E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE TANGLED THREADS
ELEANOR H. PORTER
New York The Christian Herald Bible House
Copyright, 1919, by Eleanor H. Porter All Rights Reserved
A DELAYED HERITAGE THE FOLLY OF WISDOM CRUMBS A FOUR-FOOTED FAITH AND A TWO A MATTER OF SYSTEM ANGELUS THE APPLE OF HER EYE A MUSHROOM OF COLLINGSVILLE THAT ANGEL BOY THE LADY IN BLACK THE SAVING OF DAD MILLIONAIRE MIKE'S THANKSGIVING WHEN MOTHER FELL ILL THE GLORY AND THE SACRIFICE THE DALTONS AND THE LEGACY THE LETTER THE INDIVISIBLE FIVE THE ELEPHANT'S BOARD AND KEEP A PATRON OF ART WHEN POLLY ANN PLAYED SANTA CLAUS
The stories in this volume are here reprinted by the courteous permission of the publishers of the periodicals in which they first appeared,—Lippincott's Magazine, The Metropolitan Magazine, McCall's Magazine, Harper's Magazine, The American Magazine, Progress Magazine, The Arena, The Christian Endeavor World, The Congregationalist and Christian World, The Housewife, Harper's Bazar [Transcriber's note: Bazaar?], Judge's Library Magazine, The New England Magazine, People's Short Story Magazine, The Christian Herald, The Ladies' World.
The Tangled Threads
A Delayed Heritage
When Hester was two years old a wheezy hand-organ would set her eyes to sparkling and her cheeks to dimpling, and when she was twenty the "Maiden's Prayer," played by a school-girl, would fill her soul with ecstasy.
To Hester, all the world seemed full of melody. Even the clouds in the sky sailed slowly along in time to a stately march in her brain, or danced to the tune of a merry schottische that sounded for her ears alone. And when she saw the sunset from the hill behind her home, there was always music then—low and tender if the colors were soft and pale-tinted, grand and awful if the wind blew shreds and tatters of storm-clouds across a purpling sky. All this was within Hester; but without—
There had been but little room in Hester's life for music. Her days were an endless round of dish-washing and baby-tending—first for her mother, later for herself. There had been no money for music lessons, no time for piano practice. Hester's childish heart had swelled with bitter envy whenever she saw the coveted music roll swinging from some playmate's hand. At that time her favorite "make-believe" had been to play at going for a music lesson, with a carefully modeled roll of brown paper suspended by a string from her fingers.
Hester was forty now. Two sturdy boys and a girl of nine gave her three hungry mouths to feed and six active feet to keep in holeless stockings. Her husband had been dead two years, and life was a struggle and a problem. The boys she trained rigorously, giving just measure of love and care; but the girl—ah, Penelope should have that for which she herself had so longed. Penelope should take music lessons!
During all those nine years since Penelope had come to her, frequent dimes and quarters, with an occasional half-dollar, had found their way into an old stone jar on the top shelf in the pantry. It had been a dreary and pinching economy that had made possible this horde of silver, and its effects had been only too visible in Hester's turned and mended garments, to say nothing of her wasted figure and colorless cheeks. Penelope was nine now, and Hester deemed it a fitting time to begin the spending of her treasured wealth.
First, the instrument: it must be a rented one, of course. Hester went about the labor of procuring it in a state of exalted bliss that was in a measure compensation for her long years of sacrifice.
Her task did not prove to be a hard one. The widow Butler, about to go South for the winter, was more than glad to leave her piano in Hester's tender care, and the dollar a month rent which Hester at first insisted upon paying was finally cut in half, much to the widow Butler's satisfaction and Hester's grateful delight. This much accomplished, Hester turned her steps toward the white cottage wherein lived Margaret Gale, the music teacher.
Miss Gale, careful, conscientious, but of limited experience, placed her services at the disposal of all who could pay the price—thirty-five cents an hour; and she graciously accepted the name of her new pupil, entering "Penelope Martin" on her books for Saturday mornings at ten o'clock. Then Hester went home to tell her young daughter of the bliss in store for her.
Strange to say, she had cherished the secret of the old stone jar all these years, and had never told Penelope of her high destiny. She pictured now the child's joy, unconsciously putting her own nine-year-old music-hungry self in Penelope's place.
"Penelope," she called gently.
There was a scurrying of light feet down the uncarpeted back stairs, and Penelope, breathless, rosy, and smiling, appeared in the doorway.
"Come with me, child," said Hester, her voice sternly solemn in her effort to keep from shouting her glad tidings before the time.
The woman led the way through the kitchen and dining-room and threw open the parlor door, motioning her daughter into the somber room. The rose-color faded from Penelope's cheeks.
"Why, mother! what—what is it? Have I been—naughty?" she faltered.
Mrs. Martin's tense muscles relaxed and she laughed hysterically.
"No, dearie, no! I—I have something to tell you," she answered, drawing the child to her and smoothing back the disordered hair. "What would you rather have—more than anything else in the world?" she asked; then, unable to keep her secret longer, she burst out, "I've got it, Penelope!—oh, I've got it!"
The little girl broke from the restraining arms and danced wildly around the room.
"Mother! Really? As big as me? And will it talk—say 'papa' and 'mamma,' you know?"
Something in Hester's dismayed face brought the prancing feet to a sudden stop.
"It—it's a doll, is n't it?" the child stammered.
Hester's hands grew cold.
"A—a doll!" she gasped.
Penelope nodded—the light gone from her eyes.
For a moment the woman was silent; then she threw back her head with a little shake and laughed forcedly.
"A doll!—why, child, it's as much nicer than a doll as—as you can imagine. It's a piano, dear—a pi-a-no!" she repeated impressively, all the old enthusiasm coming back at the mere mention of the magic word.
"Oh!" murmured Penelope, with some show of interest.
"And you're to learn to play on it!"
"Oh-h!" said Penelope again, but with less interest.
"To play on it! Just think, dear, how fine that will be!" The woman's voice was growing wistful.
"Take lessons? Like Mamie, you mean?"
"But—she has to practice and—"
"Of course," interrupted Hester eagerly. "That's the best part of it—the practice."
"Mamie don't think so," observed Penelope dubiously.
"Then Mamie can't know," rejoined Hester with decision, bravely combating the chill that was creeping over her. "Come, dear, help mother to clear a space, so we may be ready when the piano comes," she finished, crossing the room and moving a chair to one side.
But when the piano finally arrived, Penelope was as enthusiastic as even her mother could wish her to be, and danced about it with proud joy. It was after the child had left the house, however, that Hester came with reverent step into the darkened room and feasted her eyes to her heart's content on the reality of her dreams.
Half fearfully she extended her hand and softly pressed the tip of her fourth finger to one of the ivory keys; then with her thumb she touched another a little below. The resulting dissonance gave her a vague unrest, and she gently slipped her thumb along until the harmony of a major sixth filled her eyes with quick tears.
"Oh, if I only could!" she whispered, and pressed the chord again, rapturously listening to the vibrations as they died away in the quiet room. Then she tiptoed out and closed the door behind her.
During the entire hour of that first Saturday morning lesson Mrs. Martin hovered near the parlor door, her hands and feet refusing to perform their accustomed duties. The low murmur of the teacher's voice and an occasional series of notes were to Hester the mysterious rites before a sacred shrine, and she listened in reverent awe. When Miss Gale had left the house, Mrs. Martin hurried to Penelope's side.
"How did it go? What did she say? Play me what she taught you," she urged excitedly.
Penelope tossed a consequential head and gave her mother a scornful glance.
"Pooh! mother, the first lesson ain't much. I've got to practice."
"Of course," acknowledged Hester in conciliation; "but how?—what?"
"That—and that—and from there to there," said Penelope, indicating with a pink forefinger certain portions of the page before her.
"Oh!" breathed Hester, regarding the notes with eager eyes. Then timidly, "Play—that one."
With all the importance of absolute certainty Penelope struck C.
"And that one."
Penelope's second finger hit F.
"And that—and that—and that," swiftly demanded Hester.
Penelope's cheeks grew pink, but her fingers did not falter. Hester drew a long breath.
"Oh, how quick you've learned 'em!" she exclaimed.
Her daughter hesitated a tempted moment.
"Well—I—I learned the notes in school," she finally acknowledged, looking sidewise at her mother.
But even this admission did not lessen for Hester the halo of glory about Penelope's head. She drew another long breath.
"But what else did Miss Gale say? Tell me everything—every single thing," she reiterated hungrily.
That was not only Penelope's first lesson, but Hester's. The child, flushed and important with her sudden promotion from pupil to teacher, scrupulously repeated each point in the lesson, and the woman, humble and earnestly attentive, listened with bated breath. Then, Penelope, still airily consequential, practiced for almost an hour.
Monday, when the children were at school, Hester stole into the parlor and timidly seated herself at the piano.
"I think—I am almost sure I could do it," she whispered, studying with eager eyes the open book on the music rack. "I—I'm going to try, anyhow!" she finished resolutely.
And Hester did try, not only then, but on Tuesday, Wednesday, and thus until Saturday—that Saturday which brought with it a second lesson.
The weeks passed swiftly after that. Hester's tasks seemed lighter and her burdens less grievous since there was now that ever-present refuge—the piano. It was marvelous what a multitude of headaches and heartaches five minutes of scales, even, could banish; and when actual presence at the piano was impossible, there were yet memory and anticipation left her.
For two of these weeks Penelope practiced her allotted hour with a patience born of the novelty of the experience. The third week the "hour" dwindled perceptibly, and the fourth week it was scarcely thirty minutes long.
"Come, dearie, don't forget your practice," Hester sometimes cautioned anxiously.
"Oh, dear me suz!" Penelope would sigh, and Hester would watch her with puzzled eyes as she disconsolately pulled out the piano stool.
