ALICE HEGAN RICE
Author of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch
New York, The Century Co.
TO MY AUNT
MISS MARY A. HEGAN WHO USED TO TELL ME BETTER STORIES THAN I SHALL EVER WRITE
I THE STOWAWAY II ON SHIPBOARD III THE CURSE OF WEALTH IV SIDE-TRACKED V SANDY RETIRES FROM BUSINESS VI HOLLIS FARM VII CONVALESCENCE VIII AUNT MELVY AS A SOOTHSAYER IX TRANSITION X WATERLOO XI "THE LIGHT THAT LIES" XII ANTICIPATION XIII THE COUNTY FAIR XIV A COUNCIL OF WAR XV HELL AND HEAVEN XVI THE NELSON HOME XVII UNDER THE WILLOWS XVIII THE VICTIM XIX THE TRIALS OF AN ASSISTANT POSTMASTER XX THE IRONY OF CHANCE XXI IN THE DARK XXII AT WILLOWVALE XXIII "THE SHADOW ON THE HEART" XXIV THE PRIMROSE WAY
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Looking up, he saw a slender little girl in a long tan coat and a white tam-o-shanter" Frontispiece
"He sent up yell after yell of victory for the land of his adoption"
"He smiled away his debt of gratitude"
"Then he forgot all about the steps and counting time"
"Burning deeds of prowess rioted in his brain"
"Sandy saw her waver"
"'It's been love, Sandy, ... ever since the first'"
An English mist was rolling lazily inland from the sea. It half enveloped the two great ocean liners that lay tugging at their moorings in the bay, and settled over the wharf with a grim determination to check, as far as possible, the traffic of the morning.
But the activity of the wharf, while impeded, was in no wise stopped. The bustle, rattle, and shouting were, in fact, augmented by the temporary interference. Everybody seemed in a hurry, and everybody seemed out of temper, save a boy who lay at full length on the quay and earnestly studied a weather-vane that was lazily trying to make up its mind which way to point.
He was ragged and brawny and picturesque. His hands, bronzed by the tan of sixteen summers, were clasped under his head, and his legs were crossed, one soleless shoe on high vaunting its nakedness in the face of an indifferent world. A sailor's blouse, two sizes too large, was held together at the neck by a bit of red cambric, and his trousers were anchored to their mooring by a heavy piece of yellow twine. The indolence of his position, however, was not indicative of the state of his mind; for under his weather-beaten old cap, perched sidewise on a tousled head, was a commotion of dreams and schemes, ambitions and plans, whose activities would have put to shame the busiest wharf in the world.
"It's your show, Sandy Kilday!" he said, half aloud, with a bit of a brogue that flavored his speech as the salt flavors the sea air. "You don't want to be a bloomin' old weather-vane, a-changin' your mind every time the wind blows. Is it go, or stay?"
The answer, instead of coming, got sidetracked by the train of thought that descended upon him when he was actually face to face with his decision. All sorts of memories came rushing pell-mell through his brain. The cold and hungry ones were the most insistent, but he brushed them aside.
The one he clung to longest was the earliest and most shadowy of the lot. It was of a little white house on an Irish heath, and inside was the biggest fireplace in the world, where crimson flames went roaring up the big, dark chimney, and where witches and fairies held high carnival. There was a big chair on each side the hearth, and between them a tiny red rocker with flowers painted on the arms of it. That was the clearest of all. There were persons in the large chairs, one a silent Scotchman who, instinct told him, must have been his father, and the other—oh, tricky memory that faltered when he wanted it to be so clear!—was the maddest, merriest little mother that ever came back to haunt a lad. By holding tight to the memory he could see that her eyes were blue like his own, but her hair was black. He could hear the ring of her laugh as she told him Irish stories, and the soft drone of her voice as she sang him old Irish songs. It was she who told him about the fairies and witches that lived up behind the peat-flames. He remembered holding her hand and putting his cheek against it when the goblins came too near. Then the picture would go out, like a picture in a magic-lantern show, and sometimes Sandy could make it come back, and sometimes he could not.
After that came a succession of memories, but none of them held the silent father and the merry mother and the little white house on the heath. They were of new faces and new places, of temporary homes with relatives in Ireland and Scotland, of various schools and unceasing work. Then came the day, two years ago, when, goaded by some injustice, real or imagined, he had run away to England and struck out alone and empty-handed to care for himself. It had been a rough experience, and there were days that he was glad to forget; but through it all the taste of freedom had been sweet in his mouth.
For three weeks he had been hanging about the docks, picking up jobs here and there, accommodating any one who wanted to be accommodated, making many friends and little money. He had had no thought of embarking until the big English liner Great Britain arrived in port after breaking all records on her homeward passage. She was to start on her second trip to-day, and an hour later her rival, the steamship America, was to take her departure. The relative merits of the two vessels had been the talk of the wharf for days.
Sandy had made it a rule in life to be on hand when anything was happening. He had viewed cricket-matches from tree-tops, had answered the call of fire at midnight, and tramped ten miles to see the finish of a great regatta. But something was about to take place which seemed entirely beyond his attainment. Two hours passed before he solved the problem.
"Takin' the rest-cure, kid?" asked a passing sailor as he shied a stick at Sandy's shins.
Sandy stretched himself and smiled up at the sailor. It was a smile that waited for an answer and usually got it—a smile so brimming over with good-fellowship and confidence that it made a lover of a friend and a friend of an enemy.
"It's a trip that I'm thinkin' of takin'," he cried blithely as he jumped to his feet. "Here's the shillin' I owe you, partner, and may the best luck ye've had be the worst luck that's comin'."
He tossed a coin to the sailor, and thrusting his hands in his pockets, executed a brief but brilliant pas seul, and then went whistling away down the wharf. He swung along right cheerily, his rags fluttering, his chin in the air, for the wind had settled in one direction, and the weather-vane and Sandy had both made up their minds.
The sailor looked after him fondly. "He's a bloomin' good little chap," he said to a man near by. "Carries a civil tongue in his head for everybody."
The man grunted. "He's too off and on," he said. "He'll never come to naught."
Two days later, the America, cutting her way across the Atlantic, carried one more passenger than she registered. In the big life-boat swung above the hurricane-deck lay Sandy Kilday, snugly concealed by the heavy canvas covering.
He had managed to come aboard under cover of the friendly fog, and had boldly appropriated a life-boat and was doing light housekeeping. The apartment, to be sure, was rather small and dark, for the only light came through a tiny aperture where the canvas was tucked back. At this end Sandy attended to his domestic duties.
Here were stored the fresh water and hardtack which the law requires every life-boat to carry in case of an emergency. Added to these was Sandy's private larder, consisting of several loaves of bread, a bag of apples, and some canned meat. The other end of the boat was utilized as a bedroom, a couple of life-preservers serving as the bed, and his own bundle of personal belongings doing duty as a pillow.
There were some drawbacks, naturally, especially to an energetic, restless youngster who had never been in one place so long before in his life. It was exceedingly inconvenient to have to lie down or crawl; but Sandy had been used to inconveniences all his life, and this was simply a difference in kind, not in degree. Besides, he could steal out at night and, by being very careful and still, manage to avoid the night watch.
The first night out a man and a girl had come up from the cabin deck and sat directly under his hiding-place. At first he was too much afraid of discovery to listen to what they were saying, but later his interest outweighed his fear. For they were evidently lovers, and Sandy was at that inflammable age when to hear mention of love is dangerous and to see a manifestation of it absolute contagion. When the great question came, his heart waited for the answer. Perhaps it was the added weight of his unspoken influence that turned the scale. She said yes. During the silence that followed, Sandy, unable to restrain his joy, threw his arms about a life-preserver and embraced it fervently.
When they were gone he crawled out to stretch his weary body. On the deck he found a book which they had left; it was a green book, and on the cover was a golden castle on a golden hill. All the rest of his life he loved a green book best, for it was through this one that he found his way back again to that enchanted land that lay behind the peat-flames in the shadowy memory. Early in the morning he read it, with his head on the box of hardtack and his feet on the water-can. Twice he reluctantly tore himself from its pages and put it back where he had found it. No one came to claim it, and it lay there, with the golden castle shining in the sun. Sandy decided to take one more peep.
It was all about gallant knights and noble lords, of damsels passing fair, of tourneys and feasts and battles fierce and long. Story after story he devoured, until he came to the best one of all. It told of a beautiful damsel with a mantle richly furred, who was girt with a cumbrous sword which did her great sorrow; for she might not be delivered of it save by a knight who was of passing good name both of his lands and deeds. And after that all the great knights had striven in vain to draw the sword from its sheath, a poor knight, poorly arrayed, felt in his heart that he might essay it, but was abashed. At last, however, when the damsel was departing, he plucked up courage to ask if he might try; and when she hesitated he said: "Fair damsel, worthiness and good deeds are not only in arrayment, but manhood and worship are hid within man's person." Then the poor knight took the sword by the girdle and sheath and drew it out easily.
