Just David by Eleanor H. Porter
Chapter VI. Nuisances, Necessary and Otherwise
For some time after dinner, that first day, David watched Mrs. Holly in silence while she cleared the table and began to wash the dishes.
"Do you want me to--help?" he asked at last, a little wistfully.
Mrs. Holly, with a dubious glance at the boy's brown little hands, shook her head.
"No, I don't. No, thank you," she amended her answer.
For another sixty seconds David was silent; then, still more wistfully, he asked:--
"Are all these things you've been doing all day 'useful labor'?"
Mrs. Holly lifted dripping hands from the dishpan and held them suspended for an amazed instant.
"Are they--Why, of course they are! What a silly question! What put that idea into your head, child?"
"Mr. Holly; and you see it's so different from what father used to call them."
"Yes. He said they were a necessary nuisance,--dishes, and getting meals, and clearing up,--and he didn't do half as many of them as you do, either."
"Nuisance, indeed!" Mrs. Holly resumed her dishwashing with some asperity. "Well, I should think that might have been just about like him."
"Yes, it was. He was always that way," nodded David pleasantly. Then, after a moment, he queried: "But aren't you going to walk at all to-day?"
"To walk? Where?"
"Why, through the woods and fields--anywhere."
"Walking in the woods, now--just walking? Land's sake, boy, I've got something else to do!"
"Oh, that's too bad, isn't it?" David's face expressed sympathetic regret." And it's such a nice day! Maybe it'll rain by tomorrow."
"Maybe it will," retorted Mrs. Holly, with slightly uplifted eyebrows and an expressive glance. "But whether it does or does n't won't make any difference in my going to walk, I guess."
"Oh, won't it?" beamed David, his face changing. "I'm so glad! I don't mind the rain, either. Father and I used to go in the rain lots of times, only, of course, we couldn't take our violins then, so we used to like the pleasant days better. But there are some things you find on rainy days that you couldn't find any other time, aren't there? The dance of the drops on the leaves, and the rush of the rain when the wind gets behind it. Don't you love to feel it, out in the open spaces, where the wind just gets a good chance to push?"
Mrs. Holly stared. Then she shivered and threw up her hands with a gesture of hopeless abandonment.
"Land's sake, boy!" she ejaculated feebly, as she turned back to her work.
From dishes to sweeping, and from sweeping to dusting, hurried Mrs. Holly, going at last into the somber parlor, always carefully guarded from sun and air. Watching her, mutely, David trailed behind, his eyes staring a little as they fell upon the multitude of objects that parlor contained: the haircloth chairs, the long sofa, the marble-topped table, the curtains, cushions, spreads, and "throws," the innumerable mats and tidies, the hair-wreath, the wax flowers under their glass dome, the dried grasses, the marvelous bouquets of scarlet, green, and purple everlastings, the stones and shells and many-sized, many-shaped vases arranged as if in line of battle along the corner shelves.
"Y--yes, you may come in," called Mrs. Holly, glancing back at the hesitating boy in the doorway. "But you mustn't touch anything. I'm going to dust."
"But I haven't seen this room before," ruminated David.
"Well, no," deigned Mrs. Holly, with just a touch of superiority. "We don't use this room common, little boy, nor the bedroom there, either. This is the company room, for ministers and funerals, and--" She stopped hastily, with a quick look at David; but the boy did not seem to have heard.
"And doesn't anybody live here in this house, but just you and Mr. Holly, and Mr. Perry Larson?" he asked, still looking wonderingly about him.
"No, not--now." Mrs. Holly drew in her breath with a little catch, and glanced at the framed portrait of a little boy on the wall.
"But you've got such a lot of rooms and--and things," remarked David. "Why, daddy and I only had two rooms, and not hardly any things. It was so--different, you know, in my home."
"I should say it might have been!" Mrs. Holly began to dust hurriedly, but carefully. Her voice still carried its hint of superiority.
"Oh, yes," smiled David. "But you say you don't use this room much, so that helps."
"Helps!" In her stupefaction Mrs. Holly stopped her work and stared.
"Why, yes. I mean, you've got so many other rooms you can live in those. You don't have to live in here."
" 'Have to live in here'!" ejaculated the woman, still too uncomprehending to be anything but amazed.
"Yes. But do you have to keep all these things, and clean them and clean them, like this, every day? Couldn't you give them to somebody, or throw them away?"
"Throw--these--things--away!" With a wild sweep of her arms, the horrified woman seemed to be trying to encompass in a protective embrace each last endangered treasure of mat and tidy. "Boy, are you crazy? These things are--are valuable. They cost money, and time and--and labor. Don't you know beautiful things when you see them?"
"Oh, yes, I love beautiful things," smiled David, with unconsciously rude emphasis. "And up on the mountain I had them always. There was the sunrise, and the sunset, and the moon and the stars, and my Silver Lake, and the cloud-boats that sailed--"
But Mrs. Holly, with a vexed gesture, stopped him.