"Penelope," she threatened one day, "I shall certainly stop your lessons—you don't half appreciate them." But she was shocked and frightened at the relief that so quickly showed in her young daughter's eyes. Hester never made that threat again, for if Penelope's lessons stopped—
As the weeks lengthened into months, bits of harmony and snatches of melody became more and more frequent in Penelope's lessons, and the "exercises" were supplemented by occasional "pieces"—simple, yet boasting a name. But when Penelope played "Down by the Mill," one heard only the notes—accurate, rhythmic, an excellent imitation; when Hester played it, one might catch the whir of the wheel, the swish of the foaming brook, and almost the spicy smell of the sawdust, so vividly was the scene brought to mind.
Many a time, now, the old childhood dreams came back to Hester, and her fingers would drift into tender melodies and minor chords not on the printed page, until all the stifled love and longing of those dreary, colorless years of the past found voice at her finger-tips.
The stately marches and the rollicking dances of the cloud music came easily at her beck and call—now grave, now gay; now slow and measured, now tripping in weird harmonies and gay melodies.
Hester's blood quickened and her cheeks grew pink. Her eyes lost their yearning look and her lips their wistful curves.
Every week she faithfully took her lesson of Penelope, and she practiced only that when the children were about. It was when they were at school and she was alone that the great joy of this new-found treasure of improvising came to her, and she could set free her heart and soul on the ivory keys.
She was playing thus one night—forgetting time, self, and that Penelope would soon be home from school—when the child entered the house and stopped, amazed, in the parlor doorway. As the last mellow note died into silence, Penelope dropped her books and burst into tears.
"Why, darling, what is it?" cried Hester. "What can be the matter?"
"I—I don't know," faltered Penelope, looking at her mother with startled eyes. "Why—why did n't you tell me?"
"That—that you could—p-play that way! I—I did n't know," she wailed with another storm of sobs, rushing into her mother's arms.
Hester's clasp tightened about the quivering little form and her eyes grew luminous.
"Dearie," she began very softly, "there was once a little girl—a little girl like you. She was very, very poor, and all her days were full of work. She had no piano, no music lessons—but, oh, how she longed for them! The trees and the grass and the winds and the flowers sang all day in her ears, but she could n't tell what they said. By and by, after many, many years, this little girl grew up and a dear little baby daughter came to her. She was still very, very poor, but she saved and scrimped, and scrimped and saved, for she meant that this baby girl should not long and long for the music that never came. She should have music lessons."
"Was it—me?" whispered Penelope, with tremulous lips.
Hester drew a long breath.
"Yes, dear. I was the little girl long ago, and you are the little girl of to-day. And when the piano came, Penelope, I found in it all those songs that the winds and the trees used to sing to me. Now the sun shines brighter and the birds sing sweeter—and all this beautiful world is yours—all yours. Oh, Penelope, are n't you glad?"
Penelope raised a tear-wet face and looked into her mother's shining eyes.
"Glad?—oh, mother!" she cried fervently. Then very softly, "Mother—do you think—could you teach me?— Oh, I want to play just like that—just like that!"
The Folly of Wisdom
Until his fiftieth year Jason Hartsorn knew nothing whatever about the position of his liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, spleen, and stomach except that they must be somewhere inside of him; then he attended the auction of old Doctor Hemenway's household effects and bid off for twenty-five cents a dilapidated clothes basket, filled with books and pamphlets. Jason's education as to his anatomy began almost at once then, for on the way home he fished out a coverless volume from the basket and became lost in awed wonder over a pictured human form covered from scalp to the toes with scarlet, vine-like tracings.
"For the land's sake, Jason!" ejaculated Mrs. Hartsorn, as her husband came puffing into the kitchen with his burden an hour later. "Now, what trash have you been buyin'?"
"'Trash'!" panted Jason, carefully setting the basket down. "I guess you won't call it no 'trash' when you see what 't is! It's books—learnin', Hitty. I been readin' one of 'em, too. Look a-here," and he pulled up his shirt sleeve and bared a brawny arm; "that's all full of teeny little pipes an' cords. Why, if I could only skin it—"
"Jason!" screamed his wife, backing away.
"Pooh! 'T ain't nothin' to fret over," retorted Jason airily. "Besides, you've got 'em too—ev'ry one has; see!" He finished by snatching up the book and spreading before her horrified eyes the pictured figure with its scarlet, vine-like tracings.
"Oh-h!" shivered the woman, and fled from the room.
Shivers and shudders became almost second nature to Mehitable Hartsorn during the days that followed. The highly colored, carefully explained illustrations of the kidneys, liver, heart, and lungs which the books displayed were to her only a little less terrifying than the thought that her own body contained the fearsome things in reality; while to her husband these same illustrations were but the delightful means to a still more delightful end—finding in his own sturdy frame the position of every organ shown.
For a month Jason was happy. Then it was suddenly borne in upon him that not always were these fascinating new acquaintances of his in a healthy condition. At once he began to pinch and pummel himself, and to watch for pains, being careful, meanwhile, to study the books unceasingly, so that he might know just where to look for the pains when they should come. He counted his pulse daily—hourly, if he apprehended trouble; and his tongue he examined critically every morning, being particular to notice whether or not it were pale, moist, coated, red, raw, cracked, or tremulous.
Jason was not at all well that spring. He was threatened successively with typhoid fever, appendicitis, consumption, and cholera, and only escaped a serious illness in each case by the prompt application of remedies prescribed in his books. His wife ran the whole gamut of emotions from terror, worry, and sympathy down to indifference and good-natured tolerance, reaching the last only after the repeated failure of Jason's diseases to materialize.
It was about a week after Jason had mercifully escaped an attack of the cholera that he came into the kitchen one morning and dropped heavily into the nearest chair.
"I tell ye, my heart ain't right," he announced to his wife. "It's goin' jest like Jehu—'palpitation,' they call it; an' I've got 'shortness of breath,' too," he finished triumphantly.
"Hm-m; did ye catch her at last?" asked Mehitable with mild interest.
Jason looked up sharply.
"'Catch her'! Catch who?" he demanded.
"Why, the colt, of course! How long did ye have ter chase her?" Mrs. Hartsorn's carefully modulated voice expressed curiosity, and that was all.
Jason flushed angrily.
"Oh, I know what ye mean," he snapped. "Ye think thar don't nothin' ail me, an' that jest fetchin' Dolly from the pasture did it all. But I know what them symptoms means; they mean heart disease, woman,—'cardiac failure,'—that's what 't is." Jason leaned back in his chair and drew a long breath. When he could remember his "book-learnin'" and give a high-sounding name to his complaint, his gratification was enhanced.
"Hm-m; mebbe 't is, Jason," retorted his wife; "but I'm a-thinkin' that when a man of your heft and years goes kitin' 'round a ten-acre lot at the tail of a fly-away colt, he'll have all that kind of heart disease he wants, an' still live ter die of somethin' else!" And Mehitable cheerfully banged the oven door after making sure that her biscuits were not getting too brown.
As it happened, however, there was really no chance for Jason's heart disease to develop, for that night he scratched his finger, which brought about the much more imminent danger of blood-poisoning—"toxemia," Jason said it was. For a time the whole household was upset, and Mehitable was kept trotting from morning till night with sponges, cloths, cotton, and bowls of curious-smelling liquids, while Jason discoursed on antiseptics, germs, bacteria, microbes, and bacilli.
The finger was nearly well when he suddenly discovered that, after all, the trouble might have been lock-jaw instead of blood-poisoning. He at once began studying the subject so that he might be prepared should the thing occur again. He was glad, later, that he had done so, for the Fourth of July and a toy pistol brought all his recently acquired knowledge into instant requisition.
"If it does come, it's 'most likely ter be fatal," he said excitedly to his wife, who was calmly bathing a slight graze on his hand. "An' ye want ter watch me," he added, catching up a book with his uninjured hand and turning to a much-thumbed page for reference. "Now, listen. Thar's diff'rent kinds of it. They're all 'te-ta-nus,' but ye got to watch out ter find out which kind 't is. If I shut my jaws up tight, it's 'lock-jaw.' If I bend backwards, it's 'o-pis-tho-to-nos.' If I bend forwards, it's 'em-pros-tho-to-nos'; an' if I bend ter one side, it's 'pleu-ro-tho-to-nos,'" he explained, pronouncing the long words after a fashion of his own. "Now, remember," he finished. "Like enough I shan't know enough ter tell which kind 't is myself, nor which way I am a-leanin'."
"No, of course not, dear," agreed Mehitable cheerfully; "an' I'll remember," she promised, as she trotted away with her salves and bowls and bandages.
For some days Jason "tried" his jaw at regular intervals, coming to the conclusion at last that fate once more was kind, and that "te-ta-nus" was to pass him by.
The summer ended and autumn came. Jason was glad that the cold weather was approaching. The heat had been trying. He had almost suffered a sunstroke, and twice a mosquito bite had given him much trouble—he had feared that he would die of malignant pustule. His relief at the coming of cool weather was short-lived, however, for one of the neighboring towns developed a smallpox scare, and as he discovered a slight rash soon after passing through the place, he thought best to submit to vaccination. He caught a bad cold, too, and was sure pneumonia was setting in—that is, he would have been sure, only his throat was so sore that he could not help thinking it might be diphtheria.
Realizing the seriousness of the situation, and determining to settle once for all the vexed question, he pored over his books in an exhaustive search for symptoms. It was then that he rushed into the presence of his wife one morning, his face drawn, his eyes wildly staring, and an open book in his shaking hand.
"Hitty, Hitty," he cried; "jest listen ter this! How 'm I goin' ter tell what ails me, I should like ter know, if I don't ache where I'm sick? Why, Hitty, I can't never tell! Jest listen:
The location of pain is not always at the seat of disease. In hip disease the pain is not first felt in the hip, but in the knee-joint. In chronic inflammation of the liver the pain is generally most severe in the right shoulder and arm.
"Only think, Hitty, 'In the right shoulder and arm'! Why, I had a pain right in that spot only yesterday. So that's what I've got—'hip-disease'! an'—oh, no," he broke off suddenly, consulting his book, "'t ain't hip-disease when the shoulder aches—it's the liver, then."
"Well, well, Jason, I don't think I should fret," soothed Mehitable. "If ye don't know, where's the diff'rence? Now I've got a pain right now in my little toe. Like enough that means I 'm comin' down with the mumps; eh?"
