THE GOLDEN BIRD
MARIA THOMPSON DAVIESS
Author of "The Melting of Molly," "Phyllis," "Sue Jane," "The Tinder Box," etc.
ILLUSTRATED BY EDWARD L. CHASE
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO. 1918
Copyright, 1918, by THE CENTURY CO.
Copyright, 1918, by BUTTERICK PUBLISHING COMPANY
Published, September, 1918
[Transcriber's note: Minor typos corrected.]
TO IDA CLYDE CLARKE WHOSE COURAGE INSPIRES ME
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Oh, how beautiful!" exclaimed Polly, all restraint leaving her young face and body as she fell on her knees before the sultan
A poor old sheep was lying flat with pathetic inertia while Adam stood over her with something in his arms
I put his babykins in a big feed-basket and the lamb twins came and welcomed him
And Bud was beautiful in the "custom-made" fifteen-dollar gray cheviot with his violet eyes and yellow shock, in spite of his red ears
THE GOLDEN BIRD
The primary need of a woman's nature is always supposed to be love, but very suddenly I discovered that in my case it was money, a lot of it and quick. That is, I thought I needed a lot and in a very great hurry; but if I had known what I know now, I might have been contented feeding upon the bread of some kind of charity, for instance, like being married to Matthew Berry the very next day after I discovered my poverty. But at that period of my life I was a very ignorant girl, and in the most noble spirit of a desperate adventure I embarked upon the quest of the Golden Bird, which in one short year has landed me—I am now the richest woman in the world.
"But, Ann Craddock, you know nothing at all about a chicken in any more natural state than in a croquette," stormed Matthew at me as he savagely speared one of those inoffensive articles of banquet diet with a sharp silver fork while he squared himself with equal determination between me and any possible partner for the delicious one-step that the band in the ball-room was beginning to send out in inviting waves of sound to round the dancers in from loitering over their midnight food.
"The little I do not know about the chicken business, after one week spent in pursuit of that knowledge through every weird magazine and state agricultural bulletin in the public library, even you could learn, Matthew Berry, with your lack of sympathy with the great American wealth producer, the humble female chicken known in farmer patois as a hen. Did you know that it only costs about two dollars and thirteen cents to feed a hen a whole year and that she will produce twenty-seven dollars and a half for her owner, the darling thing? I know I'll just love her when I get to know her—them better, as I will in only about eighteen hours now."
"Ann, you are mad—mad!" foamed Matthew, as he set down his plate of perfectly good and untasted food, and buried his head in his hands until his mop of black hair looked like a big blot of midnight.
"I'm not mad, Matthew, just dead poor, an heiress out of a job and with the necessity of earning her bread by the sweat of her brow instead of consuming cake by the labor of other people. Uncle Cradd is coming in again with a two-horse wagon, and the carriage to move us out to Elmnest to-morrow morning. Judge Rutherford will attend to selling all the property and settle with father's creditors. Another wagon is coming for father's library, and in two days he won't know that Uncle Cradd and I have moved him, if I can just get him started on a bat with Epictetus or old Horace. Then me for the tall timbers and my friend the hen.
"Oh, Ann, for the love of high heaven, marry me to-morrow, and let me move you and Father Craddock over into that infernal, empty old barn I keep open as a hotel for nigger servants. Marry me instead—"
"Instead of the hen?" I interrupted him with a laugh. "I can't, Matt, you dear thing. I honestly can't. I've got to go back to the land from which my race sprang and make it blossom into a beautiful existence for those two dear old boys. When Uncle Cradd heard of the smash from that horrible phosphate deal he was at the door the next morning at sun-up, driving the two gray mules to one wagon himself, with old Rufus driving the gray horses hitched to that queer tumble-down, old family coach, though he hadn't spoken to father since he married mother twenty-eight years ago.
"'Ready to move you all home, bag and baggage, William,' he said, as he took father into his huge old arms clad in the rusty broadcloth of his best suit, which I think is the garment he purchased for father's very worldly, town wedding with my mother, which he came from Riverfield to attend for purposes of disinheriting the bridegroom and me, though I was several years in the future at that date. 'Elmnest is as much yours as mine, as I told you when you sprigged off to marry in town. Get your dimity together, Nancy! Your grandmother Craddock's haircloth trunk is strapped on behind her carriage there, and Rufus will drive you home. These mules are too skittish for him to handle. Fine pair, eh, William?' And right there in the early dawn, almost in front of the garage that contained his touring Chauvinnais and my gray roadster, father stood in his velvet dressing-gown and admired the two moth-eaten old animals. Now, I honestly ask you, Matthew, could a woman of heart refuse at least to attempt to see those two great old boys through the rest of their lives in peace and comfort together? Elmnest is roof and land and that is about all, for Uncle Cradd never would let father give him a cent on account of his feud with mother, even after she had been dead for years. Father would have gone home with him that morning, but I made him stay to turn things over to Judge Rutherford. Aren't they great, those two old pioneers?"
"They are the best sports ever, Ann, and I say let's fix up Elmnest for them to live in when they won't stay with us, and for a summer home for us to go and take—take the children for rural training. Now what do you say—wedding to-morrow?" And the light in dear old Matthew's eyes was very lovely indeed as the music grew less blatant and the waiter turned down the lights near the little alcove that the wide walnut paneling made beside the steps that go up to the balcony. I have always said that the Clovermead Country Club has the loveliest house anywhere in the South.
"No, Matthew, I care too much about you to let you marry a woman in search of a roof and food," I answered him, with all of the affection I seemed to possess at that time in my eyes. "You deserve better than that from me."
"Now, see here, Ann Craddock, did I or did I not ask you to marry me at your fourteenth birthday party, which was just ten years ago, and did you or did you not tell me just to wait until you got grown? Have you or have you not reached the years of discretion and decision? I am ready to marry, I am!" And as he made this announcement of his matrimonially inclined condition of mind, Matthew took my hand in his and laid his cheek against it.
"My heart isn't grown up yet, Matt," I said softly, with all the tenderness I, as I before remarked, at that time possessed. "Don't wait for me. Marry Belle Proctor or somebody and—and bring the—babies out to Elmnest for—"
The explosion that then followed landed me in Owen Murray's arms on the floor of the ball-room, and landed Matthew in his big racing-car, which I could hear go roaring down the road beyond the golf-links.
There is a certain kind of woman whose brain develops with amazing normality and strength, but whose heart remains very soft-fibered and uncertain, with tendencies to lapse into second childhood. I am that garden variety, and it took the exercising of many heart interests to toughen my cardiac organ.
