The Little Knights of Kentucky by Annie Fellows Johnston
Chapter IV. A Fire and a Plan.
Some people said that old Johann Heinrich never slept, for no matter what hour of the night one passed his lonely little house, a lamp was always burning. He was a queer old German naturalist, living by himself in a cottage adjoining the MacIntyre place. He had been a professor in a large university until he grew too old to keep his position. Why he should have chosen Lloydsborough Valley as the place to settle for the remainder of his life, no one could tell.
He kept kimself away from his neighbours, and spent so much time roaming around the woods by himself that people called him queer. They did not know that he had written two big books about the birds and insects he loved so well, or that he could tell them facts more wonderful than fairy tales about these little wild creatures of the woodland.
To-night he had read later than usual, and his fire was nearly out. He was too poor to keep a servant, so when he found that the coal-hod was empty he had to go out to the kitchen to fill it himself. That is why he saw something that happened soon after midnight, while everybody else in the valley was sound asleep.
Over in the cabin by the spring-house where the boys had left the tramp and Jonesy, a puff of smoke went curling around the roof. Then a tongue of flame shot up through the cedars, and another and another until the sky was red with an angry glare. It lighted up the eastern window-panes of the servants' cottage, but the inmates, tired from the unusual serving of the evening before, slept on. It shone full across the window of Virginia's room, but she was dreaming of being chased by bears, and only turned uneasily in her sleep.
The old professor, on his way to the kitchen, noticed that it seemed strangely light outside. He shuffled to the door and looked out.
"Ach Himmel!" he exclaimed, excitedly. "Somebody vill shust in his bed be burnt, if old Johann does not haste make!"
Not waiting to close the door behind him, or even to catch up something to protect his old bald head from the intense cold of the winter night, he ran out across the garden. His shuffling feet, in their flapping old carpet slippers, forgot their rheumatism, and his shoulders dropped the weight of their seventy years. He ran like a boy across the meadow, through the gap in the fence, and down the hill to the cabin by the spring.
All one side of it was in flames. The fire was curling around the front door and bursting through the windows with fierce cracklings. Dashing frantically around to the back door, he threw himself against it, shouting to know if any one was within. A blinding rush of smoke was his only answer as he backed away from the overpowering heat, but something fell across the door-sill in a limp little heap. It was Jonesy.
Dragging the child to a safe distance from the burning building, he ran back, fearing that some one else might be in danger, but this time the flames met him at the door, and it was impossible to go in. His hoarse shouting roused the servants, but by the time they reached the cabin the roof had fallen in, and all danger of the fire spreading to other buildings was over.
While the professor was bending over Jonesy, trying to bring him back to consciousness, Miss Allison came running down the path. She had an eiderdown quilt wrapped around her over her dressing-gown. The shouts had awakened her, also, and she had slipped out as quietly as possible, not wishing to alarm her mother.
"How did it happen?" she demanded, breathlessly. "Is the child badly burned? Is any one else hurt? Is the tramp in the cabin?"
No one gave any answer to her rapid questions. The old professor shook his head, but did not look up. He was bending over Jonesy, trying to restore him to consciousness. He seemed to know the right things to do for him, and in a little while the child opened his eyes and looked around wonderingly. In a few minutes he was able to tell what he knew about the fire.
It was not much, only a horrible recollection of being awakened by a feeling that he was choking in the thick smoke that filled the room; of hearing the boss swear at him to be quick and follow him or he would be burned to death. Then there had been an awful moment of groping through the blinding, choking smoke, trying to find a way out. The man sprang to a window and made his escape, but as the outside air rushed in through the opening he left, it seemed to fan the smoke instantly into flame.
Jonesy had struck out at the wall of fire with his helpless little hands, and then, half-crazed by the scorching pain, dropped to the floor and crawled in the opposite direction, just as the professor burst open the door.
The sight of the poor little blistered face brought the tears to Miss Allison's eyes, and she called two of the coloured men, directing them to carry Jonesy to the house, and then go at once for a doctor. But the professor interfered, insisting that Jonesy should be taken to his house. He said that he knew how to prepare the cooling bandages that were needed, and that he would sit up all night to apply them. He could not sleep anyhow, he said, after such great excitement.
"But I feel responsible for him," urged Miss Allison. "Since it happened on our place, and my little nephews brought him here, it seems to me that we ought to have the care of him."
The professor waved her aside, lifting Jonesy's head as tenderly as a nurse could have done, and motioned the coloured men to lift him up.
"No, no, fraulein," he said. "I have had eggsperience. It is besser the poor leedle knabe go mit me!"
There was no opposing the old man's masterful way. Miss Allison stepped aside for them to pass, calling after him her willingness to do the nursing he had taken upon himself, and insisting that she would come early in the morning to help.
