Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter VIII. Wherein Freckles Meets a Man of Affairs and Loses Nothing by the Encounter
"Weel, I be drawed on!" exclaimed Mrs. Duncan.
Freckles stood before her, holding the Angel's hat.
"I've been thinking this long time that ye or Duncan would see that sunbonnets werena braw enough for a woman of my standing, and ye're a guid laddie to bring me this beautiful hat."
She turned it around, examining the weave of the straw and the foliage trimmings, passing her rough fingers over the satin ties delightedly. As she held it up, admiring it, Freckles' astonished eyes saw a new side of Sarah Duncan. She was jesting, but under the jest the fact loomed strong that, though poor, overworked, and with none but God-given refinement, there was something in her soul crying after that bit of feminine finery, and it made his heart ache for her. He resolved that when he reached the city he would send her a hat, if it took fifty dollars to do it.
She lingeringly handed it back to him.
"It's unco guid of ye to think of me," she said lightly, "but I maun question your taste a wee. D'ye no think ye had best return this and get a woman with half her hair gray a little plainer headdress? Seems like that's far ower gay for me. I'm no' saying that it's no' exactly what I'd like to hae, but I mauna mak mysel' ridiculous. Ye'd best give this to somebody young and pretty, say about sixteen. Where did ye come by it, Freckles? If there's anything been dropping lately, ye hae forgotten to mention it."
"Do you see anything heavenly about that hat?" queried Freckles, holding it up.
The morning breeze waved the ribbons gracefully, binding one around Freckles' sleeve and the other across his chest, where they caught and clung as if magnetized.
"Yes," said Sarah Duncan. "It's verra plain and simple, but it juist makes ye feel that it's all of the finest stuff. It's exactly what I'd call a heavenly hat."
"Sure," said Freckles, "for it's belonging to an Angel!"
Then he told her about the hat and asked her what he should do with it.
"Take it to her, of course!" said Sarah Duncan. "Like it's the only ane she has and she may need it badly."
Freckles smiled. He had a clear idea about the hat being the only one the Angel had. However, there was a thing he felt he should do and wanted to do, but he was not sure.
"You think I might be taking it home?" he said.
"Of course ye must," said Mrs. Duncan. "And without another hour's delay. It's been here two days noo, and she may want it, and be too busy or afraid to come."
"But how can I take it?" asked Freckles.
"Gang spinning on your wheel. Ye can do it easy in an hour."
"But in that hour, what if----?"
"Nonsense!" interrupted Sarah Duncan. "Ye've watched that timber-line until ye're grown fast to it, lad. Give me your boots and club and I'll gae walk the south end and watch doon the east and west sides until ye come back."
"Mrs. Duncan! You never would be doing it," cried Freckles.
"Why not?" inquired she.
"But you know you're mortal afraid of snakes and a lot of other things in the swamp."
"I am afraid of snakes," said Mrs. Duncan, "but likely they've gone into the swamp this hot weather. I'll juist stay on the trail and watch, and ye might hurry the least bit. The day's so bright it feels like storm. I can put the bairns on the woodpile to play until I get back. Ye gang awa and take the blessed little angel her beautiful hat."
"Are you sure it will be all right?" urged Freckles. "Do you think if Mr. McLean came he would care?"
"Na," said Mrs. Duncan; "I dinna. If ye and me agree that a thing ought to be done, and I watch in your place, why, it's bound to be all right with McLean. Let me pin the hat in a paper, and ye jump on your wheel and gang flying. Ought ye put on your Sabbath-day clothes?"
Freckles shook his head. He knew what he should do, but there was no use in taking time to try to explain it to Mrs. Duncan while he was so hurried. He exchanged his wading-boots for shoes, gave her his club, and went spinning toward town. He knew very well where the Angel lived. He had seen her home many times, and he passed it again without even raising his eyes from the street, steering straight for her father's place of business.
Carrying the hat, Freckles passed a long line of clerks, and at the door of the private office asked to see the proprietor. When he had waited a moment, a tall, spare, keen-eyed man faced him, and in brisk, nervous tones asked: "How can I serve you, sir?"
