Deliverance came from an entirely unexpected source.
Late one afternoon the door maid came up and announced an old colored man who wanted to see Major Talbot. The Major asked that he be sent up to his study. Soon an old darkey appeared in the doorway, with his hat in hand, bowing, and scraping with one clumsy foot. He was quite decently dressed in a baggy suit of black. His big, coarse shoes shone with a metallic luster suggestive of stove polish. His bushy wool was gray—almost white. After middle life, it is difficult to estimate the age of a negro. This one might have seen as many years as had Major Talbot.
"I be bound you don't know me, Mars' Pendleton," were his first words.
The Major rose and came forward at the old, familiar style of address. It was one of the old plantation darkeys without a doubt; but they had been widely scattered, and he could not recall the voice or face.
"I don't believe I do," he said kindly—"unless you will assist my memory."
"Don't you 'member Cindy's Mose, Mars' Pendleton, what 'migrated 'mediately after de war?"
"Wait a moment," said the Major, rubbing his forehead with the tips of his fingers. He loved to recall everything connected with those beloved days. "Cindy's Mose," he reflected. "You worked among the horses—breaking the colts. Yes, I remember now. After the surrender, you took the name of—don't prompt me—Mitchell, and went to the West—to Nebraska."
"Yassir, yassir,"—the old man's face stretched with a delighted grin—"dat's him, dat's it. Newbraska. Dat's me—Mose Mitchell. Old Uncle Mose Mitchell, dey calls me now. Old mars', your pa, gimme a pah of dem mule colts when I lef' fur to staht me goin' with. You 'member dem colts, Mars' Pendleton?"
"I don't seem to recall the colts," said the Major. "You know. I was married the first year of the war and living at the old Follinsbee place. But sit down, sit down, Uncle Mose. I'm glad to see you. I hope you have prospered."
Uncle Mose took a chair and laid his hat carefully on the floor beside it.
"Yessir; of late I done mouty famous. When I first got to Newbraska, dey folks come all roun' me to see dem mule colts. Dey ain't see no mules like dem in Newbraska. I sold dem mules for three hundred dollars. Yessir—three hundred.
"Den I open a blacksmith shop, suh, and made some money and bought some lan'. Me and my old 'oman done raised up seb'm chillun, and all doin' well 'cept two of 'em what died. Fo' year ago a railroad come along and staht a town slam ag'inst my lan', and, suh, Mars' Pendleton, Uncle Mose am worth leb'm thousand dollars in money, property, and lan'."
"I'm glad to hear it," said the Major heartily. "Glad to hear it."
"And dat little baby of yo'n, Mars' Pendleton—one what you name Miss Lyddy—I be bound dat little tad done growed up tell nobody wouldn't know her."
The Major stepped to the door and called: "Lydie, dear, will you come?"
Miss Lydia, looking quite grown up and a little worried, came in from her room.
"Dar, now! What'd I tell you? I knowed dat baby done be plum growed up. You don't 'member Uncle Mose, child?"
"This is Aunt Cindy's Mose, Lydia," explained the Major. "He left Sunnymead for the West when you were two years old."
"Well," said Miss Lydia, "I can hardly be expected to remember you, Uncle Mose, at that age. And, as you say, I'm 'plum growed up,' and was a blessed long time ago. But I'm glad to see you, even if I can't remember you."
And she was. And so was the Major. Something alive and tangible had come to link them with the happy past. The three sat and talked over the olden times, the Major and Uncle Mose correcting or prompting each other as they reviewed the plantation scenes and days.
The Major inquired what the old man was doing so far from his home.
"Uncle Mose am a delicate," he explained, "to de grand Baptis' convention in dis city. I never preached none, but bein' a residin' elder in de church, and able fur to pay my own expenses, dey sent me along."
"And how did you know we were in Washington?" inquired Miss Lydia.
"Dey's a cullud man works in de hotel whar I stops, what comes from Mobile. He told me he seen Mars' Pendleton comin' outen dish here house one mawnin'.
"What I come fur," continued Uncle Mose, reaching into his pocket—"besides de sight of home folks—was to pay Mars' Pendleton what I owes him.
"Yessir—three hundred dollars." He handed the Major a roll of bills. "When I lef' old mars' says: 'Take dem mule colts, Mose, and, if it be so you gits able, pay fur 'em.' Yessir—dem was his words. De war had done lef' old mars' po' hisself. Old mars' bein' long ago dead, de debt descends to Mars' Pendleton. Three hundred dollars. Uncle Mose is plenty able to pay now. When dat railroad buy my lan' I laid off to pay fur dem mules. Count de money, Mars' Pendleton. Dat's what I sold dem mules fur. Yessir."
Tears were in Major Talbot's eyes. He took Uncle Mose's hand and laid his other upon his shoulder.
"Dear, faithful, old servitor," he said in an unsteady voice, "I don't mind saying to you that 'Mars' Pendleton spent his last dollar in the world a week ago. We will accept this money, Uncle Mose, since, in a way, it is a sort of payment, as well as a token of the loyalty and devotion of the old regime. Lydia, my dear, take the money. You are better fitted than I to manage its expenditure."
"Take it, honey," said Uncle Mose. "Hit belongs to you. Hit's Talbot money."
After Uncle Mose had gone, Miss Lydia had a good cry—-for joy; and the Major turned his face to a corner, and smoked his clay pipe volcanically.
The succeeding days saw the Talbots restored to peace and ease. Miss Lydia's face lost its worried look. The major appeared in a new frock coat, in which he looked like a wax figure personifying the memory of his golden age. Another publisher who read the manuscript of the Anecdotes and Reminiscences thought that, with a little retouching and toning down of the high lights, he could make a really bright and salable volume of it. Altogether, the situation was comfortable, and not without the touch of hope that is often sweeter than arrived blessings.
One day, about a week after their piece of good luck, a maid brought a letter for Miss Lydia to her room. The postmark showed that it was from New York. Not knowing any one there, Miss Lydia, in a mild flutter of wonder, sat down by her table and opened the letter with her scissors. This was what she read:
DEAR MISS TALBOT:
I thought you might be glad to learn of my good fortune. I have received and accepted an offer of two hundred dollars per week by a New York stock company to play Colonel Calhoun in A Magnolia Flower.
There is something else I wanted you to know. I guess you'd better not tell Major Talbot. I was anxious to make him some amends for the great help he was to me in studying the part, and for the bad humor he was in about it. He refused to let me, so I did it anyhow. I could easily spare the three hundred.
Sincerely yours, H. HOPKINS HARGRAVES.
P.S. How did I play Uncle Mose?
Major Talbot, passing through the hall, saw Miss Lydia's door open and stopped.
"Any mail for us this morning, Lydia, dear?" he asked.
Miss Lydia slid the letter beneath a fold of her dress.
"The Mobile Chronicle came," she said promptly. "It's on the table in your study."
BARGAIN DAY AT TUTT HOUSE
By George Randolph Chester (1869- )
[From McClure's Magazine, June, 1905; copyright, 1905, by the S.S. McClure Co.; republished by the author's permission.]
Just as the stage rumbled over the rickety old bridge, creaking and groaning, the sun came from behind the clouds that had frowned all the way, and the passengers cheered up a bit. The two richly dressed matrons who had been so utterly and unnecessarily oblivious to the presence of each other now suspended hostilities for the moment by mutual and unspoken consent, and viewed with relief the little, golden-tinted valley and the tree-clad road just beyond. The respective husbands of these two ladies exchanged a mere glance, no more, of comfort. They, too, were relieved, though more by the momentary truce than by anything else. They regretted very much to be compelled to hate each other, for each had reckoned up his vis-a-vis as a rather proper sort of fellow, probably a man of some achievement, used to good living and good company.
Extreme iciness was unavoidable between them, however. When one stranger has a splendidly preserved blonde wife and the other a splendidly preserved brunette wife, both of whom have won social prominence by years of hard fighting and aloofness, there remains nothing for the two men but to follow the lead, especially when directly under the eyes of the leaders.
The son of the blonde matron smiled cheerfully as the welcome light flooded the coach.
He was a nice-looking young man, of about twenty-two, one might judge, and he did his smiling, though in a perfectly impersonal and correct sort of manner, at the pretty daughter of the brunette matron. The pretty daughter also smiled, but her smile was demurely directed at the trees outside, clad as they were in all the flaming glory of their autumn tints, glistening with the recent rain and dripping with gems that sparkled and flashed in the noonday sun as they fell.
It is marvelous how much one can see out of the corner of the eye, while seeming to view mere scenery.
The driver looked down, as he drove safely off the bridge, and shook his head at the swirl of water that rushed and eddied, dark and muddy, close up under the rotten planking; then he cracked his whip, and the horses sturdily attacked the little hill.
Thick, overhanging trees on either side now dimmed the light again, and the two plump matrons once more glared past the opposite shoulders, profoundly unaware of each other. The husbands took on the politely surly look required of them. The blonde son's eyes still sought the brunette daughter, but it was furtively done and quite unsuccessfully, for the daughter was now doing a little glaring on her own account. The blonde matron had just swept her eyes across the daughter's skirt, estimating the fit and material of it with contempt so artistically veiled that it could almost be understood in the dark.
The big bays swung to the brow of the hill with ease, and dashed into a small circular clearing, where a quaint little two-story building, with a mossy watering-trough out in front, nestled under the shade of majestic old trees that reared their brown and scarlet crowns proudly into the sky. A long, low porch ran across the front of the structure, and a complaining sign hung out announcing, in dim, weather-flecked letters on a cracked board, that this was the "Tutt House." A gray-headed man, in brown overalls and faded blue jumper, stood on the porch and shook his fist at the stage as it whirled by.
"What a delightfully old-fashioned inn!" exclaimed the pretty daughter. "How I should like to stop there over night!"
"You would probably wish yourself away before morning, Evelyn," replied her mother indifferently. "No doubt it would be a mere siege of discomfort."
The blonde matron turned to her husband. The pretty daughter had been looking at the picturesque "inn" between the heads of this lady and her son.
"Edward, please pull down the shade behind me," she directed. "There is quite a draught from that broken window."
The pretty daughter bit her lip. The brunette matron continued to stare at the shade in the exact spot upon which her gaze had been before directed, and she never quivered an eyelash. The young man seemed very uncomfortable, and he tried to look his apologies to the pretty daughter, but she could not see him now, not even if her eyes had been all corners.
They were bowling along through another avenue of trees when the driver suddenly shouted, "Whoa there!"
