Laddie, A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XVI. The Homing Pigeon
"A millstone and the human heart, Are ever driven round, And if they've nothing else to grind, They must themselves be ground."
It seemed to me that my mother was the person who really could have been excused for having heart trouble. The more I watched her, the more I wondered that she didn't. There was her own life, the one she and father led, where everything went exactly as she wanted it to; and if there had been only themselves to think of, no people on earth could have lived happier, unless the pain she sometimes suffered made them trouble, and I don't think it would, for neither of them were to blame for that. They couldn't help it. They just had it to stand, and fight the stiffest they could to cure it, and mother always said she was better; every single time any one asked, she was better. I hoped soon it would all be gone. Then they could have been happy for sure, if some of us hadn't popped up and kept them in hot water all the time.
I can't tell you about Laddie when he came back from Pryors'. He tore down the house, then tore it up, and then threw around the pieces, and none of us cared. Every one was just laughing, shouting, and every bit as pleased as he was, while I was the Queen Bee. Laddie said so, himself, and if he didn't know, no one did. Pryors had been lovely to him. When mother asked him how he made it, he answered: "I rode over, picked up the Princess and helped myself. After I finished, I remembered the little unnecessary formality of asking her to marry me; and she said right out loud that she would. When I had time for them, I reached Father and Mother Pryor, and maybe it doesn't show, but somewhere on my person I carry their blessing, genially and heartily given, I am proud to state. Now, I'm only needing yours, to make me a king among men."
They gave it quite as willingly, I am sure, although you could see mother scringe when Laddie said "Father and Mother Pryor." I knew why. She adored Laddie, like the Bible says you must adore the Almighty. From a tiny baby Laddie had taken care of her. He used to go back, take her hand, and try to help her over rough places while he still wore dresses. Straight on, he had been like that; always seeing when there was too much work and trying to shield her; always knowing when a pain was coming and fighting to head it off; always remembering the things the others forgot, going to her last at night, and his face against hers on her pillow the first in the morning, to learn how she was before he left the house. If you were the mother of a man like that, how would you like to hear him call some one else mother, and have the word slip from his tongue so slick you could see he didn't even realize that he had used it? The answer would be, if you were honest, that you wouldn't have liked it any more than she did. She knew he had to go. She wanted him to be happy. She was as sure of the man he was going to be as she was sure of the mercy of God. That is the strongest way I know to tell it. She was unshakably sure of the mercy of God, but I wasn't. There were times when it seemed as if He couldn't hear the most powerful prayer you could pray, and when instead of mercy, you seemed to get the last torment that could be piled on. Take right now. Laddie was happy, and all of us were, in a way; and in another we were almost stiff with misery.
I dreaded his leaving us so, I would slip to the hawk oak and cry myself sick, more than once; whether any of the others were that big babies I don't know; but anyway, they were not his Little Sister. I was. I always had been. I always would be, for that matter; but there was going to be a mighty big difference. I had the poor comfort that I'd done the thing myself. Maybe if it hadn't been for stopping the Princess when I took him that pie, they never would have made up, and she might have gone across the sea and stayed there. Maybe she'd go yet, as mysteriously as she had come, and take him along. Sometimes I almost wished I hadn't tried to help him; but of course I didn't really. Then, too, I had sense enough to know that loving each other as they did, they wouldn't live on that close together for years and years, and not find a way to make up for themselves, like they had at the start.
I liked Laddie saying I had made his happiness for him; but I wasn't such a fool that I didn't know he could have made it for himself just as well, and no doubt better. So everything was all right with Laddie; and what happened to us, the day he rode away for the last time, when he went to stay--what happened to us, then, was our affair. We had to take it, but every one of us dreaded it, while mother didn't know how to bear it, and neither did I. Once I said to her: "Mother, when Laddie goes we'll just have to make it up to each other the best we can, won't we?"
"Oh my soul, child!" she cried, staring at me so surprised-like. "Why, how unspeakably selfish I have been! No little lost sheep ever ran this farm so desolate as you will be without your brother. Forgive me baby, and come here!"
Gee, but we did cry it out together! The God she believed in has wiped away her tears long ago; this minute I can scarcely see the paper for mine. If you could call anything happiness, that was mixed with feeling like that, why, then, we were happy about Laddie. But from things I heard father and mother say, I knew they could have borne his going away, and felt a trifle better than they did. I was quite sure they had stopped thinking that he was going to lose his soul, but they couldn't help feeling so long as that old mystery hung over Pryors that he might get into trouble through it. Father said if it hadn't been for Mr. Pryor's stubborn and perverted notions about God, he would like the man immensely, and love to be friends; and if Laddie married into the family we would have to be as friendly as we could anyway. He said he had such a high opinion of Mr. Pryor's integrity that he didn't believe he'd encourage Laddie to enter his family if it would involve the boy in serious trouble. Mother didn't know. Anyway, the thing was done, and by fall, no doubt, Laddie would leave us.
Just when we were trying to keep a stiff upper lip before him, and whistling as hard as ever he had, to brace our courage, a letter came for mother from the head of the music school Shelley attended, saying she was no longer fit for work, so she was being sent home at once, and they would advise us to consult a specialist immediately. Mother sat and stared at father, and father went to hitch the horses to drive to Groveville.
