Michael O'Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XVI. The Fingers in the Pie
When Mickey went the following morning to bring water for the inevitable washing, Mrs. Harding said to him: "Is it possible that child is awake this early?"
"No. She is sleeping like she'd never come to," said Mickey. "I'll wait 'til the last minute before I touch her."
"You shouldn't wake her," said Mrs. Harding.
"But I must," said Mickey. "I can't go away and leave her not washed, fed, and fixed the best I can."
"Of course I understand that," said Mrs. Harding, "but now it's different. Then you were forced, this is merely a question of what is best for her. Now Mickey, we're all worked up over this till we're most beside ourselves, so we want to help; suppose you humour us, by letting us please ourselves a trifle. How does that proposition strike you?"
"Square, from the ground up," answered Mickey promptly. "But what would please you?"
"Well," said Mrs. Harding, "it would please me to keep this house quiet, and let that child sleep till the demands of her satisfied body wake her up. Then I'd love to bathe her as a woman would her own, in like case; and cook her such dainties as she should have: things with lots of lime in them. I think her bones haven't been built right; I believe I could make her fifty per cent better in three months myself; and as far as taking her away when this week is up, you might as well begin to make different plans right now. If she does well here, and likes it, she can't be taken back where I found her, till cool weather, if I can get the consent of my mind to let her go then. Of course I know she's yours, so things will be as you say, but think a while before you go against me. If I do all I can for her I ought to earn the privilege of having my finger in the pie a little bit."
"So far as Lily goes," said Mickey, "I'd be tickled 'most to death. I ain't anxious to pull and haul, and wake up the poor, little sleepy thing. Every morning it 'most makes me sick. I'd a lot rather let her sleep it out as you say, but while Lily is mine, and I've got to do the best by her I can, you are Peter's so he must do the best by you he can; and did you notice how he jumped on that washing business yesterday? How we going to square up with Peter?"
"I'm perfectly willing to do what I said for the sake of that child. I've come to be mighty fond of you Mickey, in the little time I've known you; if I didn't like and want to help Peaches I'd do a lot for her, just to please you----"
"Gee, you're something grand!" cried Mickey.
"Just common clay, commonest kind of clay Mickey," said Mrs. Harding. "But if you want to know how you could 'square' it with me, which will 'square' it with Peter--I'll tell you. You may think I'm silly; but as we're made, we're made, and this is how it is with me: of course I love Peter, my children, my home, and I love my work; but I've had this job without 'jot or tittle' of change for fifteen years, and I'm about stalled with the sameness of it. I know you'll think I'm crazy----"
"I won't!" interrupted Mickey. "You go on and tell me! The sameness of it is getting you and----"
"Just the way you flew around and did things last night perfectly amazed me. I never saw a boy like you before; you helped me better and with more sense than any woman I ever hired, and thinking it over last night, I said to myself, 'Now if Mickey would be willing to trade jobs with me, it would give me a change, and it wouldn't be any more woman's work for him than what he is doing----"
"Well never you mind about the 'woman's work' part of it," said Mickey. "That doesn't cut any ice with me. It's men's work to eat, and I don't know who made a law that it was any more 'woman's work' to cook for men than it is their own. If there is a law of that kind, I bet a liberty- bird the men made it. I haven't had my show at law-making yet, but when I get it, there are some things I can see right now that I'm going to fix for Lily, and I'd sooner fix them for you too, than not. Just what were you thinking?"
Mrs. Harding went to Mickey, took him by the shoulder, turned him toward the back door and piloted him to the porch, where she pointed east indicating an open line. It began as high as his head against the side of the Harding back wall and ran straight. It crossed the yard between trees that through no design at all happened to stand in line with those of the orchard so that they formed a narrow emerald wall on each side of a green- carpeted space that led to the meadow, where it widened, ran down hill and crossed lush grass where cattle grazed. Then it climbed a far hill, tree crested, cloud capped, and in a mist of glory the faint red of the rising sun worked colour miracles with the edges of cloud rims, tinted them with flushes of rose, lavender, streaks of vivid red, and a broad stripe of pale green. Alone, on the brow of the hill, stood one giant old apple tree, the remains of an early-day orchard. It was widely branching, symmetrically outlined, backed and coloured by cloud wonder, above and around it. The woman pointed down the avenue with a shaking finger, and asked: "See that Mickey? Start slow and get all of it. Every time I've stepped on this back porch for fifteen years, summer or winter, I've seen that just as it is now or as it was three weeks ago when the world was blooming, or as it will be in the red and gold of fall, or the later grays and browns, and when it's ice coated, and the sun comes up, I think sometimes it will kill me. I've neglected my work to stand staring, many's the time in summer, and I've taken more than one chill in winter--I've tried to show Peter, and a few times I've suggested----"
"He ought to have seen for himself that you should have had a window cut there the first thing," said Mickey.
"Well, he didn't; and he doesn't!" said Mrs. Harding. "But Mickey, for fifteen years, there hasn't been a single morning when I went to the back porch for water----"
"And you ought to have had water inside, fifteen years ago!" cried Mickey.
"Why so I had!" exclaimed Mrs. Harding. "And come to think of it, I've mentioned that to Peter, over and over, too. But Mickey, what I started to say was, that I've been perfectly possessed to follow that path and watch the sun rise while sitting under that apple tree; and never yet have I got to the place where there wasn't bread, or churning, or a baby, or visitors, or a wash, or ironing, or some reason why I couldn't go. Maybe I'm a fool, but sure as you're a foot high, I've got to take that trip pretty soon now, or my family is going to see trouble. And last night thinking it over for the thousandth time I said to myself: since he's so handy, if he'd keep things going just one morning, just one morning----"
Mickey handed her a sun hat.
