As Moses was the only "he" on the premises the question naturally referred to him.
"Oh, he's all right enough. I mean, right as he can be, stove to pieces like he is. One good sign about him—He's crosser'n fury. All said an' done that me or Eunice could to please him, and he won't be pleased. Wants them childern, an' the mis'able things have skedaddled somewheres an' can't be found."
The deacon recognized an opportunity. He drew his chair up to the fireplace, where, above a bed of glowing coals, Susanna was making her toast, and said:
"There, neighbor, you look clear tuckered out, an' no wonder with what all you've gone through to-day. Hand me the fork. I'll help you. I hain't been ma's husband forty year without learnin' how to toast a slice of bread. An', my sake! Ain't it all just wonderful! An' what in power do you s'pose she'll do with it all?"
Susanna rather reluctantly yielded the toaster, looking speculatively over her spectacles at her would-be helper. Here was another man gone daft, or apparently so. Then she remarked, testily:
"I don't see what's happened all you men to talk so odd. Here's Jim Pettijohn been here a-offerin' his services to help Eunice look after a gold mow, or somethin'. An' me that surprised you could knock me down with a feather, just to see him walkin' up our front path. We ain't never had no 'casion for visits from the Squire—not sence he got to be one. Before then, years ago, when he was a humbly little barefoot shaver runnin' 'round loose, 'cause his ma was too poor to feed him, why the Maitlands used to half keep him. We none of us Maitlands has ever liked him, though. And now you—It ain't for the love of toastin' bread that you've set yourself down 'longside this fireplace, Deacon Meakin, and I do wish you'd put me out my misery an' tell plump and straight what's possessin' this village of Marsden this day!"
"You pretend you don't know, widow?"
"No, I don't pretend. I never 'pretended' a thing in my life. I say plain an' square what I mean an' no hints nor inyendys about it. Now, I ask you as man to man, or widow to deacon, what's all this fuss beyond just Moses gettin' his bones broke? There's something, and it seems to belong to our folks, yet me nor Eunice don't know a touch about it, nuther one. Now, tell."
The slice of bread fell from the two-pronged fork into the fire, but neither of this worthy pair observed the fact. For at once the deacon plunged into his story, relating the varied rumors which were at that moment being excitedly discussed by every other fireside in Marsden, as by this; and the grain of truth extracted from the mass was that—something out of the common had happened, yet nobody knew just what; that Katharine and Montgomery were the chief actors in the drama, with Moses a possible accessory. Also, that to Miss Maitland the whole affair was known "root and branch," and that she had been true to her character and refused to share her affairs with even the friendliest of neighbors.
"And now, Susanna Sprigg, what do you say to that?" demanded the deacon, exultantly, when he had finished his garbled narrative.
"I say—bosh! And you've burned the toast. But I've got enough done, anyway. We always 'feed' at five o'clock in the mornin' an' milk right after. And you needn't bother to lock the buildin's another night. Course, we do have keys an' keep 'em hung in their places, but as for usin' 'em—Why, who in Marsden would steal a cent's worth?"
The deacon felt he had been bidden to take himself away, yet with nothing learned; and as he slowly adjusted his plush cap and pulled its ear-tabs down, he fixed a facetious glance upon the housekeeper, making one more effort toward enlightenment, saying:
"I admit Marsden an honest village, less I never'd a-sold the farm an' moved in. But what's been in the past ain't no pattern for the futur'. Course, you hain't had no occasion for bars an' bolts, heretofore, but hereafter—hereafter—with that bag or box or trunk of diamonds—a gold box it is, too, they say—or them big lumps of gold out the mine—prudence is advisable. Good night."
He went out, rather noisily closing the door behind him; and, fairly snatching up the plate of toast, Susanna repaired to the room where, in an unlighted gloom, Eunice awaited her supper.
"My suz! Eunice, why didn't you light up 'fore this? I meant to do it myself, but what with runnin' up-stairs to tend to Moses an' showin' that blunderheaded deacon the ways of doin' our chores, I let it go."
Eunice rose to do as suggested. Indeed, she had been sitting so absorbed in her own thoughts that she had not observed the coming of nightfall; but Susanna interposed:
"You set still, Eunice Maitland, till I get all the lamps lit there is. I've got to have a chance to see whether I'm awake or dreamin'. I want to see square into your own face, an' learn if you're bein' deceived or are deceivin' me. Here's that little mis'able Jimmy Pettijohn—"
"Yes, little. Always was an' always will be. His outside has growed big enough in all conscience, but his inside has stayed the size of a pin-point, same as it was born. And Deacon Meakin, that's always had the reputation of common sense, a-insistin' that a gold mow has been found in our woods; or if not that, then a box—a shiny box of—My suz! Eunice—Eunice—what is the matter?"
Miss Maitland had risen and stood staring incredulously at the housekeeper. She was trembling violently and her face had turned paler than the other had ever seen it. She opened her lips to speak, but words seemed slow in coming, and after a moment she sank back in her chair, murmuring only:
"Oh, Susanna! How dreadful!"
"Eunice, be you sick?"
"No. Oh, no, no."
"Then there's somethin' in this, after all. An'—an'—you never told me!" cried the widow, for the first time in her life feeling really angry with this good friend.
"I couldn't tell you, dear Susanna. I could tell nobody. It does not concern—any one now living."
Her hesitation was not lost upon the eager woman opposite, whose curiosity was greater even than her anger; making her demand, promptly:
"Which was it? Box or mow?"
"I cannot tell you. I shall not say another word upon the subject. Where are the children?" But though the tone was decisive, it was also very gentle; and now smiling across to her irate housemate, she added: "Be faithful to me in this matter, dear friend, as you have always been in others. The secret is not mine to impart. You will help me to silence all these dreadful rumors by simply ignoring them. Nothing has happened, save Moses' trouble, to affect our life in any way. I am astonished that people should make so much of so little, and I am both surprised and disappointed that any rumors have been set afloat. It seems impossible to trust anybody, nowadays, even a child! But where are the two who belong to us? Where is Katharine? Where is Montgomery? He should be going home, or his grandmother will worry. But be sure to put him up a basket of food. There's that half of a boiled ham, and yesterday's bread was extra fine. A loaf of that and a square of gingerbread should satisfy him for the bread-and-milk dinner he was forced to put up with. He was very helpful in running errands, I must not forget that."
Miss Eunice continued talking as if she wished to recall to herself all the good qualities of one who had bitterly disappointed her. How could a Sturtevant be so dishonorable? Or was it a Maitland? Which of the two young things who had found the box and had given her their promise, had so soon broken their word? For, of course, only by and through them could these wild rumors have been set astir.
Susanna had listened in silence, which was not her habit. She was still disappointed and hurt, and was trying in her own mind to put several things together. But she rallied as Eunice paused, and said:
"I don't know where they are, ary one. The Squire he was after Monty, hot foot. 'Twas him, he said, 'at had set the yarn a-goin'. After all, it might be one his own wild goose make-believes, if—if you hadn't owned it was true. Of course, I'll do what you want. I always have, or tried to; but I will say this much, Eunice Maitland, 'at I don't feel you've the confidence in me you ought to have. That's all. I'll say no more. And as for where them two oneasy young ones are, I can't guess. I heard 'em talkin' or I heard Monty, up in the hay-mow, just after the Squire wanted him. I heard him as I was crossing the gravel road to the barn, yet when we got there an' called to him—he simply wasn't. He knowed he'd been doin' wrong, most like, else he'd have come down."
"Did you tell him that it was Squire Pettijohn who wished to see him?"
"Yes. Course. I thought that would scare him into comin' right away."
Miss Maitland laughed, and answered: "My dear, misguided woman! You might have known Monty well enough to understand how fast he would disappear in some other direction. He has probably gone home and Katharine with him. I hate to put any further task upon you, but I—I'm rather upset by to-day's events and shall have to ask you to go for Kate. I must tell her to remember hours and always be on hand at meal-time. She is a winning child in many ways, but—I fear I'm too old to get used again to any child."
Susanna went out without a further word. In her heart she was glad of the rather long walk to Madam Sturtevant's, since during it she would have opportunity to stop at some neighbors' doors, hear what they had to say, and promptly disabuse their minds of whatever wild notions they had that day acquired. For despite her personal vexation with Eunice she was loyal to her, and felt that she had but to say "Bosh!" in her most emphatic way to any rumor repeated in order to dispose of it. Mistaken woman! As well try to stem the ocean's flood as to silence a secret once betrayed!
These several calls, brief though they were, brought her somewhat late to Madam Sturtevant's, and at that very moment when Alfaretta rushed into the dining-room, frightened and breathless. Now the Widow Sprigg so rarely paid a visit to the Mansion that she meant to make this one as formal as possible; so, instead of tapping at the side door, she stepped to the front one and gave a resounding whack upon the big brass knocker.
"Ouch!" screamed Alfaretta.
"Why—what's that!" exclaimed the Madam. After-dark callers were an unknown thing at that house, and instant premonition of evil chilled its mistress's heart.
"D-don't be s-s-scared!" said the little maid, hurrying to the lady's side and clinging to her skirt, stammering as readily as Montgomery would have done and ostensibly to reassure her mistress, but, in reality, for her own protection. Madam could be so stately and grand that she must awe any intruder who looked upon her, and behind her black skirt the girl felt safer.