There's only one other day of my life that stands out as clearly as that. The house was clean as we could make it. I finished feeding early, and had most of the time to myself. I went down to the Big Hill, and followed the top of it to our woods. Then I turned around, and started toward the road, just idling. If I saw a lovely spot I sat down and watched all around me to see if a Fairy really would go slipping past, or lie asleep under a leaf. I peeked and peered softly, going from spot to spot, watching everything. Sometimes I hung over the water, and studied tiny little fish with red, yellow, and blue on them, bright as flowers. The dragonflies would alight right on me, and some wore bright blue markings and some blood red. There was a blue beetle, a beautiful green fly, and how the blue wasps did flip, flirt and glint in the light. So did the blackbirds and the redwings. That embankment was left especially to shade the water, and to feed the birds. Every foot of it was covered with alders, wild cherry, hazelbush, mulberries, everything having a berry or nut. There were several scrub apple trees, many red haws, the wild strawberries spread in big beds in places, and some of them were colouring.
Wild flowers grew everywhere, great beds were blue with calamus, and the birds flocked in companies to drive away the water blacksnakes that often found nests, and liked eggs and bird babies. When I came to the road at last, the sun was around so the big oak on the top of the hill threw its shadow across the bridge, and I lay along one edge and watched the creek bottom, or else I sat up so the water flowed over my feet, and looked at the embankment and the sky. In a way, it was the most peculiar day of my life. I had plenty to think of, but I never thought at all. I only lived. I sat watching the world go past through a sort of golden haze the sun made. When a pair of kingbirds and three crows chased one of my hawks pell-mell across the sky, I looked on and didn't give a cent what happened. When a big blacksnake darted its head through sweet grass and cattails, and caught a frog that had climbed on a mossy stone in the shade to dine on flies, I let it go. Any other time I would have hunted a stick and made the snake let loose. To-day I just sat there and let things happen as they did.
At last I wandered up the road, climbed the back garden fence, and sat on the board at the edge of a flowerbed, and to-day, I could tell to the last butterfly about that garden: what was in bloom, how far things had grown, and what happened. Bobby flew under the Bartlett pear tree and crowed for me, but I never called him. I sat there and lived on, and mostly watched the bees tumble over the bluebells. They were almost ready to be cut to put in the buttered tumblers for perfume, like mother made for us. Then I went into the house and looked at Grace Greenwood, but I didn't take her along. Mother came past and gave me a piece of stiff yellow brocaded silk as lovely as I ever had seen, enough for a dress skirt; and a hand-embroidered chemise sleeve that only needed a band and a button to make a petticoat for a Queen doll, but I laid them away and wandered into the orchard.
I dragged my bare feet through the warm grass, and finally sat under the beet red peach tree. If ever I seemed sort of lost and sorry for myself, that was a good place to go; it was so easy to feel abused there because you didn't dare touch those peaches. Fluffy baby chickens were running around, but I didn't care; there was more than a bird for every tree, bluebirds especially; they just loved us and came early and stayed late, and grew so friendly they nested all over the wood house, smoke house, and any place we fixed for them, and in every hollow apple limb. Bobby came again, but I didn't pay any attention to him.
Then I heard the carriage cross the bridge. I knew when it was father, every single time his team touched the first plank. So I ran like an Indian, and shinned up a cedar tree, scratching myself until I bled. Away up I stood on a limb, held to the tree and waited. Father drove to the gate, and mother came out, with May, Candace, and Leon following. When Shelley touched the ground and straightened, any other tree except a spruce having limbs to hold me up, I would have fallen from it. She looked exactly as if she had turned to tombstone with eyes and hair alive. She stopped a second to brush a little kiss across mother's lips, to the others she said without even glancing at them: "Oh do let me lie down a minute! The motion of that train made me sick."
Well, I should say it did! I quit living, and began thinking in a hooray, and so did every one else at our house. Once I had been sick and queened it over them for a while, now all of us strained ourselves trying to wait on Shelley; but she wouldn't have it. She only said she was tired to death, to let her rest, and she turned her face to the wall and lay there. Once she said she never wanted to see a city again so long as she lived. When mother told her about Laddie and the Princess to try to interest her, she never said a word; I doubted if she even listened. Father and mother looked at each other, when they thought no one would see, and their eyes sent big, anxious questions flashing back and forth. I made up my mind I'd keep awake that night and hear what they said, if I had to take pins to bed with me and stick myself.
Once mother said to Shelley that she was going to send for Dr. Fenner, and she answered: "All right, if you need him. Don't you dare for me! I'll not see him. All I want is a little peace and rest."
The idea! Not one of us ever had spoken to mother like that before in all our born days. I held my breath to see what she would do, but she didn't seem to have heard it, or to notice how rude it had been. Well, that told about as plain as anything what we had on our hands. I wandered around and now there was no trouble about thinking things. They came in such a jumble I could get no sense from them; but one big black thought came over, and over, and over, and wouldn't be put away. It just stood, stayed, forced you, and made you look it in the face. If Shelley weren't stopped quickly she was going up on the hill with the little fever and whooping cough sisters. There it was! You could try to think other things, to play, to work, to talk it down in the pulpit, to sing it out in a tree, to slide down the haystack away from it--there it stayed! And every glimpse you had of Shelley made it surer.