"Hitty!" Jason's voice was agonized. He had been paying no attention to his wife's words, but had been reading on down the page. "Hitty, listen! It says—'Absence of pain in any disease where ordinarily it should be present is an unfavorable sign.' An', Hitty, I hain't got an ache—not a single ache, this minute!"
There was no possibility of quieting Jason after that, and the days that followed were hard for all concerned. If he had an ache he was terrified; if he did not have one, he was more so. He began, also, to distrust his own powers of diagnosis, and to study all the patent medicine advertisements he could lay his hands on. He was half comforted, half appalled, to read them. Far from being able to pick out his own particular malady from among the lot, he was forced to admit that as near as he could make out he had one or more symptoms of each and every disease that was mentioned.
"Now, Hitty, I'll leave it to you," he submitted plaintively. "Here's 'Dread of impending evil.' Now I've got that, sure; ye know I'm always thinkin' somethin' dreadful's goin' ter happen. 'Sparks before the eyes.' There! I had them only jest ter-day. I was sweepin' out the barn, an' I see 'em hoppin' up an' down in a streak of sunshine that come through a crack. 'Variable appetite.' Now, Hitty, don't ye remember? Yesterday I wanted pie awful, an' I ate a whole one; well, this mornin' seems as if I never wanted ter see an apple pie again. Now, if that ain't 'variable,' I don't know what is. 'Inquietude.'"
"Humph! You've got that all right," cut in Mehitable.
"'Weakness.' I hain't got a mite o' strength, Hitty," he complained. "An' thar 's dizziness, too,—I can't chase the calf three times round the barnyard but what my head is jest swimmin'! An' Hitty,"—his voice grew impressive,—"Hitty, I've got ev'ry one of them six symptoms, ev'ry blamed one of 'em, an' I picked 'em out of six diff'rent advertisements—six! Now, Hitty, which disease is it I've got? That's what I want ter know—which?"
His wife could not tell him; in fact, no one could tell him, and in sheer desperation Jason answered all six of the advertisements, determined to find out for a certainty what ailed him.
In due course the answers came. Jason read one, then another, then another, until the contents of the entire six had been mastered. Then he raised his head and gazed straight into his wife's eyes.
"Hitty," he gasped. "I've got 'em all! An' I've got ter take the whole six medicines ter cure me!"
Even Mehitable was stirred then. For one long minute she was silent, then she squared her shoulders, and placed her hands on her hips.
"Jason Hartsorn," she began determinedly, "this thing has gone jest as fur as I'm goin' to stand it. Do you bundle yourself off ter Boston an' hunt up the biggest doctor you can find. If he says somethin' ails ye, I 'll believe him, an' nuss ye ter the best of my ability; but as fur nussin' ye through six things—an' them all ter once—I won't! So there."
Twenty-four hours later Jason faced a square-jawed, smooth-shaven man who looked sharply into his eyes with a curt, "Well, sir?"
Jason cleared his throat.
"Well, ye see, doctor," he began, "somethin' ails me, an' I ain't quite sure what 't is. I 've been poorly since last spring, but it's been kind of puzzlin'. Now, fur instance: I had a pain in my knee, so I felt sure 'twas hip-disease, but it jumped ter my shoulder, so 'course then I knew 't was my liver."
The doctor made a sudden movement. He swung squarely around in his office chair and faced Jason.
Jason was pleased—his learning had already made an impression! He raised his chin and went on with renewed confidence.
"Ye see I was afraid my liver, or mebbe one o' my kidneys, was hardenin' or floatin' round loose, or doin' somethin' else they had n't orter. Lately, thar's been days, lots of 'em, when I hain't had no pain—not a mite, an' 'course that's the worst symptom of all. Then sometimes thar's been such shootin' pains that I kind o' worried fur fear 'twas locomotive ataxia; but mebbe the very next day it would change so's I did n't know but 'twas appendicitis, an' that my vermi-er-vermicelli appendix was the trouble."
The doctor coughed—he not only coughed, but he choked, so that Jason had to pause for a moment; but it was only for a moment.
"I 'most had diphtheria, an' pneumonia, an' smallpox this fall," he resumed complacently; "an' thar's six other diseases that I got symptoms of—that is, partly, you know:—'Variable appetite,' an' 'Inquietude,' an' all that."
"Hm-m," said the doctor, slowly, his eyes averted. "Well, we'll—make an examination. Come in here, please," he added, leading the way to an inner room.
"Gorry!" ejaculated Jason some minutes later, when he was once more back in his chair, "I should think you might know what ails me now—after all that thumpin' an' poundin' an' listenin'!"
"I do," said the doctor.
"Well, 't ain't six of 'em; is it?" There was mingled hope and fear in Jason's voice. If it were six—he could see Hitty's face!
"Any physicians in your family?" asked the doctor, ignoring Jason's question.
Jason shook his head.
"Hm-m," commented the doctor. "Ever been any?"
"Why, not as I know of, sir," murmured Jason wonderingly.
"No? Where did you get them, then,—those medical books?"
"Why, how in thunder did you know—" he began.
But the doctor interrupted him.
"Never mind that. You have them, have n't you?"
"Why, yes; I bought 'em at an auction. I bought 'em last—"
"Spring—eh?" supplied the doctor.
Jason's mouth fell open.
"Never mind," laughed the doctor again, his hand upraised. "Now to business!" And his face grew suddenly grave. "You're in a bad way, my friend."
"B-bad way?" stammered Jason. "It—it is n't six that ails me?"
It was all fear this time in Jason's voice; some way the doctor's face had carried conviction.
"No; you are threatened with more than six."
"Wha-at?" Jason almost sprang from his seat. "But, doctor, they ain't—dangerous!"
"But they are, very!"
"All of them? Why, doctor, how—how many are thar?"
The doctor shook his head.
"I could not count them," he replied, not meeting Jason's eyes.
"Oh-h!" gasped Jason, and shook in his shoes. There was a long silence. "An' will I—die?" he almost whispered.
"We all must—sometime," returned the doctor, slowly, as if weighing his words; "but you will die long before your time—unless you do one thing."
"I'll do it, doctor, I'll do it—if I have ter mortgage the farm," chattered Jason frenziedly. "I'll do anythin'—anythin'; only tell me what it is."
"I will tell you," declared the doctor briskly, with a sudden change of manner, whisking about in his chair. "Go home and burn those medical books—every single one of them."
"Burn them! Why, doctor, them's the very things that made me know I was sick. I should n't 'a' come ter you at all if it had n't been fur them."
"Exactly!" agreed the doctor, rubbing his hands together. "That's just what I thought. You were well before, were n't you?"
"Why, yes,—that is, I did n't know I was sick," corrected Jason.
"Hm-m; well, you won't know it now if you'll go home and burn those books. If you don't burn them you'll have every disease there is in them, and some one of them will be the death of you. As it is now, you're a well man, but I would n't trust one organ of your anatomy within a rod of those books an hour longer!"
He said more—much more; and that his words were not without effect was shown no later than that same evening when Jason burst into the kitchen at home.
"Hitty, Hitty, thar ain't six, thar ain't one, thar ain't nothin' that ails me," he cried jubilantly, still under the sway of the joy that had been his when the great doctor had told him there was yet one chance for his life. "Thar ain't a single thing!"
"Well, now, ain't that nice?" murmured Hitty, as she drew up the chairs. "Come, Jason, supper's ready."
"An' Hitty, I'm goin' ter burn 'em up—them books of Hemenway's," continued Jason confidentially. "They ain't very good readin', after all, an' like enough they're kind of out of date, bein' so old. I guess I'll go fetch 'em now," he added as he left the room. "Why, Hitty, they're—gone!" he cried a minute later from the doorway.
"Gone? Books?" repeated Mehitable innocently. "Oh, yes, I remember now. I must 'a' burned 'em this mornin'. Ye see, they cluttered up so. Come, Jason, set down."
And Jason sat down. But all the evening he wondered. "Was it possible, after all, that Hitty—knew?"
The Story of a Discontented Woman
The floor was untidy, the sink full of dirty dishes, and the stove a variegated thing of gray and dull red. At the table, head bowed on outstretched arms, was Kate Merton, twenty-one, discouraged, and sole mistress of the kitchen in which she sat. The pleasant-faced, slender little woman in the doorway paused irresolutely on the threshold, then walked with a brisk step into the room. "Is the water hot?" she asked cheerily. The girl at the table came instantly to her feet.
"Aunt Ellen!" she cried, aghast.
"Oh, yes, it's lovely," murmured the lady, peering into the copper boiler on the stove.
"But, auntie, you—I"—the girl paused helplessly.
"Let's see, are these the wipers?" pursued Mrs. Howland, her hand on one of the towels hanging behind the stove.
Kate's face hardened.
"Thank you, Aunt Ellen. You are very kind, but I can do quite well by myself. You will please go into the living-room. I don't allow company to do kitchen work."
"Of course not!" acquiesced Mrs. Howland imperturbably. "But your father's sister is n't company, you know. Let's see, you put your clean dishes here?"
"But, Aunt Ellen, you must n't," protested Kate. "At home you do nothing—nothing all day." A curious expression came into Mrs. Howland's face, but Kate Merton did not seem to notice. "You have servants to do everything, even to dressing you. No, you can't wipe my dishes."
For a long minute there was silence in the kitchen. Mrs. Howland, wiper in hand, stood looking out the window. Her lips parted, then closed again. When she finally turned and spoke, the old smile had come back to her face.
"Then if that is the case, it will be all the more change for me to do something," she said pleasantly. "I want to do them, Kate. It will be a pleasure to me."
Mrs. Rowland's clear laugh rang through the kitchen at the scorn expressed in the one word.
"And is it so bad as that?" she demanded merrily.
"Worse!" snapped Kate. "I simply loathe dishes!" But a shamed smile came to her lips, and she got the pans and water, making no further objection.
"I like pretty dishes," observed Mrs. Howland, after a time, breaking a long silence. "There's a certain satisfaction in restoring them to their shelves in all their dainty, polished beauty."
"I should like them just as well if they always stayed there, and did n't come down to get all crumbs and grease in the sink," returned the other tartly.
