A FOREST HEARTH
A Forest Hearth
A ROMANCE OF INDIANA IN THE THIRTIES
AUTHOR OF "DOROTHY VERNON OF HADDON HALL," "THE BEARS OF BLUE RIVER," "WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER," ETC.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY CLYDE O. DELAND
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
LONDON: MACMILLAN & CO., LTD.
All rights reserved
BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
Set up, electrotyped, and published October, 1903.
J. S. Cushing & Co.—Berwick & Smith Co.
Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.
I. ON THE HEART OF THE HEARTH 11
II. THE BACHELOR HEART 27
III. THE SYCAMORE DIVAN 45
IV. THE DEBUTANTE 61
V. UNDER THE ELM CANOPY 87
VI. THE FIGHT BY THE RIVER SIDE 107
VII. THE TRIAL 133
VIII. A CHRISTMAS HEARTH LOG 153
IX. DIC LENDS MONEY GRATIS 179
X. THE TOURNAMENT 203
XI. A KISS AND A DUEL 225
XII. THE LOVE POWDER 259
XIII. THE DIMPLER 281
XIV. WISE MISS TOUSY 303
XV. THE CHRISTMAS GIFT 329
"He produced a small gold watch with the word 'Rita' engraved upon the case" Frontispiece
"She changed it many times" 31
"She flung at the worthy shepherd the opprobrious words, 'You fool'" 81
"'I've come to get my kiss,' said Doug" 121
"Covering her face with her hands, she began to weep" 191
"'Kill him, Dic; kill him as you would a wolf'" 255
"Miss Tousy softly kissed her and said, ... 'There, don't cry, sweet one'" 315
"'Here,' replied the girl" 349
ON THE HEART OF THE HEARTH
A Forest Hearth
ON THE HEART OF THE HEARTH
A strenuous sense of justice is the most disturbing of all virtues, and those persons in whom it predominates are usually as disagreeable as they are good. Any one who assumes the high plane of "justice to all, and confusion to sinners," may easily gain a reputation for goodness simply by doing nothing bad. Look wise and heavenward, frown severely but regretfully upon others' faults, and the world will whisper, "Ah, how good he is!" And you will be good—as the sinless, prickly pear. If the virtues of omission constitute saintship, and from a study of the calendar one might so conclude, seek your corona by the way of justice. For myself, I would rather be a layman with a few active virtues and a small sin or two, than a sternly just saint without a fault. Breed virtue in others by giving them something to forgive. Conceive, if you can, the unutterable horror of life in this world without a few blessed human faults. He who sins not at all, cannot easily find reason to forgive; and to forgive those who trespass against us, is one of the sweetest benedictions of life. I have known many persons who built their moral structure upon the single rock of justice; but they all bred wretchedness among those who loved them, and made life harder because they did not die young.
One woman of that sort, I knew,—Mrs. Margarita Bays. To her face, or in the presence of those who might repeat my words, I of course called her "Mrs. Bays"; but when I felt safe in so doing, I called her the "Chief Justice"—a title conferred by my friend, Billy Little. Later happenings in her life caused Little to christen her "my Lady Jeffreys," a sobriquet bestowed upon her because of the manner in which she treated her daughter, whose name was also Margarita.
The daughter, because she was as sweet as the wild rose, and as gentle as the soft spring sun, received from her friends the affectionate diminutive of Rita. And so I shall name her in this history.
Had not Rita been so gentle, yielding, and submissive, or had her father, Tom Bays,—husband to the Chief Justice,—been more combative and less amenable to the corroding influences of henpeck, I doubt if Madam Bays would ever have attained a dignity beyond that of "Associate Justice." That strong sense of domineering virtue which belongs to the truly just must be fed, and it waxes fat on an easy-going husband and a loving, tender daughter.
In the Bays home, the mother's righteous sense of justice and duty, which applied itself relentlessly upon husband and daughter, became the weakest sort of indulgence when dealing with the only son and heir. Without being vicious, Tom, Jr., was what the negroes called "jes' clean triflin'," and dominated his mother with an inherited club of inborn selfishness. Before Tom's selfishness, Justice threw away her scales and became maudlin sentiment.
I have been intimately acquainted with the Bays family ever since they came to Blue River settlement from North Carolina, and I am going to tell you the story of the sweetest, gentlest nature God has ever given me to know—Rita Bays. I warn you there will be no heroics in this history, no palaces, no grand people—nothing but human nature, the forests, and a few very simple country folk indeed.
Rita was a babe in arms when her father, her mother, and her six-year-old brother Tom moved from North Carolina in two great "schooner" wagons, and in the year '20 or '21 settled upon Blue River, near the centre of a wilderness that had just been christened "Indiana."
The father of Tom Bays had been a North Carolina planter of considerable wealth and culture; but when the old gentleman died there were eight sons and two daughters among whom his estate was to be divided, and some of them had to choose between moving west and facing the terrors of battle with nature in the wilderness, and remaining in North Carolina to become "poor white trash." Tom Bays, Sr., had married Margarita, daughter of a pompous North Carolinian, Judge Anselm Fisher. Whether he was a real judge, or simply a "Kentucky judge," I cannot say; but he was a man of good standing, and his daughter was not the woman to endure the loss of caste at home. If compelled to step down from the social position into which she had been born, the step must be taken among strangers, that part at least of her humiliation might be avoided.
With a heart full of sorrow and determination, Madam Bays, who even then had begun to manifest rare genius for leadership, loaded two "schooners" with her household goods, her husband, her son, and her daughter, and started northwest with the laudable purpose of losing herself in the wilderness. They carried with them their inheritance, a small bag of gold, and with it they purchased from the government a quarter-section—one hundred and sixty acres—of land, at five shillings per acre. The land on Blue was as rich and fertile as any the world could furnish; but for miles upon miles it was covered with black forests, almost impenetrable to man, and was infested by wild beasts and Indians. Here madam and her husband began their long battle with the hardest of foes—nature; and that battle, the terrors of which no one can know who has not fought it, doubtless did much to harden the small portion of human tenderness with which God had originally endowed her. They built their log-cabin on the east bank of Blue River, one mile north of the town of the same name. The river was spoken of simply as Blue.
Artistic beauty is not usually considered an attribute of log-cabins; but I can testify to the beauty of many that stood upon the banks of Blue,—among them the house of Bays. The main building consisted of two ground-floor rooms, each with a front door and a half-story room above. A clapboard-covered porch extended across the entire front of the house, which faced westward toward Blue. Back of the main building was a one-story kitchen, and adjoining each ground-floor room was a huge chimney, built of small logs four to six inches in diameter. These chimneys, thickly plastered on the inside with clay, were built with a large opening at the top, and widened downward to the fireplace, which was eight or ten feet square, and nearly as high as the low ceiling of the room. The purpose of these generous dimensions was to prevent the wooden chimney from burning. The fire, while the chimney was new, was built in the centre of the enormous hearth that the flames might not touch the walls, but after a time the heat burnt the clay to the hardness of brick, and the fire was then built against the back wall. By pointing up the cracks, and adding a coat of clay now and then, the walls soon became entirely fireproof, and a fire might safely be kindled that would defy Boreas in his bitterest zero mood. An open wood fire is always cheering; so our humble folk of the wilderness, having little else to cheer them during the long winter evenings, were mindful to be prodigal in the matter of fuel, and often burned a cord of wood between candle-light and bedtime on one of their enormous hearths. A cord of wood is better than a play for cheerfulness, and a six-foot back-log will make more mirth than Dan Rice himself ever created. Economy did not enter into the question, for wood was nature's chief weapon against her enemies, the settlers; and the question was not how to save, but how to burn it.
To this place Rita first opened the eyes of her mind. The girl's earliest memories were of the cozy log-cabin upon the banks of the limpid, gurgling creek. Green in her memory, in each sense of the word, was the soft blue-grass lawn, that sloped gently a hundred yards from the cabin, built upon a little rise in the bottom land, down to the water's edge. Often when she was a child, and I a man well toward middle life, did I play with the enchanting little elf upon the blue-grass lawn, and drink the waters of perennial youth at the fountain of her sweet babyhood. Vividly I remember the white-skinned sycamores, the gracefully drooping elms, and the sweet-scented honey-locust that grew about the cabin and embowered it in leafy glory. Even at this long distance of time, when June is abroad, if I catch the odor of locust blossoms, my mind and heart travel back on the wings of a moment, and I hear the buzzing of the wild bees, the song of the meadow-lark, the whistle of bob-white, and the gurgling of the creek—all blended into one sweet refrain like the mingling tones of a perfect orchestra by the soft-voiced babble of my wee girl-baby friend. I close my eyes, and see the house amid the hollyhocks and trees, a thin line of blue smoke curling lazily from the kitchen chimney and floating away over the deep, black forest to the north and east. I see the maples languidly turning the white side of their leaves to catch the south wind's balmy breath, and I see by my side a fate-charged, tiny tot, dabbling in the water, mocking the songs of the birds, and ever turning her face, with its great brown wistful eyes, to catch the breath of destiny and to hear the sad dread hum of the future. But my old chum Billy Little was the child's especial friend.
In those good times there was another child, a boy, Diccon Bright, who often came down from his cabin home a mile up river to play with Rita on the blue-grass lawn in summer, or to sit with her on the hearth log in winter. In cold weather the hearth log was kept on one side of the hearth, well within the fireplace itself, ready for use when needed. It gloried in three names, all of which were redolent of home. It was called the "hearth log" because it was kept upon the hearth; the "waiting log" because it was waiting to take the place of the log that was burning, and the "ciphering log" because the children sat upon it in the evening firelight to do their "ciphering"—a general term used to designate any sort of preparation for the morrow's lesson. In those times arithmetic was the chief study, and from it the acquisition of all branches of knowledge took the name of ciphering.
