Laddie, A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter X. Laddie Takes the Plunge
"This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth The tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms, And bears his blushing honors thick upon him; The third day comes a frost, a killing frost, And, when he thinks, good, easy man, full surely His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root, And then he falls, as I do."
Watch me take the plunge!" said Laddie.
"`Mad frenzy fires him now,'" quoted Leon.
It was Sunday after dinner. We had been to church and Sunday- school in the forenoon, and we had a houseful of company for dinner. All of them remained to spend the afternoon, because in our home it was perfectly lovely. We had a big dinner with everything good to start on, and then we talked and visited and told all the news. The women exchanged new recipes for cooking, advised each other about how to get more work done with less worry, to doctor their sick folks, and to make their dresses. At last, when every thing was talked over, and there began to be a quiet time, father would reach across the table, pick up a paper and read all the interesting things that had happened in the country during the past week; the jokes too, and they made people think of funny stories to tell, and we just laughed. In the Agriculturist there were new ways to farm easier, to make land bear more crops; so he divided that with the neighbours, also how to make gardens, and prune trees. Before he finished, he always managed to work in a lot about being honest, kind, and loving God.
He and mother felt so good over Leon, and by this time they were beginning to see that they were mighty glad about the money too. It wouldn't have been so easy to work, and earn, and pay back all that for our school, roads, and the church; and every day you could see plainer how happy they felt that they didn't have to do it. Because they were so glad about these things, they invited every one they met that day; but we knew Saturday mother felt that probably she would ask a crowd, from the chickens, pie, and cake she got ready. When the reading part was over, and the women were beginning to look at the clock, and you knew they felt they should go home, and didn't want to, Laddie arose and said that, and Leon piped up like he always does and made every one laugh. Of course they looked at Laddie, and no one knew what he meant, so all the women and a few of the men asked him.
"Watch me, I said," laughed Laddie as he left the room.
Soon Mrs. Dover, sitting beside the front window, cried: "Here he is at the gate!"
He was on his horse, but he hitched it and went around the house and up the back way. Before long the stair door of the sitting- room opened, and there he stood. We stared at him. Of course he was bathed, and in clean clothing to start with, but he had washed and brushed some more, until he shone. His cheeks were as smooth and as clear pink as any girl's, his eyes blue-gray and big, with long lashes and heavy brows. His hair was bright brown and wavy, and he was so big and broad. He never had been sick a day in his life, and he didn't look as if he ever would be.
And clothes do make a difference. He would have had exactly the same hair, face, and body, wearing a hickory shirt and denim trousers; but he wouldn't have looked as he did in the clothes he wore at college, when it was Sunday there, or he was invited to a party at the President's. I don't see how any man could possibly be handsomer or look finer. His shirt, collar, and cuffs were snow-white, like everything had to be before mother got through with it; his big loose tie almost reached his shoulders; and our men could do a thing no other man in the neighbourhood did: they could appear easier in the finest suit they could put on than in their working clothes.
Mother used to say one thing she dreaded about Sunday was the evident tortures of the poor men squirming in boots she knew pinched them, coats too tight, and collars too high. She said they acted like half-broken colts fretting over restriction. Always she said to father and the boys when they went to buy their new clothes: "Now, don't join the harness fighters! Get your clothing big enough to set your bodies with comfort and ease."
I suppose those other men would have looked like ours if their mothers had told them. You can always see that a man needs a woman to help him out awful bad.
Of course Laddie knew he was handsome; he had to know all of them were looking at him curiously, but he stood there buttoning his glove and laughing to himself until Sarah Hood asked: "Now what are you up to?"
He took a step toward her, ran one hand under her lanternjawed chin, pulled her head against his side and turned up her face.
"Sarah," he said, "'member the day we spoiled the washing?"
Every one laughed. They had made jokes about it until our friends knew what they meant.
"What are you going to spoil now?" asked Sarah.
"The Egyptians! The `furriners.' I'm going right after them!"
"Well, you could be in better business," said Sarah Hood sharply.
Laddie laughed and squeezed her chin, and hugged her head against him.
"Listen to that, now!" he cried. "My best friend going back on me. Sarah, I thought you, of all people, would wish me luck."
"I do !" she said instantly. "And that's the very reason I don't want you mixed up with that mysterious, offish, stuck-up mess."
"Bless your dear heart!" said Laddie, giving her a harder squeeze than ever. "You got that all wrong, Sarah. You'll live to see the day, very shortly, when you'll change every word of it."
"I haven't done anything but get surer about it every day for two years, anyway," said Sarah Hood.
"Exactly!" said Laddie, "but wait until I have taken the plunge! Let me tell you how the Pryor family strikes me. I think he is a high-tempered, domineering man, proud as Lucifer! For some cause, just or not, he is ruining his life and that of his family because he so firmly believes it just; he is hiding here from his home country, his relatives, and friends. I think she is, barring you and mother, the handsomest woman of her age I ever saw----"
All of them laughed, because Sarah Hood was nearly as homely as a woman could grow, and maybe other people didn't find our mother so lovely as we thought her. I once heard one of her best friends say she was "distinctly plain." I didn't see how she could; but she said that.
"--and the most pitiful," Laddie went on. "Sarah, what do you suppose sends a frail little woman pacing the yard, and up and down the road, sometimes in storm and rain, gripping both hands over her heart?"
"I suppose it's some shameful thing I don't want you mixed up with!" said Sarah Hood promptly, and people just shouted.
"Sarah," said Laddie, "I've seen her closely, watched her move, and studied her expression. There's not one grain of possibility that you, or mother, or Mrs. Fall, or any woman here, could be any closer connected with shame. Shame there is," said Laddie, "and what a word! How it stings, burns, withers, and causes heart trouble and hiding; but shame in connection with that woman, more than shame thrust upon her, which might come to any of us, at any time, shame that is her error, in the life of a woman having a face like hers, Sarah, I am ashamed of you! Your only excuse is that you haven't persisted as I have until you got to see for yourself."
