber seeming to identify and to pay particular attention to Mr. Mills, the superintendent, who had brought with him from Denver a large sum of money. When the miners made a slight show of resistance the assailant called to his comrades in the bush to fire upon the first man who showed fight; this threat induced a wise resignation to the inevitable. Having possessed himself in an incredibly short time of his booty, the highwayman backed into the thicket and quickly made off. The procedure from first to last occupied hardly more than five minutes.
The victims of this outrage agreed that the narrative as I have given it was in the main correct. Barclay testified that he saw the barrels of rifles gleaming from the thicket when the outlaw called to his confederates. On the other hand, Mr. Mills, who was the principal loser by the affair, insisted that the outlaw did his work alone, and that his command to his alleged accomplices was merely a bluff. There was, too, a difference in the description given of the highwayman, some of the party describing him as a short, thick-set man, others asserting that he was tall and slender. Of his face no sight had been obtained, for he wore a half-mask and a large slouch hat pulled well down over his ears. But whatever dispute there may have been as to details, one thing was sure—robbery had been done, and the robber had fled with four gold watches and cash to the amount of, say, two thousand five hundred dollars.
Recovering betimes from their alarm and bethinking themselves of pursuit of the outlaws, the helpless victims proceeded to push into camp to arouse the miners. It was then that Barclay discovered that the tire of one of the front wheels had come off in the jolt and wrench caused by the frightened horses. As no time was to be lost, Barclay suggested that somebody run down the road to Woppit's cabin and telephone to camp. Mr. Mills and the Chicago drummer undertook this errand. After considerable parley—for Miss Woppit wisely insisted upon being convinced of her visitors' honorable intentions—these two men were admitted, and so the alarm was transmitted to Casey's, Miss Woppit meanwhile exhibiting violent alarm lest her brother Jim should come to harm in pursuing the fugitives.
As for Jim Woppit, he never once lost his head. When the rest of us came up to the scene of the robbery he had formed a plan of pursuit. It was safe, he said, to take for granted that there was a gang of the outlaws. They would undoubtedly strike for Eagle Pass, since there was no possible way of escape in the opposite direction, the gulch, deep and wide, following the main road close into camp. Ten of us should go with him—ten of the huskiest miners mounted upon the stanchest bronchoes the camp could supply. "We shall come up with the hellions before mornin'," said he, and then he gritted his teeth significantly. A brave man and a cool man, you 'll allow; good-hearted, too, for in the midst of all the excitement he thought of his sister, and he said, almost tenderly, to Three-fingered Hoover: "I can trust you, pardner, I know. Go up to the cabin and tell her it's all right—that I 'll be back to-morrow and that she must n't be skeered. And if she is skeered, why, you kind o' hang round there to-night and act like you knew everything was all O. K."
"But may be Hoover 'll be lonesome," suggested Barber Sam. He was a sly dog.
"Then you go 'long too," said Jim Woppit. "Tell her I said so."
Three-fingered Hoover would rather—a good deal rather—have gone alone. Yet, with all that pardonable selfishness, he recognized a certain impropriety in calling alone at night upon an unprotected female. So Hoover accepted, though not gayly, of Barber Sam's escort, and in a happy moment it occurred to the twain that it might be a pious idea to take their music instruments with them. Hardly, therefore, had Jim Woppit and his posse flourished out of camp when Three-fingered Hoover and Barber Sam, carrying Mother and the famous guitar, returned along the main road toward The Bower.
When the cabin came in view—the cabin on the side hill with hollyhocks standing guard round it—one of those subtle fancies in which Barber Sam's active brain abounded possessed Barber Sam. It was to convey to Miss Woppit's ear good tidings upon the wings of music. "Suppose we play 'All's Well'?" suggested Barber Sam. "That'll let her know that everything's O. K."
"Just the thing!" answered Three-fingered Hoover, and then he added, and he meant it: "Durned if you ain't jest about as slick as they make 'em, pardner!"
The combined efforts of the guitar and Mother failed, however, to produce any manifestation whatever, so far as Miss Woppit was concerned. The light in the front room of the cabin glowed steadily, but no shadow of the girl's slender form was to be seen upon the white muslin curtain. So the two men went up the gravelly walk and knocked firmly but respectfully at the door.
They had surmised that Miss Woppit might be asleep, but, oh, no, not she. She was not the kind of sister to be sleeping when her brother was in possible danger. The answer to the firm but respectful knocking was immediate.
"Who's there and what do you want?" asked Miss Woppit in tremulous tones, with her face close to the latch. There was no mistaking the poor thing's alarm.
"It's only us gents," answered Three-fingered Hoover, "me an' Barber Sam; did n't you hear us serenadin' you a minnit ago? We 've come to tell you that everything 's all right—Jim told us to come—he told us to tell you not to be skeered, and if you wuz skeered how we gents should kind of hang round here to-night; be you skeered, Miss Woppit? Your voice sounds sort o' like you wuz."
Having now unbolted and unlatched and opened the door, Miss Woppit confessed that she was indeed alarmed; the pallor of her face confirmed that confession. Where was Jim? Had they caught the robbers? Was there actually no possibility of Jim's getting shot or stabbed or hurt? These and similar questions did the girl put to the two men, who, true to their trust, assured the timorous creature in well-assumed tones of confidence that her brother could n't get hurt, no matter how hard he might try.
To make short of a long tale, I will say that the result of the long parley, in which Miss Woppit exhibited a most charming maidenly embarrassment, was that Three-fingered Hoover and Barber Sam were admitted to the cabin for the night. It was understood—nay, it was explicitly set forth, that they should have possession of the front room wherein they now stood, while Miss Woppit was to retire to her apartment beyond, which, according to popular fame and in very truth, served both as a kitchen and Miss Woppit's bedroom, there being only two rooms in the cabin.
This front room had in it a round table, a half-dozen chairs, a small sheet-iron stove, and a rude kind of settee that served Jim Woppit for a bed by night. There were some pictures hung about on the walls—neither better nor poorer than the pictures invariably found in the homes of miners. There was the inevitable portrait of John C. Fremont and the inevitable print of the pathfinder planting his flag on the summit of Pike's Peak; a map of Colorado had been ingeniously invested with an old looking-glass frame, and there were several cheap chromos of flowers and fruit, presumably Miss Woppit's contributions to the art stores of the household. Upon the centre table, which was covered with a square green cloth, stood a large oil lamp, whose redolence and constant spluttering testified pathetically to its neglect. There were two books on the table—viz., an old "Life of Kit Carson" and a bound file of the "Police News," abounding, as you will surmise, in atrocious delineations of criminal life. We can understand that a volume of police literature would not be out of place in the home of an executive of the law.
Miss Woppit, though hardly reassured by the hearty protestations of Hoover and Barber Sam as to her brother's security, hoped that all would be well. With evident diffidence she bade her guests make themselves at home; there was plenty of wood in the box behind the stove and plenty of oil in the tell-tale lamp; she fetched a big platter of crackers, a mammoth cut of cheese, a can of cove oysters, and a noble supply of condiments. Did the gents reckon they would be comfortable? The gents smiled and bowed obsequiously, neither, however, indulging in conversation to any marked degree, for, as was quite natural, each felt in the presence of his rival a certain embarrassment which we can fancy Miss Woppit respected if she did not enjoy it.
Finally Miss Woppit retired to her own delectable bower in the kitchen with the parting remark that she would sleep in a sense of perfect security; this declaration flattered her protectors, albeit she had no sooner closed the door than she piled the kitchen woodbox and her own small trunk against it—a proceeding that touched Three-fingered Hoover deeply and evoked from him a tender expression as to the natural timidity of womankind, which sentiment the crafty Barber Sam instantly indorsed in a tone loud enough for the lady to hear.
It is presumed that Miss Woppit slept that night. Following the moving of that woodbox and that small trunk there was no sound of betrayal if Miss Woppit did not sleep. Once the men in the front room were startled by the woman's voice crying out, "Jim—oh, Jim!" in tones of such terror as to leave no doubt that Miss Woppit slept and dreamed frightful dreams.
The men themselves were wakeful enough; they were there to protect a lady, and they were in no particular derelict to that trust. Sometimes they talked together in the hushed voices that beseem a sick-chamber; anon they took up their music apparata and thrummed and sawed therefrom such harmonies as would seem likely to lull to sweeter repose the object of their affection in the adjoining chamber beyond the woodbox and the small trunk; the circumstance of the robbery they discussed in discreet tones, both agreeing that the highwaymen were as good as dead by this time. We can fancy that the twain were distinctly annoyed upon discovering in one corner of the room, during their vigils, a number of Leadville and Denver newspapers containing sonnets, poems, odes, triolets, and such like, conspicuously marked with blue or red pencil tracings and all aimed, in a poetic sense, at Miss Woppit's virgin heart. This was the subtle work of the gifted Jake Dodsley! This was his ingenious way of storming the citadel of the coy maiden's affections.
The discovery led Barber Sam to ventilate his opinion of the crafty Dodsley, an opinion designedly pitched in a high and stentorian key and expressive of everything but compliment. On the contrary, Three-fingered Hoover—a guileless man, if ever there was one—stood bravely up for Jake, imputing this artifice of his to a passion which knows no ethics so far as competition is concerned. It was true, as Hoover admitted, that poets seldom make good husbands, but, being an exceptionally good poet, Jake might prove also an exception in matrimony, providing he found a wife at his time of life. But as to the genius of the man there could be no question; not even the poet Pabor had in all his glory done a poem so fine as that favorite poem of Hoover's, which, direct from the burning types of the "Leadville Herald," Hoover had committed to the tablets of his memory and was wont to repeat or sing on all occasions to the aggrandizement of Jake Dodsley's fame. Gradually the trend of the discussion led to the suggestion that Hoover sing this favorite poem, and this he did in a soothing, soulful voice. Barber Sam accompanying him upon that wondrous guitar. What a picture that must have been! Even upon the mountain-sides of that far-off West human hearts respond tenderly to the touch of love.
