"You'll do it all right," Priscilla encouraged her.
"Sure thing!" said Tom. "We might have a race and see who gets his row done first."
"No races for me, yet," said Elliott. "It would be altogether too tame. I'd qualify for the booby prize without trying. But the rest of you may race, if you want to."
"Just wait!" prophesied Stannard darkly. "Wait an hour or two and see how you like hoeing."
Elliott laughed. In the cool morning, with the hoe fresh in her hand, she thought of fatigue as something very far away. Stan was always a little inclined to croak. The thing was easy enough.
"Run along, little boy, to your row," she admonished him. "Can't you see that I'm busy?"
Elliott hoed briskly, if a bit awkwardly, and painstakingly removed every weed. The freshly stirred earth looked dark and pleasant; the odor of it was good, too. She compared what she had done with what she hadn't, and the contrast moved her to new activity. But after a time—it was not such a long time, either, though it seemed hours—she thought it would be pleasant to stop. The motion of the hoe was monotonous. She straightened up and leaned on the handle and surveyed her fellow-workers. Their backs looked very industrious as they bent at varying distances across the garden. Even Stannard had left her behind.
Gertrude abandoned her row and came and inspected Elliott's. "That looks fine," she said, "for a beginner. You must stop and rest whenever you're tired. Mother always tells us to begin a thing easy, not to tire ourselves too much at first. She won't let us girls work when the sun's too hot, either."
Elliott forced a smile. If she had done what she wished to, she would have thrown down her hoe and walked off the field. But for the first time in her life she didn't feel quite like letting herself do what she wished to.
What would these new cousins think of her if she abandoned a task as abruptly as that? But what good did her hoeing do?—a few scratches on the border of this big garden-patch. It couldn't matter to the Belgians or the Germans or Hoover or anybody else whether she hoed or didn't hoe. Perhaps, if every one said that, even of garden-patches—but not every one would say it. Some people knew how to hoe. Presumably some people liked hoeing. Goodness, how long this row was! Would she ever, ever reach the end?
Priscilla bobbed up, a moist, flushed Priscilla. "That looks nice. You haven't got very far yet, have you? Never mind. Things go a lot faster after you've done 'em a while. Why, when I first tried to play the piano, my fingers went so slow, they just made me ache. Now they skip along real quick."
Elliott leaned on her hoe. "Do you play the piano?"
"Oh, yes! Mother taught me. Good-by. I must get back to my row."
"Do you like hoeing?" Elliott called after her.
"I like to get it done." The small figure skipped nimbly away.
"'Get it done!'" Elliott addressed the next clump of waving green blades, pessimism in her voice. "After one row, isn't there another, and another, and another, forever?" She slashed into a mat of chickweed with venom.
"I knew you'd get tired," said Stannard, at her elbow. "Come on over to those trees and rest a bit. Sun's getting hot here."
Elliott looked at the clump of trees on the edge of the field. Their shade invited like a beckoning hand. Little beads of perspiration stood on her forehead. A warm lassitude spread through her body, turning her muscles slack. Hadn't Gertrude said Aunt Jessica didn't let them work in too hot a sun?
"You're tired; quit it!" urged Stannard.
"Not just yet," said Elliott, and her hoe bit at the ground again.
Tired? She should think she was tired! And she had fully intended to go with Stan. Then why hadn't she gone? The question puzzled the girl. Quit when you like and make it up with cajolery was a motto that Elliott had found very useful. She was good at cajolery. What made her hesitate to try it now?
She swung around, half minded to call Stannard back, when a sentence flashed into her mind, not a whole sentence, just a fragment salvaged from a book some one had once been reading in her hearing: "This war will be won by tired men who—" She couldn't quite get the rest. An impression persisted of keeping everlastingly at it, but the words escaped her. She swung back, her hail unsent. Well, she was tired, dead tired, and her back was broken and her hands were blistered, or going to be, but nobody would think of saying that that had anything to do with winning the war. Stay; wouldn't they? It seemed absurd; but, still, what made people harp so on food if there weren't something in it? If all they said was true, why—and Elliott's tired back straightened—why, she was helping a little bit; or she would be if she didn't quit.
It may seem absurd that it had taken a backache to make Elliott visualize what her cousins were really doing on their farm. She ought, of course, to have been able to see it quite clearly while she sat on the veranda, but that isn't always the way things work. Now she seemed to see the farm as part of a great fourth line of defense, a trench that was feeding all the other trenches and all the armies in the open and all the people behind the armies, a line whose success was indispensable to victory, whose defeat would spell failure everywhere. It was only for a minute that she saw this quite clearly, with a kind of illuminated insight that made her backache well worth while. Then the minute passed, and as Elliott bent to her hoe again she was aware only of a suspicion that possibly when one was having the most fun was not always when one was being the most useful.
"Well," said a pleasant voice, "how does the hoeing go?"
And there stood Laura with a pitcher in her hand, and on her face a look—was it of mingled surprise and respect?
"You mustn't work too long the first day," she told Elliott. "You're not hardened to it yet, as we are. Take a rest now and try it again later on. I have your book under my arm."
When, that noon, they all trooped up to the house, hot and hungry, Elliott went with them, hot and hungry, too. Nobody thanked her for anything, and she didn't even notice the lack. Farming wasn't like canteening, where one expected thanks. As she scrubbed her hands she noticed that her nails were hopeless, but her attention failed to concentrate on their demoralized state. Hadn't she finished her row?
"Stuck it out, did you?" said Bruce, as they sat down at dinner. "I bet you would."
"I shouldn't have dared look any of you in the face again, if I hadn't," smiled Elliott. But his words rang warm in her ears.
Laura and Elliott were in the summer kitchen, filling glass jars with raspberries. As they finished filling each jar, they capped it and lowered it into a wash-boiler of hot water on the stove.
"It seems odd," remarked Laura, "to put up berries without sugar."
"Isn't it horrid," said Elliott, who had never put up berries at all, but who was longing for candy and hadn't had courage to suggest buying any. "I hope the Allies are going to appreciate all we are doing for them."
"Do you?" Laura looked at her oddly. "I hope we are going to appreciate all they have done for us."
"Aren't we showing it?" Elliott felt really indignant at her cousin. "Think of the sacrifices we're making for them."
How stupid Laura was! "You know as well as I do how many things we are giving up."
"Sugar, for instance?" queried Laura.
"Sugar is one thing."
"Oh, well," said Laura, "I'd rather a little Belgian had my extra pounds, poor scrap! Of course, now and then I get hungry for it, though Mother gives us all the maple we want, but when I do get hungry, I think about the Belgians and the people of northern France who have lost their homes, and of all those children over there who haven't enough to eat to make them want to play; and I think about the British fleet and what it has kept us from for four years; and about the thousands of girls who have given their youth and prettiness to making munitions. I think about things like that and then I say to myself, 'My goodness, what is a little sugar, more or less!' Why, Elliott, we don't begin to feel the war over here, not as they feel it!"
Elliott, who considered that she felt the war a good deal, demurred. "I have lost my home," she said, feeling a little ashamed of the words as she said them.
"But it is there," objected Laura. "Your home is all ready to go back to, isn't it? That's my point."
"And there's Father," said Elliott.
"I know, and my brothers. But I don't feel that I have done anything in their being in the army. It is doing them lots of good: every letter shows that. And, anyway, I'd be ashamed if they didn't go."
"Something might happen," said Elliott. "What would you say then?"
"The same, I hope. But what I mean is, the war doesn't really touch us in the routine of our every-day living. We don't have to darken our windows at night and take, every now and then, to the cellars. The machinery of our lives isn't thrown out of gear. We don't live hand in hand with danger. But lots of us think we're killed if we have to use our brains a little, if we're asked to substitute for wheat flour, and can't have thick frosting on our cake and eat meat three times a day. Oh, I've heard 'em talk! Why, our life over here isn't really topsyturvy a bit!"
"Isn't it?" There were things, Elliott thought, that Laura, wise as she was, didn't know.
"We're inconvenienced," said Laura, "but not hurt."
Elliott was silent. She was trying to decide whether or not she was hurt. Inconvenienced seemed rather a slim verb for what had happened to her. But she didn't go on to say what she had meant to say about candy, and she felt in her secret soul the least bit irritated at Laura.
Then Priscilla whirled in on her tiptoes, her hands behind her back. "The postman went right straight by, though I hung out the window and called and called. I guess he didn't hear me, he's awful deaf sometimes."
"Didn't I get a letter?" Elliott's face fell.
"Mail is slow getting through, these days," said Aunt Jessica, coming in from the main kitchen. "We always allow an extra day or two on the road. Wasn't there anything at all from Bob or Sidney or Pete, Pris? You little witch, you certainly are hiding something behind your back."
Then Priscilla gave a gay little squeal and jumped up and down till her black curls bobbed all over her face. When she stopped jumping she looked straight at Elliott.
"Which hand will you take?" she asked.
"I? Oh, have you a letter for me, after all?"
"You didn't guess it," said the child. "Which hand?"
"The right—no, the left."
Priscilla shook her head. "You aren't a very good guesser, are you? But I'll give it to you this time. It's not fat, but it looks nice. He didn't even get out, that postman didn't; he just tucked the letter in the box as he rode along."
"Certain sure he didn't tuck any other letter in too, Pris?" queried Laura.
The child held out empty hands.
"That's no proof. Your eyes are too bright." Laura turned her around gently. "Oh, I thought so! Stuck in your dress. From Bob!"
"Two," squealed Priscilla, with an emphatic little hop. "Here, give 'em to Mother. They're 'dressed to her. Now let's get into 'em, quick. Shall I ring the bell, Mother, to call in Father and the rest? Two letters from Bob is a great big emergency; don't you think so?"
The words filtered negligently through Elliott's inattention. All her conscious thoughts were centered on her father's handwriting. She had had a cable before, but this was his first letter. It almost made her cry to see the familiar script and know that she could get nothing but letters from him for a whole long year. No hugs, no kisses, no rumpling of her hair or his, no confidential little talks—no anything that had been her meat and drink for years. How did people endure such separations? A big lump came up in her throat and the tears pricked her eyes; but she swallowed very hard and blinked once or twice and vowed, "I won't cry, I won't!"
