XI. The Old Rag Doll
 

The second week of September Trove went down the hills again to school, with food and furniture beside him in the great wagon. He had not been happy since he got home. Word of that evening with the pretty "Vaughn girl" had come to the ears of Allen.

"You're too young for that, boy," said he, the day Trove came. "You must promise me one thing--that you'll keep away from her until you are eighteen."

In every conviction Allen was like the hills about him--there were small changes on the surface, but underneath they were ever the same rock-boned, firm, unmoving hills.

"But I'm in love with her," said the boy, with dignity. "It is more than I can bear. I tell you, sir, that I regard the young lady with--with deep affection." He had often a dignity of phrase and manner beyond his years.

"Then it will last," said Allen. "You're only a boy, and for a while I know what is best for you."

Trove had to promise, and, as that keen edge of his feeling wore away, doubted no more the wisdom of his father. He wrote Polly a letter, quaint with boyish chivalry and frankness--one of a package that has lain these many years in old ribbons and the scent of lavender.

He went to the Sign of the Dial as soon as he got to Hillsborough that day. Darrel was at home, and a happy time it was, wherein each gave account of the summer. A stranger sat working at the small bench. Darrel gave him no heed, chatting as if they were quite alone.

"And what is the news in Hillsborough?" said Trove, his part of the story finished.

"Have ye not heard?" said Darrel, in a whisper. "Parson Hammond hath swapped horses."

Trove began to laugh.

"Nay, that is not all," said the tinker, his pipe in hand. "Deacon Swackhammer hath smitten the head o' Brooke. Oh, sor, 'twas a comedy. Brooke gave him an ill-sounding word. Swackhammer removed his coat an' flung it down. 'Deacon, lie there,' said he. Then each began, as it were, to bruise the head o' the serpent. Brooke--poor man!--he got the worst of it. An' sad to tell! his wife died the very next day."

"Of what?" Trove inquired,

"Marry, I do not know; it may have been joy," said the tinker, lighting his pipe. "Ah, sor, Brooke is tough. He smites the helping hand an' sickens the heart o' kindness. I offered him help an' sympathy, an' he made it all bitter with suspicion o' me. I turned away, an' said I to meself, 'Darrel, thy head is soft--a babe could brain thee with a lady's fan.'"

Darrel puffed his pipe in silence a little time.

"Every one hates Brooke," said Trove.

"Once," said Darrel, presently, "a young painter met a small animal with a striped back, in the woods. They exchanged compliments an' suddenly the painter ran, shaking his head. As he came near his own people, they all began to flee before him. He followed them for days, an' every animal in the woods ran as he came near. By an' by he stopped to rest. Then he looked down at himself an' spat, sneeringly. When, after weeks o' travel, he was at length admitted to the company of his kind, they sat in judgment on him.

"'Tell us,' said one, 'what evil hath befallen thee?'

"'Alas!' said the poor cat, 'I met a little creature with a striped back.'

"'A little creature! an' thee so put about?' said another, with great contempt.

"'Ay; but he hath a mighty talent,' said the sad painter. 'Let him but stand before thee, an' he hath spoiled the earth, an' its people, an' thou would'st even flee from thyself. But in fleeing thou shalt think thyself on the way to hell.'"

For a moment Darrel shook with silent laughter. Then he rose and put his pipe on the shelf.

"Well, I'd another chance to try the good law on him," said Darrel, presently. "In July he fell sick o' fever, an' I delayed me trip to nurse him. At length, when he was nearly well, an' I had come to his home one evening, the widow Glover met me at his door.

"'If ye expect money fer comin' here, ye better go on 'bout yer business,' Brooke shouted from the bedroom. 'I don't need ye any more, an' I'll send ye a bushel o' potatoes by 'n by. Good day.'

"Not a word o' thanks!" the tinker exclaimed. "Wrath o' God! I fear there is but one thing would soften him."

"And what is that?"

"A club," said Darrel. "But God forgive me! I must put away anger. Soon it went about that Brooke was to marry the widow. All were delighted, for each party would be in the nature of a punishment. God's justice! they did deserve each other."