"G'wan!" he said gruffly. "I'll do your work, and I'll do it right. Lily can have her sleep. G'wan!"
The woman hesitated a second, pushed away the hat, took her bearings and crossed the walk, heading directly toward the old apple tree on the far crest. Her eyes were set on the rising sun, and as she turned to close the yard gate, Mickey could see that there was an awed, unnatural expression on her face. He stepped into the dining-room. By the time Peter and Junior came with big buckets of milk, Mickey had the cream separator rinsed and together, as he had helped Mrs. Harding fix it the day before. With his first glance Peter inquired: "Where's Ma?"
"She's doing something she's been crazy to for fifteen years," answered Mickey calmly, as he set the gauge and poured in the first bucket of milk.
"Which ain't answering where she is."
"So 'tain't!" said Mickey, starting the machine. "Well if you'll line up, I'll show you. Train your peepers down that green subway, and on out to glory as presented by the Almighty in this particular stretch of country, and just beyond your cows there you'll see a spot about as big as Bobbie, and that will be your nice lady heading straight for sunrise. She said she'd wanted to go for fifteen years, but there always had been churning, or baking, or something, so this morning, as there wasn't a thing but what I could do as good as she could, why we made it up that I'd finish her work and let her see her sunrise, since she seems to be set on it; and when she gets back she's going to wash and dress Lily for a change. Strange how women folks get discouraged on their job, among their best friends, who would do anything in the world for them, 'cept just to see that a little bit of change would help them. It will be a dandy scheme for Lily, 'cause it lets her get her sleep out, and it will be good for you, 'cause if Mrs. Harding doesn't get to sit under that apple tree and watch sunup pretty soon, things are going to go wrong at this house."
Peter's lower jaw slowly sagged.
"If you don't hurry," said Mickey, "even loving her like you do, and loving you as she does, she's going to have them nervous prostrations like the Swell Dames in Multiopolis get when they ask a fellow to carry a package, and can't remember where they want to send it. She's not there yet. She's ahead of them now, for she wants to sit under that apple tree and watch sunup; but if she hadn't got there this morning or soon now, she'd a-begun to get mixed, I could see that plain as the City Hall."
"Mickey, what else can you see?" asked Peter.
"Enough to make your head swim," said Mickey.
"Out with it!" ordered Peter.
"Well," said Mickey gravely, and seemingly intent on the separator, but covertly watching Peter, "well, if you'd a-cut that window she's wanted for fifteen years, right over her table there where the line comes, she would a-been seeing that particular bit of glory--you notice Peter, that probably there's nothing niftier on earth than just the little spot she's been pining for; look good yourself, and you'll see, there she's just climbing the hill to the apple tree--look at it carefully, and then step inside and focus on what she's faced instead."
"What else does she want?" inquired Peter.
"She didn't mention anything but to watch sunup, just once, under that apple tree," said Mickey. "I don't know what she wants; but from one day here, I could tell you things she should have."
"Well go ahead and tell," said Peter.
"Will you agree not to break my neck 'til I get this cream in the can, and what she keeps strained, and these buckets washed?" asked Mickey. "I want to have her job all done when she gets back, 'cause I promised her, and that's quite a hike she's taking."
"Well I was 'riled' for a minute, but I might as well hold myself," said Peter. "Looks like you were right."
"Strangers coming in can always see things that folks on the job can't," consoled Mickey.
"Well go on and tell me what you've seen here Mickey!"
Mickey hoisted the fourth bucket.
"Well, I've seen the very nicest lady I ever saw, excepting my mother," said Mickey. "I've seen a man 'bout your size, that I like better than any man I know, barring Mr. Douglas Bruce, and the bar is such a little one it would take a microscope to find it." Peter laughed, which was what Mickey hoped he would do, for he drew a deep breath and went on with greater assurance: "I've seen a place that I thought was a new edition of Heaven, and it is, only it needs a few modern improvements----"
"Yes Mickey! The window, and what else?"
"You haven't looked at what I told you to about the window yet," said Mickey.
"Well since you insist on it, I will," said Peter.
"And while you are in there," suggested Mickey, "after you finish with that strip of brown oilcloth and the pans and skillets adorning it, cotton up to that cook stove, and imagine standing over it while it is roaring, to get three meals a day, and all the baking, fruit canning, boiling clothes, and such, and tell me if Lily's bed was in so much hotter a place than your wife is, all but about three hours each day."
Mickey listened as intently as he could for the separator he dared not stop, heard not a sound for what seemed a long time, and then came amazing ones. He grinned sympathetically as Peter emerged red faced and raging.
"And you're about the finest man I ever met, too," commented Mickey, still busy with the cream. "You can see what a comfort this separator must be, but it's the only thing your nice lady has got, against so many for your work it takes quite a large building to keep them in. Junior was showing me last night and telling me what all those machines were made for. You know Peter, if there was money for a hay rake, and a manure spreader, and a wheel plow, and a disk, and a reaper, and a mower, and a corn planter, and a corn cutter, and a cider press, and a windmill, and a silo, and an automobile--you know Peter, there should have been enough for that window, and the pump inside, and a kitchen sink, and a bread-mixer, and a dish-washer; and if there wasn't any other single thing, there ought to be some way you sell the wood, and use the money for the kind of a summer stove that's only hot under what you are cooking, and turns off the flame the minute you finish. Honest there had Peter! I got a little gasoline one in my room that's better than what your nice lady has. The things she should have would cost something, cost a lot for all I know, but I bet what she needs wouldn't take half the things in the building Junior showed me did; and it couldn't be the start of what a sick wife, and doctor bills, and strange women coming and going, and abusing you and the children would cost----"
"Shut up!" cried Peter. "That will do! Now you listen to me young man. Since you are so expert at seeing things, and since you've traded work with my wife, to rest her by changing her job, suppose you just keep your eyes open, and make out a list of what she should have to do her work convenient and easy as can be, and of course, comfortably. That stove's hot yet! And breakfast been over an hour too! Nothing like it must be going full blast, and things steaming and frying!"