And then suddenly, through her preoccupation, she became aware of a hush fallen on the bubbling expectancy of the room. Glancing up from the page, she saw Henry standing in the doorway. Even to unfamiliar eyes there was something strangely arresting in the boy's look, a shocked gravity that cut like a premonition.
"They say Ted Gordon's been killed," he said.
"Ted—Gordon!" cried Laura.
"Practice flight, at camp. Nobody knows any particulars. Cy Jones told Father." The boy's voice sounded dry and hard.
"Are they certain there is no mistake?" his mother asked quietly.
"I guess it's true. Cy said the Gordons had a telegram."
"I must go over at once." Mrs. Cameron rose, putting the letters into Laura's hands, and took off her apron.
"I'll bring the car around for you," said Henry.
"Thank you." She smiled at him and turned to the girls. "You know what we are having for dinner, Laura. Priscilla will help make the shortcake, I'm sure. I will be back as soon as I can."
Mutely the four watched the little car roll out of the yard and down the hill.
Then Henry spoke. "Letters?"
"From Bob," said Laura.
"Did she read 'em?"
Laura shook her head.
"Gee!" said the boy.
"Perhaps she thought she couldn't," hesitated Laura, "and go over there."
A moment of silence held the room. Henry broke it. "Well, we're not going. Let's hear 'em."
Elliott took a step toward the door.
"Needn't run away unless you want to," he called after her. "We always read Bob's letters aloud."
So Elliott stayed. Laura's pleasant voice, a bit strained at first, grew steadier as the reading proceeded. Henry sat whittling a stick into the coal-hod, his lips pursed as though for a whistle, but without sound, and still with that odd sober look on his face. Priscilla, all the jumpiness gone out of her, stood very still in the middle of the kitchen floor, a kind of hurt bewilderment in the big dark eyes fixed on Laura's face. Nobody laughed, nobody even chuckled, and yet it was a jolly letter that they read first, full of spirit and life and fun. High-hearted adventure rollicked through it, and the humor that makes light of hardship, and the latest slang of the front adorned its pages with grotesquely picturesque phrases. The Cameron boys were obviously getting a good time out of the war. Bob had got something else, too. The letter had been delayed in transmission and near the end was a sentence, "Brought down my first Hun to-day—great fight! I'll tell you about it next time if after due deliberation I decide the censor will let me."
"Some letter!" commented Henry. "Say, those aviators are living like princes, aren't they! Mess hall in a big grove with all the fixings. And eats! More than we get at home. Gee, I wish I was older!"
"So you could come in for the eats?" smiled his sister.
"So I could come in for things generally."
"You couldn't work any harder if you were a man grown," she told him.
"Huh!" said Henry, "a lot I hurt myself!" But he liked the smile and the praise, wary though he might pretend to be of it. Sis was a good sort. "You're some worker, yourself. Let's get on to the next one."
The second letter—and it too bore a date disquietingly far from the present—told of the fight. It thrilled the four in the pleasant New England kitchen. The peaceful walls opened wide, and they were out in far spaces, patrolling the windy sky, mounting, diving, dodging through wisps of cloud, kings of the air, hunting for combat. Their eyes shone and their breathing quickened, and for a minute they forgot the boy who was dead.
"Why the Hun didn't bag me, instead of my getting him," wrote Bob, "is a mystery. Just the luck of beginners, I guess. I did most of the things I shouldn't have done, and, by chance, one or two of the things I should—fired when I was too far off, went into a spinning nose-dive under the mistaken notion it would make me a poor target, etc., etc., etc. Oh, I was green, all right! He knew how to manoeuver, that Hun did. That's what feazes me. How did I manage to top him at last? Well, I did. And my gun didn't jam. Nuff said."
"Gee!" said Henry between his teeth. "And Ted Gordon had to go and miss all that! Gee!"
"If he had only got to the front!" sighed Laura.
"Anything from Pete?" asked the boy.
She shook her head. "We had a letter from Sid day before yesterday, you know."
"Sid lays 'em down pretty thick sometimes. Well, I must be getting on. This isn't weeding cabbages."
The three girls, left alone, reacted each in her own way to the touch of the dark wings that had so suddenly brushed the rim of their blithe young lives. Priscilla frankly didn't understand, but her sensitive spirit felt the chill of the event, and her big eyes gazed with a tinge of wonder at the blue sky and sunshine of the world outside.
"Seems sort of queer it's so bright," she remarked.
Laura was busy, as were thousands of sisters at that very minute and every minute all over the land, scotching the fears that are always lying in wait, ready to lift their ugly heads. Queer the letters had come through so tardily! Where was Bob, her darling big brother, this minute? Where was Pete Fearing, hardly less dear than Bob? Pictures clicked through her brain, pictures built on newspaper prints that she had seen. But one died twice that way, she reflected, and it did no good. So she put the letters on the shelf beside the clock and brought out the potatoes for dinner.
"Ted Gordon was in the Yale Battery last summer," she remarked. "He came up from camp to get his degree this year. Mrs. Gordon and Harriet went down. He was Scroll and Key."
In Elliott's brain Laura's words made a swift connection. Before that, Ted Gordon had meant nothing to her, the name of a boy whom she had never seen, a country lad, whose death, while sudden and sad, could not touch her. Now, suddenly, he clicked into place in her own familiar world. A Scroll-and-Key man? Why, those were the men she knew—Bones, Scroll and Key, Hasty Pudding—he was one of them!
She felt a swift recoil. So that was what war came to. Not just natty figures in khaki that girls cried over in saying good-by to, or smiled at and told how perfectly splendid they were to go; not just high adventure and martial music and the rhythm of swinging brown shoulders; not just surgical dressings and socks and sweaters; not even just homes broken up for a time and fathers sailing overseas. Of course one understood with one's brain, that made part of the thrill of their going, but one didn't realize with the feeling part of one—how could a girl?—when they went away or when one made dressings. Yet didn't dressings more than anything else point to it? And Laura had said we didn't feel the war over here!
A sense of something intolerable, not to be borne, overwhelmed Elliott. She pushed at it with both hands, as though by the physical gesture she could shove away the sudden darkness that had blotted with alien shadow the face of her familiar sun. Death! There was an unbearable unpleasantness about death. She had always felt ill at ease in its presence, in the very mention of its name; she had avoided every sign and symbol of it as she would a plague. And now, she foresaw for an instant of blinding clarity, perhaps it could not be avoided any longer. Was this young aviator's accident just a symbol of the way death was going to invade all the happy sheltered places? The thought turned the girl sick for a minute. How could Laura go on with her work so unfeelingly? And there was Priscilla getting out raspberries.
"I don't see," said Elliott, and her voice choked, "I don't see how you can bear to peel those potatoes!"
"Some one has to peel them," said Laura. "The family must have dinner, you know. We couldn't work without eating. Besides, I think it helps to work."
Elliott brushed the last sentence aside. It fell outside her experience, and she didn't understand it. The only thing she did understand was the reiteration of work, work, and the pall of blackness that overshadowed her hitherto bright world. She wished again with all her heart that she had never come to Vermont. She didn't belong here; why couldn't she have stayed where she did belong, where people understood her, and she them?
A great wave of homesickness swept over the girl, homesickness for the world as she had always known it, her world as it had been before the war warped and twisted and spoiled things. And yet, oddly enough, there was no sense in the Cameron house of anything being spoiled. They talked of Ted Gordon in the same unbated tone of voice in which they spoke of her cousin Bob or of his friend Pete Fearing, and they actually laughed when they told stories about him. Laura baked and brewed, and the results disappeared down the road in the direction Mother Jess had taken. Aunt Jessica herself returned, a trifle pale and tired-looking, but smiling as usual.
"Lucinda and Harriet are just as brave as you would expect them to be," Elliott heard her tell Father Bob. "No one knows yet how it happened. They hope to learn more from Ted's friends. Two of the aviators are coming up. Harriet told me they rather look for them to-morrow night."
Hastily Elliott betook herself out of hearing. She wanted to get beyond sight and sound of any reference to what had happened. It was the only way known to her to escape the disagreeable—to turn her back on it and run away. What she didn't see and think about, so far as she was concerned, wasn't there. Hitherto the method had worked very well. What disquieted her now was a dull, persistent fear that it wasn't going to work much longer.
So when Bruce remarked the next day, "I'm going to take part of the afternoon off and go for ferns; want to come?" she answered promptly, "Yes, indeed," though privately she thought him crazy. Ferns, on a perfectly good working-day? But when they were fairly started, she found she hadn't escaped, after all. Instead, she had run right into the thing, so to speak.
"We want to make the church look pretty," Bruce said, as they tramped along. "And I happen to know where some beauties grow, maidenhair and the rarer sorts. It isn't everybody I'd dare to take along."
"Is that so?" queried the girl. She wondered why.
"Things have a way of disappearing in the woods, unless they're treated right. Took a fellow with me once when I went for pink-and-white lady's-slippers, the big ones—they're beauties. He was crazy to go, and he promised to keep the place to himself. You could have picked bushels there then. Now they're all cleaned out."
"But why? Did people dig them up?"
"Picked'em too close. Some things won't stand being cleaned up the way most people clean up flowers in the woods. They're free, and nobody's responsible."
In spite of her thoughts Elliott dimpled. "I think it is quite safe to take me."
He grinned. "Maybe that's why I do it."
It was very pleasant, tramping along with Bruce in the bright day; pleasant, too, leaving the sunshine for the spicy coolness of the woods, and climbing up, up, among great tree-trunks and mossy rocks and trickling mountain brooks. Or it would have been pleasant, if one could only have forgotten the reason that underlay their journey. But when they had reached Bruce's secret spot and were cutting the wiry brown stems, and packing together carefully the spreading, many-fingered fronds so as not to break the delicate ferns, that undercurrent of numb consternation reasserted itself. Like Priscilla, Elliott felt a little shocked at the brightness of the sunshine, the blueness of the sky, and the beauty of the fern-filled glade.