"Oh, of course," agreed Mrs. Howland, with a smile; "but, as long as they don't, why, we might as well take what satisfaction there is in putting them in shape again."
"Don't see it—the satisfaction," retorted Kate, and her aunt dropped the subject where it was.
The dishes finished and the kitchen put to rights, the two women started for the chambers and the bed-making. Kate's protests were airily waved aside by the energetic little woman who promptly went to pillow-beating and mattress-turning.
"How fresh and sweet the air smells!" cried Mrs. Howland, sniffing at the open window.
"Lilacs," explained Kate concisely.
"Think so? I don't care for the odor myself," rejoined Kate.
The other shot a quick look from under lowered lids. Kate's face expressed mere indifference. The girl evidently had not meant to be rude.
"You don't like them?" cried Mrs. Howland. "Oh, I do! My dear, you don't half appreciate what it is to have such air to breathe. Only think, if you were shut up in a brick house on a narrow street as I am!"
"Think!" retorted Kate, with sudden heat. "I 'd like to do something besides 'think'! I 'd like to try it!"
"You mean you'd like to leave here?—to go to the city?"
"I do, certainly. Aunt Ellen, I'm simply sick of chicken-feeding and meal-getting. Why, if it was n't for keeping house for father I 'd have been off to New York or Boston years ago!"
"But your home—your friends!"
"Commonplace—uninteresting!" declared Kate, disposing of both with a wave of her two hands. "The one means endless sweeping and baking; the other means sewing societies, and silly gossip over clothes, beaux, and crops."
Mrs. Howland laughed, though she sobered instantly.
"But there must be something, some one that you enjoy," she suggested.
Kate shook her head wearily.
"Not a thing, not a person," she replied; adding with a whimsical twinkle, "they're all like the dishes, Aunt Ellen,—bound to accumulate crumbs and scraps, and do nothing but clutter up."
"Oh, Kate, Kate," remonstrated Mrs. Howland, "what an incorrigible girl you are!" As she spoke her lips smiled, but her eyes did not—there was a wistful light in their blue depths that persistently stayed there all through the day as she watched her niece.
At ten, and again at half-past, some neighbors dropped in. After they had gone Kate complained because the forenoon was so broken up. The next few hours were free from callers, and at the supper table Kate grumbled because the afternoon was so stupid and lonesome. When Mr. Merton came in bringing no mail, Kate exclaimed that nobody ever answered her letters, and that she might just as well not write; yet when the next day brought three, she sighed over the time "wasted in reading such long letters."
The week sped swiftly and Sunday night came. Mrs. Howland's visit was all but finished. She was going early the next morning.
Sunday had not been an unalloyed joy. Mrs. Howland and her niece had attended church, but to Kate the sermon was too long, and the singing too loud. The girl mentioned both in a listless way, at the same time saying that it was always like that except when the sermon was interesting, then it was too short and the choir took up all the time there was with their tiresome singing.
Dinner had been long in preparation, and, in spite of Mrs. Rowland's gladly given assistance, the dish-washing and the kitchen-tidying had been longer still. All day Kate's step had been more than lagging, and her face more than discontented. In the twilight, as the two women sat together, Mrs. Rowland laid hold of her courage with both hands and spoke.
"Kate, dear, is n't there something, anything, worth while to you?"
"Nothing, auntie. I feel simply buried alive."
"But can't you think of anything—"
"Think of anything!" interrupted the girl swiftly. "Of course I can! If I had money—or lived somewhere else—or could go somewhere, or see something once in a while, it would be different; but here—!"
Mrs. Howland shook her head.
"But it would n't be different, my dear," she demurred.
"Why, of course it would!" laughed Kate bitterly. "It could n't help it."
Again Mrs. Howland shook her head. Then a whimsical smile crossed her face.
"Kate," she said, "there are crumbs on the plates out in the world just the same as there are here; and if here you teach yourself to see nothing but crumbs, you will see nothing but crumbs out there. In short, dissatisfaction with everyday living is the same joy-killer whether in town or city, farmhouse or palace. Oh, I 'm preaching, I know, dear," went on Mrs. Howland hurriedly, as she saw the angry light in the other's eyes, "but—I had to speak—you don't know how it's growing on you. Come, let's kiss and make up; then think it over."
Kate frowned, then laughed constrainedly.
"Don't worry, aunt," she replied, rising, and just touching her aunt's lips with her own. "I still think it would be different out there; but—I suppose you 'll always remain unconvinced, for I shall never have the chance to prove it. My plates won't belong anywhere but in Hopkinsville cupboards! Come, will you play to me?"
When Mrs. Rowland returned from England, one of the first letters she received after reaching home was a cordial invitation from her dead brother's daughter, Kate, to visit her.
In the last five years Mrs. Howland had seen her niece but once. That was during the sad, hurried days just following Mr. Merton's sudden death four years before. Since then Mrs. Howland had been abroad and there had been many changes at the little farmhouse in Hopkinsville. The farm had been sold, and Kate had married and had gone to Boston to live. Beyond the facts that Kate's husband was older than she, and was a man of considerable means, Mrs. Howland knew little of her niece's present circumstances. It was with curiosity, as well as pleasure, that she accepted Kate's invitation, and took the train specified.
At the South Station Mrs. Howland found a stylishly gowned, smiling young woman with a cordial welcome. An imposing carriage with a liveried coachman waited to take her to Kate's home.
"Oh, what handsome horses!" cried Mrs. Howland appreciatively, as she stepped into the carriage.
"Yes, are n't they," agreed Kate. "If only they matched better, they'd be perfect. I wish both had stars on their foreheads!"
"Let me see, you are on Beacon Street, I believe," remarked Mrs. Howland, as the carriage left the more congested quarter of the city.
Kate frowned. "Yes," she answered. "I wanted Commonwealth Avenue, but Mr. Blake preferred Beacon. All his people live on Beacon, and have for years."
"Oh, but Beacon is lovely, I think."
"Do you? Well, perhaps; but Commonwealth is so much wider and more roomy. I could breathe on Commonwealth Avenue, I think!"
"And don't you, where you are?" laughed Mrs. Howland.
Her niece made a playfully wry face.
"Just pant—upon my word I do! Not one full breath do I draw," she asserted.
"Hm-m; I've always understood that deep breathing was necessary for health," commented Mrs. Howland, with a critical, comprehensive glance; "but—you seem to thrive all right! You are looking well, Kate."
"I don't feel so. I have the most shocking headaches," the other retorted. "Ah, here we are!"
Mrs. Howland followed her hostess up a short flight of stone steps into a handsome hall. A well-trained maid was at once in attendance, and another, a little later, helped her unpack.
"My dear," Mrs. Howland said to her niece when she came downstairs, "what a lucky woman you are to have two such maids! They are treasures!"
Kate's hands flew to her head with a gesture of despair.
"Maids!—Aunt Ellen, don't ever say the word to me, I beg! I never keep one more than a month, and I'm shaking in my shoes this very minute. There's a new cook in the kitchen, and I have n't the least idea what your dinner will be."
"I 'm not a bit worried," rejoined Mrs. Howland. "What a pretty home you have, Kate," she added, tactfully changing the subject.
"Think so? I'm glad you like it. I sometimes wish I could get hold of the man who built this house, though, and give him a piece of my mind. The rooms on this floor are so high studded they give me the shivers, while all the chambers are so low they are absurd. Did n't you notice it in your room?"
"Why—no; I don't think I did."
"Well, you will now."
"Perhaps so, since you have told me to," returned Mrs. Howland, a curious smile on her lips.
The dinner was well planned, well cooked, and well served, in Mrs. Howland's opinion, though to her niece it was none of the three. Kate's husband, the Honorable Eben Blake, proved to be a genial, distinguished-looking man who welcomed Mrs. Howland with the cordiality that he displayed toward anybody or anything connected in the most remote degree with his wife. It was evidently with sincere regrets that he made his apologies after dinner, and left the house with a plea of business.
"It's always that way when I want him!" exclaimed Kate petulantly. "Then night after night when I don't want him he'll stay at home and read and smoke."
"But you have friends—you go out," hazarded Mrs. Howland.
Mrs. Blake raised her eyebrows.
"Oh, of course! But, after all, what do calls and receptions amount to? You always meet the same people who say the same things, whether you go to see them or they come to see you."
Mrs. Howland laughed; then she said, softly,
"The old, old story, Kate,—the crumbs on the plates."
"What?" demanded the younger woman in frank amazement. There was a moment's pause during which she gazed blankly into her aunt's eyes. "Oh!—that?" she added, coloring painfully; then she uptilted her chin. "You are very much mistaken, auntie," she resumed with some dignity. "It is nothing of the sort. I am very happy—very happy, indeed!"—positively. "I have a good husband, a pretty home, more money than is good for me, and—well, everything," she finished a little breathlessly.
Again Mrs. Howland laughed, but her face grew almost instantly grave.
"And yet, my dear," she said gently, "scarcely one thing has been mentioned since I came that was quite right."
"Oh, Aunt Ellen, how can you say such a dreadful thing!"
"Listen," replied Mrs. Howland; "it's little bits of things that you don't think of. It has grown on you without your realizing it: the horses did n't both have stars; the house was n't on Commonwealth Avenue; the rooms are too high or too low studded; the roast was over-done; your husband could n't"—
"Oh, auntie, auntie, I beg of you!"—interrupted Kate hysterically.
"Are you convinced, then?"
Kate shook her head. "I can't, auntie—I can't believe it!" she cried. "It—it can't be like that always. There must have been special things to-day that plagued me. Auntie, I'm not such a—monster!"
"Hm-m; well—will you consent to an experiment to—er—find out?"
"Indeed I will!" returned Kate promptly.
"Very good! Every time I hear those little dissatisfied fault-findings, I am going to mention crumbs or plates or china. I think you'll understand. Is it a bargain?"
"It's a bargain," agreed Kate, and she smiled confidently.
The rest of the evening Mrs. Blake kept close guard over her tongue. Twice a "but" and once an "only" slipped out; but she bit her lips and completed her sentence in another way in each case, and if Mrs. Howland noticed, she made no sign.
It rained the next morning. Kate came into the dining-room with a frown.