The horses were brought up with a jerk that was well nigh fatal to the assortment of dignity inside the coach. A loud roaring could be heard, both ahead and in the rear, a sharp splitting like a fusillade of pistol shots, then a creaking and tearing of timbers. The driver bent suddenly forward.
"Gid ap!" he cried, and the horses sprang forward with a lurch. He swung them around a sharp bend with a skillful hand and poised his weight above the brake as they plunged at terrific speed down a steep grade. The roaring was louder than ever now, and it became deafening as they suddenly emerged from the thick underbrush at the bottom of the declivity.
"Caught, by gravy!" ejaculated the driver, and, for the second time, he brought the coach to an abrupt stop.
"Do see what is the matter, Ralph," said the blonde matron impatiently.
Thus commanded, the young man swung out and asked the driver about it.
"Paintsville dam's busted," he was informed. "I been a-lookin' fer it this many a year, an' this here freshet done it. You see the holler there? Well, they's ten foot o' water in it, an' it had ort to be stone dry. The bridge is tore out behind us, an' we're stuck here till that water runs out. We can't git away till to-morry, anyways."
He pointed out the peculiar topography of the place, and Ralph got back in the coach.
"We're practically on a flood-made island," he exclaimed, with one eye on the pretty daughter, "and we shall have to stop over night at that quaint, old-fashioned inn we passed a few moments ago."
The pretty daughter's eyes twinkled, and he thought he caught a swift, direct gleam from under the long lashes—but he was not sure.
"Dear me, how annoying," said the blonde matron, but the brunette matron still stared, without the slightest trace of interest in anything else, at the infinitesimal spot she had selected on the affronting window-shade.
The two men gave sighs of resignation, and cast carefully concealed glances at each other, speculating on the possibility of a cigar and a glass, and maybe a good story or two, or possibly even a game of poker after the evening meal. Who could tell what might or might not happen?
When the stage drew up in front of the little hotel, it found Uncle Billy Tutt prepared for his revenge. In former days the stage had always stopped at the Tutt House for the noonday meal. Since the new railway was built through the adjoining county, however, the stage trip became a mere twelve-mile, cross-country transfer from one railroad to another, and the stage made a later trip, allowing the passengers plenty of time for "dinner" before they started. Day after day, as the coach flashed by with its money-laden passengers, Uncle Billy had hoped that it would break down. But this was better, much better. The coach might be quickly mended, but not the flood.
"I'm a-goin' t' charge 'em till they squeal," he declared to the timidly protesting Aunt Margaret, "an' then I'm goin' t' charge 'em a least mite more, drat 'em!"
He retreated behind the rough wooden counter that did duty as a desk, slammed open the flimsy, paper-bound "cash book" that served as a register, and planted his elbows uncompromisingly on either side of it.
"Let 'em bring in their own traps," he commented, and Aunt Margaret fled, ashamed and conscience-smitten, to the kitchen. It seemed awful.
The first one out of the coach was the husband of the brunette matron, and, proceeding under instructions, he waited neither for luggage nor women folk, but hurried straight into the Tutt House. The other man would have been neck and neck with him in the race, if it had not been that he paused to seize two suitcases and had the misfortune to drop one, which burst open and scattered a choice assortment of lingerie from one end of the dingy coach to the other.
In the confusion of rescuing the fluffery, the owner of the suitcase had to sacrifice her hauteur and help her husband and son block up the aisle, while the other matron had the ineffable satisfaction of being kept waiting, at last being enabled to say, sweetly and with the most polite consideration:
"Will you kindly allow me to pass?"
The blonde matron raised up and swept her skirts back perfectly flat. She was pale but collected. Her husband was pink but collected. Her son was crimson and uncollected. The brunette daughter could not have found an eye anywhere in his countenance as she rustled out after her mother.
"I do hope that Belmont has been able to secure choice quarters," the triumphing matron remarked as her daughter joined her on the ground. "This place looked so very small that there can scarcely be more than one comfortable suite in it."
It was a vital thrust. Only a splendidly cultivated self-control prevented the blonde matron from retaliating upon the unfortunate who had muddled things. Even so, her eyes spoke whole shelves of volumes.
The man who first reached the register wrote, in a straight black scrawl, "J. Belmont Van Kamp, wife, and daughter." There being no space left for his address, he put none down.
"I want three adjoining rooms, en suite if possible," he demanded.
"Three!" exclaimed Uncle Billy, scratching his head. "Won't two do ye? I ain't got but six bedrooms in th' house. Me an' Marg't sleeps in one, an' we're a-gittin' too old fer a shake-down on th' floor. I'll have t' save one room fer th' driver, an' that leaves four. You take two now—-"
Mr. Van Kamp cast a hasty glance out of the window, The other man was getting out of the coach. His own wife was stepping on the porch.
"What do you ask for meals and lodging until this time to-morrow?" he interrupted.
The decisive moment had arrived. Uncle Billy drew a deep breath.
"Two dollars a head!" he defiantly announced. There! It was out! He wished Margaret had stayed to hear him say it.
The guest did not seem to be seriously shocked, and Uncle Billy was beginning to be sorry he had not said three dollars, when Mr. Van Kamp stopped the landlord's own breath.
"I'll give you fifteen dollars for the three best rooms in the house," he calmly said, and Landlord Tutt gasped as the money fluttered down under his nose.
"Jis' take yore folks right on up, Mr. Kamp," said Uncle Billy, pouncing on the money. "Th' rooms is th' three right along th' hull front o' th' house. I'll be up and make on a fire in a minute. Jis' take th' Jonesville Banner an' th' Uticky Clarion along with ye."
As the swish of skirts marked the passage of the Van Kamps up the wide hall stairway, the other party swept into the room.
The man wrote, in a round flourish, "Edward Eastman Ellsworth, wife, and son."
"I'd like three choice rooms, en suite," he said.
"Gosh!" said Uncle Billy, regretfully. "That's what Mr. Kamp wanted, fust off, an' he got it. They hain't but th' little room over th' kitchen left. I'll have to put you an' your wife in that, an' let your boy sleep with th' driver."
The consternation in the Ellsworth party was past calculating by any known standards of measurement. The thing was an outrage! It was not to be borne! They would not submit to it!
Uncle Billy, however, secure in his mastery of the situation, calmly quartered them as he had said. "An' let 'em splutter all they want to," he commented comfortably to himself.
The Ellsworths were holding a family indignation meeting on the broad porch when the Van Ramps came contentedly down for a walk, and brushed by them with unseeing eyes.
"It makes a perfectly fascinating suite," observed Mrs. Van Kamp, in a pleasantly conversational tone that could be easily overheard by anyone impolite enough to listen. "That delightful old-fashioned fireplace in the middle apartment makes it an ideal sitting-room, and the beds are so roomy and comfortable."
"I just knew it would be like this!" chirruped Miss Evelyn. "I remarked as we passed the place, if you will remember, how charming it would be to stop in this dear, quaint old inn over night. All my wishes seem to come true this year."
These simple and, of course, entirely unpremeditated remarks were as vinegar and wormwood to Mrs. Ellsworth, and she gazed after the retreating Van Kamps with a glint in her eye that would make one understand Lucretia Borgia at last.
Her son also gazed after the retreating Van Kamp. She had an exquisite figure, and she carried herself with a most delectable grace. As the party drew away from the inn she dropped behind the elders and wandered off into a side path to gather autumn leaves.
Ralph, too, started off for a walk, but naturally not in the same direction.
"Edward!" suddenly said Mrs. Ellsworth. "I want you to turn those people out of that suite before night!"
"Very well," he replied with a sigh, and got up to do it. He had wrecked a railroad and made one, and had operated successful corners in nutmegs and chicory. No task seemed impossible. He walked in to see the landlord.
"What are the Van Kamps paying you for those three rooms?" he asked.
"Fifteen dollars," Uncle Billy informed him, smoking one of Mr. Van Kamp's good cigars and twiddling his thumbs in huge content.
"I'll give you thirty for them. Just set their baggage outside and tell them the rooms are occupied."
"No sir-ree!" rejoined Uncle Billy. "A bargain's a bargain, an' I allus stick to one I make."
Mr. Ellsworth withdrew, but not defeated. He had never supposed that such an absurd proposition would be accepted. It was only a feeler, and he had noticed a wince of regret in his landlord. He sat down on the porch and lit a strong cigar. His wife did not bother him. She gazed complacently at the flaming foliage opposite, and allowed him to think. Getting impossible things was his business in life, and she had confidence in him.
"I want to rent your entire house for a week," he announced to Uncle Billy a few minutes later. It had occurred to him that the flood might last longer than they anticipated.
Uncle Billy's eyes twinkled.
"I reckon it kin be did," he allowed. "I reckon a ho-tel man's got a right to rent his hull house ary minute."
"Of course he has. How much do you want?"
Uncle Billy had made one mistake in not asking this sort of folks enough, and he reflected in perplexity.
"Make me a offer," he proposed. "Ef it hain't enough I'll tell ye. You want to rent th' hull place, back lot an' all?"
"No, just the mere house. That will be enough," answered the other with a smile. He was on the point of offering a hundred dollars, when he saw the little wrinkles about Mr. Tutt's eyes, and he said seventy-five.
"Sho, ye're jokin'!" retorted Uncle Billy. He had been considered a fine horse-trader in that part of the country. "Make it a hundred and twenty-five, an' I'll go ye."
Mr. Ellsworth counted out some bills.
"Here's a hundred," he said. "That ought to be about right."
"Fifteen more," insisted Uncle Billy.
With a little frown of impatience the other counted off the extra money and handed it over. Uncle Billy gravely handed it back.
"Them's the fifteen dollars Mr. Kamp give me," he explained. "You've got the hull house fer a week, an' o' course all th' money that's tooken in is your'n. You kin do as ye please about rentin' out rooms to other folks, I reckon. A bargain's a bargain, an' I allus stick to one I make."
Ralph Ellsworth stalked among the trees, feverishly searching for squirrels, scarlet leaves, and the glint of a brown walking-dress, this last not being so easy to locate in sunlit autumn woods. Time after time he quickened his pace, only to find that he had been fooled by a patch of dogwood, a clump of haw bushes or even a leaf-strewn knoll, but at last he unmistakably saw the dress, and then he slowed down to a careless saunter.
She was reaching up for some brilliantly colored maple leaves, and was entirely unconscious of his presence, especially after she had seen him. Her pose showed her pretty figure to advantage, but, of course, she did not know that. How should she?