"It was dreadful for him to be killed before he had done anything!" At last the words so long burning in her heart reached the tip of her tongue.
"Yes." Bruce's voice was sober. "It sure was hard."
"I should think his people would feel as though they couldn't stand it!" Elliott declared. "If he had got to France—but now it is just a hideous, hideous waste!"
Bruce hesitated. "I suppose that is one way of looking at it."
"Why, what other way could there be?" She stared at him in surprise. "He was just learning to fly. He hadn't done anything, had he?"
"No, he hadn't done anything. But what he died for is just the same as though he had got across, isn't it, and had downed forty Huns?"
She continued to stare fixedly at the boy for a full minute. "Why, yes," she said at last, very slowly; "yes, I suppose it is." Curiously enough, the whole thing looked better from that angle.
For a long time she was silent, cutting and tying up ferns.
"How did you happen to think of that?"
"To think of what?" Bruce was tying his own ferns.
"What you said about—about what this Ted Gordon died for."
It was Bruce's turn to look surprised. "I didn't think of anything. It's just a fact, isn't it?"
Then he began to load himself with ferns. Elliott wouldn't have supposed any one could carry as many as Bruce shouldered; he had great bunches in his hands, too.
"You look like a walking fernery," she said.
"Birnam Wood," he quoted and for a minute she couldn't think what he meant. "Better let me take some of those on the ground," he said.
"No, indeed! I am going to do my share."
Quietly he possessed himself of two of her bunches. "That's your share. It will be heavy enough before we get home."
It was heavy, though not for worlds would Elliott have mentioned the fact. She helped Bruce put the ferns in water, and she went out at night and sprinkled them to keep them fresh; but she had an excuse ready when Laura asked if she would like to go over to the little white-spired church on the hill and help arrange them.
Nothing would have induced her to attend the services, either, though afterward she wished that she had. There seemed to have been something so high and fine and—yes—so cheerful about them, so martial and exalted, that she wished she had seen for herself what they were like. In Elliott's mind gloom had always been inseparably linked with a funeral, gloom and black clothes. Whereas Laura and her mother and Gertrude and Priscilla wore white. A good many things at the Cameron farm were very odd.
It was after every one had gone to bed and the lights were out that Elliott lay awake in her little slant-ceilinged room and worried and worried about Father, three thousand miles away. He wasn't an aviator, it was true, but in France wasn't the land almost as unsafe as the air? She had imagined so many things that might perfectly easily happen to him that she was on the point of having a little weep all by herself when Aunt Jessica came in. Did she know that Elliott was homesick? Aunt Jessica sat down on the bed, as she had sat that first night, and talked about comforting, commonplace things—about the new kittens, and how soon the corn might be ripe, and what she used to do when she was a girl in Washington. Elliott got hold of her hand and wound her own fingers in and out among Aunt Jessica's fingers, but in the end she spoke out the thing that was uppermost in her mind.
"Mother Jess," she said, using unconsciously the Cameron term; "Mother Jess, I don't like death."
She said it in a small, wabbly voice, because she felt very strongly and she wasn't used to talking about such things. But she had to say it. Though if the room hadn't been dark, I doubt if she could have got it out at all.
"No, dear," said Aunt Jessica, quietly. "Most of us don't like death. I wonder if your feeling isn't due to the fact that you think of it as an end?"
"What is it," asked Elliott, "but an end?" She was so astonished that her words sounded almost brusque.
"I like to think of it as a coming alive," said Aunt Jessica, "a coming alive more vigorously than ever. The world is beginning to think of it so, too."
Elliott lay still after Aunt Jessica had gone out of the room and tried to think about what she had said. It was quite the oddest thing that anybody had said yet. But all she really succeeded in thinking about was the quiet certainty in Aunt Jessica's voice, the comforting clasp of Aunt Jessica's arms, and the kiss still warm on her lips.
"I feel like a picnic," said Mother Jess, "a genuine all-day-in-the-woods picnic."
It was rather queer for a grown-up to say such a thing right out like a girl, Elliott thought, but she liked it. And Aunt Jessica was sitting back on her heels, just like a girl too, looking up from the border where she was working. Elliott had caught sight of her blue chambray skirt under a haze of blue larkspurs and had come over to see what she was doing. It proved to be weeding with a clawlike thing that, wielded by Aunt Jessica's right hand, grubbed out weeds as fast as she could toss them into a basket with her left. Elliott was surprised. Weeding a flower-bed when, as she happened to know, the garden beets weren't finished did not square with her notions of what was what on the Cameron farm. She was so surprised that she answered absently, "That sounds fine. I think I feel so, too," and kept on wondering about Aunt Jessica.
"We usually have a picnic at this time of year when the haying is done," said that lady, and fell again to her weeding. "It is astonishing how fast a weed can grow. Look at that!" and she held up a spreading mat of green chickweed. "I have had to neglect the borders shamefully this summer."
Elliott squatted down beside her and twined her fingers in a tuft of grass. "May I help?" She gave a little tug to the grass.
"Delighted to have you. Look out! That's a Johnny-jump-up."
"Is it? Goodness! I thought it was a weed!"
"Here is one in blossom. Spare Johnny. He is a faithful friend till the winter snows."
"Johnny-jump-up." Elliott's laughter gurgled over the name. "But he does rather jump up, doesn't he? Funny little pansy thing! Funny name, too."
"Not so odd as a few others I know. Kiss-me-in-the-buttery, for instance."
"Honest Injun, as Priscilla says."
"These borders are sweet." The girl let her gaze wander up and down the curving lines of color splashed across the gentle slope of the hill. "But flowers don't stand much chance in a war year, do they? I know people at home who have plowed theirs up and planted potatoes."
"A mistake," said Aunt Jessica, shaking the dirt vigorously from a fistful of sorrel. "A mistake, unless it is a question of life and death. We have too much land in this country to plow up our flowers, yet a while. And a war year is just the time when we need them most. No, I never feel I am wasting my time when I work among flowers."
"But they're not necessary, are they?" questioned Elliott. "Of course, they're beautiful; but I thought luxuries had to go, just now."
"Flowers a luxury? Oh, my dear little girl, put that notion out of your head quickly! American-beauty roses may be a luxury, and white lilacs in the dead of winter, but garden flowers, never! Wait till you see the daffodils dancing under those apple trees next spring!" And she nodded up the grassy slope at the apple trees as though she and they shared a delightful secret that Elliott did not yet know.
Privately the girl held a different opinion about next spring, but she wondered why Aunt Jessica should talk of daffodils. They seemed rather lugged into a conversation in July.
Mother Jess reached with her clawlike weeder far into the border. Her voice came back over her shoulder in little gusts of words as she worked. "Did you ever hear that saying of the Prophet?—'He that hath two loaves let him sell one and buy a flower of the narcissus; for bread is food for the body, but narcissus is food for the soul.' That's the way I feel about flowers. They are the least expensive way of getting beauty and we can't live without beauty, now less than ever, since they have destroyed so much of it in France. There! now I must stop for to-day. Don't you want to take this culling-basket and pick it full of the prettiest things you can find for Mrs. Gordon? Perhaps you would like to take it over to her, too. It isn't a very long walk."
"But I've never met her."
"That won't matter. Just tell her who you are and that you belong to us. Mrs. Gordon loves flowers, though she hasn't much time to tend them."
"I shouldn't think any one could have less time than you."
Aunt Jessica laughed. "Oh, I make time!"
Elliott picked up the flat green basket, lifted the shears she found lying in it, and went hesitatingly up and down the borders. "What shall I pick?"
"Anything. Suit yourself. Make the basket as pretty as you can. If you pick here and there, the borders won't show where you cut from them."
Mother Jess gathered up gloves and tools, and went away, tugging her basket of weeds. Elliott, left behind, surveyed the borders critically. To cut without letting it appear that she had cut was evidently what Aunt Jessica wanted. She reached in and snipped off a spire of larkspur from the very back of the border, then stood back to see what had happened. No, if one hadn't known the stalk had been there, one wouldn't now know it was gone. The thing could be done, then. Cautiously she selected a head of white phlox. The result of that operation also was satisfactory.
Up and down the flowery path she went, snipping busily. On the stalks of larkspur and phlox she laid a mass of pink snapdragons and white candytuft, tucking in here and there sprays of just-opening baby's-breath to give a misty look to the basket. A bunch of English daisies came next; they blossomed so fast one didn't have to pick and choose among them; one could just cut and cut. And oughtn't there to be pansies? "Pansies—that's for thoughts." Those wonderful purple ones with a sprinkling of the yellow—no, yellow would spoil the color scheme of the basket. These white beauties were just the thing. How lovely it all looked, blue and white and pink and purple!
But there wasn't much fragrance. Eye and nose searched hopefully. Heliotrope!—just a spray or two. There, now it was perfect. Anybody would be glad to see a basket like that coming. Only, she did wish some one else were to carry it, or else that she knew the people. It might not be so bad if she knew the people. Why shouldn't Laura or Trudy take it? Elliott walked very slowly up to the house, debating the question. A week ago she wouldn't have debated; she would have said, "Oh, I can't possibly." Or so she thought.
"How beautiful!" said Aunt Jessica's voice from the kitchen window. "You have made an exquisite thing, dear."
Elliott rested the basket on the window ledge and surveyed it proudly. "Isn't it lovely? And I don't think cutting this has hurt the borders a bit."
"I am sure not." Aunt Jessica's busy hands went back to her yellow mixing-bowl. "You know where the Gordons live, don't you?—in the big brick house at the cross-roads."
"Yes," said Elliott, and her feet carried her out of the yard, stopping only long enough to let her get her pink parasol from the hall, and down the hill toward the cross-roads. It was odd about Elliott's feet, when she hadn't quite made up her mind whether or not she would go. Her feet seemed to have no doubt of it.