As I traveled out the long turnpike that wound itself through the Harpeth Valley to the very old and tradition-mossed town of Riverfield, in the high, huge-wheeled, swinging old coach of my Great-grandmother Craddock, sitting pensively alone while father occupied the front seat beside Uncle Cradd, both of them in deep converse about a line in Tom Moore, while Uncle Cradd bumbled the air of "Drink to me only with thine eyes" in a lovely old bass, I should have been softly and pensively weeping at the thought of the devastation of my father's fortune, of the poverty brought down upon his old age, and about my fate as a gay social being going thus into exile; but I wasn't. Did I say that I was sitting alone in state upon the faded rose leather of those ancestral cushions? That was not the case, for upon the seat beside me rode the Golden Bird in a beautiful crate, which bore the legend, "Cock, full brother to Ladye Rosecomb, the world's champion, three-hundred-and-fourteen-egg hen, insured at one thousand dollars. Express sixteen dollars." And in another larger crate, strapped on top of the old haircloth trunk, which held several corduroy skirts, some coarse linen smocks made hurriedly by Madam Felicia after a pattern in "The Review," and several pairs of lovely, high-topped boots, as well as a couple of Hagensack sweaters, rode his family, to whom he had not yet even spoken. The family consisted of ten perfectly beautiful white Leghorn feminine darlings whose crate was marked, "Thoroughbreds from Prairie Dog Farm, Boulder, Colorado." I had obtained the money to purchase these very much alive foundations for my fortune, also the smart farmer's costume, or rather my idea of the correct thing in rustics, by selling all the lovely lingerie I had brought from Paris with me just the week before the terrible war had crashed down upon the world, and which I had not worn because I had not needed them, to Bess Rutherford and Belle Proctor at very high prices, because who could tell whether France would ever procure their like again? They were composed mostly of incrustations of embroidery and real Val, and anyway the Golden Bird only cost seven hundred dollars instead of the thousand, and the ladies Bird only ten dollars apiece, which to me did not seem exactly fair, as they were of just as good family as he. I was very proud of myself for having been professional enough to follow the directions of my new big red book on "The Industrious Fowl," and to buy Golden Bird and his family from localities which were separated as far as is the East from the West. My company was responsible for my light-heartedness at a time when I should have been weeping with vain regrets at leaving life—and perhaps love, for I couldn't help hearing in my mind's ears that great dangerous racer bearing Matthew away from me at the rate of eighty miles an hour. I was figuring on just how long it would take the five to eight hundred children of the Bird family, which I expected to incarnate themselves out of egg-shells, to increase to a flock of two thousand, from which, I was assured by the statistics in that very reliable book, I ought to make three thousand dollars a year, maybe five, with "good management." Also I was not at all worried about the "good management" to be employed. I intended to begin to exert it the minute of my arrival in the township of Riverfield. I had even already begun to use "thoughtful care," for I had brought a box of tea biscuits along, and I felt a positive thrill of affection for Mr. G. Bird as he gratefully gobbled a crushed one from my hand. Also it was dear of him the way he raised his proud head and chuckled to his brides in the crate behind him to come and get their share. It was pathetic the way he called and called and they answered, until I finally stopped their mouths with ten other dainties, so that he could consume his in peace. Even at that early stage of our friendship I liked the Golden Bird, and perhaps it was just a wave of prophetic psychology that made me feel so warmly towards the proud, white young animal who was to lead me to—
So instead of the despair due the occasion, I was happy as I jogged slowly out over the twenty long miles that stretched out like a silvery ribbon dropped down upon the meadows and fields that separate the proud city of Hayesville and the gray and green little old hamlet of Riverfield, which nestles in a bend of the Cumberland River and sleeps time away under its huge old oak and elm and hackberry trees, kept perpetually green by the gnarled old cedars that throw blue-berried green fronds around their winter nakedness. As we rode slowly along, with a leisure I am sure all the motor-car world has forgotten exists, the two old boys on the front seat hummed and chuckled happily while I breathed in great gulps of a large, meadow-sweet spring tang that seemed to fairly soak into the circulation of my heart. The February day was cool with yet a kind of tender warmth in its little gust of Southern wind that made me feel as does that brand of very expensive Rhine wine which Albert at the Salemite on Forty-second Street in New York keeps for Gale Beacon specially, and which makes Gale so furious for you not to recognize, remember about, and comment upon at his really wonderful dinners to bright and shining lights in art and literature. Returning from New York to the Riverfield Road through the Harpeth Valley, I also discovered upon the damsel Spring a hint of a soft young costume of young green and purple and yellow that was as yet just a mist being draped over her by the Southern wind.
"I feel like the fairy princess being driven into a land of enchantment, Mr. Golden Bird," I remarked as I leaned back upon the soft old cushions and took in the first leisurely breath of the air of the open road that my lungs had ever inhaled: one simply gulps air when seated in a motor-car. "It is all so simple and easy and—"
Just at this moment happened the first real adventure of my quest, and at that time it seemed a serious one, though now I would regard it as of very little moment. Suddenly there came the noise of snipping cords, the feeling of jar and upheaval, and before I could turn more than half-way around for purposes of observation, the entire feminine Bird family in their temporary crate abode slid down into the dust of the road with a great crash. I held my breath while, with a jolt and a bounce and a squeak of the heavy old springs, Uncle Cradd brought the ancestral family coach to a halt about ten feet away from the wreck, which was a melee of broken timber, squeaking voices, and flapping wings. As soon as I recovered from the shock I sprang from my cushions beside Mr. G. Bird, who was fairly yelling clucks of command at this family-to-be, and ran to their assistance. Now, I am very long and fleet of limb, but those white Leghorn ladies were too swift for me, and before I reached the wreck, they had all ten disentangled themselves from the crushed timbers and had literally taken to the woods, through which the Riverfield ribbon was at that moment winding itself. Clucking and chuckling, they concealed themselves in an undergrowth of coral-strung buck bushes, little scrub cedars, and dried oak leaves, and I could hear them holding a council of war that sounded as if they were to depart forever to parts unknown. In a twinkling of an eye I saw my future fortune literally take wings, and in my extremity I cried aloud.
"Oh, call them all back, Mr. Golden Bird," I pleaded.
"Now, Nancy, that is always what I said about hens. They are such pesky womanish things that it's beneath the dignity of a man to bother with 'em. I haven't had one on the place for twenty years. We'll just turn this rooster loose with them and we can go on home in peace," said Uncle Cradd as he peered around the side of the coach while father's mild face appeared on the other side. As he spoke, he reached back and released my Golden Bird from his crate and sent him flying out into the woods in the direction of his family.
"Oh, they are the only things in the world that stand between me and starvation," I wailed, though not loud enough for either father or Uncle Cradd to hear. "Please, please, Golden Bird, come back and bring the others with you," I pleaded as I held out my hand to the proud white Sultan, who had paused by the roadside on his way to his family and was now turning bright eyes in the direction of my outstretched hand. In all the troubles and trials through which that proud Mr. G. Bird and I went hand in hand, or rather wing in hand, in which I was at times hard and cold and disappointed in him, I have never forgotten that he turned in his tracks and walked majestically back to my side and peered into the outstretched hand with a trustful and inquiring peck. Some kind fortune had brought it to pass that I held the package of tea biscuits in my other hand, and in a few breathless seconds he was pecking at one and calling to the foolish, faithless lot of huddled hens in the bushes to come to him immediately. First he called invitingly while I held my breath, and then he commanded as he scratched for lost crumbs in the white dust of the Riverfield ribbon, but the foolish creatures only huddled and squeaked, and at a few cautious steps I took in their direction, they showed a decided threat of vanishing forever into the woods.
"Oh, what will I do, Mr. G. Bird?" I asked in despair, with a real sob in my throat as I looked toward the family coach, from which I could hear a happy and animated discussion of Plato's Republic going on between the two old gentlemen who had thirty years' arrears in argument and conversation to make up. I could see that no help would come from that direction. "I can't lose them forever," I said again, and this time there was the real sob arising unmistakably in my voice.
"Just stand still, and I'll call them to you," came a soft, deep voice out of the forest behind me, and behold, a man stood at my side!
The man's name is Adam.
"Now give me a cracker and watch 'em come," he said, as he came close to my side and took a biscuit from my surprised and nerveless hand. "Ah, but you are one beauty, aren't you?" he further remarked, and I was not positively sure whether he meant me or the Golden Bird until I saw that he had reached down and was stroking Mr. G. Bird with a delighted hand. "Chick, chick, chick!" he commanded, with a note that was not at all unlike the commanding one the Sultan had used a few minutes past, only more so, and in less than two seconds all those foolish hens were scrambling around our feet. In fact, the command in his voice had been so forcible that I myself had moved several feet nearer to him until I, too, was in the center of my scrambling, clucking Bird venture.
I don't like beautiful men. I never did. I think that a woman ought to have all the beauty there is, and I feel that a man who has any is in some way dishonest, but I never before saw anything like that person who had come out of the woods to the rescue of my family fortune, and I simply stared at him as he stood with a fluff of seething white wings around his feet and towered against the green gray of an old tree that hung over the side of the road. He was tall and broad, but lithe and lovely like some kind of a woods thing, and heavy hair of the same brilliant burnished red that I had seen upon the back of a prize Rhode Island Red in the lovely water-color plates in my chicken book,—which had tempted me to buy "red" until I had read about the triumphs of the Leghorn "whites,"—waved close to his head, only ruffling just over his ears enough to hide the tips of them. His eyes were set so far back under their dark, heavy, red eyebrows that they seemed night-blue with their long black fringe of lashes. His face was square and strong and gentle, and the collar of his gray flannel shirt was open so that I could see that his head was set on his wide shoulders with lines like an old Greek masterpiece. Gray corduroy trousers were strapped around his waist by a wide belt made of some kind of raw-looking leather that was held together by two leather lacings, while on his feet were a kind of sandal shoes that appeared to be made of the same leather. He must have constructed both belt and shoes himself, and he hadn't any hat at all upon his crimson-gold thatch of hair. I looked at him so long that I had to look away, and then when I did I looked right back at him because I couldn't believe that he was true.
"Now I'm going to pick them up gently, two at a time, tie their feet together with a piece of this string, and hand them to you to put inside the carriage. I'll catch the cock first, the handsome old sport," and as Pan spoke, he began to suit his actions to his words with amazing tact and skill. I shall always be glad that the first chicken I ever held in my arms was put into them gently by that woods man, and that it was the Golden Bird himself. "Put him in and shut the door, and he'll calm the ladies as you bring them to him," he commanded as he bent down and lifted two of the Bird brides and began to tie their feet together with a piece of cord he had taken from a deep pocket in the gray trousers.