Unc' Henry was left to guard the ruins, lest some stray spark should be blown toward the other buildings. "Dis yere ole niggah wa'n't mistaken aftah all," he muttered. "Dee was somebody prowlin' 'roun' de premises yistiddy evenin'." Then he searched the ground, all around the cabin, for footprints in the snow. He found some tracks presently, and followed them over the meadow in the starlight, across the road, and down the railroad track several rods. There they suddenly disappeared. The tramp had evidently walked on the rail some distance. If Unc' Henry had gone quarter of a mile farther up the track, he would have found those same sliding imprints on every other crosstie, as if the man had taken long running leaps in his haste to get away.
Jonesy stoutly denied that the man had set fire to the cabin. "We nearly froze to death that night," he said, when questioned about it afterward, "and the boss piled on an awful big lot of wood just before he went to bed."
"Then what made him take to his heels so fast if he didn't?" some one asked.
"I don't know," answered Jonesy. "He said that luck was always against him, and maybe he thought nobody would believe him if he did say that he didn't do it."
Several days after that Malcolm found the tramp's picture in the Courier-Journal. He was a noted criminal who had escaped from a Northern penitentiary some two months before, and had been arrested by the Louisville police. There was no mistaking him. That big, ugly scar branded him on cheek and forehead like another Cain.
"And to think that that terrible man was harboured on my place!" exclaimed Mrs. MacIntyre when she heard of it. "And you boys were down there in the cabin with him for hours! Sat beside him and talked with him! What will your mother say? I feel as if you had been exposed to the smallpox, and I cannot be too thankful now that the boy who was with him was not brought here. He isn't a fit companion for you. Not that the poor little unfortunate is to blame. He cannot help being a child of the slums, and he must be put in an orphan asylum or a reform school at once. It is probably the only thing that can save him from growing up to be a criminal like the man who brought him here. I shall see what can be done about it, as soon as possible."
"A child of the slums!" Malcolm and Keith repeated the expression afterward, with only a vague idea of its meaning. It seemed to set poor Jonesy apart from themselves as something unclean,--something that their happy, well-filled lives must not be allowed to touch.
Maybe if Jonesy had been an attractive child, with a sensitive mouth, and big, appealing eyes, he might have found his way more easily into people's hearts. But he was a lean, snub-nosed little fellow, with a freckled face and neglected hair. No one would ever find his cheek a tempting one to kiss, and no one would be moved, by any feeling save pity, to stoop and put affectionate arms around Jonesy. He was only a common little street gamin, as unlovely as he was unloved.
"What a blessing that there are such places as orphan asylums for children of that class," said Mrs. Maclntyre, after one of her visits to him. "I must make arrangements for him to be put into one as soon as he is able to be moved."
"I think he will be very loath to leave the old professor," answered Miss Allison. "He has been so good to the child, amusing him by the hour with his microscopes and collections of insects, telling him those delightful old German folk-lore tales, and putting him to sleep every night to the music of his violin. What a child-lover he is, and what a delightful old man in every way! I am glad we have discovered him."
"Yes," said Mrs. Maclntyre; "and when this little tramp is sent away, I want the children to go there often. I asked him if he could not teach them this spring, at least make a beginning with them in natural history, and he appeared much pleased. He is as poor as a church mouse, and would be very glad of the money."
"That reminds me," said Miss Allison, "he asked me if the boys could not come down to see Jonesy this afternoon, and bring the bear. He thought it would give the little fellow so much pleasure, and might help him to forget his suffering."
Mrs. MacIntyre hesitated. "I do not believe their mother would like it," she answered. "Sydney is careful enough about their associates, but Elise is doubly particular. You can imagine how much badness this child must know when you remember how he has been reared. He told me that his name is Jones Carter, and that he cannot remember ever having a father or a mother. I questioned him very closely this morning. He comes from the worst of the Chicago slums. He slept in the cellar of one of its poorest tenement houses, and lived in the gutters. He has a brother only a little older, who is a bootblack. On days when shines were plentiful they had something to eat, otherwise they starved or begged."
"Poor little lamb," murmured Miss Allison.
"It was by the brother's advice he came away with that tramp," continued Mrs. MacIntyre. "He had gotten possession of that trained bear in some way, and probably took a fancy to Jones because he could whistle and dance all sorts of jigs. He probably thought it would be a good thing to have a child with him to work on peoples' sympathies. They walked all the way from Chicago to Lloydsborough, Jones told me, excepting three days' journey they made in a wagon. They have been two months on the road, and showed the bear in the country places they passed through. They avoided the large towns."
"Think what a Christmas he must have had!" exclaimed Miss Allison.