And it was not until then that Sandy knew that he had had no dinner, and that the sun had climbed over to the other side of the steamer, and that a continual cheering was coming up from the deck below. Cautiously he pulled back the canvas flap and emerged like the head of a turtle from his shell. The bright sunshine dazzled him for a moment, then he saw a sight that sent the dreams flying. There, just ahead, was the Great Britain under full way, valiantly striving to hold her record against the oncoming steamer.
Sandy sat up and breathlessly watched the champion of the sea, her smoke-stacks black against the wide stretch of shining waters. The Union Jack was flying in insolent security from her flagstaff. There were many figures on deck, and her music was growing louder every minute. Inch by inch the America gained upon her, until they were bow and bow. The crowd below grew wilder, cheers went up from both steamers, the decks were white with the flutter of handkerchiefs. Suddenly the band below struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner." Sandy gave one triumphant glance at the Stars and Stripes floating overhead, and in that moment became naturalized. He leaped to his feet in the boat, and tearing the blouse from his back, waved the tattered banner in the face of the vanquished Great Britain, as he sent up yell after yell of victory for the land of his adoption.
Then he was seized by the ankle and jerked roughly down upon the deck. Over him stood the deck steward.
"You're a rum egg for that old boat to hatch out," he said. "I guess the cap'n will be wantin' to see you."
Sandy, thus peremptorily summoned from the height of patriotic frenzy, collapsed in terror. Had the deck steward not been familiar with stowaways, he doubtless would have been moved by the flood of eloquent persuasion which Sandy brought to bear.
As it was, he led him ruthlessly down the narrow steps, past the long line of curious passengers, then down again to the steerage deck, where he deposited him on a coil of rope and bade him stay there until he was sent for.
Here Sandy sat for the remainder of the afternoon, stared at from above and below, an object of lively curiosity. He bit his nails until the blood came, and struggled manfully to keep back the tears. He was cold, hungry, and disgraced, and his mind was full of sinister thoughts. Inch by inch he moved closer to the railing.
Suddenly something fell at his feet. It was an orange. Looking up, he saw a slender little girl in a long tan coat and a white tam-o'-shanter leaning over the railing. He only knew that her eyes were brown and that she was sorry for him, but it changed his world. He pulled off his cap, and sent her such an ardent smile of gratitude that she melted from the railing like a snowflake under the kiss of the sun.
Sandy ate the orange and took courage. Life had acquired a new interest.
The days that followed were not rose-strewn. Disgrace sat heavily upon the delinquent, and he did penance by foregoing the joys of society. Menial labor and the knowledge that he would not be allowed to land, but would be sent back by the first steamer, were made all the more unbearable by his first experience with illness. He had accepted his fate and prepared to die when the ship's surgeon found him.
The ship's surgeon was cruel enough to laugh, but he persuaded Sandy to come back to life. He was a small, white, round little man; and when he came rolling down the deck in his white linen suit, his face beaming from its white frame of close-cropped hair and beard, he was not unlike one of his own round white little pills, except that their sweetness stopped on the outside and his went clear through.
He discovered Sandy lying on his face in the passageway, his right hand still dutifully wielding the scrub-brush, but his spirit broken and his courage low.
"Hello!" he exclaimed briskly; "what's your name?"
"Me name is. The rest of me's Irish," groaned Sandy.
"Well, Sandy, my boy, that's no way to scrub. Come out and get some air, and then go back and do it right."
He guided Sandy's dying footsteps to the deck and propped him against the railing. That was when he laughed.
"Not much of a sailor, eh?" he quizzed. "You'll be all right soon; we have been getting the tail-end of a big nor'wester."
"A happy storm it must have been, sir, to wag its tail so gay," said Sandy, trying to smile.
The doctor clapped him on the back. "You're better. Want something to eat?"
Sandy declined with violence. He explained his feelings with all the authority of a first experience, adding in conclusion: "It was Jonah I used to be after feelin' sorry for; it ain't now. It's the whale."
The doctor prevailed upon him to drink some hot tea and eat a sandwich. It was a heroic effort, but Sandy would have done even more to prolong the friendly conversation.
"How many more days have we got, sir?"
"Five; but there's the return trip for you."
Sandy's face flushed. "If they send me home, I'll be comin' back!" he cried, clinging to the railing as the ship lurched forward. "I'm goin' to be an American. I am goin'—" Further declarations as to his future policy were cut short.
From that time on the doctor took an interest in him. He even took up a collection of clothes for him among the officers. His professional services were no longer necessary, for Sandy enjoyed a speedy recovery from his maritime troubles.
"You are luckier than the rest," he said, one day, stopping on his rounds. "I never had so many steerage patients before."
The work was so heavy, in fact, that he obtained permission to get a boy to assist him. The happy duty devolved upon Sandy, who promptly embraced not only the opportunity, but the doctor and the profession as well. He entered into his new work with such energy and enthusiasm that by the end of the week he knew every man below the cabin deck. So expeditious did he become that he found many idle moments in which to cultivate acquaintances.
His chosen companion at these times was a boy in the steerage, selected not for congeniality, but for his unlimited knowledge of all things terrestrial, from the easiest way of making a fortune to the best way of spending it. He was a short, heavy-set fellow of some eighteen years. His hair grew straight up from an overhanging forehead, under which two small eyes seemed always to be furtively watching each other over the bridge of his flat snub nose. His lips met with difficulty across large, irregular teeth. Such was Ricks Wilson, the most unprepossessing soul on board the good ship America.
"You see, it's this way," explained Ricks as the boys sat behind the smokestack and Sandy became initiated into the mysteries of a wonderful game called "craps." "I didn't have no more 'n you've got. I lived down South, clean off the track of ever'thing. I puts my foot in my hand and went out and seen the world. I tramps up to New York, works my way over to England, tramps and peddles, and gits enough dough to pay my way back. Say, it's bum slow over there. Why, they ain't even on to street-cars in London! I makes more in a week at home than I do in a month in England. Say, where you goin' at when we land?"
Sandy shook his head ruefully. "I got to go back," he said.
Ricks glanced around cautiously, then moved closer.
"You ain't that big a sucker, are you? Any feller that couldn't hop the twig offen this old boat ain't much, that's all I got to say."
"Oh, it's not the gettin' away," said Sandy, more certain than ever, now that he was sure of an ally.
"Homesick?" asked Ricks, with a sneer.
Sandy gave a short laugh. "Home? Why, I ain't got any home. I've just lived around since I was a young one. It's a chance to get on that I'm after."
"Well, what in thunder is takin' you back?"
"I don't know," said Sandy, "'cep'n' it ain't in me to give 'em the slip now I know 'em. Then there's the doctor—"
"That old feather-bed? O Lord! He's so good he gives me a pain. Goes round with his mouth hiked up in a smile, and I bet he's as mean as the—"
Before Hicks could finish he found himself inextricably tangled in Sandy's arms and legs, while that irate youth sat upon him and pommeled him soundly.
"So it's the good doctor ye'd be after blasphemin' and abusin' and makin' game of! By the powers, ye'll take it back! Speak one time more, and I'll make you swaller the lyin' words, if I have to break every bone in your skin!"
There was an ugly look in Ricks's face as he threw the smaller boy off, but further trouble was prevented by the appearance of the second mate.
Sandy hurried away to his duties, but not without an anxious glance at the upper deck. He had never lost an opportunity, since that first day, of looking up; but this was the first time that he was glad she was not there. Only once had he caught sight of a white tam and a tan coat, and that was when they were being conducted hastily below by a sympathetic stewardess.
But Sandy needed no further food for his dreams than he already had. On sunny afternoons, when he had the time, he would seek a secluded corner of the deck, and stretching himself on the boards with the green book in his hand, would float in a sea of sentiment. The fact that he had decided to study medicine and become a ship's surgeon in no wise interfered with his fixed purpose of riding forth into the world on a cream-white charger in search of a damsel in distress.
So thrilled did he become with the vision that he fell to making rhymes, and was surprised to find that the same pair of eyes always rhymed with skies—and they were brown.
Sometimes, at night, a group would gather on the steerage deck and sing. A black-haired Italian, with shirt open at the throat, would strike a pose and fling out a wild serenade; or a fat, placid German would remove his pipe long enough to troll forth a mighty drinking-song. Whenever the air was a familiar one, the entire circle joined in the chorus. At such times Sandy was always on hand, singing with the loudest and telling his story with the best.
"Make de jolly little Irish one to sing by hisself!" called a woman one night from the edge of the crowd. The invitation was taken up and repeated on every side. Sandy, laughing and protesting, was pushed to the front. Being thus suddenly forced into prominence, he suffered an acute attack of stage fright.
"Chirp up there now and give us a tune!" cried some one behind him.
"Can't ye remember none?" asked another.
"Sure," said Sandy, laughing sheepishly; "but they all come wrong end first."
Some one had thrust an old guitar in his hands, and he stood nervously picking at the strings. He might have been standing there still had not the moon come to his rescue. It climbed slowly out of the sea and sent a shimmer of silver and gold over the water, across the deck, and into his eyes. He forgot himself and the crowd. The stream of mystical romance that flows through the veins of every true Irishman was never lacking in Sandy. His heart responded to the beautiful as surely as the echo answers the call.
