Very slowly and cautiously, lest he should awaken her, he crept forward through the bushes, out upon the bank where the smooth grass made creeping easier, inch by inch forward till he had come face to face with her. Then a sudden grasp at the rod in her hand and she awoke, sprang to her feet, beheld him, and in her fear leaped backward, unheeding where she set her foot. It had chanced to be upon a loose rock which rolled downwards with her, and she felt herself falling into the stream.
But she did not reach the water. Her skirts were clasped firmly and herself dragged backward, to be dropped upon the ground with more force than needful. It was all done in a second or two of time, but it sufficed to show her that she had escaped one peril but to encounter another. The man who had pulled her from the river, the man who sat now close beside her, was Marsden's much discussed—tramp!
For a moment her heart almost stopped beating, and she turned her eyes with a hopeless glance across the fields by which she had come. Oh, how wide they were and how desolate! All their glorious beauty faded from her vision till they seemed but an endless waste between her and safety. Oh, if she had only gone by the straight and longer road, instead of yielding to a whim she had not dared to speak of to Susanna! If she hadn't stopped to fish she would already have been at the Mansion, which now it seemed she would never see again. A tramp. It was the one thing in the world of which she had the greatest fear, and the behavior of Widow Sprigg, as well as the other villagers, had convinced her that here was a tramp of the worst variety.
Then her sense of what was "fair" made her force her eyes toward her unwished-for companion. To her surprise he was not paying the slightest attention to her, and he didn't look so—well, not so fearfully wicked. He certainly was clothed in the poorest and dirtiest of rags. His bare feet showed through the holes in his shoes. His hat had a brim but half-way around. His hair had not seen a comb for so long that he must have forgotten what a comb was like. His face was roughly bearded, but it was very pale and not so dirty as his hands. His eyebrows stood out at an angle above his wild eyes, and were the bushiest she had ever seen, except Squire Pettijohn's. He wasn't a bit like that sleek and portly gentleman, yet, even as he had done in Alfaretta's case, he brought the village potentate to mind. And—what was it he was doing?
With an old clasp-knife he had drawn from his rags he was digging bait! Not as she had dug, with timid, tentative jabs from the point of a stick, but systematically, thoroughly, just as Monty would have done. He had found a spot where the earth was soft and rich, and was wholly absorbed in his task. So absorbed that Katharine felt it safe to attempt flight, and got upon her feet.
But he pulled her roughly down again. Yet he showed no enmity toward her, and with the swift intuition of youth she comprehended that he wished her to stay and see him fish. He, the tramp, was to give her her first lesson in angling! What, what would Uncle Moses say?
Always quick to see the comic side of any incident, Katy laughed. She couldn't have helped it even if he had struck her the next instant. He didn't strike, he merely laughed in response—his first laughter of many days. Then he looked into her face, stared, and stared again. Stared so long that Katharine put her hand to it wondering what was amiss. When he turned his gaze aside he fixed it on the chattering river and became oblivious to everything else. Within his brain there was working another memory, evoked by her brown eyes; eyes so like her father's that when she sometimes looked at Susanna, that good woman begged her turn her glance away, saying:
"You're so like Johnny you give me the creeps!"
Susanna was often getting the "creeps," and Katy wondered if she had given them to this poor wretch also, since, though he had seemed so anxious to fish a few moments ago, he had now apparently forgotten all about it. She gathered all her courage and put out her hand to take the rod.
"If you please, mister, I must be going now. Will you give me my things?"
"Bime by. Wait. Don't talk. In a minute I'll have a whopper."
It was a relief to hear him speak in such an ordinary way. She had supposed that the language of tramps was something wholly vile. His voice was husky, but that might be from illness, for he certainly did look ill. Well, if he wanted her to stay she would better please him. He would tire of keeping her there after awhile, or so she hoped. Even a tramp couldn't go on fishing forever, and somebody might come.
He was really very skilful. Almost as soon as Uncle Moses could have done so he had landed his first catch and left it floundering on the bank. Katharine had never thought about the cruel side of angling. It was left for this forlorn creature to teach her that of this pretty pastime there is something else than lounging beside charming waterways and beneath green boughs. Angleworms might not suffer much, might even get used to being tortured, as Montgomery averred; but how about that beautiful shining thing done to slow death on the sward beside her? A new pity for this humbler of God's creatures made her forget her lingering fear of the man. With a cry she snatched the rod from his hand, exclaiming:
"You sha'n't do that any more! It's wicked! Oh, the poor, pretty thing! We have taken away its life and we can never give it back again. I feel as if I had seen murder done. I understand Aunt Eunice now about the poultry. Oh, it is dreadful!"
This was the girl's first knowledge of killing, and she was extreme in her revulsion as she was in all things. But her emotion was a good thing because it recalled her to the fact that she had something else to do. She must be about it at once, and if the man followed or annoyed her—why, she must trust she could escape him.
Rapidly unfolding the rod, she was conscious that the tramp was again regarding her with that intent gaze which had nothing menacing in it, but was rather wistful and sad. He did not resent her stopping his sport, and, turning away from her, he picked up the fish and tossed it back into the water. Then she went a few steps to where she had placed the basket and drew it out from the alders.
Now his whole attitude changed. He had not suffered greatly from hunger heretofore. The gardens and fields were too rich just then with fruits and vegetables, and nobody missed a few potatoes from the heaps dug, nor corn from the shocks. There were apples galore, and in some orchards pears and even plums. The stone walls bordering the farms were hung with wild frost-grapes, while the nut-trees offered their abundance to whomsoever would accept. Beneath these same trees there was game to be ensnared even by one who carried no gun, and as for poultry-yards, nearly every householder had one. Nobody, not even a tramp, need go hungry on that countryside, unless his scruples prevented him from helping himself.
This particular tramp had no scruples of that sort whatever. As Katharine picked up her heavy basket, he was upon his feet and relieved her of the burden at once. She tried to retain her hold of the handle, but was no match for him in strength, and had to watch him drop down upon the bank, tear apart the two halves of the cover, and explore the contents.
She made one effort to rescue Susanna's good things from this "thief," as she now knew him to be, but he flung her hands aside so rudely he hurt them; and when she cried to him: "You mustn't! You must not touch those things, they aren't mine!" he did not notice her.
Already one pumpkin pie was half-devoured. Uncooked food from the fields may, indeed, prevent starvation, but here was luxury. If "the proof of the pudding is in the eating," Susanna Sprigg should have been highly flattered. Katharine had never seen anybody eat as this man did. Before she could say, "Well, you sha'n't have the basket, even if you do steal the things from it!" the first pie had wholly gone. He tried a little variety: broke the brown loaf in two, and, unrolling the pat of butter, generously smeared it, using his dirty hands for knife.
This was wretchedly disgusting but—fascinating. It reminded the young Baltimorean of feeding-time at the Zoo. She also dropped upon the sward to watch, and to recover her basket when he should have done with its contents.
He left none of them. The honey followed the bread and butter, and the jell-roll followed the honey. Then he returned to his first delight and finished the second pie. By this time satiety. Full fed and rested he crawled back among the alders and lay down to sleep. Crawled so far and so deep among them that even the watching girl could scarcely see him.
But she had no desire left for further observation. He had proved himself a harmless bugaboo, and she would not be afraid of him, meet him where she might—so she felt then.
Yet there remained some ugly facts to be dealt with. One, the empty cupboard at the Mansion, always so faithfully replenished for the Sabbath by the untiring care of Aunt Eunice. One, the cherished rod that had snapped asunder as she forced it from the tramp's grasp. And one—the well-deserved anger of the Widow Susanna Sprigg.
She gathered what comfort she could, hoping against hope that for once Madam Sturtevant had made provision for her own Sabbath feasts; and that, though the rod might be broken, and because of its association not to be replaced, she could buy another even better. She had ten dollars of her own, her very own. It was as yet unbroken even if in her intention she had already expended it on many, many things. But there remained that other formidable fact—the Widow Sprigg.
How meet her inquiring glances? How convince her that she was still worthy of trust who had proved herself unworthy? How endure the torrent of indignation, certain to be let loose upon her when she reappeared at the kitchen door?
Well, she had the basket! That was yet another and comforting fact. She hugged it close as she entered the back yard where the housekeeper was washing the stone path with a vigor as great as if it were the beginning and not the end of the day. As the gate-latch clicked Susanna looked up, and Katharine saw that she was "just as cross as she always is on Saturday afternoon."
"My suz! You back a'ready?"
"Well, what you so mealy-mouthed about? You ain't nigh so peart and hop-skippin' as you was when you started. Didn't you get a good welcome to the Mansion? Wasn't Madam to home? Don't squeeze that basket so tight. Eunice won't admire to have it smashed."
"I won't smash it, Susanna."