"Oh, thank you," I said with a depth of gratitude in my voice that I did not know I possessed. "You are the most wonderful man I ever saw—I mean that I ever saw with chickens," I said, ending the remark in an agony of embarrassment. "I don't know much about them. I mean chickens," I hastened to add, and made matters worse.
"Oh, they are easy, when you get to know 'em, chickens—or men," he said kindly, without a spark in his eyes back of their black bushes. "Are they yours?"
"They are all the property I have got in the world," I answered as I clasped the last pair of biddies to my breast, for while we had been holding our primitive conversation, I had been obeying his directions and loading the Birds into Grandmother Craddock's stately equipage. Anxiety shone from my eyes into his sympathetic ones.
"Well, you'll be an heiress in no time with them to start you, with 'good management.' I never saw a finer lot," he said, as he walked to the door of the carriage with me, with the last pair of white Leghorn ladies in his arms.
"But maybe I haven't got that management," I faltered, with my anxiety getting tearful in my words.
"Oh, you'll learn," he said, with such heavenly soothing in his voice that I almost reached out my hands and clung to him as he settled the fussing poultry in the bottom of the carriage in such a way as to leave room for my feet among them. Mr. G. Bird was perched on the seat at my side and was craning his neck down and soothingly scolding his family. "How are you, Mr. Craddock?" Pan asked of Uncle Cradd's back, and by his question interrupted an argument that sounded, from the Greek phrases flying, like a battle on the walls of Troy.
"Well, well, how are you, Adam?" exclaimed Uncle Cradd, as he turned around and greeted the woodsman with a smile of positive delight.
I had known that man's name was Adam, but I don't know how I knew.
"This is my brother, Mr. William Craddock, who's come home to me to live and die where he belongs, and that young lady is Nancy. Those chickens are just a whim of hers, and we have to humor her. Can we lift you as far as Riverfield?" Uncle Cradd made his introduction and delivered his invitation all in one breath.
"I'm glad to meet you, sir, and I am grateful for your assistance in capturing my daughter's whims," said father, as he came partly out of his B.C. daze.
As he took my hand into his slender, but very powerful grasp, that man had the impertinence to laugh into my eyes at my parent's double-entendre, which he had intended as a simple single remark.
"No, thank you, sir; I've got to get across Paradise Ridge before sundown. The lambs are dropping fast over at Plunkett's, and I want to make sure those Southdown ewes are all right," he answered as he put my hand out of his, though I almost let it rebel and cling, and took for a second the Golden Bird's proud head into his palm.
"I'll be over at Elmnest before your—your 'good judgment' needs mine," he said to me as softly as I think a mother must speak to a child as she unloosens clinging dependent fingers. As he spoke he shut the door of the old ark, and Uncle Cradd drove on, leaving him standing on the edge of the great woods looking after us.
"Oh, I wish that man were going home with us, Mr. G. Bird, or we were going home with him," I said with a kind of terror of the unknown creeping over me. As I spoke I reached out and cuddled the Golden darling into the hollow of my arm. Some day I am going to travel to the East shore of Baltimore to the Rosecomb Poultry Farm to see the woman who raised the Golden Bird and cultivated such a beautiful confiding, and affectionate nature in him. He soothed me with a chuckle as he pecked playfully at my fingers and then called cheerfully down to the tethered white Ladies of Leghorn.
As we ambled towards the sun, which was setting over old Harpeth, the tallest humpbacked hill on Paradise Ridge, the Greek battle raged on the front seat and there was peace with anxiety in the back of the ancestral coach.
As the wheels and the two old gentlemen rumbled and the Bird's family clucked and crooned, with only an occasional irritated squawk, I, for the first time since the landslide of our fortune, began to take real thought of the morrow.
"Yes, landslide is a good name for what is happening to us, and I hope we'll slide or land on the home base, whatever is the correct term in the national game that Matthew has given up trying to teach me to enjoy," I said to myself as I settled down to look into our situation.
I found that it was not at all astonishing that father had lost all the fortune that my mother had left him and me when she died three years ago. It was astonishing that the old dreamer had kept it as long as he had, and it was only because most of it had been in land and he had from the first lived serenely and comfortably on nice flat slices of town property cut off whenever he needed it. He had been a dreamer when he came out of the University of Virginia ten years after the war, and it had been the tragedy of Uncle Cradd's life that he had not settled down with him on the very broad, but very poor, ancestral acres of Elmnest, to slice away with him at that wealth instead of letting himself be captured in all his poetic beauty at a dance in Hayesville by a girl whose father had made her half a million dollars in town land deals. Uncle Cradd's resentment had been bitter, and as he was the senior of his twin brother by several hours, he demanded that father sell him his half of Elmnest, and for it had paid his entire fortune outside of the bare acres. In poetic pride father had acceded to his demand, lent the money thrust upon him to the first speculator who got to him, and the two brothers had settled themselves down twenty miles apart in the depths of a feud, to eat their hearts out for each other. The rich man sought a path to the heart of the poor man, but was repulsed until the day after the spectacular failure of his phosphate company had penetrated into the wilds of little Riverfield, and immediately Uncle Cradd had hitched up the moth-eaten string in his old stables and come into town for us, and in father's sweet old heart there was never an idea of not, as he put it, "going home." I had never seen Elmnest, but I knew something of the situation, and that is where the Golden Bird arrived on the situation. The morning after our decision to return to the land—a decision in which I had borne no part but a sympathetic one after I had listened half the night to father's raptures over Uncle Cradd as a Greek scholar with whom one would wish to spend one's last days—the February copy of "The Woman's Review" arrived, and on the first page was an article from a woman who earns five thousand dollars a year with the industrious hen on a little farm of ten acres. There were lovely pictures of her with her feathered family, and I decided that what a woman with the limited experience of a head stenographer in a railroad office could do, I, with my wider scope of travel and culture, could more than double on three hundred acres of land in the Harpeth Valley. Some day I'm going to see that woman and I'm going to stop by and speak sternly to the editor of "The Woman's Review" on my way.
"Mr. G. Bird," I began as I reached this point and I saw that we were arriving in the heart of civilization, which was the square of a quaint little old town. From a motor-car acquaintance, I knew this to be Riverfield, but I had never even stopped because of the family pride involved in the feud now dead. "Mr. Bird," I repeated, "I am afraid I am up against it, and I hope you'll stand by me." He answered me by preening a breast feather and winking one of his bright eyes as Uncle Cradd stopped the ancient steeds in the center of the square, before a little old brick building that bore three signs over its tumble-down porch. They were: "Silas Beesley, Grocer," "U.S. Post-Office," and "Riverfield Bank and Trust Co."
"Hey, Si, here's William come home!" called Uncle Cradd, as a negro boy with a broad grin stood at the heads of the slow old horses, who, I felt sure, wouldn't have moved except under necessity before the judgment day. In less time than I can take to tell it father descended literally into the arms of his friends. About half a dozen old farmers, some in overalls and some in rusty black broadcloth the color of Uncle Cradd's, poured out of the wide door of the business building before described, and they acted very much as I have seen the boys at Yale or Princeton act after a success or defeat on the foot-ball field. They hugged father and they slapped him on the back and they shook his hand as if it were not of human, sixty-year-old flesh and blood. Then they introduced a lot of stalwart young farmers to him, each of whom gave father hearty greetings, but refrained from even a glance in my direction as I sat enthroned on high on the faded old cushions and waited for an introduction, which at last Uncle Cradd remembered to give me.
"This is Miss Nancy Craddock, gentlemen, named after my mother, and she's going to beat out the Bend in her chicken raising, which she's brought along with her. Come over, youngsters, and look her over. The fire in the parlor don't burn more than a half cord of wood on a Sunday, and you can come over Saturday afternoon and cut it against the Sabbath, with a welcome to any one of the spare rooms and a slab of Rufus's spare rib and a couple of both breakfast and supper muffins." All of the older men laughed at this sweeping invitation, and all the younger greeted it with ears that became instantly crimson. I verily believe they would one and all have fled and left me sitting there yet if a diversion had not arrived in the person of Mrs. Silas, who came bustling out of the door of the grocery or post-office or bank; whichever it is called, is according to your errand there. Mrs. Si was tall, and almost as broad as the door itself, with the rosiest cheeks and the bluest eyes I had ever beheld, and they crinkled with loveliness around their corners. She had white water-waves that escaped their decorous plastering into waving little tendril curls, and her mouth was as curled and red-lipped and dimpled as a girl's. In a twinkling of those blue eyes I fell out of the carriage into a pair of strong, soft, tender arms covered with stiff gray percale, and received two hearty kisses, one on each cheek.