Diccon—where on earth his parents got the name, I cannot tell—was four or five years older than Rita. He was a manly boy, and when my little friend could hardly lisp his name she would run to him with the unerring instinct of childhood and nestle in his arms or cling to his helpful finger. The little fellow was so sturdy, strong, and brave, and his dark gray eyes were so steadfast and true, that she feared no evil from him, though ordinarily she was a timid child. She would sit by him on the ciphering log during the long winter evenings, and the boy, the girl, and the fire were the best of friends, and had glorious times together on the heart of the cheery hearth. The north wind might blow, the snow might snow, and the cold might freeze, Rita, Dic, and the fire cared not a straw.
"I want no better mirror, my little sweetheart," he would say, "than your brown eyes; no prettier color than your rosy cheeks and glossy black hair, and no truer friend than your loving little heart." And the fire crackled its entire approval.
"Very well, Dic," she would reply, laughing with delight, "if you really want them, you may have them; they are all yours." And the fire smiled rosily, beaming its benediction.
"But what will your father and mother say and Tom?" asked Dic.
"We'll not tell them," replied this tiny piece of Eve; and the fire almost choked itself with spluttering laughter. So, with the fire as a witness, the compact was made and remade many times, until she thought she belonged to Dic and gloried in her little heart because of it.
Diccon and Rita's brother, Tom, even during their early childhood, when they were hardly half so tall as the guns they carried, were companion knights in the great wars waged by the settlers against the wild beasts of the forests, and many a bear, wolf, wildcat, and deer fell before the prowess of small Sir Diccon la Valorous and little Sir Thomas de Triflin'. Out of their slaughter grew friendship, and for many years Sir Thomas was a frequent guest upon the ciphering log of Sir Diccon, and Sir Diccon spent many winter evenings on the hearth at Castle Bays.
As the long years of childhood passed, Dic began to visit the Bays home more frequently than Tom visited the Brights'. I do not know whether this change was owing to the increasing age of the boys, or—but Rita was growing older and prettier every day, and you know that may have had something to do with Dic's visits.
Dic had another boy friend—an old boy, of thirty-five or more—whose name was William Little. He was known generally as Billy Little, and it pleased the little fellow to be so called, "Because," said he, "persons give the diminutive to fools and those whom they love; and I know I am not a fool." The sweetest words in the German language are their home diminutives. It is difficult to love a man whom one must call Thomas. Tom, Jack, and Billy are the chaps who come near to us.
Billy was an old bachelor and an Englishman. His family had intended him for the church, and he was educated at Trinity with that end in view. Although not an irreligious man, he had views on religion that were far from orthodox.
"I found it impossible," he once remarked, "to induce the church to change its views, and equally impossible to change my own; so the church and I, each being unreasonably stubborn, agreed to disagree, and I threw over the whole affair, quarrelled with my family, was in turn thrown over by them, and here I am, in the wilderness, very much pleased."
He lived in the little town of Blue River, and was justice of the peace, postmaster, storekeeper, and occasionally school-teacher. He was small in stature, with a tendency to become rotund as he grew older. He took pride in his dress and was as cleanly as an Englishman. He was reasonably willing to do the duty that confronted him, and loved but three forms of recreation,—to be with his two most intimate friends, Rita and Dic, to wander in the trackless forests, and to play upon his piano. His piano was his sweetheart, and often in the warm summer evenings, when his neighbors were in bed, would the strains of his music lull them to sleep, and float out into the surrounding forests, awakening the whippoorwill to heart-rending cries of anguish that would give a man the "blues" for a month. I believe many ignorant persons thought that Billy was not exactly "right in the top," as they put it, because he would often wander through the forests, night or day, singing to himself, talking to the trees and birds, and clasping to his soul fair nature in her virgin strength and sweetness. He often communed with himself after this fashion: "I am a fortunate man in the things I love, for I have them to my heart's content. Rita and Dic are children. I give them knowledge. They give me youth. I touch my piano. It fills my soul with peace. If it gives me a discordant note, the fault is mine. I go to the forest, and sweet Nature takes me in her arms and lulls me to ecstasy."
Billy Little and I had been college chums, and had emigrated on the same ship. I studied law, entered the practice, married, and have a family. While my wife and family did not mar the friendship between Little and myself, it prevented frequency of intercourse, for a wife and family are great absorbents. However, he and I remained friends, and from him I have most of the facts constituting this story.
This friend of Dic's was a great help to the boy intellectually, and at fourteen or fifteen years of age, when other boys considered their education complete if they could spell phthisis and Constantinople, our hero was reading Virgil and Shakespeare, and was learning to think for himself. The knowledge obtained from Billy Little the boy tried to impart to Rita. Tom held learning and books to be effeminate and wasteful of time; but Rita drank in Dic's teaching, with now and then a helpful draught from Billy Little, and the result soon began to show upon the girl.
Thus it was that Dic often went to see Tom, but talked to Tom's sister. Many an evening, long after Tom had unceremoniously climbed the rude stairway to bed, would the brown-eyed maid, with her quaint, wistful touch of womanhood, sit beside Dic on the ciphering log inside the fireplace, listening to him read from one of Billy Little's books, watching him trace continents, rivers, and mountains on a map, or helping him to cipher a complicated problem in arithmetic. The girl by no means understood all that Dic read, but she tried, and even though she failed, she would clasp her hands and say, "Isn't it grand, Dic?" And it was grand to her because Dic read it.
Lamps were unknown to our simple folk, so the light of the fireplace was all they had to read by. It was, therefore, no uncommon sight in those early cabin homes to see the whole family sitting upon the broad hearth, shading their eyes with their hands, while some one—frequently the local school-teacher—sat upon the hearth log and read by the fire that furnished both light and heat. This reading was frequently Dic's task in the Bays home.
One who has seen a large family thus gathered upon the spacious hearth will easily understand the love for it that ages ago sprang up in the hearts of men and crickets. At no place in all the earth, and at no time in all its history, has the hearth done more in moulding human character than it did in the wilderness on the north side of the lower Ohio when the men who felled the forest and conquered nature offered their humble devotions on its homely altar.
So it came to pass that Dic and Rita grew up together on the heart of the hearth; and what wonder that their own hearts were welded by the warmth and light of its cheery god. Thus the boy grew to manhood and the girl to maidenhood, then to young womanhood, at which time, of course, her troubles began.
Chief among the earlier troubles of our little maid was a growing tenderness for Dic. Of that trouble she was not for many months aware. She was unable to distinguish between the affection she had always given him and the warming tenderness she was beginning to feel, save in her disinclination to make it manifest. When with him she was under a constraint as inexplicable to her as it was annoying. It brought grief to her tender heart, since it led her into little acts of rudeness or neglect, which in turn always led to tears. She often blamed Dic for the altered condition, though it was all owing to the change in herself. There was no change in him. He sought the girl's society as frankly as when they were children, though at the time of which I write he had made no effort to "keep company" with her. She, at fifteen, believing herself to be a young lady, really wished for the advances she feared. Sukey Yates, who was only fourteen, had "company" every Sunday evening, and went to all the social frolics for miles around. Polly Kaster, not sixteen, was soon to be married to Bantam Rhodes. Many young men had looked longingly upon Rita, who was the most beautiful girl on Blue; but the Chief Justice, with her daughter's hearty approval, drove all suitors away. The girl was wholly satisfied with Dic, who was "less than kin," but very much "more than kind." He came to see the family, herself included; but when he went out to social functions, church socials, corn-huskings, and dances he took Sukey Yates, or some other girl, and upon such evenings our own little maiden went to bed dissatisfied with the world at large, and herself in particular. Of course, she would not have gone to dances, even with Dic. She had regard for the salvation of her soul, and the Chief Justice, in whom the girl had unquestioning faith, held dancing to be the devil's chief instrument of damnation. Even the church socials were not suitable for young girls, as you will agree if you read farther; and Mrs. Margarita, with a sense of propriety inherited from better days, tried to hold her daughter aloof from the country society, which entertained honest but questionable views on many subjects.
Dic paid his informal visit to the Bays household in the evenings, and at the time of the girl's growing inclination she would gaze longingly up the river watching for him; while the sun, regretful to leave the land, wherein her hero dwelt, sank slowly westward to shine upon those poor waste places that knew no Diccon. When she would see him coming she would run away for fear of herself, and seek her room in the loft, where she would scrub her face and hands in a hopeless effort to remove the sun-brown. Then she would scan her face in a mirror, for which Dic had paid two beautiful bearskins, hoping to convince herself that she was not altogether hideous.
"If I could only be half as pretty as Sukey Yates," she often thought, little dreaming that Sukey, although a very pretty girl, was plain compared with her own winsome self.
After the scrubbing she would take from a little box the solitary piece of grandeur she possessed,—a ribbon of fiery red,—and with this around her neck or woven through the waving floods of her black hair, she felt she was bedecked like a veritable queen of hearts. But the ribbon could not remove all doubts of herself, and with tears ready to start from her eyes she would stamp her foot and cry out: "I hate myself. I am an ugly fool." Then she would slowly climb down the rude stairway, and, as we humble folk would say, "take out her spite" against herself on poor Dic. She was not rude to him, but, despite her inclination, she failed to repay his friendliness in kind as of yore.
Tom took great pleasure in teasing her, and chuckled with delight when his indulgent mother would tell her visiting friends that he was a great tease.
One evening when Rita had encountered more trouble than usual with the sun-brown, and was more than ever before convinced that she was a fright and a fool, she went downstairs, wearing her ribbon, to greet Dic, who was sitting on the porch with father, mother, and Tom. When she emerged from the front door, Tom, the teaser, said:—
"Oh, just look at her! She's put on her ribbon for Dic." Then, turning to Dic, "She run to her room and spruced up when she saw you coming."
Dic laughed because it pleased him to think, at least to hope, that Tom had spoken the truth. Poor Rita in the midst of her confusion misunderstood Dic's laughter; and, smarting from the truth of Tom's words, quickly retorted:—
"You're a fool to say such a thing, and if—if—if—Mr.—Mr. Bright believes it, he is as great a fool as you."
