His cogitations at an end, his belongings secured, and his little-used axe again over his shoulder, Moses went down to the chestnut-tree and secured the "meeting-basket." But he was surprised to see how the leaves at the foot of it had been scattered about, and that there was a hole in the ground itself. There was also in this hole the imprint of something square and solid, for the moist leaf-mold still retained the shape of the brass bound box, and heaped at one side were the nuts Kate had collected ready to put in the basket when once it should be empty.
"Must ha' been somethin' 'important,' sure enough, or she'd never have left them nuts. Well, I guess I can store 'em in my pockets, an' I'll coax her secret, whatever 'tis, out of her by givin' them back to her," mused this incurious man.
As fast as she could, and keeping an occasional glance upon certain trees she remembered, Kate made her way back through the wood. But it seemed confusing now and the ground rough. Coming in she had thought the ferns and fallen branches "mighty pretty," but going out they hindered her. The box, too, was heavy and difficult to hold, though as soon as she was out of sight of Moses she took it from beneath her coat and balanced it upon her arm. Then she laughed at her own precaution, thinking how foolish she had been to hide it, for, of course, he would know about it eventually.
"Only it is Aunt Eunice's, and I want her to see it first of all. I wonder what is in it. And I wish it wasn't quite so heavy. Can it be filled with gold? or diamonds, maybe. Oh, if it were diamonds—think! Oh, dear! there goes my shoe-string untied again, and it trips me up so. I must stop and tie it and see if I am going right. Seems as if I ought to see that old church by this time, yet the trees are just as thick as ever—or thicker. Now, old string, I'll knot you so tight you'll bother me no more till I go to bed."
Placing the strangely fashioned box or casket carefully on a large stone, Katharine flung herself down to tie her shoe. Which, having done, and finding her position restful, it was natural that her imagination should dwell upon the treasure she had found; and once at her day-dreams, Kate was very apt to forget other things. Nor did she rouse from her reverie till somebody close at hand demanded:
"I-I-I say! W-w-what's that?"
Instantly upon her feet she faced the intruder, vainly trying to hide with her short skirts the glittering casket, as she demanded, in return:
"How dare you come upon a person that way? Why—you might have frightened me into a fit. I don't like to be scared."
"Oh, f-f-fudge! I saw you if you d-d-didn't see me. What is t-t-that?"
Katharine coolly sat down upon the casket and thus effectually screened it from view. "I thought you were sick, or—or shut up. Aunt Eunice went to see if you needed nursing."
Montgomery sat down beside her. The small boulder upon which she had placed the box was round, and it was difficult to maintain one's position upon it without slipping. Doubly difficult if one were perched upon a sharp-angled cube, and one's pique skirt was stiffly starched. He comprehended the situation and meant to be upon the spot when the slipping occurred. He really didn't care very much to know what she was hiding, but was grateful for a chance to tease somebody.
During the few days of his retirement he had not enjoyed that privilege. The fact was that it was Alfaretta, not he, who had been ill; and that he had been promoted—or degraded—to her position in the household. It all depended upon the point of view; his grandmother maintaining that he should feel proud to have the chance of serving her, who was unable, or unaccustomed to serving herself, and he feeling that to be tied up in a girl's pinafore and with bared arms set to washing dishes, peeling potatoes, and scrubbing floors was a disgrace. In vain did the stately old gentlewoman show him by her example that one could cook and clean and still be dignified; her grandson remained unconvinced and rebellious. He didn't believe that poor Alfaretta was sick. He knew she was shamming just to get out of her work and make him do it for her. And as for his being set to carry trays to a bound-out girl from the almshouse—that was the bitterest drop in his cup of woe. He had been sternly prohibited from "hectoring" the little maid, and the prohibition sat heavily upon him. So heavily, indeed, that no matter who had crossed his path when he was again liberated, that person was doomed to suffer what Alfy had been spared.
That person proved to be "Kitty Quixote," never more worthy of her name than as she sat in the forest dreaming marvellous dreams of the future; of wrongs to be righted, of poverty banished, and all dependent upon the unknown contents of a brass bound box. Under other circumstances she would have rejoiced to see Montgomery, as the only young creature of her own species yet met in Marsden, but not with this wonderful mystery upon her mind. When he had appropriated a full half of her boulder, uninvited, she waited a moment, then icily inquired:
"Where are you going?"
"That's a good place. When?"
"Oh, b-b-bime-by," answered the lad, with easy indifference.
"You might be late," suggested Katharine, sweetly, yet inwardly longing to mimic his stammering speech.
Then, all at once, she began to slide. There had been no perceptible movement on Montgomery's part. Assuming an indifference as great as his own, Katharine had leaned forward to inspect her second shoe-string, and afterward attempting to regain her former uprightness, felt, instead, that she was slipping downward. She landed angrily upon her feet, and, facing about, she upbraided him as a "rude, unmannerly boy."
However, the mischief was done, her secret was out. Monty forgot his desire to "plague her" in his surprised curiosity. Bending over the box he examined it critically, and finally announced:
"T-t-that's the most b-b-beautifullest thing I ever saw. W-where'd you get it?"
"Found it. But it isn't mine. It's Aunt Eunice's, and I think you are horrid mean. I didn't want a person should know anything about it till I could put it into her own hands, and then you went and came. Now the whole charm of it is gone. Oh, dear!"
Montgomery ignored her unflattering remarks, and, lifting the casket, exclaimed:
"H-h-h-heavy! H-h-heavier 'n lead. What you s-s-s-suppose is in it? Where'd you find it? W-w-w-when?"
Since secrecy was no longer possible, Kate was only too glad to tell everything, and now all desire for teasing had left the listener. He was even ashamed that he had forced the girl from the rock, though glad of the result, and in another instant both tongues were busy with speculation concerning the astonishing find.
"It's so queer. It has no opening that I can see, for this broad band around the middle looks perfectly smooth, as if it were all in one piece. The band won't slip down nor up. The corners, the brass tips, don't budge. It's a perfect cube—let's measure. Yes. Just as big one way as another. The wood is as fine as satin and looks as if it had been polished to the last degree. Do you suppose it is brass or gold that trims it? And where, where did it come from? The earth on it was so fresh I don't believe that it had been buried but a little while, and oh, I'm just wild to know all about it. Come on. Let's go home. You may carry it part of the time. But don't drop it. Don't, for your life!" chattered the girl, placing the box in Monty's outstretched palms and anxiously regarding his manner of holding it.
His face was a study. Boys, in general, are supposed to be intensely practical and less gifted with imagination than girls, but this is a mistake. Youth is the time for air-castle building, and whether it be lad or lass who "dreams" there is but little difference. Poor Monty! Unable to put his soaring thoughts into speech as his companion so readily could, he had to be content with just thinking them. But as he turned his beautiful eyes upon her she understood all that he would have said and clapped her hands, crying ecstatically:
"Oh, I'm so glad! You're one can make-believe everything lovely, too! I see it. What fun we'll have! Let's begin at once. We're in the enchanted forest. We've been enchanted ourselves. But the fairy king has come and shown us where to find the magic treasure that will unlock the whole world for us and make us back into the real prince and princess that we are all the time, though other people don't know it. He has given us the magic box with the key in it, only he has forgotten to tell us how to open it. We are on our way now to the Wise Woman. The Wise Woman lives in the stone castle beyond the forest, and she will show us how to open the box and to use the key. Because the box was hers once, before she gave it to the fairy king to keep for us. She knew that one day we should come into the forest and that all would happen that has happened. That's what makes her the Wise Woman. She has lived a long, long time. So long that her hair is quite gray and there are wrinkles around her eyes. But the eyes are still clear and gentle and there is a pretty pink color in her cheeks. She wears a soft gray gown with an old-fashioned kerchief crossed over her breast, and sometimes, most always, there is a flower thrust into the lace kerchief. Her hands are white and slender and blue veined, but they look old, and her voice is sweet and gentle like her eyes. Yet sometimes—sometimes, when other people who are not at all wise but very troublesome come before the Wise One and displease her, a little sharp fire gets into the eyes and a sour little tang into the voice, and then the Troublesome One wishes she hadn't come!"
They had been walking swiftly toward the village, for to Montgomery every step of the way was so familiar that he need not look for landmarks, and his eyes had remained fixed in fascination upon the girl's radiant face as she spun this fairy-tale without stop or hesitation. It had been as real to him as to her, but now there came over him a disappointment even more real. Pausing abruptly on the path, he burst forth, indignantly:
"Oh, f-f-f-fudge! That Wise Woman's nobody but Aunt Eu-Eu-Eu-nice!"
At the same moment something heavy crashed through the underbrush, and a man fell sprawling at their feet.
THE GRIT OF MOSES JONES
An axe flew gleaming through the air and Montgomery vanished, the brass bound box with him.
Katharine was too startled to move, and stood listening to the distressing, almost blood-curdling groans which issued from the man's lips, as, for a moment, he lay face downward before her. Then she recognized the apparel of Moses Jones and bent over him pityingly.
"Why, Uncle Mose! What is the matter?"