Ralph admired the picture very much. The hat, the hair, the gown, the dainty shoes, even the narrow strip of silken hose that was revealed as she stood a-uptoe, were all of a deep, rich brown that proved an exquisite foil for the pink and cream of her cheeks. He remembered that her eyes were almost the same shade, and wondered how it was that women-folk happened on combinations in dress that so well set off their natural charms. The fool!
He was about three trees away, now, and a panic akin to that which hunters describe as "buck ague" seized him. He decided that he really had no excuse for coming any nearer. It would not do, either, to be seen staring at her if she should happen to turn her head, so he veered off, intending to regain the road. It would be impossible to do this without passing directly in her range of vision, and he did not intend to try to avoid it. He had a fine, manly figure of his own.
He had just passed the nearest radius to her circle and was proceeding along the tangent that he had laid out for himself, when the unwitting maid looked carefully down and saw a tangle of roots at her very feet. She was so unfortunate, a second later, as to slip her foot in this very tangle and give her ankle ever so slight a twist.
"Oh!" cried Miss Van Kamp, and Ralph Ellsworth flew to the rescue. He had not been noticing her at all, and yet he had started to her side before she had even cried out, which was strange. She had a very attractive voice.
"May I be of assistance?" he anxiously inquired.
"I think not, thank you," she replied, compressing her lips to keep back the intolerable pain, and half-closing her eyes to show the fine lashes. Declining the proffered help, she extricated her foot, picked up her autumn branches, and turned away. She was intensely averse to anything that could be construed as a flirtation, even of the mildest, he could certainly see that. She took a step, swayed slightly, dropped the leaves, and clutched out her hand to him.
"It is nothing," she assured him in a moment, withdrawing the hand after he had held it quite long enough. "Nothing whatever. I gave my foot a slight wrench, and turned the least bit faint for a moment."
"You must permit me to walk back, at least to the road, with you," he insisted, gathering up her armload of branches. "I couldn't think of leaving you here alone."
As he stooped to raise the gay woodland treasures he smiled to himself, ever so slightly. This was not his first season out, either.
"Delightful spot, isn't it?" he observed as they regained the road and sauntered in the direction of the Tutt House.
"Quite so," she reservedly answered. She had noticed that smile as he stooped. He must be snubbed a little. It would be so good for him.
"You don't happen to know Billy Evans, of Boston, do you?" he asked.
"I think not. I am but very little acquainted in Boston."
"Too bad," he went on. "I was rather in hopes you knew Billy. All sorts of a splendid fellow, and knows everybody."
"Not quite, it seems," she reminded him, and he winced at the error. In spite of the sly smile that he had permitted to himself, he was unusually interested.
He tried the weather, the flood, the accident, golf, books and three good, substantial, warranted jokes, but the conversation lagged in spite of him. Miss Van Kamp would not for the world have it understood that this unconventional meeting, made allowable by her wrenched ankle, could possibly fulfill the functions of a formal introduction.
"What a ripping, queer old building that is!" he exclaimed, making one more brave effort as they came in sight of the hotel.
"It is, rather," she assented. "The rooms in it are as quaint and delightful as the exterior, too."
She looked as harmless and innocent as a basket of peaches as she said it, and never the suspicion of a smile deepened the dimple in the cheek toward him. The smile was glowing cheerfully away inside, though. He could feel it, if he could not see it, and he laughed aloud.
"Your crowd rather got the better of us there," he admitted with the keen appreciation of one still quite close to college days.
"Of course, the mater is furious, but I rather look on it as a lark."
She thawed like an April icicle.
"It's perfectly jolly," she laughed with him. "Awfully selfish of us, too, I know, but such loads of fun."
They were close to the Tutt House now, and her limp, that had entirely disappeared as they emerged from the woods, now became quite perceptible. There might be people looking out of the windows, though it is hard to see why that should affect a limp.
Ralph was delighted to find that a thaw had set in, and he made one more attempt to establish at least a proxy acquaintance.
"You don't happen to know Peyson Kingsley, of Philadelphia, do you?"
"I'm afraid I don't," she replied. "I know so few Philadelphia people, you see." She was rather regretful about it this time. He really was a clever sort of a fellow, in spite of that smile.
The center window in the second floor of the Tutt House swung open, its little squares of glass flashing jubilantly in the sunlight. Mrs. Ellsworth leaned out over the sill, from the quaint old sitting-room of the Van Kamp apartments!
"Oh, Ralph!" she called in her most dulcet tones. "Kindly excuse yourself and come right on up to our suite for a few moments!"
It is not nearly so easy to take a practical joke as to perpetrate one. Evelyn was sitting thoughtfully on the porch when her father and mother returned. Mrs. Ellsworth was sitting at the center window above, placidly looking out. Her eyes swept carelessly over the Van Kamps, and unconcernedly passed on to the rest of the landscape.
Mrs. Van Kamp gasped and clutched the arm of her husband. There was no need. He, too, had seen the apparition. Evelyn now, for the first time, saw the real humor of the situation. She smiled as she thought of Ralph. She owed him one, but she never worried about her debts. She always managed to get them paid, principal and interest.
Mr. Van Kamp suddenly glowered and strode into the Tutt House. Uncle Billy met him at the door, reflectively chewing a straw, and handed him an envelope. Mr. Van Kamp tore it open and drew out a note. Three five-dollar bills came out with it and fluttered to the porch floor. This missive confronted him:
MR. J. BELMONT VAN KAMP,
DEAR SIR: This is to notify you that I have rented the entire Tutt House for the ensuing week, and am compelled to assume possession of the three second-floor front rooms. Herewith I am enclosing the fifteen dollars you paid to secure the suite. You are quite welcome to make use, as my guest, of the small room over the kitchen. You will find your luggage in that room. Regretting any inconvenience that this transaction may cause you, I am,
Yours respectfully, EDWARD EASTMAN ELLSWORTH.
Mr. Van Kamp passed the note to his wife and sat down or a large chair. He was glad that the chair was comfortable and roomy. Evelyn picked up the bills and tucked them into her waist. She never overlooked any of her perquisites. Mrs. Van Kamp read the note, and the tip of her nose became white. She also sat down, but she was the first to find her voice.
"Atrocious!" she exclaimed. "Atrocious! Simply atrocious, Belmont. This is a house of public entertainment. They can't turn us out in this high-minded manner! Isn't there a law or something to that effect?"
"It wouldn't matter if there was," he thoughtfully replied. "This fellow Ellsworth would be too clever to be caught by it. He would say that the house was not a hotel but a private residence during the period for which he has rented it."
Personally, he rather admired Ellsworth. Seemed to be a resourceful sort of chap who knew how to make money behave itself, and do its little tricks without balking in the harness.
"Then you can make him take down the sign!" his wife declared.
He shook his head decidedly.
"It wouldn't do, Belle," he replied. "It would be spite, not retaliation, and not at all sportsmanlike. The course you suggest would belittle us more than it would annoy them. There must be some other way."
He went in to talk with Uncle Billy.
"I want to buy this place," he stated. "Is it for sale?"
"It sartin is!" replied Uncle Billy. He did not merely twinkle this time. He grinned.
"Three thousand dollars." Mr. Tutt was used to charging by this time, and he betrayed no hesitation.
"I'll write you out a check at once," and Mr. Van Kamp reached in his pocket with the reflection that the spot, after all, was an ideal one for a quiet summer retreat.
"Air you a-goin' t' scribble that there three thou-san' on a piece o' paper?" inquired Uncle Billy, sitting bolt upright. "Ef you air a-figgerin' on that, Mr. Kamp, jis' you save yore time. I give a man four dollars fer one o' them check things oncet, an' I owe myself them four dollars yit."
Mr. Van Kamp retired in disorder, but the thought of his wife and daughter waiting confidently on the porch stopped him. Moreover, the thing had resolved itself rather into a contest between Ellsworth and himself, and he had done a little making and breaking of men and things in his own time. He did some gatling-gun thinking out by the newel-post, and presently rejoined Uncle Billy.
"Mr. Tutt, tell me just exactly what Mr. Ellsworth rented, please," he requested.
"Th' hull house," replied Billy, and then he somewhat sternly added: "Paid me spot cash fer it, too."
Mr. Van Kamp took a wad of loose bills from his trousers pocket, straightened them out leisurely, and placed them in his bill book, along with some smooth yellowbacks of eye-bulging denominations. Uncle Billy sat up and stopped twiddling his thumbs.
"Nothing was said about the furniture, was there?" suavely inquired Van Kamp.
Uncle Billy leaned blankly back in his chair. Little by little the light dawned on the ex-horse-trader. The crow's feet reappeared about his eyes, his mouth twitched, he smiled, he grinned, then he slapped his thigh and haw-hawed.
"No!" roared Uncle Billy. "No, there wasn't, by gum!"
"Nothing but the house?"
"His very own words!" chuckled Uncle Billy. "'Jis' th' mere house,' says he, an' he gits it. A bargain's a bargain, an' I allus stick to one I make."
"How much for the furniture for the week?"
"Fifty dollars!" Mr. Tutt knew how to do business with this kind of people now, you bet.
Mr. Van Kamp promptly counted out the money.
"Drat it!" commented Uncle Billy to himself. "I could 'a' got more!"
"Now where can we make ourselves comfortable with this furniture?"
Uncle Billy chirked up. All was not yet lost.
"Waal," he reflectively drawled, "there's th' new barn. It hain't been used for nothin' yit, senct I built it two years ago. I jis' hadn't th' heart t' put th' critters in it as long as th' ole one stood up."
The other smiled at this flashlight on Uncle Billy's character, and they went out to look at the barn.
Uncle Billy came back from the "Tutt House Annex," as Mr. Van Kamp dubbed the barn, with enough more money to make him love all the world until he got used to having it. Uncle Billy belongs to a large family.
Mr. Van Kamp joined the women on the porch, and explained the attractively novel situation to them. They were chatting gaily when the Ellsworths came down the stairs. Mr. Ellsworth paused for a moment to exchange a word with Uncle Billy.
"Mr. Tutt," said he, laughing, "if we go for a bit of exercise will you guarantee us the possession of our rooms when we come back?"
"Yes sir-ree!" Uncle Billy assured him. "They shan't nobody take them rooms away from you fer money, marbles, ner chalk. A bargain's a bargain, an' I allus stick to one I make," and he virtuously took a chew of tobacco while he inspected the afternoon sky with a clear conscience.