Katharine wondered why she should be so afraid of this sharp-tongued woman when she hadn't been really afraid of the disreputable tramp. She wondered why she couldn't burst forth with her story, which certainly was a strange one, as sure of sympathy here as she would have been with Aunt Eunice. Perhaps that dear, if dignified, old lady had returned, and if so she would go straight to her.
"Has aunty come, Widow Sprigg?"
"No. She hain't. Nor likely to. Word's come, though, that we needn't look for her till we see her. That sick woman is so glad to have her she's goin' to keep her over Sabbath, an' I warn you, what with Moses on my hands an' the hull house to look after, I want no monkey-shines from you. Well, what did Madam say? Didn't she think my butter was as good as hers? Hey? What?"
Hope died in Katharine's breast. At first she had loved Susanna best, better than Miss Maitland. Now, for just one look into Eunice's face!
But she wouldn't be a coward. Feeling that she had done something very wrong, yet not knowing how she could have helped it, she looked straight into Susanna's eyes, and answered:
"I haven't seen Madam Sturtevant. I didn't go there."
Over the rest of that interview it is well to draw a veil.
THE COTTAGE IN THE WOOD
After having cried herself to sleep in the sitting-room chamber, feeling very lonely and forlorn because Aunt Eunice was not in her own adjoining room, Katharine awoke to find another beautiful day gladdening the world and herself as well. Who could be unhappy with such sunlight shining through such golden maples, underneath a sky so blue?
"Every day is a fresh beginning, Every morn is the world made new,"
sang the girl, springing from bed and running to her bath; a daily habit which surprised and pleased both Miss Maitland and the housekeeper, accustomed as they were to the rebellion of young Marsdenites to even a weekly tubbing. A habit which had done much to win Eunice's favor toward the "second Mrs. John," and between whom and herself now existed a friendly and frequent correspondence. "She is a good woman, intensely practical; and Katharine is a good child, intensely romantic; and not all good people may live comfortably together. But there is no 'cruel stepmother' in her, and I mean to invite her and the little Snowballs out to visit us next summer. It shall not be my fault if there does not yet grow the closest affection between Johnny's chosen wife and Johnny's daughter," had remarked the mistress of The Maples, some time before.
To which Susanna had pertinently replied:
"Well, next summer ain't tetched yet, an' we may all be in our graves before that time."
"Very true, my friend, though I don't expect to be in mine," answered Eunice, cheerfully, and wisely changed the subject, though not her intention.
Not only had Katharine forgotten her unhappiness of the night before, but Susanna had also rested and recovered her good nature. She felt that it would never do for an old lady like herself to apologize to a child for the hard words spoken "in the way of discipline," but now that she had had time to think it over she did not see how Katy had been so greatly to blame. Besides, she was just wild to ask questions concerning the tramp, and privately looked upon the little girl as a very heroine for bravery, in that she had neither fainted nor been greatly afraid during her interview with the wanderer.
Katy had been given a bread and milk supper and sent to her room, feeling herself in disgrace. She had not even been allowed to visit Moses and offer her apologies for her rudeness to him; so that if it had not been a wholly "black" Saturday, it had been a very dark Saturday evening.
But Saturday was past, a beautiful Lord's Day was blessing His earth, and it was not for His children to keep offence with one another.
As her own overture to a Sabbath peace, Susanna went to the foot of the stairs and called, in her cheerfullest voice:
"Time to get up, 'Kitty Keehoty'!"
"Oh, yes! Good morning, Susanna! I've been up ever so long—much as ten minutes, I guess."
"Flannel cakes an' maple syrup for breakfast," returned the housekeeper, as a parting salute, and really very happy to have all clouds blown free of the domestic sky.
Moses had already breakfasted, and had by this time become so far accustomed to his hard position on the cot that he had ceased to grumble at it. That is, he had not grumbled on that morning, and had forgotten his growls of yesterday. He was ready with a smile for his little nurse when she came in with the new copy of the Chronicle, to read him a few paragraphs while Susanna fried the cakes. Later, she brought a big bunch of chrysanthemums and put them on his bureau; then tidied the room even beyond its usual order, since on Sundays, when his neighbors had leisure, the invalid was sure to have many visitors.
Indeed, as Susanna informed Katharine at breakfast, Deacon Meakin himself was coming to sit the whole afternoon with his afflicted predecessor. Kate, herself, was to go alone to church in the morning, and remember that she was to behave exactly as if Eunice were beside her. In the afternoon, during the deacon's temporary charge of the house, Susanna would take Katharine on that long promised walk to "my cottage."
"I've been terr'ble anxious 'bout it ever sence that tramp come to town, an' now sence you've seen an' talked with him, an' I know that he's runnin' 'round loose still, I must go take a look. That's the worst o' prope'ty, it's a dreadful care."
"But it must be just delightful to own such a cute little cottage as yours, all vines and trees—"
"The chimbley smoked," interjected the widow, feeling free to disparage her own "prope'ty," though she would have resented such a remark from another.
"That could be fixed, I reckon. When I saw it from the stage, coming, I thought it was just like a doll-house, or a child's playhouse."
"Huh! You did, did you? Well, let me tell you, Katharine Maitland, that house is a good one. Spriggs, he had it built first-class, with a room finished off in the roof—attic, he called it—three good rooms on the ground floor, white-painted clapboards an' reg'lar blinds, green blinds with slats turnin' easy as nothin'. Not like the old-fashioned wooden shutters, so clumsy 't you can't see out to tell who's comin' along the road without openin' the hull concern. And it has as good a system of water as Squire Pettijohn's, only not so big. Sprigg, he bricked it all up, hauled the bricks himself clean in from the county town, an' it's got a manhole 'twill let ary man down it that wants to go. My house may not be as big as the moon, but it's got as good a system of water as Eunice's even."
Katharine's eyes twinkled. Until she came to Marsden she had never heard of a cistern; all the water used in her city home had been piped into it from a reservoir, which supplied all the other houses also; but she had learned what Susanna meant by "system," because the Turners had had theirs cleaned out only the week before.
"What's the 'manhole,' Susanna?"
"My suz! You do ask the ridicylousest questions. It's a hole left in the top for folks to go down into it, if they want to."
"Well, I shouldn't think they'd ever want to. And the Turners' manhole must be very small, smaller than yours, maybe; because they sent Bob down to clean it, and he got stuck coming out. His mother was scared almost into a fit, and the girls cried and Mr. Turner—said things. He told Bob if he ever got him out alive he'd teach him to live on light rations for awhile. Bob's so fat, you know. It was so funny, and yet I was frightened, too. I suppose if he had stuck too tight they'd have had to break the bricks away, but he squeezed through all right. He hasn't spoken to me since, though. Just because I laughed."
"My suz, Kitty! if you ain't the greatest one for bein' everywhere 't anything's goin' on. You hain't been here but a month, yet you know more folks, been into more houses, seems if, than I have, who've lived here all my life. An' the idee! Tearin' away good bricks just to get a wuthless boy out, like that Bob. I cal'late his pa would ha' thought twice 'fore it come to that. He'd have made the young one scrouge himself up dreadful narrow an' wriggle himself free, somehow. But there. No use worryin' about my system, 'cause I had the leader-pipe turned t'other way so no rain could run into it. It's as dry as a floor now. My suz! What a long walk it is, an' how warm it does keep. I never knowed such a fall, no weather fit for killin' nor nothin', but just like midsummer," bewailed Susanna, lagging on the long woodland path.
"I never knew such a fall, either. I never dreamed that the world could be so lovely. I have only been in the country a fortnight at a time in August, until I came to Marsden, but I love it, I love it! And I think you're dressed too warm. What made you put on that heavy wool gown and shawl? And a veil, too. I should think you'd roast, and your face is the color of boiled lobster," said Katharine, with hapless frankness.
Their talk had been along the way, and their goal was already in sight through the trees. Poor Susanna had scarcely breath to retort, but managed to say:
"Ain't it the time o' year to put on thick clothes? an' am I to blame if the weather don't know its own business?"
Then, for a peace-offering, Katharine handed her companion a beautiful fern, which the widow tossed aside contemptuously, with:
"Huh! What do I want with a brake? Eunice, she litters the house with 'em bad enough. I ain't a-goin' to add to the muss. Well, here we be, an' there's the key. I've come here alone time an' time again an' never felt the creeps a-doin' it afore to-day. But—my suz! I wouldn't ha' come now without you to keep me comp'ny, not for anything."
"That's flattering! Am I so brave, then?" asked the girl, giving the housekeeper a sudden little hug.
"Yes, you be. But, my suz! You needn't knock my bunnit off with your foolishness. Seems if this key's gettin' rusty, or else—can't be the door's unlocked, can it?"
"I'm sure I don't know. I was never here before." Then, as the door opened, sniffing a little at the musty odor incident to a tightly closed apartment: "Whew! It needs airing, anyway. Let's throw up all the sashes and set the blinds wide, then it will be the sweetest little cottage in the world."
