THE HAPPY VENTURE
EDITH BALLINGER PRICE
AUTHOR OF "BLUE MAGIC," "US AND THE BOTTLEMAN," "SILVER SHOAL LIGHT," ETC.
Published in 1920, 1921, by The Century Co.
I TALES IN THE RAIN II HAVOC III UP STAKES IV THE FINE OLD FARMHOUSE V THE WHEELS BEGIN TO TURN VI THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HEDGE VII A-MAYING VIII WORK IX FAME COMES COURTING X VENTURES AND ADVENTURES XI THE NINE GIFTS XII "ROSES IN THE MOONLIGHT" XIII "THE SEA IS A TYRANT" XIV THE CELESTINE PLAYS HER PART XV MARTIN! XVI ANOTHER HOME-COMING
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Now can you see it? Now?" The Maestro sat down beside Kirk The slack length of it flew suddenly aboard "Phil—Phil!" Kirk was saying then
THE HAPPY VENTURE
TALES IN THE RAIN
"'How should I your true love know, From another one? By his cockle hat and staff, And his sandal shoon...'"
It was the fourth time that Felicia, at the piano, had begun the old song. Kenelm uncurled his long legs, and sat up straight on the window-seat.
"Why on earth so everlasting gloomy, Phil?" he said. "Isn't the rain bad enough, without that dirge?"
"The sky's 'be-weeping' him, just the way it says," said Felicia. She made one complete revolution on the piano-stool, and brought her strong fingers down on the opening notes of another verse.
"'He is dead and gone, ladie, He is dead and—'"
Kenelm sat down again in the window-seat. He knew that Felicia was anxious about their mother, and he himself shared her anxiety. The queer code of fraternal secrecy made him refrain from showing any sign of this to his sister, however. He yawned a little, and said, rather brusquely:
"This rain's messing up the frost pretty well. There shouldn't be much left of it by now."
"Crocuses soon ..." Felicia murmured. She began humming to an almost inaudible accompaniment on the piano:
"'Ring, ting, it is the merrie springtime....'"
The rain rolled dully down the clouded window-panes and spattered off the English-ivy leaves below the sill. They quivered up and down on pale stems—bright, waxed leaves, as shining as though they had been varnished.
Kirk drifted in and made his way to Felicia.
"She's better," he observed. "She said she was glad we were having fun." He frowned a little as he ran his finger reflectively down Felicia's sleeve. "But she's bothered. She has think-lines in her forehead. I felt 'em."
"You have a think-line in your own forehead," said Felicia, promptly kissing it away. "Don't you bother."
"Where's Ken?" Kirk demanded.
"In the window-seat."
Thither Kirk went, a tumble of expectancy, one hand before him and his head back. He leaped squarely upon Ken, and made known his wishes at once. They were very much what Kenelm expected.
"See me a story—a long one!"
"Oh, law!" Kenelm sighed; "you must think I'm made of 'em. Don't crawl all over me; let me ponder for two halves of a shake."
Kirk subsided against his brother's arm, and a "think-line" now became manifest on Kenelm's brow.
"See me a story"—Kirk's own queer phrase—had been the demand during most of his eight years. It seemed as though he could never have enough of this detail of a world visible to every one but himself. He must know how everything looked—even the wind, which could certainly be felt, and the rain, and the heat of the fire. From the descriptions he had amassed through his unwearied questioning, he had pieced out for himself a quaint little world of color and light,—how like or unlike the actuality no one could possibly tell.
"Blue is a cool thing, like water, or ice clinking in your glass," he would say, "and red's hot and sizzly, like the fire."
"Very true," his informants would agree; but for all that, they could not be sure what his conception might be of the colors.
Things were so confusing! There, for instance, were tomatoes. They were certainly very cool things, if you ate them sliced (when you were allowed), yet you were told that they were as red as red could be! And nothing could have been hotter than the blue tea-pot, when he picked it up by its spout; but that, to be sure, was caused by the tea. Yet the hot wasn't any color; oh, dear!
Ken had not practised the art of seeing stories for nothing. He plunged in with little hesitation, and with a grand flourish.
"My tale is of kings, it is," he said; "ancient kings—Babylonian kings, if you must know. It was thousands and thousands of years ago they lived, and you'd never be able to imagine the wonderful cities they built. They had hanging gardens that were——" Felicia interrupted.
"It's easy to tell where you got this story. I happen to know where your marker is in the Ancient History."
"Never you mind where I got it," Ken said. "I'm trying to describe a hanging garden, which is more than you could do. As I was about to say, the hanging gardens were built one above the other; they didn't really hang at all. They sat on big stone arches, and the topmost one was so high that it stuck up over the city walls, which were quite high enough to begin with. The tallest kinds of trees grew in the gardens; not just flowers, but big palm-trees and oleanders and citron-trees, and pomegranates hung off the branches all ready to be picked,—dark greeny, purpley pomegranates all bursting open so that their bright red seeds showed like live coals (do you think I'm getting this out of the history book, Phil?), and they were this-shaped—" he drew a pomegranate on the back of Kirk's hand—"with a sprout of leaves at the top. And there were citrons—like those you chop up in fruit-cake—and grapes and roses. The queen could sit in the bottomest garden, or walk up to the toppest one by a lot of stone steps. She had a slave-person who went around behind her with a pea-cock-feathery fan, all green and gold and beautiful; and he waved the fan over her to keep her cool. Meanwhile, the king would be coming in at one of the gates of the city. They were huge, enormous brass gates, and they shone like the sun, bright, and the sun winked on the king's golden chariot, too, and on the soldiers' spears.
"He was just coming home from a lion-hunt, and was very much pleased because he'd killed a lot of lions. He was really a rather horrid man,—quite ferocious, and all,—but he wore most wonderful purple and red embroidered clothes, the sort you like to hear about. He had a tiara on, and golden crescents and rosettes blazed all over him, and he wore a mystic, sacred ornament on his chest, round and covered all over with queer emblems. He rode past the temple, where the walls were painted in different colors, one for each of the planets and such, because the Babylonish people worshipped those—orange for Jupiter, and blue for Mercury, and silver for the moon. And the king got out of his chariot and climbed up to where the queen was waiting for him in the toppest gar—"
"Don't you tell me they were so domestic and all," Felicia objected. "They probably—"
"Who's seeing this story?" Ken retorted. "You let me be. I say, the queen was waiting for him, and she gave him a lotus and a ripe pomegranate, and the slaves ran and got wine, and the people with harps played them, and she said—Here's Mother!"
Kirk looked quite taken aback for a moment at this apparently irrelevant remark of the Babylonian queen, till a faint rustle at the doorway told him that it was his own mother who had come in.
She stood at the door, a slight, tired little person, dressed in one of the black gowns she had worn ever since the children's father had died.
"Don't stop, Ken," she smiled. "What did she say?"
But either invention flagged, or self-consciousness intervened, for Kenelm said:
"Blessed if I know what she did say! But at any rate, you'll agree that it was quite a garden, Kirky. I'll also bet a hat that you haven't done your lesson for to-morrow. It's not your Easter vacation, if it is ours. Miss Bolton will hop you."
"Think of doing silly reading-book things, after hearing all that," Kirk sighed.
"Suppose you had to do cuneiform writing on a dab of clay, like the Babylonish king," Ken said; "all spikey and cut in, instead of sticking out; much worse than Braille. Go to it, and let Mother sit here, laziness."
Kirk sighed again, a tremendous, pathetic sigh, designed to rouse sympathy in the breasts of his hearers. It roused none, and he wandered across the room and dragged an enormous book out upon the floor. He sprawled over it in a dim corner, his eyes apparently studying the fireplace, and his fingers following across the page the raised dots which spelled his morrow's lesson. What nice hands he had, Felicia thought, watching from her seat, and how delicately yet strongly he used them! She wondered what he could do with them in later years. "They mustn't be wasted," she thought. She glanced across at Ken. He too was looking at Kirk, with an oddly sober expression, and when she caught his eye he grew somewhat red and stared out at the rain.
"Better, Mother dear?" Felicia asked, curling down on a footstool at Mrs. Sturgis's feet.
"Rather, thank you," said her mother, and fell silent, patting the arm of the chair as though she were considering whether or not to say something more. She said nothing, however, and they sat quietly in the falling dusk, Felicia stroking her mother's white hand, and Ken humming softly to himself at the window. Kirk and his book were almost lost in the corner—just a pale hint of the page, shadowed by the hand which moved hesitantly across it. The hand paused, finally, and Kirk demanded, "What's 'u-g-h' spell?"
"It spells 'Ugh'!" Ken grunted. "What on earth are you reading? Is that what Miss Bolton gives you!"
"It's not my lesson," Kirk said; "it's much further along. But I can read it."
"You'll get a wigging. You'd better stick to 'The cat can catch the mouse,' et cetera."
"I finished that years ago," said Kirk, loftily. "This is a different book, even. Listen to this: 'Ugh! There—sat—the dog with eyes—as—big as—as—'"
"Tea-cups," said Felicia.
