A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
The Cane Run Road lay straight ahead, now white under the full light of the sun, now dappled with tiny dancing shadows from the interlaced twigs overhead, new clothed in their garb of green. White and purple violets peeped from the fence corners, and overhead the birds made busy in the branches.
Two young people, flushed and smiling, drew rein and looked at each other. In the eyes of each was a challenge.
"I'll race you to the mill!" cried Miss Lady, tugging at her bridle. "Don't start 'til I give the word. Now, go!"
Off through the smiling, sunlit fields they dashed, too impetuous and young, and gloriously free, to waste a thought on that inexorable wheel of life, upon which sooner or later the most irresponsible must break their wings. On and on they went, neck to neck, the gallop breaking into a run. Down past the blacksmith's, past the old mill which was to have been the goal, through the long covered bridge, over the hill and out again on the level road where they still kept abreast.
And close upon them, with head up and mane flying, came another steed, free, irresponsible, unbridled, invisible. It was Romance, pounding in their wake; Romance, whose hoof beats made their pulses dance in unison, whose breath upon their cheeks made them laugh for joy in the face of the wind.
They were almost to the city now, having reached that slovenly suburb that had given its plebeian name to the once aristocratic neighborhood. Clouds of dust whirled in their wake, and stones flew right and left under the horses' hoofs; men in carts pulled their teams to the side of the road to let the mad pair pass; dogs dashed from dark doorways, barking furiously.
Suddenly, just as they neared the railroad junction, the sharp whistle of an engine sent Prince plunging into the air. Donald rose in his stirrups and made a frantic clutch at the horse's head, but even as he missed it, he heard the clanging signal for an approaching train and saw the gates immediately in front of them descending. Instantly he flung himself out of the saddle, and sprang for Prince's head. The horse, almost under the nose of the engine, reared frantically, swerved, then came to a trembling stand, as Miss Lady deftly loosened her skirt from the pommel, and swung herself to the ground.
In a second Don was beside her.
"Are you hurt?" he cried, catching her arm with his free hand and looking anxiously into her face.
"Not a bit. Who won?" she asked with a little catch in her voice.
"Lord! You were plucky! If anything had happened to you!" his hand tightened on her wrist, and he drew in his breath sharply.
The afternoon freight came lumbering by, and they stood close together with the hot breath of the engine in their faces. Her hair blew across his face and he could feel her body trembling against his shoulder. Neither of them seemed to be aware of the fact that he still held her hand, and that the horses were tugging at their respective bridles.
As the train thundered past and the gates lifted, Miss Lady turned quickly and began to pin up her loosened hair.
"Pretty narrow shave, Miss," commented a redheaded man with a flag, hurrying across the track, and joining an old apple-woman and two small boys who constituted an interested audience.
"I seen you a-coming an' would 'a' let you through, only I'm a- substitutin' on this job, and wasn't in fer takin' no extry risks."
"Here, boy!" cried Donald, "hold my horse. The girth's broken; I'll have to make another hole in the strap."
The word "boy" being a generic term was promptly appropriated by each of the youngsters as applying to himself, and a fierce scramble ensued in which the larger was victorious.
"Skeeter's it," announced the flagman, a self-constituted umpire. "Git out 'er the way there, Chick, and give the gent a chanct to see what he's a-doin'."
Chick, a large-headed, small-bodied goblin of a boy, made an unintelligible, guttural sound in his throat and remained where he was, evidently considering it of paramount importance that he should see what the gentleman was doing.
It was with some difficulty that the new hole in the strap was made, and to secure the buckle more firmly Don gave it several sharp raps with the handle of his riding whip. At the last one the silver knob flew from the handle and rolled to the roadside.
In an instant the small boys were after it, the older having deserted his post without compunction, when a question of booty was involved. They grappled together in the dust of the road, long before they reached the prize, and with arms and legs entwined rolled toward it.
Chick was underneath when they arrived, but he loosened his clutch of Skeeter's throat, and darted forth a small, grimy hand that closed upon the treasure. In an instant Skeeter seized upon the clenched fist, and was wrenching it open, when a third party entered the fray.
"The little one got it!" cried Miss Lady indignantly; "he got it first! Give it to him this minute!"
"I be damned if I do!" shouted Skeeter, roused to fury by the combat.
"I'll be damned if you don't," said Miss Lady, equally determined.
The skirmish was fierce but short, and by the time Don got to them, Miss Lady had restored the spoils to the lawful victor, and was assisting the vanquished foe to wipe the dust from his eyes.
"Well, partner," said Donald to Chick, "what have you got to say to the young lady for taking your part?"
"He ain't got nothin' to say," said Skeeter glibly. "He's dumb. Nobody but me can't understand him. He says thank you, ma'am."
Chick having uttered no sound, it was evident that Skeeter depended upon telepathy.
"He's a ash-barrel baby," went on Skeeter, eager to impart information; "he ain't got no real folks, and he's been to the Juvenile Court twict; onct for hopping freights and onct fer me and him smashin' winders."
