"And I have been crazy enough to rent a cottage in the Adirondacks!"
Nannie looked at him solemnly and said:
"I'll let it stand idle! Hilda might die up there! I never thought of such a thing, she looks so well. And I might be taken worse," he gasped as one who suddenly realized a still more awful possibility. "It would never do for us to go up there."
Nannie looked still more solemn and said:
By this time they had reached the house, and Mr. Seymour was tiptoeing about, getting out one remedy after another for his prostrate wife, who feebly assured him she was better. By the time he had given her smelling salts, a little port, a whiff of ammonia, some soda and water, a smell of camphor, and had bathed her forehead in Florida water, alcohol, witch-hazel, and rubbed it with camphor ice and a menthol pencil, the case began to look really serious, and Hilda was honestly ill.
She lay on the divan, perspiring and uncomfortable, uneasy in conscience and timorous as to results, until near evening, when her husband, with many a misgiving, took her away in a carriage—not to the Adirondacks.
Nannie watched until they were out of sight, and when she turned she saw Steve coming, and in her swift way contrasted him with DeLancy Seymour.
That evening after dinner, without a word of explanation to her husband, Nannie walked off to the house of her cousin, Mr. Misfit. Now, Steve was by this time somewhat accustomed to her eccentric ways and seldom questioned them, nor did he realize that they were eccentric. He had grown up knowing very little of women and regarding them as a peculiar class, which no doubt they are. Indeed, his rural experiences, not only with his wife, but also with the hens and with Sarah Maria, had tended toward the inclusion of the entire sex under the head incomprehensible, and he was inclined to treat them like difficult words, which we point at from a distance without attempting to grapple.
He might have maintained this let-alone attitude indefinitely but for a growing sense of the total depravity of vegetable sins and a realization of his miserable insufficiency as a combatant. Naturally, in looking about him for assistance he thought of her who should be his help-meet, and mentally began to question her continual absence from home. This evening he was feeling a little more tired than usual, and an ill-selected luncheon in town had depressed him. When he found that the weeds were likely to overpower him he arose and decided that Nannie must be called upon. She was not at home, but he could fetch her. To be sure that might not be easy, but Steve was now fully roused. Prolonged warfare had developed in his nature a trace of pugilism hitherto unsuspected by his nearest friend. Every man has more or less of the warrior within him. It may be asleep, but it is there, and Steve was no exception.
A short walk brought him to the house of Nannie's cousin, and there he found the lady for whom he was seeking.
"Are you going home now, Nannie?" he asked in his usual gentle way.
Nannie looked into his face and saw something new, and it roused her opposition.
"No," she said.
Now, Steve had read Ian Maclaren's story of the wretched beadle who, newly inflated, but not profited, by his lonely wedding journey to a Presbyterian synod, resolved to experiment in the exercise of authority upon his bride. But, alas! he had read to his destruction. He remembered with what majesty the beadle said:
"Rebecca, close the door."
But he did not remember what Rebecca did, and hence had no better sense than to say this evening, with a quiet firmness new to his domestic use:
"I should like to have you go home now, Nannie. There are matters that need your attention."
Nannie rose at once and walked home without a word, Steve accompanying her. By the time they got there a young moon was sinking in the west, and with the curiosity common to extreme youth it strained its eyes to see through the trees what Nannie would do.
"The radishes and lettuce need weeding," said Steve when they reached the garden, and Nannie walked directly to these beds and went to work, while Steve occupied himself at a little distance.
Before long old Hayseed came up and leaned upon the fence.
"Well, neighbor," he said, "what are ye doin' by moonlight?"
Nannie stood erect and looked at him. Her black eyes fairly scintillated and her lips were compressed. All around her were scattered the uprooted weeds, and the lettuce and radishes lay with them.
"What crop air ye raisin' now?" he asked.
"I'm raising Cain!" she said.
Spite is a whip that cracks at both ends, and the rear lash inflicts by far the sharper sting. Nannie felt its full force when she arose early the next morning after the sowing of her peculiar crop, and looking from the window saw the sad traces of her work lying upon the ground. The evening before she had walked into the house tingling with ignoble triumph, but this morning she felt nothing but shame as she speculated on Steve's attitude. Possibly—this flashed across her mind—Steve had not seen her work, and she might plant those wretched things again before he wakened. But this poor solace was denied her, for on peeping into Steve's room she saw that he was already up. Where was he? Not working in the garden as usual; off—somewhere.
In her ignorance of character such as his and in the newness of her emotions, for Nannie was not used to contribution, she exaggerated matters and fancied that Steve, thoroughly disgusted with her conduct (as well he might be), had walked off and left her. The sharpness of her terror as she conceived such a possibility took even herself by surprise. Until this moment it had never entered her mind that she might love her husband. Even now she did not fully comprehend the meaning of her unusual emotion. She only knew that she felt shame-stricken over what she had done and terrified before possible consequences.
Her fears, however, were without substantial foundation. Steve had not as yet seen the uprooted garden, and consequently was still ignorant of her ill-humor. Long confinement to a work for which he was unfitted had worn upon him, and he felt the need of rest and change. As of old, in his weariness he looked to the woods and streams for refreshment, for although poorly adapted to the wringing of his daily bread from the soil, he was nevertheless exquisitely keyed to the harmonies of Nature, and her touch upon his soul was life.
It had been long since he had taken an early morning tramp. In the city his midnight retirement forbade the snapping of his hours of rest at dawn, but now that his life was ordered somewhat differently, he could afford himself the luxury of a sunrise.
With this plan in mind he retired early after setting the hand of his clock at the hour of four.
The alarm went off with a furious bur-r-r that brought him on his feet through sheer astonishment. He had not been wakened in such summary fashion since his last hunting trip, years and years ago. After staring at the still whirring clock for a moment as he sat on the edge of his bed stupid with astonishment, he collected himself and began a hasty toilet. He experienced something of a boy's glee as he donned his clothes, and when he crept softly downstairs and unbarred the house door, he seemed to be reviving some of his boyish escapades.
It was not difficult to reach the woods, for the little suburb was embraced by these primitive arms, and it was like a child's running to a waiting mother to go out to them. He took no road or given path for a time, merely tramping through the underbrush that tangled the woodland; along the edges of ravines; down into their shadowy depths; up again; now breaking through the bramble out into the open on the edge of the bluff that skirts the lake; then bounding back again, like a rabbit running to covert. He inhaled with delight the dampness that rose from the ground and from the vegetation about him. In the spring, and in the early summer there is something so hopeful, so suggestive of awakening life in that fragrant moisture, that it seems to call forth an answering energy. Steve felt its significance in full force, and fairly thrilled with delight as it permeated his being.
Now he was out again, following the sweep of the bluff and looking eastward over the big waters. Some days the sun appeared there in regal splendor, but on this particular morning there was a delicacy about the picture suggestive of the careful work on one of Turner's loveliest. There was no gorgeous red, no blazing gold, but tints as exquisite as those seen in the heart of an abalone shell—still lakes of sea-green feathered about by a fleecy white just touched with the yellow of the daisy; lambent wings of gray, kissed into a roseate hue as they spread outward and upward toward the zenith; and the expectant waters on the lake trembling 'neath their answering pink.
Steve stood and faced it all, hat in hand. His locks were stirred by the slight fresh breeze that came over the lake, and something else was stirred within him. There was a fine look on his face. The physical had disappeared. He no longer felt that strong animal buoyancy akin to the strength of the wild horse as he courses the prairies, but his soul was answering "Here" to the call from the skies.
He turned by-and-by and walked onward in a still mood—the receptive mood into which God sows rare seed. He was walking away from the sunrise now out toward the Skokie, that great bog, but he could see the west flushing with delight—could see the windows of a cottage far ahead blazing with reflected glory.
He reached the cottage ere long. There were no signs of life about it as yet.
"I'm the first man up," Steve thought, smiling as he went on.
The little home put the finishing touch to the picture, and Steve looked at it so long and so intently that he might have been accused of rudeness had the occupants seen him. His thoughts, however, were anything but rude, for a home had always been sacred to him. Had he acted at the bidding of his fine instinct, he would have raised his hat and stood uncovered in its presence. Since his marriage a home had taken on a deeper meaning. Without losing a jot of its sacredness, it had come to stand for something of pain. On his walk that morning he had noted many things with new eyes—the flowers gladdening the face of nature; the trees rearing their proud heads and standing each in his own place—each doing his own work; the birds trilling their songs of praise and stirring in the soul those holy aspirations whose feet scarce touch the earth and whose face is set toward heaven—all these doing the Father's work and answering with the quick response of perfect obedience, perfect sympathy to the divine will. Viewing them now with a soul made receptive by the tender sadness of real life, Steve asked himself over and over again, Am I fulfilling the divine mission?
When he reached home his face wore a thoughtful look, and the question of the morning lay deep within his eyes as he walked into the garden and came upon Nannie's work. For a long time he stood there gazing at it. An ordinary man would have been intensely angry, and whatever good he might have felt or purposed during his walk would have taken wings.
But it did not occur to Steve just then to be angry. Up to this time, like most another really thoughtful person, he had done very little actual thinking, but now he was entered upon a life which is God's own school for the development of character, and in the mental and spiritual awakening of which he was only dimly conscious he began to see that many things which he had hitherto accepted as a matter of course were in reality the result of causes which could and should be removed. Passion blurs the vision, and Steve was straining his eyes to see just then, so it was necessary above all things that he should hold himself in hand.
"What makes Nannie act so?"
This was the question he was asking as he stood by his despoiled garden, and the answer began to come to him in a shadowy sort of way. It was not just what he imagined it would be—not just what he would have wished it to be. Few answers take on the shape we anticipate or desire, but it was undeniably an answer, and he turned, possibly in obedience, to a cool, shady nook near by, and plucking a few late violets which were growing there, went into the house where Nannie sat alone at breakfast, and laying these gently on the table beside her, without a word went on his way to the station and took his usual train.
For a long time after he had left the house Nannie sat there, her breakfast untasted, her elbows resting on the table, her hands clasped under her chin. She was not looking at the violets, but their subtle fragrance permeated her thought as it were. Never in all her life before had she been treated in this way; never before had she known of anything of this kind outside the covers of a book. She was not conscious of shame, sorrow, or even regret; she was simply stupid with wonder.
