Chapter VI. Poor Maggie
 

It was some days later that Mr. Smith asked Benny one afternoon to show him the way to Miss Maggie Duff's home.

"Sure I will," agreed Benny with alacrity. "You don't ever have ter do any teasin' ter get me ter go ter Aunt Maggie's."

"You're fond of Aunt Maggie, then, I take it."

Benny's eyes widened a little.

"Why, of course! Everybody's fond of Aunt Maggie. Why, I don't know anybody that don't like Aunt Maggie."

"I'm sure that speaks well--for Aunt Maggie," smiled Mr. Smith.

"Yep! A feller can take some comfort at Aunt Maggie's," continued Benny, trudging along at Mr. Smith's side. "She don't have anythin' just for show, that you can't touch, like 'tis at my house, and there ain't anythin' but what you can use without gettin' snarled up in a mess of covers an' tidies, like 'tis at Aunt Jane's. But Aunt Maggie don't save anythin', Aunt Jane says, an' she'll die some day in the poor-house, bein' so extravagant. But I don't believe she will. Do you, Mr. Smith?"

"Well, really, Benny, I--er--" hesitated the man.

"Well, I don't believe she will," repeated Benny. I hope she won't, anyhow. Poorhouses ain't very nice, are they?"

"I--I don't think I know very much about them, Benny."

"Well, I don't believe they are, from what Aunt Jane says. And if they ain't, I don't want Aunt Maggie ter go. She hadn't ought ter have anythin'--but Heaven--after Grandpa Duff. Do you know Grandpa Duff?"

"No, my b-boy." Mr. Smith was choking over a cough.

"He's sick. He's got a chronic grouch, ma says. Do you know what that is?"

"I--I have heard of them."

"What are they? Anything like chronic rheumatism? I know what chronic means. It means it keeps goin' without stoppin'--the rheumatism, I mean, not the folks that's got it. They don't go at all, sometimes. Old Dr. Cole don't, and that's what he's got. But when I asked ma what a grouch was, she said little boys should be seen and not heard. Ma always says that when she don't want to answer my questions. Do you? Have you got any little boys, Mr. Smith?"

"No, Benny. I'm a poor old bachelor."

"Oh, are you poor, too? That's too bad."

Well, that is, I--I--"

"Ma was wonderin' yesterday what you lived on. Haven't you got any money, Mr. Smith?"

'Oh, yes, Benny, I've got money enough--to live on." Mr. Smith spoke promptly, and with confidence this time.

"Oh, that's nice. You're glad, then, ain't you? Ma says we haven't-- got enough ter live on, I mean; but pa says we have, if we didn't try ter live like everybody else lives what's got more."

Mr. Smith bit his lip, and looked down a little apprehensively at the small boy at his side.

"I--I'm not sure, Benny, but I shall have to say little boys should be seen and not--" He stopped abruptly. Benny, with a stentorian shout, had run ahead to a gate before a small white cottage. On the cozy, vine-shaded porch sat a white-haired old man leaning forward on his cane.

"Hi, there, Grandpa Duff, I've brought somebody ter see ye!" The gate was open now, and Benny was halfway up the short walk. "It's Mr. Smith. Come in, Mr. Smith. Here's grandpa right here."

With a pleasant smile Mr. Smith doffed his hat and came forward.

"Thank you, Benny. How do you do, Mr. Duff?"

The man on the porch looked up sharply from beneath heavy brows.

"Humph! Your name's Smith, is it?"

"That's what they call me." The corners of Mr. Smith's mouth twitched a little.

"Humph! Yes, I've heard of you."

"You flatter me!" Mr. Smith, on the topmost step, hesitated. "Is your- -er--daughter in, Mr. Duff?" He was still smiling cheerfully.

Mr. Duff was not smiling. His somewhat unfriendly gaze was still bent upon the newcomer.

"Just what do you want of my daughter?"

"Why, I--I--" Plainly nonplused, the man paused uncertainly. Then, with a resumption of his jaunty cheerfulness, he smiled straight into the unfriendly eyes. "I'm after some records, Mr. Duff,--records of the Blaisdell family. I'm compiling a book on--

"Humph! I thought as much," interrupted Mr. Duff curtly, settling back in his chair. "As I said, I've heard of you. But you needn't come here asking your silly questions. I shan't tell you a thing, anyway, if you do. It's none of your business who lived and died and what they did before you were born. If the Lord had wanted you to know he'd 'a' put you here then instead of now!"