"Scared, Alfaretta? How absurd! But coming so suddenly upon our quietude the summons surprised me. Take the candle from the side table and open the door."
The Mansion was still lighted by candles which its mistress herself prepared, molding them in tin molds exactly as had been done by the first lady who had ever ruled there, but for economy's sake as few were burned as possible. One now glimmered upon the supper-table and another, unlighted, waited elsewhere for just such an emergency—but an emergency so long delayed that Alfy had never expected it to arrive.
She had learned to polish the antique stick to a dazzling brilliancy, its snuffers and extinguisher as well, "in case we should have an evening call," being the weekly remark that accompanied the polishing. But till now the wick of the candle thus prepared had remained white as when removed from the mold, and Alfaretta's hand trembled as she now left her ambush of black serge and tried to obey.
"Take care, child! You're lighting the candle—not the wick! Take another lighter and try again."
Even matches were a luxury to be reckoned with in that impoverished home; and besides, all the family had always used paper "lighters" daintily twisted, and crimped at top, nor was Elinor Sturtevant one to go behind her own traditions. But, at that moment, Alfaretta had already wasted three lighters without igniting the new wick when again that loud knocking was repeated.
Madam's patience fled.
"You clumsy child! Don't delay any longer. Whoever it is will think us most inhospitable. Take this one already burning and go to the door at once."
"I—I dassent!" quavered Alfaretta, retreating toward the kitchen.
"You—dare—not? How ridiculous. Then I will go myself! though when one has a maid one expects her to attend the door. That's a point upon which I am very particular. Remember that, in future."
"Yes'm," murmured the girl, absently. There were so many "points" upon which the old gentlewoman insisted that some of them fell on unheeding ears. At present, she was conscious only of two things: she must either remain alone behind in a dark room or she must go with her mistress and face whatever lay beyond that great front door. Deciding the latter course to be preferable, she timidly followed the vanishing candle down the long hall to where a barricade of bars and chains and bolts made admission from without a matter of some moments.
"Hold the candle, Alfaretta, while I unfasten the door," commanded the Madam, and the girl had to obey. But her hand shook so that she scattered "droppings," which even at that moment did not escape the mistress's critical eye and which would have to be cleaned up as soon as morning came.
At last the door was opened, and to Madam Sturtevant nobody was visible save Susanna Sprigg, wearing her Sunday bonnet and her most polite manner, while her spectacles gleamed like balls of fire as the candle-light fell upon them. But what Alfaretta saw was another face, so wild and fierce and terrible to look upon that her heart almost ceased beating. A white and haggard face, that seemed imprinted upon the darkness as if it belonged to no body nor substance but was a ghostly apparition of the night. All the eerie stories the poor child had heard during her life at the "County Farm," from the lips of the garrulous pensioners who had nothing better to do than invent them, came back to her now; and as the face appeared to be coming nearer, growing more and more distinct, she uttered a piercing shriek and slammed the door with such violence that the candle went out and the darkness she dreaded enveloped them all.
"Alfaretta!" cried Madam Sturtevant, "what does this mean?" Something of the girl's panic had seized her, also, though she tried to hide her own agitation by sternness.
"My suz, Alfy Brown! What ails ye? You nigh knocked me down, slammin' the door right in my face, that way!" exclaimed Susanna, who had, fortunately, stepped within before this strange thing had happened. She was herself in an excited mood, having passed through what she had during the past day, and having had her mind further disturbed by the tales she had gathered during her progress. Now here at the Mansion, where was always dignified composure and serene hospitality, to find such tardy admission and such hysterical welcome—it was too much! Her reflections were swift and angry, and while all still stood in the dark, as yet too surprised to move, she demanded, crisply: "I want Katharine."
"Come this way, Mrs. Sprigg. Let me take your hand and lead you. I'll soon get a light, and please excuse Alfaretta. I don't understand what has happened to her. Don't cling to me like that, child. You hinder me."
"Oh, didn't you see—It?" whispered the unhappy little maid, paying no heed to her mistress's words, but clinging all the closer to her in a fresh access of terror as she heard, or fancied that she did, footsteps on the piazza without.
Susanna's anger cooled in a new curiosity, and she said:
"You needn't bother to lead me, Madam Sturtevant, I know the ins an' outs of this old house pretty well, even if I don't come to it often. You go right on ahead an' strike a match; an' Alfy Brown, let go her skirt. Your manners this night ain't none your mistress's teachin', I know that. They must be some left over from the 'Farm.'"
Now Susanna must have been sorely tried to have reminded the girl of her unfortunate start in life, and Madam hastened to cover the remark by saying: "There, that's better!" and rising from the open fireplace where she had relighted the candle from the carefully covered embers. It had been so mild until now that only a fragment of fire had been kept upon the hearth, where, however, it was never permitted to wholly die "from equinox to equinox." Fortunately for the comfort of the household, there was woodland sufficient still belonging to the estate to supply all necessary fuel, and in cold weather this impoverished gentlewoman enjoyed her blazing wood fires—a luxury which even wealthy people cannot always command. Miss Maitland made it Moses' business to see that the Mansion wood-piles were high and broad, long before the autumn came, and the hardship of splitting smaller sticks for kitchen and kindling fell upon the reluctant Montgomery.
Susanna watched the candle-lighting with real admiration. Neat as she was herself, she had never yet attained to that exquisite daintiness with which Madam Sturtevant did all things; and she now exclaimed, with keen appreciation:
"My suz! You do beat all! Why, most anybody tryin' to light a taller candle by wood coals would ha' melted the candle—but you hain't dripped a drip. Where's the children? I've come for Katy. She's a terr'ble hand for runnin' away, or, ruther, for not bein' where she should be when wanted. The wind has riz awful. It don't rain none yet, but's goin' to right off. I didn't think to fetch an umberell an' couldn't have used it if I had. Not again' this blow. Alfy, you call Katharine, and we'll start back prompt. No, thank ye, Madam, I won't stop to set down, not this time. Eunice, she's alone with Moses so helpless, an' I don't believe half the shutters is tight nor nothin'. Seems if a body had more on their hands than they could 'tend to times like these. Why don't you move, Alfy? An' not stand stock starin' still, like an idjut? If the wind sounds that way indoors, what you s'pose it is outside? An' that child hain't got a thing on but that white ducky dress and maybe a hat. She wasn't fixed proper for livin' in the country, though she does become her clothes real likely. She's clear Maitland, Katy is, an' as like Johnny was as two peas in a pod. I can't help lovin' her, try as I will," concluded the widow, so exhausted by her own volubility that she unconsciously sat down to rest herself, even though she had earlier declined her hostess's offer of the spring-rocker by the sewing-table. "A chair 'at looks comf'table enough to take a nap in its own self," as she had once observed concerning it.
Thus enabled to edge in a remark of her own, Madam replied, with some anxiety in her tones:
"The little Katharine has not been here. Not that I know. Has she, Alfaretta?"
"I—I hain't seen her," faltered the maid, shivering as a fresh gust of wind rattled the casement and a flash of lightning made everything visible without. But she had closed her eyes against whatever might be revealed and still delayed her mistress's direction:
"Go and look for Montgomery and see if he knows anything about Katharine;" then, turning to Susanna, she added: "I am so glad that they are going to be such friends. It's a good thing for a growing boy to be associated with a young lady of his own—his own position in life."
Susanna sniffed. She was democratic by profession and did not feel called upon to explain that as a matter of fact there was nobody living so appreciative as herself of "good family"—as represented in Marsden by the Sturtevants and Maitlands. She merely ignored the remark, starting from her seat as a terrible blast set the old Mansion trembling on its stout beams and an east side shutter blew from its hinges.
"My suz! We've never had such a storm sence I can remember, an' Katy in nothin' but ducks! Eunice has wrote right away, soon's she made up her mind to keep her, to that stepmother o' hers to take an' buy the child some good strong shoes an' dark warm dresses, fit for a girl to wear in a country village. She's goin' to begin school, soon's town meetin's over an' Moses'll have time to drive her there. Oh, I forget he's broke. Well, she'll go sometime, if the proper clothes come an' things turn out accordin'. But come she must now, an' to oncet, if she's anywhere's hereabout, 'cause I dassent stay a minute more. I shall be blowed off my feet, I 'low, an' I wish, I do wish, I hadn't wore my best bunnit."
"Take it off and leave it here, Susanna. I will lend you a scarf to tie over your hair, and Montgomery shall carry it home to you in the morning. I will go myself and see if the children are on the place. Though I doubt it, if Alfaretta hasn't seen them, or if they haven't come in here to be with us during the storm. Maybe it will soon pass. Wouldn't you better wait and see?"
"Not a minute longer 'an to look," answered the widow, really more alarmed for the comfort of her home folks than for herself. Laying her bonnet carefully upon the side table, she followed Madam into the kitchen, yet would not permit that lady to explore the barn as she set out to do.
"Come along with me, Alfy, but get a lantern. I hear the barn door swingin' an' old Whitey mooin' as if even she was scared. You or Monty must ha' been careless about shuttin' up to-night, which uther one of you done it, or didn't do it."
A lantern was procured and lighted, but there Alfaretta's assistance ended. Nothing would have induced her to visit that barn again that night, no matter how well protected by such a valiant woman as the Widow Sprigg. As the latter disappeared toward the outbuildings, carefully shielding the lantern with her shawl, Alfaretta's conscience drove her to say:
"It ain't no use. She won't find him. He—he ain't there."
