PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
Author of "Lyrics of Lowly Life"
New York International Association of Newspapers and Authors 1901
Copyright, 1898 by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Copyright, 1898 by Dodd, Mead and Company
North River Bindery Co. Printers and Binders New York
TO MY WIFE
It was about six o'clock of a winter's morning. In the eastern sky faint streaks of grey had come and were succeeded by flashes of red, crimson-cloaked heralds of the coming day. It had snowed the day before, but a warm wind had sprung up during the night, and the snow had partially melted, leaving the earth showing through in ugly patches of yellow clay and sooty mud. Half despoiled of their white mantle, though with enough of it left to stand out in bold contrast to the bare places, the houses loomed up, black, dripping, and hideous. Every once in a while the wind caught the water as it trickled from the eaves, and sent it flying abroad in a chill unsparkling spray. The morning came in, cold, damp, and dismal.
At the end of a short, dirty street in the meanest part of the small Ohio town of Dexter stood a house more sagging and dilapidated in appearance than its disreputable fellows. From the foundation the walls converged to the roof, which seemed to hold its place less by virtue of nails and rafters than by faith. The whole aspect of the dwelling, if dwelling it could be called, was as if, conscious of its own meanness, it was shrinking away from its neighbours and into itself. A sickly light gleamed from one of the windows. As the dawn came into the sky, a woman came to the door and looked out. She was a slim woman, and her straggling, dusty-coloured hair hung about an unpleasant sallow face. She shaded her eyes with her hand, as if the faint light could hurt those cold, steel-grey orbs. "It 's mornin'," she said to those within. "I 'll have to be goin' along to git my man's breakfast: he goes to work at six o'clock, and I 'ain't got a thing cooked in the house fur him. Some o' the rest o' you 'll have to stay an' lay her out." She went back in and closed the door behind her.
"La, Mis' Warren, you ain't a-goin' a'ready? Why, there 's everything to be done here yit: Margar't 's to be laid out, an' this house has to be put into some kind of order before the undertaker comes."
"I should like to know what else I 'm a-goin' to do, Mis' Austin. Charity begins at home. My man 's got to go to work, an' he 's got to have his breakfast: there 's cares fur the livin' as well as fur the dead, I say, an' I don't believe in tryin' to be so good to them that 's gone that you furgit them that 's with you."
Mrs. Austin pinched up her shrivelled face a bit more as she replied, "Well, somebody ought to stay. I know I can't, fur I 've got a ter'ble big washin' waitin' fur me at home, an' it 's been two nights sence I 've had any sleep to speak of, watchin' here. I 'm purty near broke down."
"That 's jest what I 've been a-sayin'," repeated Mrs. Warren. "There 's cares fur the livin' as well as fur the dead; you 'd ought to take care o' yoreself: first thing you know you 'll be flat o' yore own back."
A few other women joined their voices in the general protest against staying. It was for all the world as if they had been anxious to see the poor woman out of the world, and, now that they knew her to be gone, had no further concern for her. All had something to do, either husbands to get off to work or labours of their own to perform.
A little woman with a weak voice finally changed the current of talk by saying, "Well, I guess I kin stay: there 's some cold things at home that my man kin git, an' the childern 'll git off to school by themselves. They 'll all understand."
"That 's right, Melissy Davis," said a hard-faced woman who had gone on about some work she was doing, without taking any notice of the clamorous deserters, "an' I 'll stay with you. I guess I 've got about as much work to do as any of you," she added, casting a cold glance at the women who were now wrapped up and ready to depart, "an' I was n't so much of a friend of Margar't's as some of you, neither, but on an occasion like this I know what dooty is." And Miss Hester Prime closed her lips in a very decided fashion.
"Oh, well, some folks is so well off in money an' time that they kin afford to be liberal with a pore creature like Margar't, even ef they did n't have nothin' to do with her before she died."
Miss Prime's face grew sterner as she replied, "Margar't Brent was n't my kind durin' life, an' that I make no bones o' sayin' here an' now; but when she got down on the bed of affliction I done what I could fur her along with the best of you; an' you, Mandy Warren, that 's seen me here day in an' day out, ought to be the last one to deny that. Furthermore, I did n't advise her to leave her husband, as some people did, but I did put in a word an' help her to work so 's to try to keep her straight afterwards, though it ain't fur me to be a-braggin' about what I done, even to offset them that did n't do nothin'."
This parting shot told, and Mrs. Warren flared up like a wax light. "It 's a wonder yore old tracts an' the help you give her did n't keep her sober sometimes."
"Ef I could n't keep her sober, I was n't one o' them that set an' took part with her when she was gittin' drunk."
"'Sh! 'sh!" broke in Mrs. Davis: "ef I was you two I would n't go on that way. Margar't 's dead an' gone now, an' what 's past is past. Pore soul, she had a hard enough time almost to drive her to destruction; but it 's all over now, an' we ought to put her away as peaceful as possible."
The women who had all been in such a hurry had waited at the prospect of an altercation, but, seeing it about to blow over, they bethought themselves of their neglected homes and husbands, and passed out behind the still irate Mrs. Warren, who paused long enough in earshot to say, "I hope that spiteful old maid 'll have her hands full."
The scene within the room which the women had just left was anything but an inviting one. The place was miserably dirty. Margaret had never been a particularly neat housewife, even in her well days. The old rag carpet which disfigured the floor was worn into shreds and blotched with grease, for the chamber was cooking- and dining- as well as sleeping-room. A stove, red with rust, struggled to send forth some heat. The oily black kerosene lamp showed a sickly yellow flame through the grimy chimney.
On a pallet in one corner lay a child sleeping. On the bed, covered with a dingy sheet, lay the stark form out of which the miserable life had so lately passed.
The women opened the blinds, blew out the light, and began performing the necessary duties for the dead.
"Anyhow, let her body go clean before her Maker," said Miss Hester Prime, severely.
"Don't be too hard on the pore soul, Miss Hester," returned Mrs. Davis. "She had a hard time of it. I knowed Margar't when she was n't so low down as in her last days."
"She ought n't never to 'a' left her husband."
"Oh, ef you 'd 'a' knowed him as I did, Miss Hester, you would n't never say that. He was a brute: sich beatin's as he used to give her when he was in liquor you never heerd tell of."
"That was hard, but as long as he was a husband he was a protection to her name."
"True enough. Protection is a good dish, but a beatin's a purty bitter sauce to take with it."
"I wonder what 's ever become of Brent."
"Lord knows. No one 'ain't heerd hide ner hair o' him sence he went away from town. People thought that he was a-hangin' around tryin' to git a chance to kill Mag after she got her divorce from him, but all at once he packed off without sayin' a word to anybody. I guess he's drunk himself to death by this time."
When they had finished with Margaret, the women set to work to clean up the house. The city physician who had attended the dead woman in her last hours had reported the case for county burial, and the undertaker was momentarily expected.
"We 'll have to git the child up an' git his pallet out of the way, so the floor kin be swept."
"A body hates to wake the pore little motherless dear."
"Perhaps, after all, the child is better off without her example."
"Yes, Miss Hester, perhaps; but a mother, after all, is a mother."
"Even sich a one as this?"
"Even sich a one as this."
Mrs. Davis bent over the child, and was about to lift him, when he stirred, opened his eyes, and sat up of his own accord. He appeared about five years of age. He might have been a handsome child, but hardship and poor feeding had taken away his infantile plumpness, and he looked old and haggard, even beneath the grime on his face. The kindly woman lifted him up and began to dress him.
"I want my mamma," said the child.
Neither of the women answered: there was something tugging at their heart-strings that killed speech.
Finally the little woman said, "I don't know ef we did right to let him sleep through it all, but then it was sich a horrible death."
When she had finished dressing the child, she led him to the bed and showed him his mother's face. He touched it with his little grimy finger, and then, as if, young as he was, the realization of his bereavement had fully come to him, he burst into tears.
Miss Hester turned her face away, but Mrs. Davis did not try to conceal her tears. She took the boy up in her arms and comforted him the best she could.
"Don't cry, Freddie," she said; "don't cry; mamma's—restin'. Ef you don't care, Miss Prime, I 'll take him over home an' give him some breakfast, an' leave him with my oldest girl, Sophy. She kin stay out o' school to-day. I 'll bring you back a cup o' tea, too; that is, ef you ain't afeared—"
"Afeared o' what?" exclaimed Miss Prime, turning on her.
"Well, you know, Miss Hester, bein' left alone—ah—some people air funny about—"
"I 'm no fool, Melissy Davis. Take the child an' go on."
Miss Hester was glad of the chance to be sharp. It covered the weakness to which she had almost given way at sight of the child's grief. She bustled on about her work when Mrs. Davis was gone, but her brow was knit into a wrinkle of deep thought. "A mother is a mother, after all," she mused aloud, "even sich a one."
For haste, for unadulterated despatch, commend me to the county burying. The body politic is busy and has no time to waste on an inert human body. It does its duty to its own interest and to the pauper dead when the body is dropped with all celerity into the ground. The county is philosophical: it says, "Poor devil, the world was unkind to him: he 'll be glad to get out of it: we 'll be doing him a favour to put him at the earliest moment out of sight and sound and feeling of the things that wounded him. Then, too, the quicker the cheaper, and that will make it easier on the taxpayers." This latter is so comforting! So the order is written, the funeral is rushed through, and the county goes home to its dinner, feeling well satisfied with itself,—so potent are the consolations of philosophy at so many hundreds per year.
To this general order poor Margaret's funeral proved no exception. The morning after her decease she was shrouded and laid in her cheap pine coffin to await those last services which, in a provincial town, are the meed of saint and sinner alike. The room in which she lay was very clean,—unnaturally so,—from the attention of Miss Prime. Clean muslin curtains had been put up at the windows, and the one cracked mirror which the house possessed had been covered with white cloth. The lace-like carpet had been taken off the floor, and the boards had been scrubbed white. The little stove in the corner, now cold, was no longer red with rust. In a tumbler on a little table at Margaret's head stood the only floral offering that gave a touch of tenderness to the grim scene,—a bunch of home-grown scarlet and white geraniums. Some woman had robbed her wintered room of this bit of brightness for the memory of the dead. The perfume of the flowers mingled heavily with the faint odour which pervades the chamber of death,—an odour that is like the reminiscence of sorrow.
Like a spirit of order, with solemn face and quiet tread, Miss Hester moved about the room, placing one thing here, another there, but ever doing or changing something, all with maidenly neatness. What a childish fancy this is of humanity's, tiptoeing and whispering in the presence of death, as if one by an incautious word or a hasty step might wake the sleeper from such deep repose!
