The Little Knights of Kentucky by Annie Fellows Johnston
Chapter VIII. "Fairchance."
Malcolm did his best to atone to Virginia for what she had suffered from the forgetfulness of the two little Indians, but poor Keith was too ill to remember anything about it. He did not know his father and mother when they came, and tossed restlessly about, talking wildly of things they could not understand. It was the first time he had ever been so ill, and as they watched him lying there day after day, burning with fever, and growing white and thin, a great fear came upon them that he would never be any better.
No one put that fear into words, but little by little it crept from heart to heart like a wintry fog, until the whole house felt its chill. The sweet spring sounds and odours came rushing in at every window from the sunny world outside, but it might as well have been mid-winter. No one paid any heed while that little life hung in the balance. The servants went through the house on tiptoe. Malcolm and Virginia haunted the halls to discover from the grave faces of the older people what they were afraid to ask, and Mrs. Maclntyre was kept busy answering the inquiries of the neighbours. Scarcely an hour passed that some one did not come to ask about Keith, to leave flowers, or to proffer kindly services. Everybody who knew the little fellow loved him. His bright smile and winning manner had made him a host of friends.
There was no lack of attention. His father and mother, Miss Allison, and the nurse watched every breath, every pulse-beat; and a dozen times in the night his grandmother stole to the door to look anxiously at the wan little face on the pillow.
"It is so strange," said his mother to the nurse one day. "He keeps talking about a white flower. He says that he can't right the wrong unless he wears it, and that Jonesy will have to be shut up and never find his brother again. What do you suppose he means?"
The nurse shook her head. She did not know. Just then Mrs. Maclntyre heard her name called softly, "Elise," and her husband beckoned her to come out into the hall. "I want to show you something in Allison's room," he said, leading her down the hall to his sister's apartment. On each side of the low writing-desk stood a large photograph, one of Malcolm in his suit of mail, the other of Keith in the costume of jewel-embroidered velvet, like the little Duke of Gloster's.
"Oh, Sydney! How beautiful!" she exclaimed, as she swept across the room and knelt down before the desk for a better view. Leaning her arms on the desk, she looked into Keith's pictured face with hungry eyes. "Isn't he lovely?" she repeated. "Oh, he'll never look like that again! I know it! I know it!" she sobbed, remembering how white was the little face on the pillow that she had just left.
Mr. Maclntyre bent over her, his own handsome face white and haggard. He looked ill himself, from the constant watching and anxiety. "I'd give anything in the world that I own! Everything!" he groaned. "I'd do anything, sacrifice anything, to see him as well and sturdy as he looks there!"
Then he caught up the picture. "What's this written underneath?" he asked, "It is in Keith's own handwriting: 'Live pure speak truth, right the wrong, follow the king. Else wherefore born?'
"What does it mean, Allison?" he asked, turning to his sister, who was resting on a couch by the window. "It is written under Malcolm's picture, too."
"The dear little Sir Galahads," she said, "I sent for you to tell you about them. The boys intended the pictures as a surprise for you and Elise, so we never sent them. They wanted to tell you themselves about the Benefit and the little waif they gave it for."
She took a little pin from a jewel-case under the sofa pillows, and reaching over, dropped it in her brother's hand. It was a tiny flower of white enamel, with a diamond dewdrop in the centre.
"You may have noticed Malcolm wearing one like it," she said, and then she told them the story of Jonesy and the bear and all that their coming had led to: the Benefit, the new order of knighthood, and the awakening of the boys to a noble purpose.
"The boys fully expect you to stand by them in all this, Sydney," she said, in conclusion, "and play fairy godfather for Jonesy henceforth and for ever. One night, when Keith came up to confess some mischief he had been into during the day, he said:
"'Aunt Allison, this wearing the white flower of a blameless life isn't as easy as it is cracked up to be; but having this little pin helps a lot. I just put my hand on that like the real knights used to do on their sword-hilts, and repeat my motto. It will be easier when papa comes home. Since I've known Jonesy, and heard him tell about the hard times some people have that he knows, it seems to me there's an awful lot of wrong in the world for somebody to set right. Some nights I can hardly go to sleep for thinking about it, and wishing that I were grown up so that I could begin to do my part. I wish papa could be here now. He'd make a splendid knight; he is so big and good and handsome. I don't s'pose King Arthur himself was any better or braver than my father is.'"
