Michael O'Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XX. Mickey's Miracle
That night Mickey's voice, shrill in exuberant rejoicing, preceded him down the highway, so the Hardings, all busy working out their new plans for comfort, understood that something unusually joyous had happened. Peaches sat straighter in her big pillow-piled chair, leaned forward, and smilingly waited.
"Ain't he happy soundin'?" she said to Mrs. Harding, who sat near her sewing. "I guess he has thought out the best po'try piece yet. Mebby this time it will be good enough for the first page of the Herald."
"Young as he is, that's not likely," said the literal woman. "There's no manner of doubt in my mind but that he can do great newspaper work when he finishes his education and makes his start; but I think Mr. Bruce will use all his influence to turn him toward law."
"Mr. Douglas Bruce is a swell gentl'man," said Peaches, "and me and Mickey just loves him for his niceness to us; but we got that all settled. Mickey is going to write the po'try piece for the first page of the Herald--that's our paper--and then we are going to make all my pieces into a bu'ful book, like I got it started here."
Peaches picked up a small notebook, scrupulously kept, and lovingly glanced over the pages, on each of which she had induced Mickey to write in his plainest script one section of her nightly doggerel; and if he failed from the intense affairs of the day, she left a blank page for him to fill later. Taken together, the remainder of her possessions were as nothing to Peaches compared with that book. Not an hour of the day passed that it was not in her fingers, every line of it she knew by heart, and she learned more from it than all Mickey's other educational efforts. Peter scraped a piece of fine black walnut furniture free from the accumulated varnish of years, and ran an approving hand over the smooth dark surface, seasoned with long use. He smiled at her. She smiled back, falling into a little chant that had been on her lips much of the time of late: "You know, Peter! You know, Peter! We know somepin' we won't tell!"
Peter nodded, beaming on her.
"Just listen to that boy, Peter, he must be perfectly possessed!" said Nancy.
"He didn't ever sound so glad before!" cried the child eagerly.
Mickey came up the walk radiant. He divided a smile between Mrs. Harding and Peter, and bowed low before Peaches as he laid a package at her feet. Then he struck an attitude of exaggerated obeisance and recited:
"Days like this I'm tickled silly, When I see my August Lily. No other fellow, dude or gawk, Owns a flower that can laugh and talk."
Peaches immediately laughed; so did all of them.
"Peter," asked Mickey, "were you ever so glad that you thought you would bust wide open?"
"I was," said Peter; "I am this minute."
"Would you mind specifying circumstances?"
"Not a bit," said Peter. "First time was when Ma said she'd marry me, and I got my betrothal kiss; second, was the day she said she'd forgive my years of selfish dunderheadedness, and start over. Now you, Mickey, what's yours?"
"The great investigation is over, so far as our commission goes," answered Mickey. "Multiopolis isn't robbed where she was sure she was. Her accounts balance in the departments we've gone over. Nobody gets the slick face, the glass eye, the lawn mower on his cocoanut, or dons the candy suit from our work; but some folks I love had a near squeak, and I got a month vacation! Think of that, Miss Lily Peaches O'Halloran! Gee, let's get things fixed up here and have a party, to show the neighbouring gentlemen what's coming to them, before the weather gets so cold they won't have time to finish their jobs this fall. Some of them will squirm, but we don't care. Some of them will think they won't do it, but they will. Kiss me, Lily! Hug me tight, and let me go dig on the furnace foundation 'til I sweat this out of me."
When the children were sleeping that night he sat on the veranda and told Mrs. Harding and Peter exactly what he thought wise to repeat of the day's experience and no more; so that when he finished, all they knew was that the investigation was over, so far as Mr. Bruce was concerned, Mickey had a vacation, and was a happy boy.
As she came to dinner the next day, Mary laid a bundle of mail beside her father's plate. When he saw it, Peter, as was his custom, reached for the Herald to read the war headlines. He opened the paper, gave it a shake, stared at it in amazement, scanned a few lines and muttered: "Well for the Lord's sake!"
Then he glanced over the sheets at Mickey and back again. The family arose and hurried to a point of vantage at Peter's shoulder, while he spread the paper wide and held it high so that all of them could see. Enclosed in a small ruled space they read:
Sacred to the memory of the biggest scoop, That ever fell in Mister Chaffner's soup, And was pitched by this nicest editor-man, Where it belonged, in the garbage can, To please his friend, Michael O'Halloran. Whoop fellers, whoop, for the drownded scoop, That departed this life in our Editor's soup! All together boys, Scoop! Soup! Whoop!
They rushed at Mickey, shook hands, thumped, patted and praised him, when a wail arose to the point of reaching his consciousness.
"Mickey, what?" cried Peaches.
"Let me take it just a minute, Peter," said Mickey.
"Wait a second," suggested Mrs. Harding, picking up a big roll that they had knocked to the floor. "This doesn't look like catalogues, and it's addressed to you. Likely they've sent you some of your own."
"Now maybe Mr. Chaffner did," said Mickey, almost at the bursting point. "Course he is awful busy, the busiest man in the world, I expect, but he might have sent me a copy of my poetry, since he used it."
With shaking fingers he opened the roll, and there were several copies of the Herald similar to the one Peter held, and on the top of one was scrawled in pencil: "Your place, your desk, and your salary are ready whenever you want to begin work. You can't come too soon to suit me.-- CHAFFNER."
Mickey read it aloud.
"Gee!" he said. "I 'most wish I had education enough to begin right now. I'd like it! I could just go crazy about that job! Yes honey! Yes, I'm coming!"
He caught up another paper, and hurried across the room, quietly but decidedly closing the door behind him, so when Mary started to follow, Junior interposed.