"'T-e-a-c-' yes, it is tea-cups," Kirk conceded; "how did you know, Phil?—'as big as tea-cups,—staring—at—him. "You're a nice—fellow," said the soldier, and he—sat him—on—the witch's ap-ron, and took as many cop—copper shillings—as his—pockets would hold.'"
"So that's it, is it?" Ken said. "Begin at the beginning, and let's hear it all."
"Ken," said his mother, "that's in the back of the book. You shouldn't encourage him to read things Miss Bolton hasn't given him."
"It'll do him just as much good to read that, as that silly stuff at the beginning. Phil and I always read things we weren't supposed to have reached."
"But for him—" Mrs. Sturgis murmured; "you and Phil were different, Ken. Oh, well,—"
For Kirk had turned back several broad pages, and began:
"There came a soldier marching along the highroad—one, two! one, two!..."
Little by little the March twilight settled deeper over the room. There was only a flicker on the brass andirons, a blur of pale blossoms where the potted azalea stood. The rain drummed steadily, and as steadily came the gentle modulations of Kirk's voice, as the tale of "The Tinder-Box" progressed.
It was the first time that he had ever read aloud anything so ambitious, and his hearers sat listening with some emotion—his mother filled with thankfulness that he had at last the key to a vast world which he now might open at a touch; Ken, with a sort of half-amazed pride in the achievements of a little brother who was surmounting such an obstacle. Felicia sat gazing across the dim room.
"He's reading us a story!" she thought, over and over; "Kirk's reading to us, without very many mistakes!" She reflected that the book, for her, might as well be written in Sanskrit. "I ought to know something about it," she mused; "enough to help him! It's selfish and stupid not to! I'll ask Miss Bolton."
The soldier had gone only as far as the second dog's treasure-room, when Maggie came to the door to say that supper was ready. From between the dining-room curtains came the soft glow of the candles and the inviting clink of dishes. "'He threw—away all the copper—money he had, and filled his—knapsack with silver,'" Kirk finished in a hurry, and shut the book with a bang.
"I wouldn't have done that," he said, as Felicia took the hand he held out for some one to take; "I should think all the money he could possibly get would have been useful."
"You've said it!" Ken laughed.
"Yes," Mrs. Sturgis murmured with a sigh, "all the money one can get is useful. You read it very beautifully, darling—thank you."
She kissed his forehead, and took her place at the head of the table, where the candles lit her gentle face and her brown eyes—filled now, with a sudden brimming tenderness.
The town ran, in its lower part, to the grimy water-front, where there was ever a noise of the unloading of ships, the shouts of teamsters, and the clatter of dray-horses' big hoofs on bare cobblestones. Ken liked to walk there, even on such a dreary March day as this, when the horses splashed through puddles, and the funnels of the steamers dripped sootily black. He had left Felicia in the garden, investigating the first promise of green under the leaf-coverlet of the perennial bed. Kirk was with her, questing joyously down the brick path, and breathing the warm, wet smell of the waking earth.
Ken struck down to the docks; even before he reached the last dingy street he could see the tall masts of a sailing-ship rising above the warehouse roofs. It was with a quickened beat of the heart that he ran the last few steps, and saw her in all her quiet dignity—the Celestine, four-masted schooner. It was not often that sailing vessels came into this port. Most of the shipping consisted of tugs with their barges, high black freighters, rust-streaked; and casual tramp steamers battered by every wind from St. John's to Torres Straits. The Celestine was, herself, far from being a pleasure yacht. Her bluff bows were salt-rimed and her decks bleached and weather-bitten. But she towered above her steam-driven companions with such stalwart grace, such simple perfection, that Ken caught his breath, looking at her.
The gang-plank was out, for she lay warped in to one of the wharves, and Ken went aboard and leaned at the rail beside a square man in a black jersey, who chewed tobacco and squinted observantly at the dock. From this person, at first inclined to be taciturn, Ken learned that the Celestine was sailing the next night, bound for Rio de Janeiro, "and mebbe further." Rio de Janeiro! And here she lay quietly at the slimy wharf, beyond which the gray northern town rose in a smoky huddle of chimney-pots.
Behind Ken, some of the crew began hoisting the foresail to dry. He heard the rhythmic squeak of the halliards through the sheaves, and the scrape of the gaff going up.
"Go 'n lend 'em a hand, boy, since yer so gone on it," the jerseyed one recommended quite understandingly. So Ken went and hauled at a rope, and watched the great expanse of sodden gray canvas rise and shiver and straighten into a dark square against the sky. He imagined himself one of the crew of the Celestine, hoisting the foresail in a South American port.
"I'd love to roll to Rio Some day before I'm old..."
The sail rose steadily to the unsung chorus. Ken was quite happy.
He walked all the way home—it was a long walk—with his head full of plans for a seafaring life, and his nostrils still filled with the strange, fascinating, composite smell of the docks.
Felicia met him at the gate. She looked quite done for, he thought, and she caught his sleeve.
"Where have you been?" she said, with a queer little excited hitch in her voice. "I've been almost wild, waiting for you. Mother's headache is horribly worse; she's gone to bed. A letter came this morning, I don't know what, but I think it has something to do with her being so ill. She simply cries and cries—a frightening sort of crying—and says, 'I can't—can't!' and wants Father to tell her what to do."
They were in the hall by this time.
"Wants Father!" Ken said gravely. "Have you got the doctor, Phil?"
"Not yet; I wanted to ask you."
Ken ran upstairs. Halfway, he tumbled over something crouched beside the banisters. It was Kirk, quite wretched. He caught Ken's ankle.
"Mother's crying," he said; "I can hear her. Oh, do something, Ken!"
"I'm going to," said his brother. "Don't sit here in the dark and make yourself miserable."
He recollected that the landing was no darker for Kirk than any other place, and added: "You're apt to be stepped on here—I nearly smashed you. Hop along and tell Maggie that I'm as hungry as an ostrich." But however hungry Ken may have been as he trudged home from the docks, he was not so now. A cold terror seized him as he leaned above his mother, who could not, indeed, stop her tears, nor tell him more than that she could not bear it, she could not. Ken had never before felt quite so helpless. He wished, as much as she, that his father were there to tell them what to do—his tall, quiet father, who had always counseled so well. He breathed a great thankful sigh when the doctor came in, with Felicia, white faced, peeping beside his shoulder. Ken said, "I'm glad you'll take charge, sir," and slipped out.
He and Felicia stood in Kirk's room, silently, and after what seemed an eternity, the doctor came out, tapping the back of his hand with his glasses. He informed them, with professional lack of emotion, that their mother was suffering from a complete nervous breakdown, from which it might take her months to recover.
"Evidently," said he, "she has been anxious over something, previous to this, but some definite shock must have caused the final collapse."
He was a little man, and he spoke drily, with a maddening deliberation. "There was a letter—this morning," Felicia said, faintly.
"It might be well to find the letter, in order to ascertain the exact nature of the shock," said the doctor.
Ken went to his mother's room and searched her desk. He came back presently with a legal envelop, and his face was blank and half uncomprehending. The doctor took the paper from him and skimmed the contents.
"Ah—hm. 'United Stock ... the mine having practically run out ... war causing further depreciation ... regret to inform you, ... hm, yes. My dear young people, it appears from this that your mother has lost a good deal of money—possibly all her money. I should advise your seeing her attorney at once. Undoubtedly he will be able to make a satisfactory adjustment."
He handed the paper back to Ken, who took it mechanically. Then, with the information that it would be necessary for their mother to go to a sanatorium to recuperate, and that he would send them a most capable nurse immediately, the doctor slipped out—a neat little figure, stepping along lightly on his toes. "Can you think straight, Ken?" Felicia said, later, in the first breathing pause after the doctor's departure and the arrival of the brisk young woman who took possession of the entire house as soon as she stepped over the threshold.
"I'm trying to," Ken replied, slowly. He began counting vaguely on his fingers. "It means Mother's got to go away to a nervous sanatorium place. It means we're poor. Phil, we may have to—I don't know what."
"What do they do with people who have no money?" Felicia asked dismally. "They send them to the poor-farm or something, don't they?"
"Don't talk utter bosh, Phil! As if I'd ever let you or Kirk go to the poor-farm!"
"Kirk!" Felicia murmured. "Suppose they took him away! They might, you know—the State, and send him to one of those institutions!"
"Oh, drop it!" snapped Ken. "We don't even know how much money it is Mother's lost. I don't suppose she had it all in this bally mine. Who is her attorney, anyway!"
"Mr. Dodge,—don't you remember? Nice, with a pink face and bristly hair. He came here long ago about Daddy's business."
There was a swift rush of feet on the stairs, a pause in the hallway, and Kirk appeared at the door.
"I told Maggie," said he, "and supper's ready. And what's specially nice is the toast, because I made it myself—only Norah told me when it was done."
Ken and Felicia looked at one another, and wondered how much supper they could eat. Then Ken swung Kirk to his shoulder, and said:
"All right, old boy, we'll come and eat your toast."
"Is the crackly lady taking care of Mother?" Kirk asked over a piece of his famous toast, as they sat at supper.
"Yes," said Felicia. "Her name's Miss McClough. Why, did you meet her?"
