Minor typographical errors have been corrected without note.
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The Invention Series
CARL AND THE COTTON GIN
SARA WARE BASSETT
With Illustrations by William F. Stecher
Boston Little, Brown, and Company 1924
Copyright, 1924, by Little, Brown, and Company. All rights reserved
Published September, 1924
Printed in the United States of America
I THE MCGREGORS 1
II CARL TELLS A STORY 17
III A TRAGEDY 31
IV PROBLEMS 45
V A TANGLE OF SURPRISES 60
VI THE WEB WIDENS 71
VII THE COMING OF THE FAIRY GODMOTHER 79
VIII THE ROMANCE OF COTTON 97
IX NORTH AND SOUTH 112
X A LESSON IN THRIFT 124
XI A FAMILY CONGRESS 140
XII A CLUE 160
XIII HAL REPEATS HIS VISIT 180
XIV SPINNING YARNS 193
XV TIDINGS 219
XVI A RELUCTANT ALTRUIST 228
XVII AN ORDEAL 237
XVIII THE SOLUTION OF MANY MYSTERIES 250
XIX UNRAVELING THE SNARLS 259
"MR. CARL MCGREGOR," ANNOUNCED HE IN A STENTORIAN TONE Frontispiece
"THE COTTON IS SENT TO FACTORIES TO BE GINNED" " 129
"BUT THAT ISN'T OUR BASKET, MOTHER," CARL SAID. "THIS IS MUCH BIGGER" 155
"I'VE HUNTED FOR YOU AND YOUR RED CAR EVER SINCE" 253
CARL AND THE COTTON GIN
Mrs. McGregor waited a moment.
"But you aren't coming," protested she fretfully. "You never seem to come when you're wanted. Drat the child! Where is he? Carl!"
"Yes, Ma! Yes, Ma!" the woman mimicked impatiently. "It's easy enough to shout Yes, Ma; but where are you—that's what I want to know. You're the slowest creature on God's earth, I believe. A tortoise would be a race horse compared with you. What under the sun are you doing?"
The boy entered, a good-humored grin on his face.
He was thin, lanky, and blue-eyed, and a rebellious lock of tawny hair that curled despite all he could do waved back from his forehead. He might have been fourteen years old or he might have been seventeen; it was hard to tell whether he was an overgrown younger boy or an under-sized older one. Whatever his age, however, he could certainly boast a serene disposition, for his mother's caustic comments failed to ruffle his temper. Having heard them ever since babyhood he was quite accustomed to their acid tang; moreover, he had learned to gage them for what they were worth and class them along with the froth on a soda or the sputter of a freshly lighted match. The thing underneath was what mattered and he knew well that beneath the torrent of words his mother was the best mother on earth, so what more could a boy ask?
Therefore he stood before her, whistling softly and waiting to see what would happen next. For something surely would happen; it always did when Mrs. McGregor rolled up her sleeves, and they were rolled up now, displaying beneath the margin of blue gingham a powerful arm terminating in a strong hand and slender, capable fingers.
Years ago she had come to Mulberry Court with a large brood of children and it had been a long time before she could number one friend among her neighbors. The chief complaint entered against her was that she was not sociable, and if you were not sociable at Mulberry Court it meant you were lofty, uppish, considered yourself better than other folks. What it really meant, however, was that you did not hang out of your window and chatter to the inhabitant of the opposite tenement; or loiter in the doorway or on the sidewalk to gossip with the women who lived on the floors below.
At the outset Mrs. McGregor had let it be understood that she had no time for gossip and it was this decree that had earned for her the stigma of not being sociable, the acme of all crimes at Mulberry Court. Of course she had not proclaimed her policy in so many words. No, indeed! Yet she might as well have done so for the business-like manner in which she hastened home from market and shot up the stairs published her philosophy more forcefully than any words could have done.
"She's just too good for the rest of us," announced Mrs. O'Dowd sarcastically to the little circle who were wont to await her verdict on every newcomer to the district. "Proud and snappy and stuck-up, I call her. Not much of an addition to the house, if you ask my opinion."
This snapshot judgment, hasty as it was, was promptly accepted by the other women, for was not Julie O'Dowd the social dictator of the community? Had she ever been known to be wrong? With one accord Mulberry Court turned its back on the new arrival who so flagrantly defied the etiquette of the place.
Indeed had not Mrs. O'Dowd's baby fallen ill the seal of disapproval put on Mrs. McGregor might have rested on her all her days, and she and her entire family been completely ostracized by the neighborhood. But little Joey O'Dowd, the youngest of Julie's flock, was seized with pneumonia, and although the flock was a large one Julie was too genuine a mother to feel she could spare one out of her fold. Was not Joey the littlest of all, the pet of her household? All the motherhood in her revolted at the thought of losing him. Strangely enough until the present moment she had escaped great crises with her children. She was well schooled in the ways of whooping cough, measles, and chicken pox and could do up a cut finger with almost professional skill; but in the face of crucial illness she was like a warrior without weapons.
Overwhelmed with terror, therefore, by the immediate calamity, she did in benumbed fashion everything the doctor directed and still Joey was no better; if anything he grew steadily worse. Motionless he lay in his crib, his great staring eyes giving forth no flicker of recognition. There was not much hope, the neighbors whispered, after they had tiptoed in to look at him and tiptoed out again. He was as good as gone. Julie could never save him in the world.
The whispers, humanely muffled, did not reach the panic-stricken mother but she was not blind to the despairing head-shaking and these suddenly awakened her to the realization that according to general opinion the battle she was waging was a losing one. It was a terrible discovery. What should she do? She must do something. Wild-eyed she plunged into the hall, a vague impulse to seek help moving her; and it was just as she paused irresolute at the head of the stairs that she came face to face with Mrs. McGregor ascending to her fifth-floor flat.
Now Mrs. McGregor was a born nurse, whose skill had been increased by constant practice. With a wisdom that amounted almost to genius she had brought her large family through many an appalling conflict and emerged victorious. Sickness, therefore, had no terrors for her. Instantly the mother in her read and interpreted the desperation in Julie's face and without a word she slipped through the open door into the room where Joey lay. One glance of her experienced eye showed that there was plenty to be done. The interior was close and untidy, for Mrs. O'Dowd in her distraction had cast aside every consideration but her baby.
Mrs. McGregor stooped down over the crib.
What she saw there or did not see she at least kept to herself, and when she straightened up it was to meet the searching gaze of her neighbor with a grave smile.
"He's going to die," moaned Julie, wringing her hands. "He is going to die—my baby—and I can't help it!"
Although for a long time the two women had lived beneath the same roof, these were the first words Mrs. O'Dowd had ever addressed to Mrs. McGregor.
"Might I touch him?" the latter inquired gently.
Like a suspicious animal Julie stiffened jealously.
"I'll not hurt him," Mrs. McGregor hastened to say, not taking offense at the other's attitude. "I just want to raise him up so he can breathe better." Then she added reassuringly, "I'd not give up if I were you. You must keep on fighting to the very last minute. There is much we can do yet to make him comfortable."
"We can bathe him a little for one thing, if you would heat some water."
Dumbly Julie turned to obey.
"I've a big family of my own," went on Mrs. McGregor in matter-of-fact fashion, "and I've seen so many children pull through when they looked fit to die that I've learned never to quit hoping. You'll get nowhere in a fight if you haven't courage."
"I had courage enough at first," whispered the baby's mother in a shaking voice, "but I've lost my nerve now. I'm frightened—and—and tired."
Tears came into her eyes.
"Of course you are," came with quick sympathy from Mrs. McGregor. "We all are apt to lose our nerve when we are worn out. I don't wonder you're tired. You've had no sleep day or night, I'll be bound."
"Not much. The neighbors were kind about offering but somehow I couldn't leave Joey with 'em. Besides, how can you sleep when you are worried half out of your mind?"
"I know! I know!" nodded the other woman. "Still you can't go on forever without rest. Next you know you will be down sick yourself and then where will your baby be—to say nothing of your other children. A mother has got to think ahead. Now listen. Would you trust me to watch the baby while you curled up on the sofa and got a wink or two of sleep? I'll promise to call you should there be an atom of change. Do now! Be a sensible woman. And how would you feel about my giving the little chap a drop of medicine? A Scotch doctor in the old country once gave me a prescription that I've tried on both Timmie and Martin and it did 'em worlds of good at a time just like this. It might do nothing for your child, mind. I'm not promising it would. Still, it couldn't hurt him and it might cure."
Julie's dulled mind caught the final word. Cure! Alas, she had given up hope that anything in the world could do that. The reaction that came with the suggestion was so wonderful that it left her speechless.
"Now see here," burst out Mrs. McGregor misinterpreting her silence, "use your common sense. Do I look as if I had come to poison your baby? Why, woman, I love children better than anything on earth. They're a precious lot of bother, there's no denying, and sometimes I get that impatient with one or the other of 'em I could toss him out the window. But for all their hectoring, and their noise, and their dirt—their meddling, and smashing, and mending, I'd not be without them."
While speaking she had been touching the baby with a hand so yearning and tender that it could not be stayed. She had raised his head, smoothed his pillow, straightened the coverings that lay over him. It was amazing how quietly and deftly her hands moved. Even the child seemed conscious of her healing presence, for all of a sudden his wee fingers curled about one of hers and he smiled faintly.
"See!" exclaimed Mrs. McGregor, "the baby is not afraid to trust me."
"Nor am I any longer," put in Julie with eager surrender. "Do as you like with Joey. You know better than I."
"Oh, it isn't that," the visitor protested, rising. "It is just that it's sometimes well not to leave a stone unturned. You might regret not having taken the chance. I'll slip upstairs and get the medicine. It won't take a minute."
"If you'll be that kind."
The Scotchwoman needed no second bidding. She was gone and back again in a twinkling, the magic green bottle in her hand.
"Now if I might have a cup of hot water," said she. "I've a dropper here. We'll see what a spoonful of this mixture will do for the wee laddie. What is his name?"
Mrs. O'Dowd's eyes had brightened and they now beamed on her neighbor.
"It's a nice name," replied Mrs. McGregor, beaming in turn. "I always liked the name of Joseph. Well, Joey boy, we'll see if we can make you well. Here, little fellow!"