"Sure!" said Mickey.
"Watch a few days, and then we'll talk it over. If it is your train time, ride down with Junior, and I'll stay in the house till she comes. I guess Little White Butterfly won't wake up; and if she does, she'll be all right with me. Mary dresses herself and Bobbie. Is Mary helping her Ma right?"
"Well some," said Mickey. "Not all she could! But her taking care of Bobbie is a big thing. Junior could do a lot of things, but he doesn't seem to see them, and----"
"And so could I?" asked Peter. "Is that the ticket?"
"Yes," said Mickey.
"All right young man," said Peter. "Fix us over! We are ready for anything that will benefit Ma. She's the pinwheel of this place. Now you scoot! I can see her coming."
"It's our secret then?" asked Mickey.
"Yes, it's our secret!" answered Peter gravely.
Mickey took one long look at Peaches and went running to the milk wagon. Junior offered to let him drive, so for the first time he took the lines and guided a horse. He was a happy boy as he spun on his heel waiting a few minutes for the trolley. He sat in the car with no paper in which to search for headlines, no anxiety as to whether he could dispose of enough to keep Peaches from hunger that night, sure of her safety and comfort. The future, coloured by what Mrs. Harding had said to him, took on such a rosy glow it almost hurt his mental eyes. He revelled in greater freedom from care than he ever had known. He sat straighter, and curiously watched the people in the car. When they entered the city and the car swung down his street near the business centre, Mickey stepped off and hiding himself watched for the passing of the boy, on his old route. Before long it came, "I like to sell papers," in such good imitation of his tone and call that Mickey's face grew grave and a half-jealous little ache began in his heart.
"Course we're better off," he commented. "Course I can't go back now, and I wouldn't if I could; but it makes me want to swat any fellow using my call, and taking my men. Gee, the kid is doing better than I thought he could! B'lieve he's got the idea all right. I'll just join the procession."
Mickey stepped into line and followed, pausing whenever a paper was sold, until he was sure that his men were patronizing his substitute, then he overtook him.
"Good work, kid!" he applauded. "Been following you and you're doing well. Lemme take a paper a second. Yes, I thought so! You're leaving out the biggest scoop on the sheet! Here, give them a laugh on this 'Chasing Wrinkles.' How did you come to slide over it and not bump enough to wake you up? Get on this sub-line, 'Males seeking beauty doctors to renew youth.'"
"How would you cry it?" asked the boy.
"Aw looky! Looky! Looky!" Mickey shouted, holding his side with one hand and waving a paper with the other. "All the old boys hiking to the beauty parlours. Pinking up the glow of youth to beat Billie Burke. Corner on icicles; Billie gets left, 'cause the boys are using all of them! Oh my! Wheel o' time oiled with cold cream and reversed with an icicle! Morning paper! Tells you how to put the cream on your face 'stead of in the coffee! Stick your head in the ice box at sixty, and come out sixteen! Awah get in line, gentlemen! Don't block traffic!"
When the policemen scattered the crowd Mickey's substitute had not a paper remaining. With his pocket full of change he was running to the nearest stand for a fresh supply. Mickey went with him and watched with critical eye while the boy tried a reproduction of what he called "a daily scream!" The first time it was rather flat.
"You ain't going at it right!" explained Mickey. "'Fore you can make anybody laugh on this job, you must see the fun of life yourself. Beauty parlours have always been for the Swell Dames and the theatre ladies, who pink up, while their gents hump to pay the bill. You ought always take one paper home, and read it, so you know what's going on in the world. Now from what I've read, I know that the get-a-way of the beauty parlours is cold cream. And one of the show ladies the boys are always wild over told the papers long ago 'bout how she used icicles on her face to pink it up. Now if you'd a-knowed this like you should, the minute you clapped your peepers on that, 'Chasing Wrinkles,' you'd a-knowed where your laugh came in today, like I've told you over and over you must get it. Bet Chaffner put that there on purpose for me. Which same gives me an idea. You been calling the Hoc de Geezer war, and the light-weight champeen of Mexico, and 'the psychological panic' something fine; but did you sell out on them? Not on your topknot! You lost your load on the scream. Get the joke of life soaked in your system good. On this, you make yourself see the plutes, and the magnates, and the city officials leaving their jobs, and hiking to the beauty parlours, to beat the dames at their daily stunt of being creamed and icicled and--it's funny! When it's so funny to you that you just howl about it, why it's catching! Didn't you see me catch them with it? Now go on and do it again, and get the scream in."
The boy began the cry with tears of laughter in his eyes. He kept it up as he handed out papers and took in change. Satisfied, Mickey called to him: "Tell your sire it's all over but polishing the silver."
He started down the street glancing at clocks he was passing, with nimble feet threading the crowds until he reached the Herald office; there he dodged in and making his way to the editorial desk he waited his chance. When he saw an instant of pause in the work of the busy man, he started his cry: "Morning papers! I like to sell them!" and so on to the "Chasing Wrinkles." There because he was excited, for he knew that his reception would depend on how good a laugh he gave them, Mickey outdid himself. Reporters waiting assignments crowded around him; Mr. Chaffner beckoned, and Mickey stepped to him.