Freckles handed him the package and answered, "By delivering to your daughter this hat, which she was after leaving at me place the other day, when she went away in a hurry. And by saying to her and the Bird Woman that I'm more thankful than I'll be having words to express for the brave things they was doing for me. I'm McLean's Limberlost guard, sir."
"Why don't you take it yourself?" questioned the Man of Affairs.
Freckles' clear gray eyes met those of the Angel's father squarely, and he asked: "If you were in my place, would you take it to her yourself?"
"No, I would not," said that gentleman quickly.
"Then why ask why I did not?" came Freckles' lamb-like query.
"Bless me!" said the Angel's father. He stared at the package, then at the lifted chin of the boy, and then at the package again, and muttered, "Excuse me!"
"It would be favoring me greatly if you would deliver the hat and the message. Good morning, sir," and he turned away.
"One minute," said the Angel's father. "Suppose I give you permission to return this hat in person and make your own acknowledgments."
Freckles stood one moment thinking intently, and then he lifted those eyes of unswerving truth and asked: "Why should you, sir? You are kind, indade, to mention it, and it's thanking you I am for your good intintions, but my wanting to go or your being willing to have me ain't proving that your daughter would be wanting me or care to bother with me."
The Angel's father looked keenly into the face of this extraordinary young man, for he found it to his liking.
"There's one other thing I meant to say," said Freckles. "Every day I see something, and at times a lot of things, that I think the Bird Woman would be wanting pictures of badly, if she knew. You might be speaking of it to her, and if she'd want me to, I can send her word when I find things she wouldn't likely get elsewhere."
"If that's the case," said the Angel's father, "and you feel under obligations for her assistance the other day, you can discharge them in that way. She is spending all her time in the fields and woods searching for subjects. If you run across things, perhaps rarer than she may find, about your work, it would save her the time she spends searching for subjects, and she could work in security under your protection. By all means let her know if you find subjects you think she could use, and we will do anything we can for you, if you will give her what help you can and see that she is as safe as possible."
"It's hungry for human beings I am," said Freckles, "and it's like Heaven to me to have them come. Of course, I'll be telling or sending her word every time me work can spare me. Anything I can do it would make me uncommon happy, but"--again truth had to be told, because it was Freckles who was speaking--"when it comes to protecting them, I'd risk me life, to be sure, but even that mightn't do any good in some cases. There are many dangers to be reckoned with in the swamp, sir, that call for every person to look sharp. If there wasn't really thieving to guard against, why, McLean wouldn't need be paying out good money for a guard. I'd love them to be coming, and I'll do all I can, but you must be told that there's danger of them running into timber thieves again any day, sir."
"Yes," said the Angel's father, "and I suppose there's danger of the earth opening up and swallowing the town any day, but I'm damned if I quit business for fear it will, and the Bird Woman won't, either. Everyone knows her and her work, and there is no danger in the world of anyone in any way molesting her, even if he were stealing a few of McLean's gold-plated trees. She's as safe in the Limberlost as she is at home, so far as timber thieves are concerned. All I am ever uneasy about are the snakes, poison- vines, and insects; and those are risks she must run anywhere. You need not hesitate a minute about that. I shall be glad to tell them what you wish. Thank you very much, and good day, sir."
There was no way in which Freckles could know it, but by following his best instincts and being what he conceived a gentleman should be, he surprised the Man of Affairs into thinking of him and seeing his face over his books many times that morning; whereas, if he had gone to the Angel as he had longed to do, her father never would have given him a second thought.
On the street he drew a deep breath. How had he acquitted himself? He only knew that he had lived up to his best impulse, and that is all anyone can do. He glanced over his wheel to see that it was all right, and just as he stepped to the curb to mount he heard a voice that thrilled him through and through: "Freckles! Oh Freckles!"