"I am not much on persistence in the face of a locked door, a cast-iron man with a big cane, and two raving bulldogs," said Mrs. Hood. "Wait, young man! Just wait until he sets them on you."
Laddie's head went back and how he laughed.
"Hist! A word with you, Sarah!" he said. "'Member I have a sort of knack with animals. I never yet have failed with one I undertook to win. Now those bulldogs of Pryors' are as mild as kittens with a man who knows the right word. Reason I know, Sarah, I've said the word to them, separately and collectively, and it worked. There is a contrast, Sarah, between what I say and do to those dogs, and the kicks and curses they get from their owner. I'll wager you two to one that if you can get Mr. Pryor to go into a `sic-ing' contest with me, I can have his own dogs at his throat, when he can't make them do more than to lick my hands."
They laughed as if that were funny.
"Well, I didn't know about this," said Sarah. "How long have you lived at Pryors'?"
You couldn't have heard what Laddie said if he'd spoken; so he waited until he could be heard, and it never worried him a speck.
He only stood and laughed too; then, "Long enough," he said, "to know that all of us are making a big and cruel mistake in taking them at their word, and leaving them penned up there weltering in misery. What we should do, is to go over there, one at a time, or in a body, and batter at the door of their hearts, until we break down the wall of pride they have built around them, ease their pain, and bring them with us socially, if they are going to live among us. You people who talk loudly and often about loving God, and `doing unto others,' should have gone long ago, for Jesus' sake; I'm going for the sake of a girl, with a face as sweet, and a heart as pure, as any accepted angel at the foot of the throne. Mother, I want a cup of peach jelly, and some of that exceptionally fine cake you served at dinner, to take to our sick neighbour."
Mother left the room.
"Father, I want permission to cut and carry a generous chestnut branch, burred, and full fruited, to the young woman. There is none save ours in this part of the country, and she may never have seen any, and be interested. And I want that article about foot disease in horses, for Mr. Pryor. I'll bring it back when he finishes."
Father folded the paper and handed it to Laddie, who slipped it in his pocket.
"Take the finest branch you can select," father said, and I almost fell over.
He had carried those trees from Ohio, before I had been born, and mother said for years he wrapped them in her shawl in winter and held an umbrella over them in summer, and father always went red and grinned when she told it. He was wild about trees, and bushes, so he made up his mind he'd have chestnuts. He planted them one place, and if they didn't like it, he dug them up and set them another where he thought they could have what they needed and hadn't got the last place. Finally, he put them, on the fourth move, on a little sandy ridge across the road from the wood yard, and that was the spot. They shot up, branched, spread, and one was a male and two were females, so the pollen flew, the burrs filled right, and we had a bag of chestnuts to send each child away from home, every Christmas. The brown leaves and burrs were so lovely, mother cut one of the finest branches she could select and hung it above the steel engraving of "Lincoln Freeing the Slaves," in the boys' room, and nothing in the house was looked at oftener, or thought prettier. That must have been what was in the back of Laddie's head when he wanted a branch for the Princess.
Mother came in with the cake and jelly in a little fancy basket, and Laddie said: "Thank you! Now every one wish me luck! I'm going to ride to Pryors', knock at the door, and present these offerings with my compliments. If I'm invited in, I'm going to make the effort of my life at driving the entering wedge toward social intercourse between Pryors and their neighbours. If I'm not, I'll be back in thirty minutes and tell you what happened to me. If they refuse my gifts, you shall have the jelly, Sarah; I'll give Mrs. Fall the olive branch, bring back the paper, and eat the cake to console my wounded spirits."
Of course every one laughed; they couldn't help it. I watched father and he laughed hardest of the men, but mother was more stiff-lipped about it; she couldn't help a little, though. And I noticed some of those women acted as if they had lost something. Maybe it was a chance to gossip about Laddie, for he hadn't left them a thing to guess at, and mother says the reason gossip is so dreadful is because it is always guesswork. Well, that was all fair and plain. He had told those people, our very best friends, what he thought about everything, the way they acted included. He was carrying something to each member of the Pryor family, and he'd left a way to return joking and unashamed, if they wouldn't let him in. He had fixed things so no one had anything to guess at, and it would look much worse for the Pryors than it would for him, if he did come back.
I wondered if he had been born that smart, or if he learned it in college. If he did, no wonder Leon was bound to go. Come to think of it, though, mother said Laddie was always like that. She said he never bit her when he nursed; he never mauled her as if she couldn't be hurt when he was little, he never tore his clothes and made extra work as he grew, and never in his life gave her an hour's uneasiness. But I guess she couldn't have said that about uneasiness lately, for she couldn't keep from looking troubled as all of us followed to the gate to see him start.
How they joked, and tried to tease him! But they couldn't get a breath ahead. He shot back answers as fast as they could ask questions, while he cut the branch and untied the horse. He gave the limb and basket to mother to hold, kissed her good-bye, and me too, before he mounted. With my arms around his neck--I never missed a chance to try to squeeze into him how I loved him--I whispered: "Laddie, is it a secret any more?"
He threw back his head and laughed the happiest.
"Not the ghost of a secret!" he said. "But you let me do the talking, until I tell you." Then he went on right out loud: "I'm riding up the road waving the banner of peace. If I suffer repulse, the same thing has happened to better men before, so I'll get a different banner and try again."
Laddie mounted, swept a circle in the road, dropped Flos on her knees in a bow, and waved the branch. Leon began to sing at the top of his voice, "Nothing but leaves, nothing but leaves," while Laddie went flashing up the road.