He seized the guitar, and picking out the notes with clumsy, faltering fingers, sang:
"Ah! The moment was sad when my love and I parted, Savourneen deelish, signan O!"
His boyish voice rang out clear and true, softening on the refrain to an indescribable tenderness that steeped the old song in the very essence of mystery and love.
"As I kiss'd off her tears, I was nigh broken-hearted!— Savourneen deelish, signan O!"
He could remember his mother singing him to sleep by it, and the bright red of her lips as they framed the words:
"Wan was her cheek which hung on my shoulder; Chill was her hand, no marble was colder; I felt that again I should never behold her; Savourneen deelish, signan O!"
As the song trembled to a close, a slight burst of applause came from the cabin deck. Sandy looked up, frowned, and bit his lip. He did not know why, but he was sorry he had sung.
The next morning the America sailed into New York harbor, band playing and flags flying. She was bringing home a record and a jubilant crew. On the upper decks passengers were making merry over what is probably the most joyful parting in the world. In the steerage all was bustle and confusion and anticipation of the disembarking.
Eagerly, wistfully watching it all, stood Sandy, as alert and distressed as a young hound restrained from the hunt. It is something to accept punishment gracefully, but to accept punishment when it can be avoided is nothing short of heroism. Sandy had to shut his eyes and grip the railing to keep from planning an escape. Spread before him in brave array across the water lay the promised land—and, like Moses, he was not to reach it.
"That's the greatest city in America," said the ship's surgeon as he came up to where he was standing. "What do you think of it?"
"I never seen one stand on end afore!" exclaimed Sandy, amazed.
"Would you like to go ashore long enough to look about?" asked the doctor, with a smile running around the fat folds of his cheeks.
"And would I?" asked Sandy, his eyes flying open. "It's me word of honor I'd give you that I'd come back."
"The word of a stowaway, eh?" asked the doctor, still smiling.
In a moment Sandy's face was crimson. "Whatever I be, sir, I ain't a liar!"
The doctor pursed up his lips in comical dismay: "Not so hot, my man; not so hot! So you still want to be a doctor?"
Sandy cooled down sufficiently to say that it was the one ambition of his life.
"I know the physician in charge of the City Hospital here in New York. He's a good fellow. He'd put you through—give you work and put you in the way of going to the Medical School. You'd like that?"
"But," cried Sandy, bewildered but hopeful, "I have to go back!"
The doctor shook his head. "No, you don't. I've paid your passage."
Sandy waited a moment until the full import of the words was taken in, then he grabbed the stout little doctor and almost lifted him off his feet.
"Oh! But ain't you a brick!" he cried fervently, adding earnestly: "It ain't a present you're makin' me, though! I'll pay it back, so help me bob!"
At the pier the crowd of immigrants pushed and crowded impatiently as they waited for the cabin passengers to go ashore. Among them was Sandy, bareheaded and in motley garb, laughing and shoving with the best of them, hanging over the railing, and keeping up a fire of merriment at the expense of the crowd below. In his hand was a letter of recommendation to the physician in charge at the City Hospital, and in his inside pocket a ten-dollar bill was buttoned over a heart that had not a care in the world. In the great stream of life Sandy was one of the bubbles that are apt to come to the top.
"You better come down to Kentucky with me," urged Ricks Wilson, resuming an old argument. "I'm goin' to peddle my way back home, then git a payin' job at the racetrack."
"Wasn't I tellin' ye that it was a doctor I'm goin' to be?" asked Sandy, impatiently. Already Ricks's friendship was proving irksome.
On the gang-plank above him the passengers were leaving the ship. Some delay had arisen, and for a moment the procession halted. Suddenly Sandy caught his breath. There, just above him, stood "the damsel passing fair." Instead of the tam-o'-shanter she wore a big drooping hat of brown, which just matched the curls that were loosely tied at the back of her neck.
Sandy stood motionless and humbly adored her. He was a born lover, lavishing his affection, without discrimination or calculation, upon whatever touched his heart. It surely was no harm just to stand aside and look. He liked the way she carried her head; he liked the way her eyes went up a little at the outer corners, and the round, soft curve of her chin. She was gazing steadfastly ahead of her down the gang-plank, and he ventured a step nearer and continued his observations. As he did so, he made a discovery. The soft white of her cheek was gradually becoming pinker and pinker; the color which began under her lace collar stole up and up until it reached her eyes, which still gazed determinedly before her.
Sandy admired it as a traveler admires a sunrise, and with as little idea of having caused it.
The line of passengers moved slowly forward, and his heart sank. Suddenly his eyes fell upon the little hand-bag which she carried. On one end, in small white letters, was: "Ruth Nelson, Kentucky, U.S.A." He watched her until she was lost to view, then he turned eagerly back into the crowd. Elbowing his way forward, he seized Ricks by the arm.
"Hi, there!" he cried; "I've changed me mind. I'm goin' with you to Kentucky!"
So this impetuous knight errant enlisted under the will-o'-the-wisp love, and started joyously forth upon his quest.
THE CURSE OF WEALTH
It is an oft-proved adage that for ten who can stand adversity there is but one who can stand prosperity. Sandy, alas! was no exception to any rule which went to prove the frailty of human nature. The sudden acquisition of ten dollars cast him into a whirlpool of temptation from which he made little effort to escape.
"I ain't goin' on to-day," announced Ricks. "I'm goin' to lay in my goods for peddlin'. I reckon you kin come along of me."
Sandy accepted a long and strong cigar, tilted his hat, and unconsciously caught Ricks's slouching gait as they went down the street. After all, it was rather pleasant to associate with sophistication.
"We'll git on the outside of a little dinner," said Ricks; "and I'll mosey round in the stores awhile, then I'll take you to a show or two. It's a mighty good thing for you that you got me along."
Sandy thought so too. He cheerfully stood treat for the rest of the day, and felt that it was small return for Ricks's condescension.
"How much you got left?" asked Ricks, that night, as they stopped under a street light to take stock.
Sandy held out a couple of dollars and a fifty-cent piece.
"Enough to put on the eyes of two and a half dead men," he said as he curiously eyed the strange money.
"One, two,—two and a half," counted Ricks.
"Shillings?" asked Sandy, amazed.
"And have I blowed all that to-day?"
"What of it?" asked Ricks. "I seen a bloke onct what lit his cigar with a bill like the one you had!"
"But the doctor said it was two pounds," insisted Sandy, incredulously. He did not realize the expense of a personally conducted tour of the Bowery.
"Well, it's went," said Ricks, resignedly. "You can't count on settin' up biz with what's left."
Sandy's brows clouded, and he shifted his position restlessly. "Now I ax yerself, Ricks, what'u'd you do?" he said.
"Me? I don't give advice to nobody. But effen it was me I'd know mighty quick what to do."
"What?" said Sandy, eagerly.
"Buy a dawg."
"A dog? I ain't goin' blind."
"Lor'! but you're a softhorn," said Ricks, contemptuously. "I s'pose you'd count on leadin' him round by a pink ribbon."
"Oh, you mean a fighter?"
"Sure. My last dawg could do ever'thing in sight. She was so game she went after herself in a lookin'-glass and got kilt. Oh, they's money in dawgs, and I knows how to make 'em win ever' time."
Sandy, tired as he was from the day's excitement, insisted upon going in search of one at once. He already had visions of becoming the proud owner of a canine champion that would put him immediately into the position of lighting his cigar with a two-pound note.
The first three weeks of their experience on the road went far to realize their expectations. The bulldog, which had been bought in partnership, proved a conquering hero. Through the long summer days the boys tramped over the country, peddling their wares, and by night they conducted sundry unlawful encounters wherever an opponent could be found.
Sandy enjoyed the peddling. It was astonishing what friendly sociability and confidential intimacy were established by the sale of blue suspenders and pink soap. He left a line of smiling testimonials in his wake.
But if the days were proving satisfactory, so much could not be said of the nights. Even the phenomenal luck that followed his dog failed to keep up his enthusiasm.
"You ain't a nachrul sport," complained Ricks. "That's your trouble. When the last fight was on, you set on the fence and listened at a' ole idiot scrapin' a fiddle down in the valley."
Sandy made a feeble defense, but he knew in his soul it was so.
Affairs reached a climax one night in an old barn on the outskirts of a town. A fight was about to begin when Sandy discovered Ricks judiciously administering a sedative to the enemy's dog.
Then understanding dawned upon him, and his rage was elemental. With a valor that lacked the better part of discretion, he hurled himself through the crowd and fell upon Ricks.
An hour later, bruised, bloody, and vanquished, he stumbled along through the dreary night. Hot with rage and defeat, utterly ignorant of his whereabouts, his one friend turned foe, he was indeed in sorry plight.
He climbed over the fence and lay face downward in the long, cool grass, stretching his bruised and aching body along the ground. A gentle night wind rustled above him, and by and by a star peeped out, then another and another. Before he knew it, he was listening to the frogs and katydids, and wondering what they were talking about. He ceased to think about Ricks and his woes, and gave himself up to the delicious, drowsy peace that was all about him. For, child of nature that he was, he had turned to the only mother he knew.
