A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
The summer that followed the People's Bank failure was one of those uncompromising summers that arrive in May and depart only with the last leaf in October. The river dwindling to a feeble stream staggered between distant banks, and the countryside lay parched and panting beneath an unrelenting sun.
In the city Noah Wicker toiled laboriously over his first case which had been granted a rehearing, and set for November the sixth. At the Capitol, Donald Morley sat day after day, coatless, collarless, in the torrid confines of his small bedroom, furiously covering reams of paper with compact handwriting. At Thornwood Miss Lady, who had been left in command of a sinking ship, struggled heroically to bring it into port.
One day early in July, Myrtella Flathers sat just inside the screen door of the summer kitchen, armed with a fly-spanker and a countenance of impending gloom. She was evidently rehearsing a speech, for her lips moved in scornful curves, and her bristling black locks were tossed in defiance. Mike, venturing out of a shady corner and catching a glimpse of her face, thought her inaudible remarks were addressed to him and retired with guilty eyelid and drooping tail to the woodshed.
Myrtella's bitter reflections were interrupted by the appearance of Miss Lady on the vine-covered porch. She looked absurdly young in her widow's weeds, in spite of the fact that her color was gone and her eyes beginning to look too big for her face.
"They've come to stay a week!" she announced, sinking wearily on the top step and casting a desperate glance at the closed shutters of the guest room above. "And it's Friday, and Mr. Gooch will be here to supper. Do you see how we are ever going to hold out?"
"I ain't!" declared Myrtella, spanking a fly into eternity with deadly precision. "I'm sick and tired of company. There ain't been a day in the three months since the Doctor died that we ain't had his kin folks on our hands. It beats my time how half the world gits a prowlin' fit every summer, and goes pestering them that stays at home. As to these old maids that come to-day, if they had a eye in their heads they'd see you was plumb wore out. I wouldn't 'a' ast 'em to stay."
"But I had to. They are the Doctor's cousins. They said they'd been coming to see him every summer for years, and they don't want to lose sight of the children."
"Umph! The children wouldn't mind losing sight of them! Miss Hattie got sent to bed onct for sassing the thin one that wants special dishes and all her water boiled. I bet she'll ast you to change her mattress."
"She has already. That's what I came out to tell you, and she wants her supper an hour earlier than ours. But that isn't what's troubling me, Myrtella, I have something much more serious than Cousin Emily to worry over."
"You ain't no exception," said Myrtella, somewhat defensively. "Trouble is about the only thing that rich people ain't got a monopoly on. I've had my share; it's a wonder I got a black hair left in my head!"
"Has your brother lost his good place?" Miss Lady asked.
"Phineas? No, mam. He's been at Iselin's ever since he left Mrs. Sequin's, an' to hear him tell it he's runnin' the whole 'stablishment. I must say he's doin' better 'n he ever done before, but he's as full of airs as a music-box, an' that there Maria, a paternizing me like I hadn't been payin' her rent all these years. But I kin get along without them. It's little Chick I'm a worryin' about."
"What's the matter with Chick?"
"Matter with him?" Myrtella turned on her fiercely. "Ever' thing is the matter with him. What chanct has he got in the world? Picked out of a ash-barrel, livin' in dirt an' ignorance, drinkin' the beer that leaks outen the kegs on the freight cars, hangin' 'round the saloons an' gittin' runtier an' dumber an' more pitifuller every day he lives. My Lord! Ain't that enough the matter with him?"
Miss Lady's quick, eager sympathy leapt into her face.
"We must do something for Chick. Dr. Wyeth believes he can cure him if they can ever get him into the Children's Hospital. Why can't we--" she checked herself, and sat looking off to the hills across the river.
"Myrtella, I've got to tell you something," she began again desperately, "I've been trying to tell you all day, but I didn't know how. You have been so good to us, all through the Doctor's illness, and before. But I'm afraid after this month we'll have to let you go."
Myrtella had been threatening to give notice for a month, but at this announcement she looked as if she had been the victim of an unsuccessful electrocution.
"It's a question of money," went on Miss Lady hurriedly. "You see we simply haven't any. I've kept account of every cent that comes in and goes out, just as Mr. Gooch told me to; but it doesn't balance. We'll just have to keep on cutting down expenses until it does."