She got up by-and-by and walked toward the parlor, but looking back to the table she saw the violets still lying beside her plate. She hesitated a moment, then took them up and carried them to a vase in the next room, but in the midst of arranging them there she impulsively turned to a magazine near at hand, slipped them into this, and then tucked the book away, coloring the while like a girl detected with her first love letter.
"It wasn't so dreadful what I did," she muttered, to reinstate herself. "It didn't matter about the radishes, anyhow. They were so old it would have been disrespectful to eat them."
But she felt badly, nevertheless, as she caught up her hat, which lay upon the sofa just where she had thrown it the night before, and started off to Constance Chance's.
Something was stirred within her, and she felt uneasy with a restlessness that inclined her to seek a friend.
A friend! She had not one in the world. Of all the women she knew, Constance Chance claimed the most of her respect and admiration, but Constance was wholly unaware of this feeling, and moreover, did not like Nannie. In old days she tolerated her and was even attracted by her beauty, but she had warmly resented her marriage to Steve—whom she regarded as deserving a wife far superior to Nannie. She had, as is the custom of women in such cases, leaped to the conclusion that either Nannie had made advances to Steve—which he was too delicate and kind-hearted to repel—or that she had in some way excited his pity, and he had married her in order to protect and care for her, and she held it as a grudge against her. That a man like Steve could be attracted by such a girl as Nannie was inconceivable to Constance, although Randolph regarded the matter differently.
When she found that the marriage really was to take place she resolved to make the best of it, but it was not long before she decided that Steve was unhappy, and then her smouldering dissatisfaction broke into such a lively flame that Randolph was obliged to interpose to prevent her from taking Nannie in hand.
"There, there, sweetheart," he said. "Don't get wrought up about it. I'm afraid you'd only make matters worse. Better let them rest as they are. We're not certain that it's so. Steve's a queer fellow."
"I know he's unhappy!" Constance exclaimed. "It's not necessary for him to speak. There is a silence that is eloquent; then his looks have changed. There's something so pathetic about his whole bearing."
"Yes, I've noticed that. Poor old man! Well, we can't help it. These aren't matters for outsiders, my sweetheart—you know that even better than I do."
"Yes, I know, but I'm so angry with that little minx! See how she has estranged him from us. He hardly ever comes here now."
"Oh, well, I don't think that we ought to put all the blame of that on Nannie. A man isn't apt to run around after he's married. Look at me—you can hardly get me out at all, and I used to be a great gad-about."
"I dare say, sir, I dare say," said Constance, nodding her head as one who knows.
"I certainly was over at your house often enough," he said, "but now that I've run the race and won the prize, I can stay at home and enjoy it."
"Well, I wish poor Steve had a home to enjoy," murmured Constance as a last word.
As a matter of course this conversation and the reflections which followed it did not prepare Constance to give Nannie a very cordial greeting when she came over that day. Had she known Nannie's state of mind; had she guessed that the child-wife looked up to her and was so ready to be influenced by her, the older woman, she would have done altogether differently. It is the lack of this very knowledge that makes much of life a mere blundering about in the dark.
She received her coolly, and Nannie was sensitive enough to feel this so deeply that Randolph's hearty welcome could but partially heal the hurt. This pain, however, was not without its resultant benefit, although the lesson for which it opened the way might have come more gently. Stung to the quick, aching with loneliness, and with a yearning which she did not understand, the young wife was roused as never before and her eyes opened to things heretofore unseen. She noticed the orderliness of the home she was in, its air of thrift and good management, and its artistic beauty. Nor was this all, for the best of a home is that which is too elusive, too subtile to remain under any of these heads, and this indefinite something attracted and touched Nannie to-day. Fog and mist, cloud and rain had softened the soil into which these seeds fell. Pain is a strong note in the prelude to life.
It was characteristic of Nannie's crude resentful type of pride that she prolonged her stay at Constance's, even though she realized she was unwelcome. She would not allow any one the satisfaction of seeing that she felt hurt.
As far as possible, Randolph tried to atone for his wife's lack of cordiality, and in pursuance of this aim he made an essential point of taking Nannie around the little place and showing her the latest arrivals in the vegetable line. He had considerable to show, for his tiny plantation was a model of thrift and comeliness. Many varieties of vegetables were holding out their succulent wares, all ready for table use, and many more were absorbing sunshine and balmy air in preparation for future calls. Near the house cheery and fragrant flowers gladdened the pretty beds in which no weed was allowed to rear its vicious crest. There was, it is true, one ugly, uncivilized portion of the place, in which the primitive, the barbaric reigned supreme. As yet Randolph had not found time to attack this spot and bring it within the pale of garden orthodoxy. Secretly he had for a time been hoping that Constance would take it in hand, although he would have been ashamed to let her know he dreamed of this. Certainly he would have been shocked at the idea of setting her at any such task, but he would as certainly have winked at her own voluntary performance of it. To be entirely frank, he had a little scene all ready in his imagination, in which this unsightly corner was found clothed and in its right mind—the noxious weeds having been cast out by Constance's gentle hands. In this delightful scene Constance always stood by smiling in a deprecatory way, and he was always gently upbraiding her—"Now, Constance! Why, this is shameful! The idea of your doing such a thing! It wasn't right of you! You must promise me you will never, never do anything of this sort again!" and so forth, and so on.
But alas! this scene, like many another, remained in the author's possession, Constance giving no occasion to act it out, but going circumspectly and quietly on her way, ignorant of this delightful little fancy of her husband's. Just now she was busy, very busy, and very happy indoors. She sat sewing in the cool, beautiful library, and the house door was open.
When Randolph excused himself from Nannie by-and-by to talk with a man who called on business, the latter started toward the house. On the gallery she paused, for she heard Constance's voice within, and she did not care to go to her. There was a hammock, shaded by a vine, near at hand, and she crept into this, and lying there the waves of Constance's low, sweet voice, mingled with the perfume of the honeysuckle, stole out to her and stirred new longings. Nannie leaned forward and caught a glimpse of Constance, who was at work, doing some of that fine sewing which gentlewomen love to put upon things of sweet value. Nannie could not discern what it was, but as Constance shifted the contents of her work basket a little article came in sight, and all at once Nannie felt, as it were, an imprisoned soul within her fluttering against the bars of its cage.
Dickens tells of a character whose unworthy life had apparently extinguished the divine spark, and yet, down deep within her, at the end of a tortuous passage, there was a door, and over this door was the word womanhood. Nannie had such a door, and at sight of that tiny article of clothing it opened. The girl's heart—the woman's heart was crying out now, and her eyes were dim with tears she did not understand.
All unconscious of the pathos of the scene, Constance plied her dainty needle, and in a sweet low voice talked with a young girl (Gertrude Earnest) who sat at her feet.
"Yes, please, Mrs. Chance."
Constance, you must know, was a story teller—not of a reprehensible sort, but a legitimate, orthodox one, and locally she was not without honor on this account.
"Well, then, long, long ago," she began, "in the dim dawn of creation, the gods looked down upon man whom they had made, and realized that he was but a poor piece of work.
"'He needs other gifts,' said one.
"'Yea, verily,' murmured another, 'but they are fraught with such peril!'
"'Nevertheless he must have at least one more. He must not continue unconscious even of what is taking place around him—the acts of which he himself is a part.'
"And so they sent a spirit whose eyes were large and somber, and mankind received her with open arms, not knowing that her name was Realization. Endowed with this immortal gift, they no longer groveled, for they knew what was passing around them—knew what part they were playing in the great drama, Life. And when she turned her happy face toward them they waxed merry, but when they saw her sterner visage they wept.
"Still they lacked painfully, living as they did wholly in the present, sending never a backward glance along the echoing corridors of the past—never a swift shaft of sight along the dim shadowy vistas of the future. And the gods noted this lack.
"'It must be remedied,' said one.
"'Nay! nay!' pleaded another. 'Let them be as they are. They are spared so much of grief.'
"'They are also denied so much of joy,' said the first with gentle firmness. 'They must receive their gift and must pay its price.'
"'Ah the price! So heavy!' still pleaded the other.
"'The end is worth the pain,' was the reply.
"And so another spirit was sent to earth, and she too had a double aspect. One face was lighted by a happy, dreamy smile; the other was lined with sharpest pain, for her name was Memory.
"'One more gift and the trio is complete,' the gods decreed.
"'Let them alone; in mercy let them alone!' pleaded the pitying spirit. 'They have enough to bear—enough of joy; enough of grief.'
"'Nay, nay. They are but imperfectly endowed. They look about them at the waves that lap the beach on which they stand, and look backward o'er the sands of Time, but send never a glance forward over the great misty ocean of the Future.'
"Then down from the other world there shot a gleam of golden light that rested on a shadow, and willy-nilly—not knowing, not caring, possibly resisting had they fully comprehended—mankind was endowed with another gift, and its name was Anticipation. One face was dazzling in its radiance—that they called Hope; the other was deep with gloom, and that was Dread. With the coming of this gift the veil that hung athwart the future was pierced, and mankind saw as the gods see, not only what was, not alone what had been, but what was to be as well.
"And on a day when all went fair they clung to these three gifts—Realization, Memory, and Anticipation—and thanked the gracious gods, but on another day, when Life pressed hard, they tried to fling them off and cried in bitter reproach: 'Why didst thou burden us with double-faced, tormenting creatures? Why wore they not a single face, and that a happy one?'
"Then down through the immeasurable quivering ether that veils eternity came the answering murmur, tender and pitiful as a strain of music upon a broken heart:
"'Thou canst not know—not yet—some day; for "now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face."'"
And when the story was told Nannie was weeping, for all at once she knew where she stood—all at once looked backward and saw what she had done; looked forward and saw what was to come.
But betwixt herself and Constance there was a high stone wall, called Misunderstanding, and Constance did not scale this wall, and so lost one of the sweetest pleasures known to mortals—helping a fellow-being out of the dark into the light.
And Nannie hungered and went home unfed.
