"May I go out to play?"
Consent obtained—and what mother could refuse it to so deserving a petitioner?—there followed a stampede of youngsters toward Eunice Maitland's south corn-field.
Late October brings early nightfall, and even playtime seems over with the dusk, but that night there were many, many empty places at waiting supper-tables, and many mothers' ears grew anxious listening for the clatter of young feet which came not.
But the late rising moon looked down upon a curious scene. Throughout that same south corn-field had been scattered hundreds of golden pumpkins ripe for the harvest; and all among them, each with his or her allotted pile of the great fruit, was every truant youngster. Corn shocks had been overturned for the more comfortable seating of the toilers, and knives gleamed in the moon-rays as the diligent fingers fashioned Jack-o'-lanterns sufficient in number, as Monty declared, to "l-l-light the w-w-wh-whole world!"
Katharine escaped the chiding she deserved because, when she reentered the house, Miss Eunice was engaged with company and Susanna was preparing a tray of refreshments to be served the guests. Montgomery escaped because Madam supposed he had been at The Maples where so much of his time was now passed. He went supperless to bed, but Katharine, most guilty of all delinquents, fared sumptuously upon a portion of the dainties from the housekeeper's "company tray." The Turner trio of culprits ate wedges of cold pumpkin pie, eaten standing by the kitchen sink, and went to bed to dream that all the world was made of pumpkins which it was their destiny to consume before a general illumination began. At least, that was what Martha dreamed, and, having roused the other pair to relate it to them, they were sleepy enough to believe they had dreamed it, too.
Other children—But why prolong the story? Many of the pumpkin artists had reason to remember that night for some time to come; yet not one ever admitted that they had not found their fun outweigh their punishment.
Some days previous Katharine had put a very mild request to Aunt Eunice, in the words:
"Aunty, would you mind if I had a little Hallowe'en party? Out in the barn, where it wouldn't be any trouble to anybody?"
And the lady, always glad to make her young charge happy, had replied:
"Why, no, dear. Certainly, you may have one if you wish."
"Oh, thank you, thank you, you darling Aunty Eunice!" springing up to hug her guardian ecstatically. Then, with her young cheek against the older one: "And would it be too much to ask—Deacon Meakin to—to stay away that day?"
"Why, Katharine, that couldn't be. Besides giving him offence, how could we spare him?"
"Monty and I could do the chores. Bob Turner could milk. Bob's a first-rate milker, Martha says so."
"Well, well. Maybe it can be arranged. I'll see."
"Because, Aunt Eunice, it's to be such a beautiful benefit to—Oh, I forgot. But if he could stay at home just once; he's so what Widow calls 'pernickity,' and he says children ought to be born 'growed up.' They can't be that, can they? So I do think, I just do think they might be let to have some nice times without folks scolding and acting hateful."
"The deacon doesn't mean to be hateful, Katy. We'll see."
Fortune favored the child as it so often did. After a particularly wearisome contest of wills between the original hired man and his successor, the deacon resigned his position and left in a huff. A neighboring youth was sent for to take his place, but, as far from being a hindrance to Katharine's schemes, proved her very best ally. Montgomery knew William well, and his wheedling, if stammering, tongue soon persuaded the young man that in furthering the success of the party he was furthering his employer's also.
In due time every boy and girl in the township received a laboriously written invitation, and all accepted, of course. This was understood without the trouble of replies.
Even the schoolmaster was not forgotten, though he waited until school was dismissed before he opened his neatly folded bit of paper, and read:
"The favor of your presence is requested at the Big Barn of Miss Eunice Maitland at The Maples, on the evening of October 31st, to a Hallowe'en Corkis. At seven o'clock by the church steeple. Please bring your teaspoon with you.
This unique invitation was the joint production of Katharine and Montgomery. The first part was hers, recalled from wedding-cards often seen at her old home in the city; the latter part was due to Monty's forethought. Katharine had never heard of a "corkis;" but, by way of dabbling in politics through loiterings at the village store, the boy had acquired some technical terms, and insisted that this was what best befitted their case. As he could not spell the word, and she couldn't find it in the dictionary, though she searched all the "Cor" columns through, she adopted phonetic spelling with the above result. Also, since there was as much variety in "time" as there was in clocks, the guests were advised to regulate their arrivals by the biggest one visible. As to the teaspoon clause—that was positively necessary. "How could a boy eat ice-cream without a spoon? And how could anybody, even Aunt Eunice, who had a trunk full of silver, lend a body spoons enough to go around, admitting that one dared ask for them? For if everybody came who was asked, and everybody certainly would since they hadn't been polite enough to send regrets (even before the cards were out), what would a body do, I should like to know?"