A tear splashed down from the mother's eyes as she listened, and, falling on the tiny white flower as it lay in her husband's hand, glistened beside the dewdrop centre like another diamond.
"Oh, Sydney!" she exclaimed, in a heart-broken way. Something very like a sob shook the man's broad shoulders, and, turning abruptly, he strode out of the room.
Down in the dim, green library, where the blinds had been drawn to keep it cool, he threw himself into a chair beside the table. Propping Keith's picture up in front of him against a pile of books, he leaned forward, gazing at it earnestly. He had never realised before how much he loved the little son, who hour by hour seemed slowly slipping farther away from him. The pictured face looked full into his as if it would speak. It wore the same sweet, trustful expression that had shone there the night he talked to Jonesy of the Hall of the Shields; the same childish purity that had moved the old professor to lay his hands upon his head and call him Galahad.
All that gentle birth, college breeding, wealth, and travel could give a man, were Sydney Maclntyre's, and yet, measuring himself by Keith's standard of knighthood, he felt himself sadly lacking. He had given liberally to charities hundreds of dollars, because it was often easier for him to write out a check than to listen to somebody's tale of suffering. But aside from that he had left the old world to wag on as best it could, with its grievous load of wrong and sorrow.
A man is not apt to trouble himself as to how it wags for those outside his circle of friends, when the generations before him have spent their time laying up a fortune for him to enjoy. But this man was beginning to trouble himself about it now, as he paced restlessly up and down the room. He was not thinking now about the things that usually occupied him, his social duties, his home or club, or yacht or horses or kennels. He was not planning some new pleasure for his friends or family, he was wondering what he could do to be worthy of the exalted regard in which he was held by his little sons. What wrong could he set right, to prove himself really as noble as they thought him? He was their ideal of all that was generous and manly, and yet--
"What have I ever done," he asked himself, "to make them think so? If I were to be taken out of the world to-morrow, I would be leaving it exactly as I found it. Who could point to my coffin and say, 'Laws are better, politics are purer, or times are not so hard for the masses now, because this one man willed to lift up his fellows as far as the might of one strong life can reach?' But they will say that of Malcolm, and Keith, if he lives--ah, if he lives!"
An hour later the door opened, and Malcolm came in, softly. "Keith is asking for you, papa," he said, with a timid glance into his father's haggard face. Then he came nearer, and slipped his hand into the man's strong fingers, and together they went up the stairs to answer the summons.
"Did you want me, Keith?"
The head did not turn on the pillow. The languid eyes opened only half-way, but there was recognition in them now, and one little hand was raised to lay itself lovingly against his father's cheek.
"What is it, son?"
The weak little voice tried to answer, but the words came only in gasps. "Brother knows--about Jonesy--keep him from being a tramp! Please let me, papa--do that much good--in my life 'else wherefore--born?'"
"What is it, Keith?" asked his father, bending over him. "Papa doesn't exactly understand. But you can have anything you want, my boy. Anything! I'll do whatever you ask."
"Malcolm knows," was the answer. Then the voice seemed somewhat stronger for an instant, and a faint smile touched Keith's lips. "Give my half of the bear to Ginger. Now--may I have--my--white--flower?"
Throwing back his coat, his father unpinned the little badge from his vest, where he had fastened it for safe-keeping a short time before in the library. A pleased expression flitted over the child's face, as he saw where it had been resting, and when it was fastened in the front of his little embroidered nightshirt, his hand closed over the pin as if it were something very precious, and he were afraid of losing it again.
"Wearing the white flower," they heard him whisper, and then the little knight slept.