"Found it all right, did you, young man?"
"The scream lifted the load!" cried Mickey. "War, and waste, and wickedness, didn't get a look in."
"I thought you'd like that!" laughed the editor.
"Biggest scoop yet!" said Mickey. "Why it took the police to scatter the crowd. They struggled to get papers, 'til they looked like the bird on the coin they were passing in, trying to escape the awful things it goes through on the money, and get back to nature where perfectly good birds belong. Honest, they did!"
"Have you any poetry for me yet?"
"No, but I'm headed that way," answered Mickey.
"How so?" inquired the editor.
"Why I've got another kid so he can do my stunt 'til nobody knows the difference, and I've gone into Mr. Bruce's office, and we're after the grafters."
"Douglas Bruce?" queried Mr. Chaffner.
"Yes," said Mickey. "He's my boss, and say, he's the finest man you ever met; and his Joy Lady is nice as he is, and prettier than moonshine on the park lake. I never saw a lady who could hold a candle to Miss Leslie Winton, and they just love to tell folks they're engaged."
Suddenly the editor arose from his chair, gripped his desk, leaned across it toward Mickey, and almost knocked him from his feet with one word.
Mickey staggered. At last he recovered his breath.
"Mr. Bruce and Miss Leslie don't care if I tell," he defended. "They all the time tell it!"
"Why that they are going to be married, soon as Mr. Bruce gets the grafter who's robbing the taxpayers of Multiopolis, and collects his big fee. That's what."
As suddenly as he had arisen Mr. Chaffner dropped back, and in a stupefied way still looked at Mickey. Then: "You come with me," Mr. Chaffner said rising, and he entered a small room and closed the door.
"Now you tell me all about this engagement."
"Maybe they don't want it in the papers yet," said Mickey. "I guess I'll let Mr. Bruce do his own talking."
"But you said they told everybody."
"So they do," said Mickey. "And of course they'd tell you. You can call him. His number is 500-X."
The editor made a note of it, studying Mickey.
"Yes, that would be the better way, of course," he agreed. "You have a long head, young man. And so you think Miss Leslie Winton is a fine young lady?"
"Surest thing you know," said Mickey. "Why let me tell you----"
And then in a few swift words, Mickey sketched in the young woman so intelligent she had selected him from all the other "newsies" by a description, and sent him to Mr. Bruce; how she had dolls ready to give away, and poor children might ride in her car; how she lived with "darling old Daddy," and there Mickey grew enthusiastic, and told of the rest house, and then the renting of the cabin on Atwater by the most considerate of daughters for her father and her lover, and when he could not think of another commendatory word to say, Mickey paused, while a dazed man muttered a word so low the boy scarcely heard it.
"I don't know why you say that!" cried Mickey.
"Ommh!" said Mr. Chaffner, slowly. "I don't either, only I didn't understand they were engaged. It's my business to find and distribute news, and get it fresh, 'scoop it,' as our term is, and so, Mickey, when investigations are going on, and everybody knows a denou--a big surprise is coming, in order to make sure that my paper gets in on the ground floor, I make some investigation for myself, and sometimes by accident, sometimes by intuition, sometimes by sharp deduction we happen to land before the investigators. Of course we have personal, financial, and political reasons for not spoiling the game. Now we haven't gone into the City Hall investigation as Bruce has and we can't show figures, but we know enough to understand where he's coming out; so when the gig upsets, we have our side ready and we'll embroider his figures with what the public is entitled to, in the way of news."
"Sure! But I don't see why you act so funny!"
"Oh it's barely possible that I've got ahead of your boss on a few features of his investigation."
"Aw-w-wh!" said Mickey. "Well I hope you ain't going to rush in and spoil his scoop. You see he doesn't know who he's after, himself. We talk about it a lot of times. I tell him how I've sold papers, and seen men like he's chasing get their dose, and go sick and white, and can't ever face men straight again; but he says stealing is stealing, and cut where it will, those who rob the taxpayers must be exposed. I told him maybe he'd be surprised, and maybe he'd be sorry; but he says it's got to be stopped, no matter who gets hurt."
"Well he's got his nerve!" cried the editor.
"Yes!" agreed Mickey. "He's so fine himself, he thinks no other men worth saving could go wrong. I told him I wished the men he was after would break their necks 'fore he gets them, but he goes right on."
"Mickey, you figure closer than your boss does."
"In one way I do," conceded Mickey. "It's like this: he knows books, and men, and how things should be; but I know how they are. See?"
"I certainly see," said the intent listener. "Mickey, when it comes to the place where you think you know better than your boss, while it's bad business for me to tell you, keep your eye open, and maybe you can save him. Books and theories are all right, but there are times when a man comes a cropper on them. You watch, and if you think he's riding for a fall, you come skinning and tell me, not over the 'phone, come and tell me. Here, take this, it will get you to me any time, no matter where I am or what I'm doing. Understand?"
"You think Mr. Bruce is going to get into trouble?"
"His job is to get other people into trouble----"
"But he says he ain't got a thing to do with it," said Mickey. "He says they get themselves into trouble."
"That's so too," commented Mr. Chaffner. "Anyway, keep your mouth tight shut, and your eyes wide open, and if you think your boss is getting into deep water, you come and tell me. I want things to go right with you, because I'm depending on that poem for my front page, soon."
Mickey held out his hand.
"Sure!" he agreed. "I'm in an awful good place now to work up the poetry piece, being right out among the cows and clover. And about Mr. Bruce, gee! I wish he was plowing corn. I just hate his job he's doing now. Sure if I see rocks I'll make a run for you. Thanks Boss!"
