Under the Lilacs
Louisa May Alcott
TO EMMA, IDA, CARL, AND LINA, Over The Sea, THIS LITTLE BOOK IS AFFECTIONATELY INSCRIBED BY THEIR NEW FRIEND AND SISTER, L. M. A.
I. A MYSTERIOUS DOG II. WHERE THEY FOUND HIS MASTER III. BEN IV. HIS STORY V. BEN GETS A PLACE VI. A CIRCULATING LIBRARY VII. NEW FRIENDS TROT IN VIII. MISS CELIA'S MAN IX. A HAPPY TEA X. A HEAVY TROUBLE XI. SUNDAY XII. GOOD TIMES XIII. SOMEBODY RUNS AWAY XIV. SOMEBODY GETS LOST XV. BEN'S RIDE XVI. DETECTIVE THORNTON XVII. BETTY'S BRAVERY XVIII. BOWS AND ARROWS XIX. SPEAKING PIECES XX. BEN'S BIRTHDAY XXI. CUPID'S LAST APPEARANCE XXII. A BOY'S BARGAIN XXIII. SOMEBODY COMES XXIV. THE GREAT GATE IS OPENED
UNDER THE LILACS
A MYSTERIOUS DOG
The elm-tree avenue was all overgrown, the great gate was never unlocked, and the old house had been shut up for several years.
Yet voices were heard about the place, the lilacs nodded over the high wall as if they said, "We could tell fine secrets if we chose," and the mullein outside the gate made haste to reach the keyhole, that it might peep in and see what was going on. If it had suddenly grown up like a magic bean-stalk, and looked in on a certain June day, it would have seen a droll but pleasant sight, for somebody evidently was going to have a party.
From the gate to the porch went a wide walk, paved with smooth slabs of dark stone, and bordered with the tall bushes which met overhead, making a green roof. All sorts of neglected flowers and wild weeds grew between their stems, covering the walls of this summer parlor with the prettiest tapestry. A board, propped on two blocks of wood, stood in the middle of the walk, covered with a little plaid shawl much the worse for wear, and on it a miniature tea-service was set forth with great elegance. To be sure, the tea-pot had lost its spout, the cream-jug its handle, the sugar-bowl its cover, and the cups and plates were all more or less cracked or nicked; but polite persons would not take notice of these trifling deficiencies, and none but polite persons were invited to this party.
On either side of the porch was a seat, and here a somewhat remarkable sight would have been revealed to any inquisitive eye peering through the aforesaid keyhole. Upon the left-hand seat lay seven dolls, upon the right-hand seat lay six; and so varied were the expressions of their countenances, owing to fractures, dirt, age, and other afflictions, that one would very naturally have thought this a doll's hospital, and these the patients waiting for their tea.
This, however, would have been a sad mistake; for if the wind had lifted the coverings laid over them, it would have disclosed the fact that all were in full dress, and merely reposing before the feast should begin.
There was another interesting feature of the scene which would have puzzled any but those well acquainted with the manners and customs of dolls. A fourteenth rag baby, with a china head, hung by her neck from the rusty knocker in the middle of the door. A sprig of white and one of purple lilac nodded over her, a dress of yellow calico, richly trimmed with red-flannel scallops, shrouded her slender form, a garland of small flowers crowned her glossy curls, and a pair of blue boots touched toes in the friendliest, if not the most graceful, manner. An emotion of grief, as well as of surprise, might well have thrilled any youthful breast at such a spectacle; for why, oh! why, was this resplendent dolly hung up there to be stared at by thirteen of her kindred? Was she a criminal, the sight of whose execution threw them flat upon their backs in speechless horror? Or was she an idol, to be adored in that humble posture? Neither, my friends. She was blonde Belinda, set, or rather hung, aloft, in the place of honor, for this was her seventh birthday, and a superb ball was about to celebrate the great event. All were evidently awaiting a summons to the festive board; but such was the perfect breeding of these dolls, that not a single eye out of the whole twenty-seven (Dutch Hans had lost one of the black beads from his worsted countenance) turned for a moment toward the table, or so much as winked, as they lay in decorous rows, gazing with mute admiration at Belinda. She, unable to repress the joy and pride which swelled her sawdust bosom till the seams gaped, gave an occasional bounce as the wind waved her yellow skirts, or made the blue boots dance a sort of jig upon the door. Hanging was evidently not a painful operation, for she smiled contentedly, and looked as if the red ribbon around her neck was not uncomfortably tight; therefore, if slow suffocation suited her, who else had any right to complain? So a pleasing silence reigned, not even broken by a snore from Dinah, the top of whose turban alone was visible above the coverlet, or a cry from baby Jane, though her bare feet stuck out in a way that would have produced shrieks from a less well-trained infant.
Presently voices were heard approaching, and through the arch which led to a side-path came two little girls, one carrying a small pitcher, the other proudly bearing a basket covered with a napkin. They looked like twins, but were not, for Bab was a year older than Betty, though only an inch taller. Both had on brown calico frocks, much the worse for a week's wear; but clean pink pinafores, in honor of the occasion, made up for that, as well as the gray stockings and thick boots. Both had round, rosy faces rather sunburnt, pug noses somewhat freckled, merry blue eyes, and braided tails of hair hanging down their backs like those of the dear little Kenwigses.
"Don't they look sweet?" cried Bab, gazing with maternal pride upon the left-hand row of dolls, who might appropriately have sung in chorus, "We are seven."
"Very nice; but my Belinda beats them all. I do think she is the splendidest child that ever was!" And Betty set down the basket to run and embrace the suspended darling, just then kicking up her heels with joyful abandon.
"The cake can be cooling while we fix the children. It does smell perfectly delicious!" said Bab, lifting the napkin to hang over the basket, fondly regarding the little round loaf that lay inside.
"Leave some smell for me!" commanded Betty, running back to get her fair share of the spicy fragrance. The pug noses sniffed it up luxuriously, and the bright eyes feasted upon the loveliness of the cake, so brown and shiny, with a tipsy-looking B in pie-crust staggering down one side, instead of sitting properly a-top.
"Ma let me put it on the very last minute, and it baked so hard I couldn't pick it off. We can give Belinda that piece, so it's just as well," observed Betty, taking the lead, as her child was queen of the revel.
"Let's set them round, so they can see too," proposed Bab, going, with a hop, skip, and jump, to collect her young family.
Betty agreed, and for several minutes both were absorbed in seating their dolls about the table; for some of the dear things were so limp they wouldn't sit up, and others so stiff they wouldn't sit down, and all sorts of seats had to be contrived to suit the peculiarities of their spines. This arduous task accomplished, the fond mammas stepped back to enjoy the spectacle, which, I assure you, was an impressive one. Belinda sat with great dignity at the head, her hands genteelly holding a pink cambric pocket-handkerchief in her lap. Josephus, her cousin, took the foot, elegantly arrayed in a new suit of purple and green gingham, with his speaking countenance much obscured by a straw hat several sizes too large for him; while on either side sat guests of every size, complexion, and costume, producing a very gay and varied effect, as all were dressed with a noble disregard of fashion.
"They will like to see us get tea. Did you forget the buns?" inquired Betty, anxiously.
"No; got them in my pocket." And Bab produced from that chaotic cupboard two rather stale and crumbly ones, saved from lunch for the fete. These were cut up and arranged in plates, forming a graceful circle around the cake, still in its basket.
"Ma couldn't spare much milk, so we must mix water with it. Strong tea isn't good for children, she says." And Bab contentedly surveyed the gill of skim-milk which was to satisfy the thirst of the company.
"While the tea draws and the cake cools, let's sit down and rest; I'm so tired!" sighed Betty, dropping down on the door-step and stretching out the stout little legs which had been on the go all day; for Saturday had its tasks as well as its fun, and much business had preceded this unusual pleasure. Bab went and sat beside her, looking idly down the walk toward the gate, where a fine cobweb shone in the afternoon sun.
"Ma says she is going over the house in a day or two, now it is warm and dry after the storm, and we may go with her. You know she wouldn't take us in the fall, cause we had whooping-cough, and it was damp there. Now we shall see all the nice things; won't it be fun?" observed Bab, after a pause.
"Yes, indeed! Ma says there's lots of books in one room, and I can look at 'em while she goes round. May be I'll have time to read some, and then I can tell you," answered Betty, who dearly loved stories, and seldom got any new ones.
"I'd rather see the old spinning-wheel up garret, and the big pictures, and the queer clothes in the blue chest. It makes me mad to have them all shut up there, when we might have such fun with them. I'd just like to bang that old door down!" And Bab twisted round to give it a thump with her boots. "You needn't laugh; you know you'd like it as much as me," she added, twisting back again, rather ashamed of her impatience.
"I didn't laugh."
"You did! Don't you suppose I know what laughing is?"
"I guess I know I didn't."
"You did laugh! How darst you tell such a fib?"
"If you say that again I'll take Belinda and go right home; then what will you do?"
"I'll eat up the cake."
"No, you won't! It's mine, Ma said so; and you are only company, so you'd better behave or I won't have any party at all, so now."
This awful threat calmed Bab's anger at once, and she hastened to introduce a safer subject.