"God bless you, honeybunch, and I'm glad William has brought you home at last, the rascal." As she hugged me she reached out a strong hand and gave father first a good shake by his shoulder and then by his hand.
"Fine girl, eh, Mary?" answered father as he returned the shoulder shake with a pat on the broad gray percale back, and retained the strong hand in his, with a frank clinging.
I wondered if—
"She's her Aunt Mary's blessed child, and I will have her making riz biscuits like old Madam Craddock's black Sue for you two boys in less than a week," she answered him, with a laugh that somehow sounded a bit dewy.
"Oh, do you know about chickens, Mrs.—I mean, Aunt Mary?" I asked as I clung to the hand to which father was not clinging.
"Bless my heart, what's that I see setting up on old Madam Craddock's cushions? Is it a rooster or a dream bird?" she answered me by exclaiming as she caught sight of Mr. G. Bird sitting in lonely state, but as good as gold, upon the rose-leather cushions. "I thought I feathered out the finest chickens in the Harpeth Valley, but this one isn't human, you might say," and as she spoke she shook off father and me, and approached the carriage and peered in with the reverence of a real poultry artist. "Bless my heart!" she again exclaimed.
"Those are just Miss Nancy's whims to take the place of her card-routs and sinful dancing habits," said Uncle Cradd, with a great and indulgent amusement as all the little crowd of native friends gathered around to look at the Bird family.
"Say, that rooster ought to have been met with a brass band like they did Mr. Cummins' horse, Lightheels, after he won all those cups up in the races at Cincinnati," said the tallest of the young farmers, whose ears had begun to assume their normal color.
"And a sight more right he has to such a honor, Bud Beesley," replied Aunt Mary, with spirit, as she stroked the proud head of the Golden Bird. "It takes hens and women all their days to collect the money men spend on race-horses sometimes, my son."
"Well, Mary, I reckon you aren't alluding to this pair of spanking grays I've got; but in case you are getting personal to them, I think we had better begin to go. Come, get in with the Whim family, Nancy, and let's be traveling. It's near on to a mile over a mighty rough road to the house from the gate here. Everybody come and see us." As he spoke Uncle Cradd assisted me with ceremony into the chariot beside the Golden hero of the hour, and started the ancient steeds into a tall old gate right opposite the bank-store-post-office. As he drove away something like warm tears misted across my eyes as I looked back and saw all the goodwill and friendliness in the eye of the farmer friends who watched our departure.
"That, Ann, is the salt of the earth, and I don't see how I consumed life so long without it," said father as he turned, and looked at me with a sparkle in his mystic gray eyes that I had never seen there when we were seated at table with the mighty or making our bow in broadcloth and fine linen in some of the palaces of the world. I didn't know what it was then, but I do now; it is a land-love that lies deep in the heart of every man who is born out in meadows and fields. They never get over it and sometimes transmit it even to the second generation. I felt it stir and run in my blood as we rumbled and bumped up the long avenue of tall old elm-trees that led through deep fields which were even then greening with blue-grass and from which arose a rich loamy fragrance, and finally arrived at the most wonderful old brick house that I had ever seen in all of my life; it seemed to even my much traveled eyes in some ways the most wonderful abode for human beings I had ever beheld. It was not the traditional white-pillared mansion. It was more wonderful. The bricks had aged a rich, red purple, and were rimmed and splotched with soft green and gray moss under traceries of vines that were beginning to put out rich russet buds. The windows were filled with tiny diamond panes of glass, which glittered in the gables from the last rays of the sun setting over Old Harpeth, and the broad, gray shingled roof hovered down over the wide porch which would have sheltered fifty people safely. A flagstone walk and stone steps led up from the drive, seemingly right into the wide front door, which had small, diamond-paned, heavily shuttered windows in it, and queer holes on each side.
"To shoot through in case of marauding Indians," answered Uncle Cradd to my startled question, which had sprung from a suspicion that must have been dictated by prenatal knowledge. As I entered the homestead of my fathers I felt that I had slipped back into the colonial age of America, and I found myself almost in a state of terror. The wide old hall, the heavy-beamed ceiling of which was so low that you felt again hovered, was lighted by only one candle, though a broad path of firelight lay across the dark polished floor from the room on the left, where appeared old Rufus enveloped in a large apron no whiter than the snowy kinks on his old head.
"Time you has worship, Mas' Cradd, my muffins and spare ribs will be done," he said after he had bestowed a grand bow first upon father and then upon me, with a soft-voiced greeting of "sarvant, little Mis', and sarvant, Mas' William."
"It is fitting that we render unto the Lord thankfulness for your return home with Nancy, your child, William, in the first moments of your arrival. Come!" commanded Uncle Cradd, and he led us into a huge room as low ceilinged and dark-toned as the hall. In it there was only the firelight and another dim candle placed on a small table beside a huge old book. With the surety of long habit father walked straight to a large chair that was drawn close to the hearth on the side opposite the table, behind which was another large chair of exactly the same pattern of high-backed dignity, and seated himself. Then he drew me down into a low chair beside him, and I lifted up my hands, removed my hat, and was at last come home from a huge and unreal world outside.
As I sat and gazed from the dark room through a large old window, which was swung open on heavy hinges to allow the sap-scented breeze to drift in and fan the fire of lingering winter, out into an old garden with brick-outlined walks and climbing bare rose vines upon which was beginning to be poured the silver enchantment of a young moon, Uncle Cradd, in his deep old voice, which was like the notes given out by an ancient violin, began to read a chapter from his old Book which began with the exhortation, "Let brotherly love continue," and laid down a course of moral conduct that seemed so impossible that I sat spellbound to the last words, "Grace be with you all. Ahmen."
Then I knelt beside father, with old Rufus close behind our chairs, and was for the first time in my life lifted on the wings of prayer and carried off up somewhere I hadn't been before. As Uncle Cradd's sonorous words of love and rejoicing over our return rolled forth in the twilight, I crouched against father's shoulder, and I think the spirit of my Grandmother Craddock, whom I had heard indulging in a Methodist form of vocal rejoicing which is called a shout, was about to manifest itself through me when I was brought to earth and to my feet by a long, protracted, and alarmed appeal sent forth in the voice of the Golden Bird.
"Keep us and protect us through the night with Your grace. Ahmen! Why didn't you put those chickens out of the way of skunks and weasels, Rufus, you old scoundrel," rolled out Uncle Cradd's deep voice, dropping with great harmony from the sublime to the domestic.
Then, with Rufus at my heels, I literally flew through the back door of the house towards the sound of distress that had come from that direction. In front of a rambling old barn, which was silvered by the crescent that hung over its ridge-pole, stood the chariot, and at its door, with Mr. G. Bird in his arms, I saw that man Adam.
"He didn't recognize my first touch," came across the moonbeams in a voice as fluty as the original Pan's, and mingled with friendly chuckles and clucks from the entire Bird family as they felt the caress of long hands among them. I was so ruffled myself that I felt in need of soothing; so I came across the light and into the black shadow of the old coach.
"Oh, I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't come!" I exclaimed.
After my ardent exclamation of welcome to Pan I stood still for fear he would vanish into the moonlight, because with his litheness and the eerie locks of hair that even in the silvering radiance showed a note of crimson cresting over his ears, he looked exactly as if he had come out of the hollow in some oak-tree.
"I thought you might feel that way about it," he answered me, or rather I think that is what he said, because he was crooning to me and the Ladies Bird at the same time, and with a mixture of epitaphs and endearments that I didn't care to untangle. "There, there, lovely lady, don't be scared; it is going to be all right," he soothed, as he lifted one of the fluffy biddies and tucked her under his arm.
"Oh, I am so glad you think so," I claimed the remark by exclaiming, while she made her claim by a contented little cluck.
"Now don't be bothered, sweetheart," he again said, as he picked up another of the Ladies Bird and turned towards the huge old tumble-down barn that was yawning a black midnight out into the gray moonlight. "Let's all go into the barn and settle down to live happily together ever after."