It is a well-known fact that many a poor wretch has gone up to the very gate of Paradise, only to bound back again, as if either he himself or that bar to bliss were made of India rubber. Nothing could be more tantalizing or discouraging to the spirit, unless, indeed, it were the experience of many a despairing and hoping convalescent who is bandied about by the hand of fate with a shuttlecock movement betwixt sickness and health.
Many of us feel good for an hour at a time, several hours occasionally, but to be good overnight—to waken in the morning with one's resolutions and aspirations as crisp and fresh as they were the evening before—is proof positive of regeneration.
Once in a while it occurs to the rebellious that things might have been made a trifle easier. For instance, if only one had to walk miles to meet the tempter, or if only he had the decency and dignity to demand that we meet him half way, instead of coming all the way himself and invading the privacy of our very homes. If only he would wear his horns and tail all the time, that we might know him on sight and realize what we are about when we go under, instead of slinking in clothed as an angel of light. Not that the Andersonvilles, as Nannie called the mother and son Anderson, looked like angels of light. On the contrary, they were as ugly as the evil one, but they were without horns or tails, and so not easily recognizable as that particular and very reprehensible person. And Nannie was lured by them to let loose her spirit of mischief.
We have mentioned neighbors once or twice before. Now, the biblical definition of neighbor covers a wide field, and all experience will bear me out in an assertion, that apart from numbers the word stands for all sizes, shapes, and varieties of human being. Nowadays most of us whisper the term crazy, realizing that we ourselves are liable to be caught up and incarcerated under that head. Nevertheless within ourselves we know that some of those about us—and we could point them out if we were asked—are trying to pass off cracked brains for sound ones.
Before Steve and Nannie had been domiciled more than a fortnight in their new abode, where they had fancied that their living was to be of the best, a fly appeared in the ointment, a fly which directly proved to be out of its mind—in other words, they discovered that they had crazy neighbors. Let no one understand me to signify by this the kind of crazy person who seizes you by the hair and brandishes his fist in your face, declaring that your hour has come. That is one variety, to be sure, an unpleasant variety, too; but there are others. If it came to a matter of weeding out all those whose brains were slightly out of gear, most of us could appear in court with a batch of crazy neighbors, thereby depriving a city of some of its principal men and society of some of its chief ornaments.
No one would like to do this, but when the crack in a neighbor's brains widens so as to seriously upset his notions of other people's rights, then he is bound to become not dangerous necessarily, but certainly troublesome, and some step must be taken in self-defense.
As Steve learned too late, he stood upon contested ground. The former owner being now in the insane asylum, and having, before she became unbalanced, deeded the property to her husband (who had subsequently sold it to Steve), she was temporarily out of the way, but it seemed that by some oversight she had left outside a mother and a brother, whom she should have taken in with her.
These relatives, as far as Steve was able to learn, never claimed that the transfer of property to the husband was invalid because the owner was at that time insane. Their claim was that she had not gone insane at all, and that she had, in a manner, been forced into deeding her property away, and consequently the transaction was null and void and she still owned it. A written document to this effect was posted on one of the largest trees near the house soon after the newly wedded pair moved out there, but Steve found upon investigation that this was but one of many threads forming a cobweb of prodigious size within the brains of these peculiar folk whose relative had outrun them to the asylum. Consequently he was disposed to dismiss the whole matter from his mind. Not so the crazy neighbors, for they continued to post the contested place with notices, and Nannie became habituated to plucking several of these legal billets-doux from the trees every morning before breakfast.
All this was great sport for Nannie, but the trouble soon took a more serious turn. The outcome of this latter was an anonymous notification to Steve that if he failed to take down an obstruction which he had put across one of the roads on his place to prevent its being used as a public thoroughfare, he would be mobbed by a crowd of men and boys.
"This is a most extraordinary condition of affairs," said Steve one day in talking the matter over with Randolph Chance, "to be racing around with dogs and cutlasses when you're supposed to be cooling your brow under your vine and fig-tree."
As if to add insult to injury, the Andersons, mother and son, made a passageway of the place they claimed (in the name of their daughter and sister) and persisted in using this, in spite of remonstrance and even warning.
Now, for some time past Nannie had, by means best known to women, been contriving to fire Steve's usually placid temper, and the morning after her visit to Constance's an opportunity presented itself for the fanning of the flames she had kindled. On opening her door just after breakfast she saw mother Anderson and her son William land at the little private pier Steve had built, and then walk with a bold and rugged step up toward the house en route to the station, some half mile to the rear.
Now was Nannie's chance!
Such fun to see Steve fight!
"Steve!" she screamed, running into the house, "here are those dreadful people again! They frighten me to death! I shall never dare to stay here alone if you don't make an end of their coming!" Frightened! Ah, Nannie! with that bright color and those dancing eyes!
Steve ran out, his mind aflame at last as he thought of poor little Nannie's terrors and the offensive note he had received.
"See here, Anderson," he began, "you have been asked to keep away from this place. It has——"
But just here William, who had no regard for social amenities, cut his remarks short by a resounding slap in the face.
Steve had never fought in his life. He was rather ashamed of this (had never confessed it), and the time seemed ripe now to break his peace record. Drawing back, to give himself a greater spring, he landed a heavy blow somewhere in mid-air. Said locality surviving the attack, he withdrew to prepare a fresh onslaught.
Meanwhile he began to notice that he was being smartly thumped by the enemy, and he aimed a supreme effort in that direction.
His blow was not the "immortal passado" mentioned by Mercutio, but rather the "punto reverso," for it landed him in the dust, while the enemy remained on high.
Just at this juncture mother Anderson put in her oar, literally as well as figuratively, for happening to have that instrument of navigation in her hand, she proceeded to belabor the prostrate Steve.
"Stop that!" screamed Nannie. "Oh, you bad, fiendish woman! Sick her, Brownie!"
And away went Brownie and attached himself firmly to Madam Anderson's train, and beginning a swift rotary movement, so bewildered the old lady that she lost both oar and enemy, and looked more like a pirouette dancer than a decorous upholder of the cause of individual freedom and public highways.
By this time Steve had regained his perpendicular, and tingling with mortification, started in and really did some inspired work. Taking the foe by the collar, he shook him as a cat would shake a rat.
"You little puppy! Get out of here!" he roared in a most unnatural voice.
Then with the oar (which mother Anderson had abandoned when she took to dancing) in one hand and the dangling enemy in the other, he proceeded down the slope, out upon the little pier, and after sousing the refractory William in the lake, dropped him into his boat.
"Now you follow him, and be off—both of you!" he said sternly to madam, who stood upon the pier, squawking like an old hen on the eve of decapitation.
She lost no time in obeying him, albeit she continued to work nature's bellows with great vigor as Steve threw in the oar he held and gave the boat an energetic thrust.
"Steve, you're a trump!" cried Nannie.
Steve looked at her aghast.
Was this the timid little creature he had been protecting? Evidently he was as much at sea on the feminine question as before marriage.
He walked slowly up to the house and managed to recover his breath before he was called for the next scene in this rural drama. Truth to tell he was disgusted, not because of the disgrace of a quarrel, but—alas for mankind in even his gentlest aspect!—because he had failed to get a crack at the enemy.
That evening near dinner-time the plot was thickened by the arrival of the sheriff, who bore a warrant for the entire Loveland family—dog included.
"If it hedn't been a new jestice she cudn't hev got it out," he said apologetically. "She's arrested everybody in sight agin and agin, includin' her own fam'ly. You hev yer meal now an' then come 'roun' over ter the jestice's office."
Accordingly, after dinner Steve and Nannie walked over to the village, and after diligent search found the justice, who informed them that he "did hev a place fer ther trial, but they tuk it from him fer a show an' he was a-huntin' fer another."
This other being finally discovered, the criminals—Steve, Nannie and Brownie—were brought in, and William Anderson, being duly sworn, was perched up in an aged arm-chair and encouraged to unfold his tale of woe to a crowded house, for the room was full, and even the doors and windows were blocked by the heads of on-lookers.
"It was about eight o'clock in the morning," William began in a high, cracked voice—possibly his neck was still dislocated. "My mother and myself were on our way to meet some friends whom we expected on the next train. Landing at the pier, we proceeded up toward the cottage now fraudulently occupied by these people." (Here he pointed impressively at the wicked ones, whereupon Brownie, who resented this, barked fiercely and was promptly smothered by the Court.) "Rounding a corner we encountered this man" (another indication with that powerful index finger), "who immediately fell upon me with great fe-roc-i-ty. First he struck me mightily here—then he gave me a terrific blow here—then one of unparalleled strength here."
By this time Steve was bridling up and looking like a conquering hero. He really had hit the man! It was the first time he or any one else had known it.
"He then struck me——" William continued, but the Court interrupted him.
"Here, here. You've already had enough to kill ten men."
"That's what I was about to say, your honor, and I will not harrow your honor's feelings by telling more of his awful assault. Seeing that I was suffering in this manner, my mother approached with an oar, when she—her" (indicating Nannie by pointing fixedly and by a stony glare) "rushed upon her fiercely and caused her dog also to charge upon her, which he did so savagely as to decompose her raiment. In some way the oar flew out of her hand, and she was most disrespectfully whirled around and around, so that she is yet dizzy-headed."
Here madam put her hand to her brow in confirmation.
"I was then taken by the scruff of the neck down to the pier, and whether I fell in the lake or not I cannot say, but I was wet!"
Here the on-lookers shouted with laughter.
"My mother was then disrespectfully helped in and we were sent adrift."
He ended in a high-toned, pitiful whine suggestive of a dog's song on a moonlight night, but this plaint was drowned in the roars of laughter raised by the audience.
Madam Anderson confirmed and embellished this tale, but Steve's and Nannie's narrative, giving the circumstances of the case, their purchase of the place, the annoyances to which these people had subjected them, the warning that had been sounded to keep them at arm's length, and the continued disregard of all this, sufficed, in the opinion of the Court, to acquit them and fix the burden of the expenses entailed by the suit upon the Anderson shoulders.