There was no trouble about keeping awake that night; I couldn't sleep. I stood at the window and looked down the Big Hill through the soft white moonlight, and thought about it, and then I thought of mother. I guess now you see what kind of things mothers have to face. All day she had gone around doing her work, every few minutes suggesting some new thing for one of us to try, or trying it herself; all day she had talked and laughed, and when Sarah Hood came she told her she thought Shelley must be bilious, that she had travelled all night and was sleeping: but she would be up the first place she went, and then they talked all over creation and Mrs. Hood went home and never remembered that she hadn't seen Shelley. She worked Mrs. Freshett off the same way, but you could see she was almost too tired to do it, so by night she was nearly as white as Shelley, yet keeping things going. When the house was still, she came into the room, and stood at the window as I had, until father entered, then she turned, and I could see they were staring at each other in the moonlight, as they had all day.
"She's sick?" asked father, at last.
"Heartsick!" said mother bitterly.
"We'd better have Doc come?"
"She says she isn't sick, and she won't see him."
"She will if I put my foot down."
"Best not, Paul! She'll feel better soon. She's so young! She must get over it."
They were silent for a long time and then father asked in a harsh whisper: "Ruth, can she possibly have brought us to shame?"
"God forbid!" cried mother. "Let us pray."
Then those two people knelt on each side of that bed, and I could hear half the words they muttered, until I was wild enough to scream. I wished with all my heart that I hadn't listened. I had always known it was no nice way. I must have gone to sleep after a while, but when I woke up I was still thinking about it, and to save me, I couldn't quit. All day, wherever I went, that question of father's kept going over in my head. I thought about it until I was almost crazy, and I just couldn't see where anything about shame came in.
She was only mistaken. She thought he loved her, and he didn't. She never could have been so bloomy, so filled with song, laughter, and lovely like she was, if she hadn't truly believed with all her heart that he loved her. Of course it would almost finish her to give him up, when she felt like that; and maybe she did wrong to let herself care so much, before she was sure about him; but that would only be foolish, there wouldn't be even a shadow of shame about it. Besides, Laddie had done exactly the same thing. He loved the Princess until it nearly killed him when he thought he had to give her up, and he loved her as hard as ever he could, when he hadn't an idea whether she would love him back, even a tiny speck; and the person who wasn't foolish, and never would be, was Laddie.
The more I thought, the worse I got worked up, and I couldn't see how Shelley was to blame for anything at all. Love just came to her, like it came to Laddie. She would hardly have knelt down and beseeched the Lord to make her fall in love with a man she scarcely knew, and when she couldn't be sure what he was going to do about it--not the Lord, the man, I mean. You could see for yourself she wouldn't do that. I finished my work, and then I tried to do things for her, and she wouldn't let me. Mother told me to ask her to make Grace Greenwood the dress she had promised when I was so sick; so I took the Scotch plaid to her and reminded her, and she pushed me away and said: "Some time!"
I even got Grace, and showed Shelley the spills on her dress, and how badly she needed a new one, but she never looked, she said: "Oh bother! My head aches. Do let me be!"
Mother was listening. I could see her standing outside the door.
She motioned to me to come away, so I went to her and she was white as Shelley. She was sick too, she couldn't say a word for a minute, but after a while she kissed me, I could feel the quivers in her lips, and she said stifflike: "Never mind, she'll be better soon, then she will! Run play now!"
Sometimes I wandered around looking at things and living dully. I didn't try to study out anything, but I must have watched closer than I knew, for every single thing I saw then, over that whole farm, I can shut my eyes and see to-day; everything, from the old hawk tilting his tail to steer him in soaring, to a snake catching field mice in the grass, lichens on the fence, flowers, butterflies, every single thing. Mostly I sat to watch something that promised to become interesting, and before I knew it, I was back on the shame question. That's the most dreadful word in the dictionary. There's something about it that makes your face burn, only to have it in your mind.
Laddie said he never had met any man who knew the origin of more words than father. He could even tell every clip what nationality a man was from his name. Hundreds of time I have heard him say to stranger people, "From your name you'd be of Scotch extraction," or Irish, or whatever it was, and every time the person he was talking with would say, "Yes." Some day away out in the field, alone, I thought I would ask him what people first used the word "shame," and just exactly what it did mean, and what the things were that you could do that would make the people who loved you until they would die for you, ashamed of you.
Thinking about that and planning out what it was that I wanted to know, gave me another idea. Why not ask her? She was the only one who knew what she had done away there in the city, alone among strangers; I wasn't sure whether all the music a girl could learn was worth letting her take the chances she would have to in a big city. From the way Laddie and father hated them, they were a poor place for men, and they must have been much worse for girls. Shelley knew, why not ask her? Maybe I could coax her to tell me, and it would make my life much easier to know; and only think what was going on in father's and mother's heads and hearts, when I felt that way, and didn't even know what there was to be ashamed about. She wouldn't any more than slap me; and sick as she was, I made up my mind not to get angry at her, or ever to tell, if she did. I'd rather have her hit me when she was so sick than to have Sally beat me until she couldn't strike another lick, just because she was angry. But I forgave her that, and I was never going to think of it again--only I did.
Mother kept sending Leon to the post-office, and she met him at the gate half the time herself and fairly snatched the letters from his hands. Hum! She couldn't pull the wool over my eyes. I knew she hoped somehow, some way, there would be a big fat one with Paget, Legal Adviser, or whatever a Chicago lawyer puts on his envelopes. Jerry's just say: "Attorney at Law."