"I think that will be lovely," I answered, while beautiful Mrs. Bird made her reply with a consenting cluck. I never supposed I would make an affirmative answer to a domestic proposal that was at least uncertain of intent, but then I also never dreamed of being in the position of guardian to eleven head of prize live stock, and I think anything I did or said under the circumstances was excusable.
"Don't you want to come with me and bring the cock with you. Old Rufus wouldn't touch one of them for a gold rock," he asked, and I felt slightly aggrieved when I discovered that I was to know when I was being addressed by a lack of any term of endearment, though the caressing flutiness of Adam's voice was the same to me as to any one of the Ladies Leghorn.
"Naw, Marster, chickens am my hoodoo. To tetch one makes my flesh crawl like they was walking on my grave, and if little Mis' will permit of me, I wanter git back to see to the browning of my muffins ginst the time Mas' Cradd rars at me fer his supper," and without waiting for the consent he had asked, old Rufus shuffled hurriedly back into the house.
"I'll bring Mr. Golden Bird. I adore the creeps his feathers give me," I said as I reached in the coach and took the Sultan in my arms. He gave not a single note of remonstrance, but I suppose it was imagination that made me think that he fluffed himself into my embrace with friendly joy.
"Come on, let's put them for to-night over in the feed-room. There, ladies, did you ever see a greater old barn than this?" As he spoke to us he led the way with four of the admiring and obedient Ladies, in his arms, while the fifth, who was I, followed him into the deep, purple, hay-scented darkness.
"I never did see anything like it," I answered, while only one of the Leghorn ladies gave a sleepy cluck of assent to their part of the question.
I really did have a thrill of pure joy in that old barn. It wasn't like anything I had ever seen before, and was as far removed from a garage as is a brown-hearted chestnut burr from a souffle of maroons served on a silver dish. I could hear the moth-eaten string of steeds munching noisily over at one end of the huge darkness, and the odor that arose from their repast was of corn and not of suffocating gasoline. Tall weeds and long frames with teeth in them, which gave them the appearance of huge alligator mouths yawning from the dusk to snap me, pressed close on each side. Straps and ropes and harness were draped from the beams and along the walls, and the combined aroma of corn and hay and leather and horses seemed an inspiration to a lusty breath.
"There, sweeties, is a nice smooth bin for you to go to bed on," said Adam as he set the Ladies Leghorn one by one from his arms on the edge of a long narrow box that was piled high with corn. "Now you stay here with them until I bring the rest. Put your Golden Bird down beside the biddies, and I'll bring the others to put on the other side of him to roost, and in the morning he can begin scratching for a happy and united family." With which command Pan disappeared into the purple darkness and left me alone in the snapping monster shadows with only the sleepy Golden Bird for company. The Bird shook himself after being deposited beside the half-portion of his family, puffed himself up, sank his long neck into his shoulders, and evidently went to sleep. I shivered up close to him and looked over my shoulder into the blackness behind the teeth and then didn't look again until I heard the soft pad of the weird leather shoes behind me.
"Now all's shipshape for the night," said Pan as he spread out his armful of feathers into a bunchy line on the edge of the bin. "Just throw them about two double handfulls of mixed corn and wheat down in the hay litter on the floor at daybreak and keep them shut up and scratching until you are sure none of them are going to lay. From the red of their combs I judge they will all be laying in a few days."
"At daybreak?" I faltered.
"Yes; they ought to be got to work as soon as they hop off the roost," answered Pan, as he spread a little more of the hay on the floor in front of the perch of the Bird family.
"How do I know it—I mean daybreak?" I asked, with eagerness and hesitation both in my voice, as Pan started padding out through the monster-haunted darkness towards the square of silver light beyond the huge door. As I asked my question I followed close at his heels.
"I'll be going through to Plunketts and I'll call you, like this." As we came from the shadows into the moonlight beside the coach, Adam paused and gave three low weird notes, which were so lovely that they seemed the sounds from which the melody of all the world was sprung. "I'll call twice, and then you answer if you are awake. If not, I'll call again."
"I'll be awake," I asserted positively. "Won't you—that is, must I fix—"
"That's all for to-night, and good night," he answered me with a laugh that was as reedy as the brisk wind in the trees. In a second he was padding away from me into the trees beyond the garden as swiftly as I suppose jaguars and lithe lions travel.
"Oh, don't you want some supper?" I called into the moonlight, even running a few steps after him.
"Parched corn in my pocket—lambs," came fluting back to me from the shadows.
"Supper am sarved, little Mis'," Rufus announced from the hack door, as I stood still looking and listening into the night.
"Uncle Cradd," I asked eagerly at the end of the food prayer that the old gentleman had offered after seating me with ceremony behind a steaming silver coffee urn of colonial pattern, of which I had heard all my life, "who is that remarkable man?"
"Si Beesley? Spare rib, dear?" was his disappointing but hospitable, answer in two return questions to my anxious inquiries about the Pan who had come out of the woods at my need.
"No; I mean—mean, didn't you call him Adam?"
"Nobody knows. Now, William, a spare rib and a muffin is real nourishment after the nightingale's tongues and snails you've been living on for twenty-odd years, isn't it?" As he spoke Uncle Cradd beamed on father, who was eating with the first show of real pleasure in food since we had had to send Henri back to New York, after the crash, weeping with all his French-cook soul at leaving us after fifteen years' service.
"I have always enjoyed that essay of Charles Lamb's on roast pig, Cradd," answered father as he took a second muffin. "I know that Lamb used to bore you, Cradd, but honestly now, doesn't his materialism seem—"
"Oh, Uncle Cradd, please tell me about that Adam man before you and father disappear into the eighteenth century," I pleaded, as I handed two cups of steaming coffee to Rufus to pass my two elderly savants.
"There is nothing to tell, Nancy child," answered Uncle Cradd, with an indulgent smile as he peered at me over his glasses. "Upon my word, William, Nancy is the living image of mother when we first remember her, isn't she? You are very beautiful, my dear."
"I know it," I answered hurriedly and hardly aware of what I was saying; "but I want to know where he came from, please, Uncle Cradd."
"Well, as near as I can remember he came out of the woods a year ago and has been in and out helping about the farms here in Harpeth Valley ever since. He never eats or sleeps anywhere, and he's a kind of wizard with animals, they say. And, William, he does know his Horace. Just last week he appeared with a little leather-covered volume, and for four mortal hours we—"
"They says dat red-haided peckerwoods goes to the devil on Fridays, and Mas' Adam he cured my hawgs with nothing but a sack full of green cabbage heads in January, he did," said Rufus, as he rolled his big black eyes and mysteriously shook his old head with its white kinks. "No physic a-tall, jest cabbage and a few turnips mixed in the mash. Yes, m'm, dey does go to the devil of a Friday, red-haided peckerwoods, dey does."
"By the way, Cradd, I want you to see a little volume of the Odes I picked up in London last year. The dealer was a robber, and my dealer didn't want me to buy, but I thought of that time you and I—"
"Not one of the Cantridge edition?"
"Yes, and I want you—"
During all the rest of supper I sat and communed with my own self while father and Uncle Cradd banqueted with the Immortals.
Even after we went back into the low-ceilinged old living-room, which was now lighted by two candles placed close together on a wonderful old mahogany table before the fire, one of the dignified chairs drawn up on each side, with my low seat between, I was busily mapping out a course of action that was to begin with my dawn signal.
"I'd like to get into the—trunk as soon as possible. There is something I want to look up in my chicken book," I said before I seated myself in the midst of one of the battles that raged around Ilium.
"Nancy, my dear, you will find that Rufus has arranged your Grandmother Craddock's room for you, and Mary Beesley came over to see that all was in order," said Uncle Cradd, coming and taking my face into his long, lean old hands. "God bless you, my dear, and keep you in His care here in the home of your forefathers. Good-night!" After an absent-minded kiss from father I was dismissed with a Sanskrit blessing from somewhere in the valley of the Euphrates up into my bedroom in the valley of Old Harpeth.
If I had discovered the shadow of tradition in the rest of the old house, I walked into the very depths of them as I entered the bedroom of my foremothers. Deep crimson coals of fire were in a squat fireplace, and a last smoldering log of some kind of fragrant wood broke into fragments and sent up a little gust of blue and gold flame as if in celebration of my arrival. There was the remnant of a candle burning on a small table beside a bed that was very near, if not quite, five feet high, beside which were steps for the purposes of ascension. All the rest of the room was in a blur of lavender-scented darkness, and I only saw that both side walls folded down and were lit with the deep old gables, through the open windows of which young moon rays were struggling to help light the situation for me. As I looked at that wide, puffy old bed, with a blur of soft colors in its quilt and the valance around its posts and tester, I suddenly became as utterly weary as a child who sees its mother's arms outstretched at retiring time. I don't know how I got out of my clothes and into my lace and ribbons, with only the flickering candle and the dying log to see by, but in less time than I ever could have dreamed might be consumed in the processes of going to bed I climbed the little steps and dived into the soft bosom of the old four-poster.
