Laddie, A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter II. Our Angel Boy
"I had a brother once--a gracious boy, Full of all gentleness, of calmest hope, Of sweet and quiet joy,--there was the look Of heaven upon his face."
It was supper time when we reached home, and Bobby was at the front gate to meet me. He always hunted me all over the place when the big bell in the yard rang at meal time, because if he crowed nicely when he was told, he was allowed to stand on the back of my chair and every little while I held up my plate and shared bites with him. I have seen many white bantams, but never another like Bobby. My big brothers bought him for me in Fort Wayne, and sent him in a box, alone on the cars. Father and I drove to Groveville to meet him. The minute father pried off the lid, Bobby hopped on the edge of the box and crowed--the biggest crow you ever heard from such a mite of a body; he wasn't in the least afraid of us and we were pleased about it. You scarcely could see his beady black eyes for his bushy topknot, his wing tips touched the ground, his tail had two beautiful plumy feathers much longer than the others, his feet were covered with feathers, and his knee tufts dragged. He was the sauciest, spunkiest little fellow, and white as muslin. We went to supper together, but no one asked where I had been, and because I was so bursting full of importance, I talked only to Bobby, in order to be safe.
After supper I finished Hezekiah's trousers, and May cut his coat for me. School would begin in September and our clothes were being made, so I used the scraps to dress him. His suit was done by the next forenoon, and father never laughed harder than when Hezekiah hopped down the walk to meet him dressed in pink trousers and coat. The coat had flowing sleeves like the Princess wore, so Hezekiah could fly, and he seemed to like them.
His suit was such a success I began a sunbonnet, and when that was tied on him, the folks almost had spasms. They said he wouldn't like being dressed; that he would fly away to punish me, but he did no such thing. He stayed around the house and was tame as ever.
When I became tired sewing that afternoon, I went down the lane leading to our meadow, where Leon was killing thistles with a grubbing hoe. I thought he would be glad to see me, and he was. Every one had been busy in the house, so I went to the cellar the outside way and ate all I wanted from the cupboard. Then I spread two big slices of bread the best I could with my fingers, putting apple butter on one, and mashed potatoes on the other. Leon leaned on the hoe and watched me coming. He was a hungry boy, and lonesome too, but he couldn't be forced to say so.
"Laddie is at work in the barn," he said.
"I'm going to play in the creek," I answered.
Crossing our meadow there was a stream that had grassy banks, big trees, willows, bushes and vines for shade, a solid pebbly bed; it was all turns and bends so that the water hurried until it bubbled and sang as it went; in it lived tiny fish coloured brightly as flowers, beside it ran killdeer, plover and solemn blue herons almost as tall as I was came from the river to fish; for a place to play on an August afternoon, it couldn't be beaten. The sheep had been put in the lower pasture; so the cross old Shropshire ram was not there to bother us.
"Come to the shade," I said to Leon, and when we were comfortably seated under a big maple weighted down with trailing grapevines, I offered the bread. Leon took a piece in each hand and began to eat as if he were starving. Laddie would have kissed me and said: "What a fine treat! Thank you, Little Sister."
Leon was different. He ate so greedily you had to know he was glad to get it, but he wouldn't say so, not if he never got any more. When you knew him, you understood he wouldn't forget it, and he'd be certain to do something nice for you before the day was over to pay back. We sat there talking about everything we saw, and at last Leon said with a grin: "Shelley isn't getting much grape sap is she?"
"I didn't know she wanted grape sap."
"She read about it in a paper. It said to cut the vine of a wild grape, catch the drippings and moisten your hair. This would make it glossy and grow faster."
"What on earth does Shelley want with more hair than she has?"
"Oh, she has heard it bragged on so much she thinks people would say more if she could improve it."
I looked and there was the vine, dry as could be, and a milk crock beneath it.
"Didn't the silly know she had to cut the vine in the spring when the sap was running?"
"Bear witness, O vine! that she did not," said Leon, "and speak, ye voiceless pottery, and testify that she expected to find you overflowing."
"Too bad that she's going to be disappointed."
"She isn't! She's going to find ample liquid to bathe her streaming tresses. Keep quiet and watch me."
He picked up the crock, carried it to the creek and dipped it full of water.
"That's too much," I objected. "She'll know she never got a crock full from a dry vine."