For only answer more groans, which presently began to thrill her with an unspeakable terror. What made him do that? What had befallen him? Was he dying, and she alone with him, there in the strange forest? The thought was torture, and, nerving herself to the task, she laid her hand upon him, though her repugnance to the act was a fresh torment. It had always been one of the girl's peculiarities that she could not bear to touch any ailing thing. She would wait upon people who were ill most cheerfully, even eagerly, but she hated to come in personal contact with them. It had been so even in the case of her father whom she idolized, and had been one of the small items in stepmother's list against her. But she had heard so much upon the subject then, and of its enormity, that she had set herself to overcome the failing, since failing it was. And had poor Moses known it, she would almost rather have borne his pain herself than to have helped him turn upon his back as she did. To do more for him than this was impossible, and again she besought him to say how he was hurt.
Finally, he opened his eyes and glanced about him, then angrily shook his fist toward a projecting tree-root which had been hidden from his sight by a group of ferns and over which he had stumbled.
"That's it! That's the mis'able thing 'at done it!" he cried, then groaned again, but weakly. The pain had suddenly become so severe as to turn him faint while the brilliant branches overhead began to dance and sway before his dizzy sight as no wind could make them do. "I—I'm gettin' light-headed. Help me up, Keehoty. I'm broke. I'm broke all to smash. My leg—my side—oh, oh, ouch!"
His increasing pallor frightened Katharine till pity overcame repugnance, and with a strength unknown before she clasped her arms about his neck and struggled to lift him to his feet, all the while protesting: "You mustn't be broken! You can't be. Just a little crooked root like that and a big man like you. Not quite so hard, please! Not quite so tight! 'Cause you're pulling me down instead of me you up. There, that's better!"
Susanna had often declared that Moses was "just like ary other man, scared to death if even his little toe ached," and it was true that he was so unused to illness that his few attacks of it had always frightened him. Yet now he realized that something far worse than ordinary had befallen, and that he must rally his grit and his strength together. With an heroic effort he got upon his feet—or foot, for one was useless, and braced himself against the tree-trunk beside them.
"Now, sissy, go find an' fetch my axe that got flung off my shoulder when I stumbled. I didn't think when I brought it to chop with 'twould prove a crutch for broken bones. Oh, I wish we wasn't so far from home. I wish you'd kep' in the right road an' not come flarrickin' clear off here out the beaten track."
"Why—isn't this the right, the shortest way back?" asked Katharine, surprised.
"No, 'tain't. I s'pose all trees look alike to city gals, but don't stop to gabble. Find the axe. Pick up your basket. I feel so queer every little spell, an' I must get home. That shin-bone's broke, true as preachin', an' six seven my ribs, by the feel of 'em, for my foot wobbles 'round as if it was hung on a string, an' my side! The axe, Keehoty, the axe!"
She found and brought it, weeping bitterly. She had never felt so sorry for anybody as for this brave old fellow who was now forcing himself to overcome his own misery for the sake of others. For when she begged him to stay still where he was and let her run to the village and bring somebody to help he vigorously refused.
"Scare the hull community just 'cause I was fool enough to tumble down and crack my leg? Me, an old woodman, that'd ought to have some sense. An' Eunice! Why, 'twould scare Eunice out of a year's growth to see me fetched home 'stead of walkin' there on my own pins. Half a loaf's better'n no loaf, an' one leg's better'n none. As for my plaguey old ribs—they can take care themselves. But once we get there you just clip it to the doctor's an' have him come 'round an' patch me up. He'll have to do it so's I can be workin' reg'lar, 'cause I'm the only man there is. Besides, town meetin's comin' on, an'—My sake! I'm beat!"
Beaten he was into the silence which he had dreaded, wherein he realized his own agony. He had kept talking to prevent thinking, but had now passed beyond that. By nods and glances he directed Kate along the shortest way, but it seemed to the sufferer as if the familiar big stone house grew steadily more distant rather than nearer.
Katharine never forgot that walk. To her, also, the distance seemed interminable, and the firm clutch of his hand upon her shoulder for its support almost to break her own bones. His face, when she now and then glanced toward it, was pallid with suffering, but his lips were grimly shut, defying his own misery. As he shaved only once a week, on Sunday morning, his half-grown stubble of beard enhanced his pallor, but did not add to his beauty; and Katharine, reared among city folks who made such "Sunday habits" their every-day ones, felt something like disgust.
"I'm awful sorry for him, but—but he looks horrid. And he hurts me, too. Oh, I wish we had never come into this dreadful forest, pretty as it is; but, joy! there's a house. We'll be in the village soon and at home. What will Aunt Eunice say? And where did that mean boy go?"
As Katharine's thoughts ran on this wise they were steadily though slowly passing over the rough ground of the wood to the smoother fields beyond; and as they came in sight of the Maitland barns, there was Montgomery peeping around a corner and on the lookout for somebody. His release from confinement at home had been the result of Aunt Eunice's call, he having been permitted to walk home with her, and to spend the day with Katharine. Alfaretta was recovered and able to do her own dish-washing, and on the Monday the boy must return to school. So Madam had made him array himself once more in his best attire and had duly instructed him how young gentlemen of the Sturtevant race should conduct themselves toward young ladies of the Maitland family.
Arrived at the stone mansion, Susanna had promptly sent the boy to the woods to hunt up his playmate, if he desired her, and in any case to remind Moses that he had gone off without killing the chicken for dinner.
"You tell him to come right straight back here an' do it now, if he wants a bite to eat. I ain't never wrung a fowl's neck nor chopped off her head, nor Eunice hain't, nuther, an' we ain't a-goin' to begin at our time o' life. Killin' poultry or pigs, ary one, is man's work an' not woman's, an' so say to him 't if he wants his dinner he can come kill it. He's gettin' so forgetful lately 't he can't remember nothin' 'cept fishin', an' though he took his axe along I 'low he'll do more threshin' nut-trees for that young one than choppin'; an' you remember, Montgomery Sturtevant, that you've got on your Sunday clothes; and no matter if your rich city relations do give 'em to you without no trouble to you nor your grandma, 'at you ought to take care of 'em and keep 'em clean. Don't go climbin' trees with 'em on, but just pick up what's on the ground an' you'll eat enough then, fat white worms an' all, to make you sick. Katy, she can give you part her cookies, but don't you get carryin' on with her little basket, 'cause it was her pa's, an' she's goin' to set great store by it. Tell him it's half-past nine if it's a minute, an' them old fowls what we're killin' off first is ruther tough. I ought to have her in the pot right now, an' there she ain't caught yet, runnin' 'round the hen-yard at loose ends, an' I'll try to catch her an' that'll help, an—My suz! if that boy ain't half 'crost the pastur' an' me not done talkin' to him. The sassy thing! If I'd had my way makin' this world there wouldn't have been nobody in it 'cept girls, an' them grown up and come to their gumption. But that hen—I'll try catch her or she'll never be caught."
Which was very true; as also the fact that before the garrulous housekeeper had more than suggested "chicken" and "chestnuts," Montgomery had vanished to set them in train. After all, there might be compensations, he thought, for a day wasted upon a girl's society. There still seemed to linger upon his palate the flavor of Aunt Eunice's pullets, from which he had been despoiled by his first enforced call upon her ward, and though he had regretfully heard Susanna say "chicken" without the plural "s," he knew that, being himself "company," he would get his full share of the fowl, which he trusted might be a large one.
Which explains his presence in the wood and his lingering in the barn-yard now, where he could command a first view of any person issuing from the forest on the shortest way home. He had retreated here after what he had supposed was a robber had fallen at his feet, and at the cost of a breathless run had preserved the mysterious brass bound box from theft. He had now safely hidden it in the hay-mow, and awaited Kate's return to tell her where. It had been almost beyond his power to keep the secret from Miss Maitland, even thus long, but loyalty to the discoverer had restrained him. And at last there she was coming across the pasture, Uncle Moses with her; and what was most astonishing, the pair were leaning upon one another in an intimacy which made Montgomery feel rather jealous.
"F-f-f-fudge! I didn't know he liked g-g-girls! He's got his hand on her s-s-shoulder, an' my, how they do just c-c-cr-creep! Even the pug dog just bare w-w-waddles, like he's tuckered out," remarked the watching lad to Sir Philip, who had taken advantage of the day's warmth to visit the mouse-infested barn and now lay sunning himself on its southern threshold.
But at the name of dog the Angora sniffed the air and withdrew with dignity to his throne indoors. He had already learned that Punch knew a good cushion when he saw it; and, though early provided with one for himself, preferred the satin couch of Sir Philip to the carpet-covered one which Susanna declared "plenty good enough for ary dog humbly as that one." If Punch secured the cushion first he was not easily dislodged, and since his one great battle the Angora shrank from contest. Evidently Sir Philip judged discretion better than valor, and the behavior of the two animals afforded the family much amusement.
Thus deserted of all society save his own thoughts, Monty fixed a keener attention upon the slowly advancing pair, and presently exclaimed:
"F-f-fudge! Somethin's happened. Uncle Mose's leanin' on her; she's a h-h-helpin' him! She's a w-w-w-wav-in' to me like blazes! That's no 'how-de-do' salute, that's a 'come r-r-right here' one! He's got his axe, looks like, an's l-l-leanin' on it. F-fudge! I bet he's chopped his foot 'stead of a t-t-tree!"