No letter ever came that had Paget in the corner, or anything happened that did Shelley any good. Far otherwise! Just before supper Leon came from Groveville one evening, and all of us could see at a glance that he had been crying like a baby. He had wiped up, and was trying to hold in, but he was killed, next. I nearly said, "Well, for heaven's sake, another!" when I saw him. He slammed down a big, long envelope, having printing on it, before father, and glared at it as if he wanted to tear it to smithereens, and he said: "If you want to know why it looks like that, I buried it under a stone once; but I had to go back, and then I threw it as far as I could send it, into Ditton's gully, but after a while I hunted it up again!"
Then he keeled over on the couch mother keeps for her in the dining-room, and sobbed until he looked like he'd come apart.
Of course all of us knew exactly what that letter was from the way he acted. Mother had told him, time and again, not to set his heart so; father had, too and Laddie, and every one of us, but that little half-Arab, half-Kentucky mare was the worst temptation a man who loved horses could possibly have; and while father and mother stopped at good work horses, and matched roadsters for the carriage, they managed to prize and tend them so that every one of us had been born horse-crazy, and we had been allowed to ride, care for, and taught to love horses all our lives. Treat a horse ugly, and we'd have gone on the thrashing floor ourselves.
Father laid the letter face down, his hand on it, and shook his head. "This is too bad!" he said. "It's a burning shame, but the money, the exact amount, was taken from a farmer in Medina County, Ohio, by a traveller he sheltered a few days, because he complained of a bad foot. The description of the man who robbed us is perfect. The money was from the sale of some prize cattle. It will have to be returned."
"Just let me see the letter a minute," said Laddie.
He read it over thoughtfully. He was long enough about it to have gone over it three times; then he looked at Leon, and his forehead creased in a deep frown. The tears slid down mother's cheeks, but she didn't know it, or else she'd have wiped them away. She was never mussy about the least little thing.
"Father!" she said. "Father----!"
That was as far as she could go.
"The man must have his money," said father, "but we'll look into this----"
He pushed back the plates and tablecloth, and cleared his end of the table. Mother never budged to stack the plates, or straighten the cloth so it wouldn't be wrinkled. Then father brought his big account book from the black walnut chest in our room, some little books, and papers, sharpened a pencil and began going up and down the columns and picking out figures here and there that he set on a piece of paper. I never had seen him look either old or tired before; but he did then. Mother noticed it too, for her lips tightened, she lifted her head, wiped her eyes, and pretended that she felt better. Laddie said something about doing the feeding, and slipped out. Just then Shelley came into the room, stopped, and looked questioningly at us. Her eyes opened wide, and she stared hard at Leon.
"Why what ails him?" she asked mother.
"You remember what I wrote you about a man who robbed us, and the money Leon was to have, provided no owner was found in a reasonable time; and the horse the boy had planned to buy, and how he had been going to Pryors'--Oh, I think he's slipped over there once a day, and often three times, all this spring! Mr. Pryor encouraged him, let him take his older horses to practise on, even went out and taught him cross-country riding himself----"
"I remember!" said Shelley.
Leon sobbed out loud. Shelley crossed the room swiftly, dropped beside him and whispered something in his ear. Quick as a shot his arm reached out and went around her. She hid her head deep in the pillow beside him, and they went to pieces together. Clear to pieces! Pretty soon father had to take off his glasses and wipe them so he could see the figures. Mother took one long look at him, a short one at Leon and Shelley, then she arose, her voice as even and smooth, and she said: "While you figure, father, I'll see about supper. I have tried to plan an extra good one this evening."
She left the room. Now, I guess you know about all I can tell you of mother! I can't see that there's a thing left. That was the kind of soldier she was. Talk about Crusaders, and a good fight! All the blood of battle in our family wasn't on father's side, not by any means! The Dutch could fight too!
Father's pencil scraped a little, a bee that had slipped in buzzed over the apple butter, while the clock ticked as if it used a hammer. It was so loud one wanted to pitch it from the window. May and I sat still as mice when the cat is near. Candace couldn't keep away from the kitchen door to save her, and where mother went I hadn't an idea, but she wasn't getting an extra good supper. Shelley and Leon were quieter now. May nudged me, and I saw that his arm around her was gripping her tight, while her hand on his head was patting him and fingering his hair.
Ca-lumph! Ca-lumph! came the funniest sound right on the stone walk leading to the east door, then a shrill whicker that made father drop his pencil. Leon was on his feet, Shelley beside him, while at the door stood Laddie grinning as if his face would split, and with her forefeet on the step and her nose in the room, stood the prettiest, the very prettiest horse I ever saw. She was sticking her nose toward Leon, whinnying softly, as she lifted one foot, and if Laddie hadn't backed her, she would have walked right into the dining-room.
"Come on, Weiscope, she's yours!" said Laddie. "Take her to the barn, and put her in one of the cow stalls, until we fix a place for her."
Leon crossed the room, but he never touched the horse. He threw his arms around Laddie's neck.
"Son! Son! Haven't you let your feelings run away with you? What does this mean?" asked father sternly.