"Isn't there? Then why, child, did you do such a rude thing as to let her go on a useless errand? I really don't understand what has come over you to-night. You are trying my patience severely."
"Yes'm," admitted the bond-maid, meekly.
Madam laid her hand upon the girl's shoulder and turned her face toward the light of the candle which she was herself holding behind the uncurtained kitchen window, the better to guide Susanna on her way.
"Tell me, child, what has frightened you so? Do you know where my dear grandson is? It terrifies me to think he may be somewhere out-of-doors, unprotected in this tempest. Did he go fishing? Nutting? To play ball? Do you know where he is?"
"Yes'm," again answered the little maid, but to which of these several inquiries was not disclosed. At that moment a blinding flash of lightning illumined the whole space between house and barn, showing Susanna wildly flinging her arms aloft, her lantern flying in one direction, herself in another, while distinctly silhouetted against the glare was another figure, so strange and uncouth that even Madam retreated a pace in sudden alarm.
They could hear Susanna still screaming as she fled, but a second flash showed the man who had alarmed her standing motionless on the spot where they had discovered him.
Whoever or whatever he might be, it wasn't a pleasant situation for these two, so isolated from their neighbors, and without even Montgomery's presence. Mere lad as he was, he was still something masculine, and at least his grandmother believed him to be a very hero for courage. But he was not there to "protect" them from the possible annoyance of this unknown creature, and now, gently leading the frightened maid, Madam went back to her untasted supper and sat down in her place. She also motioned the girl to take a chair close beside her own, and when she had done this, again asked:
"What frightened you so, just as Widow Sprigg arrived? Did you see this man—outside—then?"
"I—I didn't see a man. I saw a face! I'd finished milkin' Whitey and a'ready 'twas gettin' dark awful fast an' early. I felt the wind blowin' and I knew the back shutters was loose. So I scuttled 'crost to pull 'em to, lest they got blowed clean away, an' there—there—right in the square of window by the old box-stalls was—was—the face! I got one look, 'cause first off I couldn't somehow move hand or foot, an' I saw how white it was, how its eyes blazed, how wild and stand-uppish its hair was, an' it smiled—Oh, what a dreadful smile! An' then I knew 'twas a ghost! It's just the night for 'em, such as I used to hear the old folks talk about out to the 'Farm,' An' which of us do you suppose, oh, which has got to die? 'Cause it's a 'call,' a 'warnin',' to somebody."
The little maid's terror was so real and her mental suffering so intense that the Madam pitied her profoundly, though she smiled as she answered:
"I wish it may prove nothing more troublesome than a 'ghost,' a creature of one's imagination. Ah, my child! When you reach my age you will know that the only 'ghosts' who can really trouble us are our unhappy memories. I suspect that it is one of those 'tramps,' for which Susanna is always looking, but who have thus far avoided peaceful Marsden. Unlucky woman! whose first meeting with her expected 'tramp' should be on such a night and alone. Wind or no wind, she'll make a short journey of the long road home."
Already, safe once more in the sheltered dining-room which was on the side of the house least exposed to the storm and that did not face the outbuildings, the housemistress's confidence returned. If only Montgomery were with her, so, that she knew him also safe, she would have been content. As it was, even, she began to think kindly and pityingly of whatever poor wretch had sought shelter at her door. If he didn't smoke, and so endanger the buildings, she wished he would seek cover with old Whitey till the storm was past.
Meanwhile, one crouching in the hay-strewn bay, hugging a squirming dog for company, and one lying upon a narrow stretcher beneath the eaves,—the missing Katharine and Montgomery listened to the roar of the tempest and believed that the very day of doom had arrived. Neither had ever heard anything like that wind. Indeed, none in Marsden ever had, and the morning was to reveal many ruined buildings and uprooted trees. But thus far the darkness hid all this, and Widow Sprigg raced homeward unharmed save by the rain, which now began to fall in torrents.
Miss Maitland was watching her arrival in great anxiety. She had early secured every door and shutter, save at this one window which commanded the path from the gate. Here she had placed a brightly burning lamp to act as beacon to the wanderers, and she had also set the fire to blazing brightly. Before the fire hung warm clothing for the pair, and, having done all that she could think of for their comfort, she had passed to and fro between the sitting-room and Moses' chamber. He was almost as uneasy as the storm itself; alternately berating himself for a "fool," and speculating upon the deacon's management of affairs at the barn.
"I'll bet—I'll bet a continental he never cut the fodder for the cattle but just give it to 'em hull! He was no 'count of a farmer, the deacon wasn't. Good man, yes. I ain't sayin' he ain't that; but did it ever strike you, Eunice, that most good folks is pesky stupid? Or 'clever' ones, uther? I call it plumb equal to tellin' you you're a reg'lar tomnoddy to say a fellar's uther 'clever' or 'good.' I 'low little stutterin' Monty Sturtevant could ha' done the chores well enough till I get 'round again, an' I could ha' bossed him." Then, after a moment: "But I can't boss the deacon."
"No, you poor old grumbler! I reckon he isn't that kind. And your judgment of your neighbors is a bit extreme. Never mind. It's such a good sign to hear you scold that I'm encouraged to think you'll soon be well again. Now I'll go down and be ready to open the door for Susanna and Katharine. It's terrible to have them exposed to this storm."
But there was nobody visible, and at length Miss Eunice felt assured that she should not see them till the tempest lulled. So she returned once more to the kitchen-chamber, to comfort its occupant and herself as well. She had just remarked, for the third time:
"No! I'm sure Elinor would never let them set out in such weather as this. She has kept them to supper, and I do hope Susanna will have forethought enough to decline the ham and bread she carried for Monty, and confine herself to whatever the family was to have had by itself. Susanna is very hearty, I'm glad to say—"
"Eats so much it makes her thin to carry it around!" growled Moses, interrupting. "As for Montgomery, that little shaver's never had—"
What he would have added is not known.
Out upon the kitchen stairs sounded the rush of sodden feet, which seemed to stumble from sheer weariness even in their maddened haste; and the next instant there burst into the room what looked like a wretched caricature of poor Susanna. Bonnetless and spectacle-less, her gray hair streaming in snake-like strands, her garments dripping pools, her fine black Sunday shawl trailing behind her like a splash of flowing ink, she dropped upon the floor gasping and sobbing, and, apparently, at her wits' end.
A second's hesitation at touching so draggled and dripping a creature held Eunice aloof; and then she was down beside her friend, wiping the rain-wet face and begging to be told what had befallen.
"Surely, something worse than a storm has brought you to this pass, my poor dear. You look frightened—you tremble—You—Oh, Susanna! Where is Katharine? Has harm happened her?"
"Her? 'Tain't her! It's me. It's come at last, an' I always—knew—it would. Oh, say! Am I alive or—or—dead?"
Then as the absurdity of her own question flashed upon her, she began to laugh hysterically, and soon to sob with equal fervor. She was wholly overdone and unnerved, and, realizing that nothing could be learned till she was calmer, her mistress put no further inquiries, but led her away down the stairs, still dripping moisture,—a fact that no stress of emotion could hide from the critical sight of two such housekeepers.
"Them stairs! An' I washin' 'em all up clean just afore sundown! Lucky I hadn't put down the carpet yet, though I'd laid out—Oh, my suz!"
This was the first coherent sentence, if such it can be called, which escaped the terrified woman, while she was being undressed and freshly clothed in the warm things Eunice had provided.
"Yes, dear heart. But never mind the stairs. Did you find Katharine?"
"Nuther hide nor hair of her. Likely she's gone visitin' some the village little girls. She's that friendly she's been into most every house a'ready. She's safe enough. She won't never come to harm, Katy won't. But, Eunice, he's come! I've seen him!"
"Who's come? What 'him,' dear?" asked the other, gently, and thinking that exposure and fright had made this usually clear-headed Susanna a little flighty. "Here, take a cup of tea. I made it fresh but a few minutes ago. It will refresh you and quiet you wonderfully."
Now, as a rule, the Widow Sprigg needed no urging to drink her favorite beverage, which, like many another countrywoman,—more's the pity!—she kept steeping on the stove all day long. But now, for an instant, she looked doubtfully upon the cup; then, as a sudden whim seized her, caught it up eagerly and again ascended the stairs to Moses' bedroom. He lay motionless, his leg kept taut by a ball and chain and his poor body encased in plaster, but he could use his arms and eyes, the one thrown restlessly here and there and the other glittering with impatient curiosity.
"Well, there, Moses Jones! How many times have you jeered an' gibed at me for believin' in 'tramps'? Wasn't 'none,' was there? Well, there is. I've seen him. He—he chased me! All the way from the Mansion till I got clean to the post-office—an' then—then—he—he cut for the woods! Oh, my suz! Be I dreamin' or awake?"
The recalling of her frightful experience again so unnerved her that she sat down trembling on the edge of Moses' cot, and would have spilled her tea had not Eunice caught the cup in time to prevent.
"You're crazy!" retorted Mr. Jones, unconvinced. "And there ain't no call, as I can see, for you to set down on my broke leg. That awful ball the doctor tied to it'll keep it straight enough, I 'low."
Susanna sprang up as if she had been tossed to her feet, her face quickly becoming normal and compassionate again.
"Oh, I didn't mean to do that! I hope I hain't hurt it none," she apologized, frankly distressed.