"I want to get some of those splendid autumn leaves to decorate our cozy apartments," Mrs. Ellsworth told her husband as they passed in hearing of the Van Kamps. "Do you know those oldtime rag rugs are the most oddly decorative effects that I have ever seen. They are so rich in color and so exquisitely blended."
There were reasons why this poisoned arrow failed to rankle, but the Van Kamps did not trouble to explain. They were waiting for Ralph to come out and join his parents. Ralph, it seemed, however, had decided not to take a walk. He had already fatigued himself, he had explained, and his mother had favored him with a significant look. She could readily believe him, she had assured him, and had then left him in scorn.
The Van Kamps went out to consider the arrangement of the barn. Evelyn returned first and came out on the porch to find a handkerchief. It was not there, but Ralph was. She was very much surprised to see him, and she intimated as much.
"It's dreadfully damp in the woods," he explained. "By the way, you don't happen to know the Whitleys, of Washington, do you? Most excellent people."
"I'm quite sorry that I do not," she replied. "But you will have to excuse me. We shall be kept very busy with arranging our apartments."
Ralph sprang to his feet with a ludicrous expression.
"Not the second floor front suite!" he exclaimed.
"Oh, no! Not at all," she reassured him.
He laughed lightly.
"Honors are about even in that game," he said.
"Evelyn," called her mother from the hall. "Please come and take those front suite curtains down to the barn."
"Pardon me while we take the next trick," remarked Evelyn with a laugh quite as light and gleeful as his own, and disappeared into the hall.
He followed her slowly, and was met at the door by her father.
"You are the younger Mr. Ellsworth, I believe," politely said Mr. Van Kamp.
"Ralph Ellsworth. Yes, sir."
"Here is a note for your father. It is unsealed. You are quite at liberty to read it."
Mr. Van Kamp bowed himself away, and Ralph opened the note, which read:
EDWARD EASTMAN ELLSWORTH, ESQ.,
Dear Sir: This is to notify you that I have rented the entire furniture of the Tutt House for the ensuing week, and am compelled to assume possession of that in the three second floor front rooms, as well as all the balance not in actual use by Mr. and Mrs. Tutt and the driver of the stage. You are quite welcome, however, to make use of the furnishings in the small room over the kitchen. Your luggage you will find undisturbed. Regretting any inconvenience that this transaction may cause you, I remain,
J. BELMONT VAN KAMP.
Ralph scratched his head in amused perplexity. It devolved upon him to even up the affair a little before his mother came back. He must support the family reputation for resourcefulness, but it took quite a bit of scalp irritation before he aggravated the right idea into being. As soon as the idea came, he went in and made a hide-bound bargain with Uncle Billy, then he went out into the hall and waited until Evelyn came down with a huge armload of window curtains.
"Honors are still even," he remarked. "I have just bought all the edibles about the place, whether in the cellar, the house or any of the surrounding structures, in the ground, above the ground, dead or alive, and a bargain's a bargain as between man and man."
"Clever of you, I'm sure," commented Miss Van Kamp, reflectively. Suddenly her lips parted with a smile that revealed a double row of most beautiful teeth. He meditatively watched the curve of her lips.
"Isn't that rather a heavy load?" he suggested. "I'd be delighted to help you move the things, don't you know."
"It is quite kind of you, and what the men would call 'game,' I believe, under the circumstances," she answered, "but really it will not be necessary. We have hired Mr. Tutt and the driver to do the heavier part of the work, and the rest of it will be really a pleasant diversion."
"No doubt," agreed Ralph, with an appreciative grin. "By the way, you don't happen to know Maud and Dorothy Partridge, of Baltimore, do you? Stunning pretty girls, both of them, and no end of swells."
"I know so very few people in Baltimore," she murmured, and tripped on down to the barn.
Ralph went out on the porch and smoked. There was nothing else that he could do.
It was growing dusk when the elder Ellsworths returned, almost hidden by great masses of autumn boughs.
"You should have been with us, Ralph," enthusiastically said his mother. "I never saw such gorgeous tints in all my life. We have brought nearly the entire woods with us."
"It was a good idea," said Ralph. "A stunning good idea. They may come in handy to sleep on."
Mrs. Ellsworth turned cold.
"What do you mean?" she gasped.
"Ralph," sternly demanded his father, "you don't mean to tell us that you let the Van Kamps jockey us out of those rooms after all?"
"Indeed, no," he airily responded. "Just come right on up and see."
He led the way into the suite and struck a match. One solitary candle had been left upon the mantel shelf. Ralph thought that this had been overlooked, but his mother afterwards set him right about that. Mrs. Van Kamp had cleverly left it so that the Ellsworths could see how dreadfully bare the place was. One candle in three rooms is drearier than darkness anyhow.
Mrs. Ellsworth took in all the desolation, the dismal expanse of the now enormous apartments, the shabby walls, the hideous bright spots where pictures had hung, the splintered flooring, the great, gaunt windows—and she gave in. She had met with snub after snub, and cut after cut, in her social climb, she had had the cook quit in the middle of an important dinner, she had had every disconcerting thing possible happen to her, but this—this was the last bale of straw. She sat down on a suitcase, in the middle of the biggest room, and cried!
Ralph, having waited for this, now told about the food transaction, and she hastily pushed the last-coming tear back into her eye.
"Good!" she cried. "They will be up here soon. They will be compelled to compromise, and they must not find me with red eyes."
She cast a hasty glance around the room, then, in a sudden panic, seized the candle and explored the other two. She went wildly out into the hall, back into the little room over the kitchen, downstairs, everywhere, and returned in consternation.
"There's not a single mirror left in the house!" she moaned.
Ralph heartlessly grinned. He could appreciate that this was a characteristic woman trick, and wondered admiringly whether Evelyn or her mother had thought of it. However, this was a time for action.
"I'll get you some water to bathe your eyes," he offered, and ran into the little room over the kitchen to get a pitcher. A cracked shaving-mug was the only vessel that had been left, but he hurried down into the yard with it. This was no time for fastidiousness.
He had barely creaked the pump handle when Mr. Van Kamp hurried up from the barn.
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Mr. Van Kamp, "but this water belongs to us. My daughter bought it, all that is in the ground, above the ground, or that may fall from the sky upon these premises."
The mutual siege lasted until after seven o'clock, but it was rather one-sided. The Van Kamps could drink all the water they liked, it made them no hungrier. If the Ellsworths ate anything, however, they grew thirstier, and, moreover, water was necessary if anything worth while was to be cooked. They knew all this, and resisted until Mrs. Ellsworth was tempted and fell. She ate a sandwich and choked. It was heartbreaking, but Ralph had to be sent down with a plate of sandwiches and an offer to trade them for water.
Halfway between the pump and the house he met Evelyn coming with a small pail of the precious fluid. They both stopped stock still; then, seeing that it was too late to retreat, both laughed and advanced.
"Who wins now?" bantered Ralph as they made the exchange.
"It looks to me like a misdeal," she gaily replied, and was moving away when he called her back.
"You don't happen to know the Gately's, of New York, do you?" he was quite anxious to know.
"I am truly sorry, but I am acquainted with so few people in New York. We are from Chicago, you know."
"Oh," said he blankly, and took the water up to the Ellsworth suite.
Mrs. Ellsworth cheered up considerably when she heard that Ralph had been met halfway, but her eyes snapped when he confessed that it was Miss Van Kamp who had met him.
"I hope you are not going to carry on a flirtation with that overdressed creature," she blazed.
"Why mother," exclaimed Ralph, shocked beyond measure. "What right have you to accuse either this young lady or myself of flirting? Flirting!"
Mrs. Ellsworth suddenly attacked the fire with quite unnecessary energy.
Down at the barn, the wide threshing floor had been covered with gay rag-rugs, and strewn with tables, couches, and chairs in picturesque profusion. Roomy box-stalls had been carpeted deep with clean straw, curtained off with gaudy bed-quilts, and converted into cozy sleeping apartments. The mow and the stalls had been screened off with lace curtains and blazing counterpanes, and the whole effect was one of Oriental luxury and splendor. Alas, it was only an "effect"! The red-hot parlor stove smoked abominably, the pipe carried other smoke out through the hawmow window, only to let it blow back again. Chill cross-draughts whistled in from cracks too numerous to be stopped up, and the miserable Van Kamps could only cough and shiver, and envy the Tutts and the driver, non-combatants who had been fed two hours before.
Up in the second floor suite there was a roaring fire in the big fireplace, but there was a chill in the room that no mere fire could drive away—the chill of absolute emptiness.
A man can outlive hardships that would kill a woman, but a woman can endure discomforts that would drive a man crazy.
Mr. Ellsworth went out to hunt up Uncle Billy, with an especial solace in mind. The landlord was not in the house, but the yellow gleam of a lantern revealed his presence in the woodshed, and Mr. Ellsworth stepped in upon him just as he was pouring something yellow and clear into a tumbler from a big jug that he had just taken from under the flooring.
"How much do you want for that jug and its contents?" he asked, with a sigh of gratitude that this supply had been overlooked.
Before Mr. Tutt could answer, Mr. Van Kamp hurried in at the door.
"Wait a moment!" he cried. "I want to bid on that!"
"This here jug hain't fer sale at no price," Uncle Billy emphatically announced, nipping all negotiations right in the bud. "It's too pesky hard to sneak this here licker in past Marge't, but I reckon it's my treat, gents. Ye kin have all ye want."
One minute later Mr. Van Kamp and Mr. Ellsworth were seated, one on a sawbuck and the other on a nail-keg, comfortably eyeing each other across the work bench, and each was holding up a tumbler one-third filled with the golden yellow liquid.
"Your health, sir," courteously proposed Mr. Ellsworth.
"And to you, sir," gravely replied Mr. Van Kamp.
Ralph and Evelyn happened to meet at the pump, quite accidentally, after the former had made half a dozen five-minute-apart trips for a drink. It was Miss Van Kamp, this time, who had been studying on the mutual acquaintance problem.
"You don't happen to know the Tylers, of Parkersburg, do you?" she asked.
"The Tylers! I should say I do!" was the unexpected and enthusiastic reply. "Why, we are on our way now to Miss Georgiana Tyler's wedding to my friend Jimmy Carston. I'm to be best man."
"How delightful!" she exclaimed. "We are on the way there, too. Georgiana was my dearest chum at school, and I am to be her 'best girl.'"
"Let's go around on the porch and sit down," said Ralph.
Mr. Van Kamp, back in the woodshed, looked about him with an eye of content.