Gently she forced the liquid between the baby's lips.
"Now we'll sponge him a bit, put on a fresh slip, and give him some air!"
"But won't he——"
"Catch cold? Not if he is shielded from the draught. He'll like the air and feel the better for it. It will help him to breathe."
Noiselessly she went to work and within an hour both Joey and his surroundings took on a different aspect.
"Now," said she to the grateful mother, "you roll up in that comforter and take a nap. Don't worry about the baby. I'll be right here. Will you trust me?"
"It's not that I won't trust you," murmured she. "But you're so heavenly kind. Not another soul has done for me what you have and I'm a hundred times better acquainted with 'em, too. Of course I know they have all they can do without taking on the cares of others. I'm not blaming them. You yourself can't have much time to spare. Haven't you other things to do?"
"Of course I have," came with curt honesty from Mrs. McGregor. "I've six children and they leave me little time for idling. But when I do take time away from 'em, I plan to take it to some purpose. Just now I have nothing more important to do than nurse this baby. It's my first job. So don't be worrying about my work. Luckily it is Saturday and Mary, Carl, and Timmie will look after the little tots and get the dinner. I told 'em to when I was there just now. Martin and Nell seldom give any trouble, and should James Frederick wake up, one of the boys is to run down and tell me."
Julie placed a hand impulsively on that of the other woman.
"I can never thank you," murmured she brokenly.
"Oh, don't be talking of thanks," Mrs. McGregor interrupted, cutting her short. "My dosing may do no good and before the day is out you may be calling me a meddlesome old harridan. Wait and see what happens. I'm not one that sets much store by thanks, anyhow. After all, what does it amount to but a string of words? If we can cure the baby it will be all the thanks I want."
If the sentiment the final phrase so modestly expressed was genuine Mrs. McGregor at least received the boon she craved, for as if by magic the baby began to mend that very night and before the week passed was out of danger and on the high road to recovery. Julie's gratitude was touching to see.
"'Twas Mrs. McGregor saved Joey," declared she to every person she met. "She's as good as any doctor—better, for Joey might have died but for her. Should I go through life kneeling to her on my bended knees I never could thank her enough."
Julie O'Dowd did not go through life, however, kneeling before Mrs. McGregor on her bended knees; but she did a more practical and efficacious thing. Everywhere she went she sounded the praise of her neighbor; talked of her kindness, her wisdom, her unselfishness, until not only Mulberry Court, but the area adjoining it began to view the gaunt, austere figure from quite a different angle. Shyly the women began to nod a greeting to the stranger.
"It's just her way to be curt and quick," explained they to one another. "She doesn't mean a thing in the world by it. Julie says she's sharp and prickly as a chestnut burr, but with the sweetest of hearts inside."
Indeed it was not long before Mrs. McGregor proved her right to this generous summary of her character. Other neighbors gained courage to consult her about their children and in time about their troubles in general.
"Ask Mrs. McGregor," became the slogan of Mulberry Court. "She'll know."
And she unfailingly did. She it was who prescribed medicines; gave advice; suggested plain, common-sense remedies for every variety of dilemma. Nevertheless she wasted no words about it. She had no time to fool away, she let it be known. Whatever she did had to be done with pitiless directness. Often her council was delivered through a crack in the door or even given through the door itself; and there were instances when it was shouted through the keyhole. But no matter where the words came from they were always helpful and friendly and the neighbors came to understand the manner accompanying them and did not resent it.
Her children understood it too. Mary, Carl, Timmie, Martin, four-year-old Nell, and even wee James Frederick (whom Mrs. McGregor unfailingly addressed by his full name) all understood and worshipped their quick-tongued mother. Together with the rest of Mulberry Court they also had supreme faith in whatever she did and said, and were certain that every calamity under the sun could be set right if only she were consulted and her advice followed.
And yet loyal as they were, there was one point on which neither Carl nor Mary agreed with their mother. Of course she was right—she must be right; wasn't she always so? Yet notwithstanding this belief they could not but feel that it would be a far better arrangement for them to leave school and go into the cotton mills where their father had worked for so many years. Ever so many of the boys and girls they knew worked there. Why should they remain in the High School struggling with algebra, geometry, history, Latin, English and bookkeeping when they might be earning money? It seemed senseless. Certainly the family needed money badly enough. Were there not always endless pairs of shoes to be bought? Caps, mittens, suits, stockings, and underclothing to purchase; not to mention food and groceries? And then there was the rent.
Ah, Mary and Carl knew very well about the rent, the bills, and all the other worrisome things. Even Timmie, who was only nine, knew about them; and once Martin, aged six, had startled his elders by proclaiming on a sunny May morning, "This is rent day, isn't it, Ma?" in a tone of awe, as if the date marked some gruesome ceremony.
You came to understand about rent day when toward the end of the month there were no pennies to be had, and you were forced to wait for the shoes or rubbers you needed.
That rent day was a milestone to be dreaded even Nell vaguely guessed and when it had passed in safety all the McGregors, both big and little, joined in a general rejoicing.
Ma was the magician who accomplished that happy miracle. Ma always contrived to accomplish everything, so of course she managed rent day along with the rest of the wonders she performed. She made no secret, either, of how she did it. She sewed! Yes, she sewed for a dressmaker who sent her marvelous dresses to embroider. For Ma was very clever with her needle and right out of the blue sky could make the most beautiful flowers and figures with colored silks. She could also do beading and she was teaching Mary how to do it. Already Mary could do quite nice embroidery and exquisite plain sewing.
Ma was very proud of this.
But what Mary did chiefly when she was not at school was to help with the housework so her mother would be free to sew. That was the important thing. Ma must not roughen her hands or the silks she worked with would be spoiled. So Mary cooked and scrubbed like a real little housewife; took care of the younger children and kept them quiet so they would not interrupt their mother.
And between school hours Carl and Tim helped also. They built the fires, wiped the dishes, ran errands, and brought home any bits of discarded wood they found in the streets. In fact, there was not one drone in the McGregor hive. Even James Frederick had learned to lie in his crib and play by himself when everybody was busy.
It was a happy family, the McGregors. Its members, it is true, did not have everything they wanted. They never expected that. Those who had mittens lacked new caps, and those who had caps were often forced to wear patched shoes and made-over stockings. Martin's reefer frequently did duty for Nell, and Mrs. McGregor's cape for Mary. However, all that did not matter. They were happy and that was the chief thing, happy in spite of patched clothing, coats that were outgrown, rubbers that were either sizes too small or dropped off at every step, and shoes that were common property. The little flat was sometimes hot in summer and cold in winter but it took more than that to dampen the McGregors' spirits.
When they had lentil soup, how steaming and delicious it was! When meat stew, what a dish for the gods! And who could have asked for a greater treat than a thick slice of Mary's fresh bread coated over with molasses or peanut butter?
Every month a long blue envelope containing a check from Uncle Frederick arrived and that, together with what Mary and her mother earned, kept the household going. But they seldom saw Uncle James Frederick Dillingham. He was always sailing to India, China, or South America. Sometimes letters came from him and picture postcards showing strange countries and people in foreign dress. But the check never failed to make its appearance and as it was highly important that it should, everybody agreed that since Uncle Frederick could not come himself he was almost as satisfactorily represented by this magic bit of blue paper. The check brought things and perhaps if Uncle Frederick himself had come he wouldn't. You could not tell about uncles you had never seen.
In the meantime the blue paper kept stew in the kettle and the shelter of Mulberry Court above their heads, and what better service could an uncle render his relatives?
Hence Uncle Frederick's name came to be mentioned constantly in the household.
"Remember, Timmie, those are your Uncle Frederick Dillingham's rubber boots and be thankful to him for them," the boy's mother would observe when she brought home the purchase. Or "Uncle Frederick is presenting you with those stockings, Carl. See you don't forget it."
And the children did not forget. Gradually their unknown uncle came to assume in their imagination a form that would have surprised him had he been suddenly confronted by it. It was that of a benevolent-faced fairy clad in robes of purple and ermine, and wearing on his head a crown resplendent with gems of myriad colors. In his hand he carried a scepter terminating in a star that far outshone the jewels he wore, a scepter all powerful to work miracles. He was the good angel of the McGregor home, the Aladdin to whom they owed all sorts of blessings.
And yet withal Uncle James Frederick Dillingham was one and the same person who sailed the Charlotte to India, China, South America, or some other ephemeral port. How paradoxical was this dual role, how alluring and how ridiculous!
CARL TELLS A STORY
It was April. Already spring was in the air. The grass in the parks was turning green, forsythia bloomed golden, and boys were playing marbles on the streets and sidewalks. Even Mulberry Court, shut in as it was, felt the impulse of the awakening season. The landlord came, looked over the premises, and after viewing the general shabbiness became reckless enough to order a broken windowpane to be reset, some of the tumble-down ceilings to be repaired, and the fire escapes and window frames to be repainted.
Painting at Mulberry Court was a terrible ordeal. As there was not an inch of the place that was not crowded to the limit of its capacity, painting meant that milk bottles, improvised ice chests, and woodpiles must be put somewhere else; and where that somewhere could be was an enigma. Furthermore, to add to this difficulty there were the children—dozens of them tumbling over one another and surging in and out the doors, a fact that rendered painting a precarious undertaking. Youthful investigators examined the moist pigment; chubby fingers drew hieroglyphics in it; while the less curious forgot it altogether and carried away on their garments imprints of vermilion and black that transformed their otherwise dingy garments into robes of oriental splendor.
Carl McGregor was no exception to the rule for wherever calamity lurked he was sure to be in its vicinity.
"I'd know you'd never rest until you got a patch of red paint on yourself," announced his mother, surveying him as he started toward the door. "As, if buying you sweaters ain't enough without your leaning plumb up against the fire escape and stamping a whole decalcomania of red stripes on your back like as if you were a convict."
"Is there paint on me, Ma?"
"Is there? I suppose you had no notion of it."
"I hadn't—honest Injun."
"Well, aside from the fact that you're barred up and down neat as if the lines were ruled there's nothing the matter with you," returned his mother with a faint smile.
