Chapter IV. A Letter and a Meeting.
 

Nearly a week later Joyce sat at her desk, hurrying to finish a letter before the postman's arrival.

"Dear Jack," it began.

"You and Mary will each get a letter this week. Hers is the fairy tale that Cousin Kate told me, about an old gate near here. I wrote it down as well as I could remember. I wish you could see that gate. It gets more interesting every day, and I'd give most anything to see what lies on the other side. Maybe I shall soon, for Marie has a way of finding out anything she wants to know. Marie is my new maid. Cousin Kate went to Paris last week, to be gone until nearly Christmas, so she got Marie to take care of me.

"It seems so odd to have somebody button my boots and brush my hair, and take me out to walk as if I were a big doll. I have to be very dignified and act as if I had always been used to such things. I believe Marie would be shocked to death if she knew that I had ever washed dishes, or pulled weeds out of the pavement, or romped with you in the barn.

"Yesterday when we were out walking I got so tired of acting as if I were a hundred years old, that I felt as if I should scream. 'Marie,' I said, 'I've a mind to throw my muff in the fence-corner and run and hang on behind that wagon that's going down-hill.' She had no idea that I was in earnest. She just smiled very politely and said, 'Oh, mademoiselle, impossible! How you Americans do love to jest.' But it was no joke. You can't imagine how stupid it is to be with nobody but grown people all the time. I'm fairly aching for a good old game of hi spy or prisoner's base with you. There is nothing at all to do, but to take poky walks.

"Yesterday afternoon we walked down to the river. There's a double row of trees along it on this side, and several benches where people can wait for the tram-cars that pass down this street and then across the bridge into Tours. Marie found an old friend of hers sitting on one of the benches,--such a big fat woman, and oh, such a gossip! Marie said she was tired, so we sat there a long time. Her friend's name is Clotilde Robard. They talked about everybody in St. Symphorien.

"Then I gossiped, too. I asked Clotilde Robard if she knew why the gate with the big scissors was never opened any more. She told me that she used to be one of the maids there, before she married the spice-monger and was Madame Robard. Years before she went to live there, when the old Monsieur Ciseaux died, there was a dreadful quarrel about some money. The son that got the property told his brother and sister never to darken his doors again.

"They went off to America, and that big front gate has never been opened since they passed out of it. Clotilde says that some people say that they put a curse on it, and something awful will happen to the first one who dares to go through. Isn't that interesting?

"The oldest son, Mr. Martin Ciseaux, kept up the place for a long time, just as his father had done, but he never married. All of a sudden he shut up the house, sent away all the servants but the two who take care of it, and went off to Algiers to live. Five years ago he came back to bring his little grand-nephew, but nobody has seen him since that time.

"Clotilde says that an orphan asylum would have been a far better home for Jules (that is the boy's name), for Brossard, the caretaker, is so mean to him. Doesn't that make you think of Prince Ethelried in the fairy tale? 'Little and lorn; no fireside welcomed him and no lips gave him a friendly greeting.'

"Marie says that she has often seen Jules down in the field, back of his uncle's house, tending the goats. I hope that I may see him sometime.

"Oh, dear, the postman has come sooner than I expected. He is talking down in the hall now, and if I do not post this letter now it will miss the evening train and be too late for the next mail steamer. Tell mamma that I will answer all her questions about my lessons and clothes next week. Oceans of love to everybody in the dear little brown house."

Hastily scrawling her name, Joyce ran out into the hall with her letter. "Anything for me?" she asked, anxiously, leaning over the banister to drop the letter into Marie's hand. "One, mademoiselle," was the answer. "But it has not a foreign stamp."

"Oh, from Cousin Kate!" exclaimed Joyce, tearing it open as she went back to her room. At the door she stooped to pick up a piece of paper that had dropped from the envelope. It crackled stiffly as she unfolded it.

"Money!" she exclaimed in surprise. "A whole twenty franc note. What could Cousin Kate have sent it for?" The last page of the letter explained.

     "I have just remembered that December is not very far off,
     and that whatever little Christmas gifts we send home should
     soon be started on their way. Enclosed you will find twenty
     francs for your Christmas shopping. It is not much, but we
     are too far away to send anything but the simplest little
     remembrances, things that will not be spoiled in the mail,
     and on which little or no duty need be paid. You might buy
     one article each day, so that there will be some purpose in
     your walks into Tours.

     "I am sorry that I can not be with you on Thanksgiving Day.
     We will have to drop it from our calendar this year; not the
     thanksgiving itself, but the turkey and mince pie part.
     Suppose you take a few francs to give yourself some little
     treat to mark the day. I hope my dear little girl will not be
     homesick all by herself. I never should have left just at
     this time if it had not been very necessary."

Joyce smoothed out the bank-note and looked at it with sparkling eyes. Twenty whole francs! The same as four dollars! All the money that she had ever had in her whole life put together would not have amounted to that much. Dimes were scarce in the little brown house, and even pennies seldom found their way into the children's hands when five pairs of little feet were always needing shoes, and five healthy appetites must be satisfied daily.