The next morning, at the nearest railroad station, an irate cattleman was trying to hire some one to take charge of a car of live stock which was on its way to a great exposition in a neighboring city. The man he had counted on had not appeared, and the train was about due.
As he was turning away in desperation he felt a tug at his elbow. Looking around, he saw a queer figure with a countenance that resembled a first attempt at a charcoal sketch from life: one cheek was larger than the other, the mouth was sadly out of drawing, the eyes shone out from among the bruises like the sun from behind the clouds. But if the features were disfigured, the smile was none the less courageous.
Sandy had found a friendly sympathizer at a neighboring farm-house, had been given a good breakfast, had made his toilet, and was ready for the next round in the fight of life.
"I'll be doin' yer job, sir, whatever it is," he said pleasantly.
The man eyed him with misgiving, but his need was urgent.
"All you have to do is to stay in the car and look after the cattle. My man will meet you when you reach the city. Do you think you can do it?"
"Just keep company with the cows?" cried Sandy. "Sure and I can!"
So the bargain was struck, and that night found him in the great city with a dollar in his pocket and a promise of work in the morning.
Tired and sore from the experiences of the night before, he sought a cheap lodging-house near by. A hook-nosed woman, carrying a smoking lamp, conducted him to a room under the eaves. It was small and suffocating. He involuntarily lifted his hands and touched the ceiling.
"It's like a boilin' potato I feel," he said; "and the pot's so little and the lid so tight!"
He went to the window, and taking out the nail that held down the sash, pushed it up. Below him lay the great, bustling city, cabs and cars in constant motion, long lines of blazing lights marking the thoroughfares, the thunder of trains in the big station, and above and below and through it all a dull monotonous roar, like the faraway unceasing cry of a hungry beast.
He sank on his knees by the window, and a restless, nervous look came into his eyes.
"It presses in, too," he thought. "It's all crowdin' over me. I'm just me by myself, all alone." A tear made a white course down his grimy cheek, then another and another. He brushed them impatiently away with the cap he still held in his hand.
Rising abruptly, he turned away from the window, and the hot air of the room again smote him. The smoking lamp had blackened the chimney, and as he bent to turn it down, he caught his reflection in a small mirror over the table. What the bruises and swelling had left undone the cheap mirror completed. He started back. Was that the boy he knew as himself? Was that Sandy Kilday who had come to America to seek his fortune? He stared in a sort of fascinated horror at that other boy in the mirror. Before he had been afraid to be by himself, now he was afraid of himself.
He seized his cap, and blowing out the lamp, plunged down four flights of steep narrow steps and out into the street. A number of people were crowding into a street-car marked "Exposition." Sandy, ever a straw in the current, joined them. Once more down among his fellow-men, he began to feel more comfortable. He cheerfully paid his entrance fee with one of the two silver coins in his pocket.
The first building he entered was the art gallery, and the first picture that caught his eye held him spellbound. He sat before it all the evening with fascinated eyes, devouring every detail and oblivious to the curious interest he was attracting; for the huge canvas represented the Knights of the Round Table, and he had at last found friends.
All the way back he thought about the picture; it was not until he reached his room that the former loneliness returned.
But even then it was not for long. A pair of yellow eyes peered around the window-sill, and a plaintive "meow" begged for admittance. It was plainly Providence that guided that thin and ill-treated kitten to Sandy's window. The welcome it received must have completely restored its shaken faith in human nature. Tired as he was, Sandy went out and bought some milk. He wanted to establish a firm friendship; for if he was to stay in this lonely city, he must have something to love, if only a prodigal kitten of doubtful pedigree.
During the long, hot days that followed Sandy worked faithfully at the depot. The regular hours and confinement seemed doubly irksome after the bohemian life on the road.
The Exposition was his salvation. No sacrifice seemed too great to enable him to get beyond that magic gate. For the "Knights of the Round Table" was but the beginning of miles and miles of wonderful pictures. He even bought a catalogue, and, prompted by a natural curiosity for anything that interested him, learned the names of the artists he liked best, and the bits of biography attached to each. He would recite these to the yellow kitten when he got back to his little hot-box of a room.
One night the art gallery was closed, and he went into another big building where a crowd of people were seated. At one end of it was a great pipe-organ, and after a while some one began to play. With his cap tightly grasped in both hands, he tiptoed down the center aisle and stood breathlessly drinking in the wonderful tones that seemed to be coming from his own heart.
"Get out of the way, boy," said an usher. "You are blocking the aisle."
A queer-appearing lady who looked like a man touched his elbow.
"Here's a seat," she said in a deep voice.
"Thank you, sir," said Sandy, absently. He scarcely knew whether he was sitting or standing. He only wanted to be let alone, so that he could listen to those strange, beautiful sounds that made a shiver of joy go down his back. Art had had her day; it was Music's turn.
When the last number had been played, he turned to the queer lady:
"Do they do it every night?"
She smiled at his enthusiasm: "Wednesdays and Saturdays."
"Say," said Sandy, confidentially, "if you come first do you save me a seat, and I'll do the same by you."
From that time on he decided to be a musician, and he lived on two scanty meals a day in order to attend the concerts.
But this exalted scheme of high thinking and plain living soon became irksome. One day, when his loneliness weighed most heavily upon him, he was sent with a message out to the switch-station. As he tramped back along the track he spied a familiar figure ahead of him. There was no mistaking that short, slouching body with the peddler's pack strapped on its back. With a cry of joy, Sandy bounded after Ricks Wilson. He actually hugged him in his joy to be once more with some one he knew.
Ricks glanced uneasily at the scar above his eye.
Sandy clapped his hand over it and laughed. "It's all right, Ricks; a miss is as good as a mile. I ain't mad any more. It's straight home with me you are goin'; and if we can get the two feet of you into me bit of a room, we'll have a dinner that's fit for a king."
On the way they laid in a supply of provisions, Sandy even going to the expense of a bottle of beer for Ricks.
The yellow kitten arched her back and showed general signs of hostility when the stranger was introduced. But her unfriendly demonstrations were ignored. Ricks was the honored guest, and Sandy extended to him the full hospitality of the establishment.
"Put your pack on the floor and yerself in the chair, and I'll get ye filled up in the blink of an eyelash. Don't be mindin' the cat, Ricks. She's just lettin' on she don't take to you. She give me the wink on the sly."
Ricks, expanding under the influence of food and drink, became eloquent. He recounted courageous adventures of the past, and outlined marvelous schemes for the future, by which he was going to make a short cut to fame and glory.
When it was time for him to go, Sandy heaved a sigh of regret. For two hours he had been beguiled by Ricks's romances, and now he had to go back to the humdrum duties at the depot, and receive a sound rating for his belated appearance.
"Which way might you be goin', Ricks?" he asked wistfully.
"Same place I started fer," said Ricks. "Kentucky."
The will-o'-the-wisp, which had been hiding his light, suddenly swung it full in the eyes of Sandy. Once more he saw the little maid of his dreams, and once more he threw discretion to the winds and followed the vision.
Hastily collecting his few possessions, he rolled them into a bundle, and slipping the surprised kitten into his pocket, he gladly followed Ricks once more out into the broad green meadows, along the white and shining roads that lead over the hills to Kentucky.
SANDY RETIRES FROM BUSINESS
"This here is too blame slow fer me," said Ricks, one chilly night in late September, as he and Sandy huddled against a haystack and settled up their weekly accounts.
"Fifty-five cents! Now ain't that a' o'nery dab? Here's a quarter fer you and thirty cents fer me; that's as even as you kin split it."
"It's the microscopes that'll be sellin'," said Sandy, hopefully, as he pulled his coat collar about his ears and shivered. "The man as sold 'em to me said they was a great bargain entirely. He thought there was money in 'em."
"For him," said Ricks, contemptuously. "It's like the man what gulled us on the penknives. I lay to git even with him, all right."
"But he give us the night's lodgin' and some breakfast," said Sandy.
Ricks took a long drink from a short bottle, then holding it before him, he said impressively: "A feller could do me ninety-nine good turns, and if he done me one bad one it would wipe 'em all out. I got to git even with anybody what does me dirty, if it takes me all my life."
"But don't you forget to remember?"
"Not me. I ain't that kind."
Sandy leaned wearily against the haystack and tried to shelter himself from the wind. A continued diet of bread and water had made him sensitive to the changes in the weather.
"This here grub is kinder hard on yer head-rails," said Ricks, trying to bite through a piece of stale bread. A baker had let them have three loaves for a dime because they were old and hard.
Sandy cast a longing look at Ricks's short bottle. It seemed to remedy so many ills, heat or cold, thirst or hunger. But the strict principles applied during his tender years made him hesitate.
"I wish we hadn't lost the kitten," he said, feeling the need of a more cheerful companion.
"I'm a-goin' to git another dawg," announced Ricks. "I'm sick of this here doin's."
"Ain't we goin' to be turfmen?" asked Sandy, who had listened by the hour to thrilling accounts of life on the track, and had accepted Ricks's ambition as his own.
