Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter V. Wherein an Angel Materializes and a Man Worships
Perhaps there was a breath of sound--Freckles never afterward could remember--but for some reason he lifted his head as the bushes parted and the face of an angel looked between. Saints, nymphs, and fairies had floated down his cathedral aisle for him many times, with forms and voices of exquisite beauty.
Parting the wild roses at the entrance was beauty of which Freckles never had dreamed. Was it real or would it vanish as the other dreams? He dropped his book, and rising to his feet, went a step closer, gazing intently. This was real flesh and blood. It was in every way kin to the Limberlost, for no bird of its branches swung with easier grace than this dainty young thing rocked on the bit of morass on which she stood. A sapling beside her was not straighter or rounder than her slender form. Her soft, waving hair clung around her face from the heat, and curled over her shoulders. It was all of one piece with the gold of the sun that filtered between the branches. Her eyes were the deepest blue of the iris, her lips the reddest red of the foxfire, while her cheeks were exactly of the same satin as the wild rose petals caressing them. She was smiling at Freckles in perfect confidence, and she cried:
"Oh, I'm so delighted that I've found you!"
The wildly leaping heart of Freckles burst from his body and fell in the black swamp-muck at her feet with such a thud that he did not understand how she could avoid hearing. He really felt that if she looked down she would see.
Incredulous, he quavered: "An'--an' was you looking for me?"
"I hoped I might find you," said the Angel. "You see, I didn't do as I was told, and I'm lost. The Bird Woman said I should wait in the carriage until she came back. She's been gone hours. It's a perfect Turkish bath in there, and I'm all lumpy with mosquito bites. Just when I thought that I couldn't bear it another minute, along came the biggest Papilio Ajax you ever saw. I knew how pleased she'd be, so I ran after it. It flew so slow and so low that I thought a dozen times I had it. Then all at once it went from sight above the trees, and I couldn't find my way back to save me. I think I've walked more than an hour. I have been mired to my knees. A thorn raked my arm until it is bleeding, and I'm so tired and warm."
She parted the bushes farther. Freckles saw that her blue cotton frock clung to her, limp with perspiration. It was torn across the breast. One sleeve hung open from shoulder to elbow. A thorn had torn her arm until it was covered with blood, and the gnats and mosquitoes were clustering around it. Her feet were in lace hose and low shoes. Freckles gasped. In the Limberlost in low shoes! He caught an armful of moss from his carpet and buried it in the ooze in front of her for a footing.
"Come out here so I can see where you are stepping. Quick, for the life of you!" he ordered.
She smiled on him indulgently.
"Why?" she inquired.
"Did anybody let you come here and not be telling you of the snakes?" urged Freckles.
"We met Mr. McLean on the corduroy, and he did say something about snakes, I believe. The Bird Woman put on leather leggings, and a nice, parboiled time she must be having! Worst dose I ever endured, and I'd nothing to do but swelter."
"Will you be coming out of there?" groaned Freckles.
She laughed as if it were a fine joke.
"Maybe if I'd be telling you I killed a rattler curled upon that same place you're standing, as long as me body and the thickness of me arm, you'd be moving where I can see your footing," he urged insistently.
"What a perfectly delightful little brogue you speak," she said. "My father is Irish, and half should be enough to entitle me to that much. `Maybe--if I'd--be telling you,'" she imitated, rounding and accenting each word carefully.
Freckles was beginning to feel a wildness in his head. He had derided Wessner at that same hour yesterday. Now his own eyes were filling with tears.
"If you were understanding the danger!" he continued desperately.
"Oh, I don't think there is much!"
She tilted on the morass.
"If you killed one snake here, it's probably all there is near; and anyway, the Bird Woman says a rattlesnake is a gentleman and always gives warning before he strikes. I don't hear any rattling. Do you?"
"Would you be knowing it if you did?" asked Freckles, almost impatiently.
How the laugh of the young thing rippled!
"`Would I be knowing it?'" she mocked. "You should see the swamps of Michigan where they dump rattlers from the marl-dredgers three and four at a time!"
