By Laura E. Richards
Author of "Captain January," "Melody," "Marie," etc.
Boston Dana Estes & Company Publishers
Copyright, 1902 BY DANA ESTES & COMPANY
All rights reserved
MRS. TREE Published June, 1902
Colonial Press Electrotyped and Printed by C. H. Simonds & Co. Boston, Mass., U. S. A.
To My Daughter Rosalind
I. Wedding Bells 11
II. Phoebe's Opinions 25
III. Introducing Tommy Candy and Solomon, his Grandfather 41
IV. Old Friends 55
V. "But When He Was Yet a Great Way off" 75
VI. The New Postmaster 92
VII. In Miss Penny's Shop 107
VIII. A Tea-party 124
IX. A Garden-party 142
X. Mr. Butters Discourses 161
XI. Miss Phoebe Passes on 175
XII. The Peak in Darien 189
XIII. Life in Death 201
XIV. Tommy Candy, and the Letter He Brought 217
XV. Maria 233
XVI. Doctor Stedman's Patient 249
XVII. Not Yet! 267
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Mrs. Tree Frontispiece
"She put out a finger, and Jocko clawed it without ceremony" 119
"'Careful with that Bride Blush, Willy'" 143
"'Perhaps this is as good medicine as you can take!' he said" 262
"Well, they're gone!" said Direxia Hawkes.
"H'm!" said Mrs. Tree.
Direxia had been to market, and, it was to be supposed, had brought home, beside the chops and the soup-piece, all the information the village afforded. She had now, after putting away her austere little bonnet and cape, brought a china basin, and a mystic assortment of white cloths, and was polishing the window-panes, which did not need polishing. From time to time she glanced at her mistress, who sat bolt upright in her chair, engaged on a severe-looking piece of knitting. Mrs. Tree detested knitting, and it was always a bad sign when she put away her book and took up the needles.
"Yes'm; they're gone. I see 'em go. Ithuriel Butters drove 'em over to the Junction; come in yesterday o' purpose, and put up his team at Doctor Stedman's. Ithuriel thinks a sight of Doctor Strong. Yes'm; folks was real concerned to see him go, and her too. They made a handsome couple, if they be both light-complected."
"What are you doing to that window, Direxia Hawkes?" demanded Mrs. Tree, looking up from her knitting with a glittering eye.
"I was cleanin' it."
"I'm glad to hear it. I never should have supposed so from looking at it. Perhaps you'd better let it alone."
"You're a terrible tedious woman to live with, Mis' Tree!" said Direxia.
"You're welcome to go any minute," replied Mrs. Tree.
"Yes'm," said Direxia. "What kind of sauce would you like for tea?"
"Any kind except yours," said Mrs. Tree; and then both smiled grimly, and felt better.
Direxia polished away, still with an anxious eye on the old woman whom she loved fiercely.
"He sent a message to you, last thing before he drove off. He wanted I should tell you—what's this now he said? 'Tell her to keep on growing young till I come back,' that was it. Well, he's a perfect gentleman, that's what he is."
Something clicked in Mrs. Tree's throat, but she said nothing. Mrs. Tree was over ninety, but apart from an amazing reticulation of wrinkles, netted fine and close as a brown veil, she showed little sign of her great age. As she herself said, she had her teeth and her wits, and she did not see what more any one wanted. In her morning gown of white dimity, with folds of soft net about her throat, and a turban of the same material on her head, she was a pleasant and picturesque figure. For the afternoon she affected satin, either plum-colored, or of the cinnamon shade in which some of my readers may have seen her elsewhere, with slippers to match, and a cap suggesting the Corinthian order. In this array, majesty replaced picturesqueness, and there were those in Elmerton who quailed at the very thought of this tiny old woman, upright in her ebony chair, with the acanthus-leaf in finest Brussels nodding over her brows. The last touch of severity was added when Mrs. Tree was found knitting, as on the present occasion.
"Ithuriel Butters is a sing'lar man!" Direxia went on, investigating with exquisite nicety the corner of a pane. "He gave me a turn just now, he did so."
She waited a moment, but no sign coming, continued. "I was to Miss Phoebe 'n' Vesty's when he druv up, and we passed the time o' day. I said, 'How's Mis' Butters now, Ithuriel?' I said. I knew she'd been re'l poorly a spell back, but I hadn't heard for a consid'able time.
"'I ain't no notion!' says he.
"'What do you mean, Ithuriel Butters?' I says.
"'Just what I say,' says he.
"'Why, where is she?' I says. I thought she might be visitin', you know. She has consid'able kin round here.
"'I ain't no idee,' says he. 'I left her in the bur'in'-ground, that's all I know.'
"Mis' Tree, that woman has been dead a month, and I never knew the first word about it. They're all sing'lar people, them Butterses. She was a proper nice woman, though, this Mis' Butters. He had hopes of Di-plomy one spell, after his last died—she was a reg'lar fire-skull; he didn't have much peace while she lived—died in a tantrum too, they say; scol't so hard she bust a vessel, and it run all through her, and car'd her off—but Di-plomy couldn't seem to change her state, no more'n Miss Phoebe 'n' Vesty.
"My sakes! if there ain't Miss Vesty comin' now. I'll hasten and put away these things, Mis' Tree, and be back to let her in."
Miss Vesta Blyth came soberly along the street and up the garden path. She was a quaint and pleasant picture, in her gown of gray and white foulard, with her little black silk mantle and bonnet. Some thirty years ago Miss Vesta and her sister Miss Phoebe had decided that fashion was a snare; and since then they had always had their clothes made on the same model, to the despair of Prudence Pardon, the dressmaker.
But when one looked at Vesta Blyth's face, one was not apt to think about her clothes; one rather thought, what a pity one must look away from her presently! At least, that was what Geoffrey Strong used to say, a young man who loved Miss Vesta, and who was now gone away with his young wife, leaving sore hearts behind.
Direxia Hawkes came out on the porch to meet the visitor, closing the door behind her for an instant.
"I'm terrible glad you've come," she said. "She's lookin' for you, too, I expect, though she won't say a word. There! she's fairly rusted with grief. It'll do her good to have somebody new to chaw on; she's been chawin' on me till she's tired, and she's welcome to."
"Yes, Direxia, I know; you are most faithful and patient," said Miss Vesta, gently. "You know we all appreciate it, don't you, my good Direxia? I have brought a little sweetbread for Aunt Marcia's supper. Diploma cooked it the way she likes it, with a little cream, and just a spoonful of white wine. There! now I will go in. Thank you, Direxia."
"Dear Aunt Marcia," the little lady said as she entered the room, "how do you do to-day? You are looking so well!"
"I've got the plague," announced Mrs. Tree, with deadly quiet.
"Dearest Aunt Marcia! what can you mean? The plague! Surely you must have mistaken the symptoms. That terrible disease is happily, I think, restricted to—"
"I've got twenty plagues!" exclaimed the old lady. "First there's Direxia Hawkes, who torments my life out all day long; and then you, Vesta, who might know better, coming every day and asking how I am. How should I be? Have you ever known me to be anything but perfectly well since you were born?"
"No, dear Aunt Marcia, I am thankful to say I have not. It is such a singular blessing, that you have this wonderful health."
"Well, then, why can't you let my health alone? When it fails, I'll let you know."
"Yes, dear Aunt Marcia, I will try."
"Bah!" said Mrs. Tree. "You are a good girl, Vesta, but you would exasperate a saint. I am not a saint."
Miss Vesta, too polite to assent to this statement, and too truthful to contradict it, gazed mildly at her aunt, and was silent.
Mrs. Tree, after five minutes of vengeful knitting, rolled up her work deliberately, stabbed it through with the needles, and tossed it across the room.
"Well!" she said, "have you anything else to say, Vesta? I am cross, but I am not hungry, and if I were I would not eat you. Tell me something, can't you? Isn't there any gossip in this tiresome place?"
"Oh, Aunt Marcia, I cannot think of anything but our dear children, Geoffrey and Vesta. We have just seen them off, you know. Indeed, I came on purpose to tell you about their departure, but you seemed—Aunt Marcia, they were sad at going, I truly think they were. It was here they first met, and found their young happiness—the Lord preserve them in it all their lives long!—there were tears in Little Vesta's eyes, dear child! but still, they are going to their own home, and of course they were full of joy too. Oh, Aunt Marcia, I must say, dear Geoffrey looked like a prince as he handed his bride into the carriage."
"Was he in red velvet and feathers?" asked Mrs. Tree. "It wouldn't surprise me in the least."
"Oh, no, dear Aunt Marcia! Nothing, I assure you, gaudy or striking, in the very least. He wore the ordinary dress of a gentleman, not conspicuous in any way. It was his air I meant, and the look of—of pride and joy and youth—ah! it was very beautiful. Vesta was beautiful too; you saw her travelling-dress, Aunt Marcia. Did you not think it charming?"
"The child looked well enough," said Mrs. Tree. "Lord knows what sort of wife she'll make, with her head stuffed full of all kinds of notions, but she looks well, and she means well. I gave her my diamonds; did she tell you that?"
Miss Vesta's smooth brow clouded. "Yes, Aunt Marcia, she told me, and showed them to me. I had not seen them for years. They are very beautiful. I—I confess—"
"Well, what's the matter?" demanded her aunt, sharply. "You didn't want them yourself, did you?"
"Oh! surely not, dear Aunt Marcia. I was only thinking—Maria might feel, with her two daughters, that there should have been some division—"
"Vesta Blyth," said Mrs. Tree, slowly, "am I dead?"
"Dear Aunt Marcia! what a singular question!"
"Do I look as if I were going to die?"
"Surely not! I have rarely seen you looking more robust."
"Very well! When I am dead, you may talk to me about Maria and her two daughters; I sha'n't mind it then. What else have you got to say? I am going to take my nap soon, so if you have anything more, out with it!"
Miss Vesta, after a hurried mental review of subjects that might be soothing, made a snatch at one.
"Doctor Stedman came to see the children off. I think he is almost as sorry to lose Geoffrey as we are. It is a real pleasure to see him looking so well and vigorous. He really looks like a young man."