Monty's legs flew up and down like the rapidly revolving spokes of a wheel as he hurried toward the man and girl. But after one hasty glance at the feet of Mr. Jones, and seeing no blood on either, he knew that whatever was amiss it was not what he had fancied. Without a word he seized the axe from its owner's trembling hand and placed his own sturdy little shoulder in its place. Katharine was not crying now, but her anxiety altered her appearance strangely, and Moses was wholly past speech. Every nerve of his tortured body was strained to reach a spot where he could sink down and yield to the dreadful weakness which assailed him. Even the hard floor of the barn seemed a paradise of rest, and he fixed his eyes upon the wide doorway with a last effort of his will.
He did reach it, but there both will and consciousness gave way to the strain of the last hour, though the story of his pluck and endurance was to make him more highly respected in his native town than he had ever been before.
When he sank down fainting the children loosed their hold on either side, Montgomery standing still in a frightened wonder, but Kate hastening indoors for help. Rushing breathlessly into the sitting-room where Miss Eunice was quietly arranging some yellow 'mums in a quaint glass jar, she caught the lady's hand with a vehemence which sent the flowers in one direction, the pretty jar in another.
"Oh, Aunt Eunice! Come quick, 'cause now he truly must be dead, after all. Quick, quick!"
"Katharine—my dear! Why will you do such startling things? My precious jar that has held flowers for us these generations just rescued from destruction! And the poor flowers themselves—"
"Oh, don't bother! Please, please come. There's only Monty out there, and I—I did what I could, but he's dead, anyway."
"Dead, child? Sir Philip dead?" asked Miss Maitland, her thoughts instantly reverting to the only ailing member of the household.
"No, Aunt Eunice, but a person, a man—Uncle Moses."
Then, indeed, did Eunice's own hand tremble so that she set the jar she had just preserved back on the mantel while her face paled in distress. But she caught the girl's guiding hand firmly in her own, called to Susanna in the kitchen, and on the brief journey to the "further barn" learned the main facts of the affair.
Two hours later Katharine and Montgomery sat down in the kitchen to a dinner of bread and milk, while over the rest of the house hung a strange silence which made even its former quietude seem noisy by contrast. Aunt Eunice had gone to lie down, being greatly shaken by the sad accident, which, while being much less tragic than the death Katharine had reported, was trouble sufficiently serious. In the kitchen chamber above, Moses' own room, they could hear Susanna softly stepping about in list slippers, only the jar of the floor beams betraying her movements, and occasionally a muffled voice, strangely unlike the gruff tones of the hired man, would float down to them. Sir Philip lay purring himself to sleep, after a strenuous season of unrest, during which nobody had had time to protect him from mischievous Punch. As for the latter, he had been fatigued by his trip to and from the forest, as well as his manoeuvres with the Angora, and now took his own rest by sleeping with one eye open.
The children themselves were weary. Katharine from the excitement of the morning, and Montgomery from physical exercise. He had never done so many useful things in his life as he had crowded into the space of two short hours. It was he who had summoned the doctor, run back and forth between that gentleman's office and Miss Maitland's house, carried a plain statement of facts to Madam Sturtevant, as well as a highly furbished one to every householder between the two mansions, and had manfully attended to Mr. Jones's noon "chores." He had, indeed, already a wild ambition to be engaged in the hired man's place, since the doctor said that that sufferer would be laid up in bed for at least three months.
"I'd r-r-rather do chores any day than go to s-s-school," he announced to his companion, swallowing a large bit of bread at the same time, and thereby causing that young person to tilt her nose upwards, disdainfully.
"You ought to be as nice in your manners out here alone with me as you would be in the real dining-room with Aunt Eunice and grown-up company," she reproved, daintily balancing her own spoon with an ease which the other would scarcely admit to himself that he admired.
"F-f-fudge. You ain't c-c-com—pany no more. You belong, don't you?"
"I—I guess so. I begin to hope so, for this is the most delightfully happening place I ever was in. Though I never was in, to stay, but one other. First you fell over a precipice, and then I found a nest of little turkeys all dead, out in the black currant-bushes, Susanna says they are, that had stolen themselves—whatever that is. Then that mystery of a brass bound box; and now Uncle Moses breaking his bones, and so much going on. But—Montgomery Sturtevant! That box! What did become of it? Would we dare, do you suppose we might go back to the woods and find it? It was all your fault. If I hadn't let you carry it—All this about poor Uncle Moses has put it out of my mind, but now it comes back and it's more important than he is. I'm sure of it. We must find it. Come, quick!"
Katharine pushed back from the table and; sprang to her feet, her weariness forgotten in this fresh anxiety.
But Monty was neither anxious nor excited; at least, not about the box, though he held it scarcely less important than she did. He was busy over a "sum" in mental arithmetic, a branch of study he little favored, though it had now come to assume considerable importance to him. Yet the problem was beyond his capacity, though this keen-witted girl might solve it. He'd try her. Therefore, still gurgling his milk, he spluttered:
"S-s-s-ay, Katy! if a man, if a m-m-man can earn a dollar a day doin' c-c-chores, all the c-c-chores, how much can a boy earn doin' h-h-ha-half of 'em?"
"Not a single cent, if I had to pay him, and he were such a boy as you. A boy so mean he'd take a brass bound box out of a girl's hands and lose it for her, and then wouldn't budge to go get it. You do try me so, Montgomery! And there's one thing I know. That is, that if I had the management of you I'd break you of that detestable habit of stuttering, or know the reason why. It's all nonsense. You can talk as well as anybody else, only you're too lazy. Now, will you come?"
To her surprise and to her shame, also, he neither resented her sharp speech nor her reply to his money question. Leaning forward, his blue eyes took on an earnestness which effectually dispelled all notion of vanity in their possessor, demanding:
"C-c-c-could you do it? C-c-can you? W-w-w-wi-will you?"
"Yes, I might, could, would, and should—if you'd go find my brass bound box!"
"Cross your heart, honest Injun, h-h-hope to d-d-die?"
"No. Neither one. Just plain 'Yes.' I know a way. I've read all about it in the Cyclopedia in the big bookcase. I hunted it up right away, that first day after the first night when I—I mocked you. I made up my mind then, and I never unmake minds, that if you'd be decent I'd cure you. It's nothing but a dreadful bad habit, anyway, and easy done. But not until you find my—the—Aunt Eunice's brass bound box."
He was gone and back in a flash.
Katharine, starting to follow, paused in the middle of the floor, arrested by the sight of him standing in one doorway with the glittering casket in his hands, and of Miss Maitland in another staring at that which he held as if she saw a ghost.
All the pretty pink color which had hitherto tinged the lady's cheek had vanished, and she visibly trembled, so that Katharine darted forward to her support. But Aunt Eunice raised her hand protestingly, and tottered forward to the nearest chair. With dry, white lips, she asked in a voice so low it could barely be heard:
"Montgomery Sturtevant, where—where did you find that?"
Her appearance alarmed both the children, who fancied she, also, was about to faint as Moses had done, yet she did not fall nor did her gaze waver; and impelled by its sternness to make reply, Monty finally stammered:
"Hay-mow! Impossible!" returned Miss Maitland, becoming a bit more natural in appearance, while Kate indignantly turned upon her playmate, demanding and denying:
"How dare you? He didn't. 'Twas I—under a tree in your own big forest. I dug it up and fetched it—he fetched—there wasn't a hay-mow anywhere near it. Oh, Aunt Eunice, it's the Magic Treasure. It holds the key to all the world—to all the good things in the world, anyway. And you're the wonderful Wise Woman will open it and let us use the gold and diamonds and precious stones to make all the poor people rich and glad. 'Tis yours, I know, and quick, quick!"
With a bound she seized the box from Monty's hands and brought it to the disturbed lady, who, when the girl would have placed it on her lap, recoiled as from some venomous thing.
"No, no! Don't bring it to me. I wouldn't touch it. It has wrought evil already, and so great—"
Then she abruptly paused and steadfastly regarded the quaint old casket which, as Katharine had discovered, seemed to have neither lock nor fastening, and was in itself a marvellous piece of mechanism. As she gazed her thought was busy as painful, but out of the chaos one idea at last grew clear: The Brass Bound Box must be safely hidden and none must know that it had ever been found. To hide it she would have to touch it, no matter how unwillingly. But the secret of its existence must be kept, although that secret was already in the possession of these two others.
She called them to her and held out her hands now for the box. They approached her with a sort of awe, for there was that still in her face which altered its ordinary kindliness. Not that it was unkind, for there was even more than usual sweetness in the glance she gave Montgomery, yet he felt as if he had been guilty of some terrible sin without in the least knowing what or why.
"Children, you are young to be asked to promise so serious a thing as I now ask you, but you must promise it, and you must keep your word. Will you?"
"I never broke my word in my life, Aunt Eunice! I wouldn't begin now after I've grown to be such a big girl," said Katharine, promptly. "But it's honest to tell you I hate promises, and I never feel so tempted to lie as when I've made one. I'd rather not promise, if you please; and I guess—I guess I'd rather not hear any secret. I'll go out and let you tell it to Monty alone."
