Chapter VI. Joyce Plays Ghost.
 

Monsieur Ciseaux was coming home to live. Gabriel brought the news when he came back from market. He had met Henri on the road and heard it from him. Monsieur was coming home. That was all they knew; as to the day or the hour, no one could guess. That was the way with monsieur, Henri said. He was so peculiar one never knew what to expect.

Although the work of opening the great house was begun immediately, and a thorough cleaning was in progress from garret to cellar, Brossard did not believe that his master would really be at home before the end of the week. He made his own plans accordingly, although he hurried Henri relentlessly with the cleaning.

As soon as Joyce heard the news she made an excuse to slip away, and ran down to the field to Jules. She found him paler than usual, and there was a swollen look about his eyes that made her think that maybe he had been crying.

"What's the matter?" she asked. "Aren't you glad that your uncle is coming home?"

Jules gave a cautious glance over his shoulder towards the house, and then looked up at Joyce. Heretofore, some inward monitor of pride had closed his lips about himself whenever he had been with her, but, since the Thanksgiving Day that had made them such firm friends, he had wished every hour that he could tell her of his troubles. He felt that she was the only person in the world who took any interest in him. Although she was only three years older than himself, she had that motherly little way with her that eldest daughters are apt to acquire when there is a whole brood of little brothers and sisters constantly claiming attention.

So when Joyce asked again, "What's the matter, Jules?" with so much anxious sympathy in her face and voice, the child found himself blurting out the truth.

"Brossard beat me again last night," he exclaimed. Then, in response to her indignant exclamation, he poured out the whole story of his ill-treatment. "See here!" he cried, in conclusion, unbuttoning his blouse and baring his thin little shoulders. Great red welts lay across them, and one arm was blue with a big mottled bruise.

Joyce shivered and closed her eyes an instant to shut out the sight that brought the quick tears of sympathy.

"Oh, you poor little thing!" she cried. "I'm going to tell madame."

"No, don't!" begged Jules. "If Brossard ever found out that I had told anybody, I believe that he would half kill me. He punishes me for the least thing. I had no breakfast this morning because I dropped an old plate and broke it."

"Do you mean to say," cried Joyce, "that you have been out here in the field since sunrise without a bite to eat?"

Jules nodded.

"Then I'm going straight home to get you something." Before he could answer she was darting over the fields like a little flying squirrel.

"Oh, what if it were Jack!" she kept repeating as she ran. "Dear old Jack, beaten and starved, without anybody to love him or say a kind word to him." The mere thought of such misfortune brought a sob.

In a very few minutes Jules saw her coming across the field again, more slowly this time, for both hands were full, and without their aid she had no way to steady the big hat that flapped forward into her eyes at every step. Jules eyed the food ravenously. He had not known how weak and hungry he was until then.

"It will not be like this when your uncle comes home," said Joyce, as she watched the big mouthfuls disappear down the grateful little throat. Jules shrugged his shoulders, answering tremulously, "Oh, yes, it will be lots worse. Brossard says that my Uncle Martin has a terrible temper, and that he turned his poor sister and my grandfather out of the house one stormy might. Brossard says he shall tell him how troublesome I am, and likely he will turn me out, too. Or, if he doesn't do that, they will both whip me every day."

Joyce stamped her foot. "I don't believe it," she cried, indignantly. "Brossard is only trying to scare you. Your uncle is an old man now, so old that he must be sorry for the way he acted when he was young. Why, of course he must be," she repeated, "or he never would have brought you here when you were left a homeless baby. More than that, I believe he will be angry when he finds how you have been treated. Maybe he will send Brossard away when you tell him."

"I would not dare to tell him," said Jules, shrinking back at the bare suggestion.

"Then I dare," cried Joyce with flashing eyes. "I am not afraid of Brossard or Henri or your uncle, or any man that I ever knew. What's more, I intend to march over here just as soon as your uncle comes home, and tell him right before Brossard how you have been treated."

Jules gasped in admiration of such reckless courage. "Seems to me Brossard himself would be afraid of you if you looked at him that way." Then his voice sank to a whisper. "Brossard is afraid of one thing, I've heard him tell Henri so, and that is ghosts. They talk about them every night when the wind blows hard and makes queer noises in the chimney. Sometimes they are afraid to put out their candles for fear some evil spirit might be in the room."

"I'm glad he is afraid of something, the mean old thing!" exclaimed Joyce. For a few moments nothing more was said, but Jules felt comforted now that he had unburdened his long pent up little heart. He reached out for several blades of grass and began idly twisting them around his finger.

Joyce sat with her hands clasped over her knees, and a wicked little gleam in her eyes that boded mischief. Presently she giggled as if some amusing thought had occurred to her, and when Jules looked up inquiringly she began noiselessly clapping her hands together.