As there was altogether too much body in this argument for Montgomery he yielded the point and waited the great event with what patience he might. Not so much patience was required, however, since there was much labor to accomplish. William hitched up the team, thoughtfully taking an opportunity when Miss Maitland had gone to pay a visit to the distant Mansion, and brought the field full of Jack-o'-lanterns up to the barn; into which, carefully keeping the sound sides of the pumpkins toward the kitchen windows and Susanna's eyes, he conveyed them. Then the doors were closed and the decorating began.
"C-c-can't make 'em hang," lamented Montgomery, after a few moments' unsuccessful effort.
"Course not. That string's too light. Wait. I'll fetch something," said Katharine, as decorator in charge. Then she sped into the house and borrowed Susanna's clothes-line.
"My clothes-line, child? What on earth for?"
"Oh, you'll see sometime. I sha'n't hurt it!" returned the eager girl, skipping away.
The widow was glad to have "the children" out of the way for the time being. She, also, was planning a "surprise," for Eunice had told her of Katharine's "little Hallowe'en party," and the good housekeeper determined that not a single young guest should return home after that event without carrying a report of a fine repast.
As she said to Moses, when fixing him up for the day:
"It does seem good after all our worries lately to do somethin' just plain plumb foolish, like lettin' young ones have a nice time. Me an' Eunice, we have more on our minds 'an we let on to you, but I'm goin' to forget 'em."
"Forgettin' your mind won't be no great job, nor loss nuther. Wouldn't be much matter if 'twasn't never found again," he retorted, half-facetiously, and half-vexed that, as she hinted, there were still confidences withheld from him.
Susanna ignored his playfulness, and went on as if he had not interrupted:
"I'm goin' to make jumbles, an' little frosted cakes, an' teeny-tiny riz biscuit, an' raisin-loaf. I've got a ham on b'ilin', an'—my suz! It most makes me feel a dozen years younger, just the mere idee of havin' a childern's party. We hain't had none sence Johnny run away, an'—"
"Oh, hum! An' here I must lie like a log o' wood an' no share in it. Me that always thought more of young ones 'an you did. Anyhow, I don't see what great call you got to mix up in it. S'pose you expect to be invited, don't you? What you goin' to wear? White with pink ribbons, like all the other little girls?" demanded the imprisoned man.
"Well, I hain't thought much about my clothes, but I did lay out to wear my common sense an' trim it with a wreath o' good nature, an' maybe a sprig of patience fastenin' the hull. Never mind, Moses. Maybe you'll get more share in it 'an I shall. Somethin' may happen to keep me from enjoyin' myself any more'n you are this minute. An'—my suz! I smell that ham water b'ilin' over this instant. An'—what next! There's Kitty Keehoty comin' out the tool-house with that roll o' grapevine wire that you put away so careful—an' it's most more'n she can lug. But she'd tackle it. She'd tackle it if it was twicet as heavy. She's got more ambition an' gumption than ary young one I ever knowed. My suz! She couldn't carry it, after all, so she's put it down an' is draggin' it. She looks a pictur'! Her hair blowin' all 'round her head, her cheeks like roses, her feet fairly dancin' with happiness, her eyes like stars. Well, a body'd ought to take a bit o' trouble, now an' then, whilst they're little. It does take such a mere mite to make childern pleased. She—"
Poor Uncle Moses could bear no more. There had never been so many interesting things happening as since he had been in bed, unable to take part in them. Within his age-worn body beat the heart of a little child, and he was nearly frantic, imagining what might be going on beyond those closed barn doors and he shut out.
"Clear out, Susanna Sprigg. Get away from that winder. Don't ye let me hear another word about that party. If a miracle happens so's I can go to it, all right. If not—the sooner you look after that ham the better."
Susanna turned from the pane, saying quite gently:
"I don't know as the days of miracles is past. Seems if there was some been done right here in Marsden township. I am sorry for ye, Moses. I'd almost ruther stay to home myself than have you miss the fun. Maybe you won't. Maybe a fresh miracle will be done. Maybe I shall see you the chief sinner in the synagogue, I mean the most invited comp'ny—My suz! You know what I mean better'n I can say it. I'll fetch you up a sandwich, soon's that ham is cooked."
She hurried below, and the unhappy hired man turned his face from the light and went to sleep, or tried to, though the odors of good things wafted to him from the kitchen beneath kept his thoughts on the disturbing party and angered him against the two children he loved.
"Should ha' thought they'd waited till I was up an' 'round again. 'Twouldn't have hurt 'em an' would ha' been showing some decent feelin' fer me," he grumbled. And little did the old man dream that he was, indeed, the very heart and centre of the whole festivity!
Oh, what a day that was! The toilers in the barn sent in word that they were too busy to stop for any dinner, and Susanna retorted that she was herself fully too busy to cook it for them. Everybody had a slice of bread and butter and a glass of milk, which didn't take a minute to dispose of. Even the mistress, who had returned, fared thus.
