Chapter VI. Hollis Farm
 

Clayton was an easy-going, prosperous old town which, in the enthusiasm of youth, had started to climb the long hill to the north, but growing indolent with age, had decided instead to go around.

Main street, broad and shady under an unbroken arch of maple boughs, was flanked on each side by "Back street," the generic term applied to all the parallel streets. The short cross-streets were designated by the most direct method: "the street by the Baptist church," "the street by Dr. Fenton's," "the street going out to Judge Hollis's," or "the street where Mr. Moseley used to live." In the heart of the town was the square, with the gray, weather-beaten court-house, the new and formidable jail, the post-office and church.

For twenty years Dr. Fenton's old high-seated buggy had jogged over the same daily course. It started at nine o'clock and passed with never-varying regularity up one street and down another. When any one was ill a sentinel was placed at the gate to hail the doctor, who was as sure to pass as the passenger-train. It was a familiar joke in Clayton that the buggy had a regular track, and that the wheels always ran in the same rut. Once, when Carter Nelson had taken too much egg-nog and his aunt thought he had spinal meningitis, the usual route had been reversed, and again when the blacksmith's triplets were born. But these were especial occasions. It was a matter for investigation when the doctor's buggy went over the bridge before noon.

"Anybody sick out this way?" asked the miller.

The doctor stopped the buggy to explain.

He was a short, fat man dressed in a suit of Confederate gray. The hand that held the reins was minus two fingers, his willing contribution to the Lost Cause, which was still to him the great catastrophe of all history. His whole personality was a bristling arsenal of prejudices. When he spoke it was in quick, short volleys, in a voice that seemed to come from the depths of a megaphone.

"Strange boy sick at Judge Hollis's. How's trade?"

"Fair to middlin'," answered the miller. "Do you reckon that there boy has got anything ketchin'?"

"Catching?" repeated the doctor savagely. "What if he has?" he demanded. "Two epidemics of typhoid, two of yellow fever, and one of smallpox--that's my record, sir!"

"Looks like my children will ketch a fly-bite," said the miller, apologetically.

A little farther on the doctor was stopped again--this time by a maiden in a pink-and-white gingham, with a mass of light curls bobbing about her face.

"Dad!" she called as she scrambled over the fence. "Where you g-going, dad?"

The doctor flapped the lines nervously and tried to escape, but she pursued him madly. Catching up with the buggy, she pulled herself up on the springs and thrust an impudent, laughing face through the window at the back.

"Annette," scolded her father, "aren't you ashamed? Fourteen years old, and a tomboy! Get down!"

"Where you g-going, dad?" she stammered, unabashed.

"To Judge Hollis's. Get down this minute!"

"What for?"

"Somebody's sick. Get down, I say!"

Instead of getting down, she got in, coming straight through the small window, and arriving in a tangle of pink and white at his side.

The doctor heaved a prodigious sigh. As a colonel of the Confederacy he had exacted strict discipline and unquestioning obedience, but he now found himself ignominiously reduced to the ranks, and another Fenton in command.

At Hollis Farm the judge met them at the gate. He was large and loose-jointed, with the frame of a Titan and the smile of a child. He wore a long, loose dressing-gown and a pair of slippers elaborately embroidered in green roses. His big, irregular features were softened by an expression of indulgent interest toward the world at large.

"Good morning, doctor. Howdy, Nettie. How are you all this morning?"

"Who's sick?" growled the doctor as he hitched his horse to the fence.

"It's a stray lad, doctor; my old cook, Melvy, played the good Samaritan and picked him up off the road last night. She brought him to me this morning. He's out of his head with a fever."

"Where'd he come from?" asked the doctor.

"Mrs. Hollis says he was peddling goods up at Main street and the bridge last night."

"Which one is he?" demanded Annette, eagerly, as she emerged from the buggy. "Is he g-good-looking, with blue eyes and light hair? Or is he b-black and ugly and sort of cross-eyed?"

The judge peered over his glasses quizzically. "Thinking about the boys, as usual! Now I want to know what business you have noticing the color of a peddler's eyes?"

Annette blushed, but she stood her ground. "All the g-girls noticed him. He wasn't an ordinary peddler. He was just as smart and f-funny as could be."

"Well, he isn't smart and funny now," said the judge, with a grim laugh.