Mickey had lost time, and he hurried, but things seemed to be happening, for as he left the elevator and sped down the hall, he ran into Mr. James Minturn. With a hasty glance he drew back, and darted for the office door. Mr. Minturn's face turned a dull red.
"One minute, young man!" he called.
"I'm late," said Mickey shortly. "I must hurry."
"Bruce is late too. I just came from his office and he isn't there," answered Mr. Minturn.
"Well I want to get it in order before he comes."
"In fact you want anything but to have a word to say to me!" hazarded Mr. Minturn.
"Well then, since you are such a good guesser, I ain't just crazy about you," said Mickey shortly.
"And I'm tired of having you run from me as if I were afflicted with smallpox," said Mr. Minturn.
"If your blood is right, smallpox ain't much," said Mickey. "I haven't a picture of myself running from that, if it really wanted a word with me."
"But you have a picture of yourself running from me?"
"Maybe I do," conceded Mickey.
"I've noticed it on occasions so frequent and conspicuous that others, no doubt, will do the same," said Mr. Minturn. "If you are all Bruce thinks you, then you should give a man credit for what he tries to do. You surprised me too deeply for words with the story you brought me one day. I knew most of your facts from experience, better than you did, except the one horrible thing that shocked me speechless; but Mickey, when I had time to adjust myself, I made the investigations you suggested, and proved what you said. I deserve your scorn for not acting faster, but what I had to do couldn't be done in a day, and for the boys' sake it had to be done as privately as possible. There's no longer any reason why you should regard me as a monster----"
"I'm awful glad you told me," Mickey said. "I surely did have you sized up something scandalous. And yet I couldn't quite make out how, if my view was right, Mr. Bruce and Miss Leslie would think so much of you."
"They are friends I'm proud to have," said Mr. Minturn. "And I hope you'll consider being a friend to me, and to my boys also. If ever a times comes when I can do anything for you, let me know."
"Now right on that point, pause a moment," said Mickey. "You are a friend to my boss?"
"I certainly am, and I'm under deep obligations to Miss Winton. If ever my home becomes once more what it was to start with, it will be her work. Could a man bear heavier obligation than that?"
"Well hardly," said Mickey. "Course there wouldn't likely ever be anything you could do for Miss Leslie that would square that deal; but I'm worried about my boss something awful."
"Why Mickey?" asked Mr. Minturn.
"That investigation you started him on."
"I did start him on that. What's the matter?"
"Well the returns are about all in," said Mickey, "and the man who draws the candy suit is about ready to put it on. See?"
"Good! Exactly what he should do."
"Yes exactly," agreed Mickey dryly, "but who do you figure it is? We got some good friends in the City Hall."
"Always is somebody you don't expect," said Mr. Minturn. "Don't waste any sympathy on them, Mickey."
"Not unless in some way my boss got himself into trouble," said Mickey.
"There's no possible way he could."
"About the smartest man in Multiopolis thinks yes," said Mickey. "I just been talking with him."
"Who, Mickey?" asked Mr. Minturn, instantly.
"Chaffner of the Herald," said Mickey.
Mr. Minturn seized the boy's arm, shoved him inside his door and closed it. Mickey pulled away and turned a belligerent face upward.
"Now nix on knocking me down with your 'whats!'" he cried. "I just been hammered meller with his, and dragged into his room, and shut up, and scared stiff, about twenty minutes ago."
"The devil you say!" exploded Mr. Minturn.
"No, I said Chaffner!" insisted Mickey. "Chaffner of the Herald. I'm going to write a poetry piece for his front page, some day soon now. I been selling his paper all my life."
"And so you're a friend of Chaffner's?"
"Oh not bosom and inseparable," explained Mickey. "I haven't seen so awful much of him, but when I do, we get along fine."
"And he said----?" questioned Mr. Minturn.
"Just what I been afraid of all the time," said Mickey. "That these investigations at times got into places you didn't look for, and made awful trouble; and that my boss might get it with his."
"Mickey, you will promise me something?" asked Mr. Minturn. "You see I started Mr. Bruce on this trying to help him to a case that would bring him into prominence, so if it should go wrong, it's in a way through me. If you think Douglas is unlike himself, or worried, will you tell me? Will you?"
"Why surest thing you know!" cried Mickey. "Why I should say I would! Gee, you're great too! I think I'll like you awful well when we get acquainted."
Mickey was busy when Bruce entered, and with him was Leslie Winton. They brought the breath of spring mellowing into summer, freighted with emanations of real love, touched and tinctured with joy so habitual it had become spontaneous on the part of Leslie Winton, and this morning contagious with Douglas Bruce. Mickey stood silent, watched them closely, and listened. So in three minutes, from ragged scraps and ejaculations effervescing from what was running over in their brains, he knew that they had taken an early morning plunge into Atwater, landed a black bass, had a breakfast of their own making, at least in so far as gathering wild red raspberries from the sand pit near the bridge; and then they had raced to the Multiopolis station to start Mr. Winton on a trip west to try to sell his interest in some large land holdings there, the care of which he was finding burdensome.
"Heavens, how I hope Daddy makes that sale!" cried Leslie. "I've been so worried about him this summer."
"I wondered at you not going with him," said Douglas.
"He didn't seem to want me," said Leslie. "He said it was a flying trip and he was forced to be back before some reports from his office were filed; so he thought I wouldn't enjoy it; and for the first time in my life he told me distinctly that he didn't have time for me. Fancy Daddy! I can't understand it."
"I've noticed that he has been brooding and preoccupied of late, not at all like himself," said Douglas. "Have you any idea what troubles him?"