That afternoon Reuben Smith tooted up to Miss Maitland's front gate and handed out a paste-board box, very large and weighty, which Susanna hastily received and carried into the house. There it was hurriedly opened behind closed doors by Aunt Eunice, with her housemate to assist, and was found to contain a new suit of men's clothing, with all accessories needful.
"I'll carry them to poor Nathan at once, and make sure he puts them on. Then, if you're willing, we'll light a fire in your stove and burn all his old rags," said the mistress.
"Not alone, Eunice Maitland, not alone!" cried the old housekeeper, who wouldn't have missed this business if all the jumbles she had made had burned themselves to a crisp. Fortunately, they were out of the way, and though she had mixed dough for raisin-cake she hadn't yet put in "the lightenin'." "If we start to oncet there ain't nothin' to harm, an' the childern's so busy they'll never notice. Moses is asleep. Let's go right away. My suz! Seems if I couldn't wait to make that poor feller into a decent man!"
As excited and eager over their own secret as the young folks over theirs, they seized bonnets and wraps, and, carrying the box between them, slipped unobserved from the house in the direction of the woods.
Thus it chanced that they did not see what an unusual thing the stage-driver did; how that, leaving Miss Maitland's parcel at the front of the house, he drove by a roundabout lane to the back door of the barn, and there set down, with William's help, two barrel-like tubs, weighty with broken ice and carefully covered with bits of old carpet. Similar tubs had sometimes been brought to Marsden by the same messenger, but only for such occasions as the Fourth of July or the Sunday-school picnic. Never before for any private function, and the news of the present arrival spread swiftly through the village, suggesting to interested parents that, though themselves uninvited, it might be as well to go along and see what the children were doing!
And it came at last! The delightful hour, the culmination of all this preparation. At last, at last, the wheezy clock in the church steeple announced that it was seven o'clock!
Then from out the many homes of Marsden and its by-ways issued the eager guests. Girls in white frocks; boys in Sunday suits; all uncomfortable in freshly donned winter flannels—since this was to be a sort of out-doors party and there must be no afterclaps of croup; and elders in their second-best attire, worn with an affected indifference of its just happening so.
Said Mrs. Turner to Mrs. Clackett: "Course we wasn't asked. It's just a children's party that Johnny Maitland's little girl is giving as a sort of youngsters' 'infair.' Pa and me thought 'twas better to come along and see the children got there safe, them not being used to going out evenings."
To which her neighbor replied: "Yes, we feel that way about our girls and boy. But I confess, we're sort of curious to know what the 'Corkis' part of the invitation means. Clackett, he says he guesses Katy meant 'caucus,' but that don't throw no more light on the matter, if it does. What on earth a lot of young ones want with a 'caucus,' beats me. But here we are, and—My! Isn't it pretty?"
Pretty it was, and far, far more than pretty. To these unused eyes such a scene as might have come from fairy-land. Even to Aunt Eunice, newly admitted, the old barn seemed an unknown spot; and she sat enthroned upon her seat of honor—an oat-bin transformed by cushions of straw and sheaves of corn—amazed but equally delighted. The whole great structure was ablaze with radiance. Susanna's clothes-line and Moses' grapevine wire supported grinning Jacks innumerable. The glowing yellow heads looked down from rafter and beam, peeped from the stalls, dangled from stanchions. Between them gleamed also oddly shaped Chinese lanterns, and these were a form of illumination wholly new to that inland village. There were sheaves and vines and branches everywhere, and those who observed could scarcely believe that the whole transformation, save and beyond the carving of the pumpkins, had been wrought by three pairs of young hands.
What cared happy Kitty Keehoty that of all her crisp ten dollars there remained but thirteen cents? Hadn't they paid for all these shining candles, those tubs of cream, the grotesque lanterns which her new friends so admired, and the heaps of candy on the table at the far end of the great floor? The table was improvised by a couple of planks laid upon barrels and covered by a cloth borrowed from the linen closet. It would have been covered with nothing else, save the candy and a pile of wooden plates for the cream, had not Susanna produced her own surprise—in such stores of cakes and sandwiches and toothsome dainties as made the small giver of the function open her own eyes in amazement.
Oh, how delightful it all was! And didn't the pleasure in so many faces more than pay for the ten dollars spent and the proudly weary widow's hours at an oven door?
But how they came! So fast, so eager, so cordially willing to be pleased! All the young guests who had been bidden by such a painful outlay of pen and ink, and all their fathers and their mothers, "their uncles and their aunts and their cousins!" All the merrier, all the better, all the surer of success! For the best was yet to come. The delicious, ambitious, loving secret scheme which had originated in the teeming brain of Kitty Keehoty, and, aided and abetted by Montgomery, her knight, was now to be divulged.