"Never mind; don't let's fight before the children. Do you know, Ma says she will let us play in the coach-house next time it rains, and keep the key if we want to."
"Oh, goody! that's because we told her how we found the little window under the woodbine, and didn't try to go in, though we might have just as easy as not," cried Betty, appeased at once, for, after a ten years' acquaintance, she had grown used to Bab's peppery temper.
"I suppose the coach will be all dust and rats and spiders, but I don't care. You and the dolls can be the passengers, and I shall sit up in front drive."
"You always do. I shall like riding better than being horse all the time, with that old wooden bit in my mouth, and you jerking my arms off," said poor Betty, who was tired of being horse continually.
"I guess we'd better go and get the water now," suggested Bab, feeling that it was not safe to encourage her sister in such complaints.
"It is not many people who would dare to leave their children all alone with such a lovely cake, and know they wouldn't pick at it," said Betty proudly, as they trotted away to the spring, each with a little tin pail in her hand.
Alas, for the faith of these too confiding mammas! They were gone about five minutes, and when they returned a sight met their astonished eyes which produced a simultaneous shriek of horror. Flat upon their faces lay the fourteen dolls, and the cake, the cherished cake, was gone.
For an instant the little girls could only stand motionless, gazing at the dreadful scene. Then Bab cast her water-pail wildly away, and, doubling up her fist, cried out fiercely,—
"It was that Sally! She said she'd pay me for slapping her when she pinched little Mary Ann, and now she has. I'll give it to her! You run that way. I'll run this. Quick! quick!"
Away they went, Bab racing straight on, and bewildered Betty turning obediently round to trot in the opposite direction as fast as she could, with the water splashing all over her as she ran, for she had forgotten to put down her pail. Round the house they went, and met with a crash at the back door, but no sign of the thief appeared.
"In the lane!" shouted Bab.
"Down by the spring!" panted Betty; and off they went again, one to scramble up a pile of stones and look over the wall into the avenue, the other to scamper to the spot they had just left. Still, nothing appeared but the dandelions' innocent faces looking up at Bab, and a brown bird scared from his bath in the spring by Betty's hasty approach.
Back they rushed, but only to meet a new scare, which made them both cry "Ow!" and fly into the porch for refuge.
A strange dog was sitting calmly among the ruins of the feast, licking his lips after basely eating up the last poor bits of bun, when he had bolted the cake, basket, and all, apparently.
"Oh, the horrid thing!" cried Bab, longing to give battle, but afraid, for the dog was a peculiar as well as a dishonest animal.
"He looks like our China poodle, doesn't he?" whispered Betty, making herself as small as possible behind her more valiant sister.
He certainly did; for, though much larger and dirtier than the well-washed China dog, this live one had the same tassel at the end of his tail, ruffles of hair round his ankles, and a body shaven behind and curly before. His eyes, however, were yellow, instead of glassy black, like the other's; his red nose worked as he cocked it up, as if smelling for more cakes, in the most impudent manner; and never, during the three years he had stood on the parlor mantel-piece, had the China poodle done the surprising feats with which this mysterious dog now proceeded to astonish the little girls almost out of their wits. First he sat up, put his forepaws together, and begged prettily; then he suddenly flung his hind-legs into the air, and walked about with great ease. Hardly had they recovered from this shock, when the hind-legs came down, the fore-legs went up, and he paraded in a soldierly manner to and fro, like a sentinel on guard. But the crowning performance was when he took his tail in his mouth and waltzed down the walk, over the prostrate dolls, to the gate and back again, barely escaping a general upset of the ravaged table.
Bab and Betty could only hold each other tight and squeal with delight, for never had they seen any thing so funny; but, when the gymnastics ended, and the dizzy dog came and stood on the step before them barking loudly, with that pink nose of his sniffing at their feet, and his queer eyes fixed sharply upon them, their amusement turned to fear again, and they dared not stir.
"Whish, go away!" commanded Bab.
"Scat!" meekly quavered Betty.
To their great relief, the poodle gave several more inquiring barks, and then vanished as suddenly as he appeared. With one impulse, the children ran to see what became of him, and, after a brisk scamper through the orchard, saw the tasselled tail disappear under the fence at the far end.
"Where do you s'pose he came from?" asked Betty, stopping to rest on a big stone.
"I'd like to know where he's gone, too, and give him a good beating, old thief!" scolded Bab, remembering their wrongs.
"Oh, dear, yes! I hope the cake burnt him dreadfully if he did eat it," groaned Betty, sadly remembering the dozen good raisins she chopped up, and the "lots of 'lasses" mother put into the dear lost loaf.
"The party's all spoilt, so we may as well go home; and Bab mournfully led the way back. Betty puckered up her face to cry, but burst out laughing in spite of her woe.
"It was so funny to see him spin round and walk on his head! I wish he'd do it all over again; don't you?"
"Yes: but I hate him just the same. I wonder what Ma will say when—why! why!" and Bab stopped short in the arch, with her eyes as round and almost as large as the blue saucers on the tea-tray.
"What is it? oh, what is it?" cried Betty, all ready to run away if any new terror appeared.
"Look! there! it's come back!" said Bab in an awe-stricken whisper, pointing to the table. Betty did look, and her eyes opened even wider,—as well they might,—for there, just where they first put it, was the lost cake, unhurt, unchanged, except that the big B had coasted a little further down the gingerbread hill.
WHERE THEY FOUND HIS MASTER
Neither spoke for a minute, astonishment being too great for words; then, as by one impulse, both stole up and touched the cake with a timid finger, quite prepared to see it fly away in some mysterious and startling manner. It remained sitting tranquilly in the basket, however, and the children drew a long breath of relief, for, though they did not believe in fairies, the late performances did seem rather like witchcraft.
"The dog didn't eat it!"
"Sally didn't take it!"
"How do you know?"
"She never would have put it back."
"Can't tell, but I forgive 'em."
"What shall we do now?" asked Betty, feeling as if it would be very difficult to settle down to a quiet tea-party after such unusual excitement.
"Eat that cake up just as fast as ever we can", and Bab divided the contested delicacy with one chop of the big knife, bound to make sure of her own share at all events.
It did not take long, for they washed it down with sips of milk, and ate as fast as possible, glancing round all the while to see if the queer dog was coming again.
"There! now I'd like to see any one take my cake away," said Bab, defiantly crunching her half of the pie-crust B.
"Or mine either," coughed Betty, choking over a raisin that wouldn't go down in a hurry.
"We might as well clear up, and play there had been an earthquake," suggested Bab, feeling that some such convulsion of Nature was needed to explain satisfactorily the demoralized condition of her family.
"That will be splendid. My poor Linda was knocked right over on her nose. Darlin' child, come to your mother and be fixed," purred Betty, lifting the fallen idol from a grove of chickweed, and tenderly brushing the dirt from Belinda's heroically smiling face.
"She'll have croup to-night as sure as the world. We'd better make up some squills out of this sugar and water," said Bab, who dearly loved to dose the dollies all round.
"P'r'aps she will, but you needn't begin to sneeze yet awhile. I can sneeze for my own children, thank you, ma'am," returned Betty, sharply, for her usually amiable spirit had been ruffled by the late occurrences.
"I didn't sneeze! I've got enough to do to talk and cry and cough for my own poor dears, without bothering about yours," cried Bab, even more ruffled than her sister.
"Then who did? I heard a real live sneeze just as plain as anything," and Betty looked up to the green roof above her, as if the sound came from that direction.
A yellow-bird sat swinging and chirping on the tall lilac-bush, but no other living thing was in sight. "Birds don't sneeze, do they?" asked Betty, eying little Goldy suspiciously.
"You goose! of course they don't."
"Well. I should just like to know who is laughing and sneezing round here. May be it is the dog," suggested Betty looking relieved.
"I never heard of a dog's laughing, except Mother Hubbard's. This is such a queer one, may be he can, though. I wonder where he went to?" and Bab took a survey down both the side-paths, quite longing to see the funny poodle again.
"I know where I 'm going to," said Betty, piling the dolls into her apron with more haste than care. "I'm going right straight home to tell Ma all about it. I don't like such actions, and I 'm afraid to stay."
"I ain't; but I guess it is going to rain, so I shall have to go any way," answered Bab, taking advantage of the black clouds rolling up the sky, for she scorned to own that she was afraid of any thing.
Clearing the table in a summary manner by catching up the four corners of the cloth, Bab put the rattling bundle into her apron, flung her children on the top and pronounced herself ready to depart. Betty lingered an instant to pick up and ends that might be spoilt by the rain, and, when she turned from taking the red halter off the knocker, two lovely pink roses lay on the stone steps.
"Oh, Bab, just see! Here's the very ones we wanted. Wasn't it nice of the wind to blow 'em down?" she called out, picking them up and running after her sister, who had strolled moodily along, still looking about for her sworn foe, Sally Folsom. The flowers soothed the feelings of the little girls, because they had longed for them, and bravely resisted the temptation to climb up the trellis and help themselves, since their mother had forbidden such feats, owing to a fall Bab got trying to reach a honeysuckle from the vine which ran all over the porch.
Home they went and poured out their tale, to Mrs. Moss's great amusement; for she saw in it only some playmate's prank, and was not much impressed by the mysterious sneeze and laugh.