"Oh, I'm awfully sorry, Ma. Truly I am."
"Sorry? I'll be bound you are. You are always a bundle of regrets when it is too late to help anything. However, you need weep no tears for that sweater needed washing anyway. You're that rough on your clothes that none of 'em keep clean more than a minute. I'll get some gasoline and soak it out in the shed and it will be like new. Peel it off and give it to me."
"I'm sorry, Ma," the boy repeated.
"It's no great matter, sonny. Children must be children. I'm past expecting them to be grown-ups," his mother said kindly. "If you hadn't been getting into the paint you most likely would have been getting into something else. You have a genius for such mishaps. I'm glad it was no worse."
Reassured, Carl grinned.
"I do seem to have a good many—" he hesitated, then added, "misfortunes."
"Misfortunes, do you call 'em? Sure that's a pretty polite word to apply to the things that manage to happen to you," sniffed Mrs. McGregor. "I suppose it was a misfortune when you tumbled underneath the watering cart; and a misfortune when you sat down in the wet tar! A misfortune when you sent the snowball through the schoolroom window; to say nothing of the creamcake you treated Jakie Sullivan to that well-nigh killed him."
"I didn't know the creamcake was going to make him sick."
"No; 'twas just your misfortune. You seem to attract adventures like that. Why, if I was to let you go into the cotton mills as you are always begging to do you'd have every machine there out of order in less than a week and yourself hashed up into little pieces into the bargain."
She had touched upon an unlucky subject for instantly, with flaming face, the lad confronted her.
"No, I wouldn't. I wish you would let me go into the mills, Ma. You might let me try it. Ever so many boys no older than I are working there and earning oodles of money. If we had more money we could——"
"We could be having an automobile, no doubt, and going to Palm Beach winters," was the grim response. "Well, Palm Beach or not, you're not going into any mill so long as we can keep body and soul together without your doing it. You are going to get an education—you and Mary too—if it costs me my life. I'm not going to have you grow up knowing nothing and being nothing. Some day you'll see I was right and thank me for it."
"I thank you now, Ma," declared Carl soberly. "But that doesn't make me relish Latin and history any better."
"No matter if it doesn't. What you like is of no consequence," Mrs. McGregor announced, with a majestic sweep of her hand. "The chief thing is that you exercise your mind and learn how to use it. The Latin itself amounts to nothing. It is like boxing gloves or a punching bag, a thing that serves its turn to limber up your brain. It is learning to think that counts."
Carl's face brightened.
"The teacher was saying something like that just the other day," asserted he eagerly. "He was telling us about some of the people who had done great things in the world and explaining how long and how hard they had to work at them. The inventors, for instance, had to think and think about the things they invented. It didn't just come to them all in a minute as I used to believe it did."
Although his mother did not look up from her sewing she nodded encouragingly.
"There was Eli Whitney," continued Carl, coming nearer. "I remembered about him because of the mills here. He invented the cotton gin, you know. Mr. Kimball told us that Whitney went through Yale and then started down South to be a tutor in somebody's family without any idea of ever being an inventor. But when he got to where he was going the people who had hired him had changed their minds and found somebody else and poor Eli Whitney was out of a job."
"A shabby trick!"
"Yes. Still, it was lucky for him, just the same," responded Carl, "because on the way down he had met the widow of General Greene and she was sorry for him and asked him to her house. He'd just been vaccinated because there was lots of smallpox in the South and he was feeling rotten. You know how sore your arm gets and how sick you are sometimes. Remember Martin? Well, anyhow, Mrs. Greene either knew what it meant to be vaccinated or else she was kind of ashamed of the way her part of the country had treated Eli Whitney. Or maybe she was just kind-hearted like you. Anyhow she invited Mr. Whitney to come to Savannah when she saw how mean he felt and the fit he threw at finding himself so far from home without money or a job."
"Well, wouldn't you have thrown a fit? I think Mrs. Greene was a peach," went on Carl, passing serenely over the reproof. "She was mighty kind to take a stranger into her house when he had no friends."
"By this time Mr. Whitney had decided to be a lawyer and while he was making his home at Mrs. Greene's he began to read all the law books he could lay hands on. Then one day Mrs. Greene busted her embroidery frame——"
"Oh, you know, Ma," fretted Carl, at being interrupted. "She smashed the thing and——"
"What had that to do with it?"
"Everything; because, you see, Eli Whitney mended it so nicely that Mrs. Greene was pleased into the ground and thought he was the smartest person ever. His father had had a shop at home where as a boy he had learned to use tools. But of course Mrs. Greene didn't know that. All she knew was that he made a corking job of her embroidery frame and so one day when some Georgia gentlemen were there at dinner and were telling how hard it was to get the seeds out of cotton she up and said, 'You should ask Mr. Whitney how to do it; he can do anything,' and to prove it she toted out her embroidery frame to show them."
"Oh, say, Ma, don't keep bothering me when I'm trying to tell you a story," Carl complained peevishly. "You know what I mean well enough."
"Much as ever," was the grim reply.
The lad grinned.
"Well, anyhow, the Georgia cotton men talked to Eli Whitney, explaining how the cotton stuck to the seeds and got all broken to bits when you tried to get them out; and how it took nearly a whole day to separate a pound of cotton fiber from the seeds. And then the cotton planters went on to tell how there was lots and lots of land in the South where you couldn't raise rice but could raise cotton if it wasn't such a chore—" (a warning glance from his mother caused Carl hastily to amend the phrase) "such a piece of work to get the seeds out. Eli Whitney listened to their talk and after the men had gone he thought he'd try to make some sort of a machine that would clear cotton of the seeds."
"And did he?"
"You betcha! I mean, yes, he did. Whitney was no boob." (This time Mrs. McGregor failed to protest; perhaps she decided it was useless.) "He had, as I told you, made wheels and canes and knives and nails in his father's workshop at home. He had even made a violin. So he wasn't at all fussed about trying to make a cotton gin. I guess he had a hunch he could do it."
"A what?" gasped Mrs. McGregor involuntarily.
"A hunch means he knew he could turn the trick."
The mother shook her head ruefully.
"And me almost killing myself to give you an education!" she ejaculated beneath her breath.
"Well, anyway, Ma, slang or no slang, I'd be telling you nothing at all about Eli Whitney if I hadn't gone to school, so cheer up," asserted Carl impishly.
He heard his mother laugh. Mrs. McGregor had the good old Scotch sense of humor and when her flashing smile came it was always a delight to the beholder.
"You're a good boy, Carl, if you do speak the language of an orang-outang," she answered. "Where you pick up such a dialect I cannot imagine."
"Oh, it's easy enough to pick it up, Ma. The stunt is not to. Why, what I've been saying just now is nothing to what I could say if I let myself go. I've been holding in because of you. I could have had you so locoed you couldn't have understood a thing I meant if I hadn't been—been considerate. But I know you don't like slang so I try to cut it out. You may not believe it but I do try—honest, I do."
"I believe you, laddie," returned his mother kindly. "It's hard, I know, with all the other boys talking like barbarians. Now go on about Mr. Whitney. Did he contrive to make the machine the Georgia gentlemen wanted?"
"Yes, siree!" continued Carl with enthusiasm. "Mrs. Greene gave him a room to work in down in the basement of her house and he set right about the job. Unluckily he had never seen any cotton growing because he had always lived in the North, you know. In fact, he had never laid eyes on cotton at all until it was made into cloth, so of course he hadn't much of an idea what he was up against, and the first thing he had to do was to scurry round and get specimens of cotton with the seeds in it. It wasn't so easy to do just then, either, because it was not the season for cotton-gathering and he had to hunt and hunt to get some of the last season's crop. I believe he finally got what he needed from a warehouse in New Orleans. Anyhow, he got the cotton pods somewhere and found out better where he stood. And that reminds me, Ma, that the teacher told us there were ever so many different kinds of cotton; and that the Upland cotton, growing in the South, had green seeds that stuck like—like anything to the white part. You could hardly separate the two without ruining the cotton fibers and you can see that as they were to be spun they must not be broken."
"Mr. Whitney did have a puzzle to work out."
"You've said it, Ma! He sure had," beamed Carl. "Well, he kept fussing round, and fussing round, and by and by he managed to get together a simple sort of contrivance that would do what he wanted it to. It was no great shakes of a machine. Any blacksmith or wheelwright could have made it if he had happened to think of it first. In fact, lots of other people did make gins like it. That is why Whitney never got rich, the teacher said."
"But didn't he get his invention patented?" inquired Mrs. McGregor, laying aside the tulle she was beading.
"Not until it was too late. You see, Mrs. Greene was so set up to think Mr. Whitney had done the deed she had predicted he would that she had to go blabbing all over town how clever he was. And the minute people heard that a cotton gin was really made that would take out the seeds they came begging to see the wonderful machine and find out how it worked; and of course Mr. Whitney had to show it off. He hadn't a notion people would be so low-down as to snitch his idea and go to making cotton gins of their own. But that's exactly what they did do and as soon as Mr. Whitney and Mr. Miller who was helping him got wise to the fact, they locked the new cotton gin up. But do you s'pose that did any good? Not on your life! The cotton raisers were crazy to get the machine because everybody needed it so badly. On the plantations there wasn't enough work to keep the negro slaves busy and it cost a lot to feed them. The planters figured that if something profitable could be found for them to do they would earn their keep. They certainly could not do this picking the seeds out of cotton because it took them such an age to pick enough to make a pound. The darkies could gather the crop all right. It had to be gathered by hand. What was needed was something that would take the seeds out and make it possible to raise and sell big quantities of cotton. So Whitney's gin exactly filled the bill. It was just what the whole South had been waiting for and if such a thing existed people were bound to have it. Naturally when Whitney wouldn't show it to them and locked it up, they thought he was almighty stingy and some of the meanest of the bunch broke into the place where he kept it and carried it off."
"Rotten, wasn't it? They ought to have been hung; but they weren't. Instead, the model of the cotton gin got abroad and all the South started to making cotton gins until they were all over the place."
"I'm afraid Mr. Whitney wasn't a very business-like man," ventured Mrs. McGregor.