"My—suz!" quoth Susanna, dismayed by the vast proportions of Katharine's "little party," "however—shall I give such a multitude—even a bite apiece?"
"I'll help!" cried Mrs. Clackett, quite understanding "a bite apiece" meant no personal violence. "I've lots of stuff baked at home. I'll fetch a basket of it in a jiffy."
"I, too!" echoed Mrs. Turner, and the pair set briskly homeward in neighborly kindness. Other matrons, not to be outdone, also disappeared from the assembly for a brief time; and soon thereafter William was called upon to improvise another table, till both were groaning with the weight of good things.
"My! It's most like a Sunday-school picnic, ain't it?" exclaimed the village seamstress, who at seventy years still had the same innocent enjoyment in such affairs as she had had at seven. "But, hush! Somethin's a-doin'!"
Something was certainly "a-doing!" There was a great bustle and stir at the double doors and in came Deacon Meakin, William, Mr. Clackett, and the schoolmaster, carrying a cot between them on which lay Moses Jones, at last minus his ball and chain, and feeling as if he didn't know himself—so utterly amazed was he. Amid a sudden outringing cheer the cot was carefully deposited in an open space that had been kept for it, close beside that throne where Eunice still sat smiling in gracious hospitality.
The fresh excitement incident to this arrival had scarcely died, when Madam Sturtevant appeared, with her small handmaid in train. The lady had been somewhat doubtful about accepting the invitation for herself, having been informed by her grandson that, outside The Maples' family, she was the only grown-up so favored except the schoolmaster; and she was more than doubtful for Alfaretta. For a time the anxious girl's fate hung in the balance. It did not strike Madam as just the correct thing to take a servant—Alfy was really that, of course—to a Maitland party. Yet the child had just as good blood in her veins as many others who would attend, even if her lot in life were less fortunate. Besides, was it right to disturb her quiet habits by such frivolity? While the matter was pending, Alfaretta could only calm her perturbed mind by gathering every belated daisy she could find and testing her fortune upon its white petals. "Shall I be let to go? Shall I not?" Mostly, the daisies said: "I shall!" Yet it was old Whitey who, after all, decided the question.
That mild-eyed bovine had the spirit of an Arab steed. Had she been born a colt and not a calf she would have "pricked it o'er the plain" with the best of her race; but being merely a somewhat venerable cow, she could only wander. In the wide fields still surrounding the Mansion there was sufficient pasturage for many cows, and certainly too much for one; so there was not the slightest reason why she should trespass upon village dooryards except the fact that she delighted to do so. Broken gates, which there was nobody to repair, made wandering easy; and it may be that she had, in part, acquired the habit in the days of her youth, when Verplanck Sturtevant had 'tended her as his son did now. Both masters were far better content elsewhere than at home, and Whitey fully shared their preferences. She had wandered again, some two days since, and had not returned at nightfall, as was her habit. Therefore, remembering that at the "Hallowe'en Corkis" there would be many children assembled, and that children "know everything" of village happenings, Madam had come, meaning to ask for news.
So the daisies had it, truly; and to the young bond-maid the longed-for happiness had been given.
When Madam had been assigned a place beside Miss Eunice, and the murmur of voices had recommenced, somebody struck a bell and every ear and eye became attentive. Katharine did not know whether this were the approved method of bringing a "Corkis" to silence, but it was one that served in school and proved to do so here. While the silence lasted and the crowding guests craned their necks forward, she was seen to lead, push, or in some manner propel a reluctant boy toward a ladder resting against the hay-mow and in full sight of most.
The boy was Montgomery, of course, and he was positively shaking with fright; but the girl whispered something in his ear—"For Uncle Mose!" and he rallied to his duty. Tossing off her guiding hand, he ran to the ladder, mounted it half-way, and faced about upon the multitude. He had been well tutored. He fixed his eyes not upon the faces below but at an exalted roof-beam, and addressing that began:
"Girls and boys, gentlemen and ladies: You have been invited here to-night to enjoy yourselves and to make somebody else enjoy himself. That somebody is Uncle Moses Jones, whom we all love, and who has had lots of trouble and broken bones lately. Next Tuesday is going to be election when our fathers and mothers vote, or—or—fathers do, anyway. If we ask our folks to do things they generally do them. What I ask now is that every one of you shall ask your father to vote for Uncle Mose to be constable, and I now nomernate him to be a constable. All in favor of his being constable—say 'aye!'"
Amid the uproar of "ayes" that followed Monty jumped headlong from his rostrum and would have run straight to his grandmother, had not Kitty Keehoty caught him midway and hugged him her stoutest, crying: "Oh, you splendidest brave boy! You did it, you did it! You never tripped once. You never stuttered a single stutter from beginning to end! Who says you sha'n't be President some day, an' be nomernated in a grown-up corkis? But—my sake, Montgomery Sturtevant! You forgot the most important part. I'll have to say that myself, 'cause it's that will count. That will be the promise."
