XVI. A Rustic Museum
 

That first week Sidney Trove went to board at the home of "the two old maids," a stone house on Jericho Road, with a front door rusting on idle hinges and blinds ever drawn. It was a hundred feet or more from the highway, and in summer there were flowers along the path from its little gate and vines climbing to the upper windows. In winter its garden was buried deep under the snow. One family--the Vaughns--came once in awhile to see "the two old maids." Few others ever saw them save from afar. A dressmaker came once a year and made gowns for them, that were carefully hung in closets but never worn. To many of their neighbours they were as dead as if they had been long in their graves. Tales of their economy, of their odd habits, of their past, went over hill and dale to far places. They had never boarded the teacher and were put in a panic when the trustee came to speak of it.

"He's a grand young man," said he; "good company--and you'll enjoy it."

They looked soberly at each other. According to tradition, one was fifty-four the other fifty-five years of age. An exclamation broke from the lips of one. It sounded like the letter y whispered quickly.

"Y!" the other answered.

"It might make a match," said Mr. Blount, the trustee, smiling.

"Y! Samuel Blount!" said the younger one, coming near and smiting him playfully on the elbow. "You stop!"

Miss Letitia began laughing silently. They never laughed aloud.

"If he didn't murder us," said Miss S'mantha, doubtfully.

"Nonsense," said the trustee; "I'll answer for him."

"Can't tell what men'll do," she persisted weakly. "When I was in Albany with Alma Haskins, a man came 'long an' tried t' pass the time o' day with us. We jes' looked t'other way an' didn't preten' t' hear him. It's awful t' think what might 'a' happened."

She wiped invisible tears with an embroidered handkerchief. The dear lady had spent a good part of her life thinking of that narrow escape.

"If he wa'n't too partic'lar," said Miss Letitia, who had been laughing at this maiden fear of her sister.

"If he would mind his business, we--we might take him for one week," said Miss S'mantha. She glanced inquiringly at her sister.

Letitia and S'mantha Tower, "the two old maids," had but one near relative--Ezra Tower, a brother of the same neighbourhood.

There were two kinds of people in Faraway,--those that Ezra Tower spoke to and those he didn't. The latter were of the majority. As a forswearer of communication he was unrivalled. His imagination was a very slaughter-house, in which all who crossed him were slain. If they were passing, he looked the other way and never even saw them again. Since the probate of his father's will both sisters were of the number never spoken to. He was a thin, tall, sullen, dry, and dusty man. Dressed for church of a Sunday, he looked as if he had been stored a year in some neglected cellar. His broadcloth had a dingy aspect, his hair and beard and eyebrows the hue of a cobweb. He had a voice slow and rusty, a look arid and unfruitful. Indeed, it seemed as if the fires of hate and envy had burned him out.

The two old maids, feeling the disgrace of it and fearing more, ceased to visit their neighbours or even to pass their own gate. Poor Miss S'mantha fell into the deadly mire of hypochondria. She often thought herself very ill and sent abroad for every medicine advertised in the county paper. She had ever a faint look and a thin, sickly voice. She had the man-fear,--a deep distrust of men,--never ceasing to be on her guard. In girlhood, she had been to Albany, Its splendour and the reckless conduct of one Alma Haskins, companion of her travels, had been ever since a day-long perennial topic of her conversation. Miss Letitia was more amiable. She had a playful, cheery heart in her, a mincing and precise manner, and a sweet voice. What with the cleaning, dusting, and preserving, they were ever busy. A fly, driven hither and thither, fell of exhaustion if not disabled with a broom. They were two weeks getting ready for the teacher. When, at last, he came that afternoon, supper was ready and they were nearly worn out.

"Here he is!" one whispered suddenly from a window. Then, with a last poke at her hair, Miss Letitia admitted the teacher. They spoke their greeting in a half whisper and stood near, waiting timidly for his coat and cap.

"No, thank you," said he, taking them to a nail. "I can do my own hanging, as the man said when he committed suicide."