Freckles stood astounded. She did know. She was not in the least afraid. She was depending on a rattlesnake to live up to his share of the contract and rattle in time for her to move. The one characteristic an Irishman admires in a woman, above all others, is courage. Freckles worshiped anew. He changed his tactics.
"I'd be pleased to be receiving you at me front door," he said, "but as you have arrived at the back, will you come in and be seated?"
He waved toward a bench. The Angel came instantly.
"Oh, how lovely and cool!" she cried.
As she moved across his room, Freckles had difficult work to keep from falling on his knees; for they were very weak, while he was hard driven by an impulse to worship.
"Did you arrange this?" she asked.
"Yis," said Freckles simply.
"Someone must come with a big canvas and copy each side of it," she said. "I never saw anything so beautiful! How I wish I might remain here with you! I will, some day, if you will let me; but now, if you can spare the time, will you help me find the carriage? If the Bird Woman comes back and I am gone, she will be almost distracted."
"Did you come on the west road?" asked Freckles.
"I think so," she said. "The man who told the Bird Woman said that was the only place the wires were down. We drove away in, and it was dreadful--over stumps and logs, and we mired to the hubs. I suppose you know, though. I should have stayed in the carriage, but I was so tired. I never dreamed of getting lost. I suspect I will be scolded finely. I go with the Bird Woman half the time during the summer vacations. My father says I learn a lot more than I do at school, and get it straight. I never came within a smell of being lost before. I thought, at first, it was going to be horrid; but since I've found you, maybe it will be good fun after all."
Freckles was amazed to hear himself excusing: "It was so hot in there. You couldn't be expected to bear it for hours and not be moving. I can take you around the trail almost to where you were. Then you can sit in the carriage, and I will go find the Bird Woman."
"You'll be killed if you do! When she stays this long, it means that she has a focus on something. You see, when she has a focus, and lies in the weeds and water for hours, and the sun bakes her, and things crawl over her, and then someone comes along and scares her bird away just as she has it coaxed up--why, she kills them. If I melt, you won't go after her. She's probably blistered and half eaten up; but she never will quit until she is satisfied."
"Then it will be safer to be taking care of you," suggested Freckles.
"Now you're talking sense!" said the Angel.
"May I try to help your arm?" he asked.
"Have you any idea how it hurts?" she parried.
"A little," said Freckles.
"Well, Mr. McLean said We'd probably find his son here"
"His son!" cried Freckles.
"That's what he said. And that you would do anything you could for us; and that we could trust you with our lives. But I would have trusted you anyway, if I hadn't known a thing about you. Say, your father is rampaging proud of you, isn't he?"
"I don't know," answered the dazed Freckles.
"Well, call on me if you want reliable information. He's so proud of you he is all swelled up like the toad in Aesop's Fables. If you have ever had an arm hurt like this, and can do anything, why, for pity sake, do it!"
She turned back her sleeve, holding toward Freckles an arm of palest cameo, shaped so exquisitely that no sculptor could have chiseled it.
Freckles unlocked his case, and taking out some cotton cloth, he tore it in strips. Then he brought a bucket of the cleanest water he could find. She yielded herself to his touch as a baby, and he bathed away the blood and bandaged the ugly, ragged wound. He finished his surgery by lapping the torn sleeve over the cloth and binding it down with a piece of twine, with the Angel's help about the knots.
Freckles worked with trembling fingers and a face tense with earnestness.
"Is it feeling any better?" he asked.
"Oh, it's well now!" cried the Angel. "It doesn't hurt at all, any more."
"I'm mighty glad," said Freckles. "But you had best go and be having your doctor fix it right; the minute you get home."
"Oh, bother! A little scratch like that!" jeered the Angel. "My blood is perfectly pure. It will heal in three days."
"It's cut cruel deep. It might be making a scar," faltered Freckles, his eyes on the ground. "'Twould--'twould be an awful pity. A doctor might know something to prevent it."
"Why, I never thought of that!" exclaimed the Angel.
"I noticed you didn't," said Freckles softly. "I don't know much about it, but it seems as if most girls would."