One would have supposed that this episode would have satisfied Nannie for awhile, but she was tireless, and must needs start out to sit hens soon after the Andersons were laid low. Now, of all unreasoning, stupid, obstinate, contrary beasts, a sitting hen is well qualified to carry off the first prize. Nannie had been told that when a hen began to puff up her feathers until she was swollen to about three times her natural size, and make a noise that sounded as if she had tried to say something and the word caught on a hook in her throat, she was ready to sit. Having three feathered animals in this condition, and having coaxed Steve into buying some Plymouth Rock eggs at the trivial sum of three dollars a sitting, Nannie proceeded to capture the hens and put them upon nests of her own placing, wholly ignorant of the fact that if there is one thing above all others in which a hen must have her say, it was in the choice of residence during this vexatious period. From the moment that Nannie put the hens upon the eggs she led a life of unexampled activity. No sooner would she turn her back than the various madams would rise, and with distended feathers and gurgling clucks dismount from the nests and begin to stalk around the yard, in defiance of directions to the contrary. The number of times that Steve was pushed under one side of the house in pursuit of the escaped—lunatic, I had almost said, and told to remain there while Nannie ran around and crawled under the other side to head her off, would pass belief. As a matter of course she was never caught by this double-barreled attack, but always stalked out from some unexpected crevice and promenaded the yard as if she owned the premises. The next move on Steve's and Nannie's part would be to drive her nestward. The result of this was always to land her in some place precisely opposite; for the moment she was headed properly she would tilt her wings and break into a fat, wheezy little run in the direction just contrary to the one indicated by common sense and lawful authority.
One day, after an hour of this sport, Nannie lost patience, and picking up stones, pelted the feathered truant until she fled out of sight—in the wrong direction.
"Let her eggs cool!" she exclaimed with a burst of passionate tears. "I don't care if they get as cold as an iceberg! I wish they'd freeze her stiff the next time she sits on them!"
Steve began a mild protest, but Nannie turned to walk into the house, when she caught sight of Madam Hen No. 2 off her nest and stalking around with the same offensive strut as that of No. 1.
This was too much for her own nervous system, and she rushed upon the offending hen, and kept up this pace with such vigor that at the end of ten minutes she had run her down, taken her literally in hand, borne her squawking into the barn, jammed her down on the nest, and roofed it with boards, which she nailed on with rocks. This done, she returned to the house in a state of savage quiet (if I may be allowed a contradictory term), feeling herself fiercely secure of at least one sitting.
She was not, however, for madam spared no effort till she burst her bonds, brought the rocks down upon the heads of herself and her prospective family, and they all died the death together.
"There's some satisfaction in that," said Nannie. "The stupid, nasty, mean old thing went with the eggs!"
The third sitting materialized, and a lovelier brood of chicks was never seen. Steve was surprised and even touched as he stood watching Nannie in her delight. There was something really womanly in the way in which the girl coddled the pretty creatures, holding them close to her face and calling them all the sweet, tender little names in which a woman's heart goes out to the infantile and the helpless.
Looking and thinking, several things came into Steve's mind, and one evening he essayed to bring about a better understanding betwixt his erratic little wife and himself. But alas! though possessed of an unusually tender heart and of unusually fine intuitions, yet occasionally Steve was a man, pure and simple, and this was one of the occasions. Just as Nannie was sitting down to dinner he said:
"Nannie, I've been wondering what is it that makes you act so?"
"I don't act!" stormed Nannie, who was ablaze in a minute. "It's you who act! You treat me as if I were a two-year-old child!" Then, in a gust of changed emotion, she took a step nearer to him and cried out:
"I don't want to be bad, but"—she turned now toward the door, and as she went out looked backward over her shoulder and added impishly—"I am, and I'm 'fraid I'm going to be."
And off she went—off to the barn, and the next moment there was a lonely, yearning child-wife sobbing her heart out on Sarah Maria's neck.
Evidently there was a bond between these two, for Nannie was neither hooked nor kicked, and when Sarah Maria behaved peacefully at both ends it was manifest that her heart was touched.
Steve returned from town the evening following Nannie's outburst with a mind heavy laden. That had been his mental condition, indeed, much of the time since he turned farmer, and I may add that his thoughts occasionally ran in a sarcastic vein—a course ordinarily foreign to him. Shortly before that crucial point in his career, his marriage to Nannie, Randolph Chance had loaned him a beautiful idyl, termed "Liberty and a Living." Randolph himself had read this as a thirsty man reads of cool, rock-paved brooks; Steve read it as a poet, a dreamer, but it would no doubt have had a marked effect upon his character had he not closely followed it up with Charles Dudley Warner's "Summer in a Garden," much as one would chase a poison with its antidote, only in this case the order was reversed, the latter resembling the poison, since it awoke in his mind gloomy forebodings and inspired satirical reflections upon the universal mother.
Tuned to this key, he was no doubt ill-prepared, while turning the clod, to receive into his soul the sweet influences of rural life, and by reason of their elevating beauty, to be fortified against those drawbacks and trials with which all paths abound.
Truth to tell, Steve was discouraged. He had begun to realize that he had on his hands not only a small farm, for the tillage of which he was ill-contrived, but a large child as well, whose rearing and developing—— Just here he came to a sudden halt in his thought, and an odd word leaped in:
Then the name of that newspaper clipping of which Randolph once told him—
"How to Cook Wives."
"Well, how in thunder?" he asked himself, and walked homeward from the station.
Ere he arrived he saw Nannie at the door. She was screaming something which, on his approach, he found to be—
"Sarah Maria is lost!"
Had Steve said "thank Heaven!" he would merely have been speaking out of the fullness of his heart. Instead of that, he wheeled like an automaton and retraced his steps. He knew where to look for her.
There she was, as usual, down near the track, and as Steve approached she stepped squarely on, and with a set gaze awaited the speedy coming of the city-bound train. Of course she knew it would kill her, but like Samson of old she would have the satisfaction of taking a few acquaintances with her.
Steve dragged her off and managed to get her home, and thus for the present prevented the sin of self-destruction.
That very evening, after Nannie, like the cow, was corralled (and we may use this term without reproach, since she had been rampant all day), a small figure slipped from out the house and hastened to the garden. His little face, frowsy as is the manner of his breed, was uplifted, and his saucy little eyes gleamed with fire. He had probably observed that the peas were flourishing and that they were the one living result of Steve's heroic labors, unless perhaps we except the corn, which was still several miles distant from fruitage. No doubt all this was clear to Brownie, and that was why he took such fiendish delight in his work of demolition. The naughty little eyes twinkled; the naughty little mouth opened to emit his short-breathed pants; and the naughty little tongue hung out as he pranced and leaped, rolled and gamboled over the cast-down and dejected peas. Finally he chewed and tore the fragments that remained, and then gave himself a shake—by no means so severe as he deserved—and strutted into the house with a "They're-done-for!" air, quite exasperating to witness when one considered how the poor peas were lying out there prone upon their faces in the dust, crushed to earth, unlike truth, to rise no more.
The next morning, all unconscious of the ruin of his crop, Steve was deliberately making his toilet, when he was startled by roars of fright. Looking from the window, he perceived a neighbor flying down the road, with Sarah Maria in his wake. The latter had lowered her head—not in shame, I grieve to say, but with malicious intent, as was abundantly evidenced by the height of her tail.
Happily Nannie had seen this procession of two as it passed the house, and giving chase with swift steps, had caught Sarah Maria's long rope and wound it several times around a large tree, thus checking her mad career and saving a worthy citizen for the republic.
The excitement attendant upon all this was very great, especially as the neighbor was for a time firmly resolved to bring action, not being satisfied with the action Sarah Maria had brought, but by dint of much persuasion, both from Steve and also from Randolph Chance, who came to the rescue, he was at length called off, and Steve was so relieved that he was able to note the destruction of his peas with scarce a ripple of emotion.
The calm of the succeeding twenty-four hours was but that which precedes the storm, and the glassy placidity of Steve's life for that one day proved to be the deceitful stillness of deep waters. Upon his return from the city he was again greeted with the welcome intelligence that Sarah Maria had raised her head, adjusted her hind legs, whose hinges, owing to much kicking, had been reversed of late, and betaken herself to parts unknown. Worn out as he was with the events of the past week, Steve was unequal to a discreet concealment of his feelings, and the satisfaction he evinced in Nannie's news was stoutly resented by that singular young person. Indeed, she became so wrought up—crying, upbraiding, and lamenting—that Steve was obliged to console her by promising to advertise the errant beast if she were not found at her usual trysting-place—the railroad track. This he did, repeating the dose daily for a week, at the end of which time he received word that Sarah Maria had temporarily located herself on a farm some forty miles inland. Not being well disposed to a walk of that length, enlivened by Sarah Maria's society, Steve sent word to forward the lady by freight.
Owing to some mistake her car was switched off about ten miles from the proper station, and thinking that he could bridge that distance, Steve set out on a train early the next evening, and soon found himself in reach of the missing member of his household. She was looking out of the freight car when he arrived, and he noted with a secret qualm that she shook her head disapprovingly when she saw him.
Steve stood and gazed at her for so long that the man in charge there finally asked him what he was waiting for. Steve replied that she looked so happy it seemed a pity to disturb her. The man said that he didn't regard her as particularly happy, inasmuch as she had all but kicked out one side of the car. Upon hearing which, Steve hastened to assure him that that was merely a playful way of hers when her spirits were at the highest, but the man said that her spirits were several feet too high for him, and he insisted upon lowering them to terra firma. He was so firm and so disagreeable about this that Steve was obliged to advance and join him in the difficult undertaking.
It might seem reasonable to expect that as long as Sarah Maria had testified vigorously to her disapproval of the freight car she would be glad to issue from it, and no doubt that would have been the case had Steve and the station master urged her to remain. The moment, however, that she saw with her eagle eye that they were making preparations for her ejectment, her mind was made up, and she spread her four feet in a manner suggestive of rocks that refuse to fly.
The unhappy men now united their efforts at pulling, but her roots had evidently gone down to China without stopping; next they endeavored to pry her up, but she was manifestly stuck by some glue of unparalleled strength.
By this time the honest sweat was dripping from the brows of both men; Sarah Maria alone was calm. Various devices were used to dislodge her, and at the end of an hour she had moved a trifle further than a glacier does in a similar length of time, and was fully as cold and calm as this natural phenomenon. As she was quite near the opening of the car when she took her stand, in a physical as well as in a moral sense, even the very slight advantage gained by her enemies sufficed to put her in position to make her final exit when, like Sairy Gamp, she was "so dispodged."
