Chapter VIII. Mrs. Wiggs at Home
 
    "She had a sunny nature that sought, like
    a flower in a dark place, for the light."

On Christmas day Lucy Olcott stood by the library window, and idly scratched initials on the frosty pane. A table full of beautiful gifts stood near, and a great bunch of long-stemmed roses on the piano filled the room with fragrance. But Lucy evidently found something more congenial in the dreary view outside. She was deep in thought when the door opened and Aunt Chloe came in with a basket and a note.

The old darky grinned as she put the basket on the floor. "You might 'a' knowed, it wuz fum dem Wiggses," she said.

Lucy opened the note and read: "Dear miss Lucy the basket of cloths and vittles come. We or so mutch obliged, and asia wore the read dress to the soshul and enjoyed her selph so. Much I wish you could a went. Billy liked his hock and ladar and romcandons. Me and the childern want to send you a crismas mess of some of all we lade in for to live on. They is pertaters 2 kines, onions, termaters, a jar vineger and a jar perservs. I boughten the peeches last sumer, they was gitting a little rotting so I got them cheep. Hope you will Enjoy them. I send some of all we got but Cole and Flower. Thankes thankes to you for your kind fealings. "From yours no more "MRS. WIGGS."

"Bless her old heart!" cried Lucy; "that's the biggest widow's mite I ever saw. Put the basket there with my other presents, Aunt Chloe; it's worth them all."

She went over to the fire, and held her hands to the friendly blaze; there was a restless, discontented look in her eyes that proved only too plainly that her Christmas was not a happy one.

"I wish it was night," she said. "I hate Christmas afternoon! Mother is asleep; it's too early for callers. I believe I'll go down to the Cabbage Patch."

Aunt Chloe stuck out her lip and rolled her eyes in deprecation.

"Don' you do it, honey. What you wanter be foolin' 'round wif dat po' white trash fer? Why don' you set heah by de fiah an' bleach yer han's fer de party to-might?"

"Bother the old party!" said Lucy, impatiently. She had begun disobeying Aunt Chloe when she was a very little girl.

Fifteen minutes later she was tramping through the snow, her cheeks glowing and her spirits rising. The Wiggses, while always interesting, had of late acquired a new significance. Since seeing them in the theater lobby with Robert Redding she had found it necessary to make several visits to the Cabbage Patch, and the chief topic of conversation had been Mr. Bob: how he had taken them to the show; had made Billy his office-boy; had sent them a barrel of apples, and was coming to see them some day. To which deluge of information Lucy had listened with outward calmness and inward thrills.

To-day, as she entered the Wiggses' gate a shout greeted her. Billy let himself down from the chicken-coop roof, and ran forward.

"Them Roman candles wasn't no good!" he cried. "One of 'em busted too soon, and 'most blowed my hand off."

"Oh, no, it didn't, Miss Lucy!" said Mrs. Wiggs, who had hastened out to meet her. "Them Roman candons was fine. Billy's hand wasn't so bad hurt he couldn't shoot his gum-bow shooter and break Miss Krasmier's winder-pane. I'll be glad when to-morrow comes, an' he goes back to the office! Come right in," she continued. "Asia, dust off a cheer fer Miss Lucy. That's right; now, lemme help you off with yer things."

"Lemme hold the muff!" cried Australia.

"No, me--me!" shrieked Europena.

A center rush ensued, during which the muff was threatened with immediate annihilation. The umpire interfered.

"Australia Wiggs, you go set in the corner with yer face to the wall. Europena, come here!" She lifted the wailing little girl to her lap, and looked her sternly in the eye. "If you don't hush this minute, I'll spank your doll!"

The awful threat was sufficient. Mrs. Wiggs had long ago discovered the most effectual way of punishing Europena.

When peace was restored, Lucy looked about her. In each window was a piece of holly tied with a bit of red calico, and on the partly cleared table she saw the remains of a real Christmas dinner.

"We had a grand dinner to-day," said Mrs. Wiggs, following her glance. "Mr. Bob sent the turkey; we et all we wanted, an' got 'nough left fer the rest of the week, countin' hash an' soup an' all. Asia says she's goin' to hide it, so as I can't give no more away. By the way, do you notice what Asia's doin'?"

Lucy went to the window, where Asia was busily working. This taciturn little girl, with her old, solemn face and clever fingers, was her favorite of the children.

"What are you making?" she asked, as the child dipped a brush into one of three cans which stood before her.

"She's paintin' a picture," announced Mrs. Wiggs, proudly. "Looked like she was jes' crazy 'bout picture painting, an' I said, 'Well, Asia, if you have made up yer mind to be a artist, guess you'll have to be one.' Seems like when folks kin do pianner playin' an' picture paintin' it ain't right to let 'em wash dishes an' clean up all the time. So I went to a store an' ast fer some paint to make pictures with, and they wanted seventy cents fer a little box full. Ain't that a mighty heap, Miss Lucy, jes' fer plain paint, 'fore it 's made up into flowers an' trees an' things? Well, anyway, I couldn't git it, but I come home an' got me three tin cans an' took 'em 'round to Mr. Becker's paint-shop, an' he poured me a little red an' yaller an' blue, an' only charged me a nickel, an' throwed in a brush. Asia's painted a heap with it. I'll show you some of her things."