Miss S'mantha looked suspicious and walked to the other side of the stove. Impressed by the silence of the room, much exaggerated by the ticking of the clock, Sidney Trove sat a moment looking around him. Daylight had begun to grow dim. The table, with its cover of white linen, was a thing to give one joy. A ruby tower of jelly, a snowy summit of frosted cake, a red pond of preserved berries, a mound of chicken pie, and a corduroy marsh of mince, steaming volcanoes of new biscuit, and a great heap of apple fritters, lay in a setting of blue china. They stood a moment by the stove,--the two sisters,--both trembling in this unusual publicity. Miss Letitia had her hand upon the teapot.

"Our tea is ready," said she, presently, advancing to the table. She spoke in a low, gentle tone.

"This is grand!" said he, sitting down with them. "I tell you, we'll have fun before I leave here."

They looked up at him and then at each other, Letitia laughing silently, S'mantha suspicious. For many years fun had been a thing far from their thought.

"Play checkers?" he inquired.

"Afraid we couldn't," said Miss Letitia, answering for both.

"Old Sledge?"

She shook her head, smiling.

"I don't wish to lead you into recklessness," the teacher remarked, "but I'm sure you wouldn't mind being happy."

Miss S'mantha had a startled look.

"In--in a--proper way," he added. "Let's be joyful. Perhaps we could play 'I spy.'"

"Y!" they both exclaimed, laughing silently.

"Never ate chicken pie like that," he added in all sincerity. "If I were a poet, I'd indite an ode 'written after eating some of the excellent chicken pie of the Misses Tower.' I'm going to have some like it on my farm."

In reaching to help himself he touched the teapot, withdrawing his hand quickly.

"Burn ye?" said Miss S'mantha.

"Yes; but I like it!" said he, a bit embarrassed. "I often go and--and put my hand on a hot teapot if I'm having too much fun."

They looked up at him, puzzled.

"Ever slide down hill?" he inquired, looking from one to the other, after a bit of silence.

"Oh, not since we were little!" said Miss Letitia, holding her biscuit daintily, after taking a bite none too big for a bird to manage.

"Good fun!" said be. "Whisk you back to childhood in a jiffy. Folks ought to slide down hill more'n they do. It isn't a good idea to be always climbing."

"'Fraid we couldn't stan' it," said Miss S'mantha, tentatively. Under all her man-fear and suspicion lay a furtive recklessness.

"Y, no!" the other whispered, laughing silently.

The pervading silence of that house came flooding in between sentences. For a moment Trove could hear only the gurgle of pouring tea and the faint rattle of china softly handled. When he felt as if the silence were drowning him, he began again:--

"Life is nothing but a school. I'm a teacher, and I deal in rules. If you want to kill misery, load your gun with pleasure."

"Do you know of anything for indigestion?" said Miss S'mantha, charging her sickly voice with a firmness calculated to discourage any undue familiarity.

"Just the thing--a sure cure!" said he, emphatically.

"Come high?" she inquired.

"No, it's cheap and plenty."

"Where do you send?"

"Oh!" said he; "you will have to go after it."

"What is it called ?"

"Fun," said the teacher, quickly; "and the place to find it is out of doors. It grows everywhere on my farm. I'd rather have a pair of skates than all the medicine this side of China."

She set down her teacup and looked up at him. She was beginning to think him a fairly safe and well-behaved man, although she would have been more comfortable if he had been shut in a cage.

"If I had a pair o' skates," said she, faintly, with a look of inquiry at her sister, "I dunno but I'd try 'em."

Miss Letitia began to laugh silently.

"I'd begin with overshoes," said the teacher, "A pair of overshoes and a walk on the crust every morning before breakfast; increase the dose gradually."

The two old maids were now more at ease with their guest. His kindly manner and plentiful good spirits had begun to warm and cheer them. Miss S'mantha even cherished a secret resolve to slide if the chance came.

After tea Sidney Trove, against their protest, began to help with the dishes. Miss S'mantha prudently managed to keep the stove between him and her. A fire and candles were burning in the parlour. He asked permission, however, to stay where he could talk with them. Tunk Hosely, the man of all work, came in for his supper. He was an odd character. Some, with a finger on their foreheads, confided the opinion that he was "a little off." All agreed he was no fool--in a tone that left it open to argument. He had a small figure and a big squint. His perpetual squint and bristly, short beard were a great injustice to him. They gave him a look severer than he deserved. A limp and leaning shoulder complete the inventory of external traits. Having eaten, he set a candle in the old barn lantern.