"We'll have a grand rummage Monday, and find out what is going on over there," was all she said. But Mrs. Moss could not keep her promise, for on Monday it still rained, and the little girls paddled off to school like a pair of young ducks, enjoying every puddle they came to, since India-rubber boots made wading a delicious possibility. They took their dinner, and at noon regaled a crowd of comrades with an account of the mysterious dog, who appeared to be haunting the neighborhood, as several of the other children had seen him examining their back yards with interest. He had begged of them, but to none had he exhibited his accomplishments except Bab and Betty; and they were therefore much set up, and called him "our dog" with an air. The cake transaction remained a riddle, for Sally Folsom solemnly declared that she was playing tag in Mamie Snow's barn at that identical time. No one had been near the old house but the two children, and no one could throw any light upon that singular affair.
It produced a great effect, however; for even "teacher" was interested, and told such amazing tales of a juggler she once saw, that doughnuts were left forgotten in dinner-baskets, and wedges of pie remained suspended in the air for several minutes at a time, instead of vanishing with miraculous rapidity as usual. At afternoon recess, which the girls had first, Bab nearly dislocated every joint of her little body trying to imitate the poodle's antics. She had practised on her bed with great success, but the wood-shed floor was a different thing, as her knees and elbows soon testified.
"It looked just as easy as any thing; I don't see how he did it," she said, coming down with a bump after vainly attempting to walk on her hands.
"My gracious, there he is this very minute!" cried Betty, who sat on a little wood-pile near the door. There was a general rush,—and sixteen small girls gazed out into the rain as eagerly as if to behold Cinderella's magic coach, instead of one forlorn dog trotting by through the mud.
"Oh, do call him in and make him dance!" cried the girls, all chirping at once, till it sounded as if a flock of sparrows had taken possession of the shed.
"I will call him, he knows me," and Bab scrambled up, forgetting how she had chased the poodle and called him names two days ago.
He evidently had not forgotten, however; for, though he paused and looked wistfully at them, he would not approach, but stood dripping in the rain, with his frills much bedraggled, while his tasselled tail wagged slowly, and his pink nose pointed suggestively to the pails and baskets, nearly empty now.
"He's hungry; give him something to eat, and then he'll see that we don't want to hurt him," suggested Sally, starting a contribution with her last bit of bread and butter.
Bab caught up her new pail, and collected all the odds and ends; then tried to beguile the poor beast in to eat and be comforted. But he only came as far as the door, and, sitting up, begged with such imploring eyes that Bab put down the pail and stepped back, saying pitifully,—
"The poor thing is starved; let him eat all he wants, and we won't touch him."
The girls drew back with little clucks of interest and compassion; but I regret to say their charity was not rewarded as they expected, for, the minute the coast was clear, the dog marched boldly up, seized the handle of the pail in his mouth, and was off with it, galloping down the road at a great pace.
Shrieks arose from the children, especially Bab and Betty, basely bereaved of their new dinner-pail; but no one could follow the thief, for the Ben rang, and in they went, so much excited that the boys rushed tumultuously forth to discover the cause. By the time school was over the sun was out, and Bab and Betty hastened home to tell their wrongs and be comforted by mother, who did it most effectually.
"Never mind, dears, I'll get you another pail, if he doesn't bring it back as he did before. As it is too wet for you to play out, you shall go and see the old coach-house as I promised, Keep on your rubbers and come along."
This delightful prospect much assuaged their woe, and away they went, skipping gayly down the gravelled path, while Mrs. Moss followed, with skirts well tucked up, and a great bunch of keys in her hand; for she lived at the Lodge, and had charge of the premises.
The small door of the coach-house was fastened inside, but the large one had a padlock on it; and this being quickly unfastened, one half swung open, and the little girls ran in, too eager and curious even to cry out when they found themselves at last in possession of the long-coveted old carriage. A dusty, musty concern enough; but it had a high seat, a door, steps that let down, and many other charms which rendered it most desirable in the eyes of children.
Bab made straight for the box and Betty for the door; but both came tumbling down faster than they went up, when from the gloom of the interior came a shrill bark, and a low voice saying quickly, "Down, Sancho! down!"
"Who is there?" demanded Mrs. Moss, in a stern tone, backing toward the door with both children clinging to her skirts.
The well-known curly white head was popped out of the broken window, and a mild whine seemed to say, "Don't be alarmed, ladies; we won't hurt you. Come out this minute, or I shall have to come and get you," called Mrs. Moss, growing very brave all of a sudden as she caught sight of a pair of small, dusty shoes under the coach.
"Yes, 'm, I'm coming, as fast as I can," answered a meek voice, as what appeared to be a bundle of rags leaped out of the dark, followed by the poodle, who immediately sat down at the bare feet of his owner with a watchful air, as if ready to assault any one who might approach too near.
"Now, then, who are you, and how did you get here?" asked Mrs. Moss, trying to speak sternly, though her motherly eyes were already full of pity, as they rested on the forlorn little figure before her.
"Please, 'm, my name is Ben Brown, and I'm travellin'."
"Where are you going?"
"Anywheres to get work."
"What sort of work can you do?"
"All kinds. I'm used to horses."
"Bless me! such a little chap as you?
"I'm twelve, ma'am, and can ride any thing on four legs;" and the small boy gave a nod that seemed to say, "Bring on your Cruisers. I'm ready for 'em."
"Haven't you got any folks?" asked Mrs. Moss, amused but still anxious, for the sunburnt face was very thin, the eyes hollow with hunger or pain, and the ragged figure leaned on the wheel as if too weak or weary to stand alone.
"No, 'm, not of my own; and the people I was left with beat me so, I—run away." The last words seemed to bolt out against his will as if the woman's sympathy irresistibly won the child's confidence.
"Then I don't blame you. But how did you get here?"
"I was so tired I couldn't go any further, and I thought the folks up here at the big house would take me in. But the gate was locked, and I was so discouraged, I jest laid down outside and give up."
"Poor little soul, I don't wonder," said Mrs. Moss, while the children looked deeply interested at mention of their gate.
The boy drew a long breath, and his eyes began to twinkle in spite of his forlorn state as he went on, while the dog pricked up his ears at mention of his name:—
"While I was restin' I heard some one come along inside, and I peeked, and saw them little girls playin'. The vittles looked so nice I couldn't help wantin' 'em; but I didn't take nothin',—it was Sancho, and he took the cake for me."
Bab and Betty gave a gasp and stared reproachfully at the poodle, who half closed his eyes with a meek, unconscious look that was very droll.
"And you made him put it back?" cried Bab.
"No; I did it myself. Got over the gate when you was racin' after Sancho, and then clim' up on the porch and hid," said the boy with a grin.
"And you laughed?" asked Bab.
"And sneezed?" added Betty.
"And threw down the roses?" cried both.
"Yes; and you liked 'em, didn't you?"
"Course we did! What made you hide?" said Bab.
"I wasn't fit to be seen," muttered Ben, glancing at his tatters as if he'd like to dive out of sight into the dark coach again.
"How came you here?" demanded Mrs. Moss, suddenly remembering her responsibility.
"I heard 'em talk about a little winder and a shed, and when they'd gone I found it and come in. The glass was broke, and I only pulled the nail out. I haven't done a mite of harm sleepin' here two nights. I was so tuckered out I couldn't go on nohow, though I tried a-Sunday."
"And came back again?
"Yes, 'm; it was so lonesome in the rain, and this place seemed kinder like home, and I could hear 'em talkin' outside, and Sanch he found vittles, and I was pretty comfortable."
"Well, I never!" ejaculated Mrs. Moss, whisking up a corner of her apron to wipe her eyes, for the thought of the poor little fellow alone there for two days and nights with no bed but musty straw, no food but the scraps a dog brought him, was too much for her. "Do you know what I'm going to do with you?" she asked, trying to look calm and cool, with a great tear running down her wholesome red cheek, and a smile trying to break out at the corners of her lips.
"No, ma'am, and I dunno as I care. Only don't be hard on Sanch; he's been real good to me, and we 're fond of one another; ain't us, old chap?" answered the boy, with his arm around the dog's neck, and an anxious look which he had not worn for himself.
"I'm going to take you right home, and wash and feed and put you in a good bed; and to-morrow,—well, we'll see what'll happen then," said Mrs. Moss, not quite sure about it herself.
"You're very kind, ma'am, I'll be glad to work for you. Ain't you got a horse I can see to?" asked the boy, eagerly.
"Nothing but hens and a cat."
Bab and Betty burst out laughing when their mother said that, and Ben gave a faint giggle, as if he would like to join in if he only had the strength to do it. But his legs shook under him, and he felt a queer dizziness; so he could only hold on to Sancho, and blink at the light like a young owl.
"Come right along, child. Run on, girls, and put the rest of the broth to warming, and fill the kettle. I'll see to the boy," commanded Mrs. Moss, waving off the children, and going up to feel the pulse of her new charge, for it suddenly occurred to her that he might be sick and not safe to take home.
The hand he gave her was very thin, but clean and cool, and the black eyes were clear though hollow, for the poor lad was half-starved.