Looking very much as if he had received a blow in the face, Mr. Smith fell back.

"Aw, grandpa"--began Benny, in grieved expostulation. But a cheery voice interrupted, and Mr. Smith turned to see Miss Maggie Duff emerging from the doorway.

"Oh, Mr. Smith, how do you do?" she greeted him, extending a cordial hand. "Come up and sit down."

For only the briefest of minutes he hesitated. Had she heard? Could she have heard, and yet speak so unconcernedly? It seemed impossible. And yet--He took the chair she offered--but with a furtive glance toward the old man. He had only a moment to wait.

Sharply Mr. Duff turned to his daughter.

"This Mr. Smith tells me he has come to see those records. Now, I'm--"

"Oh, father, dear, you couldn't!" interrupted his daughter with admonishing earnestness. "You mustn't go and get all those down!" (Mr. Smith almost gasped aloud in his amazement, but Miss Maggie did not seem to notice him at all.) "Why, father, you couldn't--they're too heavy for you! There are the Bible, and all those papers. They're too heavy father. I couldn't let you. Besides, I shouldn't think you'd want to get them!"

If Mr. Smith, hearing this, almost gasped aloud in his amazement, he quite did so at what happened next. His mouth actually fell open as he saw the old man rise to his feet with stern dignity.

"That will do, Maggie. I'm not quite in my dotage yet. I guess I'm still able to fetch downstairs a book and a bundle of papers." With his thumping cane a resolute emphasis to every other step, the old man hobbled into the house.

"There, grandpa, that's the talk!" crowed Benny. "But you said--"

"Er--Benny, dear," interposed Miss Maggie, in a haste so precipitate that it looked almost like alarm, "run into the pantry and see what you can find in the cooky jar." The last of her sentence was addressed to Benny's flying heels as they disappeared through the doorway.

Left together, Mr. Smith searched the woman's face for some hint, some sign that this extraordinary shift-about was recognized and understood; but Miss Maggie, with a countenance serenely expressing only cheerful interest, was over by the little stand, rearranging the pile of books and newspapers on it.

"I think, after all," she began thoughtfully, pausing in her work, "that it will be better indoors. It blows so out here that you'll be bothered in your copying, I am afraid."

She was still standing at the table, chatting about the papers, however, when at the door, a few minutes later, appeared her father, in his arms a big Bible, and a sizable pasteboard box.

"Right here, father, please," she said then, to Mr. Smith's dumfounded amazement. "Just set them down right here."

The old man frowned and cast disapproving eyes on his daughter and the table.

"There isn't room. I don't want them there," he observed coldly. "I shall put them in here." With the words he turned back into the house.

Once again Mr. Smith's bewildered eyes searched Miss Maggie's face and once again they found nothing but serene unconcern. She was already at the door.

"This way, please," she directed cheerily. And, still marveling, he followed her into the house.

Mr. Smith thought he had never seen so charming a living-room. A comfortable chair invited him, and he sat down. He felt suddenly rested and at home, and at peace with the world. Realizing that, in some way, the room had produced this effect, he looked curiously about him, trying to solve the secret of it.

Reluctantly to himself he confessed that it was a very ordinary room. The carpet was poor, and was badly worn. The chairs, while comfortable looking, were manifestly not expensive, and had seen long service. Simple curtains were at the windows, and a few fair prints were on the walls. Two or three vases, of good lines but cheap materials, held flowers, and there was a plain but roomy set of shelves filled with books--not immaculate, leather-backed, gilt-lettered "sets" but rows of dingy, worn volumes, whose very shabbiness was at once an invitation and a promise. Nowhere, however, could Mr. Smith see protecting cover mat, or tidy. He decided then that this must be why he felt suddenly so rested and at peace with all mankind. Even as the conviction came to him, however he was suddenly aware that everything was not, after all, peaceful or harmonious.