"I'm so sorry, auntie," she sighed. "I'd planned a drive this morning. It always rains when I want to do something, but when I don't, it just shines and shines, week in and week out."
"Won't the rain wash the—plates?" asked Mrs. Howland in a low voice, as she passed her niece's chair.
"Wha-at?" demanded Mrs. Blake; then she flushed scarlet. "Weather doesn't count," she finished flippantly.
"No? Oh!" smiled Mrs. Howland.
"Fine muffins, these!" spoke up Mr. Blake, a little later. "New cook—eh?"
"Yes," replied his wife. "But they're graham. I 'd much rather have had corn-cake."
"There are not so many—crumbs to graham," observed Mrs. Howland musingly.
There was no reply. The man of the house looked slightly dazed. His wife bit her lip, and choked a little over her coffee. Through the rest of the meal Mrs. Blake confined herself almost exclusively to monosyllables, leaving the conversation to her husband and guest.
At ten the sky cleared, and Mrs. Blake ordered the horses.
"We can't drive far," she began discontentedly, "for I ordered an early luncheon as we have tickets for a concert this afternoon. I wanted to go away out beyond the Newtons, but now we'll have to take a little snippy one."
"Oh, I don't mind," rejoined her guest pleasantly. "Where one can't have the whole cake one must be satisfied with—crumbs."
"Why, I don't see"—began Kate aggressively; then she stopped, and nervously tapped her foot.
"Oh, how pretty that vine is!" cried Mrs. Howland suddenly. The silence was growing oppressive.
"It looks very well now, but you should see it in winter," retorted Kate. "Great, bare, snake-like things all over the—now, don't cudgel your brains to bring 'plates' or 'crumbs' into that!" she broke off with sudden sharpness.
"No, ma'am," answered Mrs. Howland demurely.
By night the guest, if not the hostess, was in a state of nervous tension that boded ill for sleep. The day had been one long succession of "crumbs" and "china plates"—conversationally. According to Kate, the roads had been muddy; the sun had been too bright; there had been chops when there should have been croquettes for luncheon; the concert seats were too far forward; the soprano had a thin voice, and the bass a faulty enunciation; at dinner the soup was insipid, and the dessert a disappointment; afterwards, in the evening, callers had stayed too long.
Mrs. Howland was in her own room, on the point of preparing for bed, when there came a knock at her chamber door,
"Please, Aunt Ellen, may I come in?"
"Certainly, my dear," called Mrs. Howland, hastening across the room.
Kate stepped inside, closed the door, and placed her back against it.
"I'll give it up," she began, half laughing, half crying. "I never, never would have believed it! Don't ever say 'crumbs' or 'plates' to me again as long as you live—please! I believe I never can even see the things again with any peace or comfort. I am going to try—try—Oh, how I'm going to try!—but, auntie, I think it's a hopeless case!" The next instant she had whisked the door open and had vanished out of sight.
"'Hopeless'?" Mrs. Howland was whispering to herself the next day, as she passed through the hall. "'Hopeless'? Oh, no, I think not." And she smiled as she heard her niece's voice in the drawing-room saying:
"High studded, Eben?—these rooms? Yes, perhaps; but, after all, it doesn't matter so much, being a drawing-room—and one does get better air, you know!"
A Four-Footed Faith and a Two
On Monday Rathburn took the dog far up the trail. Stub was no blue-ribbon, petted dog of records and pedigree; he was a vicious-looking little yellow cur of mixed ancestry and bad habits—that is, he had been all this when Rathburn found him six months before and championed his cause in a quarrel with a crowd of roughs in Mike Swaney's saloon. Since then he had developed into a well-behaved little beast with a pair of wistful eyes that looked unutterable love, and a tail that beat the ground, the floor, or the air in joyous welcome whenever Rathburn came in sight. He was part collie, sharp-nosed and prick-eared, and his undersized little body still bore the marks of the precarious existence that had been his before Rathburn had befriended him.
Rathburn had rescued the dog that day in the saloon more to thwart the designs of Pete Mulligan, the head of the gang and an old enemy, than for any compassion for the dog itself; but after he had taken the little animal home he rather enjoyed the slavish devotion which—in the dog's mind—seemed evidently to be the only fit return for so great a service as had been done him. For some months, therefore, Rathburn petted the dog, fed him, taught him to "speak" and to "beg," and made of him an almost constant companion. At the end of that time, the novelty having worn thin, he was ready—as he expressed it to himself—to "call the whole thing off," and great was his disgust that the dog failed to see the affair in the same light.
For some time, Rathburn endured the plaintive whines, the questioning eyes, the frequent thrusts of a cold little nose against his hand; then he determined to end it all.
"Stub, come here!" he called sharply, his right hand seeking his pocket.
With a yelp of joy the dog leaped forward—not for days had his master voluntarily noticed him.
Rathburn raised his pistol and took careful aim. His eye was steady and his hand did not shake. Two feet away the dog had come to a sudden halt. Something in the eye or in the leveled weapon had stayed his feet. He whined, then barked, his eyes all the while wistfully demanding an explanation. Suddenly, his gaze still fixed on his master's face, he rose upright on his haunches and held before him two little dangling paws.
There was a silence, followed by a muttered oath, as the pistol dropped to the ground.
"Confound my babyishness!" snarled Rathburn, stooping and pocketing his weapon. "One would think I'd never seen a gun before!"
This was on Sunday. On Monday Rathburn took the dog far up the trail.
"Want a dog?" he said to the low-browed, unkempt man sitting at the door of a squat cabin.
"Well, I don't. I ain't buyin' dogs these days."
"Yer don't have ter buy this one," observed Rathburn meaningly.
The other glanced up with sharp eyes.
"Humph! Bite?" he snapped.
Rathburn shook his head.
"Sick of him," he returned laconically. "Like his room better'n his company."
"Humph!" grunted the other. Then to the dog: "Come here, sir, an' let's have a look at ye!"
Five minutes later Rathburn strode down the trail alone, while behind him, on the other side of the fast-shut cabin door, barked and scratched a frantic little yellow dog.
Tuesday night, when Rathburn came home, the first sound that greeted him was a joyous bark, as a quivering, eager little creature leaped upon him from out of the dark.
On Wednesday Stub trotted into town at Rathburn's heels, and all the way down the straggling street he looked neither to the right nor to the left, so fearful did he seem that the two great boots he was following should in some way slip from his sight. And yet, vigilant as he was, the door of Swaney's saloon got somehow between and left him on one side barking and whining and running like mad about the room, while on the other his master stood jingling the two pieces of silver in his pocket—the price Mike Swaney had paid for his new dog.
Halfway up the mountain-side Rathburn was still chuckling, still jingling his coins.
"When a man pays money," he was saying aloud, as he squared his shoulders and looked across the valley at the setting sun, "when a man pays money he watches out. I reckon Stub has gone fer good, sure thing, this time!" And yet—long before dawn there came a whine and a gentle scratch at his cabin door; and although four times the dog was returned to his new owner, four times he escaped and nosed the long trail that led to the cabin on the mountain-side.
After Stub's fourth desertion the saloon-keeper refused to take him again, and for a week the dog lay unmolested in his old place in the sun outside the cabin door, or dozed before the fireplace at night. Then Rathburn bestirred himself and made one last effort, taking the dog quite over the mountain and leaving him tied to a tree.
At the end of thirty-six hours, Rathburn was congratulating himself; at the end of thirty-seven he was crying, "Down, sir—down!" to a joy-crazed little dog which had come leaping down the mountain-side with eighteen inches of rope dangling at his heels—a rope whose frayed and tattered end showed the marks of sharp little teeth.
Rathburn gave it up after that, and Stub stayed on. There was no petting, no trick-teaching; there were only sharp words and sometimes a kick or a cuff. Gradually the whines and barks gave way to the more silent appeal of wistful eyes, and Stub learned that life now was a thing of little food and less joy, and that existence was a thing of long motionless watchings of a master who would not understand.
Weeks passed and a cold wind swept down from the mountains. The line of snow crept nearer and nearer the clearing about the cabin, and the sun grew less warm. Rathburn came home each night with a deeper frown on his face, and a fiercer oath as he caught sight of the dog. Down at Swaney's the men knew that Bill Rathburn was having a "streak o' poor luck"; the golden treasure he sought was proving elusive. Stub knew only that he must hide each night now when his master appeared.
As the days passed food became scarce in the cabin. It had been some time since Rathburn had gone to town for supplies. Then came the day when a great joy came into Stub's life—his master spoke to him. It was not the old fond greeting, to be sure. It was a command, and a sharp one; but in Stub's opinion it was a vast improvement on the snarling oaths or wordless glowerings which had been his portion for the past weeks, and he responded to it with every sense and muscle quiveringly alert.
And so it came about that Stub, in obedience to that sharp command, frequently scampered off with his master to spend long days in the foothills, or following the mountain streams. Sometimes it was a partridge, sometimes it was a squirrel, or a rabbit—whatever it was that fell a victim to Rathburn's gun, Stub learned very soon that it must be brought at once to the master and laid at his feet; and so proud was he to be thus of use and consequence that he was well content if at the end of the day his master tossed him a discarded bone after the spoils had been cooked and the man's own appetite satisfied.
It was on one of the days when work, not hunting, filled the time, that Rathburn came home after a long day's labor to find Stub waiting for him with a dead rabbit. After that it came to be a common thing for the dog to trot off by himself in the morning; and the man fell more and more in the way of letting him go alone, as it left his own time the more free for the pursuit of that golden sprite who was ever promising success just ahead.
As for Stub—Stub was happy. He spent the long days in the foothills or on the mountain-side, and soon became expert in his hunting. He would trail for hours without giving tongue, and would patiently lie and wait for a glimpse of a venturesome woodchuck or squirrel. So devoted was he, so well trained, and so keenly alive was he to his responsibilities that, whether the day had been one of great or small success, he was always to be found at night crouching before the cabin door on guard of something limp and motionless—something that a dozen hours before had been a throbbing, scurrying bit of life in the forest. To be sure, that "something" did not always have a food value commensurate with the labor and time Stub had spent to procure it; but to Stub evidently the unforgivable sin was to return with nothing, which fact may explain why Rathburn came home one night to find Stub on guard beside a small dead snake. Both man and dog went supperless that night—the man inside the cabin before a roaring fire; the dog outside in the cheerless dark before a fast-closed door whither his master had promptly consigned him.