"Never mind, little boy. I might have known--brought up as you have been. Of course you could not appreciate such things as these. Throw them away, indeed!" And she fell to work again; but this time her fingers carried a something in their touch that was almost like the caress a mother might bestow upon an aggrieved child.
David, vaguely disturbed and uncomfortable, watched her with troubled eyes; then, apologetically, he explained:--
"It was only that I thought if you didn't have to clean so many of these things, you could maybe go to walk more--to-day, and other days, you know. You said--you didn't have time," he reminded her.
But Mrs. Holly only shook her head and sighed:--
"Well, well, never mind, little boy. I dare say you meant all right. You couldn't understand, of course."
And David, after another moment's wistful eyeing of the caressing fingers, turned about and wandered out onto the side porch. A minute later, having seated himself on the porch steps, he had taken from his pocket two small pieces of folded paper. And then, through tear-dimmed eyes, he read once more his father's letter.
"He said I mustn't grieve, for that would grieve him," murmured the boy, after a time, his eyes on the far-away hills. "And he said if I'd play, my mountains would come to me here, and I'd really be at home up there. He said in my violin were all those things I'm wanting--so bad!"
With a little choking breath, David tucked the note back into his pocket and reached for his violin.
Some time later, Mrs. Holly, dusting the chairs in the parlor, stopped her work, tiptoed to the door, and listened breathlessly. When she turned back, still later, to her work, her eyes were wet.
"I wonder why, when he plays, I always get to thinking of--John," she sighed to herself, as she picked up her dusting-cloth.
After supper that night, Simeon Holly and his wife again sat on the kitchen porch, resting from the labor of the day. Simeon's eyes were closed. His wife's were on the dim outlines of the shed, the barn, the road, or a passing horse and wagon. David, sitting on the steps, was watching the moon climb higher and higher above the tree-tops. After a time he slipped into the house and came out with his violin.
At the first long-drawn note of sweetness, Simeon Holly opened his eyes and sat up, stern-lipped. But his wife laid a timid hand on his arm.
"Don't say anything, please," she entreated softly. "Let him play, just for to-night. He's lonesome--poor little fellow." And Simeon Holly, with a frowning shrug of his shoulders, sat back in his chair.
Later, it was Mrs. Holly herself who stopped the music by saying: "Come, David, it's bedtime for little boys. I'll go upstairs with you." And she led the way into the house and lighted the candle for him.
Upstairs, in the little room over the kitchen, David found himself once more alone. As before, the little yellow-white nightshirt lay over the chair-back; and as before, Mrs. Holly had brushed away a tear as she had placed it there. As before, too, the big four-posted bed loomed tall and formidable in the corner. But this time the coverlet and sheet were turned back invitingly--Mrs. Holly had been much disturbed to find that David had slept on the floor the night before.
Once more, with his back carefully turned toward the impaled bugs and moths on the wall, David undressed himself. Then, before blowing out the candle, he went to the window kneeled down, and looked up at the moon through the trees.
David was sorely puzzled. He was beginning to wonder just what was to become of himself.
His father had said that out in the world there was a beautiful work for him to do; but what was it? How was he to find it? Or how was he to do it if he did find it? And another thing; where was he to live? Could he stay where he was? It was not home, to be sure; but there was the little room over the kitchen where he might sleep, and there was the kind woman who smiled at him sometimes with the sad, far-away look in her eyes that somehow hurt. He would not like, now, to leave her--with daddy gone.
There were the gold-pieces, too; and concerning these David was equally puzzled. What should he do with them? He did not need them--the kind woman was giving him plenty of food, so that he did not have to go to the store and buy; and there was nothing else, apparently, that he could use them for. They were heavy, and disagreeable to carry; yet he did not like to throw them away, nor to let anybody know that he had them: he had been called a thief just for one little piece, and what would they say if they knew he had all those others?
David remembered now, suddenly, that his father had said to hide them--to hide them until he needed them. David was relieved at once. Why had he not thought of it before? He knew just the place, too,--the little cupboard behind the chimney there in this very room! And with a satisfied sigh, David got to his feet, gathered all the little yellow disks from his pockets, and tucked them well out of sight behind the piles of books on the cupboard shelves. There, too, he hid the watch; but the little miniature of the angel-mother he slipped back into one of his pockets.
David's second morning at the farmhouse was not unlike the first, except that this time, when Simeon Holly asked him to fill the woodbox, David resolutely ignored every enticing bug and butterfly, and kept rigorously to the task before him until it was done.
He was in the kitchen when, just before dinner, Perry Larson came into the room with a worried frown on his face.
"Mis' Holly, would ye mind just steppin' to the side door? There's a woman an' a little boy there, an' somethin' ails 'em. She can't talk English, an' I'm blest if I can make head nor tail out of the lingo she does talk. But maybe you can."