"Better not, Molly," he said. "Mickey wants to be alone with his family for a few minutes. Say father, ain't there a good many newspaper men worked all their lives, and got no such show as that?"
"I haven't a doubt of it," said Peter.
"Mickey must have written that, and sent it in before he came home yesterday," said Mrs. Harding. "I call it pretty bright! I bet if the truth was told, something went wrong, and he was at the bottom of shutting it up. Don't you call that pretty bright, Pa?"
"I guess I'm no fair judge," said Peter. "I'm that prejudiced in his favour that when he said, 'See the cat negotiate the rat' out in the barn, I thought it was smart."
"Yes, and it was," commented Junior. "It's been funny for everybody to 'negotiate' all sorts of things ever since that north pole business, so it was funny for the cat too. Father, do you think that note really means that Mr. Chaffner would give Mickey a place on his paper, and pay him right now?"
"I don't know why Chaffner would write it out and sign his name to it if he didn't mean it," said Peter.
"You know he is full of stuff like that," said Junior. "He could do some every day about people other than Peaches if he wanted to. Father, ain't you glad he's in our family? Are you going to tell him to take that job if he asks you?"
"No I ain't," said Peter. "He's too young, and not the book learning to do himself justice, while that place is too grown up and exciting for a boy of his nerve force. Don't you think, Nancy?"
"Yes, I do, but you needn't worry," said Mrs. Harding. "Mickey knows that himself. Didn't you hear him say soon as he read it, that he hadn't the education yet? He's taken care of himself too long to spoil his life now, and he will see it; but I marvel at Chaffner. He ought to have known better. And among us, I wonder at Mickey. Where did he get it from?"
"Easy!" said Peter. "From a God-fearing, intelligent mother, and an irresponsible Irish father, from inborn, ingrained sense of right, and a hand-to-hand scuffle with life in Multiopolis gutters. Mickey is all right, and thank God, he's ours If he does show signs of wanting to go to the Herald office, discourage him all you can, Ma; it wouldn't be good for him--yet."
"No it wouldn't; but it would be because he needs solid study and school routine to settle him, and make him great instead of a clown, as that would at his age. But if you think there is anything in the Herald office that could hurt Mickey, you got another think coming. It wouldn't hurt Mickey; but it would be mighty good for the rest of them. The Herald has more honour and conscience than most; some of the papers are just disgraceful in what they publish, and then take back next day; while folks are forced to endure it. Sit up and eat your dinners now. I want to get on with my work."
"Mickey, what happened?" begged Peaches as Mickey came in sight, carrying the papers.
He was trembling and tensely excited as her sharp eyes could see. They rested probingly a second on him, then on the paper. Her lips tightened while her eyes darkened. She stretched out her hand.
"Mickey, let me see!" she commanded.
Mickey knelt beside her, spreading out the sheet. Then he took her hand, setting a finger on the first letter of his name and slowly moved along as she repeated the letters she knew best of all, then softly pronounced the name. She knew the Herald too. She sat so straight Mickey was afraid she would strain her back, lifting her head "like a queen," if a queen lifts her head just as high as her neck can possibly stretch, and smiled a cold little smile of supreme self-satisfaction.
"Now Mickey, go on and read what you wrote about me," her Highness commanded.
The collapse of Mickey was sudden and complete. He stared at Peaches, at the paper, opened his lips, thought a lie and discarded it, shut his lips to pen the lie in for sure, and humbly and contritely waited, a silent candidate for mercy. Peaches had none. To her this was the logical outcome of what she had been led to expect. There was the paper. The paper was the Herald. There was the front page. There was Mickey's name. She had no conception of Mickey writing a line which did not concern her; also he had expressly stated that all of them and the whole book were to be about her. She indicated the paper and his name, while the condescension of her waiting began to be touched with impatience.
"Mickey, why don't you go on and read what it says about me?" she demanded.
Mickey saw plainly what must be done. He gazed at her and suddenly, for the first time, a wave of something new and undefined rushed through him. This exquisitely delicate and beautiful little Highness, sitting so proudly straight, and so uncompromisingly demanding that he redeem his promises, made a double appeal to Mickey. Her Highness scared him until he was cold inside. He was afraid, and he knew it. He wanted to run, and he knew it; yet no band of steel could have held him as this bit of white femininity, beginning to glow a soft pink from slowly enriching blood, now held and forever would hold him, and best of all he knew that. It was in his heart to be a gentleman; there was nothing left save to be one now. He took both Peaches' hands, and began preparing her gently as was in his power for what had to come.
"Yes, Flowersy-girl," he said, "I'll read it to you, but you won't understand 'til I tell you----"
"I always understand," she said sweepingly.
"You know how wild like I came home last night," explained Mickey. "Well, I had reason. Some folks who have been good to us, and that I love like we love Peter and Ma, had been in awful danger of something that would make them sore all their lives, and maybe I had some little part in putting it over, so it never touched them; anyway, they thought so, and I was tickled past all sense and reason about it. It was up to the editor of the Herald to decide; and what he did, was what I begged him to. Course left to himself, he would a-done it anyway, after he had time to think----"
"Mickey, read my po'try piece about me, an' then talk," urged Peaches.
"Honey, you make me so sick I can't tell you."
"Mickey, what's the matter?"
Peaches' penetrating eyes were slowly changing to accusing. She drew a deep breath, giving him his first cold, unrelenting look.
"Mister Michael O'Halloran," she said in incisive tones, "did you write a po'try piece for the first page of the Herald, not about me?"
"Well Miss Chicken," he cried, "I wish you wouldn't talk so much! I wish you'd let me tell you."
"I guess you ain't got anything to tell," said Peaches, folding her arms and tilting her chin so high Mickey feared she might topple backward.