The Angel separated from a group of laughing, sweet-faced girls and came hurrying to him. She was in snowy white--a quaint little frock, with a marvel of soft lace around her throat and wrists. Through the sheer sleeves of it her beautiful, rounded arms showed distinctly, and it was cut just to the base of her perfect neck. On her head was a pure white creation of fancy braid, with folds on folds of tulle, soft and silken as cobwebs, lining the brim; while a mass of white roses clustered against the gold of her hair, crept around the crown, and fell in a riot to her shoulders at the back. There were gleams of gold with settings of blue on her fingers, and altogether she was the daintiest, sweetest sight he ever had seen. Freckles, standing on the curb, forgot himself in his cotton shirt, corduroys, and his belt to which his wire-cutter and pliers were hanging, and gazed as a man gazes when first he sees the woman he adores with all her charms enhanced by appropriate and beautiful clothing.
"Oh Freckles," she cried as she came to him. "I was wondering about you the other day. Do you know I never saw you in town before. You watch that old line so closely! Why did you come? Is there any trouble? Are you just starting to the Limberlost?"
"I came to bring your hat," said Freckles. "You forgot it in the rush the other day. I have left it with your father, and a message trying to ixpriss the gratitude of me for how you and the Bird Woman were for helping me out."
The Angel nodded gravely, then Freckles saw that he had done the proper thing in going to her father. His heart bounded until it jarred his body, for she was saying that she scarcely could wait for the time to come for the next picture of the Little Chicken series. "I want to hear the remainder of that song, and I hadn't even begun seeing your room yet," she complained. "As for singing, if you can sing like that every day, I never can get enough of it. I wonder if I couldn't bring my banjo and some of the songs I like best. I'll play and you sing, and we'll put the birds out of commission."
Freckles stood on the curb with drooped eyes, for he felt that if he lifted them the tumult of tender adoration in them would show and frighten her.
"I was afraid your ixperience the other day would scare you so that you'd never be coming again," he found himself saying.
The Angel laughed gaily.
"Did I seem scared?" she questioned.
"No," said Freckles, "you did not."
"Oh, I just enjoyed that," she cried. "Those hateful, stealing old things! I had a big notion to pink one of them, but I thought maybe someway it would be best for you that I shouldn't. They needed it. That didn't scare me; and as for the Bird Woman, she's accustomed to finding snakes, tramps, cross dogs, sheep, cattle, and goodness knows what! You can't frighten her when she's after a picture. Did they come back?"
"No," said Freckles. "The gang got there a little after noon and took out the tree, but I must tell you, and you must tell the Bird Woman, that there's no doubt but they will be coming back, and they will have to make it before long now, for it's soon the gang will be there to work on the swamp."
"Oh, what a shame!" cried the Angel. "They'll clear out roads, cut down the beautiful trees, and tear up everything. They'll drive away the birds and spoil the cathedral. When they have done their worst, then all these mills close here will follow in and take out the cheap timber. Then the landowners will dig a few ditches, build some fires, and in two summers more the Limberlost will be in corn and potatoes."
They looked at each other, and groaned despairingly in unison.
"You like it, too," said Freckles.
"Yes," said the Angel, "I love it. Your room is a little piece right out of the heart of fairyland, and the cathedral is God's work, not yours. You only found it and opened the door after He had it completed. The birds, flowers, and vines are all so lovely. The Bird Woman says it is really a fact that the mallows, foxfire, iris, and lilies are larger and of richer coloring there than in the remainder of the country. She says it's because of the rich loam and muck. I hate seeing the swamp torn up, and to you it will be like losing your best friend; won't it?"
"Something like," said Freckles. "Still, I've the Limberlost in me heart so that all of it will be real to me while I live, no matter what they do to it. I'm glad past telling if you will be coming a few more times, at least until the gang arrives. Past that time I don't allow mesilf to be thinking."
"Come, have a cool drink before you start back," said the Angel.
"I couldn't possibly," said Freckles. "I left Mrs. Duncan on the trail, and she's terribly afraid of a lot of things. If she even sees a big snake, I don't know what she'll do."
"It won't take but a minute, and you can ride fast enough to make up for it. Please. I want to think of something fine for you, to make up a little for what you did for me that first day."