"Not on twenty cents per week," growled Ricks.
Sandy's heart sank; he knew what a new dog meant. He burrowed in the hay and tried to sleep, but there was a queer pain that seemed to catch hold of his breath whenever he breathed down deep.
It rained the next day, and they tramped disconsolately through village after village.
They had oil-cloth covers for their baskets, but their own backs were soaked to the skin.
Toward evening they came to the top of a hill, from which they could look directly down upon a large town lying comfortably in the crook of a river's elbow. The rain had stopped, and the belated sun, struggling through the clouds, made up for lost time by reflecting itself in every curve of the winding stream, in every puddle along the road, and in every pane of glass that faced the west.
"That's a nobby hoss," said Ricks, pointing down the hill. "What's the matter with the feller?"
A slight, delicate-looking young man was lying in the road, between the horse and the fence. As the boys came up he stirred and tried to rise.
"He's off his nut," said Ricks, starting to pass on; but Sandy stopped.
"Get a fall?" he asked.
The strange boy shook his head. "I guess I fainted. I must have ridden too hard. I'll be all right in a minute." He leaned his head against a tree and closed his eyes.
Sandy eyed him curiously, taking in all the details of his riding-costume down to the short whip with the silver mounting.
"I say, Ricks," he called to his companion, who was inspecting the horse, "can't we do somethin' for him?"
Ricks reluctantly produced the short bottle.
"I'm all right," insisted the boy, "if you'll just give me a lift to the saddle." But his eager eyes followed the bottle, and before Ricks had returned it to his pocket he held out his hand. "I believe I will take a drink if you don't mind." He drained the contents and then handed a coin to Ricks.
"Now, if you'll help me," continued the stranger. "There! Thank you very much."
"Say, what town is this, anyway?" asked Ricks.
"Clayton," said the boy, trying to keep his horse from backing.
"Looks like somethin' was doin'," said Ricks.
"Circus, I believe."
"Then I don't blame your nag for wantin' to go back!" cried Sandy. "Come on, Ricks; let's take in the show!"
Half-way down the hill he turned. "Haven't we seen that fellow before, Ricks?"
"Not as I knows of. He looked kinder pale and shaky, but you bet yer life he knowed how to hit the bottle."
"He was sick," urged Sandy.
"An' thirsty," added Ricks, with a smile of superior wisdom.
The circus seemed such a timely opportunity to do business that they decided to rent a stand that night and sell their wares on the street corner. Ricks went on into town to arrange matters, while Sandy stopped in a grocery to buy their supper. His interest in the show had been of short duration. He felt listless and tired, something seemed to be buzzing continually in his head, and he shivered in his damp clothes. In the grocery he sat on a barrel and leaned his head against the wall.
"What you shivering about?" asked the fat woman behind the counter, as she tied up his small package.
"I feel like me skeleton was doin' a jig inside of me," said Sandy through chattering teeth.
"Looks to me like you got a chill," said the fat woman. "You wait here, and I'll go git you some hot coffee."
She disappeared in the rear of the store, and soon returned with a small coffee-pot and a cup and saucer. Sandy drank two cups and a half, then he asked the price.
"Price?" repeated the woman, indignantly. "I reckon you don't know which side of the Ohio River you're on!"
Sandy made up in gratitude what she declined in cash, and started on his way. At the corner of Main street and the bridge he found Ricks, who had rented a stand and was already arranging his wares. Sandy knelt on the sidewalk and unpacked his basket.
"Only three bars of soap and seventy-five microscopes!" he exclaimed ruefully. "Let's be layin' fine stress on the microscopes, Ricks."
"You do the jawin', Sandy. I ain't much on givin' 'em the talk," said Ricks. "Chuck a jolly at 'em and keep 'em hangin' round."
As dark came on, trade began. The three bars of soap were sold, and a purple necktie. Sandy saw that public taste must be guided in the proper direction. He stepped up on a box and began eloquently to enumerate the diverse uses of microscopes.
At each end of the stand a flaring torch lighted up the scene. The light fell on the careless, laughing faces in front, on Ricks Wilson, black-browed and suspicious, in the rear, and it fell full on Sandy, who stood on high and harangued the crowd. It fell on his broad, straight shoulders and on his shining tumbled hair; but it was not the light of the torch that gave the brightness to his eyes and the flush to his cheek. His head was throbbing, but he felt a curious sense of elation. He felt that he could stand there and talk the rest of his life. He made the crowd listen, he made it laugh, he made it buy. He told stories and sang songs, he coaxed and persuaded, until only a few microscopes were left and the old cigar-box was heavy with silver.
"Step right up and take a look at a fly's leg! Every one ought to have a microscope in his home. When you get hard up it will make a dime look like a dollar, and a dollar like a five-dollar gold piece. Step right up! I ain't kiddin' you. Five cents for two looks, and fifteen for the microscope."
Suddenly he faltered. At the edge of the crowd he had recognized two faces. They were sensitive slender faces, strangely alike in feature and unlike in expression. The young horseman of the afternoon was impatiently pushing his way through the crowd, while close behind him was a dainty girl with brown eyes slightly lifted at the outer corners, who held back in laughing wonder to watch the scene.
"Ricks," said Sandy, lowering his voice unsteadily, "is this Kentucky?"
"Yep; we crossed the line to-day."
"I can't talk no more," said Sandy. "You'll have to be doin' it. I'm sick."
It was not only the fever that was burning in his veins, and making him bury his hot head in his hands and wish he had never been born. It was shame and humiliation, and all because of the look on the face of the girl at the edge of the crowd. He sat in the shadow of the big box and fought his fight. The coffee and the excitement no longer kept him up; he was faint, and his breath came short. Above him he heard Ricks's rasping voice still talking to the few customers who were left. He knew, without glancing up, just how Ricks looked when he said the words; he knew how his teeth pushed his lips back, and how his restless little eyes watched everything at once. A sudden fierce repulsion swept over him for peddling, for Ricks, for himself.
"And to think," he whispered, with a sob in his throat, "that I can't ever speak to a girl like that!"
Ricks, jubilant over the success of the evening, decided to follow the circus, which was to be in the next town on the following day.
"It ain't fur," he said. "We kin push on to-night and be ready to open early in the morning."
Sandy, miserable in body and spirit, mechanically obeyed instructions. His head was getting queerer all the time, and he could not remember whether it was day or night. About a mile from Clayton he sank down by the road.
"Say, Ricks," he said abruptly; "I'm after quittin' peddlin'."
"What you goin' to do?"
"I'm goin' to school."
If Sandy had announced his intention of putting on baby clothes and being wheeled in a perambulator, Ricks could not have been more astonished.
"What?" he asked in genuine doubt.
"'Cause I want to be the right sort," burst out Sandy, passionately. "This ain't the way you get to be the right sort."
Ricks surveyed him contemptuously. "Look-a here, are you comin' along of me or not?"
"I can't," said Sandy, weakly.
Ricks shifted his pack, and with never a parting word or a backward look he left his business partner of three months lying by the roadside, and tramped away in the darkness.
Sandy started up to follow him; he tried to call, but he had no strength. He lay with his face on the road and talked. He knew there was nobody to listen, but still he kept on, softly talking about microscopes and pink soap, crying out again and again that he couldn't ever speak to a girl like that.
After a long while somebody came. At first he thought he must have gone back to the land behind the peat-flames, for it was a great black witch who bent over him, and he instinctively felt about in the grass for the tender, soft hand which he used to press against his cheek. He found instead the hand of the witch herself, and he drew back in terror.
"Fer de Lawd sake, honey, what's de matter wif you?" asked a kindly voice. Sandy opened his eyes. A tall old negro woman bent over him, her head tied up in a turban, and a shawl about her shoulders.
"Did you git runned over?" she asked, peering down at him anxiously.
Sandy tried to explain, but it was all the old mixture of soap and microscopes and never being able to speak to her. He knew he was talking at random, but he could not say the things he thought.
"Where'd you come from, boy?"
"Curragh Chase, Limerick," murmured Sandy.
"'Fore de Lawd, he's done been cunjered!" cried the old woman, aghast. "I'll git it outen of you, chile. You jus' come home wif yer Aunt Melvy; she'll take keer of you. Put yer arm on my shoulder; dat's right. Don't you mind where you gwine at. I got yer bundle. It ain't fur. Hit's dat little house a-hangin' on de side of de hill. Dey calls it 'Who'd 'a' Thought It,' 'ca'se you nebber would 'a' thought of puttin' a house dere. Dat's right; lean on yer mammy. I'll git dem old cunjers outen you."
Thus encouraged and supported, Sandy stumbled on through the dark, up a hillside that seemed never to end, across a bridge, then into a tiny log cabin, where he dropped exhausted.
Off and on during the night he knew that there was a fire in the room, and that strange things were happening to him. But it was all so queer and unnatural that he did not know where the dreams left off and the real began. He was vaguely conscious of his left foot being tied to the right bedpost, of a lock of his hair being cut off and burned on the hearth, and of a low monotonous chant that seemed to rise and fall with the flicker of the flames. And when he cried out with the pain in his sleep, a kindly black face bent over him, and the chant changed into a soothing murmur:
"Nebber you min', sonny; Aunt Melvy gwine git dem cunjers out. She gwine stay by you. You hol' on to her han', an' go to sleep; she'll git dem old cunjers out."
