Grandmother Elsie by Martha Finley
"Bear a fair presence, though your heart be tainted, Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint." --Shaks.
The children walked very fast, glancing this way and that till satisfied that there was no longer any danger of encountering Mrs. Scrimp, then their pace slackened a little and they breathed more freely.
"Won't she be mad because you came without asking her, Lu?" queried Max.
"I s'pose so."
"What'll she do about it?"
"Scold, scold, scold! and threaten to make me fast; but she knows she can't do that. I always manage to get something to eat. I've found a key that fits the pantry door; so I just help myself. She doesn't know about the key and wonders how it happens; thinks she forgot to lock it."
"But, Lulu, you wouldn't steal!"
"'Taint stealing to take what papa pays for! Max, you're too stupid!" cried Lulu indignantly.
Max gave a long, low whistle. "Fact, Lu! that's so! our father does pay for more than we can possibly eat, and expects us to have all we want."
"Do you get enough, Max?"
"Yes; and right good too. Mrs. Fox is real good and kind; but he's just awful! I tell you, Lu, if I don't thrash him within an inch of his life when I grow to be a man, it'll be queer."
"Tell me about him! what is it he does to you?"
"Well, in the first place, he pretends to be very good and pious; he preaches and prays and talks to me as if I were the greatest sinner in the world, while all the time he's ten times worse himself and the biggest kind of a hypocrite. He tells me it's very wicked when I get angry at his hateful treatment of me, and gets as mad as a March hare himself while he's talking about it."
"Well, I'd let him storm and never care a cent."
"Yes, but that isn't all; he beats me dreadfully for the least little thing, and sometimes for nothing at all. One time he bought a new padlock for the barn-door and pretty soon it disappeared. He couldn't find it anywhere, so he called me and asked me what I had done with it. I said I hadn't touched it, hadn't seen it, didn't even know he had bought one; and that was the truth. But he wouldn't believe me; he said I must have taken it, for I was the only mischievous person about the place, and if I didn't own up and show him where it was, he'd horsewhip me till I did."
"O Max! the wicked old wretch!" cried Lulu, between her clenched teeth. "What did you do? You couldn't tell a lie!"
"No, I thought I couldn't, Lu; and oh, I'm so ashamed!" said Max, growing very red and tears starting to his eyes. "But he beat me, and beat me, and beat me till I thought he'd kill me; and so to stop him at last I said I took it. But I didn't gain anything, for of course he asked next where it was, and I couldn't tell him, because I didn't know. So he began again; but I fainted, and I suppose that scared him and made him stop. He didn't say anything more about the padlock till weeks afterward it was found in the hay, and it was clear that I hadn't anything to do with it."
"Oh, the old wretch!" cried Lulu again. "Did he tell you then he was sorry for having abused you so when you were innocent?"
"No, indeed! not he! He said, 'Well, you didn't deserve it that time, but I've no doubt you've escaped many a time when you did.'"
"Max, I'd never stand it! I'd run away!" exclaimed Lulu, stopping short and facing her brother with eyes that fairly blazed with indignation.
"I've thought of that, Lu; I've felt tempted to do it more than once," Max said with a sigh; "but I thought how papa would feel hearing of it. I'd rather bear it all than have him feel that his son had done anything to disgrace him."
"Max, you're better than I am!" cried Lulu with affectionate warmth. "I'd never have thought of anything but how to get away as fast as possible from that horrid, horrid beast of a man."
"Papa thinks he's good, and that's the reason he put me with him. Oh, but don't I wish he knew the truth!"
"I should think the old rascal would be afraid of what papa may do when he comes and hears all the things you'll have to tell."
"I suppose he thinks papa will believe his story instead of mine; and perhaps he will," said Max a little sadly.
"No; don't you be one bit afraid of that!" cried Lulu, hotly. "Papa knows you're a truthful boy. His children couldn't be liars!"
"But you know I can't say any more that I've never told an untruth," said Max, coloring painfully.
"Well, you couldn't help it," Lulu said, trying to comfort him. "I'm afraid that I might have done it myself to keep from being killed."
"Hello! here comes Jim!" cried Max with a sudden change of tone, his face brightening wonderfully as a lad somewhat older in appearance than himself, and carrying a fishing-rod over his shoulder, came hurrying down a lane and joined them.
"Hello! Max," he said; "we've a splendid day for fishing, haven't we?" Then in a whisper, "Who's this you're taking along?"
"My sister Lulu," Max answered aloud. "She'll help us dig worms for bait, won't you, Lu?"
"Yes, if you'll let me fish a little after you've caught some."
"Good-morning, Miss Lulu," said Jim, lifting his hat.
"Good-morning," she returned, giving him a careless nod.
"It's a long walk for a girl," he remarked.
"Oh," said Max, laughing, "she's half boy; ain't you, Lu?"
