Chapter XI. Jack and Jill
 

David was tempted to go for a second visit to his Lady of the Roses, but something he could not define held him back. The lady was in his mind almost constantly, however; and very vivid to him was the picture of the garden, though always it was as he had seen it last with the hush and shadow of twilight, and with the lady's face gloomily turned toward the sunless pool. David could not forget that for her there were no hours to count; she had said it herself. He could not understand how this could be so; and the thought filled him with vague unrest and pain.

Perhaps it was this restlessness that drove David to explore even more persistently the village itself, sending him into new streets in search of something strange and interesting. One day the sound of shouts and laughter drew him to an open lot back of the church where some boys were at play.

David still knew very little of boys. In his mountain home he had never had them for playmates, and he had not seen much of them when he went with his father to the mountain village for supplies. There had been, it is true, the boy who frequently brought milk and eggs to the cabin; but he had been very quiet and shy, appearing always afraid and anxious to get away, as if he had been told not to stay. More recently, since David had been at the Holly farmhouse, his experience with boys had been even less satisfying. The boys--with the exception of blind Joe--had very clearly let it be understood that they had little use for a youth who could find nothing better to do than to tramp through the woods and the streets with a fiddle under his arm.

To-day, however, there came a change. Perhaps they were more used to him; or perhaps they had decided suddenly that it might be good fun to satisfy their curiosity, anyway, regardless of consequences. Whatever it was, the lads hailed his appearance with wild shouts of glee.

"Golly, boys, look! Here's the fiddlin' kid," yelled one; and the others joined in the "Hurrah!" he gave.

David smiled delightedly; once more he had found some one who wanted him--and it was so nice to be wanted! Truth to tell, David had felt not a little hurt at the persistent avoidance of all those boys and girls of his own age.

"How--how do you do?" he said diffidently, but still with that beaming smile.

Again the boys shouted gleefully as they hurried forward. Several had short sticks in their hands. One had an old tomato can with a string tied to it. The tallest boy had something that he was trying to hold beneath his coat.

" 'H--how do you do?' " they mimicked. "How do you do, fiddlin' kid?"

"I'm David; my name is David." The reminder was graciously given, with a smile.

"David! David! His name is David," chanted the boys, as if they were a comic-opera chorus.

David laughed outright.

"Oh, sing it again, sing it again!" he crowed. "That sounded fine!"

The boys stared, then sniffed disdainfully, and cast derisive glances into each other's eyes--it appeared that this little sissy tramp boy did not even know enough to discover when he was being laughed at!

"David! David! His name is David," they jeered into his face again. "Come on, tune her up! We want ter dance."

"Play? Of course I'll play," cried David joyously, raising his violin and testing a string for its tone.

"Here, hold on," yelled the tallest boy. "The Queen o' the Ballet ain't ready". And he cautiously pulled from beneath his coat a struggling kitten with a perforated bag tied over its head.

"Sure! We want her in the middle," grinned the boy with the tin can. "Hold on till I get her train tied to her," he finished, trying to capture the swishing, fluffy tail of the frightened little cat.

David had begun to play, but he stopped his music with a discordant stroke of the bow.

"What are you doing? What is the matter with that cat?" he demanded.

" 'Matter'!" called a derisive voice. "Sure, nothin' 's the matter with her. She's the Queen o' the Ballet--she is!"

"What do you mean?" cried David. At that moment the string bit hard into the captured tail, and the kitten cried out with the pain. "Look out! You're hurting her," cautioned David sharply.

Only a laugh and a jeering word answered. Then the kitten, with the bag on its head and the tin can tied to its tail, was let warily to the ground, the tall boy still holding its back with both hands.

"Ready, now! Come on, play," he ordered; "then we'll set her dancing."

David's eyes flashed.

"I will not play--for that."

The boys stopped laughing suddenly.

"Eh? What?" They could scarcely have been more surprised if the kitten itself had said the words.

"I say I won't play--I can't play--unless you let that cat go."

"Hoity-toity! Won't ye hear that now?" laughed a mocking voice. "And what if we say we won't let her go, eh?"

"Then I'll make you," vowed David, aflame with a newborn something that seemed to have sprung full-grown into being.

"Yow!" hooted the tallest boy, removing both hands from the captive kitten.