At the table Mr. Duff and his daughter were arranging the Bible and the papers. Miss Maggie suggested piles in a certain order: her father promptly objected, and arranged them otherwise. Miss Maggie placed the papers first for perusal: her father said "Absurd!" and substituted the Bible. Miss Maggie started to draw up a chair to the table: her father derisively asked her if she expected a man to sit in that--and drew up a different one. Yet Mr. Smith, when he was finally invited to take a seat at the table, found everything quite the most convenient and comfortable possible.

Once more into Miss Maggie's face he sent a sharply inquiring glance, and once more he encountered nothing but unruffled cheerfulness.

With a really genuine interest in the records before him, Mr. Smith fell to work then. The Bible had been in the Blaisdell family for generations, and it was full of valuable names and dates. He began at once to copy them.

Mr. Duff, on the other side of the table, was arranging into piles the papers before him. He complained Of the draft, and Miss Maggie shut the window. He said then that he didn't mean he wanted to suffocate, and she opened the one on the other side. The clock had hardly struck three when he accused her of having forgotten his medicine. Yet when she brought it he refused to take it. She had not brought the right kind of spoon, he said, and she knew perfectly well he never took it out of that narrow-bowl kind. He complained of the light, and she lowered the curtain; but he told her that he didn't mean he didn't want to see at all, so she put it up halfway. He said his coat was too warm, and she brought another one. He put it on grudgingly, but he declared that it was as much too thin as the other was too thick.

Mr. Smith, in spite of his efforts to be politely deaf and blind, found himself unable to confine his attention to birth, death, and marriage notices. Once he almost uttered an explosive "Good Heavens, how do you stand it?" to his hostess. But he stopped himself just in time, and fiercely wrote with a very black mark that Submit Blaisdell was born in eighteen hundred and one. A little later he became aware that Mr. Duff's attention was frowningly turned across the table toward himself.

"If you will spend your time over such silly stuff, why don't you use a bigger book?" demanded the old man at last.

"Because it wouldn't fit my pocket," smiled Mr. Smith.

Just what business of yours is it, anyhow, when these people lived and died?"

"None, perhaps," still smiled Mr. Smith good humoredly.

"Why don't you let them alone, then? What do you expect to find?"'

"Why, I--I--" Mr. Smith was plainly non-plused.

"Well, I can tell you it's a silly business, whatever you find. If you find your grandfather's a bigger man than you are, you'll be proud of it, but you ought to be ashamed of it--'cause you aren't bigger yourself! On the other hand, if you find he isn't as big as you are, you'll be ashamed of that, when you ought to be proud of it--'cause you've gone him one better. But you won't. I know your kind. I've seen you before. But can't you do any work, real work?"

"He is doing work, real work, now, father," interposed Miss Maggie quickly. "He's having a woeful time, too. If you'd only help him, now, and show him those papers."

A real terror came into Mr. Smith's eyes, but Mr. Duff was already on his feet.

"Well, I shan't," he observed tartly. "I'M not a fool, if he is. I'm going out to the porch where I can get some air."

"There, work as long as you like, Mr. Smith. I knew you'd rather work by yourself," nodded Miss Maggie, moving the piles of papers nearer him.

"But, good Heavens, how do you stand--" exploded Mr. Smith before he realized that this time he had really said the words aloud. He blushed a painful red.

Miss Maggie, too, colored. Then, abruptly, she laughed. "After all, it doesn't matter. Why shouldn't I be frank with you? You couldn't help seeing--how things were, of course, and I forgot, for a moment, that you were a stranger. Everybody in Hillerton understands. You see, father is nervous, and not at all well. We have to humor him."

"But do you mean that you always have to tell him to do what you don't want, in order to--well--that is--" Mr. Smith, finding himself in very deep water, blushed again painfully.

Miss Maggie met his dismayed gaze with cheerful candor.

"Tell him to do what I don't want in order to get him to do what I do want him to? Yes, oh, yes. But I don't mind; really I don't. I'm used to it now. And when you know how, what does it matter? After all, where is the difference? To most of the world we say, 'Please do,' when we want a thing, while to him we have to say, 'Please don't.' That's all. You see, it's really very simple--when you know how."

"Simple! Great Scott!" muttered Mr. Smith. He wanted to say more; but Miss Maggie, with a smiling nod, turned away, so he went back to his work.