The service had been set for two o'clock in the afternoon. One or two women had already come in to "sit," but by half-past one the general congregation began to arrive and to take their places. They were mostly women. The hour of the day was partially responsible for this; but then men do not go to funerals anyway, if they can help it. They do not revel, like their sisters, in the exquisite pleasure of sorrow. Most of the women had known pain and loss themselves, and came with ready sympathy, willing, nay, anxious to be moved to tears. Some of them came dragging by one hand children, dressed stiffly, uncomfortably, and ludicrously,—a medley of soiled ribbons, big collars, wide bows, and very short knickerbockers. The youngsters were mostly curious and ill-mannered, and ever and anon one had to be slapped by its mother into snivelling decorum. Mrs. Davis came in with one of her own children and leading the dead woman's boy by the hand. At this a buzz of whispered conversation began.
"Pore little dear," said one, as she settled the bow more securely under her own boy's sailor collar,—"pore little dear, he 's all alone in the world."
"I never did see in all my life sich a young child look so sad," said another.
"H'm!" put in a third; "in this world pore motherless childern has plenty o' reason to look sad, I tell you."
She brushed the tears off the cheek of her little son whom she had slapped a moment before. She was tender now.
One woman bent down and whispered into her child's ear as she pointed with one cotton-gloved finger, "See, Johnny, see little Freddie, there; he 'ain't got no mother no more. Pore little Freddie! ain't you sorry fur him?" The child nodded, and gazed with open-eyed wonder at "little Freddie" as if he were of a new species.
The curtains, stirred by the blast through the loose windows, flapped dismally, and the people drew their wraps about them, for the fireless room was cold. Steadily, insistently, the hive-like drone of conversation murmured on.
"I wonder who 's a-goin' to preach the funeral," asked one.
"Oh, Mr. Simpson, of the Methodist Church, of course: she used to go to that church years ago, you know, before she backslid."
"That 's jest what I 've allus said about people that falls from grace. You know the last state o' that man is worse than the first."
"Ah, that 's true enough."
"It 's a-puttin' yore hand to the ploughshare an' then turnin' back."
"I wonder what the preacher 'll have to say fur her. It 's a mighty hard case to preach about."
"I 'm wonderin' too what he 'll say, an' where he 'll preach her."
"Well, it 's hard to tell. You know the Methodists believe that there 's 'salvation to be found between the stirrup an' the ground.'"
"It 's a mighty comfortin' doctern, too."
"An' then they do say that she left some dyin' testimony; though I 'ain't never heerd tell the straight of it."
"He can't preach her into heaven, o' course, after her life. Leastways it don't hardly seem like it would be right an' proper."
"Well, I don't think he kin preach her into hell, neither. After a woman has gone through all that pore Margar't has, it seems to me that the Lord ought to give her some consideration, even if men don't."
"I do declare, Seely Matthews, with yore free thinkin' an' free speakin', you 're put' nigh a infidel."
"No, I ain't no infidel, neither, but I ain't one o' them that sings, 'When all thy mercies, O my God,' and thinks o' the Lord as if He was a great big cruel man."
"Well, I don't neither; but—"
The woman's declaration of principle was cut short by the entrance of the minister, the Rev. Mr. Simpson. He was a tall, gaunt man, in a coat of rusty black. His hair, of an indeterminate colour, was slightly mixed with grey. A pair of bright grey eyes looked out from underneath bushy eyebrows. His lips were close set. His bony hands were large and ungainly. The Rev. Mr. Simpson had been a carpenter before he was "called." He went immediately to the stand where lay the Bible and hymn-book. He was followed by a man who had entered with him,—a man with soft eyes and a kindly face. He was as tall as the pastor, and slender, but without the other's gauntness. He was evidently a church official of some standing.
With strange inappropriateness, the preacher selected and gave out the hymn:
Sister, thou wast mild and lovely, Gentle as the summer's breeze.
With some misgivings, it was carried through in the wavering treble of the women and the straggling bass of the few men: then the kindly-faced man, whom the preacher addressed as "Brother Hodges," knelt and offered prayer. The supplication was very tender and childlike. Even by the light of faith he did not seek to penetrate the veil of divine intention, nor did he throw his javelin of prayer straight against the Deity's armour of eternal reserve. He left all to God, as a child lays its burden at its father's feet, and many eyes were moist as the people rose from their knees.
The sermon was a noisy and rather inconsequential effort. The preacher had little to say, but he roared that little out in a harsh, unmusical voice accompanied by much slapping of his hands and pounding of the table. Towards the end he lowered his voice and began to play upon the feelings of his willing hearers, and when he had won his meed of sobs and tears, when he had sufficiently probed old wounds and made them bleed afresh, when he had conjured up dead sorrows from the grave, when he had obscured the sun of heavenly hope with the vapours of earthly grief, he sat down, satisfied.
The people went forward, some curiously, some with sympathy, to look their last on the miserable dead. Mrs. Davis led the weeping child forward and held him up for a last gaze on his mother's face. The poor geraniums were wiped and laid by the dead hands, and then the undertaker glided in like a stealthy, black-garmented ghost. He screwed the pine-top down, and the coffin was borne out to the hearse. He clucked to his horses, and, with Brother Hodges and the preacher in front, and Mrs. Davis, Miss Prime, and the motherless boy behind, the little funeral train moved down the street towards the graveyard, a common but pathetic spectacle.
Mrs. Warren had remained behind to attend to the house. She watched the short procession out of sight. "I guess Margar't did n't have no linen worth havin'," she said to herself, "but I 'll jest look." And look she did, but without success. In disappointment and disgust she went out and took the streamer of dusty black and dingy white crape from the door where it had fluttered, and, bringing it in, laid it on the empty trestles, that the undertaker might find it when he came for them. She took the cloth off the mirror, and then, with one searching look around to see that she had missed nothing worth taking, she went out, closing and locking the door behind her.
"I guess I 'm as much entitled to anything Mag had as any one else," said Mrs. Warren.
By common consent, and without the formality of publication or proclamation, the women had agreed to meet on the day after the funeral for the purpose of discussing what was best to be done with the boy Fred. From the moment that Mrs. Davis had taken charge of him, he had shown a love for her and confidence in her care that had thoroughly touched that good woman's heart. She would have liked nothing better than to keep him herself. But there were already five hungry little Davises, and any avoidable addition to the family was out of the question. To be sure, in the course of time there were two more added to the number, but that was unavoidable, and is neither here nor there. The good woman sat looking at the boy the night after his mother had been laid away. He sat upon the floor among her own children, playing in the happy forgetfulness of extreme youth. But to the mother's keen eye there was still a vague sadness in his bearing. Involuntarily, the scene and conditions were changed, and, instead of poor Margaret, she herself had passed away and was lying out there in a new-made grave in bleak and dreary Woodland. She thought how her own bairns would be as motherless and forlorn as the child before her, and yet not quite, either, for they had a father who loved them in his own quiet undemonstrative way. This should have consoled her in the sorrows she had conjured up, but, like a woman, she thought of the father helpless and lonely when she had gone, with the children huddled cheerlessly about him, and a veil of tears came between her and the youngsters on the floor. With a great rush of tenderness, she went and picked the motherless boy up and laid his head on her breast.
"Pore Freddie," she said, "I wish you could stay here all the time and play with the other little ones."
The child looked up at her with wondering eyes. "I kin stay till mamma comes back," he answered.
"But, Freddie dear, mamma won't come back any more. She 's"—the woman hesitated—"she 's in heaven."
"I want my mamma to come back," moaned the child. "I don't want her to stay in heaven."
"But you must n't cry, Freddie; an', some day, you kin go an' see mamma."
The child's curiosity got the better of his grief. He asked, "Is heaven far, Mis' Davis?"
"Yes, dear, awful far," she answered. But she was wrong. Heaven is not far from the warm heart and tender hands of a good woman.
The child's head drooped, and he drowsed in her arms.
"Put him to bed, Melissy,—pore little fellow," said her husband in husky tones. He had been listening and watching them around the edge of his paper. The child slept on, while the woman undressed him and laid him in the bed.
On the morrow the women dropped in one by one, until a half-dozen or more were there, to plan the boy's future. They were all poor, and most of them had families of their own. But all hoped that there might be some plan devised whereby Margaret's boy might find a refuge without going to the orphans' asylum, an institution which is the detestation of women. Mrs. Davis, in expressing her feelings, expressed those of all the others: "I hate so to think of the pore little feller goin' to one o' them childern's homes. The boys goin' around in them there drab clothes o' theirs allus look like pris'ners to me, an' they ain't much better off."
"An' then childern do learn so much weekedness in them places from the older ones," put in another.
"Oh, as fur that matter, he 'll learn devilment soon enough anywhere," snapped Mrs. Warren, "with that owdacious father o' his before him. I would n't take the child by no means, though his mother an' me was friends, fur blood 's bound to tell, an' with sich blood as he 's got in him I don't know what he 'll come to, an' I 'm shore I don't want to be a-raisin' no gallus-birds."
The women felt rather relieved that Mrs. Warren so signally washed her hands of Freddie. That was one danger he had escaped. The woman in question had, as she said, been a close friend of Margaret's, and, as such, an aider in her habits of intemperance. It had been apprehended that her association with the mother might lead her to take the child.
"I 'd like to take Freddie myself," Mrs. Davis began again, "but with my five, an' John out o' work half the time, another mouth to feed an' another pair o' feet to cover would mean a whole lot. Though I do think that ef I was dead an' my childern was sent to that miserable orphans' home, I 'd turn over in my grave."
"It 's a pity we don't know some good family that 'ain't got no childern that 'ud take him an' bring him up as their own son," said a little woman who took The Hearthside.
"Sich people ain't growin' on trees no place about Dexter," Mrs. Warren sniffed.
"Well, I 'm sure I 've read of sich things. Ef the child was in a book it 'ud happen to him, but he ain't. He 's a flesh and blood youngster an' a-livin' in Dexter."
"You could n't give us no idee what to do, could you, Mis' Austin?"
"Lord love you, Mis' Davis, I 've jest been a-settin' here purty nigh a-thinkin' my head off, but I 'ain't seen a gleam of light yit. You know how I feel an' jest how glad I 'd be to do something, but then my man growls about the three we 've got."
"That 's jest the way with my man," said the little woman who took her ideas of life from the literature in The Hearthside. "He allus says that pore folks ought n't to have so many childern."