"Well, you may. And when you've done these down here, you might—you might go up attic and open that winder, too. It's there I've got my things stored that I've been layin' out to show you, soon's I could. Me an' Moses an' Eunice is all a-gettin' old. It's time somebody younger an' likelier to live longer should know. This walk to-day tells me 'at I ain't so spry as I used to be. No tellin', no tellin'. We're here now, an' there some other time, an' life's a shadder, a shadder," ruminated the widow, sitting down on the door-step, and not anxious, apparently, to enter the cottage first.
Which fact Katharine was quick to observe and comment upon, with a laugh: "Oh, you blessed old coward! You're afraid that tramp has shut himself up in your 'prope'ty,' and you'll come upon him unawares. You'd 'risk' me, just as Monty 'risked' Ned Clackett to climb the schoolhouse roof after a ball, not daring to go himself. Well, here goes! You keep watch without while I search within."
Susanna laughed. She was afraid, and owned it frankly; but after Katharine had ransacked the few rooms thoroughly, peeped under the bed in the kitchen-bedroom, opened the few closet doors, and even examined the wall cupboard, she gathered courage to enter, and promptly led the way up-stairs.
The little home was plainly furnished, but represented the romance of her life to old Susanna. Memories of her youth came back and softened the asperity of age, her wrinkled face taking on gentler lines and her harsh voice a tenderer tone. But to-day she was in haste. She felt herself needed at The Maples, even with the capable Deacon Meakin left to "hold the fort," as he expressed it. Going to a chest of drawers she opened the top one and displayed a store of blankets, different from those Katharine had seen. They looked like very coarse and heavy flannel, and were yellow with age. "Them was part of my fittin' out. I spun an' wove 'em myself, whilst Sprigg an' me was walkin' out together," she explained, carefully peering into the folds of the cloth, in search of any vagrant moth.
"Why, how in the world could you do that? I thought when one spun and wove they had to have wheels and looms and things. How could you carry such about with you, even with Sprigg, I mean Mr. Sprigg, to help?"
Susanna looked over her spectacles more hurt than angry. But she saw only honest surprise on the girl's face, and, after a pause, explained:
"'Walkin' out together' means keepin' comp'ny; as men an' women do who've promised to marry each other."
"Oh, an engagement! I remember quite well, too well, when papa and Mrs. Snowball 'walked out together.' It quite did away with the delightful 'walkin' out' I had always had with him before that time."
"Well, Katy, be sure if Johnny picked her out she was the right one, an' me an' Eunice hopes to see the pair of ye good friends yet. We're layin' out to have all them little Snowballs down here, or up here, next summer, if we live to see another summer, an' make up our own minds as to how things is. We've settled that."
Which shows that even strong-minded women like Susanna may sometimes change their minds; also lay claim to ideas not originally their own. But the effect upon Katharine was to sober her completely, and, oddly enough, make her a bit homesick for the old life and the noisy little brothers. She fell to thinking about them so earnestly that she scarcely heard what else the widow was saying, until she was touched upon the arm, and bidden:
"Now, look sharp an' remember. Here 'tis, my shroud an' all goes with it."
"Your—w-h-a-t?" gasped Katharine.
Susanna again looked her surprise, but she was perfectly calm, even cheerfully interested; and, to enlighten the other's ignorance, patiently explained.
"I said my shroud, that I am to be wropped in when I'm buried. I made it years ago, an' styles has changed some, I hear. But this is good, an' 'll be easy for 'em that does it to put on me. It's keepin' real well, nice an' white. Here's the suit of underclothes goes with it, all new, white stockin's—loose an' roomy, an' pins an' needles an' thread—not a thing wantin', so fur as I know. Why, child, what ails you? You look as if you had seen a ghost."
Poor Katharine was so shocked by this revelation which the other made so calmly, that she had turned quite white, and found some difficulty to control her voice, as she returned:
"It's so—so horrible, so ghastly! Right here in all this glory of life to be anticipating the grave! Give the dreadful things to me. I hate to touch them, but I'll make myself. I'll carry them right down into the kitchen and make a fire in the stove and burn them up, up, up! Oh, Susanna! how could you?"
The old housekeeper was in her own turn as genuinely surprised. In many a household she knew just such provision for a sad day had been made. She had even once assisted at a "bee," where several women had assembled to prepare a burial garment for an old, bedridden neighbor, who, less "forehanded" than Marsdenites in general, had neglected to provide one for herself. The careless creature was living yet, and likely to outlive many a stronger woman, but that didn't matter. However, such ignorance as Katharine's did not surprise her so much as it would have done had the child's "raising" been in the more favored environment she had herself enjoyed. Of course, she did not yield her treasures to the destruction suggested. She merely closed that drawer and opened another; and here, indeed, her whole bearing changed. Uncovering a big paste-board box, she showed a quantity of little garments, oddly fashioned, but beautifully preserved, the very folds in which they had been laid away still crisp and fresh.
Over and over the time-yellowed muslin her work-knotted fingers passed and repassed. Her touch was the touch of a mother upon her first-born, and the years that had been between the day of his coming and this were forgotten.
Katharine watching, understood. Her sympathy brought a moisture to her own eyes, which now regarded the childless old woman in a new and reverent light. Never again would Susanna be just the same to her young housemate that she had been. The girl was learning life. Yesterday her lesson—that not all of God's vagrants are vile; to-day—that all sharp-tongued women are not viragoes.
After a time, said the widow, simply: "Them was my baby's," and softly closed the drawer.
They were well on the way home when Susanna suddenly exclaimed:
"My suz! Ever see such a simpleton? I clean forgot to lock the door; an' that kitchen-bedroom winder, I doubt that you went near it."
"No, I didn't. I forgot, too. Never mind, you sit here and rest. I'll run back and fasten the whole house, and won't be long. Or you go on toward home and I'll overtake you."
"Sure you just as lief? Well, I don't s'pose you would be afraid now, after I've been there with ye to show you there wasn't nothin' nor nobody there, an' I 'low I'd ought to be back soon's I can," responded the housekeeper.
"Afraid? Why, it was you yourself was afraid, you dear old make-believe! But go on, just the same. I'll make haste," cried Kate, laughing at the other's altered mind, and immediately darting backward through the forest toward the cottage.
The Widow Sprigg walked forward, slowly; pausing here to pick up a nut, or there to examine a tree which she would tell Eunice might better be felled. As she walked she became uneasy, feeling that she had really imposed an unpleasant, possibly perilous, task upon the girl she scolded so freely yet already loved so dearly. Gathering a sprig of wintergreen she chewed it thoughtfully, and scarcely knew when she turned back to retrace her own steps to the cottage and learn what had befallen Katharine, who surely should have been in sight long before.
She came, at last, breathless and excited, catching the widow's arm and dragging her farther into the wood, but saying nothing save that imperative: "Come! Oh, come quick! Quick! We may be too late!"
Perforce the other "came," and there, on her kitchen-bedroom bed, lay Marsden's "tramp," seemingly sick unto death.
A SELF-ELECTED CONSTABLE
If Susanna could ever have been "knocked down with a feather," as she often averred, she might have been then.
Indignation, consternation, amazement, all the emotions which have to be expressed in polysyllables, pictured themselves on her countenance as she paused on the bedroom threshold and looked at the intruder over her spectacles, through them, and below them. He lay face down upon the pillows, his dirty boots reposing on her choicest log-cabin quilt, and his groans fairly chilling the blood even in her veins, used though she was to the habits of men in illness. Moses, in his groaniest days, had rarely equalled this.
After the moment's pause her mind worked quickly, and she expressed it in words, spoken more to herself than to Kate, close beside her.
"He mustn't lie there, that way, with them filthy old shoes on. He acts as if he was at the p'int o' death, though folks a-dyin' don't gen'ally caterwaul like that. I bet I know what ails him! It's them pies an' things he stole! If 'tis, I'm glad of it, serves him right!" she finished, triumphantly, and in her satisfaction went so far as to approach the bed and shake the man's shoulder.
At first he paid no attention to her, and his groans did not cease, though they became rather intermittent, as if the paroxysms of pain were less frequent. Finally, her voice, now pitched to its shrillest, penetrated his consciousness, and at her question: "What's the matter with ye? Got the colic?" he turned upon his side and his face was revealed.
Then, indeed, did Susanna's countenance undergo a more wonderful change. All the emotions which had earlier crossed it concentrated in one prolonged stare, while she felt her strength oozing from her till she knew she should fall. Her hand left the stranger's shoulder and dropped limply to her side, her jaw fell, and she would have sunk down upon the floor had not Katharine slipped a chair forward to receive her. Upon this she settled, still staring and speechless; and as if he, too, were profoundly moved, the tramp ceased groaning altogether and fixed his burning gaze on her. So they remained, and for so long, that Kate grew frantic, and begged:
"Oh, Susanna! what is wrong? Why do you look at him like that? Why does he look at you? Is he dying? Do you know him? Does he know you? Can't we do something for him? It's so dreadful to see anybody suffer. Even he, poor fellow, who—"
The Widow Sprigg held up a shaking hand protesting against this volley of questions and answering none. But after a little time the woman in her got the better of the judge, and, rising, she went to the wall cupboard and took from it a bottle containing brown fluid and plainly labelled, "Cholera Mixture. Poison." Pouring a generous dose into a glass, she diluted it with water and was returning to the bed when Katharine caught her hand to stay it, crying:
"Why, Susanna! How dare you? That's marked poison!"