"I guess I have!" shouted Mickey. "I didn't put that there! I didn't mean it to be there! If I'd a-put it there, and meant it there, and knowed it would be there, it would a-been about you, of course! Answer me this, Miss. Any single time did I ever not do anything that I said I would?"
"Nothing but this," admitted Peaches.
"There you go again!" said Mickey. "I tell you I didn't do this, and when I tell you, I tell true, Miss, get that in your system. If you'd let me explain how it was, you'd see that I didn't have a single thing to do with it."
Peaches accomplished a shrug that was wonderful, and gazed at the ceiling, her lips closed. Mickey watched her a second, then he began softly: "Flowersy-girl, I don't see what you mean! I don't know why you act like this! I don't know what's to have a tantrum for, when I didn't mean it to be there, and didn't know it would be there. Honest, I don't!"
"Go on an' read it!" she commanded.
Mickey obeyed. As he finished she faced him in wonder.
"Why they ain't a damn bit of sense to it!" she cried.
"Course there ain't!" agreed Mickey. "Course there would be no sense to anything that wasn't about you!"
"Then what did you put it there in my place for?"
"I didn't! I'm trying to tell you!" persisted Mickey.
Peaches shed one degree of royal hauteur. "Well why don't you go on an' tell, then?"
"Aw-w-ah! Well if you don't maneuver to beat a monoplane! I've tried to tell you, and you won't let me. If you stop me again, I'm going to march out of this room and stay 'til you bawl your eyes red for me."
"If you go, I'll call Junior!" said Peaches instantly.
"Well go on and call him!"
He turned, his heart throbbing, his eyes burning with repressed tears, the big gulp in his throat audible to Peaches, as her little wail was to him. He whirled and dropping on his knees took her in his arms. She threw hers around his neck, buried her face against his cheek, and they cried it out together. At last she produced a bit of linen, and mopped Mickey's eyes and face, then her own. While still clinging to him she whispered: "Mickey, I'm jus' about dead to have it be the Herald, an' the front page, an' you, an' not about me!"
"Flowersy-girl, I'm just as sorry as you are," said Mickey. "It was this way: I was just crazy over things our editor-man did, that saved our dear boss and the lovely Moonshine Lady who gave you your Precious Child and her 'darling old Daddy' from such awful trouble it would just a-killed them; honest it would Lily! When our editor-man was so great and nice, and did what he didn't want to at all, I went sort of wild like, and when I was off for the day and got on the streets, everything pulled me his way. I was anxious just to see him again, and if I'd done what I wanted to, I'd a-gone in the Herald office and knelt down, and said: 'Thank you, oh thank you!' and kissed his feet, but of course I knew men didn't do like that, and it would have shamed him, but I had to do something or bust, and I went running for the office like flying, and my mind got whirling around, and that stuff began to come.
"I slipped in and back to his desk, like I may if I want to, and there he sat. He had a big white sheet just like this before it is printed, spread out, and a pencil in his fingers, and about a dozen of his best men were crowding 'round with what they had for the paper to-day. I've told you how they do it, often, and when I edged up some of the men saw me. They knew I had a pass to him, so they stepped back just as he said: 'Well boys, who's got some big stuff to fill the space of our departed scoop?' That 'departed' word means lost, gone, and it's what they say about people when they--they go for good. Then he looked up to see who would speak first, and noticed me. 'Oh there is the little villain who scooped our scoop, right now,' he said. 'Let's make him fill the space he's cut us out of.' I thought it was a joke, but I wasn't going to have all that bunch of the swellest smarties who work for him put it clear over me; I've kidded back with my paper men too long for that; so I stepped back and shot it at him, that what's printed there, and when I got to the end and invited the fellows to 'Whoop,' Lily, you could a-heard them a mile. I saw they was starting for me, so I just slung in a 'Thank you something awful, boss,' and ducked through and between, and cut for life; 'cause if they'd a-got me, I might a-been there yet. They are the nicest men on earth, but they get a little keyed up sometimes, and a kid like me couldn't keep even. Now that's all there is to it, Lily, honest, cross my heart! I didn't know they would put it there. I didn't know they thought it was good enough. I wouldn't a-let them for the life of them, if I'd known they was going to."
"You jus' said it once, Mickey?" inquired Peaches.
"Jus' once, Flowersy-girl, fast as I could rattle."
"It's twice as long as mine ever are," she said. "I don't see how they 'membered."
"Oh that!" cried Mickey. "Why honey, that's easy! Those fellows jump on to a thing like chained lightning, and they got a way of writing that is just a lot of little twists and curls, but one means a whole sentence--they call it 'shorthand'--and doing that way, they can set down talk as fast as anybody can speak, and there were a dozen of them there with pencils and paper in their fingers. That wasn't anything for them!"
"Mickey, are you going to learn to write that way?"
"Sure!" said Mickey. "Before I go to the Herald to take my desk, and my 'signment,' I've got to know, and you ought to know too; 'cause I always have to bring what I write to you first, to see if you like it."
"Yes, if the mean old things don't go an' steal my place again, when you don't know it," protested Peaches.
"Well, don't you fret about that," said Mickey. "They got away with me this time, but they won't ever again, 'cause I'll be on to their tricks. See? Now say you forgive me, and eat your dinner, 'cause it will be spoiled, and you must have a good rest, for there's going to be something lovely afterward. You ain't mad at me any more, Lily?"
"No, I ain't mad at you, but I'm just so----"
"Wope! wope!" cautioned Mickey.
Peaches pulled away indignantly.
"--so--so--so estremely mad at those paper men! Mickey, I don't think I'll ever let you be a Herald man at all if they're going to leave me out like that!"