"I s'pose; if you mean in walking, jumping and running. Aunt Beulah calls me a regular tomboy. But I'd rather be that than stay cooped up in the house all the time."
They had now left the town behind, and presently they turned from the highway and took a narrow path that led them deep into the woods, now in the very height of their autumnal beauty.
The sun shone brightly, but through a mellow haze; the air was deliciously pure, cool, and bracing.
The children's pulses bounded, they laughed and jested; the boys whistled and Lulu sang in a voice of birdlike melody.
"O Max," she said, "I wish Gracie was well and with us here!"
"Yes, so do I," he answered; "but 'tisn't likely she can ever be strong like you and me, Lu."
"Well, I'll tell her all about it and take her all the pretty things I can find. Oh, what a lovely place!" as they came out upon the shore of the pond, a tiny sheet of clear still water surrounded by woods and hills except where a rivulet entered it on one side and left it on the other.
"Yes," assented Jim, "it's a right nice place, is Miller's Pond, and has lots of nice fish in it."
The boys laid down their rods, Lulu her basket, and all three fell to digging for earth-worms.
When they deemed that they had a sufficient quantity of bait, the lads seated themselves on the roots of a fallen tree close to the water, each, with fishing-rod in hand, and Lulu, picking up her basket, wandered off among the trees and bushes.
"Don't go too far away and get lost," Max called after her.
"No," she answered, "I'll not go out of sight of the pond; so I can easily find my way back. But don't you go off and leave me."
"No; if you're not here, I'll hallo when we're 'most ready to start."
What treasures Lulu found as she wandered here and there, every now and then turning to look for the pond, and make sure that she was not losing herself, there were acorn-cups, lovely mosses, beautiful autumn leaves--red, orange, golden and green; there were wild grapes too, and hazel-nuts, brown and ripe. Of all these she gathered eagerly until her basket was full, thinking that some would delight Gracie, others propitiate Aunt Beulah.
And now she made her way back to the spot where the boys still sat, each with his line in the water.
"Have you caught any?" she asked.
"Yes," said Max, "I've caught six and Jim has eight. There! I've got another!" giving his line a jerk that sent a pretty speckled trout floundering in the grass.
"I'll take it off the hook for you," said Lulu, springing forward and dropping on her knees beside it. "And then you'll let me try, won't you?"
"Yes," Max answered in a half-reluctant tone, getting up to give her his place.
"There are hazel-nuts right over there a little way," Lulu said, pointing with her finger.
"Oh, then I'll have some!" cried Max, starting on a run in the direction indicated.
He came back after a while bringing some in his hat, picked up some stones, and seating himself near the others, cracked his nuts, sharing generously with them.
Presently Lulu had her first bite, succeeded in bringing her prize safely to land, and was quite wild with delight.
Max rejoiced with her, taking brotherly pride in her success.
"You'll do for a fisherman or fisherwoman," he said gayly. "I sha'n't be much surprised if you beat me at it one o' these days."
Then struck with a sudden unwelcome thought, "I wonder what time it is!" he exclaimed, jumping up from the ground in haste and perturbation. "Do you s'pose it's noon yet, Jim?"
"Which way's the sun?" queried the latter, glancing toward the sky; "it ought to be right overhead at noon. Why, it's down some toward the west! I shouldn't wonder if it's as late as two o'clock."
"Two o'clock!" cried Max in dismay, "and I was to be back by noon! Won't I catch it!" and he began gathering up his fish and fishing-tackle in great haste, Jim doing likewise, with the remark that he would be late to dinner and maybe have to go without.
Lulu was giving Max all the assistance in her power, her face full of sympathy.
"Max," she whispered, hurrying along close at his side as they started on their homeward way, "don't let that horrid, cruel, wicked man beat you! I wouldn't. I'd fight him like anything!"
Max shook his head. "'Twouldn't do any good, Lulu; he's so much bigger and stronger than I am that fighting him would be worse for me than taking the thrashing quietly."
"I could never do that!" she said. "But don't wait for me if you want to go faster."
"I don't," said Max.
"Well, I b'lieve I'd better make all the haste I can," said Jim. "So good-by," and away he sped.
"Oh, if papa only knew all about how that brute treats you!" sighed Lulu.
"Max, can't we write him a letter?"
"I do once in a while, but old Tom always reads it before it goes."
"I wouldn't let him. I'd hide away somewhere to write it, and put it in the post-office myself."
"I have no chance, he gives me only a sheet of paper at a time, and must always know what I do with it. It's the same way with my pocket money; so I can't buy postage-stamps; and I don't know how to direct the letter either."
"Oh dear! and it's just the same way with me!" sighed Lulu. "When will papa come? I'm just sick to see him and tell him everything!"
When they reached Mrs. Scrimp's door Max gave Lulu his string of fish, saying, "Here, take them, Sis. It's no use for me to keep 'em, for I shouldn't get a taste; and maybe they'll put her in a good humor with you."