It was not necessary, for in every direction Lucy looked her eyes were greeted with specimens of Asia's handiwork. Across the foot-board of the bed was a spray of what might have passed for cauliflower, the tin boiler was encircled by a wreath of impressionistic roses, and on the window-pane a piece of exceedingly golden goldenrod bent in an obliging curve in order to cover the crack in the glass.

"It's perfectly wonderful!" said Lucy, with entire truthfulness.

"Ain't it?" said Mrs. Wiggs, with the awed tone one uses in the presence of genius. "Sometimes I jes' can't believe my eyes, when I see what my childern kin do! They inherit their education after Mr. Wiggs; he was so smart, an' b'longed to such a fine fambly. Why, Mr. Wiggs had real Injun blood in his veins; his grandpa was a squaw-- a full-blood Injun squaw!"

Lucy made a heroic effort to keep a solemn face, as she asked if Asia looked like him.

"Oh, my, no!" continued Mrs. Wiggs. "He was a blunette, real dark complected. I remember when he fus' come a-courtin' me folks thought he was a Dago. Pa wasn't to say well off in those days." Mrs. Wiggs never applied superlatives to misfortunes. "He had a good many of us to take keer of, an' after Mr. Wiggs had been keepin' company with me fer 'bout two weeks he drove up one night with a load of coal an' kindlin', an' called pa out to the fence. 'Mr. Smoot,' sez he, 'as long as I am courtin' your daughter, I think I orter furnish the fire to do it by. Ef you don't mind,' sez he, 'I'll jes' put this wagon-load of fuel in the coal-house. I 'spect by the time it's used up Nance'll be of my way of think-in'.' An' I was!" added Mrs. Wiggs, laughing.

Ordinarily Lucy found endless diversion in listening to the family reminiscences, but to-day another subject was on her mind.

"How is Billy getting along?" she asked.

"Jes' fine!" said Mrs. Wiggs; "only he comes home at night 'most dead. I give him money to ride, but ever' day last week he et up his nickel."

"Who--who has charge of him now?" Lucy blushed at her subterfuge.

"Mr. Bob," said Mrs. Wiggs; "he's the gentleman that took us to supper. He's got money. Asia said he give the nigger waiter a quarter. Billy is jes' crazy 'bout Mr. Bob; says he's goin' to be jes' like him when he grows up. He will, too, if he sets his head to it! Only he never kin have them big brown eyes an' white teeth Mr. Bob's got. Why, when Mr. Bob smiles it jes' sort of breaks up his whole face."

Lucy's eyes were fixed on the mammoth butterfly upon whose iridescent wings Asia was putting the finishing touches, but her thoughts were far away.

"I jes' wish you could see him!" went on Mrs. Wiggs, enthusiastically.

"I wish I could!" said Lucy, with such fervor that Mrs. Wiggs paused on her way to answer a knock at the outside door.

There was a scraping of feet in the passage.

"I have been driving all over the country looking for you," said a man's voice. "I have some Christmas traps for the kids."

Lucy rose hastily, and turned just as Redding entered.

"Mr. Bob, this is Miss Lucy," announced Mrs. Wiggs, triumphantly; "she was jes' 'lowin' she'd like to see you."

If a blue-eyed angel straight from the peaks of paradise had been presented to him, Redding could not have been more astounded nor more enraptured.

But to Lucy it was a moment of intense chagrin and embarrassment. During the long silence of the past year she had persuaded herself that Redding no longer cared for her. To be thrust upon him in this way was intolerable. All the blood in her veins rushed to her face.

"Do you know where my muff is, Mrs. Wiggs?" she asked, after a formal greeting.

"Oh! you ain't a-goin'?" asked the hostess, anxiously. "I wanted you all to git acquainted."

"Yes, I must go," said Lucy, hurriedly, "if you will find my muff."

She stood nervously pulling on her gloves, while Mrs. Wiggs searched for the lost property. There was a deafening tumult in her heart, and though she bit her lips to keep from laughing, the tears stood in her eyes.

"Austry's under the bed," announced Europena, who had joined in the quest.

"I ain't!" came in shrill, indignant tones, as Mrs. Wiggs dragged forth the culprit, and restored the muff.

"May I drive you over to the avenue? I am going that way." It was Redding's voice, but it sounded queer and unnatural.

"Oh, no! No, thank you," gasped Lucy, hardly knowing what she said. Her one idea was to get away before she broke down completely.

Redding held the door open as she passed out. His face was cold, calm, inscrutable; not a quiver of the mouth, not a flutter of the lids, but the light went out of his eyes and hope died in his heart.

Mrs. Wiggs stood watching the scene in perplexity.

"I dunno what ailed Miss Lucy," she said, apologetically; "hope it wasn't the toothache."