"I'm awful shabby, but I ain't dirty. I had a washin' in the rain last night, and I've jest about lived on water lately," he explained, wondering why she looked at him so hard.
"Put out your tongue."
He did so, but took it in again to say quickly,—
"I ain't sick,—I'm only hungry; for I haven't had a mite but what Sanch brought, for three days; and I always go halves, don't I, Sanch?"
The poodle gave a shrill bark, and vibrated excitedly between the door and his master as if he understood all that was going on, and recommended a speedy march toward the promised food and shelter. Mrs. Moss took the hint, and bade the boy follow her at once and bring his "things" with him.
"I ain't got any. Some big fellers took away my bundle, else I wouldn't look so bad. There's only this. I'm sorry Sanch took it, and I'd like to give it back if I knew whose it was," said Ben, bringing the new dinner-pail out from the depths of the coach where he had gone to housekeeping.
"That's soon done; it's mine, and you're welcome to the bits your queer dog ran off with. Come along, I must lock up," and Mrs. Moss clanked her keys suggestively.
Ben limped out, leaning on a broken hoe-handle, for he was stiff after two days in such damp lodgings, as well as worn out with a fortnight's wandering through sun and rain. Sancho was in great spirits, evidently feeling that their woes were over and his foraging expeditions at an end, for he frisked about his master with yelps of pleasure, or made playful darts at the ankles of his benefactress, which caused her to cry, "Whish!" and "Scat!" and shake her skirts at him as if he were a cat or hen.
A hot fire was roaring in the stove under the broth-skillet and tea-kettle, and Betty was poking in more wood, with a great smirch of black on her chubby cheek, while Bab was cutting away at the loaf as if bent on slicing her own fingers off. Before Ben knew what he was about, he found himself in the old rocking-chair devouring bread and butter as only a hungry boy can, with Sancho close by gnawing a mutton-bone like a ravenous wolf in sheep's clothing.
While the new-comers were thus happily employed, Mrs. Moss beckoned the little girls out of the room, and gave them both an errand.
"Bab, you run over to Mrs. Barton's, and ask her for any old duds Billy don't want; and Betty, you go to the Cutters, and tell Miss Clarindy I'd like a couple of the shirts we made at last sewing circle. Any shoes, or a hat, or socks, would come handy, for the poor dear hasn't a whole thread on him."
Away went the children full of anxiety to clothe their beggar; and so well did they plead his cause with the good neighbors, that Ben hardly knew himself when he emerged from the back bedroom half an hour later, clothed in Billy Barton's faded flannel suit, with an unbleached cotton shirt out of the Dorcas basket, and a pair of Milly Cutter's old shoes on his feet.
Sancho also had been put in better trim, for, after his master had refreshed himself with a warm bath, he gave his dog a good scrub while Mrs. Moss set a stitch here and there in the new old clothes; and Sancho reappeared, looking more like the china poodle than ever, being as white as snow, his curls well brushed up, and his tasselly tail waving proudly over his back.
Feeling eminently respectable and comfortable, the wanderers humbly presented themselves, and were greeted with smiles of approval from the little girls and a hospitable welcome from the mother, who set them near the stove to dry, as both were decidedly damp after their ablutions.
"I declare I shouldn't have known you!" exclaimed the good woman, surveying the boy with great satisfaction; for, though still very thin and tired, the lad had a tidy look that pleased her, and a lively way of moving about in his clothes, like an eel in a skin rather too big for him. The merry black eyes seemed to see every thing, the voice had an honest sound, and the sunburnt face looked several years younger since the unnatural despondency had gone out of it.
"It's very nice, and me and Sanch are lots obliged, ma'am," murmured Ben, getting red and bashful under the three pairs of friendly eyes fixed upon him.
Bab and Betty were doing up the tea-things with unusual despatch, so that they might entertain their guest, and just as Ben spoke Bab dropped a cup. To her great surprise no smash followed, for, bending quickly, the boy caught it as it fell, and presented it to her on the back of his hand with a little bow.
"Gracious! how could you do it?" asked Bab, looking as if she thought there was magic about.
"That's nothing; look here," and, taking two plates, Ben sent them spinning up into the air, catching and throwing so rapidly that Bab and Betty stood with their mouths open, as if to swallow the plates should they fall, while Mrs. Moss, with her dish-cloth suspended, watched the antics of her crockery with a housewife's anxiety.
"That does beat all!" was the only exclamation she had time to make; for, as if desirous of showing his gratitude in the only way he could, Ben took clothes-pins from a basket near by, sent several saucers twirling up, caught them on the pins, balanced the pins on chin, nose, forehead, and went walking about with a new and peculiar sort of toadstool ornamenting his countenance.
The children were immensely tickled, and Mrs. Moss was so amused she would have lent her best soup-tureen if he had expressed a wish for it. But Ben was too tired to show all his accomplishments at once, and he soon stopped, looking as if he almost regretted having betrayed that he possessed any.
"I guess you've been in the juggling business," said Mrs. Moss, with a wise nod, for she saw the same look on his face as when he said his name was Ben Brown,—the look of one who was not telling the whole truth.
"Yes, 'm. I used to help Senor Pedro, the Wizard of the World, and I learned some of his tricks," stammered Ben, trying to seem innocent.
"Now, look here, boy, you'd better tell me the whole story, and tell it true, or I shall have to send you up to judge Morris. I wouldn't like to do that, for he is a harsh sort of a man; so, if you haven't done any thing bad, you needn't be afraid to speak out, and I'll do what I can for you," said Mrs. Moss, rather sternly, as she went and sat down in her rocking-chair, as if about to open the court.
"I haven't done any thing bad, and I ain't afraid, only I don't want to go back; and if I tell, may be you'll let 'em know where I be," said Ben, much distressed between his longing to confide in his new friend and his fear of his old enemies.
"If they abused you, of course I wouldn't. Tell the truth, and I'll stand by you. Girls, you go for the milk."
"Oh, Ma, do let us stay! We'll never tell, truly, truly!" cried Bab and Betty, full of dismay being sent off when secrets were about to be divulged.
"I don't mind 'em," said Ben handsomely.
"Very well, only hold your tongues. Now, boy where did you come from?" said Mrs. Moss, as the little girls hastily sat down together on their private and particular bench opposite their mother, brimming with curiosity and beaming with satisfaction at the prospect before them.
"I ran away from a circus," began Ben, but got no further, for Bab and Betty gave a simultaneous bounce of delight, and both cried out at once,—
"We've been to one! It was splendid!"
"You wouldn't think so if you knew as much about it as I do," answered Ben, with a sudden frown and wriggle, as if he still felt the smart of the blows he had received. "We don't call it splendid; do we, Sancho?" he added, making a queer noise, which caused the poodle to growl and bang the floor irefully with his tail, as he lay close to his master's feet, getting acquainted with the new shoes they wore.
"How came you there?" asked Mrs. Moss, rather disturbed at the news.
"Why, my father was the 'Wild Hunter of the Plains.' Didn't you ever see or hear of him?" said Ben, as if surprised at her ignorance.
"Bless your heart, child, I haven't been to a circus this ten years, and I'm sure I don't remember what or who I saw then," answered Mrs. Moss, amused, yet touched by the son's evident admiration for his father.
"Didn't you see him?" demanded Ben, turning to the little girls.
"We saw Indians and tumbling men, and the Bounding Brothers of Borneo, and a clown and monkeys, and a little mite of a pony with blue eyes. Was he any of them?" answered Betty, innocently.
"Pooh! he didn't belong to that lot. He always rode two, four, six, eight horses to oncet, and I used to ride with him till I got too big. My father was A No. 1, and didn't do any thing but break horses and ride 'em," said Ben, with as much pride as if his parent had been a President.
"Is he dead?" asked Mrs. Moss.
"I don't know. Wish I did,"—and poor Ben gave a gulp as if something rose in his throat and choked him.
"Tell us all about it, dear, and may be we can find out where he is," said Mrs. Moss, leaning forward to pat the shiny dark head that was suddenly bent over the dog.
"Yes, ma'am. I will, thank y'," and with an effort the boy steadied his voice and plunged into the middle of his story.
"Father was always good to me, and I liked bein' with him after granny died. I lived with her till I was seven; then father took me, and I was trained for rider. You jest oughter have seen me when I was a little feller all in white tights, and a gold belt, and pink riggin', standing' on father's shoulder, or hangin' on to old General's tail, and him gallopin' full pelt; or father ridin' three horses with me on his head wavin' flags, and every one clapping like fun."
"Oh, weren't you scared to pieces?" asked Betty, quaking at the mere thought.
"Not a bit. I liked it."
"So should I!" cried Bab enthusiastically.
"Then I drove the four ponies in the little chariot, when we paraded," continued Ben, "and I sat on the great ball up top of the grand car drawed by Hannibal and Nero. But I didn't like that, 'cause it was awful high and shaky, and the sun was hot, and the trees slapped my face, and my legs ached holdin' on."
"What's hanny bells and neroes?" demanded Betty.
"Big elephants. Father never let 'em put me up there, and they didn't darst till he was gone; then I had to, else they'd 'a' thrashed me."
"Didn't any one take your part?" asked Mrs. Moss.