"Don't speak to me of James Stedman!" exclaimed Mrs. Tree. "I never wish to hear his name again."
"Aunt Marcia! dear James Stedman! Our old and valued friend!"
"Old and valued fiddlestick! Who wanted him to come back? Why couldn't he stay where he was, and poison the foreigners? He might have been of some use there."
Miss Vesta looked distressed.
"Aunt Marcia," she said, gently, "I cannot feel as if I ought to let even you speak slightingly of Doctor Stedman. Of course we all feel deeply the loss of dear Geoffrey; I am sure no one can feel it more deeply than Phoebe and I do. The house is so empty without him; he kept it full of sunshine and joy. But that should not make us forgetful of Doctor Stedman's life-long devotion and—"
"Speaking of devotion," said Mrs. Tree, "has he asked you to marry him yet? How many times does that make?"
Miss Vesta went very pink, and rose from her seat with a gentle dignity which was her nearest approach to anger.
"I think I will leave you now, Aunt Marcia," she said. "I will come again to-morrow, when you are more composed. Good-by."
"Yes, run along!" said Mrs. Tree, and her voice softened a little. "I don't want you to-day, Vesta, that's the truth. Send me Phoebe, or Malvina Weight. I want something to 'chaw on,' as Direxia said just now."
"The dogs! I was going to say," exclaimed Direxia, using one of her strongest expressions. "You never heard me, now, Mis' Tree!"
"I never hear anything else!" said the old lady. "Go away, both of you, and let me hear myself think."
MISS PHOEBE'S OPINIONS
"I cannot see that your aunt looks a day older than she did twenty years ago," said Dr. James Stedman.
Miss Vesta Blyth looked up in some trepidation, and the soft color came into her cheeks.
"You have called on her, then, James," she said. "I am truly glad. How did she—that is, I am sure she was rejoiced to see you, as every one in the village is."
Doctor Stedman chuckled, and pulled his handsome gray beard. "She may have been rejoiced," he said; "I trust she was. She said first that she hoped I had come back wiser than I went, and when I replied that I hoped I had learned a little, she said she could not abide new-fangled notions, and that if I expected to try any experiments on her I would find myself mistaken. Yes, I find her quite unchanged, and wholly delightful. What amazing vigor! I am too old for her, that's the trouble. Young Strong is far more her contemporary than I am. Why, she is as much interested in every aspect of life as any boy in the village. Before I left I had told her all that I knew, and a good deal that I didn't."
"It is greatly to be regretted," said Miss Phoebe Blyth, pausing in an intricate part of her knitting, and looking over her glasses with mild severity, "it is greatly to be regretted that Aunt Marcia occupies herself so largely with things temporal. At her advanced age, her acute interest in—one, two, three, purl—in worldly matters, appears to me lamentable."
"I often think, Sister Phoebe," said Miss Vesta, timidly, "that it is her interest in little things that keeps Aunt Marcia so wonderfully young."
"My dear Vesta," replied Miss Phoebe, impressively, "at ninety-one, with eternity, if I may use the expression, sitting in the next room, the question is whether any assumption of youthfulness is desirable. For my own part, I cannot feel that it is. I said something of the sort to Aunt Marcia the other day, and she replied that she was having all the eternity she desired at that moment. The expression shocked me, I am bound to say."
"Aunt Marcia does not always mean what she says, Sister Phoebe."
"My dear Vesta, if she does not mean what she says at her age, the question is, when will she mean it?"
After a majestic pause, Miss Phoebe continued, glancing at her other hearers:
"I should be the last, the very last, to reflect upon my mother's sister in general conversation; but Doctor Stedman being our family physician as well as our lifelong friend, and Cousin Homer one of the family, I may without impropriety, I trust, dwell on a point which distresses me in our venerable relation. Aunt Marcia is—I grieve to use a harsh expression—frivolous."
Mr. Homer Hollopeter, responding to Miss Phoebe's glance, cleared his throat and straightened his long back. He was a little gentleman, and most of what height he had was from the waist upward; his general aspect was one of waviness. His hair was long and wavy; so was his nose, and his throat, and his shirt-collar. In his youth some one had told him that he resembled Keats. This utterance, taken with the name bestowed on him by an ambitious mother with literary tastes, had colored his whole life. He was assistant in the post-office, and lived largely on the imaginary romance of the letters which passed through his hands; he also played the flute, wrote verses, and admired his cousin Phoebe.
"I have often thought it a pity," said Mr. Homer, "that Cousin Marcia should not apply herself more to literary pursuits."
"I don't know what you mean by literary pursuits, Homer," said Doctor Stedman, rather gruffly. "I found her the other day reading Johnson's Dictionary by candlelight, without glasses. I thought that was doing pretty well for ninety-one."
"I—a—was thinking more about other branches of literature," Mr. Homer admitted. "The Muse, James, the Muse! Cousin Marcia takes little interest in poetry. If she could sprinkle the—a—pathway to the tomb with blossoms of poesy, it would be"—he waved his hands gently abroad—"smoother; less rough; more devoid of irregularities."
"Cousin Homer, could you find it convenient not to rock?" asked Miss Phoebe, with stately courtesy.
"Certainly, Cousin Phoebe. I beg your pardon."
It was one of Miss Phoebe's crosses that Mr. Homer would always sit in this particular chair, and would rock; the more so that when not engaged in conversation he was apt to open and shut his mouth in unison with the motion of the rockers. Miss Phoebe disapproved of rocking-chairs, and would gladly have banished this one, had it not belonged to her mother.
"I have occasionally offered to read to Cousin Marcia," Mr. Homer continued, "from the works of Keats and—other bards; but she has uniformly received the suggestion in a spirit of—mockery; of—derision; of—contumely. The last time I mentioned it, she exclaimed 'Cat's foot!' The expression struck me, I confess, as—strange; as—singular; as—extraordinary."
"It is an old-fashioned expression, Cousin Homer," Miss Vesta put in, gently. "I have heard our Grandmother Darracott use it, Sister Phoebe."
"There's nothing improper in it, is there?" said Doctor Stedman.
"Really, my dear James," said Miss Phoebe, bending a literally awful brow on her guest, "I trust not. Do you mean to imply that the conversation of gentlewomen of my aunt's age is apt to be improper?"
"No, no," said Doctor Stedman, easily. "It only seemed to me that you were making a good deal of Mrs. Tree's little eccentricities. But, Phoebe, you said something a few minutes ago that I was very glad to hear. It is pleasant to know that I am still your family physician. That young fellow who went off the other day seems to have taken every heart in the village in his pocket. A young rascal!"
Miss Phoebe colored and drew herself up.
"Sister Phoebe," Miss Vesta breathed rather than spoke, "James is in jest. He has the highest opinion of—"
"Vesta, I think I have my senses," said Miss Phoebe, kindly. "I have heard James use exaggerated language before. Candor compels me to admit, James, that I have benefited greatly by the advice and prescriptions of Doctor Strong; also that, though deploring certain aspects of his conduct while under our roof—I will say no more, having reconciled myself entirely to the outcome of the matter—we have become deeply attached to him. He is"—Miss Phoebe's voice quavered slightly—"he is a chosen spirit."
"Dear Geoffrey!" murmured Miss Vesta.
"But in spite of this," Miss Phoebe continued, graciously, "we feel the ties of ancient friendship as strongly as ever, James, and must always value you highly, whether as physician or as friend."
"Yes, indeed, dear James," said Miss Vesta, softly.
Doctor Stedman rose from his seat. His eyes were very tender as he looked at the sisters from under his shaggy eyebrows.
"Good girls!" he said. "I couldn't afford to lose my best—patients." He straightened his broad shoulders and looked round the room. "When I saw anything new over there," he said, "castle or picture-gallery or cathedral,—whatever it was,—I always compared it with this room, and it never stood the comparison for an instant. Pleasantest place in the world, to my thinking."
Miss Phoebe beamed over her spectacles. "You pay us a high compliment, James," she said. "It is pleasant indeed to feel that home still seems best to you. I confess that, great as are the treasures of art, and magnificent as are the monuments in the cities of Europe, I have always felt that as places of residence they would not compare favorably with Elmerton."
"Quite right," said Doctor Stedman, "quite right!" and though his eyes twinkled, he spoke with conviction.
"The cities of Europe," Mr. Homer observed, "can hardly be suited, as places of residence, to—a—persons of literary taste. There is"—he waved his hands—"too much noise; too much—sound; too much—absence of tranquillity. I could wish, though, to have seen the grave of Keats."
"I brought you a leaf from his grave, Homer," said Doctor Stedman, kindly. "I have it at home, in my pocketbook. I'll bring it down to the office to-morrow. I went to the burying-ground on purpose."
"Did you so?" exclaimed Mr. Homer, his mild face growing radiant with pleasure. "That was kind, James; that was—friendly; that was—benevolent! I shall value it highly, highly. I thank you, James. I—since you are interested in the lamented Keats, perhaps you would like"—his hand went with a fluttering motion to his pocket.
"I must go now," said Doctor Stedman, hastily. "I've stayed too long already, but I never know how to get away from this house. Good night, Phoebe! Good night, Vesta! You are looking a little tired; take care of yourself. 'Night, Homer; see you to-morrow!"
He shook hands heartily all around and was gone.
Mr. Homer sighed gently. "It is a great pity," he said, "with his excellent disposition, that James will never interest himself in literary pursuits."
His hand was still fluttering about his pocket, and there was an unspoken appeal in his mild brown eyes.
"Have you brought something to read to us, Cousin Homer?" asked Miss Phoebe, benevolently.
Mr. Homer with alacrity drew a folded paper from his pocket.
"This is—you may be aware, Cousin Phoebe—the anniversary of the birth of the lamented Keats. I always like to pay some tribute to his memory on these occasions, and I have here a slight thing—I tossed it off after breakfast this morning—which I confess I should like to read to you. You know how highly I value your opinion, Cousin Phoebe, and some criticism may suggest itself to you, though I trust that in the main—but you shall judge for yourself."
He cleared his throat, adjusted his spectacles, and began:
"Thoughts suggested by the Anniversary of the Natal Day of the poet Keats."