Montgomery shot out a restraining hand and clutched her vanishing skirts, while a faint smile stole to Miss Maitland's lips at this evidence of moral cowardice. The boy felt, and with justice, that it was "Kitty Quixote" who had got him into this scrape, with her wild woodland adventures and her fairy-tales, and that it was but fair she should share in it.
"Unfortunately, you already know it. What you must promise is—that you will never, never speak of this box or its strange reappearance to any person, young or old. I shall put it out of sight where it will not be easily found again, and then forget it. You must forget it, too. You are Sturtevant and Maitland, descendants of honorable men and women, and for the sake of your forebears you must hide this thing."
It was all so solemn that Katharine shivered, yet could not help wondering a little. "Forebears"—that meant dead people; and how could it harm people already dead to have that box found, even supposing it to be full of poisons or other dreadful stuff, as she now began to imagine?
Now, if Kate merely shivered and speculated, poor Montgomery was in an ague. When he fixed his great eyes upon Aunt Eunice's face they were so full of terror that she pitied him, and tried to comfort, saying:
"Don't look so frightened, dear. It's only to keep from speaking of what has happened this morning. That's easy, isn't it? Besides, you are so young you will not remember long. Other things will drive it from your minds. At least, I trust so. In any case, you are in honor bound."
With that she rose as if to dismiss them, and went away toward the seldom used west wing of the great house, carrying the box with her. Her step was no longer uncertain, but firm and decided. A terrible situation had suddenly confronted her, and made, for a moment, even her clear judgment dim; but she had swiftly weighed the consequences, pro and con, and had settled the wisest course to follow.
Left alone, these young "descendants of honorable men and women" regarded one another in dismay; and Montgomery was the first to speak, crying out with all the intensity words could express:
"Oh, ain't it a-a-aw-ful!"
"Huh! I don't see anything 'awful' about it, 'cept your hanging on to me and making me stay whether or no. That was a dirty mean trick—keeping me here when I might have got away without hearing."
"Y-y-you knew it a'ready. An' it was in the h-h-h-hay-mow. I'd hid it there the min-ute I g-g-got to the barn, waitin' for y-y-you. But come out there n-now. I've got s-s-s-somethin' to tell you," said the unhappy lad, far too disturbed to resent her sharpness. At which she became instantly regretful, and slipped her arm consolingly within his, as they walked toward the great barn, which had from the first seemed to the city girl the most delightful of structures.
It was further proof of Monty's dejection that he did not jerk his arm away, nor would he have cared at all who saw him thus being petted by a "girl." However, once arrived at the great sun-lighted doorway, and secure even from Susanna's ears, the trouble came out.
"Oh, w-w-what shall I do? I've told it all over t-t-town, a'ready, an' it's no s-s-se—cret at all!"
Katharine stuck her arms akimbo and stared mercilessly at the abject creature before her, who seemed to droop and wilt under her gaze as if he were sinking through the hay-strewn floor.
"You told it?" she repeated, indignantly.
Monty nodded mournful acquiescence.
"Then you—you—you ought to be set washing dishes again, and kept at it for the rest of your life. So there."
One blue eye was raised a trifle in surprise. How in the world had she known that? He didn't remember mentioning the cause of his recent retirement from public life, indeed, he was positive that this had been a "secret" really worth keeping. However, it didn't matter now. Nothing mattered except that he, who came of such "honorable" people, had betrayed his friends.
"W-w-what'll happen, s'pose?"
"I don't know," answered Kate, slowly. "Something dreadful ought. For before it was Aunt Eunice's secret the box was my secret, too. I was the first who should have told it, and only to her. You had no right to speak of it till I gave you leave."
"Un-un-uncle Mose broke his bones, and I h-h-had to go 'round, didn't I? An' when I told about him the o-o-other j-j-j-just slipped out itself. T-t-t-that's all."
"Humph! 'All!' And more mischief done than you or I can guess, maybe. For though I can't imagine why Aunt Eunice should be so overcome and anxious at sight of just a box, there must be some good reason. She has seen that box before and it doesn't suggest pleasant memories to her. That's plain. She would have been glad if it had never been found, and all my pretty romance about treasure and helping people turns out just horrid. I wish I had never gone to that wood, then things wouldn't have happened. The box would have stayed in its hole, I wouldn't have hurried home with it by the long wrong way and met you, and poor Uncle Moses wouldn't have followed nor fallen over that root. Aunt Eunice would have been like the saying, 'Where ignorance is bliss,' and wouldn't have been worried so, and we shouldn't have been forbidden to tell things that I wouldn't have cared to tell, if I hadn't been forbidden. And, oh, dear! What a terrible hard world it is! and what a lovely old barn! I think—Do you suppose I could climb up that hay-mow? Susanna's sure there are hens' nests 'stolen' up there, and she needs the eggs. I wish we could find them. I wish we could do something—anything that is pleasant and so helps us to 'forget,' as Aunt Eunice wished us to do. But I guess I can't climb much. I never had a chance to try."
"I'll s-s-show you!" cried the lad, eagerly, and delighted to think there was something in which he could excel this clever city girl. With a bound he had risen from the floor, where both had sat during the last of their talk, had promptly spit upon his palms and rubbed them together, then leaped to catch an upright beam. "Shinnying" up to the slippery mow with real agility, he there paused and regarded Katharine with an expression of great pride. But instead of admiration her mobile countenance expressed only disgust, and to his question, "H-h-how's that?" she retorted: "Nasty, dirty thing! You go wash your hands before you touch a single one of our eggs!"
"'O-o-our' eggs!" repeated Monty, scornfully, to hide his own chagrin. "H-h-how long since th-th-they were 'ours'?"
"Oh, dear! Do come down and wash, and let's quit quarrelling. Seems as if we never could agree about things, yet we must. We've got to be friends if we have to keep Aunt Eunice's secret, for even though you did tell it before it was hers you needn't make it worse and speak of it again. If anybody asks you about it now, all you must do is to keep perfectly still. Not say a word. Let them think what they please, but don't you talk. Now, isn't there any other way to go upon the hay except by that beam? The Widow Sprigg said she was going up there herself soon as she got time, and I'm sure she doesn't do what you did."
"C-c-couldn't do it with—out," asserted the climber, referring to the moistening operation.
"I mean she would never 'shinny' up a straight, slivery beam."
"Huh! I s'pose there's a l-l-lad-der, do for g-g-girls," asserted Montgomery, indifferently.
"Then show it to me and I'll begin to teach you how not to stammer."
He looked at her sharply, but there was such perfect sincerity in her face that he accepted her promise joyfully, and led her to the rear of the barn where a rude but strong ladder led from the "bay" at the bottom to the top of the hay, almost touching the roof. Jumping from the higher board floor of the barn into this bay Montgomery ran nimbly up the perpendicular ladder, which was so straight it seemed fairly to tilt backwards, like an overerect person, and Katharine followed as best she might. She was afraid but determined, and, though the slippery blades of the dried grass fell over the rounds of the ladder, making foothold difficult, she managed to reach the level beneath the eaves and was pulled over into safety by the boy.
"Isn't this delightful? I was never in such a lovely place before, so smelly and sweet and warm. I don't wonder hens like it up here, though it's scarey coming up. Don't you think so?" she asked, looking around upon the lofty mow with curious gaze.
"S-s-scarey? Pooh! That's 'cause you're a girl. G-g-g-irls wasn't made to climb. B-boys were. I can climb first-rate. Yes, sir. I c-c-can climb anything. I can cl-cl-climb any tree in Aunt Eu-Eu-Eunice's woods. I can climb any tree in Deacon Meakin's woods. I—I can climb all the trees in Sq-Sq-Squ-Squire Petti—john's woods, top the mountain. I can climb any tree in the whole w-w-world! I c-c-co-could climb the church steeple!"
Katharine listened to this boastful statement with interest. She not only believed it, but had observed that as Montgomery neared his climax his stammering became less pronounced. This coincided with the Cyclopedia and suggested the first lesson she should give. But she had herself "climbed" to this height for another matter besides instruction. To descend with a quantity of fresh eggs for Susanna's depleted larder would be to bring one ray of sunshine into that darkened house. For as the widow had pertinently inquired of the hired man, only the night before, "How can a body cook good victuals without ingrejunce? An' what's the greatest ingrejunce in punkin pies if it ain't eggs? Or cake, uther?" to which Moses had jocularly replied: "It might be punkin or flour." And again, Susanna: "My suz! But you air smart, ain't ye? Well, eggs I haven't, an' eggs I shall an' must. An' up that loft I go, tromple or no tromple the hay, an' before the sun sets another time on this deceivin' world."
Therefore, eggs Katharine would obtain and then instruct; and, announcing this decision, Montgomery did his best to aid her in the search. Nor was it unsuccessful. There were three nests, safely placed beneath the eaves where their builders had supposed in their hen-minds that no human being would ever come, while another adventurous fowl had lazily scooped a hole in the very centre of the mow and deposited her eggs. In any case, eggs there were in abundance, and, having filled Montgomery's pockets and Kate's hat with them, they took their own well-earned rest upon the fragrant hay beneath the slatted window.