Gradually as the days passed there came still another change in the life at the cabin. Rathburn's step became slow, and his cheeks sunken. Sometimes he did not leave home all day, but lay tossing from side to side on his bunk in the corner. At such times, if the result of Stub's hunt were eatable, the man would rouse himself enough to stir the fire and get supper; and always, after such a day at home, Rathburn was astir the next morning at dawn and off in feverish haste for a long day's work to make up for the long day of idleness.
But there came a time when he could not do this—when each day found him stretched prone on his bunk or moving feebly about the room. Then came a night when Stub's bark at the door was unanswered. Again and again Stub demanded admittance only to be met with silence. The door, though unlatched, was swollen from recent rains, and it took five good minutes and all the strength of one small dog to push it open a narrow foot, and then there were only silence and a dying fire by way of greeting.
Stub dropped his burden on the floor and whined. He was particularly proud to-night; he had brought home a partridge—the first he had ever caught without the aid of his master's gun.
The figure on the bed did not move.
The dog picked up the bird he had dropped and walked toward his master. This time he laid his offering close to the bunk and barked.
The man stirred and groaned. For long minutes the dog stood motionless, watching; then he crept to the fire and almost into the hot ashes in his efforts to warm the blood in his shivering little legs.
In the morning the fire was quite out. Stub stretched his stiffened body and gazed about the room. Over on the bed the man did not stir nor speak. The dead bird lay untouched at his side. There was a whine, a bark, and a long minute of apparent indecision; then the dog pattered across the floor, wormed himself through the partly open door, and took the trail that led to the foothills.
Three times Stub brought to the fireless, silent cabin the result of his day's hunt and laid it at his master's side, and always there was only silence or a low groan to greet him.
On the third night it snowed—the first storm of the season. A keen wind swept down the mountain and played hide-and-seek with the cabin door, so that in the morning a long bar of high-piled snow lay across the cabin floor.
When the men from the village had ploughed their way through the snow and pushed open the door, they stopped amazed upon the threshold, looking at one another with mingled alarm and pity; then one of them, conquering his reluctance, strode forward. He stooped for a moment over the prostrate form of the man before he turned and faced his companions.
"Boys, he's—gone," he said huskily; and in the silence that followed, four men bared their heads.
It was a dog's low whine that first stirred into action the man by the bunk. He looked down and his eyes grew luminous. He saw the fireless hearth, the drifted snow, and the half-dead dog keeping watchful guard over a pile of inert fur and feathers on the floor—a pile frozen stiff and mutely witnessing to a daily duty well performed.
"I reckon I'm needin' a dog," he said, as he stooped and patted Stub's head.
A Matter of System
At the office of Hawkins & Hawkins, system was everything. Even the trotter-boy was reduced to an orbit that ignored craps and marbles, and the stenographer went about her work like a well-oiled bit of machinery. It is not strange, then, that Jasper Hawkins, senior member of the firm, was particularly incensed at the confusion that Christmas always brought to his home.
For years he bore—with such patience as he could muster—the attack of nervous prostration that regularly, on the 26th day of December, laid his wife upon a bed of invalidism; then, in the face of the unmistakable evidence that the malady would this year precede the holy day of peace and good-will, he burst his bonds of self-control and spoke his mind.
It was upon the morning of the 21st.
"Edith," he began, in what his young daughter called his "now mind" voice, "this thing has got to stop."
"Jas-per!"—it was as if she thought he had the power to sweep good-will itself from the earth. "Christmas—stop!"
"Yes. My dear, how did you spend yesterday?"
"Exactly. And the day before?—and the day before that?—and before that? You need n't answer, for I know. And you were shopping for—" he paused expectantly.
"Presents." Something quite outside of herself had forced the answer.
"Exactly. Now, Edith, surely it need not take all your time for a month before Christmas to buy a few paltry presents, and all of it for two months afterward to get over buying them!"
"But, Jasper, they are n't few, and they're anything but paltry. Imagine giving Uncle Harold a paltry present!" retorted Edith, with some spirit.
The man waved an impatient hand.
"Very well, we will call them magnificent, then," he conceded. "But even in that case, surely the countless stores full of beautiful and useful articles, and with a list properly tabulated, and a sufficiency of money—" An expressive gesture finished his sentence.
The woman shook her head.
"I know; it sounds easy," she sighed, "but it is n't. It's so hard to think up what to give, and after I 've thought it up and bought it, I 'm just sure I ought to have got the other thing."
"But you should have some system about it."
"Oh, I had—a list," she replied dispiritedly. "But I'm so—tired."
Jasper Hawkins suddenly squared his shoulders.
"How many names have you left now to buy presents for?" he demanded briskly.
"Three—Aunt Harriet, and Jimmy, and Uncle Harold. They always get left till the last. They're so—impossible."
"Impossible? Nonsense!—and I'll prove it to you, too. Give yourself no further concern, Edith, about Christmas, if that is all there is left to do—just consider it done."
"Do you mean—you'll get the presents for them?"
"But, Jasper, you know—"
An imperative gesture silenced her.
"My dear, I'm doing this to relieve you, and that means that you are not even to think of it again."
"Very well; er—thank you," sighed the woman; but her eyes were troubled.
Not so Jasper's; his eyes quite sparkled with anticipation as he left the house some minutes later.
On the way downtown he made his plans and arranged his list. He wished it were longer—that list. Three names were hardly sufficient to demonstrate his theories and display his ability. As for Aunt Harriet, Jimmy, and Uncle Harold being "impossible"—that was all nonsense, as he had said; and before his eyes rose a vision of the three: Aunt Harriet, a middle-aged spinster, poor, half-sick, and chronically discontented with the world; Jimmy, a white-faced lad who was always reading a book; and Uncle Harold, red-faced, red-headed, and—red-tempered. (Jasper smiled all to himself at this last thought.) "Red-tempered"—that was good. He would tell Edith—but he would not tell others. Witticisms at the expense of a rich old bachelor uncle whose heir was a matter of his own choosing were best kept pretty much to one's self. Edith was right, however, in one thing, Jasper decided: Uncle Harold surely could not be given a "paltry" present. He must be given something fine, expensive, and desirable—something that one would like one's self. And immediately there popped into Jasper's mind the thought of a certain exquisitely carved meerschaum which he had seen in a window and which he had greatly coveted. As for Aunt Harriet and Jimmy—their case was too simple for even a second thought: to one he would give a pair of bed-slippers; to the other, a book.
Some minutes later Jasper Hawkins tucked into his pocketbook an oblong bit of paper on which had been neatly written:—
Presents to be bought for Christmas, 1908:
Aunt Harriet, spinster, 58(?) years old—Bed-slippers.
Uncle Harold, bachelor, 65 years old—Pipe.
Jimmy, boy, 12 years old—Book.
In the office of Hawkins & Hawkins that morning, the senior member of the firm found a man waiting for him. This man was the emissary of his mighty chief, and upon this chief rested the whole structure of a "deal" which was just then looming large on the horizon of Hawkins & Hawkins—and in which the oblong bit of paper in Jasper's pocketbook had no part.
Mrs. Jasper Hawkins greeted her husband with palpitating interest that evening.
"Well—what did you get?" she asked.
The man of business lifted his chin triumphantly.
"Not everything we asked for, to be sure," he began, "but we got more than we expected to, and—" He stopped abruptly. The expression on his wife's face had suddenly reminded him that by no possible chance could she know what he was talking about. "Er—what do you mean?" he demanded.
"Why, Jasper, there's only one thing I could mean—the presents, you know!"
A curious something clutched at Jasper's breath and held it for a moment suspended. Then Jasper throttled the something, and raised his chin even higher.
"Time enough for that to-morrow," he retorted lightly. "I did n't promise to get them to-day, you know."
"But, Jasper, to-morrow 's the 22d!"
"And three whole days before Christmas."
"Yes, but they must be sent the 24th."
"And they'll be sent, my dear," declared Jasper, in a tone of voice that was a cold dismissal of the subject.
On the morning of the 22d, Jasper Hawkins told himself that he would not forget the presents this time. He decided, however, that there was no need for him to take the whole day to select a pipe, a book, and a pair of slippers. There would be quite time enough after luncheon. And he smiled to himself in a superior way as he thought of the dizzying rush and the early start that always marked his wife's shopping excursions. He was still smiling happily when he sallied forth at two o'clock that afternoon, leaving word at the office that he would return in an hour.
He decided to buy the meerschaum first, and with unhesitating steps he sought the tobacco-store in whose window he had seen it. The pipe was gone, however, and there really was no other in the place that just suited him, though he spent fully half an hour trying to find one. He decided then to look elsewhere. He would try the department store in which he intended to buy the book and the slippers. It was better, anyway, that he should do all his shopping under one roof—it was more systematic.
The great clock in the department-store tower had just struck three when Jasper stalked through the swinging doors on the street floor. He had been detained. Window displays had allured him, and dawdling throngs of Christmas shoppers had forced his feet into a snail's pace. He drew now a sigh of relief. He had reached his destination; he would make short work of his purchases. And with a dignified stride he turned toward the nearest counter.
At once, however, he found himself caught in a swirl of humanity that swept him along like a useless chip and flung him against a counter much farther down the aisle. With what dignity he could summon to his aid he righted himself and addressed the smiling girl behind it.
"I'm looking for pipes," he announced, severely. "Perhaps you can tell me where they are."
She shook her head.
"Ask him," she suggested, with a nod and a jerk of her thumb.
And Jasper, looking in the direction indicated, saw a frock-coated man standing like a rock where the streams of humanity broke and surged to the right and to the left. By some maneuvering, Jasper managed in time to confront this man.
"Pipes," he panted anxiously—he was reduced now to the single word.
"Annex; second floor. Elevator to your right."
"Thanks!" fervently breathed the senior member of the firm of Hawkins & Hawkins, muttering as he turned away, "Then they have got some system in this infernal bedlam!"