"Could you find it convenient not to rock, Cousin Homer?" said Miss Phoebe.
"By all means, Cousin Phoebe. I beg your pardon. 'Thoughts'—but I need not repeat the title.
"I asked the Muse if she had one Thrice-favored son, Or if some one poetic brother Appealed to her more than another. She gazed on me with aspect high, And tear in eye, While musically she repeats, 'Keats!'
"She gave me then to understand, And smiled bland, On Helicon the sacred Nine Occasionally ask bards to dine. 'For most,' she said, 'we do not move, Though we approve; For one alone we leave our seats: "Keats!"'"
There was a silence after the reading of the poem. Mr. Homer, slightly flushed with his own emotions, gazed eagerly at Miss Phoebe, who sat very erect, the tips of her fingers pressed together, her whole air that of a judge about to give sentence. Miss Vesta looked somewhat disturbed, yet she was the first to speak, murmuring softly, "The feeling is very genuine, I am sure, Cousin Homer!" But Miss Phoebe was ready now.
"Cousin Homer," she said, "since you ask for criticism, I feel bound to give it. You speak of the 'sacred' Nine. The word sacred appears to me to belong distinctly to religious matters; I cannot think that it should be employed in speaking of pagan divinities. The expression—I am sorry to speak strongly—shocks me!"
Mr. Homer looked pained, and opened and shut his mouth several times.
"It is an expression that is frequently used, Cousin Phoebe," he said. "All the poets make use of it, I assure you."
"I do not doubt it in the least," said Miss Phoebe. "The poets—with a few notable exceptions—are apt to be deplorably lax in such matters. If you would confine your reading of poetry, Cousin Homer, to the works of such poets as Mrs. Hemans, Archbishop Trench, and the saintly Keble, you would not incur the danger of being led away into unsuitable vagaries."
"But Keats, Cousin Phoebe," began Mr. Homer; Miss Phoebe checked him with a wave of her hand.
"Cousin Homer, I have already intimated to you, on several occasions, that I cannot discuss the poet Keats with you. I am aware that he is considered an eminent poet, but I have not reached my present age without realizing that many works may commend themselves to even the most refined of the masculine sex which are wholly unsuitable for ladies. We will change the subject, if you please; but before doing so, let me earnestly entreat you to remove the word 'sacred' from your poem."
INTRODUCING TOMMY CANDY AND SOLOMON, HIS GRANDFATHER
"Here's that boy again!" said Direxia Hawkes.
"What boy?" asked Mrs. Tree; but her eyes brightened as she spoke, and she laid down her book with an expectant air.
"Tommy Candy. I told him I guessed you couldn't be bothered with him, but he's there."
"Show him in. Come in, child! Don't sidle! You are not a crab. Come here and make your manners."
The boy advanced slowly, but not unwillingly. He was an odd-looking child, with spiky black hair, a mouth like a circus clown, and gray eyes that twinkled almost as brightly as Mrs. Tree's own.
The gray eyes and the black exchanged a look of mutual comprehension. "How do you do, Thomas Candy?" said Mrs. Tree, formally, holding out her little hand in its white lace mitt. It was afternoon, and she was dressed to receive callers.
"Shake hands as if you meant it, boy! I said shake hands, not flap flippers; you are not a seal. There! that's better. How do you do, Thomas Candy?"
Having uttered this sentiment as if it were one word, Master Candy drew a long breath, and said in a different tone, "I came to see the bird and hear 'bout Grampy; can I?"
"May I, not can I, Tommy Candy! You mayn't see the bird; he's having his nap, and doesn't like to be disturbed; but you may hear about your grandfather. Sit down on the stool there. Open the drawer, and see if there is anything in it."
The boy obeyed with alacrity. The drawer (it belonged to a sandalwood table, inlaid with chess-squares of pearl and malachite), being opened, proved to contain burnt almonds in an ivory box, and a silver saucer full of cubes of fig-paste, red and white. Tommy Candy seemed to find words unequal to the situation; he gave Mrs. Tree an eloquent glance, then obeyed her nod and helped himself to both sweetmeats.
"Good?" inquired Mrs. Tree.
"Bully!" said Tommy.
"Now, what do you want to hear?"
"What about him?"
"Everything! like what you told me last time."
There was a silence of perfect peace on one side, of reflection on the other.
"Solomon Candy," said Mrs. Tree, presently, "was the worst boy I ever knew."
Tommy grinned gleefully, his mouth curving up to his nose, and rumpled his spiky hair with a delighted gesture.
"Nobody in the village had any peace of their lives," the old lady went on, "on account of that boy and my brother Tom. We went to school together, in the little red schoolhouse that used to stand where the academy is now. We were always friends, Solomon and I, and he never played tricks on me, more than tying my pigtail to the back of the bench, and the like of that; but woe betide those that he didn't take a fancy to. I can hear Sally Andrews now, when she found the frog in her desk. It jumped right into her face, and fell into her apron-pocket,—we wore aprons with big pockets then,—and she screamed so she had to be taken home. That was the kind of prank Solomon was up to, every day of his life; and fishing for schoolmaster's wig through the skylight, and every crinkum-crankum that ever was. Master Bayley used to go to sleep every recess, and the skylight was just over his head. Dear me, Sirs, how that wig did look, sailing up into the air!"
"I wish't ours wore a wig!" said Tommy, thoughtfully; then his eyes brightened. "Isaac Weight's skeered of frogs!" he said. "The apron-pockets made it better, though, of course. More, please!"
"Isaac Weight? That's the deacon's eldest brat, isn't it?"
"His grandfather was named Isaac, too," said Mrs. Tree. "This one is named for him, I suppose. Isaac Weight—the first one—was called Squash-nose at school, I remember. He wasn't popular, and I understand Ephraim, his son, wasn't either. They called him Meal-bag, and he looked it. Te-hee!" she laughed, a little dry keckle, like the click of castanets. "Did ever I tell you the trick your grandfather and my brother played on old Elder Weight and Squire Tree? That was great-grandfather to this present Weight boy, and uncle to my husband. The old squire was high in his notions, very high; he thought but little of Weights, though he sat under Elder Weight at that time. The Weights were a good stock in the beginning, I've been told, but even then they had begun to go down-hill. It was one summer, and Conference was held here in Elmerton. The meetings were very long, and every soul went that could. Elmerton was a pious place in those days. The afternoon sessions began at two o'clock and lasted till seven. Their brains must have been made of iron—or wood." Mrs. Tree clicked her castanets again.
"Well, sir, the last day there was a sight of business, and folks knew the afternoon meeting would be extra long. Elder Weight and his wife (she was a Bonny; he'd never have been chosen elder if it hadn't been for her) were off in good season, and locked the door behind them; they kept no help at that time. The squire was off too, who but he, stepping up the street—dear me, Sirs, I can see him now, in his plum-colored coat and knee-breeches, silk stockings and silver buckles to his shoes. He had a Malacca cane, I remember, with a big ivory knob on it, and he washed it night and morning as if it were a baby. He was a very particular man, had his shirt-frills done up with a silver friller. Well, those boys, Solomon Candy and Tom Darracott (that was my brother), watched till they saw them safe in at the meeting-house door, and then they set to work. There was no one in the parsonage except the cat, and at the Homestead there was only the housekeeper, who was deaf as Dagon, well they knew. The other servants had leave to go to meeting; every one went that could, as I said. Tom knew his way all over the Homestead, our house being next door. No, it's not there now. It was burned down fifty years ago, and Tom's dead as long. They took our old horse and wagon, and they slipped in at the window of the squire's study, took out his things,—his desk and chair, his footstool, the screen he always kept between him and the fire, and dear knows what all,—and loaded them up on the wagon. They worked twice as hard at that imp's doing as they would at honest work, you may be bound. Then they drove down to the parsonage with the load, and tried round till they found a window unfastened, and in they carried every single thing, into the elder's study, and then loaded up with his rattletraps, and back to the Homestead. Working like beavers they were, every minute of the afternoon. By five o'clock they had their job done; and then in goes Tom and asks dear old Grandmother Darracott, who could not leave her room, and thought every fox was a cosset lamb, did she think father and mother (they were at the meeting too, of course) would let him and Sol Candy go and take tea and spend the night at Plum-tree Farm, three miles off, where our old nurse lived. Grandmother said 'Yes, to be sure!' for she was always pleased when the children remembered Nursey; so off those two Limbs went, and left their works behind them.
"Evening came, and Conference was over at last; and here comes the squire home, stepping along proud and stately as ever, but mortal head-weary under the pride of his wig, for he was an old man, and grudged his age, never sparing himself. He went straight into his study—it was dusk by now—and dropped into the first chair, and so to sleep. By and by old Martha came and lighted the candles, but she never noticed anything. Why people's wits should wear out like old shoes is a thing I never could understand; unless they're made of leather in the first place, and sometimes it seems so. The squire had his nap out, I suppose, and then he woke up. When he opened his eyes, there in front of him, instead of his tall mahogany desk, was a ramshackle painted thing, with no handles to the drawers, and all covered with ink. He looked round, and what does he see but strange things everywhere; strange to his eyes, and yet he knew them. There was a haircloth sofa and three chairs, and on the walls, in place of his fine prints, was a picture of Elder Weight's father, and a couple of mourning pictures, weeping-willows and urns and the like, and Abraham and Isaac done in worsted-work, that he'd seen all his days in the parsonage parlor. Very likely they are there still."
"Yes," said Tommy, "I see 'em in his settin'-room."
"Saw, not see!" said Mrs. Tree. "Your grandfather spoke better English than you do, Tommy Candy. Learn grammar while you are young, or you'll never learn it. Well, sir, the next I know is, I was sitting in my high chair at supper with father and mother, when the door opens and in walks the old squire. His eyes were staring wild, and his wig cocked over on one ear—he was a sight to behold! He stood in the door, and cried out in a loud voice, 'Thomas Darracott, who am I?'
"My father was a quiet man, and slow to speak, and his first thought was that the squire had lost his wits.
"'Who are you, neighbor?' he says. 'Come in; come in, and we'll see.'