"Rather cozy for a woodshed," he observed. "I wonder if we couldn't scare up a little session of dollar limit?"
Both Uncle Billy and Mr. Ellsworth were willing. Death and poker level all Americans. A fourth hand was needed, however. The stage driver was in bed and asleep, and Mr. Ellsworth volunteered to find the extra player.
"I'll get Ralph," he said. "He plays a fairly stiff game." He finally found his son on the porch, apparently alone, and stated his errand.
"Thank you, but I don't believe I care to play this evening," was the astounding reply, and Mr. Ellsworth looked closer. He made out, then, a dim figure on the other side of Ralph.
"Oh! Of course not!" he blundered, and went back to the woodshed.
Three-handed poker is a miserable game, and it seldom lasts long. It did not in this case. After Uncle Billy had won the only jack-pot deserving of the name, he was allowed to go blissfully to sleep with his hand on the handle of the big jug.
After poker there is only one other always available amusement for men, and that is business. The two travelers were quite well acquainted when Ralph put his head in at the door.
"Thought I'd find you here," he explained. "It just occurred to me to wonder whether you gentlemen had discovered, as yet, that we are all to be house guests at the Carston-Tyler wedding."
"Why, no!" exclaimed his father in pleased surprise. "It is a most agreeable coincidence. Mr. Van Kamp, allow me to introduce my son, Ralph. Mr. Van Kamp and myself, Ralph, have found out that we shall be considerably thrown together in a business way from now on. He has just purchased control of the Metropolitan and Western string of interurbans."
"Delighted, I'm sure," murmured Ralph, shaking hands, and then he slipped out as quickly as possible. Some one seemed to be waiting for him.
Perhaps another twenty minutes had passed, when one of the men had an illuminating idea that resulted, later on, in pleasant relations for all of them. It was about time, for Mrs. Ellsworth, up in the bare suite, and Mrs. Van Kamp, down in the draughty barn, both wrapped up to the chin and both still chilly, had about reached the limit of patience and endurance.
"Why can't we make things a little more comfortable for all concerned?" suggested Mr. Van Kamp. "Suppose, as a starter, that we have Mrs. Van Kamp give a shiver party down in the barn?"
"Good idea," agreed Mr. Ellsworth. "A little diplomacy will do it. Each one of us will have to tell his wife that the other fellow made the first abject overtures."
Mr. Van Kamp grinned understandingly, and agreed to the infamous ruse.
"By the way," continued Mr. Ellsworth, with a still happier thought, "you must allow Mrs. Ellsworth to furnish the dinner for Mrs. Van Kamp's shiver party."
"Dinner!" gasped Mr. Van Kamp. "By all means!"
Both men felt an anxious yawning in the region of the appetite, and a yearning moisture wetted their tongues. They looked at the slumbering Uncle Billy and decided to see Mrs. Tutt themselves about a good, hot dinner for six.
"Law me!" exclaimed Aunt Margaret when they appeared at the kitchen door. "I swan I thought you folks 'u'd never come to yore senses. Here I've had a big pot o' stewed chicken ready on the stove fer two mortal hours. I kin give ye that, an' smashed taters an' chicken gravy, an' dried corn, an' hot corn-pone, an' currant jell, an' strawberry preserves, an' my own cannin' o' peaches, an' pumpkin-pie an' coffee. Will that do ye?" Would it do! Would it do!!
As Aunt Margaret talked, the kitchen door swung wide, and the two men were stricken speechless with astonishment. There, across from each other at the kitchen table, sat the utterly selfish and traitorous younger members of the rival houses of Ellsworth and Van Kamp, deep in the joys of chicken, and mashed potatoes, and gravy, and hot corn-pone, and all the other "fixings," laughing and chatting gaily like chums of years' standing. They had seemingly just come to an agreement about something or other, for Evelyn, waving the shorter end of a broken wishbone, was vivaciously saying to Ralph:
"A bargain's a bargain, and I always stick to one I make."
By Grace MacGowan Cooke (1863- )
[From Harper's Magazine, August, 1906. Copyright, 1906, by Harper & Brothers. Republished by the author's permission.]
A boy in an unnaturally clean, country-laundered collar walked down a long white road. He scuffed the dust up wantonly, for he wished to veil the all-too-brilliant polish of his cowhide shoes. Also the memory of the whiteness and slipperiness of his collar oppressed him. He was fain to look like one accustomed to social diversions, a man hurried from hall to hall of pleasure, without time between to change collar or polish boot. He stooped and rubbed a crumb of earth on his overfresh neck-linen.
This did not long sustain his drooping spirit. He was mentally adrift upon the Hints and Helps to Young Men in Business and Social Relations, which had suggested to him his present enterprise, when the appearance of a second youth, taller and broader than himself, with a shock of light curling hair and a crop of freckles that advertised a rich soil threw him a lifeline. He put his thumbs to his lips and whistled in a peculiarly ear-splitting way. The two boys had sat on the same bench at Sunday-school not three hours before; yet what a change had come over the world for one of them since then!
"Hello! Where you goin', Ab?" asked the newcomer, gruffly.
"Callin'," replied the boy in the collar, laconically, but with carefully averted gaze.
"On the girls?" inquired the other, awestruck. In Mount Pisgah you saw the girls home from night church, socials, or parties; you could hang over the gate; and you might walk with a girl in the cemetery of a Sunday afternoon; but to ring a front-door bell and ask for Miss Heart's Desire one must have been in long trousers at least three years—and the two boys confronted in the dusty road had worn these dignifying garments barely six months.
"Girls," said Abner, loftily; "I don't know about girls—I'm just going to call on one girl—Champe Claiborne." He marched on as though the conversation was at an end; but Ross hung upon his flank. Ross and Champe were neighbors, comrades in all sorts of mischief; he was in doubt whether to halt Abner and pummel him, or propose to enlist under his banner.
"Do you reckon you could?" he debated, trotting along by the irresponsive Jilton boy.
"Run home to your mother," growled the originator of the plan, savagely. "You ain't old enough to call on girls; anybody can see that; but I am, and I'm going to call on Champe Claiborne."
Again the name acted as a spur on Ross. "With your collar and boots all dirty?" he jeered. "They won't know you're callin'."
The boy in the road stopped short in his dusty tracks. He was an intense creature, and he whitened at the tragic insinuation, longing for the wholesome stay and companionship of freckle-faced Ross. "I put the dirt on o' purpose so's to look kind of careless," he half whispered, in an agony of doubt. "S'pose I'd better go into your house and try to wash it off? Reckon your mother would let me?"
"I've got two clean collars," announced the other boy, proudly generous. "I'll lend you one. You can put it on while I'm getting ready. I'll tell mother that we're just stepping out to do a little calling on the girls."
Here was an ally worthy of the cause. Abner welcomed him, in spite of certain jealous twinges. He reflected with satisfaction that there were two Claiborne girls, and though Alicia was so stiff and prim that no boy would ever think of calling on her, there was still the hope that she might draw Ross's fire, and leave him, Abner, to make the numerous remarks he had stored up in his mind from Hints and Helps to Young Men in Social and Business Relations to Champe alone.
Mrs. Pryor received them with the easy-going kindness of the mother of one son. She followed them into the dining-room to kiss and feed him, with an absent "Howdy, Abner; how's your mother?"
Abner, big with the importance of their mutual intention, inclined his head stiffly and looked toward Ross for explanation. He trembled a little, but it was with delight, as he anticipated the effect of the speech Ross had outlined. But it did not come.
"I'm not hungry, mother," was the revised edition which the freckle-faced boy offered to the maternal ear. "I—we are going over to Mr. Claiborne's—on—er—on an errand for Abner's father."
The black-eyed boy looked reproach as they clattered up the stairs to Ross's room, where the clean collar was produced and a small stock of ties.
"You'd wear a necktie—wouldn't you?" Ross asked, spreading them upon the bureau-top.
"Yes. But make it fall carelessly over your shirt-front," advised the student of Hints and Helps. "Your collar is miles too big for me. Say! I've got a wad of white chewing-gum; would you flat it out and stick it over the collar button? Maybe that would fill up some. You kick my foot if you see me turning my head so's to knock it off."
"Better button up your vest," cautioned Ross, laboring with the "careless" fall of his tie.
"Huh-uh! I want 'that easy air which presupposes familiarity with society'—that's what it says in my book," objected Abner.
"Sure!" Ross returned to his more familiar jeering attitude. "Loosen up all your clothes, then. Why don't you untie your shoes? Flop a sock down over one of 'em—that looks 'easy' all right."
Abner buttoned his vest. "It gives a man lots of confidence to know he's good-looking," he remarked, taking all the room in front of the mirror.
Ross, at the wash-stand soaking his hair to get the curl out of it, grumbled some unintelligible response. The two boys went down the stairs with tremulous hearts.
"Why, you've put on another clean shirt, Rossie!" Mrs. Pryor called from her chair—mothers' eyes can see so far! "Well—don't get into any dirty play and soil it." The boys walked in silence—but it was a pregnant silence; for as the roof of the Claiborne house began to peer above the crest of the hill, Ross plumped down on a stone and announced, "I ain't goin'."
"Come on," urged the black-eyed boy. "It'll be fun—and everybody will respect us more. Champe won't throw rocks at us in recess-time, after we've called on her. She couldn't."
"Called!" grunted Ross. "I couldn't make a call any more than a cow. What'd I say? What'd I do? I can behave all right when you just go to people's houses—but a call!"
Abner hesitated. Should he give away his brilliant inside information, drawn from the Hints and Helps book, and be rivalled in the glory of his manners and bearing? Why should he not pass on alone, perfectly composed, and reap the field of glory unsupported? His knees gave way and he sat down without intending it.
"Don't you tell anybody and I'll put you on to exactly what grown-up gentlemen say and do when they go calling on the girls," he began.
"Fire away," retorted Ross, gloomily. "Nobody will find out from me. Dead men tell no tales. If I'm fool enough to go, I don't expect to come out of it alive."
Abner rose, white and shaking, and thrusting three fingers into the buttoning of his vest, extending the other hand like an orator, proceeded to instruct the freckled, perspiring disciple at his feet.
"'Hang your hat on the rack, or give it to a servant.'" Ross nodded intelligently. He could do that.
"'Let your legs be gracefully disposed, one hand on the knee, the other—'"
Abner came to an unhappy pause. "I forget what a fellow does with the other hand. Might stick it in your pocket, loudly, or expectorate on the carpet. Indulge in little frivolity. Let a rich stream of conversation flow.'"