"Yes, 'm, 'most all the ladies did; they were very good to me, 'specially 'Melia. She vowed she wouldn't go on in the Tunnymunt act if they didn't stop knockin' me round when I wouldn't help old Buck with the bears. So they had to stop it, 'cause she led first rate, and none of the other ladies rode half as well as 'Melia."
"Bears! oh, do tell about them!" exclaimed Bab, in great excitement, for at the only circus she had seen the animals were her delight.
"Buck had five of 'em, cross old fellers, and he showed 'em off. I played with 'em once, jest for fun, and he thought it would make a hit to have me show off instead of him. But they had a way of clawin' and huggin' that wasn't nice, and you couldn't never tell whether they were good-natured or ready to bite your head off. Buck was all over scars where they'd scratched and bit him, and I wasn't going to do it; and I didn't have to, owin' to Miss St. John's standin' by me like a good one."
"Who was Miss St. John?" asked Mrs. Moss, rather confused by the sudden introduction of new names and people.
"Why she was 'Melia,—Mrs. Smithers, the ringmaster's wife. His name wasn't Montgomery any more'n hers was St. John. They all change 'em to something fine on the bills, you know. Father used to be Senor Jose Montebello; and I was Master Adolphus Bloomsbury, after I stopped bein' a flyin' Coopid and a infant Progidy."
Mrs. Moss leaned back in her chair to laugh at that, greatly to the surprise of the little girls, who were much impressed with the elegance of these high-sounding names.
"Go on with your story, Ben, and tell why you ran away and what became of your Pa," she said, composing herself to listen, really interested in the child.
"Well, you see, father had a quarrel with old Smithers, and went off sudden last fall, just before tenting season' was over. He told me he was goin' to a great ridin' school in New York and when he was fixed he'd send for me. I was to stay in the museum and help Pedro with the trick business. He was a nice man and I liked him, and 'Melia was goin' to see to me, and I didn't mind for awhile. But father didn't send for me, and I began to have horrid times. If it hadn't been for 'Melia and Sancho I would have cut away long before I did."
"What did you have to do?"
"Lots of things, for times was dull and I was smart. Smithers said so, any way, and I had to tumble up lively when he gave the word. I didn't mind doin' tricks or showin' off Sancho, for father trained him, and he always did well with me. But they wanted me to drink gin to keep me small, and I wouldn't, 'cause father didn't like that kind of thing. I used to ride tip-top, and that just suited me till I got a fall and hurt my back; but I had to go on all the same, though I ached dreadful, and used to tumble off, I was so dizzy and weak."
"What a brute that man must have been! Why didn't 'Melia put a stop to it?" asked Mrs. Moss, indignantly.
"She died, ma'am, and then there was no one left but Sanch; so I run away."
Then Ben fell to patting his dog again, to hide the tears he could not keep from coming at the thought of the kind friend he had lost.
"What did you mean to do?"
"Find father; but I couldn't, for he wasn't at the ridin' school, and they told me he had gone out West to buy mustangs for a man who wanted a lot. So then I was in a fix, for I couldn't go to father, didn't know jest where he was, and I wouldn't sneak back to Smithers to be abused. Tried to make 'em take me at the ridin' school, but they didn't want a boy, and I travelled along and tried to get work. But I'd have starved if it hadn't been for Sanch. I left him tied up when I ran off, for fear they'd say I stole him. He's a very valuable dog, ma'am, the best trick dog I ever see, and they'd want him back more than they would me. He belongs to father, and I hated to leave him; but I did. I hooked it one dark night, and never thought I'd see him ag'in. Next mornin' I was eatin' breakfast in a barn miles away, and dreadful lonesome, when he came tearin' in, all mud and wet, with a great piece of rope draggin'. He'd gnawed it and come after me, and wouldn't go back or be lost; and I'll never leave him again, will I, dear old feller?"
Sancho had listened to this portion of the tale with intense interest, and when Ben spoke to him he stood straight up, put both paws on the boy's shoulders, licked his face with a world of dumb affection in his yellow eyes, and gave a little whine which said as plainly as words,—
"Cheer up, little master; fathers may vanish and friends die, but I never will desert you."
Ben hugged him close and smiled over his curly, white head at the little girls, who clapped their hands at the pleasing tableau, and then went to pat and fondle the good creature, assuring him that they entirely forgave the theft of the cake and the new dinner-pail. Inspired by these endearments and certain private signals given by Ben, Sancho suddenly burst away to perform all his best antics with unusual grace and dexterity.
Bab and Betty danced about the room with rapture, while Mrs. Moss declared she was almost afraid to have such a wonderfully intelligent animal in the house. Praises of his dog pleased Ben more than praises of himself, and when the confusion had subsided he entertained his audience with a lively account of Sancho's cleverness, fidelity, and the various adventures in which he had nobly borne his part.
While he talked, Mrs. Moss was making up her mind about him, and when he came to an end of his dog's perfections, she said, gravely,—
"If I can find something for you to do, would you like to stay here awhile?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am, I'd be glad to!" answered Ben, eagerly; for the place seemed home-like already, and the good woman almost as motherly as the departed Mrs. Smithers.
"Well, I'll step over to the Squire's to-morrow to see what he says. Shouldn't wonder if he'd take you for a chore-boy, if you are as smart as you say. He always has one in the summer, and I haven't seen any round yet. Can you drive cows?"
"Hope so;" and Ben gave a shrug, as if it was a very unnecessary question to put to a person who had driven four calico ponies in a gilded chariot.
"It mayn't be as lively as riding elephants and playing with bears, but it is respectable; and I guess you'll be happier switching Brindle and Buttercup than being switched yourself," said Mrs. Moss, shaking her head at him with a smile.
"I guess I will, ma'am," answered Ben, with sudden meekness, remembering the trials from which he had escaped.
Very soon after this, he was sent off For a good night's sleep in the back bedroom, with Sancho to watch over him. But both found it difficult to slumber till the racket overhead subsided; for Bab insisted on playing she was a bear and devouring poor Betty, in spite of her wails, till their mother came up and put an end to it by threatening to send Ben and his dog away in the morning, if the girls "didn't behave and be as still as mice."
This they solemnly promised; and they were soon dreaming of gilded cars and mouldy coaches, runaway boys and dinner-pails, dancing dogs and twirling teacups.
BEN GETS A PLACE
When Ben awoke next morning, he looked about him for a moment half bewildered, because there was neither a canvas tent, a barn roof, nor the blue sky above him, but a neat white ceiling, where several flies buzzed sociably together, while from without came, not the tramping of horses, the twitter of swallows, or the chirp of early birds, but the comfortable cackle of hens and the sound of two little voices chanting the multiplication table.
Sancho sat at the open window, watching the old cat wash her face, and trying to imitate her with his great ruffled paw, so awkwardly that Ben laughed; and Sanch, to hide his confusion at being caught, made one bound from chair to bed, and licked his master's face so energetically that the boy dived under the bedclothes to escape from the rough tongue. A rap on the floor from below made both jump up, and in ten minutes a shiny-faced lad and a lively dog went racing downstairs,—one to say, "Good-mornin', ma'am," the other to wag his tail faster than ever tail wagged before, for ham frizzled on the stove, and Sancho was fond of it.
"Did you rest well?" asked Mrs. Moss, nodding at him, fork in hand.
"Guess I did! Never saw such a bed. I'm used to hay and a horse-blanket, and lately nothin' but sky for a cover and grass for my feather-bed," laughed Ben, grateful for present comforts and making light of past hardships.
"Clean, sweet corn-husks ain't bad for young bones, even if they haven't got more flesh on them than yours have," answered Mrs. Moss, giving the smooth head a motherly stroke as she went by.
"Fat ain't allowed in our profession, ma'am. The thinner the better for tight-ropes and tumblin'; likewise bareback ridin' and spry jugglin'. Muscle's the thing, and there you are."
Ben stretched out a wiry little arm with a clenched fist at the end of it, as if he were a young Hercules, ready to play ball with the stove if she gave him leave. Glad to see him in such good spirits, she pointed to the well outside, saying pleasantly,—
"Well, then, just try your muscle by bringing in some fresh water."
Ben caught up a pail and ran off, ready to be useful; but, while he waited for the bucket to fill down among the mossy stones, he looked about him, well pleased with all he saw,—the small brown house with a pretty curl of smoke rising from its chimney, the little sisters sitting in the sunshine, green hills and newly-planted fields far and near, a brook dancing through the orchard, birds singing in the elm avenue, and all the world as fresh and lovely as early summer could make it.
"Don't you think it's pretty nice here?" asked Bab, as his eye came back to them after a long look, which seemed to take in every thing, brightening as it roved.
"Just the nicest place that ever was. Only needs a horse round somewhere to be complete," answered Ben, as the long well-sweep came up with a dripping bucket at one end, an old grindstone at the other.
"The judge has three, but he's so fussy about them he won't even let us pull a few hairs out of old Major's tail to make rings of," said Betty, shutting her arithmetic, with an injured expression.
"Mike lets me ride the white one to water when the judge isn't round. It's such fun to go jouncing down the lane and back. I do love horses!" cried Bab, bobbing up and down on the blue bench to imitate the motion of white Jenny.