"Well, it 's a blessin' that Margar't did n't have no more, fur goodness knows it 's hard enough disposin' o' this one."
Just then a tap came at Mrs. Davis's door, and she opened it to admit Miss Hester Prime.
"I 'm ruther late gittin' here," said the new-comer, "but I 've been a-neglectin' my work so in the last couple o' days that I 've had a power of it to do to-day to ketch up."
"Oh, we 're so glad you 've come!" said one of the women. "Mebbe you kin help us out of our fix. We 're in sich a fix about little Freddie."
"We don't want to send the pore little dear to the childern's home," broke in another.
"It 's sich an awful place fur young childern—"
"An' they do look so pitiful—"
"An' learn so much weekedness."
And, as is the manner of women in council, they all began talking at once, pouring into the new-comer's ears all the suggestions and objections, hopes and fears, that had been made or urged during their conference.
To it all Miss Hester listened, and there was a soft glow on her face the while; but then she had been walking, which may account for the flush. The child, all unconscious that his destiny was being settled, was playing with two of the little Davises at the other end of the room. The three days of good food, good treatment, and pleasant surroundings had told on him, and he looked less forlorn and more like the child that he was. He was clean. His brown eyes were sparkling with amusement, and his brown hair was brushed up into the damp "roach" so dear to a woman's heart. He was, thus, a far less forbidding sight than on the morning of his mother's death, when, dingy and haggard, he rose from his dirty pallet. As she listened to the varied remarks of her associates, Miss Hester allowed her eyes to wander to the child's face, and for a moment a tenderer expression grew about her lips, but in an instant it was gone, and, as if she had been near committing herself to folly, she made amends by drawing her countenance into more than its usually severe lines.
Mrs. Warren, who was always ready with a stab, and who had not forgotten her encounter of two days ago, spoke up with a little malicious laugh. "Miss Hester 'ain't got no family: mebbe she might take the child. 'Pears like she ought to be fond o' childern."
Mrs. Davis immediately came to the rescue. "We don't expect no sich thing of Miss Hester. She 's never been around childern, an' don't know nothin' about takin' keer o' them; an' boys air hard to manage, anyhow."
"Oh, I should think Miss Hester could manage 'most anything," was the sneering rejoinder.
The women were aghast at such insolence. They did n't know what the effect might be on Miss Prime. They looked at her in alarm. Her cold grey eye impaled Mrs. Warren for an instant only, and then, paying no more attention to her, she said quietly, "I was thinkin' this whole matter over while I was finishin' up my work to come here, an', says I to myself, 'Now there 's Melissy Davis,—she 's the very one that 'ud be a mother to that child,' says I, 'an' she 'd bring him up right as a child should be brought up.' I don't know no more mannerly, nice-appearin' childern in this neighbourhood, or the whole town, fur that matter, than Melissy's—'"
"Oh, Miss Hester!" faltered Mrs. Davis.
But Miss Prime went on, unheeding the interruption. "Thinks I, 'Melissy 's got a houseful already, an' she can't take another.' Then you comes into my mind, Mis' Austin, an' says I, 'La me! she 's got three herself, an' is young yit; she 'll have her hands full to look after her own family.' Well, I thought of you all, an' some of you had families, an' some of you had to go out fur day's work; an' then there 's some people's hands I would n't want to see the child fall into." (This with an annihilating glance in Mrs. Warren's direction.) "You know what the Bible says about the sins of the father; well, that child needs proper raisin': so in this way the Lord showed it to me that it was my dooty to take up the burden myself."
First there was an absolute silence of utter astonishment, and then, "Oh, Miss Hester!" broke from a full chorus of voices.
"You don't reelly mean it, Miss Hester?" said Mrs. Davis.
"I do that; but I want you all to understand that it ain't a matter of pleasure or desire with me; it 's dooty. Ef I see a chance to save a soul from perdition an' don't take it, I am responsible, myself, to the Lord for that soul."
The women were almost too astounded to speak, Mrs. Warren not less than the rest of them. She had made her suggestion in derision, and here it was being acted upon in sober earnest. She was entirely routed.
"Now, Melissy, ef there ain't no one that disagrees with me, you might as well pack up what few things the child has, an' I 'll take him along."
No one objected, and the few things were packed up. "Come, Freddie," said Mrs. Davis tremulously, "get on yore hat." The child obeyed. "You 're a-goin' to be Miss Hester's little boy now. You must be good."
Miss Prime held out her hand to him, but the child drew back and held to his protectress's skirt. A hurt expression came into the spinster's face. It was as if the great sacrifice she was making was being belittled and rejected by a child. Mrs. Warren laughed openly.
"Come, Freddie, be nice now, dear; go with Miss Hester."
"I want to stay with you," cried the child.
"Pore little dear!" chorussed the women.
"But Mis' Davis can't keep the little boy; now he must go with Miss Prime, an' sometimes he kin come an' see Mis' Davis an' play with John an' Harriet. Won't that be nice?"
"I want to stay with you."
"Come, Frederick," said Miss Prime.
"Go now, like a good boy," repeated Mrs. Davis. "Here 's a copper fur you; take it in yore little hand,—that 's a man. Now kiss me good-bye. Kiss John an' Harriet."
The child, seeing that he must go, had given up resistance, and, doing as he was bidden, took Miss Prime's hand, sobbingly. Some of us do not learn so soon to bow to the inevitable.
"Good-bye, ladies. I must git back to my work," said Miss Hester.
"Good-bye, good-bye, Miss Hester," came the echo.
The moment the door closed behind her and her charge, there was a volley of remarks:
"Oh, I do hope she 'll be good to him."
"I wonder how she 'll manage him."
"Pore child, he did n't want to go at all."
"Who 'd have thought it of Miss Hester?"
"I wish I could have kept him myself," said Mrs. Davis, tearfully. "It hurt my heart to see him cling to me so."
"Never you mind, Melissy Davis; you 've done yore whole dooty as well as you could."
Mrs. Warren rose and put her shawl over her head preparatory to going. "As fur my part," she said, "I 'd 'a' ruther seen that child in the childern's home, devilment or no devilment, than where he is. He won't dare to breathe from this hour on."
The women were silent for a moment, and then Mrs. Davis said, "Well, Miss Hester 's well-meanin'."
At the top of the mean street on which Margaret's house was situated, and looking down upon its meaner neighbours in much the same way that its mistress looked upon the denizens of the street, stood Miss Prime's cottage. It was not on the mean street,—it would have disdained to be,—but sat exactly facing it in prim watchfulness over the unsavoury thoroughfare which ran at right angles. The cottage was one and a half stories in height, and the upper half-story had two windows in front that looked out like a pair of accusing eyes. It was painted a dull lead colour. In summer the front yard was filled with flowers, hollyhocks, bachelor's-buttons, sweet-william, and a dozen other varieties of blooms. But they were planted with such exactness and straightness that the poor flowers looked cramped and artificial and stiff as a party of angular ladies dressed in bombazine. Here was no riot nor abandon in growth. Everything had its place, and stayed therein or was plucked up.
"I jest can't abide to see flowers growin' every which way," Miss Prime used to remark, "fur all the world like a neighbourhood with different people's children traipsin' through everybody else's house. Everything in order, is my motto."
Miss Hester had nearly arrived at her fortieth mile-stone; and she effected the paradox of looking both younger and older than her age. Younger, because she had always taken excellent care of herself. Her form had still much of the roundness of youth, and her step was sprightly and firm. She looked older than her age, because of the strong lines in her face, the determined set of her lips, and the general air of knowledge and self-sufficiency which pervaded her whole being. Throughout her life she had sacrificed everything to duty, whether it was the yearning of her own heart or the feelings of those who loved her. In the world about her she saw so much of froth and frivolity that she tried to balance matters by being especially staid and stern herself. She did not consider that in the seesaw of life it takes more than one person to toss up the weight of the world's wickedness. Her existence was governed by rigid rules, from which she never departed.
It is hard to explain just what Miss Hester's position was among the denizens of the poorer quarter. She was liked and disliked, admired and feared. She would descend upon her victims with unasked counsel and undesired tracts. Her voice was a trumpet of scathing invective against their shiftlessness, their untidiness, and their immorality, but her hand was as a horn of plenty in straitened times, and her presence in sickness was a comfort. She made no pretence to being good-hearted; in fact, she resented the term as applied to herself. It was all duty with her.
Up through the now dismantled garden to the prim cottage she led the boy Fred. The child had not spoken a word since he had left the house of his friend. His little heart seemed to be suddenly chilled within him. Miss Hester had been equally silent. Her manner was constrained and embarrassed. She had, indeed, tried to find some words of soothing and encouragement to say to the child, such as she had heard Melissa Davis use; but she could not. They were not a part of her life's vocabulary. Several times she had essayed to speak, but the sentences that formed in her mind seemed so absurd and awkward that she felt them better unsaid.
It is true that every natural woman has the maternal instinct, but unless she has felt the soft face of a babe at her breast and looked down into its eyes as it drew its life from her life, she can know nothing of that freemasonry of womanhood which, by some secret means too deep and subtle for the knowledge of outsiders, wins the love of childhood. It is not so with men, because the childish mind does not demand so much of them, even though they be fathers. To be convinced, look about you and see how many more bachelors than maids are favourites with children.
Once within the house, Miss Hester was at an entire loss as to what to do with her charge. She placed him in a chair, where he sat disconsolately. She went to the bookshelves and laid her hand upon "Pilgrim's Progress;" then she reflected that Freddie was just five years old, and she allowed a smile to pass over her face. But her perplexity instantly chased the expression away. "How on airth am I a-goin' to do any work?" she asked herself. "I 'm shore I can't set down an' tell that child stories all the time, as I 've heerd tell o' folks doin'. What shall I do with him?" She had had a vague idea that the time of children was taken up in some way. She knew, of course, that they had to be washed and dressed, that they had to eat three times a day, and after all to sleep; but what was to be done with them in the mean time?