Sunshine and air came through it, and the song of birds in the trees; and beyond another distant wide-opened shutter they could see the roofs of village homes and the spire of the church which Monty felt he could so easily climb. There, all anxiety forgotten, they dreamed dreams and saw visions; and in each and all they were both to be good and great and world beneficent.
"I shall be a great artist some day. As great as my father, or maybe, if one could be—even greater. Because, you see, poor papa had to work for money, not for love of his art. I've heard him say so, time and time again. When he wanted to paint great pictures he had to paint mean little ones, such as common persons liked and would buy. 'Pot boilers' he called them, because they brought the cash, the 'fuel,' to keep the 'pot' a-boiling. Course, we had to have clothes and a house and things to eat, and nobody to buy them except papa darling. Maybe, up in heaven, he is painting his 'great picture' now. What do you suppose?" asked Katharine, gazing through the slats at the blue sky overhead.
"I d-d-don't know much about heaven. I never had time to think. T-t-t-th-there's always so much doin'," answered Monty. Yet, following Katharine's rapturous gaze skyward, his own blue eyes had filled with dreamy speculation, and he began to picture to himself the wonders of that world beyond Marsden village which he meant sometime to find.
"B-b-but I'll tell you somethin', Katy Maitland. I'm not goin' to stay here always. I'm goin' to be a big man and—and do things," he observed, after a prolonged meditation.
"How big? What things?"
"Oh! Big as they g-g-grow. Big as the postmaster. B-b-big as Sq-Sq-Squ-Squire Petti—john. I'm goin' to be either a s-s-sailor, or—maybe P-P-Pr-President."
"If you're President you'll be a—a, what is it they call them? Politicalers, I guess," returned the girl.
"P-p-p-pol-er-tic—ian," corrected Montgomery, with stuttering eagerness.
Katharine accepted the correction without comment, though her lips twitched and her eyes twinkled; and after a pause she continued: "Politicians can do things. They can get folks elected. Anybody to anything. Plain storekeepers to be postmasters; postmasters to be Senators; Senators to be Presidents; and—and hired men to be constables. Can't they?"
Katharine sat upright so suddenly that her hat rolled over and the eggs spilled from it. However, the hay was soft, and no harm was done, nor was her enthusiasm cooled by a trifle of that sort. Clasping her hands ecstatically, she exclaimed:
"We must do it! You and I must get Uncle Moses Jones elected constable. Now, while he's sick, for a surprise. Won't that be grand?"
"Grand!" assented Montgomery, with such eagerness that he forgot to trip in his speech. Then doubt and stammering returned together. "W-w-we c-c-c-couldn't."
"Yes, we could, if we had any s-s-sp-spunk!" retorted Katharine, heartlessly. "Folks have to be little politicians before they are big ones, I suppose, just like children before they are grown-ups. Well, you're a little politician now, a teeny tiny one, and it will be just splendid practice for you to get a village constable elected. I believe that although Uncle Moses and even Aunt Eunice speak so proudly of that office, that it isn't as great as some others. I don't know, and I wouldn't care at all except for him. But we must do it. I've heard him talking with Widow Sprigg how that now the 'law was changed,' 'town meeting' was no 'great shakes' any more, for the Presidents and constables all got mixed in together till a 'body couldn't tell t'other from which.' For his part he'd 'ruther be 'lected in the spring when crops was growin' an' tramps a-trampin', though if he was forced into it, better one time than never,' and a lot more funny grumble. She told him not to worry, that he'd never be 'forced,' much as he'd like it. I've decided that he must be elected, and without any 'forcing,' and I've the splendidest plan you ever heard. First, I'll give you a lesson. Then I'll tell you, else you'll believe I'm forgetting my promise. I'm not. I'm only considering the best way to begin. Well, Montgomery Sturtevant, that bad habit of yours comes from laziness and nervousness. Pure laziness, pure nervousness," she added, with emphasis.
"D-d-don't neither!" denied the stammerer, indignantly. "Ain't got no nerves. G-gr-gramma says so, and she knows. She's older 'n you, an' she's got 'em worst kind. Always gets 'em when I play the f-f-fiddle."
"Maybe there are two kinds of nerves. She doesn't stammer. Besides the Cyclopedia said so, and it tells the truth. Here. Put this pebble in your mouth. It's a nice smooth round one. I picked it up in the garden and washed it clean. You put it in and then say just—as—slow—as—slow: 'Betsy Bobbins baked a batch of biscuit.' After you learn to say it slow, without once stammering, then you begin to say it faster. Either that or any other jingle that's difficult without tripping. 'She sells sea-shells,' or, 'Peter Piper.' Why don't you put the pebble in?"
"I don't want t-to. You're mocking me!"
"There! I knew you needn't if you really wouldn't. When you are a little angry or in real earnest you can talk well. Listen to me and think if I'm not in earnest myself, since I took the trouble to copy all this for you."
Thereupon, from the little pocket of her blouse, which had held the pebble, the teacher took a folded paper, closely covered with her neatest script, and read therefrom paragraphs which alternately plunged her pupil into despair or exalted him to extravagant delight. And the fortunate result of this first lesson was that when it was ended Montgomery had repeated an entire sentence with reasonable smoothness. But he had accomplished this without the pebble and with almost interminable pauses between words.
"Yet you did it, you did it!" cried Katharine, exultantly; "and now for a reward you shall hear the most glorious plan I ever thought out. Listen to me, Mr. President-that-is-to-be!"
So Montgomery listened in astonishment, doubt, and delight, after his habit of mind; yet also, because of her zeal in his cure, with unquestioning allegiance. In any case, it was a scheme that would have appealed to him irresistibly and was one full worthy of the brain of "Kitty Quixote," so that he was fast outstripping even her ingenuity in the matter of detail, when the sudden call of Widow Sprigg fell like a dash of cold water upon their glowing spirits:
"Montgomery Sturtevant! You come right down out that mow this minute! Here's Squire Pettijohn after you!"
Katharine should have grown familiar, by this time, with Monty's spasmodic disappearances, but this last was the most amazing of all. It seemed that at the sound of "Pettijohn" the hay had opened and swallowed him. There had been no other summons and she had heard only a faint swish of something sliding, then found herself alone.
"But he'll come back, of course," she reflected, "after he's seen that gentleman. Must have been somebody he liked or he wouldn't have hurried so. Anyway, I don't mind being here a little while by myself to think things out all clear, and a hay-mow is the loveliest place in the world for dreaming."
It proved such in reality for Katharine, who, burrowing herself a fresh, chair-like "nest" in the sweet-scented hay, laid her head back and fixed her gaze upon the clouds floating above the slatted window. Soon her lids dropped and she fell fast asleep.
When she awoke the loft was dusky in twilight and she was very cold. The wind had risen, and little tufts of the hay about her blew here and there, clinging to her clothing and lodging among her short curls. Montgomery had not returned, and after lying still a moment longer, till she was fully awake, she grew frightened, thinking:
"I never heard such a moaning and whistling as the wind does make up here. I wonder if it is always so in a barn, and how I am to get down. It was hard enough coming up, but in the dark, like this, and I not remembering just where that ladder was; and if I don't find it—what shall I do? Yet how silly to be afraid of things, a big girl like me; and how impolite of that boy to go away and forget me. No matter how much he likes Squire Pettijohn, he shouldn't forget his manners; especially since it is I, not that gentleman, who is going to cure him of stuttering. And what a stupid I am not to call him! If he's forgotten I must remind him."
With that she crept as near the edge of the mow as she dared, and shouted: "Montgomery! Monty Sturtevant! Boy! Come back and help me down!"
While she listened for a reply she thought of the eggs she had collected for Susanna, and crawled back to find her hat and them. The hat she slipped over her head, its elastic band clasping her throat, and the eggs she stored within her blouse. They were heavy and made it sag inconveniently, but she could soon get rid of them if only that wretched little Sturtevant boy would come back. She must try again!
Nothing save the wind soughing dismally among the rafters responded to her call, uttered with her loudest voice, and a fresh shiver of fear crept over her. Then she rallied, growing angry, which, under the circumstances, was the best thing that could have happened. Her indignation made her half-forget her terror so that she could plan her descent with something like courage.
"Let me think. I noticed that the top of that straight little ladder came high above the hay, almost to the roof in one place. I'd better get on my stomach and just crawl along, ever so slowly and carefully, till I find it. But—hark! Oh, joy!"
From somewhere in the darkness below a familiar yelp and whine sounded faintly. The roaring of the wind almost drowned it, yet she recognized that Punch had traced and followed her. She had always loved him, but never had he been so adorable as at that moment. His unseen presence comforted her so that she called back to him quite cheerfully:
"Yes, you precious, beautiful dog! Mistress is up here. She's coming! Wait for her, darling, darling fellow!"
It is possible that the ugly-favored little animal appreciated this flattery, or he may have had troubles of his own which needed comforting. Since his arrival at Marsden, life had not been all chop-bones for him any more than it had been all catnip for Sir Philip, and the short, gay bark with which he now responded to his mistress' cry proved their mutual satisfaction.
