Chapter XXIII. The Old Astronomer
 

One Saturday night Mildred was awakened from time to time by the wailing of a child. The sounds came from the rooms of the Ulphs, which were directly overhead, and by morning she was convinced that there was a case of serious illness in the German family. Led by her sympathies, and also by the hope of thawing the reserve of the eccentric old astronomer, she resolved to go and ask if she could be of any help.

In response to her light knock a shock-headed, unkempt boy opened the door and revealed a state of chaos that might well have driven mad any student of the heavenly bodies with their orderly ways. There seemed to be one place for everything--the middle of the floor--and about everything was in this one place. In the midst of a desolation anything but picturesque, Mrs. Ulph sat before the fire with a little moaning baby upon her lap.

"I heard your child crying in the night," said Mildred gently, "and as we are neighbors I thought I would come up and see if I could help you."

The woman stared a moment and then asked, "You Miss Schoslin?"

"Yes, and I hope you will let me do something, for I fear you've been up all night and must be very tired."

"I'm shust dead; not von vink of schleep haf I had all der night. He shust cry und cry, and vat I do I don't know. I fear he die. Der fader gone for der doctor, but he die 'fore dey gets here. Schee, he getten gold now."

Truly enough, the child's extremities were growing chill indeed, and the peculiar pinched look and ashen color which is so often the precursor of death was apparent.

"Let me call my mother," cried Mildred, in much alarm. "She knows about children."

Mrs. Jocelyn soon became convinced from the mother's account that the child's disease was cholera infantum, and some previous experience with her own children taught her just what to do. Before very long the little one gave evidence of a change for the better. After the crisis of danger was past, and while her mother and Mrs. Ulph were working over the infant, Mildred began quietly to put the room into something like order, and to dress the other children that were in various transition stages between rags and nakedness. As the German woman emerged from a semi-paralyzed condition of alarm over her child she began to talk and complain as usual.

"It vas von shudgment on der fader," she said querulously. "He care more for der schpots on der sun dan for his schilder. For der last veek it's all peen schpots on der sun, notting put schpots. Vat goot dey do us? Dare's peen light to vork py, put efry minit he schtop vork to run to der roof und see dem schpots vot he says on der sun. He says dere ish--vat you call him--pig virl-a-rounds up dere dat vould plow all der beoples off der earth in von vink, und ven I tells him dat he ish von pig virl-a-round himself, runnin' und runnin', und lettin' der vork schstand, den von of der schpots come outen on him und I dink he plow my hed offen."

By and by she began again: "If it ish not schpots it ish someding else. Von year he feel vorse dan if I die pegose vat you call a gomet did not gome ven he said it vould gome. He near look his eyes outen for it, und he go efry morning 'fore preakfast for der bapers to get vord of dat gomet. I dought we all schtarve 'fore he got done mit dot gomet, and ven he give oup all hope of him, he feel vorse dan he vould if dis schild die. He vas so pad to me as if I eat der gomet oup, and we had not mooch else to eat till he sure der gomet gone to der duyvil. It might haf been vorse if der gomet come; vat he done den der goot Lord only know--he go off mit it if he gould. He tink notting of sittin' oup mit a gomet, put he get der schpots on him ven I ask to nurse der schild in der night."

Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred paid little attention to her plaints; and the former, having done what she could, returned to her own family cares. Mildred took the little sick boy in her arms, saying that she would hold him while Mrs. Ulph prepared breakfast.

It was at this stage of affairs that the door opened, and the pinched and grizzled visage of Mr. Ulph appeared, followed by the burly form of a German physician whom he had insisted on finding. The former stopped short and stared at Mildred, in grim hesitation whether he should resent an intrusion or acknowledge a kindness. His wife explained rapidly in German, with a deferential manner, but in a sub-acidulous tone.

"I do not wish to intrude, but only to help as a neighbor should," Mildred began, during a lull between Mrs. Ulph's shrill notes. "I fear your little boy was very ill when I first came--indeed my mother thought he was dying. She knows, I think, for my little brother nearly died of an attack like this."