Darrel shook with happiness, and relighted his pipe.

"Mayhap ye've seen the dear lady," Darrel went on. "She is large, bony, quarrelsome--a weaver of some fifty years--neither amiable nor fair to look upon. Every one knows her--a survivor o' two husbands an' many a battle o' high words.

"'Is it a case o' foreclosure, Brooke?' says I to him one day in the road.

"'No, sor,' he snaps out; 'I had a little mortgage on her furniture, but I'm going t' marry her for a helpmeet. She is a great worker an' neat an' savin'.'

"'An' headstrong,' says I. 'Ye must have patience with her.'

"'I can manage her,' said Brooke. 'The first morning after we are married I always say to my wife, "Here's the breeches; now if ye want 'em, take 'em, an' I'll put on the dress."'

"He looked wise, then, as if 'twere a great argument.

"'Always?' says I. 'God bless thee, 'tis an odd habit.'

"Well, the boast o' Brooke went from one to another an' at last to the widow's ear. They say a look o' firmness an' resolution came into her face, an' late in August they were married of an evening at the home o' Brooke. Well, about then, I had been having trouble."

"Trouble?" said Trove.

"It was another's trouble--that of a client o' mine, a poor woman out in the country. Brooke had a mortgage on her cattle, an' she could not pay, an' I undertook to help her. I had some money due me, but was unable to put me hand on it. That day before the wedding I went to the old sinner.

"'Brooke, I came to see about the Martha Vaughn mortgage,' says I."

"Martha Vaughn!" said Trove, turning quickly.

"Yes, one o' God's people," said the tinker.

"Ye may have seen her?"

"I have seen her," said Trove.

"'At ten o'clock to-morrow I shall foreclose,' says Brooke, waving his fist.

"'Give her a little time--till the day after to-morrow,--man, it is not much to ask,' says I.

"'Not an hour,' says he; an' I came away."

Darrel rose and put on his glasses and brought a newspaper and gave it to the boy.

"Read that," said he, his finger on the story, "an' see what came of it."

The article was entitled "A Rag Doll--The Story of a Money-lender whose Name, let us say, is Brown."

After some account of the marriage and of bride and groom, the story went on as follows:--

"At midnight the charivari was heard--a noisy beating of pans and pots in the door-yard of the unhappy groom, who flung sticks of wood from the window, and who finally dispersed the crowd with an old shotgun. Bright and early next day came the milkman--a veteran of the war of 1812--who, agreeably with his custom, sounded the call of boots and saddles on his battered bugle at Brown's door. But none came to open it. The noon hour passed with no sign of life in the old house.

"'Suthin' hes happened over there,' said his nearest neighbour, peering out of the window. 'Mebbe they've fit an' disabled each other.'

"'You'd better go an' rap on the door,' said his wife.

"He started, halting at his gate and looking over at the house of mystery. While he stood there, the door of the money-lender opened a little, and a head came out beckoning for help. He hurried to the door, that swung open as he came near it.

"'Heavens!' said he, 'What is the matter?'

"Brown stood behind the door, in a gown of figured calico, his feet bare, his shock of gray hair dishevelled. The gown was a poor fit, stopping just below the knees.

"'That woman!' he gasped, sinking into a chair and making an angry gesture with his fist. 'That woman has got every pair o' breeches in the house.'

"His wife appeared in the rusty, familiar garments of the money-lender.

"'He tried to humble me this morning,' said she, 'an' I humbled him. He began to order me around, an' I told him I wouldn't hev it. "Then," says he, "you better put on the breeches an' I'll put on the dress." "Very well," says I, and grabbed the breeches, an' give him the dress. I know ye, Brown; ye'll never abuse me.'

"'I'll get a divorce--I'll have the law on ye,' said the old man, angrily, as he walked the floor in his gown of calico.

"'Go on,' said she. 'Go to the lawyer now.'

"'Will ye git me a pair o' breeches?'

"'No; I took yer offer, an' ye can't have 'em 'til ye've done the work that goes with the dress. Come, now, I want my dinner.'