"He wasn't. Most generally inventors aren't, I guess. Still, how was he to know they were going to swipe his idea? Of course he and Mr. Miller went straight to work and tried to pick up the pieces. Mr. Whitney went home to New Haven and set about making cotton gins on a larger scale than he could make them at Mrs. Greene's; but even then he could not make them fast enough. And on top of all his factory burned down and for a while he couldn't make any gins at all. It seemed as if hard luck pursued him whichever way he turned."
"It certainly did seem so!"
"He and Mr. Miller, who had now gone in as his partner, spent no end of money in lawsuits, and Mr. Miller got so worn out and discouraged fighting the infringers that finally he died, leaving Eli Whitney to carry on the battle alone. And it was a battle, too, to get any satisfaction out of the people who were making use of his idea. I believe that North Carolina and Tennessee did pay him something, and after a while South Carolina and Georgia did. In all he received about ninety thousand dollars; but the lawsuits he had been compelled to go through to get it ate up a good slice of the receipts. Besides, some more had to go for the factory that got burned and other expenses. So he didn't get much out of the deal, I guess. But the South did. The Whitney gin whooped up their cotton trade in great style. Every year the planters grew more and more cotton because now that they could get the seeds out it paid to raise it, and by and by they were exporting millions of bales. Cotton is now one of our biggest exports, the teacher said. We grow billions of pounds of it and for the most part it is the green seed, Upland cotton, cleaned by a gin founded on Whitney's idea. That's why I say it does you no good to go to school," concluded Carl. "Whitney went through Yale college and invented his cotton gin before he had been out of the university a year, and what good did it do him, I'd like to know?"
"He did a lot to help the world along, sonny."
"Oh, I suppose he did," admitted the boy. "But for all that he didn't get the spondulics. That is why I want to go into the factory. So I can get some cash to help out here at home. S'pos'n we didn't have Uncle Frederick Dillingham or your sewing money? And anyhow, I don't want you to be always sewing. I want you to have pretty clothes, ride round in an automobile, and be a lady!"
"Oh, Carlie! Can't one work for a living and still be a lady, my dear?"
"Of course she can, Ma. You're a lady right now. Still, I do wish you didn't have to make those silly dresses all the time. Well, no matter. You just wait until I get through school. You shall be wearing dresses like those and somebody else shall be sewing the beads on."
A suspicious moisture gathered in Mrs. McGregor's eyes.
"You're a good boy, Carl," answered she gently, "even if you do slaughter your mother tongue. Now be off with you. All this palaver about Mr. Whitney has almost made you late for school, and left me hardly knowing whether I am sewing frontwards or backwards. Still, it isn't a bad thing to have a son that knows something."
It was evident from Mrs. McGregor's tone that she might have said more but for the stern belief that she must not flatter her children. Therefore to cut short the danger of such a crime she brusquely hurried Carl out of the kitchen, merely calling after him:
"Don't forget to bring home a yeast cake to-night or you'll get no bread to-morrow. Put your mind on it, now. If you remembered the errands I ask you to do half as well as you remember about cotton gins and the like you'd save layers of shoe leather."
It was a characteristic farewell. Mrs. McGregor would not have been Mrs. McGregor had she not uttered it. All this Carl understood and, undaunted by the words, he bent to kiss his mother on the cheek.
"I suppose you wouldn't have time to stop into the Harlings on your way," suggested she, with a twinkle in her eye.
"I was planning to stop there a minute as I went along."
"I'll be bound you were. One might as well try to keep a fly out of the molasses as to keep you away from the Harlings. Well, since you are going that way anyhow, you can carry over a bowl of broth. I made it yesterday a-purpose. Tell Mrs. Harling it will only need to be heated up for herself and Grandfather Harling."
It was in the corner block beyond Mulberry Court that the Harlings lived, and had you asked Carl McGregor or his chum Jack Sullivan who Hal Harling was you would have received in return for your ignorance a withering stare, a sigh of pity, or possibly no reply at all. Any one who did not know Hal Harling was either to be scorned or condoled with, as the case might be. Yet each boy would have found it difficult to put into words who and what this distinguished personage really was.
Hal Harling was the embryo political boss of the district; the leader of the gang; the hero of every boy who lived within a radius of half a mile of the dingy flat on Broad Street. He was a tall, jovial-faced, thick-set fellow with the physique of a prize fighter and such an abundance of careless good humor that it bubbled contagiously from his round blue eyes and smiling lips. One would have said he was the last person in the world to take offence and indeed on first glance one might safely have made the assertion. But with this gay, happy-go-lucky disposition went a highly developed desire for fair play which at times suddenly converted the balmy, easy-going young autocrat into an enemy pitiless and terrible.
Let some brute stone a kitten; torment a boy smaller than himself; snatch an apple from the stall of the old woman at the corner and, with a justice whose speed was incredible, Hal Harding descended upon the miscreant and pommeled into him a lesson in squareness that he did not soon if forget.
The fact that the youthful avenger was usually on the right side increased, if anything, the number of street brawls he was mixed up in, for alas, Mulberry Court and all the outlying vicinity teemed with so great a multitude of injustices that he who set himself to straighten them out found ample provocation for continual blows. As he trod the narrow streets and alleys this champion of the weak encountered one challenge after another with the result that it was a common sight in the neighborhood to see Hal Harling the center of an angry scuffle.
Partisanship was instant. A passer-by did not need to investigate the broil. Ten cases out of eleven the victim of the squabble was getting what was coming to him, in popular opinion.
"Hal Harling was giving it to him good and plenty," a sympathetic observer would afterward relate. "I don't know what the fuss was about but I didn't interfere for I'll wager Hal was right; he usually is."
Around the standard of such a personality it was inevitable that the inhabitants of the community, especially the male ones, should rally; and foremost in the ranks of admiring worshippers were Jack Sullivan and Carl McGregor, either one of whom would willingly have rolled up his own sleeves in defense of his idol. They tagged at his heels, ran his errands, and walked on air whenever they won his commendation. If he called them down it was as if they had been rolled in the dust.
And yet despite the incense burned at his shrine Hal Harling kept a level head and an estimate of himself that was appealingly modest. In fact he was a very human boy with the same love of pranks and mischief that delighted other boys. He loved a joke dearly. It was fun, for example, to let an orange down on a string and dangle it before little Katie Callahan's window and then jerk it back out of Katie's reach when she snatched for it. Or it amused him to drop peppermint balls through the Murphy's letter box and hear the children inside the room chase them as they rolled about the floor. Later he saw to it that Katie got the orange and the Murphy youngsters the candy. All his jokes were like that, their playful hectoring ending in kindness. He was too kind-hearted to enjoy causing pain.
What wonder that such a hero had his satellites?
On the other hand, he had his enemies too—scores of them—for a justice dealer is never without opponents. As a rule these persons were the victims of his various avalanches of wrath, those to whom at one time or another he had meted out punishment and denounced as cowards. For the disapproval of these cravens Hal Harling did not care a button. He much preferred they should be numbered among his enemies rather than his friends and he said so frankly. Nevertheless, his mother, timid by nature and of a peace-loving disposition, shook her head.
"You can't afford, Hal, to antagonize folks the way you do," she would protest. "The time may come when you'll be sorry."
For answer the giant would shrug his shoulders.
"I'm not afraid of anybody," he would reply proudly.
The statement was not made in a spirit of bravado; rather it reflected the self-respect of one consciously in the right.
"But you to be more careful. Such people are capable of working you harm."
"Let them try."
"But they are. They can do all sorts of underhanded things you would not descend to," whimpered Mrs. Harling. "It worries me all the time to see you so regardless."
"There, there, Mother! Quit fussing about me," pleaded the big fellow kindly. "I'm all right and can look after myself."
"I know you can when the fight is a fair one," agreed his mother. "But you never can tell what weapon a coward will use."
Hal laughed contemptuously and, realizing that her counsel had failed of its aim, Mrs. Harling said no more.
Up to the present the calamities she periodically predicted had not occurred and as those who loved her son rallied round him with ever-increasing loyalty, and those who disliked him kept their distance, she gradually ceased to protest. What was the use of wasting her strength on conditions she could not help? Poor soul! She needed every atom of energy she possessed to meet the trials that beset her own path.
For Mrs. Harling was a helpless invalid and together with her bedridden father lived day after day imprisoned in the small tenement overlooking the rushing, hurrying world of which she was no part. Each morning Louise, Hal's younger sister, made tidy the house, packed up a luncheon, and the two started for Davis and Coulter's spinning mills where all day they helped to operate the busy machinery. It was a noisy, monotonous occupation; a stretch of dull, wearisome hours, and frequently the boy and girl were so tired at night they had scarcely energy to move. And yet they toiled at the humdrum task gratefully, rejoicing in their wages which not only kept body and soul together but provided for the feeble mother and the aged grandfather.
The past winter had been a hard one in Baileyville, the manufacturing village where they lived. Most of the mills were running on half time and many of the employes had been turned away for lack of work. In consequence worry and uncertainty hung over everybody. Who would be the next to go, they speculated. One never could predict where the axe would fall, or be sure he might not be the victim elected to meet its merciless stroke.
Thus far both Hal and Louise had been retained at their posts; but the fear that some of the older operatives who had been longer in the employ of the company might take precedence over them constantly menaced their peace of mind.
Corcoran, the foreman under whom they worked, was a harsh, unreasonable bully who rather enjoyed his post as executioner, authority having exaggerated in him all the meannesses that lurked in his small, vindictive nature. Only the week before, Hal, enraged by his discourtesy and injustice to one of the women, had blurted out to his face a rebuke for his roughness. It was, to be sure, an unwise act and one that not only did the poor girl whose cause he championed little good but jeopardized his own position; yet to save his soul he could not have checked his indignation.
"You shouldn't have said it," declared Louise, who had been an eyewitness of the encounter. "Of course I was proud of you as could be; and you said nothing but what Corcoran deserved. Still it isn't safe to do that sort of thing. It may lose you your job."
"I don't care if it does," returned Hal, whose rage had not yet cooled. "Corcoran may fire me if he wants to. But he isn't going to bully any girl as he bullied Susie Mayo—not when I'm round."
"But don't you see, dear; we can't afford to lose our jobs," continued his sister gently. "Too much depends on our keeping them. We must have the money."