"Now," said the station master, who by this time had not so much as a dry thread on him, "if you'll pull I'll twist her tail so's to divert her attention, and I guess we'll make a go of it."
Steve looked into the threatening eye of Sarah Maria, and foreseeing his doom if he stood in front of her, told the station master that as Sarah, for some reason, seemed disinclined to love him, she might be unwilling to go in his direction, and for that reason he would better keep out of sight.
"So," he continued, "if you will kindly pull I will kindly twist."
Steve was always polite, and never more so than when excited.
The suggestion appealed to the innocent station master, who saw no hidden intent in Steve's retreat, and the change of position having been effected, the two men went to work.
For a time Steve twisted gently, but firmly, while the station master tugged and jerked, but still none of these things moved her.
All at once there was a transformation scene, and it came about as suddenly as a flash of lightning from out a clear sky. The participants never could give a clear and harmonious account of what happened, and all that an idle on-looker could tell was that while he was gazing he suddenly heard something strike the roof of the car; in another instant he had, after the occasional custom of nations, recognized the belligerency of Sarah Maria. When the din of battle had subsided he beheld Steve arising from the earth somewhere in the rear of the car, while the station master, on all fours, was in the act of picking himself up from a spot just in front of where Sarah had lately made her heroic stand.
Steve was in no wise perturbed or even surprised. He realized that the bovine belonged to the gentle sex, and anything was to be expected. As long as Sarah Maria and his wife spared his life, he felt that he had no just cause for complaint; both ladies were erratic, and he must simply look for whatever happened.
Unfortunately, as Steve regarded it, Sarah Maria had not taken her departure, her long rope having caught around a tree and detained her. She was well out of the car, however, and the station master washed his hands of her.
It was by this time nearing dusk, and Steve set out on his long walk toward home with many misgivings. Under happy circumstances a walk in the country along the brookside, through meadows and woods in the evening is quieting, but Steve found it the reverse of this to-night. Not that he had no still moments, in which the brain might work and memory hold sway; there were such, indeed, at first, for Sarah Maria set out with him so gently and quietly that the station master concluded she must be one of those feminines who wax irritable when their way of life is disturbed, and that once relieved of the box-car she would proceed as a domestic animal should.
Even Steve began to entertain hopes of her reformation, but these were soon dashed to the ground, and he went with them. He arose (he had by this time become an expert at arising), and again there was a truce, which he gratefully accepted, for he was ready enough to enjoy peace while it lasted.
Walking by a brook which skirted a little farm, his mind was busy with reflections. Heretofore he had looked at these places and seen them in the gross, as it were; now no detail escaped him. He saw to-night that the weeds were rampant among the peas and that in the next bed the onions were drooping, evidently having been trampled upon.
"Why is it," he argued gently to himself, "vicious things flourish in the face of every discouragement, while it requires so much coaxing and care to keep good and useful articles above ground? One might jump up and down on a weed continuously every day for a month, and the moment his back was turned it would be up again, whereas once stepping on a young blade of corn or the first shoots of an onion is the end of it."
Then he looked at Sarah Maria and bethought him how she never had a sick day since they owned her, while a tractable, useful cow would have died half a dozen times over in this period, of pneumonia or consumption.
"Why is it?" he asked.
He might have answered this question and thus solved a problem that has been perplexing humanity ever since Adam and Eve were told to go, but Sarah Maria preferred her own movements to those of the intellect, and realizing that it was growing late, she set off on a hard run for home.
Now Steve had never in his college days, ranked as an athlete, but as he flew over the ground that night, with the long rope that bridged the difference betwixt himself and Sarah Maria quite taut, he had an injured feeling, as of one to whom injustice had been done. Not even the champion runner had ever made such time.
The violence of his gait would have proved exhaustive had it been too long continued, but Sarah Maria was merciful, and ere long Steve came upon her standing in her box-car attitude. She loosened up by-and-by and again started toward home with the speed of a race-horse, but this time Steve was in front, and could his friends have seen how well he kept in front they would have covered him with adulation.
Before long the rope was taut once more, and Steve's sense of security was in such marked and delightful contrast to his feelings when it slackened that he told Sarah Maria repeatedly to take her time—he was in no hurry whatever. Neither was Sarah, apparently, for between balking and running, and capering about in a truly extraordinary manner she passed the better portion of the night. Finally, in despair, Steve laid the case before her and asked if she would look at the matter dispassionately and consider the lateness of the hour and their distance from the domestic roof—would she, he urged, keep this great central truth in sight?
She said that she would not, and she said it so rudely that Steve felt hurt. When he had gotten up and given himself a good rubbing, he found that Sarah Maria, like some little angel, had gone before, and he hobbled after her as fast as his bruises would permit.
They reached home at last, and a late moon glowered down at them with calm severity. Truth to tell, both Steve and Sarah looked as if they had been on a spree, and both were callous as to appearances. Their one idea was to part company as soon as possible.
Out of respect to the Society for the Prevention, and so forth, Steve decided to give his interesting companion a drink; then he would have done with her forever. Having secured her to a near tree, he approached the pump, pail in hand.
But Sarah Maria was watching him narrowly, and as she looked there rankled in her seemingly quiet breast the memory of her wrongs. There was still a twist in her tail, left over from the box-car, and several kinks in her temper, and influenced by these she approached Steve just as he bent to lift the pail, and slipping her horns under him, dexterously lifted him from the ground and sent him crashing through the nearest window, which chanced to be that of his chamber.
"For the love of mercy!" screamed Nannie, starting up from her sleep in the next room, "what is happening now?"
"I'm coming to bed," said Steve.
Steve was so used up by his rural experiences that he could scarcely get out of bed the next day. And that was not the worst of it: his temper was bruised as well as his body, as was manifest by the way he behaved. Not that he stormed or sulked; Steve was above anything of this kind; but he did speak very decidedly, for him, as he rose from his late breakfast.
"Nannie," he said, "you may do as you wish about the cow. I think it might be well to sell her for beef—she is in good condition. But do as you wish about that—she is yours; but I really cannot undertake to have anything more to do with her."
For some time after Steve left the house Nannie sat staring in the direction in which he had disappeared. She was as much amazed as she had been the day he fought the Andersonvilles, but less elated.
"Well," she said to herself at last, "the upshot of it all is, he's given Sarah Maria notice. I wonder if he will give me notice next?"
She walked slowly into the kitchen, where a stout, red-faced woman was at work.
"Bridget," she said, "can you milk?"
"Shure I kin; an' why?"
"Because Mr. Loveland won't milk Sarah Maria any more."
"No more wud I, an' he's stud it so long. Shure he's been loike a lamb beside her, an' she hookin' him full o' holes till his poor body cud be used for a sieve."
"Oh, what shall I do!" cried Nannie pettishly. "You're all of you as mean as you can be! I won't sell her for beef! I just won't!"
"No more you needn't, me darlint! There, now, don't take on so. Shure it's mesilf'll manage it wid yez somehow, though it's loike the both of us will nade the praste an' extrame unction before we're t'rough wid her."
Nothing daunted Nannie sallied forth, followed by Bridget, who grumbled all the way.
"Faith, in ould Oireland it's mesilf milked twinty cows at wan sittin', an' they standin' forninst me widout a word loike lambs till I was ready fer the nixt wan."
"Well, now, that's great!" interrupted Nannie. "Steve has left her right out here. I wonder why he did that?"
Mrs. Maria stared fixedly at her, once in awhile tossing her horns. There was a glare in her eye, by the light of which one might read her thoughts.
"Just here," she was saying to herself, "Steve and I fought to a finish, and I saw the last of him as he flew through yonder window."
"Set a pail of food forninst her now, Miss Nannie, an' she'll run to the cow-yard," called Bridget.
This ruse proved successful. As soon as she saw the food the delighted Sarah kicked up her heels and, flourishing her head in such a manner that it seemed to comprehend everything in its wide swath, ran into the cow-yard, where Nannie skillfully lassoed her and tied her to the fence just as she plunged her nose into the pail.
Meanwhile Bridget, terrified by these lively humors, had started toward the house, and her desire for speed exceeding her physical ability, she soon measured her length upon the ground, where she lay, roaring lustily, under the impression that the enemy was upon her.
"What are you howling for, you old goose?" shouted Nannie.
"It's the cow!" screamed Bridget. "Take her off! Oh, howly Mither! I'm kilt entirely."
"The cow is half a mile from you!" laughed Nannie. "She didn't even look toward you."
"Shure I felt her horns go into me back, an' as the saints live in glory, I see thim come out at me brist."
"Well, I wish I could see you come out at the cow-yard with that milk pail."
Bridget picked up her pieces, put herself together, and discontentedly ambled toward the cow-yard, averring that in spite of all Nannie might say, she knew she had a hole an inch wide in her left lung; she could feel the wind whistle through it.
"There's nothing the matter with your lungs," said Nannie, "as all the neighborhood knows by this time."
With a long, solemn countenance and a tear in each eye, Bridget approached Sarah Maria, who was breakfasting in a hasty, unhygienic manner.
"It's me life I take in me hand," murmured Bridget.
"Drop your life and take your pail instead, or are you going to milk into your apron?" said Nannie imperiously.
"Oh, me pail! Shure the head of me is turned intirely, bad cess to that cow! or I believe there's a hole through it, loike there is in me lung."
"Your head turned!" said Nannie scornfully. "I should say it was—turned inside out and emptied entirely."
But Bridget was wooing Mrs. Maria now.
"Aisy, now! Aisy, I say!" she muttered as she cautiously lowered herself onto the milking stool.
But by some mysterious law of opposites, as she went down the pail went up. Sarah Maria never ceased munching for a moment, but Nannie, who was fixedly regarding her and trying to calculate how much longer her breakfast would last, heard the crash, and looking around saw the pail on its way upward.
"Now may the saints forgive me if I imperil me life anny longer!" cried Bridget from a safe distance.
"And may Sarah Maria forgive you for sitting down on the wrong side of her, you old goose!" screamed Nannie in her rude way.
"Howly Mither defind us! Did I do that now? Shure the twinty cows I milked in ould Oireland preferred that side, an' they were very particular about it, ivery last wan of thim."