"There's nothing remarkable in a big six-footer like me buying a horse," said Laddie. "I expect to purchase a number soon, and without a cent to pay, in the bargain. I contracted to give five hundred dollars for this mare. She is worth more; but that should be satisfactory all around. I am going to earn it by putting five of Mr. Pryor's fancy, pedigreed horses in shape for market, taking them personally, and selling them to men fit to own and handle real horses. I get one hundred each, and my expenses for the job. I'll have as much fun doing it as I ever had at anything. It suits me far better than plowing, even."
Mother entered the room at a sweep, and pushed Leon aside.
"Oh you man of my heart!" she cried. "You man after my own heart!"
Laddie bent and kissed her, holding her tight as he looked over her head at father.
"It's all right, of course?" he said.
"I never have known of anything quite so altogether right," said father. "Thank you, lad, and God bless you!"
He took Laddie's hand, and almost lifted him from the floor, then he wiped his glasses, gathered up his books with a big, deep breath of relief, and went into his room. If the others had looked to see why he was gone so long, they would have seen him on his knees beside his bed thanking God, as usual. Leon couldn't have come closer than when he said, "The same yesterday, to-day, and forever," about father.
Leon had his arms around the neck of his horse now, and he was kissing her, patting her, and explaining to Shelley just why no other horse was like her. He was pouring out a jumble all about the oasis of the desert, the tent dwellers, quoting lines from "The Arab to His Horse," bluegrass, and gentleness combined with spirit, while Shelley had its head between her hands, stroking it and saying, "Yes," to every word Leon told her. Then he said: "Just hop on her back from that top step and ride her to the barn, if you want to see the motion she has."
Shelley said: "Has a woman ever been on her back? Won't she shy at my skirts?"
"No," explained Leon. "I've been training her with a horse blanket pinned around me, so Susie could ride her! She'll be all right."
So Shelley mounted, and the horse turned her head, and tried to rub against her, as she walked away, tame as a sheep. I wondered if she could be too gentle. If she went "like the wind," as Leon said, it didn't show then. I was almost crazy to go along, and maybe Leon would let me ride a little while; but I had a question that it would help me to know the answer and I wanted to ask father before I forgot; so I waited until he came out. When he sat down, smiled at me and said, "Well, is the girl happy for brother?" I knew it was a good time, and I could ask anything I chose, so I sat on his knee and said: "Father, when you pray for anything that it's all perfectly right for you to have, does God come down from heaven and do it Himself, or does He send a man like Laddie to do it for him?"
Father hugged me tight, smiling the happiest.
"Why, you have the whole thing right there in a nutshell, Little Sister," he said. "You see it's like this: the Book tells us most distinctly that `God is love.' Now it was love that sent Laddie to bind himself for a long, tedious job, to give Leon his horse, wasn't it?"
"Of course!" I said. "He wouldn't have been likely to do it if he hated him. It was love, of course!"
"Then it was God," said father, "because `God is love.' They are one and the same thing."
Then he kissed me, and that was settled. So I wondered when you longed for anything so hard you really felt it was worth bothering God about, whether the quickest way to get it was to ask Him for it, or to try to put a lot of love into the heart of some person who could do what you wanted. I decided it all went back to God though, for most of the time probably we wouldn't know who the right one was to try to awaken love in. I was mighty sure none of us ever dreamed Laddie could walk over to Pryors', and come back with that horse, in a way perfectly satisfactory to every one, slick as an eel.
You should have seen Leon following around after Laddie, trying to do things for him, taking on his work to give him more time with the horses, getting up early to finish his own stunts, so he could go over to Pryors' and help. Mother said it had done more to make a man of him than anything that ever happened. It helped Shelley, too. Something seemed to break in her, when she cried so with Leon, because he was in trouble. Then he was so crazy to show off his horse he had Shelley ride up and down the lane, while he ran along and led, so she got a lot of exercise, and it made her good and hungry. If you don't think by this time that my mother was the beatenest woman alive, I'll prove it to you. When the supper bell rang there was strawberry preserves instead of the apple butter, biscuit, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes.
She must have slapped those chickens into the skillet before they knew their heads were off. When Shelley came to the table, for the first time since she'd been home, had pink in her cheeks, and talked some, and ate too, mother forgot her own supper. She fumbled over her plate, but scarcely touched even the livers, and those delicious little kidneys in the tailpiece like Leon and I had at Sally's wedding. When we finished, and it was time for her to give the signal to arise, no one had asked to be excused, she said: "Let us have a word with the Most High." Then she bowed her head, so all of us did too. "O Lord, we praise Thee for all Thy tender mercies, and all Thy loving kindness. Amen!"
Of course father always asked the blessing to begin with, and mostly it was the same one, and that was all at meal time, but this was a little extra that mother couldn't even wait until night to tell the Almighty, she was so pleased with Him. Maybe I haven't told everything about her, after all. Father must have thought that was lovely of her; he surely felt as happy as she did, to see Shelley better, for he hugged and kissed her over and over, finishing at her neck like he always did, and then I be- hanged, if he didn't hug and kiss every last one of us--tight, even the boys. Shelley he held long and close, and patted her a little when he let her go. It made me wonder if the rest of us didn't get ours, so he'd have a chance at her without her noticing it. One thing was perfectly clear. If shame came to us, they were going to love her, and stick tight to her right straight through it.
