XXII. Comedies of Field and Dooryard
 

Trove was three days in Brier Dale after he came out of the woods. The filly was now a sleek and shapely animal, past three years of age. He began at once breaking her to the saddle, and, that done, mounting, he started for Robin's Inn. He carried a game rooster in a sack for the boy Tom. All came out with a word of welcome; even the small dog grew noisy with delight Tunk Hosely, who had come to work for Mrs. Vaughn, took the mare and led her away, his shoulder leaning with an added sense of horsemanship. Polly began to hurry dinner, fussing with the table, and changing the position of every dish, until it seemed as if she would never be quite satisfied. Covered with the sacred old china and table-linen of her grandmother, it had, when Polly was done with it, a very smart appearance indeed. Then she called the boys and bade them wash their hands and faces and whispered a warning to each, while her mother announced that dinner was ready.

"Paul, what's an adjective?" said the teacher, as they sat down.

"A word applied to a noun to qualify or limit its meaning," the boy answered glibly.

"Right! And what adjective would you apply to this table?"

The boy thought a moment.

"Grand!" said he, tentatively.

"Correct! I'm going to have just such a dinner every day on my farm."

"Then you'll have to have Polly too," said Tom, innocently.

"Well, you can spare her."

"No, sir," the boy answered. "You ain't good to her; she cries every time you go away."

There was an awkward silence and the widow began to laugh and Polly and Trove to blush deeply.

"Maybe she whispered, an' he give her a talkin' to," said Paul.

"Have you heard about Ezra Tower?" said Mrs. Vaughn, shaking her head at the boys and changing the topic with shrewd diplomacy.

"Much; but nothing new," said Trove.

"Well, he swears he'll never cross the Fadden bridge or speak to anybody in Pleasant Valley."

"Why?"

"The taxes. He don't believe in improvements, and when he tried to make a speech in town-meeting they all jeered him. There ain't any one good enough for him to speak to now but himself an'--an' his Creator."

In the midst of dinner, they heard an outcry in the yard. Tom's game-cock had challenged the old rooster, and the two were leaping and striking with foot and wing. Before help came the old rooster was badly cut in the neck and breast. Tunk rescued him, and brought him to the woodshed, where Trove sewed up his wounds. He had scarcely finished when there came a louder outcry among the fowls. Looking out they saw a gobbler striding slowly up the path and leading the game-cock with a firm hold on the back of his neck. The whole flock of fowls were following. The rooster held back and came on with long but unequal strides, Never halting, the turkey led him into the full publicity of the open yard. Now the cock was lifted so his feet came only to the top of the grass; now his head was bent low, and his feet fell heavily. Through it all the gobbler bore himself with dignity and firmness. There was no show of wrath or unnecessary violence. He swung the cock around near the foot of the maple tree and walked him back and then returned with him. Half his journey the poor cock was reaching for the grass and was then lowered quickly, so he had to walk with bent knees. Again and again the gobbler walked up and down with him before the assembled flock. Hens and geese cackled loudly and clapped their wings. Applause and derision rose high each time the poor cock swung around, reaching for the grass. But the gobbler continued his even stride, deliberately, and as it seemed, thoughtfully, applying correction to the quarrelsome bird. Walking the grass tips had begun to tire those reaching legs. The cock soon straddled along with a serious eye and an open mouth. But the gobbler gave him no rest. When, at length, he released his hold, the game-cock lay weary and wild-eyed, with no more fight in him than a bunch of rags. Soon he rose and ran away and hid himself in the stable. The culprit fowl was then tried, convicted, and sentenced to the block.

"It's the fate of all fighters that have only a selfish cause," said the teacher. He was sitting on the grass, Polly, and Tom, and Paul, beside him.

"Look here," said he, suddenly. "I'll show you another fight."

All gathered about him. Down among the grass roots an ant stood facing a big, hairy spider. The ant backed away, presently, and made a little detour, the spider turning quickly and edging toward him. The ant stood motionless, the spider on tiptoe, with daggers drawn. The big, hairy spider leaped like a lion to its prey. They could see her striking with the fatal knives, her great body quivering with fierce energy. The little ant was hidden beneath it. Some uttered a cry of pity, and Paul was for taking sides.

"Wait a moment," said the teacher, restraining his hand. The spider had begun to tremble in a curious manner.

"Look now," said Trove, with some excitement.

Her legs had begun to let go and were straightening stiff on both sides of her. In a moment she tilted sideways and lay still. They saw a twinkle of black, legs and the ant making off in the stubble. They picked up the spider's body; it was now only an empty shell. Her big stomach had been torn away and lay in little strips and chunks, down at the roots of the stubble.

"It's the end of a bit of history," said the teacher, as he tore away the curved blades of the spider and put them in Polly's palm.

"Let's see where the ant goes."

He got down upon his hands and knees and watched the little black tiger, now hurrying for his lair. In a moment he was joined by others, and presently they came into a smooth little avenue under the grass. It took them into the edge of the meadow, around a stalk of mullen, where there were a number of webs.

"There's where she lived--this hairy old woman," said the teacher,--"up there in that tower. See her snares in the grass--four of them?"

He rapped on the stalk of mullen with a stick, peering into the dusty little cavern of silk near the top of it.

"Sure enough! Here is where she lived; for the house is empty, and there's living prey in the snares."

"What a weird old thing!" said Polly. "Can you tell us more about her?"