* * * * *
It was hours afterward when he roused again,--hours when the faintest noise had not been allowed in the house; when the servants had been sent to the cottage, and Unc' Henry stationed at the front gate; that no one might drive up the avenue.
Virginia, in a hammock on the veranda, scarcely dared draw a deep breath till she heard the doctor coming down the stairs, just before dark. Then she knew by his face that prayers and skill and tender nursing had not been in vain, and that Keith would live.
* * * * *
So much can happen in a week. In the seven days that followed Keith gradually grew strong enough to be propped up in bed a little while at a time; Captain Dudley and his wife came home from Cuba, and Mr. Maclntyre began to carry out the promise he had made to Keith that day when they feared most he could not live.
The whole Valley rejoiced in the first and second happenings, and were too much occupied in them to notice the third. Carriages rolled in and out of the great entrance gate all day long, for Mrs. Dudley had always been a favourite with the old neighbours, and they gave a warm welcome to her and her gallant husband. Virginia followed her father and mother about like a loving shadow, and Keith was so interested in the wonderful stories they told of their Cuban experiences that he never noticed how much his father and Malcolm were away from home. Sometimes they would be gone all day together, consulting with the old professor, overseeing carpenters, or making hasty trips to the city. Jonesy's home, that had been so long only a beautiful air-castle, was rapidly taking shape in wood and stone, and the painters would soon be at work on it.
Mr. Maclntyre had never been more surprised than he was when Malcolm unfolded their plan to him. It did not seem possible that two children could have thought of it all, and arranged every detail without the help of some older head.
"It just grew," said Malcolm, in explanation. "First Keith said how lovely it would have been if we had made enough money at the Benefit to have bought a home for Jonesy in the country, where he could have a fair chance to grow up a good man. Just a comfortable little cottage with a garden, where he could be out-of-doors all the time, instead of in the dirty city streets; then nobody could call him a 'child of the slums' any more. Then we said it would be better if there were some fields back of the garden, so that he could learn to be a farmer when he was older, and have some way to make a living. We talked about it every night when we went to bed, and kept putting a little more and a little more to it, until it was as real to us as if we had truly seen such a place. There were vines on the porches, and a big Newfoundland dog on the front steps, and a cow and calf in the pasture, and a gentle old horse that could plough and that Jonesy could ride to water.
"We told Ginger, and she thought of a lot more things; some little speckled pigs in a pen and kittens in the hay-mow, and ducks on the pond, and an orchard, and roses in the yard. She said we ought to call the place 'Fairchance,' because that's what it would mean for Jonesy and Barney (you know we would send for Barney first thing we did, of course), and it was Ginger who first thought of getting some nice man and his wife to take care of the boys. She said there are plenty of people who would be glad to do it, just for the sake of having such a good home. Ginger said if we could do all that, and keep Jonesy and his brother from growing up to be tramps like the man we bought the bear from, it would be serving our country just as much as if we went to war and fought for it. Ginger is a crank about being a patriot. You ought to hear her talk about it. And Aunt Allison said that 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,' and that to build such a place as our 'Fairchance' would be a deed worthy of any true knight."
"How are you expecting to bring this wonderful thing to pass?" asked his father, as Malcolm stopped to take breath. "Do you expect to wave a wand and see it spring up out of the earth?"
"Of course not, papa!" said Malcolm, a little provoked by his father's teasing smile. "We were going to ask you to let us take the money that grandfather left us in his will. We won't need it when we are grown, for we can earn plenty ourselves then, and it seems too bad to have it laid away doing nobody any good, when we need it so much now to right this wrong of Jonesy's."
"But it is not laid away," answered Mr. MacIntyre. "It is invested in such a way that it is earning you more money every year; and more than that, it was left in trust for you, so that it cannot be touched until you are twenty-one."
"Oh, papa!" cried Malcolm, bitterly disappointed. He had hard work to keep back the tears for a moment; then a happy thought made his face brighten. "You could lend us the money, and we would pay you back when we are of age. You know you promised Keith you would do anything he wanted, and that is what he was trying to ask for?"