The women went back to the house; the men stood around the gate, watched him from sight, talked about his horse, how he rode, and made wagers that he'd get shut out, like every one did, but they said if that happened he wouldn't come back. Father was annoyed.
"You heard Laddie say he'd return immediately if they wouldn't let him in," he said. "He's a man of his word. He will either enter or come home at once."
It was pitch dark and we had supper before some of them left; they never stayed so late. After we came from church, father read the chapter and we were ready for bed; still Laddie hadn't come back. And father liked it! He just plain liked it! He chuckled behind the Advocate until you could see it shake; but mother had very little to say, and her lips closed tight.
At bedtime he said to mother: "Well, they don't seem in a hurry about sending the boy back."
"Did you really think he would be sent back?" asked mother.
"Not ordinarily," said father, "no! If he had no brain, no wit, no culture, on an animal basis, a woman would look twice before she'd send him away; but with such fanatics as Pryors, one can't always tell what will happen."
"In a case like this, one can be reasonably certain," said mother.
"You don't know what social position they occupied at home. Their earmarks are all good. We've no such notions here as they have."
"Thank God for so much, at any rate," said mother. "How old England would rise up and exult if she had a man in line with Laddie's body, blood and brain, to set on her throne. This talk about class and social position makes me sick. Men are men, and Laddie is as much above the customary timber found in kings and princes, physically and mentally, as the sky is above the earth. Talk me no talk about class! If I catch it coming from any of mine, save you, I will beat it out of them. He has admitted he's in love with the girl; the real question is, whether she's fit to be his wife."
"I should say she appears so," said father.
"Drat appearances!" cried mother. "When it's a question of lifetime misery, and the soul's salvation of my son, if things go wrong, I've no time for appearances. I want to know!"
He might have known he would make her angry when he laughed. She punched the pillow, and wouldn't say another word; so I went to sleep, and didn't miss anything that time.
Next morning at breakfast Laddie was beaming, and father hardly waited to ask the blessing before he inquired: "Well, how did you make it, son?"
Laddie laughed and answered: "Altogether, it might have been much worse."
That was all he would say until Miss Amelia started to school, then he took me on his lap and talked as he buttoned my coat.
"Thomas met me at the gate," he said, "and held my horse while I went to the door. One of their women opened it, and I inquired for Mr. Pryor. She said he was in the field looking at the horses, so I asked for Miss Pryor. She came in a minute, so I gave her the branch, told her about it, and offered the jelly and cake for her mother. The Princess invited me to enter. I told her I couldn't without her father's permission, so I went to the field to see him. The dogs were with him and he had the surprise of his life when his man-eaters rolled at my feet, and licked my hands."
"What did he say?" chuckled father.
"Told Thomas they'd been overfed and didn't amount to a brass farthing; to take them to the woods and shoot them. Thomas said he'd see to it the very first thing in the morning, and then Mr. Pryor told him he would shoot him if he did."
"Charming man to work for," said mother.
"Then I told him I'd been at the house to carry a little gift to his wife and daughter, and to inquire if I might visit an hour, and as he was not there, I had come to the field to ask him. Then I looked him in the eye and said: `May I?'
"`I'll warrant the women asked you to come in,' he said.
"`Miss Pryor was so kind,' I answered, `but I enter no man's house without his permission. May I talk with your daughter an hour, and your wife, if she cares to see me?'
"`It makes no earthly difference to me,' he said, which was not gracious, but might have been worse, so I thanked him, and went back to the house. When I knocked the second time, the Princess came, and I told her the word was that it made `no difference to her father' if I came in, so she opened the door widely, took my hat and offered me a seat. Then she went to the next room and said: `Mother, father has given Mr. Stanton permission to pay us a call. Do you feel able to meet him?' She came at once, offering her hand and saying: `I have already met Mr. Stanton so often, really, we should have the privilege of speaking.'"
"What did she mean by that?" asked mother.
"She meant that I have haunted the road passing their place for two years, and she'd seen me so frequently that she came to recognize me."
"Umph!" said mother.
"Laddie tell on!" I begged.
"Well, I sharpened all the wits I had and went to work. I never tried so hard in my life to be entertaining. Of course I had to feel my way. I'd no idea what would interest a delicate, high- bred lady"--mother sniffed again--"so I had to search and probe, and go by guess until I saw a shade of interest, then I worked in more of the same. It was easy enough to talk to the Princess-- all young folks have a lot in common, we could get along on fifty topics; it was different with the housebound mother. I did my best, and after a while Mr. Pryor came in. I asked him if any of his horses had been attacked with the trouble some of the neighbours were having, and told him what it was. He had the grace to thank me. He said he would tell Thomas not to tie his horse at the public hitching rack when he went to town, and once he got started, he was wild to talk with a man, and I'd no chance to say a word to the women. He was interested in our colleges, state, and national laws, in land development, and everything that all live men are. When a maid announced dinner I apologized for having stayed so long, and excused myself, because I had been so interested, but Mrs. Pryor merely said: `I'm waiting to be offered your arm.'
"Well, you should have seen me drop my hat and step up. I did my best, and while I talked to him a little, I made it most to the women. Any one could see they were starved for company, so I took the job of entertaining them. I told some college jokes, funny things that had happened in the neighbourhood, and everything of interest I could think up. I know we were at the table for two hours with things coming and going on silver platters."
Mother sat straight suddenly.
"Just what did they have to eat, and how did they serve it?" she asked.
"Couldn't tell if I were to be shot for it, mummy," said Laddie. "Forgive me! Next time I'll take notes for you. This first plunge, I had to use all my brains, not to be a bore to them; and to handle food and cutlery as the women did. It's quite a process, but as they were served first, I could do right by waiting. I never was where things were done quite so elaborately before."