"Well, seein' 'at you didn't touch it, I 'low there ain't no great harm done. I was only providin' against futur' trouble. Now go on with your 'trampy' talk."
By this time Susanna was able to give an account of the man she had seen on Madam Sturtevant's premises, and who, when she ran, had soon followed in pursuit. According to her highly embellished version, his attire had been collected from somebody's rag-bag, his hair and beard had never known shears or razor, his eyes were as big as saucers and gleamed with an unholy light, and his color was like chalk. But fierce! There was no word could describe the ferocity of the terrible creature's pallid countenance! and, as for speed—Well, Susanna herself had made the record of her life, yet he, with several minutes' disadvantage, had actually overtaken her and grabbed at her shawl. Witness! said shawl dragging behind her when she entered.
"Hm-m! What puzzles me is that any tramp—any tramp in his senses—should take after an old woman like you, Susanna. An' how in reason did you get a chance to investigate the cut of his features an' the state of his wardrobe in the dark, as it is?" inquired Moses, humorously.
But there was no humor in Susanna's grim countenance, as she contemptuously replied:
"How but by the lightnin'? Playin' all around everything every minute, makin' more'n daylight to see by. An', though I was scared nigh to death, for the soul of me, I couldn't help lookin' 'round every now an' again to see what he was like. I'd never had a chance to see a tramp afore, an' I never expect to again, so I had to improve my opportunity, hadn't I? Scared or no scared."
This view of the situation made both her hearers laugh; but in Moses' mind was slowly growing a desperate regret, which finally expressed itself in the exclamation:
"An' to think I hadn't even been elected constable, an' hadn't no chance to arrest the first tramp an' vagrant ever set foot in this village of Marsden!"
Back at the Mansion there was no further disturbance. Madam Sturtevant comforted herself with the supposition that her grandson was at the home of some boyish chum or other; and she even ate a considerable portion of the now cold porridge, steadfastly refusing Alfy's entreaty to take some of the good things which Susanna had brought for him.
"You may eat your supper in here to-night, Alfaretta, at the little table; but that basket was for Montgomery, and we will leave it to him to open. We shall get our share of its contents, never fear."
With more faith in the lad's generosity, where appetite was concerned, than Alfaretta had, the grandmother set the basket aside in the closet, and took up her knitting of stockings for her boy's winter wear.
And then, as if he had felt himself under discussion, or more likely—as Alfy surmised—had smelled the odor of good things even through many partitions, the door softly opened, and there appeared a tumbled head, a frightened face, and a pair of beseeching eyes. Whatever reproof was in store for him, he meant those eyes should do their part toward modifying it.
And for a time all went well. Madam was so full of the incident of the tramp and the horror of the storm that she forgot to ask him where he had so long delayed, and how it chanced that he was so perfectly dry. However, this all came out of itself. While she was describing the gust which had blown the shutter free, he burst forth:
"I-I-I heard that! Yes, siree! An' I thought the whole r-r-r-roof was goin'. An' then I w-w-went to sleep a s-s-s-sp-ell. When I woke up, 'twas so p-p-pit-chy dark I dassent stay no l-l-longer."
With which he coolly sliced himself a portion of the ham which his grandmother had promptly produced. She watched him in silence for a moment, then, as a sudden thought occurred to her, demanded:
"Montgomery, have you been in the secret chamber again? Was Katharine with you?"
With his mouth full, he stammered: "Y-y-yes, I've been. You never said not. But K-K-Katharine she w-w-wasn't with me."
"Montgomery, where is she? It was for her Susanna came. Eunice does not know, nobody has seen her, can you tell where she is? You were at The Maples all day—you played with her—where is she?"
Even in her sternest moods, "Gram'ma" had never been like this. And all at once a horrible chill ran down poor Monty's back. Memory returned; all his treachery; his unchivalrous desertion of a helpless girl in a dangerous place; and, to his honor be it said, did for a moment turn him deadly sick. But his natural temperament soon rallied. Of course she would have found a way to get down and out. Yet,—and again he felt faint,—what if she had not? What if she had had to pass the hours of this dreadful storm on the top of a hay-mow under a barn roof, where, even on mild days, a strong breeze blew through.
Madam leaned forward, austere, intent. "My son, tell me everything."
Under the spell of those piercing eyes, he did tell. Indeed, he was glad to tell. He felt she would find a word of comfort for his remorseful conscience. Alas! the word she did find was simply this:
"Montgomery, put on your jacket and go to Aunt Eunice's at once."
"Gr-gr-gram'ma! In this awful s-s-storm? An' that t-t-tramp?"
There was no relenting. The gentlewoman's glance was now not only stern but scornful, as she returned:
"Are you a Sturtevant, and ask me for delay?"
BUT—STURTEVANT TO THE RESCUE
All the conflicting emotions which whirled through Montgomery's mind pictured themselves in his face as he confronted the stern old gentlewoman opposite. The silence in the room was unbroken save by the roar of the tempest, and it seemed an age before she asked, coldly:
"Are you afraid?"
But there was no hesitation as he hastily stammered:
"Y-y-yes, gr-gram'ma, I am afraid. So 'fraid I—I—can't hardly think nor feel nothin'. B-b-but—I'm—going!"
His ruddy cheeks were now colorless save where the freckles spotted them, and his great eyes seemed to have grown in size; but though there was piteous terror in their blue depths there was no flinching from the duty. It took him a long time to button his jacket and adjust his cap. He even inspected his shoe-laces with a hitherto unknown care, and thoughtfully placed a stick of wood upon the dying embers. He wished—oh, how devoutly he wished—that he had been born just a common boy, like Bob Turner, or any other village lad, and not a Sturtevant! These hateful traditions about family and gentlemen—Cracky! How that wind did blow! That tramp—Well, he dared not think about the tramp, and there was nothing more he could find to delay the awful moment of departure. With a last imploring glance toward Madam, to see if there was no relenting, or if she would not suggest some easier way, "'cause she knows all 'b-bout honor an' such p-pl-plag—uey things,"—yet finding none, he dragged himself to the side door, fumbled a moment with the latch, and went out.
Had he known it, Madam Sturtevant was suffering more than he. She would far rather have faced the elements and the darkness on that mile-long walk, unused to exposure though she was, than have sent this last darling of her heart out alone and unprotected. Indeed, she sat so still, and looked so anxious for a time after he had gone, that Alfaretta ventured to touch her hand, and to comfort, saying:
"Don't you worry, dear Madam. Nothin' 'll happen to Monty. Mr. Jones, he's well acquainted with him, an' he says 'at Monty's got as many lives as a cat. He's fell down-stairs, an' out of a cherry-tree, an' choked on fish-bones, an' had green-apple colic, an' been kicked by Squire Pettijohn's bull, an' tumbled into Foxes' Gully,—and that ain't but six things that might ha' killed him an' didn't. Besides, Monty's a good runner. Why, Madam, he's the fastest runner goes to school! True. He's more'n likely half-way there whilst we're just a-talkin'. Shall I fetch your specs an' the Chronicle newspaper? Readin' might pass the time till he gets back, an' I guess—I guess I won't be too scared to wash the dishes in the kitchen, if—if you'll let me leave the door open between."
Alfaretta had enumerated the various disasters which had befallen Montgomery upon finger after finger, and with such perfect gravity that the anxious grandmother was amused, in spite of her fear, and felt herself greatly cheered. With a kindly smile, she answered:
"Yes, Alfy, please do bring it; and, of course, you need not close the door. We are sadly late with the work to-night, but you may sit up till my son comes back. You are a dear, good child, Alfaretta, doing your duty faithfully in that state of life to which you were born, and you are a comfort to me."
The happy girl fairly flew to bring the "specs" and the last number of the religious weekly which Eunice regularly sent to her old friend. Conscience was rather doubtful about that ever faithful performance of duty; but why worry? Praise was sweet, doubly sweet from one so fine a pattern of all the virtues as her mistress, and Alfaretta had found comfort for her own self in comforting another. Besides, now she was either getting used to it, or the storm was lulling, for the blinds did not rattle as they had, and that mournful soughing of the wind in the tall chimneys had nearly ceased.
The bond-maid had rarely "done" her dishes so swiftly or so well, and, having set them in their places, she put out the kitchen candle, fetched her knitting, and sat down on her own stool beside the fireplace. For a wonder she was not sleepy. Too much had occurred that day to fill her imagination, and now that the "face" which had terrified her was safely out of sight, she began to recall it with a sort of fascination. If it were a ghost, it must have been that of somebody she had once known, for it was oddly familiar. The heavy features had a ghastly resemblance to—Who could it be? Uncle Moses? Mr. Turner? The stage-driver? No, none of these; nor of any old pensioner at the "Farm." Then, suddenly, she thought of Squire Pettijohn, terrible man, who had used to visit that "Farm," inspect its workings, suggest further extreme economies, where, it seemed to the beneficiaries, that economy had already reached its limit, ask personal questions, such as even a pauper may resent, and make himself generally obnoxious. Alfaretta had frankly hated him, and had never been more thankful than when she was assigned to Madam Sturtevant rather than to Mrs. Pettijohn—both ladies having entered application for a "bound-out" servant at the very same time. Already ashamed of misfortunes which were not at all her own fault, she had resented his pinching of her ears, his facetious references to her worthless parents, his chuckings under the chin, and the other personal familiarities by which some elderly people fancy they are pleasing younger ones.