At last, Katharine's cautious passage came to a pause as her fingers touched the ladder, but she realized that a misstep would send her over that precipice of hay into the bay below, which now seemed a gulf of unfathomable depth. Inch by inch, with greater prudence than she had ever exercised, she moved onward in the gloom, now become almost impenetrable, till she got one foot upon a round of the ladder.
"That's good. But I guess I'd see better if I closed my eyes, and I must go down it backwards. Now I've both feet on and—dear me! How far it is between steps. Why don't people put their rounds closer together, so they wouldn't be so hard to climb? I was never on a ladder before except a step one, and that not often, and—But I'll manage."
Manage she did and very well, until she had nearly reached the bottom. Then, pushing her foot downward where one of the rounds had been broken out, it found nothing to rest upon though she stretched it to her utmost, and all at once everything seemed to give way and she fell backwards. Fortunately, the distance was so slight and the bay so carpeted with hay that no serious harm resulted; and when a cold wet nose was thrust into her face she sprang to her feet, catching Punch in her arms and in her great relief caressing him till he rebelled and wriggled himself free.
The wind did not roar so loudly down there, and, presently, she could hear things; the sound of somebody moving about on the barn floor, the opening and shutting of feed-boxes and stalls, the swish of fodder forked to the cows in the shed beyond, and could also see the gleam of lantern-light as it was carried to and fro.
"Hello!" cried Katharine, hurrying to the square window through which she and Montgomery had leaped into the deep bay, but whose lower frame even was so far above her head that she could only touch it by stretching her arms to their utmost. She had thought it a big jump then and had not considered how she was to return, but now the full difficulty of the situation presented itself, and her heart sank.
"Oh, Punchy, dearest! I guess this is a good deal like Susanna's saying, 'out of the frying-pan into the fire.' Off the hay-mow into the bay. I don't see why folks build barns such ways. Why don't they have just regular straight floors and things? Wait, pet. Don't rub against my ankles so hard, you nearly knock me over. The man'll come back in a minute and help us up. I don't see how you ever got down here unless you fell down. Hello! Man! Man! Hel—lo! HELP!"
The lantern glimmer appeared once more, but at the extreme end of the building, and seemed rapidly receding. Then there came the sound of a heavy door slammed forcibly against the wind, the rasp of a bolt in its lock, and Katharine knew that she had not been heard, and that she had been shut up alone in the great, desolate place.
It was not liking for Squire Pettijohn which had caused Montgomery to vanish when called to meet him. Quite the reverse. The name of that man of mighty girth and stature struck terror into the soul of every young Marsdenite. He was a person of fierce temper and a propensity for managing his neighbors' affairs, especially the affairs of his youthful neighbors. Report said that his wealth equalled his temper, and that the two together made most of the villagers stand in awe of him is certain. It was his boast that he represented the cause of law and order in his native town, and he often wondered how it had gotten along before he was born, or how it would manage when he was dead.
That day he had come home from attending court and found the community in a ferment. It would have been excited even by the news of Moses' accident and pluck, but the tidings of treasure-finding, scattered broadcast by Montgomery during the morning's errands, had stirred its profoundest depths.
When the lawyer tied his horse at the post-office, he was greeted by statements as various as many. "Miss Maitland has discovered a gold mine on her property;" "Monty Sturtevant has dug up buried treasure in Eunice's woods;" "'Johnny' Maitland's girl has been sent home to fetch Eunice a box of diamonds;" and "There's been gold found right here in Marsden township."
These were but the beginnings of the garbled reports which a gossip-loving lad had originated; yet all pointed to one and the same thing,—Marsden would now become famous. So that more than ever Squire Pettijohn felt it good to be a great man in the right place. In all the newspaper notices which would follow, his name, also, would appear, and notoriety was what he coveted.
Having listened to one and all versions with fierce attention, he repaired to his dinner and consumed it in a silence which his observant wife knew betokened affairs of unusual weight. But it was not until he finished his dessert and pushed back from table that he informed her:
"I am going to Eunice's. Vast wealth has been found upon her premises, and she needs me. Deny me to all smaller clients until further notice."
Then, assuming his Sunday attire and stiffest stock, he set pompously forth down the tree-bordered street, caning a stray dog here, there reprimanding a boy who might be playing "hookey,"—though was not,—and shaking his fist at old Whitey, taking her accustomed stroll in and out of inviting dooryards. Yet when he came to the wider yard before the stone house something of his complaisance left him. "He and Eunice Maitland had never hitched." She was always perfectly courteous, and never failed to attend the sewing-meetings of the church when they were held at his house, and she had even been heard to say that she had "a great respect for Mrs. Pettijohn." She might have put a peculiar emphasis upon the "Mrs.," but then, everybody has his or her tricks of speech which mean nothing.
There was no door-bell at The Maples, but a polished brass knocker announced the arrival of any visitor; and it seemed to the worried Widow Sprigg as if that "plaguey knocker had done nothin' but whack the hull endurin' time sence Moses got hurt. I wonder who 'tis this time!"
Consequently, the door was opened with more impatience than courtesy as it now heralded the arrival of the Squire, who was for passing at once into the hall had not something in Susanna's manner caused him to hesitate.
"Miss Maitland. Is she at home? Will you present my card to her and say that I have called in person—in person—"
"Don't see how you could have called any other way," answered the greatly tried housekeeper, remembering him rather as "little Jimmy Pettijohn," whom her own mother had used to feed and befriend, than as the important personage he had since become.
"Ah, Susanna, my good woman, you were always facetious! I would like to see your mistress. Please announce me to her and conduct me to the drawing-room."
It was a mistaken tone and the widow hesitated at no rudeness which would protect the beloved "friend" with whom she dwelt, and whom it was her privilege to openly call by the familiar title of "Eunice," which this "Jimmy" dared not do save behind the lady's back.
"We hain't got no drawin'-room here, an' Eunice ain't seein' no more folks to-day, not if I can help it. I'm sure she won't see no men folks, anyway. We've been overrun with them, a'ready, just 'cause Moses has broke his leg and a few his ribs. Accidents happen to anybody if they're keerless, an' he admits he was. But he's as comfortable as can be expected, thank ye, and good day."
"But, Susanna, not so fast. I came to offer my services in regard to this—er—gold mine which the little Baltimore girl has discovered."
"W-h-a-t?" gasped the widow in utter amazement. Had the man taken leave of his senses?
"The gold mine, or—or hidden treasure—or casket of diamonds,—reports vary; yet all agree in the fact that extraordinary wealth has been unearthed in the old Maitland woods. Of course, Eunice being unused to the management of large affairs and only a woman—a woman—she would appreciate the help of an experienced man. I trust my advice may prove of benefit to her."
The Widow Sprigg listened with an attention that would have been flattering had not her face evinced her incredulity. As it was, she stood for a brief time, staring over her spectacles at the big man, as if gazing at some curiosity, then she laughed, scornfully:
"Why, Squire, upon my word I'm sorry for ye! Though I don't know who 'twas 'at made a fool of ye, but fool you have been made, and no mistake. Such a balderdash as that! Why, man alive, don't you s'pose if anything worth findin' had been found on Eunice's property she'd ha' told me the first one? An' me an' her livin' like sisters, so to speak, even sence I growed up, savin' the spell whilst Mr. Sprigg, he was alive. Two years I spent in my own house 't Mr. Sprigg he built, on his own piece of woodland 'j'inin' hers, and she buyin' it off me soon's he departed. The prettiest little house in the hull township, 'tis, too, an' where I 'xpect to end my days if I outlive her, which I hope I won't. An' her needin' business 'advice,' indeed! When there ain't a man in Marsden, let alone all the women, can hold a candle to her for gumption an' clear-headedness. An' her sayin' to me then, 'Susanna, it will do you more good to sell to me an' put your money out to int'rest 'an to have a lot of wuthless land on your hands, an' you shall keep the little cottage for your own as long as you live.' So we done it, an' she paid me more'n the market price; an' has left me the house all untouched, with my own furniture in it, an' me goin' out there twicet a year for spring an' fall cleanin,' an' even leavin' the kitchen-bedroom bed made up, case I get the hypo an' feel like bein' by myself a spell."
"I know, I know, Susanna. I've heard of Eunice's generosity to you, and of your whimsical retention of an empty house. You ought to let it to some decent tenant and get some benefit of it. Upon second thoughts, I would advise you to sell it. Now that this treasure has been found you might realize well on it. I—Why, I don't know but I might be induced to take it off your hands myself, just to do a friendly deed to an old schoolmate."
Squire Pettijohn had managed to stem the tide of her garrulity long enough to interpose this speech of his own, and to act upon an idea which had just occurred to him. The value of the old Maitland forest would leap to fabulous height if the rumor that gold had been discovered there proved true. But he did not intend to offer much for the "deserted cabin," convenient though it might be to the possible mine, upon the strength of a mere rumor, and even though the chance existed of the same vein of wealth extending even so far. He would first get confirmation of the story from Miss Maitland's own lips and would then act with his eyes open.
He was not succeeding very well in his errand of "neighborly kindness," for Susanna still held the door so nearly closed that he could not force an entrance, even though he kept his foot firmly in the aperture. The woman still regarded him with a pitying amusement; yet gradually curiosity got the better of her common sense, which told her that he was the victim of some hoax, and she inquired:
"Who told you such a yarn, Squire?"