Mr. Maclntyre put his arm around the earnest little fellow, and drew him to his knee, smiling down into the upturned face that waited eagerly for his answer.
"I only asked that to hear what you would say, my son," was the answer. "You need have no worry about the money. I'll keep my promise to Keith, and Jonesy shall have his home. I'm not a knight, but I'm proud to be the father of two such valiant champions. Please God, you'll not be alone in your battles after this, to right the world's wrongs. I'll be your faithful squire, or, as we'd say in these days, a sort of silent partner in the enterprise."
Several days after this a deed was recorded in the county court-house, conveying a large piece of property from old Colonel Lloyd to Malcolm and Keith Maclntyre. It was the place adjoining "The Locusts," on which stood a fine old homestead that had been vacant for several years. The day after its purchase a force of carpenters and painters were set to work, and two coloured men began clearing out the tangle of bushes in the long-neglected garden.
Jonesy know nothing of what was going on, and wondered at the long conversations which took place between the old professor and Mr. Maclntyre, always in German. It was the professor who found some one to take care of the home, as Virginia had suggested. He recommended a countryman of his, Carl Sudsberger, who had long been a teacher like himself. He was a gentle old soul who loved children and understood them, and a more motherly creature than his wife could not well be imagined. Everything throve under her thrifty management, and she had no patience with laziness or waste. Any boy in whose bringing up she had a hand would be able to make his way in the world when the time came for it.
Mrs. Dudley and Miss Allison helped choose the furnishings, but Virginia felt that the pleasure of it was all hers, for she was taken to the city every time they went, and allowed a voice in everything. Several trips were necessary before the house was complete, but by the last week in May it was ready from attic to cellar.
It was the "Fairchance" that the boys had planned so long, with its rose-bordered paths, the orchard and garden and outlying fields. Nothing had been forgotten, from the big Newfoundland dog on the doorstep, to the ducks on the pond, and the little speckled pigs in the pen. The day that Keith was able to walk down-stairs for the first time, Mr. Maclntyre went to Chicago, taking Jonesy with him, to find Barney and bring him back. He was gone several days, and when he returned there were three boys with him instead of two: Jonesy, Barney, and a little fellow about five years old, still in dresses.
Malcolm met them at the train, and eyed the small newcomer with curiosity. "It is a little chap that Barney had taken under his wing," explained Mr. Maclntyre. "Its mother was dead, and I found it was entirely dependent on Barney for support. They slept together in the same cellar, and shared whatever he happened to earn, just as Jonesy did. I hadn't the heart to leave him behind, although I didn't relish the idea of travelling with such a kindergarten. Would you believe it, Dodds (that's the little fellow's name) never saw a tree in his life until yesterday? He had never been out of the slums where he was born, not even to the avenues of the city where he could have seen them. It was too far for him to walk alone, and street-cars were out of the question for him,--as much out of reach of his empty pockets as the moon."
"Never saw a tree!" echoed Malcolm, with a thrill of horror in his voice that a life could be so bare in its knowledge of beauty. "Oh, papa, how much 'Fairchance' will mean to him, then! Oh, I'm so glad, and Keith--why, Keith will want to stand on his head!"
They drove directly to the new place. It was late in the afternoon, and the sunshine threw long, waving shadows across the yard. Mrs. Sudsberger sat on the front porch knitting. A warm breeze blowing in from the garden stirred the white window curtains behind her with soft flutterings. The coloured woman in the kitchen was singing as she moved around preparing supper, and her voice floated cheerily around the corner of the house:
"Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' fer to carry me home, Swing low, sweet char-i-ot, comin' fer to carry me home!"
A Jersey cow lowed at the pasture bars, and from away over in the woodland came the cooing of a dove. Three little waifs had found a home.
Mr. Maclntyre looked from the commonplace countenances of the boys climbing out of the carriage to Malcolm's noble face. "It is a doubtful experiment," he said to himself. "They may never amount to anything, but at least they shall have a chance to see what clean, honest, country living can do for them." And then there swept across his heart, with a warm, generous rush, the impulse to do as much for every other unfortunate child he could reach, whose only heritage is the poverty and crime of city slums. He had seen so much in that one short visit. The misery of it haunted him, and it was with a happiness as boyish and keen as Malcolm's that he led these children he had rescued into the home that was to be theirs henceforth.