"She said, 'Don't sit in people's way when you see they're in a hurry,'" said Kirk, somewhat grieved. "I didn't know she was coming. I don't think I like her much. Her dress creaks, and she smells like the drug-store."
"She can't help that," said Ken; "she's taking good care of Mother. And I told you the stairway was no place to sit, didn't I!"
"I've managed to find out something," Ken told Felicia, next day, as he came downstairs. "Mother would talk about it, in spite of Miss McThing's protests, and I came away as soon as I could. She says there's a little Fidelity stock that brings enough to keep her in the rest-place, so she feels a little better about that. (By the way, she tried to say she wouldn't go, and I said she had to.) Then there's something else—Rocky Head Granite, I think—that will give us something to live on. We'll have to see Mr. Dodge as soon as we can; I'm all mixed up."
They did see Mr. Dodge, that afternoon. He was nice, as Felicia had said. He made her sit in his big revolving-chair, while he brought out a lot of papers and put on a pair of drooping gold eye-glasses to look at them. And the end of the afternoon found Ken and Felicia very much confused and a good deal more discouraged than before. It seemed that even the Rocky Head Granite was not a very sound investment, and that the staunch Fidelity was the only dependable source of income.
"And Mother must have that money, of course, for the rest-place," Felicia said. "For Heaven's sake, don't tell her," Ken muttered.
His sister shot him one swift look of reproach and then turned to Mr. Dodge. She tried desperately to be very businesslike.
"What do you advise us to do, Mr. Dodge?" she said. "Send away the servants, of course."
"And Miss Bolton," Ken said; "she's an expensive lady."
"Yes, Miss Bolton. I'll teach Kirk—I can."
"How much is the rent of the house, Mr. Dodge, do you know?" Ken asked. Mr. Dodge did know, and told him. Ken whistled. "It sounds as though we'd have to move," he said.
"The lease ends April first," said the attorney.
"We could get a little tiny house somewhere," Felicia suggested. "Couldn't you get quite a nice one for six hundred dollars a year?"
This sum represented, more or less, their entire income—minus the expenses of Hilltop Sanatorium.
"But what would you eat?" Mr. Dodge inquired gently.
"Oh, dear, that's true!" said Felicia. And clothes! What do you think we'd better do?"
"You have no immediate relatives, as I remember?" Mr. Dodge mused.
"None but our great-aunt, Miss Pelham," Ken said, "and she lives in Los Angeles."
"She's very old, too," Phil said, "and lives in a tiny house. She's not at all well off; we shouldn't want to bother her. And there is Uncle Lewis."
"Oh, him!" said Ken, gloomily.
"It takes three months even to get an answer from a letter to him," Felicia explained. "He's in the Philippines, doing something to Ignorants."
"Igorrotes, Phil," Ken muttered.
"He sounds unpromising," Mr. Dodge sighed. "And there are no friends who would be sufficiently interested in your problem to open either their doors or their pocket-books?"
"We don't know many people here," Felicia said. "Mother hasn't gone out very much for several years."
Ken flushed. "And we'd rather people didn't open anything to us, anyhow," he said.
"Except, perhaps, their hearts," Mr. Dodge supplemented, "or their eyes, when they see your independent procedure!" He tapped his knee with his glasses. "My dear children, I suggest that you move to some other house—perhaps to some quaint little place in the country, which would be much less expensive than anything you could find in town. Your mother had best go away, as the doctor advises—she will be much better looked after, and of course she mustn't know what you do. I'll watch over this Rocky Head concern, and you may feel perfectly secure in the Fidelity. And don't hesitate to ask me anything you want to know, at any time."
He rose, pushing back his papers.
"Don't we owe you something for all this, sir?" Ken asked, rather red.
Mr. Dodge smiled. "One dollar, and other valuable considerations," he said.
Kenelm brought out his pocketbook, and carefully pulled a dollar bill from the four which it contained. He presented it to Mr. Dodge, and Felicia said:
"Thank you so very, very much!"
"You're very welcome," said the attorney, "and the best of luck to you all!" When the glass door had closed behind the pair, Mr. Dodge sat down before his desk and wiped his glasses. He looked at the dollar bill, and then he said—quite out loud—
"Poor, poor dears!"
That night, Kenelm could not sleep. He walked up and down his room in the dark. His own head ached, and he could not think properly. The one image which stood clearly out of the confusion was that of the Celestine, raising gracious spars above the house-tops. The more he thought of her, the more a plan grew in his tired mind. The crew of the Celestine must be paid quite well—he could send money home every week from different ports—he could send gold and precious things from South America. There would be one less person to feed at home; he would be earning money instead of spending it.
He turned on his light, and quickly gathered together his hockey sweater, his watch-cap, and an old pair of trousers. He made them into a bundle with a few other things. Then he wrote a letter, containing many good arguments, and pinned it on Felicia's door. He tiptoed downstairs and out into the night. From the street he could see the faint green light from his mother's room, where Miss McClough was sitting. He turned and ran quickly, without stopping to think.
No one was abroad but an occasional policeman, twirling his night-stick. On the wharves the daylight confusion was dispelled; there was no clatter of teaming, no sound but the water fingering dank piles, and the little noises aboard sleeping vessels. But the Celestine was awake. Lights gleamed aboard her, men were stirring, the great mass of her canvas blotted half the stars. She was sailing, that night, for Rio de Janeiro.
Ken slipped into the shadow of a pile-head, waiting his chance. His heart beat suffocatingly; his hands were very cold. Quietly he stepped under the gang-plank, swung a leg over it, drew himself aboard, and lay flat on deck beside the rail of the Celestine in a pool of shade. A man tripped over him and stumbled back with an oath. The next instant Ken was hauled up into the light of a lantern.
"Stowaway, eh?" growled a squat man in dungaree. "Chuck him overboard, Sam, an' let him swim home to his mamma."
In that moment, Ken knew that he could never have sailed with the Celestine, that he would have slipped back to the wharf before she cast loose her hawsers. He looked around him as if he had just awakened from sleep-walking and did not know where he found himself. He gazed up at the gaunt mainmast, black against the green night sky, at the main topsail, shaking still as the men hauled it taut.
"I'm not a stowaway," he said; "I'm going ashore now."
He walked down the gang-plank with all the dignity he could muster, and never looked behind him as he left the wharf. He could hear the rattle of the Celestine's tackle, and the boom, boom of the sails. Once clear of the docks he ran, blindly.
"Fool!" he whispered. "Oh, what a fool! what a senseless idiot!"
The house was dark as he turned in at the gate. He stopped for an instant to look at its black bulk, with Orion setting behind the chimney-pots.
"I was going to leave them—all alone!" he whispered fiercely. "Good Heavens!"
He removed the letter silently from Felicia's door,—he was reassured by seeing its white square before he reached it,—and crept to his own room. There a shadowy figure was curled up on the floor, and it was crying.
"Kirk! What's up?" Ken lifted him and held him rather close.
"You weren't here," Kirk sniffed; "I got sort of rather l-lonely, so I thought I'd come in with you—and the b-bed was perfectly empty, and I couldn't find you. I t-thought you were teasing me."
"I was taking a little walk," Ken said. "Here, curl up in bed—you're frozen. No, I'm not going away again—never any more, ducky. It was nice in the garden," he added.
"The garden?" Kirk repeated, still clinging to him. "But you smell of—of—oh, rope, and sawdust, and—and, Ken, your face is wet!"
* * * * *
Mrs. Sturgis protested bitterly against going away. She felt quite able to stay at home. To be sure, she couldn't sleep at all, and her head ached all the time, and she couldn't help crying over almost everything—but it was impossible that she should leave the children. In spite of her half-hysterical protests, the next week saw her ready to depart for Hilltop with Miss McClough, who was to take the journey with her.
"You needn't worry a scrap," laughed Felicia, quite convincingly, at the taxi door. "We've seen Mr. Dodge, and there'll be money enough. You just get well as quick as ever you can."
"Good-by, my darlings," faltered poor Mrs. Sturgis, quite ready to collapse again. "Good-by, Kirk—my precious, precious baby! How can I!"
And the taxicab moved away, giving them just one glimpse of their mother with her poor head on Miss McClough's capable shoulder.
"Well," Ken remarked, "here we are."
And there was really nothing more to be said on the subject.
Such a strange house! Maggie and Norah gone; Felicia cooking queer meals—principally poached eggs—in the kitchen; Miss Bolton failing to appear every morning at ten o'clock as she had done for the last three years; Mother gone, and not even a letter from her—nothing but a type-written report from the physician at Hilltop.
Gone also, as Kirk discovered, was the lowboy beside the library door. It was a most satisfactory piece of furniture. From its left-hand corner you could make a direct line to the window-seat. It also had smoothly graceful brass handles, and a surface delicious to the touch. When Kirk, stumbling in at the library door, failed to encounter it as usual, he was as much startled as though he had found a serpent in its stead. He tried for it several times, and when his hands came against the bookshelves he stopped dead, very much puzzled and quite lost. Felicia found him there, standing still and patiently waiting for the low-boy to materialize in its accustomed place.
"Where is it!" he asked her.
"It's not there, honey," she said. "We're going to a different house, and it's sent away."
"A different house! When? What do you mean?"