The pink parasol threw a becoming light on her face, as she knew it would, and the odor of heliotrope rose pleasantly in her nostrils as she walked along. But the basket grew heavy, astonishingly heavy. She wouldn't have believed a culling-basket with a few flowers in it could weigh so much. The farther Elliott walked, the heavier it grew. And she hadn't gone a quarter of the way, either.
A horse's feet coming up rapidly behind her turned the girl's steps to the side of the road. The horse drew abreast and stopped, prancing. "Want a lift?" asked the man in the wagon. He was a big grizzled farmer, a friend of her uncle's.
Elliott nodded, smiling. "Oh, thank you!"
"Purty flowers you've got there."
"Aren't they lovely! Aunt Jessica is sending them to Mrs. Gordon."
"That's right! That's right! Say, just look at them pansies, now! Flowers, they don't do nothin' but grow for that aunt of yours. She don't have to much more 'n look at 'em."
Elliott laughed. "She weeds them, I happen to know. I helped her this afternoon."
"Did you, now! But there's a difference in folks. Take my wife: she plants 'em and plants 'em, but she can't keep none. They up and die on her, sure thing."
Elliott selected a purple pansy. "This looks to me as though it would like to get into your buttonhole, Mr. Blair."
"Sho, now!" He flushed with pleasure, driving slowly as the girl fitted the pansy in place, a bit of heliotrope nestling beside it. "Smells good, don't it? Mother always had heliotrope in her garden. Takes me back to when I was a little shaver."
Elliott's deft fingers were busy with the English daisies.
"Now don't you go and spoil your basket."
"No, indeed! see what a lot there are left. Here is a little nosegay for your wife. And thank you so much for the lift."
He cranked the wheel and she jumped out, waving her hand as he drove on. Queer a man like that should love flowers!
It was only when she was walking up the graveled path to the door of the brick house that she remembered to compose her face into a proper gravity. She felt nervous and ill at ease. But she needn't go in, she reminded herself, just leave the flowers at the door. If only there were a maid, which there probably wasn't! One couldn't count for certain on getting right away from these places where the people themselves met one at the door.
"How do you do?" said a voice, advancing from the right. "What a lovely basket!"
Elliott jumped. She was ready to jump at anything and she had been looking straight ahead without a single glance aside from a non-committal brick front. Now she saw a hammock swung between two trees, a hammock still swaying from the impact of the girl who had just left it.
She was the biggest girl Elliott had ever seen, tall and fat and shapeless and very plain. She was all in white, which made her look bigger, and her skirt was at least three years old. There was a faint trickle of brown spots down the front of it, too, of which the girl seemed utterly unaware.
"You don't have to tell me where those flowers come from," she said. "You are Laura Cameron's cousin, aren't you? Glad to know you."
"Yes," said Elliott, "I am Elliott Cameron. Aunt Jessica sent these to your mother."
The girl's fingers felt cool and firm as they touched Elliott's, the only pleasant impression she had yet gathered.
"They look just like Mrs. Cameron. Sit down while I call Mother. Oh, she's not doing anything special. Mother!"
Elliott, conducted through the house to a wide veranda, sank into a chair, conscious in every nerve of her own slender waistline. What must it feel like to be so big? A minute later she seemed to herself to be engulfed between two mountains of flesh. A woman—more unwieldy, more shapeless, more oppressive even than the girl—waddled across the veranda floor. What she said Elliott really didn't know; afterward phrases of pleasure came back to her vaguely. She distinctly remembered the creaking of the rocking-chair when the woman sat down and her own frightened feeling lest some vital part should give way under the strain.
After a time, to her consciousness, mild blue eyes emerged from the mass of human bulk that fronted her; gray hair crinkled away from a broad white forehead. Then she perceived that Mrs. Gordon was not a very tall woman, not so tall as was her daughter. If anything, that made it worse, thought Elliott. Why, if she fell down, no one could tell which side up she ought to go—except, of course, head side on top. The idea gave her a hysterical desire to giggle. The fact that it would be so dreadful to laugh in this house made the desire almost uncontrollable.
And then the big girl did laugh about something or other, laughed simply and naturally and really pleasantly. Elliott almost jumped again, she was so startled. To her, there was something repulsive in the sight of so much human flesh. At the same time it discouraged her. In the presence of these two she felt insignificant, even while she pitied them. She wished to get away, but instinctive breeding held her in her chair, chatting. She hoped what she said wasn't too inane; she didn't know quite what she did say.
Just then suddenly Harriet Gordon asked a question: "Has your aunt said anything yet about a picnic this summer?"
"I heard her say this afternoon that she felt just like one," said Elliott.
Mother and daughter looked at each other triumphantly. "What did I tell you!" said one. "I thought it was about time," said the other.
"Jessica Cameron always feels like a picnic in midsummer," Mrs. Gordon explained. "After the haying 's done. You tell her my little niece will want to go. Alma has been here three weeks and we haven't been able to do much for her. Do you think you will go, too, Harriet?"
"I'd rather not this time, Mother."
"The Bliss girls will probably go, and Alma knows them pretty well. She won't be lonesome."
"Oh, no," said Elliott, "we will see that she isn't lonely."
"Must you go? Tell Mrs. Cameron we will send our limousine whenever she says the word." On the way back through the house Harriet Gordon paused before the picture of a young man in aviator's uniform. "My brother," she said simply, and there was infinite pride in her voice.
Elliott stumbled down the path to the road. She quite forgot to put up the pink parasol. She carried it closed all the way home. Were they limousine people? You would never have guessed it to look at them. Why, she knew about picnics of that kind!—motor-car, luncheon-kit picnics! But what a shame to be so big! Couldn't they do something about it? Good as gold, of course, and in such terrible sorrow! They weren't unfeeling. The girl's voice when she said, "My brother," proved that. It seemed as though knowing about them ought to make them attractive, but somehow it didn't. If they only understood how to dress, it would help matters. Queer, how nice boys could have such frumpy people! And Ted Gordon had been a perfectly nice boy. The picture proved that. But Aunt Jessica had been right about the flowers. The big woman and the farmer proved that. Altogether Elliott's mind was a queer jumble.
"She said she'd send back the basket to-morrow, Aunt Jessica," she reported. "Said she wanted to sit and look at it for a while just as it was. And Miss Gordon asked me to tell you that whenever you were ready for the picnic you must let her know and she would send around their limousine."
"If that isn't just like Harriet Gordon!" laughed Laura. "She is the wittiest girl! Didn't you like her, Elliott?"
Elliott's eyes opened wide. "What is there witty in saying she would send their limousine?"
Tom snorted. "Wait till you see it!"
"Why, she meant their hay-wagon! We always use the Gordon hay-wagon for this midsummer picnic. That's a custom, too."
Everybody laughed at the expression on Elliott's face.
"Not up on the vernacular, Lot?" gibed Stannard.
"When is the picnic to be, Mother?" asked Laura.
"How about to-morrow?"
"Better make it the day after," Father Bob suggested, and they all fell to discussing whom to ask.
So far as Elliott could see they asked everybody except townspeople. The telephone was kept busy that night and the next morning in the intervals of Mother Jess's and the girls' baking. Elliott helped pack up dozens of turnovers and cookies and sandwiches and bottled quarts of lemonade.
"The lemonade is for the children," said Laura. "The rest of us have coffee. Don't you love the taste of coffee that you make over a fire that you build yourself in the woods?"
"On picnics I have always had my coffee out of a thermos bottle," said Elliott.
"Oh, you poor thing! Why, you haven't had any good times at all, have you?"
Laura looked so shocked that for a minute Elliott actually wondered whether she ever really had had any good times. Privately she wasn't at all sure that she was going to have a good time now, but she kept still about that doubt.
"Aren't you afraid it may rain to-morrow?" she asked.
"No, indeed! It never rains on things Mother plans."
And it didn't. The morning of the picnic dawned clear and dewy and sparkling, as perfect a summer day as though it had been made to the Camerons' order. By nine o'clock the big hay-wagon had appeared, driven by Mr. Gordon himself, who said he was going to turn over the reins to Mr. Cameron when they reached the Gordon farm. Two more horses were hitched on and all the Camerons piled in, with enough boxes and baskets and bags of potatoes, one would think, to feed a small town, and away the hay-wagon went down the hill, stopping at house after house to take in smiling people, with more boxes and baskets and bags.
It was all very care-free and gay, and Elliott smiled and chattered away with the rest; but in her heart of hearts she knew that there wasn't one of these boys and girls who squeezed into the capacious hay-wagon to whom she would have given a second glance, before coming up here to Vermont. Now she wondered whether they were all as negligible as they looked. And pretty soon she forgot that she had ever thought they looked negligible. It was the jolliest crowd she had ever been in. One or two were a bit quiet when they arrived, but soon even the shyest were talking, or at least laughing, in the midst of the happy hubbub. It seemed as though one couldn't have anything but a good time when the Camerons set out to be jolly. Alma Gordon and the little Bliss girls were the last to squeeze in and they rode away waving their hands violently to a short, fat woman and a tall, fat girl, who waved briskly from the brick house's front door.
Then Mr. Cameron turned the horses into a mountain road and they began to climb. Up and up the wagon went with its merry load, through towering woods and open pastures and along hillsides where the woods had been cut and a tangle of underbrush was beginning to spring up among the stumps. And the higher the horses climbed the higher rose the jollity of the hay-wagon's company. The sun was hot overhead when they stopped. There were gray rocks and a tumbling mountain brook and a brown-carpeted pine wood. Everybody jumped out helter-skelter and began unloading the wagon or gathering fire-wood or dipping up water, or simply scampering around for joy of stretching cramped legs.
It was surprising how soon a fire was burning on the gray stones and coffee bubbling in the big pail Mother Jess had brought; surprising, too, how good bacon tasted when you broiled it yourself on a forked stick and potatoes that you smooched your face on by eating them in their skins, black from the hot ashes that the boys poked them out of with green poles. Elliott knew now that she had never really picnicked before in her life and that she liked it. She liked it so much that she ate and ate and ate until she couldn't eat another mouthful.
