Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter X. A Heavy Trouble
"Thank you, ma'am, that's a tip-top book, 'specially the pictures. But I can't bear to see these poor fellows;" and Ben brooded over the fine etching of the dead and dying horses on a battle-field, one past all further pain, the other helpless, but lifting his head from his dead master to neigh a farewell to the comrades who go galloping away in a cloud of dust.
"They ought to stop for him, some of 'em," muttered Ben, hastily turning back to the cheerful picture of the three happy horses in the field, standing knee-deep among the grass as they prepare to drink at the wide stream.
"Ain't that black one a beauty? Seems as if I could see his mane blow in the wind, and hear him whinny to that small feller trotting down to see if he can't get over and be sociable. How I'd like to take a rousin' run round that meadow on the whole lot of 'em!" and Ben swayed about in his chair as if he was already doing it in imagination.
"You may take a turn round my field on Lita any day. She would like it, and Thorny's saddle will be here next week," said Miss Celia, pleased to see that the boy appreciated the fine pictures, and felt such hearty sympathy with the noble animals whom she dearly loved herself.
"Needn't wait for that. I'd rather ride bareback. Oh, I say, is this the book you told about, where the horses talked?" asked Ben, suddenly recollecting the speech he had puzzled over ever since he heard it.
"No; I brought the book, but in the hurry of my tea-party forgot to unpack it. I'll hunt it up to-night. Remind me, Thorny."
"There, now, I've forgotten something, too! Squire sent you a letter; and I'm having such a jolly time, I never thought of it."
Ben rummaged out the note with remorseful haste, protesting that he was in no hurry for Mr. Gulliver, and very glad to save him for another day. Leaving the young folks busy with their games, Miss Celia sat in the porch to read her letters, for there were two; and as she read her face grew so sober, then so sad, that if any one had been looking he would have wondered what bad news had chased away the sunshine so suddenly. No one did look; no one saw how pitifully her eyes rested on Ben's happy face when the letters were put away, and no one minded the new gentleness in her manner as she came back, to the table. But Ben thought there never was so sweet a lady as the one who leaned over him to show him how the dissected map went together and never smiled at his mistakes.
So kind, so very kind was she to them all, that when, after an hour of merry play, she took her brother in to bed, the three who remained fell to praising her enthusiastically as they put things to rights before taking leave.
"She's like the good fairies in the books, and has all sorts of nice, pretty things in her house," said Betty, enjoying a last hug of the fascinating doll whose lids would shut so that it was a pleasure to Sing, "Bye, sweet baby, bye," with no staring eyes to Spoil the illusion.
"What heaps she knows! More than Teacher, I do believe; and she doesn't mind how many questions we ask. I like folks that will tell me things," added Bab, whose inquisitive mind was always hungry.
"I like that boy first-rate, and I guess he likes me, though I didn't know where Nantucket ought to go. He wants me to teach him to ride when he's on his pins again, and Miss Celia says I may. She knows how to make folks feel good, don't she?" and Ben gratefully surveyed the Arab chief, now his own, though the best of all the collection.
"Won't we have splendid times? She Says we may come over every night and play with her and Thorny."
"And she's goin', to have the seats in the porch lift up, so we can put our things in there all day and have 'em handy."
"And I'm going to be her boy, and stay here all the time. I guess the letter I brought was a recommend from the Squire."
"Yes, Ben; and if I had not already made up my mind to keep you before, I certainly would now, my boy."
Something in Miss Celia's voice, as she said the last two words with her hand on Ben's shoulder, made him look up quickly and turn red with pleasure, wondering what the Squire had written about him.
"Mother must have some of the party; so you shall take her these, Bab, and Betty may carry Baby home for the night. She is so nicely asleep, it is a pity to wake her. Good by till to-morrow, little neighbors," continued Miss Celia, and dismissed the girls with a kiss.
"Is Ben coming, too?" asked Bab, as Betty trotted off in a silent rapture with the big darling bobbing over her shoulder.
"Not yet; I've several things to settle with my new man. Tell mother he will come by-and-by."
Off rushed Bab with the plateful of goodies; and, drawing Ben down beside her on the wide step, Miss Celia took out the letters, with a shadow creeping over her face as softly as the twilight was stealing over the world, while the dew fell, and every thing grew still and dim.
"Ben, dear, I've something to tell you," she began, slowly; and the boy waited with a happy face, for no one had called him so since 'Melia died.
"The Squire has heard about your father, and this is the letter Mr. Smithers sends."