"The squire rapped with his stick on the floor. 'Who am I?' he shouted out. 'Am I Jonathan Tree, or am I that thundering, blundering gogglepate, Ebenezer Weight?'
"Well, well! the words were hardly out of his mouth when there was a great noise outside, and in comes Elder Weight with his wife after him, and he in a complete caniption, screeching that he was possessed of a devil, and desired the prayers of the congregation. (My father was senior deacon at that time.)
"'I have broken the tenth commandment!' he cried. 'I have coveted Squire Tree's desk and furniture, and now I see the appearance of them in mine own room, and I know that Satan has me fast in his grip.'
"Ah, well! It's not good for you to hear these things, Tommy Candy. Solomon was a naughty boy, and Tom Darracott was another, and they well deserved the week of bread and water they got. I expect you make a third, if all was told. They grew up good men, though, and mind you do the same. Have you eaten all the almonds?"
"'Most all!" said Tommy, modestly.
"Put the rest in your pocket, then, and run along and ask Direxia to give you a spice-cake. Leave the fig-paste. The bird likes a bit with his supper. What are you thinking of, Tommy Candy?"
Tommy rumpled his spiky hair, and gave her an elfish glance. "Candys don't seem to like Weightses," he said. "Grampy didn't, nor Dad don't; nor I don't."
"Here, you may have the fig-paste," said the old lady. "Shut the drawer. Mind you, Solomon, nor Tom either, ever did them any real harm. Solomon was a kind boy, only mischievous—that was all the harm there was to him. Even when he painted Isaac Weight's nose in stripes, he meant no harm in the world; but 'twas naughty all the same. He said he did it to make him look prettier, and I don't know but it did. Don't you do any such things, do you hear?"
"Yes'm," said Tommy Candy.
It was drawing on toward supper-time, of a chill October day. Mrs. Tree was sitting in the twilight, as she loved to do, her little feet on the fender, her satin skirt tucked up daintily, a Chinese hand-screen in her hand. It seemed unlikely that the moderate heat of the driftwood fire would injure her complexion, which consisted chiefly of wrinkles, as has been said; but she always had shielded her face from the fire, and she always would—it was the proper thing to do. The parlor gloomed and lightened around her, the shifting light touching here a bit of gold lacquer, there a Venetian mirror or an ivory statuette. The fire purred and crackled softly; there was no other sound. The tiny figure in the ebony chair was as motionless as one of the Indian idols that grinned at her from her mantelshelf.
A ring at the door-bell, the shuffling sound of Direxia's soft shoes; then the opening door, and a man's voice asking some question.
In an instant Mrs. Tree sat live and alert, her ears pricked, her eyes black points of attention. Direxia's voice responded, peevish and resistant, refusing something. The man spoke again, urging some plea.
"Direxia!" said Mrs. Tree.
"Yes'm. Jest a minute. I'm seeing to something."
When Mrs. Tree used both names, Direxia knew what it meant. She appeared at the parlor door, flushed and defiant.
"How you do pester me, Mis' Tree! There's a man at the door, a tramp, and I don't want to leave him alone."
"What does he look like?"
"I don't know; he's a tramp, if he's nothing worse. Wants something to eat. Most likely he's stealin' the umbrellas while here I stand!"
"Show him in here," said Mrs. Tree.
"Show him in here; and don't pretend to be deaf, when you hear as well as I do."
"The dogs—I was going to say! You don't want him in here, Mis' Tree. He's a tramp, I tell ye, and the toughest-lookin'—"
"Will you show him in here, or shall I come and fetch him?"
"Well! of all the cantankerous—here! come in, you! she wants to see you!" and Direxia, holding the door in her hand, beckoned angrily to some one invisible. There was a murmur, a reluctant shuffle, and a man appeared in the doorway and stood lowering, his eyes fixed on the ground; a tall, slight man, with stooping shoulders, and delicate pointed features. He was shabbily dressed, yet there was something fastidious in his air, and it was noticeable that the threadbare clothes were clean.
Mrs. Tree looked at him; looked again. "What do you want here?" she asked, abruptly.
The man's eyes crept forward to her little feet, resting on the brass fender, and stopped there.
"I asked for food," he said. "I am hungry."
"Are you a tramp?"
The man was silent.
"There!" said Direxia, impatiently. "That'll do. Come out into the kitchen and I'll give ye something in a bag, and you can take it with you."
"I shall be pleased to have you take supper with me, sir!" said the old lady, pointedly addressing the tramp. "Direxia, set a place for this gentleman."
The color rushed over the man's face. He started, and his eyes crept half-way up the old lady's dress, then dropped again.
"I—cannot, madam!" he said, with an effort. "I thank you, but you must excuse me."
"Why can't you?"
This time the eyes travelled as far as the diamond brooch, and rested there curiously.
"You must excuse me!" repeated the man, laboriously. "If your woman will give me a morsel in the kitchen—or—I'd better go at once!" he said, breaking off suddenly. "Good evening!"
"Stop!" said Mrs. Tree, striking her ebony stick sharply on the floor. There was an instant of dead silence, no one stirring.
"Direxia," she added, presently, "go and set another place for supper!"
Direxia hesitated. The stick struck the floor again, and she vanished, muttering.
"Shut the door!" Mrs. Tree commanded, addressing the stranger. "Come here and sit down! No, not on that cheer. Take the ottoman with the bead puppy on it. There!"
As the man drew forward the ottoman without looking at it, and sat down, she leaned back easily in her chair, and spoke in a half-confidential tone:
"I get crumpled up, sitting here alone. Some day I shall turn to wood. I like a new face and a new notion. I had a grandson who used to live with me, and I'm lonesome since he died. How do you like tramping, now?"
"Pretty well," said the man. He spoke over his shoulder, and kept his face toward the fire; it was a chilly evening. "It's all right in summer, or when a man has his health."
"See things, hey?" said the old lady. "New folks, new faces? Get ideas; is that it?"
The man nodded gloomily.
"That begins it. After awhile—I really think I must go!" he said, breaking off short. "You are very kind, madam, but I prefer to go. I am not fit—"
"Cat's foot!" said Mrs. Tree, and watched him like a cat.
He fell into a fit of helpless laughter, and laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks. He felt for a pocket-handkerchief.
"Here's one!" said Mrs. Tree, and handed him a gossamer square. He took it mechanically. His hand was long and slim—and clean.
"Supper's ready!" snapped Direxia, glowering in at the door.
"I will take your arm, if you please!" said Mrs. Tree to the tramp, and they went in to supper together.
Mrs. Tree's dining-room, like her parlor, was a treasury of rare woods. The old mahogany, rich with curious brass-work, shone darkly brilliant against the panels of satin-wood; the floor was a mosaic of bits from Captain Tree's woodpile, as he had been used to call the tumbled heap of precious fragments which grew after every voyage to southern or eastern islands. The room was lighted by candles; Mrs. Tree would have no other light. Kerosene she called nasty, smelly stuff, and gas a stinking smother. She liked strong words, especially when they shocked Miss Phoebe's sense of delicacy. As for electricity, Elmerton knew it not in her day.
The shabby man seemed in a kind of dream. Half unconsciously he put the old lady into her seat and pushed her chair up to the table; then at a sign from her he took the seat opposite. He laid the damask napkin across his knees, and winced at the touch of it, as at the caress of a long-forgotten hand. Mrs. Tree talked on easily, asking questions about the roads he travelled and the people he met. He answered as briefly as might be, and ate sparingly. Still in a dream, he took the cup of tea she handed him, and setting it down, passed his finger over the handle. It was a tiny gold Mandarin, clinging with hands and feet to the side of the cup. The man gave another helpless laugh, and looked about him as if for a door of escape.
Suddenly, close at his elbow, a voice spoke; a harsh, rasping voice, with nothing human in it.
"Old friends!" said the voice.
The man started to his feet, white as the napkin he held.
"My God!" he said, violently.
"It's only the parrot!" said Mrs. Tree, comfortably. "Sit down again. There he is at your elbow. Jocko is his name. He does my swearing for me. My grandson and a friend of his taught him that, and I have taught him a few other things beside. Good Jocko! speak up, boy!"
"Old friends to talk!" said the parrot. "Old books to read; old wine to drink! Zooks! hooray for Arthur and Will! they're the boys!"
"That was my grandson and his friend," said the old lady, never taking her eyes from the man's face. "What's the matter? feel faint, hey?"
"Yes," said the man. He was leaning on the back of his chair, fighting some spasm of feeling. "I am—faint. I must get out into the air."
The old lady rose briskly and came to his side. "Nothing of the sort!" she said. "You'll come up-stairs and lie down."
"No! no! no!" cried the man, and with each word his voice rang out louder and sharper as the emotion he was fighting gripped him closer. "Not in this house. Never! Never!"
"Cat's foot!" said Mrs. Tree. "Don't talk to me! Here! give me your arm! Do as I say! There!"
"Old friends!" said the parrot.
* * * * *
"I'm going to loose the bulldog, Mis' Tree," said Direxia, from the foot of the stairs; "and Deacon Weight says he'll be over in two minutes."
"There isn't any dog in the house," said Mrs. Tree, over the balusters, "and Deacon Weight is at Conference, and won't be back till the last of the week. That will do, Direxia; you mean well, but you are a ninnyhammer. This way!"
She twitched the reluctant arm that held hers, and they entered a small bedroom, hung with guns and rods.
"My grandson's room!" said Mrs. Tree. "He died here—hey?"
The stranger had dropped her arm and stood shaking, staring about him with wild eyes. The ancient woman laid her hand on his, and he started as at an electric shock.
"Come, Willy," she said, "lie down and rest."
He was at her feet now, half-crouching, half-kneeling, holding the hem of her satin gown in his shaking clutch, sobbing aloud, dry-eyed as yet.
"Come, Willy," she repeated, "lie down and rest on Arthur's bed. You are tired, boy."
"I came—" the shaking voice steadied itself into words, "I came—to rob you, Mrs. Tree."
"Why, so I supposed, Will; at least, I thought it likely. You can have all you want, without that—there's plenty for you and me. Folks call me close, and I like to do what I like with my own money. There's plenty, I tell you, for you and me and the bird. Do you think he knew you, Willy? I believe he did."