"We've finished renting this one," said Felicia. "We thought it would be nice to go to another one—in the country. Oh, you'll like it."
"How queer!" Kirk mused. "Perhaps I shall. But I don't know about this corner; it used to be covered up. Please start me right."
She did so, and then ran off to attend to a peculiar pudding which was boiling over on the stove. She had not told him that the low-boy was sent away to be sold. When she and Ken had discovered the appalling sum it would cost to move the furniture anywhere, they heartbrokenly concluded that the low-boy and various other old friends must go to help settle the accounts of Miss Bolton and the nurse.
"There are some things," Ken stoutly pronounced, however, "that we'll take with us, if I have to go digging ditches to support 'em. And some we'll leave with Mr. Dodge—I know he won't mind a few nice tables and things."
For the "different house" was actually engaged. Mr. Dodge shook his head when he heard that Ken had paid the first quarter's rent without having even seen the place.
"Fine old farm-house," said the advertisement; "Peach and apple orchards. Ten acres of land. Near the bay. Easy reach of city. Only $15.00 per month."
There was also a much blurred photograph of the fine old farm-house, from which it was difficult to deduce much except that it had a gambrel roof.
"But it does sound quite wonderful," Felicia said to the attorney. "We thought we wouldn't go to see it because of its costing so much to travel there and back again. But don't you think it ought to be nice? Peach and apple orchards,—and only fifteen dollars a month!"
"I dare say it is wonderful," said Mr. Dodge, smiling. "At any rate, Asquam itself is a very pretty little bayside place—I've been there. Fearfully hard to get your luggage, but charming once you're there. Don't forget me! I'll always be here. And you'd better have a little more cash for your traveling expenses."
"I hope it really came out of our money," Ken said, when he saw the cash.
Nothing but a skeleton of a house, now. No landmarks at all were left for Kirk, and he tumbled over boxes and crates, and lost himself in the bare, rugless halls. The beds that were to be taken to Asquam were still set up,—they would be crated next day,—but there was really nothing else left in the rooms. Three excited people, two of them very tired, ate supper on the corner of the kitchen table—which was not going to the farm-house. That house flowered hopefully in its new tenants' minds. Felicia saw it, tucked between its orchards, gray roof above gnarled limbs, its wide stone door-step inviting one to sit down and look at the view of the bay. And there would be no need of spending anything there except that fifteen dollars a month—"and something for food," Felicia thought, "which oughtn't to be much, there in the country with hens and things."
It amused Kirk highly—going to bed in an empty room. He put his clothes on the floor, because he could find no other place for them. Felicia remonstrated and suggested the end of the bed.
"Everything else you own is packed, you know," said she. "You'd better preserve those things carefully."
"Sing to me," he said, when he was finally tucked in. "It's the last night—and—everything's so ugly. I want to pretend it's just the same. Sing 'Do-do, petit frere,' Phil."
Felicia sat on the edge of the bed and sang the little old French lullaby. She had sung it to him often when she was quite a small girl, and he a very little boy. She remembered just how he used to look—a cuddly, sleepy three-year-old, with a tumble of dark hair and the same grave, unlit eyes. He was often a little frightened, in those days, and needed to hold a warm substantial hand to link him with the mysterious world he could not see.
"Do-do, p'tit frere, do-do."
His hand groped down the blanket, now, for hers, and she took it and sang on a bit unsteadily in the echoing bareness of the dismantled room.
A long time afterward, when Kenelm was standing beside his window looking out into the starless dark, Felicia's special knock sounded hollowly at his door.
She came over to him, and stood for a while silently. Then she turned and said suddenly in a shy, low voice:
"Oh, Ken, I don't know how you feel about it, but—but, I think, whatever awful is going to happen, we must try to keep things beautiful for Kirk."
"I guess we must," Ken said, staring out. "I'd trust you to do it, old Phil. Cut along now to bed," he added gruffly; "we'll have to be up like larks to-morrow."
THE FINE OLD FARM-HOUSE
Asquam proper is an old fishing-village on the bayside. The new Asquam has intruded with its narrow-eaved frame cottages among the gray old houses, and has shouldered away the colonial Merchants' Hall with a moving-picture theater, garish with playbills and posters. Two large and well-patronized summer hotels flourish on the highest elevation (Asquam people say that their town is "flatter'n a johnny cake"), from which a view of the open sea can be had, as well as of the peninsulas and islands which crowd the bay.
On the third day of April the hotels and many of the cottages were closed, with weathered shutters at the windows and a general air of desolation about their windy piazzas. Asquam, both new and old, presented a rather bleak and dismal appearance to three persons who alighted thankfully from the big trolley-car in which they had lurched through miles of flat, mist-hung country for the past forty minutes.
The station-agent sat on a tilted-up box and discussed the new arrivals with one of his ever-present cronies.
"Whut they standin' ther' fer?" he said. "Some folks ain't got enough sense to go in outen the rain, seems so."
"'T ain't rainin'—not so's to call it so," said the crony, whose name was Smith. "The gell's pretty."
"Ya-as, kind o'," agreed the station-agent, tilting back critically. "Boy's upstandin'."
"Big 'n. Little 'un ain't got no git-up-'n'-git fer one o' his size. Look at him holdin' to her hand."
"Sunthin' ails him," Smith said. "Ain't all there I guess."
The station-agent nodded a condescending agreement, and cocked his foot on another box. At this moment the upstanding boy detached himself from his companions, and strode to where the old man sat.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "can you tell me how far it is to the Baldwin farm, and whether any of Mr. Sturgis's freight has come yet?"
"Baldwin fa'm?" and the station-agent scratched his ear. "Oh, you mean out on the Winterbottom Road, hey? 'Beout two mile."
"And Mr. Sturgis's freight?"
"Nawthin' come fer that name," said the agent, "'less these be them." He indicated four small packages in the baggage-room.
"Oh no," said Ken, "they're big things—beds, and things like that. Well, please let me know if they do come. I'm Mr. Sturgis."
"Oh, you be," said the agent, comprehensively.
"Ain't gonna walk away out to the Baldwin place with all them valises, air you?" Smith inquired, breaking silence for the first time.
"I don't know how else we'll get there," Ken said.
"Yay—Hop!" shouted Smith, unexpectedly, with a most astonishing siren-like whoop.
Before Ken had time to wonder whether it was a prearranged signal for attack, or merely that the man had lost his wits, an ancient person in overalls and a faded black coat appeared from behind the baggage-house. "Hey? Well?" said he.
"Take these folks up to the Baldwin place," Smith commanded; "and don't ye go losin' no wheels this time—ye got a young lady aboard." At which sally all the old men chuckled creakily.
But the young lady showed no apprehension, only some relief, as she stepped into the tottering surrey which Hop drove up beside the platform. As the old driver slapped the reins on the placid horse's woolly back, the station-agent turned to Smith.
"George," he said, "the little 'un ain't cracked. He's blind."
"Well, gosh!" said Smith, with feeling.
Winterbottom Road unrolled itself into a white length of half-laid dust, between blown, sweet-smelling bay-clumps and boulder-filled meadows.
"Is it being nice?" Kirk asked, for the twentieth time since they had left the train for the trolley-car.
Felicia had been thanking fortune that she'd remembered to stop at the Asquam Market and lay in a few provisions. She woke from calculations of how many meals her family could make of the supplies she had bought, and looked about.
"We're near the bay," she said; "that is you can see little silvery flashes of it between trees. They're pointy trees—junipers, I think and there are a lot of rocks in the fields, and wild-flowers. Nothing like any place you've ever been in—wild, and salty, and—yes, quite nice."
They passed several low, sturdy farm-houses, and one or two boarded-up summer cottages; then two white chimneys showed above a dark green tumble of trees, and the ancient Hopkins pointed with his whip saying:
"Ther' you be. Kind o' dull this time year, I guess; but my! Asquam's real uppy, come summer—machines a-goin', an' city folks an' such. Reckon I'll leave you at the gate where I kin turn good."
The flap-flop of the horse's hoofs died on Winterbottom Road, and no sound came but the wind sighing in old apple-boughs, and from somewhere the melancholy creaking of a swinging shutter. The gate-way was grown about with grass; Ken crushed it as he forced open the gate, and the faint, sweet smell rose. Kirk held Felicia's sleeve, for she was carrying two bags. He stumbled eagerly through the tall dry grass of last summer's unmown growth.
"Now can you see it? Now?"
But Felicia had stopped, and Kirk stopped, too.
"Are we there? Why don't you say anything?"
Felicia said nothing because she could not trust her voice. Kirk knew every shade of it; she could not deceive him. Gaunt and gray the "fine old farm-house" stood its ground before them. Old it assuredly was, and once fine, perhaps, as its solid square chimneys and mullioned windows attested. But oh, the gray grimness of it! the sagging shutter that creaked, the burdocks that choked the stone door-step, the desolate wind that surged in the orchard trees and would not be still!
Ken did what Felicia could not do. He laughed—a real laugh, and swept Kirk into warm, familiar arms.
"It's a big, jolly, fine old place!" he said. "Its windows twinkle merrily, and the front door is only waiting for the key I have in my pocket. We've got home, Quirk—haven't we, Phil?"
