A New England Idol
 

The Hapgood twins were born in the great square house that set back from the road just on the outskirts of Fairtown. Their baby eyes had opened upon a world of faded portraits and somber haircloth furniture, and their baby hands had eagerly clutched at crystal pendants on brass candlesticks gleaming out of the sacred darkness that enveloped the parlor mantel.

When older grown they had played dolls in the wonderful attic, and made mud pies in the wilderness of a back yard. The garden had been a fairyland of delight to their toddling feet, and the apple trees a fragrant shelter for their first attempts at housekeeping.

From babyhood to girlhood the charm of the old place grew upon them, so much so that the thought of leaving it for homes of their own became distasteful to them, and they looked with scant favor upon the occasional village youths who sauntered up the path presumably on courtship bent.

The Reverend John Hapgood--a man who ruled himself and all about him with the iron rod of a rigid old-school orthodoxy--died when the twins were twenty; and the frail little woman who, as his wife, had for thirty years lived and moved solely because he expected breath and motion of her, followed soon in his footsteps. And then the twins were left alone in the great square house on the hill.

Miss Tabitha and Miss Rachel were not the only children of the family. There had been a son--the first born, and four years their senior. The headstrong boy and the iron rule had clashed, and the boy, when sixteen years old, had fled, leaving no trace behind him.

If the Reverend John Hapgood grieved for his wayward son the members of his household knew it not, save as they might place their own constructions on the added sternness to his eyes and the deepening lines about his mouth. "Paul," when it designated the graceless runaway, was a forbidden word in the family, and even the Epistles in the sacred Book, bearing the prohibited name, came to be avoided by the head of the house in the daily readings. It was still music in the hearts of the women, however, though it never passed their lips; and when the little mother lay dying she remembered and spoke of her boy. The habit of years still fettered her tongue and kept it from uttering the name.

"If--he--comes--you know--if he comes, be kind--be good," she murmured, her breath short and labored. "Don't--punish," she whispered--he was yet a lad in her disordered vision. "Don't punish--forgive!"

Years had passed since then--years of peaceful mornings and placid afternoons, and Paul had never appeared. Each purpling of the lilacs in the spring and reddening of the apples in the fall took on new shades of loveliness in the fond eyes of the twins, and every blade of grass and tiny shrub became sacred to them.

On the 10th of June, their thirty-fifth birthday, the place never had looked so lovely. A small table laid with spotless linen and gleaming silver stood beneath the largest apple-tree, a mute witness that the ladies were about to celebrate their birthday--the 10th of June being the only day that the solemn dignity of the dining-room was deserted for the frivolous freedom of the lawn.

Rachel came out of the house and sniffed the air joyfully.

"Delicious!" she murmured. "Somehow, the 10th of June is specially fine every year."

In careful, uplifted hands she bore a round frosted cake, always the chief treasure of the birthday feast. The cake was covered with the tiny colored candies so dear to the heart of a child. Miss Rachel always bought those candies at the village store, with the apology:--

"I want them for Tabitha's birthday cake, you know. She thinks so much of pretty things."

Tabitha invariably made the cake and iced it, and as she dropped the bits of colored sugar into place, she would explain to Huldy, who occasionally "helped" in the kitchen:--

"I wouldn't miss the candy for the world--my sister thinks so much of it!"

So each deceived herself with this pleasant bit of fiction, and yet had what she herself most wanted.

Rachel carefully placed the cake in the center of the table, feasted her eyes on its toothsome loveliness, then turned and hurried back to the house. The door had scarcely shut behind her when a small, ragged urchin darted in at the street gate, snatched the cake, and, at a sudden sound from the house, dashed out of sight behind a shrub close by.

The sound that had frightened the boy was the tapping of the heels of Miss Tabitha's shoes along the back porch. The lady descended the steps, crossed the lawn and placed a saucer of pickles and a plate of dainty sandwiches on the table.

"Why, I thought Rachel brought the cake," she said aloud. "It must be in the house; there's other things to get, anyway. I'll go back."

Again the click of the door brought the small boy close to the table. Filling both hands with sandwiches, he slipped behind the shrub just as the ladies came out of the house together. Rachel carried a small tray laden with sauce and tarts; Tabitha, one with water and steaming tea. As they neared the table each almost dropped her burden.

"Why, where's my cake?"

"And my sandwiches?"

"There's the plate it was on!" Rachel's voice was growing in terror.

"And mine, too!" cried Tabitha, with distended eyes fastened on some bits of bread and meat--all that the small brown hands had left.

"It's burglars--robbers!" Rachel looked furtively over her shoulder.

"And all your lovely cake!" almost sobbed Tabitha.