Perhaps she ate too much, but I doubt it. It is much more likely to have been the climb that she took in the hot sunshine directly after that dinner, and the climb wouldn't have hurt her, if she had ended the dinner without that last potato and the extra turnover and two cookies; or if she had rested a little before the climb. But perhaps, it wasn't either the dinner or the climb; it may have been the pink ice-cream of the evening before; or that time in the celery patch, the previous morning, when she had forgotten her hat and wouldn't go back to the house for it because Henry hadn't a hat on, and why should a girl need a hat more than a boy? Or it may have been all those things put together. She certainly had had a slight headache when she went to bed.
Whatever caused it, the fact was that on the ride home Elliott began to feel very sick. The longer she rode the sicker she felt and the more appalled and ashamed and frightened she grew. What could be going to happen to her? And what awful exhibition was she about to make of herself before all these people to whom she had felt so superior?
Before long people noticed how white she was and by the time the wagon reached the brick house at the cross-roads poor Elliott hardly cared if they did see it. Her pride was crushed by her misery. Mrs. Gordon and Harriet came out to welcome Alma home and they hesitated not a minute.
"Have them bring her right in here, Jessica. No, no, not a mite of trouble! We'll keep her all night. You go right along home, you and Laura. Mercy me, if we can't do a little thing like this for you folks! She'll be all right in the morning."
The words meant nothing to Elliott. She was quite beyond caring where she went, so that it was to a bed, flat and still and unmoving. But even in her distress she was conscious that, whatever came of it, she had had a good time.
A BEE STING
Elliott was wretchedly, miserably ill. She despised herself for it and then she lost even the sensation of self contempt in utter misery. She didn't care about anything—who helped her undress or where the undressing was done or what happened to her. Mercifully nobody talked; it would have killed her, she thought, to have to try to talk. They didn't even ask her how she felt. They only moved about quietly and did things. They put her to bed and gave her something to drink, after which for a time she didn't care if she did die; in fact, she rather hoped she would; and then the disgusting things happened and she felt worse and worse and then—oh wonder!—she began to feel better. Actually, it was sheer bliss just to lie quiet and feel how comfortable she was.
"I am so sorry!" she murmured apologetically to a presence beside the bed. "I have made you a horrid lot of trouble."
"Not a bit," said the presence, quietly. "So don't you begin worrying about that."
And she didn't worry. It seemed impossible to worry about anything just then.
"I feel lots better," she remarked, after a while.
"That's right. I thought you would. Now I'm going to telephone your Aunt Jessica that you feel better, and you just lie quiet and go to sleep. Then you will feel better still. I'll put the bell right here beside the bed. If you want anything, tap it."
The presence waddled away—the girl could feel its going in the tremor of the bed beneath her—and Elliott out of half-shut eyes looked into the room. The shades were partially drawn and the light was dim. A little breeze fluttered the white scrim curtain. The girl's lazy gaze traveled slowly over what she could see without moving her head. To move her head would have been too much trouble. What she saw was spotless and clean and countrified, the kind of room she would have scorned this morning; now she thought it the most peaceful place in the world. But she didn't intend to go to sleep in it. She meant merely to lie wrapped in that delicious mantle of well-being and continue to feel how utterly content she was. It seemed a pity to go to sleep and lose consciousness of a thing like that.
But the first thing she knew she was waking up and the room was quite dark and she felt comfortable, but just the least bit queer. It couldn't be that she was hungry!
She lay and debated the point drowsily until a streak of light fell across the bed. The light came from a kerosene lamp in the hands of an immense woman whose mild blue eyes beamed on Elliott.
"There, you've waked up, haven't you? I guess you'll like a glass of milk now. You can bring it right up, Harriet. She's awake."
The woman set down her lamp on a little table and lumbered about the room, adjusting the shades at the windows, while the lamp threw grotesque exaggerations on the wall. Elliott watched the shadows, a warm little smile at her heart. They were funny, but she found herself tender toward them. When the woman padded back to the bed the girl smiled, her cheek pillowed on her hand. She liked her there beside the bed, her big shapeless form totally obscuring the straight-backed chair. She didn't think of waist lines or clothes at all, only of how comfortable and cushiony and pleasant the large face looked. Mothery—might not that be the word for it? Somehow like Aunt Jessica, yet without the slightest resemblance except in expression, a kind of radiating lovingness that warmed one through and through, and made everything right, no matter how wrong it might have seemed.
"I telephoned your Aunt Jessica," said the big woman. "She was just going to call us, and they all sent their love to you. Here's Harriet with the milk. Do you feel a mite hungry?"
"I think that must be what was the matter with me. I was trying to decide when you came in."
The fat form shook all over with silent laughter. It was fascinating to watch laughter that produced such a cataclysm but made no sound. Elliott forgot to drink in her absorption.
"Mother," said Harriet Gordon, "Elliott thinks you're a three-ringed circus. You mustn't be so exciting till she has finished her milk."
Elliott protested, startled. "I think you are the kindest people in the world, both of you!"
"Mercy, child, anybody would have done the same! Don't you go to setting us up on pedestals for a little thing like that."
The fat girl was smiling. "Make it singular, mother. I have no quarrel with a pedestal for you, though it might be a little awkward to move about on."
Mrs. Gordon shook again with that fascinating laughter. "Mercy me! I'd tip off first thing and then where would we all be?"
Elliott's eyes sought Harriet Gordon's. If she had observed closely she would have seen spots on the white dress, but to-night she was not looking at clothes. She only thought what a kind face the big girl had and how extraordinarily pleasant her voice was and what good friends she and her mother were, just like Laura and Aunt Jessica, only different.
"There!" said Mrs. Gordon. "You drank up every drop, didn't you? You must have been hungry. Now you go right to sleep again and I'll miss my guess if you don't feel real good in the morning."
"Good night," said Harriet from the door. "Did you give Blink her good-night mouthful, Mother?"
"No, I didn't. How I do forget that cat!" said Mrs. Gordon. She turned down the sheet under Elliott's chin, patted it a little, and asked, "Don't you want your pillow turned over?" Then quite naturally she stooped down and kissed the girl. "I guess you're all right now. Good night." And Elliott put both arms around her neck and hugged her, big as she was. "Good night," she said softly.
The next time Elliott woke up it was broad daylight. Her eyes opened on a framed motto, "God is Love," and she had to lie still and think a full minute before she could remember where she was and why she was there at all. Then she smiled at the motto—it wasn't the kind of thing she liked on walls, but to see it there did not make her feel in the least superior this morning—and jumped out of bed. As Mrs. Gordon had prophesied, she felt well, only the least bit wabbly. Probably that was because it was before breakfast—her breakfast. She had a disconcerting fear that it might be long long after other people's breakfasts and for the first time in her life she was distressed at making trouble. Hitherto it had seemed right and normal for people to put themselves out for her.
She dressed as quickly as she could and went down-stairs. Harriet was shelling peas on the big veranda that looked off across the valley to the mountains. There must have been rain in the night, for the world was bathed clean and shining.
"Mother said to let you sleep as long as you would." Harriet stopped the current of apology on Elliott's lips. "Did you have a good night?"
"Splendid! I didn't know a thing from the time your mother went out of the room until half an hour ago."
"Didn't know anything about the thunder-shower?"
"Was there a thunder-shower?"
"A big one. It put our telephone out of commission."
"I didn't hear it," said Elliott.
"It almost pays to be sick, to find out how good it feels to be well, doesn't it? Here's a glass of milk. Drink that while I get your breakfast."
"Can't I do it? I hate to make you more trouble."
"Trouble? Forget that word! We like to have you here. It is good for Mother. Gives her something to think about. Can't you spend the day?"
Now, Elliott wanted to get home at once; she had been longing ever since she woke up to see Mother Jess and Laura and Father Bob and Henry and Bruce and everybody else on the Cameron farm, not omitting Prince and the chickens and the "black and whitey" calf; but she thought rapidly: if it really made things any easier for the Gordons to have her here—
"Why, yes, I can stay if you want me to." It cost her something to say those words, but she said them with a smile.
"Good! I'll telephone Mrs. Cameron that we will bring you home this afternoon. I'll go over to the Blisses' to do it, though maybe their telephone's knocked out, too. The one at our hired man's house isn't working. Here comes Mother with an egg the hen has just laid for your breakfast." "Just a-purpose," said Mrs. Gordon. "It's warm yet and marked 'Elliott Cameron' plain as daylight. Is my hair full of straw, Harriet?"
"It is, straw and cobwebs. Where have you been, Mother? You know you haven't any business in the haymow or crawling under the old carryall. Why don't you let Alma bring in the eggs? She's little and spry."
"Pooh!" said Mrs. Gordon, with one of her silent laughs. "Pooh, pooh! Alma isn't any match for old Whitefoot yet. You'd think that hen laid awake nights thinking up outlandish places to lay her eggs in. Wait till you get to be sixty, Harriet. Then you'll know you can't let folks wait on you. Before that it's all right, but after sixty you've got to do for yourself, if you don't want to grow old.—Two, dearie? I'm going to make you a drop-egg on toast for your breakfast."
"Oh, no, one!" cried Elliott. "I never eat two. And can't I help? I hate to have you get my breakfast."
"Why, yes, you can dish up your oatmeal," calmly cracking a second egg. "'T won't do a mite of harm to have two. Maybe you're hungrier than you think. Now Harriet, the water, and we're all ready. I'll help you finish those peas while she eats."
The woman and the girl shelled peas, their fat fingers fairly flying through the pods, while Elliott devoured both eggs and a bowl of oatmeal and a pitcher of cream and a dish of blueberries and wondered how they could make their fingers move so fast.
"Practice," said Mrs. Gordon in answer to the girl's query. "You do a thing over and over enough times and you get so you can't help doing it fast, if you've got any gumption at all. The quarts of peas I've shelled in my life time would feed an army, I guess."