Benny, wandering in from the kitchen, with both hands full of cookies, plumped himself down on the cushioned window-seat, and drew a sigh of content.

"Say, Aunt Maggie."

"Yes, dear."

"Can I come ter live with you?"

"Certainly not!" The blithe voice and pleasant smile took all the sting from the prompt refusal.

What would father and mother do?"

"Oh, they wouldn't mind."

"Benny!"

"They wouldn't. Maybe pa would--a little; but Bess and ma wouldn't. And I'D like it."

"Nonsense, Benny!" Miss Maggie crossed to a little stand and picked up a small box. "Here's a new picture puzzle. See if you can do it."

Benny shifted his now depleted stock of cookies to one hand, dropped to his knees on the floor, and dumped the contents of the box upon the seat before him.

"They won't let me eat cookies any more at home--in the house, I mean. Too many crumbs."

"But you know you have to pick up your crumbs here, dear."

"Yep. But I don't mind--after I've had the fun of eatin' first. But they won't let me drop 'em ter begin with, there, nor take any of the boys inter the house. Honest, Aunt Maggie, there ain't anything a feller can do, 'seems so, if ye live on the West Side," he persisted soberly.

Mr. Smith, copying dates at the table, was conscious of a slightly apprehensive glance in his direction from Miss Maggie's eyes, as she murmured:--

"But you're forgetting your puzzle, Benny. You've put only five pieces together."

"I can't do puzzles. there, either." Benny's voice was still mournful.

"All the more reason, then, why you should like to do them here. See, where does this dog's head go?"

Listlessly Benny took the bit of pictured wood in his fingers and began to fit it into the pattern before him.

"I used ter do 'em an' leave 'em 'round, but ma says I can't now. Callers might come and find 'em, an' what would they say--on the West Side! An' that's the way 'tis with everything. Ma an' Bess are always doin' things, or not doin' 'em, for those callers. An' I don't see why. They never come--not new ones.'

"Yes, yes, dear, but they will, when they get acquainted. You haven't found where the dog's head goes yet."

"Pa says he don't want ter get acquainted. He'd rather have the old friends, what don't mind baked beans, an' shirt-sleeves, an' doin' yer own work, an' what thinks more of yer heart than they do of yer pocketbook. But ma wants a hired girl. An' say, we have ter wash our hands every meal now--on the table, I mean--in those little glass wash-dishes. Ma went down an' bought some, an' she's usin' 'em every day, so's ter get used to 'em. She says everybody that is anybody has 'em nowadays. Bess thinks they're great, but I don't. I don't like 'em a mite."

"Oh, come, come, Benny! It doesn't matter--it doesn't really matter, does it, if you do have to use the little dishes? Come, you're not half doing the puzzle."

"I know it." Benny shifted his position, and picked up a three- cornered bit of wood carrying the picture of a dog's paw. "But I was just thinkin'. You see, things are so different--on the West Side. Why even pa--he's different. He isn't there hardly any now. He's got a new job."

"What?" Miss Maggie turned from the puzzle with a start.

"Oh, just for evenin's. It's keepin' books for a man. It brings in quite a lot extry, ma says; but she wouldn't let me have some new roller skates when mine broke. She's savin' up for a chafin' dish. What's a chafin' dish? Do you know? You eat out of it, some way--I mean, it cooks things ter eat; an' Bess wants one. Gussie Pennock's got one. All our eatin's different, 'seems so, on the West Side. Ma has dinners nights now, instead of noons. She says the Pennocks do, an' everybody does who is anybody. But I don't like it. Pa don't, either, an' half the time he can't get home in time for it, anyhow, on account of gettin' back to his new job, ye know, an'--"

"Oh, I've found where the dog's head goes," cried Miss Maggie, There was a hint of desperation in her voice. "I shall have your puzzle all done for you myself, if you don't look out, Benny. I don't believe you can do it, anyhow."

"I can, too. You just see if I can't!" retorted Benny, with sudden spirit, falling to work in earnest. "I never saw a puzzle yet I couldn't do!"

Mr. Smith, bending assiduously over his work at the table, heard Miss Maggie's sigh of relief--and echoed it, from sympathy.