Ross mentally dug within himself for sources of rich streams of conversation. He found a dry soil. "What you goin' to talk about?" he demanded, fretfully. "I won't go a step farther till I know what I'm goin' to say when I get there."
Abner began to repeat paragraphs from Hints and Helps. "'It is best to remark,'" he opened, in an unnatural voice, "'How well you are looking!' although fulsome compliments should be avoided. When seated ask the young lady who her favorite composer is.'"
"What's a composer?" inquired Ross, with visions of soothing-syrup in his mind.
"A man that makes up music. Don't butt in that way; you put me all out—'composer is. Name yours. Ask her what piece of music she likes best. Name yours. If the lady is musical, here ask her to play or sing.'"
This chanted recitation seemed to have a hypnotic effect on the freckled boy; his big pupils contracted each time Abner came to the repetend, "Name yours."
"I'm tired already," he grumbled; but some spell made him rise and fare farther.
When they had entered the Claiborne gate, they leaned toward each other like young saplings weakened at the root and locking branches to keep what shallow foothold on earth remained.
"You're goin' in first," asserted Ross, but without conviction. It was his custom to tear up to this house a dozen times a week, on his father's old horse or afoot; he was wont to yell for Champe as he approached, and quarrel joyously with her while he performed such errand as he had come upon; but he was gagged and hamstrung now by the hypnotism of Abner's scheme.
"'Walk quietly up the steps; ring the bell and lay your card on the servant,'" quoted Abner, who had never heard of a server.
"'Lay your card on the servant!'" echoed Ross. "Cady'd dodge. There's a porch to cross after you go up the steps—does it say anything about that?"
"It says that the card should be placed on the servant," Abner reiterated, doggedly. "If Cady dodges, it ain't any business of mine. There are no porches in my book. Just walk across it like anybody. We'll ask for Miss Champe Claiborne."
"We haven't got any cards," discovered Ross, with hope.
"I have," announced Abner, pompously. "I had some struck off in Chicago. I ordered 'em by mail. They got my name Pillow, but there's a scalloped gilt border around it. You can write your name on my card. Got a pencil?"
He produced the bit of cardboard; Ross fished up a chewed stump of lead pencil, took it in cold, stiff fingers, and disfigured the square with eccentric scribblings.
"They'll know who it's meant for," he said, apologetically, "because I'm here. What's likely to happen after we get rid of the card?"
"I told you about hanging your hat on the rack and disposing your legs."
"I remember now," sighed Ross. They had been going slower and slower. The angle of inclination toward each other became more and more pronounced.
"We must stand by each other," whispered Abner.
"I will—if I can stand at all," murmured the other boy, huskily.
"Oh, Lord!" They had rounded the big clump of evergreens and found Aunt Missouri Claiborne placidly rocking on the front porch! Directed to mount steps and ring bell, to lay cards upon the servant, how should one deal with a rosy-faced, plump lady of uncertain years in a rocking-chair. What should a caller lay upon her? A lion in the way could not have been more terrifying. Even retreat was cut off. Aunt Missouri had seen them. "Howdy, boys; how are you?" she said, rocking peacefully. The two stood before her like detected criminals.
Then, to Ross's dismay, Abner sank down on the lowest step of the porch, the westering sun full in his hopeless eyes. He sat on his cap. It was characteristic that the freckled boy remained standing. He would walk up those steps according to plan and agreement, if at all. He accepted no compromise. Folding his straw hat into a battered cone, he watched anxiously for the delivery of the card. He was not sure what Aunt Missouri's attitude might be if it were laid on her. He bent down to his companion. "Go ahead," he whispered. "Lay the card."
Abner raised appealing eyes. "In a minute. Give me time," he pleaded.
"Mars' Ross—Mars' Ross! Head 'em off!" sounded a yell, and Babe, the house-boy, came around the porch in pursuit of two half-grown chickens.
"Help him, Rossie," prompted Aunt Missouri, sharply. "You boys can stay to supper and have some of the chicken if you help catch them."
Had Ross taken time to think, he might have reflected that gentlemen making formal calls seldom join in a chase after the main dish of the family supper. But the needs of Babe were instant. The lad flung himself sidewise, caught one chicken in his hat, while Babe fell upon the other in the manner of a football player. Ross handed the pullet to the house-boy, fearing that he had done something very much out of character, then pulled the reluctant negro toward to the steps.
"Babe's a servant," he whispered to Abner, who had sat rigid through the entire performance. "I helped him with the chickens, and he's got to stand gentle while you lay the card on."
Confronted by the act itself, Abner was suddenly aware that he knew not how to begin. He took refuge in dissimulation.
"Hush!" he whispered back. "Don't you see Mr. Claiborne's come out?—He's going to read something to us."
Ross plumped down beside him. "Never mind the card; tell 'em," he urged.
"Tell 'em yourself."
"No—let's cut and run."
"I—I think the worst of it is over. When Champe sees us she'll—"
Mention of Champe stiffened Ross's spine. If it had been glorious to call upon her, how very terrible she would make it should they attempt calling, fail, and the failure come to her knowledge! Some things were easier to endure than others; he resolved to stay till the call was made.
For half an hour the boys sat with drooping heads, and the old gentleman read aloud, presumably to Aunt Missouri and themselves. Finally their restless eyes discerned the two Claiborne girls walking serene in Sunday trim under the trees at the edge of the lawn. Arms entwined, they were whispering together and giggling a little. A caller, Ross dared not use his voice to shout nor his legs to run toward them.
"Why don't you go and talk to the girls, Rossie?" Aunt Missouri asked, in the kindness of her heart. "Don't be noisy—it's Sunday, you know—and don't get to playing anything that'll dirty up your good clothes."
Ross pressed his lips hard together; his heart swelled with the rage of the misunderstood. Had the card been in his possession, he would, at that instant, have laid it on Aunt Missouri without a qualm.
"What is it?" demanded the old gentleman, a bit testily.
"The girls want to hear you read, father," said Aunt Missouri, shrewdly; and she got up and trotted on short, fat ankles to the girls in the arbor. The three returned together, Alicia casting curious glances at the uncomfortable youths, Champe threatening to burst into giggles with every breath.
Abner sat hard on his cap and blushed silently. Ross twisted his hat into a three-cornered wreck.
The two girls settled themselves noisily on the upper step. The old man read on and on. The sun sank lower. The hills were red in the west as though a brush fire flamed behind their crests. Abner stole a furtive glance at his companion in misery, and the dolor of Ross's countenance somewhat assuaged his anguish. The freckle-faced boy was thinking of the village over the hill, a certain pleasant white house set back in a green yard, past whose gate, the two-plank sidewalk ran. He knew lamps were beginning to wink in the windows of the neighbors about, as though the houses said, "Our boys are all at home—but Ross Pryor's out trying to call on the girls, and can't get anybody to understand it." Oh, that he were walking down those two planks, drawing a stick across the pickets, lifting high happy feet which could turn in at that gate! He wouldn't care what the lamps said then. He wouldn't even mind if the whole Claiborne family died laughing at him—if only some power would raise him up from this paralyzing spot and put him behind the safe barriers of his own home!
The old man's voice lapsed into silence; the light was becoming too dim for his reading. Aunt Missouri turned and called over her shoulder into the shadows of the big hall: "You Babe! Go put two extra plates on the supper-table."
The boys grew red from the tips of their ears, and as far as any one could see under their wilting collars. Abner felt the lump of gum come loose and slip down a cold spine. Had their intentions but been known, this inferential invitation would have been most welcome. It was but to rise up and thunder out, "We came to call on the young ladies."
They did not rise. They did not thunder out anything. Babe brought a lamp and set it inside the window, and Mr. Claiborne resumed his reading. Champe giggled and said that Alicia made her. Alcia drew her skirts about her, sniffed, and looked virtuous, and said she didn't see anything funny to laugh at. The supper-bell rang. The family, evidently taking it for granted that the boys would follow, went in.
Alone for the first time, Abner gave up. "This ain't any use," he complained. "We ain't calling on anybody."
"Why didn't you lay on the card?" demanded Ross, fiercely. "Why didn't you say: 'We've-just-dropped-into-call-on-Miss-Champe. It's-a -pleasant-evening. We-feel-we-must-be-going,' like you said you would? Then we could have lifted our hats and got away decently."
Abner showed no resentment.
"Oh, if it's so easy, why didn't you do it yourself?" he groaned.
"Somebody's coming," Ross muttered, hoarsely. "Say it now. Say it quick."
The somebody proved to be Aunt Missouri, who advanced only as far as the end of the hall and shouted cheerfully: "The idea of a growing boy not coming to meals when the bell rings! I thought you two would be in there ahead of us. Come on." And clinging to their head-coverings as though these contained some charm whereby the owners might be rescued, the unhappy callers were herded into the dining-room. There were many things on the table that boys like. Both were becoming fairly cheerful, when Aunt Missouri checked the biscuit-plate with: "I treat my neighbors' children just like I'd want children of my own treated. If your mothers let you eat all you want, say so, and I don't care; but if either of them is a little bit particular, why, I'd stop at six!"
Still reeling from this blow, the boys finally rose from the table and passed out with the family, their hats clutched to their bosoms, and clinging together for mutual aid and comfort. During the usual Sunday-evening singing Champe laughed till Aunt Missouri threatened to send her to bed. Abner's card slipped from his hand and dropped face up on the floor. He fell upon it and tore it into infinitesimal pieces.
"That must have been a love-letter," said Aunt Missouri, in a pause of the music. "You boys are getting 'most old enough to think about beginning to call on the girls." Her eyes twinkled.
Ross growled like a stoned cur. Abner took a sudden dive into Hints and Helps, and came up with, "You flatter us, Miss Claiborne," whereat Ross snickered out like a human boy. They all stared at him.
"It sounds so funny to call Aunt Missouri 'Mis' Claiborne,'" the lad of the freckles explained.
"Funny?" Aunt Missouri reddened. "I don't see any particular joke in my having my maiden name."
Abner, who instantly guessed at what was in Ross's mind, turned white at the thought of what they had escaped. Suppose he had laid on the card and asked for Miss Claiborne!
"What's the matter, Champe?" inquired Ross, in a fairly natural tone. The air he had drawn into his lungs when he laughed at Abner seemed to relieve him from the numbing gentility which had bound his powers since he joined Abner's ranks.
"Nothing. I laughed because you laughed," said the girl.