The widow shook the girl's hand off, calmly replying:
"My suz! I guess I know what I'm about. That 'cholera mixture' 's one the old doctor's own prescriptions, an' I've give more of it to more folks 'an you could shake a stick at. It's marked 'poison' so's to keep childern like you from meddlin' with it. A dose of it won't hurt nobody, an' if his malady is the sort I cal'late, I'm treatin' him like the Good Samaritan would on the Sabbath Day. I've made it a powerful dose, an' I 'low it'll settle his hash one way or other. But I hate to touch him. I certainly do."
A last faint moan issued from the sufferer, and his eyes turned upon the girl. He looked so wan and so forlorn that her own natural repugnance left her, and she caught the medicine-glass from Susanna to present it to the sick man's lips. He opened them and drank obediently, even smacking his lips over the fiery mixture, and Kate, having finished her task, hastily withdrew to the outer room.
But what had come over the Widow Sprigg? Her whole manner had changed. Fear seemed to have left her and a stern determination taken its place. Katharine could only observe, wondering, as the mistress of the cottage caught up a pail, and going to the well drew it full several times, throwing out all but the last pailful, which she brought back into the house and set on a table in the bedroom. Beside it she placed a dipper, and observed:
"That water's all right. Moses, he had the well cleaned out for me only last month. We always do do it twicet a year, lest somebody comes along an' drinks it stale. More'n that, the well's fed by a spring, runnin' in an' out, so really don't need any cleanin', but—"
Such solicitude on account of that detested tramp! It was amazing. Yet her next procedure was even more so. Going up-stairs, she looked that the window was shut, and the nail, its only fastening, put in above the lower sash. Anybody inside could have opened it, of course, but that did not occur to her. Each of the windows was thus treated, and, beckoning to Katharine, she led the way out-doors. The door was locked on the outside and Susanna started homeward. She was no longer a weary or a sad-faced woman. She was alert, silent, but unmistakably cheerful.
Kate kept close pace with the now swift steps of the housekeeper, and finally ventured to ask: "Who is he?"
"We may not all hope to be constables, but some of us is constables without ever runnin' for office! Well, well, well! I shouldn't be surprised if the end o' the world happens along now, any time," said Susanna, irrelevantly, and fell into such a brown study that Katy dared not interrupt her, and the rest of the way home was passed in silence.
The deacon was waiting restlessly. He had not liked to desert his post and leave the disabled Moses alone in the house. Neither had he liked to lose his Sunday afternoon nap, well-earned refreshment of a diligent man. One other thing he had not liked: Moses' flat refusal to discuss their employer's affairs. This had led to other controversies, and two disgruntled men were ready to greet the tardy wanderers.
"Hm-m. Thought you never was a-comin' back. That's all the sense a silly woman has; let her get off grounds an' she don't know when to step on to 'em again. The deacon, he's been purty patient, but—I guess we'll be better friends if we part for a spell now," was Moses' greeting; and, instead of resenting it, Susanna said never a word.
In silence she brought him his cup of beef tea. In silence she went out and fed the poultry; came in and gave Sir Philip his bowl of milk and Punch his plate of scraps. She had long since taken the feeding of both animals upon herself, declaring, with some show of truth, that they did not dare "muss around" for her as they did for Eunice or Kate.
Till it was supper-time she sat in absolute silence beside the sitting-room window, her eyes fixed upon vacancy, and an expression of great perplexity.
Katharine bore this as long as she could, then stole softly up to the hired man's room, careless whether he were asleep or not. She had not been bidden to secrecy, and, finding him awake, she poured out the story of the afternoon so fast that her words fairly tripped each other up. Then Moses made her go back and tell it all over again, and when she had finished, exclaimed:
"Beats thunder! A silly woman! An' me, a man! Bedrid here, like an old block of wood, an' her—She thinks she's arrested somebody, Susanna does! She thinks she's made herself into a constable, does she? Turned her house into a jail—an' forgot to fasten the winders outside! Ho! Ho! Silly women!"
The disappointed old fellow got as much enjoyment as he could out of the situation, and was more than delighted by thought of a tramp's shoes smirching the log-cabin quilt. It served the widow right, he maintained, because she had wasted so much labor on the thing. "Bought good new Merrimac print, she did, an' then set there o' nights a snip-snip-snippin' it up into little scraps an' sewin' 'em together again. If a woman'll do that, it's proof what sort o' brains she's got." Then, with sudden energy, he advised: "Don't you never let her set you a sewin' patchwork, Kitty Keehoty. It's all on a piece with knittin' mittens for the Hottentots—a waste of time. A waste o' sinful time, I mean a sinful waste of—Oh, hum!"
She waited till he had cooled off from his own vexation, and then asked:
"Uncle Moses, will you tell me all about Montgomery's father?"
If she had surprised him before she startled him now. Flashing his keen old eyes upon her, he asked in return:
"Why do you want to know? Who egged you on to say that?"
"Nobody. Why, surely, nobody at all. But it seems so queer that none talk of him, yet of his mother speak so often and so lovingly. Aunt Eunice says she was a Marsden lady, a farmer's daughter, and 'as lovely as a flower.' Even Madam, who didn't like her at first, grew to be fond of her and to call her 'my sweet daughter.' But when I asked Monty of his father, and had told him all about mine, about everything, about the second Mrs. John, the Snowballs, and all—he just said: 'I guess I'll go hunt old Whitey,' and off he went, without saying 'excuse me.' His face was as red as red, and there came a queer look in his eyes as if—as if he was ashamed. Was his father a wicked man, Uncle Moses?"
Quite diverted by this time from his own vexations, the hired man lay silently thinking for a moment. Then he said:
"Well, little Kitty Keehoty, I hain't seen that your warm heart gets any colder toward folks when they get into trouble 'an when they don't. That tramp, now, that stole your victuals—Oh, I know! I did know last night, though you didn't know that I knowed—"
"'I saw Esau kissing Kate, Esau saw that I saw,'" quoted this other Kate, in laughing interruption.
Moses laughed, too, as he was glad to do. He had had enough of gloom and grumble for that sweet Lord's Day, now so near its close. And though the story he was going to tell was anything but a bright one, he meant to tell it in such wise that his young listener should be the tenderer and more compassionate because of hearing it.
"Well, Keehoty, it's ruther a long yarn. That is, it goes a good way back, clean to the old Squire's time—no such a Squire as Pettijohn, forename James, mind ye—but a good, high-sprung, old-fashioned gentleman; with high-up English blood in his veins, an' a reg'lar English temper to balance the blood. Never did a dirty trick in his life nor an unjust one—except to his own and only son. That was Monty's father, poor little stutterin' shaver! Well, along of his late years the old Squire had bad feelin's in his head, suffered terr'ble agony, an' hardly knowed what he did do or say. He got a notion that he was goin' to be robbed, an' used to carry 'round with him a cur'ous old box that folks said held his bonds an' money an' the old family jewels that had been brought over from England a hunderd years afore. If he went a-ridin'—an' he was the splendidest horseman ever seen in these parts—he'd have the thing on the saddle afore him. If he druv, 'twould be in the box o' the carriage-seat. Nobody ever seen the inside that box, an' 'twas 'lowed there wasn't none could open it, except him an' the Madam."