"Of course! He told me!" said Leslie. "It's Mr. Swain. When Daddy was a boy, Mr. Swain was his father's best friend, and when grandfather died, he asked him to guide Daddy, and he not only did that, but he opened his purse and started him in business. Now Mr. Swain is growing old, and some of his investments have gone wrong; just when political changes made business close as could be, he lost heavily; and then came the war. There was no way but for Daddy to stay here and fight to save what he could for him. He told me early last fall; we talked of it again in the winter, and this spring most of all--I've told you!"
"Yes I know! I wish I could help!" said Douglas.
"I do too! I wish it intensely," said Leslie. "When father comes, we'll ask him. We're young and strong, and we should stand by. I never saw Daddy in such a state. He must sell that land. He said so. He said last night he'd be forced to sell if he only got half its value, and that wouldn't be enough."
"Enough for what?" asked Douglas.
"To help Mr. Swain," said Leslie.
"He's going to use his fortune?" queried Douglas.
"I don't know that Daddy has holdings large enough to deserve the word," said Leslie. "He's going to use what he has. I urged him to; it's all he can do."
"Did you take into consideration that it may end in his failure?" asked Douglas.
"I did," said Leslie, "and I forgot to tell him, but I will as soon as he comes back: he can have all mother left me, too, if he needs it."
"Leslie, you're a darling, but have you ever had even a small taste of poverty?" asked Douglas.
"No! But I've always been curious, if I did have, to see if I couldn't so manage whatever might be my share, that it would appear to the world without that peculiar state of grime which always seems to distinguish it," said the girl. "I'm not afraid of poverty, and I'm not afraid of work; it's dishonour that would kill me. Daddy accepted obligations; if they involve him, which includes me also, then to the last cent we possess, we pay back."
Mickey drew the duster he handled between vacuum days across a table and steadily watched first Douglas, then Leslie, both of whom had forgotten him.
"That should be good enough for Daddy; what about me?" asked Douglas. "If ever I get in a close place, does the same hold good?"
"If I know what you are doing, surely!"
"I knew you were a 'Bearer of Morning' first time I saw you," said Douglas. "But we are forgetting Mickey."
Mickey promptly stepped forward, putting away the duster to be ready for errands.
"How are you this morning?" asked Douglas.
"Fine!" answered Mickey. "I've taken my family to the country, too!"
"Why Mickey! without saying a word!" cried Douglas.
"Well it happened so fast," said Mickey, "and I didn't want to bother you when your head was so full of your old investigation and your own moving."
"Did you hear that Leslie?" he asked. "Mickey dislikes my investigation as much as the man who comes out short is going to, any day now. So you've moved Peaches to the country? You should have told me, first."
"I'm sorry if you don't like it," said Mickey. "You see my room was getting awful hot. I never was there days this time of year, and nights I slept on the fire-escape; all right for me, but it wouldn't do for Lily. Why should I have told you?"
"Because Miss Winton had plans for her," explained Douglas. "She intended to take her to Atwater, and she even contemplated having her back examined for you."
Mickey's eyes danced and over his face spread a slow grin of comprehension.
"Well?" ejaculated Douglas.
"Nothing!" said Mickey.
"Well?" demanded Douglas.
Mickey laughed outright. Then he sobered suddenly and spoke gravely, directly to Miss Winton.
"Thank you for thinking of it, and planning for her," he said. "I was afraid you would."
"Thank me for something you feared I would do! Mickey, aren't you getting things mixed?"
"Thank you for thinking of Lily and wanting to help her," explained Mickey, "but she doesn't need you. She's mine and I'm going to keep her; so what I can do for her will have to be enough, until I can do better."
"I see," said Leslie. "But suppose that she should have attention at once, that you can't give her, and I can?"
"Then I'd be forced to let you, even if it took her from me," agreed Mickey. "But thank the Lord, things ain't that way. I didn't take my say- so for it; I went to the head nurse of the Star of Hope; she's gone to the new Elizabeth Home now; she loves to nurse children best. All the time from the first day she's told me how, and showed me, so Lily has been taken care of right, you needn't worry about that. And where she is now, if she was a queen-lady she couldn't have grander; honest she couldn't!"
"But Mickey, how are you going to pay for all that?" queried Douglas.
"Easy as falling off a car in a narrow skirt," said Mickey. "'Member that big house where things are Heaven-white, and a yard full of trees, and the fence corners are cut with the shears, and the street--I mean the road-- swept with a broom, this side the golf grounds about two miles?"
"Yes," said Douglas. "The woman there halted my car one evening and spoke to me about you."
"Oh she did?" exclaimed Mickey. "Well I hope you gave me a good send-off, 'cause she's a lady I'm most particular about. You see I stopped there for a drink, the day you figured instead of playing, and she told me about a boy who was to be sent out by the Herald and hadn't come, and as she was ready, and interested, she was disappointed. So I just said to her if the boy didn't come, how'd she like to have a nice, good little girl that wouldn't ever be the least bother. Next day she came to see us, and away Lily went sailing to the country in a big automobile, and she isn't coming back 'til my rooms are cool, if she can be spared then."
"But how are you going to pay, Mickey? Most people only take children for a week----?"
"Yes I know," said Mickey. "But these folks haven't ever tried it before, and they don't know the ropes, so we're doing it our own way, and it works something grand."
"If they are suited----" said Douglas. "That place is far better than where we feel so comfortable."
"We started this morning," said Mickey. "The lady and I traded jobs; she sat on a hill under an apple tree and watched sunrise. I washed the dishes, sep'rated the cream, and scrubbed the porch for her. When Lily wakes up, the lady is going to bathe, rub, feed her, and see to her like she owned her, to pay me back. It's a bargain! You couldn't beat it, could you?"