"It--it was yours, too," said the other with a catch in her voice. "Oh, dear! What can have happened to it? I never heard of such a thing--right in broad daylight!" The sisters had long ago set their trays upon the ground and were now wringing their hands helplessly. Suddenly a small figure appeared before them holding out four sadly crushed sandwiches and half of a crumbling cake.

"I'm sorry--awful sorry! I didn't think--I was so hungry. I'm afraid there ain't very much left," he added, with rueful eyes on the sandwiches.

"No, I should say not!" vouchsafed Rachel, her voice firm now that the size of the "burglar" was declared. Tabitha only gasped.

The small boy placed the food upon the empty plates, and Rachel's lips twitched as she saw that he clumsily tried to arrange it in an orderly fashion.

"There, ma'am,--that looks pretty good!" he finally announced with some pride.

Tabitha made an involuntary gesture of aversion. Rachel laughed outright; then her face grew suddenly stern.

"Boy, what do you mean by such actions?" she demanded.

His eyes fell, and his cheeks showed red through the tan.

"I was hungry."

"But didn't you know it was stealing?" she asked, her face softening.

"I didn't stop to think--it looked so good I couldn't help takin' it." He dug his bare toes in the grass for a moment in silence, then he raised his head with a jerk and stood squarely on both feet. "I hain't got any money, but I'll work to pay for it--bringin' wood in, or somethin'."

"The dear child!" murmured two voices softly.

"I've got to find my folks, sometime, but I'll do the work first. Mebbe an hour'll pay for it--'most!"--He looked hopefully into Miss Rachel's face.

"Who are your folks?" she asked huskily.

By way of answer he handed out a soiled, crumpled envelope for her inspection on which was written, "Reverend John Hapgood."

"Why--it's father!"

"What!" exclaimed Tabitha.

Her sister tore the note open with shaking fingers.

"It's from--Paul!" she breathed, hesitating a conscientious moment over the name. Then she turned her startled eyes on the boy, who was regarding her with lively interest.

"Do I belong to you?" he asked anxiously.

"I--I don't know. Who are you--what's your name?"

"Ralph Hapgood."

Tabitha had caught up the note and was devouring it with swift-moving eyes.

"It's Paul's boy, Rachel," she broke in, "only think of it--Paul's boy!" and she dropped the bit of paper and enveloped the lad in a fond but tearful embrace.

He squirmed uneasily.

"I'm sorry I eat up my own folks's things. I'll go to work any time," he suggested, trying to draw away, and wiping a tear splash from the back of his hand on his trousers.

But it was long hours before Ralph Hapgood was allowed to "go to work." Tears, kisses, embraces, questions, a bath, and clean clothes followed each other in quick succession--the clothes being some of his own father's boyhood garments.

His story was quickly told. His mother was long since dead, and his father had written on his dying bed the letter that commended the boy-- so soon to be orphaned--to the pity and care of his grandparents. The sisters trembled and changed color at the story of the boy's hardships on the way to Fairtown; and they plied him with questions and sandwiches in about equal proportions after he told of the frequent dinnerless days and supperless nights of the journey.

That evening when the boy was safe in bed--clean, full-stomached, and sleepily content the sisters talked it over. The Reverend John Hapgood, in his will, had cut off his recreant son with the proverbial shilling, so, by law, there was little coming to Ralph. This, however, the sisters overlooked in calm disdain.

"We must keep him, anyhow," said Rachel with decision.

"Yes, indeed,--the dear child!"

"He's twelve, for all he's so small, but he hasn't had much schooling. We must see to that--we want him well educated," continued Rachel, a pink spot showing in either cheek.

"Indeed we do--we'll send him to college! I wonder, now, wouldn't he like to be a doctor?"

"Perhaps," admitted the other cautiously, "or a minister."

"Sure enough--he might like that better; I'm going to ask him!" and she sprang to her feet and tripped across the room to the parlor-bedroom door. "Ralph," she called softly, after turning the knob, "are you asleep?"

"Huh? N-no, ma'am." The voice nearly gave the lie to the words.

"Well, dear, we were wondering--would you rather be a minister or a doctor?" she asked, much as though she were offering for choice a peach and a pear.

"A doctor!" came emphatically from out of the dark--there was no sleep in the voice now. "I've always wanted to be a doctor."

"You shall, oh, you shall!" promised the woman ecstatically, going back to her sister; and from that time all their lives were ordered with that one end in view.

The Hapgood twins were far from wealthy. They owned the homestead, but their income was small, and the added mouth to fill--and that a hungry one--counted. As the years passed, Huldy came less and less frequently to help in the kitchen, and the sisters' gowns grew more and more rusty and darned.

Ralph, boylike, noticed nothing--indeed, half the year he was away at school; but as the time drew near for the college course and its attendant expenses, the sisters were sadly troubled.

"We might sell," suggested Tabitha, a little choke in her voice.

Rachel started.

"Why, sister!--sell? Oh, no, we couldn't do that!" she shuddered.