"'I can't find a stitch in the house,' said he, turning to his neighbour. 'I wish ye'd bring me some clothes.'

"The caller made no reply, but came away smiling, and told of Brown's dilemma.

"'It's good for him,' said the neighbour's wife. 'Don't ye take him any clothes. He's bullied three wives to death, an' now I'm glad he's got a wife that can bully him.'

"Brown waited long, but no help arrived. The wife was firm and he very hungry. She called him 'wife'--a title not calculated to soothe a man of his agility and vigour. He galloped across the room at her, yelling as he brandished a poker. She quickly took it away and drove him into a corner. He had taken up the poker and now seemed likely to perish by it. Then, going to the stove with this odd weapon, she stuck its end in the fire, and Brown had no sooner flung a wash-basin across the room at her head than she ran after him with the hot poker. Then, calling for help, he ran around the stove and out of doors like a wild man, his dress of calico and his long hair flying in the breeze. Pedestrians halted, men and women came out of their homes. The bare feet of the money-lender were flying with great energy.

"'She's druv him crazy,' a man shouted.

"'An' knocked the socks off him,' said another.

"'Must have been tryin' t' make him into a rag doll,' was the comment of a third.

"'Brown, if yer goin' t' be a womern,' said one, as they surrounded him, 'ye'd ought to put on a longer dress. Yer enough t' scare a hoss.'

"Brown was inarticulate with anger.

"A number of men judging him insane, seized and returned him to his punishment. They heard the unhappy story with loud laughter.

"'You'd better give up an' go to the kitchen. Brown,' said one of them; and there are those who maintain that he got the dinner before he got the trousers."

"Well, God be praised!" said Darrel, when Trove had finished reading the story; "Brooke was unable to foreclose that day, an' the next was Sunday, an' bright an' early on Monday morning I paid the debt."

"Mrs. Vaughn has a daughter," said Trove, blushing.

"Ay; an' she hath a pretty redness in her lip," said Darrel, quickly, "an' a merry flash in her eye. Thou hast yet far to go, boy. Look not upon her now, or she will trip thee. By an' by, boy, by an' by."

There was an odd trait in Darrel. In familiar talk he often made use of "ye"--a shortened you--in speaking to those of old acquaintance. But when there was man or topic to rouse him into higher dignity it was more often "thee" or "thou" with him. Trove made no answer and shortly went away.

In certain court records one may read of the celebrated suit for divorce which enlivened the winter of that year in the north country. It is enough to quote the ringing words of one Colonel Jenkins, who addressed the judge as follows:--

"Picture to yourself, sir, this venerable man, waking from his dream of happiness to be robbed of his trousers--the very insignia of his manhood. Picture him, sir, sitting in calico and despair, mingled with hunger and humiliation. Think of him being addressed as 'wife.' Being called 'wife,' sir, by this woman he had taken to his heart and home. That, your Honour, was ingratitude sharper than a serpent's tooth. Picture him driven from his fireside in skirts,--the very drapery of humiliation,--skirts, your Honour, that came barely to the knees and left his nether limbs exposed to the autumnal breeze and the ridicule of the unthinking. Sir, it is for you to say how far the widow may go in her oppression. If such conduct is permitted, in God's name, who is safe?"

"May it please your Honour," said the opposing lawyer, "having looked upon these pictures of the learned counsel, it is for you to judge whether you ever saw any that gave you greater joy. They are above all art, your Honour. In the galleries of memory there are none like them--none so charming, so delightful. If I were to die to-morrow, sir, I should thank God that my last hour came not until I had seen these pictures of Colonel Jenkins; and it may be sir, that my happiness would even delay the hand of death. My only regret is that mine is the great misfortune of having failed to witness the event they portray. Sir, you have a great responsibility, for you have to judge whether human law may interfere with the working of divine justice. It was the decree of fate, your Honour, following his own word and action, that this man should become as a rag doll in the hands of a termagant. I submit to you that Providence, in the memory of the living, has done no better job."

A tumult of applause stopped him, and he sat down.

Brooke was defeated promptly, and known ever after as "The Old Rag Doll."