Now that everything was cleared up so, Shelley seemed a little more like herself every day, although it was bad enough yet; I thought I might as well hurry up the end a little, and stop the trouble completely, so I began watching for a chance to ask her. But I wanted to get her away off alone, so no one would see if she slapped me. I didn't know how long I'd have to wait. I tried coaxing her to the orchard to see a bluebird's nest, but she asked if bluebirds were building any different that year, and I had to admit they were not. Then I tried the blue-eyed Mary bed, but she said she supposed it was still under the cling peach tree, and the flower, two white petals up, two blue down, and so it was. Just as I was beginning to think I'd have to take that to the Lord in prayer, I got my chance by accident.
May and Candace were forever going snake hunting. You would think any one with common sense would leave them alone and be glad of the chance, but no indeed! They went nearly every day as soon as the noon work was finished, and stayed until time to get supper. They did have heaps of fun and wild excitement. May was gentle, and tender with everything else on earth; so I 'spose she had a right to bruise the serpent with her heel--really she used sticks and stones--if she wanted to. I asked her how she could, and she said there was a place in the Bible that told how a snake coaxed Eve to eat an apple, that the Lord had told her she mustn't touch; and so she got us into most of the trouble there was in the world. May said it was all the fault of the snake to begin with, and she meant to pay up every one she could find, because she had none of the apple, and lots of the trouble. Candace cried so much because Frederick Swartz had been laid in the tomb, that mother was pleased to have her cheer up, even enough to go snake hunting.
That afternoon Mehitabel Heasty had come to visit May, so she went along, and I followed. They poked around the driftwood at the floodgate behind the barn, and were giving up the place. Candace had crossed the creek and was coming back, and May had started, when she saw a tiny little one and chased it. We didn't know then that it was a good thing to have snakes to eat moles, field mice, and other pests that bother your crops; the Bible had no mercy on them at all, so we were not saving our snakes; and anyway we had more than we needed, while some of them were too big to be safe to keep, and a few poison as could be. May began to bruise the serpent, when out of the driftwood where they hadn't found anything came its mammy, a great big blacksnake, maddest you ever saw, with its pappy right after her, mad as ever too. Candace screamed at May to look behind her, but May was busy with the snake and didn't look quick enough, so the old mammy struck right in her back. She just caught in the hem of May's skirt, and her teeth stuck in the goods--you know how a snake's teeth turn back--so she couldn't let go. May took one look and raced down the bank to the crossing, through the water, and toward us, with the snake dragging and twisting, and trying her best to get away. May was screaming at every jump for Candace, and Mehitabel was flying up and down crying: "Oh there's snakes in my shoes! There's snakes in my shoes!"
That was a fair sample of how much sense a Heasty ever had. It took all Mehitabel's shoes could do to hold her feet, for after one went barefoot all week, and never put on shoes except on Sunday or for a visit, the feet became so spread out, shoes had all they could do to manage them, and then mostly they pinched until they made one squirm. But she jumped and said that, while May ran and screamed, and Candace gripped her big hickory stick and told May to stand still. Then she bruised that serpent with her whole foot, for she stood on it, and swatted it until she broke its neck. Then she turned ready for the other one, but when it saw what happened to its mate, it decided to go back. Even snakes, it doesn't seem right to break up families like that; so by the time Candace got the mammy killed, loose from May's hem, and stretched out with the back up, so she wouldn't make it rain, when Candace wasn't sure that father wanted rain, I had enough. I went down the creek until I was below the orchard, then I crossed, passed the cowslip bed, climbed the hill and fence, and stopped to think what I would do first; and there only a few feet away was Shelley. She was sitting in the shade, her knees drawn up, her hands clasped around them, staring straight before her across the meadow at nothing in particular, that I could see. She jumped as if I had been a snake when she saw me, then she said, "Oh, is it you?" like she was half glad of it. My chance had come.
I went to her, sat close beside her and tried snuggling up a little. It worked. She put her arm around me, drew me tight, rubbed her cheek against my head and we sat there. I was wondering how in the world I could ask her, and not get slapped. I was growing most too big for that slapping business, anyway. We sat there; I was looking across the meadow as she did, only I was watching everything that went on, so when I saw a grosbeak fly from the wild grape where Shelley had put the crock for sap, it made me think of her hair. She used to like to have me play with it so well, she'd give me pennies if I did. I got up, and began pulling out her pins carefully. I knew I was getting a start because right away she put up her hand to help me.
"I can get them," I said just as flannel-mouthed as ever I could, like all of us talked to her now, so I got every one and never pulled a mite. When I reached over her shoulder to drop them in her lap, being so close I kissed her cheek. Then I shook down her hair, spread it out, lifted it, parted it, and held up strands to let the air on her scalp. She shivered and said: "Mercy child, how good that does feel! My head has ached lately until it's a wonder there's a hair left on it."
So I was pleasing her. I never did handle hair so carefully. I tried every single thing it feels good to you to have done with your hair, rubbed her head gently, and to cheer her up I told her about May and the snake, and what fool Mehitabel had said, and she couldn't help laughing; so I had her feeling about as good as she could, for the way she actually felt, but still I didn't really get ahead. Come right to the place to do it, that was no very easy question to ask a person, when you wouldn't hurt their feelings for anything; I was beginning to wonder if I would lose my chance, when all at once a way I could manage popped into my mind.
"Shelley," I said, "they told you about Laddie and the Princess, didn't they?"
I knew they had, but I had to make a beginning some way.