"Mr. Bright!" cried de Triflin'. "My, but she's getting stylish!"
Rita looked at Dic after she spoke, and the pain he felt was so easily discernible on his face that she would have given anything, even the ribbon, to have had her words back, or to have been able to cry out, "I didn't mean it, Dic; I didn't mean it."
But the words she had spoken would not come back, and those she wanted to speak would not come forward, so tears came instead, and she ran to her loft, to do penance in sobs greatly disproportionate to her sin.
Soon Dic left, and as he started up the forest path she tried by gazing at him from her window to make him know the remorse she felt. She wanted to call to him, but she dared not; then she thought to escape unseen from the house and run after him. But darkness was rapidly falling, and she feared the black, terrible forest.
We talk a great deal about the real things of after life; but the real things of life, the keen joys and the keenest pains, come to a man before his first vote, and to a woman before the days of her mature womanhood.
THE BACHELOR HEART
THE BACHELOR HEART
Rita's first great pain kept her sleepless through many hours. She resolved that when Dic should come again she would throw off the restraint that so hurt and provoked her, and would show him, at whatever cost, that she had not intended her hard words for him.
The next day seemed an age. She sought all kinds of work to make the time pass quickly. Churning, usually irksome, was a luxury. She swept every nook and corner of the house, and longed to sweep the whole farm.
That evening she did not wait till Dic was in sight to put on her ribbon. She changed it many times from her throat to her hair and back again, long before the sun had even thought of going down.
Her new attitude toward Dic had at least one good effect: it took from her the irritation she had so often felt against herself. Losing part of her self-consciousness in the whirl of a new, strong motive, wrought a great change, not only in her appearance, but also in her way of looking at things—herself included. She was almost satisfied with the image her mirror reflected. She might well have been entirely satisfied. There was neither guile nor vanity in the girl's heart, nor a trace of deceit in her face; only gentleness, truth, and beauty. She had not hitherto given much thought to her face; but with the change in her way of seeing Dic, her eyes were opened to the value of personal beauty. Then she began to wonder. Regret for her hard words to Dic deepened her longing for beauty, in the hope that she might be admired by him and more easily forgiven. Billy Little, who had seen much of the world, once said that there was a gentleness and beauty about Rita at this time which he believed no other woman ever possessed. She was child and woman then, and that combination is hard to beat, even in a plain girl. Poor old Billy Little! He was more than thirty years her senior, but I believe there is no period in the life of a bachelor, however case-hardened he may be, when his heart is entirely safe from the enemy. That evening Rita sat on the porch watching for Dic. But the sun and her heart went down, and Dic did not come.
The plaintive rain cry of a whippoorwill from the branches of a dead tree across the river, and the whispering "peep, peep, peep," of the sleepy robins in the foliage near the house, helped to deepen her feeling of disappointment, and she was thoroughly miserable. She tried to peer through the gloaming, and feared her father and mother would mark her troubled eagerness and guess its cause. But her dread of their comments was neutralized by the fear that Dic would not come.
Opportunity is the touchstone of fate, save with women. With them it is fate itself. Had Dic appeared late that evening, there would have been a demonstration on Rita's part, regardless of who might have seen, and the young man would have discovered an interesting truth. Rita, deeply troubled, discovered it for herself, and thought surely it was plain enough for every one else to see.
When darkness had fallen, she became reckless of concealment, and walked a short way up the river in the hope of meeting Dic. The hooting of an owl frightened her, but she did not retreat till she heard the howling of a wolf. Then she ran home at full speed and went to bed full of the most healthful suffering a heart can know—that which it feels because of the pain it has given another.
Thus Dic missed both opportunity and demonstration. The next evening he missed another opportunity, and by the morning of the third day our little girl, blushing at the thought, determined to write to him and ask his forgiveness. There was one serious obstacle to writing: she had neither paper nor ink, nor money with which to buy them. Hitherto she had found little use for money, but now the need was urgent. Tom always had money, and she thought of begging a few pennies from him. No! Tom would laugh, and refuse. If she should ask her mother, a string of questions would ensue, with "No" for a snapper. Her father would probably give her money, if she asked for it; but her mother would ask questions later. She would ride to town, one mile south on Blue, and ask credit of her old friend, Billy Little, to the extent of a sheet of paper and a small pot of ink. For a pen she would catch a goose, pluck a quill, and ask Billy to cut it. Billy could cut the best pen of any one on Blue.
Dinner over, she caught the goose after an exciting chase, plucked the quill, saddled her horse, and was slipping away from the back yard when her mother's voice halted her.
"Where are you going?" asked Mrs. Margarita.
"I'm—I'm—going—going to see Sukey Yates," answered the girl.
She had not intended going to Sukey's, but after her mother's peremptory demand for information, she formed the ex post facto resolution to do so, that her answer might not be a lie.
"Now, what on earth do you want there?" asked the Chief Justice.
"I—I only want to sit awhile with her," answered Rita. "May I go? The work is all done."
"No, you shan't go," responded the kind old lady. You see, one of the maxims of this class of good persons is to avoid as many small pleasures as possible—in others. That they apply the rule to themselves, doesn't help to make it endurable.
Rita—with whom to hear was to obey—sprang from her horse; but just then her father came upon the scene. His soft words and soothing suggestions mollified Justice, and Rita started forth upon her visit to Sukey. She had told her mother she was going to see Sukey Yates; and when she thought upon the situation, she became convinced that her ex post facto resolution, even though honestly acted upon, would not avail her in avoiding a lie, unless it were carried out to the letter and in the spirit. There was not a lie in this honest girl—not a fractional part of a lie—from her toes to her head. She went straight to see Sukey, and did not go to town, though she might easily have done so. She did not fear discovery. She feared the act of secret disobedience, and above all she dreaded the lie. A strong motive might induce her to disobey, but the disobedience in that case would be open. She would go to Sukey's to-day. To-morrow she would go to town in open rebellion, if need be. The thought of rebellion caused her to tremble; but let the powers at home also tremble. Like many of us, she was brave for to-morrow's battle, since to-morrow never comes.
Rita was not in the humor to listen to Sukey's good-natured prattle, so her visit was brief, and she soon rode home, her heart full of trouble and rebellion. But the reward for virtue, which frequently fails to make its appearance, waited upon our heroine. When she was about to dismount at the home gate, her father called to her:—
"While you're on your horse, Rita, you might ride to town and ask Billy Little if there's a letter. The mail came in three days ago."
The monster, Rebellion, at once disappeared, and the girl, conscience-smitten, resolved never, never to entertain him again. She rode down the river path through the forest, happy after many days of wretchedness.
Billy Little's store building consisted of two log-built rooms. The long front room was occupied by the store and post-office. The back room, as Billy said, was occupied by his piano and himself. When he saw Rita, clothed in dainty calico and smiles, gallop up to the hitching-post, his heart was filled with joy, his face beamed with pleasure, and his scalp was suffused by a rosy hue. Billy's smooth-shaven face was pale, the blood never mounting to his cheeks, so he made amends as best he could and blushed with the top of his head.
"Good evening to you, Rita," he said, as he lifted her to the ground and hitched her horse. "I am delighted to see you. You come like the rosy sun after a rainy day."
"The sun doesn't come after the day, Billy Little," retorted the laughing girl. "You probably mean the pale moon, or a poor dim little star."
"I know what I mean," answered the little old fellow in tones of mock indignation, "and I'll not allow a chit of a girl to correct my astronomy. I'm your schoolmaster, and if I say the sun comes after the day, why after the day it comes. Now, there!" he continued, as they entered the store. "Turn your face to the wall and do penance. Such insolence!"
The girl faced the wall, and after a moment she looked laughingly over her shoulder at him. "If you'll let me turn around, I'll admit that the sun comes at midnight, if you say it does, Billy Little."
"Midnight it is," said Billy, sternly. "Take your seat."
She ran laughing to Billy, and clasping his arm affectionately, said with a touch of seriousness:—
"It comes whenever you say it does, Billy Little. I'd believe you before I'd believe myself."
Poor old bachelor heart! Look to your breastworks; the enemy is at hand.
"Now I've noticed," said cynical Billy, "that whenever the feminine heart wants something, it grows tender. What do you want?"
"I want a letter, Billy Little. Father sent me down to fetch it, if there is one."
"Yes, there's one here," he answered, going back of the glass-covered pigeon-holes. "There's one here from Indianapolis. It's from your Uncle Jim Fisher. I suppose he's after your father again to sell his farm and invest the proceeds in the Indianapolis store. Precious fool he'll be if he does."
"Indeed, he would not be a fool," retorted the girl. "I'm just wild for father to move to Indianapolis. I don't want to grow up in the country like a ragweed or mullein stalk, and I—" ("Like a sweetbrier or a golden-rod," interrupted Billy) "and I don't want you to advise him not to go," she continued, unmindful of Billy's flowers of poesy.
"Well, here's the letter. Do you want anything else?"
"Then, for once, I've found a disinterested female in a coaxing mood," replied this modern Diogenes. He came from behind the counter, pretending to believe her, and started toward the door.
"How's Dic?" he asked. "I haven't seen him for a fortnight. I've been wondering what has become of him." The girl's face turned red—painfully so to Billy—as she replied:—
"I—I haven't seen him either for—for a very long time—three days." She stopped talking and Billy remained silent. After a long pause she spoke up briskly, as if she had just remembered something.
"Oh, I almost forgot—there is something I want, and—and after all, you're right. I want—I want—won't you—will you—I say, Billy Little, won't you let me have a sheet of writing paper and a pot of ink, and won't you cut this pen for me?"
Billy took the quill and turned to go behind the counter. The girl was dancing nervously on her toes. "But say, Billy Little, I can't pay you for them now. Will—will—you trust me?"
Billy did not reply, but went to the letter-paper box.
"You had better take more than one sheet, Rita," he said softly. "If you're going to write a love-letter to Dic, you will be sure to spoil the first sheet, perhaps the second and third."