"What do you care about an old paper sold on the streets, and ground up for buckets, and used to start fires, anyway?" scoffed Mickey. "Why don't you sit up on the shelf in a nice pretty silk dress and be a book lady? I wouldn't be in the papers at all, if I were you."
"No, an' I won't, either!" cried Peaches instantly. "Take the old paper an' put what you please in it. I shall have all about me in the nice silky covered book on the shelf; so there, you needn't try to make me do anything else, 'cause I shan't ever!"
"Course you shan't!" agreed Mickey.
He went back to the dinner table to find the family finished and gone. He carried what had been left for him to the back porch, and eating hastily began helping to get things in place. As always he went to Mrs. Harding for orders. She was a little woman, so very like his mother in size, colouring, speech, and manner, that Mickey could almost forget she was not truly his, when every hour she made him feel her motherly kindness; so from early habit it was natural with him to seek her first, and do what he could to assist her before he attempted anything else. All the help Peter had from him came when he found no more to do for Mrs. Harding. As he washed the dishes while she sat sewing for the renovation of the house, he said to her: "When you dress Lily for this afternoon I wish you'd make her just as pretty as you can, and put her very nicest dress on her."
"Why Mickey, is some one coming?" she asked.
"I don't know," said Mickey, "but I have a hunch that my boss, and Miss Leslie, and her father may be out this afternoon. They have been talking about it a long time, but I kept making every excuse I could think up to keep them away."
"Why, Mickey?" asked Mrs. Harding, looking at him intently. She paused in her sewing, running the needle slowly across the curtain material.
"Well, for a lot of reasons," said Mickey. "A fellow of my size doesn't often tackle a family, and when he does, if he's going to be square about it, he has got to do a lot of thinking. One thing was that it's hard for me to get Lily out my head like I first saw her. I guess I couldn't tell you so you'd get a fair idea of how dark, dirty, alone, and little, and miserable she was. Just with all my heart I was ashamed of her folks, and sick sorry for her; but I can't bear for anybody else to be! I didn't want any of them to see her 'til she was fed, and fatted up a lot, and trained 'til how nice she really is shows plain. It just hurt me to think of it."
"Um-m-uh!" agreed Mrs. Harding, differing emotions showing on her face. "I see, Mickey."
"Then," continued Mickey, "I'm sticking sore and mean on one point. I did find her! She is mine! I am going to keep her! Nobody in all this world takes her, nor God in Heaven!"
"Mickey, be careful what you say," she cautioned.
"I don't mean anything wicked," explained Mickey. "I'm just telling you that nobody on earth can have her, and I'd fight 'til I'd die with her, before even Heaven gets her. I don't mean anything ugly about it. I'm just telling you friendly like, how I feel about her."
"I see Mickey," said Mrs. Harding. "Go on!"
"Well, lots of reasons," said Mickey. "She wasn't used to folks, so they scared her. She was crazy with fear about the Orphings' Home getting her, while I wasn't any too sure myself. I flagged one Swell Dame, and like to got caught in a trap and lost her. Then my Sunshine Nurse helped me all I needed; so not knowing how much women were alike, I didn't care to go rushing in a lot on Lily just to find out. She was a little too precious to experiment with.
"That Home business has been a big, grinning, 'Get-you-any-minute devil,' peeping 'round the corner at me ever since mother went. I could dodge him for myself, but I couldn't take any risks for Lily. These Orphings' Homes ain't no place for children. 'Stead of the law building them, and penning the little souls starving for home and love in them, what it should do is to make people who pay the money to run them, take the children in their own homes and love and raise them personal. If every family in the world that has no children would take two, and them that has would take just one, all the Orphings' Homes would make good hospitals and schools; while the orphings would be fixed like Lily and I are. Course I know all folks ain't the same as you and Peter; but in the long run, children are safer in homes than they are in squads. 'Most any kind of a home beats no home at all. You can stake your liberty-birds on that."
"You surely can," agreed Mrs. Harding.
"You just bet," persisted Mickey. "When I didn't know what they would do, I didn't want them pestering 'round, maybe to ruin everything; and when I did, I didn't want them any more, 'cause then I saw their idea would be to take her themselves, and in one day they would a-made all I could do look like thirty cents. She was mine, and what she had with me was so much better than what she would a-had without me, or if the law got her, that I thought she was doing well enough. I see now she could a-had more; but I thought then it was all right!"
"Now Mickey, don't begin that," said Mrs. Harding. "What you did was to find her, and without a doubt, save her life; at least if you didn't, you landed her in a fairly decent home where all of us will help you do what you think best for her; and there's small question but we can beat any Orphans' Home yet in existence. And as for the condition in which I found her, it was growing warm in that room, but I'll face any court in the universe and swear I never saw a cleaner child, or one in better condition for what you had to begin on. The Almighty Himself couldn't have covered those awful bones with flesh and muscle, and smoothed the bed sores and scars from that little body; and gone much faster training her right, unless He was going back to miracles again. As far as miracles are concerned, I think from what you tell me, and what the child's condition proves, that you have performed the miracle yourself. To the day of my death I'll honour, respect, and love you, Mickey, for the way in which you've done it. I've yet to see a woman who could have done better, so I want you to know it."
"I don't know the right words to say to you and Peter."
"Never mind that," said Mrs. Harding. "We owe you quite as much, and something we are equally as thankful for. It's an even break with us, Mickey, and no talk of obligations on either side. We prize Junior as he is just now, fully as much as you do anything you've gained."
Mickey polished the plates and studied Mrs. Harding. Then he spoke again: "There's one more obligation I'm just itching to owe you."
"Tell me about it, Mickey," she said.