"Yes," she said. "I'm glad of it! I think she's pretty as a picture, and nice as she looks. Laddie may have to hump himself to support her, but if he can't get her as fine clothes as she has, her folks can help him. They seem to have plenty, and she's their only child."
"They're going to. I heard Mr. Pryor ask Laddie if he'd be so unkind as to object to them having the pleasure of giving her things."
"Well, the greenhorn didn't say he would!"
"No. He didn't want to put his nose to the grindstone quite that close. He said it was between them."
"I should think so!"
"Shelley, there's a question I've been wanting to ask some one for quite a while."
"Why, this! You know, Laddie was in love with the Princess, like you are when you want to marry folks, for a long, long time, before he could be sure whether she loved him back."
"Well, now, 'spose she never had loved him, would he have had anything to be ashamed of?"
"I can't see that he would. Some one must start a courtship, or there would be no marrying, and it's conceded to be the place of the man. No. He might be disappointed, or dreadfully hurt, but there would be no shame about it."
"Well, then, suppose she loved him, and wanted to marry him, and he hadn't loved her, or wanted her, would she have had anything to be ashamed of?"
"I don't think so! If she was attracted by him, and thought she would like him, she would have a right to go to a certain extent, to find out if he cared for her, and if he didn't, why, she'd just have to give him up. But any sensible girl waits for a man to make the advances, and plenty of them, before she allows herself even to dream of loving him, or at least, I would."
Now I was getting somewhere!
"Of course you would!" I said. "That would be the way mother would, wouldn't it?"
"If that Paget man you used to write about had seemed to be just what you liked, you'd have waited to know if he wanted you, before you loved him, wouldn't you?"
"I certainly would!" answered Shelley. "Or at least, I'd have waited until I thought sure as death, I knew. It seems that sometimes you can be fooled about those things."
"But if you thought sure you knew, and then found out you had been mistaken, you wouldn't have anything to be ashamed of, would you?"
"Not-on-your-life-I-wouldn't!" cried Shelley, hammering each word into her right knee with her doubled fist. "What are you driving at, Blatherskite? What have you got into your head?"
"Oh just studying about things," I said, which was exactly the truth. "Sally getting married last fall, and Laddie going to this, just started me to wondering."
Fooled her, too!
"Oh well, there's no harm done," she said. "The sooner you get these matters straightened out, the better able you will be to take care of yourself. If you ever go to a city, you'll find out that a girl needs considerable care taken of her."
"You could look out for yourself, Shelley?"
"Well, I don't know as I made such a glorious fist of it," she said, "but at least, as you say, I've nothing to be ashamed of!"
I almost hugged her head off.
"Of course you haven't!" I cried. "Of course you wouldn't have!"
I just kissed her over and over for joy; I was so glad my heart hurt for father and mother. Shame had not come to them!
"Now, I guess I'll run to the house and get a comb," I told her.
"Go on," said Shelley. "I know you are tired."
"I'm not in the least," I said. "Don't you remember I always use a comb when I fuss with your hair?"
"It is better," said Shelley. "Go get one."
As I got up to start I took a last look at her, and there was something in her face that I couldn't bear. I knelt beside her, and put both arms around her neck.
"Shelley, it's a secret," I said in a breathless half whisper. "It's a great, big secret, but I'm going to tell you. Twice now I've had a powerful prayer all ready to try. It's the kind where you go to the barn, all alone, stand on that top beam below the highest window and look toward the east. You keep perfectly still, and just think with all your might, and you look away over where Jesus used to be, and when the right feeling comes, you pray that prayer as if He stood before you, and it will come true. I know it will come true. The reason I know is because twice now I've been almost ready to try it, and what I intended to ask for happened before I had time; so I've saved that prayer; but Shelley, shall I pray it about the Paget man, for you?"
She gripped me, and she shook until she was all twisted up; you could hear her teeth click, she chilled so. The tears just gushed, and she pulled me up close and whispered right in my ear:
It was only pretend about the comb; what I really wanted was to get to father and mother quick. I knew he was at the barn and he was going to be too happy for words in a minute. But as I went up the lane, I wasn't sure whether I'd rather pray about that Paget man or bruise him with my heel like a serpent. The only way I could fix it was to remember if Shelley loved him so, he must be mighty nice. Father was in the wagon shovelling corn from it to a platform where it would be handy to feed the pigs, so I ran and called him, and put one foot on a hub and raised my hands. He pulled me up and when he saw how important it was, he sat on the edge of the bed, so I told him: "Father, you haven't got a thing in the world to be ashamed of about Shelley."
"Praise the Lord!" said father like I knew he would, but you should have seen his face. "Tell me about it!"
I told him and he said: "Well, I don't know but this is the gladdest hour of my life. Go straight and repeat to your mother exactly what you've said to me. Take her away all alone, and then forget about it, you little blessing."
"Father, have you got too many children?"
"No!" he said. "I wish I had a dozen more, if they'd be like you."
When I went up the lane I was so puffed up with importance I felt too dignified to run. I strutted like our biggest turkey gobbler. The only reason you couldn't hear my wings scrape, was because through mistake they grew on the turkey. If I'd had them, I would have dragged them sure, and cried "Ge-hobble- hobble!" at every step.
I took mother away alone and told her, and she asked many more questions than father, but she was even gladder than he. She almost hugged the breath out of me. Sometimes I get things right, anyway! Then I took the comb and ran back to Shelley.