"Madam! May I speak?"
"Certainly, Alfaretta. I haven't been able to keep my thoughts on my paper. I shall be glad to hear anything you have to say."
"Well, then! I'd hate to think it of any—any good ghost, but there was somethin' 'bout that face 'at made me remember somebody I'd seen, an' the somebody was—Squire Pettijohn!"
"Child, how absurd!"
"Yes'm, I s'pose it is. But there was them same big eyebrows standin' out fur from this white face as his'n does from his red one. There was the same sort of bitter look in the eyes, only these ones was afire. Ain't that queer?"
"Exceedingly queer. So queer that you must banish the notion at once from your mind. I am convinced that it was some poor, homeless wanderer estrayed into this quiet, and, I fear, inhospitable village, where there is no provision for such as he. I'm sure I wish he were safely housed in one of our own outbuildings rather than roaming the fields on such a night. Even an old blanket thrown into one of the box-stalls would have been comparative comfort."
"Y—es'm," assented Alfaretta, with small enthusiasm. But what she did like to hear was Madam's talk of the old times when the now empty stable was full of spirited horses, when guests filled the silent rooms, when servants were many and the larder abundant, and life and laughter ruled where now were only memories. It always sounded like make-believe; and, humble poor-house child though she was, Alfy delighted in make-believe.
A hint was commonly sufficient to set the house-mistress reminiscent, and once started upon such retrospections she was as contented to continue as her little maid to listen; and now there followed for the pair an hour of real enjoyment.
Once really past the threshold Montgomery's reluctance vanished. If he had anything disagreeable to do he liked to get it over with at once. The walk to The Maples in that storm was certainly disagreeable, as would, doubtless, be his reception there. He wouldn't think about that part of the affair till it faced him, and he wouldn't let any grass grow under his feet for loitering upon his road. Then a thought of Katharine, alone and in terror, roused all his real manliness, so that he cared no further for anything save to set her free. He would now promptly have knocked any other boy down for calling him the hard names he called himself all the way from the Mansion to Aunt Eunice's, and he disdained to think of tramps, thunder-claps, or broken tree-limbs, even though he stumbled over some of these along the path. Despite the obstructing wind, he had never run so swiftly, and the resounding whack he gave the Maitland knocker startled all within the house.
Poor Aunt Eunice required but little now to set her nerves a-quiver, and was anxiously pacing the sitting-room floor, wondering how and where to begin that search for little Katharine, which must be deferred no longer. But after the first shock of the summons she ran to answer it, feeling sure that here was news at last; and there almost fell into the hall a drenched, breathless lad, who could only stammer, feebly:
Then he dropped upon the floor to catch his breath.
Miss Maitland stared at him, wondering if here was another storm-crazed victim. Then she remembered that "H-h-h-hay—mow!" was the one and only word the boy had uttered during that scene of the brass bound box. Now again just "H-h-hay-mow!" She passed her hand wearily across her eyes trying to understand.
Then said the last of the Sturtevants, recovering, and stammering but slightly in his earnestness:
"F-fetch a lantern, quick! We went up h-h-hay-mow huntin' eggs—an' mine are in the s-s-s-secret ch-amber—an' Squire c-come, an' I skipped an'—forgot!"
The boy was himself so familiar with the premises that he knew exactly where to find the lantern, and, having confessed his fault, he ran to light it. He was also first at the barn, though Miss Maitland and Susanna both followed promptly and unmindful of the rain.
But alas for Deacon Meakin's overcare! He had not only locked the doors, but he had hidden the keys.
Susanna sped back to the house, seeking on the shelf where he had placed the lantern for them, but failing to find them, while at Eunice's direction Montgomery felt everywhere under the flat stone which served as door-step to the main entrance. In the crannies of window casings, at the tops and bottoms of all the doors, in the cattle-shed and poultry-house, in any sort of place where a Marsdenite would naturally deposit keys, they searched without avail.
Then Miss Maitland bethought herself that if Katharine were still within the barn and heard all this attempt at forcing an entrance she would be further frightened, and said:
"We must break the glass in that window behind the stalls, and you, Montgomery, must climb through. As soon as you are within, call to the poor child and tell her that we are outside and have come to get her. Then you hand us out some heavy tools,—an axe, if you can find one, would be best,—and we'll break down the door."
With that the lady herself took a stone from the barn-yard wall and crashed the glass, but Susanna interposed:
"You go right back into the house, Eunice Maitland, and not stay out in this damp to get your death of cold. And no need to break good doors. Katy ain't no bigger'n Monty, nor so big, an' a hole he can get into she can come out of. Trust her!"
Miss Maitland would not go indoors, but she did fold the shawl she had caught up more closely about her and retreated to the shelter of the cowshed, while Susanna stood listening beneath the window through which Monty had swiftly disappeared. Fortunately, the storm had greatly abated and there was less external noise to drown the sounds within, where Montgomery was now shouting at the top of his voice:
"K-K-Kath-arine! Katy! K-Kitty-kee-hotee!"
"Yelp! Snip! Snap! Gr-r-rrr!" came in response, and Katharine waked from the dreamless sleep into which exhaustion of grief and terror had thrown her.
At first she could not comprehend what it all meant. She could only make an effort to restrain the angry pug now escaping from her arms. Then she saw Montgomery's face at the opening above the bay, brilliantly illuminated by the lantern held close to his head as he peered inwards preparatory to a leap. With a scream half of relief, half of dread lest she should again be deserted, she ran toward the window and held her arms up.
The light disappeared, but before she had time for a fresh fear, she felt her hands clasped by Montgomery's sturdy ones, and she was bidden:
"Give a s-s-sp-spring—an' I'll haul you!"
She tried once, twice, and again, but there was no "spring" left in the usually active limbs, and she sank back to the bay, sobbing:
"Oh, I can't! I can't! I've tried and tried and tried! But I shall never get out. Never, never, never." And it was proof of the suffering she had undergone that there was no indignation left against the boy who had caused it, but only a hopeless acceptance of a terrible position.
This was too much for Monty. He would far rather have had her rail at him than sob so heart-brokenly. He began to sob himself in sympathy, and called back:
"D-d-don't! Qu-qu-quit it! See. Look up. I'll h-h-hang the lantern on the sill. I d-d-dassent take it down there, might s-s-set fire to the hay. I'm all r-r-right—I mean you're all r-r-right. Get out the way. I'm c-c-c-comin'!"
In an instant he had leaped down beside her and put his arm around her quivering shoulders. In all his life he had never been so sorry for anybody or anything as now for her and for his own neglectful selfishness, which had brought her to such a pass. Yet, heedless Monty had had many causes for regret during his previous career!
"I thought I should die! Oh, it was so awful! I thought I should certainly die here alone in this place. The wind would almost tear the roof off, and Punchy howled—he thought he was dying, too, maybe. But it was he kept me from it—quite. I never loved him so in all my life! Can—is there a way—you've got in, too, but is there a way out? I was hungry, I thought I would starve. Then I forgot that—listening. And the lightning—I was sure it had struck again and again. I waited to see the hay blaze up. Lightning always does strike barns, doesn't it?"
With a philosophy beyond his years Montgomery changed the subject.
"I shall have to boost you, i-i-if you c-c-can't climb without. P-p-put your feet right th-th-there—I'm b-bo-boo-boostin' my best! Catch hold the s-sill! Cracky! Up you g-g-go!"
Up she went, indeed, fear forgotten, every nerve strained, eager already to attain and excel in this new feat of climbing. Folks who lived in the country had to climb—or perish—it seemed. And once upon the sill she rolled over it to the broad floor of the barn and felt herself at last in safety.
But there still remained that other climb, to reach the broken window and through it freedom and friends outside. However, this was a trifle. Montgomery brought a short ladder, which he placed beneath the window that he had had the forethought to unbolt from the outside, and when the sash rolled back in its groove Katharine was already on the ledge, Susanna's strong arms clasping her and Aunt Eunice standing near.
Such an hour as followed! Such indigestibly delightful foods as Susanna brought from her storeroom—harbingers of holiday feasts to come—and of which the children were permitted to partake without any harm or restriction.
"Let the poor little creatur's get their stummicks full for once, sence nary one hain't had a mouthful of victuals, scurce that, to-day," cried Susanna, herself feasting her eyes upon the now joyous faces of the youngsters.
Then what a tap-tap-tapping sounded on the floor of the kitchen chamber! Aunt Eunice interpreting the same to mean:
"Poor Moses is feeling left out of all our rejoicing and feels aggrieved. He wants us all to come up and tell him the whole story, since he cannot himself come to us. But alas for Deacon Meakin! I don't envy him his forthcoming interview with my hired man to-morrow morning. It is Moses' right to still direct matters, even if he cannot work. Both men are what Mrs. Meakin calls 'sot,' and I foresee some jarring of wheels, so to speak, before they run smooth. But let us go up at once, and then Monty must be starting home."
The boy sighed. This was all delightful. Badly as he had behaved, he had received no reproof. Instead of that, there was such rejoicing over Katharine's safety that his sins had, apparently, been forgotten. Yet it must end—there still remained the long and desolate road home!
Monty talked as fast as ever a boy could, nor did Katharine's tongue lag far behind, and for a time Moses listened eagerly. Then there came pangs of physical suffering which banished interest in all else, and while he was meditating how now best to rid himself of his guests, the hall clock struck nine.
