Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter V. 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 be 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 be 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.