—Wot though time flies? Turrue love never dies!
That honest voice—oh, could I hear it now! That honest face—oh, could I see it again! And, oh, that once more I could feel the clasp of that brave hand and the cordial grace of that dear, noble presence!
It was in the fall of the year; the nights were long, yet this night sped quickly. Long before daybreak significant sounds in the back room betokened that Miss Woppit was up and moving around. Through the closed door and from behind the improvised rampart of wood-box and small trunk the young lady informed her chivalric protectors that they might go home, prefacing this permission, however, with a solicitous inquiry as to whether anything had been heard from Brother Jim and his posse.
Jim Woppit and his men must have had a hard ride of it. They did not show up in camp until eleven o'clock that day, and a tougher-looking outfit you never saw. They had scoured the surrounding country with the utmost diligence, yet no trace whatever had they discovered of the outlaws; the wretches had disappeared so quickly, so mysteriously, that it seemed hard to believe that they had indeed existed. The crime, so boldly and so successfully done, was of course the one theme of talk, of theory, and of speculation in all that region for the conventional period of nine days. And then it appeared to be forgotten, or, at least, men seldom spoke of it, and presently it came to be accepted as the popular belief that the robbery had been committed by a gang of desperate tramps, this theory being confirmed by a certain exploit subsequently in the San Juan country, an exploit wherein three desperate tramps assaulted the triweekly road-hack, and, making off with their booty, were ultimately taken and strung up to a convenient tree.
Still, the reward of one thousand dollars offered by the city government of Red Hoss Mountain for information leading to the arrest of the glen robbers was not withdrawn, and there were those in the camp who quietly persevered in the belief that the outrage had been done by parties as yet undiscovered, if not unsuspected. Mr. Mills, the superintendent of the Royal Victoria, had many a secret conference with Jim Woppit, and it finally leaked out that the cold, discriminating, and vigilant eye of eternal justice was riveted upon Steve Barclay, the stage-driver. Few of us suspected Steve; he was a good-natured, inoffensive fellow; it seemed the idlest folly to surmise that he could have been in collusion with the highwaymen. But Mr. Mills had his own ideas on the subject; he was a man of positive convictions, and, having pretty nearly always demonstrated that he was in the right, it boded ill for Steve Barclay when Mr. Mills made up his mind that Steve must have been concerned in one way or another in that Magpie Glen crime.
The wooing of Miss Woppit pursued the even tenor of its curious triple way. Wars and rumors of wars served merely to imbue it with certain heroic fervor. Jake Dodsley's contributions to the "Leadville Herald" and to Henry Feldwisch's Denver "Inter-Ocean," though still aimed at the virgin mistress of The Bower, were pitched in a more exalted key and breathed a spirit that defied all human dangers. What though death confronted the poet and the brutal malice of nocturnal marauders threatened the object of his adoration, what, short of superhuman intervention, should prevent the poet from baffling all hostile environments and placing the queen of his heart securely upon his throne beside him, etc., etc.? We all know how the poets go it when they once get started. The Magpie Glen affair gave Jake Dodsley a new impulse, and marked copies of his wonderful effusions found their way to the Woppit cabin in amazing plenty and with exceeding frequency. In a moment of vindictive bitterness was Barber Sam heard to intimate that the robbery was particularly to be regretted for having served to open the sluices of Jake Dodsley's poetic soul.
'T was the purest comedy, this wooing was; through it all the finger of fate traced a deep line of pathos. The poetic Dodsley, with his inexhaustible fund of rhyme, of optimism and of subtlety; Barber Sam, with his envy, his jealousy, and his garrulity; Three-fingered Hoover with his manly yearning, timorousness, tenderness, and awkwardness—these three in a seemingly vain quest of love reciprocated; the girl, fair, lonely, dutiful—filled with devotion to her brother and striving, amid it all, to preserve a proper womanly neutrality toward these other men; there was in this little comedy among those distant hills so much of real pathos.
As for Jim Woppit, he showed not the slightest partiality toward any one of the three suitors; with all he was upon terms of equal friendship. It seemed as if Jim had made up his mind in the beginning to let the best one win; it was a free, fair, square race, so far as Jim was concerned, and that was why Jim always had stanch backers in Jake Dodsley, Barber Sam, and Three-fingered Hoover.
My sympathies were all with Hoover; he and I were pardners. He loved the girl in his own beautiful, awkward way. He seldom spoke of her to me, for he was not the man to unfold what his heart treasured. He was not an envious man, yet sometimes he would tell how he regretted that early education had not fallen to his lot, for in that case he, too, might have been a poet. Mother—the old red fiddle—was his solace. Coming home to our cabin late of nights I'd hear him within scraping away at that tune De Blanc had written for him, and he believed what Mother sung to him in her squeaky voice of the deathlessness of true love. And many a time—I can tell it now—many a time in the dead of night I have known him to steal out of the cabin with Mother and go up the main road to the gateway of The Bower, where, in moonlight or in darkness (it mattered not to him), he would repeat over and over again that melancholy tune, hoping thereby to touch the sensibilities of the lady of his heart.
In the early part of February there was a second robbery. This time the stage was overhauled at Lone Pine, a ranch five miles beyond the camp. The details of this affair were similar to those of the previous business in the glen. A masked man sprang from the roadside, presented two revolvers at Steve Barclay's head, and called upon all within the stage to come out, holding up their hands. The outrage was successfully carried out, but the booty was inconsiderable, somewhat less than eight hundred dollars falling into the highwayman's hands. The robber and his pals fled as before; the time that elapsed before word could be got to camp facilitated the escape of the outlaws.
A two days' scouring of the surrounding country revealed absolutely no sign or trace of the fugitives. But it was pretty evident now that the two crimes had been committed by a gang intimately acquainted with, if not actually living in, the locality. Confirmation of this was had when five weeks later the stage was again stopped and robbed at Lone Pine under conditions exactly corresponding with the second robbery. The mystery baffled the wits of all. Intense excitement prevailed; a reward of five thousand dollars was advertised for the apprehension of the outlaws; the camp fairly seethed with rage, and the mining country for miles around was stirred by a determination to hunt out and kill the miscreants. Detectives came from Denver and snooped around. Everybody bought extra guns and laid in a further supply of ammunition. Yet the stage robbers—bless you! nobody could find hide or hair of 'em.
Miss Woppit stood her share of the excitement and alarm as long as she could, and then she spoke her mind to Jim. He told us about it. Miss Woppit owed a certain duty to Jim, she said; was it not enough for her to be worried almost to death with fears for his safety as marshal of the camp? Was it fair that in addition to this haunting terror she should be constantly harassed by a consciousness of her own personal danger? She was a woman and alone in a cabin some distance from any other habitation; one crime had been committed within a step of that isolated cabin; what further crime might not be attempted by the miscreants?
"The girl is skeered," said Jim Woppit, "and I don't know that I wonder at it. Women folks is nervous-like, anyhow, and these doings of late hev been enough to worrit the strongest of us men."
"Why, there ain't an hour in the day," testified Casey, "that Miss Woppit don't telephone down here to ask whether everything is all right, and whether Jim is O. K."
"I know it," said Jim. "The girl is skeered, and I 'd oughter thought of it before. I must bring her down into the camp to live. Jest ez soon ez I can git the lumber I 'll put up a cabin on the Bush lot next to the bank."
Jim owned the Bush lot, as it was called. He had talked about building a store there in the spring, but we all applauded this sudden determination to put up a cabin instead, a home for his sister. That was a determination that bespoke a thoughtfulness and a tenderness that ennobled Jim Woppit in our opinions. It was the square thing.
Barber Sam, ever fertile in suggestion, allowed that it might be a pious idea for Miss Woppit to move down to the Mears House and board there until the new cabin was built. Possibly the circumstance that Barber Sam himself boarded at the Mears House did not inspire this suggestion. At any rate, the suggestion seemed a good one, but Jim duly reported that his sister thought it better to stay in the old place till the new place was ready; she had stuck it out so far, and she would try to stick it out the little while longer yet required.
This ultimatum must have interrupted the serenity of Barber Sam's temper; he broke his E string that evening, and half an hour later somebody sat down on the guitar and cracked it irremediably.
And now again it was spring. Nothing can keep away the change in the season. In the mountain country the change comes swiftly, unheralded. One day it was bleak and cheerless; the next day brought with it the grace of sunshine and warmth; as if by magic, verdure began to deck the hillsides, and we heard again the cheerful murmur of waters in the gulch. The hollyhocks about The Bower shot up once more and put forth their honest, rugged leaves. In this divine springtime, who could think evil, who do it?
Sir Charles Lackington, president of the Royal Victoria mine, was now due at the camp. He represented the English syndicate that owned the large property. Ill health compelled him to live at Colorado Springs. Once a year he visited Red Hoss Mountain, and always in May. It was announced that he would come to the camp by Tuesday's stage. That stage was robbed by that mysterious outlaw and his gang. But Sir Charles happened not to be among the passengers.
This robbery (the fourth altogether) took place at a point midway between Lone Pine and the glen. The highwayman darted upon the leading horses as they were descending the hill and so misdirected their course that the coach was overturned in the brush at the roadside. In the fall Steve Barclay's right arm was broken. With consummate coolness the highwayman (now positively described as a thick-set man, with a beard) proceeded to relieve his victims of their valuables, but not until he had called, as was his wont, to his confederates in ambush to keep the passengers covered with their rifles. The outlaw inquired which of his victims was Sir Charles Lackington, and evinced rage when he learned that that gentleman was not among the passengers by coach.