Clayton was an easy-going, prosperous old town which, in the enthusiasm of youth, had started to climb the long hill to the north, but growing indolent with age, had decided instead to go around.
Main street, broad and shady under an unbroken arch of maple boughs, was flanked on each side by "Back street," the generic term applied to all the parallel streets. The short cross-streets were designated by the most direct method: "the street by the Baptist church," "the street by Dr. Fenton's," "the street going out to Judge Hollis's," or "the street where Mr. Moseley used to live." In the heart of the town was the square, with the gray, weather-beaten court-house, the new and formidable jail, the post-office and church.
For twenty years Dr. Fenton's old high-seated buggy had jogged over the same daily course. It started at nine o'clock and passed with never-varying regularity up one street and down another. When any one was ill a sentinel was placed at the gate to hail the doctor, who was as sure to pass as the passenger-train. It was a familiar joke in Clayton that the buggy had a regular track, and that the wheels always ran in the same rut. Once, when Carter Nelson had taken too much egg-nog and his aunt thought he had spinal meningitis, the usual route had been reversed, and again when the blacksmith's triplets were born. But these were especial occasions. It was a matter for investigation when the doctor's buggy went over the bridge before noon.
"Anybody sick out this way?" asked the miller.
The doctor stopped the buggy to explain.
He was a short, fat man dressed in a suit of Confederate gray. The hand that held the reins was minus two fingers, his willing contribution to the Lost Cause, which was still to him the great catastrophe of all history. His whole personality was a bristling arsenal of prejudices. When he spoke it was in quick, short volleys, in a voice that seemed to come from the depths of a megaphone.
"Strange boy sick at Judge Hollis's. How's trade?"
"Fair to middlin'," answered the miller. "Do you reckon that there boy has got anything ketchin'?"
"Catching?" repeated the doctor savagely. "What if he has?" he demanded. "Two epidemics of typhoid, two of yellow fever, and one of smallpox—that's my record, sir!"
"Looks like my children will ketch a fly-bite," said the miller, apologetically.
A little farther on the doctor was stopped again—this time by a maiden in a pink-and-white gingham, with a mass of light curls bobbing about her face.
"Dad!" she called as she scrambled over the fence. "Where you g-going, dad?"
The doctor flapped the lines nervously and tried to escape, but she pursued him madly. Catching up with the buggy, she pulled herself up on the springs and thrust an impudent, laughing face through the window at the back.
"Annette," scolded her father, "aren't you ashamed? Fourteen years old, and a tomboy! Get down!"
"Where you g-going, dad?" she stammered, unabashed.
"To Judge Hollis's. Get down this minute!"
"Somebody's sick. Get down, I say!"
Instead of getting down, she got in, coming straight through the small window, and arriving in a tangle of pink and white at his side.
The doctor heaved a prodigious sigh. As a colonel of the Confederacy he had exacted strict discipline and unquestioning obedience, but he now found himself ignominiously reduced to the ranks, and another Fenton in command.
At Hollis Farm the judge met them at the gate. He was large and loose-jointed, with the frame of a Titan and the smile of a child. He wore a long, loose dressing-gown and a pair of slippers elaborately embroidered in green roses. His big, irregular features were softened by an expression of indulgent interest toward the world at large.
"Good morning, doctor. Howdy, Nettie. How are you all this morning?"
"Who's sick?" growled the doctor as he hitched his horse to the fence.
"It's a stray lad, doctor; my old cook, Melvy, played the good Samaritan and picked him up off the road last night. She brought him to me this morning. He's out of his head with a fever."
"Where'd he come from?" asked the doctor.
"Mrs. Hollis says he was peddling goods up at Main street and the bridge last night."
"Which one is he?" demanded Annette, eagerly, as she emerged from the buggy. "Is he g-good-looking, with blue eyes and light hair? Or is he b-black and ugly and sort of cross-eyed?"
The judge peered over his glasses quizzically. "Thinking about the boys, as usual! Now I want to know what business you have noticing the color of a peddler's eyes?"
Annette blushed, but she stood her ground. "All the g-girls noticed him. He wasn't an ordinary peddler. He was just as smart and f-funny as could be."
"Well, he isn't smart and funny now," said the judge, with a grim laugh.
The two men passed up the long avenue and into the house. At the door they were met by Mrs. Hollis, whose small angular person breathed protest. Her black hair was arranged in symmetrical bands which were drawn tightly back from a straight part. When she talked, a gold-capped tooth was disclosed on each side of her mouth, giving rise to the judge's joke that one was capped to keep the other company, since Mrs. Hollis's sense of order and regularity rebelled against one eye-tooth of one color and the other of another.
"Good morning, doctor," she said shortly; "there's the door-mat. No, don't put your hat there; I'll take it. Isn't this a pretty business for Melvy to come bringing a sick tramp up here—on general cleaning-day, too?"
"Aren't all days cleaning-days to you, Sue?" asked the judge, playfully.
"When you are in the house," she answered sharply. Then she turned to the doctor, who was starting up the stairs:
"If this boy is in for a long spell, I want him moved somewhere. I can't have my carpets run over and my whole house smelling like a hospital."
"Now, Susan," remonstrated the judge, gently, "we can't turn the lad out. We've got room and to spare. If he's got the fever, he'll have to stay."
"We'll see, we'll see," said the doctor.
But when he tiptoed down from the room above there was no question about it.
"Very sick boy," he said, rubbing his hand over his bald head. "If he gets better, I might take him over to Mrs. Meech's; he can't be moved now."
"Mrs. Meech!" cried Mrs. Hollis, in fine scorn. "Do you think I would let him go to that dirty house—and with this fever, too? Why, Mrs. Meech's front curtains haven't been washed since Christmas! She and the preacher and Martha all sit around with their noses in books, and never even know that the water-spout is leaking and the porch needs mopping! You can't tell me anything about the Meeches!"
Neither of the men tried to do so; they stood silent in the doorway, looking very grave.
"For mercy sake! what is that in the front lot?" exclaimed Mrs. Hollis.
The doctor had an uncomfortable premonition, which was promptly verified. One of the judge's friskiest colts was circling madly about the driveway, while astride of it, in triumph, sat Annette, her dress ripped at the belt, her hair flying.
"If she don't need a woman's hand!" exclaimed Mrs. Hollis. "I could manage her all right."
The doctor looked from Mrs. Hollis, with her firm, close-shut mouth, to the flying figure on the lawn.
"Perhaps," he said, lifting his brows; but he put the odds on Annette.
That night, when Aunt Melvy brought the lamp into the sitting-room, she waited nervously near Mrs. Hollis's chair.
"Miss Sue," she ventured presently, "is de cunjers comin' out?"
"De cunjers what dat pore chile's got. I done tried all de spells I knowed, but look lak dey didn't do no good."
"He has the fever," said Mrs. Hollis; "and it means a long spell of nursing and bother for me."
The judge stirred uncomfortably. "Now, Sue," he remonstrated, "you needn't take a bit of bother. Melvy will see to him by day, and I will look after him at night."
Mrs. Hollis bit her lip and heroically refrained from expressing her mind.
"He's a mighty purty chile," said Aunt Melvy, tentatively.
"He's a common tramp," said Mrs. Hollis.
After supper, arranging a tray with a snowy napkin and a steaming bowl of broth, Mrs. Hollis went up to the sick-room. Her first step had been to have the patient bathed and combed and made presentable for the occupancy of the guest-chamber. It had been with rebellion of spirit that she placed him there, but the judge had taken one of those infrequent stands which she knew it was useless to resist. She put the tray on a table near the big four-poster bed, and leaned over to look at the sleeper.
Sandy lay quiet among the pillows, his fair hair tumbled, his lips parted. As the light fell on his flushed face he stirred.
"Here's your supper," said Mrs. Hollis, her voice softening in spite of herself. He was younger than she had thought. She slipped her arm under the pillow and raised his head.
"You must eat," she said kindly.
He looked at her vacantly, then a momentary consciousness flitted over his face, a vague realization that he was being cared for. He put up a hot hand and gently touched her cheek; then, rallying all his strength, he smiled away his debt of gratitude. It was over in a moment, and he sank back unconscious.
Through the dreary hours of the night Mrs. Hollis sat by the bed, nursing him with the aching tenderness that only a childless woman can know. Below, in the depths of a big feather-bed, the judge slept in peaceful unconcern, disturbing the silence by a series of long, loud, and unmelodious snores.
"Is that the Nelson phaeton going out the road?" asked Mrs. Hollis as she peered out through the dining-room window one morning. "I shouldn't be a bit surprised if it was Mrs. Nelson making her yearly visits, and here my bricks haven't been reddened."
Sandy's heart turned a somersault. He was sitting up for the first time, wrapped in blankets and wearing a cap to cover his close-cropped head. All through his illness he had been tortured by the thought that he had talked of Ruth, though now wild horses could not have dragged forth a question concerning her.