"Nine o'clock! My suz! I didn't know it was half so late!" cried Susanna, honestly surprised. "Time you was home and abed, Montgomery Sturtevant, keepin' your poor grandmother up all hours like this, just account your pranks. My suz! and such a day. May I never see another like it!"
"Amen!" echoed poor Mr. Jones, so devoutly and in a voice of such suffering that they all silently withdrew.
"Only nine o'clock? Does nobody ever sit up till a respectable hour, here in Marsden? Why, at home, our evenings never began till after this time," remarked Katharine, now so wide-awake, and, it must be confessed, having had her nerves freshly excited by the recital of her woes to the sympathizing ear of Uncle Moses.
"Pooh! N-n-nine o'clock's n-n-nothing," assented Monty, who had never been out so late before in all his life.
"Isn't it?" asked Aunt Eunice, smiling. "Well, all the same, though it is rude to dispatch a guest, I'm sure it is full time for you to be with your grandmother, as Susanna justly remarked. She is doubtless anxious about you; and as for you, Katy dear, you are living in quiet Marsden now and not your city home."
The storm was fully over when they opened the great front door, and the moonlight set all the rain-drenched shrubs and trees a-glitter, so that Katharine exclaimed:
"Oh, look! It seems as if the world was just laughing at itself for having been so naughty a little while ago!"
Aunt Eunice gave the child a little squeeze, thinking how "Johnny" would have had just such a fancy, and Monty, wondering if all girls had queer ideas, bade them good night and started whistling down the path.
"We'll stand here till you get beyond the first big tree, my lad, and we'll follow you in our minds all the way," said Miss Maitland, kindly. Then to Katharine she added, softly: "He's doing that to keep his courage up."
"All the same he whistles beautifully," answered the girl, loyally. "If he could only speak as well as he whistles it would be splendid. Why, up there on the hay-mow to-day, some sort of bird—I think he said it was a meadow-lark, or skylark, or something—anyhow, it sang ex-quis-ite-ly! And he mimicked it so well I almost thought another bird had come through the window into the barn. He's a real nice boy, Monty is, but—but he needs some 'retouching,' as papa darling used to say of his pictures."
"God bless him—and his own 'Kitty Quixote,'" murmured the old guardian, touched to a tender softness by—ah, many things! and promptly marshalling her latest charge to bed.
Lights were out all along the street as Montgomery's passing whistle disturbed the early naps of these quiet folk, who had been so greatly interested and wearied by that day's unusual events. But the clear, birdlike tones were comfort to one harassed wanderer.
Shivering in his wet rags, he crept out from the shelter of a porch to hearken, as those boyish lips sent forth in flute-like tones the melody of "Home, Sweet Home." Hearkening, he followed, fearing he should lose the music which impressed him, all unknowing why; and as the whistler left the last village house behind him and set out to run over the long stretch of lonely road, which lay between that and the Mansion, the follower also ran.
Had Montgomery known this his pace would have been even swifter than it was, and the mere fear he now felt would have become abject terror.
But he did not know; and the unknown tramp soon lagged far behind. He had neither strength nor desire left to overtake the fleeing lad, since the whistling had ceased, and consciousness of his own misery returned upon him. So, presently he left the highway and limped across the fields toward the woods where instinct told him was safe hiding; and Montgomery reached the stately home of his forefathers in good time. Between the man and the boy there seemed no possible connection, yet circumstances were already linking their lives together as with a chain.
ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON
When Deacon Meakin found that a barn window had had to be broken because of his forgetfulness to mention where he had put the keys, he insisted upon paying for and inserting the new glass himself. This distressed Miss Maitland and delighted Moses; but the new caretaker carried his point, declaring:
"If I can't do that I'll throw up the job. My own hired men, 'fore I moved in, had to pay for their breakin's, and sence I've turned myself into a hired man, well, it's a poor rule that don't work both ways, as the poet says, an' what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, or visy versy. There'll be no foolin' done on these premises whilst I'm in charge, an' the very first thing I'll tackle is—cleanin' up."
"Why, is that necessary? Beyond the work that comes with every day? Surely, Moses is very neat," protested Eunice, on behalf of her old disabled helper.
"Hm-m. There's neatness—an' neatness; an' my friend Jones, he's a fisherman first, an' a farmer afterward;" returned the deacon, grimly.
The real truth was that the deacon had an idea of the wonderful casket's being hidden somewhere in that barn. As he reasoned with himself: "A barn's the least likely place for robbers to search for hid treasure, whether it is a gold box or a gold mine. Eunice, she is long-headed. She wouldn't want things in the house that might induce folks' breakin's in, more particular sence Widow Sprigg seen that tramp. She was tellin' me 'bout it when I come on the place this mornin'; an' nobody needn't tell me it was just to get a girl out the bay that that winder was stove in. That's all cock-an'-bull yarn; to throw me an' others off the track. But I'll find out, I'll find out."
Which shows how far one's imagination may lead in the wrong direction; and also explains why the curious, but well-meaning, man put himself to endless trouble, yet also did his own part in silencing the rumors of the previous day. Though, of course, his labors occupied him for several days, since the barn was big and his work so thorough. After emptying and refilling every bin and box, after cleaning every set of harness which had or had not been used for years, brushing the few cobwebs from the rafters, sweeping the floors over and over, he repaired to the hay-mow and industriously forked over the whole mass.
While he was engaged in this operation Susanna visited the barn and asked if he had gone crazy. His answer was:
"No, not crazy, but come to common sense. Don't suppose I'd feel very Christian-like, do ye, to loaf around doin' next to nothin' an' lettin' a neighbor's hay heat? Might burn ye all up in your beds."
The widow reentered the house laughing, but indignant. "Says your hay's in danger o' heatin', Moses! As if you hadn't cured it till it was dry as tinder 'fore you mowed it up. Well, 'twon't do no harm, an' will keep him out of mischief. He's a reg'lar poke-noser, Deacon Meakin is. But he's routed them hens so there won't be no more egg-layin' in high places, breakin' a body's neck to hunt 'em. But, my suz! I wish you could ha' seen that man's face when he handed me over your fishin'-tackle. You'd ha' thought 'twas poison, the way he touched it."
Moses was both angry and amused, but contented himself with remarking:
"Si Meakin never could catch fish even when he was boy goin' to school. He was always a gabbler, an' fish has got sense. They won't bite for noisy folks. Slow an' gentle, bide your time an' keep your mouth shut—that's fishin' for ye. Oh, shall I ever get to go again!"
"Sure. But it's time for your chicken broth. I've stewed it down rich an' tasty, an' there's one good thing 'bout broken legs an' ribs: they ain't broken stummicks. I'd ruther you'd have forty broken legs than the dyspepsy, 'cause when I take the pains to cook good victuals, I like to have 'em et. Now, turn your head a mite. Here's a nice new straw to drink your broth through, an' a pile more for you to chew on, like you're always doin'. Seems if a man must always have somethin' in his mouth, an' if it ain't tobacco it's straws. Spriggs he—"
"Don't give me no 'Spriggs,' to-day; I couldn't stand him. You've told more things 'at Spriggs done in his thirty years of life than would ha' kept most men busy till they was a hundered!" cried Moses, petulantly. "And if Kitty Keehoty, or Monty, ary one, comes 'round, do for pity's sake send 'em up. Here I lie, ball-an'-chained to a bed and things—Oh, dear!"
It was Saturday and a busy time for the housekeeper. She had neither leisure nor inclination to argue with a fretful patient, so went away and left him to himself. But she found his desire for Katharine's society an excellent thing. As she had said of Deacon Meakin, "it kep' her out of mischief" to act as nurse to the injured farmer, and he now delighted in her. The stories of her old life in the Southern city were almost like the fairy-tales she retold from printed books; and her little provincialisms of speech amused him as much as his country dialect did her. She had soon dropped into the habit of taking his meal-trays to him and strictly enforced his eating a "right smart" of all the nourishments provided.
At noon of this Saturday she was perched upon the edge of his cot, daintily feeding him with bits of food she had cut up, when there was a clatter of feet upon the stairs, and, breathless as usual, Montgomery rushed in, announcing, without even a nod to Moses:
"I-it-it's true! Mis' Turner's seen it in her w-w-wood-shed! Widow Sprigg wasn't m-m-mis-took!"
"Say 'mistaken,' Montgomery Sturtevant, and say it slow," corrected Katharine, severely, yet immediately turning an inquiring look toward Uncle Moses. Thus far her efforts to improve her playmate's speech had been a safe secret between the two. They hoped to keep it such until the lad could speak a "whole piece" without stammering.
But the hired man had not observed her remark, or, if he had, probably considered it but one of her naturally dictatorial sort.
"A reg'lar tramp, Monty?" he asked, eagerly.
"R-r-r-regular. Mis' Turner'd put her p-p-pies out to cool on the wood-shed r-r-roof an' they was six seven of 'em, an', sir, w-w-w-when she went t-t-t-to take 'em in one was g-one! Yes, sir! An' she seen somethin' b-b-b-lack scooting cross lots, l-l-li-lic-lick—ety c-c-c-ut!"
"Monty, if I were you, I wouldn't try to say 'lickety-cut,' till—" again reproved the girl-teacher, still forgetful of secrecy. And again Mr. Jones ignored her, asking the boy:
"Where was Bob, son of Mrs. Turner, about that time?"