All the time that Joyce was pinning her treasure securely in her pocket and putting on her hat and jacket, all the time that she was walking demurely down the road with Marie, she was planning different ways in which to spend her fortune.

"Mademoiselle is very quiet," ventured Marie, remembering that one of her duties was to keep up an improving conversation with her little mistress.

"Yes," answered Joyce, half impatiently; "I've got something so lovely to think about, that I'd like to go back and sit down in the garden and just think and think until dark, without being interrupted by anybody."

This was Marie's opportunity. "Then mademoiselle might not object to stopping in the garden of the villa which we are now approaching," she said. "My friend, Clotilde Robard, is housekeeper there, and I have a very important message to deliver to her."

Joyce had no objection. "But, Marie," she said, as she paused at the gate, "I think I'll not go in. It is so lovely and warm out here in the sun that I'll just sit here on the steps and wait for you."

Five minutes went by and then ten. By that time Joyce had decided how to spend every centime in the whole twenty francs, and Marie had not returned. Another five minutes went by. It was dull, sitting there facing the lonely highway, down which no one ever seemed to pass. Joyce stood up, looked all around, and then slowly sauntered down the road a short distance.

Here and there in the crevices of the wall blossomed a few hardy wild flowers, which Joyce began to gather as she walked. "I'll go around this bend in the road and see what's there," she said to herself. "By that time Marie will surely be done with her messages."

No one was in sight in any direction, and feeling that no one could be in hearing distance, either, in such a deserted place, she began to sing. It was an old Mother Goose rhyme that she hummed over and over, in a low voice at first, but louder as she walked on.

Around the bend in the road there was nothing to be seen but a lonely field where two goats were grazing. On one side of it was a stone wall, on two others a tall hedge, but the side next her sloped down to the road, unfenced.

Joyce, with her hands filled with the yellow wild flowers, stood looking around her, singing the old rhyme, the song that she had taught the baby to sing before he could talk plainly:

     "Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
     The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn.
     Little Blue Blue, oh, where are you?
     Oh, where are you-u-u-u?"

The gay little voice that had been rising higher and higher, sweet as any bird's, stopped suddenly in mid-air; for, as if in answer to her call, there was a rustling just ahead of her, and a boy who had been lying on his back, looking at the sky, slowly raised himself out of the grass.

For an instant Joyce was startled; then seeing by his wooden shoes and old blue cotton blouse that he was only a little peasant watching the goats, she smiled at him with a pleasant good morning.

He did not answer, but came towards her with a dazed expression on his face, as if he were groping his way through some strange dream. "It is time to go in!" he exclaimed, as if repeating some lesson learned long ago, and half forgotten.

Joyce stared at him in open-mouthed astonishment. The little fellow had spoken in English. "Oh, you must be Jules," she cried. "Aren't you? I've been wanting to find you for ever so long."

The boy seemed frightened, and did not answer, only looked at her with big, troubled eyes. Thinking that she had made a mistake, that she had not heard aright, Joyce spoke in French. He answered her timidly. She had not been mistaken; he was Jules; he had been asleep, he told her, and when he heard her singing, he thought it was his mother calling him as she used to do, and had started up expecting to see her at last. Where was she? Did mademoiselle know her? Surely she must if she knew the song.

It was on the tip of Joyce's tongue to tell him that everybody knew that song; that it was as familiar to the children at home as the chirping of crickets on the hearth or the sight of dandelions in the spring-time. But some instinct warned her not to say it. She was glad afterwards, when she found that it was sacred to him, woven in as it was with his one beautiful memory of a home. It was all he had, and the few words that Joyce's singing had startled from him were all that he remembered of his mother's speech.

If Joyce had happened upon him in any other way, it is doubtful if their acquaintance would have grown very rapidly. He was afraid of strangers; but coming as she did with the familiar song that was like an old friend, he felt that he must have known her sometime,--that other time when there was always a sweet voice calling, and fireflies twinkled across a dusky lawn.

Joyce was not in a hurry for Marie to come now. She had a hundred questions to ask, and made the most of her time by talking very fast. "Marie will be frightened," she told Jules, "if she does not find me at the gate, and will think that the gypsies have stolen me. Then she will begin to hunt up and down the road, and I don't know what she would say if she came and found me talking to a strange child out in the fields, so I must hurry back. I am glad that I found you. I have been wishing so long for somebody to play with, and you seem like an old friend because you were born in America. I'm going to ask madame to ask Brossard to let you come over sometime."

Jules watched her as she hurried away, running lightly down the road, her fair hair flying over her shoulders and her short blue skirt fluttering. Once she looked back to wave her hand. Long after she was out of sight he still stood looking after her, as one might gaze longingly after some visitant from another world. Nothing like her had ever dropped into his life before, and he wondered if he should ever see her again.