Billy's head blushed vividly after he had spoken, for his remark was a prying one. The girl had no thought of writing a love-letter, and she resented the insinuation. She was annoyed because she had betrayed her purpose in buying the paper. But she loved Billy Little too dearly to show her resentment, and remained silent. The girl, Billy, and Dic differing as much as it is possible for three persons to differ, save in their common love for books and truth, had been friends ever since her babyhood, and Billy was the only person to whom she could easily lay bare her heart. Upon second thought she concluded to tell him her trouble.
"It was this way, Billy Little," she began, and after stumbling over many words, she made a good start, and the little story of her troubles fell from her lips like crystal water from a babbling spring.
After her story was finished—and she found great relief in the telling—Billy said:—
"Of course I'll trust you. I'd trust you for the whole store if you wanted to buy it. I'd trust you with my soul," he added after a pause. "There's not a false drop of blood in your veins."
"Ah, Billy Little," she answered, as she took his hand caressingly for an instant, and her eyes, with their wonderful capacity for expression, said the rest.
"So, you see, I do want to write a letter to Dic," she said, dropping his hand; "but it is not to be a love-letter. I could not write one if I wished. I was very wicked. Oh, Billy Little, I honestly think, at times, I'm the worst girl that ever lived. Something terrible will happen to me for my wickedness, I'm sure. Mother says it will."
"Yes, something terrible—terrible, I'm sure," returned Billy, musingly.
"And I want to apologize to him," she continued, "and tell him I didn't mean it. Isn't it right that I should?"
"Oh, yes—yes," answered Billy, starting out of his revery. "Of course, yes—Maxwelton's braes are bonny—um—um—um—um—um—yes, oh yes."
When vexed, pleased, or puzzled, Billy was apt to hum the opening line of "Annie Laurie," though the first four words were all that received the honor of distinct articulation. The remainder of the stanza he allowed to die away under his breath. Rita was of course familiar with the habit, but this time she could not tell which motive had prompted the musical outburst. Billy himself couldn't have told, but perhaps the bachelor heart was at the bottom of it.
"Thank you, Billy Little, for the paper," said Rita. "I'll pay you with the first money I get." Billy silently helped her to mount her horse. She smiled, "Good-by," and he walked slowly back to the store muttering to himself: "Billy Little, Billy Little, your breastworks are weak, and you are a—Maxwelton's braes—um—um—um—um.—Ah, good evening, Mrs. Carson. Something I can do for you this evening? Sugar? Ah, yes, plenty. Best in town. Best shipment I ever had," and Billy was once more a merchant.
When Rita reached home supper was ready, and after the supper work was finished it was too dark to write; so the letter was postponed a day, and she took her place on the porch, hoping that Dic would come and that the letter might be postponed indefinitely. But he did not come. Next morning churning had again become loathsome, sweeping was hard work, and dinner was a barbarous institution. Rita had no appetite, and to sympathize with those who are hungry one must be hungry.
Innumerable very long minutes had woven themselves into mammoth hours when Rita, having no table in her room, found herself lying on the floor writing her momentous letter. It was not to be a love-letter; simply an appeal for forgiveness to a friend whom she had wantonly injured.
"Dear old Billy Little," she said to herself, when she opened the package. "What pretty paper—and he has given me six sheets in place of one—and a little pot of ink—and a sand-box! I wonder if the quill is a good one! Ah, two—three quills! Dear old Billy Little! Here is enough paper to last me for years." In that respect she was mistaken. She experienced difficulty with effort number one, but finished the letter and read it aloud; found it wholly unsatisfactory, and destroyed it. She used greater care with the next, but upon reading it over she found she had said too much of what she wished to leave unsaid, and too little of what she wanted to say. She destroyed number two with great haste and some irritation, for it was almost a love-letter. The same fate befell numbers three, four, and five. After all, Billy's liberal supply of paper would not last for years. If it proved sufficient for one day, she would be satisfied. Number six, right or wrong, must go to Dic, so she wrote simply and briefly what was in her heart.
"DEAR FRIEND DIC: My words were not intended for you. I was angry with Tom, as I had good reason to be, though he spoke the truth. I did put on my ribbon because I saw you coming, and I have cried every night since then because of what I said to you, and because you do not come to let me tell you how sorry I am. You should have given me a chance. I would have given you one. RITA."
It was a sweet, straightforward letter, half-womanly, half-childish, and she had no cause to be ashamed of it; but she feared it was bold, and tears came to her eyes when she read it, because there were no more sheets of paper, and modest or bold it must go to Dic.
Having written the letter, she had no means of sending it; but she had entered upon the venture, and was determined to carry it through. Mrs. Bays and her husband had driven to town, and there was no need for ex post facto resolutions. When the letter had been properly directed and duly sealed, the girl saddled her horse and started away on another journey to Sukey Yates. This time, however, she went somewhat out of her way, riding up the river path through the forest to Dic Bright's home. When she reached the barnyard gate Dic was hitching the horses to the "big wagon." He came at Rita's call, overjoyed at the sight of her. He knew she had come to ask forgiveness. For many months past he had tried not to see that she was unkind to him, but her words on the porch had convinced him, and he saw that her coldness had been intentional. Of course he did not know the cause of her altered demeanor, and had regretfully put it down to an altered sentiment on her part. But when he saw her at the barnyard gate, he was again in the dark as to her motive.
When Dic came up to her she handed him the letter over the gate, saying: "Read it alone. Let no one see it."
Dic had only time to say, "Thank you," when the girl struck her horse and galloped down the forest path, bound for Sukey. When she had passed out of sight among the trees, Dic went down the river to a secluded spot, known as "The Stepoff," where he could read the letter without fear of detection. He had long suspected that his love for the girl was not altogether brotherly, and his recent trouble with her had crystallized that suspicion into certainty. But he saw nothing back of the letter but friendship and contrition. The girl's love was so great a treasure that he dared not even hope for it, and was more than satisfied with the Platonic affection so plainly set forth in her epistle. We who have looked into Rita's heart know of a thing or two that does not resemble Platonism; but the girl herself did not fully know what she felt, and Dic was sure she could not, under any circumstances, feel as he did. His mistake grew partly out of his lack of knowledge that woman's flesh and blood is of exactly the same quality that covers the bones and flows in the veins of man, and—well, Rita was Rita, and, in Dic's opinion, no other human being was ever of the quality of her flesh, or cast in the mould of her nature. The letter told him that he still held her warm, tender love as a friend. He was thankful for that, and would neither ask nor expect anything more.
If upon Rita's former visit to Sukey she had been too sad to enjoy the vivacious little maiden, upon this occasion she was too happy. She sat listening patiently to her chat, without hearing much of it, until Sukey said:—
"Dic was over to see me last night. I think he's so handsome, don't you?"
Rita was so startled that she did not think anything at the moment, and Sukey presently asked:—
"Don't you think he has a fine head? and his eyes are glorious. The gray is so dark, and they look right at you."
Rita, compelled to answer, said, "I think he is—is all right—strong."
"Indeed, he is strong," responded Sukey. "When he takes hold of you, you just feel like he could crush you. Oh, it's delicious—it's thrilling—when you feel that a man could just tear you to pieces if he wanted to."
"Why?" asked Rita; "I don't understand."
"Oh, just because," replied Sukey, shrugging her shoulders and laughing softly, her red lips parted, her little teeth glistening like wet ivory, and the dimples twinkling mischievously.
"Just because" explained nothing to Rita, but something in Sukey's laughter and manner aroused undefined and disagreeable suspicions, so she said:—
"Well, Sukey, I must be going home."
"Why, you just came," returned Sukey, still laughing softly. She had shot her arrow intentionally and had seen it strike the target's centre. Sukey was younger than Rita, but she knew many times a thing or two; while poor Rita's knowledge of those mystic numbers was represented by the figure O.
Why should Dic "take hold" of any one, thought Rita, while riding home, and above all, why should he take hold of Sukey? Sukey was pretty, and Sukey's prettiness and Dic's "taking hold" seemed to be related in some mysterious manner. She who saw others through the clear lens of her own conscience did not doubt Dic and Sukey, but notwithstanding her trustfulness, a dim suspicion passed through her mind that something might be wrong if Dic had really "taken hold" of Sukey. Where the evil was, she could not determine; and to connect the straightforward, manly fellow with anything dishonorable or wicked was impossible to her. So she dismissed the subject, and it left no trace upon her mind save a slight irritation against Sukey.
Rita felt sure that Dic would come to see Tom that evening, and the red ribbon was in evidence soon after supper. Dic did come, and there was at least one happy girl on Blue.
THE SYCAMORE DIVAN
THE SYCAMORE DIVAN
A virgin love in the heart of a young girl is like an effervescent chemical: it may withstand a great shock, but a single drop of an apparently harmless liquid may cause it to evaporate. This risk Dic took when he went that evening to see Tom; and the fact that Rita had written her letter, of which she had such grave misgivings, together with the words of Sukey Yates, made his risk doubly great. Poor Dic needed a thorough knowledge of chemistry. He did not know that he possessed it, but he was a pure-minded, manly man, and the knowledge was innate with him.
"Good evening, Rita," said Dic, when, after many efforts, she came out upon the porch where he was sitting with her father, her mother, and Tom.
"Good morning," answered Rita, confusedly, and her mistake as to the time of day added to her confusion.
"Good morning!" cried Tom. "It's evening. My! but she's confused because you're here, Dic."
Tom was possessed of a simian acuteness that had led him to discover poor Rita's secret before she herself was fully aware of its existence. She, however, was rapidly making the interesting discovery, and feared that between the ribbon, the letter, and Tom's amiable jokes, Dic would discover it and presume upon the fact. From the mingling of these doubts and fears grew a feeling of resentment against Dic—a conviction before the fact. She wished him to know her regard for him, but she did not want him to learn it from any act of hers. She desired him to wrest it from her by main force, and as little awkwardness as a man may use. Had Dic by the smallest word or act shown a disposition to profit by what Rita feared had been excessive frankness in her letter, or had he, in any degree, assumed the attitude of a confident lover, such word or act would have furnished the needful chemical drop, and Dic's interests would have suffered. His safety at this time lay in ignorance. He did not suspect that Rita loved him, and there was no change in his open friendly demeanor. He was so easy, frank, and happy that evening that the girl soon began to feel that nothing unusual had happened, and that, after all, the letter was not bold, but perfectly right, and quite proper in all respects. Unconsciously to her Dic received the credit for her eased conscience, and she was grateful to him. She was more comfortable, and the evening seemed more like old times than for many months before.