"God knows! When—how did you know me, Mrs. Tree?"
"Get up, Willy Jaquith, and I'll tell you. Sit down; there's the chair you made together, when you were fifteen. Remember, hey? I knew your voice at the door, or I thought I did. Then when you wouldn't look at the bead puppy, I hadn't much doubt; and when I said 'Cat's foot!' and you laughed, I knew for sure. You've had a hard time, Willy, but you're the same boy."
"If you would not be kind," said the man, "I think it would be easier. You ought to give me up, you know, and let me go to jail. I'm no good. I'm a vagrant and a drunkard, and worse. But you won't, I know that; so now let me go. I'm not fit to stay in Arthur's room or lie on his bed. Give me a little money, my dear old friend—yes, the parrot knew me!—and let me go!"
"Hark!" said the old woman.
She went to the door and listened. Her keen old face had grown wonderfully soft in the last hour, but now it sharpened and hardened to the likeness of a carved hickory-nut.
"Somebody at the door," she said, speaking low. "Malvina Weight."
She came back swiftly into the room. "That press is full of Arthur's clothes; take a bath and dress yourself, and rest awhile; then come down and talk to me. Yes, you will! Do as I say! Willy Jaquith, if you try to leave this house, I'll set the parrot on you. Remember the day he bit you for stealing his apple, and served you right? There's the scar still on your cheek. Greatest wonder he didn't put your eyes out!"
She slipped out and closed the door after her; then stood at the head of the stairs, listening.
Mrs. Ephraim Weight, a ponderous woman with a chronic tremolo, was in the hall, a knitted shawl over her head and shoulders.
"I've waited 'most an hour to see that tramp come out," she was saying. "Deacon's away, and I was scairt to death, but I'm a mother, and I had to come. How I had the courage I don't know, when I thought you and Mis' Tree might meet my eyes both layin' dead in this entry. Where is he? Don't you help or harbor him now, Direxia Hawkes! I saw his evil eye as he stood on the doorstep, and I knew by the way he peeked and peered that he was after no good. Where is he? I know he didn't go out. Hush! don't say a word! I'll slip out and round and get Hiram Sawyer. My boys is to singing-school, and it was a Special Ordering that I happened to look out of window just that moment of time. Where did you say he—"
"Oh, do let me speak, Mis' Weight!" broke in Direxia, in a shrill half-whisper. "Don't speak so loud! She'll hear ye, and she's in one of her takings, and I dono—lands sakes, I don't know what to do! I dono who he is, or whence he comes, but she—"
"Direxia Hawkes!" barked Mrs. Tree from the head of the stairs.
"There! you hear her!" murmured Direxia. "Oh, she is the beat of all! I'm comin', Mis' Tree!"
She fled up the stairs; her mistress, bending forward, darted a whispered arrow at her.
"Oh, my Solemn Deliverance!" cried Direxia Hawkes.
"Hot water, directly, and don't make a fool of yourself!" said Mrs. Tree; and her stick tapped its way down-stairs.
"Good evening, Malvina. What can I do for you? Pray step in."
Mrs. Weight sidled into the parlor before a rather awful wave of the ebony stick, and sat down on the edge of a chair near the door. Mrs. Tree crossed the room to her own high-backed armchair, took her seat deliberately, put her feet on the crimson hassock, and leaned forward, resting her hands on the crutch-top of her stick, and her chin on her hands. In this attitude she looked more elfin than human, and the light that danced in her black eyes was not of a reassuring nature.
"What can I do for you?" she repeated.
Mrs. Weight bridled, and spoke in a tone half-timid, half-defiant.
"I'm sure, Mis' Tree, it's not on my own account I come. I'm the last one to intrude, as any one in this village can tell you. But you are an anncient woman, and your neighbors are bound to protect you when need is. I see that tramp come in here with my own eyes, and he's here for no good."
"What tramp?" asked Mrs. Tree.
"Good land, Mis' Tree, didn't you see him? He slipped right in past Direxia. I see him with these eyes."
"'Most an hour ago. I've been watching ever since. Don't tell me you didn't know about him bein' here, Mis' Tree, now don't."
"I won't," said Mrs. Tree, benevolently.
"He's hid away somewheres!" Mrs. Weight continued, with rising excitement. "Direxia Hawkes has hid him; he's an accomplish of hers. You've always trusted that woman, Mis' Tree, but I tell you I've had my eye on her these ten years, and now I've found her out. She's hid him away somewheres, I tell you. There's cupboards and clusets enough in this house to hide a whole gang of cutthroats in—and when you're abed and asleep they'll have your life, them two, and run off with your worldly goods that you've thought so much of. Would have, that is, if I hadn't have had a Special Ordering to look out of winder. Oh, how thankful should I be that I kep' the use of my limbs, though I was scairt 'most to death, and am now."
"Yes, they might be useful to you," said Mrs. Tree, "to get home with, for instance. There, that will do, Malvina Weight. There is no tramp here. Your eyesight is failing; there were always weak eyes in your family. There's no tramp here, and there has been none."
"Mis' Tree! I tell you I see him with these—"
"Bah! don't talk to me!" Mrs. Tree blazed into sudden wrath. But next instant she straightened herself over her cane, and spoke quietly.
"Good night, Malvina. You mean well, and I bear no malice. I'm obliged to you for your good intentions. What you took for a tramp was a gentleman who has come to stay overnight with me. He's up-stairs now. Did you lock your door when you came out? There are tramps about, so I've heard, and if Ephraim is away—well, good night, if you must hurry. Direxia, lock the door and put the chain up; and if anybody else calls to-night, set the bird on 'em."
"BUT WHEN HE WAS YET A GREAT WAY OFF"
"And so when she ran away and left you, you took to drink, Willy. That wasn't very sensible, was it?"
"I didn't care," said William Jaquith. "It helped me to forget for a bit at a time. I thought I could give it up any day, but I didn't. Then—I lost my place, of course, and started to come East, and had my pocket picked in Denver, every cent I had. I tried for work there, but between sickness and drink I wasn't good for much. I started tramping. I thought I would tramp—it was last spring, and warm weather coming on—till I'd got my health back, and then I'd steady down and get some work, and come back to Mother when I was fit to look her in the face. Then—in some place, I forget what, though I know the pattern of the wall-paper by the table where I was sitting—I came upon a King's County paper with Mother's death in it."
"What!" said Mrs. Tree, straightening herself over her stick.
"Oh, it didn't make so much difference," Jaquith went on, dreamily. "I wasn't fit to see her, I knew that well enough; only—it was a green paper, with splotchy yellow flowers on it. Fifteen flowers to a row; I counted them over seven times before I could be sure. Well, I was sick again after that, I don't know how long; some kind of fever. When I got up again something was gone out of me, something that had kept me honest till then. I made up my mind that I would get money somehow, I didn't much care how. I thought of you, and the gold counters you used to let Arthur and me play with, so that we might learn not to think too much of money. You remember? I thought I might get some of those, and you might not miss them. You didn't need them, anyhow, I thought. Yes, I knew you would give them to me if I asked for them, but I wasn't going to ask. I came here to-night to see if there was any man or dog about the house. If not, I meant to slip in by and by at the pantry window; I remembered the trick of the spring. I forgot Jocko. There! now you know all. You ought to give me up, Mrs. Tree, but you won't do that."
"No, I won't do that!" said the old woman.
She looked at him thoughtfully. His eyes were wandering about the room, a painful pleasure growing in them as they rested on one object after another. Beautiful eyes they were, in shape and color—if the light were not gone out of them.
"The bead puppy!" he said, presently. "I can remember when we wondered if it could bark. We must have been pretty small then. When did Arthur die, Mrs. Tree? I hadn't heard—I supposed he was still in Europe."
"Two years ago."
"Was it—" something seemed to choke the man.
"Fretting for her?" said Mrs. Tree, sharply. "No, it wasn't. He found her out before you did, Willy. He knew you'd find out, too; he knew who was to blame, and that she turned your head and set you crazy. 'Be good to old Will if you ever have a chance!' that was one of the last things he said. He had grippe, and pneumonia after it, only a week in all."
Jaquith turned his head away. For a time neither spoke. The fire purred and crackled comfortably in the wide fireplace. The heat brought out the scent of the various woods, and the air was alive with warm perfume. The dim, antique richness of the little parlor seemed to come to a point in the small, alert figure, upright in the ebony chair. The firelight played on her gleaming satin and misty laces, and lighted the fine lines of her wrinkled face. Very soft the lines seemed now, but it might be the light.
"Arthur Blyth taken and Will Jaquith left!" said the young man, softly. "I wonder if God always knows what he is about, Mrs. Tree. Are there still candied cherries in the sandalwood cupboard? I know the orange cordial is there in the gold-glass decanter with the little fat gold tumblers."
"Yes, the cordial is there," said Mrs. Tree. "It's a pity I can't give you a glass, Willy; you'll need it directly, but you can't have it. Feel better, hey?"
William Jaquith raised his head, and met the keen kindness of her eyes; for the first time a smile broke over his face, a smile of singular sweetness.
"Why, yes, Mrs. Tree!" he said. "I feel better than I have since—I don't know when. I feel—almost—like a man again. It's better than the cordial just to look at you, and smell the wood, and feel the fire. What a pity one cannot die when one wants to. This would be ceasing on the midnight without pain, wouldn't it?"
"Why don't you give up drink?" asked Mrs. Tree, abruptly.
"Where's the use?" said Jaquith. "I would if there were any use, but Mother's dead."
"Cat'sfoot-fiddlestick-folderol-fudge!" blazed the old woman. "She's no more dead than I am. Don't talk to me! hold on to yourself now, Willy Jaquith, and don't make a scene; it is a thing I cannot abide. It was Maria Jaquith that died, over at East Corners. Small loss she was, too. None of that family was ever worth their salt. The fool who writes for the papers put her in 'Mary,' and gave out that she died here in Elmerton just because they brought her here to bury. They've always buried here in the family lot, as if they were of some account. I was afraid you might hear of it, Willy, and wrote to the last place I heard of you in, but of course it was no use. Mary Jaquith is alive, I tell you. Now where are you going?"