Freckles looked in sheer wonderment into the beautiful face of the Angel. Did she truly mean it? Would she walk down that street with him, crippled, homely, in mean clothing, with the tools of his occupation on him, and share with him the treat she was offering? He could not believe it, even of the Angel. Still, in justice to the candor of her pure, sweet face, he would not think that she would make the offer and not mean it. She really did mean just what she said, but when it came to carrying out her offer and he saw the stares of her friends, the sneers of her enemies--if such as she could have enemies--and heard the whispered jeers of the curious, then she would see her mistake and be sorry. It would be only a manly thing for him to think this out, and save her from the results of her own blessed bigness of heart.
"I railly must be off," said Freckles earnestly, "but I'm thanking you more than you'll ever know for your kindness. I'll just be drinking bowls of icy things all me way home in the thoughts of it."
Down came the Angel's foot. Her eyes flashed indignantly. "There's no sense in that," she said. "How do you think you would have felt when you knew I was warm and thirsty and you went and brought me a drink and I wouldn't take it because--because goodness knows why! You can ride faster to make up for the time. I've just thought out what I want to fix for you."
She stepped to his side and deliberately slipped her hand under his arm--that right arm that ended in an empty sleeve.
"You are coming," she said firmly. "I won't have it."
Freckles could not have told how he felt, neither could anyone else. His blood rioted and his head swam, but he kept his wits. He bent over her.
"Please don't, Angel," he said softly. "You don't understand."
How Freckles came to understand was a problem.
"It's this," he persisted. "If your father met me on the street, in my station and dress, with you on me arm, he'd have every right to be caning me before the people, and not a finger would I lift to stay him."
The Angel's eyes snapped. "If you think my father cares about my doing anything that is right and kind, and that makes me happy to do--why, then you completely failed in reading my father, and I'll ask him and just show you."
She dropped Freckles' arm and turned toward the entrance to the building. "Why, look there!" she exclaimed.
Her father stood in a big window fronting the street, a bundle of papers in his hand, interestedly watching the little scene, with eyes that comprehended quite as thoroughly as if he had heard every word. The Angel caught his glance and made a despairing little gesture toward Freckles. The Man of Affairs answered her with a look of infinite tenderness. He nodded his head and waved the papers in the direction she had indicated, and the veriest dolt could have read the words his lips formed: "Take him along!"
A sudden trembling seized Freckles. At sight of the Angel's father he had stepped back as far from her as he could, leaned the wheel against him, and snatched off his hat.
The Angel turned on him with triumphing eyes.
She was highly strung and not accustomed to being thwarted. "Did You see that?" she demanded. "Now are you satisfied? Will you come, or must I call a policeman to bring you?"
Freckles went. There was nothing else to do. Guiding his wheel, he walked down the street beside her. On every hand she was kept busy giving and receiving the cheeriest greetings. She walked into the parlors exactly as if she owned them. A clerk came hurrying to meet her.
"There's a table vacant beside a window where it is cool. I'll save it for you," and he started back.
"Please not," said the Angel. "I've taken this man unawares, when he's in a rush. I'm afraid if we sit down we'll take too much time and afterward he will blame me."
She walked to the fountain, and a long row of people stared with all the varying degrees of insolence and curiosity that Freckles had felt they would. He glanced at the Angel. Now would she see?
"On my soul!" he muttered under his breath. "They don't aven touch her!"
She laid down her sunshade and gloves. She walked to the end of the counter and turned the full battery of her eyes on the attendant.
"Please," she said.
The white-aproned individual stepped back and gave delighted assent. The Angel stepped beside him, and selecting a tall, flaring glass, of almost paper thinness, she stooped and rolled it in a tray of cracked ice.
"I want to mix a drink for my friend," she said. "He has a long, hot ride before him, and I don't want him started off with one of those old palate-teasing sweetnesses that you mix just on purpose to drive a man back in ten minutes." There was an appreciative laugh from the line at the counter.
"I want a clear, cool, sparkling drink that has a tang of acid in it. Where's the cherry phosphate? That, not at all sweet, would be good; don't you think?"