"But what can we do?"

"Do?--why lots of things!" Rachel's lips came together with a snap. "It's coming berry time, and there's our chickens, and the garden did beautifully last year. Then there's your lace work and my knitting-- they bring something. Sell? Oh--we couldn't do that!" And she abruptly left the room and went out into the yard. There she lovingly trained a wayward vine with new shoots going wrong, and gloated over the rosebushes heavy with crimson buds.

But as the days and weeks flew by and September drew the nearer, Rachel's courage failed her. Berries had been scarce, the chickens had died, the garden had suffered from drought, and but for their lace and knitting work, their income would have dwindled to a pitiful sum indeed. Ralph had been gone all summer; he had asked to go camping and fishing with some of his school friends. He was expected home a week before the college opened, however.

Tabitha grew more and more restless every day. Finally she spoke.

"Rachel, we'll have to sell--there isn't any other way. It would bring a lot," she continued hurriedly, before her sister could speak, "and we could find some pretty rooms somewhere. It wouldn't be so very dreadful!"

"Don't, Tabitha! Seems as though I couldn't bear even to speak of it. Sell?--oh, Tabitha!" Then her voice changed from a piteous appeal to one of forced conviction.

"We couldn't get anywhere near what it's worth, Tabitha, anyway. No one here wants it or can afford to buy it for what it ought to bring. It is really absurd to think of it. Of course, if I had an offer--a good big one--that would be quite another thing; but there's no hope of that."

Rachel's lips said "hope," but her heart said "danger," and the latter was what she really meant. She did not know that but two hours before, a stranger had said to a Fairtown lawyer:

"I want a summer home in this locality. You don't happen to know of a good old treasure of a homestead for sale, do you?"

"I do not," replied the lawyer. "There's a place on the edge of the village that would be just the ticket, but I don't suppose it could be bought for love nor money."

"Where is it?" asked the man eagerly. "You never know what money can do-- to say nothing of love--till you try."

The lawyer chuckled softly.

"It's the Hapgood place. I'll drive you over to-morrow. It's owned by two old maids, and they worship every stick and stone and blade of grass that belongs to it. However, I happen to know that cash is rather scarce with them--and there's ample chance for love, if the money fails," he added, with a twitching of his lips.

When the two men drove into the yard that August morning, the Hapgood twins were picking nasturtiums, and the flaming yellows and scarlets lighted up their somber gowns, and made patches of brilliant color against the gray of the house.

"By Jove, it's a picture!" exclaimed the would-be purchaser.

The lawyer smiled and sprang to the ground. Introductions swiftly followed, then he cleared his throat in some embarrassment.

"Ahem! I've brought Mr. Hazelton up here, ladies, because he was interested in your beautiful place."

Miss Rachel smiled--the smile of proud possession; then something within her seemed to tighten, and she caught her breath sharply.

"It is fine!" murmured Hazelton; "and the view is grand!" he continued, his eyes on the distant hills. Then he turned abruptly. "Ladies, I believe in coming straight to the point. I want a summer home, and--I want this one. Can I tempt you to part with it?"

"Indeed, no!" began Rachel almost fiercely. Then her voice sank to a whisper; "I--I don't think you could."

"But, sister," interposed Tabitha, her face alight, "you know you said-- that is, there are circumstances--perhaps he would--p-pay enough--" Her voice stumbled over the hated word, then stopped, while her face burned scarlet.

"Pay!--no human mortal could pay for this house!" flashed Rachel indignantly. Then she turned to Hazelton, her slight form drawn to its greatest height, and her hands crushing the flowers, she held till the brittle stems snapped, releasing a fluttering shower of scarlet and gold. "Mr. Hazelton, to carry out certain wishes very near to our hearts, we need money. We will show you the place, and--and we will consider your offer," she finished faintly. It was a dreary journey the sisters took that morning, though the garden never had seemed lovelier, nor the rooms more sacredly beautiful. In the end, Hazelton's offer was so fabulously enormous to their unwilling ears that their conscience forbade them to refuse it.

"I'll have the necessary papers ready to sign in a few days," said the lawyer as the two gentlemen turned to go. And Hazelton added: "If at any time before that you change your minds and find you cannot give it up-- just let me know and it will be all right. Just think it over till then," he said kindly, the dumb woe in their eyes appealing to him as the loudest lamentations could not have done. "But if you don't mind, I'd like to have an architect, who is in town just now, come up and look it over with me," he finished.

"Certainly, sir, certainly," said Rachel, longing for the man to go. But when he was gone, she wished him back--anything would be better than this aimless wandering from room to room, and from yard to garden and back again.

"I suppose he will sit here," murmured Tabitha, dropping wearily on to the settee under the apple-trees.