All eyes were turned upon the hero, who immediately became absorbed in his whip-handle. He was small, and exceedingly thin, and exceedingly dirty. The most conspicuous things about him were his large, wistful eyes, and his broad smile that showed where his teeth were going to be. Across his narrow chest a ragged elbowless coat was hitched together by one button, while a pair of bare, spindling legs dwindled away respectively into a high black shoe, and a low-cut tan one, both of which were well ventilated at the heels.
"I don't believe he's very bad," smiled Miss Lady, catching his chin in her hand and turning his face up to hers. "Are you, Chick?"
He made a queer guttural sound in his throat but, his official interpreter being by this time absorbed in the horses, was unable to make himself understood.
"It must be awful for a boy not to be able to ask questions!" she went on, looking down at him, then seeing something in his face that other people missed, she suddenly drew him to her and gave him a little motherly squeeze.
The ride home was somewhat leisurely, for the accident, slight as it was, had sobered the riders, and there was, moreover, a subject under discussion that called for considerable earnest expostulation on one side, and much tantalizing evasion on the other.
"It all depends upon you," Donald was saying, as they climbed the last hill. "Cropsie Decker starts for the coast to-morrow but the steamer doesn't sail for ten days. Shall I go or stay?"
"But you were so mad about it two weeks ago, you could scarcely wait to start."
"Lots of things can happen in two weeks. Shall I stay?"
"What do your family think about it?"
"My family? Oh, you mean my sister. She doesn't make a habit of losing sleep over my affairs. She'd probably say go. I am rather unpopular with her just now, because I don't approve of this affair between my niece Margery and Fred Dillingham. I fancy she'd be rather relieved to get me out of the way. In fact, everybody says go, except Doctor Queerington. He is a cousin of ours, used to be my English professor, up at the university. He has always harbored the illusion that I can write. Wants me to settle down some place in the country and go at it in earnest."
"You don't mean John Jay Queerington, the author?" Miss Lady said eagerly. "Is he really your cousin? Daddy went to school to his father, and has told me so much about him, that without seeing him, I could write a book on the subject."
"Great old chap in his way, an authority on heaven knows how many subjects, yet he scarcely makes enough money to take care of his children."
"But think of the books he is giving to the world! He told Daddy he was on his thirteenth volume!"
"Yes, he swims around most of the time in a sea of declensions, conjugations, and syntaxes, in Greek, Latin and English."
"I think he's magnificent!" cried Miss Lady, trying to hold Prince down to a walk. "I adore people who do great things and amount to something."
"All of which I suppose is meant to reflect on a poor devil who doesn't do things and doesn't amount to anything?"
"I never said so."
"See here," said Donald whimsically, "for two weeks you have been getting me not to do things. When I think of all the things I have promised you, I can feel my hair turning white. Having polished me off on the don'ts, you aren't going to begin on the do's, are you?"
"Indeed I am. Does Doctor Queerington really think you could be a writer?"
"He has been after me about it ever since I was a youngster. I'm always scribbling at something, but there is nothing in it. Besides," he added with a smile, "I'm going to be a farmer."
Miss Lady threw back her head and laughed:
"He wants to be a farmer And with the farmers stand The hay seed on his forehead And a rake within his hand."
"Oh! Don Morley, one minute it's the Orient, the next it's literature, and the next a farm; you don't know what you want!"
"Yes, I do, too," he caught her bridle and brought the horses close together. "I know perfectly what I want, and so do you. Haven't I told you four times a day for two weeks?"
She looked away to the far horizon where a bank of formidable clouds was forming:
"Oh, we all think we want things one day and forget about them the next. Life is made up of desires that seem big and vital one minute, and little and absurd the next. I guess we get what's best for us in the end."
"I haven't so far!" Don said fiercely. "I've gotten what was worst for me and I've made the worst of it."
They had turned into the lane now and were walking their horses up to the stile where Jimpson was waiting to take them.
"Don't put my mare up," directed Donald. "I've got to ride back to town to-night. There's rain in those clouds; I ought to be starting this minute."
But his haste was evidently not imperative, for he followed Miss Lady through the narrow winding paths, between a tangle of shrubs and vines, into the old-fashioned flower garden. The spiraea was just putting out its long, feathery plumes of white, and the lilacs nodded white and purple in the breeze.
"Here's the first wild rose!" cried Miss Lady, darting to a corner of the old stone wall; "the idea of its daring to come out so soon!"
He took the frail little blossom and smiled at it half quizzically: "It's funny," he said awkwardly, "your giving me this. You know, it's what you made me think of, the first time I saw you,--a wild rose. Didn't she, Mike?"
Mike, who had been dreaming all afternoon on the porch, had gotten up reluctantly as they passed and followed them. He had a slow, lopsided gait, and his tongue dangled from the side of his mouth. It was evidently a sacrifice for him to accompany them, but duty was duty.