Jaquith had started to his feet, dead white, his eyes shining like candles.
"Yes, I would! wake her up out of a sound sleep at ten o'clock at night, and scare her into convulsions. Sit down, Willy Jaquith; do as I tell you! There! feel pretty well, hey? Your mother is blind."
"Oh, Mother! Mother! and I have left her alone all this time."
"Exactly! now don't go into a caniption, for it won't do any good. You must go to bed now, and, what's more, go to sleep; and we'll go down together in the morning. Here's Direxia now with the gruel. There! hush! don't say a word!"
The old serving-woman entered bearing a silver tray, on which was a covered bowl of India china, a small silver saucepan, and something covered with a napkin. William Jaquith went to a certain corner and brought out a teapoy of violet wood, which he set down at the old lady's elbow.
"There!" said Direxia Hawkes. "Did you ever?"
She was shaking all over, but she set the tray down carefully. Jaquith took the saucepan from her hand and set it on the hob. Then he lifted the napkin. Under it were two plates, one of biscuits, the other of small cakes shaped like a letter S.
"Snaky cakies!" said Will Jaquith. "Oh, Direxia! give me a cake and I'll give you a kiss! Is that right, you dear old thing?"
He stooped to kiss the withered brown cheek; the old woman caught up her apron to her face.
"It's him! it's him! it's one of my little boys, but where's the other? Oh, Mis' Tree, I can't stand it! I can't stand it!"
Mrs. Tree watched her, dry-eyed.
"Cry away, so long as you don't cry into the gruel," she said, kindly. "You are an old goose, Direxia Hawkes. I haven't been able to cry for ten years, Willy. Here! take the 'postle spoon and stir it. Has she brought a cup for you?"
"Well, I should hope I had!" said Direxia, drying her eyes. "I ain't quite lost my wits, Mis' Tree."
"You never had enough to lose!" retorted her mistress. "Hark! there's Jocko wanting his gruel. Bring him in; and mind you take a sup yourself before you go to bed, Direxia! You're all shaken up."
"Gadzooks!" said the parrot. "The cup that cheers! Go to bed, Direxia! Direxia Hawkes, wife of Guy Fawkes!"
"Now look at that!" said Direxia. "Ain't you ashamed, Willy Jaquith? He ain't said that since you went away."
* * * * *
The next morning was bright and clear. Mrs. Malvina Weight, sweeping her front chamber, with an anxious eye on the house opposite, saw the door open and Mrs. Tree come out, followed by a tall young man. The old lady wore the huge black velvet bonnet, surmounted by a bird of paradise, which she had brought from Paris forty years before, and an India shawl which had pointed a moral to the pious of Elmerton for more than that length of time. "Adorning her perishing back with what would put food in the mouth of twenty Christian heathens for a year!" was the way Mrs. Weight herself expressed it.
This morning, however, Mrs. Weight had no eyes for her aged neighbor. Every faculty she possessed was bent on proving the identity of the stranger. He kept his face turned from her in a way that was most exasperating. Could it be the man she saw last night? If her eyes were going as bad as that, she must see the optician next time he came through the village, and be fitted a new pair of glasses; it was scandalous, after paying him the price she did no more than five years ago, and him saying they'd last her lifetime. Why, this was a gentleman, sure enough. It must be the same, and them shadows, looking like rags, deceived her. Well, anybody living, except Mis' Tree, would have said his name, if it wasn't but just for neighborliness. Who could it be? Not that Doctor Strong back again, just when they were well rid of him? No, this man was taller, and stoop-shouldered. Seemed like she had seen that back before.
She gazed with passionate yearning till the pair passed out of sight, the ancient woman leaning on the young man's arm, yet stepping briskly along, her ebony staff tapping the sidewalk smartly.
Mrs. Weight called over the stairs.
"Isick, be you there?"
"Why ain't you to school, I'd like to know? Since you be here, jest run round through Candy's yard and come back along the street, that's a good boy, and see who that is Mis' Tree's got with her."
"I can't! I got the teethache!" whined Isaac.
"It won't hurt your teethache any. Run now, and I'll make you a saucer-pie next time I'm baking."
"You allers say that, and then you never!" grumbled Isaac, dragging reluctant feet toward the door.
"Isick Weight, don't you speak to me like that! I'll tell your pa, if you don't do as I tell you."
"Well, ain't I goin', quick as I can? I won't go through Candy's yard, though; that mean Tom Candy's waitin' for me now with a big rock, 'cause I got him sent home for actin' in school. I'll go and ask the man who he is. S'pose he knows."
"You won't do nothing of the sort. There! no matter—it's too late now. You're a real aggravatin', naughty-actin' boy, Isick Weight, and I believe you've been sent home your own self for cuttin' up—not that I doubt Tommy Candy was, too. I shall ask your father to whip you good when he gits home."
* * * * *
"Well, Mary Jaquith, here you sit."
"Mrs. Tree! Is this you? My dear soul, what brings you out so early in the morning? Come in! come in! Who is with you?"
"I didn't say any one was with me!" snapped Mrs. Tree. "Don't you go to setting up double-action ears like mine, Mary, because you are not old enough. How are you? obstinate as ever?"
The blind woman smiled. In her plain print dress, she had the air of a masquerading duchess, and her blue eyes were as clear and beautiful as those which were watching her from the door.
"Take this chair," she said, pushing forward a straight-backed armchair. "It's the one you always like. How am I obstinate, dear Mrs. Tree?"
"If I've asked you once to come and live with me, I've asked you fifty times," grumbled the old lady, sitting down with a good deal of flutter and rustle. "There I must stay, left alone at my age, with nobody but that old goose of a Direxia Hawkes to look after me. And all because you like to be independent. Set you up! Well, I sha'n't ask you again, and so I've come to tell you, Mary Jaquith."
"Dear old friend, you forgive me, I know. You never can have thought for a moment, seriously, that I could be a burden on your kind hands. There surely is some one with you, Mrs. Tree! Is it Direxia? Please be seated, whoever it is."
She turned her beautiful face and clear, quiet eyes toward the door. There was a slight sound, as of a sob checked in the outbreak. Mrs. Tree shook her head, fiercely. The blind woman rose from her seat, very pale.
"Who is it?" she said. "Be kind, please, and tell me."
"I'm going to tell you," said Mrs. Tree, "if you will have patience for two minutes, and not drive every idea out of my head with your questions. Mary, I—I had a visitor last night. Some one came to see me—an old acquaintance—who had—who had heard of Willy lately. Willy is—doing well, my dear. Now, Mary Jaquith, if you don't sit down, I won't say another word. Of all the unreasonable women I ever saw in my life—"
Mrs. Tree stopped, and rose abruptly from her seat. The blind woman was holding out her arms with a heavenly gesture of appeal, of welcome, of love unutterable: her face was the face of an angel. Another moment, and her son's arms were round her, and her head on his bosom, and he was crying over and over again, "Mother! mother! mother!" as if he could not have enough of the word.
"Arthur was a nice boy, too!" said Mrs. Tree, as she closed the door behind her.
* * * * *
Five minutes later, Mrs. Weight, hurrying up the plank walk which led to the Widow Jaquith's door, was confronted by the figure of her opposite neighbor, sitting on the front doorstep, leaning her chin on her stick, and looking, as Mrs. Weight told the deacon afterward, like Satan's grandmother.
"Want to see Mary Jaquith?" asked Mrs. Tree. "Well, she's engaged, and you can't. Here! give me your arm, Viny, and take me over to the girls'. I want to see how Phoebe is this morning. She was none too spry yesterday."
THE NEW POSTMASTER
Politics had little hold in Elmerton. When any question of public interest was to be settled, the elders of the village met and settled it; if they disagreed among themselves, they went to Mrs. Tree, and she told them what to do. People sometimes wondered what would happen when Mrs. Tree died, but there seemed no immediate danger of this.
"Truth and Trees live forever!" was the saying in the village.
When Israel Nudd, the postmaster, died, Elmerton found little difficulty in recommending his successor. The day after his funeral, the elders assembled at the usual place of meeting, the post-office piazza. This was a narrow platform running along one side of the post-office building, and commanding a view of the sea. A row of chairs stood along the wall on their hind legs. They might be supposed to have lost the use of their fore legs, simply because they never were used. In these chairs the elders sat, and surveyed the prospect.
"Tide's makin'," said John Peavey.
No one seemed inclined to contradict this statement.
"Water looks rily," John Peavey continued. "Goin' to be a change o' weather."
"I never see no sense in that," remarked Seth Weaver. "Why should a change of weather make the water rily beforehand? Besides, it ain't."
"My Uncle Ammi lived to a hundred and two," said John Peavey, slowly, "and he never doubted it. You're allers contrary, Seth. If I said I had a nose on my face, you'd say it warn't so."
"Wal, some might call it one," rejoined Seth, with a cautious glance. "I ain't fond of committin' myself."
"Meetin' come to order!" said Salem Rock, interrupting this preliminary badinage.
"Brether—I—I would say, gentlemen, we have met to recommend a postmaster for this village, in the room of Israel Nudd, diseased. What is your pleasure in this matter? I s'pose Homer'd ought to have it, hadn't he?"
The conclave meditated. No one had the smallest doubt that Homer ought to have it, but it was not well to decide matters too hastily.
"Homer's none too speedy," said Abram Cutter. "He gets to moonin' over the mail sometimes, and it seems as if you'd git Kingdom Come before you got the paper. But I never see no harm in Home."
"Not a mite," was the general verdict.
"Homer's as good as gingerbread," said Salem Rock, heartily. "He knows the business, ben in it sence he was a boy, and there's no one else doos. My 'pinion, he'd oughter have the job."
He spoke emphatically, and all the others glanced at him with approval; but there was no hurry. The mail would not be in for half an hour yet.
"There's the Fidely," said Seth Weaver. "Goin' up river for logs, I expect."
A dingy tug came puffing by. As she passed, a sooty figure waved a salutation, and the whistle screeched thrice. Seth Weaver swung his hat in acknowledgment.
"Joe Derrick," he said. "Him and me run her a spell together last year."
"How did she run?" inquired John Peavey.