"I thought you'd forgotten me," she said.
She had wiped up and was looking better. If ever I combed carefully I did then. Just when I had all the tangles out, there came mother. She had not walked that far in a long time. I thought maybe she could comfort Shelley, so I laid the comb in her lap and went to see how the snake hunters were coming on. It must be all right, when the Bible says so, but the African Jungle will do for me, and a popgun is not going to scatter families. I never felt so strongly about breaking home ties in my life as I did then. There was nothing worse. It was not where I wanted to be, so I thought I'd go back to the barn, and hang around father, hoping maybe he'd brag on me some more. Going up the lane I saw a wagon passing with the biggest box I ever had seen, and I ran to the gate to watch where it went. It stopped at our house and Frank came toward me as I hurried up the road.
"Where are the folks?" he asked, without paying the least attention to my asking him over and over what was in the box.
"May and Candace are killing every snake in the driftwood behind the barn, Shelley and mother are down in the orchard, and father and the boys are hauling corn."
"Go tell the boys to come quickly and keep quiet," he said. "But don't let any one else know I'm here."
That was so exciting I almost fell over my feet running, and all three of them came quite as fast. I stood back and watched, and I just danced a steady hop from one foot to the other while those men got the big box off the wagon and opened it. On the side I spelled Piano, so of course it was for Shelley. It was so heavy it took all six of them, father and the three boys, the driver and another very stylish looking man to carry it. They put it in the parlour, screwed a leg on each corner, and a queer harp in the middle, then they lifted it up and set it on its feet, under the whatnot, and it seemed as if it filled half the room. Then Frank spread a beauteous wine coloured cover all embroidered in pink roses with green leaves over it, and the stylish man opened a lid, sat down and spread out his hands. Frank said: "Soft pedal! Mighty soft!" So he smothered it down, and tried only enough to find that it had not been hurt coming, and then he went away on the wagon. Father and the boys gathered up every scrap, swept the walk, and put all the things they had used back where they got them, like we always did.
Then Frank took a card from his pocket and tied it to the music rack, and it read: "For Shelley, from her brothers in fact, and in law." To a corner of the cover he pinned another card that read: "From Peter."
"What is that?" asked father.
"That's from Peter," said Frank. "Peter is great on finishing touches. He had to outdo the rest of us that much or bust. Fact is, none of us thought of a cover except him."
"How about this?" asked father, staring at it as if it were an animal that would bite.
"Well," said Frank, "it was apparent that practising her fingers to the bone wouldn't do Shelley much good unless she could keep it up in summer, and you and mother always have done so much for the rest of us, and now mother isn't so strong and the expenses go on the same with these youngsters; we know you were figuring on it, but we beat you. Put yours in the bank, and try the feel of a surplus once more. Haven't had much lately, have you, father?"
"Well, not to speak of," said father.
"Now let's shut everything up, ring the bell to call them, and get Shelley in here and surprise her."
"She's not very well," said father. "Mother thinks she worked too hard."
"She's all right now, father," I said. "She is getting pink again and rounder, and this will fix her grand."
Wouldn't it though! There wasn't one anywhere, short of the city. Even the Princess had none. Father hunted up a song book, opened it and set it on the rack. Then all of us went out.
"We'll write to the boys, mother and I, and Shelley also," said father. "I can't express myself just now. This is a fine thing for all of you to do."
Frank seemed to think so too, and looked rather puffed up, until Leon began telling about his horse. When Frank found out that Laddie, who had not yet branched out for himself, had given Leon much more than any one of them had Shelley, he looked a little disappointed. He explained how the piano cost eight hundred dollars, but by paying cash all at once, the man took seven hundred and fifty, so it only cost them one hundred and fifty a piece, and none of them felt it at all.
"Sometimes the clouds loom up pretty black, and mother and I scarcely know how to go on, save for the help of the Lord, but we certainly are blest with good children, children we can be proud of. Your mother will like that instrument as well as Shelley, son," said father.
Frank went out and rang the bell, tolled it, and made a big noise like he always did when he came unexpectedly, and then sat on the back fence until he saw them coming, and went to meet them. He walked between mother and Shelley, with an arm around each one. If he thought Shelley looked badly, he didn't mention it. What he did say was that he was starved, and to fly around and get supper. I thought I'd burst. They began to cook, and the boys went to feed and see Leon's horse, and then we had supper. I just sat and stared at Frank and grinned. I couldn't eat.
"Do finish your supper," said mother. "I never saw anything take your appetite like seeing your brother. You'll be wanting a piece before bedtime."
I didn't say a word, because I was afraid to, but I kept looking at Leon and he smiled back, and we had great fun. Secrets are lovely. Mother couldn't have eaten a bite if she'd known about that great shining thing, all full of wonderful sound, standing in our parlour. When the last slow person had finished, father said: "Shelley, won't you step into the front room and bring me that book I borrowed from Frank on `Taxation.' I want to talk over a few points."
All of us heard her little breathless cry, and mother said, "There!" as if she'd been listening for something, and she beat all of us to the door. Then she cried out too, and such a time as we did have. At last after all of us had grown sensible enough to behave, Shelley sat on the stool, spread her fingers over the keys and played at the place father had selected, and all of us sang as hard as we could: "Be it ever so humble, There's no place like home;" and there was no place like ours, of that I'm quite sure.