"Thank you," she said. "O Max, I wish you could eat them yourself!" Her eyes were full of tears.
"I'd rather you'd have 'em; you and Gracie," he said cheerfully. "Good-by."
"Good-by," she returned, looking after him as he hurried away, whistling as he went.
"He's whistling to keep his courage up. O Max! poor Max! I wish I could give that man the worst kind of a flogging!" Lulu sighed to herself, then turned and went into the house.
She heard Mrs. Scrimp's voice in the kitchen scolding Ann for letting the bread burn in the oven. It was an inauspicious moment to appear before her, but Lulu marched boldly in, holding up her string of fish.
"See, Aunt Beulah! they're just fresh out of the water, and won't they make us a nice dinner?"
"And they're your favorite fish, ma'am, them pretty speckled trout is," put in Ann, glad to make a diversion in her own favor, as well as to help Lulu out of a scrape; "and I'll go right to work to clean 'em and have 'em ready for the frying-pan in less than no time."
"Yes, they'll be very nice; and the meat will keep for to-morrow," was the gracious rejoinder. "You oughtn't to have gone off without leave, Lulu; but I suppose Max couldn't wait."
"No, Aunt Beulah, he said he couldn't stay more than a minute. Shall I help Ann clean the fish?"
"No; go and make yourself tidy. Your hands are dirty, your apron soiled, and your hair looks as if it hadn't been combed for a week."
Mrs. Scrimp's face was gathering blackness as she scanned the figure of the young delinquent from head to foot, spying out all that was amiss with it.
"I will," said Lulu, moving toward the door with cheerful alacrity. "Oh, I forgot!" and rushing into the hall, she came back the next minute bringing her basket of treasures.
"See, Aunt Beulah, I've brought you lots of lovely leaves; you know you said you wanted some to make a wreath; and here are mosses, and grapes, and hazel-nuts."
"Why you have made good use of your time," Mrs. Scrimp said, now entirely mollified. "Bring your basket into the sitting-room, where Gracie is; and we'll look over its contents."
Max was less fortunate to-day than his sister. His custodian was on the look-out for him, cowhide in hand, and seizing him roughly, as he entered the gate, with a fierce, "I'll teach you to disobey orders another time, you young vagabond! I told you to come home at noon, and you're over two hours behind time!" began to administer an unmerciful flogging.
"Stop!" cried Max, trying to dodge the blows. "How could I tell the time? I came as soon as I thought it was noon."
But his tormentor was in a towering passion and would not stay his hand to listen to any excuse.
"Do you mean to kill me?" screamed Max. "You'll hang for it if you do. And my father----"
"Your father believes in enforcing obedience to orders, sir; and I'll----"
But at this instant there was an interference from a third party.
At a little distance some men were at work hewing timber. They had been working there for weeks, in which Max had made acquaintance and become a great favorite with them, particularly one called by his companions, "Big Bill," because of his great size and strength.
He was a rough, good-natured man, with nothing of the bully about him, but regarded with intense scorn and indignation any attempt on the part of the strong to tyrannize over the weak and defenceless.
He and his comrades had seen and heard enough in these weeks of labor in the vicinity of Fox's residence to inspire them with contempt and dislike toward him on account of his treatment of Max. They had among themselves already pronounced him "a wolf in sheep's clothing, a hypocrite and a coward."
They had seen him watching for the boy with his instrument of torture in his hand, and their wrath had waxed hot.
When Max came in sight they dropped their tools and looked to see what would happen, and at the first blow "Big Bill" muttering between his clenched teeth, "I'll settle his hash for him," started for the scene of action. "Stop that!" he roared, "stop that, you old hypocritical scoundrel! You hit that boy another lick and I'll knock you as flat as a flounder!"
The hand that held the whip dropped at Fox's side, and the other loosed its hold on Max as he turned and faced his assailant.
"What do you mean by coming here to interfere in my business?" he demanded.
"I mean to protect the weak against the strong, sir. I consider that my business. You've given that boy more unmerciful beatings already than he ought to have had in a lifetime, and he not at all a bad boy either. I know all about that padlock affair, though he's never breathed a word to me on the subject, and I'd enjoy nothing better than thrashing you soundly; what's more I'll do it if ever I know you to strike him again; or my name's not Bill Simpson. Max, if he ever does, you've only to let 'Big Bill' hear of it and he'll get ten times more than he's given."
"Thank you, Bill," said Max, running to the big, kind-hearted fellow and giving him his hand. "I'm glad to be protected from him, though I don't want him hurt if he'll only let me alone."
Fox had already stalked away in the direction of the house, swelling with inward wrath, but assuming an air of injured innocence and offended dignity.
Standing in wholesome fear of Max's self-constituted defender, he never again ventured to lay violent hands on the lad, but contented himself with inflicting many petty annoyances.