"I've thought of the best thing," she said. "I'll fix old Brossard now. Jack and I have played ghost many a time, and have even scared each other while we were doing it, because we were so frightful-looking. We put long sheets all over us and went about with pumpkin jack-o'-lanterns on our heads. Oh, we looked awful, all in white, with fire shining out of those hideous eyes and mouths. If I knew when Brossard was likely to whip you again, I'd suddenly appear on the scene and shriek out like a banshee and make him stop. Wouldn't it be lovely?" she cried, more carried away with the idea the longer she thought of it. "Why, it would be like acting our fairy story. You are the Prince, and I will be the giant scissors and rescue you from the Ogre. Now let me see if I can think of a rhyme for you to say whenever you need me."

Joyce put her hands over her ears and began to mumble something that had no meaning whatever for Jules: "Ghost--post--roast--toast,--no that will never do; need--speed deed,--no! Help--yelp (I wish I could make him yelp),--friend--spend--lend,--that's it. I shall try that."

There was a long silence, during which Joyce whispered to herself with closed eyes. "Now I've got it," she announced, triumphantly, "and it's every bit as good as Cousin Kate's:

     "Giant scissors, fearless friend,
     Hasten, pray, thy aid to lend.

"If you could just say that loud enough for me to hear I'd come rushing in and save you."

Jules repeated the rhyme several times, until he was sure that he could remember it, and then Joyce stood up to go.

"Good-by, fearless friend," said Jules. "I wish I were brave like you." Joyce smiled in a superior sort of way, much flattered by the new title. Going home across the field she held her head a trifle higher than usual, and carried on an imaginary conversation with Brossard, in which she made him quail before her scathing rebukes.

Joyce did not take her usual walk that afternoon. She spent the time behind locked doors busy with paste, scissors, and a big muff-box, the best foundation she could find for a jack-o'-lantern. First she covered the box with white paper and cut a hideous face in one side,--great staring eyes, and a frightful grinning mouth. With a bit of wire she fastened a candle inside and shut down the lid.

"Looks too much like a box yet," she said, after a critical examination. "It needs some hair and a beard. Wonder what I can make it of." She glanced all around the room for a suggestion, and then closed her eyes to think. Finally she went over to her bed, and, turning the covers back from one corner, began ripping a seam in the mattress. When the opening was wide enough she put in her thumb and finger and pulled out a handful of the curled hair. "I can easily put it back when I have used it, and sew up the hole in the mattress," she said to her conscience. "My! This is exactly what I needed." The hair was mixed, white and black, coarse and curly as a negro's wool.

She covered the top of the pasteboard head with it, and was so pleased that she added long beard and fierce mustache to the already hideous mouth. When that was all done she took it into a dark closet and lighted the candle. The monster's head glared at her from the depth of the closet, and she skipped back and forth in front of it, wringing her hands in delight.

"Oh, if Jack could only see it! If he could only see it!" she kept exclaiming. "It is better than any pumpkin head we ever made, and scary enough to throw old Brossard into a fit. I can hardly wait until it is dark enough to go over."

Meanwhile the short winter day drew on towards the close. Jules, out in the field with the goats, walked back and forth, back and forth, trying to keep warm. Brossard, who had gone five miles down the Paris road to bargain about some grain, sat comfortably in a little tobacco shop, with a pipe in his mouth and a glass and bottle on the table at his elbow. Henri was at home, still scrubbing and cleaning. The front of the great house was in order, with even the fires laid on all the hearths ready for lighting. Now he was scrubbing the back stairs. His brush bumped noisily against the steps, and the sound of its scouring was nearly drowned by the jerky tune which the old fellow sung through his nose as he worked.

A carriage drove slowly down the road and stopped at the gate with the scissors; then, in obedience to some command from within, the vehicle drove on to the smaller gate beyond. An old man with white hair and bristling mustache slowly alighted. The master had come home. He put out his hand as if to ring the bell, then on second thought drew a key from his pocket and fitted it in the lock. The gate swung back and he passed inside. The old house looked gray and forbidding in the dull light of the late afternoon. He frowned up at it, and it frowned down on him, standing there as cold and grim as itself. That was his only welcome.

The doors and windows were all shut, so that he caught only a faint sound of the bump, thump of the scrubbing-brush as it accompanied Henri's high-pitched tune down the back stairs.

Without giving any warning of his arrival, he motioned the man beside the coachman to follow with his trunk, and silently led the way up-stairs. When the trunk had been unstrapped and the man had departed, monsieur gave one slow glance all around the room. It was in perfect readiness for him. He set a match to the kindling laid in the grate, and then closed the door into the hall. The master had come home again, more silent, more mysterious in his movements than before.

Henri finished his scrubbing and his song, and, going down into the kitchen, began preparations for supper. A long time after, Jules came up from the field, put the goats in their place, and crept in behind the kitchen stove.

Then it was that Joyce, from her watch-tower of her window, saw Brossard driving home in the market-cart. "Maybe I'll have a chance to scare him while he is putting the horse up and feeding it," she thought. It was in the dim gloaming when she could easily slip along by the hedges without attracting attention. Bareheaded, and in breathless haste to reach the barn before Brossard, she ran down the road, keeping close to the hedge, along which the wind raced also, blowing the dead leaves almost as high as her head.