"God bless me and keep me in His care here in my grandmother's bed," I murmured after the invocation of Uncle Cradd, and that is all I knew after the first delicious sink and soft huddling of my body between sheets that felt as if they must be rich silk and smelled of old lavender.
And then came a dream—a most lovely dream. I was at the opera in Gale Beacon's box, and Mr. G. Bird was out on the stage singing that glorious coo in the aria in Saint-Saens' "Samson and Delilah," and I was trying to answer him. Suddenly I was wide awake sitting up in a billowed softness, while moonlight of a different color was sifting in through the gable windows and the most lovely calling notes were coming in on its beams. Without a moment's hesitation I answered in about six notes of that Delilah song which was the only sound ready in my mind. Then I listened and I am not sure that I heard a reedy laugh under my window as just the two notes succeeding the ones I had given forth came in on the dawn beams. Then all was as still and quiet as the hush of midnight.
In about two seconds I had vaulted forth from between the high posts, splashed into a funny old wooden tub bound together with brass rims, whirled my black mop into a knot, slipped into the modish boots, corduroys, and a linen smock, and was running out into the peculiar moon-dawn with the swiftness of a boy.
But I was too late! The silver-moon sky was growing rosy over behind the barn as I peered about, and a mist was rolling away from between the trees, but not a soul in all the world was awake, and I was alone.
"Did he call me?" I asked of myself under my breath. And the answer I got was from the Golden Bird, who sent a long, triumphant, eager "salutation to the dawn" from out the shadows of the barn.
Eagerly I flew to him, and the minute I entered the apartment of the Bird family I discovered that I had been only half dreaming about my early morning opera. Pan had come and gone. Upon the door was pinned a piece of torn brown wrapping-paper upon which I found these penciled words:
Give them about two quarts of warm meal mash, into which you put some ground turnips at noon. Better build about four nests in the dark under the bin, and be sure to disinfect them by white-washing inside and out. Put in clean hay. Dust all the beauties on their heads and under their wings with wood ashes in which you put a little of the powder you'll find in a piece of this paper in the right-hand corner of the bin. They'll want a good feed of ground grain at three o'clock. Get copperas from Rufus to put in their water, and I'll let you know later what else to do. Salutations!
"I'm glad I got up so early if that's the day's program," I gasped to myself as I leaned against the bin from which the Golden Bird had already alighted and was commanding the Ladies Leghorn to descend—a command which they were obeying one at a time with outspread white wings that were handled with the height of awkwardness. "But I'll do it all if it kills me," I added, with my head up, as I began to scatter some of the big white grains that I knew to be corn and which, by lifting lids and peering into huge slanting top boxes set against the wall, I discovered along with a lot of other small brown seed stuff that I knew must be wheat. I was glad that I had remembered that Adam had called the room the feed-room so I had known where to look.
It was so perfectly exciting to see all those fluffy white members of my family fortune scratching and clucking about my feet that I prolonged the process of the feeding by scattering only a few grains at a time until great shafts of golden morning sun were thrusting themselves in through the dim dusk and cobweb-veiled windows.
"Morning, little Mis'! I axes yo' parding fer not having breakfast 'fore sun-up fer you, but they didn't never any Craddock ladies want theirn before nine o'clock before, they didn't," came Rufus's voice in solemn words of apology uttered in tones of serious reproof. As he spoke he stood as far from the door of the feed-room as possible and eyed the scratching Bird family with the deepest disapproval. "Feed-room ain't no place fer chickens; they oughter make they living on bugs and worms and sich."
"These chickens are—are different, Rufus, and—and so am I," I answered him with dignity. "Call me when the gentlemen are ready to breakfast with me."
"They talked until most daylight, and I knows 'em well enough to not cook fer 'em until after ten o'clock. They's gentlemen, they is." The tones of his voice were perfectly servile, though it was plain to see that his mental processes were not.
"All right, I'll eat mine now, Rufus, and then I want you to get me a—a hammer and some nails. Also a bucket of whitewash," I said as I closed the door upon the Birds and preceded him to the house.
"Oh, my Lawd-a-mussy!" he exclaimed as he dived into the refuge of the kitchen, completely routed, to appear with my breakfast upon his tray and with such dignity in his mien that it was pathetic. I was merciful while I consumed the meal which was an exact repetition of the supper of the ribs of the hog and muffins and coffee; then I threw another fit into him, to quote from Matthew at his worst in the way of diction.
"Please set a bucket of the wood ashes from the living-room fire out at the barn for me, Rufus," I commanded him with pleasant firmness.
"Yes, Madam," was the answer I got in a tone of cold despair. It was thus that the feud with my family traditions was established.
"Also, Rufus, please bring the saw with the hammer and the nails," was my last hand-grenade as I departed out the back door to the barn. From the old clock standing against the wall in the back hall I discovered the hour to be exactly seven-thirty, and I felt that I had what would seem like a week ahead of me before the setting of the sun. However, I was wrong in my judgment, for time fairly fled from me, and it was nine o'clock by my platinum wrist-watch before I had more than got one very wobbly-looking box nailed together on the floor of the barn, and I was deep in both pride and exhaustion.
"I knew I could do it, but I didn't believe it," I was remarking to myself in great congratulations when a shadow fell across the light from the door. I looked up and, behold, Mrs. Silas Beesley loomed up against the sun and seemed to shine with equal refulgence to my delighted eyes! In her hand she held a plate covered with a snowy napkin, and her blue eyes danced with delighted astonishment.
"Well, well, Nancy!" she exclaimed, as she seated herself upon a bench by the door and began to fan herself with a corner of a snowy kerchief that crossed her ample bosom. "Looks like you have begun sawing and nailing at the Craddock family estate pretty early in the action though it's none too soon, and mighty glad I am to see you do it while there is still a little odd lumber left. I've always said that it's women folks that prop a family and it will soon tumble without 'em. I am so glad you've come, honeybunch, that tears are laughing themselves out of the corner of my eyes." This time the white kerchief was dabbed over the keen blue eyes.
"Is it all—very—very bad, Mrs.—I mean, Aunt Mary?" I asked, as I laid down my dull-toothed instrument for the dissection of the plank, and sank cross-legged on the barn floor in front of her.
"Oh, it might be worse," she answered as she smiled again with resolution. "Rufus has eleven nice hogs and feed enough for them until summer, thanks to the help of Adam in tending the ten-acre river-bottom field, which they made produce more than any one else in the river bend got off of fifty. Nobody can take the house, because it is hitched on to you with entailment, and though the croppers have skimmed off all the cream of the land, the clay bottom of it is obliged to be yours. Now that you and William have come with a little money the fields can all be restored. Adam will help you like he did Hiram Wade down the road there. It only cost him about ten dollars to the acre.
"But—but father and I—that is, Aunt Mary, you know father has lost all his property and Uncle Cradd assured us that—that there was plenty for us all at Elmnest," I said in a faltering tone of voice as a feeling of descending tragedy struck into my heart.
"Cradd and Rufus have lived on hog, head, heels, and tail for over a year, with nothing else but the corn meal that Rufus trades meat with Silas for. I thought, honeybunch, when I saw you coming so stylish and beautiful with those none-such chickens that you must have been bringing a silk purse sewed with gold thread with you. I said to Silas as he put out the lamp last night, 'The good Lord may let His deliverance horses lag along the track, but He always drives them in on the home stretch for His own, of which Moseby Craddock is one.' 'Why, she's so fine she can't eat eggs outen chickens that costs less than maybe a hundred dollars the dozen,' answered Silas to me as he put out the cat."
"They cost eight hundred and fifty dollars and they are all I have got in the world. Father gave up everything, and I sold my clothes and the cars to buy back his library and—and the chickens," I said with the terror pressing still more heavily down upon me.
"Well, I shouldn't call them chickens spilled milk. Just listen at 'em!" And just as we had arrived at the point of desperation in our conversation a diversion occurred in the way of two loud cacklings from the feed-room and the most ringing and triumphant crow that I am sure ever issued from the throat of a thoroughbred cock. "'Tain't possible for 'em to have laid this quick after traveling," said Aunt Mary, but she was almost as fleet as I was in her progress to the feed-room door. And behold!