"I guess you are a plucky sort of a girl," and Ben gave her an approving look as he went by, taking care to slop a little water on Mrs. Puss, who stood curling her whiskers and humping up her back at Sancho.
"Come to breakfast!" called Mrs. Moss; and for about twenty minutes little was said, as mush and milk vanished in a way that would have astonished even Jack the Giant-killer with his leather bag.
"Now, girls, fly round and get your chores done up; Ben, you go chop me some kindlings; and I'll make things tidy. Then we can all start off at once," said Mrs. Moss, as the last mouthful vanished, and Sancho licked his lips over the savory scraps that fell to his share.
Ben fell to chopping so vigorously that chips flew wildly all about the shed; Bab rattled the cups into her dish-pan with dangerous haste, and Betty raised a cloud of dust "sweeping-up;" while mother seemed to be everywhere at once. Even Sanch, feeling that his fate was at stake, endeavored to help in his own somewhat erratic way,—now frisking about Ben at the risk of getting his tail chopped off, then trotting away to poke his inquisitive nose into every closet and room whither he followed Mrs. Moss in her "flying round" evolutions; next dragging off the mat so Betty could brush the door-steps, or inspecting Bab's dish-washing by standing on his hind-legs to survey the table with a critical air. When they drove him out he was not the least offended, but gayly barked Puss up a tree, chased all the hens over the fence, and carefully interred an old shoe in the garden, where the remains of the mutton-bone were already buried.
By the time the others were ready, he had worked off his superfluous spirits, and trotted behind the party like a well-behaved dog accustomed to go out walking with ladies. At the cross-roads they separated, the little girls running on to school, while Mrs. Moss and Ben went up to the Squire's big house on the hill.
"Don't you be scared, child. I'LL make it all right about your running away; and if the Squire gives you a job, just thank him for it, and do your best to be steady and industrious; then you'll get on, I haven't a doubt," she whispered, ringing the Ben at a side-door, on which the word "Morris" shone in bright letters.
"Come in!" called a gruff voice; and, feeling very much as if he were going to have a tooth out, Ben meekly followed the good woman, who put on her pleasantest smile, anxious to make the best possible impression.
A white-headed old gentleman sat reading a paper, and peered over his glasses at the new-comers with a pair of sharp eyes, saying in a testy tone, which would have rather daunted any one who did not know what a kind heart he had under his capacious waistcoat,—
"Good-morning, ma'am. What's the matter now? Young tramp been stealing your chickens?"
"Oh, dear no, sir!" exclaimed Mrs. Moss, as if shocked at the idea. Then, in a few words, she told Ben's story, unconsciously making his wrongs and destitution so pathetic by her looks and tones, that the Squire could not help being interested, and even Ben pitied himself as if he were somebody else.
"Now, then, boy, what can you do?" asked the old gentleman, with an approving nod to Mrs. Moss as she finished, and such a keen glance from under his bushy brows that Ben felt as if he was perfectly transparent.
"'Most any thing, sir, to get my livin'."
"Can you weed?"
"Never did, but I can learn, sir."
"Pull up all the beets and leave the pigweed, hey? Can you pick strawberries?"
"Never tried any thing but eatin' 'em, sir,"
"Not likely to forget that part of the job. Can you ride a horse to plow?"
"Guess I could, sir!"—and Ben's eyes began to sparkle, for he dearly loved the noble animals who had been his dearest friends lately.
"No antics allowed. My horse is a fine fellow, and I'm very particular about him." The Squire spoke soberly, but there was a twinkle in his eye, and Mrs. Moss tried not to smile; for the Squire's horse was a joke all over the town, being about twenty years old, and having a peculiar gait of his own, lifting his fore-feet very high, with a great show of speed, though never going out of a jog-trot. The boys used to say he galloped before and walked behind, and made all sorts of fun of the big, Roman-nosed beast, who allowed no liberties to be taken with him.
"I'm too fond of horses to hurt 'em, Sir. As for ridin', I ain't afraid of any thing on four legs. The King of Morocco used to kick and bite like fun, but I could manage him first-rate."
"Then you'd be able to drive cows to pasture, perhaps?"
"I've drove elephants and camels, ostriches and grizzly bears, and mules, and six yellow ponies all to oncet. May be I could manage cows if I tried hard," answered Ben, endeavoring to be meek and respectful when scorn filled his soul at the idea of not being able to drive a cow.
The Squire liked him all the better for the droll mixture of indignation and amusement betrayed by the fire in his eyes and the sly smile round his lips; and being rather tickled by Ben's list of animals, he answered gravely,—
"Don't raise elephants and camels much round here. Bears used to be plenty, but folks got tired of them. Mules are numerous, but we have the two-legged kind; and as a general thing prefer Shanghae fowls to ostriches."
He got no farther, for Ben laughed out so infectiously that both the others joined him; and somehow that jolly laugh seemed to settle matters than words. As they stopped, the Squire tapped on the window behind him, saying, with an attempt at the former gruffness,—
"We'll try you on cows awhile. My man will show you where to drive them, and give you some odd jobs through the day. I'll see what you are good for, and send you word to-night, Mrs. Moss. The boy can sleep at your house, can't he?"
"Yes, indeed, sir. He can go on doing it, and come up to his work just as well as not. I can see to him then, and he won't be a care to any one," said Mrs. Moss, heartily.
"I'll make inquiries concerning your father, boy; meantime mind what you are about, and have a good report to give when he comes for you," returned the Squire, with a warning wag of a stern fore-finger.
"Thanky', sir. I will, sir. Father'll come just as soon as he can, if he isn't sick or lost," murmured Ben, inwardly thanking his stars that he had not done any thing to make him quake before that awful finger, and resolved that he never would.
Here a red-headed Irishman came to the door, and stood eying the boy with small favor while the Squire gave his orders.
"Pat, this lad wants work. He's to take the cows and go for them. Give him any light jobs you have, and let me know if he's good for any thing."
"Yis, your honor. Come out o' this, b'y, till I show ye the bastes," responded Pat; and, with a hasty good-by to Mrs. Moss, Ben followed his new leader, sorely tempted to play some naughty trick upon him in return for his ungracious reception.
But in a moment he forgot that Pat existed, for in the yard stood the Duke of Wellington, so named in honor of his Roman nose. If Ben had known any thing about Shakespeare, he would have cried, "A horse, a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" for the feeling was in his heart, and he ran up to the stately animal without a fear. Duke put back his ears and swished his tail as if displeased for a moment; but Ben looked straight in his eyes, gave a scientific stroke to the iron-gray nose, and uttered a chirrup which made the ears prick up as if recognizing a familiar sound.
"He'll nip ye, if ye go botherin' that way. Leave him alone, and attend to the cattle as his honor told ye," commanded Pat, who made a great show of respect toward Duke in public, and kicked him brutally in private.
"I ain't afraid! You won't hurt me, will you, old feller? See there now!—he knows I 'm a friend, and takes to me right off," said Ben, with an arm around Duke's neck, and his own cheek confidingly laid against the animal's; for the intelligent eyes spoke to him as plainly as the little whinny which he understood and accepted as a welcome.
The Squire saw it all from the open window, and suspecting from Pat's face that trouble was brewing, called out,—
"Let the lad harness Duke, if he can. I'm going out directly, and he may as well try that as any thing."
Ben was delighted, and proved himself so brisk and handy that the roomy chaise stood at the door in a surprisingly short time, with a smiling little ostler at Duke's head when the Squire came out.
His affection for the horse pleased the old gentleman, and his neat way of harnessing suited as well; but Ben got no praise, except a nod and a brief "All right, boy," as the equipage went creaking and jogging away.
Four sleek cows filed out of the barnyard when Pat opened the gate, and Ben drove them down the road to a distant pasture where the early grass awaited their eager cropping. By the school they went, and the boy looked pityingly at the black, brown, and yellow heads bobbing past the windows as a class went up to recite; for it seemed a hard thing to the liberty-loving lad to be shut up there so many hours on a morning like that.
But a little breeze that was playing truant round the steps did Ben a service without knowing it, for a sudden puff blew a torn leaf to his feet, and seeing a picture he took it up. It evidently had fallen from some ill-used history, for the picture showed some queer ships at anchor, some oddly dressed men just landing, and a crowd of Indians dancing about on the shore. Ben spelt out all he could about these interesting personages, but could not discover what it meant, because ink evidently had deluged the page, to the new reader's great disappointment.
"I'll ask the girls; may be they will know," said Ben to himself as, after looking vainly for more stray leaves, he trudged on, enjoying the bobolink's song, the warm sunshine, and a comfortable sense of friendliness and safety, which soon set him to whistling as gayly as any blackbird in the meadow.
A CIRCULATING LIBRARY
After supper that night, Bab and Betty sat in the old porch playing with Josephus and Belinda, and discussing the events of the day; for the appearance of the strange boy and his dog had been a most exciting occurrence in their quiet lives. They had seen nothing of him since morning, as he took his meals at the Squire's, and was at work with Pat in a distant field when the children passed. Sancho had stuck closely to his master, evidently rather bewildered by the new order of things, and bound to see that no harm happened to Ben.