"I'm not worrying," laughed Hal with confidence. "If Corcoran should give me the sack I could get another place without any trouble, I'll bet I could."
"Places are not so easy to find," asserted the more prudent Louise. "There are lots of men in Baileyville who have been out of work for months. You ought not to be in such a hurry to rush into a quarrel, Hal."
"I was right; you say so yourself."
"Yes, perhaps so. Still——"
"Don't you think somebody ought to have called Corcoran down?"
"Of course he was unfair and—and rude."
"Rude!" interrupted her brother scornfully, "he was contemptible, outrageous!"
"I know it. But——"
"If fewer people stood for brutes there would be fewer brutes in the world."
"It isn't our business to round Corcoran up."
"It is my business to stop any man who is impolite to a woman," replied Hal. "Besides, Corcoran knew well enough he was wrong. You notice he did not put up any defense. He just walked off and has never mentioned the affair since."
"That is what frightens me."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm afraid he isn't through."
"Nonsense! He's through all right. He hasn't uttered a yip and it is now over two weeks ago that the thing happened. Quit your worrying, kiddie. There'll be no comeback from Corcoran."
The reassuring words, so confidently spoken, did much to allay Louise's fears. Uneventfully the days slipped by, and with every one that passed the boy and girl breathed more freely. Not only were they skilled workers but they were earnest and ambitious to give of their best. Moreover they had behind them an untarnished record for faithful attendance at the mills. Such service, argued they, must be of value, and when matched against much of the grudging, incompetent labor about them should be of sufficient worth to keep them on Davis and Coulter's payroll. All they asked was fair play and to be judged on their merits. This demand seemed reasonable enough; but alas, the world is not always a just dealer and when on a Saturday morning not long before Christmas Louise Harling looked into her pay envelope a cry of dismay escaped her.
The fate she had feared had overtaken her. Davis and Coulter informed her that after the fifteenth of the month, which fell a week hence, the firm would not need her services.
Instantly two thoughts rushed to her mind. One was whether Hal had also received similar notice; and the other was that all the holiday plans she had so fondly cherished must now go by the boards. She would have no money to buy presents or a Christmas dinner. The holiday season was a dreadful time of year to be without a penny. Try as she would to conceal her disappointment her lip trembled.
When Hal met her that night and they started home she could hardly utter a syllable. It was not alone her own trouble that depressed her. She longed and yet dreaded to hear what had befallen her brother. Were a calamity like hers to come to him then indeed had misfortune descended upon the Harling household. How would the invalid mother and the feeble old grandfather get on without money? How would medicines be procured? Or the rent be paid?
Hal, however, was to all appearances his serene self. He talked and jested quite in his usual manner and if he were keeping something back he certainly succeeded in doing so to perfection. Perhaps, argued she, he had not been discharged at all. If not, why should this disgrace have come to her? For in a measure it was a disgrace. When you lost your job in the mill all Baileyville knew it and discussed the circumstances, weighing the justice or injustice of the act. Certainly, thought Louise to herself, she had toiled as faithfully as she knew how. Had there been fault with her work at least she was not conscious of it. It was mortifying, galling, to be turned away without a word of explanation.
"What's the matter, Sis?" Hal questioned, at last noticing that his chatter failed to elicit its usual a gay response.
Louise hesitated, shrinking from putting her tidings into words.
"You look as if you'd seen a ghost, old girl," smiled her brother facetiously. "What's up?"
"I've been—they don't want——"
Hal halted, aghast.
"You don't mean to say they've asked you to quit?"
The boy's eyes blazed.
"It's Corcoran, the cur! He's done it to get back at me for what I said to him."
"You think so?"
"But why choose me? I had nothing to do with the squabble."
"That's just the point. He's smart enough to know it would hit me a darn sight harder to have you lose your job than to lose my own," blustered her brother wrathfully.
"I wish I was sure it was only that."
"Because then I wouldn't care so much. I should know there was nothing the matter with my work."
"Of course there isn't. You're one of the best operators they've got in the mill. Hines, one of the bosses, told me so only the other day."
"Really?" The girl's face brightened. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Oh, I don't know. Forgot it, I guess," smiled Hal. It was not his way to pass on compliments. Had the criticism been adverse he would have told it quickly enough.
"Well, I'm awfully glad he said so."
"Yes, it was very decent of him. Everybody knows though that you're a fine worker—even old Corcoran himself, I'll be bound, although he wouldn't admit it. You're quick, careful, prompt and never absent. What else do they want? Oh, Corcoran was behind this, all right. It wasn't your work sacked you. It was plain spite."
"I'm thankful for that!" sighed Louise.
"I'm not. It makes me hot," burst out Hal.
"Still, it is better than losing your place because your work was so poor you couldn't hold the job," smiled the girl.
"I can't see it that way. This is just low down and unfair."
"But I don't mind that. I know I wasn't to blame."
"You bet you weren't. I wish I had Corcoran here. I'd shake the daylights out of him."
"Whose daylights are going to be shaken out now?" inquired a laughing voice, and the brother and sister turned to see Carl McGregor beside them.
"Old Corcoran up at the works," snarled Hal. "He's given Louise the sack!"
Carl did not speak. He knew only too well how genuine was this disaster. In the sympathetic silence that followed the three young persons seemed to draw closer together.
"It isn't as if Loulie had done anything to deserve such a slam," Hal suddenly declared. "He's just taking out his spite on me and he's chosen this means of doing it. To light on a woman! I'd a hundred times rather he'd shipped me. But it's like him."
Moodily the three walked on.
"Of course, I must get some other place right away," Louise said presently, as if thinking aloud. "I don't know just what. I've never worked anywhere but in the mills and I have no other trade. To be turned away from Davis and Coulter won't be much of a recommendation for me either, I'm afraid."
"Oh, you can get a hundred jobs," announced Hal, with a confidence he did not feel. "Don't you fret."
"I don't know." His sister shook her head. "Scores of Baileyville girls are idle."
The statement met with no denial. Who could combat it? It was only too true.
"Not girls like you," Carl ventured, determined to be optimistic.
"Girls exactly like me, Carlie," smiled Louise.
"Oh, you won't be idle," murmured Hal.
"I can't be—I simply can't. We've got to have money."
Once again her companions found themselves unable to refute the declaration.
They had turned into the main thoroughfare of the town and were threading their way along a sidewalk teeming with the throng of Saturday shoppers that is such a characteristic part of the life of a mill town. The street beside them was black with trucks, motor cars, and the congested traffic of a manufacturing center.
Suddenly there was a cry from Carl.
"Jove!" exclaimed he. "Look at that kid!"
In his horror he put out his hand to clutch his friend's arm. But his fingers closed on empty air.
Hal Harling was gone!
What followed happened so quickly that it was more like the shiftings of a moving picture than an incident in real life.
Hal bounded into the seething maelstrom of the street, caught up a little boy midway in the stream of rushing vehicles and held him aloft in safety.
The baby had obviously been pursuing a small black puppy whose dangling leash told a story of escape from captivity. Making the most of his freedom the dog had run recklessly along and the child had dashed after him, too intent on recapturing his pet to heed whither the chase took him. It was little short of a miracle that he had not been killed and for his rescue from such a fate he had the quick wit of Hal Harling to thank.
A second later all passing on the street had stopped and crowds of spectators surged around the young hero. Above the tense stillness could be heard Hal's comforting voice:
"Sure we'll find your dog for you, little chap. Don't cry. You say he's called Midget. That's a fine name for a dog, isn't it? See! Somebody over there on the sidewalk has him already. We'll go and get him."
As the two chubby arms closed about Hal's neck into the center of the crowd catapulted a frenzied nursemaid who madly rushed up to young Harling.
"He's not hurt a mite," Hal announced, reassuringly. "I guess he ran away from you, didn't he?"
"He was leading the dog and the leash slipped out of his hands," gasped the affrighted girl. "Before I'd a notion what he was going to do he was off after the puppy. I'm weak as a rag. If anything had happened to him——"
"But it didn't," smiled Hal.
"No, thanks to you, and to the good Lord!"
Then, seizing the child in her arms, she said:
"There, Billie, you see what comes of running out of the yard after Midget. You might have been killed but for this kind gentleman."
"Indeed he might! He would have been. I saw the whole thing myself," broke in a policeman who had joined the group.
"I'm glad he's all right," reiterated Hal, as he gave the child into the maid's care.
A man approached leading Midget and interest being for the moment diverted from himself Hal made his escape.
In a doorway he spied Louise and Carl.
"Oh, it was wonderful of you, Hal!" his sister murmured.
"It was just lucky," Hal returned a bit gruffly. "Come on! Let's get out of this push. We'll be late for supper if we don't hike along."
And it was characteristic of Hal Harling that this was the only allusion he made to the adventure.
Although temporarily buoyed up by the episode of the afternoon Carl McGregor returned home with spirits at a lower ebb than they had been for many a day. To be out of work was a very real tragedy in the world in which he lived. He knew only too well how indispensable was money and that the necessity of it was even greater in the Harling home than in his own. The Harlings, alas, had no absent Uncle Frederick to fall back upon. On the contrary the entire upkeep of their home and family fell upon the young shoulders of the boy and girl who toiled at the spinning mills. Now with Louise out of the race Hal would be left alone with all the burden, and whether he would be able to carry so heavy a one was a question. Undoubtedly he would not be forced to bear it for long. Louise would find employment—she must find it. Did not the need compel it? And was she not far too capable a worker to be out of a place? Why, scores of people would seek her help eagerly when once it was known her assistance was available.
Sound as these arguments were, however, facts did not bear them out. Apparently nobody in Baileyville wished help, no matter how excellent its quality. Every night the report from the Harlings was the same—Louise could find nothing to do. Even Mrs. McGregor who was ordinarily able to straighten out every sort of tangle had no remedy for the present pitiable dilemma. The only employment it was in her power to secure for the girl was fine sewing and Louise, restricted by her factory training, could not sew. A week went by and still nothing presented itself. Mrs. Harling and the aged grandfather, from whom the calamity had been kept as long as it was possible to conceal it, at length took up the worry.