"Well, what do you think about that, right out of the crate just last night, no nests nor nothing!" she exclaimed as we both paused and gazed at two huge white eggs in hastily scratched nests beside the bin over which two of the very most lovely white Leghorn ladies were proudly standing and clucking, while between them Mr. G. Bird was crowing with such evident pride that I was afraid he would split his crimson throat. All the other white Birds were clucking excitedly as if issuing hen promissory notes upon their futures.
"They're omens of good luck, bless the Lord, Honeybunch. Pick 'em right up!" exclaimed Mrs. Silas.
"Oh, they are warm!" I cried as I picked the two treasures up with reverent hands and cuddled them against the linen of the smock over my breast in which my heart was beating high with excitement. And as I held them there all threat of life vanished never to return, no matter through what vicissitudes the Golden Bird family and I were to pass.
"You can eat these, and next week you can begin to save for a setting as soon as you can get a hen ready. I'll lend you the first one of mine that broods," said Mrs. Silas as she took both the beautiful treasures into one of her large hands with what I thought was criminal carelessness, but didn't like to say so.
"I've ordered a three-hundred-egg incubator for them," I said proudly, as I gently took the warm treasures back into my hand. "Incubators are so much more sanitary and intelligent than hens," I added with all the surety of the advertisement for the mechanical hen which I had answered with thirty-five dollars obtained from the sale of the last fluffy petticoat I had hoped to retain, but which I gave up gladly after reading the advertisement. Two most lovely chemises had gone for the two brooders that were to accompany the incubator, and it seemed hard to think that I would have to wait ten days to receive the fruits of my feminine sacrifice from the slow shipping service of the railroad.
"Don't ever say that again, Nancy! Hens have more genuine wisdom growing at the roots of their pin feathers than most women display during the span of their entire lives, and they make very much better mothers," reproved Aunt Mary, with sweet firmness. "Just you wait and see which brings out your prize birds, the wooden box or the hen. When men invent something with a mother's heart, they had better name it angel and admit that the kingdom has come. Bless my soul; these biscuits I brought over for you-all's breakfast are stone-cold!"
"I've had my breakfast a half a day ago," I answered. "You go in and start father and Uncle Cradd off with the biscuits while I finish the nest and—and do some more things for my family fortune."
"Child, if you attempt to do the things that Adam wants you to do for and with live stock you may see miracles being hatched out and born, but you'll be too worn out to notice 'em. Trap nests indeed! I've got to have some time to make my water waves and offer daily prayer!" And with this ejaculation of good-natured indignation, evidently at the memory of sundry and various poultry prods, Mrs. Silas betook herself to the house with a beautiful and serene dignity. As she went she stopped to break a sprig from a huge old lilac that was beginning to burst its brown buds and to put up half a yard of rambler that trailed across the path with its treacherous thorns.
"Your lilacs are breaking scent already," she called back to me over her shoulder.
A woman can experience no greater sensation of joy than that which she feels when she first realizes that she is the mistress of a lilac bush. Neither her debut dance nor her first proposal of sentiment equals it. It is the same way about the first egg she gathers with her own hands; the sensation is indescribable.
"I'll do all the things he says do for you and the family, Mr. G. Bird, if it kills me, as it probably will," I said with resolution as I drove a last wobbly nail into the first nest, and took up the saw to again attack the odds and ends of old plank I had collected on the barn floor. "If I can make one nest in two hours, I can make two more in four more, and then I will have time for the rest of the things," I assured myself as I again looked at my wrist-watch, and began to saw with my knee holding the tough old plank in place across a rickety box.
It is beautiful how sometimes deserving courage is rewarded if it just goes on deserving long enough. After about an hour's hand-to-saw bout with the old plank I was just chewing through the last inch of the last of the four sides of nest number two when I suddenly stopped and listened. Far away to the front of the house I heard hot oaths being uttered by the engine in a huge racing-machine with a powerful chug with which I was quite familiar. While I listened, the motor in agony gave a snort as it bounded over some kind of obstruction and in two seconds, as I stood saw in hand, with not enough time to wipe the sweat of toil from my brow, the huge blue machine swept around the corner of the house, brought up beside the family coach, which was still standing in front of the barn, and Matthew flung himself out of it and to my side.
"Holy smokers, Ann, but you look good in that get-up!" he exclaimed as he regarded me with the delight with which a person might greet a friend or relative whom he had long considered dead or lost. "Why, you look just as if you had stepped right out of the 'Elite Review.' And the saw, too, makes a good note of human interest."
"Well, it's chicken interest and not human, Matthew Berry," I said, answering his levity with spirit. "And I'm sorry I can't be at home for your amusement to-day, but my chickens are laying while I wait, and the least I can do is to get these nests ready for 'em. You'll excuse me, won't you, and go in to talk with father and Uncle Cradd?"
"They're not producing dividends already, are they, Ann? Why, you only started the Consolidated Egg Co. yesterday!" exclaimed Matthew, with insulting doubt of my veracity in his voice.
"Look there!" I said, as I pointed to my two large pearls, which I had carefully put in the soft felt hat I had purchased to go with the smocks for fifteen dollars at Goertz's.
"Well, what do you know about that?" exclaimed Matthew, with real astonishment, as he sat down on his heels and took the two treasures into his highly manicured hands. "Gee, they are right hot off the bat!" he exclaimed, as he detected some of the warmth still left in them, I suppose.
"Yes, and I've got to get these nests done right away so as to be ready to catch the rest of them," I said and began to saw furiously, as if I were constructing a bucket to catch a deluge.
"Say, gimme the saw, Ann, and you get the fodder and things to put in the bottom of them to keep them from smashing as they come," said Matthew, as he flung off his coat, jammed his motor-cap on the back of his head, and took the saw from my unresisting hand.
"I'll get the whitewash and whiten them as you finish them," I said, as I hurriedly consulted the torn piece of wrapping-paper I took from one of the huge pockets of my smock.
"All right, but you had better hump yourself, for I believe I'm going to be some carpenter. This saw has a kind of affinity feeling to my hand," said Matthew, as he put his foot on one end of the plank and began to make the saw fly through the wood like a silver knife through fluffy cake. If saws were the only witnesses, the superiority of men over women would be established in very short order. "And say, Ann, I wish you would be thinking what you are going to charge for a half interest in this business. Law and real estate look slow to me after these returns right before my eyes," he added, as he stopped to move the pearl treasures farther out of the way of a possible flying plank.
"I'm going to give you one of them to take home with you, Matt," I answered, with a most generous return of his appreciation of these foundation pebbles of my family fortune. Then I went to appeal to Rufus for the whitewash.
"They's a half barrel uf lime and a bucket and bresh in the corner uf the barn what Mas' Adams made me git, he did; but it's fer the hawgs and can't be wasted on no chickens," he said, answering my very courteous request with a great lack of graciousness.
"The chickens will pay it back to the hogs, Rufus," I answered airily as I ran back to the barn, eager for the fray.
And a gorgeous fray it was, with Matthew whistling and directing and pounding and having the time of his very frivolous life.
Now, of course, nobody in these advanced times thinks that it is not absolutely possible, even easy, for a woman to live any kind of constructive life she chooses entirely without assistance from a man, but she'll get to the place she has started for just about a year after she would have arrived if a man had happened along to do the sawing. The way my friend Matthew Berry cut and hammered off one by one the directions on that piece of paper in my smock pocket would have proved the proposition above stated to any doubtful woman. And while Matthew and I had had many happy times together at balls and parties and dinners and long flights in our cars and at the theatre and opera, also in dim corners in gorgeous clothes, I am sure we had never been so happy as we were that morning while we labored together in the interest of Mr. G. Bird and family. We went beyond the paper directions and delved in my book and hammered away until, when Rufus, with stately coldness, announced some time after noon that dinner was served, we both declared that it was impossible, though Matthew was at that moment performing the last chore commanded by dusting the medicated ashes under the last wing of the last Lady Leghorn, held tenderly in my arms. The mash had been concocted and heated in the cleansed whitewash bucket over a fire improvised by Matthew between two stones beside the barn, because I did not dare disturb Rufus again, and the model nests were all in place and ready for the downpour of pearls that we expected at any time, and there was nothing left to do that we could think of or read about in the book.
"Let's go in and get a bite with Father Craddock and the twin, and then we'll read things to do this afternoon in the book where you got those directions," said Matthew as he started towards the house in the wake of Rufus' retiring apron.