"You angel dog! Come here to your Missus!" commanded Miss Lady, as she and Donald dropped down in the old barrel-stave hammock, that had swung beneath the lilacs since the Colonel was a boy.
But Mike ambled past her, and after snuggling up to Don with a great show of intimacy lay down at his feet.
"I'm glad somebody loves me," Donald said.
"It's your riding boots, Mike likes. He never had a chance to taste tan shoe polish before!"
"What do you like me for?"
"Me? Who said I did?"
"Oh, yes, I like tan boots, too. Why didn't you tell me my hair had tumbled down again?"
"Because you are so beautiful, with it like that, Miss Lady--"
"Now, Don, if you begin again I shall go straight in the house. What did you mean by saying you had gotten what was worst for you, and you had made the worst of it?"
"Oh, the way I've been brought up. You see my sister took me when I was a baby, and I guess I was an awful nuisance to her. She liked to travel, and kept it up a good while even after Margery was born. I grew up in hotels and on steamers and trains, going to school wherever we happened to be staying long enough; sometimes in France, sometimes in Switzerland, sometimes in America. I remember one Christmas when I was about six, we were in a hotel in Paris. My nurse put me to bed early so she could go out with her sweetheart, and told me there wasn't any Santa Claus, so I wouldn't stay awake watching for him. I hate that woman to this day! I can remember the big, lonesome room, and the red curtains, and the crystal chandelier and the way I cried because there wasn't any Santa Claus, and because I didn't have a sweetheart!"
"Poor little chap! It was a mother you wanted."
"Perhaps. Sister was good to me. But she didn't understand me; she never has. She has always given me too much of everything, advice included."
"But since you have been grown, you've had lots of time to--to--take things into your own hands."
"Well, I did for a while. I managed to squeeze through the university, then I went into the shops and had a bully time for five months, but it made no end of a row! Sister felt that after all she had done for me, I oughtn't to go dead against her wishes, and I guess she was right. Then I went into the bank and was beginning to get the hang of things, when she had a nervous collapse and was ordered to Egypt for the winter. My brother-in-law couldn't take her, so he sent me."
"But you stayed longer than she did."
"Yes, I played around on the Riviera for a while."
"And you have been home, how long?"
"Three months. Honestly, I meant to buckle down to something right off, but Cropsie Decker got this offer to go to the Orient for the Herald-Post, and asked me to go along. I was keen about it until--until I came down here."
They were both silent for a while, watching a spider that was exploring Don's boot-lace.
"It all seems so footless now. What I want is a house of my own, a home, I mean. I never had much of that sort of thing--I'm not quite sure I knew what a home was until I saw Thornwood."
"Isn't it dear?" asked Miss Lady with a loving look over her shoulder at the old house silhouetted against the sky. "I could kiss every brick of it, I love it so."
"I wish I didn't have to go back to town tonight!" burst out Donald inconsequentially. "I wish I never had to go back to it!"
"Oh, for lots of reasons. I'm a different fellow down here in the country, with things to do, and the right sort of things to think about, and--and you! You see," he smiled without looking up, "I'm not much good in town."
"How do you mean?" asked Miss Lady, with disconcerting frankness.
Donald shrugged his broad shoulders: "Oh! I don't know. I get into things before I know it. This Eastern trip, now; it sounded great when I said I'd go, Cropsie is a regular bird, the best fellow in the world to go on such a lark with, but--"
Miss Lady shot a glance at the handsome, boyish, irresponsible face beside her.
"Don't go, Don!" she whispered impulsively; "stay here and buy your farm!"
"You mean it!" he demanded, seizing her hands. "You want me to stay?"
The blood surged into her cheeks, but she did not withdraw her hands. Into her eager, luminous eyes had leapt the response that had been held in abeyance all afternoon.
"If I stay," he pressed hotly, "if I settle down and behave myself, and make good, you'll promise me--"
"Jimpson!" thundered a familiar voice from the road. "That good-for- nothing, lazy nigger, why don't he come help me with these things? Jimpson!"
"I'll tell him, Dad!" called Miss Lady, springing from the hammock.
"But wait!" pleaded Donald, "just a minute. I've got to beat that storm to town, and tell Decker the trip is off. But I'll be back in the morning! Perhaps to breakfast. Oh, my darling, I am so happy! Say you love me! Say it!"
Old Mike stirred in his slumbers, then opened one eye. It was evidently time for him to take some action. When two young people are standing very close with clasped hands and love-lit eyes in the dim fragrance of an old garden, even a dog of a chaperon knows that it is time to interfere! With great presence of mind he discovered an imaginary squirrel in the hedge directly beside them, and set up such a furious barking that Miss Lady looked around and laughed. For a second she stood, her head thrown back, a teasing, half-shy, half- daring look on her face, then she dropped a swift kiss on the hand that clasped hers, and without a word went flying crimson-cheeked up the lilac-bordered path.