"Don't you ever get tired?"
"Tired of shelling peas? Land no, I like it! I can sit in here and look at you, or out on the back piazza and watch the mountains, or on the front step and see folks drive by, and I've always got my thoughts." A shadow crossed the placid face. "My thoughts work better when my fingers are busy. I'd hate to just sit and hold my hands. Ted dared me once to try it for an hour. That was the longest hour I ever spent."
Mrs. Gordon had risen to peer through the window after a rapidly receding wagon.
"There!" she said. "There goes that woman from Bayfield I want to sell some of my bees to. She's going down to Blisses' and I'd better walk right over and talk to her, as the telephone won't work. I 'most think one hive is going to swarm this morning, but I guess I'll have time to get back before they come out. Hello, Johnny, how do you do to-day?"
"All right," lisped the small solemn-eyed urchin who had strayed in from the kitchen and now stood in the door hitching at a diminutive pair of trousers and eying Elliott absorbedly. "Gone!" he announced suddenly; coming out of his scrutiny.
"What, your button?" Harriet pulled him up to her. "I'll sew it on in a jiffy. Don't worry about the bees, Mother. I can manage them, if they decide to swarm before you get back, and while you're at the Blisses' just telephone central our phone's out of order—and oh, please tell Mrs. Cameron we're keeping Elliott till afternoon."
Mrs. Gordon departed and Harriet sewed on the button. "There, Johnny, now you're all right. You can run out and play."
But Johnny became suddenly galvanized into action. He dived into a small pocket and produced a note, crumpled and soiled, but still legible.
"If that isn't provoking!" said Harriet, when she had read it. "Why didn't you give me this the first thing, Johnny? Then Mother could have done this telephoning, too, at the Blisses'."
"What is it?" asked Elliott.
"A message Johnny's mother wants sent. She's our hired man's wife and I must say at times she shows about as much brains as a chicken. You'd think she'd know our 'phone wouldn't be likely to work, if hers didn't. Now I shall have to go over to the Blisses' myself, I suppose. The message seems fairly important. Where has your mother gone, Johnny?"
But Johnny didn't know; beyond a vague "she wided away" he was non-committal.
"She might have stopped somewhere and telephoned for herself, I should think," grumbled Harriet. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Or will you come, too? If I can't 'phone from the Blisses' I may have to go farther."
"I'll stay here, I think, and wash up my dishes. And after that I'll finish the peas."
"Mercy me, I shan't be gone that long! We're shelling these to put up, you know. Don't bother about washing your dishes, either. They'll keep."
"Who's saying bother, now?" Elliott's dimples twinkled mischievously.
Harriet laughed. "You and Johnny can mind the place. The men and Alma are all off at the lower farm and here goes the last woman. Good-by."
Elliott went briskly about her program. She found soap and a pan and rinsed her dishes under the hot-water faucet. Then she sat down to the peas. Johnny, who had followed her about for a while, deserted her for pressing affairs of his own out-of-doors. Elliott pinched the pods as scientifically as she knew how and wondered whether, if she should shell peas all her life, her slender fingers would ever acquire the lightning nimbleness of the Gordons' fat ones. How long Harriet was gone!
She was thinking about this when she heard something that made her first stop her work to listen and then jump up hurriedly, spilling the peas out of her lap. The wailing of a terrified child was coming nearer and nearer. Elliott set down the peas that were left and ran out on the veranda. There was Johnny stumbling up the path, crying at the top of his lungs.
"Why, Johnny!" She ran toward him. "Why, Johnny, what is the matter?"
Johnny precipitated himself into her arms in a torrent of tears. Not a word was distinguishable, but his wails pierced the girl's ear-drums.
"Johnny! Johnny, stop it! Tell me where you're hurt."
But Johnny only sobbed the harder. He couldn't be in danger of death—could he?—when he screamed so. That showed his lungs were all right, and his legs worked, too, and his arms. They were digging into her now, with a force that almost upset her equilibrium. Could something be wrong inside of him?
"What's the matter, Johnny? Stop crying and tell me."
Johnny's yells slackened for want of breath. He held up one brown little hand. She inspected it. Dirty, of course, unspeakably, but otherwise—Oh, there was a bunch on one knuckle, a bunch that was swelling. "Is that where it hurts you, Johnny?"
Johnny nodded, gulping.
"Did something sting you?"
"Bee stung Johnny. Naughty bee!"
The girl stared at the small grimy hand in consternation. A bee sting! What did you do for a bee sting or any kind of a sting for that matter? Mosquitoes—hamamelis. And where did the Gordons keep their hamamelis bottle?
Johnny's screams, abated in expectation of relief, began to rise once more. He was angry. Why didn't she do something? This delay was unendurable. His voice mounted in a long, piercing wail.
"Don't cry," the girl said nervously. "Don't cry. Let's go into the house and find something."
Up-stairs and down she trailed the shrieking child. At the Cameron farm there were two hamamelis bottles, one in the bath-room, the other on a shelf in the kitchen. But nothing rewarded her search here. If only some one were at home! If only the telephone weren't out of order! Desperately she took down the receiver, to be greeted by a faint, continuous buzzing. There was nothing for it; she must leave Johnny and run to a neighbor's. But Johnny refused to be left. He clung to her and kicked and screamed for pain and the terror of finding his secure baby world falling to pieces about his ears.
"It's a shame, Johnny. I ought to know what to do, but I don't. You come too, then."
But Johnny refused to budge. He threw himself on his back on the veranda and beat the floor with his heels and wailed long heart-piercing wails that trembled into sobbing silence, only to begin all over with fresh vigor. Elliott was at her wits' end. She didn't dare go away and leave him; she was afraid he might kill himself crying. But mightn't he do so if she stayed? He pushed her away when she tried to comfort him. There was only one thing that he wanted; he would have none of her, if she didn't give it to him.
Never in her life had Elliott Cameron felt so insignificant, so helpless and futile, as she did at that minute. "Oh, you poor baby!" she cried, and hated herself for her ignorance. Laura would have known what to do; Harriet Gordon would have known. Would nobody ever come?
"What's the matter with him?" The question barked out, brusque and sharp, but never had a voice sounded more welcome in Elliott Cameron's ears. She turned around in joyful relief to encounter a pair of gimlet-like black eyes in the face of an old woman. She was an ugly little old woman in a battered straw hat and a shabby old jacket, though the day was warm, and a faded print skirt that was draggled with mud at the hem. Her hair strayed untidily about her face and unfathomable scorn looked out of her snapping black eyes.
"It's a—a bee sting," stammered the girl, shrinking under the scorn.
"Hee-hee-hee!" The old woman's laughter was cracked and high. "What kind of a lummux are you? Don't know what to do for a bee sting! Hee-hee! Mud, you gawk you, mud!"
She bent down and slapped up a handful of wet soil from the edge of the fern bed below the veranda. "Put that on him," she said and went away giggling a girl's shrill giggle and muttering between her giggles: "Don't know what to do for a bee sting. Hee-hee!"
For a whole minute after the queer old woman had gone Elliott stood there, staring down at the spatter of mud on the steps, dismay and wrath in her heart. Then, because she didn't know anything else to do and because Johnny's screams had redoubled, she stooped, and with gingerly care picked up the lump of black mud and went over to the boy. Mud couldn't hurt him, she thought, put on outside; it certainly couldn't hurt him, but could it help?
She sat down on the floor and lifted the little swollen fist and held the cool mud on it, neither noticing nor caring that some trickled down on her own skirt. She sat there a long time, or so it seemed, while Johnny's yells sank to long-drawn sobs and then ceased altogether as he snuggled forgivingly against her arm. And in her heart was a great shame and an aching feeling of inadequacy and failure. Elliott Cameron had never known so bitter a five minutes. All her pride and self-sufficiency were gone. What was she good for in a practical emergency? Just nothing at all. She didn't know even the commonest things, not the commonest.
"It must have been Witless Sue," said Aunt Jessica, late that afternoon, when Elliott told her the story. "She is a half-witted old soul who wanders about digging herbs in summer and lives on the town farm in winter. There's no harm in her."
"Half-witted!" said Elliott. "She knew more than I did."
"You have not had the opportunity to learn."
"That didn't make it any better for Johnny. Laura knows all those things, doesn't she? And Trudy, too?"
"I think they know what to do in the simpler emergencies of life."
"I wish I did. I took a first-aid course, but it didn't have stings in it, not as far as we'd gone when I came away. We were taught bandaging and using splints and things like that."
"Very useful knowledge."
"But Johnny got stung," said Elliott, as though nothing mattered beyond that fact. "Do you think you could teach me things, now and then, Aunt Jessica? the things Laura and Trudy know?"
"Surely," said Aunt Jessica, "and very gladly. There are things that you could teach Laura and Trudy, too. Don't forget that entirely."
"Could I? Useful things?" She asked the question with humility.
"Very useful things in certain kinds of emergency. What did Mrs. Gordon do for Johnny when she got home?"
"Oh, she washed his hand and soaked it in strong soda and water, baking-soda, and then she bound some soda right on, for good measure, she said."
"There!" said Aunt Jessica. "Now you know two things to do for a bee sting."
Elliott opened her eyes wide. "Why, so I do, don't I? I truly do."
"That's the way people learn," said Mother Jess, "by emergencies. It is the only way they are sure to remember. Laura is helping Henry milk. Suppose you make us some biscuit for supper, Elliott."
Elliott started to say, "I've never made biscuit," but shut her lips tight before the words slipped out.
"I will tell you the rule. You'd better double it for our family. Everything is plainly marked in the pantry. Perhaps the fire needs another stick before you begin."
Carefully the girl selected a stick from the wood-box. "Just let me get my apron, Aunt Jessica," she said.