The attendant did think. He pointed out the different taps, and the Angel compounded the drink, while Freckles, standing so erect he almost leaned backward, gazed at her and paid no attention to anyone else. When she had the glass brimming, she tilted a little of its contents into a second glass and tasted it.
"That's entirely too sweet for a thirsty man," she said.
She poured out half the mixture, and refilling the glass, tasted it a second time. She submitted that result to the attendant. "Isn't that about the thing?" she asked.
He replied enthusiastically. "I'd get my wages raised ten a month if I could learn that trick."
The Angel carried the brimming, frosty glass to Freckles. He removed his hat, and lifting the icy liquid even with her eyes and looking straight into them, he said in the mellowest of all the mellow tones of his voice: "I'll be drinking it to the Swamp Angel."
As he had said to her that first day, she now cautioned him: "Be drinking slowly."
When the screen-door swung behind them, one of the men at the counter asked of the attendant: "Now, what did that mean?"
"Exactly what you saw," replied he, rather curtly. "We're accustomed to it here. Hardly a day passes, this hot weather, but she's picking up some poor, god-forsaken mortal and bringing him in. Then she comes behind the counter herself and fixes up a drink to suit the occasion. She's all sorts of fancies about what's what for all kinds of times and conditions, and you bet she can just hit the spot! Ain't a clerk here can put up a drink to touch her. She's a sort of knack at it. Every once in a while, when the Boss sees her, he calls out to her to mix him a drink."
"And does she?" asked the man with an interested grin.
"Well, I guess! But first she goes back and sees how long it is since he's had a drink. What he drank last. How warm he is. When he ate last. Then she comes here and mixes a glass of fizz with a little touch of acid, and a bit of cherry, lemon, grape, pineapple, or something sour and cooling, and it hits the spot just as no spot was ever hit before. I honestly believe that the interest she takes in it is half the trick, for I watch her closely and I can't come within gunshot of her concoctions. She has a running bill here. Her father settles once a month. She gives nine-tenths of it away. Hardly ever touches it herself, but when she does she makes me mix it. She's just old persimmons. Even the scrub-boy of this establishment would fight for her. It lasts the year round, for in winter it's some poor, frozen cuss that she's warming up on hot coffee or chocolate."
"Mighty queer specimen she had this time," volunteered another. "Irish, hand off, straight as a ramrod, and something worth while in his face. Notice that hat peel off, and the eyes of him? There's a case of `fight for her!' Wonder who he is?"
"I think," said a third, "that he's McLean's Limberlost guard, and I suspect she's gone to the swamp with the Bird Woman for pictures and knows him that way. I've heard that he is a master hand with the birds, and that would just suit the Bird Woman to a T."
On the street the Angel walked beside Freckles to the first crossing and there she stopped. "Now, will you promise to ride fast enough to make up for the five minutes that took?" she asked. "I am a little uneasy about Mrs. Duncan."
Freckles turned his wheel into the street. It seemed to him he had poured that delicious icy liquid into every vein in his body instead of his stomach. It even went to his brain.
"Did you insist on fixing that drink because you knew how intoxicating `twould be?" he asked.
There was subtlety in the compliment and it delighted the Angel. She laughed gleefully.
"Next time, maybe you won't take so much coaxing," she teased.
"I wouldn't this, if I had known your father and been understanding you better. Do you really think the Bird Woman will be coming again?"
The Angel jeered. "Wild horses couldn't drag her away," she cried. "She will have hard work to wait the week out. I shouldn't be in the least surprised to see her start any hour."
Freckles could not endure the suspense; it had to come.
"And you?" he questioned, but he dared not lift his eyes.
"Wild horses me, too," she laughed, "couldn't keep me away either! I dearly love to come, and the next time I am going to bring my banjo, and I'll play, and you sing for me some of the songs I like best; won't you?"
"Yis," said Freckles, because it was all he was capable of saying just then.
"It's beginning to act stormy," she said. "If you hurry you will just about make it. Now, good-bye."