Beyond her explanation of Mildred's presence he seemingly had given no heed to his wife's words, but now he started and exclaimed, "Mein Gott! Vat you say? Die?" and he turned with intense anxiety to the doctor, who without ceremony began to investigate the case, asking the mother questions and receiving answers that Mildred did not understand. The woman evidently claimed all the credit she deserved for her care of the patient in the night, and suggested that Mr. Ulph had been very oblivious until the child seemed sinking, for the old man grew excessively impatient during the interrogations. As if unconscious of Mildred's ignorance of their language, he said earnestly to her, "I did not know--I vould gif my life for der schild--der boor leedle poy--I no dink dat he vas so sick," and his eager words and manner convinced Mildred that his wife misrepresented him, and that his interest in the mystery of the comet's fate would be slight compared with that which centred in his son.

The phlegmatic physician continued his investigations with true German thoroughness and deliberation. It was well that the child's worst symptoms had been relieved before he came, for he seemed bent on having the whole history of the case down to the latest moment before he extended his heavy hand to the aid of nature, and he questioned Mildred as minutely as he had Mrs. Ulph, while she, unlike the former, did not take any credit to herself.

If the doctor was a little slow, he was sure, for he said something emphatically to the father, who in turn seized Mildred's hand, exclaiming, with explosive energy, "Gott pless you! Gott pless you!"

"But it was mamma who did everything," protested the young girl.

"Yah, I know, I know; put who prought mamma? Who listen ven der boor leetle poy gry in der night? Who gome in der morning? Mine paby vould haf been ded if you haf not gome. Gott pless you; Gott pless your moder. I vant to dank her mooch."

The grateful father had called down God's blessings so lavishly that Mildred very naturally said, "You have more reason to thank God than any one else, Mr. Ulph, for no doubt it was His blessing on our efforts that has made your child better. The disease is such a dangerous one that the best human skill is often in vain."

The physician shrugged his shoulders and looked significantly at Mr. Ulph, whose visage wrinkled into an odd grimace.

"You may dink vat you please and say vat you please, Miss Schoslin. Men dink different off dese dinks vrom vomans. I haf a vay off saying Gott pless beoples ven I feels goot dowards 'em, put I means 'em no harm. Vat you American beoples somedimes say--dank my schtars? Dat will do shust so vell for me. It vas dis vay: der schild vas seek; you und your moder gome, und you make gauses und dere are der evvects. I perlieve in gause und evvect, und you vas a very goot gause."

"We certainly should be very poor neighbors had we not come and done all we could, and with your permission mother and I will help your wife to-day so she can get some rest."

"I dank you vrom mine heart. You make me dink off der heafenly podies--you make order put no noise. I vill do for you vatefer you vish und pe honest."

Mildred now believed that she had gained the key to the old German's character, and such a hold upon his feelings that he would eventually permit her to become his companion in his star-gazing on the roof. Denied so much of the beauty she craved on the earth, she believed that she could find in an intelligent study of the skies a pleasure that would prove an antidote for the depressing circumstances of her lot. She had often longed with intense curiosity to look through his telescope, and to penetrate some of the bright mysteries that glittered above her with such tantalizing suggestion. She was adroit, however, and determined that the invitation should come unsolicited from him, so that his suspicions and cynical nature could give no sinister interpretation to her kindness.

The physician evidently shared in Mr. Ulph's estimate of the mother of the child, for he explained to Mildred how the remedies he left should be used. She and Mrs. Jocelyn acted as nurse most of the day, and the patient improved steadily. After her return from the chapel in the afternoon, Mildred found the old German smoking his pipe in quite a placid mood, and she skilfully led him to talk on his favorite theme. He soon became so interested and so confidential that he unlocked a small, closet-like room and showed her his treasures--the telescope and other instruments, Argelander's maps, and many books written by the most eminent authorities.

"I haf gone mitout mine dinner many und many der day to puy dese. Mine pody schtays in dis hole in dis old house, put mit dese vat I gather since ven I vas young, I go to heafen every night. Hah, hah, hah! dot Engleesh voman on der virst vloor dink she know a petter vay off going to heafen; und she dalk her reeleegious schargou to me, ven she know notting at all put vat der briests dell her. If dey dell her de moon von pig green scheese she swar it ish so; put dese dings dell der druf, und der great laws vork on for efer no matter vat voolish beoples perlieve. It vas all law und vorce, und it vould be von pig muddle in der heafens if it vas all vat der briests say."