"Like a wu'm with the rheumatiz," was the reply. "The logs in the river used to roll over and groan, to see lumber put together in such shape. She ain't safe, neither. I told Joe so when I got out. I says, 'It's time she was to her long home,' I says, 'but I don't feel no call to be one of the bearers,' I says. Joe's reckless. I expect he'll keep right on till she founders under him, and then walk ashore on his feet. They are bigger than some rafts I've seen, I tell him."
"Speaking of bearers," said Abram Cutter, "hadn't we ought to pass a vote of thanks to Isr'el, or something?"
"What for? turnin' up his toes?" inquired the irrepressible Seth. "I dono as he did it to obleege us, did he?"
"I didn't mean that," said Abram, patiently. "But he was postmaster here twenty-five years, and seems's though we'd ought to take some notice of it."
"That's so!" said Salem Rock. "You're right, Abram. What we want is some resolutions of sympathy for the widder. That's what's usual in such cases."
"Humph!" said Seth Weaver.
The others looked thoughtful.
"How would you propose to word them resolutions, Brother Rock?" asked Enoch Peterson, cautiously. "I understand Mis' Nudd accepts her lot. Isr'el warn't an easy man to live with, I'm told by them as was neighbor to him."
He glanced at Seth Weaver, who cleared his throat and gazed seaward. The others waited. Presently—
"If I was drawin' up them resolutions," Weaver said, slowly, "'pears to me I should say something like this:
"'Resolved, that Isr'el Nudd was a good postmaster, and done his work faithful; and resolved, that we tender his widder all the respeckful sympathy she requires.' And a peanut-shell to put it in!" he added, in a lower tone.
Salem Rock pulled out a massive silver watch and looked at it.
"I got to go!" he said. "Let's boil this down! All present who want Homer Hollopeter for postmaster, say so; contrary-minded? It's a vote! We'll send the petition to Washin'ton. Next question is, who'll he have for an assistant?"
There was a movement of chairs, as with fresh interest in the new topic.
"I was intendin' to speak on that p'int!" piped up a little man at the end of the row, who had not spoken before.
"What do we need of an assistant? Homer Hollopeter could do the work with one hand, except Christmas and New Years. There ain't room enough in there to set a hen, anyway."
"Who wants to set hens in the post-office?" demanded Seth Weaver. "There's cacklin' enough goes on there without that. I expect about the size of it is, you'd like more room to set by the stove, without no eggs to set on."
"I was only thinkin' of savin' the gov'ment!" said the little man, uneasily.
"I reckon gov'ment's big enough to take care of itself!" said Seth Weaver.
"There's allers been an assistant," said Salem Rock, briefly. "Question is, who to have?"
At this moment a window-blind was drawn up, and the meek head of Mr. Homer Hollopeter appeared at the open window.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen!" he said, nervously. A great content shone in his mild brown eyes,—indeed, he must have heard every word that had been spoken,—but he shuffled his feet and twitched the blind uneasily after he had spoken.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Postmaster!" said Salem Rock, heartily.
"Congratulations, Home!" said Seth Weaver. The others nodded and grunted approvingly.
"There's nothing official yet, you understand," Salem Rock added, kindly; "but we've passed a vote, and the rest is only a question of time."
"Only a question of time!" echoed Abram Cutter and John Peavey.
Mr. Homer drew himself up and settled his sky-blue necktie.
"Gentlemen," he said, his voice faltering a little at first, but gaining strength as he went on, "I thank you for the honor you do me. I am deeply sensible of it, and of the responsibility of the position I am called upon to fill; to—occupy;—to—a—become a holder of."
"Have a lozenger, Home!" said Seth Weaver, encouragingly.
"I—am obliged to you, Seth; not any!" said Mr. Homer, slightly flustered. "I was about to say that my abilities, such as they are, shall be henceforth devoted to the service—to the—amelioration; to the—mental, moral, and physical well-being—of my country and my fellow citizens. Ahem! I suppose—I believe it is the custom—a—in short, am I at liberty to choose an assistant?"
"We were just talkin' about that," said Salem Rock.
"Yes, you choose your own assistant, of course; but—well, it's usual to choose someone that's agreeable to folks. I believe the village has generally had some say in the matter; not officially, you understand, just kind of complimentary. We nominate you, and you kind o' consult us about who you'll have in to help. That seems about square, don't it? Doctor Stedman recommended you to Isr'el, I remember."
There was an assenting hum.
Mr. Homer leaned out of the window, all his self-consciousness gone.
"Mr. Rock," he said, eagerly, "I wish most earnestly—I am greatly desirous of having William Jaquith as my assistant. I—he appears to me a most suitable person. I beg, gentlemen—I hope, boys, that you will agree with me. The only son of his mother, and she is a widow."
He paused, and looked anxiously at the elders.
They had all turned toward him when he appeared, some even going so far as to set their chairs on four legs, and hitching them forward so that they might command a view of their beneficiary.
But now, with one accord, they turned their faces seaward, and became to all appearance deeply interested in a passing sail.
"The only son of his mother, and she is a widow!" Mr. Homer repeated, earnestly.
Salem Rock crossed and recrossed his legs uneasily.
"That's all very well, Homer," he said. "No man thinks more of Scripture than what I do, in its place; but this ain't its place. This ain't a question of widders, it's a question of the village. Will Jaquith is a crooked stick, and you know it."
"He has been, Brother Rock, he has been!" said Mr. Homer, eagerly. "I grant you the past; but William is a changed man, he is, indeed. He has suffered much, and a new spirit is born in him. His one wish is to be his mother's stay and support. If you were to see him, Brother Rock, and talk with him, I am sure you would feel as I do. Consider what the poet says: 'The quality of mercy is not strained!'"
"Mebbe it ain't, so fur!" said Seth Weaver; "question is, how strong its back is. If I was Mercy, I should consider Willy Jaquith quite a lug. Old man Butters used to say:
"'Rollin' stones you keep your eyes on! Some on 'em's pie, and some on 'em's pison.'"
"—His appointment would be acceptable to the ladies of the village, I have reason to think," persisted Mr. Homer. "My venerable relative, Mrs. Tree, expressed herself strongly—" (Mr. Homer blinked two or three times, as if recalling something of an agitating nature)—"I may say very strongly, in favor of it; in fact, the suggestion came in the first place from her, though I had also had it in mind."
There was a change in the atmosphere; a certain rigidity of neck and set of chin gradually softened and disappeared. The elders shuffled their feet, and glanced one at another.
"It mightn't do no harm to give him a try," said Abram Cutter. "Homer's ben clerk himself fifteen year, and he knows what's wanted."
"That's so," said the elders.
"After all," said Salem Rock, "it's Homer has the appointin'; all we can do is advise. If you're set on givin' Will Jaquith a chance, Homer, and if Mis' Tree answers for him—why, I dono as we'd ought to oppose it. Only, you keep your eye on him! Meetin's adjourned."
The elders strolled away by ones and twos, each with his word of congratulation or advice to the new postmaster. Seth Weaver alone lingered, leaning on the window-ledge. His eyes—shrewd blue eyes, with a twinkle in them—roamed over the rather squalid little room, with its two yellow chairs, its painted pine table and rusty stove.
"Seems curus without Isr'el," he said, meditatively. "Seems kind o' peaceful and empty, like the hole in your jaw where you've had a tooth hauled; or like stoppin' off takin' physic."
"Israel was an excellent postmaster," said Mr. Homer, gently. "I thought your resolutions were severe, Seth, though I am aware that they were offered partly in jest."
"You never lived next door to him!" said Seth.
IN MISS PENNY'S SHOP
One of the pleasantest places in Elmerton was Miss Penny Pardon's shop. Miss Penny (short for Penelope) and Miss Prudence were sisters; and as there was not enough dressmaking in the village to keep them both busy at all seasons, and as Miss Penny was lame and could not "go" much, as we say in the village, she kept this little shop, through which one passed to reach the back parlor where Miss Prudence cut and fitted and stitched. It was a queer little shop. There were a few toys, chiefly dolls, beautifully dressed by Miss Prudence, with marbles and tops in their season for the boys; there was a little fancy work, made by various invalid neighbors, which Miss Penny undertook to sell "if 'twas so she could," without profit to herself; a little stationery, and a few small wares, thread and needles, hairpins and whalebone—and there were a great many birds. Elmerton was a great place for cage-birds, and Miss Penny was "knowing" about them; consequently, when any bird was ailing, it was brought to her for advice and treatment, and there were seldom less than half a dozen cages in the sunny window. One shelf was devoted to stuffed birds, it being the custom, when a favorite died, to present it to Miss Penny for her collection; and thus the invalid canaries and mino birds were constantly taught to know their end, which may or may not have tended to raise their spirits.
One morning Miss Penny was bustling about her shop, feeding the birds and talking to Miss Prudence, the door between the two rooms being open. She was like a bird herself, Miss Penny, with her quick motions and bright eyes, her halting walk which was almost a hop, and a way she had of cocking her head on one side as she talked.
"So I says, 'Of course I'll take him, Mis' Tree, and glad to. He'll be company for both of us,' I says. And it's true. I'd full as lieves hear that bird talk as many folks I know, and liever. I told her I guessed about a week would set him up good, taking the Bird Manna reg'lar, and the Bitters once in a while. A little touch of asthmy is what he's got; it hasn't taken him down any, as I can see; he's as full of the old Sancho as ever. Willy Jaquith brought him down this morning, while you was to market. How that boy has improved! Why, he's an elegant-appearing young man now, and has such a pretty way with him—well, he always had that—but now he's kind of sad and gentle. I shouldn't suppose he had any too long to live, the way he looks now. Well, hasn't Mary Jaquith had a sight of trouble, for one so good? Dear me, Prudence, the day she married George Jaquith, she seemed to have the world at her feet, didn't she?"
"Eheu fugaces," said a harsh voice from a corner.
"There, hear him!" said Miss Penny. "I do admire to hear him speak French. Yes, Jocko, he was a clever boy, so he was. Pretty soon Penny'll get round to him, and give him a good washing, a Beauty Bird, and feed him something real good."