Slipping through a hole in the hedge, just as Brossard drove in at the gate, she ran into the barn and crouched down behind the door. There she wrapped herself in the sheet that she had brought with her for the purpose, and proceeded to strike a match to light the lantern. The first one flickered and went out. The second did the same. Brossard was calling angrily for Jules now, and she struck another match in nervous haste, this time touching the wick with it before the wind could interfere. Then she drew her dress over the lantern to hide the light.

"Wouldn't Jack enjoy this," she thought, with a daring little giggle that almost betrayed her hiding-place.

"I tell thee it is thy fault," cried Brossard's angry voice, drawing nearer the barn.

"But I tried," began Jules, timidly.

His trembling excuse was interrupted by Brossard, who had seized him by the arm. They were now on the threshold of the barn, which was as dark as a pocket inside.

Joyce, peeping through the crack of the door, saw the man's arm raised in the dim twilight outside. "Oh, he is really going to beat him," she thought, turning faint at the prospect. Then her indignation overcame every other feeling as she heard a heavy halter-strap whiz through the air and fall with a sickening blow across Jules's shoulders. She had planned a scene something like this while she worked away at the lantern that afternoon. Now she felt as if she were acting a part in some private theatrical performance. Jules's cry gave her the cue, and the courage to appear.

As the second blow fell across Jules's smarting shoulders, a low, blood-curdling wail came from the dark depths of the barn. Joyce had not practised that dismal moan of a banshee to no purpose in her ghost dances at home with Jack. It rose and fell and quivered and rose again in cadences of horror. There was something awful, something inhuman, in that fiendish, long-drawn shriek.

Brossard's arm fell to his side paralyzed with fear, as that same hoarse voice cried, solemnly: "Brossard, beware! Beware!" But worse than that voice of sepulchral warning was the white-sheeted figure, coming towards him with a wavering, ghostly motion, fire shooting from the demon-like eyes, and flaming from the hideous mouth.

Brossard sank on his knees in a shivering heap, and began crossing himself. His hair was upright with horror, and his tongue stiff. Jules knew who it was that danced around them in such giddy circles, first darting towards them with threatening gestures, and then gliding back to utter one of those awful, sickening wails. He knew that under that fiery head and wrapped in that spectral dress was his "fearless friend," who, according to promise, had hastened her aid to lend; nevertheless, he was afraid of her himself. He had never imagined that anything could look so terrifying.

The wail reached Henri's ears and aroused his curiosity. Cautiously opening the kitchen door, he thrust out his head, and then nearly fell backward in his haste to draw it in again and slam the door. One glimpse of the ghost in the barnyard was quite enough for Henri.

Altogether the performance probably did not last longer than a minute, but each of the sixty seconds seemed endless to Brossard. With a final die-away moan Joyce glided towards the gate, delighted beyond measure with her success; but her delight did not last long. Just as she turned the corner of the house, some one standing in the shadow of it clutched her. A strong arm was thrown around her, and a firm hand snatched the lantern, and tore the sheet away from her face.

It was Joyce's turn to be terrified. "Let me go!" she shrieked, in English. With one desperate wrench she broke away, and by the light of the grinning jack-o'-lantern saw who was her captor. She was face to face with Monsieur Ciseaux.

"What does this mean?" he asked, severely. "Why do you come masquerading here to frighten my servants in this manner?"

For an instant Joyce stood speechless. Her boasted courage had forsaken her. It was only for an instant, however, for the rhyme that she had made seemed to sound in her ears as distinctly as if Jules were calling to her:

     "Giant scissors, fearless friend,
     Hasten, pray, thy aid to lend."

"I will be a fearless friend," she thought. Looking defiantly up into the angry face she demanded: "Then why do you keep such servants? I came because they needed to be frightened, and I'm glad you caught me, for I told Jules that I should tell you about them as soon as you got home. Brossard has starved and beaten him like a dog ever since he has been here. I just hope that you will look at the stripes and bruises on his poor little back. He begged me not to tell, for Brossard said you would likely drive him away, as you did your brother and sister. But even if you do, the neighbors say that an orphan asylum would be a far better home for Jules than this has been. I hope you'll excuse me, monsieur, I truly do, but I'm an American, and I can't stand by and keep still when I see anybody being abused, even if I am a girl, and it isn't polite for me to talk so to older people."

Joyce fired out the words as if they had been bullets, and so rapidly that monsieur could scarcely follow her meaning. Then, having relieved her mind, and fearing that maybe she had been rude in speaking so forcibly to such an old gentleman, she very humbly begged his pardon. Before he could recover from her rapid change in manner and her torrent of words, she reached out her hand, saying, in the meekest of little voices, "And will you please give me back those things, monsieur? The sheet is Madame Greville's, and I've got to stuff that hair back in the mattress to-night."

Monsieur gave them to her, still too astonished for words. He had never before heard any child speak in such a way. This one seemed more like a wild, uncanny little sprite than like any of the little girls he had known heretofore. Before he could recover from his bewilderment, Joyce had gone. "Good night, monsieur," she called, as the gate clanged behind her.