"Wal, mister," said he, when all was ready, "come out an' look at my hoss."

The teacher went with him out under a sky bright with stars to the chill and gloomy stable.

"Look at me," said Tunk, holding up the lantern as he turned about. "Gosh all fish-hooks! I'm a wreck."

"What's the matter?" Sidney Trove inquired.

"All sunk in--right here," Tunk answered impressively, his hand to his chest.

"How did it happen?"

"Kicked by a boss; that's how it happened," was the significant answer. "Lord! I'm all shucked over t' one side--can't ye see it?"

"A list t' sta'b'rd--that's what they call it, I believe," said the teacher.

"See how I limp," Tunk went on, striding to show his pace. "Ain't it awful!"

"How did that happen?"

"Sprung my ex!" he answered, turning quickly with a significant look. "Thrown from a sulky in a hoss race an' sprung my ex. Lord! can't ye see it?"

The teacher nodded, not knowing quite how to take him.

"Had my knee unsot, too," he went on, lifting his knee as he turned the light upon it. "Jes' put yer finger there," said he, indicating a slight protuberance. "Lord! it's big as a bog spavin."

He had planned to provoke a query, and it came.

"How did you get it?"

"Kicked ag'in," said Tunk, sadly. "Heavens! I've had my share o' bangin'. Can't conquer a skittish hoss without sufferin' some--not allwus. Now, here's a boss," he added, as they walked to a stall. "He ain't much t' look at, but--"

He paused a moment as he neared the horse--a white and ancient palfrey. He stood thoughtfully on "cocked ankles," every leg in a bandage, tail and mane braided,

"Get ap, Prince," Tunk shouted, as he gave him a slap. Prince moved aside, betraying evidence of age and infirmity.

"But--" Tunk repeated with emphasis.

"Ugly?" the teacher queried.

"Ugly!" said Tunk, as if the word were all too feeble for the fact in hand. "Reg'lar hell on wheels!--that's what he is. Look out! don't git too nigh him. He ain't no conscience--that hoss ain't."

"Is he fast?"

"Greased lightnin'!" said Tunk, shaking his head. "Won twenty-seven races."

"You're a good deal of a horseman, I take it." said the teacher.

"Wal, some," said he, expectorating thoughtfully. "But I don't have no chance here. What d'ye 'spect of a man livin,' with them ol' maids ?"

He seemed to have more contempt than his words would carry.

"Every night they lock me upstairs," he continued with a look of injury; "they ain't fit fer nobody t' live with. Ain't got no hoss but that dummed ol' plug."

He had forgotten his enthusiasm of the preceding moment. His intellect was a museum of freaks. Therein, Vanity was the prodigious fat man, Memory the dwarf, and Veracity the living skeleton. When Vanity rose to show himself, the others left the stage.

Tunk's face had become suddenly thoughtful and morose. In truth, he was an arrant and amusing humbug. It has been said that children are all given to lying in some degree, but seeing the folly of it in good time, if, indeed, they are not convinced of its wickedness, train tongue and feeling into the way of truth. The respect for truth that is the beginning of wisdom had not come to Tunk. He continued to lie with the cheerful inconsistency of a child. The' hero of his youth had been a certain driver of trotting horses, who had a limp and a leaning shoulder. In Tunk, the limp and the leaning shoulder were an attainment that had come of no sudden wrench. Such is the power of example, he admired, then imitated, and at last acquired them. One cannot help thinking what graces of character and person a like persistency would have brought to him. But Tunk had equipped himself with horsey heroism, adorning it to his own fancy. He had never been kicked, he had never driven a race or been hurled from a sulky at full speed. Prince, that ancient palfrey, was the most harmless of all creatures, and would long since have been put out of misery but for the tender consideration of his owners. And Tunk--well, they used to say of him, that if he had been truthful, he couldn't have been alive.

"Sometime," Trove thought, "his folly may bring confusion upon wise heads."