Keith did not see "Fairchance" until Memorial Day. Then they took him over in the carriage in the afternoon, and showed him every nook and corner of the place. There were six boys there now, for room had been made for two little fellows from Louisville, whom Mr. Maclntyre had found at the Newsboys' Home. "I've no doubt but that there'll always be more coming," he said to Mr. Sudsberger, with a smile, as he led them in. "When you once let a little water trickle through the dyke, the whole sea is apt to come pouring in."
"Happy the heart that is swept with such high tides," answered the old German. "It is left the richer by such floods."
Several families in the Valley were invited to come late in the afternoon to a flag-raising. The great silk flag was Virginia's gift, and Captain Dudley made the presentation speech. He wore his uniform in honour of the occasion. This was a part of what he said:
"This Memorial Day, throughout this wide-spread land of ours, over every mound that marks a soldier's dust, some hand is stretched to drop a flower in tender tribute. Over her heroic dead a grateful country wreathes the red of her roses, the white of her lilies, and the blue of her forget-me-nots, repeating even in the sweet syllables of the flowers the symbol of her patriotism,--the red, white, and blue of her war-stained banner.
"My friends, I have followed the old flag into more than one battle. I have seen men charge after it through blinding smoke and hail of bullets, and I have seen them die for it. No one feels more deeply than I what a glorious thing it is to die for one's country, but I want to say to these little lads looking up at this great flag fluttering over us, that it is not half so noble, half so brave, as to live for it, to give yourselves in untiring, every-day living to your country's good. To 'let all the ends thou aim'st at be thy country's, thy God's, and truth's.' I would rather have that said of me, that I did that, than to be the greatest general of my day. I would rather be the founder of homes like this one than to manoeuvre successfully the greatest battles.
"May the 'Two Little Knights of Kentucky' go on, out through the land, carrying their motto with them, until the last wrong is righted, and wherever the old flag floats a 'fair chance' may be found for every one that lives beneath it. And may these Stars and Stripes, as they rise and fall on the winds of this peaceful valley, whisper continuously that same motto, until its lessons of truth and purity and unselfish service have been blazoned on the hearts of every boy who calls this home. May it help to make him a true knight in his country's cause."
There was music after that, and then old Colonel Lloyd made a speech, and Virginia and the Little Colonel gathered roses out of the old garden, so that every one could wear a bunch. A little later they had supper on the lawn, picnic fashion, and then drove home in the cool of the evening, when all the meadows were full of soft flashings from the fairy torches of a million fireflies.
With Keith safely covered up in a hammock, they lingered on the porch long after the stars came out, and the dew lay heavy on the roses. They were building other air-castles now, to be rebuilt some day, as Jonesy's home had been; only these were still larger and better. The older people were planning, too, and all the good that grew out of that quiet evening talk can never be known until that day comes when the King shall read all the names in his Hall of the Shields.
"It has been such a beautiful day," said Virginia, leaning her head happily against her mother's shoulder. Then she started up, suddenly remembering something. "Oh, papa!" she cried, "let's end it as they do at the fort, with the bugle-call. I'll run and get my old bugle, and you play 'taps.'"
A few minutes later the silvery notes went floating out on the warm night air, through all the peaceful valley; over the mounds in the little churchyard, wreathed now with their fresh memorial roses; past "The Locusts" where the Little Colonel lay a-dreaming. Over the woods and fields they floated, until they reached the flag that kept its fluttering vigil over "Fairchance."
Jonesy sat up in bed to listen. Many a reveille would sound before his full awakening to all that the two little knights had made possible for him, but the sweet, dim dream of the future that stole into his grateful little heart was an earnest of what was in store for him. Then the bugle-call, falling through the starlight like a benediction, closed the happy day with its peaceful "Good night."