It happened that Jake Dodsley was one of the victims of the highwayman's greed. He had been to Denver and was bringing home a pair of elaborate gold earrings which he intended for—for Miss Woppit, of course. Poets have deeper and stronger feelings than common folk. Jake Dodsley's poetic nature rebelled when he found himself deprived of those lovely baubles intended for the idol of his heart. So, no sooner had the outlaw retreated to the brush than Jake Dodsley whipped out his gun and took to the same brush, bent upon an encounter with his despoiler. Poor Jake never came from the brush alive. The rest heard the report of a rifle shot, and when, some time later, they found Jake, he was dead, with a rifle ball in his head.
The first murder done and the fourth robbery! Yet the mystery was as insoluble as ever. Of what avail was the rage of eight hundred miners, the sagacity of the indefatigable officers of the law, and the united efforts of the vengeance-breathing population throughout the country round about to hunt the murderers down? Why, it seemed as if the devil himself were holding justice up to ridicule and scorn.
We had the funeral next day. Sir Charles Lackington came by private wagon in the morning; his daughter was with him. Their escape from participation in the affair of the previous day naturally filled them with thanksgiving, yet did not abate their sympathy for the rest of us in our mourning over the dead poet. Sir Charles was the first to suggest a fund for a monument to poor Jake, and he headed the subscription list with one hundred dollars, cash down. A noble funeral it was; everybody cried; at the grave Three-fingered Hoover recited the poem about true love and Jim Woppit threw in a wreath of hollyhock leaves which his sister had sent—the poor thing was too sick to come herself. She must have cared more for Jake than she had ever let on, for she took to her bed when she heard that he was dead.
Amid the deepest excitement further schemes for the apprehension of the criminals who had so long baffled detection were set on foot and—but this is not a story of crime; it is the story of a wooing, and I must not suffer myself to be drawn away from the narrative of that wooing. With the death of the poet Dodsley one actor fell out of the little comedy. And yet another stepped in at once. You would hardly guess who it was—Mary Lackington. This seventeen-year-old girl favored her father in personal appearance and character; she was of the English type of blonde beauty—a light-hearted, good-hearted, sympathetic creature who recognized it as her paramount duty to minister to her invalid father. He had been her instructor in books, he had conducted her education, he had directed her amusements, he had been her associate—in short, father and daughter were companions, and from that sweet companionship both derived a solace and wisdom precious above all things else. Mary Lackington was, perhaps, in some particulars mature beyond her years; the sweetness, the simplicity, and the guilelessness of her character was the sweetness, the simplicity, and the guilelessness of childhood. Fair and innocent, this womanly maiden came into the comedy of that mountain wooing.
Three-fingered Hoover had never been regarded an artful man, but now, all at once, for the first time in his life, he practised a subtlety. He became acquainted with Mary Lackington; I am not sure that he did not meet Sir Charles at the firemen's muster in Pueblo some years before. Getting acquainted with Miss Mary was no hard thing; the girl flitted whithersoever she pleased, and she enjoyed chatting with the miners, whom she found charmingly fresh, original, and manly, and as for the miners, they simply adored Miss Mary. Sir Charles owed his popularity largely to his winsome daughter.
Mary was not long in discovering that Three-fingered Hoover had a little romance all of his own. Maybe some of the other boys told her about it. At any rate, Mary was charmed, and without hesitation she commanded Hoover to confess all. How the big, awkward fellow ever got through with it I for my part can't imagine, but tell her he did—yes, he fairly unbosomed his secret, and Mary was still more delighted and laughed and declared that it was the loveliest love story she had ever heard. Right here was where Hoover's first and only subtlety came in.
"And now, Miss Mary," says he, "you can do me a good turn, and I hope you will do it. Get acquainted with the lady and work it up with her for me. Tell her that you know—not that I told you, but that you happen to have found it out, that I like her—like her better 'n anybody else; that I 'm the pure stuff; that if anybody ties to me they can find me thar every time and can bet their last case on me! Don't lay it on too thick, but sort of let on I 'm O. K. You women understand such things—if you 'll help me locate this claim I 'm sure everything 'll pan out all right; will ye?"
The bare thought of promoting a love affair set Mary nearly wild with enthusiasm. She had read of experiences of this kind, but of course she had never participated in any. She accepted the commission gayly yet earnestly. She would seek Miss Woppit at once, and she would be so discreet in her tactics—yes, she would be as artful as the most skilled diplomat at the court of love.
Had she met Miss Woppit? Yes, and then again no. She had been rambling in the glen yesterday and, coming down the road, had stopped near the pathway leading to The Bower to pick a wild flower of exceeding brilliancy. About to resume her course to camp she became aware that another stood near her. A woman, having passed noiselessly from the cabin, stood in the gravelly pathway looking upon the girl with an expression wholly indefinable. The woman was young, perhaps twenty; she was tall and of symmetrical form, though rather stout; her face was comely, perchance a bit masculine in its strength of features, and the eyes were shy, but of swift and certain glance, as if instantaneously they read through and through the object upon which they rested.
"You frightened me," said Mary Lackington, and she had been startled, truly; "I did not hear you coming, and so I was frightened when I saw you standing there."
To this explanation the apparition made no answer, but continued to regard Mary steadfastly with the indefinable look—an expression partly of admiration, partly of distrust, partly of appeal, perhaps. Mary Lackington grew nervous; she did therefore the most sensible thing she could have done under the circumstances—she proceeded on her way homeward.
This, then, was Mary's first meeting with Miss Woppit. Not particularly encouraging to a renewal of the acquaintance; yet now that Mary had so delicate and so important a mission to execute she burned to know more of the lonely creature on that hill side, and she accepted with enthusiasm, as I have said, the charge committed to her by the enamored Hoover.
Sir Charles and his daughter remained at the camp about three weeks. In that time Mary became friendly with Miss Woppit, as intimate, in fact, as it was possible for anybody to become with her. Mary found herself drawn strangely and inexplicably toward the woman. The fascination which Miss Woppit exercised over her was altogether new to Mary; here was a woman of lowly birth and in lowly circumstances, illiterate, neglected, lonely, yet possessing a charm—an indefinable charm which was distinct and potent, yet not to be analyzed—yes, hardly recognizable by any process of cool mental dissection, but magically persuasive in the subtlety of its presence and influence. Mary had sought to locate, to diagnose that charm; did it lie in her sympathy with the woman's lonely lot, or was it the romance of the wooing, or was it the fascination of those restless, searching eyes that Mary so often looked up to find fixed upon her with an expression she could not forget and could not define?
I incline to the belief that all these things combined to constitute the charm whereof I speak. Miss Woppit had not the beauty that would be likely to attract one other own sex; she had none of the sprightliness and wit of womankind, and she seemed to be wholly unacquainted with the little arts, accomplishments and vanities in which women invariably find amusement. She was simply a strange, lonely creature who had accepted valorously her duty to minister to the comfort of her brother; the circumstances of her wooing invested her name and her lot with a certain pleasing romance; she was a woman, she was loyal to her sense of duty, and she was, to a greater degree than most women, a martyr—herein, perhaps, lay the secret to the fascination Miss Woppit had for Mary Lackington.
At any rate, Mary and Miss Woppit became, to all appearances, fast friends; the wooing of Miss Woppit progressed apace, and the mystery of those Red Hoss Mountain crimes became more and—but I have already declared myself upon that point and I shall say no more thereof except so far as bears directly upon my story, which is, I repeat, of a wooing, and not of crime.
Three-fingered Hoover had every confidence in the ultimate success of the scheme to which Miss Mary had become an enthusiastic party. In occasional pessimistic moods he found himself compelled to confess to himself that the reports made by Miss Mary were not altogether such as would inspire enthusiasm in the bosom of a man less optimistic than he—Hoover—was.
To tell the truth, Mary found the task of doing Hoover's courting for him much more difficult than she had ever fancied a task of that kind could be. In spite of her unacquaintance with the artifices of the world Miss Woppit exhibited the daintiest skill at turning the drift of the conversation whenever, by the most studied tact, Mary Lackington succeeded in bringing the conversation around to a point where the virtues of Three-fingered Hoover, as a candidate for Miss Woppit's esteem, could be expatiated upon. From what Miss Woppit implied rather than said, Mary took it that Miss Woppit esteemed Mr. Hoover highly as a gentleman and as a friend—that she perhaps valued his friendship more than she did that of any other man in the world, always excepting her brother Jim, of course.
Miss Mary reported all this to Hoover much more gracefully than I have put it, for, being a woman, her sympathies would naturally exhibit themselves with peculiar tenderness when conveying to a lover certain information touching his inamorata.
There were two subjects upon which Miss Woppit seemed to love to hear Mary talk. One was Mary herself and the other was Jim Woppit. Mary regarded this as being very natural. Why should n't this women in exile pine to hear of the gay, beautiful world outside her pent horizon? So Mary told her all about the sights she had seen, the places she had been to, the people she had met, the books she had read, the dresses she—but, no, Miss Woppit cared nothing for that kind of gossip—now you 'll agree that she was a remarkable woman, not to want to hear all about the lovely dresses Mary had seen and could describe so eloquently.
Then again, as to Jim, was n't it natural that Miss Woppit, fairly wrapped up in that brother, should be anxious to hear the good opinion that other folk had of him? Did the miners like Jim, she asked—what did they say, and what did Sir Charles say? Miss Woppit was fertile in questionings of this kind, and Mary made satisfactory answers, for she was sure that everybody liked Jim, and as for her father, why, he had taken Jim right into his confidence the day he came to the camp.
Sir Charles had indeed made a confidant of Jim. One day he called him into his room at the Mears House. "Mr. City Marshal," said Sir Charles, in atone that implied secrecy, "I have given it out that I shall leave the camp for home day after to-morrow."