"F-f-fudge! I don't know. Somewhere's r-r-round, m-maybe. But it wasn't him. 'Twas a b-b-bigger, b-b-be-beard-d-er feller'n him."
"You said 'six seven' pies. If she didn't know how many she made how'd she know she lost any?"
"Well, sir! An' there was old Mr. Witherspoon, d-dr-driv-in' down mountain with a load o' c-c-carrots, he—he seen him cr-cr-cross—in' Perkins's corn-field an' he t-thought 'twas a sc-sc-scarecrow, till it walked. Sc-sc-sc-scarecrows couldn't do that he kn-kn-knew, an'—"
Although Eunice had done her utmost to keep the story of the brass bound box a secret from even her own household, it was inevitable that knowledge of it should come to the ears of the sick man, since it was the chief interest of the many neighbors who called to see him. Yet all he could gain from his callers was the vague suspicion each entertained. He meant now to get at the facts of the case. Montgomery had spread the tale, but had strangely kept silence with him, his old chum. Montgomery should speak now, or Moses would know the reason why; and if he still declined to explain matters he should be punished by being left out of the next fishing-party Uncle Mose would organize—if he ever fished again! He interrupted, saying:
"Never mind Witherspoon an' the carrots, Monty. Nor tramps, nuther. Sence I ain't constable, to do it myself, I hope the poor creatur' won't get 'rested. Don't know where'd he be stowed, anyway, in this benighted Marsden, where there ain't neither a jail nor a touch to one. What I want to know is: What did you find in Eunice's woods?"
Monty did some rapid thinking, the question had been a surprise, but he answered, promptly:
"Montgomery Sturtevant! How dare you? An' I will say that's the first lie I ever heard you tell. You're bad enough, oh, you're as bad as you need to be, but—a liar! Whew!"
The lad sprang to his feet, furious. His hands clenched, and it was well that his accuser was a disabled old man, else the "hot blood of the Sturtevants" might have driven their young descendant to do desperate deeds. As it was, he choked, glared, and finally stammered:
"I-if you was a boy, an' not old l-li-like you are, I'd make you t-t-take that back, or—k-k-kill you! It's the tr-tr-truth! I don't lie! Do I, K-K-Katharine?"
The girl had never seen anybody so angry. Her own temper was quick enough, but its outbursts short-lived, and she certainly had never had the least desire to "kill" anybody. Montgomery looked as if he meant it, and in distress she threw herself upon him forcibly, unclasped his clenched fingers, and begged:
"Don't say that, Monty! Oh, don't say such dreadful things!" Then faced around toward the cot, declaring: "He didn't 'lie,' Uncle Moses. It's true. He didn't find—"
Oh, she had almost betrayed herself in her eagerness to defend her friend.
"Didn't find what, 'Kitty Keehoty'? An' if you didn't yourself, lad, why, you was along at the time. How else—But I'm sorry I used that hateful word. I don't blame you for your spunk. I'd knock a feller down 'at called me 'liar' to my face, even now, old an' bedrid' as I be. I take it back an' call it square—if you will. But tell the hull business now, to your poor old fishin' teacher, an' let's be done with mysteries. Eunice, she's as mum as an oyster; an' Susanna, she talks a lot of explaining yet don't explain nothin'. What's all about, anyway, that's set Marsden crazy? Why, one man come to see me, was tellin' of searchin'-parties ransackin' our woods, prospectin', or somethin'. D'ye ever hear such impudence? Why, if I was constable, I'd arrest every man-jack of 'em that's dared to put pickaxe or spade in our ground! I'd have the law on 'em, neighbor or no neighbor. Well, they won't find a thing. 'Cept maybe a few chestnuts or such. As for gold—Hm-m! But somethin' was found—what was it, Monty?"
The lad's anger was ebbing, but he was still in an unfriendly mood. Besides, he remembered the promise he had made to Aunt Eunice,—broken beforehand,—and resolved that he would keep silence now, even if the harm were already done. So he closed his lips very tightly, and looked steadily out of the window. Katharine followed this good example, and the pair seemed wholly absorbed—in nothing at all.
"Can't you speak? Are you both struck dumb all to oncet? Is that the manners you think's polite?" demanded Mr. Jones, testily.
Then Monty spoke. "Gr-gram-ma sent me to ask how you w-w-were. I'll go an' tell her."
"Won't you stay and play? And, oh, let me tell you. Mr. Deacon Meakin is cleaning up the barn just splendidly, and it will be all ready for—you know what!" cried Katy, excitedly, and forgetful of the keen ears of the man on the cot. She was reminded of them, however, when he again demanded:
"What's that? What'll the barn be ready for? I want you young ones to understand there's to be no monkey shines of any sort whilst I'm laid up. An' you're a sassy pair, the two of ye!"
"I don't mean to be saucy, but you make me. And I guess you must be getting well very fast, 'cause widow says that being cross is a good sign—and I'm sure you're perfectly horrid, so there!" cried Kate, pertly, and seizing Monty's hand hurried him down the stairs.
She had no sooner reached the bottom of them than she regretted her impertinence, and would have returned to apologize, had not Aunt Eunice just then appeared in the doorway, wearing her street things, while Deacon Meakin was also bringing the top-buggy around from the carriage-house. Katharine loved driving, of which luxury she had had very little; and the few times she had been out with Miss Maitland since her arrival at The Maples had been her happiest hours. The whole countryside was rich in autumn coloring, and through her artist father the child had learned to "see things." She was continually surprising all around her by finding such a store of beauty in every simple thing. A yellow or scarlet leaf was far more than that to her; it was a picture of varying tints and shades, which she would study with keenest interest. She had pointed out to Aunt Eunice, upon that last drive up-mountain, at least twenty-five tones of green, and had seized the reins suddenly to stop old Dobbin that she might gaze her full upon a decrepit cedar-tree robed and garlanded with scarlet woodbine. Marsden village might seem dull to her after her city life, but nature more than compensated; so that now her fear was not that she must stay, but that her guardian—perforce—would tire of her.
"Oh, aunty! May I go?"
"No, Katharine, not to-day. I am going to visit an old friend, who is very ill. I do not know when I shall be back, but be a good girl and do whatever Susanna tells you. Good-by. Good-by, Montgomery. Please give my love to your grandmother, and thank her for sending to inquire after Moses."
Then the lady stepped into the buggy, the deacon chirruped to Dobbin, and they rode away. At the same moment came a shrill whistle from the street, and Monty ran to the gate. Bob Turner and a lot of boys were waiting near, rods over their shoulders and fish-hooks in their pockets, intent upon a Saturday half-holiday at their favorite sport. Besides their tackle they had great sacks of burlap, or canvas, because when they had caught all the fish in the river they expected to gather all the chestnuts in the woods. In any case, they were bound for a good time, and Montgomery did not hesitate in joining them. He delayed just long enough to go into the house and secure Moses' oldest line and rod, catch up a basket for nuts, and was off, leaving a very lonely girl standing on the path and wishing most earnestly that she had been born a boy so she, too, might do things worth while. She had already heard so much about the delightful art of angling that she longed to try it for herself; but with Uncle Moses helpless, and Monty—so mean!—He might have taken her. He might have stayed and talked over their secret scheme, which Deacon Meakin was unconsciously furthering by his ultra tidiness. He might, at least, have promised to bring her some chestnuts. But he had done none of these thoughtful things. He had been just plain—boy! Girls? Were there any she might visit uninvited? Aunt Eunice was very particular about that. She had explained that the Turner girls, Sophronia Walker, and even the Clackett sisters, Mercy and Lucinda, had many household duties to perform. Especially on Saturdays were their services in demand, since at this time of year there was pickling and preserving, soap-making and carpet-weaving; even among the more thrifty households "butchering and packing." Most families deferred the latter operation until much colder weather, but, as Susanna expressed it, "there's some in Marsden township 'at if they knowed they was to be hung 'd want it done the day afore, they're so forehanded." Even the widow herself, Katharine fancied, leaned a little toward this "forehandedness," since she made fruit-cake six months before it was to be eaten; and on that memorable night of the storm had actually produced for each child a piece of the same sort of cake, meltingly luscious and moist in one's mouth, with the statement that it had been baked just seven years before. And when Katharine had exclaimed in amazement, had replied:
"My suz! That's nothin' to what some keeps it. Mis' Turner, she's got part her weddin' loaf yet, an' she's been married more years 'an I can exactly recollect; while her own mother has some 'at's twenty-five years old. Fact. Hers is gettin' ruther dry, but it's always been kep' in a stone crock in a tin case an' only opened a-Thanksgiving time, when everybody in the hull connection is to dinner, and is give a tiny bit for remembrance' sake."
Thinking over her guardian's information, there seemed to be no house where the young folks would have leisure for company, and the home prospect was rather lonely.
"Oh, for even a little Snowball to play with! Uncle Moses—I was rude to him, but he's so cross I can't go back and be shut up with him this beautiful afternoon. If I go just to say that I'm sorry he'll make me tell him a lot of stories to prove my sorrow. That's one of his ways. The Widow Sprigg is sufficient unto herself and her scrubbing—of a Saturday. I've found that out. Deacon Meakin isn't at the barn and I might go there, but he's spoiled the barn for me. I feel just as if I was in somebody's parlor, some Marsden body's parlor, that's so much in order it makes everybody who goes into it as stiff as itself. I've found that out, too, going calling with Aunt Eunice. I wish—"
Susanna suddenly called out to the girl sitting upon the porch step and thus ruefully communing with herself:
"Yes, Widow Sprigg! Here I am—coming. What is it? Something to do?"