Soon after Dic's arrival, Tom rode over to see Sukey Yates. As the hollyhock to the bees, so was Sukey to the country beaux—a conspicuous, inviting, easily reached little reservoir of very sweet honey. Later, Mr. and Mrs. Bays drove to town, leaving Dic and Rita to themselves, much to the girl's alarm, though she and Dic had been alone together many times before. Thus Dic had further opportunity to make a mistake; but he did not mention the letter, and the girl's confidence came slowly back to her.
The evening was balmy, and after a time Dic and Rita walked to the crest of the little slope that fell gently ten or fifteen feet to the water's edge. A sycamore log answered the purpose of a divan, and a great drooping elm furnished a royal canopy. A half-moon hung in the sky, whitening a few small clouds that seemed to be painted on the blue-black dome. The air, though not oppressive, was warm enough to make all nature languorous, and the soft breath of the south wind was almost narcotic in its power to soothe. A great forest is never still; even its silence has a note of its own. The trees seem to whisper to each other in the rustling of their leaves. The birds, awakened by the wind or by the breaking of a twig, speak to their neighbors. The peevish catbird and the blue jay grumble, while the thrush, the dove, and the redbird peep caressingly to their mates, and again fall asleep with gurgles of contentment in their throats.
Rita and Dic sat by the river's edge for many minutes in silence. The ever wakeful whippoorwill piped his doleful cry from a tree across the water, an owl hooted from the blackness of the forest beyond the house, and the turtle-doves cooed plaintively to each other in their far-reaching, mournful tones, giving a minor note to the nocturnal concert. Now and then a fish sprang from the water and fell back with a splash, and the water itself kept up a soft babble like the notes of a living flute.
Certainly the time was ripe for a mistake, but Dic did not make one. A woman's favor comes in waves like the flowing of the sea; and a wise man, if he fails to catch one flood, will wait for another. Dic was unconsciously wise, for Rita's favor was at its ebb when she walked down to the river bank. Ebb tide was indicated by the fact that she sat as far as possible from him on the log. The first evidence of a returning flood-tide would be an unconscious movement on her part toward him. Should the movement come from him there might be no flood-tide.
During the first half-hour Dic did most of the talking, but he spoke only of a book he had borrowed from Billy Little. With man's usual tendency to talk a subject threadbare, he clung to the one topic. A few months prior to that time his observations on the book would have interested the girl; but recently two or three unusual events had touched her life, and her dread that Dic would speak of them, was rapidly growing into a fear that he would not. By the end of that first half-hour, her feminine vivacity monopolized the conversation with an ostentatious display of trivial details on small subjects, and she began to move toward his end of the log. Still Dic kept his place, all unconscious of his wisdom.
Geese seemed to be Rita's favorite topic. Most women are clever at periphrasis, and will go a long way around to reach a desired topic, if for any reason they do not wish to approach it directly. The topics Rita wished to reach, as she edged toward Dic on the log and talked about geese, were her unkind words and her very kind letter. She wished to explain that her words were not meant to be unkind, and that the letter was not meant to be kind, and thought to reach the desired topics by the way of geese.
"Do you remember, Dic," she asked, "a long time ago, when Tom and I and the Yates children spent the afternoon at your house? We were sitting near the river, as we are sitting now, and a gray wolf ran down from the opposite bank and caught a gander?"
"Yes, I remember it as if it were yesterday," replied Dic.
"Geese are such fools when they are frightened," continued Rita, clinging to her subject.
"So are people," answered Dic. "We are all foolish when frightened. The other day the barn door slammed to with a crash, and I was so frightened I tried to put the collar in the horse's mouth." Rita laughed, and Dic continued, "Once I was in the woods hunting, and a bear rose up—"
"But geese are worse than anybody when disturbed," interrupted Rita, "worse even than you when the barn door slams. The other day I wanted to catch a goose to get a—"
"They are not worse than a lot of girls at gabbling," interrupted Dic, ungallantly retaliating for Rita's humorous thrust.
"They are not half so dull as a lot of men," she replied, tossing her head. "When men get together they hum and hum about politics and crops, till it makes one almost wish there were no government or crops. But geese are—the other day I wanted to catch one to get a—"
"All men don't hum and hum, as you say," returned Dic. "There's Billy Little—you don't think he hums, do you?"
"No," answered the girl; "Billy Little always says something when he talks, but he's always talking. I will put him against any man in the world for a talking match. But the other day I wanted to catch a goose to get a quill, and—"
"Oh, that reminds me," broke in Dic, "my Uncle Joe Bright is coming to visit us soon. Talk about talkers! He is a Seventh Day Adventist preacher, and his conversation—no, I'll say his talk, for that's all it is—reminds me of time."
"How is that?" queried Rita.
"It's made up of small particles, goes on forever, and is all seconds. He says nothing first hand. His talk is all borrowed."
Rita laughed and tried again. "Well, I wanted to catch—"
"You just spoke of a talking match," said Dic. "I have an idea. Let us bring Billy Little and my uncle together for a talking match."
"Very well," replied Rita, laughing heartily. "I'll stake my money on Billy Little. But I was saying, the other day I—"
"I'll put mine on Uncle Joe," cried Dic. "Billy Little is a 'still Bill' compared with him."
Rita was provoked, and I think with good reason; but after a pause she concluded to try once more.
"The other day I wanted a quill for a pen, and when I tried to catch a goose I thought their noise would alarm the whole settlement."
"Geese awakened Rome," said Dic. "If they should awaken Blue River, it, also, might become famous. The geese episode is the best known fact concerning the Eternal City—unless perhaps it is her howling."
"Rome had a right to howl," said Rita, anxious to show that she remembered his teaching. "She was founded by the children of a wolf."
Dic was pleased and laughingly replied: "That ponderous historical epigram is good enough to have come from Billy Little himself. When you learn a fact, it immediately grows luminous."
The girl looked quickly up to satisfy herself that he was in earnest. Being satisfied, she moved an inch or two nearer him on the log, and began again:—
"I wanted to catch the goose—" but she stopped and concluded to try the Billy Little road. "Dear old Billy Little," she said, "isn't he good? The other day he said he'd trust me for the whole store, if I wanted to buy it. I had no money and I wanted to buy—"
"Why should he not trust you for all you would buy?" asked Dic. "He knows he would get his money."
The Billy Little route also seemed hilly. She concluded to try another, and again made a slight movement toward Dic on the log.
"I went from your house this afternoon over to Sukey's." She looked stealthily at Dic, but he did not flinch. After a pause she continued, with a great show of carelessness and indifference, though this time she moved away from him as she spoke. "She said you had been over to see her last night." And to show that she was not at all interested in his reply, she hummed the air of a song and carefully scrutinized a star that was coming dangerously close to the moon.
"Yes, I went over to borrow their adze. Ours is broken," returned Dic.
The song ceased. Star and moon might collide for all the singer cared. She was once again interested in things terrestrial.
"Now, Dic," she cried, again moving toward him and unduly emphasizing the fact that she was merely teasing (she talked to tease, but listened to learn), "now, Dic, you know the adze was only an excuse. You went to see Sukey. You know you did. Why didn't you borrow Kaster's adze? They live much nearer your house." She thought she had him in a trap, and laughed as if she were delighted.
"I went to Kaster's first. They had none."
The girl concluded she was on the wrong road. But the side road had suddenly become interesting, and she determined to travel it a short way. Silence ensued on Dic's part, and travel on the side road became slow. Rita was beginning to want to gallop. If she continued on the side road, she feared her motive might grow to look more like a desire to learn than a desire to tease; but she summoned her boldness, and with a laugh that was intended to be merry, said:—
"Dic, you know you went to see Sukey, and that you spent the evening with her."
"Did she say I did?" he asked, turning sharply upon her.
"Well—" replied Rita, but she did not continue. The Sukey Yates road was interesting, unusually so.
Dic paused for an answer, but receiving none, continued with emphasis:—
"I did not go into the house. I wasn't there five minutes, and I didn't say ten words to Sukey."
"You need not get mad about it," replied the girl. "I don't care how often you go to see Sukey or any other girl."
"I know you don't," he returned. "Of course you don't care. I never hoped—never even dreamed—that you would," and his breath came quickly with his bold, bold words.
"You might as well begin to dream," thought the girl, but she laughed, this time nervously, and said, "She told me you were there and took—took hold of—that is, she said you were so strong that when you took hold of her she felt that you could crush her." Then forgetting herself for a moment, she moved quite close to Dic and asked, "Did you take—take—" but she stopped.
"Tell me, Rita," returned Dic, with a sharpness that attracted her attention at once, "did she say I took hold of her, or are you trying to tease me? If you are teasing, I think it is in bad taste. If she said—"
"Well," interrupted the girl, slightly frightened, "she said that when you take hold of one—"
"Oh, she did not say herself?" asked Dic.
"I don't see that she could have meant any one else," replied Rita. "But, dear me, I don't care how often you take hold of her; you need not get angry at me because you took hold of her. There can be no harm in taking hold of any one, I'm sure, if you choose to do so; but why one should do it, I don't know, and I'm sure I don't care."
No ex post facto resolution could cure that lie, though of course it is a privileged one to a girl.
Dic made no reply, save to remark: "I'll see Miss Sukey to-morrow. If I wanted to 'take hold' of her, as she calls it, I would do so, but—but I'll see her to-morrow."