"And they didn't know they would have company until you went to the table?"
"Well, they must have thought likely, there was a place for me."
"Umph!" said mother. "Fine idea! Then any one who drops in can be served, and see that they are not a mite of trouble. Candace, always an extra place after this!"
Father just shouted.
"I thought you'd get something out of it!" he said.
"Happy to have justified your faith!" replied mother calmly. "Go on, son!"
"That's all!" said Laddie. "We left the table and talked an hour more. The women asked me to come again; he didn't say anything on that subject; but when he ordered my horse, he asked the Princess if she would enjoy a little exercise, and she said she would, so he told Thomas to bring their horses, and we rode around the section, the Princess and I ahead, Mr. Pryor following. Where the road was good and the light fine enough that there was no danger of laming a horse, we dropped back, one on either side of him, so we could talk. Mrs. Pryor ate the cake and said it was fine; and the `conserve,' she called it, delicious as she ever had tasted. She said all our fruits here had much more flavour than at home; she thought it was the dryer climate and more sunshine. She sent her grateful thanks, and she wants your recipe before next preserving time."
Mother just beamed. My! but she did love to have the things she cooked, bragged on.
"Possibly she'd like my strawberries?" she said.
"There isn't a doubt about it," said Laddie. "I've yet to see the first person who doesn't."
"Is that all?" asked mother.
"I can think of nothing more at this minute," answered Laddie. "If anything comes to my mind later, I won't forget to tell you. Oh yes, there was one thing: You couldn't keep Mr. Pryor from talking about Leon. He must have taken a great fancy to him. He talked until he worried the Princess, and she tried to keep him away from the subject, but his mind seemed to run on it constantly. When we were riding she talked quite as much as he, and it will hustle us to think what the little scamp did, any bigger than they do. Of course, father, you understood the price Mr. Pryor made on one of his very finest colts was a joke. There's a strain of Arab in the father--he showed me the record-- and the mother is bluegrass. There you get gentleness and endurance combined with speed and nerve. I'd trade Flos for that colt as it stands to-day. There's nothing better on earth in the way of horse. His offer is practically giving it away. I know, with the records to prove its pedigree, what that colt would bring him in any city market."
"I don't like it," said mother. "I want Leon to have a horse, but a boy in a first experience, and reckless as he is, doesn't need a horse like that, for one thing, and what is more important, I refuse to be put under any obligations to Pryors."
"That's the reason Mr. Pryor asked anything at all for the horse.
It is my opinion that he would be greatly pleased to give it to Leon, if he could do what he liked."
"Well, that's precisely the thing he can't do in this family," said mother sternly.
"What do you think, father?" asked Laddie.
"I think Amen! to that proposition," said father; "but I would have to take time to thresh it out completely. It appeals to me that Leon is old enough to recognize the value of the animal; and that the care of it would develop and strengthen his character. It would be a responsibility that would steady him. You could teach him to tend and break it."
"Break it!" cried Laddie. "Break it! Why father, he's riding it bareback all over the Pryor meadow now, and jumping it over logs. Whenever he leaves, it follows him to the fence, and the Princess says almost any hour of the day you look out you can see it pacing up and down watching this way and whinnying for him to come."
"And your best judgment is----?"
Laddie laughed as he tied my hood strings. "Well I don't feel about the Pryors as the rest of you do," he said. "If the money isn't claimed inside the time you specified, I would let Leon and Mr. Pryor make their own bargain. The boy won't know for years that it is practically a gift, and it would please Mr. Pryor immensely. Now run, or you'll be late!"
I had to go, so I didn't know how they settled it, but if they wouldn't let Leon have that horse, it was downright mean. What if we were under obligations to Mr. Pryor? We were to Sarah Hood, and half the people we knew, and what was more, we liked to be.
When I came from school that night father had been to town. He had an ax and was opening a big crate, containing two of the largest, bluest geese you ever saw. Laddie said being boxed that way and seeing them so close made them look so big; really, they were no finer than Pryors', where he had got the address of the place that sold them. Mother was so pleased. She said she had needed a new strain, for a long time, to improve her feathers; now she would have pillows worth while, in a few years. They put them in the barn where our geese stayed over night, and how they did scream. That is, one of them did; the other acted queerly and father said to Laddie that he was afraid the trip was hard on it. Laddie said it might have been hurt, and mother was worried too. Before she had them an hour, she had sold all our ganders; spring had come, she had saved the blue goose eggs, set them under a hen, raised the goslings with the little chickens, never lost one, picked them and made a new pair of pillows too fine for any one less important than a bishop, or a judge, or Dr. Fenner to sleep on. Then she began saving for a featherbed. And still the goose didn't act as spry or feel as good as the gander. He stuck up his head, screamed, spread his wings and waved them, and the butts looked so big and hard, I was not right certain whether it would be safe to tease him or not.
The first person who came to see them was Sarah Hood, and she left with the promise of a pair as soon as mother could raise them. Father said the only reason mother didn't divide her hair with Sarah Hood was because it was fast, and she couldn't. Mother said gracious goodness! she'd be glad to get rid of some of it if she could, and of course Sarah should have first chance at it. Hadn't she kept her over night so she could see her new home when she was rested, and didn't she come with her, and help her get settled, and had she ever failed when we had a baby, or sickness, or trouble, or thrashers, or a party? Of course she'd gladly divide, even the hair of her head, with Sarah Hood. And father said, "Yes, he guessed she would, and come to think of it, he'd just as soon spare Sarah part of his," and then they both laughed, when it was nothing so very funny that I could see.