I hadn't broken Pan to Matthew, and I didn't know exactly why. Perhaps I didn't quite believe in the red-headed Peckerwood myself just then, and felt unable to incarnate him to Matthew.
Uncle Cradd's welcome to Matthew was very stately and friendly when we went in and found him and father in their high-back chairs on each side of the table, waging the classic argument that Rufus had reported them to have discontinued at an early hour of the morning. Father was delighted with the package of books that Matthew had brought out with him in his car, because father considered them too valuable to be transported in the wagon which was to bring the rest of the library.
"Just a little of the cream of the collection, Cradd," he said as he unwrapped a small leather-covered volume which Matthew had transported in the pocket over his heart.
"Just five hundred dollars' worth of cream," whispered Matthew to me, with a whimsical look at the small and very ancient specimen of Americana. "It is a good thing that Senator Proctor has only Belle and let her have the six thousand cash for the Chauvenaise, and Bess wanted your little Royal in a hurry, though she got a bargain at that. Still the library is really worth five times what you paid."
"Sh—hush!" I said as I led the way before the parental twins into the old dining-room. Father hadn't even questioned how he was to have the library saved for him, and of course Uncle Cradd knew nothing at all about the matter.
After seating me with the same ceremony he had employed since my arrival into the family, though with hostility bristling psychologically for my plebeian intrusion into his traditions of the Craddock ladies, Rufus appalled me by offering me for the third time since my arrival at Elmnest roasted ribs of the hog, muffins and coffee. Only my training in the social customs of a world beyond the ken of Rufus kept me from exclaiming with protest, but I came to myself to discover that Matthew was devouring huge slabs of the roasted bones and half a dozen batches of the corn bread in a manner that was ravenously unconventional. I remembered that the last time I had seen him at repast, just about forty-eight hours past, he had speared a croquette of chicken with disdain, and I decided not to apologize for the meal even in the most subtle way. Also the spectacle of father polishing off the small bones, when I remembered the efforts of devoted Henri to tempt his appetite with sophisticated food, filled me with a queer primitive feeling that made it possible for me to fall upon my series of the ribs with an ardor which I had thought I was incapable of.
"I call that some food," sighed Matthew, as he regarded the pile of bones in his plate with the greatest satisfaction in his appeased eyes. I felt Rufus melt behind me as he passed the muffins again.
"The native food of the Harpeth Valley nourishes specially fine men—and very beautiful women," answered Uncle Cradd, with a glance of pride, first at me and then at father in his spare, but muscular, uprightness and finally at Matthew, with his one hundred and eighty pounds of brawn packed on his six-foot skeleton in the most beautiful lines and curves of strength and distinction.
"Oh, that reminds me, Mr. Craddock, and you, too, Father of Ann," said Matthew, as he reached into his pocket and hurriedly drew out a huge letter. "I have a proposition that came to the firm this morning to talk over with you two gentlemen. Ann thought I came out to help her settle the Bird family comfortably, and for a while I forgot and thought so too, but now I'll have to ask you two gentlemen to talk business, though I must confess the matter puzzles me not a little."
"The art of dining and the craft of business should never be commingled; let us repair to the library," said Uncle Cradd, thus placing the spare ribs in an artistic atmosphere and at the same time aiming an arrow of criticism, though unconscious, at the custom of the world out over Paradise Ridge of feeding business conditions down the throat of an adversary with his food and drink, specially drink.
"I don't know why, but I'm scared to death now that I'm up against it," Matthew confided to me as he first took a legal-looking piece of paper from his pocket and then hastily put it back as he and I followed the parental twins down the hall and into the library.
"Will you rescue me, Ann?" he whispered as he ceremoniously seated me in my low chair and took a straight one beside father as Uncle Cradd stood tall, huge and towering on the old home-woven rug before the small fire in the huge rock chimney.
"Yes," I answered as I settled back in the little chair and took one passionately delighted look around the old room, which I was seeing in the broad light of day for the first time. I am glad that the old home which had been the stronghold of my foremothers and fathers was thus revealed to me in half lights and a little at a time; I couldn't have stood the ecstasy of it all at once. The room was the low-beamed old wonder that I had felt it to be in the candle-light the night before, only now the soft richness of the paneling, which held back into the gloom the faded colors of the books that lined the walls, the mellowed glow of the rough stone of the chimney, and the faded hand-woven rugs on the floor made it all look like one of Rembrandt's or Franz Hals' canvases. But in a few seconds I came back from the joy of it to a consciousness of what Matthew Berry was saying.
"You see," he was explaining with enthusiasm, "that this new form of office for the state commissioner of agriculture is really a part of the great program of preparedness that has been evolving here in America since the Great War began, and nobody knows just what to expect of it as yet. The request from the President for the appointment of Evan Baldwin to take the portfolio in the State of Harpeth has made everybody see that the President means business with the States, and that America is to be made to produce her own food and the food of the rest of the world that needs it. When a scientist like Baldwin, worth millions and with experiment stations of hundreds of acres in most states in the Union, which are coining more millions with their propagation output, steps out and stands shoulder to shoulder with Edison in working to get the United States prepared to feed the world as well as to fend off any of that world that menaces it, the rest of us have got to get up and hustle, some with a musket and some with a plow."
"And some with an egg-basket," I added, as my cheeks began to glow with something I hadn't ever felt before, but which I classified as patriotism.
"My country has only to call us and we'll answer to the whole of our kingdom, William and I. We were lads too young to carry muskets against her in the Civil war, but we, with Rufus, plowed these acres with children's strength, and the larger portion of our products went to feed hungry soldiers both blue and gray. I say, just let my country call William and me!" As Uncle Cradd spoke, his back straightened, and I saw that he must have been every inch of six feet three in his youth. "William?"
"With you, Cradd," answered father quietly, and I felt that that formula was the one by which they had lived their joint youth.
"Well, that is about what they are asking of you, Mr. Craddock," said Matthew, his cheeks red with the glow of the blood Uncle Cradd had called up in his enthusiastic heart. "The new State secretary of agriculture has asked our firm to undertake negotiations for the purchase of Elmnest, for a recruiting station for the experts who are to take over the organizing of the farming interests in the Harpeth Valley, which is the central section of the State of Harpeth. They offer three hundred dollars an acre for the whole tract of two hundred acres, despite the fact that some of it is worn almost to its subsoil. They consider that as valuable, because they wish to give demonstrations and try experiments in land restoration, though very little of that is needed here in the valley. It's a pretty big thing, Mr. Craddock and Father William, sixty thousand dollars will provide all the—"
"Did I understand that this proposition is put to us in the form of a demand of our Government upon our patriotism?" asked Uncle Cradd in a booming voice, while father only looked uncertain and ready to say, "With you, Cradd." I sat speechless for a moment, with a queer pain in my heart that I did not for the first second understand.
"Well, not exactly that, Mr. Craddock, but something like it in a—" Matthew was beginning to say in a judicial way.
"That is enough, Matthew Berry, son of the friend of my youth. If the United States needs Elmnest for national defenses, I am willing to give it up—indeed insist on presenting it to the Government except for a small part of the sum mentioned, which is needed for the simple and declining lives of my brother William, Rufus, and me, and my niece Nancy. Will you so convey our answer, William?"
"With you, Cradd," came the devoted formula with which father slipped back finally into the dependence of his youth.
"Good, Mr. Craddock," exclaimed Matthew, and I could see visions of Ann Craddock reclaimed from her farmer's smock in a ball-gown upon the floor of the country club in the fleeting glance of triumph he gave me. "Of course, about the price—"
Then in that counsel of the mighty arose Ann Craddock, farm woman in the stronghold of her worn-out acres.
"Is it or is it not true, Uncle Cradd, that no deed to this property can be made without my consent?" I asked calmly.
"Why, yes, Nancy," answered Uncle Cradd, indulgently. "But this is a matter for your father and me to decide for you. I am sure you cannot fail in patriotism, my child."
"I don't," I answered. "I am going to be more patriotic than any woman ever was before. I am not going to sell my Grandmother's rosebushes in their gardens or the acres that have nourished my family since its infancy in America long before this Evan Baldwin ever had any family, I feel sure, for sixty thousand dollars to go back and sit down in a corner with. I am going to demonstrate to the United States what one woman can do in the way of nutriment production aided by one beautiful rooster and ten equally beautiful hens, and when they begin to take stock of the resources of this Government, we women of the Harpeth Valley will be there with our egg-baskets. Just take that answer to your Mr. Evan Baldwin, Matthew Berry, and I'll never forgive you for this insult."