"Oh!" gasped Katharine, leaning forward, breathlessly intent. Naturally such close attention flattered the narrator, who went on with renewed earnestness:
"The old Squire an' his son didn't hit it off together very well. Never did from the time Verplanck, 'Planck he was called for short, was born. He was a good deal like Monty is, only more oneasy—if anybody could be; an' from the time he could toddle he was hand in glove with Jim Pettijohn's little tacker, Nate. Nate, he wasn't so smart as some folks. Not a fool, uther, an' consid'able better'n half-witted, but queer—queer. He just worshipped Planck Sturtevant, an' where you see one you see t'other, sure. Well, they growed up, an' Planck got married. That seemed to 'bout break Nate's heart, an' he got queerer an' queerer. Old Squire got queerer, too. Nothin' Verplanck could do or say was right in his father's eyes; an' though he managed to work the farm fairly well, he never made any money off it, an' that made the old man mad. Planck, he bore it patient for a spell, 'cause his wife—she that was Elizabeth Morton from up-mountain—thought the world an' all of the old folks an' they o' her. She'd been raised on a farm an' could an' did turn her hand to every sort o' work, but 'twasn't no use. She loved them, but she loved her husband better; an', one night, after there'd been more hard talk 'an common 'twixt the Squire an' Verplanck, there was three folks missin' from Marsden township. They was somethin' else missin', too, an' that was the queer brass bound box with all the Squire's money an' vallybles. The hired man told 'bout the box, else nobody might ever have heard that part. He was carryin' in the day's wood next mornin' an' overheard the Squire an' the Madam talkin' 'bout it; him callin' his son a 'thief,' an' forbiddin' his name ever to be spoke in that house again. She declarin' that no child of them two honest people could ever be a thief. Hot an' heavy they had it, though nobody had ever heard them two quarrel afore. An' right on top of that stalks in Jim Pettijohn—him that's a sort o' Squire, a justice of the peace, now—an' demands his son. He'd let the feller grow up without good trainin' or lookin' after of any kind, though 'twas needed bad enough. All Nate did know, or the little he knowed, was badness an' deviltry. Why, he used to go with your own pa, Johnny, consid'able, an' 'peared to like him almost as well as he did Verplanck, an' many's the time I've had the three on my hands a-fishin'. But Johnny didn't tackle much to ary one them other boys. He was all for trompin' 'round by himself, drawin' pictur's on whatever come handy, or lyin' under the trees a-dreamin' the summer days through. In the winter he'd dream afore the wood fire just the same idle way, an' finally he dreamed himself out o' Marsden an' run away to be an artist. Eunice, she was set an' determined he should be a minister, else maybe 'twouldn't never ha' turned out as it did. But Johnny was good, good clean through to the core, parson or artist or what not; an' 'twasn't o' him I set out to tell. An' I must hurry up, anyway, 'cause Susanna she'll be in purty soon, an' that'll end all our nice time."
"Oh, Uncle Moses! I like Susanna better to-day than I ever did before. She showed me the real inside of herself, and it isn't half as crusty as the outside."
"Huh! What'd she do to manage that? She seems powerful still an' sot-lookin' sence she come back from inspectin' her 'prope'ty.' By the way, did you happen to notice whuther the slat top to that cistern o' hers was over the manhole? Out in the open shed, or lean-to? 'Cause she's a great notion of leavin' it off to 'air'—as if a cistern that hasn't had no water in it for fifteen twenty years wasn't dry as a pipe-stem a'ready or needed 'airin''! Gen'ally, after she's been out there I take a look 'round myself. I wouldn't admire to have anything, even a tramp, fall down that cistern, though it might not hurt 'em much, 'cause it's shallower 'n it's broad. A real good 'system,' I 'low, even if that everlastin' Sprigg did build it. But what's the inside o' Susanna 't you saw an' liked?"
"She showed me her baby's things, an' looked as sad as if it had died only yesterday. But she showed me, too, her shroud—her shroud! Just think of it, Uncle Moses! And that was horrible."
"Pooh! That's nothin'. Lots of women has 'em laid by. Same's some fool-men has a coffin built an' kep' handy. As for me, I'm goin' to worry 'bout things only up till the day o' my death, an' not a minute beyond. But, I was tellin' of Verplanck Sturtevant, an' must finish the job. Squire, he had always given the cold shoulder to Jim, an' despised him out an' out. Jim was crafty an' underhand, Squire was open an' above board—an' them two kinds don't mix. Still, Jim had been able to get his claw on the Squire's meat, so to speak; that is, he'd made money himself, lawin' an' grindin' the face of them worse off 'an he was, an' the Squire needin' ready cash, to make some improvements he'd better ha' let alone, Jim advanced it an' Squire give a mortgage. That was the beginnin', an' now, they say, Pettijohn owns about every acre of the old Sturtevant property, an' could turn the Madam out any day. Yet, somehow, he dassent. Indeed, I'd like to see the man could walk straight up to that old lady an' say: 'Your house is mine. Please to get out.' Out she'd go at the first word; head up, back straight as one her own hall chairs, but a look in her eye that that man wouldn't forget in his lifetime. Verplanck, he was of the same sort—prouder'n Lucifer; an' even if she'd knowed where to send for him his mother would ha' understood 'twouldn't done a mite o' good. But she didn't send. She obeyed her husband to the last say-so. An' he didn't live long after that, anyway. Elizabeth, she come back, bringin' Monty with her; but her own folks tell as how there was never a thing said betwixt even them two, except Elizabeth sayin': 'I've come home, Mother Sturtevant, to bring your grandson to the old place. I haven't long to live; but Verplanck will never come till he has made a fortune and redeemed everything. Let us not talk of him.' They never did. Where he was or how, his old mother could only guess. Then Elizabeth died and there was just them two—Madam an' Montgomery—left in the Mansion. Every year she let Jim Pettijohn get a tighter clutch on the property, till, as I tell ye, he prob'ly owns all.
"That's all of Monty's father. 'Twas ten years or more ago when Elizabeth fetched him; why, my sake! it must be full twelve or up'ards, but time does fly so I forget. I never believed Verplanck stole a thing. I misdoubt if the box ever was took. The Squire bein' queer might ha' hid it somewheres, more'n likely. But there's them that does believe, an' I hear the Madam's amongst 'em. She's searched the Mansion from A to Izzard, knowin' every crane an' cranny of it, an' found nothin'. So that's why Monty's face got red when you asked about his father. Marsden's like every other village, full o' gossip, an' what his grandmother has tried to keep from him hearin' there's been plenty loose tongues to let slip. More'n once I've seen the poor little shaver sit broodin' an' solemn as if his heart was breakin', an' I've fancied he was thinkin' 'bout his pa. But he ain't one the broodin' kind, thanks be; an' the very next thing I knowed he'd be up to some mischief or other, lively as a cricket. But don't you ever let on what I've told ye, 'less he speaks of it himself. I'm glad you're good friends, an' likely enough he'll out with the hull business an' all he's thought an' felt about it. If ever he does, Kitty Keehoty, you remember that it's a woman's part—such women as Eunice an' the Madam an' her that was Elizabeth Morton—to comfort an' cheer them 'at are downcast. Though I needn't caution ye, I guess, sence I found out some time ago that you've got a power o' sympathy in your fly-about little body. Hm-m. I've 'most talked the legs off the iron pot, hain't I? It's time to quit, an'—hark! Them's wheels! They're drivin' in here. They're on our gravel, sure. Look out the winder, child, an' see who 'tis. I'm most too tuckered out for more comp'ny to-night. The deacon, he's a good man, but he dreadful fatiguin'."
REUBEN SMITH, ACCESSORY
The wheels belonged to Squire Pettijohn's buggy, in which were seated Aunt Eunice and himself. This was a combination which, as Katy related it from the window, greatly astonished Moses. Yet there was nothing surprising in the fact, after all. The gentleman had chanced to be up-mountain, calling at the same house where Miss Maitland was visiting, and had offered to take her home, hearing her say that she was anxious to be there early on the morrow.
She had not enjoyed her ride, yet blamed herself for her aversion to a neighbor who, if not a gentleman, had learned sufficient good manners to conduct himself as nearly such. The worst annoyance he had given her was by continual and roundabout references to what had happened in the forest. The more she evaded his questions the more direct they became, till she was almost forced to tell everything or be imputed a liar.
As they turned into the village street he made a final effort for enlightenment, saying:
"You must know, Miss Maitland,"—he did not call her "Eunice" to her face as he had done behind her back to Susanna,—"you must know that in keeping this treasure, or whatever was found in your woods, a secret from others, you are injuring somebody. They say you are conniving at the escape of a tramp, even. A tramp! One of those dangerous creatures which infest our State, but have not before invaded Marsden. I flatter myself that I—that I—have so far prevented their coming, and I am certainly making it my business now to unearth this one who, I am told, lurks principally in your forest. You are a large-hearted, generous lady, Miss Maitland; one who is an honor to her township and whom I am proud to call a neighbor—"
"Indeed? I thank you," said Aunt Eunice, stiffly.
Squire Pettijohn ignored the interruption. He meant to make the most of this unlooked-for chance to satisfy his curiosity and his self-importance, and continued as if she had not spoken:
"But who, I fear, sometimes lets her heart run away with her head. In pitying the individual, namely, the tramp in present question, you should also remember that you are endangering the community."
"Nonsense. But may I ask, in turn, from whom you gained your information that I protected the tramp?"
"Hm-m—Er—Ah! I believe it was Mrs. Turner who said that you said you 'hoped if any poor hungry wretch strayed into this village of plenty he would get enough to eat for once.' That you 'had always regretted we had no really poor people in Marsden, where they could be cared for, and so lessen the number of starving persons elsewhere.' Mrs. Turner made a personal application of the remark, and suggested that if it had been your pies which had been purloined you might feel differently."