The next caller the geese had was Mrs. Freshett. My! she thought they were big and fine. Mother promised her a couple of eggs to set under a hen. Father said she was gradually coming down the scale of her feelings, and before two weeks she'd give Isaac Thomas, at least, a quill for a pen. Almost no one wrote with them any more, but often father made a few, and showed us how to use them. He said they were gone with candles, sand boxes, and snuff. Mother said she had no use for snuff, but candles were not gone, she'd make and use them to the day of her death, as they were the nicest light ever invented to carry from room to room, or when you only wanted to sit and think. Father said there was really no good pen except the quill you sharpened yourself; and while he often used steel ones like we children had at school to write to the brothers and sisters away, and his family, he always kept a few choice quills in the till of his chest, and when he wrote a deed, or any valuable paper, where there was a deal with money, he used them. He said it lent the dignity of a past day to an important occasion.
After mother and Mrs. Freshett had talked over every single thing about the geese, and that they were like Pryors' had been settled, Mrs. Freshett said: "Since he told about it before all of us, and started out the way he did, would it be amiss to ask how Laddie got on at Pryors'?"
"Just the way I thought he would," said mother. "He stayed until all of us were in bed, and I'd never have known when he came in, if it were not a habit of his always to come to my door to see if I'm sleeping. Sometimes I'm wakeful, and if he pommels my pillow good, brings me a drink, and rubs my head a few strokes with his strong, cool hands, I can settle down and have a good night's rest. I was awake when he came, or I'd never have known. It was almost midnight; but they sat two hours at the table, and then all of them rode."
"Not the Missus?"
"Oh no! She's not strong enough. She really has incurable heart trouble, the worst kind there is; her daughter told me so."
"Then they better look out," said Mrs. Freshett. "She is likely to keel over at a breath."
"They must know it. That's why she keeps so quiet."
"And they had him to supper?"
"It was a dinner served at night. Yes. He took Mrs. Pryor in on his arm, and it was like a grand party, just as they fixed for themselves, alone. Waiters, and silver trays, and things carried in and out in courses."
"My land! Well, I s'pose he had enough schoolin' to get him through it all right!"
My mother's face grew red. She never left any one in doubt as to what she meant. Father said that "was the Dutch of it." And mother always answered that if any one living could put things plainer than the English, she would like to hear them do it.
"He certainly had," said mother, "or they wouldn't have invited him to come again. And all mine, Mrs. Freshett, knew how to sit properly at the table, and manage a knife, fork and napkin, before they ever took a meal away from home."
"No 'fence," laughed Mrs. Freshett. "I meant that maybe his years of college schoolin' had give him ways more like theirs than most of us have. For all the money it takes to send a boy to college, he ought to get somethin' out of it more than jest fillin' his head with figgers, an' stars, an' oratin'; an' most always you can see that he does."
"It is contact with cultivated people," said mother. "You are always influenced by it, without knowing it often."
"Maybe you are, bein' so fine yourself," said Mrs. Freshett. "An' me too, I never get among my betters that I don't carry home a lot I put right into daily use, an' nobody knows it plainer. I come here expectin' to learn things that help me, an' when I go home I know I have."
"Why, thank you," said mother. "I'm sure that is a very nice compliment, and I wish I really could feel that it is well deserved."
"Oh I guess you do!" said Mrs. Freshett laughing. "I often noticed you makin' a special effort to teach puddin' heads like me somethin', an' I always thank you for it. There's a world in right teachin'. I never had any. So all I can pick up an' hammer into mine is a gain for me an' them. If my Henry had lived, an' come out anything like that boy o' yourn an' the show he made last Sunday, I'd do well if I didn't swell up an' bust with pride. An' the little tow-haired strip, takin' the gun an' startin' out alone after a robber, even if he wa'n't much of a man, that was downright spunky. If my boys will come out anywhere near like yourn, I'll be glad."
"I don't know how my boys will come out," said mother. "But I work, pray, hope, and hang to them; that's all I know to do."
"Well, if they don't come out right, they ought to be bumped!" said Mrs. Freshett. "After all the chances they've had! I don' know jest how Freshett was brung up, but I'd no chance at all. My folks--well, I guess the less said--little pitchers, you know! I can't see as I was to blame. I was the youngest, an' I knew things was wrong. I fought to go to school, an' pap let me enough that I saw how other people lived. Come night I'd go to the garret, an' bar the trapdoor; but there would be times when I couldn't help seein' what was goin' on. How'd you like chances such as that for a girl of yourn?"
"Dreadful!" said mother. "Mrs. Freshett, please do be careful!"
"Sure!" laughed Mrs. Freshett. "I was jest goin' to tell you about me an' Josiah. He come to our house one night, a stranger off the road. He said he was sick, an' tired, an' could he have a bed. Mother said, `No, for him to move on.' He tried an' he couldn't. They was somethin' about him--well, you know how them things go! I wa'n't only sixteen, but I felt so sorry for him, all fever burned and mumblin', I helped pap put him to bed, an' doctored him all I could. Come mornin' he was a sick man. Pap went for the county doctor, an' he took jest one look an' says: `Small pox! All of ye git!'
"I was bound I wouldn't go, but pap made me, an' the doctor said he'd send a man who'd had it; so I started, but I felt so bad, come a chanct when they got to Groveville, I slipped out an' went back. The man hadn't come, so I set to work the best I knowed. 'Fore long Josiah was a little better an' he asked who I was, an' where my folks went, an' I told him, an' he asked why I came back an' I didn't know what to say, so I jest hung my head an' couldn't face him. After a while he says, `All right! I guess I got this sized up. If you'll stay an' nuss me through, I'll be well enough to pull you out, by the time you get it, an' soon as you're able we'll splice, if you say so.'