Mildred was in a dilemma, for she felt that she could not be silent under his outspoken scepticism, and yet if she revealed her mind she doubted whether there would be any result except the alienation of the man whose friendship she was bent on securing. After a moment's hesitation she saw but one honorable course, and so said firmly, "Mr. Ulph, I believe you are an honest man, but I want you to think of me as an honest girl, also. If I wanted to know about astronomy--and I do want to know very much--I would come to you. If I wanted to know about some other things I would go to my minister. I believe in law as truly as you do, but I believe God made the laws--that they are simply His will. If I respect your unbelief, you must respect my faith--that is fair; and I think you are one who would deal fairly and do justice to all. Mrs. Wheaton knows little of astronomy and many other things, no doubt, but she has known how to be a very kind, good neighbor to us, and her religion is mine."

The old German stared at her a moment, then scratched his head as he replied, half apologetically and half pityingly, "You vas notting put a leedle schild, put you haf a goot heart. You vas honest, und you schtands oop vor your vriends, und I likes dot. You may perlieve all der vables you vish; und I vill dells you more vables apout der schtars dat ish shust so goot und shust so old."

"But you will tell me the truth about them, too, won't you?" pleaded Mildred, with a smile that would have thawed a colder nature than Mr. Ulph's. "I want to learn a wee bit of what you know. I have so little that is bright and pretty in my life now that I just long to catch some glimpses of what you see in the skies. Perhaps I could help you by writing down your observations. I would ask questions only when you said I might."

"Veil, now, dot's a good idea. Mine eyes vas getten old, und you vas young, put it von't last; you vas a young ding, und girls vas vlighty and vant--vat you call him?--peaux und vrolics ven der nights vas goot and glear."

"Try me," said Mildred, with a little emphatic nod.

"Veil, you don't seem likes von silly girl, und I vill dry you; put you moost pe very schteady und batient, und but down shust vhat I say. Von leedle schlip, und I vas all vrong in mine vigures. Von preadth off hair down here ish oh--so vide oop dere. Und now, gome, I tells you apout der schpots--der sun schpots," and with many odd gesticulations and contortions of his quaint visage he described the terrific cyclones that were sweeping over the surface of the sun at that time, and whose corresponding perturbations in the astronomer's mind had so exasperated his wife. She and the sick child were now sleeping, and the other children, warned by the threatening finger of the father, played quietly in a corner. It was an odd place to conjure up images of whirling storms of fire so appallingly vast that the great earth, if dropped into one of them, would be fused instantly like a lump of ore in a blast furnace; but the grotesque little man was so earnest, so uncouth, yet forcible, in his suggestions as he whirled his arms around to indicate the vast, resistless sweep of the unimaginable forces working their wild will millions of miles away, that their truth and reality grew painfully vivid to the young girl, and she trembled and shuddered. The roar of the wildest storm, he told her, and the bellowing of mountainous waves combined, would be but a murmur compared with the far-reaching thunder of a sun hurricane as it swept along hundreds of times faster than clouds are ever driven by an earthly tornado. There was nothing in her nature which led her to share in his almost fierce delight in the far-away disturbances, and he suddenly stopped and said kindly, "Vy I vrighten you mit sooch pig gommotions? You shust von leedle schild off a voman; und I likes you pegause you haf prain so you see und know vat I say. You see him too mooch, und so you dremble. Dot's goot. If you vas silly you vould giggle. Der schpots ish a goot way offen, und vill nefer virl you away; und next dime I dells you someding schmooth und britty."

Mildred was glad to hasten through the gathering dusk to her own natural and homelike abode, for the old man's strong descriptions and vivid manner had oppressed her with a vague terror, and it was a long time before she could escape from the spell of his words. Indeed they followed her into her dreams, and in one of these dreadful visions she imagined herself shot by the old astronomer through his telescope straight into the centre of a "sun schpot." Whom should she find there in her uncurbed imagination but Roger Atwood? He seemed to be standing still, and he coolly remarked that "a man had no business to be whirled about by any force in the universe." She, however, was carried millions of miles away--a fact she did not so much regret, even in her dream, since he was left behind.