The kitten, released, began to back frantically. The can, dangling at its heels, rattled and banged and thumped, until the frightened little creature, crazed with terror, became nothing but a whirling mass of misery. The boys, formed now into a crowing circle of delight, kept the kitten within bounds, and flouted David mercilessly.

"Ah, ha!--stop us, will ye? Why don't ye stop us?" they gibed.

For a moment David stood without movement, his eyes staring. The next instant he turned and ran. The jeers became a chorus of triumphant shouts then--but not for long. David had only hurried to the woodpile to lay down his violin. He came back then, on the run--and before the tallest boy could catch his breath he was felled by a stinging blow on the jaw.

Over by the church a small girl, red-haired and red-eyed, clambered hastily over the fence behind which for long minutes she had been crying and wringing her hands.

"He'll be killed, he'll be killed," she moaned. "And it's my fault, 'cause it's my kitty--it's my kitty," she sobbed, straining her eyes to catch a glimpse of the kitten's protector in the squirming mass of legs and arms.

The kitten, unheeded now by the boys, was pursuing its backward whirl to destruction some distance away, and very soon the little girl discovered her. With a bound and a choking cry she reached the kitten, removed the bag and unbound the cruel string. Then, sitting on the ground, a safe distance away, she soothed the palpitating little bunch of gray fur, and watched with fearful eyes the fight.

And what a fight it was! There was no question, of course, as to its final outcome, with six against one; but meanwhile the one was giving the six the surprise of their lives in the shape of well-dealt blows and skillful twists and turns that caused their own strength and weight to react upon themselves in a most astonishing fashion. The one unmistakably was getting the worst of it, however, when the little girl, after a hurried dash to the street, brought back with her to the rescue a tall, smooth-shaven young man whom she had hailed from afar as "Jack."

Jack put a stop to things at once. With vigorous jerks and pulls he unsnarled the writhing mass, boy by boy, each one of whom, upon catching sight of his face, slunk hurriedly away, as if glad to escape so lightly. There was left finally upon the ground only David alone. But when David did at last appear, the little girl burst into tears anew.

"Oh, Jack, he's killed--I know he's killed," she wailed. "And he was so nice and--and pretty. And now--look at him! Ain't he a sight?"

David was not killed, but he was--a sight. His blouse was torn, his tie was gone, and his face and hands were covered with dirt and blood. Above one eye was an ugly-looking lump, and below the other was a red bruise. Somewhat dazedly he responded to the man's helpful hand, pulled himself upright, and looked about him. He did not see the little girl behind him.

"Where's the cat?" he asked anxiously.

The unexpected happened then. With a sobbing cry the little girl flung herself upon him, cat and all.

"Here, right here," she choked. "And it was you who saved her--my Juliette! And I'll love you, love you, love you always for it!"

"There, there, Jill," interposed the man a little hurriedly. "Suppose we first show our gratitude by seeing if we can't do something to make our young warrior here more comfortable." And he began to brush off with his handkerchief some of the accumulated dirt.

"Why can't we take him home, Jack, and clean him up 'fore other folks see him?" suggested the girl.

The boy turned quickly.

"Did you call him 'Jack'?"

"Yes."

"And he called you, Jill'?"

"Yes."

"The real 'Jack and Jill' that 'went up the hill'?" The man and the girl laughed; but the girl shook her head as she answered,--

"Not really--though we do go up a hill, all right, every day. But those aren't even our own names. We just call each other that for fun. Don't you ever call things--for fun?"

David's face lighted up in spite of the dirt, the lump, and the bruise.

"Oh, do you do that?" he breathed. "Say, I just know I'd like to play to you! You'd understand!"

"Oh, yes, and he plays, too," explained the little girl, turning to the man rapturously. "On a fiddle, you know, like you."

She had not finished her sentence before David was away, hurrying a little unsteadily across the lot for his violin. When he came back the man was looking at him with an anxious frown.

"Suppose you come home with us, boy," he said. "It isn't far--through the hill pasture, 'cross lots,--and we'll look you over a bit. That lump over your eye needs attention."

"Thank you," beamed David. "I'd like to go, and--I'm glad you want me!" He spoke to the man, but he looked at the little red-headed girl, who still held the gray kitten in her arms.