ELLIOTT ACTS ON AN IDEA
Six weeks later a girl was busy in the sunny white kitchen of the Cameron farm. The girl wore a big blue apron that covered her gown completely from neck to hem, and she hummed a little song as she moved from sink to range and range to table. There was about her a delicate air of importance, almost of elation. You know as well as I where Elliott Cameron ought to have been by this time. Six weeks plus how many other weeks was it since she left home? The quarantine must have been lifted from her Uncle James's house for at least a month. But the girl in the kitchen looked surprisingly like Elliott Cameron. If it wasn't she, it must have been her twin, and I have never heard that Elliott had a twin.
Though she was all alone in the kitchen—washing potatoes, too—she didn't appear in the least unhappy. She went over to the stove, lifted a lid, glanced in, and added two or three sticks of wood to the fire. Then she brought out a pan of apples and went down cellar after a roll of pie crust. Some one else may have made that pie crust. Elliott took it into the pantry, turned the board on the flour barrel, shook flour evenly over it from the sifter, and, cutting off one end of the pie crust, began to roll it out thin on the board. She arranged the lower crust on three pie-plates, and, going into the kitchen again, began to peel the apples and cut them up into the pies. Perhaps she wasn't so quick about it as Laura might have been, but she did very well. The skin fell from her knife in long, thin, curly strips. After that she finished the pies off in the pantry and tucked all three into the oven. Squatting on her feet in front of the door, she studied the dial intently for a moment and hesitatingly pushed the draft just a crack open. If it hadn't been for that momentary indecision, you might have thought that she had been baking pies all her life. Then she began to peel the potatoes.
So it was that Stannard found her. "Hello!" he said, with a grin. "Busy?"
"Indeed, I am! I'm getting dinner all by myself."
He went through a pantomime of dodging a blow. "Whew-ee! Guess I'll take to the woods."
"Better not. If you do, you will miss a good dinner. Mother Jess said I might try it. Boiled potatoes and baked fish—she showed me how to fix that—and corn and things. There's one other dish on my menu that I'm not going to tell you." And all her dimples came into play.
"H'm!" said Stannard, "we feel pretty smart, don't we? Well, maybe I'll stay and see how it pans out. A fellow can always tighten his belt, you know."
"Aren't you horrid!" She made up a face at him, a captivating little grimace that wrinkled her nose and set imps of mischief dancing in her eyes.
Stannard watched her as with firm motions she stripped the husks from the corn, picking off the clinging strands of silk daintily.
"Gee, Elliott!" he exclaimed. "Do you know, you're prettier than ever!"
She dropped him a courtesy. "I must be, with a smooch of flour on my nose and my hair every which way."
He grinned. "That's a story. Your hair looks as though Madame What-'s-her-name, that you and Mater and the girls go to so much, had just got through with you. I've never seen you when you didn't look as though you had come out of a bandbox."
"Haven't you? Think again, Stan, think again! What about your Cousin Elliott in a corn-field?"
Stannard slapped his thigh. "That's so, too! I forgot that. But your hair's all to the good, even then."
"Stan," warned Elliott, "you'd better be careful. You will get in too deep to wade out, if you don't watch your step. What are you getting at, anyway? Why all these compliments?"
"Compliments! A fellow doesn't have to praise up his cousin, does he? It just struck me, all of a sudden, that you look pretty fit."
"Thanks. I'm feeling as fit as I look. Out with it, Stan; what do you want?"
"Why, nothing," said Stannard, "nothing at all. Shall I take out those husks, Lot?"
"Delighted. The pigs eat 'em." Her eyes held a quizzical light. "If you're trying to rattle me so I shall forget something and spoil my dinner, you can't do it."
"What do you take me for?" He departed with the husks, deeply indignant.
In five minutes he was back. "When are you going home?"
"I don't know. Not just yet. Your mother has too many house parties."
"That won't make any difference."
"Oh, yes, it does! Her house is full all the time."
"Shucks! Have you asked her if there's a room ready for you?"
"Indeed I haven't! I wouldn't think of imposing on a busy hostess."
"I might say something about it," he suggested slyly.
"You will do nothing of the kind."
"Oh, I don't know! I'm going home myself day after to-morrow."
Hastily Elliott set down the kettle she had lifted. "Are you? That's nice. I mean, we shall miss you, but of course you have to go some time, I suppose."
"It won't be any trouble at all to speak to Mother."
"Stannard," and the color burned in her cheeks, "will you please stop fiddling around this kitchen? It makes me nervous to see you. I nearly burned myself in the steam of that kettle and I'm liable to drop something on you any time."
"Oh, all right! I'll get out. Fiddling is a new verb with you, isn't it?"
"Yes, I picked it up. Very expressive, I think."
"Sounds like the natives."
"Sounds pretty well, then. Did I hear you say you had an errand somewhere?"
"No, you didn't. You merely heard me say that finding myself de trop in my fair cousin's company, I'd get out of range of her big guns. Never expected to rattle you, Lot."
"I'm not rattled."
"No? Pretty good imitation, then. Oh, I'm going! Mother's ready for you all right, though; says so in this letter. Here, I'll stick it in your apron pocket. Better come along with me, day after to-morrow. What say?"
"I'll see," said Elliott, briefly.
He grinned teasingly, "Ta-ta," and went off, leaving turmoil behind him.
The minute Stannard was out of the door Elliott did a strange thing. Reaching with wet pink thumb and forefinger into the depths of the blue apron pocket, she extracted the letter and hurled it across the kitchen into a corner.
"There!" she cried disdainfully, "you go over there and stay a while, horrid old letter! I'm not going to let you spoil my perfectly good time getting dinner."
But it was spoiled: no mere words could alter the fact. Try as she would to put the letter out of her mind and think only of how to do a dozen things at once one quarter as quickly and skilfully as Laura and Aunt Jessica did them, which is what the apparently simple process of dishing up a dinner means, the fine thrill of the enterprise was gone. Laura came in to help her and Elliott's tongue tripped briskly through a deal of chatter, but all the while underneath there was a little undercurrent of uneasiness and anxiety. Wouldn't you have thought it would delight her to have the opportunity of doing what she had so much wished to do?
"What's this?" Laura asked, spying the white envelop on the floor; "a letter?"
"Oh, yes," said Elliott, "one I dropped," and she tucked it into the pocket of the white skirt that had been all the time under the blue apron, giving it a vindictive little slap as she did so. Which, of course, was quite uncalled for, as if any one was responsible for what was in the letter, that person was Elliott Cameron. The fact that she knew this very well only added a little extra vigor to the slap.
And all through dinner she sat and laughed and chattered away, exactly as though she weren't conscious in every nerve of the letter in her pocket, despite the fact that she didn't know a word it said. But she didn't eat much: the taste of food seemed to choke her. Her gaze wandered from Mother Jess to Father Bob and back, around the circle of eager, happy, alert faces. And she felt—poor Elliott!—as though her first discontent were a boomerang now returned to stab her.
"This is Elliott's dinner, I would have you all know," announced Laura when the pie was served. "She did it all herself."
"Not every bit," said Elliott, honestly; but her disclaimer was lost in the chorus of praise.
Father Bob laid down his fork, looking pleased. "Did you, indeed? Now, this is what I call a well-cooked dinner."
"I'll give you a recommend for a cook," drawled Stannard, "and eat my words about tightening my belt, too."
"Some dinner!" Bruce commented.
"Please, I'd like another piece," said Priscilla.
"Me, too," chimed in Tom. "It's corking."
Laura clapped her hands. "Listen, Elliott, listen! Could praise go further?"
But Mother Jess, when they rose from the table, slipped an arm through Elliott's and drew her toward the veranda. "Did the cook lose her appetite getting dinner, little girl?"
"Oh, no, indeed, Aunt Jessica! Getting dinner didn't tire me a bit. I just loved it. I—I didn't seem to feel hungry this noon, that was all."
Mother Jess patted her arm. "Well, run away now, dear. You are not to give a thought to the dishes. We will see to them."
At that minute Elliott almost told her about the letter in her pocket, that lay like a lump of lead on her heart. But Henry appeared just then in the doorway and the moment passed.
"Run away, dear," repeated Aunt Jessica, and gave the girl a little push and another little pat. "Run away and get rested."
Slowly Elliott went down the steps and along the path that led to the flower borders and the apple trees. She wasn't really conscious of the way she was going; her feet took charge of her and carried her body along while her mind was busy. When she came out among a few big trees with a welter of piled-up crests on every side, she was really astonished.
"Why!" she cried; "why, here I am on the top of the hill!"
A low, flat rock invited her and she sat down. It was queer how different everything seemed up here. What looked large from below had dwindled amazingly. It took, she decided, a pretty big thing to look big on a hilltop.
She drew Aunt Margaret's letter out of her pocket and read it. It was very nice, but somehow had no tug to it. Phrases from a similar letter of Aunt Jessica's returned to the girl's mind. How stupid she had been not to appreciate that letter!—stupid and incredibly silly.
But hadn't she felt something else in her pocket just now? Conscience pricked when she saw Elizabeth Royce's handwriting. The seal had not been broken, though the letter had come yesterday. She remembered now. They were putting up corn and she had tucked it into her pocket for later reading and then had forgotten it completely. Luckily, Bess need never know that. But what would Bess have said to see her friend Elliott, corn to the right of her, corn to the left of her, cobs piled high in the summer kitchen?
Bess's staccato sentences furnished a sufficiently emphatic clue. "You poor, abused dear! Whenever are you coming home? If I had an aeroplane I'd fly up and carry you off. You must be nearly crazy! Those letters you wrote were the most TRAGIC things! I shouldn't have been a bit surprised any time to hear you were sick. Are you sick? Perhaps that's why you don't write or come home. Wire me the minute you get this. Oh, Elliott darling, when I think of you marooned in that awful place—"
There was more of it. As Elliott read, she did a strange thing. She began to laugh. But even while she laughed she blushed, too. Had she sounded as desperate as all that? How far away such tragedies seemed now! Suppose she should write, "Dear Bess, I like it up here and I am going to stay my year out." Bess would think her crazy; so would all the girls, and Aunt Margaret, too.