"Well right in line with what we been talking of," said Mickey. "Just suppose a big car comes chuffing up here this afternoon, like I have a hunch it will, and all those nice folks so polite and beautifully dressed come to see us, I know you are busy, but I'll work afterward to pay back, if you and Peter will dust up a little--course I know the upset fix we are in; but just glorify a trifle, and lay off and keep right on the job without a second of letting up, 'til they are gone. See?"
"You mean you don't want to be left alone with them?"
"You get me!" cried Mickey. "You get me clearly. I don't want to be left alone with them, for them to put ideas in Lily's head about a nicer car than ours, and a bigger house, and finer dolls and dresses, and going to the city to stay with them on visits; or me going to live with Mr. Winton, to be the son he should have found for himself long ago. I guess I have Lily sized up about as close as the next one; and she has got all that is good for her, right now. She'd make the worst spoiled kid you ever saw if she had half a chance. What she needs to make a grand woman of her, like you and mother, is clean air, quiet, good food like she's got here, with bone as well as muscle in it; and just enough lessons and child play with children to keep her brains going as fast as her body, and no silly pampering to make her foolish and disagreeable. I know how little and sick she is, but she shan't use it for capital to spoil her whole life. See?"
"'Through a glass darkly,'" quoted Mrs. Harding laughing. "Oh Mickey, I didn't think it of you. You're deeper than the well."
"That's all right," said Mickey, his face flushing. "Often I hear you say 'let good enough alone.' My sentiments exact. Lily is fine, and so am I. Let us alone! If you and Peter will do me the 'cap-sheaf favour, as he would say, you'll dust up and spunk up, and the very first hint that comes--'cause it's coming--at the very first hint of how Miss Leslie would love to take care of the dear little darling awhile, smash down with the nix! Smash like sixty! Keep your eyes and ears open, and if you could, dearest lady, beat them to it: I'd be tickled silly if you manage that. If you could only tell them how careful she has to be handled, and taken care of, and how strangers and many around would be bad for her----"
"Mickey, the minute they see the shape things are in here, it will give them the chance they are after, so they will begin that very thing," she said.
"I know it," conceded Mickey. "That's why I'd put them off if I could, 'til we were fixed and quiet again. But at that, their chance isn't so grand. This isn't worrying Lily any. She saw all of it happen, she knows what's going on. What I want, dearest lady, is for you to get on the job, and spunk up to them, just like you did about Junior going away. I didn't think you'd get through with that, and I know Peter didn't; but you did, fine! Now if you and Peter would have a little private understanding and engineer this visit that I scent in the air, so that when you see they are going to offer pressing invitations to take Lily, and to take me, and put me at work that I wasn't born to do; if you'd only have a receiver out, and when your wires warn you what's coming down the line, first and beforehand, calm and plain, fix things so the nix wouldn't even be needed; do you get me, dearest Mother Harding, do you see?"
"That I do!" said Mrs. Harding rising abruptly. "I'll go and speak to Peter at once, then we'll shift these workmen back, and quiet them as much as we can. I'll slip on a fresh dress, and put some buttermilk in the well, and fix Peaches right away, if she's finished her nap----"
Mrs. Harding's voice trailed back telling what she would do as she hastened to Peter. Mickey, with anxious heart, helped all he could, washed, slipped on a fresh shirt, and watched the process of adjusting Peaches' hair ribbon.
"Now understand, I don't know they're coming," he said. "I just think they will."
Because he thought so, for an hour the Harding premises wore a noticeable air of expectation. All the family were clean and purposely keeping so; but the waiting was long, while work was piled high in any direction. Peaches started the return to normal conditions by calling for her slate, and beginning to copy her lesson. Mary with many promises not to scatter her scraps, sat beside the couch, cutting bright pictures from the papers. Mickey grew restless and began breaking up the remains of packing cases, while Junior went after the wheelbarrow. Mrs. Harding brought out her sewing, and Peter went back to scraping black walnut furniture. Mickey passed him on an errand to the kitchen and asked anxiously: "Did she tell you?"
"Yes," said Peter.
"Will you make it a plain case of 'nobody home! nobody home?'" questioned Mickey.
"I will!" said Peter emphatically.
Being busy, the big car ran to the gate before they saw it coming. Leslie Winton and Douglas Bruce came up the walk together, while Mr. Winton and Mrs. Minturn waited in the car, in accordance with a suggestion from Douglas that the little sick girl must not see too many strange people at once. Mickey went to meet them, and Peaches watching, half in fear and wholly in pride, saw Douglas Bruce shake his hand until she frowned lest it hurt, clap him on the back, and cry: "Oh but I'm proud of you! Say that was great!"
Leslie purposely dressed to emphasize her beauty, slipped an arm across his shoulders and drawing him to her kissed his brow.
"Our poet!" she said. "Oh Mickey, hurry! I'm so eager to hear the ones in the book Douglas tells me you are making! Won't you please read them to us?"
Mickey smiled as he led the way. "Just nonsense stuff for Lily," he said. "Nothing but fooling, only the prayer one, and maybe two others."
An abrupt movement from Peaches as they advanced made Mrs. Harding glance her way in time to see the first wave of deep colour that ever had flooded the child's white face, come creeping up her neck and begin tinging her cheeks, even her forehead. With a swift movement she snatched her poetry book, which always lay with her slate and primer, thrusting it under her pillow; when she saw Mrs. Harding watching her she tilted her head and pursed her lips in scorn: "'Our!'" she mimicked. "'Our!' Wonder whose she thinks he is? Nix on her!"
Mrs. Harding, caught surprisedly, struggled to suppress a laugh as she turned to meet her guests. Mickey noticed this. He made his introductions, and swiftly thrust Peaches' Precious Child into her arms, warning in a whisper: "You be careful, Miss!"