"Whatever is going to become of us now?" bewailed each in turn. "Where's the food and rent coming from?"
Every day he looked more harrowed and distressed, and the smile that had formerly come so spontaneously came now with an effort. He had taken on an extra job evenings, that of delivery boy for the local grocer. It did not bring in much, to be sure, and it kept him on his feet at the end of the day when often he was too tired to stand. However, all these disadvantages were lost sight of in the few additional dollars derived from the makeshift.
"Mother says you can't keep this up, old chap," remarked Carl dismally. "She says you will be getting tired out and sick and then where will you be?"
"But we've got to have the cash, kid! Got to have it, don't you see? It was I who landed us in this plight and I'm the one to get us out. It's nobody's fault but mine."
"I suppose Corcoran wouldn't——"
"Take Louise back if I were to humble myself," flared Hal. "Do you think for a moment I'd ask him? Do you imagine I'd gratify him by letting him know how hard he'd hit us? Not on your life! For all he knows the Harlings are rich as mud and don't care a hurrah for his old job. I want him to think that too. If he pictures me eating out of his hand he's mistaken."
Carl looked grave.
"It is all very well to be proud," affirmed he, smiling at his friend's characteristic attitude of mind. "But sometimes you can't afford to be too cocky. If, as you say, you pitched into Corcoran and were wrong——"
"But I wasn't wrong," broke in Hal. "I meant every word I said; it was the truth and I'd say it again if I got the chance. You'd have said the same yourself if you'd been there. The thing that got his goat was that it was true."
"But you can't go round telling people the truth about themselves, old man," observed Carl with a wisdom far beyond his years. "They won't stand for it."
"I'll bet I would. I'd a darn sight rather a person told me straight to my face what he thought of me than whispered it behind my back."
"That's what I'm trying to do now," grinned Carl.
Young Harling's lips curved into a smile.
"Why, so you are, kid," returned he. "I didn't recognize the stunt at first. You're a mighty white little chap, Carl. Maybe I was wrong to light into Corcoran as I did. Of course he is my superior and I really had no business to sarse him, even if he was wrong. But he is such a cad! It made my blood boil to hear him berate that poor little Mayo girl—and for something she did not do, too."
"Well, if you were in this mess what would you do? Come now. Give me some of your sage advice."
"You don't suppose you ought to go to——"
"Corcoran and apologize?" interrupted Hal hotly. "No, I don't. I'd starve before I'd do that."
"But how about your grandfather, your mother, and Louise?"
"I shan't let them starve, if that's what you mean. You can bet your life on that," cried Hal. "If anybody goes without it will be myself."
"You seem to be doing it all right."
"How do you know?"
"Don't you suppose I've eyes in my head? You're thin as a rail already."
"Huh! That's only because I've been chasing round with bundles. I was too fat, anyway; didn't get enough exercise at the mills."
"Straight goods, I didn't. Just stood and fed stuff into that loom from morning till night. You don't call that exercise, do you?"
"I noticed that by night you were often all in, exercise or no exercise," was the dry response. "Well, you've got to go your own gait, I guess."
"I'll bet a hat you wouldn't go and bow down to Corcoran."
The thrust told.
"Bow down to him? I'd crack his nut!"
Hal chuckled with satisfaction at his chum's loyalty.
"There you are, you see!" declared he. "You are every whit as rabid as I am when it comes to the scratch."
"I'm afraid I'm more rabid when things hit you and Louise," murmured Carl.
The two walked on without speaking, the mind of each busy with the problem in hand.
Carl's imagination circled every mad avenue of escape from the Harlings' financial crisis. If only he were rich! If only somebody would suddenly leave him some money! If only—his brain halted in the midst of its absurd gyrations.
If he were not rich; if he had no fairy fortune to pass over to Hal and Louise, what was to hinder him from performing for them a far more genuine service of friendship and affection? Instead of offering them money that was dropped into his hand why should he not test out his real regard for them by earning it? Many a boy his age, aye, younger than he, earned money. Why should he be free of responsibility when Hal, who was only a few years older, was weighed down with it?
Just why it had never occurred to him that if he earned money he might with propriety hand it over to his own hard-working mother is a question. Often with eyes fixed on the clouds we lose sight of the things just beneath our noses. Perhaps that was the explanation of Carl's lack of thought. Be that as it may, certain it was that he parted from his chum afire with the generous impulse of making a personal effort to reinforce the Harlings' slender income.
He was only a stone's throw from home and what led him to turn the other way, pass into Beaver Street, and go south toward Orient Avenue he could not have told. Possibly he was still thrilling with newly awakened altruism and was not yet ready to have his roseate dreams disturbed. Or he may have been pondering so deeply how to put his impulses into action that he failed to heed just where he was going. At any rate before he realized it there he was in the fashionable section of the village, walking along between rows of bare and stately elms and great rambling houses glimpsed from behind high brick walls.
He had not been in this part of Baileyville for months. There was nothing to take him there. What connection had his life with those fortunate lives that made leisure and luxury things to be taken for granted? Even now he started at finding himself in a location so incongruous; or rather at finding so incongruous a person as himself in an environment so out of harmony with his thought and station.
He whirled about to start homeward and it was just at this instant that a trim racing car drew up beside him and a man's voice inquired pleasantly:
"Lost your way, youngster?"
Carl glanced at the speaker.
He was a gray-haired, clean-shaven man, with fresh color and keen blue eyes. Although muffled to the chin in a raccoon coat that almost met the fur of his cap there was a splendid vigor about him that breathed health, energy, and the rewards a temperate life brings. Everything about him seemed clearness personified—eye, complexion, voice.
"I've not lost my way, thank you, sir," Carl answered. "I just got to thinking and have wandered farther from home than I meant to."
"Are you going back to town now?"
"Jump in and I'll give you a lift."
Raising the fur robes invitingly the stranger reached to open the door.
Carl was almost too surprised to speak.
"You're very kind, sir," he contrived to stammer. "I should be glad of a ride. I don't often get one. Besides, I ought to have been at home long ago."
The honesty of the reply apparently pleased the motorist for, smiling, he tucked the lad in and asked:
"Where do you live?"
"At Mulberry Court, sir."
"I'm afraid I don't quite know where that is."
"Very likely not. It's a little tenement house off Minton Street. Maybe you never were there."
"I guess I never was," the man replied simply.
"It's a nice place to live," continued Carl, glowing with local pride. "Of course it isn't like this. We've no trees. But in winter trees aren't much good anyway; and in summer we can go to the parks."
To this philosophic observation his companion agreed with a nod and they sped on in silence.
The vast stretches of snow, so unsightly in the city's narrow thoroughfares, were on every hand white and sparkling, and each little shrub rearing its head out of the spangled fields was laden with ermine.
The boy drew a long breath, drinking in the crystal air.
"Gee!" he burst out impulsively. "This is great. I feel cheered up already."
The man driving the car shot him a quiet smile.
"I'm glad to hear that," said he. "So you were out of spirits, were you?"
"I was fussed within an inch of my life," owned Carl with engaging candor.
"In wrong somewhere?"
"Oh, I'm not; but my chum is."
"What's the matter?"
"Why, you see his sister has just been fired from Davis and Coulter's mills. It wasn't her fault at all, either. Her brother gave the foreman, Corcoran, a jawing because he got too fresh with one of the girls. Corcoran didn't say a word at the time but a couple of weeks later he took out his spite on Hal Harling's sister, Louise. I suppose he was mad and decided on this way to get even."
"Maybe he thought he'd take Hal's pride down and make him come crawling to him on his knees to get Louise back into the mills. It is a rotten time to be out of work. Louise has tried and tried to get another job and can't land a thing. But whether she does or not, her brother isn't going crawling to Corcoran. He's not afraid of the old tyrant. Hal Harling isn't afraid of anything. Why, only the other day he tore into the street and saved a little runaway chap from being mashed to jelly under a lot of automobiles. The baby was chasing a dog and got into the middle of High Street before he realized it. He would certainly have been killed had it not been for Hal."
"Whose baby was it?" questioned the man beside him in an odd voice.
"Oh, I don't know. We didn't wait to see. Hal was anxious to get out of the crowd and we were late home anyway. So Harling gave the kid to the nursemaid and lit out."
There was a muffled: "I see!" from his listener.
"And where do you come in in all this tangle?" queried the stranger presently.
"I? Why, you see Hal Harling is my——" a sudden reserve fell upon the lad. It was impossible to explain to anybody just what Hal Harling was to him. "I chase round with the Harlings a lot," explained he. "They are almost like my own family."
"Oh, so that's it!"
"I'd decided just now to hunt for a job and see if I couldn't make good the money Louise is missing. She can't seem to find a darn thing to do, poor kid. She's been out of work over a week now and they've got to have money or Mrs. Harling and Grandfather Harling will starve to death. Of course I'm not so much," continued Carl modestly. "But I'm willing to work and I'm sure I could earn something."
The owner of the velvet-wheeled car did not speak at once. Then he remarked abruptly:
"You don't go to school to-morrow, do you?"
"Saturday? Not on your—no, sir."
"Then you'd be free to come to my office to-morrow morning and see me, wouldn't you?"
"Do you think you could give me a job? Sure I'd come!" ejaculated Carl with zest.
"Good! Come to the Berwick building, Number 197 Dalby Street, to-morrow at ten o'clock. Give your name and—by the by, what is your name?"
"Carl McGregor, sir."
"A fine old Scotch name. Well, you write it on a card or a piece of paper and give it to the man you will find at the door. Maybe I shall be able to do something for you."
The car rolled up to the curb and stopped.
"You've been mighty kind, sir," said Carl, as he leaped out. "You've brought me nearly home."
"Oh, I was going this way anyway," smiled the man in the fur coat. "You won't have far to walk now, will you?"
"Only a block. I'll be home in a jiffy."
"You won't forget about to-morrow."
Laughing at something that evidently amused him very much the stranger started his engine.
As for Carl, he raced home as fast as ever his feet would go. Already he was late for supper, a fact always annoying to his mother, who considered tardiness one of the most flagrant of sins. To be sure he was not often late, for miss what other functions he might he seldom missed his meals. To-night, however, the table had been cleared, the dishes washed, and only a saucepan of corn-meal mush, steaming on the back of the stove, remained as a souvenir of the feast.