"An' you are going to begin on me," said Myrtella furiously, "an' git in some onery nigger that'll carry home more in a basket than my wages would come to!"
"No, Myrtella; we are going to try to do the work ourselves."
"You mean you are! An' Miss Connie'll primp herself up an' go hiking into town after beaux, an' Miss Hattie'll set around with her nose in a book, an' you'll go on workin' an' slavin' an' wearin' yourself to the bone fer them, an' their tribe of prowlin' kin. Where's the money you got for this farm?"
"It went to pay the debts and to carry out the Doctor's wishes."
"'Bout printin' all them books he wrote over again, an' bringin' 'em out in the same kind of covers?"
"How many was there, in all?"
Myrtella compressed her lips, and with difficulty refrained from comment. However freely the Doctor's will had been discussed in public, no criticism of it was brooked in the presence of Miss Lady.
"As to your leaving," she said, changing the subject, while Myrtella vented her wrath on the flies, "you know you have wanted to go for months. It was only your goodness that made you come out here with us after you had saved money enough to start your boarding-house. We haven't been paying you enough, I know that, and--and we haven't enough to go on even as we are."
Myrtella wheeled in the doorway, her face purple with anger:
"If you think I'm a-goin' an' leave you children in this big house, messin' up yer own food, an' lettin' everybody run over you, you are mighty mistaken! Miss Hattie 'd be having indigestion inside a week, an' Bertie 'd git the croup, an' you'd have every female Queerington that could buy a railroad ticket comin' an' settin' down on you!"
"But what can we do, Myrtella? I tell you the money is giving out!"
"Do? I'll tell you what we can do. We can board the company! We can fill up the rooms with folks that pay for what they eat, an' there won't be any room for the free prowlers. You git the boarders an' I'll manage 'em."
"Why, Mrs. Ivy and Gerald wanted to come that way, but I laughed at them. Besides I don't know about Gerald--"
"On account of Miss Connie?" asked Myrtella, who had been too much in charge of the family not to know its secrets. "You let him come. He's one of them men that's like vanilla extract--you git too much of him onct, you never want no more!"
"And perhaps Mr. Gooch would come."
"Well it would go kinder hard with him to pay fer anything he's always got free. But git Miss Hattie to ast him. He'd do it fer her quicker'n anybody."
The project, under Myrtella's able generalship, developed immediately. Mr. Gooch and the Ivys gladly availed themselves of the opportunity of fleeing from the stifling city to the cool shade of Thornwood. Two former pupils of the Doctor's, who were taking a summer course at the university, also asked if they might have a room, and at the end of a week paying guests were in possession and the family relegated to any nook or corner that was large enough to accommodate a bed.
One problem was unexpectedly solved by the appearance of Uncle Jimpson, who announced that "he had done come back home to stay." The distinction of driving forth daily in solitary grandeur to exercise the Sequins' horses, had palled upon him, and the prospect of conducting the Queerington boarders back and forth to the station, and renewing his intimacy with old John and Mike, had proven irresistible.
Aunt Caroline had died in the early spring, and Uncle Jimpson found even the society of Myrtella a relief after his enforced loneliness. He listened with bulging eyes and sagging jaw to her accounts of the latest murders and obeyed her slightest command with a briskness that would have amazed the old Colonel.
"We's helpin' Miss Lady git a start," he would say proudly again and again, "an' then maybe she git married some more."
"Married!" Myrtella would flare, "yes, she orter git married to another widower with three children, and a thousand kin folks. Besides, who's she going to marry?"
"Ain't no trouble 'bout dat," Uncle Jimpson said wisely; "you jes' let her peek over de blinds onct, an' you see what gwine happen."
"Well, she ain't going to peek," Myrtella said firmly. "She ain't got a thought in her head, but gittin' Miss Hattie an' Bertie educated, an' keepin' Miss Connie straight, an' carryin' out that fool will of the Doctor's."
"Jest wait," Uncle Jimpson smilingly insisted, "dat chile can't no more help 'cumulatin' beaux dan a flower kin bees. An' hits de king bee dat's comin' dis time, shore!"