"Yes, I had heerd talk," answered Jim Woppit. "You are going by the stage."
"Certainly, by the stage," said Sir Charles, "but not day after to-morrow; I go to-morrow."
"To-morrow," repeated Sir Charles. "The coach leaves here, as I am told, at eleven o' clock. At four we shall arrive at Wolcott Siding, there to catch the down express, barring delay. I say 'barring delay,' and it is with a view to evading the probability of delay that I have given out that I am to leave on a certain day, whereas, in fact, I shall leave a day earlier. You understand?"
"You bet I do," said Jim. "You are afraid of—of the robbers?"
"I shall have some money with me," answered Sir Charles, "but that alone does not make me desirous of eluding the highwaymen. My daughter—a fright of that kind might lead to the most disastrous results."
"Correct," said Jim.
"So I have planned this secret departure," continued Sir Charles. "No one in the camp now knows of it but you and me, and I have a favor—a distinct favor—to ask of you in pursuance of this plan. It is that you and a posse of the bravest men you can pick shall accompany the coach, or, what is perhaps better, precede the coach by a few minutes, so as to frighten away the outlaws in case they may happen to be lurking in ambush."
Jim signified his hearty approval of the proposition. He even expressed a fervent hope that a rencontre with the outlaws might transpire, and then he muttered a cordial "d—— 'em!"
"In order, however," suggested Sir Charles, "to avert suspicion here in camp it would be wise for your men to meet quietly at some obscure point and ride together, not along the main road, but around the mountain by the Tin Cup path, coming in on the main road this side of Lone Pine ranch. You should await our arrival, and then, everything being tranquil, your posse can precede us as an advance guard in accordance with my previous suggestion."
"It might be a pious idea," said Jim, "for me to give the boys a pointer. They 'll be on to it, anyhow, and I know 'em well enough to trust 'em."
"You know your men; do as you please about apprising them of their errand," said Sir Charles. "I have only to request that you assure each that he will be well rewarded for his services."
This makes a rude break in our wooing; but I am narrating actual happenings. Poor old Hoover's subtlety all for naught, Mary's friendly offices incompleted, the pleasant visits to the cabin among the hollyhocks suspended perhaps forever, Miss Woppit's lonely lot rendered still more lonely by the departure of her sweet girl friend—all this was threatened by the proposed flight—for flight it was—of Sir Charles and Mary Lackington.
That May morning was a glorious one. Summer seemed to have burst upon the camp and the noble mountain-sentinels about it.
"We are going to-day," said Sir Charles to his daughter. "Hush! not a word about it to anybody. I have reasons for wishing our departure to be secret."
"You have heard bad news?" asked Mary, quickly.
"Not at all," answered Sir Charles, smilingly. "There is absolutely no cause for alarm. We must go quietly; when we reach home I will tell you my reasons and then we will have a hearty laugh together."
Mary Lackington set about packing her effects, and all the time her thoughts were of her lonely friend in the hill-side cabin. In this hour of her departure she felt herself drawn even more strangely and tenderly toward that weird, incomprehensible creature; such a tugging at her heart the girl had never experienced till now. What would Miss Woppit say—what would she think? The thought of going away with never so much as a good-by struck Mary Lackington as being a wanton piece of heartlessness. But she would write to Miss Woppit as soon as ever she reached home—she would write a letter that would banish every suspicion of unfeelingness.
Then, too, Mary thought of Hoover; what would the big, honest fellow think, to find himself deserted in this emergency without a word of warning? Altogether it was very dreadful. But Mary Lackington was a daughter who did her father's bidding trustingly.
Three-fingered Hoover went with Jim Woppit that day. There were thirteen in the posse—fatal number—mounted on sturdy bronchos and armed to the teeth. They knew their business and they went gayly on their way. Around the mountain and over the Tin Cup path they galloped, a good seven miles, I 'll dare swear; and now at last they met up with the main road, and at Jim Woppit's command they drew in under the trees to await the approach of the party in the stage.
Meanwhile in camp the comedy was drawing to a close. Bill Merridew drove stage that day; he was Steve Barclay's pardner—pretty near the only man in camp that stood out for Steve when he was suspicioned of being in some sort of cahoots with the robbers. Steve Barclay's arm was still useless and Bill was reckoned the next best horseman in the world.
The stage drew up in front of the Mears House. Perhaps half a dozen passengers were in waiting and the usual bevy of idlers was there to watch the departure. Great was the astonishment when Sir Charles and Mary Lackington appeared and stepped into the coach. Everybody knew Sir Charles and his daughter, and, as I have told you, it had been given out that they were not to leave the camp until the morrow. Forthwith there passed around mysterious whisperings as to the cause of Sir Charles' sudden departure.
It must have been a whim on Barber Sam's part. At any rate, he issued just then from Casey's restaurant across the way, jaunty and chipper as ever. He saw Sir Charles in the stage and Bill Merridew on the box. He gave a low, significant whistle. Then he crossed the road.
"Bill," says he, quietly, "It 's a summerish day, and not feelin' just as pert as I oughter I reckon I 'll ride a right smart piece with you for my health!"
With these words Barber Sam climbed up and sat upon the box with Bill Merridew. A moment later the stage was on its course along the main road.
"Look a' here, Bill Merridew," says Barber Sam, fiercely, "there 's a lord inside and you outside, to-day—a mighty suspicious coincidence! No, you need n't let on you don't tumble to my meenin'! I 've had my eye on Steve Barclay an' you, and I 'm ready for a showdown. I 'm travelin' for my health to-day, and so are you, Bill Merridew! I 'm fixed from the ground up an' you know there ain't a man in the Red Hoss Mountain country that is handier with a gun than me. Now I mean bizness; if there is any onpleasantness to-day and if you try to come any funny bizness, why, d—— me, Bill Merridew, if I don't blow your head off!"
Pleasant words these for Bill to listen to. But Bill knew Barber Sam and he had presence of mind enough to couch his expostulatory reply in the most obsequious terms. He protested against Barber Sam's harsh imputations.
"I 've had my say," was Barber Sam's answer. "I ain't goin' to rub it in. You understand that I mean bizness this trip; so don't forget it. Now let's talk about the weather."
Mary Lackington had hoped that, as they passed The Bower, she would catch a glimpse of Miss Woppit—perhaps have sufficient opportunity to call out a hasty farewell to her. But Miss Woppit was nowhere to be seen. The little door of the cabin was open, so presumably the mistress was not far away. Mary was disappointed, vexed; she threw herself back and resigned herself to indignant reflections.
The stage had proceeded perhaps four miles on its way when its progress was arrested by the sudden appearance of a man, whose habit and gestures threatened evil. This stranger was of short and chunky build and he was clad in stout, dark garments that fitted him snugly. A slouch hat was pulled down over his head and a half-mask of brown muslin concealed the features of his face. He held out two murderous pistols and in a sharp voice cried "Halt!" Instantaneously Barber Sam recognized in this bold figure the mysterious outlaw who for so many months had been the terror of the district, and instinctively he reached for his pistol-pocket.
"Throw up your hands!" commanded the outlaw. He had the drop on them. Recalling poor Jake Dodsley's fate Barber Sam discreetly did as he was bidden. As for Bill Merridew, he was shaking like a wine-jelly. The horses had come to a stand, and the passengers in the coach were wondering why a stop had been made so soon. Wholly unaware of what had happened, Mary Lackington thrust her head from the door window of the coach and looked forward up the road, in the direction of the threatening outlaw. She comprehended the situation at once and with a scream fell back into her father's arms.
Presumably, the unexpected discovery of a woman among the number of his intended victims disconcerted the ruffian. At any rate, he stepped back a pace or two and for a moment lowered his weapons. That moment was fatal to him. Quick as lightning Barber Sam whipped out his unerring revolver and fired. The outlaw fell like a lump of dough in the road. At that instant Bill Merridew recovered his wits; gathering up the lines and laying on the whip mercilessly he urged his horses into a gallop. Over the body of the outlaw crunched the hoofs of the frightened brutes and rumbled the wheels of the heavy stage.
"We 've got him this time!" yelled Barber Sam, wildly. "Stop your horses, Bill—you 're all right, Bill, and I 'm sorry I ever did you dirt—stop your horses, and let 's finish the sneakin' critter!"
There was the greatest excitement. The passengers fairly fell out of the coach, and it seemed as if they had an arsenal with them. Mary Lackington was as self-possessed as any of the rest.
"Are you sure he is dead?" she asked. "Don't let us go nearer till we know that he is dead; he will surely kill us!"
The gamest man in the world would n't have stood the ghost of a show in the face of those murderous weapons now brought to bear on the fallen and crushed wretch.
"If he ain't dead already he 's so near it that there ain't no fun in it," said Bill Merridew.
In spite of this assurance, however, the party advanced cautiously toward the man. Convinced finally that there was no longer cause for alarm, Barber Sam strode boldly up to the body, bent over it, tore off the hat and pulled aside the muslin half-mask. One swift glance at the outlaw's face, and Barber Sam recoiled.
"Great God!" he cried, "Miss Woppit!"
It was, indeed, Miss Woppit—the fair-haired, shy-eyed boy who for months had masqueraded in the camp as a woman. Now, that masquerade disclosed and the dreadful mystery of the past revealed, the nameless boy, fair in spite of his crimes and his hideous wounds, lay dying in the dust and gravel of the road.
Jim Woppit and his posse, a mile away, had heard the pistol-shot. It seemed but a moment ere they swept down the road to the scene of the tragedy; they came with the swiftness of the wind. Jim Woppit galloped ahead, his swarthy face the picture of terror.
"Who is it—who 's killed—who 's hurt?" he asked.