"For goodness' sake, Carl, wherever have you been?" asked Mrs. McGregor, as he entered, panting from his run up the long flights of stairs. "I've been worried to death about you. Go wash your hands and come and eat your supper right away. You know I don't like you out after dark."
"I know it, Ma," the boy responded penitently. "I'm mighty sorry. I'd no idea, though, that it was so late."
"Where've you been?"
"To walk? Just to walk? Mercy on us! Not just walking round for nothing!"
"I'm afraid so, yes."
"Who was with you?"
For an instant Mrs. McGregor looked searchingly at her son.
"Well, did you ever hear the like of that!" commented she, addressing the younger children who clustered about their brother with curiosity. "What set you to go walking?"
"I don't know, Ma. Just a freak, I guess."
"A foolish freak—worrying the whole family, delaying supper, and what not. Now come and eat your porridge without more delay. Mary, go bring the milk; and, Timmie, you fetch a clean saucer from the pantry. Martin, stop pestering your brother until he eats something; he'll play with you and Nell by and by. Such a noisy lot of bairns as you are! If you're not careful you'll wake James Frederick."
Nevertheless, in spite of her grumbling, the mother regarded her brood of clamoring youngsters with affectionate pride. They were indeed a husky group, red-cheeked, high-spirited, and happy; their chatter, as she well knew, was nothing more than the normal exuberance of childhood.
While Carl hungrily devoured his big bowlful of cereal his mother continued her sewing. She was working on a film of blue material a-glitter with silver beads that twinkled from its folds like stars. Every now and then little Nell, fascinated by the sparkle of the fabric, would start toward the corner where her mother sat in the ring of brilliant lamplight.
Instantly one of the older brothers or sisters would intercept the child, catching up the wriggling mite and explaining softly:
"No, dearie, no! Nell must not trouble mother. Mother's working."
It was an old, oft-repeated formula which every one of the little group had heard from the time he had been able to toddle. Familiar, too, was the picture of their mother seated in the circle of light, her basket of gayly hued spools beside her, and a cloud of shimmering splendor wreathing her feet. Sometimes this glory was pink; sometimes it was blue, lavender, or yellow; not infrequently it was black or a smoky mist of gray. The children always delighted in the brighter colors, crowding round with eagerness whenever a new gown was brought home to see what hue the exciting parcel might contain.
"Oh, nothing but a sleepy old gray one this time!" Timmie would bewail. "And gray beads, too! Do hurry up, Ma, and get it done so we can have something else."
But let the paper disclose a brilliant blue or a red tulle and instantly every child clapped his hands.
Exultantly they examined the scintillating jet or iridescent sequins.
"Oh, this is the best yet, Ma!" Carl would cry. "It's a peach of a dress."
Their ingenious admiration did much to transform their mother's tedious task into a fine art and helped her to regard it with dignity. Certainly its influence on the characters of her children was inestimable. Not alone did it answer their craving for beauty, but far better than this aesthetic gratification was the education it gave them in thoughtfulness and unselfishness. Consideration for their mother, restraint, independence, all emerged out of the yards of foolish gauze and the frivolous spangles.
Therefore Mrs. McGregor sewed on serene in spirit and if, as to-night, her task barred her from secrets her children might amid greater leisure have bestowed on her, the circumstance was accepted as one of the unavoidable disadvantages attending constant occupation.
It was regrettable she had not more time to talk with her sons and daughters separately. Confidences were shy and volatile things that could not be delivered in a hurry or hastily fitted into the chinks of a busy day. Confidences depended on mood and could not be regulated so that they would be forthcoming in the few seconds snatched between one duty and another.
As a result it came about that after Carl had swallowed his supper, frolicked with the younger children and helped Mary put them to bed, brought in the kindlings and coal for the morning fire, it was time for him to tumble in between the sheets himself, and he did so without mentioning to his mother or any one else his adventures of the afternoon or his morrow's appointment with the stranger.
One does not always wish to relate his affairs before five small brothers and sisters whose little ears drink in the story and whose tiny tongues are liable artlessly to repeat it.
In the McGregor household there was affection and happiness; but, alas, there was no such thing as privacy.
A TANGLE OF SURPRISES
Morning, to which Carl had looked forward for a moment with his mother, brought, alas, even more meager opportunity for imparting secrets than had the night before, for as was the custom of the McGregor family the new day was launched amid a turmoil of confusion. Hence it came about that although Carl made several valiant attempts to waylay his mother in the pantry, or corral her in her room, he was each time thwarted and was never able to get beyond a vague introduction to the topic so near his heart. At length a multitudinous list of errands to the butcher, grocer, and baker was handed him and there was no alternative but catch up his hat and coat and speed forth upon these commissions. And no sooner were they all fulfilled than the hour for his appointment with the stranger arrived and, palpitating with the interest of his mission, he set forth to the address to which he had been directed.
It was in the down-town part of the village and so busy was he dodging trucks and hurrying pedestrians that he paid scant heed to anything but the gilt numbers that dotted the street. In and out the crowd he wove his way until above a doorway the magic characters he sought stared at him.
There may have been, and probably were, signs announcing the nature of the business in which this mysterious friend was engaged but if so Carl was blind to them. All that concerned him was to find the place that sheltered his remarkable acquaintance and ascertain the sequel of the day before.
Therefore he walked timidly into the hallway and seeing at the other end of it an oaken door panelled with ground glass that bore the hieroglyphics of his quest he turned the heavy brass knob and walked in.
The room was spacious and its rich furnishings and atmosphere of stillness were in such marked contrast to the hubbub of the street that he paused on the heavy rug, abashed. There was, however, no time for retreat even had his courage failed him for the door behind him had no sooner clicked together than a boy in a gray uniform came forward. As he approached his eye swept with disapproval the shabby visitor and he said, with an edge of sharpness crisping his tone:
"What can I do for you?"
"I want to see a—a—gentleman," stammered Carl. "I don't know his name. I forgot to ask it. But he told me to come to this number to-day at ten o'clock and give him my name on a piece of paper. I've got it here somewheres."
Awkwardly he searched his pockets, the waiting messenger watching his every movement.
It was a grimy morsel of parchment that was at length produced; but the instant the supercilious page read the name scrawled upon it his attitude changed from superiority to servility.
"This way, sir, if you please," said he, wheeling about.
Carl followed his guide, feeling, as he tagged across the silencing rug, deplorably small, and painfully conscious of both his hands and feet. He and his conductor passed through another door, threaded labyrinthian aisles flanked by gaping clerks and faintly smiling stenographers, and came at length to a third door which the youth preceding him opened with a flourish.
"Mr. Carl McGregor," announced he in a stentorian tone.
All the blood in Carl's body rushed to his face.
The room before him was small and on its warmly tinted walls a few pictures, some of which his school training led him to recognize as Rembrandt reproductions, lent charm and interest to the interior. But these details were of minor importance compared to the thrill he experienced at discovering behind a great mahogany desk the mysterious stranger of his motoring adventure.
Yes, it was he—there could be no question about that. And yet, now that his hat and heavy fur coat were removed he appeared surprisingly slender and youthful. His eyes, too, seemed bluer, his cheeks redder, and his mouth more smiling.
"Well, shaver, you're prompt," announced he, pointing to the clock with evident satisfaction.
"You said ten, sir."
"So I did. Nevertheless, I often say ten and get quarter past ten or even eleven o'clock. Sit down."
He motioned toward a huge leather chair at his elbow and slipping into it the boy perched with anticipation on its forward edge.
"Well, what about that Miss Harling we were talking of yesterday? Has she a position yet?"
"Since last night, you mean? I don't know, sir. I haven't seen any of the Harlings to-day. But I hardly think so."
The stranger pursed his lips.
"Too bad! Too bad!" he murmured. "And you are still for helping the family out by taking a job, are you?"
"If I can get one; yes, sir."
"Just what kind of work had you in mind?"
"Why—I—I—hadn't thought about it."
"I suppose you go to school."
"Yes, sir. That's the dickens of it. My mother makes me. I'd a great deal rather go into Davis and Coulter's cotton mills. Lots of boys and girls my age do go there, and that is where my father worked before he died. But Ma is hot on education. She says I've got to have one, and she insists on sewing at home on all sorts of fool flummeries for some dressmaker so I can. It's rotten of me not to be more pleased about it, I suppose."
While Carl fumbled with his cap the man at the desk tilted back in his chair, regarding him narrowly.
"Your school work can't leave you very much time for anything else," remarked he.
"Oh, yes, it does," the lad hastened to retort. "I have Saturdays and—and—spare hours at night. I'd even work Sundays if there was anything I could do."
"At that rate I am afraid you would not find much time for skating or baseball. People have to have fresh air and exercise, you know, to keep well."
"I don't have to play," protested Carl with great earnestness. "Anyhow I get heaps of exercise and fresh air doing errands. Besides, we live up five flights."
His listener turned aside his head.
"If it comes to exercise I get all I want right at home," persisted the boy. "I've a crew of little brothers and sisters, too, and when I'm not busy I help take care of them so Ma can sew. Just you try doing it once if you are looking for exercise. And then I wheel the baby out."
There was a twinkle in the eye of the man at the desk but he said gravely:
"Isn't it going to bother them at home if you take a position? How does your mother feel about it?"
"I haven't had a chance to ask her," Carl blurted out with honesty. "All last evening she was rushing to finish that spangled thing; and this morning she had the kids to dress and I had errands to do. It's awful hard to get a chance to talk to Ma by herself. Some of the children are always clawing at her skirts and bothering her."
"You do believe, though, in talking things over with your mother."
"Sure! We always tell Ma everything if we can get a chance. So does all Mulberry Court, for that matter. Ma's that sort."
The stranger toyed with an ivory letter-opener thoughtfully.
"Now I'll tell you what we'll do," began he at last. "To-day is Saturday, isn't it?"
"Well, if your friends, the Harlings, are not straightened out by Monday morning I will let you begin a week from to-day as errand boy in this office."
"Bully!" cried the delighted applicant.