"Please admit me. I am not accustomed to being kept on people's thresholds when I take time out of my busy life to call upon them; and no one person in especial told me. The talk is in everybody's mouth, and the whole village has gone wild over the matter."
"But it must have had some sort o' beginnin'. Wild goose gabble like that don't spring full-fledged out the ground, I know. Who—started the ridic'lous business?" persisted the housekeeper, almost unconsciously opening the door somewhat wider.
Squire Pettijohn improved this opportunity and made his way into the hall before she remembered that she had not intended to admit him. In any case, she instantly reflected he shouldn't see her mistress, whom he had had the impertinence to speak of as "Eunice."
But her reflection came too late. Miss Maitland was already descending the wide stairs, and had paused at the half-way landing, to observe who was this latest visitor of the many who had called to ask for Moses. Called, also, it may be, to learn something further concerning the interesting "treasure."
But none save this gentleman had ventured to speak to her of what was, in reality, her own affair, and she had not encouraged inquirers to remain. Privacy had never seemed so desirable to her as on that fateful morning nor so difficult to maintain; and though there was no rudeness, her neighbors went away with the feeling that:
"Eunice Maitland's just as proud and reserved as ever. Moses' trouble and her own great fortune don't make a bit of difference, and she makes you feel, without saying a word, that your room is better than your company; and that she'll keep her own counsel in this matter as she has always done in smaller ones."
"Good afternoon, Miss Eunice! Accept my hearty congratulations!" cried Squire Pettijohn, pushing eagerly forward to the foot of the stairs, and bowing to her descending.
"Good afternoon, Squire Pettijohn. You are very kind to come and inquire for my poor friend, Mr. Jones. I am glad to tell you that the doctor says he will do very well, but sorry to add that he will be a prisoner indoors for a long time. Is Mrs. Pettijohn quite well?"
So speaking, and with the manner of one who has expected but one kind of interest in affairs at The Maples, yet knowing perfectly well that the Squire would never have troubled himself about a "hired man's" misfortunes, Aunt Eunice walked with her visitor toward the door. She was puzzled by his presence, but did not enjoy it, and was herself going just then to read the Weekly Journal to her injured helper. She did not take the hint given by the Squire's pause beside the sitting-room door, and moved gently forward to the outer entrance, as if to terminate the interview.
"Make my regards to your good wife, Squire, and thank her for sending to inquire. Moses is much touched and gratified by the good-will of his neighbors, and has had many calls already. But doctor says he should see nobody except ourselves for the present. Good afternoon."
They had now reached the doorway and Susanna stood at one side, keenly observant of the other two, and suddenly breaking into their talk with the exclamation:
"Well, Eunice! What do you think's sent Jimmy Pettijohn a-visitin' us? Not none of Moses' troubles, but to hear about the 'gold mine' was found in the big woods this mornin'! Did you ever hear the beat?"
"A gold mine? Surely, he knows how absurd such an idea would be," answered Aunt Eunice, quietly bowing and turning away.
As she disappeared in the hall beyond the stair-way the Squire coughed and started to follow, then apparently thought better of it, for he merely reproved Susanna with his most judicial sternness, saying:
"If you women would be careful to repeat things as you hear them you would save much confusion. It is true I did mention 'gold mine,' but I also mentioned a hidden box of treasure. The majority of the villagers claimed the latter was what was really found, and—"
"Who started such a cock-an'-bull story? Must have had a beginnin' in somebody's mouth."
Susanna had now become not only indignant but profoundly curious. She would find out who was responsible for this strange rumor, then she would promptly interview that person and cross-examine him as only a woman could. But the reply which she received astonished her more than the story had done.
"It was that stammering little grandson of the Madam's. He and the little girl who's staying here were the discoverers. So I was told," answered the Squire, making ready to depart.
"Well, I declare! If 'twas ary one o' them we can soon settle their hash. Come with me, Squire, I saw the pair goin' into the barn a little spell ago, an' I hain't seen 'em come out. Katy, she don't know you—an' so ain't afraid of ye. She ain't afraid of anything I've seen yet; but Monty—Hm-m. I can leave Monty to you to deal with. My suz! If this ain't been the greatest day that ever I saw!"
With which remark she led the way to the foot of the hay-mow and sent up the summons which had caused Montgomery's sudden disappearance.
Her name hissed into her ear partially roused the bound-out girl from a nap she had been taking with the towel in one hand, an unwiped dish in the other. She had the faculty of going to sleep anywhere and any time opportunity offered. She now leaned comfortably against the wall beside the sink, her eyes closed and her mind oblivious to her surroundings, and dimly hearing through her dreams that sibilant call:
Then her ear was pinched and she brought back to reality.
"What you doin' to me, Montgomery Sturtevant? I'll tell your grandma!"
"Ain't meanin' to hurt you, A-A-Alfy. I—Don't you d-do that. I—Say, I'm goin' to h-h-hide in the s-s-secret chamb—er. Don't you t-t-tell anybody. You fetch my s-s-s-supper up after dark. An' some w-w-water. Fetch enough to l-l-last—forever! I don't know as I s-s-shall ever—ever—dare to c-c-come down."
The Mansion where the Sturtevants had lived during many generations was a house even older than The Maples. It was far more quaintly ancient in style, and had been one of the many "Headquarters" of our Revolutionary generals. The earliest built house in the county, the part first erected still stood strong and intact, though little used now. On this portion of the Mansion the roof ended sharp at the eaves on one side, and but a few feet above the ground; the opposite side being two full stories and attic in height. Within this "old part" were many curious rooms, one having the peculiarity of seven doors and but one window; a monster fireplace, wherein one could stand and look straight up to the sky through the great stone chimney, and where still hung a rusty gigantic crane, once used for the roasting of meats and boiling of pots; but, most curious of all, a perpendicular shaft leading to a "secret chamber" beneath the sloping roof. To ascend this shaft one climbed upon small triangular steps fitted alternately in the rear corners of it; and it was entered through a sliding, spring-secured panel of the "keeping-room." No stranger would have discovered that the panel was a doorway, and even to Alfaretta it suggested deeds of darkness and treachery. The utmost Montgomery had yet been able to persuade her to do was to peep fearfully up that uncanny stair-way, from the dimness below to the utter gloom at top. To ascend it, as he did, nimbly hand over hand—the mere thought of it set her shuddering.
Now he was gone, and—there! She knew it. She heard him softly crossing the bare floor of the "old part" in his stockinged feet, heard the rusty squeak of the ancient spring-fastening, fancied that she heard—though she could not—his swift ascent of the ladder stairs, and—heard no more.
But she was now far wider awake than the pinch on her ear had made her, and she was terribly disturbed. In that house everybody, meaning Madam and herself, did what its young "master" desired. Of course on the lady's part there were some exceptions to this rule, but none whatever on Alfaretta's. The lad was at once her delight and her torment; in his wilder moods teasing her relentlessly, but in his more thoughtful ones pitying her for her hard lot in life. Yet, in fact, since the girl had been taken from the "county farm" to serve Madam Sturtevant until she should be eighteen, she was scarcely poorer than the mistress who employed her, and who scrupulously shared her own comforts with her charge.
Big as the house was, there was very little money in it. None whatever would have been there save for the generosity of distant relatives who regularly sent a small cheque to the Madam, as well as a box of clothing for the grandson; nor did they even dream that upon that cheque and the neighborly kindness of Eunice Maitland the household at the mansion existed.
Fortunately, for the present, Alfaretta demanded nothing in the matter of wages. When she should be eighteen the, to her, almost fabulous sum of one hundred dollars would be her due as well as a decent "fitting out" of wearing apparel. Then she would be free to go or stay, work for "real wages" for this mistress, or engage herself to another. But eighteen was a long way off as yet, and though sometimes a wonder as to where she should get the pledged one hundred dollars did cross Madam Sturtevant's mind, she put the thought aside as soon as possible. Sufficient unto that day would be its own evil, and there had been days in the past far more evil than Alfy's coming of age could ever be.
Had relic-hunters known it the Mansion was a storehouse of genuine "antiques" which would have been eagerly purchased at fancy prices; but Marsden was far out of the line of such persons, and, save in extreme necessity, the old gentlewoman would have refused to part with her belongings.
Eunice, who was better informed on such matters because of her wider reading, had once delicately suggested to her friend that such or such an old "claw-foot" was worth a deal of money, and that it wasn't really necessary to have four tall clocks, each more than a century old, ticking the hours away in that empty house.
But her suggestion was wholly misunderstood. Madam had rather crisply replied that she was perfectly capable of winding the clocks on the one day in eight when they required it, and hoped to continue so till her life's end. Indeed, it had used to be a rather formal little household ceremony—that winding of the clocks on every Sunday morning. A ceremony that had always been performed by the two reigning heads of the "family" in each succeeding generation. It had been Madam's place to walk with her husband from room to room and stand beside him while with the queer old keys he wound the weights up from the bottom of the upright cases to the top, whence they would again begin their slow descent to the bottom, reaching it as another Lord's Day came around.
Nowadays, Montgomery, as the last of his race, had been promoted to accompany his grandmother on this clock-winding tour, and had once innocently asked:
"Did my father use to go with y-you, as I-I-I do?"