"Now, don't crawl along that way," said Nannie impatiently as Bridget crept up to her, "and take hold as if you weren't afraid."
"Shure if I had a shillalah wid a sucker on the ind of it, it's milk her I wud, widout anny loss of me color, though she thritened me wid twinty horns an' as manny hind legs."
"Oh, you've got several bees in your bonnet, that's what's the matter with you!" exclaimed Nannie.
"Is it bees, ye say? Air they loose too?" screamed Bridget, jerking off her sunbonnet and tearing down her hair. "Is it bees as well as cows in me hid, an' ye standin' laffin loike ter kill yersilf at the very idee of me bein' murdered in cold blud!"
By this time her hair was distraught and her face flaming with excitement and exertion, and altogether she so closely resembled some avenging spirit that even Sarah Maria began to tremble before her.
As soon as Nannie could control herself she informed her that the terrifying words she used were merely a figure of speech.
"Clothed or not clothed——" Nannie began, but Bridget burst forth:
"An' I wuldn't hev belaved that anny young leddy wid a dacent raisin' wud use figgers of spache, widout clothes at that. It's Bridget O'Flannigan'll see if——"
But here Nannie's screams of laughter interrupted her.
"I believe you've a brick in your bonnet as well as a bee," she exclaimed.
This time Bridget understood, and clapping her sunbonnet (upside down) onto her disrumpled head, she wabbled toward the house.
This would never do, so Nannie ran and planted herself in front of her.
"Come, now, Bridget—dear Bridget, don't be mad with me," she said coaxingly.
Bridget had come to Mrs. Lamont's when Nannie was little more than eight years of age, and through the succeeding years of childhood and girlhood had been her stanch friend and her confidante in many a time of trouble.
"What shall I do with my cow? You surely will help me out!"
The fire faded from Bridget's flaming countenance, and she paused, irresolute as to her course.
"You won't desert me, Bridget, I know!" pleaded Nannie softly.
"Sure it's not Bridget O'Flannigan will desart an orphin child; but I make it distinct, an' ye hear me now, that I'm a respictable woman, not given to takin' a dhrop too much or too little, an' I won't stan' an' be insulted, an' me twilve years over from ould Oireland come Saint Patrick's Day. An' even if I am doin' disrespictful work now, milkin' an ould cow in which the divil has taken up his risidince, I want yez still ter handle me character wid care."
No doubt Sarah Maria was awed by this address, or else the very uncomplimentary manner in which she herself was alluded to startled her into a realization of the steep down which she was rushing and toward what pit her path inclined. Be that as it may, she contentedly munched the second pail of food which Nannie brought her, and granted the trembling Bridget peace and quiet in which to extract the cream and invoke the saints.
Soon after the milking ordeal was at an end Nannie started over to the house of her cousins, the Misfits. It chanced that she happened upon this ill-mated couple in the nick of time.
"Glad to see you, Nan," exclaimed Mr. Misfit. "I have a day off, and Mrs. Misfit wants to take the boat trip. You must go with us."
"Yes, we've never been, and I told Henry we really ought to go! I am tired of being asked if I don't think it's pleasant, and having to say I don't know anything about it."
"You'll have to fly around and get ready, then, for we must take the next train in if we want to catch that boat. You'll go," he added as his wife slipped away to dress, "won't you, Nannie?"
Nannie stood regarding him with one of her elfin looks.
"You need me, don't you?" she said.
He laughed rather awkwardly. He always felt uncomfortable when Nannie looked at him that way.
"Why, yes, of course. We shall be glad of your company."
"I know why you wanted me to-day," said Nannie later on, when she was sitting out on the deck of the boat with him while Mrs. Misfit was taking a nap in the saloon.
He turned and looked at her, and saw it would be of no use to try to evade.
"There's something uncanny about this girl," he said to himself.
"You wanted me—you and Lillie both wanted me to stand between you. You couldn't endure each other's company for a day. It would bore you to death."
"You are right," he said simply. "It would bore me. I don't know about Lillie."
"Well, I can tell you," said Nannie, speaking in no uncertain tone. "You are just as uninteresting to her as she is to you."
He caught his breath.
"You are complimentary, I must say."
"I know all about it. It's something like this with Steve and me. We don't bore each other, but we don't know what to say."
"Well, what are you going to do about it?"
Nannie sat silent for a moment. Evidently she was revolving matters mentally. Finally she turned to her companion, and with a roguish smile, which shone like a sunbeam out from overhanging curls, said:
"I suppose I'll have to 'perk up' a little."
"I don't speak Hindoostanee," he replied.
"Well, Steve's above me, you know."
He nodded, but Nannie took no offense. He was thinking. "That's our trouble. I'm above Lillie."
"And I must try to reach him somehow."
"If Lillie would do that——" he began, but Nannie cut him short.
"It's not Lillie, it's you! Lillie is above you!"
Again he caught his breath, this time with a gasp, but he was forced to be silent. It would be a strange man indeed who could enter into an argument to prove his wife inferior to himself. He might be thoroughly convinced of this; might even have taken it for granted that others realized the fact, but he could hardly have the face to bring his voluminous arguments on this point to the attention of an outsider.
"I know what you're thinking," said Nannie, and she looked uncanny again. "I can't say these things as well as some people could, but you think because you know books you're better than Lillie. The books can't be the first things, because there must always be men before there can be books; and there must always be some real things, true things, before there can be men. These were there first. The books don't make them, but just refer to them, and the people that have the real things are higher than the books. That's what makes Lillie higher than you."
The man sat thinking for a few moments, then he tried to laugh.
"Really, Nannie," he said, "if one were ill with that horrid disease called Conceit, a quiet half hour with you on the deck of a boat would restore him to health."
Nannie gazed at him defiantly, but said nothing.
"No, I'll tell you, little one, how it all came about," he said rather patronizingly. "Lillie and I married when we were boy and girl. She was seventeen and I was twenty. Lillie was very pretty and that attracted me, and I—well, I don't know just what she saw in me!"
"I've often wondered," said Nannie.
He gave one look of blank amazement and then dropped his hands in dismay.
"Well, I suppose you were more interesting then than you are now," Nannie went on comfortingly.
"I hope so," he said humbly, "but we neither of us knew the other. Our tastes were not formed; our characters were not matured. I grew one way, she grew another; now we care for entirely different things, and as a result we are walking through life together and each is utterly alone."
He was looking off over the big lake now. He had forgotten the annoyances and unpleasant surprises of their conversation. He no longer saw Nannie. A dreary never-ending waste was all that held his mental vision.
Nannie's voice recalled him.
"That's no excuse," she insisted.
He started like a man rudely awakened.
"Who thought of making excuses?" he said rather gruffly.
But down in his heart lay the testimony that convicted him. By this it was proven that he had for thirteen years been excusing himself.
"If you would take an interest you could do something for Lillie and she could do something for you."
He did not jest this away. He was taking an interest now and doing some humiliating thinking, and as a result of all this he stood before himself in a clear, new light, in which it could readily be seen that he was less in need of sympathy than of pardon.
On her way home that afternoon Nannie called at Mrs. Earnest's house, and was boisterously welcomed by the two little ones of the family, Mamie and Jim.
"A story! A story!" they shouted.
"Oh, I can't," said Nannie. "I haven't any in my head."
"Yes, you must! You promised!" urged Jim in an extremely moral tone (he himself was a shocking transgressor in the matter of promises). "You promised! You know you did! You've got to!"
"Well, what shall it be about?"
"Indians!" screamed Jim, "and let them do a lot of killing!"
"No. I want a kitty story," said Mamie.
"I won't have a kitty story—I want a bloody Indian story!" said Jim stoutly.
"I don't know any bloody Indian story, and I wouldn't tell one if I did," said Nannie in her abrupt, decisive way.
"I won't listen, then," pouted Jim.
"Very well. You may go to Kamchatka if you like. Mamie and I are going to have a kitty story."
Mamie cuddled up to Nannie, while Master Jim stalked out of the room. It was observed, however, that he was not above taking up a squatter's claim in the hall and listening through the crack of the door.
"Once upon a time," Nannie began in the old way so fascinating to children—"once upon a time there lived a dear little kitty."
Just at this point the front door opened and Mr. Earnest walked in. Now, Nannie had never fancied this gentleman, and to-night, as she noted his glowering look, she felt a savage desire to annoy him.
"Hello, chick," he said, brusquely In answer to little Mamie's greeting. "Good-evening, Nannie," he added, taking out his paper and seating himself.
As he did so Mrs. Earnest came into the room. She always seemed ill at ease in her husband's presence, though she strove to appear the contrary.
"Why, good-evening, dear," she began. "Are you home?"
"No, I'm not," he said roughly. "Can't you see?"
"I thought I recognized you," she replied, forcing a little laugh.
He made no reply.
"Did you bring the sugar, dear?" she asked presently.
"No, I didn't."
She was depending on this for preserving, and she wanted to ask why he failed, but did not quite dare.
"Can you bring it to-morrow?" she inquired after an awkward pause.
"I don't know," he said gruffly.
Again she hesitated. She was very gentle and naturally timid, and his treatment had increased the latter tendency. At last she mustered strength to say:
"I need it very much."
There was no reply, and directly she left the room.
Now, not one iota of this domestic scene was lost upon Nannie. From the day she had listened to that story told by Constance Chance to her young friend (Mrs. Earnest's oldest child) she had been looking about her sharply. The first direction of eyes newly opened is outward. We see our neighbors—see that instead of performing their part like men they are skulking through life—men as churls, snarling, or it may be stalking, automaton fashion; men as sticks, walking, and we hasten to correct their errors. Our own correction comes afterward, if at all, for as the poet has told us, it were easier to tell twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to do it.
Nannie fastened her eyes upon Mr. Earnest, but as he was now absorbed in his paper he lost the benefit of her fierce glances.
"Why don't you tell?" urged Mamie, who did not relish this interruption to her story.
"Well, once there lived a horrid pig."
"Why, that's not it," said the child pettishly. "It's a kitty."
"No, it's a pig," reiterated Nannie with emphasis. "A horrid, selfish pig!"