"Christmas! I doubt if he ever heard the word. His speech is something shocking; nothing but the slang of the streets, and so ungrammatical that I could scarcely understand him at times. No, I am very sure that neither Sydney nor Elise would want the boys to be with him."
"But he is so little, mother, and so sick and pitiful looking," pleaded Miss Allison. "Surely he cannot know so very much badness or hurt the boys if they go down to cheer him up for a little while."
Notwithstanding Mrs. Maclntyre's fears, she consented to the boys visiting Jonesy that afternoon. She could not resist the professor's second appeal or the boys' own urging.
They took the bear with them, which Jonesy welcomed like a lost friend. They spent an interesting hour among the professor's collections, listening to his explanations in his funny broken English. Then they explored his cottage, much amused by his queer housekeeping, cracked nuts on the hearth, and roasted apples on a string in front of the fire.
Jonesy did not seem to be cheered up by the visit as much as the professor had expected. Presently the old man left the room and Keith sat down on the side of the bed.
"What makes you so still, Jonesy?" he asked. "You haven't said a word for the last half hour."
"I was thinking about Barney," he answered, keeping his face turned away. "Barney is my brother, you know."
"Yes, so grandmother said," answered Keith. "How big is he?"
"'Bout as big as yourn." There was a choke in Jonesy's voice now. "Seein' yourn put his arm across your shoulder and pullin' your head back by one ear and pinchin' you sort in fun like, made me think the way Barney uster do to me."
Keith did not know what to say, so there was a long, awkward pause.
"I'd never a-left him," said Jonesy, "but the boss said it 'ud only be a little while and we'd make so much money showin' the bear that I'd have a whole pile to take home. I could ride back on the cars and take a whole trunk full of nice things to Barney,--clothes, and candy, and a swell watch and chain, and a bustin' beauty of a bike. Now the bear's sold and the boss has run away, and I don't know how I can get back to Barney. Him an me's all each other's got, and I want to see him so bad."
The little fellow's lip quivered, and he put up one bandaged hand to wipe away the hot tears that would keep coming, in spite of his efforts not to make a baby of himself. There was something so pitiful in the gesture that Keith looked across at Malcolm and then patted the bedclothes with an affectionate little hand.
"Never mind, Jonesy," he said, "papa will be home in the spring and he'll send you back to Barney." But Jonesy never having known anything of fathers whose chief pleasure is in spending money to make little sons happy, was not comforted by that promise as much as Keith thought he ought to be.
"But I won't be here then," he sobbed. "They're goin' to put me in a 'sylum, and I can't get out for so long that maybe Barney will be dead before we ever find each other again."
He was crying violently now.
"Who is going to put you in an asylum?" asked Malcolm, lifting an end of the pillow under which Jonesy's head had burrowed, to hide the grief that his eight-year-old manhood made him too proud to show.
"An old lady with white hair what comes here every day. The professor said he would keep me if he wasn't so old and hard up, and she said as how a 'sylum was the proper place for a child of the slums, and he said yes if they wasn't nobody to care for 'em. But I've got somebody!" he cried. "I've got Barney! Oh, don't let them shut me up somewhere so I can't never get back to Barney!"
"They don't shut you up when they send you to an asylum," said Malcolm. "The one near here is a lovely big house, with acres of green grass around it, and orchards and vine-yards, and they are ever so good to the children, and give them plenty to eat and wear, and send them to school."
"Barney wouldn't be there," sobbed Jonesy, diving under the pillow again. "I don't want nothing but him."
"Well, we'll see what we can do," said Malcolm, as he heard the professor coming back. "If we could only keep you here until spring, I am sure that papa would send you back all right. He's always helping people that get into trouble."
Jonesy took his little snub nose out of the pillow as the professor came in, and looked around defiantly as if ready to fight the first one who dared to hint that he had been crying. The boys took their leave soon after, leading the bear back to his new quarters in the carriage house, where they had made him a comfortable den. Then they walked slowly up to the house, their arms thrown across each other's shoulders.
"S'pose it was us," said Keith, after walking on a little way in silence. "S'pose that you and I were left of all the family, and didn't have any friends in the world, and I was to get separated from you and couldn't get back?"
"That would be tough luck, for sure," answered Malcolm.
"Don't you s'pose Jonesy feels as badly about it as we would?" asked Keith.
"Shouldn't be surprised," said Malcolm, beginning to whistle. Keith joined in, and keeping step to the tune, like two soldiers, they marched on into the house.
Virginia found them in the library, a little while later, sitting on the hearth-rug, tailor-fashion. They were still talking about Jonesy. They could think of nothing else but the loneliness of the little waif, and his pitiful appeal: "Oh, don't let them shut me up where I can't never get back to Barney."
"Why don't you write to your father?" asked Virginia, when they had told her the story of their visit.
