Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter III. Ben
"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.