The answer startled Rita. She did not want to be known as a tale-bearer. Especially did she object in this particular case; therefore she said:—
"You may see her if you wish, but you shall not speak to her of what I have told you. She would think—"
"Let her think what she chooses," he replied. "I have never 'taken hold' of her in my life. Lord knows, I might if I wanted to. All the other boys boast that they take turn about, but—. She would be a fool to tell if it were true, and a story-teller if not. So I'll settle the question to-morrow, and for all time."
A deal of trouble might have been saved had Rita permitted him to make the settlement with Sukey, but she did not. The infinite potency of little things is one of the paradoxes of life.
"No, you shall not speak of this matter to her," she said, moving close to him upon the log and putting her hand upon his arm coaxingly. "Promise me you will not."
He would have promised to stop breathing had she asked it in that mood. It was the first he had ever seen of it, and he was pleased, although, owing to an opaqueness of mind due to his condition, it told him nothing save that his old-time friend was back again.
"If you tell her," continued the girl, "she will be angry with me, and I have had so much trouble of late I can't bear any more."
At last she was on the straight road bowling along like a mail coach. "After I spoke to you as I did the other night—you know, when Tom—I could not eat or sleep. Oh, I was in so much trouble! You and I had always been such real friends, and you have always been so good to me—" a rare little lump was rapidly and alarmingly growing in her throat—"I have never had even an unkind look from you, and to speak to you as I did,—oh, Dic,—" the lump grew too large for easy utterance, and she stopped speaking. Dic was wise in not pursuing the ebb, but he was foolish in not catching the flood. But perhaps if he would wait, it might ingulf him of its own accord, and then, ah, then, the sweetness of it!
"Never think of it again," he said soothingly. "Your words hurt me at the time, but your kind, frank letter cured the pain, and I intended never to speak of it. But since you have spoken, I—I—"
The girl was frightened, although eager to hear what he would say, so she remained silent during Dic's long pause, and at length he said, "I thank you for the letter."
A sigh of mingled relief and disappointment came from her breast.
"It gave me great pleasure, for it made me know that you were still my friend," said Dic, "and that your words were meant for Tom, and not for me."
"Indeed, not for you," said Rita, still struggling with the lump in her throat.
"Let us never speak of it again," said Dic. "I'm glad it happened. It puts our friendship on a firmer basis than ever before."
"That would be rather hard, to do, wouldn't it?" asked the girl, laughing contentedly. "We have been such good friends ever since I was a baby—since before I can remember."
The direct road was becoming too smooth for Rita, and she began to fear she would not be able to stop.
"Let us make this bargain," said Dic. "When you want to say anything unkind, say it to me. I'll not misunderstand."
"Very well," she replied laughingly, "the privilege may be a great comfort to me at times. I, of course, dare not scold mother. If I look cross at Tom, mother scolds me for a week, and I could not speak unkindly to poor father. You see, I have no one to scold, and I'm sure every one should have somebody to explode upon with impunity now and then. So I'll accept your offer, and you may expect—" There was a brief pause, after which she continued: "No, I'll not. Never again so long as I live. You, of all others, shall be safe from my ill temper," and she gave him her hand in confirmation of her words.
In all the world there was no breast freer from ill temper than hers; no heart more gentle, tender, and trustful. Her nature was like a burning spring. It was pure, cool, and limpid to its greatest depths, though there was fire in it.
Dic did not consider himself obliged to release Rita's hand at once, and as she evidently thought it would be impolite to withdraw it, there is no telling what mistakes might have happened had not Tom appeared upon the scene.
Tom seated himself beside Dic just as that young man dropped Rita's hand, and just as the young lady moved a little way toward her end of the log.
"You are home early," remarked Rita.
"Yes," responded Tom, "Doug Hill was there—the lubberly pumpkin-head."
No man of honor would remain in a young lady's parlor if at the time of his arrival she had another gentleman visitor unless upon the request of the young lady, and no insult so deep and deadly could be offered to the man in possession as the proffer of such a request by the young lady to the intruder.
After a few minutes of silence Tom remarked: "This night reminds me of the night I come from Cincinnati to Brookville on the canal-boat. Everything's so warm and clear like. I set out on top of the boat and seed the hills go by."
"Did the hills go by?" asked Rita, who had heard the story of Tom's Cincinnati trip many times.
"Well, they seemed to go by," answered Tom. "Of course, they didn't move. It was the boat. But I jest seed them move as plain as I see that cloud up yonder."
That Tom had not profited by Billy Little's training and his mother's mild corrections now and then (for the Chief Justice had never entirely lost the habits of better days), was easily discernible in his speech. Rita's English, like Dic's and Billy Little's, was corrupted in spots by evil communication; but Tom's—well, Tom was no small part of the evil communication itself.
Dic had heard the Cincinnati story many times, and when he saw symptoms of its recurrence, he rose and said:—
"Well, Tom, if you seed the hills go by, you'll seed me go by if you watch, for I'm going home," and with a good night he started up the river path, leaving Rita and her brother Tom seated on the log.
"So Doug Hill was there?" asked Rita.
"Yes," responded Tom; "and how any girl can let him kiss her, I don't know. His big yaller face reminds me of the under side of a mud-turtle."
"I hope Sukey doesn't allow him nor any one else to kiss her," cried Rita, with a touch of indignant remonstrance. Tom laughed as if to say that he could name at least one who enjoyed that pleasant privilege.
Rita was at that time only sixteen years old, and had many things to learn about the doings of her neighbors, which one would wish she might never know. The Chief Justice had at least one virtue: she knew how to protect her daughter. No young man had ever been permitted to "keep company" with Rita, and she and her mother wanted none. Dic, of course, had for years been a constant visitor; but he, as you know, was like one of the family. Aside from the habit of Dic's visits, and growing out of them, Madam Bays had dim outlines of a future purpose. Dic's father, who was dead, had been considered well-to-do among his neighbors. He had died seized of four "eighties," all paid for, and two-thirds cleared for cultivation. Eighty acres of cleared bottom land was looked upon as a fair farm. One might own a thousand acres of rich soil covered with as fine oak, walnut, and poplar as the world could produce and might still be a poor man, though the timber in these latter days would bring a fortune. Cleared land was wealth at the time of which I write, and in building their houses the settlers used woods from which nowadays furniture is made for royal palaces. Every man on Blue might have said with Louis XIV, "I am housed like a king." Cleared land was wealth, and Dic, upon his mother's death, would at least be well able to support a wife. The Chief Justice knew but one cause for tenderness—Tom. When Rita was passing into womanhood, and developing a beauty that could not be matched on all the River Blue, she began to assume a commercial value in her mother's eyes that might, Madam B. thought in a dimly conscious fashion, be turned to Tom's account. Should Rita marry a rich man, there would be no injustice—justice, you know, was the watchword—in leaving all the Bays estate to the issue male. Therefore, although Mrs. Bays was not at all ready for her young daughter to receive attention from any man, when the proper time should come, Dic might be available if no one better offered, and Tom, dear, sweet, Sir Thomas de Triflin', should then have all that his father and mother possessed, as soon as they could with decent self-respect die and get out of his way.
As time passed, and Rita's beauty grew apace, Mrs. Bays began to feel that Dic with his four "eighties" was not a price commensurate with the winsome girl. But having no one else in mind, she permitted his visits with a full knowledge of their purpose, and hoped that chance or her confidential friend, Providence, might bring a nobler prize within range of the truly great attractiveness of Tom's sister.
Mrs. Bays knew that the life she and her neighbors were leading was poor and crude. She also knew that men of wealth and position were eagerly seeking rare girls of Rita's type. By brooding over better things than Dic could offer, her hope grew into a strong desire, and with Rita's increasing beauty this motherly desire took the form of faith. Still, Dic's visits were permitted to continue, and doubtless would be permitted so long as they should be made ostensibly to the family.
Tom's remarks upon Sukey and Sukey's observations concerning Dic had opened Rita's eyes to certain methods prevalent among laddies and lasses, and as a result Sukey, for the time, became persona non grata to her old-time friend. Rita was not at the time capable of active jealousy. She knew Sukey was pretty enough, and, she feared, bold enough to be dangerous in the matter of Dic, but she trusted him. Sukey certainly was prettily bedecked with the pinkest and whitest of cheeks, twinkling dimples, and sparkling eyes; but for real beauty she was not in Rita's class, and few men would think of her fleshly charms twice when they might be thinking of our little heroine.
Thus Tom and Sukey became fountain-heads of unhallowed knowledge upon subjects concerning which every young girl, however pure, has a consuming curiosity.
Rita had heard of the "kissing games" played by the youngsters, and a few of the oldsters, too, at country frolics, corn-huskings, and church socials; but as I have told you, the level-headed old Chief Justice had wisely kept her daughter away from such gatherings, and Rita knew little of the kissing, and never telling what was going on about her. Tom and Sukey had thrown light upon the subject for her, and she soon understood, feared, and abhorred. Would she ever pity and embrace?
A year after the small happenings I have just related, great events began to cluster about Dic. They were truly great for him and of course were great for Rita.
Through Billy Little's aid Dic received an offer from an eastern horse buyer to lead a drove of horses to New York. The task was difficult, and required a man of health, strength, judgment, and nerve. The trip going would require two months, and the horses must be kept together, fed, cared for, and, above all, protected night and day from horse thieves, until after the Alleghanies were crossed. The horses were driven loose in herds of one hundred or more. Three men constituted a crew. In this instance Dic was to be in charge, and two rough horse-boys would be his assistants. It would have been impossible to drive the horses over the fenceless roads and through the leagues of trackless forest; therefore, they were led. The men would take turns about riding in advance, and the man leading would continually whistle a single shrill note which the horses soon learned to follow. Should the whistling cease for a moment, the horses would stop and perhaps stampede. This might mean forty-eight hours of constant work in gathering the drove, with perhaps the loss of one or more. If you will, for one hour, whistle a shrill note loud enough to reach the ears of a herd of trampling, neighing horses, you will discover that even that task, which is the smallest part of horse "leading," is an exhausting operation.