The singing went forward fitfully. Servants traipsed through the darkened yard, going home for Sunday night. Aunt Missouri went out and held some low-toned parley with them. Champe yawned with insulting enthusiasm. Presently both girls quietly disappeared. Aunt Missouri never returned to the parlor—evidently thinking that the girls would attend to the final amenities with their callers. They were left alone with old Mr. Claiborne. They sat as though bound in their chairs, while the old man read in silence for a while. Finally he closed his book, glanced about him, and observed absently:
"So you boys were to spend the night?" Then, as he looked at their startled faces: "I'm right, am I not? You are to spent the night?"
Oh, for courage to say: "Thank you, no. We'll be going now. We just came over to call on Miss Champe." But thought of how this would sound in face of the facts, the painful realization that they dared not say it because they had not said it, locked their lips. Their feet were lead; their tongues stiff and too large for their mouths. Like creatures in a nightmare, they moved stiffly, one might have said creakingly, up the stairs and received each—a bedroom candle!
"Good night, children," said the absent-minded old man. The two gurgled out some sounds which were intended for words and doged behind the bedroom door.
"They've put us to bed!" Abner's black eyes flashed fire. His nervous hands clutched at the collar Ross had lent him. "That's what I get for coming here with you, Ross Pryor!" And tears of humiliation stood in his eyes.
In his turn Ross showed no resentment. "What I'm worried about is my mother," he confessed. "She's so sharp about finding out things. She wouldn't tease me—she'd just be sorry for me. But she'll think I went home with you."
"I'd like to see my mother make a fuss about my calling on the girls!" growled Abner, glad to let his rage take a safe direction.
"Calling on the girls! Have we called on any girls?" demanded clear-headed, honest Ross.
"Not exactly—yet," admitted Abner, reluctantly. "Come on—let's go to bed. Mr. Claiborne asked us, and he's the head of this household. It isn't anybody's business what we came for."
"I'll slip off my shoes and lie down till Babe ties up the dog in the morning," said Ross. "Then we can get away before any of the family is up."
Oh, youth—youth—youth, with its rash promises! Worn out with misery the boys slept heavily. The first sound that either heard in the morning was Babe hammering upon their bedroom door. They crouched guiltily and looked into each other's eyes. "Let pretend we ain't here and he'll go away," breathed Abner.
But Babe was made of sterner stuff. He rattled the knob. He turned it. He put in a black face with a grin which divided it from ear to ear. "Cady say I mus' call dem fool boys to breakfus'," he announced. "I never named you-all dat. Cady, she say dat."
"Breakfast!" echoed Ross, in a daze.
"Yessuh, breakfus'," reasserted Babe, coming entirely into the room and looking curiously about him. "Ain't you-all done been to bed at all?" wrapping his arms about his shoulders and shaking with silent ecstasies of mirth. The boys threw themselves upon him and ejected him.
"Sent up a servant to call us to breakfast," snarled Abner. "If they'd only sent their old servant to the door in the first place, all this wouldn't 'a' happened. I'm just that way when I get thrown off the track. You know how it was when I tried to repeat those things to you—I had to go clear back to the beginning when I got interrupted."
"Does that mean that you're still hanging around here to begin over and make a call?" asked Ross, darkly. "I won't go down to breakfast if you are."
Abner brightened a little as he saw Ross becoming wordy in his rage. "I dare you to walk downstairs and say, 'We-just-dropped-in-to-call-on-Miss-Champe'!" he said.
"I—oh—I—darn it all! there goes the second bell. We may as well trot down."
"Don't leave me, Ross," pleaded the Jilton boy. "I can't stay here—and I can't go down."
The tone was hysterical. The boy with freckles took his companion by the arm without another word and marched him down the stairs. "We may get a chance yet to call on Champe all by herself out on the porch or in the arbor before she goes to school," he suggested, by way of putting some spine into the black-eyed boy.
An emphatic bell rang when they were half-way down the stairs. Clutching their hats, they slunk into the dining-room. Even Mr. Claiborne seemed to notice something unusual in their bearing as they settled into the chairs assigned to them, and asked them kindly if they had slept well.
It was plain that Aunt Missouri had been posting him as to her understanding of the intentions of these young men. The state of affairs gave an electric hilarity to the atmosphere. Babe travelled from the sideboard to the table, trembling like chocolate pudding. Cady insisted on bringing in the cakes herself, and grinned as she whisked her starched blue skirts in and out of the dining-room. A dimple even showed itself at the corners of pretty Alicia's prim little mouth. Champe giggled, till Ross heard Cady whisper:
"Now you got one dem snickerin' spells agin. You gwine bust yo' dress buttons off in the back ef you don't mind."
As the spirits of those about them mounted, the hearts of the two youths sank—if it was like this among the Claibornes, what would it be at school and in the world at large when their failure to connect intention with result became village talk? Ross bit fiercely upon an unoffending batter-cake, and resolved to make a call single-handed before he left the house.
They went out of the dining-room, their hats as ever pressed to their breasts. With no volition of their own, their uncertain young legs carried them to the porch. The Claiborne family and household followed like small boys after a circus procession. When the two turned, at bay, yet with nothing between them and liberty but a hypnotism of their own suggestion, they saw the black faces of the servants peering over the family shoulders.
Ross was the boy to have drawn courage from the desperation of their case, and made some decent if not glorious ending. But at the psychological moment there came around the corner of the house that most contemptible figure known to the Southern plantation, a shirt-boy—a creature who may be described, for the benefit of those not informed, as a pickaninny clad only in a long, coarse cotton shirt. While all eyes were fastened upon him this inglorious ambassador bolted forth his message:
"Yo' ma say"—his eyes were fixed upon Abner—"ef yo' don' come home, she gwine come after yo'—an' cut yo' into inch pieces wid a rawhide when she git yo'. Dat jest what Miss Hortense say."
As though such a book as Hints and Helps had never existed, Abner shot for the gate—he was but a hobbledehoy fascinated with the idea of playing gentleman. But in Ross there were the makings of a man. For a few half-hearted paces, under the first impulse of horror, he followed his deserting chief, the laughter of the family, the unrestrainable guffaws of the negroes, sounding in the rear. But when Champe's high, offensive giggle, topping all the others, insulted his ears, he stopped dead, wheeled, and ran to the porch faster than he had fled from it. White as paper, shaking with inexpressible rage, he caught and kissed the tittering girl, violently, noisily, before them all.
The negroes fled—they dared not trust their feelings; even Alicia sniggered unobtrusively; Grandfather Claiborne chuckled, and Aunt Missouri frankly collapsed into her rocking-chair, bubbling with mirth, crying out:
"Good for you, Ross! Seems you did know how to call on the girls, after all."
But Ross, paying no attention, walked swiftly toward the gate. He had served his novitiate. He would never be afraid again. With cheerful alacrity he dodged the stones flung after him with friendly, erratic aim by the girl upon whom, yesterday afternoon, he had come to make a social call.
HOW THE WIDOW WON THE DEACON
By William James Lampton ( -1917)
[From Harper's Bazaar, April, 1911; copyright, 1911, by Harper & Brothers; republished by permission.]
Of course the Widow Stimson never tried to win Deacon Hawkins, nor any other man, for that matter. A widow doesn't have to try to win a man; she wins without trying. Still, the Widow Stimson sometimes wondered why the deacon was so blind as not to see how her fine farm adjoining his equally fine place on the outskirts of the town might not be brought under one management with mutual benefit to both parties at interest. Which one that management might become was a matter of future detail. The widow knew how to run a farm successfully, and a large farm is not much more difficult to run than one of half the size. She had also had one husband, and knew something more than running a farm successfully. Of all of which the deacon was perfectly well aware, and still he had not been moved by the merging spirit of the age to propose consolidation.
This interesting situation was up for discussion at the Wednesday afternoon meeting of the Sisters' Sewing Society.
"For my part," Sister Susan Spicer, wife of the Methodist minister, remarked as she took another tuck in a fourteen-year-old girl's skirt for a ten-year-old—"for my part, I can't see why Deacon Hawkins and Kate Stimson don't see the error of their ways and depart from them."
"I rather guess she has," smiled Sister Poteet, the grocer's better half, who had taken an afternoon off from the store in order to be present.
"Or is willing to," added Sister Maria Cartridge, a spinster still possessing faith, hope, and charity, notwithstanding she had been on the waiting list a long time.
"Really, now," exclaimed little Sister Green, the doctor's wife, "do you think it is the deacon who needs urging?"
"It looks that way to me," Sister Poteet did not hesitate to affirm.
"Well, I heard Sister Clark say that she had heard him call her 'Kitty' one night when they were eating ice-cream at the Mite Society," Sister Candish, the druggist's wife, added to the fund of reliable information on hand.
"'Kitty,' indeed!" protested Sister Spicer. "The idea of anybody calling Kate Stimson 'Kitty'! The deacon will talk that way to 'most any woman, but if she let him say it to her more than once, she must be getting mighty anxious, I think."
"Oh," Sister Candish hastened to explain, "Sister Clark didn't say she had heard him say it twice.'"
"Well, I don't think she heard him say it once," Sister Spicer asserted with confidence.
"I don't know about that," Sister Poteet argued. "From all I can see and hear I think Kate Stimson wouldn't object to 'most anything the deacon would say to her, knowing as she does that he ain't going to say anything he shouldn't say."
"And isn't saying what he should," added Sister Green, with a sly snicker, which went around the room softly.
"But as I was saying—" Sister Spicer began, when Sister Poteet, whose rocker, near the window, commanded a view of the front gate, interrupted with a warning, "'Sh-'sh."
"Why shouldn't I say what I wanted to when—" Sister Spicer began.
"There she comes now," explained Sister Poteet, "and as I live the deacon drove her here in his sleigh, and he's waiting while she comes in. I wonder what next," and Sister Poteet, in conjunction with the entire society, gasped and held their eager breaths, awaiting the entrance of the subject of conversation.
Sister Spicer went to the front door to let her in, and she was greeted with the greatest cordiality by everybody.
"We were just talking about you and wondering why you were so late coming," cried Sister Poteet. "Now take off your things and make up for lost time. There's a pair of pants over there to be cut down to fit that poor little Snithers boy."
The excitement and curiosity of the society were almost more than could be borne, but never a sister let on that she knew the deacon was at the gate waiting. Indeed, as far as the widow could discover, there was not the slightest indication that anybody had ever heard there was such a person as the deacon in existence.