"Well, every summer," said Trove, "a great city grows up in the field. There are shady streets in it, no wider than a cricket's back, and millions living in nest and tower and cave and cavern. Among its people are toilers and idlers, laws and lawbreakers, thieves and highwaymen, grand folk and plain folk. Here is the home of the greatest criminal in the city of the field. See! it is between two leaves,--one serving as roof, the other as floor and portico. Here is a long cable that comes out of her sitting room and slopes away to the big snare below. Look at her sheets of silk in the grass. It's like a washing that's been hung out to dry. From each a slender cord of silk runs to the main cable. Even a fly's kick or a stroke of his tiny wing must have gone up the tower and shaken the floor of the old lady, maybe, with a sort of thunder. Then she ran out and down the cable to rush upon her helpless prey. She was an arrant highwayman,--this old lady,--a creature of craft and violence. She was no sooner married than she slew her husband--a timid thing smaller than she--and ate him at one meal. You know the ants are a busy people. This road was probably a thoroughfare for their freight,--eggs and cattle and wild rice. I'll warrant she used to lie and wait for them; and woe to the little traveller if she caught him unawares, for she could nip him in two with a single thrust of her knives. Then she, would seize the egg he bore and make off with it. Now the ants are cunning. They found her downstairs and cut her off from her home and drove her away into the grass jungle. I've no doubt she faced a score of them, but, being a swift climber, with lots of rope in her pocket, was able to get away. The soldier ants began to beat the jangle. They separated, content to meet her singly, knowing she would refuse to fight if confronted by more than one. And you know what happened to her."

All that afternoon they spent in the city of the field. The life of the birds in the great maple interested them most of all. In the evening he played checkers with Polly and told her of school life in the village of Hillsborough--the work and play of the students.

"Oh! I do wish I could go," said she, presently, with a deep sigh.

He thought of the eighty-two dollars in his pocket and longed to tell her all that he was planning for her sake.

Mrs. Vaughn went above stairs with the children.

Then Trove took Polly's hand. They looked deeply into each other's eyes a moment, both smiling.

"It's your move," said she, smiling as her glance fell.

He moved all the checkers.

There came a breath of silence, and a great surge of happiness that washed every checker off the board, and left the two with flushed faces. Then, as Mrs. Vaughn was coming downstairs, the checkers began to rattle into position.

"I won," said he, as the door opened.

"But he didn't play fair," said Folly.

"Children, I'm afraid you're playing more love than checkers," said the widow. "You're both too young to think of marriage."

Those two looked thoughtfully at the checkerboard, Polly's chin resting on her hand. She had begun to smile.

"I'm sure Mr. Trove has no such thought in his head," said she, still looking at the board.

"You're mother is right; we're both very young," said Trove.

"I believe you're afraid of her," said Polly, looking up at him with a smile.

"I'm only thinking of your welfare," said Mrs. Vaughn, gently. "Young love should be stored away, and if it keeps, why, then it's all right."

"Like preserves!" said Polly, soberly, as if she were not able to see the point.

Against the protest of Polly and her mother, Trove went to sleep in the sugar shanty, a quarter of a mile or so back in the woods. On his first trip with the drove he had developed fondness for sleeping out of doors. The shanty was a rude structure of logs, with an open front. Tunk went ahead, bearing a pine torch, while Trove followed, the blanket over his shoulder. They built a roaring fire in front of the shanty and sat down to talk.

"How have you been?" Trove inquired.

"Like t' killed me there at the ol' maids'."

"Were they rough with you?"

"No," said Tunk, gloomily.

"What then?"

"Hoss."

"Kicked?" was Trove's query.

"Lord! I should think so. Feel there."

Trove felt the same old protuberance on Tunk's leg.

"Swatted me right in the knee-pan. Put both feet on my chest, too. Lord! I'd be coughin' up blood all the while if I wa'n't careful."

"And why did you leave?"

"Served me a mean trick," said Tunk, frowning. "Letishey went away t' the village t' have a tooth drawed, an' t'other one locked me up all day in the garret chamber. Toward night I crawled out o' the window an' clim' down the lightnin' rod. An' she screamed for help an' run t' the neighbours. Scairt me half t' death. Heavens! I didn't know what I'd done!"

"Did you come down fast?" Trove inquired.

"Purty middlin' fast."

"Well, a man never ought to travel on a lightning rod."

Tunk sat in sober silence a moment, as if he thought it no proper time for levity.

"I made up my mind," said he, with an injured look, "it wa'n't goin' t' do my character no good t' live there with them ol' maids."

There was a bitter contempt in his voice when he said "ol' maids."

"I'd kind o' like t' draw the ribbons over that mare o' yourn, mister," said Tunk, presently.

"Do you think you could manage her?"

"What!" said Tunk, in a voice of both query and exclamation. "Huh! Don't I look as if I'd been used t' hosses. There ain't a bone in my body that ain't been kicked--some on 'em two or three times. Don't ye notice how I walk? Heavens, man! I hed my ex sprung 'fore I was fifteen!"

Tunk referred often and proudly to this early springing of his "ex," by which he meant probably that horse violence had bent him askew.

"Well, you shall have a chance to drive her," said Trove, spreading his blanket. "But if I'd gone through what you have, I'd keep out of danger."

"I like it," said Tunk, with emphasis. "I couldn't live without it. Danger is a good deal like chawin' terbaccer--dum nasty 'til ye git used to it. Fer me it's suthin' like strawberry short-cake and allwus was. An' nerve, man, why jes' look a' there."

He held out a hand to show its steadiness.

"Very good," Trove remarked.

"Good? Why, it's jest as stiddy as a hitchin' post, an' purty nigh as stout. Feel there," said Tunk, swelling his biceps.

"You must be very strong," said Trove, as he felt the rigid arm.

"A man has t' be in the boss business, er he ain't nowheres. If they get wicked, ye've got t' put the power to 'em."

Tunk had only one horse to care for at the widow's, but he was always in "the hoss business."

Then Tunk lit his torch and went away. Trove lay down, pulled his blanket about him, and went to sleep.