Peaches needed the reminder. She loved the doll. She had been drilled so often on the thanks she was to tender for it, that with it in her fingers she thought of nothing else, so her smile as Leslie approached was lovely. She held out her hand and before Mickey could speak announced: "Jus' as glad to see you! Thank you ever so much for my Precious Child!"
Nothing more was necessary. Leslie was captivated and would scarcely make way for Douglas to offer his greeting. Mary ran to call her father, while the visitors seated themselves to say the customary polite things; but each of them watched a tiny white-clad creature, with pink ribbons to match the colour in a flawless little face, rounded to the point of delicate beauty, overshadowed by a shower of gold curls, having red lips and lighted by a pair of big, blue-gray eyes with long dark lashes. When Mrs. Harding saw both visitors look so intently at Peaches, and intercepted their glance of admiration toward each other, she looked again herself, and then once more.
Peaches spoke imperiously. "Mickey-lovest, come here and bend down your head."
Mickey slipped behind Douglas' chair, knelt on one knee, and leaned to see what Peaches desired of him. She drew her hankerchief from her waist ribbon, rubbed it across his forehead, looked at the spot with frowning intentness, rubbed again, and then dropping the handkerchief, laid a hand on each side of his head, bent it to her and kissed the spot fervently; then she looked him in the eyes and said with solicitous but engaging sweetness: "Mickey, I do wish you would be more careful what you get on your face!"
Mickey drew back thrilled with delight, but extremely embarrassed. "Aw-a- ah you fool little kid!" he muttered, and could not look at his friends.
Watching, Douglas almost shouted, while the flush deepened on Miss Winton's cheeks. Peter began talking to help the situation, so all of them joined in.
"You are making improvements that look very interesting around here," said Douglas to Mrs. Harding.
"We are doing our level best to evolve a sanitary, modern home for all of us, and to set an example for our neighbours," she said quietly. "We always got along very well as we were, but lately, we have found we could have things much more convenient, and when God gave us two more dear children, we needed room for them, and comforts and appliances to take care of our little new daughter right. When we got started, one thing led to another until we are pretty well torn up; but we've saved the best place for her, and the worst is over."
"Yes we are on the finish now," said Peter.
"I did think of taking her and going to my sister's," continued Mrs. Harding, "but Peaches isn't accustomed to meeting people, while Mickey and I both thought being among strangers and changing beds and food would be worse for her than the annoyance of remodelling; then too, I wanted very much to see the work here done as I desired. At first I was doubtful about keeping her, but she doesn't mind in the least; she even takes her afternoon naps with hammers pounding not so far from her----"
"Gee, there is no noise and jar here to compare with Multiopolis," said Mickey. "She's all right, getting stronger every day."
Peaches spread both hands, looking at them critically, back and palm.
"They are better," she said. "You ought to seen them when they was so clawy they made Mickey shiver if I touched him; and first time I wanted to kiss something or go like granny did, he wouldn't let me 'til I cried, an' then he made me put it on his forehead long time, 'til I got so the bones didn't scratch him; didn't you Mickey?"
"Well I wish you wouldn't tell everything!"
"Then I won't," said Peaches, "'cause I'm your fam'ly, an' I must do what you say; an' you are my fam'ly, an' you must do what I say. Are you a fam'ly?" she questioned Leslie and Douglas.
"We hope to be soon," laughed Leslie.
"Then," said Peaches, "you can look how we're fixing our house so you can make yours nice as this. Mickey, I want to show that pretty lady in the auto'bile my Precious Child."
"Sure!" said Mickey. "I'll go tell her. And the man with her is Miss Leslie's father, just like Peter is ours; you want to show him the Child, don't you?"
"Maybe!" said Peaches with a tantalizing smirk.
"Miss Chicken, you're getting well too fast," commented Mickey in amazement as he started to the car.
Because of what Mr. Winton had said to him the previous day, he composed and delivered this greeting when he reached it: "Lily is asking to show you her Precious Child, Mrs. Minturn, and I want both of you to see our home, and meet our new father and mother. Letting us have them is one thing the law does that makes up a little for the Orphings' Homes most kids get who have had the bad luck to lose their own folks."
"Mickey, are you prejudiced against Orphans' Homes?" asked Mrs. Minturn as she stepped from the car.
"Ain't no name for it," said Mickey. "I'm dead against bunching children in squads. If rich folks want to do something worth while with their money, they can do it by each family taking as many orphings as they can afford, and raising them personal. See?"
"I should say I do!" exclaimed the lady. "I must speak to James about that. We have two of our own, and William, but I believe we could manage a few more."
"I know one I'd like very much to try," said Mr. Winton, but Mickey never appeared so unconscious.
He managed his introductions very well, while again Peaches justified her appellation by being temptingly sweet and conspicuously acid. When Mickey reached Peter in his round of making friends acquainted, he slid his arm through that of the big man and said smilingly: "Nobody is going to mix me with Peter's son by blood--see what a fine chap Junior is; but Peter and I fixed up my sonship with the Almighty, whom my Peter didn't deny, when he took me in, and with the judge of the Multiopolis courts; so even if it doesn't show on the outside, I belong, don't I?"
Peter threw his left arm around Mickey even as he shook hands with his right: "You surely do," he said, "by law and by love, to the bottom of all our hearts."
The visit was a notable success. The buttermilk was cold, the spice cake was fresh, the apples and peaches were juicy, the improvements highly commendable. Peter was asked if he would consider a membership in the Golf Club, the playhouse was discussed, and three hours later a group of warm friends parted, with the agreement that Mickey was to spend a day of the latter part of the week fishing on Atwater. The Hardings smiled broadly. "Well son, did we manage that to your satisfaction?" asked Peter.