Eunice laughed as gaily as a girl, and exclaimed:
"So it has grown to be 'pies,' has it? The last time I heard the matter mentioned it was one possible pie, and Robert, as well as a tramp, had been in the locality where they were set to cool. Besides, it would be an excellent thing if they had all been taken. Mrs. Turner is a nice woman, but she can't make pastry fit to eat, as witness her husband's dyspepsia. Monty says they have pie at the Turners three times a day, and it's a paradise for hungry small visitors who can digest anything. Indeed, I am surprised to learn I gave my neighbor offence on this same pie subject. We talked for some time over it and she fell into my idea that fruit for dessert would suit Mr. Turner far better than pastry, and save her a world of trouble. It would also diminish the number of the children's playmate 'droppers-in' at meal-times. Yes, I am surprised."
They had come within sight of The Maples, and Squire Pettijohn had, with apparent carelessness, let back the top of the buggy so that any who cared might observe him riding with the mistress of that fine old estate and the present centre or heroine of so much mystery. This was an unusual thing to do, for letting carriage-tops back is apt to crack the leather, and "Jim" Pettijohn cracked nothing which could be preserved. Eunice comprehended and smiled quietly in her corner of the seat, talking at length as she had done to stave off any further prying into her affairs.
Even yet she was not to be let free. Said the gentleman, with a preliminary cough:
"I do hope and trust, dear Miss Maitland, that you will forego a mistaken expression of sympathy, should an appeal be made to you, and assist me as a magistrate to nip this evil in the bud. In other words, to send this vagrant to the lockup at the earliest possible moment. As I observed, you owe it to your community to protect it, not endanger it."
Eunice turned her glowing eyes upon him. "And I owe to the Great Father, who has given us this day, to be good to every child of His, however humble. If the tramp comes to my door he shall be fed. If he needs shelter I will shelter him. If he needs clothing I will clothe him. Why, look, man, look!" spreading her hand wide to point out the lovely surroundings: "Should anybody come into all this and go away not the better for it? How do we know what chance has brought this stranger hither? Or what and where his life began? Maybe, in just some such favored country village; and once, at least, he was—somebody's son."
The tenderness of her compassionate tone but hardened the other's purpose.
"Huh! If he were my own son, even, I would have the law on him to the fullest extremity!" he answered, harshly; and Eunice shivered, remembering, as he seemed to have forgotten, that poor son of his who had gone astray and might be roaming the world then, as was this unknown who had so stirred the lawyer's wrath.
Baffled yet persistent, as he helped her alight at her own threshold, the Squire put one more sudden question:
"But, after all, there was something—something—found in your woods that day, wasn't there?"
It was not even in Eunice's patience to endure thus much. Caught unawares, she burst out, indignantly:
"Yes, there was something found, but it does not concern anybody to know what. Thank you for your courtesy, and—good evening."
The lawyer drove homeward satisfied. She had admitted "the find." He would now proceed to unearth it. Incidentally, he would unearth the tramp, but that was, in his estimation, a secondary matter.
Eunice reentered her home, glad to be there, but as Susanna saw at first greeting, "all stirred up and upsot." She would not allow herself to talk till she had recovered her composure. She even promptly, though affectionately, dismissed Katharine to her bed, reminding her that the morrow brought school again and she must be awake early.
The little girl was disappointed. She had longed for a long, cosy talk with her guardian over so many, many things. Not least of all concerning the brilliant scheme which had occurred to her and Monty that day on the hay. Nor did it please her any too well to lie and listen to the voices of Eunice and Susanna, murmuring on and on indefinitely, in the sitting-room below. Commonly the housekeeper went early to sleep on Sunday nights, for it was her habit to rise before daybreak and set about her Monday washing. To-night the great clock struck eleven, actually eleven, before this conference broke up; only to be resumed at intervals during the next morning, whenever the pair were alone.
However, Katharine had other matters on hand so absorbing that even the mysteries of tramp and brass bound box sank out of mind. She was off to school a half-hour before time, and strangely enough Montgomery was equally prompt. Together they repaired to the wooden bench under the beech-tree, and while the lad suggested things to be written down, Kate wrote them rapidly on little slips of paper, which suspiciously resembled a leaf from a copy-book.
Other scholars came along and stared, wondering what had sent this usually tardy boy so far in advance of the bell. Little girls tittered. Phrony Walker tossed her braid flippantly over her shoulder, casually displaying a new hair ribbon with which she meant to impress the city girl who wore and needed none. Sophronia's hair did not kink and curl as Katharine's did, but it was "a hunderd times as long and a great deal prettier colored." Kate had said so herself, yet here was she who was so generously admiring, almost covetous, calmly unobservant of braid, ribbon, and all.
Martha and Mary Turner came, swinging their lunch-basket between them, delightfully conscious that in its depths were stored three apple turnovers, one for each of them and one for Kitty Keehoty, who was never allowed to carry pie to school. With a child's fondness for the indigestible, she had once declared that Mrs. Turner's turnovers were "sim-ply de-lic-ious," and they had teased their mother ever since to make one for their new friend. But they stopped short at sight of the light and dark head so close together over something they did not know about, and when Martha drew nearer and informed the dark-haired scribbler that she had "brought it," Kate merely nodded her head and continued scribbling.
Bob and Ned arrived, tackle over shoulder, intent upon playing hookey at afternoon session, and disgusted that Monty was so little excited by their grimacing pantomime, as they demonstrated how they would escape to the woods and invited his company. Then they tried ridicule, calling "girl-boy, girl-boy," as loudly as they dared, with Katharine's scornful glances upon them. Monty grew fiery red and tossed his blond head as if shaking an obnoxious insect from it, but did not cease to scratch it for ideas, which he whispered to his companion as fast as he dug them out.
Even when the teacher came and Kate sprang to her feet to bid him her always courteously ready "Good morning," also dragging Montgomery to his own feet as a reminder of what was correct, that excited, exalted expression left neither young face.
Matters continued thus all through school. Monty was worse than ordinary in the matter of lessons, and that was saying much. Katharine, having had better advantages, stood far in advance of her class, so had no need to study, and kept her slips of paper in her book all the time she sat at her desk. She was not a rapid writer and she certainly had a deal of writing to do. At recess the before-school performance was repeated; and when the truants, Bob and Ned, disappeared in the direction of the "Eddy" after "noonin'," Monty failed to send one regretful glance thither. He was more occupied in watching the face of the clock than anything else, and as soon as dismissal-bell rang, darted from the schoolroom as if propelled by a gun. Just then, too, the first warning notes of Reuben Smith's horn came floating through the trees and down the street, and thereafter all that was seen of the boy was a pair of heels vanishing in air.
"Why, what in the world ails Monty? And say, Katy, didn't you like your turnover?" asked Martha Turner, drawing near to her heroine and showing that she felt somewhat aggrieved.
"Oh, Monty's all right. He—Don't you worry. You'll all know sometime. And didn't I eat it?"
"Yes. You ate it fast enough, but you didn't say whether you liked it or not. I think ma, she—"
"Oh, you dear thing! Of course I liked it; and please make my regards to your mother and tell her that I thank her very much. It was the nicest turnover I ever had, and—and it was the first one."
To an older mind this might not have been so convincing an argument, but it satisfied Martha. She considered that Katharine Maitland had the "perfectly sweetest manner of any girl in the world," and was daily trying to improve her own by the pattern set. "Make my regards." She had never heard that phrase before, but it impressed her as very stately and "Miss Eunicey," so put it away in her memory for future use. She was further delighted by Katharine's begging her and Mary to walk home with her, as far as they went her way, for she had something to talk over with them.
But when she revealed this "something" it proved not so much after all. She merely inquired exactly how many boys and girls there were in their school and out of it. "I want to get the name of every single child that isn't more than sixteen years old. As much younger as you please, but older than that would be grown-ups. At least, they would be in Baltimore."
That settled it. Whatever was done "in Baltimore" seemed to these young provincials as the acme of correctness; little knowing that to a wider world even "Baltimore" was also provincial.
But it was easy enough to "count noses," as Mary phrased it, and the list of names Katharine had already prepared swelled considerably. She wrote as she walked, the cover of her book her desk, and with such haste that the writing was almost illegible. However, a trifle of that sort could be overcome.
"No, Mattie, I know it isn't very plain, but I guess I'll make it out. Let's hurry. Reuben Smith's blowing his go-away horn, and I want to see—Oh, yes! There he is! The stage-driver keeps blowing every little while, yet he keeps talking, too, so I know it's all right! Oh, just fancy! It's going to be perfectly, perfectly splendid! Oh, you dear, dear things!"
Katharine's playmates were accustomed to being caught up and hugged whenever anything pleased her more than common, and she was usually as free in explaining her delight as in expressing it physically. But she explained nothing now. She merely squeezed their hands, and stared at Mr. Smith still arguing with Montgomery, till suddenly looking around she saw their puzzled faces.
"Never mind me, girls. I can't tell yet, not just yet, because it's a beautiful secret. But you'll all know right soon. You're going to be in it, too; we're all going to be in it! Oh, the happy old man! Oh, the fun! Oh, the queer crazy decorations! I believe I'm just too happy to live! But the stage is going and I must run to Monty. Good-by. Be sure to be at school to-morrow. Then you'll know."