"I wish they'd come. It's sundown, and I heard the cows mooing, so I know they have gone home," said Betty, impatiently; for she regarded the new-comer in the light of an entertaining book, and wished to read on as fast as possible.
"I'm going to learn the signs he makes when he wants Sancho to dance; then we can have fun with him whenever we like. He's the dearest dog I ever saw!" answered Bab, who was fonder of animals than her sister.
"Ma said—Ow, what's that?" cried Betty with a start, as something bumped against the gate outside; and in a moment Ben's head peeped over the top as he swung himself up to the iron arch, in the middle of which was the empty lantern frame.
"Please to locate, gentlemen; please to locate. The performance is about to begin with the great Flyin' Coopid act, in which Master Bloomsbury has appeared before the crowned heads of Europe. Pronounced by all beholders the most remarkable youthful progidy agoin'. Hooray! here we are!"
Having rattled off the familiar speech in Mr. Smithers's elegant manner, Ben begin to cut up such capers that even a party of dignified hens, going down the avenue to bed, paused to look on with clucks of astonishment, evidently fancying that salt had set him to fluttering and tumbling as it did them. Never had the old gate beheld such antics, though it had seen gay doings in its time; for of all the boys who had climbed over it, not one had ever stood on his head upon each of the big balls which ornamented the posts, hung by his heels from the arch, gone round and round like a wheel with the bar for an axis, played a tattoo with his toes while holding on by his chin, walked about the wall on his hands, or closed the entertainment by festooning himself in an airy posture over the side of the lantern frame, and kissing his hand to the audience as a well-bred Cupid is supposed to do on making his bow.
The little girls clapped and stamped enthusiastically, while Sancho, who had been calmly surveying the show, barked his approval as he leaped up to snap at Ben's feet.
"Come down and tell what you did up at the Squire's. Was he cross? Did you have to work hard? Do you like it?" asked Bab, when the noise had subsided.
"It's cooler up here," answered Ben, composing himself in the frame, and fanning his hot face with a green spray broken from the tall bushes rustling odorously all about him. "I did all sorts of jobs. The old gentleman wasn't cross; he gave me a dime, and I like him first-rate. But I just hate 'Carrots;' he swears at a feller, and fired a stick of wood at me. Guess I'll pay him off when I get a chance."
Fumbling in his pocket to show the bright dime, he found the torn page, and remembered the thirst for information which had seized him in the morning. "Look here, tell me about this, will you? What are these chaps up to? The ink has spoilt all but the picture and this bit of reading. I want to know what it means. Take it to 'em, Sanch."
The dog caught the leaf as it fluttered to the ground, and carrying it carefully in his mouth, deposited it at the feet of the little girls, seating himself before them with an air of deep interest. Bab and Betty picked it up and read it aloud in unison, while Ben leaned from his perch to listen and learn.
"'When day dawned, land was visible. A pleasant land it was. There were gay flowers, and tall trees with leaves and fruit, such as they had never seen before. On the shore were unclad copper-colored men, gazing with wonder at the Spanish ships. They took them for great birds, the white sails for their wings, and the Spaniards for superior beings brought down from heaven on their backs."
"Why, that's Columbus finding San Salvador. Don't you know about him?" demanded Bab, as if she were one of the "superior beings," and intimately acquainted with the immortal Christopher.
"No, I don't. Who was he any way? I s'pose that's him paddlin' ahead; but which of the Injuns is Sam Salvindoor?" asked Ben, rather ashamed of his ignorance, but bent on finding out now he had begun.
"My gracious! twelve years old and not know your Quackenbos!" laughed Bab, much amused, but rather glad to find that she could teach the "whirligig boy" something, for she considered him a remarkable creature.
"I don't care a bit for your quackin' boss, whoever he is. Tell about this fine feller with the ships; I like him," persisted Ben.
So Bab, with frequent interruptions and hints from Betty, told the wonderful tale in a simple way, which made it easy to understand; for she liked history, and had a lively tongue of her own.
"I'd like to read some more. Would my ten cents buy a book?" asked Ben, anxious to learn a little since Bab laughed at him.
"No, indeed! I'll lend you mine when I'm not using it, and tell you all about it," promised Bab; forgetting that she did not know "all about it" herself yet.
"I don't have any time only evenings, and then may be you'll want it," begun Ben, in whom the inky page had roused a strong curiosity.
"I do get my history in the evening, but you could have it mornings before school."
"I shall have to go off early, so there won't be any chance. Yes, there will,—I'LL tell you how to do it. Let me read while I drive up the cows. Squire likes 'em to eat slow along the road, so's to keep the grass short and save mowin'. Pat said so, and I could do history instead of loafin' round!" cried Ben full of this bright idea.
"How will I get my book back in time to recite?" asked Bab, prudently.
"Oh, I'll leave it on the window-sill, or put it inside the door as I go back. I'll be real careful, and just as soon as I earn enough, I'll buy you a new one and take the old one. Will you?"
"Yes; but I'll tell you a nicer way to do. Don't put the book on the window, 'cause teacher will see you; or inside the door, 'cause some one may steal it. You put it in my cubby-house, right at the corner of the wall nearest the big maple. You'll find a cunning place between the roots that stick up under the flat stone. That's my closet, and I keep things there. It's the best cubby of all, and we take turns to have it."
"I'll find it, and that'll be a first-rate place," said Ben, much gratified.
"I could put my reading-book in sometimes, if you'd like it. There's lots of pretty stories in it and pictures," proposed Betty, rather timidly; for she wanted to share the benevolent project, but had little to offer, not being as good a scholar as Bab.
"I'd like a 'rithmetic better. I read tip-top, but I ain't much on 'rithmetic; so, if you can spare yours, I might take a look at it. Now I'm goin' to earn wages, I ought to know about addin' 'em up, and so on," said Ben, with the air of a Vanderbilt oppressed with the care of millions.
"I'll teach you that. Betty doesn't know much about sums. But she spells splendidly, and is always at the head of her class. Teacher is real proud of her, 'cause she never misses, and spells hard, fussy words, like chi-rog-ra-phy and bron-chi-tis as easy as any thing."
Bab quite beamed with sisterly pride, and Betty smoothed down her apron with modest satisfaction, for Bab seldom praised her, and she liked it very much.
"I never went to school, so that's the reason I ain't smart. I can write, though, better 'n some of the boys up at school. I saw lots of names on the shed door. See here, now,"—and scrambling down, Ben pulled out a cherished bit of chalk, and flourished off ten letters of the alphabet, one on each of the dark stone slabs that paved the walk.
"Those are beautiful! I can't make such curly ones. Who taught you to do it?" asked Bab, as she and Betty walked up and down admiring them.
"Horse blankets," answered Ben, soberly.
"What!" cried both girls, stopping to stare.
"Our horses all had their names on their blankets, and I used to copy 'em. The wagons had signs, and I learned to read that way after father taught me my letters off the red and yellow posters. First word I knew was lion, 'cause I was always goin' to see old Jubal in his cage. Father was real proud when I read it right off. I can draw one, too."
Ben proceeded to depict an animal intended to represent his lost friend; but Jubal would not have recognized his portrait, since it looked much more like Sancho than the king of the forest. The children admired it immensely, however, and Ben gave them a lesson in natural history which was so interesting that it kept them busy and happy till bedtime; for the boy described what he had seen in such lively language, and illustrated in such a droll way, it was no wonder they were charmed.
NEW FRIENDS TROT IN
Next day Ben ran off to his work with Quackenbos's "Elementary History of the United States" in his pocket, and the Squire's cows had ample time to breakfast on way-side grass before they were put into their pasture. Even then the pleasant lesson was not ended, for Ben had an errand to town; and all the way he read busily, tumbling over the hard words, and leaving bits which he did not understand to be explained at night by Bab.
At "The First Settlements" he had to stop, for the schoolhouse was reached, and the book must be returned. The maple-tree closet was easily found, and a little surprise hidden under the flat stone; for Ben paid two sticks of red and white candy for the privilege of taking books from the new library.
When recess came, great was the rejoicing of the children over their unexpected treat, for Mrs. Moss had few pennies to spare for sweets, and, somehow, this candy tasted particularly nice, bought out of grateful Ben's solitary dime. The little girls shared their goodies with their favorite mates, but said nothing about the new arrangement, fearing it would be spoilt if generally known. They told their mother, however, and she gave them leave to lend their books and encourage Ben to love learning all they could. She also proposed that they should drop patch-work, and help her make some blue shirts for Ben. Mrs. Barton had given her the materials, and she thought it would be an excellent lesson in needle-work as well as a useful gift to Ben,—who, boy-like, never troubled himself as to what he should wear when his one suit of clothes gave out.
Wednesday afternoon was the sewing time; so the two little B's worked busily at a pair of shirt-sleeves, sitting on their bench in the doorway, while the rusty needles creaked in and out, and the childish voices sang school-songs, with frequent stoppages for lively chatter.
For a week, Ben worked away bravely, and never shirked nor complained, although Pat put many a hard or disagreeable job upon him, and chores grew more and more distasteful. His only comfort was the knowledge that Mrs. Moss and the Squire were satisfied with him; his only pleasure the lessons he learned while driving the cows, and recited in the evening when the three children met under the lilacs to "play school."