"'Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume, Labuntur anni;'
tell that to your granny!" said Mrs. Tree's parrot, turning a bright yellow eye on her knowingly.
"Bless your heart, she wouldn't understand if I did. She never had your advantages, dear," said Miss Penny, admiringly. "Here, now you have had a nice nap, and I'll move you out into the sun, and give you a drop of Bird Bitters. Take it now, a Beauty Boy. Prudence, I wish't you could see him; he's taking it just as clever! I never did see the beat of this bird for knowingness."
"Malviny Weight was askin' me about them Bitters," said Miss Prudence's voice from the inner room. "She wanted to know if there was alcohol in 'em, and if you thought it was right to tempt dumb critters."
"She didn't! Well, if she ain't a case! What did you say to her, Prudence? Hush! hush to goodness! Here she is this minute. Good morning, Mis' Weight! You're quite a stranger. Real seasonable, ain't it, this mornin'?"
"'Tis so!" responded the newcomer, who entered, breathing heavily. "I feel the morning air, though, in my bronical tubes. I hadn't ought to go out before noon, but I wanted to speak to Prudence about turnin' my brown skirt. Is she in?"
"Yes'm, she's in. You can pass right through. The door's open."
"Crickey!" said Mrs. Tree's parrot, "What a figurehead!"
"Who's that?" demanded Mrs. Weight, angrily.
Miss Penny turned her back hastily, and began arranging toys on a shelf.
"Why, that's Mis' Tree's parrot, Mis' Weight," she said. "That's Jocko. You must know him as well as I do, and better, livin' opposite neighbor to her."
"I should think I did know him, for a limb of Satan!" said the visitor. "But I never looked for him here. Is he sick? I wish to gracious he'd die. It's my belief he's possessed, like some others I know of. I'm not one to spread, or I could tell you stories about that bird—"
She nodded mysteriously, and glanced at the parrot, who had turned upside down on his perch, and was surveying her with a malevolent stare.
"Why, Mis' Weight, I was just sayin' how cute he was. He'll talk just as pretty sometimes—won't you, Jocko? Say something for Mis' Weight, won't you, Beauty Boy?"
"Helen was a beauty!" crooned the parrot, his head on one side, his eyes still fixed on Mrs. Weight.
"Was she?" said Miss Penny, encouragingly. "I want to know! Now, who do you s'pose he means? There's nobody name of Helen here now, except Doctor Pottle's little girl, and she squints."
"Helen was a beauty, Xantippe was a shrew; Medusa was a Gorgon, And so—are—you!
Ha! ha! ha! crickey! she carries Weight, she rides a race, 'tis for a thousand pound. Screeeeeee!"
Swinging himself upright, the parrot flapped his wings, and uttered a blood-curdling shriek. Mrs. Weight gave a single squawk, and fled into the inner room, slamming the door violently after her.
"How you can harbor Satan, Prudence Pardon, is more than I can understand," she panted, purple with rage. "If there was a man in this village, he'd wring that bird's neck."
Miss Prudence was removing pins from her mouth, preparatory to a reply, when Miss Penny appeared, very pink, it might be with indignation at the parrot's misconduct.
"There, Mis' Weight!" she said, soothingly, "I'm real sorry. You mustn't mind what a bird says. It's only what those wild boys taught him, Arthur Blyth and Willy Jaquith, and I'm sure neither one of 'em would do it to-day, let alone Arthur's being dead. Why, he says it off same as he would a psalm, if they'd taught him that, as of course it's a pity they didn't. You won't mind now, will you, Mis' Weight?"
Mrs. Weight, very majestic, deposited her bundle on the table, and sat down.
"I say nothing of the dead," she proclaimed, after a pause, "and but little of the livin'; but I should be lawth to have the load on my shoulders that Mis' Tree has. The Day of Judgment will attend to Arthur Blyth, but she is responsible for Will Jaquith's comin' back to this village, and how she can sleep nights is a mystery to me. I thank Gracious I see through him at once. Some may be deceived, but I'm not one of 'em."
"Now, Mis' Weight, I wouldn't talk so, if I was you," said Miss Penny, still soothingly. "Willy Jaquith's doing real pretty in the office, everybody says. Mr. Homer's tickled to death to have him there, and they've got the place slicked up so you wouldn't know it. I always thought Homer Hollopeter had a sufferin' time under Isr'el Nudd, though he never said anything. It's not his way."
"What did you say you wanted done with this skirt?" asked Miss Prudence, breaking in. She had less patience than Miss Penny, and she bent her steel-bowed spectacles on the visitor with a look which meant, "Come to business, if you have any!"
"Well, I don't hardly know!" said Mrs. Weight, unrolling her bundle. "I'm so upset with that screeching Limb there, I feel every minute as if I should have palpitations. It does seem as if the larger I got the frailer I was inside. The co'ts of my stom—"
"I thought you said 'twas a skirt!" Miss Prudence broke in again, grimly.
"So 'tis. There! I got something on this front brea'th the other day, and it won't come out, try all I can. I thought mebbe you could—"
She plunged into depths of pressing and turning. At this moment the shop-bell rang, and Miss Penny slipped back to her post.
"Good mornin', Miss Vesta! Well, you are a sight for sore eyes, as the saying is."
"I thank you, Penelope. How do you do this morning?" inquired Miss Vesta Blyth. "I trust you and Prudence are both well."
"Yes'm, we're real smart, sister 'n' me both. Sister's had the lumbago some this last week, and my limb has pestered me so I couldn't step on it none too lively, but other ways we're real smart. I expect you've come to see about Darlin' here."
She took a cage from the window and placed it on the counter. In it was a yellow canary, which at sight of its mistress gave a joyous flap of its golden wings, and instantly broke into a flood of song.
"Oh!" said Miss Vesta, with a soft coo of surprise and pleasure.
"He has found his voice again. And he looks quite, quite himself. Why, Penelope, what have you done to him to make such a difference in these few days? Dear little fellow! I am so pleased!"
Miss Penny beamed. "I guess you ain't no more pleased than I be," she said. "There! I hated to see him sittin' dull and bunchy like he was when you brought him in. I've ben givin' him Bird Manna and Bitters right along, and I've bathed them spots till they're all gone. I guess you'll find him 'most as good as new. Little Beauty Darlin', so he was!"
"Old friends!" said the parrot, ruffling himself all over and looking at Miss Vesta. "Vesta, Vesta, how's Phoebe?"
"Jocko here!" said Miss Vesta. "Good morning, Jocko!"
She put out a finger, and Jocko clawed it without ceremony.
"I advised Aunt Marcia to send him to you, Penelope, and I am so glad she has done so. He seemed quite croupy yesterday, and at his age, of course, even a slight ailment may prove serious."
"How old is that bird, Miss Vesta, if I may ask?" said Miss Penny.
"I know he's older'n I be, but I never liked to inquire his age of Direxia; she might think it was a reflection."
"I remember Jocko as long as I remember anything," said Miss Vesta. "I used to be afraid of him when I was a child, he swore so terribly. The story was that he had belonged to a French marquis in the time of the Revolution; he certainly knew many—violent expressions in that language."
"I want to know if he did!" exclaimed Miss Penny, regarding the parrot with something like admiring awe.
"Why, I've never heard him use any strong expressions, Miss Vesta. He does speak French sometimes, but it doesn't sound like swearin', not a mite. Not ten minutes ago he was sayin' something about Jehu; sounded real Scriptural."
"Oh, I have not heard him swear for years," said Miss Vesta. "Aunt Marcia cured him by covering the cage whenever he said anything unsuitable. He never does it now, unless he sees some one he dislikes very much indeed, and of course he is not apt to do that. Poor Jocko! good boy!"
"Arma virumque cano!" said Jocko. "Vesta, Vesta, don't you pester! ri fol liddy fo li, tiddy fo liddy fol li!"
"Ain't it mysterious?" said Miss Penny, in an awestricken voice. "There! it always makes me think of the Tower of Babel. Did you want to take little Darlin' back to-day, Miss Blyth? I was thinkin' I'd keep him a day or two longer till his feathers looked real handsome and full. I don't suppose you'd want him converted red, would you, Miss Vesta? I'm told they're real handsome, but I don't s'pose you'd want to resk his health."
"I do not understand you, Penelope," said Miss Vesta. "Red? You surely would not think of dyeing a living bird?"
"No'm! oh, no, cert'in not, though I have heerd of them as did. But my bird book says, feed a canary red pepper and he'll turn red, and stay so till next time he moults. I never should venture to resk a bird's health, not unless the parties wished it, but they do say it's real handsome."
"I should think it very wrong, Penelope," said Miss Vesta, seriously. "Apart from the question of the dear little creature's health, it would shock me very much. It would be like—a—dyeing one's own hair to give it a different color from what the Lord intended. I am sure you would not seriously think of such a thing."
"Oh, no'm!" said Miss Penny, guiltily conscious of certain bottles on an upper shelf warranted to "restore gray hair to its youthful gloss and gleam."
"Well, then, I'll just feed him the Bird Manna, say till Saturday, and by that time he'll be his own beauty self, the handsomest canary in Elmerton. Won't he, Darlin'?"
"And I hope Silas Candy is prepared to answer for it at the Judgment Seat!" said Mrs. Weight, in the doorway of the inner room. "Between him and Mis' Tree that Tommy promises to be fruit for the gallus if ever it bore any. Every sheet on the line with 'Squashnose' wrote on it, and a picture of Isick that anybody would know a mile off, and all in green paint. Oh, good morning, Vesta! Why, I thought for sure you must be sick; you weren't out to meeting yesterday."
"No, I was not," said Miss Vesta, mildly. "I trust you are quite well, Malvina, and that the deacon's rheumatism is giving him less trouble lately?"
"If Malviny Weight ain't a case!" chuckled Miss Penny, as the two visitors left the shop together. "I do admire to see Miss Vesta handle her, so pretty and polite, and yet with the tips of her fingers, like she would a dusty chair. There! what was I sayin' the other day? The Blyth girls is ladies, and Malviny Weight—"
"Malviny Weight is a pokin', peerin', pryin' poll-parrot!" said Miss Prudence's voice, sharply; "that's what she is!"