"`Marry me, you mean?' says I. They wa'n't ever any talk about marryin' at our house. `Sure!' says he. `You're a mighty likely lookin' girl! I'll do fair by ye.' An' he always has, too! But I didn't feel right to let him go it blind, so I jest up and says. `You wouldn't if you knowed my folks!' `You look as decent as I do,' says he; `I'll chance it!' Then I tole him I was as good as I was born, an' he believed me, an' he always has, an' I was too! So I nussed him, but I didn't make the job of it he did. You 'member he is pitted considerable. He was so strong I jest couldn't keep him from disfigerin' himself, but he tied me. I begged to be loose, an' he wouldn't listen, so I got a clean face, only three little scars, an' they ain't deep to speak of. He says he looks like a piece of side meat, but say! they ain't nothin' the matter with his looks to me!
"The nuss man never did come, but the county doctor passed things in the winder, till I was over the worst, an' Josiah sent for a preacher an' he married us through the winder--I got the writin's to show, all framed an' proper. Josiah said he'd see I got all they was in it long that line, anyway. When I was well, hanged if he didn't perdooce a wad from his clothes before they burnt 'em, an' he got us new things to wear, an' a horse, an' wagon, an' we driv away here where we thought we could start right, an' after we had the land, an' built the cabin, an' jest as happy as heart could wish, long come a man I'd made mad once, an' he tole everythin' up and down. Josiah was good about it. He offered to sell the land, an' pull up an' go furder. `What's the use?' says I. `Hundreds know it. We can't go so far it won't be like to follow us; le's stay here an' fight it.' `All right,' says Josiah, but time an' ag'in he has offered to go, if I couldn't make it. `Hang on a little longer,' says I, every time he knew I was snubbed an' slighted. I never tole what he didn't notice. I tried church, when my children began to git a size I wanted 'em to have right teachin', an' you come an' welcomed me an' you been my friend, an' now the others is comin' over at last, an' visitin' me, an' they ain't a thing more I want in life."
"I am so glad!" said mother. "Oh my dear, I am so glad!"
"Goin' right home an' tell that to Josiah," said Mrs. Freshett, jumping up laughing and crying like, "an' mebby I'll jest spread wings and fly! I never was so happy in all my life as I was Sunday, when you ast me before all of them, so cordial like, an' says I to Josiah, `We'll go an' try it once,' an' we come an' nobody turned a cold shoulder on us, an' I wa'n't wearin' specks to see if they did, for I never knowed him so happy in all his days. Orter heard him whistle goin' home, an' he's tryin' all them things he learned, on our place, an' you can see it looks a heap better a'ready, an' now he's talkin' about buildin' in the spring. I knowed he had money, but he never mentioned buildin' before, an' I always thought it was bekase he 'sposed likely we'd have to move on, some time. 'Pears now as if we can settle, an' live like other folks, after all these years. I knowed ye didn't want me to talk, but I had to tell you! When you ast us to the weddin', and others began comin' round, says I to Josiah, `Won't she be glad to know that my skirts is clear, an' I did as well as I could?' An' he says, `That she will! An' more am I,' says he.
`I mighty proud of you,' says he. Proud! Think of that! Miss Stanton, I'd jest wade fire and blood for you!"
"Oh my dear !" said mother. "What a dreadful thing to say!"
"Gimme the chanct, an' watch if I don't," said Mrs. Freshett. "Now, Josiah is proud I stuck it out! Now, I can have a house! Now, my children can have all the show we can raise to give 'em! I'm done cringin' an' dodgin'! I've always done my best; henceforth I mean to hold up my head an' say so. I sure can't be held for what was done 'fore I was on earth, or since neither. You've given me my show, I'm goin' to take it, but if you want to know what's in my heart about you, gimme any kind of a chanct to prove, an' see if I don't pony right up to it!"
Mother laughed until the tears rolled, she couldn't help it. She took Mrs. Freshett in her arms and hugged her tight, and kissed her mighty near like she does Sarah Hood. Mrs. Freshett threw her arms around mother, and looked over her shoulder, and said to me, "Sis, when you grow up, always take a chanct on welcomin' the stranger, like your maw does, an' heaven's bound to be your home! My, but your maw is a woman to be proud of!" she said, hugging mother and patting her on the back.
"All of us are proud of her!" I boasted.
"I doubt if you are proud enough!" cried Mrs. Freshett. "I have my doubts! I don't see how people livin' with her, an' seein' her every day, are in a shape to know jest what she can do for a person in the place I was in. I have my doubts!"
That night when I went home from school mother was worrying over the blue goose. When we went to feed, she told Leon that she was afraid it was weak, and not getting enough to eat when it fed with the others. She said after the work was finished, to take it out alone, and give it all it would eat; so when the horses were tended, the cows milked, everything watered, and the barn ready to close for the night, Laddie took the milk to the house, while Leon and I caught the blue goose, carried her to the well, and began to shell corn. She was starved to death, almost. She ate a whole ear in no time and looked for more, so Leon sent me after another. By the time that was most gone she began to eat slower, and stick her bill in the air to help the grains slip down, so I told Leon I thought she had enough.
"No such thing!" said Leon. "You distinctly heard mother tell me to give her `all she would eat.' She's eating, isn't she? Go bring another ear!"
So she was, but I was doubtful about more.
Leon said I better mind or he would tell mother, so I got it. She didn't begin on it with any enthusiasm. She stuck her bill higher, stretched her neck longer, and she looked so funny when she did it, that we just shrieked. Then Leon reached over, took her by the bill, and stripped her neck to help her swallow, and as soon as he let go, she began to eat again.
"You see!" said Leon, "she's been starved. She can't get enough. I must help her!"
So he did help her every little bit. By that time we were interested in seeing how much she could hold; and she looked so funny that Leon sent me for more corn; but I told him I thought what she needed now was water, so we held her to the trough, and she tried to drink, but she couldn't swallow much. We set her down beside the corn, and she went to eating again.