He had no thought of studying when he began, and hardly knew that he was doing it as he pored over the different books he took from the library. But the little girls tried him with all they Possessed, and he was mortified to find how ignorant he was. He never owned it in words, but gladly accepted all the bits of knowledge they offered from their small store; getting Betty to hear him spell "just for fun;" agreeing to draw Bab all the bears and tigers she wanted if she would show him how to do sums on the flags, and often beguiled his lonely labors by trying to chant the multiplication table as they did. When Tuesday night came round, the Squire paid him a dollar, said he was "a likely boy," and might stay another week if he chose. Ben thanked him and thought he would; but the next morning, after he had put up the bars, he remained sitting on the top rail to consider his prospects, for he felt uncommonly reluctant to go back to the society of rough Pat. Like most boys, he hated work, unless it was of a sort which just suited him; then he could toil like a beaver and never tire. His wandering life had given him no habits of steady industry; and, while he was an unusually capable lad of his age, he dearly loved to "loaf" about and have a good deal of variety and excitement in his life.
Now he saw nothing before him but days of patient and very uninteresting labor. He was heartily sick of weeding; even riding Duke before the cultivator had lost its charms, and a great pile of wood lay in the Squire's yard which he knew he would be set to piling up in the shed. Strawberry-picking would soon follow the asparagus cultivation; then haying; and and so on all the long bright summer, without any fun, unless his father came for him.
On the other hand, he was not obliged to stay a minute longer unless he liked. With a comfortable suit of clothes, a dollar in his pocket, and a row of dinner-baskets hanging in the school-house entry to supply him with provisions if he didn't mind stealing them, what was easier than to run away again? Tramping has its charms in fair weather, and Ben had lived like a gypsy under canvas for years; so he feared nothing, and began to look down the leafy road with a restless, wistful expression, as the temptation grew stronger and stronger every minute.
Sancho seemed to share the longing, for he kept running off a little way and stopping to frisk and bark; then rushed back to sit watching his master with those intelligent eyes of his, which seemed to say, "Come on, Ben, let us scamper down this pleasant road and never stop till we are tired." Swallows darted by, white clouds fled before the balmy west wind, a squirrel ran along the wall, and all things seemed to echo the boy's desire to leave toil behind and roam away as care-free as they. One thing restrained him, the thought of his seeming ingratitude to good Mrs. Moss, and the disappointment of the little girls at the loss of their two new play-fellows. While he paused to think of this, something happened which kept him from doing what he would have been sure to regret afterward.
Horses had always been his best friends, and one came trotting up to help him now; though he did not know how much he owed it till long after. Just in the act of swinging himself over the bars to take a shortcut across the fields, the sound of approaching hoofs, unaccompanied by the roll of wheels, caught his ear; and, pausing, he watched eagerly to see who was coming at such a pace.
At the turn of road, however, the quick trot stopped, and in a moment a lady on a bay mare came pacing slowly into sight,—a young and pretty lady, all in dark blue, with a bunch of dandelions like yellow stars in her button-hole, and a silver-handled whip hanging from the pommel of her saddle, evidently more for ornament than use. The handsome mare limped a little, and shook her head as if something plagued her; while her mistress leaned down to see what was the matter, saying, as if she expected an answer of some sort,—
"Now, Chevalita, if you have got a stone in your foot, I shall have to get off and take it out. Why don't you look where you step, and save me all this trouble?"
"I'll look for you, ma'am; I'd like to!" said an eager voice so unexpectedly, that both horse and rider started as a boy came down the bank with a jump.
"I wish you would. You need not be afraid; Lita is as gentle as a lamb," answered the young lady, smiling, as if amused by the boy's earnestness.
"She's a beauty, any way," muttered Ben, lifting one foot after another till he found the stone, and with some trouble got it out.
"That was nicely done, and I'm much obliged. Can you tell me if that cross-road leads to the Elms?" asked the lady, as she went slowly on with Ben beside her.
"No, ma'am; I'm new in these parts, and I only know where Squire Morris and Mrs. Moss live."
"I want to see both of them, so suppose you show me the way. I was here long ago, and thought I should remember how to find the old house with the elm avenue and the big gate, but I don't."
"I know it; they call that place the Laylocks now, 'cause there's a hedge of 'em all down the path and front wall. It's a real pretty place; Bab and Betty play there, and so do I."
Ben could not restrain a chuckle at the recollection of his first appearance there, and, as if his merriment or his words interested her, the lady said pleasantly,
"Tell me all about it. Are Bab and Betty your sisters?" Quite forgetting his intended tramp, Ben plunged into a copious history of himself and new-made friends, led on by a kind look, an inquiring word, and sympathetic smile, till he had told every thing. At the school-house corner he stopped and said, spreading his arms like a sign-post,—
"That's the way to the Laylocks, and this is the way to the Squire's."
"As I'm in a hurry to see the old house, I'll go this way first, if you will be kind enough to give my love to Mrs. Morris, and tell the Squire Miss Celia is coming to dine with him. I won't say good-by, because I shall see you again."
With a nod and a smile, the young lady cantered away, and Ben hurried up the hill to deliver his message, feeling as if something pleasant was going to happen; so it would be wise to defer running away, for the present at least.
At one o'clock Miss Celia arrived, and Ben had the delight of helping Pat stable pretty Chevalita; then, his own dinner hastily eaten, he fell to work at the detested wood-pile with sudden energy; for as he worked he could steal peeps into the dining-room, and see the curly brown head between the two gay ones, as the three sat round the table. He could not help hearing a word now and then, as the windows were open, and these bits of conversation filled him with curiosity for the names "Thorny," "Celia," and "George" were often repeated, and an occasional merry laugh from the young lady sounded like music in that usually quiet place.
When dinner was over, Ben's industrious fit left him, and he leisurely trundled his barrow to and fro till the guest departed. There was no chance for him to help now, since Pat, anxious to get whatever trifle might be offered for his services, was quite devoted in his attentions to the mare and her mistress, till she was mounted and off. But Miss Celia did not forget her little guide, and, spying a wistful face behind the wood-pile, paused at the gate and beckoned with that winning smile of hers. If ten Pats had stood scowling in the way, Ben would have defied them all; and, vaulting over the fence, he ran up with a shining face, hoping she wanted some last favor of him. Leaning down, Miss Celia slipped a new quarter into his hand, saying,
"Lita wants me to give you this for taking the stone out of her foot."
"Thank y', ma'am; I liked to do it, for I hate to see 'em limp, 'specially such a pretty one as she is," answered Ben, stroking the glossy neck with a loving touch.
"The Squire says you know a good deal about horses, so I suppose you understand the Houyhnhnm language? I'm learning it, and it is very nice," laughed Miss Celia, as Chevalita gave a little whinny and snuffled her nose into Ben's pocket.
"No, miss, I never went to school."
"That is not taught there. I'll bring you a book all about it when I come back. Mr. Gulliver went to the horse-country and heard the dear things speak their own tongue."
"My father has been on the prairies, where there's lots of wild ones, but he didn't hear 'em speak. I know what they want without talkin'," answered Ben, suspecting a joke, but not exactly seeing what it was.
"I don't doubt it, but I won't forget the book. Good-by, my lad, we shall soon meet again," and away went Miss Celia as if she were in a hurry to get back.
"If she only had a red habit and a streamin' white feather, she'd look as fine as 'Melia used to. She is 'most as kind and rides 'most as well. Wonder where she's goin' to. Hope she will come soon," thought Ben, watching till the last flutter of the blue habit vanished round the corner; and then he went back to his work with his head full of the promised book, pausing now and then to chink the two silver halves and the new quarter together in his pocket, wondering what he should buy with this vast sum.
Bab and Betty meantime had had a most exciting day; for when they went home at noon they found the pretty lady there, and she had talked to them like an old friend, given them a ride on the little horse, and kissed them both good-by when they went back to school. In the afternoon the lady was gone, the old house all open, and their mother sweeping, airing, in great spirits. So they had a splendid frolic tumbling on feather-beds, beating bits of carpet, opening closets, and racing from garret to cellar like a pair of distracted kittens.
Here Ben found them, and was at once overwhelmed with a burst of news which excited him as much as it did them. Miss Celia owned the house, was coming to liver there, and things were to be made ready as soon as possible. All thought the prospect a charming one: Mrs. Moss, because life had been dull for her during the year she had taken charge of the old house; the little girls had heard rumors of various pets who were coming; and Ben, learning that a boy and a donkey were among them, resolved that nothing but the arrival of his father should tear him from this now deeply interesting spot.
"I'm in such a hurry to see the peacocks and hear them scream. She said they did, and that we'd laugh when old Jack brayed," cried Bab, hopping about on one foot to work off her impatience.
"Is a faytun a kind of a bird? I heard her say she could keep it in the coach-house," asked Betty, inquiringly.
"It's a little carriage," and Ben rolled in the grass, much tickled at poor Betty's ignorance.
"Of course it is. I looked it out in the dic., and you mustn't call it a payton, though it is spelt with a p," added Bab, who liked to lay down the law on all occasions, and did not mention that she had looked vainly among the Vs till a school-mate set her right.