The work was hard, but the pay was good, and Dic was delighted with the opportunity. One of its greatest attractions to him was the fact that he would see something of the world. Billy Little urged him to accept the offer.
"A man," said he, "estimates his own stature by comparing it with those about him, and the most fatal mistake he can make is to underestimate his size. Self-conceit is ugly, but it never injured any one. Modesty would have ruined Napoleon himself. The measure of a man, like the length of a cloth-yard, depends upon the standard. Go away from here, Dic. Find your true standard. Measure yourself and return, if you wish. This place is as good as another, if a man knows himself; if he doesn't, he is apt to be deceived by the littleness of things about him. Yet there are great things here, too—greater, in some respects, than any to be found in New York; but the great things here are possibilities. Of course, possibilities are but the raw material. They must be manufactured—achieved. But achievement, my boy, achievement! that's the whole thing, after all. What would Caesar Germanicus and Napoleon have been without possibilities? A ready-made opportunity is a good thing in its way, but it is the creation of opportunity out of crude possibilities that really marks and makes the man and stamps the deed. Any hungry fool would seize the opportunity to eat who might starve if he had to make his bread. Go out into the world. You have good eyes. It will not take long to open them. When they are opened, come back and you will see opportunities here that will make you glad you are alive."
"But, Billy Little," replied Dic, who was sitting with Rita on the sycamore divan, while their small elderly friend sat upon the grass facing them, "you certainly have seen the world. Your eyes were opened before you came here, and it seems to me your learning and culture are buried here among the possibilities you speak of."
"No, Dic," answered Billy, "you see, I—well, I ran away from—from many things. You see, you and I are cast in different moulds. You are six feet tall, physically and temperamentally." Rita thought Billy was the most acute observer in Christendom, but she did not speak, save with her eyes. Those eyes nowadays were always talking.
"Six feet don't amount to much," responded Dic. "There is Doug Hill, who is six feet three, with no more brains than a catfish. It is what's at the top of the six feet that counts. You have more at the top of your five feet four than the tallest man on Blue, and as I said, you seem to be buried here. Where are the possibilities for you, Billy Little? And if you can't achieve something great—poor me!"
"There are different possibilities for different men. I think, for example, I have achieved something in you. What say you, Rita?"
The girl was taken unawares. "Indeed you have, glorious—splendid—that is, I mean you have achieved something great in all of us whom you have tried to influence. I see your possibilities, Billy Little. I see them stamped upon the entire Blue River settlement. La Salle and Marquette, of whom Dic read to me from your book, had the same sort of opportunities. Their field was broader, but I doubt if their influence will be more lasting than yours."
"Rather more conspicuous," laughed Billy.
"Yes," answered Rita, "your achievements will not be recorded. Their effect will probably be felt by all of us, and the achievement must be your only reward."
"It is all I ask," returned Billy. Then, after a pause, he spoke in mock reproof to Dic, "Now, hang your head in shame."
"I suppose it's my turn," Dic replied.
"The achievements of picturesque men only should be placarded to the world," said Billy. "The less said about a little old knot like me the better for—better for the knot."
"You are not a knot," cried Rita indignantly.
"Rita," said Dic, "you know the walnut knot, while it shows the roughest bark, has the finest grain in the tree."
"I am going home if you don't stop that sort of talking," said Billy, pleased to his toes, but pretending to be annoyed.
A fortnight before Dic's intended departure for New York an opportunity presented itself of which the young man, after due consideration, determined to take advantage. He walked over one evening to see Tom, but, as usual, found Rita. After a few minutes in which to work his courage up, he said:—
"There is to be a church social at Scott's to-morrow night—the Baptists. I wonder if you would like—that is, would want to—would be willing to go with me?"
"I would be glad to go," answered the girl; "but mother won't let me."
"We'll go in and ask her, if you wish," he replied.
"There's no use, but we can try. Perhaps if she thinks I don't want to go, she will consent."
Into the house they went, and Dic made his wants known to the head of the family.
"No," snapped the good lady, "she can't go. Girls of sixteen and seventeen nowadays think they are young ladies."
"They are dull, anyway," said Rita, referring to church socials. "I have heard they are particularly dull at Scott's—the Baptists are so religious. Sukey Yates said they did nothing but preach and pray and sing psalms and take up a collection at the last social Scott gave. It's just like church, and I don't want to go anyway." She had never been to a church social, but from what she had heard she believed them to be bacchanalian scenes of riotous enjoyment, and her remarks were intended to deceive.
"You should not speak so disrespectfully of the church," said the Chief Justice, sternly. "The Lord will punish you for it, see if He doesn't. Since I think about it, the socials held at Scott's are true, religious, God-fearing gatherings, and you shall go as a punishment for your sacrilegious sneers. Perhaps if you listen to the Word, it may come back after many days." Margarita, Sr., often got her Biblical metaphors mixed, but that troubled her little. There was, she thought, virtue in scriptural quotations, even though entirely inapplicable to the case in point.
"Come for her to-morrow evening, Dic," said Mrs. B. "She shall be ready." Then turning to Rita: "To speak of the Holy Word in that manner! You shall be punished."
Dic and Rita went out to the porch. Dic laughed, but the girl saw nothing funny.
"It seems to me just as if I had told a story," she said. "One may act a story as easily as tell it."
"Well, you are to be punished," laughed Dic.
"But you know I want to go. I have never been to a social, and it will not punish me to go."
"Then you are to be punished by going with me," returned the stalwart young fisherman. She looked up to him with a flash of her eyes—those eyes were worse than a loose tongue for tattling—and said:—
"That is true."
Dic, who was fairly boiling with pleasant anticipations, went to town next day and boiled over on Billy Little.
"I'm going to take Rita to Scott's social this evening," he said.
"Ah, indeed," responded Billy; "it's her first time out, isn't it?"
"I envy her, by George, I do, and I envy you," said Billy. He did not envy Dic; but you may remember my remarks concerning bachelor hearts and their unprotected condition in this cruel world. There may be pain of the sort Billy felt without either envy or jealousy.
"Dic, I have a mind to send Rita a nice ribbon or two for to-night. What do you think about it?" asked Billy.
"She would be delighted," answered Dic. "She would accept them from you, but not from me."
"There is no flattery in that remark," answered Billy, with a touch of sharpness.
"Why, Billy Little, what do you suppose I meant?" asked Dic.
"I know you spoke the truth. She would accept a present from the little old knot, but would refuse it from the straight young tree."
"Why, Billy Little, I meant nothing of the sort."
"Now, not another word," interrupted Billy. "Give these ribbons to her when you ride home, and tell her the knot sends them to the sweetbrier." Then turning his face to the shelves on the wall, and arranging a few pieces of goods, he hummed under his breath his favorite stanza, "Maxwelton's braes," and paid no further attention to his guest.
Rita came out as Dic rode up to the gate. He did not dismount, but handed her the ribbons across the fence, saying: "Billy Little sends you these for to-night. He said they were from the knot to the sweetbrier."
The girl's suppressed delight had been troubling her all day. Her first party, her first escort, and that escort Dic! What more could a girl desire? The ribbons were too much. And somebody was almost ready to weep for joy. She opened the little package and her eyes sparkled. When she felt that speech was entirely safe, she said:—
"The little package is as prim and neat as Billy Little himself. Dear, sweet, old Billy Little."
Dic, whose heart was painfully inflamed, was almost jealous of Billy, and said:—
"I suppose you would not have accepted them from me?"
"Why not?" she responded. "Of course I would." Her eyes grew wide when she looked up to him and continued, "Did you get them for me and tell me that Billy Little sent them?"
"No," answered Dic, regretfully, as he began to see possibilities, even on Blue. One possibility, at least, he saw clearly—one that he had lost.
"It was more than a possibility," he said to himself, as he rode homeward. "It was a ready-made opportunity, and I did not see it. The sooner I go to New York or some place else and get my eyes opened, the better it will be for me."
* * * * *
The church social opened with a long, sonorous prayer by the Baptist preacher, Mr. Wetmore. Then followed a psalm, which in turn was followed by a "few words." After the few words, Rev. Wetmore said in soft, conciliatory tones, "Now, brethren, if Deacon Moore will be so kind as to pass the hat, we will receive the offering."
Wetmore was not an ordained minister, nor was he recognized by the church to which he claimed to belong. He was one of the many itinerant vagabonds who foisted themselves upon isolated communities solely for the sake of the "offering."
Deacon Moore passed his hat, and when he handed it to Wetmore that worthy soul counted out two large copper pennies. There were also in the hat two brass buttons which Tom, much to Sukey's amusement, had torn from his clothing for the purpose of an offering. Sukey laughed so inordinately at Tom's extravagant philanthropy that she convinced De Triflin' he was a very funny fellow indeed; but she brought upon her pretty flaxen head a reprimand from Wetmore.
"Undue levity," said he, "ill becomes even frivolous youth at this moment. Later you will have ample opportunity to indulge your mirth; but for the present, the Lord's business—" at the word "business" he received the hat from Deacon Moore, and looked eagerly into it for the offering. Disappointment, quite naturally, spread itself over his sallow face, and he continued: "Buttons do not constitute an acceptable offering to the Lord. He can have no use for them. I think that during the course of my life work in the vineyard I have received a million buttons of which I—I mean the Lord—can have no possible use. If these buttons had been dollars or shillings, or even pennies, think of the blessings they would have brought from above."
The reverend man spoke several times with excusable asperity of "buttons," and after another psalm and a sounding benediction the religious exercises were finished, and the real business of the evening, the spelling-bee and the kissing games, began.
At these socials many of the old folks took part in the spelling-bee, after which they usually went home—an event eagerly awaited by the young people.