Felicia blessed Ken. She almost fancied that the windows did twinkle kindly. The big front door swung open without any discourteous hesitation, and Ken stood in the hall.
"Phew—dark!" he said. "Wait here, you fellows, while I get some shutters open."
They could hear his footsteps sound hollowly in the back rooms, and shafts of dusky light, preceded by hammerings and thumpings, began presently to band the inside of the house. Felicia stepped upon the painted floor of the bare hall, glanced up the narrow stairs, and then stood in the musty, half-lit emptiness of what she guessed to be the living-room, waiting for Ken. Kirk did not explore. He stood quite still beside his sister, sorting out sounds, analyzing smells. Ken came in, very dusty, rubbing his hands on his trousers.
"Lots of fireplaces, anyway," he said. "Put down your things—if you've anywhere to put 'em. I'll load all the duffle into this room and see if there's any wood in the woodshed. Glory! No beds, no blankets! There'll have to be wood, if the orchard primeval is sacrificed!" And he went, whistling blithely.
"This is an adventure," Felicia whispered dramatically to Kirk. "We've never had a real one before; have we?"
"Oh, it's nice!" Kirk cried suddenly. "It's low and still, and—the house wants us, Phil!"
"The house wants us," murmured Felicia. "I believe that's going to help me."
It was quite the queerest supper that the three had ever cooked or eaten. Perhaps "cooked" is not exactly the right word for what happened to the can of peas and the can of baked beans. Ken did find wood—not in the woodshed, but strewing the orchard grass; hard old apple-wood, gray and tough. It burned merrily enough in the living-room fireplace, and the chimney responded with a hollow rushing as the hot air poured into it.
"It makes it seem as if there were something alive here besides us, anyway," Felicia said.
They were all sitting on the hearth, warming their fingers, and when the apple-wood fire burned down to coals that now and again spurted short-lived flame, they set the can of peas and the can of baked beans among the embers. They turned them gingerly from time to time with two sticks, and laughed a great deal. The laughter echoed about in the empty stillness of the house.
Ken's knife was of the massive and useful sort that contains a whole array of formidable tools. These included a can-opener, which now did duty on the smoked tins. It had been previously used to punch holes in the tops of the cans before they went among the coals—"for we don't want the blessed things blowing up," Ken had said. Nothing at all was the matter with the contents of the cans, however, in spite of the strange process of cookery. The Sturgises ate peas and baked beans on chunks of unbuttered bread (cut with another part of Ken's knife) and decided that nothing had ever tasted quite so good.
"No dish-washing, at any rate," said Ken; "we've eaten our dishes."
Kirk chose to find this very entertaining, and consumed another "bread-plate," as he termed it, on the spot.
The cooking being finished, more gnarly apple-wood was put on the fire, and the black, awkward shadows of three figures leaped out of the bare wall and danced there in the ruddy gloom. Bedtime loomed nearer and nearer as a grave problem, and Ken and Felicia were silent, each wondering how the floor could be made softest.
"The Japanese sleep on the floor," Ken said, "and they have blocks of wood for pillows. Our bags are the size, and, I imagine, the consistency, of blocks of wood. N'est-ce pas, oui, oui?"
"I'd rather sleep on a rolled-up something-or-other out of my bag than on the bag itself, any day—or night," Felicia remarked.
"As you please," Ken said; "but act quickly. Our brother yawns."
"Bedtime, honey," Felicia laughed to Kirk. "Even queerer than supper-time was."
"A bed by night, a hard-wood floor by day," Ken misquoted murmurously.
"Hard-wood!" Felicia sniffed. "Hard wood!"
The problem now arose: which was most to be desired, an overcoat under you to soften the floor, or on top of you to keep you warm?
"If he has my overcoat, it'll do both," Ken suggested. "Put his sweater on, too." "But what'll you do?" Kirk objected.
"Roll up in your overcoat, of course," Ken said.
This also entertained Kirk.
"No, but really?" he said, sober all at once.
"Don't you fret about me. I'll haul it away from you after you're asleep."
And Kirk snuggled into the capacious folds of Ken's Burberry, apparently confident that his brother really would claim it when he needed it.
Ken and Felicia sat up, feeding the fire occasionally, until long after Kirk's quiet breathing told them that he was asleep.
"Well, we've made rather a mess of things, so far," Ken observed, somewhat cheerlessly.
"We were ninnies not to think that none of the stuff would have come," Felicia said. "We'll have to do something before to-morrow night. This is all right for once, but—!"
"Goodness knows when the things will come," said Ken, poking at the fore-stick. "The old personage said that all the freight, express, everything, comes by that weird trolley-line, at its own convenience."
"Shouldn't you think that they'd have something dependable, in a summer place?" Felicia signed. "Oh, it seems as if we'd been living for years in houses with no furniture in them. And the home things will simply rattle, here."
"I wish we could have brought more of them," Ken said. "We'll have to rout around to-morrow and buy an oil-stove or something and a couple of chairs to sit on. Ah hum! Let's turn in, Phil. We've a tight room and a fire, anyhow. Shall you be warm enough?"
"Plenty. I've my coat, and a sweater. But what are you going to do?"
"Oh, I'll sit up a bit longer and stoke. And really, Kirk's overcoat spreads out farther than you'd think. He's tallish, nowadays."
Felicia discovered that there are ways and ways of sleeping on the floor. She found, after sundry writhings, the right way, and drifted off to sleep long before she expected to.
Ken woke later in the stillness of the last hours of night. The room was scarcely lit by the smoldering brands of the fire; its silence hardly stirred by the murmurous hissing of the logs. Without, small marsh frogs trilled their silver welcome to the spring, an unceasing jingle of tiny bell-notes. Kirk was cuddled close beside Ken, and woke abruptly as Ken drew him nearer.
"You didn't take your overcoat," he whispered.
"We'll both have it, now," his brother said. "Curl up tight, old man; it'll wrap round the two of us."
"Is it night still?" Kirk asked.
"Black night," Ken whispered; "stars at the window, and a tree swaying across it. And in here a sort of dusky lightness—dark in the corners, and shadows on the walls, and the fire glowing away. Phil's asleep on the other side of the hearth, and she looks very nice. And listen—hear the toads?"
"Is that what they are? I thought it was a fairy something. They make nice noises! Where do they live?"
"In some marsh. They sit there and fiddle away on bramble roots and sing about various things they like."
"What nice toads!" murmured Kirk.
"Sh-sh!" whispered Ken; "we're waking Phil. Good night—good morning, I mean. Warm enough now?"
"Yes. Oh, Ken, aren't we having fun?"
"Aren't we, though!" breathed his brother, pulling the end of the Burberry over Kirk's shoulders.
* * * * *
The sun is a good thing. It clears away not only the dark shadows in the corners of empty rooms, but also the gloom that settles in anxious people's minds at midnight. The rising of the sun made, to be sure, small difference to Kirk, whose mind harbored very little gloom, and was lit principally by the spirits of those around him. Consequently, when his brother and sister began reveling in the clear, cold dawn, Kirk executed a joyous little pas seul in the middle of the living-room floor and set off on a tour of exploration. He returned from it with his fingers very dusty, and a loop of cobwebs over his hair.
"It's all corners," he said, as Felicia caught him to brush him off, "and steps. Two steps down and one up, and just when you aren't 'specting it."
"You'd better go easy," Ken counseled, "until you've had a personally conducted tour. You'll break your neck."
"I'm being careful. And I know already about this door. There's a kink in the wall and then a hump in the floor-boards just before you get there. It's an exciting house."
"That it is!" said Ken, reaching with a forked stick for the handle of the galvanized iron pail which sat upon the fire. Nobody ever heard of boiling eggs in a galvanized iron pail but that is exactly what the Sturgises did. The pail, in an excellent state of preservation, had been found in the woodshed. The pump yielded, unhesitatingly, any amount of delicious cold water, and though three eggs did look surprisingly small in the bottom of the pail, they boiled quite as well as if they'd been in a saucepan.
"Only think of all the kettles and things I brought!" Felicia mourned. "We'll have to buy some plates and cups, though, Ken." Most of the Sturgis china was reposing in a well-packed barrel in a room over Mr. Dodge's garage, accompanied by many other things for which their owners longed.
"How the dickens do we capture the eggs!" Ken demanded. "Pigs in clover's not in it. Lend a hand, Phil!"
THE WHEELS BEGIN TO TURN
Ken walked to Asquam almost immediately after breakfast, and Felicia explored their new abode most thoroughly, inside and out. Corners and steps there were in plenty, as Kirk had said; it seemed as if the house had been built in several pieces and patched together. Two biggish rooms downstairs, besides the kitchen; a large, built-in, white-doored closet in the living-room,—quite jolly, Felicia thought,—rusty nails driven in unbelievable quantities in all the walls. She couldn't imagine how any one could have wanted to hang anything in some of the queer places where nails sprouted, and she longed to get at them with a claw-hammer.