"Oh," she chirruped, in the liveliest of humors, "you will have to excuse me for today. Deacon Hawkins overtook me on the way here, and here said I had simply got to go sleigh-riding with him. He's waiting out at the gate now."
"Is that so?" exclaimed the society unanimously, and rushed to the window to see if it were really true.
"Well, did you ever?" commented Sister Poteet, generally.
"Hardly ever," laughed the widow, good-naturedly, "and I don't want to lose the chance. You know Deacon Hawkins isn't asking somebody every day to go sleighing with him. I told him I'd go if he would bring me around here to let you know what had become of me, and so he did. Now, good-by, and I'll be sure to be present at the next meeting. I have to hurry because he'll get fidgety."
The widow ran away like a lively schoolgirl. All the sisters watched her get into the sleigh with the deacon, and resumed the previous discussion with greatly increased interest.
But little recked the widow and less recked the deacon. He had bought a new horse and he wanted the widow's opinion of it, for the Widow Stimson was a competent judge of fine horseflesh. If Deacon Hawkins had one insatiable ambition it was to own a horse which could fling its heels in the face of the best that Squire Hopkins drove. In his early manhood the deacon was no deacon by a great deal. But as the years gathered in behind him he put off most of the frivolities of youth and held now only to the one of driving a fast horse. No other man in the county drove anything faster except Squire Hopkins, and him the deacon had not been able to throw the dust over. The deacon would get good ones, but somehow never could he find one that the squire didn't get a better. The squire had also in the early days beaten the deacon in the race for a certain pretty girl he dreamed about. But the girl and the squire had lived happily ever after and the deacon, being a philosopher, might have forgotten the squire's superiority had it been manifested in this one regard only. But in horses, too—that graveled the deacon.
"How much did you give for him?" was the widow's first query, after they had reached a stretch of road that was good going and the deacon had let him out for a length or two.
"Well, what do you suppose? You're a judge."
"More than I would give, I'll bet a cookie."
"Not if you was as anxious as I am to show Hopkins that he can't drive by everything on the pike."
"I thought you loved a good horse because he was a good horse," said the widow, rather disapprovingly.
"I do, but I could love him a good deal harder if he would stay in front of Hopkins's best."
"Does he know you've got this one?"
"Yes, and he's been blowing round town that he is waiting to pick me up on the road some day and make my five hundred dollars look like a pewter quarter."
"So you gave five hundred dollars for him, did you?" laughed the widow.
"Is it too much?"
"Um-er," hesitated the widow, glancing along the graceful lines of the powerful trotter, "I suppose not if you can beat the squire."
"Right you are," crowed the deacon, "and I'll show him a thing or two in getting over the ground," he added with swelling pride.
"Well, I hope he won't be out looking for you today, with me in your sleigh," said the widow, almost apprehensively, "because, you know, deacon, I have always wanted you to beat Squire Hopkins."
The deacon looked at her sharply. There was a softness in her tones that appealed to him, even if she had not expressed such agreeable sentiments. Just what the deacon might have said or done after the impulse had been set going must remain unknown, for at the crucial moment a sound of militant bells, bells of defiance, jangled up behind them, disturbing their personal absorption, and they looked around simultaneously. Behind the bells was the squire in his sleigh drawn by his fastest stepper, and he was alone, as the deacon was not. The widow weighed one hundred and sixty pounds, net—which is weighting a horse in a race rather more than the law allows.
But the deacon never thought of that. Forgetting everything except his cherished ambition, he braced himself for the contest, took a twist hold on the lines, sent a sharp, quick call to his horse, and let him out for all that was in him. The squire followed suit and the deacon. The road was wide and the snow was worn down smooth. The track couldn't have been in better condition. The Hopkins colors were not five rods behind the Hawkins colors as they got away. For half a mile it was nip and tuck, the deacon encouraging his horse and the widow encouraging the deacon, and then the squire began creeping up. The deacon's horse was a good one, but he was not accustomed to hauling freight in a race. A half-mile of it was as much as he could stand, and he weakened under the strain.
Not handicapped, the squire's horse forged ahead, and as his nose pushed up to the dashboard of the deacon's sleigh, that good man groaned in agonized disappointment and bitterness of spirit. The widow was mad all over that Squire Hopkins should take such a mean advantage of his rival. Why didn't he wait till another time when the deacon was alone, as he was? If she had her way she never would, speak to Squire Hopkins again, nor to his wife, either. But her resentment was not helping the deacon's horse to win.
Slowly the squire pulled closer to the front; the deacon's horse, realizing what it meant to his master and to him, spurted bravely, but, struggle as gamely as he might, the odds were too many for him, and he dropped to the rear. The squire shouted in triumph as he drew past the deacon, and the dejected Hawkins shrivelled into a heap on the seat, with only his hands sufficiently alive to hold the lines. He had been beaten again, humiliated before a woman, and that, too, with the best horse that he could hope to put against the ever-conquering squire. Here sank his fondest hopes, here ended his ambition. From this on he would drive a mule or an automobile. The fruit of his desire had turned to ashes in his mouth.
But no. What of the widow? She realized, if the deacon did not, that she, not the squire's horse, had beaten the deacon's, and she was ready to make what atonement she could. As the squire passed ahead of the deacon she was stirred by a noble resolve. A deep bed of drifted snow lay close by the side of the road not far in front. It was soft and safe and she smiled as she looked at it as though waiting for her. Without a hint of her purpose, or a sign to disturb the deacon in his final throes, she rose as the sleigh ran near its edge, and with a spring which had many a time sent her lightly from the ground to the bare back of a horse in the meadow, she cleared the robes and lit plump in the drift. The deacon's horse knew before the deacon did that something had happened in his favor, and was quick to respond. With his first jump of relief the deacon suddenly revived, his hopes came fast again, his blood retingled, he gathered himself, and, cracking his lines, he shot forward, and three minutes later he had passed the squire as though he were hitched to the fence. For a quarter of a mile the squire made heroic efforts to recover his vanished prestige, but effort was useless, and finally concluding that he was practically left standing, he veered off from the main road down a farm lane to find some spot in which to hide the humiliation of his defeat. The deacon, still going at a clipping gait, had one eye over his shoulder as wary drivers always have on such occasions, and when he saw the squire was off the track he slowed down and jogged along with the apparent intention of continuing indefinitely. Presently an idea struck him, and he looked around for the widow. She was not where he had seen her last. Where was she? In the enthusiasm of victory he had forgotten her. He was so dejected at the moment she had leaped that he did not realize what she had done, and two minutes later he was so elated that, shame on him! he did not care. With her, all was lost; without her, all was won, and the deacon's greatest ambition was to win. But now, with victory perched on his horse-collar, success his at last, he thought of the widow, and he did care. He cared so much that he almost threw his horse off his feet by the abrupt turn he gave him, and back down the pike he flew as if a legion of squires were after him.
He did not know what injury she might have sustained; She might have been seriously hurt, if not actually killed. And why? Simply to make it possible for him to win. The deacon shivered as he thought of it, and urged his horse to greater speed. The squire, down the lane, saw him whizzing along and accepted it profanely as an exhibition for his especial benefit. The deacon now had forgotten the squire as he had only so shortly before forgotten the widow. Two hundred yards from the drift into which she had jumped there was a turn in the road, where some trees shut off the sight, and the deacon's anxiety increased momentarily until he reached this point. From here he could see ahead, and down there in the middle of the road stood the widow waving her shawl as a banner of triumph, though she could only guess at results. The deacon came on with a rush, and pulled up alongside of her in a condition of nervousness he didn't think possible to him.
"Hooray! hooray!" shouted the widow, tossing her shawl into the air. "You beat him. I know you did. Didn't you? I saw you pulling ahead at the turn yonder. Where is he and his old plug?"
"Oh, bother take him and his horse and the race and everything. Are you hurt?" gasped the deacon, jumping out, but mindful to keep the lines in his hand. "Are you hurt?" he repeated, anxiously, though she looked anything but a hurt woman.
"If I am," she chirped, cheerily, "I'm not hurt half as bad as I would have been if the squire had beat you, deacon. Now don't you worry about me. Let's hurry back to town so the squire won't get another chance, with no place for me to jump."
And the deacon? Well, well, with the lines in the crook of his elbow the deacon held out his arms to the widow and——. The sisters at the next meeting of the Sewing Society were unanimously of the opinion that any woman who would risk her life like that for a husband was mighty anxious.
By Wells Hastings (1878- )
[From The Century Magazine, April, 1914; copyright, 1914, by The Century Co.; republished by the author's permission.]
"An' de next' frawg dat houn' pup seen, he pass him by wide."
The house, which had hung upon every word, roared with laughter, and shook with a storming volley of applause. Gideon bowed to right and to left, low, grinning, assured comedy obeisances; but as the laughter and applause grew he shook his head, and signaled quietly for the drop. He had answered many encores, and he was an instinctive artist. It was part of the fuel of his vanity that his audience had never yet had enough of him. Dramatic judgment, as well as dramatic sense of delivery, was native to him, qualities which the shrewd Felix Stuhk, his manager and exultant discoverer, recognized and wisely trusted in. Off stage Gideon was watched over like a child and a delicate investment, but once behind the footlights he was allowed to go his own triumphant gait.
It was small wonder that Stuhk deemed himself one of the cleverest managers in the business; that his narrow, blue-shaven face was continually chiseled in smiles of complacent self-congratulation. He was rapidly becoming rich, and there were bright prospects of even greater triumphs, with proportionately greater reward. He had made Gideon a national character, a headliner, a star of the first magnitude in the firmament of the vaudeville theater, and all in six short months. Or, at any rate, he had helped to make him all this; he had booked him well and given him his opportunity. To be sure, Gideon had done the rest; Stuhk was as ready as any one to do credit to Gideon's ability. Still, after all, he, Stuhk, was the discoverer, the theatrical Columbus who had had the courage and the vision.
A now-hallowed attack of tonsilitis had driven him to Florida, where presently Gideon had been employed to beguile his convalescence, and guide him over the intricate shallows of that long lagoon known as the Indian River in search of various fish. On days when fish had been reluctant Gideon had been lured into conversation, and gradually into narrative and the relation of what had appeared to Gideon as humorous and entertaining; and finally Felix, the vague idea growing big within him, had one day persuaded his boatman to dance upon the boards of a long pier where they had made fast for lunch. There, with all the sudden glory of crystallization, the vague idea took definite form and became the great inspiration of Stuhk's career.