And then suddenly an arresting idea came into her head. What difference would it make if they did think her crazy? Elliott Cameron had never had such an idea before; all her life she had in a perfectly nice way thought a great deal about what people thought of her. This idea was so strange it set her gasping. "But how they would talk about me!" she said. And then her brain clicked back, exactly like another person speaking, "What if they did? That wouldn't really make you crazy, would it?" "Why, no, I suppose it wouldn't," she thought. "And most likely they'd be all talked out by the time I got back, too. But even if they weren't, any one would be crazy to think it was crazy to want to stay up here at Uncle Bob's and Aunt Jessica's. Even Stannard has stayed weeks longer than he needed to!"
When she thought of that she opened her eyes wide for a minute. "Oho!" she said to herself; "I guess Stan did get a rise out of me! You were easy game that time, Elliott Cameron."
She sat on her mossy stone a long time. There wasn't anything in the world, was there, to stand in the way of her staying her year out, the year she had been invited for, except her own silly pride? What a little goose she had been! She sat and smiled at the mountains and felt very happy and fresh and clean-minded, as though her brain had finished a kind of house-cleaning and were now put to rights again, airy and sweet and ready for use.
The postman's wagon flashed by on the road below. She could see the faded gray of the man's coat. He had been to the house and was townward bound now. How late he was! Nothing to hurry down for. There would be a letter, perhaps, but not one from Father. His had come yesterday. She rose after a while and drifted down through the still September warmth, as quiet and lazy and contented as a leaf.
Priscilla's small excited face met her at the door.
"Sidney's sick; we just got the letter. Mother's going to camp to-morrow."
"Sidney sick! Who wrote? What's the matter?"
"He did. He's not much sick, but he doesn't feel just right. He's in the hospital. I guess he can't be much sick, if he wrote, himself. Mother wasn't to come, he said, but she's going."
"Of course." Nervous fear clutched Elliott's throat, like an icy hand. Oh, poor Aunt Jessica! Poor Laura!
"Where are they?" she asked.
"In Mumsie's room," said Priscilla. "We're all helping."
Elliott mounted the stairs. She had to force her feet along, for they wished, more than anything else, to run away. What should she say? She tried to think of words. As it turned out, she didn't have to say anything.
Laura was the only person in Aunt Jessica's room when they reached it. She sat in a low chair by a window, mending a gray blouse.
"Elliott's come to help, too," announced Priscilla.
"That's good," said Laura. "You can put a fresh collar and cuffs in this gray waist of Mother's, Elliott—I'll have it done in a minute—while I go set the crab-apple jelly to drip. And perhaps you can mend this little tear in her skirt. Then I'll press the suit. There isn't anything very tremendous to do."
It was all so matter-of-fact and quiet and natural that Elliott didn't know what to make of it. She managed to gasp, "I hope Sidney isn't very sick."
"He thinks not," said Laura, "but of course Mother wants to see for herself. She is telephoning Mrs. Blair now about the Ladies' Aid. They were to have met here this week. Mother thinks perhaps she can arrange an exchange of dates, though I tell her if Sid's as he says he is, they might just as well come."
Elliott, who had been all ready to put her arms around Laura's neck and kiss and comfort her, felt the least little bit taken aback. It seemed that no comfort was needed. But it was a relief, too. Laura couldn't sit there, so cool and calm and natural-looking, sewing and talking about crab-apple juice and Ladies' Aid, if there were anything radically wrong.
Then Aunt Jessica came into the room and said that Mrs. Blair would like the Ladies' Aid, herself, that week; she had been wishing she could have them; and didn't Elliott feel the need of something to eat to supplement her scanty dinner?
That put to rout the girl's last fears. She smiled quite naturally and said without any stricture in her throat: "Honestly, I'm not hungry. And I am going to put a clean collar in your blouse."
"What should I do without my girls!" smiled Mother Jess.
It was after supper that the telegram came, but even then there was no panic. These Camerons didn't do any of the things Elliott had once or twice seen people do in her Aunt Margaret's household. No one ran around futilely, doing nothing; no one had hysterics; no one even cried.
Mother Jess's face went very white when Father Bob came back from the telephone and said, "Sidney isn't so well."
"Have they sent for us?"
He nodded. "You'd better take the sleeper. The eighty-thirty from Upton will make it."
"Not with things the way they are here."
Then they all scattered, to do the things that had to be done. Elliott was helping Laura pack the suit-case when she had her idea. It really was a wonderful idea for a girl who had never in her life put herself out for any one else. Like a flash the first part of it came to her, without thought of a sequel; and the words were out of her mouth almost before she was aware she had thought them.
"You ought to go, Laura!" she cried. "Sidney is your twin."
"I'd like to go." Something in the guarded tone, something deep and intense and controlled, struck Elliott to consternation. If Laura felt that way about it!
"Why don't you, Laura? Can't you possibly?"
The other shook her head. "Mother is the one to go. If we both went, who would keep house here?"
For a fraction of a second Elliott hesitated. "I would."
The words once spoken, fairly swept her out of herself. All her little prudences and selfishnesses and self-distrusts went overboard together. Her cheeks flamed. She dropped the brush and comb she was packing and dashed out of the room.
A group of people stood in the kitchen. Without stopping to think, Elliott ran up to them.
"Can't Laura go?" she cried eagerly. "It will be so much more comfortable to be two than one. And she is Sidney's twin. I don't know a great deal, but people will help me, and I got dinner this noon. Oh, she must go! Don't you see that she must go?"
Father Bob looked at the girl for a minute in silence. Then he spoke: "Well, I guess you're right. I will look after the chickens."
"I'll mix their feed," said Gertrude; "I know just how Laura does it—and I'll do the dishes."
"I'll get breakfasts," said Bruce.
"I'll make the butter," said Tom. "I've watched Mother times enough. And helped her, too."
"I'll see to Prince and the kitty," chimed in Priscilla, "and do, oh, lots of things!"
"I'll be responsible for the milk," said Henry.
"I'll keep house," said Elliott, "if you leave me anything to do."
"And I'll help you," said Harriet Gordon.
It was really settled in that minute, though Father Bob and Mother Jess talked it over again by themselves.
"Are you sure, dear, you want to do this?" Mother Jess asked Elliott.
"Perfectly sure," the girl answered. She felt excited and confident, as though she could do anything.
"It won't be easy."
"I know that. But please let me try."
"And there are the Gordons," said Mother Jess, half to herself.
"Yes," echoed Elliott, "there are the Gordons."
When the little car ran up to the door to take the two over to Upton and Mother Jess and Laura were saying good-by, Laura strained Elliott tight. "I'll love you forever for this," she whispered.
Then they were off and with them seemed to have gone something indispensable to the well-being of the people who lived in the white house at the end of the road. Elliott, watching the car vanish around a turn in the road, hugged Laura's words tight to her heart. It was the only way to keep her knees from wabbling at the thought of what was before her.
WHAT'S IN A DRESS?
Of course Elliott never could have done it without the Gordons. Elliott and Harriet made the crab-apple juice into jelly, Mrs. Gordon sent in bread and cookies, and both mother and daughter stood behind the girl with their skill and experience, ready to be called on at a moment's notice.
"Just send for us any time you get into trouble or want help about something," said Mrs. Gordon over the telephone. "One of us will come right up. Most likely it will be Harriet. I'm so cumbersome, I can't get about as I'd like to. Large bodies move slowly, you know."
Other people besides the Gordons sent in things to eat. Elliott thought she had never known such a stream of generosity as set toward the white house at the end of the road—intelligent generosity, too. There seemed a definite plan and some consultation behind it. Mr. Blair brought a roast of beef already cooked, from Mrs. Blair, and hoped for both of them that there would soon be good news of the boy. The Blisses sent in pies enough for two days and asked Elliott to let them know when she was ready for more. People she knew and people she didn't know brought rolls and cookies and doughnuts and gelatines and even roast chickens, and asked, with real anxiety in their voices, for the latest news from Camp Devens.
They didn't bring their offerings all at once; they brought them continuously and steadily and with truly remarkable appropriateness. Just when Elliott was thinking that she must begin to cook, something was sure to rattle up to the door in a wagon, or roll up in an automobile, or travel on foot in a basket. It was the extreme timeliness of the gifts that proved the guiding intelligence behind them.
"They couldn't all happen so," was Henry's conclusion. "Now, could they? Gee! and I've thought some of those folks were pokes!"
"So have I," said Elliott, feeling very much ashamed of her hasty judgments.
"You never know till you get into trouble how good people are," was Father Bob's verdict.
Gertrude fingered a doughnut ruefully. "I want it, but I'm almost ashamed to eat it. I've thought such horrid things of that old Mrs. Gadsby that made 'em."
"They're good," said Tom. "Mrs. Gadsby knows how to make doughnuts, if she has got a tongue in her head! Say, but I'd as soon have thought old Allen would send us doughnuts as the Gadsby."
"Mr. Allen brought us a tongue this morning," Elliott remarked; "said his housekeeper boiled it; hoped it wasn't too tough to eat. You couldn't 'git nothin' good, these days!'"
"Enoch Allen?" demanded Henry; "the old fellow that lives at the foot of the hill? Go tell that to the marines!"
"I don't know where he lives," said Elliott, "but he certainly said his name was Enoch Allen."
Bruce chuckled. "Mother Jess's chickens have come home to roost, all right."
"What did she ever do for Enoch Allen?" asked Tom.
"Oh, don't you remember," cried Gertrude, "the time his old dog died? Mother found the dog one day, dying in the woods. I was along and she sent me to call Mr. Allen, while she stayed with the dog. I was just a little girl and kind of scared, but Mother said Mr. Allen wasn't anybody to be afraid of; he was just a lonely old man. I heard him tell her it wasn't every woman would have stayed with his dog. It was dead when he got there."
But even with competent advisers within call and all the aids that came in the shape of "Mother Jess's chickens," and with the best family in the world all eagerness to be helpful and to "carry on" during Laura and Mother Jess's absence, Elliott found that housekeeping wasn't half so simple as it looked.