Nobody made answer, and that meant everything to Jim. He leapt from his horse, crept to the dying boy's side and took the bruised head into his lap. The yellowish hair had fallen down about the shoulders; Jim stroked it and spoke to the white face, repeating "Willie, Willie, Willie," over and over again.
The presence and the voice of that evil brother, whom he had so bravely served, seemed to arrest the offices of Death. The boy came slowly to, opened his eyes and saw Jim Woppit there. There was pathos, not reproach, in the dying eyes.
"It 's all up, Jim," said the boy, faintly, "I did the best I could."
All that Jim Woppit could answer was "Willie, Willie, Willie," over and over again.
"This was to have been the last and we were going away to be decent folks," this was what the boy went on to say; "I wish it could have been so, for I have wanted to live ever since—ever since I knew her."
Mary Lackington gave a great moan. She stood a way off, but she heard these words and they revealed much—so very much to her—more, perhaps, than you and I can guess.
He did not speak her name. The boy seemed not to know that she was there. He said no other word, but with Jim Woppit bending over him and wailing that piteous "Willie, Willie, Willie," over and over again, the boy closed his eyes and was dead.
Then they all looked upon Jim Woppit, but no one spoke. If words were to be said, it was Jim Woppit's place to say them, and that dreadful silence seemed to cry: "Speak out, Jim Woppit, for your last hour has come!"
Jim Woppit was no coward. He stood erect before them all and plucked from his breast the star of his office and cast away from him the weapon he had worn. He was magnificent in that last, evil hour!
"Men," said he. "I speak for him an' not for myself. Ez God is my judge, that boy wuz not to blame. I made him do it all—the lyin', the robbery, the murder; he done it because I told him to, an' because havin' begun he tried to save me. Why, he wuz a kid ez innocent ez a leetle toddlin' child. He wanted to go away from here an' be different from wot he wuz, but I kep' at him an' made him do an' do agin wot has brought the end to-day. Las' night he cried when I told him he must do the stage this mornin; seemed like he wuz soft on the girl yonder. It wuz to have been the las' time—I promised him that, an' so—an' so it is. Men, you 'll find the money an' everything else in the cabin—under the floor of the cabin. Make it ez square all round ez you kin."
Then Jim Woppit backed a space away, and, before the rest could realize what he was about, he turned, darted through the narrow thicket, and hurled himself into the gulch, seven hundred feet down.
But the May sunlight was sweet and gracious, and there lay the dead boy, caressed of that charity of nature and smiling in its glory.
Bill was the first to speak—Bill Merridew, I mean. He was Steve Barclay's partner and both had been wronged most grievously.
"Now throw the other one over, too," cried Bill, savagely. "Let 'em both rot in the gulch!"
But a braver, kindlier man said "No!" It was Three-fingered Hoover, who came forward now and knelt beside the dead boy and held the white face between his hard, brown hands and smoothed the yellowish hair and looked with unspeakable tenderness upon the closed eyes.
"Leave her to me," said he, reverently. "It wuz ez near ez I ever come to lovin' a woman, and I reckon it's ez near ez I ever shell come. So let me do with her ez pleases me."
It was their will to let Three-fingered Hoover have his way. With exceeding tenderness he bore the body back to camp and he gave it into the hands of womenfolk to prepare it for burial, that no man's touch should profane that vestige of his love. You see he chose to think of her to the last as she had seemed to him in life.
And it was another conceit of his to put over the grave, among the hollyhocks on that mountain-side, a shaft of pure white marble bearing simply the words "Miss Woppit."
There was a boy named Wilhelm who was the only son of a widow. He was so devoted and obedient that other people in the village used to be saying always: "What a good son Wilhelm is; how kind he is to his mother." So, while he was the example for all the other boys in the village, he was the pride of his mother, who told him that some day he would marry a princess for having been such a good and dutiful son.
When the time came for him to go out into the world and make his living, his mother blessed him and said, "Here, my son, is a talisman, which you are to hang about your neck and wear nearest your heart. Whenever you are in trouble, look at this talisman and it will preserve you from harm."
So, with his mother's kiss upon his lips and the talisman next his heart, Wilhelm set out to make his fortune in the world. The talisman was simply an old silver coin which had been smoothly polished upon one side and inscribed with the word "Mother;" yet Wilhelm prized it above all other earthly things—first, because his mother had given it to him, and again because he believed it possessed a charm that would keep him from harm.
Wilhelm travelled many days through the forests and over the hills in search of a town where he might find employment, and the food with which his mother had provided him for the journey was nearly gone. But whenever he was inclined to sadness, he drew the talisman from his bosom and the sight of the name of mother restored his spirits.
One evening as he climbed a hill, he beheld a great city about a league distant.
"Here at last I shall find employment," thought he. But he had no sooner uttered these words than he heard something like a sigh issuing from the roadside and as he turned to discover whence it came, he saw a dark and forbidding looking old castle standing back some way from the road in a cluster of forest trees. The grounds belonging to this old castle were surrounded by a single fence, between the palings of which a white swan stretched out its neck and gave utterance to the sighs which had attracted Wilhelm's attention.
The dismal noise made by the bird and its strange actions—for it fluttered its wings wildly and waved its head as if it would have Wilhelm approach—excited Wilhelm's curiosity, and he drew nearer the fence and said, "Why do you act so strangely, white swan?"
But the swan made no answer except to sigh more dismally than before and flap its wings still more widely. Then Wilhelm saw that the swan, although a swan in every other particular, had the eyes of a human being. He had scarcely recovered from the astonishment occasioned by this discovery, when the first swan was joined by a full score of other white swans that came running over the green sward, sighing very dismally and many of them shedding tears from their human eyes.
It was only the approach of night that hastened Wilhelm on his journey to the city, and, as he trudged along, he could not help thinking of the singular adventure with the swans. Presently he came upon a countryman sitting by the roadside, and to him he told the story of the castle and the swans.
"Ah," said the countryman, "you are an innocent lad to be sure! That was the castle of the old witch, and the swans you saw are unfortunate princes whom she has enchanted."
Then Wilhelm begged him to tell him about the old witch and the poor princes, and the countryman told him all from first to last, only I will have to make it much shorter, as it was a long tale.
It seems that the old witch was once a princess who was famed for her beauty and wit. She had a younger sister who was quite as beautiful, but much more amiable and much less ambitious. These sister princesses lived in the castle together, and the elder, whose name was Mirza, guarded the younger very jealously lest the younger should be first married. One time the Prince Joseph determined he would wed. He was the handsomest and bravest prince in the land and all the princesses set their caps for him, Mirza among the others. But it came to the prince's ears that Mirza was learned in and practised witchcraft, so, despite her beauty and her grace, he would have no thought of Mirza, but chose her younger sister to wife.
When the prince wedded the younger princess, Mirza was enraged beyond all saying, and forthwith she dismissed her court and gave up her life to the singing of incantations and the dreadful practices of a witch; and so constant was she in the practice of those black arts that her back became bent, her hair white, and her face wrinkled, and she grew to be the most hideous hag in the whole kingdom. Meanwhile, the prince had become king; and his wife, the queen, had presented him with a daughter, so beautiful that her like had never been seen on earth. This little princess was named Mary, a name esteemed then, as now, as the most beautiful of all names. Mary increased in loveliness each day and when she was fifteen the fame of her beauty and amiability was worldwide.
But one day, as the princess sat counting her pearls in her chamber, the old witch Mirza flew in through the window on a broomstick and carried the princess Mary off to her forlorn old castle, a league beyond the city. The queen mother, who had witnessed this violence, fell into a swoon from which she never recovered, and the whole court was thrown into a vast commotion.
Having buried his fair queen, the bereaved king set about to recover his daughter, the princess Mary, but this was found to be impossible, since the witch had locked the girl in an upper chamber of the castle and had set a catamaran and a boogaboo to guard the place. So, whenever the king's soldiers attempted to rescue the princess, the catamaran breathed fire from his nostrils upon them while the boogaboo tore out their hearts with his fierce claws.
Finally the king sent word to the witch that he would bestow upon her all the riches of his kingdom if she would restore his daughter, but she replied that there was only one condition upon which she would give up the princess and that was that some young man of the kingdom should rightly answer three questions she would propound. At once the bravest and handsomest knights in the kingdom volunteered to rescue the princess, but having failed to answer the questions of the old witch, they were transformed into swans and were condemned to eke out miserable existences in the dreary park around the old witch's castle.
"This," said the countryman, "is the story of the princess, the witch and the swans. Every once in a while, an adventuresome youth seeks to restore the princess to her father, and he is as surely transformed into a swan. So, while the court is in mourning, the princess pines in the witch's castle and the swans wander about the castle yard."
This piteous tale awakened Wilhelm's sympathy, and although it was now quite dark, he determined to go back to the witch's castle and catch a glimpse of the beautiful princess.
"May luck attend thee," said the countryman, "but beware of the catamaran and the boogaboo."
As he was plodding back to the witch's castle, Wilhelm drew his talisman from his bosom and gazed tenderly upon it. It had never looked so bright and shining. The moon beams danced upon its smooth face and kissed it. Wilhelm was confident that this was an omen that his dear mother approved the errand he was on. Then he knelt down by the roadside and said a little prayer, and when he had finished, the night zephyrs breathed their sweetest music in his ears, and Wilhelm thought it was the heavenly Father whispering words of encouragement to him. So Wilhelm went boldly toward the witch's castle.
As he drew nigh to the castle, he saw the old witch fly away on her broomstick, accompanied by a bevy of snarling hobgoblins that were also on broomsticks and looked very hideous. Then Wilhelm knew the witch and her escort were off for the forest and would not return till midnight.
The princess Mary was standing at the barred window of her chamber and was weeping. As Wilhelm approached the castle, the swans rushed to meet him, and the flapping of their wings and their piteous cries attracted the attention of the princess, and she saw Wilhelm.