"Go it, old mill-hopper!" cried Leon.
Right then there was an awful commotion in the barn, and from the squealing we knew one of the horses was loose, and fighting the others. We ran to fix them, and had a time to get Jo back into his stall, and tied. Before we had everything safe, the supper bell rang, and I bet Leon a penny I could reach the house while he shut the door and got there. We forgot every single thing about the goose.
At supper mother asked Leon if he fed the goose all she would eat, and I looked at him guilty-like, for I remembered we hadn't put her back. He frowned at me cross as a bear, and I knew that meant he had remembered, and would slip back and put her inside when he finished his supper, so I didn't say anything.
"I didn't feed her all she would eat!" said Leon. "If I had, she'd be at it yet. She was starved sure enough! You never saw anything like the corn she downed."
"Well I declare!" said mother. "Now after this, take her out alone, for a few days, and give her as much as she wants."
"All right!" chuckled Leon, because it was a lot of fun to see her run her bill around, and gobble up the corn, and stick up her head.
The next day was Saturday, so after breakfast I went with Leon to drive the sheep and geese to the creek to water; the trough was so high it was only for the horses and cattle; when we let out the geese, the blue one wasn't there.
"Oh Leon, did you forget to come back and put her in?"
"Yes I did!" he said. "I meant to when I looked at you to keep still, and I started to do it, but Sammy Deam whistled, so I went down in the orchard to see what he wanted, and we got to planning how to get up a fox chase, and I stayed until father called for night, and then I ran and forgot all about the blame old goose."
"Oh Leon! Where is she? What will mother say? 'Spose a fox got her!"
"It wouldn't help me any if it had, after I was to blame for leaving her outside. Blast a girl! If you ever amounted to anything, you could have put her in while I fixed the horses. At least you could have told me to."
I stood there dumblike and stared at him. He has got the awfulest way of telling the truth when he is scared or provoked. Of course I should have thought of the goose when he was having such a hard fight with the horses. If I'd been like he was, I'd have told him that he was older, mother told him to do it, and it wasn't my fault; but in my heart I knew he did have his hands full, and if you're your brother's keeper, you ought to help your brother remember. So I stood gawking, while Leon slowly turned whiter and whiter.
"We might as well see if we can find her," he said at last, so slow and hopeless like it made my heart ache. So he started around the straw stack one way, and I the other, looking into all the holes, and before I had gone far I had a glimpse of her, and it scared me so I screamed, for her head was down, and she didn't look right. Leon came running and pulled her out. The swelled corn rolled in a little trail after her, and the pigs ran up and began to eat it. Pigs are named righter than anything else I know.
"Busted!" cried Leon in tones of awe; about the worst awe you ever heard, and the worst bust you ever saw.
From bill to breast she was wide open, and the hominy spilling. We just stood staring at her, and then Leon began to kick the pigs; because it would be no use to kick the goose; she would never know. Then he took her up, carried her into the barn, and put her on the floor where the other geese had stayed all night. We stood and looked at her some more, as if looking and hoping would make her get up and be alive again. But there's nothing in all this world so useless as wishing dead things would come alive; we had to do something.
"What are you going to tell mother?"
"Shut up!" said Leon. "I'm trying to think."
"I'll say it was as much my fault as yours. I'll go with you. I'll take half whatever they do to you."
"Little fool!" said Leon. "What good would that do me?"
"Do you know what they cost? Could you get another with some of your horse money?"
I saw it coming and dodged again, before I remembered the Crusaders.
"All right!" I said. "If that's the way you are going to act, Smarty, I'll lay all the blame on you; I won't help you a bit, and I don't care if you are whipped until the blood runs."
Then I went out of the barn and slammed the door. For a minute I felt better; but it was a short time. I said that to be mean, but I did care. I cared dreadfully; I was partly to blame, and I knew it. Coming around the barn, I met Laddie, and he saw in a flash I was in trouble, so he stopped and asked: "What now, Chicken?"
"Come into the barn where no one will hear us," I said.
So we went around the outside, entered at the door on the embankment, and he sat in the wheelbarrow on the threshing floor while I told him. I thought I felt badly enough, but after I saw Laddie, it grew worse, for I remembered we were short of money that fall, that the goose was a fine, expensive one, and how proud mother was of her, and how she'd be grieved, and that was trouble for sure.
"Run along and play!" said Laddie, "and don't tell any one else if you can help it. I'll hide the goose, and see if I can get another in time to take the place of this one, so mother won't be worried."
I walked to the house slowly, but I was afraid to enter. When you are all choked up, people are sure to see it, and ask fool questions. So I went around to the gate and stood there looking up and down the road, and over the meadow toward the Big Woods; and all at once, in one of those high, regular bugle calls, like they mostly scream in spring, one of Pryors' ganders split the echoes for a mile; maybe farther.
I was across the road and slinking down inside the meadow fence before I knew it. There was no thought or plan. I started for Pryors' and went straight ahead, only I kept out of line with our kitchen windows. I tramped through the slush, ice, and crossed fields where I was afraid of horses; but when I got to the top of the Pryor backyard fence, I stuck there, for the bulldogs were loose, and came raving at me. I was going to be eaten alive, for I didn't know the word Laddie did; and those dogs climbed a fence like a person; I saw them the time Leon brought back Even So. I was thinking what a pity it was, after every one had grown accustomed to me, and had begun loving me, that I should be wasted for dog feed, when Mr. Pryor came to the door, and called them; they didn't mind, so he came to the fence, and crossest you ever heard, every bit as bad as the dogs, he cried: "Whose brat are you, and what are you doing here?"