The crisp directions had sounded simple, but they proved to be anything but simple to follow. Like a shuttlecock, Jasper was tossed from clerk to clerk, until by the time he reached his destination he was confused, breathless, and cross.
The pipes, however, were numerous and beautiful, and the girl behind the counter was both pretty and attentive; moreover, pipes did not happen to be popular that day, and the corner was a little paradise of quietness and rest. The man drew a long breath of relief and bent to his task.
In his mind was the one thought uppermost—he must select just such a pipe as he himself would like; and for long minutes he pondered whether this, that, or another would best please him. So absorbed was he, indeed, in this phase of the question, that he had made his selection and taken out his money, when the sickening truth came to him—Uncle Harold did not smoke.
To Jasper it seemed incredible that he had not thought of this before. But not until he pictured his purchase in his uncle's hand had he realized that the thing was not for himself, after all, but for a man who not only did not smoke, but who abhorred the habit in others.
With a muttered something that the righteously indignant pretty girl could not hear, Jasper Hawkins thrust his money into his pocket and rushed blindly away from the pipe counter. Long minutes later in the street, he adjusted his tie, jerked his coat into place, straightened his hat, and looked at his watch.
It was four o'clock, and he must go back to the office before starting for home. There was still another whole day before him, he remembered, and, after all, it was a very simple matter to buy the book and the slippers, and then look around a little for something for Uncle Harold. In the morning he would doubtless light upon the very thing. And with this comforting thought he dismissed the subject and went back to the office.
Mrs. Hawkins did not question her husband that night about what he had bought. Something in his face stayed the words on her lips.
Jasper Hawkins went early to the office the next morning, but it was fully eleven o'clock before he could begin his shopping. He told himself, however, that there was quite time enough for the little he had to do, and he stepped off very briskly in the direction of the department store he had left the night before. He had decided that he preferred this one to the intricacies of a new one; besides, he was very sure that there would not now be so many people in it.
Just here, however, Jasper met with a disappointment. Not only was every one there who had been there the day before, but most of them had brought friends, and in dismay Jasper clung to the post near the door while he tried to rally his courage for the plunge. In the distance the frock-coated man was still the rock where the stream foamed and broke; and after a long wait and a longer struggle Jasper stood once more before him.
"I want slippers—bed-slippers for women," he muttered.
"Fourth floor, front. Elevator to your left," declaimed the man. And Jasper quite glowed with awe at the thought of a brain so stupendous that it could ticket and tell each shelf and counter in that vast domain of confusion.
Jasper himself had been swept to the right on the crest of a particularly aggressive wave formed by the determined shoulders of a huge fat woman who wished to go in that direction; so it was some time before he could stem the current and make an effort to reach the elevator on the other side of the store. It was then that he suddenly decided to grasp this opportunity for "looking about a little to find something for Uncle Harold"—and it was then that he was lost, for no longer had he compass, captain, or a port in view; but oarless and rudderless he drifted.
Then, indeed, did the department store, in all its allurements of glitter and show and competing attractions, burst on Jasper's eyes, benumbing his senses and overthrowing his judgment. For long minutes he hung entranced above a tray of jeweled side combs, and for other long minutes he critically weighed the charms of a spangled fan against those of one that was merely painted—before he suddenly awoke to the realization that he was looking for something for Uncle Harold, and that Uncle Harold did not wear side combs, nor disport himself with gauze fans.
"Where do you keep things for men?" he demanded then, aggrievedly, of the demure-faced girl behind the counter; and it was while he was on the ensuing frantic search for "things for men" that he stumbled upon the book department.
"To be sure—a book for Jimmy," he muttered, and confidently approached a girl who already was trying to wait on three customers at once.
"I want a book for a boy," he observed; and was surprised that no one answered.
"I want a book for a boy," he urged, in a louder tone.
Still no one answered.
"I want a book—for—a—boy," he reiterated distinctly; and this time the girl flicked her ear as at the singing of an annoying insect.
"Juveniles three aisles over to your left," she snapped glibly; and after a puzzled pondering on her words, Jasper concluded that they were meant for him.
In the juvenile department, Jasper wondered why every one in the store had chosen that particular minute to come there and buy a book for a child. Everywhere were haste and confusion. Nowhere was there any one who paid the least attention to himself. At his right a pretty girl chatted fluently of this, that, and another "series"; and at his left a severe-faced woman with glasses discoursed on the great responsibility of selecting reading for the young, and uttered fearsome prophecies of the dire evil that was sure to result from indiscriminate buying.
Her words were not meant for Jasper's ears, but they reached them, nevertheless. The man shuddered and grew pale. With soft steps he slunk out of the book department. . . . To think that he—he, who knew nothing whatever about books for boys—had nearly bought one of the risky things for Jimmy! And to Jasper's perverted imagination it almost seemed that Jimmy, white-faced and sad-eyed, had already gone wrong—and through him.
Jasper looked at his watch then, and decided it was time for luncheon. After that he could look around for something else for Jimmy.
It was six o'clock when Jasper, flushed, tired, and anxious, looked at his watch again, and took account of stock.
He had a string of beads and a pair of skates.
The skates, of course, were for Jimmy. He was pleased with those. It was a girl who had helped him in that decision—a very obliging girl who had found him in the toy department confusedly eyeing an array of flaxen-haired dolls, and who had gently asked him the age of the boy for whom he desired a present. He thought of that girl now with gratitude.
The string of beads did not so well please him. He was a little doubtful, anyway, how he happened to buy them. He had a dim recollection that they looked wonderfully pretty with the light bringing out sparkles of green and gold, and that the girl who tended them did not happen to have anything to do but to wait on him. So he had bought them. They were handsome beads, and not at all cheap. They would do for some one, he assured himself. And not until he had dropped them in his pocket did it occur to him that he was buying presents for only a boy, a bachelor, and a middle-aged spinster. Manifestly a string of beads would not do for Jimmy or Uncle Harold, so they must do for Aunt Harriet. He had meant to buy bed-slippers for her, but, perhaps, after all, she would prefer beads. At all events, he had bought them, and they would have to go. And with that he dismissed the beads.
As yet he had nothing for Uncle Harold. There seemed to be nothing, really, that he could make up his mind to give. The more he searched, the more undecided he grew. The affair of the pipe had frightened him, and had sown distrust in his heart. He would have to buy something this evening, of course, for it must be sent to-morrow. He would telephone Edith that he could not be home for dinner—that business detained him; then he would eat a hasty luncheon and buy Uncle Harold's present. And with this decision Jasper wearily turned his steps toward a telephone booth.
Jasper Hawkins went home at ten o'clock. He still had nothing for Uncle Harold. The stores had closed before he could find anything. But there was yet until noon the next day.
Mrs. Hawkins did not question her husband. In the morning she only reminded him timidly.
"You know those things must get off by twelve o'clock, Jasper."
"Oh, yes, they'll go all right," her husband had replied, in a particularly cheery voice. Jasper was not cheery, however, within. He was nervous and anxious. A terrible fear had clutched his heart: what if he could not—but then, he must find something, he enjoined himself. And with that he started downtown at once.
He did not go to the office this time, but sought the stores immediately. He found conditions now even worse than before. Every one seemed to have an Uncle Harold for whom was frenziedly being sought the unattainable. If at nine o'clock Jasper had been nervous, at ten he was terrified, and at eleven he was nearly frantic. All power of decision seemed to have left him, and he stumbled vaguely on and on, scarcely knowing what he was doing. It was then that his eye fell on a huge sign:
"Just the thing for Christmas! When in doubt, buy me!"
There was a crowd before the sign, but Jasper knew now how to use his elbows. Once at his goal he stared in amazement. Then the tension snapped, and he laughed outright—before him were half a dozen cages of waltzing mice.
For a long time the curious whirls and antics of the odd little creatures in their black-and-white coats held Jasper's gaze in a fascinated stare. Then the man, obeying an impulse that he scarcely understood himself, made his purchase, gave explicit directions where and when it was to be sent, and left the store. Then, and not until then, did Jasper Hawkins fully realize that to his Uncle Harold—the rich old man who must be petted and pampered, and never by any chance offended—he had sent as a Christmas present a cage of dancing mice!
That night Mrs. Hawkins fearlessly asked her questions, and as fearlessly her husband answered them. He had determined to assume a bold front. However grave might be his own doubts and fears, he had resolved that she should not know of them.
"Presents? Of course! They went to-day with our love," he answered gayly.
"And what—did you send?"
"The simplest things in the world; a string of handsome beads to Aunt Harriet, a pair of skates to Jimmy, and a cage of the funniest little waltzing mice you ever saw, to Uncle Harold. You see it all resolves itself down to a mere matter of system," he went on; but at the real agony in his wife's face he stopped in dismay. "Why, Edith!"
"Jasper, you didn't—you did n't send skates to Jimmy!"
"But I did. Why not?"
"But, Jasper, he's—lame!"
Jasper fell back limply. All the bravado fled from his face.
"Edith, how could I—how could I—forget—a thing like that!" he groaned.
"And beads for Aunt Harriet! Why, Jasper, I never saw a bead on her neck! You know how poor she is, and how plain she dresses. I always give her useful, practical things!"
Jasper said nothing. He was still with Jimmy and the skates. He wished he had bought a book—a wicked book, if need be; anything would be better than those skates.
"And mice—mice for Uncle Harold!" wept Edith. "Why, Jasper, how could you?—dirty little beasts that Uncle Harold can only feed to his cat! And I had hoped so much from Uncle Harold. Oh, Jasper, Jasper, how could you!"
"I don't know," said Jasper dully, as he got up to leave the room.
To Jasper it was not a happy Christmas. There were those three letters of thanks to come; and he did not want to read them.
As it chanced they all came the same day, the 28th. They were addressed to Mrs. Hawkins, and naturally she read them first. When Jasper came home that night they lay waiting for him on his desk. He saw them, but he decided not to read them until after dinner. He felt that he needed all the fortification he could obtain. He hoped that his wife would not mention them, and yet he was conscious of a vague disappointment when, as time passed, she did not mention them.