"Oh, it is so hard to explain things in a letter," answered Malcolm, "and being off there, he'd say that grandmother and all the grown people certainly know best. But if he could see Jonesy,--how pitiful looking he is, and hear him crying to go back to his brother, I know he'd feel the way we do about it."
"I called the professor out in the hall, and told him so," said Keith, "and asked him if he couldn't adopt Jonesy, or something, until papa comes home. But he said that he is too poor. He has only a few dollars a month to live on. I didn't mind asking him. He smiled in that big, kind way he always does. He said Jonesy was lots of company, and he would like to keep him this summer, if he could afford it, and let him get well and strong out here in the country."
"Then he would keep him till Uncle Sydney comes, if somebody would pay his board?" asked Virginia.
"Yes," said Malcolm, "but that doesn't help matters much, for we children are the only ones who want him to stay, and our monthly allowances, all put together, wouldn't be enough."
"We might earn the money ourselves," suggested Virginia, after awhile, breaking a long silence.
"How?" demanded Malcolm. "Now, Ginger, you know, as well as I do, there is no way for us to earn anything this time of year. You can't pick fruit in the dead of winter, can you? or pull weeds, or rake leaves? What other way is there?"
"We might go to every house in the valley, and exhibit the bear," said Keith, "taking up a collection each time."
"Now you've made me think of it," cried Virginia, excitedly. "I've thought of a good way. We'll give Jonesy a benefit, like great singers have. The bear will be the star performer, and we'll all act, too, and sell the tickets, and have tableaux. I love to arrange tableaux. We were always having them out at the fort."
"I bid to show off the bear," cried Malcolm, entering into Virginia's plan at once. "May be I'll learn something to recite, too."
"I'll help print the tickets," said Keith, "and go around selling them, and be in anything you want me to be. How many tableaux are you going to have, Ginger?"
"I can't tell yet," she answered, but a moment after she cried out, her eyes shining with pleasure, "Oh, I've thought of a lovely one. We can have the Little Colonel and the bear for 'Beauty and the Beast.'"
Malcolm promptly turned a somersault on the rug, to express his approval, but came up with a grave face, saying, "I'll bet that grandmother will say we can't have it."
"Let's get Aunt Allison on our side," suggested Virginia. "She's up in her room now, painting a picture."
A little sigh of disappointment escaped Miss Allison's lips, as she heard the rush of feet on the stairs. This was the first time that she had touched her brushes since the children's coming, and she had hoped that this one afternoon would be free from interruption, when she heard them planning their afternoon's occupations at the lunch-table. They had come back before the little water-colour sketch she was making was quite finished.
There was no disappointment, however, in the bright face she turned toward them, and Virginia lost no time in beginning her story. She had been elected to tell it, but before it was done all three had had a part in the telling, and all three were waiting with wistful eyes for her answer.
"Well, what is it you want me to do?" she asked, finally.
"Oh, just be on our side!" they exclaimed, "and get grandmother to say yes. You see she doesn't feel about Jonesy the way we do. She is willing to pay a great deal of money to have him taken off and cared for, but she says she doesn't see how grandchildren of hers can be so interested in a little tramp that comes from nobody knows where, and who will probably end his days in a penitentiary."
Aunt Allison answered Malcolm's last remark a little sternly. "You must understand that it is only for your own good that she is opposed to Jonesy's staying," she said. "There is nobody in the valley so generous and kind to the poor as your grandmother." "Yes'm," said Virginia, meekly, "but you'll ask her, won't you please, auntie?"
Miss Allison smiled at her persistence. "Wait until I finish this," she said. "Then I'll go down-stairs and put the matter before her, and report to you at dinner-time. Now are you satisfied?"
"Yes," they cried in chorus, "you're on our side. It's all right now!" With a series of hearty hugs that left her almost breathless, they hurried away.
When Miss Allison kept her promise she did not go to her mother with the children's story of Jonesy, to move her to pity. She told her simply what they wanted, and then said, "Mother, you know I have begun to teach the children the 'Vision of Sir Launfal.' Virginia has learned every word of it, and the boys will soon know all but the preludes. There will never be a better chance than this for them to learn the lesson:
"'Not what we give, but what we share, For the gift without the giver is bare.'
"This would be a real sharing of themselves, all their time and best energies, for they will have to work hard to get up such an entertainment as this. It isn't for Jonesy's sake I ask it, but for the children's own good."
The old lady looked thoughtfully into the fire a moment, and then said, "Maybe you are right, Allison. I do want to keep them unspotted from a knowledge of the world's evils, but I do not want to make them selfish. If this little beggar at the gate can teach them where to find the Holy Grail, through unselfish service to him, I do not want to stand in the way. Bless their little hearts, they may play Sir Launfal if they want to, and may they have as beautiful a vision as his!"