"If, on the other hand," continued the gentleman at the desk, speaking slowly and evenly, and not heeding the interruption, "Miss Harling finds work and the family do not need your aid, you must agree to put in your free time at home helping your mother as you have been doing in the past. Is that a bargain?"
"What's the matter?"
"It just seems to me we might as well settle it definitely now that I am to come here next week. To-day is Saturday and I don't believe Louise will find work before Monday morning. Of course she can't do anything about getting a job Sunday."
Although there was a perceptible tremor of disappointment in the boy's voice the stranger appeared not to notice it. Rising, he put out his hand with a kindly smile.
"I am afraid the agreement I have made with you is the best I can do at present," said he. "I will be true to my part of it if you will be true to yours. I promise you that if the Harlings' affairs do not take an upward turn by Monday you shall come to their rescue."
"Thank you, sir."
"I wouldn't worry any more about this, if I were you, sonny," concluded the man. "Go home and try to be satisfied. I'll keep the place for you, remember. It is Carl McGregor, isn't it, of——"
"Mulberry Court—the top flat."
"And did you tell me these friends of yours, the Harlings, lived there too?"
"Oh, no, sir! I wish they did. The Harlings are at Number 40 Broad Street. It is the corner house. They took the tenement because there was sun, and because it entertains Grandfather and Mrs. Harling to look out the window. They can't ever go out and it cheers them up to have something to see. It costs more to live there than where we do, but Hal and Louise decided it was worth it."
"Under the circumstances I imagine it is," assented the stranger. "Well, we will wish them luck."
"I hope they have it!"
"So do I." As he spoke the man pressed a bell in answer to which the uniformed page appeared.
"Show this young gentleman out, Billie," said he. "Good-by, youngster! Good-by!"
The farewell was cordial and in its cadence rang so disconcerting a finality that try as he might Carl could not repress a conviction that in spite of his suave promises his new-found friend did not really expect to see him again.
"I guess there are folks like that," meditated he, as he walked dispiritedly home. "They are awful pleasant to your face and give you the feeling they are going to do wonders for you. But when it comes to the scratch they slide from under. This chap is one of that slick bunch, I'll bet a hat."
It was not a cheering reflection and with every step lower and lower ebbed his hopes. It chanced that his pathway to Mulberry Court led past the corner of Broad Street (or if it did not really lead him there his subconscious mind did) and once in the vicinity what more natural than that he should drop in at Number 40 to pass the time of day? Grandfather Harling loved to have visitors. He said they cheered him up.
But to-day neither the old gentleman nor any of the Harling family needed cheering. Carl found them in such high spirits that for a time it was difficult to get any of the group to talk coherently.
"What do you suppose has happened, Carl?" cried Louise, the instant he was inside the door. "The most wonderful thing! You never could guess if you guessed forever."
"If it is as hopeless as that I shan't try," laughed Carl.
"But it is amazing, a miracle!" put in Mrs. Harling.
"We can't understand it at all," quavered Grandfather Harling, who was quite as excited as the rest.
"Well, what is it?" the boy demanded.
"You'll never believe it," laughed Louise with shining eyes. "I've had a letter. You couldn't guess who it's from!"
She held a square white envelope high above her head.
"I'm going to have it framed and hand it down to my great-great-grandchildren."
"You might let me see it," coaxed Carl, putting out his hand.
"Oh, it is far too precious to be touched. It is going to be an archive, an heirloom, you know."
"Oh, come on and tell a chap what's happened," urged Carl, his patience beginning to wane.
"Well, think of this! I've had a note from Mr. Coulter—not from the firm, understand, but from the great J. W. himself, written by his own hand. He says he hears that through some error my name has been dropped from the Davis and Coulter payroll, and he not only asks me to come back to the mill but sends me a cheek for double the sum that I have lost by being out. Can you beat that?"
"Oh, Louise, how bully! I am glad! But how do you suppose——"
"That's exactly what we don't know. It seems like magic, doesn't it? I never knew before that Mr. Coulter kept such close track of what went on at the mills. He doesn't come there often because he is always at the down-town office. When he does visit the mills he simply strolls through them as if they belonged to somebody else rather than to himself. Of course he doesn't know one of the workers and I've always fancied he didn't care much about us. But this proves how wrong I was to think so. He does care, you see, and means everybody shall have a square deal. I shall go back Monday and work harder than ever for him. You will work your fingers off for such a man as that, you know."
"It certainly is white of him!" Carl agreed.
"It is nothing but justice," asserted Mrs. Harling proudly. "Still, justice isn't a common commodity in this world."
"Evidently it isn't Mr. Coulter's fault if it isn't, Mother," Louise replied. "And isn't it nice, Carl, that I am not to go back to work under Mr. Corcoran. Oh, I forgot to tell you that. That is almost the best of all. No! I am to be in the shipping department where the work is lighter and the pay better. Won't Hal be tickled to death when he hears it? He'll be more convinced than ever that he did the right thing to lay Corcoran out."
"I think he did. Still, it was a dangerous experiment and this should be a warning to him," put in Mrs. Harling. "Hal must learn to be more careful with his temper, his tongue, and those fists of his. If he isn't he is going to get into serious trouble some day."
Carl, however, was not listening to Mrs. Harling's moralizing.
"I wish I knew how Mr. Coulter found out about Louise," murmured he, half aloud.
Well, this was certainly a most satisfactory termination to the Harlings' troubles. He was genuinely glad the affair had turned so fortunately. And yet in his heart lurked a vague regret. This would mean that probably he would never see or hear from the mysterious hero of the red racing car again. Could the stranger have had any knowledge of what was to happen and did that information account for his jaunty adieu? Of course such a thing was impossible. And yet how odd and puzzling it all was!
THE WEB WIDENS
"Wherever did you disappear to?" inquired his mother when, hungry but triumphant, Carl came home. "I've been looking everywhere for you."
"I didn't know you wanted me this morning, Ma," the boy replied, an afterglow of happiness still on his face.
"I didn't really want you but I wanted to know where you were. I've asked you time and time again when you go out to tell me where you're going."
"I wanted to, Mother, but it was such a long story. Last night you were too busy to hear it; and this morning there was no chance to talk to you either."
He heard his mother sigh.
"It's a pretty kind of a life I lead if my own children can't get a minute to talk to me."
"But you are busy, Ma. You know you are."
"I certainly do. Nobody knows it better," replied the woman with a sad shake of her head.
Carl, sensing the regret in her tone, hastened to say:
"Well, at least the family is not so thick around here now as usual. Where is everybody?"
"Mary is out with James Frederick; Timmie has gone to the park to coast; and Martin and Nell are at the day nursery."
"Then we have it all to ourselves."
"For a second or two, yes."
Drawing up a kitchen chair he sat down beside his mother.
"It's nice to have them gone sometimes," remarked he. "The kids make such a racket."
"They'll not always be making it," returned Mrs. McGregor philosophically. "And anyway, the three of them put together can never equal the hullabaloo you used to make when you were their age."
"I'm quiet enough now," grinned Carl sheepishly.
"Quiet, you call it, do you? Quiet! And you prancing home from every ball game with a black eye or else the clothes half torn off you!" She chuckled mischievously. "But you're not telling me where you've been. Up to some deviltry, I'll be bound, or you wouldn't be so anxious to get it off your conscience."
"I haven't been up to any high jinks this time, Ma," protested the lad soberly. "You'll see when I tell you."
Slowly he related his story while his mother bent over her needle, spangling with brilliants a gauze of azure hue. She was a wonderful listener, sympathetic in her intentness.
When the boy had finished her hand wandered to touch his rough sleeve.
"A kind deed is never amiss in the world," observed she briefly. "If we would but pass on to other folks the kindness people do to us the world would soon become a pleasanter place. I'm thankful to know Louise has her job back, or rather that she has a better one. She's a good girl and deserves it. Besides, with Christmas coming, it would be hard to be without money."
"And Mr. Coulter—wasn't he great? And wasn't it all funny?"
"Funny is hardly the word; but I'll agree that Mr. Coulter was great. It is always great for a big man to take on his soul the troubles of those needier than himself. Well, he's done a good deed this day and may he be the happier for it. And he will be—never fear! I wonder how he got wind of the trouble Louise was in? You don't suppose——" She halted a moment as if suddenly struck by a new thought; then she laughed and shrugged her shoulders, "Of course it couldn't be—how ridiculous! Well, anyway, it is splendid everything has come out so well. And now that you're here, sonny, would you mind fetching some coal from the shed and starting up the fire for dinner? Mary'll be back soon and 'twould be a nice surprise for her to find the kettle boiling."
"So it would!" answered Carl, leaping up to do his mother's bidding.
"I'm not forgetting you'd like to do a bit of coasting or skating to-day," Mrs. McGregor continued. "If you will fit in a few errands early in the afternoon I'll let you off at two o'clock for a holiday."
"That will be great, Ma! But—but don't you——"
"It will be all right, sonny. Tim has had his play this morning and he shall help the rest of the day. Hush a minute! Isn't that Mrs. O'Dowd's knock? Very like she's up to ask me to run down and see little Katie who is laid up with a sore throat. Well, I'll go but I won't be long. Meantime if you can lend Mary a hand dinner will be through the quicker and you will be off to play the earlier."
Thus it happened that before two o'clock Carl McGregor was one of the shouting throng of boys that crowded the small pond in Davis Park. Amid swirling skaters and a confusion of hockey sticks he moved in and out the thick of the game. So intent was he upon the sport that he might have continued playing until dark had not a boy at his elbow suddenly piped:
"There goes Hal Harling! Hi, Hal! Come on down!"
"Harling! Harling!" cried the other boys, taking up the call.
"Come on and play, Hal! You can have Sanderson's skates. He's going home."
"Can't do it!" laughed the giant, waving his hand.
"Oh, come on, old top!"
"Not to-night, fellers! Got to go home."
"I've got to see Harling!" Carl exclaimed, hurriedly loosening his skates.
"You're not going, too!"
"Got to. So long! Hold on, Hal! I'm coming with you."
Scrambling up the bank, Carl overtook his friend.
"Hullo, Carlie! What struck you to quit?" asked he unceremoniously.
"Time I was getting home. Besides, I wanted to see you."
A smile passed between them.