Dinner over, further delay was impossible; and very slowly he picked up the letters. He singled out Aunt Harriet's first. Dimly he felt that this might be a sort of preparation for the wrath to follow.
Dear Niece and Nephew [he read—and he sat suddenly erect]. How ever in the world did you guess that it was beads that I wanted more than anything else in the world? And these are such handsome ones! Ever since beads and chains have been worn so much I have longed for one all my own; but I have tried to crush the feeling and hide it, for I feared it might be silly—and me so old and faded, and out-of-date! But I know now that it is n't, and that I need n't be ashamed of it any more, for, of course, you and Jasper would never give me anything silly! And thank you ever and ever so much!
With a slightly dazed expression Jasper Hawkins laid down Aunt Harriet's letter when he had finished it, and picked up the one from Uncle Harold. As he did so he glanced at his wife; but she was sewing and did not appear to be noticing him.
Well, well, children, you have done it this time! [read Jasper, with fearful eyes]. The little beasts came on Christmas morning, and never have I [Jasper turned the page and relaxed suddenly] stopped laughing since, I believe! How in the world did you happen to think of a present so original, so cute, and so everlastingly entertaining? The whole house, and I might say the whole town, is in a fever over them, and there is already a constant stream of children past my window—you see, I 've got the little devils where they can best be seen and appreciated!
There was more, much more, and all in the same strain; and again, as Jasper laid the letter down he glanced at his wife, only to find a demure, downcast gaze.
But one letter now remained, and in spite of what had gone before, Jasper picked up this with dread. Surely, nothing—nothing could reconcile Jimmy and those awful skates! He winced as he opened the letter and saw that Jimmy's mother had written—poor Jimmy's mother! how her heart must have ached!—and then he stared in unbelieving wonder at the words, and read them over and over, lest he had in some way misconstrued their meaning.
My dear sister and brother [Jimmy's mother had written], I wish you could have seen Jimmy when your beautiful skates arrived. He will write you himself and thank you, but I know he can't half make you understand just what that present means to him, so I am going to write you myself and tell you what he said; then maybe you can realize a little what a great joy you have brought into his life.
And let me say right here that I myself have been blind all these years. I have n't understood. And what I want to know is, how did you find it out—what Jimmy wanted? How did you know? When I, his own mother, never guessed! Why, even when the skates came on Christmas Day, I was frightened and angry, because you had been so "thoughtless" as to send my poor lame boy skates! And then—I could hardly believe my own eyes and ears, for Jimmy, his face one flame of joy, was waving a skate in each hand. "Mother, mother!" he was shouting. "See, I've got a boy present, a real boy present—just as if I was—like other boys. I've always had books and puzzles and girl presents! Everybody's thought of them when they thought of me!" he cried, thumping the crutches at his side. "But this is a real present— Now I've got something to show, and to lend—something that is something!" And on and on he chattered, with me staring at him as if I thought he was out of his head.
But he was n't out of his head. He was happy—happier than I've ever seen him since he was hurt. And it still lasts. He shows those skates to every one, and talks and talks about them, and has already made plans to let his dearest friends try them. Best of all, they have given him a new interest in life, and he is actually better. The doctor says at this rate he'll be using the skates himself some day!
And now, how can I thank you—you who have done this thing, who have been so wise beyond his mother? I can only thank and thank you, and send you my dearest love.
Your affectionate sister,
The senior member of the firm of Hawkins & Hawkins folded the letter very hurriedly and tucked it into its envelope. There was a mist in his eyes, and a lump in his throat—two most uncalled-for, unwelcome phenomena. With a determined effort he cleared his throat and began to speak.
"You see, Edith," he observed pompously, "your fears were quite groundless, after all. This Christmas shopping, if reduced to a system—" He paused suddenly. His wife had stopped her sewing and was looking straight into his eyes.
To Hephzibah the world was a place of weary days and unrestful nights, and life was a thing of dishes that were never quite washed and of bread that was never quite baked—leaving something always to be done.
The sun rose and the sun set, and Hephzibah came to envy the sun. To her mind, his work extended from the first level ray shot into her room in the morning to the last rose-flush at night; while as for herself, there were the supper dishes and the mending-basket yet waiting. To be sure, she knew, if she stopped to think, that her sunset must be a sunrise somewhere else; but Hephzibah never stopped to think; she would have said, had you asked her, that she had no time.
First there was the breakfast for Theron and the hired man in the chill gray dawn of each day;—if one were to wrest a living from the stones and sand of the hillside farm, one must be up and at work betimes. Then Harry, Tom, and Nellie must be roused, dressed, fed, and made ready for the half-mile walk to the red schoolhouse at the cross-roads. After that the day was one blur of steam, dust, heat, and stifling fumes from the oven and the fat-kettle, broken always at regular intervals by meal-getting and chicken-feeding.
What mattered the blue of the heavens or the green of the earth outside? To Hephzibah the one was "sky" and the other "grass." What mattered the sheen of silver on the emerald velvet of the valley far below? Hephzibah would have told you that it was only the sun on Otter Creek down in Johnson's meadows.
As for the nights, even sleep brought little relief to Hephzibah; for her dreams were of hungry mouths that could not be filled, and of dirt-streaked floors that would not come clean.
Last summer a visitor had spent a week at the farm—Helen Raymond, Hephzibah's niece from New York; and now a letter had come from this same Helen Raymond, telling Hephzibah to look out for a package by express.
A package by express!
Hephzibah laid the letter down, left the dishes cooling in the pan, and went out into the open yard where she could look far down the road toward the village.
When had she received a package before? Even Christmas brought no fascinating boxes or mysterious bundles to her! It would be interesting to open it; and yet—it probably held a book which she would have no time to read, or a pretty waist which she would have no chance to wear.
Hephzibah turned and walked listlessly back to her kitchen and her dish-washing. Twelve hours later her unaccustomed lips were spelling out the words on a small white card which had come with a handsomely framed photograph:
The Angelus. Jean Francois Millet. 1859.
Hephzibah looked from the card to the picture, and from the picture back again to the card. Gradually an angry light took the place of the dazed wonder in her eyes. She turned fiercely to her husband.
"Theron, why did Helen send me that picture?" she demanded.
"Why, Hetty, I—I dunno," faltered the man, "'nless she—she—wanted ter please ye."
"Please me!—please me!" scoffed Hephzibah. "Did she expect to please me with a thing like that? Look here, Theron, look!" she cried, snatching up the photograph and bringing it close to her husband's face. "Look at that woman and that man—they're us, Theron,—us, I tell you!"
"Oh, come, Hetty," remonstrated Theron; "they ain't jest the same, yer know. She did n't mean nothin'—Helen did n't."
"Didn't mean nothing!" repeated Hephzibah scornfully; "then why did n't she send something pretty?—something that showed up pretty things—not just fields and farm-folks! Why did n't she, Theron,—why did n't she?"
"Why, Hetty, don't! She—why, she—"
"I know," cut in the woman, a bright red flaming into her cheeks. "'T was 'cause she thought that was all we could understand—dirt, and old clothes, and folks that look like us! Don't we dig and dig like them? Ain't our hands twisted and old and—"
"Hetty—yer ain't yerself! Yer—"
"Yes, I am—I am! I'm always myself—there's never anything else I can be, Theron,—never!" And Hephzibah threw her apron over her head and ran from the room, crying bitterly.
"Well, by gum!" muttered the man, as he dropped heavily into the nearest chair.
For some days the picture stayed on the shelf over the kitchen sink, where it had been placed by Theron as the quickest means of its disposal. Hephzibah did not seem to notice it after that first day, and Theron was most willing to let the matter drop.
It must have been a week after the picture's arrival that the minister made his semi-yearly call.
"Oh, you have an Angelus! That's fine," he cried, appreciatively;—the minister always begged to stay in Hephzibah's kitchen, that room being much more to his mind than was the parlor, carefully guarded from sun and air.
"'Fine'!—that thing!" laughed Hephzibah.
"Aye, that thing," returned the man, quick to detect the scorn in her voice; then, with an appeal to the only side of her nature he thought could be reached, he added:
"Why, my dear woman, 'that thing,' as you call it, is a copy of a picture which in the original was sold only a few years ago for more than a hundred thousand dollars—a hundred and fifty, I think."
"Humph! Who could have bought it! That thing!" laughed Hephzibah again, and changed the subject. But she remembered,—she must have remembered; for, after the minister had gone, she took the picture from the shelf and carried it to the light of the window.
"A hundred and fifty thousand dollars," she murmured; "and to think what I'd do with that money!" For some minutes she studied the picture in silence, then she sighed: "Well, they do look natural like; but only think what a fool to pay a hundred and fifty thousand for a couple of farm-folks out in a field!"
And yet—it was not to the kitchen shelf Hephzibah carried the picture that night, but to the parlor—the somber, sacred parlor. There she propped it up on the center-table among plush photograph-albums and crocheted mats—the dearest of Hephzibah's treasures.
Hephzibah could scarcely have explained it herself, but after the minister's call that day she fell into the way of going often into the parlor to look at her picture. At first its famous price graced it with a halo of gold; but in time this was forgotten, and the picture itself, with its silent, bowed figures, appealed to her with a power she could not understand.
"There's a story to it—I know there's a story to it!" she cried at last one day; and forthwith she hunted up an old lead-pencil stub and a bit of yellowed note-paper.
It was a long hour Hephzibah spent then, an hour of labored thinking and of careful guiding of cramped fingers along an unfamiliar way; yet the completed note, when it reached Helen Raymond's hands, was wonderfully short.
The return letter was long, and, though Hephzibah did not know it, represented hours of research in bookstores and in libraries. It answered not only Hephzibah's questions, but attempted to respond to the longing and heart-hunger Miss Raymond was sure she detected between the lines of Hephzibah's note. Twelve hours after it was written, Hephzibah was on her knees before the picture.
"I know you now—I know you!" she whispered exultingly. "I know why you're real and true. Your master who painted you was like us once—like us, and like you! He knew what it was to dig and dig; he knew what it was to work and work until his back and his head and his feet and his hands ached and ached—he knew! And so he painted you!