"Oh, fly from here, sweet prince," cried the princess; "for if the witch were to return, she would kill you and boil your heart in her cauldron!"
"I am no prince," replied Wilhelm, "and I do not fear the ugly old witch."
Then Wilhelm told the princess who he was and how he was ready to serve her, for, having perceived her rare beauty and amiability, he was madly in love with her and was ready to die for her sake. But the princess, who was most agreeably impressed by his manly figure, handsome face, and honest valor, begged him not to risk his life for her.
"It is better that I should pass my existence here in prison," said she, "than that you should be transformed as these other wretched princes have been."
And when they heard these words, the swans craned their necks and gave utterance to such heartrending sighs that the princess sobbed with renewed vigor and even Wilhelm fell to weeping.
At this moment, hearing the commotion in the yard, the hideous catamaran and the ugly boogaboo came out of the castle and regarded Wilhelm with ferocious countenances. Never before had Wilhelm seen such revolting monsters!
The catamaran had a body and tail like an alligator, a head like a hippopotamus, and four legs like the legs of an ostrich. The body was covered with greenish scales, its eyes were living fire, and scorching flames issued from its mouth and ears. The boogaboo was none the less frightful in its appearance. It resembled a monster ape, except that instead of a hairy hide it had a scabby skin as red as a salamander's. Its arms were long and muscular, and its bony hands were armed with eleven fingers each, upon which were nails or claws shaped like fish hooks and keen as razors. This boogaboo had skinny wings like a huge bat, and at the end of its rat-like tail was a sting more deadly than the poison of a snake.
These hideous reptiles—the catamaran and the boogaboo—stood glaring at Wilhelm.
"Ow—wow—wow—wow!" roared the catamaran; "I will scorch you to a cinder."
"Ow—wow—wow—wow!" bellowed the boogaboo, "I will tear your heart from your bosom."
So, in the wise determination not to die until he had made a brave and discreet struggle for the princess, Wilhelm left the castle and stole down the highway towards the city.
That night he slept in a meadow, and the stars watched over him and the daisies and buttercups bent their heads lovingly above him and sang lullabies, while he dreamed of his mother and the princess, who seemed to smile upon him all that night.
In the morning, Wilhelm pushed on to the city, and he went straight to the palace gate and demanded to see the king. This was no easy matter, but finally he was admitted and the king asked him what he wanted. When the king heard that Wilhelm was determined to make an attempt to rescue the princess, he burst out crying and embracing the youth, assured him that it was folly for him—a simple country boy—to undertake to accomplish what so many accomplished and skilled princes had essayed in vain.
But Wilhelm insisted, until at last the king called his court together and announced that the simple country lad had resolved to guess the riddles of the old witch. The courtiers straightway fell to laughing at the presumption of the rural wight, as they derisively called him, but it was much to the credit of the court ladies that they admired the youth for his comely person, ingenuous manners, and brave determination. The end of it all was that, at noon that very day, a long procession went with Wilhelm to the witch's castle, the courtiers hardly suppressing their mirth, but the ladies all in tears for fear the handsome youth would not guess the riddles and would therefore be transformed by the witch.
The old witch saw the train approaching her castle and she went out into the yard and sat on a rickety bench under a upas tree to receive the king and his court. She was attended by twelve snapdragons, a score of hobgoblins, and innumerable gnomes, elves, ghouls, and hoodoos. On her left stood the catamaran, and on her right the boogaboo, each more revoltingly hideous than ever before.
When the king and Wilhelm and the rest of the cavalcade came into the castle yard and stood before the witch, she grinned and showed her black gums and demanded to know why they had come.
"We have a youth here who would solve your three riddles," said the king.
Then the old witch laughed, "Ha, ha, ha!" and the gnomes, ghouls, and all the rest of the enchantress' followers took up the refrain and laughed till the air was very dense with sulphurous fumes.
"Well, if the youth is resolved, let him see the doom that awaits him," said the witch, and she waved her stick.
Forthwith a strange procession issued from the castle. First came two little imps, then came two black demons, and last of all the swans, two by two, mournfully flapping their wings and giving utterance to sighs and moans more dismal than any sounds ever before heard.
"You are going to have a new companion, my pretty pets," said the old witch to the swans, whereupon the swans moaned and sighed with renewed vigor.
The king and his court trembled and wept at the spectacle, for in these unhappy birds they recognized the poor princes who had fallen victims to the foul witch's arts. To add to the misery of the scene, the beautiful princess Mary appeared at the barred window of her chamber in the castle and stretched out her white arms beseechingly. But the king and his court could avail her nothing, for the hideous catamaran and the cruel boogaboo were prepared to pounce upon and destroy whosoever attempted to rescue the unhappy maiden by violence.
"Let the presumptuous youth stand before me," cried the witch. And Wilhelm strode boldly to the open spot between the witch and the kingly retinue.
"A fine, plump swan will you make," hissed the old witch. "Now can you tell me what is sweeter than the kiss of the princess' mother?"
Now the witch had supposed that Wilhelm would reply "The kiss of the princess herself," for this was the reply that all the other youths had made. But Wilhelm made no such answer. He faced the old witch boldly and replied, "The kiss of my own mother!"
And hearing this, which was the correct answer, the witch quivered with astonishment and rage, and the catamaran fell down upon the grass and vomited its flaming breath upon itself until it was utterly consumed. So that was the last of the hideous catamaran.
"Having said that, he will not think to repeat it," thought the old witch, and she propounded the second question, which was: "What always lieth next a good man's heart?"
Now for a long time Wilhelm paused in doubt, and the king and his retinue began to tremble and the poor swans dolorously flapped their wings and sighed more piteously. But the old witch chuckled and licked her warty chops and muttered, "He will have feathers all over his back presently."
And in his doubt Wilhelm remembered the words of his dear mother: "Whenever in trouble, look at the talisman and it will preserve you from harm." So Wilhelm put his hand in his bosom and drew forth the talisman, and lo! the inscription seemed to burn itself into his very soul. Gently he raised the talisman to his lips and reverently he kissed it. And then he uttered the sacred name, "Mother."
And straightway the hideous boogaboo fell down upon the grass and with its cruel talons tore out its own heart, so that the boogaboo perished miserably in the sight of all. The old witch cowered and foamed at her ugly black mouth and uttered fearful curses and imprecations.
It was never known what the third and last riddle was, for as soon as they saw her deprived of her twin guardians, the catamaran and the boogaboo, the king's swordsmen fell upon the witch and hewed off her head, and the head and body tumbled to the ground. At that very instant the earth opened and, with a sickening groan, swallowed up the dead witch and all her elves, gnomes, imps, ghouls, snapdragons, and demons. But the swans were instantaneously transformed back into human beings, for as soon as the witch died, all enchantment over them was at an end, and there was great joy.
The recovery of the beautiful princess Mary was easily accomplished now, and the next day she was wedded to Wilhelm amid great rejoicing, the rescued princes serving as the bridegroom's best men. The king had it proclaimed that Wilhelm should be his successor, and there was great rejoicing in all the kingdom.
In the midst of his prosperity, Wilhelm did not forget his dear old mother. He sent for her at once, and she lived with Wilhelm and his bride in the splendid palace, and she was always very particular to tell everybody what a good, kind, and thoughtful son Wilhelm had always been.
Dear little boys, God has put into your bosoms a talisman which will always tell you that love of mother is the sweetest and holiest of all human things. Treasure that sacred talisman, and heaven's blessings will be always with you. And then each of you shall marry a beautiful princess, or at least one who is every whit as good as a beautiful princess.
Lawrence seemed to be lost in meditation. He sat in a rude arm-chair under his favorite fig tree, and his eyes were fixed intently upon the road that wound away from the manor house, through the broad gate, and across the brown sward until it lost itself in the oak forest yonder. Had it been summer the sight of Lawrence in the arm-chair under the fig tree would not have been surprising, but the spectacle of Lawrence occupying that seat in mid-winter, with his gaze riveted on the sear roadway, was simply preposterous, as you will all admit.
It was a February morning—clear, bright, and beautiful, with a hint of summer in the warmth of its breath and the cheeriness of its smile. Pope's Creek, as it rippled along, made pleasant music, the partridges drummed in the under brush, and the redbirds whistled weirdly in the leafless chestnut grove near the swash. Now and then a Bohemian crow, moping lazily from the Maryland border, looked down at Lawrence in the old arm-chair and uttered a hoarse exclamation of astonishment.
But Lawrence heard none of these things; with stony stare he continued to regard the roadway to the grove. Could it be that he was unhappy? He was the proprietor of "Wakefield," the thirteen hundred acres that stretched around him; five hundred slaves called him master; bounteous crops had filled his barns to overflowing, and, to complete what should have been the sum of human happiness, he had but two years before taken to wife the beautiful Mary, daughter of Joseph Ball, Esq., of Epping Forest, and the acknowledged belle of the Northern Neck. How, then, could Lawrence be unhappy?
The truth is, Lawrence was in a delirium of expectancy. He stood, as it were, upon the threshold of an event. The experience which threatened him was altogether a new one; he was in a condition of suspense that was simply torturesome.
This event had been anticipated for some time. By those subtile methods peculiar to her sex, Mary, the wife, had prepared herself for it, and Lawrence, too, had declared ever and anon his readiness to face the ordeal; but, now that the event was close at hand, Lawrence was weak and nervous and pale, and it was evident that Mary would have to confront the event without the hope of any practical assistance from her husband.
"It is all the fault of the moon," muttered Lawrence. "It changed last night, and if I had paid any attention to what Aunt Lizzie and Miss Bettie said I might have expected this trouble to-day. A plague take the moon, I say, and all the ills it brings with its monkeyshines!"