There was but one incident in the spelling-bee that touched our friends, and I shall pass briefly over that part of the entertainment preceding it. The class, ranging in years from those who lisped in youth to those who lisped in age, stood in line against the wall, and Wetmore, spelling-book in hand, stood in front of them to "give out" the words. It was not considered fair to give out a word not in the spelling-book until the spelling and "syllabling" of sentences was commenced. All words were syllabled, but to spell and syllable a sentence was not an easy task, and by the time sentences were reached the class usually had dwindled down to three or four of the best spellers. Of course, one who missed a word left the class. Our friends—Billy Little, Dic, Rita, and Sukey Yates—were in the contest.
The first word given out was metropolitan, and it fell to Douglas of the Hill. He began: "M-e-t—there's your met; r-o—there's your ro; there's your metro; p-o-l—there's your pol; there's your ro-pol; there's your met-ro-pol; i—there's your i; there's your pol-i; there's your ro-pol-i; there's your met-ro-pol-i; t-e-n—there's your—" "t-a-n," cried the girl next to him, who happened to be Sukey Yates, and Douglas stepped down and out.
A score or more of words were then spelled without an error, until Constantinople fell to the lot of an elderly man who stood by Rita. He began: "C-o-n—there's your Con; s-t-a-n—there's your stan; there's your Con-stan; t-i—there's your ti; there's your stan-ti; there's your Con-stan-ti; n-o—there's your no; there's your ti-no; there's your stan-ti-no; there's your Con-stan-ti-no; p-e-l—there's your pell; there's your no—"—"p-l-e—there's your pell" (so pronounced); "there's your Con-stan-ti-no-ple," chimed Rita, and her elderly neighbor took a chair. Others of the class dropped out, leaving only our four acquaintances,—Dic, Billy, Sukey, and Rita. Dic went out on "a" in place of "i" in collectible, Sukey turning him down. Rita had hoped he would win the contest and had determined, should it narrow down to herself and him, to miss intentionally, if need be. After Dic had taken a chair, judgment fell to and upon Sukey. She began "j-u-d-g-e—there's your judge;" whereupon Billy Little said, "Sink the e," and Sukey sank, leaving Billy Little and Rita standing against the wall, as if they were about to be married. Billy, of course, was only awaiting a good opportunity to fail in order that the laurels of victory might rest upon Rita's brow.
"We will now spell and syllable a few sentences," said Wetmore. "Mr. Little, I give you the sentence, 'An abominable bumblebee with his tail cut off.'"
It must be remembered that in spelling these words and sentences each syllable was pronounced separately and roundly. B-o-m was a full grown, sonorous bom. B-u-m was a rolling bum, and b-l-e was pronounced bell with a strong, full, ringing, liquid sound. The following italics show the emphasis. Billy slowly repeated the sentence and began:—
"A-n—there's your an; a—there's your a; there's your an-a; b-o-m—there's your bom; there's your a-bom; there's your an-a-bom; i—there's your i; there's your bom-i; there's your a-bom-i; there's your an-a-bom-i; n-a—there's your na; there's your i-na; there's your bom-i-na; there's your a-bom-i-na; there's your an-a-bom-i-na; b-l-e—there's your bell; there's your na-bell; there's your i-na-bell; there's your bom-i-na-bell; there's your a-bom-i-na-bell; there's your an-a-bom-i-na-bell; b-u-m—there's your bum; there's your bell-bum; there's your na-bell-bum; there's your i-na-bell-bum; there's your bom-i-na-bell-bum; there's your a-bom-i-na-bell-bum; there's your an-a-bom-i-na-bell-bum; b-l-e—there's your bell; there's your bum-bell; there's your bell-bum-bell; there's your na-bell-bum-bell; there's your i-na-bell-bum-bell; there's your bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell; there's your a-bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell; there's your an-a-bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell; b-e-e—there's your bee; there's your bell-bee; there's your bum-bell-bee; there's your bell-bum-bell-bee; there's your na-bell-bum-bell-bee; there's your i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee; there's your bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee; there's your a-bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee; there's youran-a-bom-i-na bell-bum-bell-bee; w-i-t-h—h-i-s—there's your with-his; there's your bee-with-his; there's your bell-bee-with-his; there's your bum-bell-bee-with-his; there's your bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his; there's your na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his; there's your i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his; there's your bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his; there's your a-bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his; there's your an-a-bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his; t-a-l-e—there's your—" But Rita chimed in at once: "T-a-i-l—there's your tail; there's your with-his-tail; there's your bee-with-his-tail; there's your bell-bee-with-his-tail; there's your bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail; there's your bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail; there's your na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail; there's your i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail; there's your bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail; there's your a-bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail; there's your an-a-bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail; c-u-t—there's your cut; there's your tail-cut; there's your with-his-tail-cut; there's your bee-with-his-tail-cut; there's your bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut; there's your bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut; there's your bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut; there's your na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut; there's your i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut; there's your bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his -tail-cut; there's your a-bom-i-na-bell-bum -bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut; there's your an-a-bom -i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut; o-f-f—there's your off; there's your cut-off; there's your tail-cut-off; there's your with-his-tail-cut-off; there's your bee-with -his-tail-cut-off; there's your bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut-off; there's your bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut-off; there's your bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut-off; there's your na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut-off; there's your i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut-off; there's your bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut-off; there's your a-bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with-his-tail-cut-off; there's your an-a-bom-i-na-bell-bum-bell-bee-with his-tail-cut-off," and Rita took her seat, filled with triumph, save for the one regret that Dic had not won.
Many of the old folks, including Billy Little, departed when the bee closed, and a general clamor went up for the kissing games to begin.
Rita declined to take part in the kissing games, and sat against the wall with several other young ladies who had no partners. To Dic she gave the candid reason that she did not want to play, and he was glad.
Doug Hill, who, in common with every other young man on the premises, ardently desired Rita's presence in the game, said:—
"Oh, come in, Rita. Don't be so stuck up. It won't hurt you to be kissed." Doug was a bold, devil-may-care youth, who spoke his mind freely upon all occasions. He was of enormous size, and gloried in the fact that he was the neighborhood bully and very, very "tough." Doug would have you know that Doug would drink; Doug would gamble; Doug would fight. He tried to create the impression that he was very bad indeed, and succeeded. He would go to town Saturdays, "fill up," as he called getting drunk, and would ride furiously miles out of his way going home that he might pass the houses of his many lady-loves, and show them by yells and oaths what a rollicking blade he was. The reputation thus acquired won him many a smile; for, deplore the fact as we may, there's a drop of savage blood still alive in the feminine heart that does not despise depravity in man as it really should.
"Come into the game," cried Doug, taking Rita by the arm, and dragging her toward the centre of the room.
"I don't want to play," cried the girl. "Please let loose of my arms; you hurt me," but Doug continued to drag her toward the ring of players that was forming, and she continued to resist. Doug persisted, and after a moment of struggling she called out, "Dic, Dic!" She had been accustomed since childhood to call upon that name in time of trouble, and had always found help. Dic would not have interfered had not Rita called, but when she did he responded at once.
"Let her alone, Hill," said Dic, as pleasantly as possible under the circumstances. "If she doesn't want to play, she doesn't have to."
"You go to—" cried Doug. "Maybe you think you can run over me, you stuck-up Mr. Proper."
"I don't want to do anything of the sort," answered Dic; "but if you don't let loose of Rita's arm, I'll—"
"What will you do?" asked Doug, laughing uproariously.
For a moment Dic allowed himself to grow angry, and said, "I'll knock that pumpkin off your shoulders," but at once regretted his words.
Doug thought Dic's remark very funny, and intimated as much. Then he bowed his head in front of our hero and said, "Here is the pumpkin; hit it if you dare."
Dic restrained an ardent desire, and Doug still with bowed head continued, "I'll give you a shillin' if you'll hit it, and if you don't, I'll break your stuck-up face."
Dic did not accept the shilling, which was not actually tendered in lawful coin, but stepped back from Doug that he might be prepared for the attack he expected. After waiting what he considered to be a reasonable time for Dic to accept his offer, Doug started toward our hero, looking very ugly and savage. Dic was strong and brave, but he seemed small beside his bulky antagonist, and Rita, frightened out of all sense of propriety, ran to her champion, and placing her back against his breast, faced Doug with fear and trembling. The girl was not tall enough by many inches to protect Dic's face from the breaking Doug had threatened; but what she lacked in height she made up in terror, and she looked so "skeert," as Doug afterwards said, that he turned upon his heel with the remark:—
"That's all right. I was only joking. We don't want no fight at a church social, do we, Dic?"
"I don't particularly want to fight any place," replied Dic, glad that the ugly situation had taken a pleasant turn.
"Reckon you don't," returned Doug, uproariously, and the game proceeded.
Partly from disinclination, and partly because he wanted to talk to Rita, Dic did not at first enter the game, but during an intermission Sukey whispered to him:—
"We are going to play Drop the Handkerchief, and if you'll come in I'll drop it behind you every time, and—" here the whispers became very low and soft, "I'll let you catch me, too. We'll make pumpkin-head sick."
The game of skill known as "Drop the Handkerchief" was played in this fashion: a circle of boys and girls was formed in the centre of the room, each person facing the centre. One of the number was chosen "It." "It's" function was to walk or run around the circle and drop the handkerchief behind the chosen one. If "It" happened to be a young man, the chosen one, of course, was a young woman who immediately started in pursuit. If she caught the young man before he could run around the circle to the place she had vacated, he must deposit a forfeit, to be redeemed later in the evening. In any case she became the next "It." A young lady "It" of course dropped the handkerchief behind a young man, and equally, of course, started with a scream of frightened modesty around the circle of players, endeavoring to reach, if possible, the place of sanctuary left vacant by the young man. He started in pursuit, and if he caught her—there we draw the veil. If the young lady were anxious to escape, it was often possible for her to do so. But thanks to Providence, all hearts were not so obdurate as Rita's. I would say, however, in palliation of the infrequency of escapes, that it was looked upon as a serious affront for a young lady to run too rapidly. In case she were caught and refused to pay the forfeit, her act was one of deadly insult gratuitously offered in full view of friends and acquaintances.