"Why, Perry, I don't know--" began Mrs. Holly. But she turned at once toward the door.
On the porch steps stood a very pretty, but frightened-looking young woman with a boy perhaps ten years old at her side. Upon catching sight of Mrs. Holly she burst into a torrent of unintelligible words, supplemented by numerous and vehement gestures.
Mrs. Holly shrank back, and cast appealing eyes toward her husband who at that moment had come across the yard from the barn.
"Simeon, can you tell what she wants?"
At sight of the newcomer on the scene, the strange woman began again, with even more volubility.
"No," said Simeon Holly, after a moment's scowling scrutiny of the gesticulating woman. "She's talking French, I think. And she wants--something."
"Gosh! I should say she did," muttered Perry Larson. "An' whatever 't is, she wants it powerful bad."
"Are you hungry?" questioned Mrs. Holly timidly.
"Can't you speak English at all?" demanded Simeon Holly.
The woman looked from one to the other with the piteous, pleading eyes of the stranger in the strange land who cannot understand or make others understand. She had turned away with a despairing shake of her head, when suddenly she gave a wild cry of joy and wheeled about, her whole face alight.
The Hollys and Perry Larson saw then that David had come out onto the porch and was speaking to the woman--and his words were just as unintelligible as the woman's had been.
Mrs. Holly and Perry Larson stared. Simeon Holly interrupted David with a sharp--
"Do you, then, understand this woman, boy?"
"Why, yes! Didn't you? She's lost her way, and--" But the woman had hurried forward and was pouring her story into David's ears.
At its conclusion David turned to find the look of stupefaction still on the others' faces.
"Well, what does she want?" asked Simeon Holly crisply.
"She wants to find the way to Francois Lavelle's house. He's her husband's brother. She came in on the train this morning. Her husband stopped off a minute somewhere, she says, and got left behind. He could talk English, but she can't. She's only been in this country a week. She came from France."
"Gorry! Won't ye listen ter that, now?" cried Perry Larson admiringly. "Reads her just like a book, don't he? There's a French family over in West Hinsdale--two of 'em, I think. What'll ye bet 't ain't one o' them?"
"Very likely," acceded Simeon Holly, his eyes bent disapprovingly on David's face. It was plain to be seen that Simeon Holly's attention was occupied by David, not the woman.
"An', say, Mr. Holly," resumed Perry Larson, a little excitedly, "you know I was goin' over ter West Hinsdale in a day or two ter see Harlow about them steers. Why can't I go this afternoon an' tote her an' the kid along?"
"Very well," nodded Simeon Holly curtly, his eyes still on David's face.
Perry Larson turned to the woman, and by a flourish of his arms and a jumble of broken English attempted to make her understand that he was to take her where she undoubtedly wished to go. The woman still looked uncomprehending, however, and David promptly came to the rescue, saying a few rapid words that quickly brought a flood of delighted understanding to the woman's face.
"Can't you ask her if she's hungry?" ventured Mrs. Holly, then.
"She says no, thank you," translated David, with a smile, when he had received his answer. "But the boy says he is, if you please."
"Then, tell them to come into the kitchen," directed Mrs. Holly, hurrying into the house.
"So you're French, are you?" said Simeon Holly to David.
"French? Oh, no, sir," smiled David, proudly. "I'm an American. Father said I was. He said I was born in this country."
"But how comes it you can speak French like that?"
"Why, I learned it." Then, divining that his words were still unconvincing, he added: "Same as I learned German and other things with father, out of books, you know. Didn't you learn French when you were a little boy?"
"Humph!" vouchsafed Simeon Holly, stalking away without answering the question.
Immediately after dinner Perry Larson drove away with the woman and the little boy. The woman's face was wreathed with smiles, and her last adoring glance was for David, waving his hand to her from the porch steps.
In the afternoon David took his violin and went off toward the hill behind the house for a walk. He had asked Mrs. Holly to accompany him, but she had refused, though she was not sweeping or dusting at the time. She was doing nothing more important, apparently, than making holes in a piece of white cloth, and sewing them up again with a needle and thread.
David had then asked Mr. Holly to go; but his refusal was even more strangely impatient than his wife's had been.
"And why, pray, should I go for a useless walk now--or any time, for that matter?" he demanded sharply.
David had shrunk back unconsciously, though he had still smiled.
"Oh, but it wouldn't be a useless walk, sir. Father said nothing was useless that helped to keep us in tune, you know."
"I mean, you looked as father used to look sometimes, when he felt out of tune. And he always said there was nothing like a walk to put him back again. I--I was feeling a little out of tune myself to-day, and I thought, by the way you looked, that you were, too. So I asked you to go to walk."
"Humph! Well, I--That will do, boy. No impertinence, you understand!" And he had turned away in very obvious anger.
David, with a puzzled sorrow in his heart had started alone then, on his walk.