"I suppose so," her sister assented. "I wonder if she knows how to grow roses; they'll certainly die if she doesn't!" And Rachel crushed a worm under her foot with unnecessary vigor.

"Oh, I hope they'll tend to the vines on the summerhouse, Rachel, and the pansies--you don't think they'll let them run to seed, do you? Oh, dear!" And Tabitha sprang nervously to her feet and started backyto the house.

Mr. Hazelton appeared the next morning with two men--an architect and a landscape gardener. Rachel was in the summerhouse, and the first she knew of their presence was the sound of talking outside.

"You'll want to grade it down there," she heard a strange voice say, "and fill in that little hollow; clear away all those rubbishy posies, and mass your flowering shrubs in the background. Those roses are no particular good, I fancy; we'll move such as are worth anything, and make a rose-bed on the south side--we'll talk over the varieties you want, later. Of course these apple-trees and those lilacs will be cut down, and this summerhouse will be out of the way. You'll be surprised-- a few changes will do wonders, and--"

He stopped abruptly. A woman, tall, flushed, and angry-eyed, stood before him in the path. She opened her lips, but no sound came--Mr. Hazelton was lifting his hat. The flush faded, and her eyes closed as though to shut out some painful sight; then she bowed her head with a proud gesture, and sped along the way to the house.

Once inside, she threw herself, sobbing, upon the bed. Tabitha found her there an hour later.

"You poor dear--they've gone now," she comforted.

Rachel raised her head.

"They're going to cut down everything--every single thing!" she gasped.

"I know it," choked Tabitha, "and they're going to tear out lots of doors inside, and build in windows and things. Oh, Rachel,--what shall we do?"

"I don't know, oh, I don't know!" moaned the woman on the bed, diving into the pillows and hugging them close to her head.

"We--we might give up selling--he said we could if we wanted to."

"But there's Ralph!"

"I know it. Oh, dear--what can we do?"

Rachel suddenly sat upright.

"Do? Why, we'll stand it, of course. We just mustn't mind if he turns the house into a hotel and the yard into a--a pasture!" she said hysterically. "We must just think of Ralph and of his being a doctor. Come, let's go to the village and see if we can rent that tenement of old Mrs. Goddard's."

With a long sigh and a smothered sob, Tabitha went to get her hat.

Mrs. Goddard greeted the sisters effusively, and displayed her bits of rooms and the tiny square of yard with the plainly expressed wish that the place might be their home.

The twins said little, but their eyes were troubled. They left with the promise to think it over and let Mrs. Goddard know.

"I didn't suppose rooms could be so little," whispered Tabitha, as they closed the gate behind them.

"We couldn't grow as much as a sunflower in that yard," faltered Rachel.

"Well, anyhow, we could have some houseplants!"--Tabitha tried to speak cheerfully.

"Indeed we could!" agreed Rachel, rising promptly to her sister's height; "and, after all, little rooms are lots cheaper to heat than big ones." And there the matter ended for the time being.

Mr. Hazelton and the lawyer with the necessary papers appeared a few days later. As the lawyer took off his hat he handed a letter to Miss Rachel.

"I stepped into the office and got your mail," he said genially.

"Thank you," replied the lady, trying to smile. "It's from Ralph,"-- handing it over for her sister to read.

Both the ladies were in somber black; a ribbon or a brooch seemed out of place to them that day. Tabitha broke the seal of the letter, and retired to the light of the window to read it.

The papers were spread on the table, and the pen was in Rachel's hand when a scream from Tabitha shattered the oppressive silence of the room.

"Stop--stop--oh, stop!" she cried, rushing to her sister and snatching the pen from her fingers. "We don't have to--see--read!"--pointing to the postscript written in a round, boyish hand.

Oh, I say, I've got a surprise for you. You think I've been fishing and loafing all summer, but I've been working for the hotels here the whole time. I've got a fine start on my money for college, and I've got a chance to work for my board all this year by helping Professor Heaton. I met him here this summer, and he's the right sort--every time. I've intended all along to help myself a bit when it came to the college racket, but I didn't mean to tell you until I knew I could do it. But it's a sure thing now.

Bye-bye; I'll be home next Saturday.

Your aff. nephew,

Ralph.

Rachel had read this aloud, but her voice ended in a sob instead of in the boy's name. Hazelton brushed the back of his hand across his eyes, and the lawyer looked intently out the window. For a moment there was a silence that could be felt, then Hazelton stepped to the table and fumbled noisily with the papers.

"Ladies, I withdraw my offer," he announced. "I can't afford to buy this house--I can't possibly afford it--it's too expensive." And without another word he left the room, motioning the lawyer to follow.

The sisters looked into each other's eyes and drew a long, sobbing breath.

"Rachel, is it true?"

"Oh, Tabitha! Let's--let's go out under the apple-trees and--just know that they are there!"

And hand in hand they went.

The End