Reuben Smith mounted to his high seat, blew a farewell blast on his ancient horn, and drove away out of the village, while Montgomery fairly tumbled over himself in his haste to meet Katharine, who greeted him with the question:
"Well, will he do it?"
"Y-y-y-ye-es!" gasped the breathless lad, and sat down on the edge of the path to recover.
For once careless of dust, Kate dropped down beside him and counted questions off upon her fingers so fast that Monty could only nod his head in acquiescence. Then she drew a small chain purse from her blouse pocket, where it had been carefully pinned ever since she left home in the morning. From this she took a pile of new one-dollar bills—ten in all—and laid them one by one on Montgomery's outstretched palms. It was the largest amount of money Kate had ever owned, it was almost the largest the boy had ever seen. A feeling like awe stole upon him and he whispered,—without a stutter,—"S'pose he should lose it!"
"That's a good boy. Monty, you're improving so fast, you'll beat the time I set for you to conquer in. Have you said your piece to-day? And, of course he won't lose it. Men don't lose things. Except Uncle Moses his 'specs' and the deacon his two-pronged fork, that's never in the hay-mow when he wants it there. Stage-drivers don't lose, anyway, and I'm glad it's you, not I, who have to deal with him. He doesn't like me much. I was saucy when I came. I don't think I am quite, not quite so saucy spoken as I was when I came. Do you, Monty?"
"O-o-oh, not n-n-nigh!" he easily replied, never having thought at all about it. He was still entranced with the possession, even temporary, of such vast wealth as he was now bestowing in an old and hitherto useless purse. The crisp new bills. How fat they made it! How utterly and entirely delightful was this girl from the outside world who had such wonderful ideas and the ability to carry them out!
Then the purse was put away in the innermost of all his many inner pockets, and around his blouse, beneath his jacket, Monty fastened a leather strap. Buckling this so tight he could hardly breathe, and fastening the coat over all, he slapped his chest admiringly, and valiantly declared:
"A-a-anybody get that a-a-away from me'll have to k-k-kill me f-f-first!"
Katy jumped up. "Let's go ask Aunt Eunice about the pumpkins!"
In an instant they were off down the street, and some, looking out of window as they raced past, remarked:
"There they go again, Sturtevant and Maitland, each generation as close friends as the other. But chummy as they've been ever since Johnny's girl came to Marsden, there's something more than common on the carpet now."
There certainly was. They burst in upon Miss Maitland's solitude, forgetful to tap at door as they both knew they should, and simultaneously besought the startled lady:
"Please, Aunt Eunice, may we have all the pumpkins in the south corn-field?"
At least, that was what Katharine said. Monty's request was proffered stammeringly but not less earnestly, and he said "punkins" with no attempt at correctness of speech.
"Children! What a pair of noisy creatures you are! Where have you come from? You are late if just from school. And, Montgomery, does your grandmother know that you are here?"
"N-n-no, Aunt E-E-E-Eunice. Nev' mind her. She w-w-won't care. C-c-c-can we?"
"I—don't think I quite understand. Did you ask me for a pumpkin? Please repeat."
"'A pumpkin'—that's one; no, indeed!" said Katy, scornfully. "We want the whole field full of them. We sha'n't hurt them any, Monty says, and he knows 'bout country things better than I do." Here she bestowed such an approving smile upon her comrade that he flushed and smiled beatifically. There were so few, so very few, things in which he could really excel this superior city creature, yet she was so generous as to perceive them even before he did himself.
Just then Susanna came in greatly flurried, and, catching Eunice's arm, tried to draw her hastily out of the room. Miss Maitland herself had swiftly caught her housemate's perturbation. Indeed, she had already been perturbed when the children intruded upon her, and had, apparently, now forgotten them.
Katharine saw their opportunity slipping from them, and opportunity was something that girl never wasted for want of readiness to seize it. Running after the departing lady, she clasped her skirt and stayed her long enough to put her question once more:
"May we, aunty? Oh, please, before you go, say—yes!"
"Yes. Why, of course, yes, yes," returned the lady, all unheeding unto what she had given her consent.
But she was to learn. Ah, yes! She was to learn in good time.
WHAT THE MOON SAW IN THE CORN-FIELD
October had now nearly gone, and there was a chill in the air which would, under ordinary circumstances, have made both Eunice and Susanna pause before setting off into the woods at that hour in the afternoon. Certainly they would not have gone without wraps and shawls galore, but neither paused now. As swiftly, almost as secretly, as two guilty schoolgirls would have started upon some surreptitious adventure, they left the house by the back door and passed through the back garden. From thence they struck into the path to the woodland and hurried forward. Between strides the widow managed to interject a few explanatory sentences.
"I got the wash off the line." Pause. "An' I got oneasy." Another pause. Resuming: "I felt druv to go out there, alone even, an' see. What you said about starvin' him worked on me, dreadful. I took a basket o' victuals. Bad as he is—Oh, my suz!"
"Walk slower, Susanna. We shall be overdone if we keep this pace. What then?" asked Miss Maitland.
"Well, I went. I run 'most all the way. I got there—an' he wasn't. He wasn't at all!"
"Do you mean that he had left the cottage?"
"My suz! I should think he has. He's left, an' my log-cabin quilt's left, an' my best feather tick, an' pillows, an' a pair blankets—that kitchen-bedroom bedstead's stripped as clean as 'twas the day it was born—I mean, sot up. Now—what do you think of that?"
"I think—Oh, what a miserable business it all is! I am so worried I cannot sleep. Right and wrong, right and wrong, like the pendulum of the clock the two sides of the matter swing in my mind till I'm half-distracted. I hardly know what I am doing or saying, I am so anxious to do the best for everybody, yet what is best? I have a fear that those children asked me something absurd a few minutes ago, and I said 'yes' to them without comprehending. I think they said 'a field of pumpkins.' What could they want with a field—a field—of pumpkins?"
"Didn't want 'em, of course. Some their silliness. Don't worry. What's punkins, anyhow, compared with that log-cabin quilt?"
"Little, to be sure. And I hope it isn't really lost. Are you certain that the poor wretch is he you said?"
"As sure as I draw my breath," averred Susanna, solemnly.
"Then Squire Pettijohn must never know," said Eunice, with equal solemnity.
After that they hurried silently onward again, reckless of the fact that they had left a bedridden man alone in the house, for although the deacon was still about his evening chores, such kept him wholly outside. As for Katharine, she might or might not be on hand if Moses summoned her. Evidently she and her boy-chum had some fine scheme on hand and were away to put it in train, since they had both been more than commonly excited and eager.
Never mind. There are times in life when its commonplace affairs must yield to the extraordinary. These two quiet householders had come to such a time on that late October day.
They had walked almost as far as Susanna's cottage when Eunice paused, and held her companion also back, as she pointed through the darkening wood to a wild-looking creature prowling among the trees. He was evidently looking for something. His search so earnest and troubled that the caution he had heretofore displayed had deserted him. Stooping, poking among the leaves and bracken, rising, moving toward another tree, stooping again—repeating endlessly this same proceeding, the watchers soon tired of simply observing him.
"Stay here, Susanna. You were right. It is he. I will go and speak to him."
"Alone? Oh, Eunice, don't! Let the old quilt go! I wish I hadn't told ye. Besides, who'd ever want to sleep under it after he'd touched it?"
But though she caught at her mistress's hand to prevent such foolhardiness, Susanna could not stop her. She was walking swiftly toward the searcher and almost noiselessly, and had come up to him before he was aware. When she was close at his side, so close that her firm fingers rested on his ragged shoulder, he discovered her and started away. But she held him quiet, more by her will than her grasp, while, looking steadily into his eyes, she spoke his name, gently, kindly, as one who welcomes a long absent friend:
"Nathan! Why, Nathan! How glad I am to see you!"
The tramp no longer struggled to free himself, but as if spellbound by her gaze returned it in silence. Gradually there stole over his haggard features the light of recognition, and, instead of remembering later events, his mind reverted to his boyhood.
"Be you Miss Eunice? But—I hain't got my lesson."
Again he would have slunk away expecting a reprimand; yet none came. Quite to the contrary, Miss Maitland's own face brightened and she laughed, answering:
"Never mind the lesson, laddie. We're not little boy and young woman to-day, Sunday scholar and Sunday teacher. We're just two old friends well met, with other things to learn besides printed lessons. What have you lost? Can I help you find it?"
"A box. His'n. I fetched it safe so fur—an' now—now—I can't see it nowhere. Planck'll frown an' make me feel mean. I promised—"
There a pitiful stupidity took the place of the intelligent recognition he had momentarily displayed, and he resumed that fruitless search under the trees.
"Wait, Nathan. Maybe I know. Maybe I can help you. The box was an old, old box. It was of mahogany, heavy, bound with brass, with neither key nor keyhole, and only those who had been shown how could open it. Is that the one, Nathan?"