"I don't like that," pouted Mamie. "You begin about a kitty, and just as I'm getting interested in her you go off on a pig."
"Well, then, once there was a big, horrid cat."
"You said a dear little kitty," cried Mamie.
"He was a dear little kitty once, I suppose, but he grew up to be a big selfish, glowering, tortoise-shell tomcat."
"Was there any mama kitty?" asked Mamie, who yearned for a gentle element in the story.
"Yes, and she was lovely, so unselfish and kind, but the big, ugly one bullied her all the time till she was afraid to call her soul her own."
"Did they have any teeny weeny kitties?" asked Mamie.
"Yes, three of them. The oldest was very sweet and the next was rather good sometimes, but showed signs of being horrid like the big one when he grew up, and the littlest of all was very cunning and good."
"Did they have a little house?"
"Yes, but it was awfully hard to keep it, because when Mrs. Kitty wanted anything she was afraid to ask old Mr. Cat for it, and when he forgot things, instead of begging her pardon, as he should have done, he would glare at her until she was afraid of her life. Oh, he was an odious old thing! He thought he was very big and handsome, but he was horrid-looking, and everybody hated him and he made everybody wretched. Well, one day Mrs. Kitty was going to give a birthday party for the weeniest kitty. They none of them wanted old Mr. Cat to come, because nobody could have a good time when he was around, but they didn't know how to get rid of him without making him angry—he was always angry at somebody or something.
"Now the family who owned these kitties had some rabbits, and lately something had been killing the rabbits, and they wanted to find out what it was, so they set a trap. Well, on the birthday Mrs. Kitty prepared a nice little dinner; she had some new milk, and a little meat and a bit of cheese, and six little mice. The table was so pretty, and everybody sat down, and there was no end of the fun going on, until suddenly they all stopped talking and laughing, for they saw hateful Mr. Cat. He came sulking and glowering along, as if somebody outside had whipped him and he wanted to take it out of his family. Mrs. Kitty begged him to sit down, and the little kitty told him it was her birthday party.
"'What can I help you to?' asked Mrs. Kitty in her pretty voice, trying not to look frightened.
"'None of this stuff,' he growled. 'Haven't you anything decent to eat?'
"'I'm afraid we haven't anything but this,' said Mrs. Kitty, her teeth chattering with dread for fear he'd pounce on the table and break the dishes. 'Do please take something,' she begged.
"But he only made a great hateful ts-s! and turned away as mad as he could be, and then down he hopped right into the rabbit trap, which happened to be near.
"Out came one of the boys of the family, hallooing and shouting to the others that he had heard the trap go off and knew they'd caught the thief, and the poor little kitties ran away as fast as their small legs would carry them, not stopping to see that horrid old Mr. Cat was held fast."
"What became of Mr. Cat?" asked Mamie.
"He came to a bad end, as all such creatures do," said Nannie in a terrible voice.
At this point Jim's interest outran his pride, and he swung open the door so that he could hear better.
"What became of him?" persisted Mamie.
"He received a sound trouncing," said Nannie.
Just at this juncture of affairs she caught sight of Mr. Earnest's eyes peering at her above his paper. Had they been filled with tears or dark with remorse she might have relented, but, shocking to relate, they were fairly twinkling with merriment, and Nannie perceived that she was amusing her auditor hugely, instead of reading him a terrible lesson, and in her anger she all but lost control of herself.
"Wasn't anything else done to him?" asked Jim in a rather disappointed tone.
"Yes," said Nannie, glaring at Mr. Earnest in a fierce, defiant manner.
"Oh, that's enough to do to him," pleaded little Mamie.
"No, it isn't," said Jim. "He ate up the rabbits."
"Maybe he didn't eat the rabbits," urged tender-hearted Mamie.
"No, he didn't eat the rabbits. A weasel did that," said Nannie, her awful gaze still fixed on Mr. Earnest's laughing eyes. "But he had been ugly to his family, and that's the worst, the meanest thing a man—a cat can do, and Providence caught him in a trap to punish him."
"What else was done to him?" persisted Jim.
"He was hung," said Nannie, and she almost smacked her lips with savage relish.
"Oh!" said Jim, and he condescended to enter the parlor and plant himself in front of Nannie. "Then what else was done with him?" reiterated this young avenging fury.
"I don't like this story," said Mamie.
"I do!" said Jim. "It's most bester than Indians."
Nannie was going to say that was all, but just then she caught sight of those mocking eyes again, and in a sudden fury she added:
"He was drawn and quartered."
"Oh!" gasped Jim, while Mamie began to weep.
Just then a roar of laughter ensued from behind the newspaper, and Nannie, whose every nerve was taut, leaped from her chair.
The newspaper fell, and the two chief actors in this drama confronted one another, one of them convulsed with laughter and the other with flashing, defiant eyes and tightly pursed mouth.
"And after that—" urged Jim. "Go on, Miss Nannie. Oh, this is a bully story! It's bestest than Indians!"
"After that," said Nannie, turning squarely on Mr. Earnest, "after that he was sent to the penitentiary for life, and everybody said 'Good enough!' 'Served him right, nasty, mean, horrid old thing!'" and away she went, slamming the front door behind her.
The bang of the door, and still more the unusual sound of Mr. Earnest's laughter, brought the little wife to the spot.
"We had a bully story!" Master Jim explained. "There wasn't any fighting in it, but a big old cat got caught in a trap, and he was hung and quartered up."
"Jim!" said his mother. "Do stop! I don't like such stories. What could Nannie have been thinking of?"
If she had dared she would have added: "I don't see how anybody could have laughed over that."
But perhaps she was checked by a look on Mr. Earnest's face. He was not laughing now; neither was he scowling; he looked very grave.
"Jennie," he said, "come here, dear," and with a quick, unaccustomed flutter of her heart she went to him. "I've been a brute—a cowardly brute, but I'm sorry, and I want to do better. Will you forgive me? And if I behave like a man in future do you think you can go back to the old love, dear?"
The children had run out to see if Nannie had left them, and the room was very still; no sound but the ticking of the clock, and once in awhile a deep sob that would not be crushed back.
Great events turn on small pivots ofttimes, and so it happened that there were some changes in that little house after this.
Curiously enough, not long after Nannie's story a great tortoise-shell tomcat appeared in the Earnest home. No one thought of asking Mrs. Earnest if she had brought him there, and the others knew nothing about him. More curiously still, when Mr. Earnest began to grow sulky or ugly, Sir Tortoise Shell would often walk into the room and glare at him with his big, ugly eyes.
"Jennie, I believe I'll shoot that cat!" he exclaimed one day. "I can't bear him!"
"Oh, no, I couldn't let you hurt him, Gerald," said Mrs. Earnest, who had become quite a spirited little woman in the new and happy atmosphere she breathed now. "I'm so fond of him."
She looked demure enough as she stooped to pet the cat, but really her eyes were sparkling with mischief, for truth to tell, she had heard Nannie's story and was ready to adopt a big yellow cat as her coat of arms.
Mr. Earnest strolled out on to the gallery. He too was thinking of that story.
"I could have stood the trouncing," he said to himself, "and the hanging, and even the drawing and quartering; but when it came to sending all four quarters to the penitentiary for life, what could a poor devil do but cave in?"
A week had passed since Steve refused to burden himself longer with Sarah Maria's care and education. As a matter of course he saw that the irascible lady was still retained about the place, but he felt that to be no concern of his so long as their orbits did not cross, and so far Sarah Maria seemed to appreciate his indifference and to thrive upon it.
A change of base was effected, however, on the morning of the eighth day, and it came about in this wise. On going down to his little corn-field one morning to see how matters were progressing, Steve found—but perhaps we should first tell how he had, with melancholy eyes, seen most of the results of his summer's hard work come to naught; one vegetable after another had gone the way of the flesh—not a legitimate way, as it should have gone, on the family table, but by the path of some violence that had cut off its usefulness and ended its life prematurely.
The corn was about the only article that had escaped such wreckage; it really had flourished and now bade fair to grace the table before long. Once in a while, when his spirits needed propping, Steve allowed himself the comfort of gazing upon the vigorous cornstalks, with their budding tassels, and this was his intent upon this particular day. Alas! the sight he beheld was hardly calculated to raise the spiritual thermometer, so to speak, for Sarah Maria was contentedly munching what corn she had not already trampled under foot. Now, this was more than even Steve could endure, and for once his gentleness and quiet gave way to something resembling a wild storm.
Breaking a stout switch from a tree, he proceeded to use it with such energy that Sarah started for the barn at a sprinting gait. She did not mind being sent home—that she expected as a matter of course; but she hotly resented the manner in which it was done. Reaching the barn and finding the door closed, she suddenly turned and charged Steve with such malice and vigor that she was upon him before he had time to think of escaping or of defending himself. With one blow she knocked him down, but happily, instead of demolishing him at once, she stood over him glaring and otherwise torturing him mentally before she could decide upon the best method by which to blot him out of existence.
While Steve was thus being rolled as a sweet morsel of revenge under the tongue of the vicious Sarah, Brownie came running from the house. Possibly he beheld his master's predicament and wished to succor him; possibly he was animated by the spirit of mischief which seemed to possess him most of the time. However that may be, he collided with a hive of bees as he ran and upset it. Then swift as a flash he fled to a large tree growing nearby and stood upon his little hind feet close to its trunk, in such a manner that he was completely hidden from view.
The bees, raging out of their house and looking about them for the enemy who had knocked so rudely at their back door as to overturn the entire building, beheld Sarah Maria standing rampant over the prostrate Steve. The latter looked meek enough, but the former was evidently equal to anything vicious. Accepting this circumstantial evidence without investigation, the bees sallied forth in a body and proceeded to punish the wicked cow, and in about one minute Mrs. Maria was dancing a fisher's hornpipe of the most extravagant character. With tail tilted at a disrespectful angle, she careened in such fashion as to bring her flying heels close to Steve's terrified nose. Meanwhile he lay still, watching proceedings with gentle amazement.
"Most extraordinary conduct," he said.