The two men passed up the long avenue and into the house. At the door they were met by Mrs. Hollis, whose small angular person breathed protest. Her black hair was arranged in symmetrical bands which were drawn tightly back from a straight part. When she talked, a gold-capped tooth was disclosed on each side of her mouth, giving rise to the judge's joke that one was capped to keep the other company, since Mrs. Hollis's sense of order and regularity rebelled against one eye-tooth of one color and the other of another.

"Good morning, doctor," she said shortly; "there's the door-mat. No, don't put your hat there; I'll take it. Isn't this a pretty business for Melvy to come bringing a sick tramp up here--on general cleaning-day, too?"

"Aren't all days cleaning-days to you, Sue?" asked the judge, playfully.

"When you are in the house," she answered sharply. Then she turned to the doctor, who was starting up the stairs:

"If this boy is in for a long spell, I want him moved somewhere. I can't have my carpets run over and my whole house smelling like a hospital."

"Now, Susan," remonstrated the judge, gently, "we can't turn the lad out. We've got room and to spare. If he's got the fever, he'll have to stay."

"We'll see, we'll see," said the doctor.

But when he tiptoed down from the room above there was no question about it.

"Very sick boy," he said, rubbing his hand over his bald head. "If he gets better, I might take him over to Mrs. Meech's; he can't be moved now."

"Mrs. Meech!" cried Mrs. Hollis, in fine scorn. "Do you think I would let him go to that dirty house--and with this fever, too? Why, Mrs. Meech's front curtains haven't been washed since Christmas! She and the preacher and Martha all sit around with their noses in books, and never even know that the water-spout is leaking and the porch needs mopping! You can't tell me anything about the Meeches!"

Neither of the men tried to do so; they stood silent in the doorway, looking very grave.

"For mercy sake! what is that in the front lot?" exclaimed Mrs. Hollis.

The doctor had an uncomfortable premonition, which was promptly verified. One of the judge's friskiest colts was circling madly about the driveway, while astride of it, in triumph, sat Annette, her dress ripped at the belt, her hair flying.

"If she don't need a woman's hand!" exclaimed Mrs. Hollis. "I could manage her all right."

The doctor looked from Mrs. Hollis, with her firm, close-shut mouth, to the flying figure on the lawn.

"Perhaps," he said, lifting his brows; but he put the odds on Annette.

That night, when Aunt Melvy brought the lamp into the sitting-room, she waited nervously near Mrs. Hollis's chair.

"Miss Sue," she ventured presently, "is de cunjers comin' out?"

"The what?"

"De cunjers what dat pore chile's got. I done tried all de spells I knowed, but look lak dey didn't do no good."

"He has the fever," said Mrs. Hollis; "and it means a long spell of nursing and bother for me."

The judge stirred uncomfortably. "Now, Sue," he remonstrated, "you needn't take a bit of bother. Melvy will see to him by day, and I will look after him at night."

Mrs. Hollis bit her lip and heroically refrained from expressing her mind.

"He's a mighty purty chile," said Aunt Melvy, tentatively.

"He's a common tramp," said Mrs. Hollis.

After supper, arranging a tray with a snowy napkin and a steaming bowl of broth, Mrs. Hollis went up to the sick-room. Her first step had been to have the patient bathed and combed and made presentable for the occupancy of the guest-chamber. It had been with rebellion of spirit that she placed him there, but the judge had taken one of those infrequent stands which she knew it was useless to resist. She put the tray on a table near the big four-poster bed, and leaned over to look at the sleeper.

Sandy lay quiet among the pillows, his fair hair tumbled, his lips parted. As the light fell on his flushed face he stirred.

"Here's your supper," said Mrs. Hollis, her voice softening in spite of herself. He was younger than she had thought. She slipped her arm under the pillow and raised his head.

"You must eat," she said kindly.

He looked at her vacantly, then a momentary consciousness flitted over his face, a vague realization that he was being cared for. He put up a hot hand and gently touched her cheek; then, rallying all his strength, he smiled away his debt of gratitude. It was over in a moment, and he sank back unconscious.

Through the dreary hours of the night Mrs. Hollis sat by the bed, nursing him with the aching tenderness that only a childless woman can know. Below, in the depths of a big feather-bed, the judge slept in peaceful unconcern, disturbing the silence by a series of long, loud, and unmelodious snores.