The Angel thought intently, while Freckles still knelt beside her. Suddenly she gave herself an impatient little shake, lifted her glorious eyes full to his, and the smile that swept her sweet, young face was the loveliest thing that Freckles ever had seen.
"Don't let's bother about it," she proposed, with the faintest hint of a confiding gesture toward him. "It won't make a scar. Why, it couldn't, when you have dressed it so nicely."
The velvety touch of her warm arm was tingling in Freckles' fingertips. Dainty lace and fine white ribbon peeped through her torn dress. There were beautiful rings on her fingers. Every article she wore was of the finest material and in excellent taste. There was the trembling Limberlost guard in his coarse clothing, with his cotton rags and his old pail of swamp water. Freckles was sufficiently accustomed to contrasts to notice them, and sufficiently fine to be hurt by them always.
He lifted his eyes with a shadowy pain in them to hers, and found them of serene, unconscious purity. What she had said was straight from a kind, untainted, young heart. She meant every word of it. Freckles' soul sickened. He scarcely knew whether he could muster strength to stand.
"We must go and hunt for the carriage," said the Angel, rising.
In instant alarm for her, Freckles sprang up, grasped the cudgel, and led the way, sharply watching every step. He went as close the log as he felt that he dared, and with a little searching found the carriage. He cleared a path for the Angel, and with a sigh of relief saw her enter it safely. The heat was intense. She pushed the damp hair from her temples.
"This is a shame!" said Freckles. "You'll never be coming here again."
"Oh yes I shall!" said the Angel. "The Bird Woman says that these birds remain over a month in the nest and she would like to make a picture every few days for seven or eight weeks, perhaps."
Freckles barely escaped crying aloud for joy.
"Then don't you ever be torturing yourself and your horse to be coming in here again," he said. "I'll show you a way to drive almost to the nest on the east trail, and then you can come around to my room and stay while the Bird Woman works. It's nearly always cool there, and there's comfortable seats, and water."
"Oh! did you have drinking-water there?" she cried. "I was never so thirsty or so hungry in my life, but I thought I wouldn't mention it."
"And I had not the wit to be seeing!" wailed Freckles. "I can be getting you a good drink in no time."
He turned to the trail.
"Please wait a minute," called the Angel. "What's your name? I want to think about you while you are gone." Freckles lifted his face with the brown rift across it and smiled quizzically.
"Freckles?" she guessed, with a peal of laughter. "And mine is----"
"I'm knowing yours," interrupted Freckles.
"I don't believe you do. What is it?" asked the girl.
"You won't be getting angry?"
"Not until I've had the water, at least."
It was Freckles' turn to laugh. He whipped off his big, floppy straw hat, stood uncovered before her, and said, in the sweetest of all the sweet tones of his voice: "There's nothing you could be but the Swamp Angel."
The girl laughed happily.
Once out of her sight, Freckles ran every step of the way to the cabin. Mrs. Duncan gave him a small bucket of water, cool from the well. He carried it in the crook of his right arm, and a basket filled with bread and butter, cold meat, apple pie, and pickles, in his left hand.
"Pickles are kind o' cooling," said Mrs. Duncan.
Then Freckles ran again.
The Angel was on her knees, reaching for the bucket, as he came up.
"Be drinking slow," he cautioned her.
"Oh!" she cried, with a long breath of satisfaction. "It's so good! You are more than kind to bring it!"
Freckles stood blinking in the dazzling glory of her smile until he scarcely could see to lift the basket.
"Mercy!" she exclaimed. "I think I had better be naming you the `Angel.' My Guardian Angel."
"Yis," said Freckles. "I look the character every day--but today most emphatic!"
"Angels don't go by looks," laughed the girl. "Your father told us you had been scrapping. But he told us why. I'd gladly wear all your cuts and bruises if I could do anything that would make my father look as peacocky as yours did. He strutted about proper. I never saw anyone look prouder."
"Did he say he was proud of me?" marveled Freckles.
"He didn't need to," answered the Angel. "He was radiating pride from every pore. Now, have you brought me your dinner?"