Upstairs there was one big room (for Ken and Kirk, Phil thought), a little one for herself, and what she immediately named "The Poke-Hole" for trunks and such things. When Mother came home, as come she must, the extra downstairs room could be fitted up for her, Felicia decided—or the boys could take it over for themselves. The upstairs rooms were all under the eaves, and, at present, were hot and musty. Felicia pounded open the windows which had small, old-fashioned panes, somewhat lacking in putty. In came the good April air fresh after the murk of yesterday, and smelling of salt, and heathy grass, and spring. It summoned Felicia peremptorily, and she ran downstairs and out to look at the "ten acres of land, peach and apple orchards."
Kirk went, too, his hand in hers.
"It's an easy house," he confided. "You'd think it would be hard, but the floor's different all over—bumpy, and as soon as I find out which bump means what, I'll know how to go all over the place. I dare say it's the same out here."
Felicia was not so sure. It seemed a trackless waste of blown grass for one to navigate in the dark. It was always a mystery to her how Kirk found his way through the mazy confusion of unseen surroundings. Now, on unfamiliar ground, he was unsure of himself, but in a place he knew, it was seldom that he asked or accepted guidance. The house was not forbidding, Felicia decided—only tired, and very shabby. The burdocks at the door-step could be easily disposed of. It was a wide stone door-step, as she had hoped and from it, though there was not much view of the bay, there were nice things to be seen. Before it, the orchard dropped away at one side, leaving a wide vista of brown meadows, sown with more of the pointy trees and grayed here and there by rocks; beyond that, a silver slip of water, and the far shore blue, blue in the distance. To the right of the house the land rolled away over another dun meadow that stopped at a rather civilized-looking hedge, above which rose a dense tumble of high trees. To the left lay the over-grown dooryard, the old lichened stone wall, and the sagging gate which opened to Winterbottom Road. Felicia tried to describe it all to Kirk, and wondered as she gazed at him, standing beside her with the eager, listening look his face so often wore, how much of it could mean anything to him but an incomprehensible string of words.
Ken returned from Asquam in Hop's chariot, surrounded by bundles.
"Luxury!" he proclaimed, when the spoils were unloaded. "An oil-stove, two burners—and food, and beautiful plates with posies on 'em—and tin spoons! And I met Mrs. Hopkins and she almost fainted when I told her we'd slept on the floor. She wanted us to come to her house, but it's the size of a butter-box, and stuffy; so she insisted on sending three quilts. Behold! And the oil-stove was cheap because one of the doors was broken (which I can fix). So there you are!"
"No sign of the goods, I suppose?"
"Our goods? Law, no! Old Mr. Thingummy put on his spectacles and peered around as if he expected to find them behind the door!"
"Oh, my only aunt! They are wonderful plates!" Felicia cried, as she extracted one from its wrapper.
"That's my idea of high art," Ken said, "I got them at the Asquam Utility Emporium. And have you remarked the chairs? Mrs. Hopkins sent those, too. They were in her corn-crib,—on the rafters,—and she said if we didn't see convenient to bring 'em back, never mind, 'cause she was plumb tired of clutterin' 'em round from here to thar."
"Mrs. Hopkins seems to be an angel unawares," said Felicia, with enthusiastic misapplication.
It was the finding of the ancient sickle near the well that gave Ken the bright idea of cutting down the tall, dry grass for bedding.
"Not that it's much of a weapon," he said. "Far less like a sickle than a dissipated saw, to quote. But the edge is rusted so thin that I believe it'll do the trick."
Kirk gathered the grass up into soft scratchy heaps as Ken mowed it, keeping at a respectful distance behind the swinging sickle. Ken began to whistle, then stopped to hear the marsh frogs, which were still chorusing their mad joy in the flight of winter.
"I made up a pome about those thar toads," Ken said, "last night after you'd gone to sleep again."
Kirk leaped dangerously near the sickle.
"You haven't made me a pome for ages!" he cried. "Stop sickling and do it—quick!"
"It's a grand one," Ken said; "listen to this!
"Down in the marshes the sounds begin Of a far-away fairy violin, Faint and reedy and cobweb thin.
"Cricket and marsh-frog and brown tree-toad, Sit in the sedgy grass by the road, Each at the door of his own abode;
"Each with a fairy fiddle or flute Fashioned out of a briar root; The fairies join their notes, to boot.
"Sitting all in a magic ring, They lift their voices and sing and sing, Because it is April, 'Spring! Spring!'"
"That is a nice one!" Kirk agreed. "It sounds real. I don't know how you can do it."
A faint clapping was heard from the direction of the house, and turning, Ken saw his sister dropping him a curtsey at the door. "That," she said, "is a poem, not a pome—a perfectly good one."
"Go 'way!" shouted Ken. "You're a wicked interloper. And you don't even know why Kirk and I write pomes about toads, so you don't!"
"I never could see," Ken remarked that night, "why people are so keen about beds of roses. If you ask me, I should think they'd be uncommon prickly and uncomfortable. Give me a bed of herbs—where love is, don't you know?"
"It wasn't a bed of herbs," Felicia contended; "it was a dinner of them. This isn't herbs, anyway. And think of the delectable smell of the bed of roses!"
"But every rose would have its thorn," Ken objected. "No, no, 'herbs' is preferable."
This argument was being held during the try-out of the grass beds in the living-room.
"See-saw, Margery Daw, She packed up her bed and lay upon straw,"
But the grass was an improvement. Grass below and Mrs. Hop's quilts above, with the overcoats in reserve—the Sturgises considered themselves quite luxurious, after last night's shift at sleep.
"What care we if the beds don't come?" Ken said. "We could live this way all summer. Let them perish untended in the trolley freight-house."
But when Kirk was asleep, the note of the conversation dropped. Ken and Felicia talked till late into the night, in earnest undertones, of ways and means and the needs of the old house.
And slowly, slowly, all the wheels did begin to turn together. Some of the freight came,—notably the beds,—after a week of waiting. Ken and Hop carried them upstairs and set them up, with much toil. Ken chopped down two dead apple-trees, and filled the shed with substantial fuel. The Asquam Market would deliver out Winterbottom Road after May first. Trunks came, with old clothes, and Braille books and other books—and things that Felicia had not been able to leave behind at the last moment. Eventually, came a table, and the Sturgises set their posied plates upon it, and lighted their two candles stuck in saucers, and proclaimed themselves ready to entertain.
"And," thought Felicia, pausing at the kitchen door, "what a difference it does make!"
Firelight and candle-light wrought together their gracious spell on the old room. The tin spoons gleamed like silver, the big brown crash towel that Ken had jokingly laid across the table looked quite like a runner. The light ran and glowed on the white-plastered ceiling and the heavy beams; it flung a mellow aureole about Kirk, who was very carefully arranging three tumblers on the table.
The two candle-flames swayed suddenly and straightened, as Ken opened the outer door and came in.
He too, paused, looking at the little oasis in the dark, silent house.
"We're beginning," he said, "to make friends with the glum old place."
There was much to be done. The rusty nails were pulled out, and others substituted in places where things could really be hung on them—notably in the kitchen, where they supported Felicia's pots and pans in neatly ordered rows. The burdocks disappeared, the shutters were persuaded not to squeak, the few pieces of furniture from home were settled in places where they would look largest. Yes, the house began to be friendly. The rooms were not, after all, so enormous as Felicia had thought. The furniture made them look much smaller. At the Asquam Utility Emporium, Felicia purchased several yards of white cheese-cloth from which she fashioned curtains for the living-room windows. She also cleaned the windows themselves, and Ken did a wondrous amount of scrubbing.
Now, when fire and candle-light shone out in the living room, it looked indeed like a room in which to live—so thought the Sturgises, who asked little.
"Come out here, Phil," Ken whispered plucking his sister by the sleeve, one evening just before supper. Mystified, she followed him out into the soft April twilight; he drew her away from the door a little and bade her look back.
There were new green leaves on the little bush by the door-stone; they gleamed startlingly light in the dusk. A new moon hung beside the stalwart white chimney—all the house was a mouse-colored shadow against the darkening sky. The living-room windows showed as orange squares cut cheerfully from the night. Through the filmy whiteness of the cheese-cloth curtains, could be seen the fire, the table spread for supper, the gallant candles, Kirk lying on the hearth, reading.
"Doesn't it look like a place to live in—and to have a nice time in?" Ken asked.
"Oh," Felicia said, "it almost does!"
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HEDGE
The civilized-looking hedge had been long since investigated. The plot of land it enclosed—reached, for the Sturgises, through a breach in the hedge—was very different from the wild country which surrounded it. The place had once been a very beautiful garden, but years and neglect had made of it a half-formal wilderness, fascinating in its over-grown beauty and its hint of earlier glory. For Kirk, it was an enchanted land of close-pressing leafy alleys, pungent with the smell of box; of brick-paved paths chanced on unexpectedly—followed cautiously to the rim of empty, stone-coped pools. He and Felicia, or he and Ken, went there when cookery or carpentry left an elder free. For when they had discovered that the tall old house, though by no means so neglected as the garden, was as empty, they ventured often into the place. Kirk invented endless tales of enchanted castles, and peopled the still lawns and deserted alleys with every hero he had ever read or heard of. Who could tell? They might indeed lurk in the silent tangle—invisible to him only as all else was invisible. So he liked to think, and wandered, rapt, up and down the grass-grown paths of this enchanting play-ground.