"Sure!" said Mickey. "I might have been mistaken in what half of that trip was for, but I think not."
"So do I," said Mrs. Harding emphatically. "They were just itching to get their fingers on Peaches; while Bruce and Mr. Winton both were chagrined over our getting you first."
"We feel bad about that too, don't we, Peter?" laughed Mickey.
"Well, I would," said Peter, "if it were the other way around. I didn't mind the young fellow. You'll be with him every day, and he'll soon have boys of his own no doubt; but I feel sorry for Mr. Winton. He looks hungry when he watches you. He could work you into his business fine."
"He's all right, he's a nice man," said Mickey, "but I've lived off the Herald all my life 'til this summer, so when school is over I go straight to Mr. Chaffner."
The Winton car ran to the club house; sitting in a group, the occupants looked at each other rather foolishly.
"Seems to me you were going to bring Peaches right along, if you liked her, Leslie," laughed Douglas.
"The little vixen!" she said flushing.
"Sorry you didn't care for her," he commented.
"It is a pity!" said Leslie. "But I didn't 'miss bringing her along' any farther than Mrs. Minturn missed taking her to the hospital to be examined and treated!"
"I'll have to go again about that," said Mrs. Minturn. "I just couldn't seem to get at it, someway."
"No, you 'just couldn't seem to,'" agreed Douglas. "And Mr. Winton 'just couldn't seem to' lay covetous hands on Mickey, and bear him away to be his assistant any more than I could force him to be my Little Brother. I hope all of us have a realizing sense that we are permitted to be good and loyal friends; but we will kindly leave Mickey to make his own arrangements, and work out his own salvation, and that of his child. And Leslie, I didn't hear you offering to buy any of the quaint dishes and old furniture you hoped you might pick up there, either."
"Heavens!" cried Leslie half tearfully. "How would any one go about offering to buy an old platter that was wrapped in a silk shawl and kept in the dresser drawer during repairs, or ask a man to set a price on old furniture, when he was scraping off the varnish of generations, and showing you wood grain and colouring with the pride of a veteran collector? I feel so silly! Let's play off our chagrin, and then we'll be in condition for friendship which is the part that falls to us, if I understand Mickey."
"Well considering the taste I've had of the quality of his friendship, I hope you won't be surprised at the statement that I feel highly honoured," said Mr. Winton, leading the way, while the others thoughtfully followed.
With four days' work the Harding home began to show what was being accomplished. The song of the housewife carried to the highway. Neighbours passing went home to silent, overworked drudges, and critically examined for the first time stuffy, dark kitchens, reeking with steam, heat, and the odour of cooking and decorated with the grime of years. The little leaven of one home in the neighbourhood, as all homes should be, set them thinking. A week had not passed until people began calling Mrs. Harding to the telephone to explain just what she was doing, and why. Men would stop to ask Peter what was going on, so every time he caught a victim, he never released him until the man saw sunrise above a kitchen table, a line in the basement for a winter wash, kitchen implements from a pot scraper and food pusher to a gas range and electric washing machine, with a furnace and hardwood floors thrown in. Soon the rip of shovelled shingles, the sound of sawing, and the ring of hammers filled the air.
The Harding improvements improved so fast, that sand, cement, and the big pile of lumber began accumulating at Peter's corner of the crossroads below the home, for the playhouse. Men who started by calling Peter a fool, ended by borrowing his plans and belabouring themselves for their foolishness; for the neighbourhood was awakening and beginning to develop a settled conviction as to what constituted the joy of life, and that the place to enjoy it was at home, and the time immediately. Peter's reward was not only in renewed happiness for himself and Nancy; equal to it was his pleasure over the same renewal for many of his lifelong friends.
Mickey started on his day to Atwater with joyful anticipation, but he jumped from Douglas' car and ran up the Harding front walk at three o'clock, his face anxious. He saw the Harding car at the gate, and wondered at Peter sitting dressed for leisure on the veranda.
"Got anxious about Lily," he explained. "Out on the lake I thought I heard her call me, then I had the notion she was crying for me. They laughed at me, but I couldn't stand it. Is she asleep, as they said she'd be?"
Peter opened his lips, but no word came. Mickey slowly turned a ghastly white. Peter reached in his side pocket, drew out a letter, and handed it to the boy. Mickey pulled the sheet from the envelope, still staring at Peter, then glanced at what he held and collapsed on the step. Peter moved beside him, laid a steadying arm across his shoulders and proved his fear was as great as Mickey's by being unable to speak. At last the boy produced articulate words.
"He came?" he marvelled.
"About ten this morning," said Peter.
"He took her to the hospital?" panted Mickey.
"Yes," said Peter.
"Why did you let him?" demanded Mickey.
That helped Peter. He indicated the letter.
"There's your call for him!" he said, emphatically. "You asked me to adopt her so I could give him orders to go ahead when he came."
"Why didn't you telephone me?" asked Mickey.
"I did," said Peter. "The woman who answered didn't know where you were, but she said their car had gone to town, so I thought maybe they'd find you there. I was just going to call them again."
"Was she afraid?" wavered Mickey.
"Yes, I think she was," said Peter.
"Did she cry for me?" asked Mickey.
"Yes she did," admitted Peter, who hadn't a social lie in his being, "but when he offered to put off the examination till he might come again, she climbed from the cot and made him take her. Ma went with her."
"The Sunshine Nurse came?" questioned Mickey.
"Yes," said Peter, "and Mrs. Minturn. She sent for him to see about an operation on a child she is trying to save, so when it was over, he showed her your letter. She brought them out in her car, and Ma went back with them."