* * * * * *
Along the pathway across the meadow meandered three feminine figures attired in the quaint raiment of those remote Colonial times—Mistress Carter, her daughter Mistress Fairfax, and another neighbor, the antique and angular Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster. At sight of Lawrence they groaned, and Miss Culpeper found it necessary to hold her big velvet bag before her face to conceal the blushes of indignation which she felt suffusing her venerable features when she beheld the horrid author of a kind of trouble to which, on account of her years and estate, she could never hope to contribute save as a party of the third part. And oh! how guilty Lawrence looked and how guilty he felt, too, as he sat under his fig tree just then. He dropped his face into his hands and ground his elbows into his knees and indulged in bitter thoughts against the feminine sex in general and against the moon and Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster, in particular.
So absorbing were these bitter reflections that, although Lawrence had posted himself under the fig tree for the sole purpose of discovering and of heralding the approach of a certain expected visitor, he was not aware of Dr. Parley's arrival until that important personage had issued from the oak grove, had traversed the brown road, and was dignifiedly stalking his flea-bitten mare through the gateway. Then Lawrence looked up, gave a sickly smile, and bade the doctor an incoherent good-morning. Dr. Parley was sombre and impressive. He seldom smiled. An imperturbable gravity possessed him from the prim black-satin cockade on his three-cornered hat to the silver buckles on his square-toed shoes. In his right hand he carried a gold-headed cane which he wielded as solemnly as a pontiff might wield a sceptre, and as he dismounted from his flea-bitten mare and unswung his ponderous saddlebags he never once suffered the gold head of his impressive cane to lapse from its accustomed position at his nostrils.
"Go right into the house, doctor," said Lawrence, feebly, "I 'll look after the mare. You have n't come any too soon—Mary 's taking on terrible."
It was mean of Dr. Parley, but at this juncture he did really smile—yes, and it was a smile which combined so much malevolent pity and scorn and derision that poor Lawrence felt himself shrivelling up to the infinitesimal dimension of a pea in a bushel-basket. He led the flea-bitten mare to the cherry tree and tied her there. "If you bark that tree I 'll tan you alive," said Lawrence hoarsely, to the champing, frisky creature, for now he hated all animal life from Dr. Parley down, down, down even to the flea-bitten mare. Then, miserable and nervous, Lawrence returned to the arm-chair under the fig tree—and, how wretched he was!
Pretty soon he heard a merry treble voice piping out: "Is ze gockter tum to oo house?" and Lawrence saw little Martha toddling toward him. Little Martha was Mistress Dandridge's baby girl. The Dandridges lived a short way beyond the oak grove, and little Martha loved to visit Uncle Lawrence and Aunt Mary, as she called Lawrence and his wife.
"Yes, Martha," said Lawrence, sadly, "the doctor's come."
"Ain't oo glad ze gockter's tum?" asked the child, anxiously, for she recognized the weary tone of Lawrence's voice.
"Oh, yes," he answered, quickly and with an effort at cheerfulness, "I 'm glad he 's come. Ha, ha!"
"Is oo doing to have oo toof pulled?" she inquired, artlessly.
Lawrence shook his head.
"No, little one," said he, in a melancholy voice, "I wish I was."
Then Martha wanted to know whether the doctor had brought his saddlebags, and when Lawrence answered in the affirmative a summer of sunshine seemed to come into the child's heart and burst out over her pretty face.
"Oh, I know!" she cried, as she clapped her fat little hands. "Ze gockter has bwought oo a itty baby!"
Now Martha's innocence, naivete, and exuberance rather pleased Lawrence. In fact, Martha was the only human being in all the world who had treated Lawrence with any kind of consideration that February morning, and all at once Lawrence felt his heart warm and go out toward the prattling child.
"Come here, little Martha," said he, kindly, "and let me hold you on my knee. Who told you about the—about the—the baby, eh?"
"Mamma says ze gockter allers brings itty babies in his sagglebags. Do oo want a itty baby, Uncle Lawrence?"
"Yes, Martha, I do," said he, kissing her, "and I want a little girl just like you."
Now Martha had guessed at the event, and her guess was eminently correct. Lawrence had told the truth, too; it was a little girl he wanted—not one that looked like Martha, perhaps—one that looked like his Mary would please him most. So the two talked together, and Lawrence found himself concocting the most preposterous perjuries touching the famous saddlebags and the babies, but it seemed to delight little Martha all the more as these perjuries became more and more preposterous.
For reasons, however, which we at this subsequent period can appreciate, this confabulation could not last for aye, and when, finally, little Martha trotted back homeward Lawrence bethought himself it was high time to reconnoiter the immediate scene of action within his house. He found a group of servants huddled about the door. Chloe, Becky, Ann, Snowdrop, Pearl, Susan, Tilly—all, usually cheerful and smiling, wore distressful countenances now. Nor did they speak to him as had been their wont. They seemed to be afraid of him, yet what had he done—what had he ever done that these well-fed, well-treated slaves should shrink from him in his hour of trouble?
It was still gloomier inside the house. Aunt Lizzie and Miss Bettie, the nurses, had taken supreme charge of affairs. At this moment Aunt Lizzie, having brewed a pot of tea, was regaling Mistress Carter and Mistress Fairfax and the venerable Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster, with a desultory but none the less interesting narrative of her performances on countless occasions similar to the event about to take place. The appearance of Lawrence well-nigh threw Miss Culpeper into hysterics, and, to escape the dismal groans, prodigious sighs, and reproachful glances of the others, Lawrence made haste to get out of the apartment. The next room was desolate enough, but it was under Mary's room and there was some comfort in knowing that. Yet the nearer Lawrence came to Mary's room the more helpless he grew. He could not explain it, but he was lamentably weak and miserable. A strange fear undid him and he fairly trembled.
"I will go up and ask if there is anything I can do," he said to himself, for he was ashamed to admit his cowardice.
But his knees failed him and he sat down on the stairs and listened and wished he had never been born.
Oh, how quiet the house was. Lawrence strained his ears to catch a sound from Mary's room. He could hear a faint echo of the four chattering women in the front chamber below, but not a sound from Mary's room. Now and then a shrill cry of a jay or the lowing of the oxen in the pasture by the creek came to him from the outside world—but not a sound from Mary's room. His heart sank; he would have given the finest plantation in Westmoreland County for the echo of Mary's voice or the music of Mary's footfall now.
Presently the door of Mary's room opened. The cold, unrelenting, forbidding countenance of Miss Bettie, the nurse, confronted Lawrence's upturned, pleading face.
"Oh, it 's you, is it?" said Miss Bettie, unfeelingly, and with this cheerless remark she closed the door again, and Lawrence was more miserable than ever. He stole down-stairs into a back room, escaped through a window, and slunk away toward the stables. The whole world seemed turned against him—in the flower of early manhood he found himself unwillingly and undeservedly an Ishmaelite.
He rebelled against this cruel injustice.
Then he grew weak and childish again.
Anon he anathematized humanity, and then again he ruefully regretted his own existence.
In a raging fever one moment, he shivered and chattered like a sick magpie the next.
But when he thought of Mary his heart softened and sweeter emotions thrilled him. She, at least, he assured himself, would defend him from these persecutions were she aware of them. So, after roaming aimlessly between the barn and the creek, the creek and the overseer's house, the overseer's house and the swash, the swash and the grove, the grove and the servants' quarters, Lawrence made up his mind that he 'd go back to the house (like the brave man he wanted to make himself believe he was) and help Mary endure "the ordeal," as Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster, was pleased to term the event. But Lawrence could not bring himself to face the feminine quartet in the front chamber—now that he came to think of it he recollected that he always had detested those four impertinent gossips! So he crept around to the side window, raised it softly, crawled in through, and slipped noiselessly toward the stairway.
Then all at once he heard a cry; a shrill little voice that did not linger in his ears, but went straight to his heart and kept echoing there and twining itself in and out, in and out, over and over again.
This little voice stirred Lawrence strangely; it seemed to tell him things he had never known before, to speak a wisdom he had never dreamed of, to breathe a sweeter music than he had ever heard, to inspire ambitions purer and better than any he had ever felt—the voice of his firstborn—you know, fathers, what that meant to Lawrence.
Well, Lawrence was brave again, but there was a lump in his throat and his eyes were misty.
"She's here at last," he murmured thankfully; "heaven be praised for that!"
Of course you understand that Lawrence had been hoping for a girl; so had his wife. They had planned to call her Mary, after her mother, the quondam belle of the Northern Neck. Grandfather Joseph Ball, late of Epping Forest, was to be her godfather, and Colonel Bradford Custis of Jamestown had promised to grace the christening with his imposing presence.
"Well, you can come in," said Miss Bettie, with much condescension, and in all humility Lawrence did go in.
Dr. Parley was quite as solemn and impressive as ever. He occupied the great chair near the chimney-place, and he still held the gold head of his everlasting cane close to his nose.
"Well, Mary," said Lawrence, with an inquiring, yearning glance. Mary was very pale, but she smiled sweetly.
"Lawrence, it's a boy," said Mary.
Oh, what a grievous disappointment that was! After all the hopes, the talk, the preparations, the plans—a boy! What would Grandfather Ball, late of Epping Forest, say? What would come of the grand christening that was to be graced by the imposing presence of Colonel Bradford Custis of Jamestown? How the Jeffersons and Randolphs and Masons and Pages and Slaughters and Carters and Ayletts and Henrys would gossip and chuckle, and how he—Lawrence—would be held up to the scorn and the derision of the facetious yeomen of Westmoreland! It was simply terrible.
And just then, too, Lawrence's vexation was increased by a gloomy report from the four worthy dames down-stairs—viz., Mistress Carter, Mistress Fairfax, Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster, and Aunt Lizzie, the nurse. These inquiring creatures had been casting the new-born babe's horoscope through the medium of tea grounds in their blue-china cups, and each agreed that the child's future was full of shame, crime, disgrace, and other equally unpleasant features.