"Well, I should say 'twas somethin' to do! Here's that wild-headed Monty took an' scampered off just as I was takin' this batch of punkin pies out the oven. Eunice wants me to send a couple of 'em to Madam, an' this currant-jell-roll. I laid out to add a loaf of brown bread an' a pat of butter, 'cause, say what they will, an' let Madam Sturtevant be as good butter maker as they claim, I 'low old Whitey's milk can't hold to richness alongside our young Alderneys; an' besides, can't be much milk left for butter after Monty an' Alfy's drunk their fill. 'Tain't much besides milk they do get, nuther, 'cept what we send 'em. Well, it's most like two families bein' one the way Eunice she feels. I wonder, could you be trusted to carry the things to the Mansion?"
"Could I not?" cried Katharine, gaily, skipping about the kitchen in her fanciful way at this prospect of a change. "And I'd go that cross-fields road Monty showed me. Over the meadows amongst the goldenrod, past the stone walls where the woodbine and clematis run over each other trying to make the old gray rocks beautiful. There's a corn-field down beside the river so like a picture papa painted that I can almost see his dear hand holding the brush. And the forest is like a great palette set full of reds and blues and greens and yellows, out of God's own color-box. Oh, it's such a glorious old world, Susanna, and I'm so glad, so glad to be alive!"
The widow put her arms akimbo and looked at Katharine over her spectacles, as she might have studied some new and rather formidable insect. Then she remarked:
"My suz! you didn't look none too peart when I first called ye. If I'd had an opinion to give I should ha' give it that you was down in the mouth. Well, never mind. You're a funny child, but I guess you'll make some kind of woman if you live long enough. Hand me down that basket from the second pantry shelf, whilst I wrop that jell-roll in a napkin. Take notice of the basket. Eunice, she had it made to the basket-maker's up-mountain. She's dreadful good to the basket-makers, Eunice is."
"Widow Sprigg, I think she's 'dreadful good' to everybody—to everybody lives. Yet she looks so sort of stern and dignified sometimes I feel afraid of her. But it is a curious basket, truly. What—"
"Watch an' see, an' don't ask so many questions. Girls' eyes ought to save their tongues."
The basket was beautifully woven of finest willow, and was like a tiny cupboard in the matter of shelves, each shelf fitted with a little rim to keep whatever might be placed upon it from slipping off. There were six of these shelves, all removable at will, and Susanna now took out all but two. Upon these she placed the pies, and in the larger spaces left bestowed a monster loaf of brown bread, the jell-roll and the butter. As there was still a small part unfilled she added a tumbler of strained honey, covered the whole with a napkin, hooked down the lid, and said:
"Now get your hat and jacket. See 't your shoes is tied; them silk strings is too fancy for use. Got a handkerchief? All your buttons fastened? Feel just comf'table everyways?"
"Yes, you dear old caretaker! I'm what Uncle Moses calls as 'right as a trivet,' whatever that may be."
Katharine sped away for her jacket, and in passing a hall shelf noticed lying upon it a pile of Uncle Moses' "tackle," including a wonderful jointed rod that he had always thought too fine for use, but one which her own father had sent as a gift years before she was born. It had been brought forth and exhibited to her, and had since reposed among less valuable belongings in this conspicuous place. Her father was much in her mind that day, and the rod seemed to bring him even nearer. A whim seized her. Since there was nobody to teach her about fishing she would even teach herself. What her father had done as a little boy must be right for her, his child. So, when she left the house a few minutes later, the rod was in her hand, line and fish-hooks in her pocket. Nor had she thought it necessary to mention this fact to Susanna when she appeared before the housekeeper to receive her basket.
"Take dreadful care of it, Katy. I know it's heavy, but 'twon't be only one way. It'll be empty comin' back, and I do hope the victuals will eat well!"
They were destined to "eat" uncommonly "well;" but, alas! not by the mouths for which they were intended.
BY THE OLD STONE BRIDGE
One came down into the long, main street of Marsden village from a hill at either end, and through an avenue of trees whose branches met overhead. There were a few side streets, with scattering houses, and the "Crossroads" nearly midway of the chief thoroughfare, with its four corners occupied by the church, the schoolhouse, the post-office, and the tavern. On the north side the ground rose gently for a distance, then climbed abruptly to the "mountain," in reality but a high, wooded hill. On the south there were rich meadows, wide pastures, and the winding noisy river, that darted here and there through the valley as if having no mind of its own which way it should run. On this south side was also the great forest called "Maitland's woods," that already Katharine had learned to love almost as warmly as did Aunt Eunice. To the latter the forest was as something sacred, a spot where nature should have her will and not despoiling man. When firewood must be cut from it, for coal was an unknown fuel in Marsden, she went herself to select such trees as must be sacrificed—always the unsightly ones which storms had broken, not trusting even Moses to cut one till she had condemned it.
As that unfortunate man had observed:
"If Eunice she had let me trim out the under-bresh now an' then I shouldn't ha' broke my leg a-stumblin' over old tree-roots. But, no! Things must be kep' just as they was in the old Colonel's time, no matter what! She 'pears to think that timber's got as much feelin' as folks, an' I 'low there ain't no other oaks an' pines an' maples to compare with 'em left this section of the State. It makes me plumb wild to lie here helpless, an' think o' them villagers a-trompin' her brakes an' scarin' them gray squir'ls that there's so few of, anyway, let alone the birds an' chipmunks! Oh, hum!"
Surely, there was no lovelier spot in the world, so Katharine felt, finding the basket rather heavy, and running across fields the sooner to be rid of it. But this by-path led to the river and a quaint old-time bridge which spanned it; and here the girl meant to rest and give herself a lesson in angling. Setting her basket down in the shade of some alder-bushes, she swung her feet over the stone ledge of the bridge and prepared to arrange her tackle. To fit the jointed rod into a desirable length was simple enough, and to attach the line with its hook as easy; but there trouble began.
"I never thought a thing about bait, and where shall I get it? I suppose the ground is just as full of worms here as it is in the garden where the boys dig them. But—ugh! Shall I dare to touch one if I find it?" she asked herself. Then as promptly exclaimed: "I must! I just must! I'll catch the nicest fish out the water and take it home to Uncle Moses for his supper. Susanna will cook it, I'm sure—or, maybe, let me do it myself. Then I'll take it to that poor sick man on one Aunt Eunice's prettiest dishes, and he'll forgive me for saying such impudent things to him. It will make it easier to apologize if I have a gift in my hand," said this wise little maid. Unfortunately, she said it aloud, having the bad habit of talking to herself whenever there was nobody else to talk to.
Then, picking up a sharp stick, she resolutely set to work to unearth an angleworm. But this was difficult. The mold was hard and sunbaked, and the stick of little use. Its point broke repeatedly; yet the longer she labored the more determined she became, and finally she did succeed in driving a red earthworm from its haunts. No sooner had it come to the surface than she sprang away in disgust, exclaiming:
"Oh, you nasty, dirty, squirmy thing! I wouldn't touch you for anything! Indeed, I'll never learn to fish if I have to handle such beasts as you. Monty takes them in his fingers, and even cuts them in pieces if he doesn't have enough without. The horrid boy! He says it doesn't hurt them, that they're so used to it, an' till this minute I never thought how little sense there was in that. I—I guess I'll put a leaf on the hook and throw that in. I should think a fish would rather eat a nice clean leaf than a worm."
Selecting a bit of the red sorrel growing near, she baited her hook and cast her line. She had learned how to do that from seeing Uncle Moses test his various rods at home, and set herself to wait and watch with the "patience" he prescribed for any successful angler.
Waiting, she fell to day-dreaming, and, for her further ease in this line, curled herself down in the shade of the alders and closed her eyes. Beautiful pictures came to her behind those shut lids, none more lovely than this very scene of which she fancied she was the only living human feature.
"All alone in God's beautiful world! With the sky so blue and white; the woods so—so every wonderful color; the river so dark and babble-y, chattering over the stones that it had more to say than it had time to say it in; the birds singing and flying; the air so soft and warm; and nobody here but me! Well, I'm glad that even I am here, just a little girl like me, to tell Him there is somebody who sees and thanks Him!"
Then away she drifted into thoughts she could not have framed in words, but which kept all fear from her and filled her young soul with a longing to be good and to do good.
But she was not alone as she believed. Among those same alders lining the river bank lay another of God's creatures, whose dreams were unlike the child's, indeed, but upon whose clouded mind the beauty of that hour was not wholly lost. He had been asleep, as she afterward declared she had not been, and her converse with herself aroused him. He had lain down where the bushes screened him well—for hiding was a second nature to this man—and he did not move when he awoke. He merely fixed his eyes upon Katharine as he saw her through the branches and watched what she would do. He saw her fix her tackle, her struggle with herself concerning the earthworm, and smiled dully. Once he had fished from that same bridge. From among many later and less pleasant memories that stood out as clearly as anything in these later days was ever clear to this unfortunate. Ah! the girl was going to sleep! and he would fish again!