"She may be on that glass table right now," gulped Mickey. "What time is it? When's the next car? Run me to the station will you, and if you've got any money, let me have it 'til I get to mine."
"Of course!" said Peter.
"Will Junior and Mary be all right?" asked Mickey, pausing in his extremity to think of others.
"Yes, they often stay while we go."
"Hurry!" begged Mickey.
Peter took hold of the gear and faced straight ahead.
"She's oiled, the tank full, the engine purring like a kitten," he said. "Mickey, I always wanted to beat that trolley just once, to show it I could, if I wasn't loaded with women and children. Awful nice road----"
"Go on!" said Mickey.
Peter smiled, sliding across the starter.
"Sit tight!" he said tersely.
The big car slipped up the road no faster than it had gone frequently, passed the station, then on and on; Mickey twisted to look back at the rattle of the trolley stopping behind them, watching it with wishful eye. Peter opened his lips to say: "Just warmed up enough, and an even start!"
The trolley came abreast and whistled. Peter blew his horn, glancing that way with a little "come on" forward jerk of his head. The motorman nodded, touched his gear and the car started. Peter laid prideful, loving hands on his machinery; for the first time with legitimate racing excuse, as he long had wished to, he tried out his engine. Mickey could see the faces of the protesting passengers and the conductor grinning in the door, but Peter could not have heard if he had tried to tell him. Flying it was, smooth and even, past fields, orchards, and houses; past people who cried out at them and shook their fists. Mickey looked at Peter and registered for life each line of his big frame and lineament of his face, as he gripped the gear and put his car over the highway. When they reached the pavement, Mickey touched Peter's arm. "Won't make anything by getting arrested," he cautioned.
"No police for blocks yet," said Peter.
"Well there's risk of life and damage suit at each crossing!" shouted Mickey, so Peter slowed a degree; but he was miles ahead of all regulations as he stopped before the gleaming entrance. Mickey sprang from the car and hurried up the steps. Mrs. Minturn arose from a seat and came to meet him.
"Take me to her quick!" begged Mickey.
Silently she led the way to her suite in her old home, and opened the door. Mickey had a glimpse of Mrs. Harding, his Sunshine Nurse, and three men, one of whom he recognized from reproductions of his features in the papers. A very white, tired-looking Peaches stretched both hands and uttered a shrill cry as Mickey appeared in the doorway. His answer was inarticulate while his arms spread widely. Then Peaches arose, and in a few shuffling but sustained steps fell on his breast, gripping him with all her strength.
"Oh darling, you'll kill yourself," wailed Mickey.
He laid her on the davenport and knelt clasping her. Peaches regained self-control first; she sat up, shamelessly wiping Mickey's eyes and her own alternately.
"Flowersy-girl, did you hurt yourself awful?"
"I know something I won't tell," chanted Peaches, as she had been doing for days.
Mickey looked at her, then up at Peter, who had entered and come to them.
"Did you?" eagerly asked Peter of the child.
Peaches nodded proudly. "To meet Mickey," she triumphed. "I wouldn't for anybody else first! The longest piece yet! And it didn't hurt and I didn't fall!"
"Good!" shouted Peter. "That's the ticket!"
"You look here Miss Chicken, what do you mean?" cried Mickey wonderingly.
"Oh the Doctor Carrel man you sent for, came," explained Peaches, "and you wasn't there, but he had your name on the letter you wrote; he showed me, so I came and let him examination me; but Peter and I been standing alone, and taking steps when nobody was looking. You've surprised me joyful so much, it takes one as big as that to pay you back."
Mickey clung to his treasure, while turning to Peter an awed, questioning face.
"That's it!" said Peter. "She's been on her feet for ten days or such a matter!"
Mickey appealed to Dr. Carrel. "How about this?" he demanded.
"She's going to walk," said the great man assuringly.
"It's all over? You've performed your miracle?" asked Mickey.
"Yes," said Dr. Carrel. "It's all over, Mickey; but you had the miracle performed before I saw her, lad."
Mickey retreated to Peaches' neck again, while she smiled over and comforted him.
"Mickey, I knew you'd be crazy," she said. "I knew you'd be glad, but I didn't know you could be so----"
Mickey took her in his arms a second, then slowly recovered his feet and a small amount of self-possession. Again he turned to the surgeons.
"Are you sure? Will it hurt her? Will it last?"
"Very sure," said Dr. Carrel. "Calm yourself, lad. Her case is not so unusual; only more aggravated than usual. I've examined her from crown to sole, and she's straight and sound. You have started her permanent cure; all you need is to keep on exactly as you are going, and limit her activities so that in her joy she doesn't overdo and tire herself. You are her doctor. I congratulate you!"
Dr. Carrel came forward, holding out his hand, and Mickey took it with the one of his that was not gripping Peaches and said, "Aw-a-ah!" but he was a radiant boy.
"Thank you sir," he said. "Thank everybody. But thank you especial, over and over. I don't know how I'll ever square up with you, but I'll pay you all I have to start on. I've some money I've saved from my wages, and I'll be working harder and earning more all the time."
"But Mickey," protested the surgeon, "you don't owe me anything. I didn't operate! You had the work done before I arrived. I would have come sooner, but I knew she couldn't be operated, even if her case demanded it, until she had gained more strength----"
He was watching Mickey's face and he read aright, so he continued: "I like that suggestion you made in your letter very much. Something 'coming in steadily' is a good thing for any man to have. For the next three months, suppose you send me that two dollars a week you offered me if I'd come. How would that be?"
Mickey gathered Peaches in his arms and looked over his shoulder as he started on the homeward trip.
"Thank you sir," he said tersely. "That would be square."