"Melvy," continued Mrs. Hollis, as she briskly rubbed the sideboard with some unsavory furniture-polish, "if Mrs. Nelson does come here, you be sure to put on your white apron before you open the door; and for pity sake don't forget the card-tray! You ought to know better than to stick out your hand for a lady's calling-card. I told you about that last week."
Aunt Melvy paused in her dusting and chuckled: "Lor', honey, dat's right! You orter put on airs all de time, wid all de money de judge is got. He says to me yisterday, says he, 'Can't you 'suade yer Miss Sue not to be cleanin' up so much, an' not to go out in de front yard wid dat ole sunbonnet on?'"
"Well, I'd like to know how things would get done if I didn't do them," exclaimed Mrs. Hollis, hotly. "I suppose he would like me to let things go like the Meeches! The only time I ever saw Mrs. Meech work was when she swept the front pavement, and then she made Martha walk around behind her and read out loud while she was doing it."
"It's Mr. Meech that's in the yard now," announced Sandy from the side window. "He's raking the leaves with one hand and a-reading a book with the other."
"I knew it!" cried Mrs. Hollis. "I never saw such doings. They say she even leaves the dishes overnight. And yet she can sit on her porch and smile at people going by, just like her house was cleaned up. I hate a hypocrite."
Sandy had had ample time to watch the Meeches during his long convalescence. He had been moved from the spare room to a snug little room over the kitchen, which commanded a fine view of the neighbors. When the green book got too heavy to hold, or his eyes grew too tired to look at the many magazines with which the judge supplied him, he would lie still and watch the little drama going on next door.
Mrs. Meech was a large, untidy woman who always gave the impression of needing to be tucked up. The end of her gray braid hung out behind one ear, her waist hung out of her belt, and even the buttons on her shoes hung out of the buttonholes in shameless laziness.
Mr. Meech did not need tucking in; he needed letting out. He seemed to have shrunk in the wash of life. In spite of the fact that he was three sizes too small for his wife, to begin with, he emphasized it by wearing trousers that cleared his shoe-tops and sleeves half-way to his elbows. But this was only on week-days, for on Sunday Sandy would see him emerge, expand, and flutter forth in an ample suit of shiny broadcloth. For Mr. Meech was the pastor of the Hard-Shell Baptist Church in Clayton, and if his domestic economy was a matter of open gossip, there was no question concerning the fact of his learning. It had been the boast of the congregation for years that Judge Hollis was the only man in town who was smart enough to understand his sermons. When Mr. Meech started out in the morning with a book under his arm and one sticking out of each pocket, Sandy would pull up on his elbow to watch proceedings. He loved to see fat Mrs. Meech pat the little man lovingly on the head and kiss him good-by; he loved to see Martha walk with him to the gate and throw kisses after him until he turned the curve in the road.
Martha was a pale, thin girl with two long, straight plaits and a long, straight dress. She went to school in the morning, and when she came home at noon her mother always hurried to meet her and kissed her on both cheeks. Sandy had got quite in the habit of watching for her at the side window where she came to study. He leaned forward now to see if she were there.
"I thought so!" cried Mrs. Hollis, looking over his shoulder. "There comes the Nelson phaeton this minute! Melvy, get on your white apron. I'll wind up the cuckoo-clock and unlock the parlor door."
"Who is it?" ventured Sandy, with internal tremors.
"Hit's Mrs. Nelson an' her niece, Miss Rufe," said Aunt Melvy, nervously trying to reverse her apron after tying the bow in the front. "Dey's big bugs, dey is. Dey is quality, an' no mistake. I b'longed to Miss Rufe's grandpaw; he done lef' her all his money, she an' Mr. Carter. Poor Mr. Carter! Dey say he ain't got no lungs to speak of. Ain't no wonder he's sorter wild like. He takes after his grandpaw, my ole mars'. Lor', honey, de mint-juleps jus' nachelly ooze outen de pores ob his grandpaw's skin! But Miss Rufe she ain't like none ob dem Nelsons; she favors her maw. She's quality inside an' out."
A peal of the bell cut short further interesting revelations. Aunt Melvy hurried through the hall, leaving doors open behind her. At the front door she paused in dismay. Before her stood the Nelsons in calling attire, presenting two immaculate cards for her acceptance. Too late she remembered her instructions.
"'Fore de Lawd!" she cried in consternation, "ef I ain't done fergit dat pan ag'in!"
Sandy, left alone in the dining-room, was listening with every nerve a-quiver for the sound of Ruth's voice. The thought that she was here under the same roof with him sent the blood bounding through his veins. He pulled himself up, and trailing the blanket behind him, made his way somewhat unsteadily across the room and up the back stairs.
Behind the door of his room hung the pride of his soul, a new suit of clothes, whole, patchless, clean, which the judge had bought him two days before. He had sat before it in speechless admiration; he had hung it in every possible light to get the full benefit of its beauty; he had even in the night placed it on a chair beside the bed, so that he could put out his hand in the dark and make sure it was there. For it was the first new suit of clothes that he remembered ever to have possessed. He had not intended to wear it until Sunday, but the psychological moment had arrived.
With trembling fingers and many pauses for rest, he made his toilet. He looked in the mirror, and his heart nearly burst with pride. The suit, to be sure, hung limp on his gaunt frame, and his shaven head gave him the appearance of a shorn lamb, but to Sandy the reflection was eminently satisfying. One thing only seemed to be lacking. He meditated a moment, then, with some misgiving, picked up a small linen doily from the dresser, and carefully folding it, placed it in his breast-pocket, with one corner just visible.
Triumphant in mind, if weak in body, he slipped down the back steps, skirted Aunt Melvy's domain, and turned the corner of the house just as the Nelson phaeton rolled out of the yard. Before he had time to give way to utter despair a glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon, for the phaeton stopped, and there was evidently something the matter. Sandy did not wait for it to be remedied. He ran down the road with all the speed he could muster.
Near the gate where the little branch crossed the turnpike was a slight embankment, and two wheels of the phaeton had slipped over the edge and were buried deep in the soft earth. Beside it, sitting indignantly in the water, was an irate lady who had evidently attempted to get out backward and had taken a sudden and unexpected seat. Her countenance was a pure specimen of Gothic architecture; a massive pompadour reared itself above two Gothic eyebrows which flanked a nose of unquestioned Gothic tendencies. Her mouth, with its drooping corners, completed the series of arches, and the whole expression was one of aspiring melancholy and injured majesty.
Kneeling at her side, reassuring her and wiping the water from her hands, was Ruth Nelson.
"God send you ain't hurt, ma'am!" cried Sandy, arriving breathless.
The girl looked up and shook her head in smiling protest, but the Gothic lady promptly suffered a relapse.
"I am—I know I am! Just look at my dress covered with mud, and my glove is split. Get my smelling-salts, Ruth!"
Ruth, upon whom the lady was leaning, turned to Sandy.
"Will you hand it to me? It is in the little bag there on the seat."
Sandy rushed to do her bidding. He was rather hazy as to the object of his search; but when his fingers touched a round, soft ball he drew it forth and hastily presented it to the lady's Roman nose.
She, with closed eyes, was taking deep whiffs when a laugh startled her.
"Oh, Aunt Clara, it's your powder-puff!" cried Ruth, unable to restrain her mirth.
Mrs. Nelson rose with as much dignity as her draggled condition would permit. "You'd better get me home," she said solemnly. "I may be internally injured." She turned to Sandy. "Boy, can't you get that phaeton back on the road?"
Sandy, whose chagrin over his blunder had sent him to the background, came promptly forward. Seizing the wheel, he made several ineffectual efforts to lift it back to the road.
"It is not moving an inch!" announced the mournful voice from above. "Can't you take hold of it nearer the back, and exert a little more strength?"
Sandy bit his lip and shot a swift glance at Ruth. She was still smiling. With savage determination he fell upon the wheel as if it had been a mortal foe; he pushed and shoved and pulled, and finally, with a rally of all his strength, he went on his knees in the mud and lifted the phaeton back on the road.
Then came a collapse, and he leaned against the nearest tree and struggled with the deadly faintness that was stealing over him.
"Why—why, you are the boy who was sick!" cried Ruth, in dismay.
Sandy, white and trembling, shook his head protestingly. "It's me bellows that's rocky," he explained between gasps.
Mrs. Nelson rustled back into the phaeton, and taking a piece of money from her purse, held it out to him.
"That will amply repay you," she said.
Sandy flushed to the roots of his close-cropped hair. A tip, heretofore a gift of the gods, had suddenly become an insult. Angry, impetuous words rushed to his lips, and he took a step forward. Then he was aware of a sudden change in the girl, who had just stepped into the phaeton. She shot a quick, indignant look at her aunt, then turned around and smiled a good-by to him.
He lifted his cap and said, "I thank ye." But it was not to Mrs. Nelson, who still held the money as they drove out of the avenue.
Sandy went wearily back to the house. He had made his first trial in behalf of his lady fair, but his soul knew no elation. His beautiful new armor had sustained irreparable injury, and his vanity had received a mortal wound.