"I had my dinner two hours ago," answered Freckles.
"Honest Injun?" bantered the Angel.
"Honest! I brought that on purpose for you."
"Well, if you knew how hungry I am, you would know how thankful I am, to the dot," said the Angel.
"Then you be eating," cried the happy Freckles.
The Angel sat on a big camera, spread the lunch on the carriage seat, and divided it in halves. The daintiest parts she could select she carefully put back into the basket. The remainder she ate. Again Freckles found her of the swamp, for though she was almost ravenous, she managed her food as gracefully as his little yellow fellow, and her every movement was easy and charming. As he watched her with famished eyes, Freckles told her of his birds, flowers, and books, and never realized what he was doing.
He led the horse to a deep pool that he knew of, and the tortured creature drank greedily, and lovingly rubbed him with its nose as he wiped down its welted body with grass. Suddenly the Angel cried: "There comes the Bird Woman!"
Freckles had intended leaving before she came, but now he was glad indeed to be there, for a warmer, more worn, and worse bitten creature he never had seen. She was staggering under a load of cameras and paraphernalia. Freckles ran to her aid. He took all he could carry of her load, stowed it in the back of the carriage, and helped her in. The Angel gave her water, knelt and unfastened the leggings, bathed her face, and offered the lunch.
Freckles brought the horse. He was not sure about the harness, but the Angel knew, and soon they left the swamp. Then he showed them how to reach the chicken tree from the outside, indicated a cooler place for the horse, and told them how, the next time they came, the Angel could find his room while she waited.
The Bird Woman finished her lunch, and lay back, almost too tired to speak.
"Were you for getting Little Chicken's picture?" Freckles asked.
"Finely!" she answered. "He posed splendidly. But I couldn't do anything with his mother. She will require coaxing."
"The Lord be praised!" muttered Freckles under his breath.
The Bird Woman began to feel better.
"Why do you call the baby vulture `Little Chicken'?" she asked, leaning toward Freckles in an interested manner.
"'Twas Duncan began it," said Freckles. "You see, through the fierce cold of winter the birds of the swamp were almost starving. It is mighty lonely here, and they were all the company I was having. I got to carrying scraps and grain down to them. Duncan was that ginerous he was giving me of his wheat and corn from his chickens' feed, and he called the birds me swamp chickens. Then when these big black fellows came, Mr. McLean said they were our nearest kind to some in the old world that they called `Pharaoh's Chickens,' and he called mine `Freckles' Chickens.'"
"Good enough!" cried the Bird Woman, her splotched purple face lighting with interest. "You must shoot something for them occasionally, and I'll bring more food when I come. If you will help me keep them until I get my series, I'll give you a copy of each study I make, mounted in a book."
Freckles drew a deep breath.
"I'll be doing me very best," he promised, and from the deeps he meant it.
"I wonder if that other egg is going to hatch?" mused the Bird Woman. "I am afraid not. It should have pipped today. Isn't it a beauty! I never before saw either an egg or the young. They are rare this far north."
"So Mr. McLean said," answered Freckles.
Before they drove away, the Bird Woman thanked him for his kindness to the Angel and to her. She gave him her hand at parting, and Freckles joyfully realized that this was going to be another person for him to love. He could not remember, after they had driven away, that they even had noticed his missing hand, and for the first time in his life he had forgotten it.
When the Bird Woman and the Angel were on the home road, she told of the little corner of paradise into which she had strayed and of her new name. The Bird Woman looked at the girl and guessed its appropriateness.
"Did you know Mr. McLean had a son?" asked the Angel. "Isn't the little accent he has, and the way he twists a sentence, too dear? And isn't it too old-fashioned and funny to hear him call his father `mister'?"
"It sounds too good to be true," said the Bird Woman, answering the last question first. "I am so tired of these present-day young men who patronizingly call their fathers `Dad,' `Governor,' `Old Man" and `Old Chap,' that the boy's attitude of respect and deference appealed to me as being fine as silk. There must be something rare about that young man."