Another stroke of Aunt Eunice's table-bell and a white-clad little figure was in Monty's place upon the ladder, holding up her hand for close attention. Without preliminary she informed the audience that there was one thing had been forgotten, and that was "the cranberries."
"Right by the head of the table is a basket of cranberries. A cranberry is a promise. There's another empty basket beside the full one. Everybody, girl or boy, who wants Uncle Moses to be constable must take a cranberry out one basket and drop it into the other; and—those who don't drop cranberries can't have—ice-cream!"
Squire Pettijohn had come—in a case of general town interest as this seemed to be it was important the great man should be present—and it was he who cried so loudly: "Hear! Hear!" and it was he, also, who started the laughter which followed, and pinched Kate's cheek as she passed him, saying something about "intimidation" and "lobbying," at which there was more laughter—Katy wondering why.
But the laughter did not continue long, since it was surely now time for supper; and, having swiftly decided that however little she might like him, yet the Squire's influence might be a powerful factor in carrying out this secretly designed plan of the children's, Miss Eunice was just descending from her oat-bin throne to ask him to open the feast, when another slight commotion occurred near the door. A woman screamed, and every eye turned upon two tardy and uninvited guests, who, leading each other as it were, now entered the scene.
Whitey, the cow, and Nate Pettijohn—tramp!
A NEIGHBORLY TRICK OF THE WIND
THE silence which followed lasted for a long time, during which Whitey stared mildly about upon her many acquaintances as if daring one of them to accuse her of vagrancy. Nathan, newly clothed and decent of apparel, but, as to unkempt hair and besmirched skin, still unmistakably the tramp, let his wild, frightened eyes roam ceaselessly from one guest to another till, finally, they fixed their gaze upon one face and rested there.
The face was that of Squire Pettijohn, hitherto complacent, self-satisfied village magnate. Now suddenly grown haggard and old, confronting that other face so curiously like his own. His son! Whose scant intelligence had always been a shame to him and because of which he had given neglect where care should have been. Whom he had been secretly thankful to lose and whom he had hoped would never again be found.
But he had found himself, and for a time the misguided parent and most unhappy child studied each other in mutual shrinking and dismay. All the adult guests recognized poor Nathan, now restored to the outward semblance of the decent citizen he had once been, and understood how it was that in their fleeting glimpses of the recent "tramp" there had been something puzzlingly familiar. The children gathered in knots, staring and quiet, and more than half-afraid. Unconsciously they felt that here was tragedy where but a moment since had been their merry comedy.
Then Katharine, as little lady of the feast, resolved to end this dreadful silence which was spoiling all the fun; and, running to Nathan's side, took his hand in hers and led him forward, saying:
"This is a friend of mine, people, and he's just in time for supper. I know him very well. I spent an afternoon with him down by the river, and you ought to know him, too, Uncle Moses, 'cause he's such a good fisher."
Then she pushed Nathan's soiled hand toward the man on the cot, who hesitated for one second, glancing toward the Squire's set face, then grasped it cordially, exclaiming:
"Why, Nate, hello! When'd you come to town? Hain't never lost your vote, have ye? 'Cause I 'low you'll have to cast it for me for constable next Tuesday, sence I've just been nomernated for the office. Hey?"
The tramp's eyes left his father's person and looked down upon the genial, helpless man beside him, and a slow smile stole into them.
"Hello, Uncle Mose. I've got here—eh?"
"Yes, you've got here, got home, all right. Better stay now. We're all—I say we're all glad to see ye. Marsden ain't such a big community she can afford to lose anybody. Where'd ye hail from, anyway?"
The hired man had grasped the situation promptly. Recognizing Nathan, he also recognized, as he supposed, the solution of the mysteries which had surrounded him of late. Eunice and Susanna had found the vagrant out, and had kept his identity secret, fearing the Squire. Now to Moses' intense satisfaction in his nomination—irregular though it was—was added the reflection that no harm could result, since at present there was no constable in Marsden, nor would be one until he himself was elected. He would be elected, of course. There was now no doubt of that. Kitty Keehoty, bless her! had put her small hand to the wheel of fortune and given it a whirl which was fast sending all good things his way. Then, if he was so favored, should his first official act be the punishment of a fellow townsman? A fishing townsman, at that? Not if he, Moses Jones, knew himself; and though he was still a "bedrid block o' wood," the block was fast repairing and would soon be as good as a freshly growing tree.
"From—from him. From Planck. I—I come to bring the box. But—I lost it. Oh, Madam! he sent it to you—he was dyin' then—and I've lost it—I've lost it! Planck'll be mad. He'll scowl and talk—Has anybody seen Planck's box?"