"Hooray! where is he, please?" cried Ben, wishing she would hurry up; for Miss Celia did not even offer him the letter, but sat looking down at Sancho on the lower step, as if she wanted him to come and help her. "He went after the mustangs, and sent some home, but could not come himself."
"Went further on, I s'pose. Yes, he said he might go as far as California, and if he did he'd send for me. I'd like to go there; it's a real splendid place, they say."
"He has gone further away than that, to a lovelier country than California, I hope." And Miss Celia's eyes turned to the deep sky, where early stars were shining.
"Didn't he send for me? Where's he gone? When 's he coming back?" asked Ben, quickly; for there was a quiver in her voice, the meaning of which he felt before he understood.
Miss Celia put her arms about him, and answered very tenderly, -- "Ben, dear, if I were to tell you that he was never coming back, could you bear it?"
"I guess I could, -- but you don't mean it? Oh, ma'am, he isn't dead?" cried Ben, with a cry that made her heart ache, and Sancho leap up with a bark.
"My poor little boy, I wish I could say no."
There was no need of any more words, no need of tears or kind arms around him. He knew he was an orphan now, and turned instinctively to the old friend who loved him best. Throwing himself down beside his dog, Ben clung about the curly neck, sobbing bitterly, --
"Oh, Sanch, he's never coming back again; never, never any more!"
Poor Sancho could only whine and lick away the tears that wet the half-hidden face, questioning the new friend meantime with eyes so full of dumb love and sympathy and sorrow that they seemed almost human. Wiping away her own tears, Miss Celia stooped to pat the white head, and to stroke the black one lying so near it that the dog's breast was the boy's pillow. Presently the sobbing ceased, and Ben whispered, without looking up,--
"Tell me all about it; I'll be good."
Then, as kindly as she could, Miss Celia read the brief letter which told the hard news bluntly; for Mr. Smithers was obliged to confess that he had known the truth months before, and never told the boy, lest he should be unfitted for the work they gave him. Of Ben Brown the elder's death there was little to tell, except that he was killed in some wild place at the West, and a stranger wrote the fact to the only person whose name was found in Ben's pocket-book. Mr. Smithers offered to take the boy back and "do well by him," averring that the father wished his son to remain where he left him, and follow the profession to which he was trained.
"Will you go, Ben?" asked Miss Celia, hoping to distract his mind from his grief by speaking of other things.
"No, no; I'd rather tramp and starve. He's awful hard to me and Sanch; and he'd be worse, now father's gone. Don't send me back! Let me stay here; folks are good to me; there's nowhere else to go." And the head Ben had lifted up with a desperate sort of look, went down again on Sancho's breast as if there were no other refuge left.
"You shall stay here, and no one shall take you away against your will. I called you 'my boy' in play, now you shall be my boy in earnest; this shall be your home, and Thorny your brother. We are orphans, too; and we will stand by one another till a stronger friend comes to help us," said Miss Celia, with such a mixture of resolution and tenderness in her voice, that Ben felt comforted at once, and thanked her by laying his cheek against the pretty slipper that rested on the step beside him, as if he had no words in which to swear loyalty to the gentle mistress whom be meant henceforth to serve with grateful fidelity.
Sancho felt that he must follow suit; and gravely put his paw upon her knee, with a low whine, as if he said, "Count me in, and let me help to pay my master's debt if I can."
Miss Celia shook the offered paw cordially, and the good creature crouched at her feet like a small lion, bound to guard her and her house for evermore.
"Don't lie on that cold stone, Ben; come here and let me try to comfort you," she said, stooping to wipe away the great drops that kept rolling down the brown cheek half hidden in her dress. But Ben put his arm over his face, and sobbed out with a fresh burst of grief, --
"You can't, you didn't know him! Oh, daddy! daddy! if I'd only seen you jest once more!"
No one could grant that wish; but Miss Celia did comfort him, for presently the sound of music floated out from the parlor, -- music so soft, so sweet, that involuntarily the boy stopped his crying to listen; then quieter tears dropped slowly, seeming to soothe his pain as they fell, while the sense of loneliness passed away, and it grew possible to wait till it was time to go to father in that far-off country lovelier than golden California.
How long she played Miss Celia never minded; but, when she stole out to see if Ben had gone, she found that other friends, even kinder than herself, had taken the boy into their gentle keeping. The wind had sung a lullaby among the rustling lilacs, the moon's mild face looked through the leafy arch to kiss the heavy eyelids, and faithful Sancho still kept guard beside his little master, who, with his head pillowed on his arm, lay fast asleep, dreaming, happily, that Daddy had come home again.