"Now that it's a boy," said Lawrence, ruefully, "I 'm willing to believe almost anything. It would n't surprise me at all if he wound up on the gallows!"
But Mary, cherishing the puffy, fuzzy, red-faced little waif in her bosom, said to him, softly: "No matter what the others say, my darling; I bid you welcome, and, by God's grace, my love and prayers shall make you good and great."
And it was even so. Mary's love and prayers did make a good and great man of that unwelcome child, as we who celebrate his birthday in these later years believe. They had a grand christening, too; Grandfather Ball was there, and Colonel Bradford Custis, and the Lees, the Jeffersons, the Randolphs, the Slaughters—yes, all the old families of Virginia were represented, and there was feasting and merry-making for three days! Such cheer prevailed, in fact, that even Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster, and Lawrence, the happy father, became completely reconciled. Soothed by the grateful influences of barbecued meats and draughts of rum and sugar, Lawrence led Miss Culpeper through the minuet.
"A very proper name for the babe?" suggested Miss Culpeper.
"Yes, we will call him George, in honor of his majesty our king," said Lawrence Washington, with the pride that comes of loyalty and patriotism.
SWEET-ONE-DARLING AND THE DREAM-FAIRIES
A wonderful thing happened one night; those who never heard of it before will hardly believe it. Sweet-One-Darling was lying in her little cradle with her eyes wide open, and she was trying to make up her mind whether she should go to sleep or keep awake. This is often a hard matter for little people to determine. Sweet-One-Darling was ready for sleep and dreams; she had on her nightgown and her nightcap, and her mother had kissed her good-night. But the day had been so very pleasant, with its sunshine and its play and its many other diversions, that Sweet-One-Darling was quite unwilling to give it up. It was high time for the little girl to be asleep; the robins had ceased their evening song in the maple; a tree-toad croaked monotonously outside, and a cricket was chirping certain confidences to the strange shadows that crept furtively everywhere in the yard and garden. Some folk believe that the cricket is in league with the Dream-Fairies; they say that what sounds to us like a faint chirping merely is actually the call of the cricket to the Dream-Fairies to let those pretty little creatures know that it is time for them to come with their dreams. I more than half believe this myself, for I have noticed that it is while the cricket is chirping that the Dream-Fairies come with their wonderful sights that seem oftentimes very real.
Sweet-One-Darling heard the voice of the cricket, and may be she knew what it meant. There are a great many things which Sweet-One-Darling knows all about but of which she says nothing to other people; although she is only a year old, she is undoubtedly the most knowing little person in all the world, and the fact that she is the most beautiful and the most amiable of human beings is the reason why she is called by that name of Sweet-One-Darling. May be—and it is quite likely that—with all the other wonderful things she knew, Sweet-One-Darling understood about the arrangement that existed between the cricket and the Dream-Fairies. At any rate, just as soon as she heard that cricket give its signal note she smiled a smile of gratification and looked very wise, indeed—as much as to say: "The cricket and I know a thing worth knowing."
Then, all of a sudden, there was a faint sound as of the rustle of gossamer, silken wings, and the very next moment two of the cunningest fairies you ever saw were standing upon the window-sill, just over the honeysuckle. They had come from Somewhere, and it was evident that they were searching for somebody, for they peered cautiously and eagerly into the room. One was dressed in a bright yellow suit of butterfly silk and the other wore a suit of dark-gray mothzine, which (as perhaps you know) is a dainty fabric made of the fine strands which gray moths spin. Each of these fairies was of the height of a small cambric needle and both together would not have weighed much more than the one-sixteenth part of four dewdrops. You will understand from this that these fairies were as tiny creatures as could well be imagined.
"Sweet-One-Darling! oh, Sweet-One-Darling!" they cried softly. "Where are you?"
Sweet-One-Darling pretended that she did not hear, and she cuddled down close in her cradle and laughed heartily, all to herself. The mischievous little thing knew well enough whom they were calling, and I am sure she knew what they wanted. But she meant to fool them and hide from them awhile—that is why she did not answer. But nobody can hide from the Dream-Fairies, and least of all could Sweet-One-Darling hide from them, for presently her laughter betrayed her and the two Dream-Fairies perched on her cradle—one at each side—and looked smilingly down upon her.
"Hullo!" said Sweet-One-Darling, for she saw that her hiding-place was discovered. This was the first time I had ever heard her speak, and I did not know till then that even wee little babies talk with fairies, particularly Dream-Fairies.
"Hullo, Sweet-One-Darling!" said Gleam-o'-the-Murk, for that was the name of the Dream-Fairy in the dark-gray mothzine.
"And hullo from me, too!" cried Frisk-and-Glitter, the other visitor—the one in the butterfly-silk suit.
"You have come earlier than usual," suggested Sweet-One-Darling.
"No, indeed," answered Frisk-and-Glitter; "this is the accustomed hour, but the day has been so happy that it has passed quickly. For that reason you should be glad to see me, for I bring dreams of the day—the beautiful golden day, with its benediction of sunlight, its grace of warmth, and its wealth of mirth and play."
"And I," said Gleam-o'-the-Murk, "I bring dreams, too. But my dreams are of the night, and they are full of the gentle, soothing music of the winds, of the pines, and of the crickets! and they are full of fair visions in which you shall see the things of Fairyland and of Dreamland and of all the mysterious countries that compose the vast world of Somewhere away out beyond the silvery mist of Night."
"Dear me!" cried Sweet-One-Darling. "I should never be able to make a choice between you two, for both of you are equally acceptable. I am sure I should love to have the pleasant play of the daytime brought back to me, and I am quite as sure that I want to see all the pretty sights that are unfolded by the dreams which Gleam-o'-the-Murk brings."
Sweet-One-Darling was so distressed that her cunning little underlip drooped and quivered perceptibly. She feared that her indecision would forfeit her the friendship of both the Dream-Fairies.
"You have no need to feel troubled," said Frisk-and-Glitter, "for you are not expected to make any choice between us. We have our own way of determining the question, as you shall presently understand."
Then the Dream-Fairies explained that whenever they came of an evening to bring their dreams to a little child they seated themselves on the child's eyelids and tried to rock them down. Gleam-o'-the-Murk would sit and rock upon one eyelid and Frisk-and-Glitter would sit and rock on the other. If Gleam-o'-the-Murk's eyelid closed first the child would dream the dreams Gleam-o'-the-Murk brought it; if Frisk-and-Glitter's eyelid closed first, why, then, of course, the child dreamt the dreams Frisk-and-Glitter brought. It would be hard to conceive of an arrangement more amicable.
"But suppose," suggested Sweet-One-Darling, "suppose both eyelids close at the same instant? Which one of you fairies has his own way, then?"
"Ah, in that event," said they, "neither of us wins, and, since neither wins, the sleeper does not dream at all, but awakes next morning from a sound, dreamless, refreshing sleep."
Sweet-One-Darling was not sure that she fancied this alternative, but of course she could not help herself. So she let the two little Dream-Fairies flutter across her shoulders and clamber up her cheeks to their proper places upon her eyelids. Gracious! but how heavy they seemed when they once stood on her eyelids! As I told you before their actual combined weight hardly exceeded the sixteenth part of four dewdrops, yet when they are perched on a little child's eyelids (tired eyelids at that) it really seems sometimes as if they weighed a ton! It was just all she could do to keep her eyelids open, yet Sweet-One-Darling was determined to be strictly neutral. She loved both the Dream-Fairies equally well, and she would not for all the world have shown either one any partiality.
Well, there the two Dream-Fairies sat on Sweet-One-Darling's eyelids, each one trying to rock his particular eyelid down; and each one sung his little lullaby in the pipingest voice imaginable. I am not positive, but as nearly as I can remember Frisk-and-Glitter's song ran in this wise:
Dream, dream, dream Of meadow, wood, and stream; Of bird and bee, Of flower and tree, All under the noonday gleam; Of the song and play Of mirthful day— Dream, dream, dream!
This was very soothing, as you would suppose. While Frisk-and-Glitter sung it Sweet-One-Darling's eyelid drooped and drooped and drooped until, goodness me! it seemed actually closed. But at the critical moment, the other Dream-Fairy, Gleam-o'-the-Murk, would pipe up his song somewhat in this fashion:
Dream, dream, dream Of glamour, glint, and gleam; Of the hushaby things The night wind sings To the moon and the stars abeam; Of whimsical sights In the land o' sprites Dream, dream, dream!
Under the spell of this pretty lullaby, the other eyelid would speedily overtake the first and so for a goodly time there was actually no such thing even as guessing which of those two eyelids would close sooner than the other. It was the most exciting contest (for an amicable one) I ever saw. As for Sweet-One-Darling, she seemed to be lost presently in the magic of the Dream-Fairies, and although she has never said a word about it to me I am quite sure that, while her dear eyelids drooped and drooped and drooped to the rocking and the singing of the Dream-Fairies, it was her lot to enjoy a confusion of all those precious things promised by her two fairy visitors. Yes, I am sure that from under her drooping eyelids she beheld the scenes of the mirthful day intermingled with peeps of fairyland, and that she heard (or seemed to hear) the music of dreamland harmonizing with the more familiar sounds of this world of ours. And when at last she was fast asleep I could not say for certain which of her eyelids had closed first, so simultaneous was the downfall of her long dark lashes upon her flushed cheeks. I meant to have asked the Dream-Fairies about it, but before I could do so they whisked out of the window and away with their dreams to a very sleepy little boy who was waiting for them somewhere in the neighborhood. So you see I am unable to tell you which of the Dream-Fairies won; maybe neither did; may be Sweet-One-Darling's sleep that night was dreamless. I have questioned her about it and she will not answer me.