It was not far to the hedge—over the rail fence, across the stubbly meadow. Kirk had been privately amassing landmarks. He had enough, he considered, to venture forth alone to the garden of mystery. Felicia was in the kitchen—not eating bread and honey, but reading a cook-book and making think-lines in her forehead. Ken was in Asquam. Kirk stepped off the door-stone; sharp to the right, along the wall of the house, then a stretch in the open to the well, over the fence—and then nothing but certain queer stones and the bare feel of the faint path that had already been worn in the meadow.
Kirk won the breach in the hedge and squeezed through. Then he was alone in the warm, green-smelling stillness of the trees. He found his way from the moss velvet under the pines to the paved path, and followed it, unhesitating, to the terrace before the house. On the shallow, sun-warmed steps he sat playing with fir-cones, fingering their scaly curves and sniffing their dry, brown fragrance. He swept a handful of them out of his lap and stood up, preparatory to questing further up the stone steps, to the house itself. But suddenly he stood quite still, for he knew that he was not alone in the garden. He knew, also, that it was neither Ken nor Felicia who stood looking at him. Had one of the fairy-tale heroes materialized, after all, and slipped out of magic coverts to walk with him? Rather uncertainly, he said, "Is somebody there?"
His voice sounded very small in the outdoor silence. Suppose no one were there at all! How silly it would sound to be addressing a tree! There was a moment of stillness, and then a rather old voice said:
"Considering that you are looking straight at me, that seems a somewhat foolish question."
So there was some one! Kirk said:
"I can't see you, because I can't see anything."
After a pause, the voice said, "Forgive me." But indeed, at first glance, the grave shadowed beauty of Kirk's eyes did not betray their blindness.
"Are you one of the enchanted things, or a person?" Kirk inquired.
"I might say, now, that I am enchanted," said the voice, drily.
"I don't think I quite know what you mean," Kirk said. "You sound like a Puck of Pook's Hill sort of person."
"Nothing so exciting. Though Oak and Ash and Thorn do grow in my garden."
"Do they? I haven't found them. I knew it was a different place, ever so different from anything near—different from the other side of the hedge."
"I am not so young as you," said the voice, "to stand about hatless on an April afternoon. Let us come in and sit on either side of the chimney-corner."
And a long, dry, firm hand took Kirk's, and Kirk followed unhesitatingly where it led.
The smoothness of old polished floors, a sense of height, absolute silence, a dry, aromatic smell—this was Kirk's impression as he crossed the threshold, walking carefully and softly, that he might not break the spellbound stillness of the house. Then came the familiar crackle of an open fire, and Kirk was piloted into the delicious cozy depths of a big chair beside the hearth. Creakings, as of another chair being pulled up, then a contented sigh, indicated that his host had sat down opposite him.
"May I now ask your name?" the voice inquired.
"I'm Kirkleigh Sturgis, at Applegate Farm," said Kirk.
"' ... I s'pose you know, Miss Jean, That I'm Young Richard o' Taunton Dean....'"
murmured the old gentleman.
Kirk pricked up his ears instantly. "Phil sings that," he said delightedly. "I'm glad you know it. But you would."
"Who'd have thought you would know it?" said the voice. "I am fond of Young Richard. Is Phil your brother?"
"She's my sister—but I have a brother. He's sixteen, and he's almost as high as the doorways at Applegate Farm."
"I seem not to know where Applegate Farm is," the old gentleman mused.
"It's quite next door to you," said Kirk.
"They call it the Baldwin place, really. But Ken happened to think that Baldwin's a kind of apple, and there is an orchard and a gate, so we called it that."
"The old farm-house across the meadow!" There was a shade of perplexity in the voice. "You live there?"
"It's the most beautiful place in the world," said Kirk, with conviction, "except your garden."
"Beautiful—to you! Why?"
"Oh, everything!" Kirk said, frowning, and trying to put into words what was really joy in life and spring and the love of his brother and sister. "Everything—the wind in the trees, and in the chimney at night, and the little toads that sing,—do you ever hear them?—and the fire, and, and—everything!"
"And youth," said the old gentleman to himself, "and an unconscious courage to surmount all obstacles. But perhaps, after all, the unseen part of Applegate Farm is the more beautiful." Aloud, he said: "Do you like to look at odd things? That is—I mean—"
Kirk helped him out. "I do like to," he said. "I look at them with my fingers—but it's all the same."
Such things to look at! They were deposited, one after the other, in Kirk's eager hands,—the intricate carving of Japanese ivory, entrancingly smooth—almost like something warm and living, after one had held it for a few adoring moments in careful hands. And there was a Burmese ebony elephant, with a ruby in his forehead.
"A ruby is red," Kirk murmured; "it is like the fire. And the elephant is black. I see him very well."
"Once upon a time," said the old gentleman, "a rajah rode on him—a rajah no bigger than your finger. And his turban was encrusted with the most precious of jewels, and his robe was stiff with gold. The elephant wore anklets of beaten silver, and they clinked as he walked."
Kirk's face was intent, listening. The little ebony elephant stood motionless on his palm, dim in the firelight.
"I hear them clinking," he said, "and the people shouting—oh, so far away!"
He put the treasure back into his host's hand, at last. "I'd like, please, to look at you," he said. "It won't hurt," he added quickly, instantly conscious of some unspoken hesitancy.
"I have no fear of that," said the voice, "but you will find little worth the looking for."
Kirk, nevertheless, stood beside the old gentleman's chair, ready with a quick, light hand to visualize his friend's features.
"My hair, if that will help you," the voice told him, "is quite white, and my eyes are usually rather blue."
"Blue," murmured Kirk, his fingers flitting down the fine lines of the old gentleman's profile; "that's cool and nice, like the sea and the wind. Your face is like the ivory thing—smooth and—and carved. I think you really must be something different and rather enchanted."
But the old man had caught both Kirk's hands and spread them out in his own. There was a moment of silence, and then he said:
"Do you care for music, my child?"
"I love Phil's songs," Kirk answered, puzzled a little by a different note in the voice he was beginning to know. "She sings and plays the accompaniments on the piano."
"Do you ever sing?"
"Only when I'm all alone." The color rushed for an instant to Kirk's cheeks, why, he could not have said.
"Without a word, the old gentleman, still holding Kirk's hands, pushed him gently into the chair he had himself been sitting in. There was a little time of stillness, filled only by the crack and rustle of the fire. Then, into the silence, crept the first dew-clear notes of Chopin's F Sharp Major Nocturne. The liquid beauty of the last bars had scarcely died away, when the unseen piano gave forth, tragically exultant, the glorious chords of the Twentieth Prelude—climbing higher and higher in a mournful triumph of minor chords and sinking at last into the final solemn splendor of the closing measures. The old gentleman turned on the piano-stool to find Kirk weeping passionately and silently into the cushions of the big chair.
"Have I done more than I meant?" he questioned himself, "or is it only the proof?" His hands on Kirk's quivering shoulders, he asked, "What is it?"
Kirk sat up, ashamed, and wondering why he had cried. "It was because it was so much more wonderful than anything that ever happened," he said unsteadily. "And I never can do it."
The musician almost shook him.
"But you can," he said; "you must! How can you help yourself, with those hands? Has no one guessed? How stupid all the world is!"
He pulled Kirk suddenly to the piano, swept him abruptly into the wiry circle of his arm.
"See," he whispered; "oh, listen!"
He spread Kirk's fingers above the keyboard—brought them down on a fine chord of the Chopin prelude, and for one instant Kirk felt coursing through him a feeling inexplicable as it was exciting—as painful as it was glad. The next moment the chord died; the old man was again the gentle friend of the fireside.
"I am stupid," he said, "and ill-advised. Let's have tea."
The tea came, magically—delicious cambric tea and cinnamon toast. Kirk and the old gentleman talked of the farm, and of Asquam, and other every-day subjects, till the spring dusk gathered at the window, and the musician started up. "Your folk will be anxious," he said. "We must be off. But you will come to me again, will you not?"
Nothing could have kept Kirk away, and he said so.
"And what's your name, please?" he asked. "I've told you mine." A silence made him add, "Of course, if you mind telling me—"
Silence still, and Kirk, inspired, said:
"Phil was reading a book aloud to Mother, once, and it was partly about a man who made wonderful music and they called him 'Maestro.' Would you mind if I called you Maestro—just for something to call you, you know?"
He feared, in the stillness, that he had hurt his friend's feelings, but the voice, when it next spoke, was kind and grave.
"I am unworthy," it said, "but I should like you to call me Maestro. Come—it is falling dusk. I'll go with you to the end of the meadow."
And they went out together into the April twilight.
Ken and Felicia were just beginning to be really anxious, when Kirk tumbled in at the living-room door, with a headlong tale of enchanted hearthstones, ebony elephants, cinnamon toast, music that had made him cry, and most of all, of the benevolent, mysterious presence who had wrought all this. Phil and Ken shook their heads, suggested that some supper would make Kirk feel better, and set a boundary limit of the orchard and meadow fence on his peregrinations.