"Of course if you want to turn yourself into a housemaid!" said Douglas irritably.
Mickey laughed, and Leslie sent a slightly frowning glance toward Douglas.
"You can search me!" cried the boy, throwing out his hands in his familiar gesture. "Why I just love to! I always helped mother! Pay? I'll pay all right; the nice lady will say I do, and so will Peter. It's my most important job to make her glad of me as I am of her. And if you put it up to me, I'd a lot rather have my job than yours; and I bet I get more joy from it for my family!"
"Croaker!" laughed Bruce.
"'Tain't going to be a scream for the fellow who comes short," warned Mickey.
"So you're planning not to allow me to do anything for Lily?" inquired Miss Winton.
"Well there's something you can do this minute if you'd like," said Mickey. "I was going to hurry up and see my Sunshine Nurse, but it's a long way to the new hospital, and you could do as well, if you would."
"Mickey, I'd love to. What is it? And may I see your family? You know I haven't had a peep yet."
"Well soon now, you may," said Mickey. "You see I ain't quite ready."
"Mickey, what do you know about the new Elizabeth Home?" asked Douglas.
"Only that a rich lady gave her house and money, and that my Sunshine Nurse is going to be there after this. I was going for my first trip to- night."
"I wondered," said Douglas. "Mickey, when you get there, you'll find that you've been there before."
"My eye!" cried Mickey.
"Fact! Mr. Minturn did put his foot down, and took his boys----" began Douglas.
"Yes he was telling me this morning. That's what I get for stopping at the first page. If I'd a-looked inside, bet I'd have known that long ago." "He was telling you?" queried Douglas.
"Yes. I guess I must kind of shied at him 'til he noticed it; I didn't know I did, but he caught me and told me his troubles by force. We shook hands to quit on. Say, he's just fine when you know him, and there doesn't seem to be a thing on earth he wouldn't do for you, Miss Leslie. Why he said if ever he found happiness again, and his home become what it should, it would be because you were sorry for him, and fixed things."
"Mickey, did he really?" rejoiced the girl. "Douglas, when may Mickey show me what he wants me to do?"
"Right now," he answered. "I got a load of books while he was away yesterday and I haven't started them yet. Now is the best time."
When Mickey made a leap from the trolley platform that night, at what he already had named Cold Cream Junction, he was almost buried under boxes. He stepped high and prideful, for he had collected the money from his paper route and immediately spent some of it under Leslie Winton's supervision.
Pillow bolstered, on the front porch, on his comfort lay the tiny girl he loved. Mickey stopped and made a detailed inspection. Peaches leaned forward and reached toward him; her greeting was indescribably sweet. Mickey dropped the bundles and went into her arms; even in his joy he noted a new strength in her grip on him, an unusual clinging. He drew back half alarmed.
"You been a good girl?" he queried suspiciously.
"Jus' as good!" asserted Peaches.
"You didn't go and say any----?"
"Not ever Mickey-lovest! Not one!" she cried. "I ain't even thinked one! That will help, Peter says so!"
"You have been washed and fed and everything all right?" he proceeded.
"Jus' as right!" she insisted.
"You like the nice lady?" he went on.
"Jus' love the nice lady, an' Mary, an' Bobbie, an' Peter, an' Junior, jus' love all of them!" she affirmed.
"Well I hope I don't bust!" he said. "I never was so glad as I am that everything is good for you."
"They's two things that ain't good."
"Well if things ain't right here, with what everybody's doing for you, they ought to be!" cried Mickey. "You cut complaining right out, Miss Chicken!"
"You forgot to set my lesson, an' I ain't had my po'try piece for two days. That ain't complainin'."
"No 'tain't honey," conceded Mickey regretfully. "No 'tain't! That's just all right. I thought you were going to start kicking, and I wasn't going to stand for it. Course I'll set your lesson; course I'll make up your piece, but you must give me a little time. I was talking with Mr. Chaffner of the Herald, our paper you know, and he's beginning to get in a hurry about his piece, too."
"I want mine first!" demanded Peaches.
"Sure! You'll get it first! Always! But I'm going to do something for you before I make it, 'cause I won't know how it goes 'til afterward. See?"
"What you going to do?" she questioned. "What's all the bundles? My they look excitements!"
"And so they are!" triumphed Mickey. "Where are all the folks? Do they leave you alone like this?"
"No, they don't leave me alone only when I'm asleep in the room," said Peaches. "They saw you coming an' went away 'cause they know families likes to be alone, sometimes. Ain't they smart to know that?"
"They are!" said Mickey. "First, you come to your bed a little while. I got something for you."
"Ooh Mickey! Those bundles jus' look----!"
"Now you hold on. You wait and see, Miss!"
Mickey carried her in then he returned for the boxes. He opened one and from it selected a pair of pink stockings and slipped them on Peaches; then tiny, soft buckskin moccasins embroidered and tied with ribbons to match the hose. Peaches squealed and clapped her hand over her mouth to muffle the sound; but Mrs. Harding heard and came to the door. Mickey asked for help.
"Young ladies who are going automobiling and taking walks are well enough to have dresses, and things that all good girls have," he announced. "But I'm a little dubious about how these things go. Will you dress her?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Harding. "You fill the water bucket and the wood box, and start the fire for supper."
Mrs. Harding looked over the contents of the box and from plain soft pieces of underwear chose a gauze shirt, a dainty combination suit and a tucked and trimmed petticoat, while Peaches laughed and sobbed for pure joy. Then Mickey came, and Mrs. Harding went away. After various trials he decided on a white dress with pink ribbons run in the neck, sleeves, and belt, slipping it on her and carefully fastening it.