The forlorn fellow had left Moses' side and crossed to where Madam Sturtevant sat rigidly upon her elevated throne. The memories this returned wanderer had roused in her were so painful that they seemed to strangle her. Her throat grew dry, her lips parched, and her gaze was glued to the face of the vagrant who had been her lost son's chosen companion, vassal, possible friend. Why, why had he come?
Eunice laid her hand on the gentlewoman's arm. She felt that this tension must be loosed, even at the cost of fresh pain. "Elinor," said she, "you have borne much. Can you endure a further shock? it may be of fresh sorrow, but it may be of joy. Your brass bound box is found. Nathan brought it, Katharine found it, I have it."
Squire Pettijohn coughed, and strode majestically forward. He was once more the man of position who must see to it that his townsmen's interests were protected. This woman had maligned him. He had heard that she complained of his usuries, that he had taken advantage of her misfortunes, that he was a hard and cruel man. Worst of all to him—had said that he was not a gentleman! Conquering his disappointment at Nathan's return, he improved his opportunity of punishing and humbling her.
"Madam Sturtevant, ah—er—hm-m—at the time your guilty son disappeared, taking my son—whom his influence had ruined—with him, it was said that a certain casket of valuables disappeared as well. In behalf of the interest Marsden took in the case, and of my own—my own personal interest, I demand that if that casket has been restored it shall be opened here in the presence of your townsmen. I—er—my accommodation in times of your necessities, the large amounts now due me—I claim the right, the authority to say—Let the casket be produced."
Madam said nothing. She fixed her large eyes, still guiltless of spectacles (save in the privacy of home), and regarded him as she might have regarded some reptile.
Nathan seemed struggling with words which fear of his father prevented his speaking. But Miss Maitland stepped down, and, by a nod, summoned others to her, so that the vagrant presently felt himself surrounded by a group of kindly faces, which beamed upon him in protection. William, Deacon Meakin, the chivalrous schoolmaster, Susanna, and Katharine, quite unafraid to fling her small arm around his stooping shoulders and to pat them encouragingly.
Then Aunt Eunice went out, but was back again so quickly she had hardly been missed. She carried her hands quite high, so that all might see the strange, glittering, brass bound box they held, and, going swiftly forward, laid it on the Madam's lap, who recoiled from it, at first shrinking back and letting her clasped hands drop limply to her sides, yet rallied her courage and her pride as Eunice's tone of command touched both.
"Open it, Elinor. It is right. It is just. Let the truth be known at last."
Everybody crowded forward, the Squire among them, as with a simple touch, known only to the initiated, the keyless casket was unbanded and opened to the sight of all. Those who had anticipated the blaze of jewels, or, at least, the bulk of valuable papers and bonds, fell back disappointed. The box was absolutely empty save for a small folded sheet which looked like an ordinary letter.
A sigh, like a great sob, swept over the multitude, and now the fear which had troubled the tramp vanished, and, breaking free of the group about him, he laid his hand on Madam's knee and cried, exultantly:
"I did it! I fetched it safe. I was sick—oh, I was sick!—I was in jail—I was on an island—I was shipwrecked—I was in the water, with big, big waves—I was—so long, so long. But I wore it on a strap around my neck. Planck wrote it all and sealed it and put it in the box. Then he died, and I had promised; so I had to come, else I would have died, too. I wanted to, without Planck. But we'd told it to each other. We was good friends. Planck never called me 'fool,' not once, not in all our lives. When he went away with not a cent in his pocket, I couldn't stand it. Old Squire was rough. Old Squire was rich. Planck should be rich, too, just one little box full, anyway. But—He wrote it all down—read it, read it. Read it out real plain, like he was saying it again. My head aches. I can't think. Planck could think. But—Planck is dead."
In a dull despair the poor wretch who had journeyed so many leagues, across so many lands, through so many weary years, dropped his face in his hands, and wept like a child.
But with dry eyes, if tremulous hands, Elinor Sturtevant opened the letter as she had been besought. It bore date of a day long past, and address of Majomba, Africa, in the familiar script of her idolized son; yet keeping nothing secret to herself, she did "read it out," and this it was:
"MY DEAR MOTHER:—I send my farewell to you from this distant corner of the earth, where I came seeking fortune and finding death. Nathan has just got well of the fever from which I am dying, and promises to carry this letter to you. I have no money to send it by post even if I did not think it kindness to entrust him with it. He has loved me, been faithful to me even unto death, and it will be a last trust to comfort him. I foresee that he will have many vicissitudes before he reaches home—if ever he does; though it is my prayer that he may and that dear old Marsden will receive him kindly.
"It is his wish, and it is but just, to explain that he stole your brass bound box, in which I enclose this, and why. Simply for my unworthy sake. He believed that it held money, and a fear that I would be angry with him if I knew of the deed, made him keep it secret for a long, long time. Then once, in dire necessity, after Elizabeth was gone, he did confess and give it to me, and we opened it together.