Strangely enough, he had never before inquired much about his parents, but had somehow imbibed the knowledge that both were dead. His father had once "gone away" and never returned; but his mother had come home, bringing him an infant, had placed him in the Madam's arms, had taken to her bed, and had left it only to be carried to the burying-ground on the hill. Of her the old lady often talked, and once when they had carried roses to the unmarked grave he had heard her softly quote: "A sweeter woman ne'er drew breath, than my son's wife, Elizabeth."
But of that son, her own only child, she said nothing till he asked that unfortunate question. Then she had turned upon him with a face so unlike her own that he was frightened and needed no command to make him avoid that subject forever after.
"Your father is—gone; has died to us. Speak of him no more."
The tragedy of her expression haunted him for a time, and he wondered why she was so much more distressed by mention of her son than of her husband, since both were dead. However, he soon forgot the matter save to obey her wish, though afterward this clock-winding, which he had thought a "bother an' n-n-nuisance," seemed fully as sacred an act as the church-going which followed it.
This, then, was Montgomery's home and life, and why he who was so petted and indulged should put himself in hiding, and, of all places, in that dreadful "secret chamber," puzzled Alfaretta.
"He told me not to tell Madam, an' he told me to bring his supper. How can I? How dast I? I—I'd be more afraid to go up that stair 'an to walk through the graveyard alone at midnight. I would so, Ma'am Puss, an' you keep your nose out that suppawn, I tell you!"
The perturbed little maid felt that it was good to have even a cat to talk to, and vented some of her vexation by kicking the unlucky animal aside from the pot, whose hot contents she was merely sniffing. Suppawn and milk was the customary supper at the Mansion, and as its mistress liked to have the pudding cooked for a long time and also continually stirred during that operation, Alfaretta had become expert in the matter of managing. The pot was duly put on at the hour appointed, and the Indian meal carefully sifted into the salt, boiling water. When the mixture appeared fairly smooth and Alfy's arm was tired the pot was set upon the hearth and the young cook went to sleep. When the sleep was of sufficient length to cool the porridge Ma'am Puss extracted her own supper in advance of the family's, and nobody was the wiser. But to-day, Alfaretta had forgotten to remove the pot from the stove while she did her "noon dishes" and taken her intermediate nap, with the result that the suppawn was burned and even the cat wouldn't touch it. And although she had whisked it off the fire as soon as Monty had disappeared, her trained nose told her that this was a supper spoiled for everybody. She was very sorry for Madam, who would try to eat it, and always bore more patiently with her young handmaid than that person wholly deserved, but there was a silver lining to that cloud! Montgomery would never touch suppawn if it were scorched: therefore, she need carry him none of it.
"Couldn't have got any milk up there, anyway, without spillin' it, Ma'am Puss, an' you know it. Goody! Course he'll come down. He'll have to if he gets starvin' hungry. No harm done—much. I wonder what he's been up to now! Well, I can't help it. I didn't get him into no scrapes. An' I'll work real hard the rest the afternoon, hemmin' that petticoat Madam's give me to make over for myself. It'll be a real good petticoat if I ever get it done, though it's about forty rods around the bottom, I believe."
Full of good intentions, Alfaretta carefully set the burned pudding back on the stove, wherein the wood fire had nearly gone out, and sat down to her task of needlework. In reality, she was a very tired little girl. Madam was daintily neat and vigorous for a woman of her years. Never very robust, she still exercised what strength she had in a ceaseless round of sweeping and dusting. All the empty old rooms were as orderly as when there had been many servants to attend them, but this was accomplished at a cost of incessant labor and watchfulness, which the mistress really enjoyed since it filled her days with "things to do," but which was not so well liked by her bond-maid.
Ma'am Puss curled herself at Alfy's feet and purred herself to sleep so soundly that a tame mouse, the girl's own especial pet, came out from hiding and scampered merrily about the kitchen floor. The chorus of clock-ticks sounded drowsily through the silent house, Madam was taking her daily rest on her lounge in the sitting-room, and after a time the seamstress's good intentions passed into a maze of dreams. In them she seemed to be eternally climbing steep stairs into a chamber of horrors tenanted by one starving boy; or she was watching Madam choke to death over a lump of hot scorched porridge; or she was being tossed on the horns of Squire Pettijohn's black bull,—the terror of all young, and some old, Marsdenites,—and from this last dream she awoke to find the kitchen quite dark, and Whitey mooing outside the window.
It was Montgomery's place to "tend cow," the lonely remnant of a once large herd, but it was Alfaretta's duty to milk it.
"Yes, Whitey! It's all right, an' for once you've come home by yourself. A good job, too. Let me see. How fur have I sewed? To there—to there!" sleepily murmured the maid, and realizing that she had on that afternoon of best intentions accomplished the magnificent distance of two inches! "Two inches, if it's a stitch. Two inches a day for—How many days will it take to hem—to hem—Huh! I can't bother! But if I'm to go to school next quarter as Madam says I may, I'll have to do faster 'n that. Might get it ready for my outfit, like Monty says," remarked the sewer to herself, laughing carelessly.
Folding the garment neatly, she put it back in the work-basket her mistress had given her, and taking her pail, went out to milk old Whitey. But first she attended to what was properly Montgomery's part of the evening's chores, stalling the cow and throwing into her manger the scanty supply of night fodder that could be afforded. Then she sat down to milk, and accomplished that operation so slowly that Whitey turned her head as far as the stanchions would permit to see what this slowness meant.
With the coming of the dusk Alfaretta's perplexities had returned and brought others with them. It was not only a question of the boy's going supperless—nor her courage, nor of burned porridge and Madam's lifted eyebrows when it was tasted, which to the bond-girl was "Worse 'an a lickin';" it was that further one of the grandmother's inquiries. How should she answer them?
She loitered as long as she could, but the evil hour could not be indefinitely postponed. Madam's habits were as exact as those of her ancient clocks, and precisely as the four of them were striking six the little silver bell tinkled in the dining-room.
With an air of every-day indifference, Alfaretta dished the burned porridge upon a delicate china platter and filled a cut-glass pitcher with milk. These she placed upon a silver tray and carried to the shining mahogany table where the mistress was already seated. Then she took her own place behind the lady's chair, as she had been trained, ready to serve the simple meal; yet hardly had she stationed herself there than the dreaded question came:
"Where is Montgomery, Alfaretta?"
"Oh, dear! How not to tell the truth an' how not to lie!" reflected the perplexed girl, but not till the question was repeated did she reply: "I s'pose he's—he's somewheres."
Madam's eyebrows were lifted then. "Why, Alfaretta!"
"Yes, Madam. I'm sorry the suppawn scorched. I—I was terr'ble sleepy an' I stopped stirrin' a little minute an' first I knew—"
"I asked for Montgomery. Did you tell him that supper was served?"
"Please do so."
Glad of any reprieve from giving the answer she hated to make, the girl left the room in haste, as if intent upon summoning the lad. But she was gone longer than seemed necessary, nor did the waiting grandmother hear the boyish voice she loved, despite its stammering; and she was herself just rising to look for the lad herself when the maid reentered, pale and breathless, and evidently frightened in extreme.
THE FACE IN THE DARKNESS
Miss Maitland had promptly engaged Deacon Meakin to take Moses' place during the latter's enforced idleness, and the arrangement promised to be satisfactory to all concerned.
Susanna had observed:
"You couldn't do better, Eunice. The deacon's forehanded himself, but he likes money—all them Meakins do—an' he's been as oneasy as a fish out o' water sence he sold his farm an' moved into the village. A man 'at's been used to workin' seventeen hours a day, ever sence he was born till he's turned sixty, ain't goin' to be content to lie abed till six seven o'clock in the mornin' an' spend the rest the day splittin' kindlin'-wood to keep a parlor stove a-goin'. He'll be glad o' the job, an' he'll be glad o' the wages, an' he'll break his neck tryin' to do more an' better'n Moses ever did. You couldn't do better. It's a ill wind that blows nobody good, an' Moseses misfortune is the deacon's blessin'."
There was something else which made the good deacon accept Miss Maitland's offer with so much alacrity. According to his own wife:
"The deacon he feels terr'ble sot-up bein' selected to become one the family, so to speak, right now on the top of that treasure findin'. I ain't seen him walk so straight or step 'round so lively, not sence we moved in. An' whatever the truth is in this queer business, he'll fathom it, trust him! or bust."
This, to a next-door neighbor, as the gentleman in question set off down the street to enter upon his new duties.
So it was the deacon whom Katharine had heard busy about the barn and the glimmer of whose lantern had disappeared in the distance. With a precaution his predecessor in office had never practised, he had secured every shutter and window and locked every door before he crossed the driveway between barn and house and entered the kitchen, where Susanna was toasting bread for supper. As he blew out the candle in the lantern and deposited that ancient luminary on the lean-to shelf, he rubbed his hands complacently, and observed:
"Well, Widow Sprigg, I cal'late I've done things up brown. Winds may blow an' waves may roar, as the poet says, but nobody nor nothing can't break into Eunice's buildin's whilst I have the care on 'em. How's he doin'?"