"Mickey, I want the glass!" she begged. "Please, oh please hurry, Mickey."
"Now you just wait, Miss Chicken!" said Mickey.
Then he brushed her hair and put on a new pink ribbon, not so large as those she had, but much more becoming. He laid a soft warm little gray sweater with white collar and cuffs in reach, and in turning it she discovered a handkerchief and a pair of gloves in one pocket. Immediately she searched the other and produced a purse with five pennies in it. Then for no reason at all, Peaches began to cry.
"Well Miss Chicken!" exclaimed Mickey in surprise, "I thought you'd be pleased!"
"Pleased!" sobbed Peaches. "Pleased! Mickey, I'm dam--I'm busted!"
"Oh well then, go on and cry, if you want to," agreed Mickey. "But you'd look much nicer to show Mrs. Harding and Peter if you wouldn't!"
Peaches immediately wiped her eyes. Mickey lifted and carried her back to the porch, placing her in a pillow-piled big chair. Then he put the gloves on her hands, set a hat on her head and tied the pink ribbons. Peaches both laughed and cried at that, while the Harding family came in because they could not wait. Mickey raised and put in Peaches' shaking fingers the crowning glory of any small girl: a wonderful little pink parasol. Peaches appeared for a minute as if a faint were imminent.
"Now do you see why I couldn't come with a poetry piece when my head was so full of these things?"
"Yes Mickey, but you will before night?" she begged.
"You want it even now?" he marvelled.
"More 'an the passol, even!" she declared.
"Well you fool little sweet kid!" cried Mickey and choked. He fled around the house as Peter came out. In his ears as he went sounded Peter's big voice and the delighted cries of the family.
"I want Mickey!" wailed Peaches.
He heard her call and ran back fast for fear he might be so slow reaching her that Peter would serve. But to his joy he found that he alone would answer.
"I want to see me!" demanded Peaches.
"Sure you do!" cried Peter. "I'll just hand down the big hall mirror so you can see all of you at once."
He brought it and set it before her. Peaches stared and drew back. She cried, "Aw-w--ah!" in a harsh, half-scared voice. She gripped Mickey with one hand and the parasol with the other; she leaned and peeped, and marvelled, and smiled at a fully clothed little girl in the glass, while the image smiled back. Peaches thought of letting go of Mickey to touch her hat and straighten her skirt, but felt so lost without him, that she handed Peter the parasol, and used that hand, while the other clung to her refuge. When Mickey saw the treasure go in his favour, he swallowed lumps of emotion so big that the Hardings could see them running down his throat. Peaches intent on the glass smiled, grimaced, tilted her head, and finally began flirting outrageously with herself, until all of them laughed and recalled her. She looked at Peter, smiled her most winsome smile and exclaimed: "Well ain't I the----"
"Now you go easy, Miss Chicken," warned Mickey.
"Mickey, if you hadn't stopped me I'd done it sure!" sobbed Peaches, collapsing against him. "'F I had, would you a-took these bu'ful things 'way from me?" "No I wouldn't!" said Mickey. "I couldn't to save me. But I should!"
"Mickey, I'm so tired," she said. "Take my hat an' put it where I can see it, an' my passol, an' my coat; gee, I don't have to be wrapped in sheets no more, an' lay me down. Quick Mickey, I'm sick-like."
"Well I ought to had the sense not to spring so much all at once," said Mickey, "but it all seemed to belong. Sure I will, you poor kid!"
"And Mickey, you won't forget the lesson and the po'try piece?" she panted.
"No, I won't forget," promised Mickey, as he stretched her among her treasures and watched her fall asleep even while he slipped the gloves from her fingers.
Next morning she found the lesson and the poetry on her slate. Mrs. Harding bathed and clothed her in the little garments, and showed her enough more for the changes she would need, even two finer dresses for Sunday. She left the coat, hat, and parasol in reach. Then Peaches resolutely took up her pencil and set herself to copy the lines without knowing enough of the words to really understand; but she was extremely well acquainted with one word that Mickey had said "just flew out of his mouth when he looked at her," and in her supreme satisfaction over her new possessions she was sure the lines must be concerning them. Most of all she was delighted with her slippers. A hundred times that morning she looked down, wiggled her toes and moved her feet so that she could see them better. Between whiles she copied over and over:
LILY Miss L. P. O'Halloran daily went walking, In slippers so nifty the neighbours were talking. The minute she raised her gay pink parasol The old red cow began to friskily bawl. When they observed the neat coat on her back, All the guineas in the orchard cried: "Rack! Pot rack!" She was so lovely a bird flying her way, Sang "Sweet, sweet, sweet!" all the rest of the day.
Peter came in to visit a few minutes, so she gave him the slate to see if he could read her copy, and by this ruse she found what the lines were. She was so overjoyed she opened her lips and then clapped both hands over them, to smother the ejaculation at her tongue's end. To distract Peter she stuck out her foot and moved it for him to see.
"Ain't that pretty, an' jus' as soft and fine?" she asked.
"Yes," said Peter. "They remind me of a flower called 'Lady Slipper,' that grows along the edge of the woods. It's that shape and the prettiest gold yellow, but little, they'd about fit your doll."
"Oh Peter, could you get me one? I want to see."
"Why I would, but they are all gone now, honey," answered Peter. "Next year I'll remember and bring you some when they bloom. But it's likely by that time you can go yourself, and see them."
"Do you honest think it Peter?" asked Peaches, leaning forward eagerly.
"Yes I honest think it," repeated Peter emphatically.
"But I won't be here then," Peaches reminded him.
"Well it won't be my fault, if you're not," said Peter.