"It was absolutely empty. I tell you this, dying; when a man speaks the truth. If ever it held valuables they had been removed, and, presumably, by my father. I supposed you, also, knew this, and so would not break the silence my angry pride imposed for the sake of a mere empty box. Do not blame poor Nate—he is scarce blameworthy, and he has loved me blindly all his life. So would he have loved his austere father if he had had a chance. And of all the lessons my life has brought me this I hold the highest—that love is best.
"I think of Elizabeth, sweetly resting under the turf at home. I think of my little son, and pray our Heavenly Father to be kinder to him than his earthly one has been. I think of my mother, whose heart I broke, and, dying, I cry—God bless her.
When the clear old voice quavered into silence there was not a dry eye left among the enrapt listeners. There was not a heart of man or woman that did not feel a sting at its own unjust judgment of the past. Nor was there one, either old or young, who did not pity rather than blame the poor sinner who had "loved much."
Some one was seen to go softly away. It was Squire Pettijohn, forgetful of his dire threat against any son of man who dared to "tramp" God's earth, unwarranted. Squire Pettijohn, with head bowed, heart humbled, who had always branded another man's son as "thief," only to find that self-confessed offender the child of his own home. Nobody sought to hinder him. In silence let him suffer his own shame—that would be punishment sufficient.
Madam sat so long with the opened box and letter in her lap, and with her eyes staring so at vacancy, that Katharine could not bear it. Nor could she bear that Monty should cry, as he was doing in that dreadful, quiet way. Boys shouldn't cry—it meant something terrible when they did. Besides, why should he now, anyway? The knowledge of his father's death was nothing new; and here was all the mystery explained, and the suspicion which had clouded his name completely removed.
"Why, Monty, darling, splendid Monty! Don't! Don't! You ought to be the gladdest boy who ever lived. See. Look at your grandmother. She isn't saying anything, and there is sorrow in her face, but there's wonderful pride in it, too. Why, think, boy, think! If for years and years you had thought somebody you loved was bad and then suddenly found they were good, after all, would you cry? No, indeed. Anyhow, I shouldn't. I should just hip-hip-hurrah! Three cheers for your father, that all can talk of and love now, and was, Uncle Moses says, one of the splendidest boys ever grew up in Marsden. Only he didn't like to stay at home, and that got him into trouble. That took away his chance of ever being President. But you can be if you want to. Any boy who stays at home and cures his own stuttering by just taking care and practising and going slow—and being dreadful nice to his grandmother—or mothers and fathers, like Ned's and Bob's—they can grow up to be Presidents or constables, 'ary' one. Let's give them, the cheers! Three for Montgomery Sturtevant, who's never going to do a wrong thing again, because he's found a father to talk about and love, just as I do 'Johnny,' who was mine! Three cheers for Nate Pettijohn, who brought the good news home! Three cheers for the brass bound box, that tried to be a gold mine, but turned out something ever and ever so much better! And three times three cheers for Uncle Moses Jones, who is going to be constable, after all, and looks this minute as if he wanted to arrest me, the first one, because I don't fetch him his supper, and who knows as well as I do that all that ice-cream is melting lickety-cut, while I stand here talking! Hip! Hip! Hurr-a-ah! And a tiger! Hip—hip—hurrah!"
How the rafters rang! and how surprised was every one to hear a girl, a mere little girl, deliver such an oration, and with such an entire forgetfulness of self. Not knowing then how great her heart was nor how she longed to make glad every single person in the world, even though most of her schemes went so wide of the mark that her own father had dubbed her his little "Quixote."
This brought all the company safely back from the realm of sentiment and deep emotion to the commonplace level of hunger and good cheer awaiting it. So Eunice Maitland herself led the way to table with Nathan Pettijohn close beside her, and, since there were no chairs to sit upon, took her stand at the end, and, bowing her graceful old head, gave silent thanks to the Giver of a feast so glorious as this had proved.
Even Madam, who could not be persuaded to leave her lofty isolation upon the oat-bin, nor to loose her hold of her brass bound box with its precious enclosure—so much more valuable than the diamonds which had once sparkled within it—even she did consent to taste of that rare delicacy which had come to Marsden in ugly wooden tubs. Her portion, though, was brought upon a china dish, because Susanna feared the gentlewoman's fastidious palate would dislike the flavor of a wooden plate. But then, intimate as she was through hearsay with the Mansion household, Susanna had yet never heard about burnt suppawn, and how an old-time gentlewoman can eat it without grimacing, even though she choke in the event. And Alfaretta—Her happiness must be guessed at. There isn't time to tell it; nor how many times her wooden plate was filled and refilled. It seemed to Katharine, observant, as if the poor girl's mouth opened and closed like a trap over every morsel presented to it, and that there was no evidence of swallowing. But, then, Alfy had never before attended a Hallowe'en Corkis, and probably never would again.