She did not find it necessary to tell the Angel that for several years she had known the man who so proudly proclaimed himself Freckles' father to be a bachelor and a Scotchman. The Bird Woman had a fine way of attending strictly to her own business.
Freckles turned to the trail, but he stopped at every wild brier to study the pink satin of the petals. She was not of his world, and better than any other he knew it; but she might be his Angel, and he was dreaming of naught but blind, silent worship. He finished the happiest day of his life, and that night he returned to the swamp as if drawn by invisible force. That Wessner would try for his revenge, he knew. That he would be abetted by Black Jack was almost certain, but fear had fled the happy heart of Freckles. He had kept his trust. He had won the respect of the Boss. No one ever could wipe from his heart the flood of holy adoration that had welled with the coming of his Angel. He would do his best, and trust for strength to meet the dark day of reckoning that he knew would come sooner or later. He swung round the trail, briskly tapping the wire, and singing in a voice that scarcely could have been surpassed for sweetness.
At the edge of the clearing he came into the bright moonlight and there sat McLean on his mare. Freckles hurried to him.
"Is there trouble?" he inquired anxiously.
"That's what I wanted to ask you," said the Boss. "I stopped at the cabin to see you a minute, before I turned in, and they said you had come down here. You must not do it, Freckles. The swamp is none too healthful at any time, and at night it is rank poison."
Freckles stood combing his fingers through Nellie's mane, while the dainty creature was twisting her head for his caresses. He pushed back his hat and looked into McLean's face. "It's come to the `sleep with one eye open,' sir. I'm not looking for anything to be happening for a week or two, but it's bound to come, and soon. If I'm to keep me trust as I've promised you and meself, I've to live here mostly until the gang comes. You must be knowing that, sir."
"I'm afraid it's true, Freckles," said McLean. "And I've decided to double the guard until we come. It will be only a few weeks, now; and I'm so anxious for you that you must not be left alone further. If anything should happen to you, Freckles, it would spoil one of the very dearest plans of my life."
Freckles heard with dismay the proposition to place a second guard.
"Oh! no, no, Mr. McLean," he cried. "Not for the world! I wouldn't be having a stranger around, scaring me birds and tramping up me study, and disturbing all me ways, for any money! I am all the guard you need! I will be faithful! I will turn over the lease with no tree missing--on me life, I will! Oh, don't be sending another man to set them saying I turned coward and asked for help. It will just kill the honor of me heart if you do it. The only thing I want is another gun. If it railly comes to trouble, six cartridges ain't many, and you know I am slow-like about reloading." McLean reached into his hip pocket and handed a shining big revolver to Freckles, who slipped it beside the one already in his belt.
Then the Boss sat brooding.
"Freckles," he said at last, "we never know the timber of a man's soul until something cuts into him deeply and brings the grain out strong. You've the making of a mighty fine piece of furniture, my boy, and you shall have your own way these few weeks yet. Then, if you will go, I intend to take you to the city and educate you, and you are to be my son, my lad--my own son!"
Freckles twisted his finger in Nellie's mane to steady himself.
"But why should you be doing that, sir?" he faltered.
McLean slid his arm around the boy's shoulder and gathered him close.
"Because I love you, Freckles," he said simply.
Freckles lifted a white face. "My God, sir!" he whispered. "Oh, my God!"
McLean tightened his clasp a second longer, then he rode down the trail.
Freckles lifted his hat and faced the sky. The harvest moon looked down, sheeting the swamp in silver glory. The Limberlost sang her night song. The swale softly rustled in the wind. Winged things of night brushed his face; and still Freckles gazed upward, trying to fathom these things that had come to him. There was no help from the sky. It seemed far away, cold, and blue. The earth, where flowers blossomed, angels walked, and love could be found, was better. But to One, above, he must make acknowledgment for these miracles. His lips moved and he began talking softly.
"Thank You for each separate good thing that has come to me," he said, "and above all for the falling of the feather. For if it didn't really fall from an angel, its falling brought an Angel, and if it's in the great heart of you to exercise yourself any further about me, oh, do please to be taking good care of her!"