By-and-by, thinking the time ripe for escape, he attempted to rise and slip away, but the eagle eye of the festive bovine caught his first movement, and she pounced upon him so viciously that nothing but his feigning to be dead saved his life. Just at this junction the kitchen door opened, and Bridget, who had observed these high proceedings from the window, put out her head and screamed "Murther!" on hearing which Sarah dashed toward the house, but was back again upon Steve before he had a chance to rise.
"Upset another hive, me dear!" screamed Bridget. "Sure a big dose of bees will be good fer her."
Sarah Maria again galloped toward the kitchen, and Bridget hastily withdrew her counsel.
"Shure it's the divil himsilf broke loose!" shouted Bridget again, opening the door a crack. "I'd know his horns an' tail anywheres, bad cess to him! Howly Mither! how shall I get yez into the house? It's a state of siege I'm in here, or I'd be out a-dhraggin' yez inside. Don't raise yer hid, Mr. Loveland—don't now, me dear, as ye love yer life, or fust ye know she'll go a-bowlin' of it 'roun' that yard as if it was a billiard bawl. She's got no more heart in her brist than that. Och! bad luck ter her! Shure——"
But again Sarah Maria started to interview the cook, and again Bridget had a pressing engagement indoors.
"Och! what shall we do now? Shure it's quakin' I am fer fear ivery minute. I'll see your gory head bouncin' 'roun' the potaty patch an' her afther it. May the saints defind yez from sich a horrible fate. Och! look at that, now!" she shrieked as Sarah made another lurch in Steve's direction. "Perlice! perlice!" she screamed, so loud that she might have been heard in the city. "Shure I hope I may live ter see that ould divil hangin' ter the apple tree an' the crows fasteing off her wicked ould body. There, now, come, Mr. Loveland—she's off! Och! good luck ter thim bees! Git up now, me darlint! There, rin! rin fer yer life! Och! she's comin' agin!"
But Steve reached the kitchen door first, and Bridget reached forth a welcoming hand and snatched him inside, his coat being rent in twain by the violence of his salvation.
"Shure, now, that's a cow fer a respictable middle-aged woman twilve years over from Oireland ter sit down an' milk when she's not yit ready ter die—is it, now? An' a respictable family ter drink the milk of an' not expect ter be cuttin' up shines an' capers an' all sorts of wicked things in consequence—is it, I say? Luck at that, now! Haven't I told yez that cow hasn't the manners ov a leddy, at all, at all!"
Mrs. Maria was at that moment clearing the fence and dancing down the road, pursued by a hive of bees.
"May the divil claim his own an' sit her up next ter him down where the both ov thim belongs!" was Bridget's pious wish as she disappeared.
Steve had hardly more than had time to change his clothes, which fortunately had received all the damage in the recent scrimmage, when he saw Nannie hurrying down the road. She was half running, half walking, and her face was so radiantly happy that Steve went out to learn the good tidings she evidently bore. So eager was she to impart her news that she called out before he reached her:
"It's happened! It's happened! It's all over! and it's so little—and the dearest—oh, Steve——"
She could say no more, for her words were cut short just here and her excitement found vent in a happy sob.
"Why, my dear," said Steve, taking her gently by the arm and leading her toward the house.
But Nannie resisted:
"No, no," she cried. "I'm going right back, I only came home for you. You must go right over. Randolph is wild. Oh, it's so dear and sweet! Just like a rose! I could smother it with kisses!"
She would hardly let him go for his hat, and all the way over she dragged him along, insisting upon greater speed and chattering in an excited, happy way that was perfectly new and perfectly delightful to Steve.
Randolph was on the lookout for them, and his excitement was no less than Nannie's.
"You must see the pretty little baby, old man," he said after an impetuous hand-shaking.
"Why, yes, do let me see it."
"Don't say it," exclaimed Nannie. "It's a little girl."
"Well, my dear—really—you forgot to mention which it was."
Just then Randolph entered with a bundle of shawls, which he reverently and delightedly opened.
All at once his face changed and a look of blank dismay effaced his happy, expectant expression.
"W—why, where is she?" he stammered.
"Randolph Chance!" blazed Nannie, snatching the bundle from him, "I could slap you! You've got her upside down!"
"Oh!" groaned Randolph. "Will it kill her?"
"It may!" said Nannie fiercely. "You've no business with her! Holding her heels up! Poor little thing."
And she laid her face on the tiny human doll and cooed to it, and soothed it, while the father stood there—big, helpless, remorseful, solicitous, and tender.
"Let me take her," said Steve quietly, holding out his hands.
Nannie's first impulse was to say "No" and to press the baby closer to her, but something in Steve's face arrested the word she would have spoken, and she placed the precious little charge in his arms.
"I declare, old man, one would think you had had a dozen at least!" said Randolph, looking on admiringly.
"It's the first very young child I ever held," said Steve.
Nannie was still. She and Randolph were looking at Steve, and Steve was looking into the little face that lay upon his arm. For a moment no one spoke; then Nannie said abruptly:
"I want to see Constance."
"I'm afraid I can't let you, Nannie," said Randolph. "She doesn't seem quite as well as she did awhile ago."
"Then I must see her," said Nannie emphatically.
"Why, my dear," Steve began gently, "perhaps to-morrow——"
"No, I must see her now. I've something to tell her. It will make her well. I must see her."
She was so determined that Randolph reluctantly consented, and she passed into Constance's room, leaving the baby with Steve.
"Constance," said Nannie, stepping up to the bedside, "you are going to get well, aren't you?"
"Why, yes, of course," said Constance.
"I want to tell you, you must. I think it would be wicked to leave the little baby in the world without a mother. No one would ever love her and no one would teach her to do things and how to be good, and she would be so lonely, and she wouldn't know how to come near people and say anything, no matter if her heart was bursting."
And Nannie sank by the bed and wept as a woman does sometimes when her sobs break their way out and she can't stop them.
A flood seemed to pour upon Constance, and in it she saw the lonely, yearning, ignorant child-wife as she really was. She also saw how unjust she herself had been, and pity and remorse laid hold upon her.
"Nannie! dear Nannie—you poor little thing! Come here. I want to tell you that I love you. I never knew you before and Steve loves you if only you would let him."
But Nannie was on her feet again. Her words had been spoken, and all the crudity that had been swept aside for a moment returned in full force and awkwardness. Without even a glance at Constance she abruptly left the room, and in a few moments she and Steve were walking homeward.
Sarah Maria was gone and baby Chance was thriving. There was bliss enough for any reasonable man, and Steve waxed almost light of heart. All this had come about with time, and other things might come, too, if time were not interfered with. The news of Sarah's rapid transit had hardly cost Nannie the lifting of an eyebrow. She was so absorbed in the baby that she could well afford to spare her amiable bovine.
Although it was quite late in the fall, Steve was actually contemplating the planting of another crop. Now that the main enemy had withdrawn her horns and heels from the garden, winter seemed a mere bagatelle in the way of opposition—an obstacle too small for reckoning.
But, as poets and prose writers have abundantly proven, Ill Fortune has an ugly habit of coming around a corner with a sudden demoniac swish when least expected and she certainly did this time. Steve was out in his garden drinking in the mellow stillness of an Indian summer twilight, and feeling not really happy perhaps—a man who has a home only in name can hardly be that—but rested and at peace at that particular moment, which is much more than could be asserted of his condition the next, for as he looked down the road he beheld Sarah Maria gamboling along, having in tow at the end of a rope a well-spent, perspiring darky.
"Dis yere yo' cow, massa?" asked the weary African as he came up.
Steve hesitated; he was sorely tempted to repudiate madam.
"Ain't yo's Massa Lubland?"
Steve nodded in a gloomy manner.
"Den I reckon dis yere b'longs to yo'," he said confidently, and he tugged and pulled the unruly beast within the boundary of the cow-yard, with no further damage to the place than the trampling of several choice plants and the breaking of a young apple tree.
"How much do I owe you?" asked Steve in a tone of subdued melancholy.
"Now, massa, I's gwine tell yo' my story, an' den I lebes it to yo' to do de right ting by me. Yo' see, dis yere cow come to me jes' 'bout tree months ago, an' my wife she 'lowed it was a giff, but I sez, 'No, sah, no giffs come a-droppin' out de sky dat a-way. Dis yere b'longs to some ob de quality folk, an' dey's a-gwine to want her some day, so we mus' keep her up right smart, an' dey'll pay us fer all our trubble.' So we fed her ob de fat ob de lan', but 'peared like she were de kin' dat keeps lean anyways; dat's why she look so kin' o' pulin' now.
"She was so contrairy to manage dat I got kin' o' skeered ob her, an' one day she tuk me in de pit ob de stomach an' h'isted me ober de fence, an' I hed mis'ry in de stomach an' mis'ry in de back, an' my wife 'lowed I was gwine ter die. It tuk de doctor an' a powerful lot o' medicine ter sot me up agin, an' I was kin' o' porely fer a long time. Bimeby we heerd de cow b'longed ter Massa Lubland, an' yo' libed out heah, an' jes' den a neighbor come 'long wid a load o' furn'ture an' I ax him:
"'Could yo' take de cow?'
"'Ef she'll hitch on I could,' he say. 'Is she peaceable or is she ornery?'
"'She's ornery heah,' I say, 'but she's gwine ter wawk 'long lak a lady when she's gwine home, 'case she's homesick.'
"Well, massa, he done tuk her, but when he come back from de city he tole me she jes' sot herself agin goin', an' she sot so hard de hosses couldn't pull nohow, an' when he got down to loose her she rared till she fetched some o' de furn'ture down on her haid, an' dar was a nice table broke ter kindlin' wood, an' I hed ter pay him five dollars fer it. An' jes' as I put de pocket book up agin—an' it was plum' empty—roun' de corner come de cow, wid her eyes on fire, an' she jes' strewed us bofe ober de groun' like we was dead chickens afore she runned inter de shed. An' massa, sho's yo's bawn, she hooked an' tossed me like a rubber bawl all de way up heah, till I hain't got a whole bone anywhares in my body. Lordy! but she's a turrible critter!"
"Do I owe you ten dollars?" asked Steve with grim resignation.
"I takes whatever yo' gives, massa, an' I doan complain; but I knows yo's hon'rable, an' yo's gwine ter 'member I was laid up from work a week an' hed ter pay de doctor an' de med'cines, an' I's fed her plum' full fer tree months."