AUNT MELVY AS A SOOTHSAYER
It was a crisp afternoon in late October. The road leading west from Clayton ran the gantlet of fiery maples and sumac until it reached the barren hillside below "Who'd 'a' Thought It." The little cabin clung to the side of the steep slope like a bit of fungus to the trunk of a tree.
In the doorway sat three girls, one tall and dark, one plump and fair, and the third straight and thin. They were anxiously awaiting the revelation of the future as disclosed by Aunt Melvy's far-famed tea-leaves. The prophetess kept them company while waiting for the water to boil.
"He sutenly is a peart boy," she was saying. "De jedge done start him in plumb at de foot up at de 'cademy, an' dey tell me he's ketchin' up right along."
"Wasn't it g-grand in Judge Hollis to send him to school?" said Annette. "Of course he's going to work for him b-between times. They say even Mrs. Hollis is glad he is going to stay."
"'Co'se she is," said Aunt Melvy; "dere nebber was nobody come it over Miss Sue lak he done."
"Father says he is very quick," ventured Martha Meech, a faint color coming to her dull cheek at this unusual opportunity of descanting upon such an absorbing subject. "Father told Judge Hollis he would help him with his lessons, and that he thought it would be only a little while before he was up with the other boys."
"Dad says he's a d-dandy," cried Annette. "And isn't it grand he's going to be put on the ball team and the glee club!"
Ruth rose to break a branch laden with crimson maple-leaves. "Was he ever here before?" she asked in puzzled tones. "I have seen him somewhere, and I can't think where."
"Well, I'd never f-forget him," said Annette. "He's got the jolliest face I ever saw. M-Martha says he can jump that high fence b-back of the Hollises' without touching it. I d-drove dad's buggy clear up over the curbstone yesterday, so he would come to the r-rescue, and he swung on to old B-Baldy's neck like he had been a race-horse."
"But you don't know him," protested Ruth. "And, besides, he was—he was a peddler."
"I don't care if he was," said Annette. "And if I don't know him, it's no sign I am not g-going to."
Aunt Melvy chuckled as she rose to encourage the fire with a pair of squeaking old bellows.
Martha looked about the room curiously. "Can you really tell what's going to happen?" she asked timidly.
"Indeed she can," said Annette. "She told Jane Lewis that she was g-going to have some g-good luck, and the v-very next week her aunt died and left her a turquoise-ring!"
"Yas, chile," said Aunt Melvy, bending over the fire to light her pipe; "I been habin' divisions for gwine on five year. Dat's what made me think I wuz gwine git religion; but hit ain't come yit—not yit. I'm a mourner an' a seeker." Her pipe dropped unheeded, and she gazed with fixed eyes out of the window.
"Tell us about your visions," demanded Annette.
"Well," said Aunt Melvy, "de fust I knowed about it wuz de lizards in my legs. I could feel 'em jus' as plain as day, dese here little green lizards a-runnin' round inside my legs. I tole de doctor 'bout hit, Miss Nettie; but he said 't warn't nothin' but de fidgits. I knowed better 'n he did dat time. Dat night I had a division, an' de dream say, 'Put on yer purple mournin'-dress an' set wid yer feet in a barrel ob b'ilin' water till de smoke comes down de chimbly.' An' so I done, a-settin' up dere on dat chist o' drawers all night, wid my purple mournin'-dress on an' my feet in de b'ilin' water, an' de lizards run away so fur dat dey ain't even stopped yit."
"Aunt Melvy, do you tell fortunes by palmistry?" asked Ruth.
"Yas'm; I reckon dat's what you call hit. I tells by de tea-leaves. Lor', Miss Rufe, you sutenly put me in min' o' yer grandmaw! She kerried her haid up in de air jus' lak you do, an' she wuz jus' as putty as you is, too. We libed in de ole plantation what's done burned down now, an' I lubed my missus—I sutenly did. When my ole man fust come here from de country I nebber seen sech a fool. He didn't know no more 'bout courtin' dan nothin'; but I wuz better qualified. I jus' tole ole miss how 't wuz, an' she fixed up de weddin'. I nebber will fergit de day we walk ober de plantation an' say we wuz married. George he had on a brand-new pair pants dat cost two hundred an' sixty-four dollars in Confederate money."
"Isn't the water b-boiling yet?" asked Annette, impatiently.
"So 't is, so 't is," said Aunt Melvy, lifting the kettle from the crane. She dropped a few tea-leaves in three china cups, and then with great solemnity and occasional guttural ejaculations poured the water over them.
Before the last cup was filled, Annette, with a wry face, had drained the contents of hers and held it out to Aunt Melvy.
"There are my leaves. If they don't tell about a lover with b-blue eyes and an Irish accent, I'll never b-believe them."
Aunt Melvy bent over the cup, and her sides shook. "You gwine be a farmer's wife," she said, chuckling at the girl's grimace. "You gwine raise chickens an' chillun."
"Ugh!" said Annette as the other girls laughed; "are his eyes b-blue?"
Aunt Melvy pondered over the leaves. "Well, now, 'pears to me he's sorter dark-complected an' fat, like Mr. Sid Gray," she said.
"Never!" declared Annette. "I loathe Sid."
"Tell my future!" cried Martha, pushing her cup forward eagerly.
"Dey ain't none!" cried Aunt Melvy, aghast, as she saw the few broken leaves in the bottom of the cup. "You done drinked up yer fortune. Dat's de sign ob early death. I gwine fix you a good-luck bag; dey say ef you carry it all de time, hit's a cross-sign ag'in' death."
"But can't you tell me anything?" persisted Martha.
"Dey ain't nothin' to tell," repeated Aunt Melvy, "'cep'n' to warn you to carry dat good-luck bag all de time."
"Now, mine," said Ruth, with an incredulous but curious smile.
For several moments Aunt Melvy bent over the cup in deep consideration, and then she rose and took it to the window, with fearsome, anxious looks at Ruth meanwhile. Once or twice she made a sign with her fingers, and frowned anxiously.
"What is it, Aunt Melvy?" Ruth demanded. "Am I going to be an old maid?"
"'T ain't no time to joke, chile," whispered Aunt Melvy, all the superstition of her race embodied in her trembling figure. "What I see, I see. Hit's de galluses what I see in de bottom ob yer cup!"
"Do you m-mean suspenders?" laughed Annette.
Aunt Melvy did, not hear her; she was looking over the cup into space, swaying and moaning.
"To t'ink ob my ole missus' gran'chile bein' mixed up wif a gallus lak dey hang de niggers on! But hit's dere, jus' as plain as day, de two poles an' de cross-beam."
Ruth laughed as she looked into the cup.
"Is it for me?"
"Don't know, honey; de signs don't p'int to no one person: but hit's in yer life, an' de shadow rests ag'in' you."
By this time Martha was at the door, urging the others to hurry. Her face was pale and her eyes were troubled. Ruth saw her nervousness and slipped her arm about her. "It's all in fun," she whispered.
"Of course," said Annette. "You m-mustn't mind her foolishness. Besides, I g-got the worst of it. I'd rather die young or be hanged, any day, than to m-marry Sid Gray."
Aunt Melvy followed them to the door, shaking her head. "I'se gwine make you chillun some good-luck bags. De fust time de new moon holds water I'se sholy gwine fix 'em. 'T ain't safe not to mind de signs; 't ain't safe."
And with muttered warnings she watched them until they were lost to view behind the hill.
The change from the road to the school-room was not without many a struggle on Sandy's part. The new life, the new customs, and the strange language, were baffling.
The day after the accident in the road, Mrs. Hollis had sent him to inquire how old Mrs. Nelson was, and he had returned with the astonishing report that she was sixty-one.
"But you didn't ask her age?" cried Mrs. Hollis, horrified.
Sandy looked perplexed. "I said what ye bid me," he declared.
Everything he did, in fact, seemed to be wrong; and everything he said, to bring a smile. He confided many a woe to Aunt Melvy as he sat on the kitchen steps in the evenings.
"Hit's de green rubbin' off," she assured him sympathetically. "De same ones dat laugh at you now will be takin' off dey hats to you some day."
"Oh, it ain't the guyin' I mind," said Sandy; "it's me wooden head. Them little shavers that can't see a hole in a ladder can beat me figurin'."
"You jus' keep on axin' questions," advised Aunt Melvy. "Dat's what I always tole Rachael. Rachael's dat yaller gal up to Mrs. Nelson's. I done raise her, an' she ain't a bit o'count. I use' ter say, 'You fool nigger, how you ebber gwine learn nothin' effen you don't ax questions?' An' she'd stick out her mouth an' say, 'Umph, umph; you don't ketch me lettin' de white folks know how much sense I ain't got.' Den she'd put on a white dress an' a white sunbonnet an' go switchin' up de street, lookin' jus' lak a fly in a glass ob buttermilk."
"It's the mixed-up things that bother me," said Sandy. "Mr. Moseley was telling of us to-day how ye lost a day out of the week when ye went round the world one way, and gained a day when ye went round the other."