"Oh," sighed the poor woman, "if he was only old enough to go to school!" The wish was not entirely unmotherly, as motherhood goes in these days, for it is not an unusual thing for mothers to send their babes off to kindergarten as soon as they begin to babble, in order to be relieved of the responsibility of their care. But neither wishes nor hopes availed. It was a living, present situation with which Miss Hester had to grapple. Suddenly she bethought herself that children like pictures, and she secured from the shelf a copy of the "Bible Looking-Glass." This she opened and spread out on the child's knees. He glanced at it a moment or two, and then began to turn the leaves, his eyes riveted on the engravings. Miss Hester congratulated herself, and slipped out to work. The thought came to her, of course, that the novelty of "Bible Looking-Glasses" could n't remain for ever, but she put the idea by in scorn. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." The book was good while it lasted. It entertained the child and gave him valuable moral lessons. This was the woman's point of view. To Fred there was no suggestion of moral lessons. It was merely a lot of very fine pictures, and when Miss Prime had gone he relaxed some of his disconsolate stiffness and entered into the contemplation of them with childish zest. His guardian, however, did not abandon her vigilance, and in a few minutes she peeped through the door from the kitchen, where she was working, to see how her charge got on. The sight which met her eyes made her nearly drop the cup which she held in her hand and with which she had been measuring out flour for a cup-cake. With the book spread out before him, Freddie was lying flat on his stomach on the floor, with his little heels contentedly kicking the air. His attitude was the expression of the acme of childish satisfaction.
Miss Prime's idea of floors was that they were to be walked on, scrubbed, measured, and carpeted; she did not remember in all the extent of her experience to have seen one used as a reading-desk before. But she withdrew without a word: the child was quiet, and that was much.
About this time, any one observing the cottage would have seen an old-fashioned phaeton, to which a plump old nag was hitched, driven up to the door and halted, and a man alight and enter at the gate. If the observer had been at Margaret's funeral, he would instantly have recognised the man as the Rev. Mr. Simpson's assistant, Mr. Hodges. The man walked deliberately around to the kitchen, and, tapping at the door, opened it without ceremony and went in, calling out, "Miss Hester, Miss Hester, I 'm a-runnin' right in on you."
"I do declare, 'Liphalet Hodges, you do beat all fur droppin' in on a body at unexpected times."
"Well, I guess you 're right. My comin' 's a good deal like the second comin' o' the Son o' man 'll be. I guess you 're right."
To Miss Prime, Eliphalet Hodges was always unexpected, although he had been dropping in this way before her mother and father died, twenty years gone.
"Well, I 'low, 'Liphalet, that you 've heerd the news."
"There ain't no grass grows under the feet of the talkers in this town, I tell you."
"Dear me! a body can't turn aroun' without settin' a whole forest of tongues a-waggin' every which way."
"Oh, well, Miss Hester, we got to 'low that to yore sex. The women folks must talk."
"My sex! It ain't my sex only: I know plenty o' men in this town who air bigger gossips 'n the women. I 'll warrant you did n't git this piece o' news from no woman."
"Well, mebbe I did n't, but I ca'c'late there wa'n't no men there to git it fust hand."
"Oh, I 'll be bound some o' the women had to go an' tell a man the fust thing: some women can't git along without the men."
"An' then, ag'in, some of 'em kin, Miss Hester; some of 'em kin."
"You 'd jest as well start out an' say what you want to say without a-beatin' about the bush. I know, jest as well as I know I 'm a-livin', that you 've come to tell me that I was a fool fur takin' that child. 'Liphalet, don't pertend: I know it."
"Oh, no, Miss Hester; I would n't dast do nothin' like that; you know, 'He that calleth his brother a fool is in danger o' hell fire,' an' I 'low the Lord don't make it no easier when it happens to be a sister. No, Miss Hester, you know yore own business best, an' you 've got along this fur without bein' guided by people. I guess you 'll git through; but a child, Miss Hester, don't you think that it 's a leetle bit resky?"
"Resky? I don't see why. The child ain't a-goin' to eat me or burn the house down."
"No, no,—none o' that,—I don't mean that at all; but then, you see, you 'ain't never had no—that is—you 'ain't had much experunce in the bringin' up o' childern, specially boys."
"Much! I 'ain't had none. But I 've been brought up."
"That 's true, that 's true, an' a mighty good job yore mother made of it, too. I don't know of no spryer or stirrin'er woman around here at yore age."
"At my age! 'Liphalet, you do talk as ef I was about fifty."
"Well, ef I do, I ain't a sayin' what I want to say, so I 'd better hush. Where is the little fellow?"
For answer, Miss Prime pushed the door open and bade him peep. Freddie was still upon the floor, absorbed in his book. The man's face lighted up: he pulled the door to long enough to say, "I tell you, Miss Hester, that boy 's a-goin' to make a great reader or a speaker or somethin'. Jest look how wrapped up he is in that book."
"Well, I do hope an' pray to goodness that he 'll make somethin' better than his father ever made."
"Ef he don't under yore trainin', it 'll be because there ain't nothin' in him.—Come here, Freddie," called Hodges, pushing the door open, and holding out his hand with a smile. The child got up from the floor and came and put his hand in the outstretched one.
"Well, I declare!" exclaimed Miss Hester. "I tried my level best to git that child to make up with me, an' he would n't."
"It's jest like I say, Miss Hester: you 'ain't never had no experunce in raisin' childern."
"An' how many have you ever raised, 'Liphalet?"
The bachelor acknowledged defeat by a sheepish smile, and turned again to the child. "You want to go a-ridin' in my buggy, Freddie?"
"Yes, sir," said the child, unhesitatingly.
"All right; Uncle 'Liph 'll take him out fur a while. Git his hat an' wrap him up, Miss Hester, so Jack Frost can't ketch him."
The man stood smiling down into the child's face: the boy, smiling back, tightened his grasp on the big hand. They were friends from that moment, Eliphalet Hodges and Fred.
They went out to the old phaeton, with Miss Prime's parting injunction ringing after them, "Don't keep that child out in the cold too long, 'Liphalet, an' bring him back here croupy."
"Oh, now, don't you trouble yoreself, Miss Hester: me an' Freddie air a-goin' to git along all right. We ain't a-goin' to freeze, air we, Freddie, boy? Ah, not by a long sight; not ef Uncle 'Liph knows hisself."
All the time the genial man was talking, he was tucking the lap-robe snugly about the child and making him comfortable. Then he clucked to the old mare, and they rattled away.
There was a far-away look in Miss Prime's eyes as she watched them till they turned the corner and were out of sight. "I never did see sich a man as 'Liphalet Hodges. Why, a body 'd think that he 'd been married an' raised a whole houseful o' childern. He's worse 'n a old hen. An' it 's marvellous the way Frederick took to him. Everybody calls the child Freddie. I must learn to call him that: it will make him feel more home-like, though it does sound foolish."
She went on with her work, but it was interrupted every now and then by strange fits of abstraction and revery, an unusual thing for this bustling and practical spinster. But then there are few of us but have had our hopes and dreams, and it would be unfair to think that Miss Hester was an exception. For once she had broken through her own discipline, and in her own kitchen was spending precious moments in dreams, and all because a man and a child had rattled away in a rickety buggy.
"Goodness gracious, Mis' Smith," exclaimed Mrs. Martin, rushing excitedly into the house of her next-door neighbour, "you 'd ought to seen what I seen jest now."
"Do tell, Mis' Martin! What on airth was it?"
"Oh, I 'm shore you 'd never guess in the wide, wide world."
"An' I 'm jest as shore that I ain't a-goin' to pester my head tryin' to: so go on an' tell me what it was."
"Lawsy me! what next 'll happen, an' what does things mean, anyhow?"
"I can't tell you. Fur my part, I 'ain't heerd what 'things' air yit." Mrs. Smith was getting angry.
"My! Mis' Smith, don't git so impatient. Give me time to git my breath: it 'll be enough, when I do tell you, to take away yore breath, jest like it did mine."
"Sallie Martin, you do beat all fur keepin' a body on the hooks."
"T ain't my fault, Mis' Smith. I declare I 'm too astonished to speak. You know I was a-standin' in my window, not a-thinkin' nor expectin' nothin', jest like any person would, you know—"
"Yes, yes; go on."
"I was jest a-lookin' down the street, careless, when who should I see drive up to Miss Prime's door, an' hitch his hoss an' go in, but Brother 'Liphalet Hodges!"
"Well, sakes alive, Sallie Martin, I hope you ain't a-considerin' that strange. Why, you could 'a' seen that very same sight any time these fifteen years."
"But wait a minute till I tell you. I ain't done yit, by no means. The strange part 'ain't come. I thought I 'd jest wait at the window and see how long Brother Hodges would stay: not that it was any o' my bus'ness, of course, or that I wanted to be a spyin' on anybody, but sorter fur—fur cur'osity, you know."
"Cert'n'y," said Mrs. Smith, feelingly. She could sympathise with such a sentiment.
"Well, after a while he come out a-smilin' as pleasant as a basket o' chips; an' I like to fell through the winder, fur he was a-leadin' by the hand—who do you suppose?"
"I 'ain't got a mortal idea who," said Mrs. Smith, "unless it was Miss Hester, an' they 're married at last."
"No, indeed, 't wa'n't her. It was that little Brent boy that his mother died the other day."
"Sallie Martin, what air you a-tellin' me?"
"It 's the gospel truth, Melviny Smith, as shore as I 'm a-settin' here. Now what does it mean?"
"The good Lord only knows. Leadin' that little Brent boy? Ef it was n't you a-settin' there tellin' me this, Mis' Martin, I would n't believe it. You don't suppose Hodges has took him to raise, do you?"
"How in the name of mercy is he goin' to raise any child, when there ain't no women folks about his house 'ceptin' old Marier, an' she so blind an' rheumaticky that she kin sca'cely git about?"
"Well, what 's he a-doin' with the child, then?"
"That 's jest what I 'm a-goin' to find out. I 'm a-goin' down to Miss Prime's. Len' me yore shawl, Melviny."
"You ain't never goin' to dare to ask her, air you?"
"You jest trust me to find things out without givin' myself away. I won't never let her know what I want right out, but I 'll talk it out o' her."
"What a woman you air, Sallie Martin!" said Mrs. Smith, admiringly. "But do hurry back an' tell me what she says: I 'm jest dyin' to know."
"I 'll be back in little or no time, because I can't stay, nohow."
Mrs. Martin threw the borrowed shawl over her head and set off down the street. She and her friend were not dwellers on the mean street, and so they could pretend to so nearly an equal social footing with Miss Prime as to admit of an occasional neighbourly call.
Through the window Miss Prime saw her visitor approaching, and a grim smile curved the corners of her mouth. "Comin' fur news," muttered the spinster. "She 'll git all she wants before she goes." But there was no trace of suspicion in her manner as she opened the door at Mrs. Martin's rap.
"Hey oh, Miss Hester, busy as usual, I see."
"Yes, indeed. People that try to do their dooty 'ain't got much time fur rest in this world."
"No, indeed; it's dig, dig, dig, and work, work, work."
"Take off yore shawl an' set down, Sallie. It 's a wonder you don't take yore death o' cold or git plum full o' neuralgy, a-runnin' around in this weather with nothin' but a shawl over yore head."
"La, Miss Hester, they say that worthless people 's hard to kill. It ain't allus true, though, fur there was poor Margar't Brent, she was n't worth much, but my! she went out like a match."
"Yes, but matches don't go out until their time ef they 're held down right; an' it 's jest so with people."
"That 's true enough, Miss Hester. Was you to Margar't's funeral?"
"Oh, yes, I went."
"Did you go out to the cimetery?"
"Did she look natural?"
"Jest as natural as one could expect after a hard life an' a hard death."
"Pore Margar't!" Mrs. Martin sighed. There was a long and embarrassed silence. Miss Prime's lips were compressed, and she seemed more aggressively busy than usual. She bustled about as if every minute were her last one. She brushed off tables, set chairs to rights, and tried the golden-brown cup-cake with a straw to see if it were done. Her visitor positively writhed with curiosity and discomfiture. Finally she began again. "Margar't only had one child, did n't she?"
"Yes, that was all."
"Pore little lamb. Motherless childern has a hard time of it."
"Indeed, most of 'em do."
"Do you know what 's become of the child, Miss Hester?"
"Yes, I do, Sallie Martin, an' you do too, or you would n't be a-settin' there beatin' about the bush, askin' me all these questions."
This sudden outburst gave Mrs. Martin quite a turn, but she exclaimed, "I declare to goodness, Miss Hester, I 'ain't heerd a livin' thing about it, only—"
She checked herself, but her relentless hostess caught at the word and demanded, "Only what, Mis' Martin?"
"Well, I seen Brother 'Liphalet Hodges takin' him away from here in his buggy—"
"An' so you come down to see what was what, eh, so 's you could be the first to tell the neighbourhood?"
"Now, Miss Hester, you know that I ain't one o' them that talks, but I do feel sich an interest in the pore motherless child, an' when I seen Brother Hodges a-takin' him away, I thought perhaps he was a-goin' to take him to raise."
"Well, Brother Hodges ain't a-goin' to take him to raise."
"Mercy sakes! Miss Hester, don't git mad, but who is?"
"I am, that 's who."
"Miss Prime, what air you a-sayin'? You shorely don't mean it. What kin you do with a child?"
"I kin train him up in the way he ought to go, an' keep him out o' other people's houses an' the street."
"Well, o' course, that 's somethin'," said Mrs. Martin, weakly.
"Somethin'? Why, it 's everything."
The visitor had now gotten the information for which she was looking, and was anxious to be gone. She was absolutely bursting with her news.
"Well, I must be goin'," she said, replacing her shawl and standing in embarrassed indecision. "I only run in fur a minute. I hope you 'ain't got no hard feelin's at my inquisitiveness."
"Not a bit of it. You wanted to know, an' you come and asked, that 's all."
"I hope you 'll git along all right with the child."
"I sha' n't stop at hopin'. I shall take the matter to the Lord in prayer."
"Yes, He knows best. Good-bye, Miss Hester."
"Good-bye, Sallie; come in ag'in." The invitation sounded a little bit sarcastic, and once more the grim smile played about Miss Prime's mouth.
"I 'low," she observed to herself, as she took the cake from the oven for the last time, tried it, and set it on the table,—"I 'low that I did give Sallie Martin one turn. I never did see sich a woman fur pryin' into other folks' business."
Swift are the wings of gossip, and swift were the feet of Mrs. Sallie Martin as she hurried back to tell the news to her impatient friend, who listened speechless with enjoyment and astonishment.
"Who would 'a' thought you could 'a' talked it out o' her so?" she gasped.
"Oh, I led her right along tell she told me everything," said Mrs. Martin, with a complacency which, remembering her reception, she was far from feeling.
Shortly after her departure, and while, no doubt, reinforced by Mrs. Smith, she was still watching at the window, 'Liphalet Hodges drove leisurely up to the door again.
"Well, Freddie," he said, as he helped the child to alight, "we 've had a great time together, we have, an' we ain't frozen, neither: I told Miss Prime that she need n't be afeared. Don't drop yore jumpin'-jack, now, an' be keerful an' don't git yore hands on yore apron, 'cause they 're kind o' sticky. Miss Hester 'u'd take our heads off ef we come back dirty."
The child's arms were full of toys,—a jumping-jack, a climbing monkey, a popgun, and the etceteras of childish amusement,—and his pockets and cheeks bulged with candy.
"La, 'Liphalet," exclaimed Miss Prime, when she saw them, "what on airth have you been a-buyin' that child—jumpin'-jacks an' sich things? They ain't a bit o' good, 'ceptin' to litter up a house an' put lightness in childern's minds. Freddie, what 's that on yore apron? Goodness me! an' look at them hands—candy! 'Liphalet Hodges, I did give you credit fur better jedgment than this. Candy is the cause o' more aches an' pains than poison; an' some of it 's reelly coloured with ars'nic. How do you expect a child to grow up healthy an' with sound teeth when you feed him on candy?"
"Now, Miss Hester, now, now, now. I don't want to be a-interferin' with yore bus'ness; but it 's jest like I said before, an' I will stick to it, you 'ain't never had no experunce in raisin' children. They can't git along jest on meat an' bread an' jam: they need candy—an'—ah—candy—an' sich things." Mr. Hodges ended lamely, looking rather guiltily at the boy's bulging pockets. "A little bit ain't a-goin' to hurt no child."
"'Liphalet, I 've got a dooty to perform towards this motherless child, an' I ain't a-goin' to let no foolish notions keep me from performin' it."
"Miss Hester, I 'm a-tryin' to follow Him that was a father to the fatherless an' a husband to the widow,—strange, that was made only to the widow,—an' I 've got somethin' of a idee o' dooty myself. You may think I 'm purty presumptuous, but I 've took a notion into my head to kind o' help along a-raisin' Freddie. I ain't a-goin' to question yore authority, or nothin', but I thought mebbe you 'd len' me the child once in a while to kind o' lighten up that old lonesome place o' mine: I know that Freddie won't object."
"Oh, 'Liphalet, do go 'long: I scarcely know whether you air a man or a child, sometimes."
"There 's One that says, 'Except you become as a little child'—"
"'Liphalet, will you go 'long home?"
"I 'spect I 'd better be gittin' along.—Good-bye, Freddie; be a good boy, an' some day I 'll take you up to my house an' let you ride old Bess around.—Good-bye, Miss Hester." And as he passed out to his buggy he whistled tenderly something that was whistled when he was a boy.
The life of one boy is much like that of another. They all have their joys and their griefs, their triumphs and their failures, their loves and their hates, their friends and their foes, much as men have them in that maturer life of which the days of youth are an epitome. It would be rather an uninteresting task, and an entirely thankless one, to follow in detail the career of Frederick Brent as he grew from childhood to youth. But in order to understand certain traits that developed in his character, it will be necessary to note some, at least, of the circumstances that influenced his early life.
While Miss Prime grew to care for him in her own unemotional way, she had her own notions of how a boy should be trained, and those notions seemed to embody the repression of every natural impulse. She reasoned thus: "Human beings are by nature evil: evil must be crushed: ergo, everything natural must be crushed." In pursuance of this principle, she followed out a deliberate course of restriction, which, had it not been for the combating influence of Eliphalet Hodges, would have dwarfed the mental powers of the boy and cramped his soul beyond endurance. When he came of an age to play marbles, he was forbidden to play, because it was, to Miss Hester's mind, a species of gambling. Swimming was too dangerous to be for a moment considered. Fishing, without necessity, was wanton cruelty. Flying kites was foolishness and a waste of time.
The boy had shown an aptitude at his lessons that had created in his guardian's mind some ambition for him, and she held him down to his books with rigid assiduity. He was naturally studious, but the feeling that he was being driven made his tasks repellent, although he performed them without outward sign of rebellion, while he fumed within.
His greatest relaxations were his trips to and from his old friend Hodges. If Miss Prime crushed him, this gentle soul comforted him and smoothed out his ruffled feelings. It was this influence that kept him from despair. Away from his guardian, he was as if a chain that galled his flesh had been removed. And yet he could not hate Miss Hester, for it was constantly impressed upon him that all was being done for his good, and the word "duty" was burned like a fiery cross upon his heart and brain.
There is a bit of the pagan in every natural boy, and to give him too much to reverence taxes his powers until they are worn and impotent by the time he reaches manhood. Under Miss Hester's tutelage too many things became sacred to Fred Brent. It was wicked to cough in church, as it was a sacrilege to play with a hymn-book. His training was the apotheosis of the non-essential. But, after all, there is no rebel like Nature. She is an iconoclast.
When he was less than ten years old, an incident occurred that will in a measure indicate the manner of his treatment. Miss Prime's prescription for making a good boy was two parts punishment, two parts admonition, and six parts prayer. Accordingly, as the watchful and sympathetic neighbours said, "she an' that pore child fairly lived in church."
It was one class-meeting night, and, as usual, the boy and his guardian were sitting side by side at church. It was the habit of some of the congregation to bring their outside controversies into the class-room under the guise of testimonies or exhortations, and there to air their views where their opponents could not answer them. One such was Daniel Hastings. The trait had so developed in him that whenever he rose to speak, the question ran around, "I wonder who Dan'l 's a-goin' to rake over the coals now." On this day he had been having a tilt with his old-time enemy, Thomas Donaldson, over the advent into Dexter of a young homoeopathic doctor. With characteristic stubbornness, Dan'l had held that there was no good in any but the old-school medical men, and he sneered at the idea of anybody's being cured with sugar, as he contemptuously termed the pellets and powders affected by the new school. Thomas, who was considered something of a wit and who sustained his reputation by the perpetration of certain time-worn puns, had replied that other hogs were sugar-cured, and why not Dan'l? This had turned the laugh on Hastings, and he went home from the corner grocery, where the men were congregated, in high dudgeon.
Still smarting with the memory of his defeat, when he rose to speak that evening, he cast a glance full of unfriendly significance at his opponent and launched into a fiery exhortation on true religion. "Some folks' religion," he said, "is like sugar, all sweetness and no power; but I want my religion like I want my medicine: I want it strong, an' I want it bitter, so 's I 'll know I 've got it." In Fred Brent the sense of humour had not been entirely crushed, and the expression was too much for his gravity. He bowed his head and covered his mouth with his hand. He made no sound, but there were three pairs of eyes that saw the movement,—Miss Prime's, Eliphalet Hodges', and the Rev. Mr. Simpson's. Miss Prime's gaze was horrified, Mr. Simpson's stern; but in the eye of Mr. Hodges there was a most ungodly twinkle.
When Dan'l Hastings had finished his exhortation—which was in reality an arraignment of Thomas Donaldson's medical heresies—and sat down, the Rev. Mr. Simpson arose, and, bending an accusing glance upon the shrinking boy, began: "I perceive on the part of some of the younger members of the congregation a disposition towards levity. The house of God is not the place to find amusement. I never see young people deriding their elders without thinking of the awful lesson taught by the Lord's judgment upon those wicked youths whom the she-bears devoured. I never see a child laughing in church without trembling in spirit for his future. Some of the men whom I have seen in prison, condemned to death or a life of confinement, have begun their careers just in this way, showing disrespect for their elders and for the church. Beware, young people, who think you are smart and laugh and titter in the sanctuary; there is a prison waiting for you, there is a hell yawning for you. Behold, there is death in the pot!"
With a terrible look at the boy, Mr. Simpson sat down. There was much craning of necks and gazing about, but few in the church would have known to whom the pastor's remarks were addressed had not Miss Prime, at their conclusion, sighed in an injured way, and, rising with set lips, led the culprit out, as a criminal is led to the scaffold. How the boy suffered as, with flaming face, he walked down the aisle to the door, the cynosure of all eyes! He saw in the faces about him the accusation of having done a terrible thing, something unheard of and more wicked than he could understand. He felt revolted, child as he was, at the religion that made so much of his fault. Inwardly, he vowed that he would never "get religion" or go into a church when he was big enough to have his own way.
They had not gone far when a step approached them from behind, and Eliphalet Hodges joined them. Miss Prime turned tragically at his greeting, and broke out, "Don't reproach me 'Liphalet; it ain't no trainin' o' mine that 's perduced a child that laughs at old foks in the Lord's house."
"I ain't a-goin' to reproach you, Miss Hester, never you fear; I ain't a-goin' to say a word ag'in' yore trainin'; but I jest thought I 'd ask you not to be too hard on Freddie. You know that Dan'l is kind o' tryin' sometimes even to the gravity of older people; an' childern will be childern; they 'ain't got the sense, nor—nor—the deceit to keep a smooth face when they 're a-laughin' all in their innards."
Miss Prime turned upon him in righteous wrath. "'Liphalet," she exclaimed, "I think it 's enough fur this child to struggle ag'inst natural sin, without encouragin' him by makin' excuses fur him."
"It ain't my intention nor my desire to set a bad example before nobody, especially the young lambs of the flock, but I ain't a-goin' to blame Freddie fur doin' what many another of us wanted to do."
"'Deed an' double, that is fine talk fur you, 'Liphalet Hodges! you a trustee of the church, an' been a class-leader, a-holdin' up fur sich onregenerate carryin's-on."
"I ain't a-holdin' up fur nothin', Miss Hester, 'ceptin' nature an' the very could n't-help-it-ness o' the thing altogether. I ain't a boy no more, by a good many years, but there 's times when I 've set under Dan'l Hastings's testimonies jest mortally cramped to laugh; an' ef it 's so with a man, how will it be with a pore innercent child? I ain't a-excusin' natural sin in nobody. It wa'n't so much Freddie's natural sin as it was Dan'l's natural funniness." And there was something very like a chuckle in 'Liphalet's throat.
"'Liphalet, the devil 's been puttin' fleas into yore ear, but I ain't a-goin' to let you argy me out o' none o' my settled convictions, although the Old Man 's put plenty of argyment into yore head. That 's his way o' capturin' a soul.—Walk on ahead, Frederick, an' don't be list'nin'. I 'll 'tend to yore case later on."
"It 's funny to me, Miss Hester, how it is that Christians know so much more about the devil's ways than they do about the Lord's. They 're allus a-sayin', 'the Lord moves in a mysterious way,' but they kin allus put their finger on the devil."
"'Liphalet Hodges, that 's a slur!"
"I ain't a-meanin' it as no slur, Miss Hester; but most Christians do seem to have a powerful fondness for the devil. I notice that they 're allus admirin' his work an' praisin' up his sharpness, an' they 'd be monstrous disappointed ef he did n't git as many souls as they expect."
"Well, after all the years that I 've been a-workin' in the church an' a-tryin' to let my light so shine before the world, I did n't think that you 'd be the one to throw out hints about my Christianity. But we all have our burdens to bear, an' I 'm a-goin' to bear mine the best I kin, an' do my dooty, whatever comes of it." And Miss Hester gave another sigh of injured rectitude.
"I see, Miss Hester, that you 're jest bent an' bound not to see what I mean, so I might as well go home."
"I think my mind ain't givin' way yit, an' I believe that I do understand plain words; but I ain't a-bearin' you no grudge. You 've spoke yore mind, an' it 's all right."
"But I hope there ain't no hard feelin's, after all these years."
"Oh, 'Liphalet, it ain't a part of even my pore weak religion to bear hard feelin's towards no one, no matter how they treat me. I 'm jest tryin' to bear my cross an' suffer fur the Lord's sake."
"But I hope I ain't a-givin' you no cross to bear. I 'ain't never doubted yore goodness or yore Christianity: I only thought that mebbe yore methods, yore methods—"
Miss Prime's lips were drawn into a line. She divided that line to say, "I know what the Scriptures say: 'If thy right hand offend thee'—"
"Hester, Hester!" he cried, stretching out his hands to her.
"Good-night, Brother Hodges. I must go in." She turned and left him standing at the gate with a hurt look in his face.
On going into the house, Miss Hester did not immediately 'tend to Fred, as she had promised. Instead, she left him and went into her own room where she remained awhile. When she came out, her lips were no less set, but her eyes were red. It is hardly to be supposed that she had been indulging in that solace of woman's woes, a good cry.
"Take off yore jacket, Freddie," she said, calmly, taking down a switch from over the clothes-press. "I 'm a-goin' to whip you; but, remember, I ain't a-punishin' you because I 'm mad. It 's fur the purpose of instruction. It 's fur yore own good."
Fred received his dressing-down without a whimper. He was too angry to cry. This Miss Prime took as a mark of especial depravity. In fact, the boy had been unable to discover any difference between an instructive and a vindictive whipping. It was perfectly clear in his guardian's mind, no doubt, but a cherry switch knows no such distinctions.
This incident only prepared Fred Brent for a further infraction of his guardian's rules the next day. One of Miss Prime's strictest orders had to do with fighting. Whatever the boys did to Fred, he was never to resent it. He must come to her, and she would go to the boy's mother. What an order to give a boy with muscles and fists and Nature strong within him! But, save for the telling, it had been obeyed, although it is hard to feel one's self an unwilling coward, a prig, and the laughingstock of one's fellows. But when, on the day after his unjust punishment, and while still stung by the sense of wrong, one of the petty schoolboy tyrants began to taunt him, he turned upon the young scamp and thrashed him soundly. His tormentor was not more hurt than surprised. Like most of his class, he was a tattler. The matter got to the teacher's ears, and that night Fred carried home an ominous-looking note. In his heart he believed that it meant another application of cherry switch, either instructive or vindictive, but he did not care. He had done the natural thing, and Nature rewards us for obeying her laws by making us happy or stoical. He had gone up in the estimation of his schoolfellows, even the thrashed one, and he felt a reckless joy. He would welcome a whipping. It would bring him back memories of what he had given Billy Tompkins. "Would n't Miss Hester be surprised," he thought, "if I should laugh out while she is whipping me?" And he laughed at the very thought. He was full of pleasure at himself. He had satisfied the impulse within him for once, and it made him happy.
Miss Prime read the ominous note, and looked at her charge thoughtfully. Fred glanced expectantly in the direction of the top of the clothes-press. But she only said, "Go out an' git in yore kindlin', Freddie; git yore chores done, an' then come in to supper." Her voice was menacingly quiet. The boy had learned to read the signs of her face too well to think that he was to get off so easily as this. Evidently, he would "get it" after supper, or Miss Prime had some new, refined mode of punishment in store for him. But what was it? He cudgelled his brain in vain, as he finished his chores, and at table he could hardly eat for wondering. But he might have spared himself his pains, for he learned all too soon.
Immediately after supper he was bidden to put on his cap and come along. Miss Prime took him by the hand. "I 'm a-goin' to take you," she said, "to beg Willie Tompkins's pardon fur the way you did him."
Did the woman know what it meant to the boy? She could not, or her heart would have turned against the cruelty. Fred was aghast. Beg his pardon! A whipping was a thousand times better: indeed, it would be a mercy. He began to protest, but was speedily silenced. The enforced silence, however, did not cool his anger. He had done what other boys did. He had acted in the only way that it seemed a boy could act under the circumstances, and he had expected to be punished as his fellows were; but this—this was awful. He clinched his hands until the nails dug into the palms. His face was as pale as death. He sweated with the consuming fire of impotent rage. He wished that he might run away somewhere where he could hide and tear things and swear. For a moment only he entertained the thought, and then a look into the determined face of the woman at his side drove the thought away. To his childish eyes, distorted by resentment, she was an implacable and relentless monster who would follow him with punishment anywhere he might go.
And now they were at Billy Tompkins's door. They had passed through, and he found himself saying mechanically the words which Miss Prime put into his mouth, while his tormentor grinned from beside his mother's chair. Then, after a few words between the women, in which he heard from Mrs. Tompkins the mysterious words, "Oh, I don't blame you, Miss Hester; I know that blood will tell," they passed out, and the grinning face of Billy Tompkins was the last thing that Fred saw. It followed him home. The hot tears fell from his eyes, but they did not quench the flames that were consuming him. There is nothing so terrible as the just anger of a child,—terrible in its very powerlessness. Polyphemus is a giant, though the mountain hold him down.
Next morning, when Fred went to school, Billy Tompkins with a crowd of boys about was waiting to deride him; but at sight of his face they stopped. He walked straight up to his enemy and began striking him with all his might.
"She made me beg your pardon, did she?" he gasped between the blows; "well, you take that for it, and that." The boys had fallen back, and Billy was attempting to defend himself.
"Mebbe she 'll make me do it again to-night. If she does, I 'll give you some more o' this to-morrow, and every time I have to beg your pardon. Do you hear?"
The boys cheered lustily, and Billy Tompkins, completely whipped and ashamed, slunk away.
That night no report of the fight went home. Fred Brent held the master hand.
In life it is sometimes God and sometimes the devil that comes to the aid of oppressed humanity. From the means, it is often hard to tell whose handiwork are the results.
Cynics and fools laugh at calf-love. Youth, which is wiser, treats it more seriously. When the boy begins to think of a girl, instead of girls, he displays the first budding signs of a real growing manhood. The first passion may be but the enthusiasm of discovery. Sometimes it is not. At times it dies, as fleeting enthusiasms do. Again it lives, and becomes a blessing, a curse, or a memory. Who shall say that the first half-sweet pang that strikes a boy's heart in the presence of the dear first girl is any less strong, intoxicating, and real to him than that which prompts him to take the full-grown woman to wife? With factitious sincerity we quote, "The boy is father to the man," and then refuse to believe that the qualities, emotions, and passions of the man are inherited from this same boy,—are just the growth, the development, of what was embryonic in him.
Nothing is more serious, more pleasant, and more diverting withal, than a boy's brooding or exultation—one is the complement of the other—over his first girl. As, to a great extent, a man is moulded by the woman he marries, so to no less a degree is a boy's character turned and shaped by the girl he adores. Either he descends to her level, or she draws him up, unconsciously, perhaps, to her own plane. Girls are missionaries who convert boys. Boys are mostly heathens. When a boy has a girl, he remembers to put on his cuffs and collars, and he does n't put his necktie into his pocket on the way to school.
In a boy's life, the having of a girl is the setting up of an ideal. It is the new element, the higher something which abashes the unabashed, and makes John, who caused Henry's nose to bleed, tremble when little Mary stamps her foot. It is like an atheist's finding God, the sudden recognition of a higher and purer force against which all that he knows is powerless. Why does n't John bully Mary? It would be infinitely easier than his former exploit with Henry. But he does n't. He blushes in her presence, brings her the best apples, out of which heretofore he has enjoined the boys not to "take a hog-bite," and, even though the parental garden grow none, comes by flowers for her in some way, queer boyish bouquets where dandelions press shoulders with spring-beauties, daffodils, and roses,—strange democracy of flowerdom. He feels older and stronger.
In Fred's case the object of adoration was no less a person than Elizabeth Simpson, the minister's daughter. From early childhood they had seen and known each other at school, and between them had sprung up a warm childish friendship, apparently because their ways home lay along the same route. In such companionship the years sped; but Fred was a diffident boy, and he was seventeen and Elizabeth near the same before he began to feel those promptings which made him blushingly offer to carry her book for her as far as he went. She had hesitated, refused, and then assented, as is the manner of her sex and years. It had become a settled thing for them to walk home together, he bearing her burdens, and doing for her any other little service that occurred to his boyish sense of gallantry.
Without will of his own, and without returning the favour, he had grown in the Rev. Mr. Simpson's esteem. This was due mostly to his guardian's excellent work. In spite of his rebellion, training and environment had brought him greatly under her control, and when she began to admonish him about his lost condition spiritually she had been able to awaken a sort of superstitious anxiety in the boy's breast. When Miss Prime perceived that this had been accomplished, she went forthwith to her pastor and unburdened her heart.
"Brother Simpson," said she, "I feel that the Lord has appointed me an instrument in His hands for bringin' a soul into the kingdom." The minister put the tips of his fingers together and sighed piously and encouragingly. "I have been labourin' with Freddie in the sperrit of Christian industry, an' I believe that I have finally brought him to a realisin' sense of his sinfulness."
"H'm-m," said the minister. "Bless the Lord for this evidence of the activity of His people. Go on, sister."
"Freddie has at last come to the conclusion that hell is his lot unless he flees unto the mountain and seeks salvation."
"Bless the Lord for this."
"Now, Brother Simpson, I have done my part as fur as the Lord has showed me, except to ask you to come and wrastle with that boy."
"Let not thy heart be troubled, Sister Prime, for I will come as you ask me, and I will wrastle with that boy as Jacob did of old with the angel."
"Oh, Brother Simpson, I knowed you 'd come. I know jest how you feel about pore wanderin' souls, an' I 'm so glad to have yore strong arm and yore wisdom a-helpin' me."
"I hope, my sister, that the Lord may smile upon my poor labours, and permit us to snatch this boy as a brand from eternal burning."
"We shall have to labour in the sperrit, Brother Simpson."
"Yes, and with the understanding of the truth in our hearts and minds."
"I 'm shore I feel mighty uplifted by comin' here to-day. Do come up to dinner Sunday, dear Brother Simpson, after preachin'."
"I will come, Sister Prime, I will come. I know by experience the worth of the table which the Lord provides for you, and then at the same season I may be able to sound this sinful boy as to his spiritual state and to drop some seed into the ground which the Lord has mercifully prepared for our harvest. Good-bye, sister, good-bye. I shall not forget, Sunday after preaching."
In accordance with his promise, the Rev. Mr. Simpson began to labour with Fred, with the result of driving him into a condition of dogged revolt, which only Miss Prime's persistence finally overcame. When revival time came round, as, sure as death it must come, Fred regularly went to the mourners' bench, mourned his few days until he had worked himself into the proper state, and then, somewhat too coldly, it is true, for his anxious guardian, "got religion."
On the visit next after this which Mr. Simpson paid to Miss Prime, he took occasion to say, "Ah, my sister, I am so glad that you pointed me to that lost lamb of the house of Israel, and I am thanking the Maker every day that He blessed my efforts to bring the straying one into the fold. Ah, there is more joy over the one lamb that is found than over the ninety and nine that went not astray!"
Mr. Simpson's parishioner acquiesced, but she had some doubts in her mind as to whose efforts the Lord had blessed. She felt a little bit selfish. She wanted to be the author of everything good that came to Fred. But she did not argue with Mr. Simpson. There are some concessions which one must make to one's pastor.
From this time on the preacher was Fred's friend, and plied him with good advice in the usual friendly way; but the boy bore it well, for Elizabeth smiled on him, and what boy would not bear a father's tongue for a girl's eyes?
The girl was like her mother, dark and slender and gentle. She had none of her father's bigness or bumptiousness. Her eyes were large and of a shade that was neither black nor brown. Her hair was very decidedly black. Her face was small, and round with the plumpness of youth, but one instinctively felt, in looking at it, that its lines might easily fall into thinness, even pitifulness, at the first touch of woman's sorrow. She was not, nor did she look to be, a strong girl. But her very weakness was the source of secret delight to the boy, for it made him feel her dependence on him. When they were together and some girlish fear made her cling to his arm, his heart swelled with pride and a something else that he could not understand and could not have described. Had any one told him that he was going through the half-sweet, half-painful, timid, but gallant first stages of love, he would have resented the imputation with blushes. His whole training would have made him think of such a thing with terror. He had learned never to speak of girls at home, for any reference to them by him was sure to bring forth from Miss Prime an instant and strong rebuke.
"Freddie," was the exclamation that gave his first unsuspecting remarks pause, "you 're a-gittin' too fresh: you 'd better be a-mindin' of yore studies, instead o' thinkin' about girls. Girls ain't a-goin' to make you pass yore examination, an', besides, you 're a-gettin' mannish; fur boys o' yore age to be a-talkin' about girls is mannish, do you hear, sir? You 're a-beginnin' to feel yore keepin' too strong. Don't let me hear no more sich talk out o' you."
There never was a manly boy in the world whom the word "mannish," when applied to him, did not crush. It is a horrid word, nasty and full of ugly import. Fred was subdued by it, and so kept silence about his female friends. Happy is the boy who dares at home to pour out his heart about the girls he knows and likes, and thrice unhappy he who through mistaken zeal on the part of misguided parents is compelled to keep his thoughts in his heart and brood upon his little aproned companions as upon a secret sin. Two things are thereby engendered, stealth and unhealth. If Fred escaped certain youthful pitfalls, it was because he was so repressed that he had learned to hide himself from himself, his thoughts from the mind that produced them.
He was a boy strong and full of blood. The very discipline that had given a gloomy cast to his mind had given strength and fortitude to his body. He was austere, because austerity was all that he had ever known or had a chance of knowing; but too often austerity is but the dam that holds back the flood of potential passion. Not to know the power which rages behind the barricade is to leave the structure weak for a hapless day when, carrying all before it, the flood shall break its bonds and in its fury ruin fair field and smiling mead. It was well for Fred Brent that the awakening came when it did.
In the first days of June, when examinations are over, the annual exhibition done, and the graduating class has marched away proud in the possession of its diplomas, the minds of all concerned turn naturally towards the old institution, the school picnic. On this occasion parents join the teachers and pupils for a summer day's outing in the woods. Great are the preparations for the festal day, and great the rejoicings thereon. For these few brief hours old men and women lay aside their cares and their dignity and become boys and girls again. Those who have known sorrow—and who has not?—take to themselves a day of forgetfulness. Great baskets are loaded to overflowing with the viands dear to the picnicker's palate,—sandwiches whose corpulence would make their sickly brothers of the railway restaurant wither with envy, pies and pickles, cheese and crackers, cakes and jams galore. Old horses that, save for this day, know only the market-cart or the Sunday chaise, are hitched up to bear out the merry loads. Old waggons, whose wheels have known no other decoration than the mud and clay of rutty roads, are festooned gaily with cedar wreaths, oak leaves, or the gaudy tissue-paper rosettes, and creak joyfully on their mission of lightness and mirth. On foot, by horse, in waggon or cart, the crowds seek some neighbouring grove, and there the day is given over to laughter, mirth, and song. The children roll and tumble on the sward in the intoxication of "swing-turn" and "ring-around-a-rosy." The young women, with many blushes and shy glances, steal off to quiet nooks with their imploring swains. Some of the elders, anxious to prove that they have not yet lost all their youth and agility, indulge, rather awkwardly perhaps, in the exhausting amusement of the jumping-rope. A few of the more staid walk apart in conversation with some favourite pastor who does not decline to take part in the innocent pleasures and crack ponderous jokes for the edification of his followers. Perhaps some of the more daring are engaged in one of the numerous singing plays, such as "Oh, la, Miss Brown," or "Swing Candy, Two and Two," but these are generally frowned upon: they are too much like dancing, and time has been when some too adventurous church-member has been "churched" for engaging in one.
In such a merrymaking was the community which surrounded the high school at Dexter engaged when the incident occurred which opened Fred's eyes to his own state. Both he and Elizabeth had been in the prize ranks that year, and their friends had turned out in full and made much of them. Even Eliphalet Hodges was there, with old Bess festooned as gaily as the other horses, and both Miss Prime and Mr. Simpson were in evidence. The afternoon of the day was somewhat advanced, the dinner had been long over, and the weariness of the people had cast something of a quietus over the hilarity of their sports. They were sitting about in groups, chatting and laughing, while the tireless children were scurrying about in games of "tag," "catcher," and "hide-and-seek."
The grove where the festivities were being held was on a hill-side which sloped gently to the bank of a small, narrow stream, usually dry in summer; but now, still feeling the force of the spring freshets, and swollen by the rain of the day before, it was rushing along at a rapid rate. A fence divided the picnic-ground proper from the sharper slope of the rivulet's bank. This fence the young people had been warned not to pass, and so no danger was apprehended on account of the stream's overflowing condition. But the youngsters at Dexter were no more obedient than others of their age elsewhere. So when a scream arose from several childish voices at the lower part of the hill, everybody knew that some child had been disobeying, and, pell-mell, the picnickers rushed in the direction of the branch.
When they reached the nearest point from which they could see the stream, a terrifying sight met their eyes. A girl was struggling in the shallow but swift water. She had evidently stepped on the sloping bank and fallen in. Her young companions were running alongside the rivulet, stretching out their hands helplessly to her, but the current was too strong, and, try as she would, she could not keep her feet. A cry of grief and despair went up from the girls on the bank, as she made one final effort and then fell and was carried down by the current.
Men were leaping the fence now, but a boy who had seen the whole thing from a neighbouring hillock was before them. Fred Brent came leaping down the hill like a young gazelle. He had seen who the unfortunate girl was,—Elizabeth,—and he had but one desire in his heart, to save her. He reached the bank twenty yards ahead of any one else, and plunged into the water just in front of her, for she was catching and slipping, clinging and losing hold, but floating surely to her death. He struggled up stream, reached and caught her by the dress. The water tugged at him and tried to throw him over, but he stemmed it, and, lifting her up in his arms, fought his way manfully to the bank. Up this he faltered, slipping and sliding in the wet clay, and weak with his struggle against the strong current. But his face was burning and his blood tingling as he held the girl close to him till he gave her unconscious form into her father's arms.
For the moment all was confusion, as was natural when a preacher's daughter was so nearly drowned. The crowd clustered around and gave much advice and some restoratives. Some unregenerate, with many apologies and explanations concerning his possession, produced a flask, and part of the whisky was forced down the girl's throat, while her hands and face and feet were chafed. She opened her eyes at last, and a fervent "Thank God!" burst from her father's lips and called forth a shower of Amens.
"I allus carry a little somethin' along, in case of emergencies," explained the owner of the flask as he returned it to his pocket, with a not altogether happy look at its depleted contents.
As soon as Fred saw that Elizabeth was safe, he struck away for home, unobserved, and without waiting to hear what the crowd were saying. He heard people calling his name kindly and admiringly, but it only gave wings to the feet that took him away from them. If he had thrown the girl in instead of bringing her out, he could not have fled more swiftly or determinedly away from the eyes of people. Tired and footsore, drenched to the skin and chilled through, he finally reached home. He was trembling, he was crying, but he did not know it, and had he known, he could not have told why. He did not change his clothes, but crouched down in a corner and hid his face in his hands. He dreaded seeing any one or hearing any person speak his name. He felt painfully conscious of a new self, which he thought must be apparent to other eyes.
The accident of the afternoon had cast a gloom over the merrymakings, and, the picnic breaking up abruptly, sent the people scurrying home, so that Miss Prime was at the house not far behind her charge.
"Freddie," she called to him as she entered the house, "Freddie, where air you?" And then she found him. She led him out of the corner and looked him over with a scrutinising eye. "Freddie Brent," she said solemnly, "you 've jest ruined yore suit." He was glad. He wanted to be scolded. "But," she went on, "I don't care ef you have." And here she broke down. "You 're a-goin' to have another one, fur you 're a right smart boy, that 's all I 've got to say." For a moment he wanted to lay his head on her breast and give vent to the sob which was choking him. But he had been taught neither tenderness nor confidence, so he choked back the sob, though his throat felt dry and hot and strained. He stood silent and embarrassed until Miss Prime recovered herself and continued: "But la, child, you 'll take yore death o' cold. Git out o' them wet things an' git into bed, while I make you some hot tea. Fur the life o' me, I never did see sich carryin's-on."
The boy was not sorry to obey. He was glad to be alone. He drank the warm tea and tried to go to sleep, but he could not. His mind was on fire. His heart seemed as if it would burst from his bosom. Something new had come to him. He began to understand, and blushed because he did understand. It was less discovery than revelation. His forehead was hot. His temples were throbbing. It was well that Miss Prime did not discover it: she would have given him horehound to cure—thought!
From the moment that the boy held the form of the girl to his heart he was changed, and she was changed to him. They could never be the same to each other again. Manhood had come to him in a single instant, and he saw in her womanhood. He began for the first time to really know himself, and it frightened him and made him ashamed.
He drew the covers over his head and lay awake, startled, surprised at what he knew himself and mankind to be.
To Fred Brent the awakening had come,—early, if we would be prudish; not too early, if we would be truthful.
If Fred Brent had needed anything to increase his consciousness of the new feeling that had come to him, he could not have done better to get it than by going to see Eliphalet Hodges next day. His war of thought had gone on all night, and when he rose in the morning he thought that he looked guilty, and he was afraid that Miss Prime would notice it and read his secret. He wanted rest. He wanted to be secure from any one who would even suspect what was in his heart. But he wanted to see and to talk to some one. Who better, then, than his old friend?
So he finished his morning's chores and slipped away. He would not pass by Elizabeth's house, but went by alleys and lanes until he reached his destination. The house looked rather silent and deserted, and Mr. Hodges' old assistant did not seem to be working in the garden as usual. But after some search the boy found his old friend smoking upon the back porch. There was a cloud upon the usually bright features, and the old man took his pipe from his mouth with a disconsolate sigh as the boy came in sight.
"I 'm mighty glad you 've come, Freddie," said he, in a sad voice. "I 've been a-wantin' to talk to you all the mornin'. Set down on the side o' the porch, or git a chair out o' the house, ef you 'd ruther."
The boy sat down, wondering what could be the matter with his friend, and what he could have to say to him. Surely it must be something serious, for the whole tone and manner of his companion indicated something of import. The next remark startled him into sudden suspicion.
"There 's lots o' things made me think o' lots of other things in the last couple o' days. You 've grown up kind o' quick like, Freddie, so that a body 'ain't hardly noticed it, but that ain't no matter. You 're up or purty nigh it, an' you can understand and appreciate lots o' the things that you used to could n't."
Fred sat still, with mystery and embarrassment written on his face. He wanted to hear more, but he was almost afraid to listen further.
"I 'ain't watched you so close, mebbe, as I 'd ought to 'a' done, but when I seen you yistiddy evenin' holdin' that little girl in yore arms I said to myself, I said, ''Liphalet Hodges, Freddie ain't a child no more; he 's growed up.'" The boy's face was scarlet. Now he was sure that the thoughts of his heart had been surprised, and that this best of friends thought of him as "fresh," "mannish," or even wicked. He could not bear the thought of it; again the tears rose in his eyes, usually so free from such evidences of weakness. But the old man went on slowly in a low, half-reminiscent tone, without looking at his auditor to see what effect his words had had. "Well, that was one of the things that set me thinkin'; an' then there was another." He cleared his throat and pulled hard at his pipe; something made him blink,—dust, or smoke, or tears, perhaps. "Freddie," he half sobbed out, "old Bess is dead. Pore old Bess died last night o' colic. I 'm afeared the drive to the picnic was too much fur her."
"Old Bess dead!" cried the boy, grieved and at the same time relieved. "Who would have thought it? Poor old girl! It seems like losing one of the family."
"She was one of the family," said the old man brokenly. "She was more faithful than most human beings." The two stood sadly musing, the boy as sad as the man. "Old Bess" was the horse that had taken him for his first ride, that winter morning years before, when the heart of the child was as cold as the day. Eliphalet Hodges had warmed the little heart, and, in the years that followed, man, child, and horse had grown nearer to each other in a queer but sympathetic companionship.
Then, as if recalling his mind from painful reflections, the elder man spoke again. "But it ain't no use a-worryin' over what can't be helped. We was both fond o' old Bess, an' I know you feel as bad about losin' her as I do. But I 'm a-goin' to give her a decent burial, sich as a Christian ought to have; fur, while the old mare was n't no perfessor, she lived the life, an' that 's more 'n most perfessors do. Yes, sir, I 'm a-goin' to have her buried: no glue-man fur me. I reckon you 're a-wantin' to know how old Bess dyin' an' yore a-savin' 'Lizabeth could run into each other in my mind; but they did. Fur, as I see you standin' there a-holdin' the little girl, it come to me sudden like, 'Freddie 's grown now, an' he 'll be havin' a girl of his own purty soon, ef he 'ain't got one now. Mebbe it 'll be 'Lizabeth.'" The old man paused for a moment; his eyes rested on the boy's fiery face. "Tut, tut," he resumed, "you ain't ashamed, air you? Well, what air you a-gittin' so red fur? Havin' a girl ain't nothin' to be ashamed of, or skeered about neither. Most people have girls one time or another, an' I don't know of nothin' that 'll make a boy or a young man go straighter than to know that his girl's eyes air upon him. Don't be ashamed at all."
Fred still blushed, but he felt better, and his face lightened over the kindly words.
"I did n't finish tellin' you, though, what I started on. I got to thinkin' yesterday about my young days, when I had a girl, an' how I used to ride back an' forth on the pore old horse right into this town to see her; an' as I drove home from the picnic I talked to the old nag about it, an' she whisked her tail an' laid back her ears, jest like she remembered it all. It was on old Bess that I rode away from my girl's house after her first 'no' to me, an' it seemed then that the animal sympathised with me, fur she drooped along an' held down her head jest like I was a-doin'. Many a time after that we rode off that way together, fur the girl was set in her ways, an' though she confessed to a hankerin' fur me, she wanted to be independent. I think her father put the idee into her head, fur he was a hard man, an' she was his all, his wife bein' dead. After a while we stopped talkin' about the matter, an' I jest went an' come as a friend. I only popped the question once more, an' that was when her father died an' she was left all alone.