I meant to tell him; but you must have a minute after a thing like that.
"God of my life!" he fairly frothed. "What did anybody send a dumb child here for?"
"Dumb child!" I didn't care if Mr. Pryor did wear a Crown of Glory. It wasn't going to do him one particle of good, unless he was found in the way of the Lord. "Dumb child!" I was no more dumb than he was, until his bulldogs scared me so my heart got all tangled up with my stomach, my lungs, and my liver. That made me mad, and there was nothing that would help me to loosen up and talk fast, like losing my temper. I wondered what kind of a father he had. If he'd been stood against the wall and made to recite, "Speak gently," as often as all of us, perhaps he'd have remembered the verse that says:
"Speak gently to the little child; Its love be sure to gain; Teach it in accents soft and mild; It may not long remain."
I should think not, if it had any chance at all to get away! I was so angry by that time I meant to tell him what I thought. Polite or not polite, I'd take a switching if I had to, but I wasn't going to stand that.
"You haven't got any God in your life," I reminded him, "and no one sent me here. I came to see the Princess, because I'm in awful trouble and I hoped maybe she could fix up a way to help me."
"Ye Gods!" he cried. He would stick to calling on God, whether he believed in Him or not. "If it isn't Nimrod! I didn't recognize you in all that bundling."
Probably he didn't know it, but Nimrod was from the Bible too! By bundling, he meant my hood and coat. He helped me from the fence, sent the bulldogs rolling--sure enough he did kick them, and they didn't like it either--took my hand and led me straight into the house, and the Princess was there, and a woman who was her mother no doubt, and he said: "Pamela, here is our little neighbour, and she says she's in trouble, and she thinks you may be of some assistance to her. Of course you will be glad if you can."
"Surely!" said the Princess, and she introduced me to her mother, so I bowed the best I knew, and took off my wet mitten, dirty with climbing fences, to shake hands with her. She was so gracious and lovely I forgot what I went after. The Princess brought a cloth and wiped the wet from my shoes and stockings, and asked me if I wouldn't like a cup of hot tea to keep me from taking a chill.
"I've been much wetter than this," I told her, "and I never have taken a chill, and anyway my throat's too full of trouble to drink."
"Why, you poor child!" said the Princess. "Tell me quickly! Is your mother ill again?"
"Not now, but she's going to be as soon as she finds out," I said, and then I told them.
They all listened without a sound until I got where Leon helped the goose eat, and from that on Mr. Pryor laughed until you could easily see that he had very little feeling for suffering humanity. It was funny enough when we fed her, but now that she was bursted wide open there was nothing amusing about it; and to roar when a visitor plainly told you she was in awful trouble, didn't seem very good manners to me. The Princess and her mother never even smiled; and before I had told nearly all of it, Thomas was called to hitch the Princess' driving cart, and she took me to their barnyard to choose the goose that looked most like mother's, and all of them seemed like hers, so we took the first one Thomas could catch, put it into a bag in the back of the cart, and then we got in and started for our barn. As we reached the road, I said to her: "You'd better go past Dovers', for if we come down our Little Hill they will see us sure; it's baking day."
"All right!" said the Princess, so we went the long way round the section, but goodness me! when she drove no way was far.
When we were opposite our barn she stopped, hitched her horse to the fence, and we climbed over, and slipping behind the barn, carried the goose around to the pen and put it in with ours. She said she wanted the broken one, because her father would enjoy seeing it. I didn't see how he could! We were ready to slip out, when our geese began to run at the new one, hiss and scream, and make such a racket that Laddie and Leon both caught us. They looked at the goose, at me, the Princess, and each other, and neither said a word. She looked back a little bit, and then she laughed as hard as she could. Leon grew red, and he grinned ashamed-like, so she laughed worse than ever. Laddie spoke to me: "You went to Mr. Pryor's and asked for that goose?"
"She did not!" said the Princess before I could answer. "She never asked for anything. She was making a friendly morning call and in the course of her visit she told about the pathetic end of the goose that was expected to lay the golden egg--I mean stuff the Bishop's pillow--and as we have a large flock of blue geese, father gave her one, and he had the best time he's had in years doing it. I wouldn't have had him miss the fun he got from it for any money. He laughed like home again. Now I must slip away before any one sees me, and spoils our secret. Leon, lad, you can go to the house and tell your little mother that the feeding stopped every pain her goose had, and hereafter it looks to you as if she'd be all right."
"Miss Pryor," said Leon, "did you care about what I said at you in church that day?"
"`Thou art all fair, my love. There is no spot in thee.' Well, it was a little pointed, but since you ask a plain question, I have survived it."
"I'm awfully sorry," said Leon. "Of course I never would, if I'd known you could be this nice."
The Princess looked at Laddie and almost gasped, and then both of them laughed. Leon saw that he had told her he was sorry he said she was "fair, and no spot in her."
"Oh I don't mean that!" he said. "What I do mean is that I thank you awful much for the goose, and helping me out like such a brick of a good fellow, and what I wish is, that I was as old as Laddie, and he'd hump himself if he got to be your beau."
The Princess almost ran. Laddie and I followed to the road, where he unhitched the horse and helped her in. Then he stood stroking its neck, as he held the bridle.
"I don't know what to say!" said Laddie.
"In such case, I would counsel silence," advised the Princess.
"I hope you understand how I thank you."
"I fail to see what for. Father gave the goose to Little Sister. Her thanks and Leon's are more than enough for him. We had great sport."
"I insist on adding mine. Deep and fervent!"
"You take everything so serious. Can't you see the fun of this?"
"No," said Laddie. "But if you can, I am glad, and I'm thankful for anything that gives me a glimpse of you."
"Bye, Little Sister," said the Princess, and when she loosened the lines the mud flew a rod high.