"Yes, yes! It's all safe inside. He put it there—just when—just—"
With a sudden outburst of grief he began to weep. The great tears ran down his dirty cheeks and streaked them. His breath came in great blubbering sobs which he made no effort to check.
Eunice Maitland also went back in spirit many years and saw before her now, not the repellent vagrant, but a forlorn child who must be comforted. Without shrinking she clasped his vile hand in her dainty one and turned him back toward Susanna's cottage. That good soul had now drawn near and was herself crying bitterly. Why—she could hardly have explained. Surely, not from any affection for Nathan Pettijohn, returned rascal, nor from any sentimental memory of bygone years, such as her mistress's; but just naturally, in sympathy with two other tear-wet faces. She found the tears a relief. Indeed, they all appeared to do so, and began to retrace the way to the woodland cottage with swifter steps. The two women, because they were feeling the cold and now realizing what a foolish thing they had done in coming out unprotected from it. The vagrant, because it was his nature to follow rather than lead. Arrived there, they found the door wide open and the furnishing sadly disordered. Evidently, Nathan had rummaged the place thoroughly.
The Widow Sprigg had long since dried her unaccountable tears, and was freshly indignant at the state of affairs. So soon as they were within doors she turned upon the intruder, and demanded:
"What did you mean by such doin's as these, Nate Pettijohn? Ain't you ashamed to destroy folkses prope'ty this way? Where's my log-cabin quilt? My pillows? All my things?"
The man paid no heed to her, but fixed a hungry gaze upon the basket she had brought earlier in the afternoon, and Eunice interposed:
"Wait, Susanna. Let us feed him first, and hear his story afterward."
With that she opened the basket and set fresh food before him, while, with that thoughtfulness which was so constantly belying her sharp tongue, the cottage mistress went to the well and brought in a fresh pail of water. Though not as ravenous as he had been that afternoon by the riverside, he even now devoured, rather than ate, the sandwiches and cakes, swallowing them noisily and so rapidly that what the housekeeper had supposed would be sufficient to last any one for at least twenty-four hours disappeared in less than as many minutes.
"Well, my suz! If that don't beat the Dutch! I shouldn't think, if I hadn't knowed better, 'at you'd seen a mouthful o' victuals sence you scooted out o' Marsden a dozen years ago! An' as for manners—why, our pigs is better behaved. Water? Drink your fill, an' then, Nate Pettijohn, you walk right straight out to that wash-dish in the lean-to an' scrub yourself well. Of all the dirty creatur's—Why, what?"
The vagrant had been seized by a violent fit of coughing, so fierce that it threatened hemorrhage; and Susanna's wrath died.
"Consumption!" she whispered to Eunice, and shivered. It was of consumption "Spriggs, he" had died.
The paroxysm passed and left its victim exhausted. With a longing for rest, he tottered out of the kitchen into the lean-to, but not to wash as its owner had suggested. He went directly to the now uncovered manhole of the cistern and slowly descended a short ladder which protruded from it and had always hitherto hung upon the wall. The women watched him in astonishment, then Susanna hastily procured a candle, and, lighting it, held it above the opening.
As she had herself once said, the cistern was as dry as possible, and was in reality like a low-ceilinged little room, with the manhole for sky-light. Into this place the vagrant had tossed the missing bedding, and with his habit of hiding had bestowed himself upon it. In all probability, he had rarely occupied so snug and comfortable, though peculiar, a bedchamber.
"My—s-u-z!" gasped the widow, and sat down on a wash-bench to recover from her amazement.
Miss Maitland said nothing, yet an expression of great satisfaction settled upon her countenance, and, motioning her friend back into the kitchen, explained its cause.
"Nathan himself has decided what should best be done with him. He is perfectly safe and comfortable in that cistern. It is warm and sufficiently aired. He will not be apt to build a fire, as you feared, especially if we see to it that he has enough to eat. Nobody will think of looking for him in such a place, even though, as he declared he should, his father organizes a search for him. Unhappy father, if he does, and—poor, unhappy son. He looks very ill, and he certainly is no more intelligent than when he went away. But he is evidently faithful to Verplanck Sturtevant, as he always was. It is he that has brought back and for safe-keeping, presumably, hidden the brass bound box that Katharine found, and that has led to so many wild rumors. Do you not think we would better leave him undisturbed for the present, until I can secure better clothing for him? Also, can decide that awful question—whether or not to tell Elinor the stolen box is found. It will be like deliberately trying to break her heart over again if I give it to her and it is empty. Yet, it is not mine, and it rests on my conscience like an actual weight. Do advise me, Susanna."
From which it appears that the widow's curiosity had already been satisfied concerning the fabulous "find" in the Maitland forest, and she readily assented to her companion's idea.
"No, Eunice, we couldn't do better. Let him be. Poor wretch, he won't trouble nobody long, by the sound o' that cough. An' if Squire Pettijohn is mean enough an' onfeelin' enough to treat him like he vowed he would ary tramp, 'even his own son,' I guess we can let the Lord 'tend to him. He wouldn't know another day's peace, not if he's human; 'cause once that mis'able creatur', no matter what he is now, was a baby—a baby in arms. But—my suz, Eunice! I've just figured it out! How can the Squire 'rest anybody? He ain't no constable. Nobody ain't a constable here in Marsden. Ain't been none sence Isaac Brewster died, an' nobody would take his place. 'Less I'm one, myself, as Moses said."
At which she laughed heartily, then hastily added:
"But we must be gettin' home to oncet. I'll step up attic an' get a couple o' shawls to wrop 'round us, heads an' all. I do hope we shall be pervented from takin' cold temptin' Providence the way we have, at our time o' life. Nate, he won't stir no more to-night. He's too tuckered out an' too well fed. Sleep's the best medicine for him, so we'll shut up quiet like an' start. But where in the world'll you get clothes, as you said? Man's clothes, you an' me, old women without a man betwixt us, except Moses, an' it bein' kep' secret from him still. If you tell him he'll tell the deacon, an' what the deacon knows belongs to the hull community."
"I'll find them, Susanna; I'll send an order for all he needs by the morning stage."
"Tell Reub Smith! My suz! Might as well proclaim it from the church steeple!"
"No, indeed. I shall not tell him, but simply send an order by him when he goes to town in the morning."
Then they hurried home, and Miss Maitland rested better that night than she had done since the children brought her the brass bound box from out the forest.
* * * * *
Next morning Monty "hooked school." Not that this was an extraordinary thing to happen, although its purpose was mysterious. He did not seek either woods or river, for nuts or fishes, but hung about the post-office till Reuben Smith drove tooting down South Hill into the village street on his way outward toward the county town. The stage drew up with a jerk, Reuben stepped down with unusual liveliness, and behold! there were two patrons ready with orders to be executed.
Miss Eunice and Montgomery Sturtevant. They faced each other in mutual surprise. Each held a sealed letter in hand and each was in haste. The lady spoke first: "Why, Monty! Is your grandmother trusting you to take care of her business matters already? That's fine."
"N-n-no, Aunt Eu-Eu-Eunice. I-I-I-I—" The afflicted lad had never stammered worse nor seemed so uncomfortable.
Puzzled, but too well-bred to pry into other people's affairs, Miss Maitland finished her directions to the stage-driver and general express agent for the village, and went home. Montgomery's relief at her departure made Reuben laugh, but he liked the lad and listened very patiently to the almost endless details stammered at him. Then he most carefully, with an exaggerated caution indeed, bestowed the fat envelope which contained ten whole crisp new dollars where nobody but himself would be apt to look for it—not in the wallet with his other commissions, but in his boot! This gave the whole transaction a touch of the romantic, and suggested possible "hold-ups" in a way to set Monty's eyes a-bulge. Then the stage rattled away to the north, and the day's monotony settled upon Marsden village.
There was much whispering that day in school, and a prompt departure from the building at close of the afternoon's session. It had been noticeable, also, that at "nooning" every scholar, old or young, had repaired to the rear of the play-ground, out of hearing of the teacher. There they had grouped themselves about Katharine Maitland, with Montgomery Sturtevant as her supporter, and had listened breathlessly to some matter she divulged. Only one sentence had reached the master's ears, as he tapped the bell for them to come in again to later lessons:
"Everybody don't forget a knife. And everybody'll get an invitation to-morrow. Then everybody will understand, and if everybody isn't perfectly delighted, I shall be surprised. Teacher will have his, too; I'm workin' on it with nice red ink."
That some exciting affair was on foot, and that he was to be included in it was evident; and being himself not many years older than his "big boys," he was patiently indulgent over the many blunders at recitations which followed.
Never had Marsden school children arrived at their respective homes so early, nor so promptly availed themselves of parents' satisfaction in this promptness. Books were bestowed in tidiness, lunch-baskets hung in place, and in every house in the village there was simultaneously preferred the request: