TWO LITTLE KNIGHTS OF KENTUCKY
TO MARGARET AND ALBION, MARY, HELEN, LURA AND ROSE, WILLIAM AND GEORGE
I. TWO TRAMPS AND A BEAR. II. GINGER AND THE BOYS. III. THE VALENTINE PARTY. IV. A FIRE AND A PLAN. V. JONESY'S BENEFIT. VI. THE LITTLE COLONEL'S TWO RESCUES. VII. A GAME OF INDIAN. VIII. "FAIRCHANCE".
TWO LITTLE KNIGHTS OF KENTUCKY.
* * * * * CHAPTER I.
TWO TRAMPS AND A BEAR.
It was the coldest Saint Valentine's eve that Kentucky had known in twenty years. In Lloydsborough Valley a thin sprinkling of snow whitened the meadows, enough to show the footprints of every hungry rabbit that loped across them; but there were not many such tracks. It was so cold that the rabbits, for all their thick fur, were glad to run home and hide. Nobody cared to be out long in such weather, and except now and then, when an ice-cutter's wagon creaked up from some pond to the frozen pike, the wintry stillness was unbroken.
On the north side of the little country depot a long row of icicles hung from the eaves. Even the wind seemed to catch its breath there, and hurry on with a shiver that reached to the telegraph wires overhead. It shivered down the long stovepipe, too, inside the waiting-room. The stove had been kept red-hot all that dull gray afternoon, but the window-panes were still white with heavy frost-work.
Half an hour before the five o'clock train was due from the city, two boys came running up the railroad track with their skates in their hands. They were handsome, sturdy little fellows, so well buttoned up in their leather leggins and warm reefer overcoats that they scarcely felt the cold. Their cheeks were red as winter apples, from skating against the wind, and they were almost breathless after their long run up-hill to the depot. Racing across the platform, they bumped against the door at the same instant, burst it noisily open, and slammed it behind them with a bang that shook the entire building.
"What kind of a cyclone has struck us now?" growled the ticket agent, who was in the next room. Then he frowned, as the first noise was followed by the rasping sound of a bench being dragged out of a corner, to a place nearer the stove. It scraped the bare floor every inch of the way, with a jarring motion that made the windows rattle.
Stretching himself half-way out of his chair, the ticket agent pushed up the wooden slide of the little window far enough for him to peep into the waiting-room. Then he hastily shoved it down again.
"It's the two little chaps who came out from the city last week," he said to the station-master. "The Maclntyre boys. You'd think they own the earth from the way they dash in and take possession of things."
The station-master liked boys. He stroked his gray beard and chuckled. "Well, Meyers," he said, slowly, "when you come to think of it, their family always has owned a pretty fair slice of the earth and its good things, and those same little lads have travelled nearly all over it, although the oldest can't be more than ten. It would be a wonder if they didn't have that lordly way of making themselves at home wherever they go."
"Will they be out here all winter?" asked Meyers, who was a newcomer in Lloydsborough.
"Yes, their father and mother have gone to Florida, and left them here with their grandmother Maclntyre."
"I imagine the old lady has her hands full," said Meyers, as a sound of scuffling in the next room reached him.
"Oh, I don't know about that, now," said the station-master. "They're noisy children, to be sure, and just boiling over with mischief, but if you can find any better-mannered little gentlemen anywhere in the State when there's ladies around, I'd like you to trot 'em out. They came down to the train with their aunt this morning, Miss Allison Maclntyre, and their politeness to her was something pretty to see, I can tell you, sir."
There was a moment's pause, in which the boys could be heard laughing in the next room.
"No," said the station-master again, "I'm thinking it's not the boys who will be keeping Mrs. Maclntyre's hands full this winter, so much as that little granddaughter of hers that came here last fall,—little Virginia Dudley. You can guess what's she like from her nickname. They call her Ginger. She had always lived at some army post out West, until her father, Captain Dudley, was ordered to Cuba. He was wounded down there, and has never been entirely well since. When he found they were going to keep him there all winter, he sent for his wife last September, and there was nothing to do with Virginia but to bring her back to Kentucky to her grandmother."
"Oh, she's the little girl who went in on the train this morning with Miss Allison," said the ticket agent. "I suppose the boys have come down to meet them. They'll have a long time to wait."
While this conversation was going on behind the ticket window, the two boys stretched themselves out on a long bench beside the stove. The warm room made them feel drowsy after their violent out-door exercise. Keith, the younger one, yawned several times, and finally lay down on the bench with his cap for a pillow. He was eight years old, but curled up in that fashion, with his long eyelashes resting on his red cheeks, and one plump little hand tucked under his chin, he looked much younger.
"Wake me up, Malcolm, when it's time for Aunt Allison's train," he said to his brother. "Ginger would never stop teasing me if she should find me asleep."
Malcolm unbuttoned his reefer, and, after much tugging, pulled out a handsome little gold watch. "Oh, there's a long time to wait!" he exclaimed. "We need not have left the pond so early, for the train will not be here for twenty-five minutes. I believe I'll curl up here myself, till then. I hope they won't forget the valentines we sent for."
The room was very still for a few minutes. There was no sound at all except the crackling of the fire and the shivering of the wind in the long stovepipe. Then some one turned the door-knob so cautiously and slowly that it unlatched without a sound.
It was the cold air rushing into the room as the door was pushed ajar that aroused the boys. After one surprised glance they sat up, for the man, who was slipping into the room as stealthily as a burglar, was the worst-looking tramp they had ever seen. There was a long, ugly red scar across his face, running from his cheek to the middle of his forehead, and partly closing one eye. Perhaps it was the scar that gave him such a queer, evil sort of an expression; even without it he would have been a repulsive sight. His clothes were dirty and ragged, and his breath had frozen in icicles on his stubby red beard.
Behind him came a boy no larger than Keith, but with a hard, shrewd look in his hungry little face that made one feel he had lived a long time and learned more than was good for him to know. It was plain to be seen that he was nearly starved, and suffering from the intense cold. His bare toes peeped through their ragged shoes, and he had no coat. A thin cotton shirt and a piece of an old gray horse-blanket was all that protected his shoulders from the icy wind of that February afternoon. He, too, crept in noiselessly, as if expecting to be ordered out at the first sound, and then turned to coax in some animal that was tied to one end of the rope which he held.
Malcolm and Keith looked on with interest, and sprang up excitedly as the animal finally shuffled in far enough for the boy to close the door behind it. It was a great, shaggy bear, taller than the man when it sat up on its haunches beside him.
The tramp looked uneasily around the room for an instant, but seeing no one save the two children, ventured nearer the stove. The boy followed him, and the bear shuffled along behind them both, limping painfully. Not a word was said for a moment. The boys were casting curious glances at the three tramps who had come in as noiselessly as if they had snowed down, and the man was watching the boys with shrewd eyes. He did not seem to be looking at them, but at the end of his survey he could have described them accurately. He had noticed every detail of their clothing, from their expensive leather leggins to their fur-lined gloves. He glanced at Malcolm's watch-chain and the fine skates which Keith swung back and forth by a strap, and made up his mind, correctly, too, that the pockets of these boys rarely lacked the jingle of money which they could spend as they pleased.
When he turned away to hold his hands out toward the stove, he rubbed them together with satisfaction, for he had discovered more than that. He knew from their faces that they were trusting little souls, who would believe any story he might tell them, if he appealed to their sympathies in the right way. He was considering how to begin, when Malcolm broke the silence.
"Is that a trained bear?"
The man nodded.
"What can it do?" was the next question.
"Oh, lots of things," answered the man, in a low, whining voice. "Drill like a soldier, and dance, and ride a stick." He kept his shifty eyes turning constantly toward the door, as if afraid some one might overhear him.
"I'd put him through his paces for you young gen'lemen," he said, "but he got his foot hurt for one thing, and another is, if we went to showing off, we might be ordered to move on. This is the first time we've smelled a fire in twenty-four hours, and we ain't in no hurry to leave it, I can tell you."
"Will he bite?" asked Keith, going up to the huge bear, which had stretched itself out comfortably on the floor.
"Not generally. He's a good-tempered brute, most times like a lamb. But he ain't had nothing to eat all day, so it wouldn't be surprising if he was a bit snappish."
"Nothing to eat!" echoed Keith. "You poor old thing!" Going a step closer, he put out his hand and stroked the bear, as if it had been a great dog.
"Oh, Malcolm, just feel how soft his fur is, like mamma's beaver jacket. And he has the kindest old face. Poor old fellow, is you hungry? Never mind, Keith'll get you something to eat pretty soon."
Putting his short, plump arms around the animal's neck, he hugged it lovingly up to him. A cunning gleam came into the man's eyes. He saw that he had gained the younger boy's sympathy, and he wanted Malcolm's also.
"Is your home near here, my little gen'leman?" he asked, in a friendly tone.
"No, we live in the city," answered Malcolm, "but my grandmother's place, where we are staying, is not far from here." He was stroking the bear with one hand as he spoke, and hunting in his pocket with the other, hoping to find some stray peanuts to give it.
"Then maybe you know of some place where we could stay to-night. Even a shed to crawl into would keep us from freezing. It's an awful cold night not to have a roof over your head, or a crust to gnaw on, or a spark of fire to keep life in your body."
"Maybe they'd let you stay in the waiting-room," suggested Malcolm. "It is always good and warm in here. I'll ask the station-master. He's a friend of mine."
"Oh, no! No, don't!" exclaimed the tramp, hastily, pulling his old hat farther over his forehead, as if to hide the scar, and looking uneasily around. "I wouldn't have you do that for anything. I've had dealings with such folks before, and I know how they'd treat me. I thought maybe there was a barn or a hay-shed or something on your grandmother's place, where we could lay up for repairs a couple of days. The beast needs a rest. Its foot's sore; and Jonesy there is pretty near to lung fever, judging from the way he coughs." He nodded toward the boy, who had placed his chair as close to the stove as possible. The child's face was drawn into a pucker by the tingling pains in his half-frozen feet, and his efforts to keep from coughing.
Malcolm looked at him steadily. He had read about boys who were homeless and hungry and cold, but he had never really understood how much it meant to be all that. This was the first time in his ten short years that he had ever come close to real poverty. He had seen the swarms of beggars that infest such cities as Naples and Rome, and had tossed them coppers because that seemed a part of the programme in travelling. He had not really felt sorry for them, for they did not seem to mind it. They sat on the steps in the warm Italian sunshine, and waited for tourists to throw them money, as comfortably as toads sit blinking at flies. But this was different. A wave of pity swept through Malcolm's generous little heart as he looked at Jonesy, and the man watching him shrewdly saw it.
"Of course," he whined, "a little gen'leman like you don't know what it is to go from town to town and have every door shut in your face. You don't think that this is a hard-hearted, stingy old world, because it has given you the cream of everything. But if you'd never had anything all your life but other people's scraps and leavings, and you hadn't any home or friends or money, and was sick besides, you'd think things wasn't very evenly divided. Wouldn't you now? You'd think it wasn't right that some should have all that heart can wish, and others not enough to keep soul and body together. If you'd a-happened to be Jonesy, and Jonesy had a-happened to 'a' been you, I reckon you'd feel it was pretty tough to see such a big difference between you. It doesn't seem fair now, does it?"
"No," admitted Malcolm, faintly. He had taken a dislike to the man. He could not have told why, but his child instinct armed him with a sudden distrust. Still, he felt the force of the whining appeal, and the burden of an obligation to help them seemed laid upon his shoulders.
"Grandmother is afraid for anybody to sleep in the barn, on account of fire," he said, after a moment's thought, "and I'm sure she wouldn't let you come into the house without you'd had a bath and some clean clothes. Grandmother is dreadfully particular," he added, hastily, not wanting to be impolite even to a tramp. "Seems to me Keith and I have to spend half our time washing our hands and putting on clean collars."
"Oh, I know a place," cried Keith. "There's that empty cabin down by the spring-house. Nobody has lived in it since the new servants' cottage was built. There isn't any furniture in it, but there's a fireplace in one room, and it would be warmer than the barn."
"That's just the trick!" exclaimed Malcolm. "We can carry a pile of hay over from the barn for you to sleep on. Aunt Allison will be out on this next train and I'll ask her. I am sure she will let you, because last night, when it was so cold, she said she felt sorry for anything that had to be out in it, even the poor old cedar trees, with the sleet on their branches. She said that it was King Lear's own weather, and she could understand how Cordelia felt when she said, 'Mine enemy's dog, though he had bit me, should have stood that night against my fire!' It is just like auntie to feel that way about it, only she's so good to everybody she couldn't have any enemies."
Something like a smile moved the tramp's stubby beard. "So she's that kind, is she? Well, if she could have a soft spot for a dog that had bit her, and an enemy's dog at that, it stands to reason that she wouldn't object to some harmless travellers a-sleeping in an empty cabin a couple of nights. S'pose'n you show us the place, sonny, and we'll be moving on."
"Oh, it wouldn't be right not to ask her first," exclaimed Malcolm. "She'll be here in such a little while."
The man looked uneasy. Presently he walked over to the window and scraped a peep-hole on the frosted pane with his dirty thumbnail. "Sun's down," he said. "I'd like to get that bear's foot fixed comfortable before it grows any darker. I'd like to mighty well. It'll take some time to heat water to dress it. Is that cabin far from here?"
"Not if we go in at the back of the place," said Malcolm. "It's just across the meadow, and over a little hill. If we went around by the big front gate it would be a good deal longer."
The man shifted uneasily from one foot to another, and complained of being hungry. He was growing desperate. For more reasons than one he did not want to be at the station when the train came in. That long red scar across his face had been described a number of times in the newspapers, and he did not care to be recognised just then.
The boys could not have told how it came about, but in a few minutes they were leading the way toward the cabin. The man had persuaded them that it was not at all necessary to wait for their Aunt Allison's permission, and that it was needless to trouble their grandmother. Why should the ladies be bothered about a matter that the boys were old enough to decide? So well had he argued, and so tactfully had he flattered them, that when they took their way across the field, it was with the feeling that they were doing their highest duty in getting these homeless wayfarers to the cabin as quickly as possible, on their own responsibility.
"We can get back in time to meet the train, if we hurry," said Malcolm, looking at his watch again. "There's still fifteen minutes."
No one saw the little procession file out of the waiting-room and across the snowy field, for it was growing dark, and the lamps were lighted and the curtains drawn in the few houses they passed. Malcolm went first, proudly leading the friendly old bear. Jonesy came next beside Keith, and the man shuffled along in the rear, looking around with suspicious glances whenever a twig snapped, or a distant dog barked.
As the wind struck against Jonesy's body, he drew the bit of blanket more closely around him, and coughed hoarsely. His teeth were chattering and his lips blue. "You look nearly frozen," said Keith, who, well-clad and well-fed, scarcely felt the cold. "Here! put this on, or you'll be sick," Unbuttoning his thick little reefer, he pulled it off and tied its sleeves around Jonesy's neck.
A strange look passed over the face of the man behind them. "Blessed if the little kid didn't take it off his own back," he muttered. "If any man had ever done that for me—just once—well, maybe, I wouldn't ha' been what I am now!"
For a moment, as they reached the top of the hill, bear, boys, and man were outlined blackly against the sky like strange silhouettes. Then they passed over and disappeared in the thick clump of pine-trees, which hid the little cabin from the eyes of the surrounding world.
GINGER AND THE BOYS.
In less time than one would think possible, a big fire was roaring in the cabin fireplace, water was steaming in the rusty kettle on the crane, and a pile of hay and old carpet lay in one corner, ready to be made into a bed. Keith had made several trips to the kitchen, and came back each time with his hands full.
Old Daphne, the cook, never could find it in her heart to refuse "Marse Sydney's" boys anything. They were too much like what their father had been at their age to resist their playful coaxing. She had nursed him when he was a baby, and had been his loyal champion all through his boyhood. Now her black face wrinkled into smiles whenever she heard his name spoken. In her eyes, nobody was quite so near perfection as he, except, perhaps, the fair woman whom he had married.
"Kain't nobody in ten States hole a can'le to my Marse Sidney an' his Miss Elise," old Daphne used to say, proudly. "They sut'n'ly is the handsomest couple evah jined togethah, an' the free-handedest. In all they travels by sea or by land they nevah fo'gits ole Daphne. I've got things from every country undah the shinin' sun what they done brung me."
Now, all the services she had once been proud to render them were willingly given to their little sons. When Keith came in with a pitiful tale of a tramp who was starving at their very gates, she gave him even more than he asked for, and almost more than he could carry.
The bear and its masters were so hungry, and their two little hosts so interested in watching them eat, that they forgot all about going back to meet the train. They did not even hear it whistle when it came puffing into the Valley.
As Miss Allison stepped from the car to the station platform, she looked around in vain for the boys who had promised to meet her. Her arms were so full of bundles, as suburban passengers' usually are, that she could not hold up her long broadcloth skirt, or even turn her handsome fur collar higher over her ears. With a shade of annoyance on her pretty face, she swept across the platform and into the waiting-room, out of the cold.
Behind her came a little girl about ten years old, as unlike her as possible, although it was Virginia Dudley's ambition to be exactly like her Aunt Allison. She wanted to be tall, and slender, and grown up; Miss Allison was that, and yet she had kept all her lively girlish ways, and a love of fun that made her charming to everybody, young and old. Virginia longed for wavy brown hair and white hands, and especially for a graceful, easy manner. Her hair was short and black, and her complexion like a gypsy's. She had hard, brown little fists, sharp gray eyes that seemed to see everything at once, and a tongue that was always getting her into trouble. As for the ease of manner, that might come in time, but her stately old grandmother often sighed in secret over Virginia's awkwardness.
She stumbled now as she followed the young lady into the waiting-room. Her big, plume-covered hat tipped over one ear, but she, too, had so many bundles, that she could not spare a hand to straighten it.
"Well, Virginia, what do you suppose has become of the boys?" asked her aunt. "They promised to meet us and carry our packages."
"I heard them in here about half an hour ago, Miss Allison," said the station-master, who had come in with a lantern. "I s'pose they got tired of waiting. Better leave your things here, hadn't you? I'll watch them. It is mighty slippery walking this evening."
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Mason," she answered, beginning to pile boxes and packages upon a bench, I'll send Pete down for them immediately. Now, Virginia, turn up your coat collar and hold your muff over your nose, or Jack Frost will make an icicle out of you before you are half-way home.
They had been in the house some time before the boys remembered their promise to meet them at the station. When they saw how late it was, they started home on the run.
"I am fairly aching to tell Ginger about that bear," panted Keith, as they reached the side door. "I am so sorry that we promised the man not to say anything about them being on the place, before he sees us again to-morrow. I wonder why he asked us that."
"I don't know," answered Malcolm. "He seemed to have some very good reason, and he talked about it so that it didn't seem right not to promise a little thing like that."
"I wish we hadn't, though," said Keith, again.
"But it's done now," persisted Malcolm. "We're bound not to tell, and you can't get out of it, for he made us give him our word 'on the honour of a gentleman;' and that settles it, you know."
They were two very dirty boys who clattered up the back stairs, and raced to their room to dress for dinner. Their clothes were covered with hayseed and straw, and their hands and faces were black with soot from the old cabin chimney. They had both helped to build the fire.
The lamps had just been lighted in the upper hall, and Virginia came running out from her room when she heard the boys' voices.
"Why didn't you meet us at the train?" she began, but stopped as she saw their dirty faces. "Where on earth have you chimney-sweeps been?" she cried.
"Oh, about and about," answered Malcolm, teasingly. "Don't you wish you knew?"
Virginia shrugged her shoulders, as if she had not the slightest interest in the matter, and held out two packages.
"Here are the valentines you sent for. You just ought to see the pile that Aunt Allison bought. We've the best secret about to-morrow that ever was."
"So have we," began Keith, but Malcolm clapped a sooty hand over his mouth and pulled him toward the door of their room. "Come on," he said. "We've barely time to dress for dinner. Don't you know enough to keep still, you little magpie?" he exclaimed, as the door banged behind them. "The only way to keep a secret is not to act like you have one!"
Virginia walked slowly back to her room and paused in the doorway, wondering what she could do to amuse herself until dinner-time. It was a queer room for a girl, decorated with flags and Indian trophies and everything that could remind her of the military life she loved, at the far-away army post. There were photographs framed in brass buttons on her dressing-table, and pictures of uniformed officers all over the walls. A canteen and an army cap with a bullet-hole through the crown, hung over her desk, and a battered bugle, that had sounded many a triumphant charge, swung from the corner of her mirror.
Each souvenir had a history, and had been given her at parting by some special friend. Every one at the fort had made a pet of Captain Dudley's daughter,—the harum-scarum little Ginger,—who would rather dash across the prairies on her pony, like a wild Comanche Indian, than play with the finest doll ever imported from Paris.
There was a suit in her wardrobe, short skirt, jacket, leggins, and moccasins, all made and beaded by the squaws. It was the gift of the colonel's wife. Mrs. Dudley had hesitated some time before putting it in one of the trunks that was to go back to Kentucky.
"You look so much like an Indian now," she said to Virginia. "Your face is so sunburned that I am afraid your grandmother will be scandalised. I don't know what she would say if she knew that I ever allowed you to run so wild. If I had known that you were going back to civilisation I certainly should not have kept your hair cut short, and you should have worn sunbonnets all summer."
To Mrs. Dudley's great surprise, her little daughter threw herself into her arms, sobbing, "Oh, mamma! I don't want to go back to Kentucky! Take me to Cuba with you! Please do, or else let me stay here at the post. Everybody will take care of me here! I'll just die if you leave me in Kentucky!"
"Why, darling," she said, soothingly, as she wiped her tears away and rocked her back and forth in her arms, "I thought you have always wanted to see mamma's old home, and the places you have heard so much about. There are all the old toys in the nursery that we had when we were children, and the grape-vine swing in the orchard, and the mill-stream where we fished, and the beech-woods where we had such delightful picnics. I thought it would be so nice for you to do all the same things that made me so happy when I was a child, and go to school in the same old Girls' College and know all the dear old neighbours that I knew. Wouldn't my little girl like that?"
"Oh, yes, some, I s'pose," sobbed Virginia, "but I didn't know I'd have to be so—so—everlastingly—civilised!" she wailed. "I don't want to always have to dress just so, and have to walk in a path and be called Virginia all the time. That sounds so stiff and proper. I'd rather stay where people don't mind if I am sunburned and tanned, and won't be scandalised at everything I do. It's so much nicer to be just plain Ginger!"
It had been five months, now, since Virginia left Fort Dennis. At first she had locked hen self in her room nearly every day, and, with her face buried in her Indian suit, cried to go back. She missed the gay military life of the army post, as a sailor would miss the sea, or an Alpine shepherd the free air of his snow-capped mountain heights.
It was not that she did not enjoy being at her grandmother's. She liked the great gray house whose square corner tower and over-hanging vines made it look like an old castle. She liked the comfort and elegance of the big, stately rooms, and she had her grandmother's own pride in the old family portraits and the beautiful carved furniture. The negro servants seemed so queer and funny to her that she found them a great source of amusement, and her Aunt Allison planned so many pleasant occupations outside of school-hours that she scarcely had time to get lonesome. But she had a shut-in feeling, like a wild bird in a cage, and sometimes the longing for liberty which her mother had allowed her made her fret against the thousand little proprieties she had to observe. Sometimes when she went tipping over the polished floors of the long drawing room, and caught sight of herself in one of the big mirrors, she felt that she was not herself at all, but somebody in a story. The Virginia in the looking-glass seemed so very, very civilised. More than once, after one of these meetings with herself in the mirror, she dashed up-stairs, locked her door, and dressed herself in her Indian suit. Then in her noiseless moccasins she danced the wildest of war-dances, whispering shrilly between her teeth, "Now I'm Ginger! Now I'm Ginger! And I won't be dressed up, and I won't learn my lessons, and I won't be a little lady, and I'll run away and go back to Fort Dennis the very first chance I get!"
Usually she was ashamed of these outbursts afterwards, for it always happened that after each one she found her Aunt Allison had planned something especially pleasant for her entertainment. Miss Allison felt sorry for the lonely child, who had never been separated from her father and mother before, so she devoted her time to her as much as possible, telling her stories and entering into her plays and pleasures as if they had both been the same age.
Since the boys had come, Virginia had not had a single homesick moment. While she was at school in the primary department of the Girls' College, Malcolm and Keith were reciting their lessons to the old minister who lived across the road from Mrs. MacIntyre's. They were all free about the same hour, and even on the coldest days played out-of-doors from lunch-time until dark.
To-night Virginia had so many experiences to tell them of her day in town that the boys seemed unusually long in dressing. She was so impatient for them to hear her news that she could not settle down to anything, but walked restlessly around the room, wishing they would hurry.
"Oh, I haven't sorted my valentines!" she exclaimed, presently, picking up a fancy box which she had tossed on the bed when she first came in. "I'll take them down to the library."
There was no one in the room when she peeped in. It looked so bright and cosy with the great wood fire blazing on the hearth and the rose-coloured light falling from its softly shaded lamps, that she forgot the coldness of the night outside. Sitting down on a pile of cushions at one end of the hearth-rug, she began sorting her purchases, trying to decide to whom each one should be sent.
"The prettiest valentine of all must go to poor papa," she said to herself, "'cause he's been so sick away down there in Cuba; and this one that's got the little girl on it in a blue dress shall be for my dear, sweet mamma, 'cause it will make her think of me."
For a moment, a mist seemed to blur the gay blue dress of the little valentine girl as Virginia looked at her, thinking of her far-away mother. She drew her hand hastily across her eyes and went on:
"This one is for Sergeant Jackson out at Fort Dennis, and the biggest one, with the doves, for Colonel Philips and his wife. Dear me! I wish I could send one to every officer and soldier out there. They were all so good to me!"
The pile of lace-paper cupids and hearts and arrows and roses slipped from her lap, down to the rug, as she clasped her hands around her knees and looked into the fire. She wished that she could be back again at the fort, long enough to live one of those beautiful old days from reveille to taps. How she loved the bugle-calls and the wild thrill the band gave her, when it struck up a burst of martial music, and the troops went dashing by! How she missed the drills and the dress parades; her rides across the open prairie on her pony, beside her father; how she missed the games she used to play with the other children at the fort on the long summer evenings!
Something more than a mist was gathering in her eyes now. Two big tears were almost ready to fall when the door opened and Mrs. MacIntyre came in. In Virginia's eyes she was the most beautiful grandmother any one ever had. She was not so tall as her daughter Allison, and in that respect fell short of the little girl's ideal, but her hair, white as snow, curled around her face in the same soft, pretty fashion, and by every refined feature she showed her kinship to the aristocratic old faces which looked down from the family portraits in the hall.
"I couldn't be as stately and dignified as she is if I practised a thousand years," thought Virginia, scrambling up from the pile of cushions to roll a chair nearer the fire. As she did so, her heel caught in the rug, and she fell back in an awkward little heap.
"The more haste, the less grace, my dear," said her grandmother, kindly, thanking her for the proffered chair. Virginia blushed, wondering why she always appeared so awkward in her grandmother's presence. She envied the boys because they never seemed embarrassed or ill at ease before her.
While she was picking up her valentines the boys came in. If two of the cavalier ancestors had stepped down from their portrait frames just then, they could not have come into the room in a more charming manner than Malcolm and Keith. Their faces were shining, their linen spotless, and they came up to kiss their grandmother's cheek with an old-time courtliness that delighted her.
"I am sure that there are no more perfect gentlemen in all Kentucky than my two little lads," she said, fondly, with an approving pat of Keith's hand as she held him a moment.
Virginia, who had seen them half an hour before, tousled and dirty, and had been arrayed against them in more than one hot quarrel where they had been anything but chivalrous, let slip a faintly whistled "cuckoo!"
The boys darted a quick glance in her direction, but she was bending over the valentines with a very serious face, which never changed its expression till her Aunt Allison came in and the boys began their apologies for not meeting her at the train. Their only excuse was that they had forgotten all about it.
Virginia spelled on her fingers: "I dare you to tell what made your faces so black!" Keith's only answer was to thrust his tongue out at her behind his grandmother's back. Then he ran to hold the door open for the ladies to pass out to dinner, with all the grace of a young Chesterfield.
When dinner was over and they were back in the library, Miss Allison opened a box of tiny heart-shaped envelopes, and began addressing them. As she took up her pen she said, merrily: "Now you may tell our secret, Virginia."
"I was going to make you guess for about an hour," said Virginia, "but it is so nice I can't wait that long to tell you. We are going to have a valentine party to-morrow night. Aunt Allison planned it all a week ago, and bought the things for it while we were in town to-day. Everything on the table is to be cut in heart shape,—the bread and butter and sandwiches and cheese; and the ice-cream will be moulded in hearts, and the two big frosted cakes are hearts, one pink and one white, with candy arrows sticking in them. Then there will be peppermint candy hearts with mottoes printed on them, and lace-paper napkins with verses on them, so that the table itself will look like a lovely big valentine. The games are lovely, too. One is parlour archery, with a red heart in the middle of the target, and two prizes, one for the boys and one for the girls."
"Who are invited?" asked Malcolm, as Virginia stopped for breath.
"Oh, the Carrington boys, and the Edmunds, and Sally Fairfax, and Julia Ferris,—I can't remember them all. There will be twenty-four, counting us. There is the list on the table."
Keith reached for it, and began slowly spelling out the names. "Who is this?" he asked, reading the name that headed the list. "'The Little Colonel!' I never heard of him,"
"Oh, he's a girl!" laughed Virginia. Little Lloyd Sherman,—don't you know? She lives up at 'The Locusts,' that lovely place with the long avenue of trees leading up to the house. You've surely seen her with her grandfather, old Colonel Lloyd, riding by on the horse that he calls Maggie Boy."
"Has he only one arm?" asked Malcolm.
"Yes, the other was shot off in the war years ago. Well, when Lloyd was younger, she had a temper so much like his, and wore such a dear little Napoleon hat, that everybody took to calling her the Little Colonel."
"How old is she now?" asked Malcolm.
"About Keith's age, isn't she, Aunt Allison?" asked Virginia.
"Yes," was the answer. "She is nearly eight, I believe. She has outgrown most of her naughtiness now."
"I love to hear her talk," said Virginia. "She leaves out all of her r's in such a soft, sweet way."
"All Southerners do that," said Malcolm, pompously, "and I think it sounds lots better than the way Yankees talk."
"You boys don't talk like the Little Colonel," retorted Virginia, who had often been teased by them for not being a Southerner. "You're all mixed up every which way. Some things you say like darkeys, and some things like English people, and it doesn't sound a bit like the Little Colonel."
"Oh, well, that's because we've travelled abroad so much, don't you know," drawled Malcolm, "and we've been in so many different countries, and had an English tutor, and all that sort of a thing. We couldn't help picking up a bit of an accent, don't you know." His superior tone made Virginia long to slap him.
"Yes, I know, Mr. Brag," she said, in such a low voice that her grandmother could not hear. "I know perfectly well. If I didn't it wouldn't be because you haven't told me every chance you got. Who did you say is your tailor in London, and how many times was it the Queen invited you out to Windsor? I think it's a ninety-nine dollar cravat you always buy, isn't it? And you wouldn't be so common as to wear a pair of gloves that hadn't been made to order specially for you. Yes, I've heard all about it!"
Miss Allison heard, but said nothing. She knew the boys were a little inclined to boast, and she thought Virginia's sharp tongue might have a good effect. But the retort had grown somewhat sharper than was pleasant, and, fearing a quarrel might follow if she did not interrupt the whispers beside her, she said:
"Boys, did you ever hear about the time that the Little Colonel threw mud on her grandfather's coat? There's no end to her pranks. Get grandmother to tell you."
"Oh, yes, please, grandmother," begged Keith, with an arm around her neck. "Tell about Fritz and the parrot, too," said Virginia. "Here, Malcolm, there's room on this side for you."
Aunt Allison smiled. The storm had blown over, and they were all friends again.
THE VALENTINE PARTY.
"Now we can tell Ginger about the bear," was Keith's first remark, when he awoke early next morning.
"But not until after we have seen the man again," answered Malcolm. "You know we promised him that."
"Then let's go down before breakfast," exclaimed Keith, springing out of bed and beginning to dress himself. A little while later, the old coloured coachman saw them run past the window, where he was warming himself by the kitchen stove.
"Daphne," he called out to the cook, who was beating biscuit in the adjoining pantry, "Daphne, what's dem chillun alluz racin' down to de spring-house fo' in de snow? Peah's lak dee has a heap o' business down yandah."
Daphne, who had just been coaxed into filling a basket with a generous supply of cold victuals, pretended not to hear until he repeated his question. Then she stopped pounding long enough to say, sharply, "Whuffo' you alluz 'spicion dem boys so evahlastin'ly, Unc' Henry? Lak enough dee's settin' a rabbit trap. Boys has done such things befo'. You's done it yo'se'f, hasn't you?"
Daphne had seen them setting rabbit traps there, but she knew well enough that was not what they had gone for now, and that the food they carried was not for the game of Robinson Crusoe, which they had played in the deserted cabin the summer before. Still, she did not care to take Unc' Henry into her confidence.
The food, the warmth, and the night's rest had so restored the bear that it was able to go through all its performances for the boys' entertainment, although it limped badly.
"Isn't he a dandy?" cried Keith; "I wish we had one. It's nicer than any pets we ever had, except the ponies. Something always happened to the dogs, and the monkey was such a nuisance, and the white rabbits were stolen, and the guinea pigs died."
"Haven't we had a lot of things, when you come to think of it?" exclaimed Malcolm. "Squirrels, and white mice, and the coon that Uncle Harry brought us, and the parrot from Mexico."
"Yes, and the gold-fish, and the little baby alligator that froze to death in its tank," added Keith. "But a bear like this would be nicer than any of them. As soon as papa comes home I am going to ask him to buy us one."
"Jonesy's nearly done for," said the tramp, pointing to the boy who lay curled up in the hay, coughing at nearly every breath. "We ought to stay here another day, if you young gen'lemen don't object."
"Oh, goody!" cried Keith. "Then we can bring Ginger down to see the bear perform."
"Yes," answered the man, "we'll give a free show to all your friends, if you will only kindly wait till to-morrow. Give us one more day to rest up and get in a little better trim. The poor beast's foot is still too lame for him to do his best, and you're too kind-hearted, I am sure, to want anything to suffer in order to give you pleasure."
"Of course," answered both the boys, agreeing so quickly to all the man's smooth speeches that, before they left the cabin, they had renewed their promise to keep silent one more day. The man was a shrewd one, and knew well how to make these unsuspecting little souls serve his purpose, like puppets tied to a string.
Miss Allison was so busy with preparations for the party that she had no time all that day to notice what the boys were doing. When they came back from reciting their lessons to the minister, she sent them on several errands, but the rest of the time they divided between the cabin and the post-office.
Every mail brought a few valentines to each of them, but it was not until the five o'clock train came that they found the long-looked-for letters from their father and mother.
"I knew they'd each send us a valentine," cried Keith, tearing both of his open. "I'll bet that papa's is a comic one. Yes, here it is. Papa is such a tease. Isn't it a stunner? a base-ball player. And, whoopee! Here's a dollar bill in each of 'em."
"So there is in mine," said Malcolm. "Mamma says we are to buy anything we want, and call it a valentine. They couldn't find anything down on the coast that they thought we would like."
"I don't know what to get with mine," said Keith, folding his two bills together. "Seems to me I have everything I want except a camera, and I couldn't buy the kind I want for two dollars."
They were half-way home when a happy thought came to Malcolm. "Keith," he cried, excitedly, "if you would put your money with mine, that would make four dollars, and maybe it would be enough to buy that bear!"
"Let's do it!" exclaimed Keith, turning a handspring in the snow to show his delight. "Come on, we'll ask the man now."
But the man shook his head, when they dashed into the cabin and told their errand. "No, sonny, that ain't a tenth of what it's worth to me," he said. "I've raised that bear from the time it was a teeny cub. I've taught it, and fed it, and looked to it for company when I hadn't nobody in the world to care for me. Couldn't sell that bear for no such sum as that. Couldn't you raise any more money than that?"
It was Malcolm's turn to shake his head. He turned away, too disappointed to trust himself to answer any other way. The tears sprang to Keith's eyes. He had set his heart on having that bear.
"Never mind, brother," said Malcolm, moving toward the door. "Papa will get us one when he comes home and finds how much we want one."
"Oh, don't be in such a hurry, young gen'lemen," whined the man, when he saw that they were really going. "I didn't say that I wouldn't sell it to you for that much. You've been so kind to me that I ought to be willing to make any sacrifice for you. I happen to need four dollars very particular just now, and I've a mind to sell him to you on your own terms." He paused a moment, looking thoughtfully at a crack in the floor, as he stood by the fire with his hands in his pockets. "Yes," he said, at last, "you can have him for four dollars, if you'll keep mum about us being here for one more day. You can leave the bear here till we go."
"No! No!" cried Keith, throwing his arms around the animal's neck. "He is ours now, and we must take him with us. We can hide him away in the barn. It is so dark out-doors now that nobody will see us. It wouldn't seem like he is really ours if we couldn't take him with us."
After some grumbling the man consented, and pocketed the four dollars, first asking very particularly the exact spot in the barn where they expected to hide their huge pet.
Unc' Henry, coming up from the carriage-house through the twilight, thought he saw some one stealing along by the clump of cedars by the spring-house. "Who's prowlin' roun' dis yere premises?" he called. There was no answer, and, after peering intently through the dusk for a moment, the old darkey concluded that he must have been mistaken, and passed on. As soon as he was gone, the boys came out from behind the cedars, and crept up the snowy hillside. They were leading the bear between them.
"We'll put him away back in the hay-mow where he'll be warm and comfortable to-night," whispered Malcolm. "Then in the morning we can tell everybody."
While they were busily scooping out a big hollow in the hay, they were startled by a rustling behind them. They looked into each other's frightened faces, and then glanced around the dark barn in alarm. An old cap pushed up through the hay. Then a weak little cough betrayed Jonesy. He had followed them.
"Sh!" he said, in a warning whisper. "I'm afraid the boss will find out that I'm here. He started to the store for some tobacco as soon as you left. He's been wild fer some, but didn't have no money. Don't you leave that bear out here to-night, if you ever expect to see it again! That wasn't true what he told you. He never saw the bear till two months ago, and he sold it to you cheap because he's a-goin' to steal it back again to-night, and make off up the road with it. He went off a-grinnin' over the slick way he'd fooled you, and I jes' had to come and tell, 'cause you've been so good to me. I'll never forget the little kid's givin' me the coat off his own back, if I live to be a hundred. Now don't blab on me, or the boss would nearly kill me."
"Is that man your father?" began Keith, but Jonesy, alarmed by some sudden noise, sprang to the door, and disappeared in the twilight.
The boys looked at each other a moment, with surprise and indignation in their faces. There was a hurried consultation in the hay-mow. A few moments later the boys were smuggling their new pet into the house, and up the back stairs. They scarcely dared breathe until it was safe in their own room.
All the time that they were dressing for the party, they were trying to decide where to put it for the night, so that neither the tramp nor the family could discover it. What Jonesy had told them about the man's dishonest intention did not relieve them from their promise. They were amazed that any one could be so mean, and longed to tell their Aunt Allison all about it; still, one of the conditions on which they had bought the bear was that they were to "keep mum," and they stuck strictly to that promise.
By the time they were dressed, they had decided to put it in the blue room, a guest-chamber in the north wing, seldom used in winter, because it was so hard to heat. "Nobody will ever think of coming in here," said Malcolm, "and it will be plenty warm for a bear if we turn on the furnace a little." As he spoke, he was tying the bear's rope around a leg of the big, high-posted bed.
"Won't Ginger be surprised?" answered Keith. "We'll tell her that we have a valentine six feet long, and keep her guessing."
There was no time for teasing, however, as the first guest arrived while they were still in the blue room.
"I hate to go off and leave him in the dark," said Keith, with a final loving pat. "I guess he'll not mind, though. Maybe he'll think he is in the woods if I put this good-smelling pine pillow on the rug beside him."
"Oh, boys," called Virginia from the hall down-stairs. "See what an enormous valentine pie Aunt Allison has made!"
Looking over the banisters, the boys saw that a table had been drawn into the middle of the wide reception-hall, and on it sat the largest pie that they had ever seen. It was in a bright new tin pan, and its daintily browned crust would have made them hungry even if their appetites had not been sharpened by the cold and exercise of the afternoon.
"What a queer place to serve pie," said Malcolm, in a disapproving undertone to his brother. "Why don't they have it in the dining-room? It looks mighty good, but somehow it doesn't seem proper to have it stuck out here in the hall. Mamma would never do such a thing."
"Aw, it's made of paper! She fooled us, sure, Malcolm," called back Keith, who had run on ahead to look. "It is only painted to look like a pie. But isn't it a splendid imitation?"
Virginia, pleased to have caught them so cleverly, showed them the ends of twenty-four pieces of narrow ribbon, peeping from under the delicately brown top crust. "The white ones are for the girls, and the red ones for the boys," she explained. "There is a valentine on the end of each one, and those on the red ribbons match the ones on the white. We'll all pull at once, and the ones who have valentines alike will go out to dinner together."
The guests came promptly. They had been invited for half-past six, and dinner was to be served soon after that time. The last to arrive was the Little Colonel. She came in charge of an old coloured woman, Mom Beck, who had been her mother's nurse as well as her own. The child was so hidden in her wraps when Mom Beck led her up-stairs, that no one could tell how she looked. The boys had been curious to see her, ever since they had heard so many tales of her mischievous pranks. A few minutes later, when she appeared in the parlours, there was a buzz of admiration. Maybe it was not so much for the soft light hair, the star-like beauty of her big dark eyes, or the delicate colour in her cheeks that made them as pink as a wild rose, as it was for the valentine costume she wore. It was of dainty white tulle, sprinkled with hundreds of tiny red velvet hearts, and there was a coronet of glittering rhinestones on her long fair hair.
"The Queen of Hearts," announced Aunt Allison, leading her forward. "You know 'she made some tarts, upon a summer day,' and now she shall open the valentine pie and see if it is as good as her Majesty's."
The big music-box in the hall began playing one of its liveliest waltzes, the children gathered around the great pie, and twenty-four little hands reached out to grasp the floating ends of ribbon.
"Pull!" cried the little Queen of Hearts. The paper crust flew off, and twenty-four yards of ribbon, each with a valentine attached, fluttered brightly through the air for an instant.
"Now match your verses," cried her Majesty again, opening her own to read what was in it. There was much laughing and peeping over shoulders, and tangling of white and scarlet ribbons, while the gay music-box played on.
In the midst of it Virginia beckoned to the Little Colonel. "Come up-stairs with me for a minute, Lloyd," she whispered, "and help me look for something. Aunt Allison has forgotten where she put the box of arrows that we are to use in the archery contest after dinner. There is the prettiest prize for the one who hits the red heart in the centre of the target."
"Oh, do you suppose you can hit it?" asked Lloyd, as she and Virginia slipped their arms around each other, and went skipping up the stairs.
"Yes, indeed!" answered Virginia. "I used to practise so much with my Indian bow and arrow out at the fort, that I could hit centre nearly every time. I am not going to shoot to-night. Aunt Allison thinks it wouldn't be fair."
When they reached the top of the stairs, Virginia went into her room to light a wax taper in one of the tall silver candlesticks on her dressing-table. "I think that Aunt Allison must have left those arrows in the blue room," she said, leading the way down the cross hall which went to the north wing. "She made the pie in there this morning, and all the other things were there. Nobody comes over in this part of the house much in winter, unless there happens to be a great deal of company."
The taper that Virginia carried was the only light in that part of the house. When she reached the door of the blue room she turned to Lloyd. "Hold the candle for me, please," she said, "while I look in the closet."
It was a pretty picture that the little "Queen of Hearts" made, as she stood in the doorway, with the tall silver candlestick held high in both hands. Her hair shone like gold in the candlelight, and her glittering crown flashed as if a circle of fairy fireflies had been caught in its soft meshes. Her dark eyes peered anxiously around the big shadowy room, lighted only by her flickering taper.
Down-stairs, Malcolm and Keith were almost quarrelling about her. It began by Malcolm taking his brother aside and offering to trade valentines with him.
"Why?" asked Keith, suspiciously.
"'Cause yours matches the Little Colonel's, and I want to take her out to dinner," admitted Malcolm. "She is the prettiest girl here."
"But I don't want to trade," answered Keith. "I want to take her myself."
"I'll give you the pick of any six stamps in my album if you will."
"Don't want your old stamps," declared Keith, stoutly. "I'd rather have the Little Colonel for my partner."
"I think you might trade," coaxed Malcolm. "It's mean not to when I'm the oldest. I'll give you that Chinese puzzle you've been wanting so long if you will." Keith shook his head.
Just then a terrific scream sounded in the upper hall, followed by another that made every one down-stairs turn pale with fright. Two voices were uttering piercing shrieks, one after another, so loud and frantic that even the servants in the back part of the house came running. Miss Allison, thinking of the candle she had told Virginia to light, and remembering the thin, white dress the child wore, instantly thought she must have set herself afire. She ran into the hall, so frightened that she was trembling from head to foot. Before she could reach the staircase, Virginia came flying down the steps, white as a little ghost, and her eyes wide with terror. Throwing herself into her aunt's outstretched arms, she began to sob out her story between great, trembling gasps.
"Oh, there's an awful, awful wild beast in the blue room, nearly as tall as the ceiling! It rose up and came after us out of the corner, and if I hadn't slammed the door just in time, it would have eaten us up. I'm sure it would! Oo-oo-oo! It was so awful!" she wailed.
"Why, Virginia," exclaimed her aunt, distressed to see her so terrified, "it must have been only a big shadow you saw. It isn't possible for a wild beast to be in the blue room you know. Where is Lloyd?"
"She's up heah, Miss Allison," called Mom Beck's voice. "She's so skeered, I'se pow'ful 'fraid she gwine to faint. They sut'nly is something in that room, honey, deed they is. I kin heah it movin' around now, switchin' he's tail an' growlin'!"
Malcolm and Keith, with guilty faces, went dashing up the stairs, and the whole party followed them at a respectful distance. When they opened the door the room looked very big and shadowy, and the bear, roused from its nap, was standing on its hind legs beside the high-posted bed. The huge figure was certainly enough to frighten any one coming upon it unexpectedly in the dark, and when Miss Allison saw it she drew Virginia's trembling hand into hers with a sympathetic clasp. Before she could ask any questions, the boys began an excited explanation. It was some time before they could make their story understood.
Their grandmother was horrified, and insisted on sending the animal away at once. "The idea of bringing such a dangerous creature into any one's house," she exclaimed, "and, above all, of shutting him up in a bedroom! We might have all been bitten, or hugged to death!"
"But, grandmother," begged Malcolm, "he isn't dangerous. Let me bring him into the light, and show you what a kind old pet he is."
There was a scattering to the other end of the hall as Malcolm came out, leading the bear, but the children gradually drew nearer as the great animal began its performances. Keith whistled and kept time with his feet in a funny little shuffling jig he had learned from Jonesy, and the bear obligingly went through all his tricks. He was used to being pulled out to perform whenever a crowd could be collected.
Virginia forgot her fear of him when he stood up and presented arms like a real soldier, and even went up and patted him when the show was over, joining with the boys in begging that he might be allowed to stay in the house until morning. Mrs. Maclntyre was determined to send a man down to the cabin at once to investigate. She had a horror of tramps. But the boys begged her to wait until daylight for Jonesy's sake.
"The man will beat him if he finds out that Jonesy warned us," pleaded Keith. He was so earnest that the tears stood in his big, trustful eyes.
"This is spoiling the party, mother," whispered Miss Allison, "and dinner is waiting. I'll be responsible for any harm that may be done if you will let the boys have their way this once."
There seemed no other way to settle it just then, so Bruin was allowed to go back to his rug in the blue room, and the door was securely locked.
Keith took Lloyd down to dinner, and his grandmother heard him apologising all the way down for having frightened her. The little Queen of Hearts listened smilingly, but her colour did not come back all evening, until after the archery contest. It was when Malcolm came up with the prize he had won, a tiny silver arrow, and pinned it in the knot of red ribbon on her shoulder.
"Will you keep it to remember me by?" he asked, bashfully.
"Of co'se!" she answered, with a smile that showed all her roguish dimples. "I'll keep it fo'evah and evah to remembah how neah I came to bein' eaten up by yo' bea'h."
"It seems too bad for such a beautiful party to come to an end," Sally Fairfax said when the last merry game was played, the last story told, and it was time to go home. "But there's one comfort," she added, gathering all her gay valentines together, "there needn't be any end to the remembering of it. I've had such a good time, Mrs. MacIntyre."
It was so late when the last carriage rolled down the avenue, bearing away the last smiling little guest, that the children were almost too sleepy to undress. It was not long until the last light was put out in every room, and a deep stillness settled over the entire house. One by one the lights went out in every home in the valley, and only the stars were left shining, in the cold wintry sky. No, there was one lamp that still burned. It was in the little cottage where old Professor Heinrich sat bowed over his books.
A FIRE AND A PLAN.
Some people said that old Johann Heinrich never slept, for no matter what hour of the night one passed his lonely little house, a lamp was always burning. He was a queer old German naturalist, living by himself in a cottage adjoining the MacIntyre place. He had been a professor in a large university until he grew too old to keep his position. Why he should have chosen Lloydsborough Valley as the place to settle for the remainder of his life, no one could tell.
He kept kimself away from his neighbours, and spent so much time roaming around the woods by himself that people called him queer. They did not know that he had written two big books about the birds and insects he loved so well, or that he could tell them facts more wonderful than fairy tales about these little wild creatures of the woodland.
To-night he had read later than usual, and his fire was nearly out. He was too poor to keep a servant, so when he found that the coal-hod was empty he had to go out to the kitchen to fill it himself. That is why he saw something that happened soon after midnight, while everybody else in the valley was sound asleep.
Over in the cabin by the spring-house where the boys had left the tramp and Jonesy, a puff of smoke went curling around the roof. Then a tongue of flame shot up through the cedars, and another and another until the sky was red with an angry glare. It lighted up the eastern window-panes of the servants' cottage, but the inmates, tired from the unusual serving of the evening before, slept on. It shone full across the window of Virginia's room, but she was dreaming of being chased by bears, and only turned uneasily in her sleep.
The old professor, on his way to the kitchen, noticed that it seemed strangely light outside. He shuffled to the door and looked out.
"Ach Himmel!" he exclaimed, excitedly. "Somebody vill shust in his bed be burnt, if old Johann does not haste make!"
Not waiting to close the door behind him, or even to catch up something to protect his old bald head from the intense cold of the winter night, he ran out across the garden. His shuffling feet, in their flapping old carpet slippers, forgot their rheumatism, and his shoulders dropped the weight of their seventy years. He ran like a boy across the meadow, through the gap in the fence, and down the hill to the cabin by the spring.
All one side of it was in flames. The fire was curling around the front door and bursting through the windows with fierce cracklings. Dashing frantically around to the back door, he threw himself against it, shouting to know if any one was within. A blinding rush of smoke was his only answer as he backed away from the overpowering heat, but something fell across the door-sill in a limp little heap. It was Jonesy.
Dragging the child to a safe distance from the burning building, he ran back, fearing that some one else might be in danger, but this time the flames met him at the door, and it was impossible to go in. His hoarse shouting roused the servants, but by the time they reached the cabin the roof had fallen in, and all danger of the fire spreading to other buildings was over.
While the professor was bending over Jonesy, trying to bring him back to consciousness, Miss Allison came running down the path. She had an eiderdown quilt wrapped around her over her dressing-gown. The shouts had awakened her, also, and she had slipped out as quietly as possible, not wishing to alarm her mother.
"How did it happen?" she demanded, breathlessly. "Is the child badly burned? Is any one else hurt? Is the tramp in the cabin?"
No one gave any answer to her rapid questions. The old professor shook his head, but did not look up. He was bending over Jonesy, trying to restore him to consciousness. He seemed to know the right things to do for him, and in a little while the child opened his eyes and looked around wonderingly. In a few minutes he was able to tell what he knew about the fire.
It was not much, only a horrible recollection of being awakened by a feeling that he was choking in the thick smoke that filled the room; of hearing the boss swear at him to be quick and follow him or he would be burned to death. Then there had been an awful moment of groping through the blinding, choking smoke, trying to find a way out. The man sprang to a window and made his escape, but as the outside air rushed in through the opening he left, it seemed to fan the smoke instantly into flame.
Jonesy had struck out at the wall of fire with his helpless little hands, and then, half-crazed by the scorching pain, dropped to the floor and crawled in the opposite direction, just as the professor burst open the door.
The sight of the poor little blistered face brought the tears to Miss Allison's eyes, and she called two of the coloured men, directing them to carry Jonesy to the house, and then go at once for a doctor. But the professor interfered, insisting that Jonesy should be taken to his house. He said that he knew how to prepare the cooling bandages that were needed, and that he would sit up all night to apply them. He could not sleep anyhow, he said, after such great excitement.
"But I feel responsible for him," urged Miss Allison. "Since it happened on our place, and my little nephews brought him here, it seems to me that we ought to have the care of him."
The professor waved her aside, lifting Jonesy's head as tenderly as a nurse could have done, and motioned the coloured men to lift him up.
"No, no, fraulein," he said. "I have had eggsperience. It is besser the poor leedle knabe go mit me!"
There was no opposing the old man's masterful way. Miss Allison stepped aside for them to pass, calling after him her willingness to do the nursing he had taken upon himself, and insisting that she would come early in the morning to help.
Unc' Henry was left to guard the ruins, lest some stray spark should be blown toward the other buildings. "Dis yere ole niggah wa'n't mistaken aftah all," he muttered. "Dee was somebody prowlin' 'roun' de premises yistiddy evenin'." Then he searched the ground, all around the cabin, for footprints in the snow. He found some tracks presently, and followed them over the meadow in the starlight, across the road, and down the railroad track several rods. There they suddenly disappeared. The tramp had evidently walked on the rail some distance. If Unc' Henry had gone quarter of a mile farther up the track, he would have found those same sliding imprints on every other crosstie, as if the man had taken long running leaps in his haste to get away.
Jonesy stoutly denied that the man had set fire to the cabin. "We nearly froze to death that night," he said, when questioned about it afterward, "and the boss piled on an awful big lot of wood just before he went to bed."
"Then what made him take to his heels so fast if he didn't?" some one asked.
"I don't know," answered Jonesy. "He said that luck was always against him, and maybe he thought nobody would believe him if he did say that he didn't do it."
Several days after that Malcolm found the tramp's picture in the Courier-Journal. He was a noted criminal who had escaped from a Northern penitentiary some two months before, and had been arrested by the Louisville police. There was no mistaking him. That big, ugly scar branded him on cheek and forehead like another Cain.
"And to think that that terrible man was harboured on my place!" exclaimed Mrs. MacIntyre when she heard of it. "And you boys were down there in the cabin with him for hours! Sat beside him and talked with him! What will your mother say? I feel as if you had been exposed to the smallpox, and I cannot be too thankful now that the boy who was with him was not brought here. He isn't a fit companion for you. Not that the poor little unfortunate is to blame. He cannot help being a child of the slums, and he must be put in an orphan asylum or a reform school at once. It is probably the only thing that can save him from growing up to be a criminal like the man who brought him here. I shall see what can be done about it, as soon as possible."
"A child of the slums!" Malcolm and Keith repeated the expression afterward, with only a vague idea of its meaning. It seemed to set poor Jonesy apart from themselves as something unclean,—something that their happy, well-filled lives must not be allowed to touch.
Maybe if Jonesy had been an attractive child, with a sensitive mouth, and big, appealing eyes, he might have found his way more easily into people's hearts. But he was a lean, snub-nosed little fellow, with a freckled face and neglected hair. No one would ever find his cheek a tempting one to kiss, and no one would be moved, by any feeling save pity, to stoop and put affectionate arms around Jonesy. He was only a common little street gamin, as unlovely as he was unloved.
"What a blessing that there are such places as orphan asylums for children of that class," said Mrs. Maclntyre, after one of her visits to him. "I must make arrangements for him to be put into one as soon as he is able to be moved."
"I think he will be very loath to leave the old professor," answered Miss Allison. "He has been so good to the child, amusing him by the hour with his microscopes and collections of insects, telling him those delightful old German folk-lore tales, and putting him to sleep every night to the music of his violin. What a child-lover he is, and what a delightful old man in every way! I am glad we have discovered him."
"Yes," said Mrs. Maclntyre; "and when this little tramp is sent away, I want the children to go there often. I asked him if he could not teach them this spring, at least make a beginning with them in natural history, and he appeared much pleased. He is as poor as a church mouse, and would be very glad of the money."
"That reminds me," said Miss Allison, "he asked me if the boys could not come down to see Jonesy this afternoon, and bring the bear. He thought it would give the little fellow so much pleasure, and might help him to forget his suffering."
Mrs. MacIntyre hesitated. "I do not believe their mother would like it," she answered. "Sydney is careful enough about their associates, but Elise is doubly particular. You can imagine how much badness this child must know when you remember how he has been reared. He told me that his name is Jones Carter, and that he cannot remember ever having a father or a mother. I questioned him very closely this morning. He comes from the worst of the Chicago slums. He slept in the cellar of one of its poorest tenement houses, and lived in the gutters. He has a brother only a little older, who is a bootblack. On days when shines were plentiful they had something to eat, otherwise they starved or begged."
"Poor little lamb," murmured Miss Allison.
"It was by the brother's advice he came away with that tramp," continued Mrs. MacIntyre. "He had gotten possession of that trained bear in some way, and probably took a fancy to Jones because he could whistle and dance all sorts of jigs. He probably thought it would be a good thing to have a child with him to work on peoples' sympathies. They walked all the way from Chicago to Lloydsborough, Jones told me, excepting three days' journey they made in a wagon. They have been two months on the road, and showed the bear in the country places they passed through. They avoided the large towns."
"Think what a Christmas he must have had!" exclaimed Miss Allison.
"Christmas! I doubt if he ever heard the word. His speech is something shocking; nothing but the slang of the streets, and so ungrammatical that I could scarcely understand him at times. No, I am very sure that neither Sydney nor Elise would want the boys to be with him."
"But he is so little, mother, and so sick and pitiful looking," pleaded Miss Allison. "Surely he cannot know so very much badness or hurt the boys if they go down to cheer him up for a little while."
Notwithstanding Mrs. Maclntyre's fears, she consented to the boys visiting Jonesy that afternoon. She could not resist the professor's second appeal or the boys' own urging.
They took the bear with them, which Jonesy welcomed like a lost friend. They spent an interesting hour among the professor's collections, listening to his explanations in his funny broken English. Then they explored his cottage, much amused by his queer housekeeping, cracked nuts on the hearth, and roasted apples on a string in front of the fire.
Jonesy did not seem to be cheered up by the visit as much as the professor had expected. Presently the old man left the room and Keith sat down on the side of the bed.
"What makes you so still, Jonesy?" he asked. "You haven't said a word for the last half hour."
"I was thinking about Barney," he answered, keeping his face turned away. "Barney is my brother, you know."
"Yes, so grandmother said," answered Keith. "How big is he?"
"'Bout as big as yourn." There was a choke in Jonesy's voice now. "Seein' yourn put his arm across your shoulder and pullin' your head back by one ear and pinchin' you sort in fun like, made me think the way Barney uster do to me."
Keith did not know what to say, so there was a long, awkward pause.
"I'd never a-left him," said Jonesy, "but the boss said it 'ud only be a little while and we'd make so much money showin' the bear that I'd have a whole pile to take home. I could ride back on the cars and take a whole trunk full of nice things to Barney,—clothes, and candy, and a swell watch and chain, and a bustin' beauty of a bike. Now the bear's sold and the boss has run away, and I don't know how I can get back to Barney. Him an me's all each other's got, and I want to see him so bad."
The little fellow's lip quivered, and he put up one bandaged hand to wipe away the hot tears that would keep coming, in spite of his efforts not to make a baby of himself. There was something so pitiful in the gesture that Keith looked across at Malcolm and then patted the bedclothes with an affectionate little hand.
"Never mind, Jonesy," he said, "papa will be home in the spring and he'll send you back to Barney." But Jonesy never having known anything of fathers whose chief pleasure is in spending money to make little sons happy, was not comforted by that promise as much as Keith thought he ought to be.
"But I won't be here then," he sobbed. "They're goin' to put me in a 'sylum, and I can't get out for so long that maybe Barney will be dead before we ever find each other again."
He was crying violently now.
"Who is going to put you in an asylum?" asked Malcolm, lifting an end of the pillow under which Jonesy's head had burrowed, to hide the grief that his eight-year-old manhood made him too proud to show.
"An old lady with white hair what comes here every day. The professor said he would keep me if he wasn't so old and hard up, and she said as how a 'sylum was the proper place for a child of the slums, and he said yes if they wasn't nobody to care for 'em. But I've got somebody!" he cried. "I've got Barney! Oh, don't let them shut me up somewhere so I can't never get back to Barney!"
"They don't shut you up when they send you to an asylum," said Malcolm. "The one near here is a lovely big house, with acres of green grass around it, and orchards and vine-yards, and they are ever so good to the children, and give them plenty to eat and wear, and send them to school."
"Barney wouldn't be there," sobbed Jonesy, diving under the pillow again. "I don't want nothing but him."
"Well, we'll see what we can do," said Malcolm, as he heard the professor coming back. "If we could only keep you here until spring, I am sure that papa would send you back all right. He's always helping people that get into trouble."
Jonesy took his little snub nose out of the pillow as the professor came in, and looked around defiantly as if ready to fight the first one who dared to hint that he had been crying. The boys took their leave soon after, leading the bear back to his new quarters in the carriage house, where they had made him a comfortable den. Then they walked slowly up to the house, their arms thrown across each other's shoulders.
"S'pose it was us," said Keith, after walking on a little way in silence. "S'pose that you and I were left of all the family, and didn't have any friends in the world, and I was to get separated from you and couldn't get back?"
"That would be tough luck, for sure," answered Malcolm.
"Don't you s'pose Jonesy feels as badly about it as we would?" asked Keith.
"Shouldn't be surprised," said Malcolm, beginning to whistle. Keith joined in, and keeping step to the tune, like two soldiers, they marched on into the house.
Virginia found them in the library, a little while later, sitting on the hearth-rug, tailor-fashion. They were still talking about Jonesy. They could think of nothing else but the loneliness of the little waif, and his pitiful appeal: "Oh, don't let them shut me up where I can't never get back to Barney."
"Why don't you write to your father?" asked Virginia, when they had told her the story of their visit.
"Oh, it is so hard to explain things in a letter," answered Malcolm, "and being off there, he'd say that grandmother and all the grown people certainly know best. But if he could see Jonesy,—how pitiful looking he is, and hear him crying to go back to his brother, I know he'd feel the way we do about it."
"I called the professor out in the hall, and told him so," said Keith, "and asked him if he couldn't adopt Jonesy, or something, until papa comes home. But he said that he is too poor. He has only a few dollars a month to live on. I didn't mind asking him. He smiled in that big, kind way he always does. He said Jonesy was lots of company, and he would like to keep him this summer, if he could afford it, and let him get well and strong out here in the country."
"Then he would keep him till Uncle Sydney comes, if somebody would pay his board?" asked Virginia.
"Yes," said Malcolm, "but that doesn't help matters much, for we children are the only ones who want him to stay, and our monthly allowances, all put together, wouldn't be enough."
"We might earn the money ourselves," suggested Virginia, after awhile, breaking a long silence.
"How?" demanded Malcolm. "Now, Ginger, you know, as well as I do, there is no way for us to earn anything this time of year. You can't pick fruit in the dead of winter, can you? or pull weeds, or rake leaves? What other way is there?"
"We might go to every house in the valley, and exhibit the bear," said Keith, "taking up a collection each time."
"Now you've made me think of it," cried Virginia, excitedly. "I've thought of a good way. We'll give Jonesy a benefit, like great singers have. The bear will be the star performer, and we'll all act, too, and sell the tickets, and have tableaux. I love to arrange tableaux. We were always having them out at the fort."
"I bid to show off the bear," cried Malcolm, entering into Virginia's plan at once. "May be I'll learn something to recite, too."
"I'll help print the tickets," said Keith, "and go around selling them, and be in anything you want me to be. How many tableaux are you going to have, Ginger?"
"I can't tell yet," she answered, but a moment after she cried out, her eyes shining with pleasure, "Oh, I've thought of a lovely one. We can have the Little Colonel and the bear for 'Beauty and the Beast.'"
Malcolm promptly turned a somersault on the rug, to express his approval, but came up with a grave face, saying, "I'll bet that grandmother will say we can't have it."
"Let's get Aunt Allison on our side," suggested Virginia. "She's up in her room now, painting a picture."
A little sigh of disappointment escaped Miss Allison's lips, as she heard the rush of feet on the stairs. This was the first time that she had touched her brushes since the children's coming, and she had hoped that this one afternoon would be free from interruption, when she heard them planning their afternoon's occupations at the lunch-table. They had come back before the little water-colour sketch she was making was quite finished.
There was no disappointment, however, in the bright face she turned toward them, and Virginia lost no time in beginning her story. She had been elected to tell it, but before it was done all three had had a part in the telling, and all three were waiting with wistful eyes for her answer.
"Well, what is it you want me to do?" she asked, finally.
"Oh, just be on our side!" they exclaimed, "and get grandmother to say yes. You see she doesn't feel about Jonesy the way we do. She is willing to pay a great deal of money to have him taken off and cared for, but she says she doesn't see how grandchildren of hers can be so interested in a little tramp that comes from nobody knows where, and who will probably end his days in a penitentiary."
Aunt Allison answered Malcolm's last remark a little sternly. "You must understand that it is only for your own good that she is opposed to Jonesy's staying," she said. "There is nobody in the valley so generous and kind to the poor as your grandmother." "Yes'm," said Virginia, meekly, "but you'll ask her, won't you please, auntie?"
Miss Allison smiled at her persistence. "Wait until I finish this," she said. "Then I'll go down-stairs and put the matter before her, and report to you at dinner-time. Now are you satisfied?"
"Yes," they cried in chorus, "you're on our side. It's all right now!" With a series of hearty hugs that left her almost breathless, they hurried away.
When Miss Allison kept her promise she did not go to her mother with the children's story of Jonesy, to move her to pity. She told her simply what they wanted, and then said, "Mother, you know I have begun to teach the children the 'Vision of Sir Launfal.' Virginia has learned every word of it, and the boys will soon know all but the preludes. There will never be a better chance than this for them to learn the lesson:
"'Not what we give, but what we share, For the gift without the giver is bare.'
"This would be a real sharing of themselves, all their time and best energies, for they will have to work hard to get up such an entertainment as this. It isn't for Jonesy's sake I ask it, but for the children's own good."
The old lady looked thoughtfully into the fire a moment, and then said, "Maybe you are right, Allison. I do want to keep them unspotted from a knowledge of the world's evils, but I do not want to make them selfish. If this little beggar at the gate can teach them where to find the Holy Grail, through unselfish service to him, I do not want to stand in the way. Bless their little hearts, they may play Sir Launfal if they want to, and may they have as beautiful a vision as his!"
The Jonesy Benefit grew like Jack's bean-stalk after Miss Allison took charge of it. There was less than a week in which to get ready, as the boys insisted on having it on the twenty-second of February, in honour of Washington's birthday; but in that short time the childish show which Ginger had proposed grew into an entertainment so beautiful and elaborate that the neighbourhood talked of it for weeks after.
Miss Allison spent one sleepless night, planning her campaign like a general, and next morning had an army of helpers at work. Before the day was over she sent a letter to an old school friend of hers in the city, Miss Eleanor Bond, who had been her most intimate companion all through her school-days, and who still spent a part of every summer with her.
"Dearest Nell," the letter said, "come out to-morrow on the first afternoon train, if you love me. The children are getting up an entertainment for charity, which shall be duly explained on your arrival. No time now. I am superintending a force of carpenters in the college hall, where the entertainment is to take place, have two seamstresses in the house hurrying up costumes, and am helping mother scour the country for pretty children to put in the tableaux.