"But I promised him I'd come again," Kirk protested; "and I can find the way. I must, because he says I can make music like that—and he's the only person who could show me how."
Felicia extracted a more coherent story as she sat on the edge of Kirk's bed later that evening. She came downstairs sober and strangely elated, to electrify her brother by saying:
"Something queer has happened to Kirk. He's too excited, but he's simply shining. And do you suppose it can possibly be true that he has music in him? I mean real, extraordinary music, like—Beethoven or somebody."
But Ken roared so gleefully over the ridiculous idea of his small brother's remotely resembling Beethoven, that Phil suddenly thought herself very silly, and lapsed into somewhat humiliated silence.
* * * * *
It was some time before the cares of a household permitted the Sturgises to do very much exploring. One of their first expeditions, however, had been straight to the bay from the farm-house—a scramble through wild, long-deserted pastures, an amazingly thick young alder grove, and finally out on the stony, salty water's edge. Here all was silver to the sea's rim, where the bay met wider waters; in the opposite direction it narrowed till it was not more than a river, winding among salt flats and sudden rocky points until it lost itself in a maze of blue among the distant uplands. The other shore was just beginning to be tenderly alight with April green, and Felicia caught her breath for very joy at the faint pink of distant maple boughs and the smell of spring and the sea. A song-sparrow dropped a sudden, clear throatful of notes, and Kirk, too, caught the rapture of the spring and flung wide his arms in impartial welcome.
Ken had been poking down the shore and came back now, evidently with something to say.
"There's the queerest little inlet down there," he said, "with a tide eddy that runs into it. And there's an old motor-boat hove way up on the rocks in there among the bushes."
"What about it?" Felicia asked.
"I merely wished it were ours."
"Naturally it's some one else's."
"He takes mighty poor care of it, then. The engine's all rusted up, and there's a hole stove in the bottom."
"Then we shouldn't want it."
"It could be fixed," Ken murmured; "easily. I examined it."
He stared out at the misty bay's end, thinking, somehow, of the Celestine, which he had not forgotten in his anxieties as a householder.
But even the joy of April on the bayside was shadowed when the mail came to Applegate Farm that day. The United States mail was represented, in the environs of Asquam, by a preposterously small wagon,—more like a longitudinal slice of a milk-cart than anything else,—drawn by two thin, rangy horses that seemed all out of proportion to their load. Their rhythmic and leisurely trot jangled a loud but not unmusical bell which hung from some hidden part of the wagon's anatomy, and warned all dwellers on Rural Route No. 1 that the United States mail, ably piloted by Mr. Truman Hobart, was on its way.
The jangling stopped at Applegate Farm, and Mr. Hobart delved into a soap-box in his cart and extracted the Sturgis mail, which he delivered into Kirk's outstretched hand. Mr. Hobart waited, as usual, to watch, admire, and marvel at Kirk's unhesitating progress to the house, and then he clucked to the horses and tinkled on his way.
There was a penciled note from Mrs. Sturgis, forwarded, as always, from Westover Street, where she, of course, thought her children were (they sent all their letters for her to Mr. Dodge, that they might bear the Bedford postmark—and very difficult letters those were to write!), a bill from the City Transfer Company (carting: 1 table, etc., etc.), and a letter from Mr. Dodge. It was this letter which shadowed Applegate Farm and dug a new think-line in Ken's young forehead. For Rocky Head Granite was, it seemed, by no means so firm as its name sounded. Mr. Dodge's hopes for it were unfulfilled. It was very little indeed that could now be wrung from it. The Fidelity was for Mother—with a margin, scant enough, to eke out the young Sturgises' income. There was the bill for carting, other bills, daily expenses. Felicia, reading over Ken's shoulder, bit her lip.
"Come back to town, my dear boy," wrote Mr. Dodge, "and I will try to get you something to do. You are all welcome to my house and help as long as you may have need."
It had been dawning more and more on Ken that he had been an idiot not to stay in town, where there was work to do. He had hated to prick Phil's ideal bubble and cancel the lease on the farm,—for it was really she who had picked out the place,—but he was becoming aware that he should have done so. This latest turn in the Sturgis fortunes made it evident that something must be done to bring more money than the invested capital yielded. There was no work here; unless perhaps he might hire out as a farm-hand, at small wages indeed. And he knew nothing of farm work. Nevertheless, he and Felicia shook their heads at Mr. Dodge's proposal. They sat at the table within the mellow ring of lamplight, after Kirk had gone to bed, and thrashed out their problem,—pride fighting need and vanquishing judgment. It was a good letter that Kenelm sent Mr. Dodge, and the attorney shook his own head as he read it in his study, and said:
"I admire your principle, my boy—but oh, I pity your inexperience!"
The City Transfer bill was paid; so were the other bills. Ken, on his way out from Asquam, stopped with a sudden light in his dogged face and turned back. He sought out the harbor-master, who was engaged in painting a dory behind his shop.
"Wal, boy, want to get a fish-hook?" he queried, squinting toward Ken with a preoccupied eye. (He sold hardware and fishing-tackle, as well as attending to the duties of his post.)
Ken disclaimed any desire for the fish-hook, and said he wanted to ask about a boat.
"Ain't got none for sale ner hire, just now," the harbor-master replied.
Ken said, so he had heard, but that wasn't it. And he told the man about the abandoned power-boat in the inlet. The harbor-master stood up straight and looked at Ken, at last.
"Wal, ding!" said he. "That's Joe Pasquale's boat, sure's I'm a-standin' here!"
"Who," said Ken, "is Joe Pasquale?"
"He is—or woz—a Portugee fisherman—lobsterman, ruther. He got drownded in Febrerry—fell outen his boat, seems so, an' we got him, but we never got the boat. Couldn't figger wher' she had got to. He was down harbor when 't happent. Cur'ous tide-racks 'round here."
"Whose is she, then?" Ken asked. "Any widows or orphans?"
"Nary widder," said the harbor-master, chewing tobacco reflectively. "No kin. Finders keepers. B'longs to you, I reckon. Ain't much good, be she?"
"Hole stove in her," Ken said. "The engine is all there, but I guess it'll need a good bit of tinkering at."
"Ain't wuth it," said the harbor-master. "She's old as Methusaly, anyways. Keep her—she's salvage if ever there wuz. Might be able to git sunthin' fer her enjine—scrap iron."
"Thanks," said Ken; "I'll think it over." And he ran nearly all the way to Applegate Farm.
Kirk did not forget his promise to the Maestro. He found the old gentleman in the garden, sitting on a stone bench beside the empty fountain.
"I knew that you would come," he said. "Do you know what day it is?"
Kirk did not, except that it was Saturday.
"It is May-day," said the Maestro, "and the spirits of the garden are abroad. We must keep our May together. Come—I think I have not forgotten the way."
He took Kirk's hand, and they walked down the grass path till the sweet closeness of a low pine covert wove a scented silence about them. The Maestro's voice dropped.
"It used to be here," he said. "Try—the other side of the pine-tree. Ah, it has been so many, many years!"
Kirk's hand sought along the dry pine-needles; then, in a nook of the roots, what but a tiny dish, with sweetmeats, set out, and little cups of elder wine, and bread, and cottage cheese! The Maestro sat down beside Kirk on the pine-needles, and began to sing softly in a rather thin but very sweet voice.
"Here come we a-maying, All in the wood so green; Oh, will ye not be staying? Oh, can ye not be seen?
Before that ye be flitting, When the dew is in the east, We thank ye, as befitting, For the May and for the feast.
Here come we a-maying, All in the wood so green, In fairy coverts straying A-for to seek our queen."
"One has to be courteous to them," he added at the end, while Kirk sat rapt, very possibly seeing far more garden spirits than his friend had any idea of.
"I myself," the Maestro said, "do not very often come to the garden. It is too full, for me, of children no longer here. But the garden folk have not forgotten."
"When I'm here," murmured Kirk, sipping elder wine, "Applegate Farm and everything in the world seem miles and years away. Is there really a magic line at the hedge?"
"If there is, you are the only one who has discovered it," said the old gentleman, enigmatically. "Leave a sup of wine and a bit of bread for the Folk, and let us see if we cannot find some May-flowers."
They left the little pine room,—Kirk putting in the root hollow a generous tithe for the garden folk,—and went through the garden till the grass grew higher beneath their feet, and they began to climb a rough, sun-warmed hillside, where dry leaves rustled and a sweet earthy smell arose.
"Search here among the leaves," the Maestro said, "and see what you shall find."
So Kirk, in a dream of wonder, dropped to his knees, and felt among the loose leaves, in the sunshine. And there were tufts of smooth foliage, all hidden away, and there came from them a smell rapturously sweet—arbutus on a sunlit hill. Kirk pulled a sprig and sat drinking in the deliciousness of it, till the old gentleman said:
"We must have enough for a wreath, you know—a wreath for the queen."
"Who is our Queen of the May?" Kirk asked.
"The most beautiful person you know."
"Felicia," said Kirk, promptly.
"Felicia," mused the Maestro. "That is a beautiful name. Do you know what it means?"
Kirk did not.
"It means happiness. Is it so?"
"Yes," said Kirk; "Ken and I couldn't be happy without her. She is happiness."