Still observant, Katharine saw Aunt Eunice's dear face grow more and more thoughtful, yet with a thoughtfulness in no measure sad. Finally, she left Nathan to Mrs. Clackett's care and hastily crossed the room to Madam's side.
"Elinor, do you remember how hard the old Squire tried to tell us who were watching his last hours of something that troubled him? And how we failed to comprehend?"
"Surely, Eunice, I remember," answered the old wife, slightly aggrieved. "Why should I not if you do?"
"Because one night when you had dropped asleep he roused, almost like himself again, and saw me. Then he said: 'Eunice, I am very forgetful. But I remember something now that I must tell Elinor.' I was so foolish, I fancied some other time would do, and you were so tired. I couldn't bear that you should be awakened, and nodded toward the sofa where you lay. He seemed to understand, and murmured: 'Never mind. I'll tell you. There is provision ample. He didn't take it. I accused him because I missed it. I—I—secret chamber—Oh, my head!' Then he dropped away again, and afterward came only those hopeless efforts which you saw as well as I. Now, I believe I've had an inspiration. Verplanck's father, sane, recalled the fact that he had wrongly accused his son while his mind wandered. It was he who had emptied the brass bound box and bestowed its contents in some place he felt was safer. In the secret chamber, I believe. Let us go and search for them!"
"Eunice, how silly! As if I hadn't ransacked every inch of every room in the old Mansion—all for nothing. Besides, what could one do at night?"
"What may we not do? What is one pair of eyes to many? What one tallow dip to a hundred Jack-o'-lanterns, lighted with real 'store' candles? May we try? Shall I give the word?"
Madam stood up. She was so happy in her letter that she cared not what else might happen. Besides, it was impossible to avoid sharing the enthusiasm shining in the face of her lifelong friend.
"Eunice, you are positively as childish as Katharine herself. But do as you please, do as you please. All the world is welcome to the Mansion now that it's honor has come home! And, servantless almost as I am, I can comfortably feel that there is no room, nor closet even, in the old place that is not fit for the inspection of every Marsden housewife. Yes, thank God! I have never felt myself demeaned by any household task that presented, and cleanliness is part of pure religion. Do as you like, dear, do as you like."
This was glorious! All Marsden felt that the night held too much of wonder to be true. After the party, after the restoration of the brass bound box, after Nathan Pettijohn's rehabilitation, after the establishment of Verplanck Sturtevant's innocence, after Moses' nomination, after the fine feast, to be admitted, to visit and examine—nay, more, authorized to pry into the famous but exclusive Mansion—Well, words simply failed.
The elders in that astonishing procession conducted themselves more hilariously than their children. Each armed with a grinning Jack, and somebody driving Whitey as a snowy guide, they marched two abreast down Marsden thoroughfare, into the Mansion grounds, through the wide entrance hospitably thrown open, into and over the house as will or curiosity dictated.
But everywhere with eager eyes, searching, hoping for the stately impoverished mistress of the Mansion that her treasures might be found.
Only the most nimble followed Monty and Katharine up the queer stairs of the "old part" into the chamber under the eaves where soldiers had once lain hidden. But even they, with their gleaming Jacks, were sufficient to set the whole low room aglow, yet was there no longer need for search.
The wind, which had done such devastation in the town, which had blown a welcome tramp back to his native haunts, had done even more. It had revealed the secret of years. Part of the chimney lay heaped on the floor, and among the fallen bricks and stones appeared a big tin box. A most ordinary box, such as many people use for insignificant belongings.
Somebody dubiously suggested that "It might be it!"
There was nothing dubious about Montgomery. Tossing his lantern to Bob Turner, he seized the tin case and scampered down the ladder stairs with a speed nothing but habit could have secured. Rushing into the ancient drawing-room, so oddly lighted now, he flung himself headlong upon Madam, stammering excitedly:
"Gr-gr-gram-ma! I've found i-i-i-it!"
Madam remembered the box, so valueless in itself. She had not seen it for years. She had no faith that it held aught but trifles now. Let the good neighbors see. A simple turn of the wrist, the commonplace key clicked in the lock, the flat cover fell back and—the lost treasure was revealed! All the missing jewels in their cases, all the bonds whose value would more than lift the mortgages upon the fine old property, all the gold in canvas sacks which would take Montgomery through college and train him for that possible Presidency to which he aspired.
Was ever such a night? Was ever such honest neighborly rejoicing? And were ever Marsden townsfolk so late out of their comfortable beds? For the candles in the Jacks had long burned out before that procession of happy people took their now darkened way homeward and Kitty Keehoty's Hallowe'en Corkis came to its final end.