"She'll think the vine bled itself dry for her sake."
"She isn't that silly."
"Well then, how silly is she?" asked Leon, spilling out half. "About so?"
"Not so bad as that. Less yet!"
"Anything to please the ladies," said Leon, pouring out more. Then we sat and giggled a while.
"What are you going to do now?" asked Leon.
"Play in the creek," I answered.
"All right! I'll work near you."
He rolled his trousers above his knees and took the hoe, but he was in the water most of the time. We had to climb on the bank when we came to the deep curve, under the stump of the old oak that father cut because Pete Billings would climb it and yowl like a wildcat on cold winter nights. Pete was wrong in his head like Paddy Ryan, only worse. As we passed we heard the faintest sounds, so we lay and looked, and there in the dark place under the roots, where the water was deepest, huddled some of the cunningest little downy wild ducks you ever saw. We looked at each other and never said a word. Leon chased them out with the hoe and they swam down stream faster than old ones. I stood in the shallow water behind them and kept them from going back to the deep place, while Leon worked to catch them. Every time he got one he brought it to me, and I made a bag of my apron front to put them in. The supper bell rang before we caught all of them. We were dripping wet with creek water and perspiration, but we had the ducks, every one of them, and proudly started home. I'll wager Leon was sorry he didn't wear aprons so he could carry them. He did keep the last one in his hands, and held its little fluffy body against his cheeks every few minutes.
"Couldn't anything be prettier than a young duck."
"Except a little guinea," I said.
"That's so!" said Leon. "They are most as pretty as quail. I guess all young things that have down are about as cunning as they can be. I don't believe I know which I like best, myself."
"I mean tame. Things we raise."
"I'll take guineas."
"I'll say white turkeys. They seem so innocent. Nothing of ours is pretty as these."
"But these are wild."
"So they are," said Leon. "Twelve of them. Won't mother be pleased?"
She was not in the least. She said we were a sight to behold; that she was ashamed to be the mother of two children who didn't know tame ducks from wild ones. She remembered instantly that Amanda Deam had set a speckled Dorking hen on Mallard duck eggs, where she got the eggs, and what she paid for them. She said the ducks had found the creek that flowed beside Deams' barnyard before it entered our land, and they had swum away from the hen, and both the hen and Amanda would be frantic. She put the ducks into a basket and said to take them back soon as ever we got our suppers, and we must hurry because we had to bathe and learn our texts for Sunday-school in the morning.
We went through the orchard, down the hill and across the meadow until we came to the creek. By that time we were tired of the basket. It was one father had woven himself of shaved and soaked hickory strips, and it was heavy. The sight of water suggested the proper place for ducks, anyway. We talked it over and decided that they would be much more comfortable swimming than in the basket, and it was more fun to wade than to walk, so we went above the deep place, I stood in the creek to keep them from going down, and Leon poured them on the water. Pigs couldn't have acted more contrary. Those ducks liked us. They wouldn't go to Deams'. They just fought to swim back to us. Anyway, we had the worst time you ever saw. Leon cut long switches to herd them with, and both of us waded and tried to drive them, but they would dart under embankments and roots, and dive and hide.
Before we reached the Deams' I wished that we had carried them as mother told us, for we had lost three, and if we stopped to hunt them, more would hide. By the time we drove them under the floodgate crossing the creek between our land and the Deams' four were gone. Leon left me on the gate with both switches to keep them from going back and he ran to call Mrs. Deam. She had red hair and a hot temper, and we were not very anxious to see her, but we had to do it. While Leon was gone I was thinking pretty fast and I knew exactly how things would happen. First time mother saw Mrs. Deam she would ask her if the ducks were all right, and she would tell that four were gone. Mother would ask how many she had, and she would say twelve, then mother would remember that she started us with twelve in the basket--Oh what's the use! Something had to be done. It had to be done quickly too, for I could hear Amanda Deam, her boy Sammy and Leon coming across the barnyard. I looked around in despair, but when things are the very worst, there is almost always some way out.
On the dry straw worked between and pushing against the panels of the floodgate, not far from me, I saw a big black water snake. I took one good look at it: no coppery head, no geometry patterns, no rattlebox, so I knew it wasn't poisonous and wouldn't bite until it was hurt, and if it did, all you had to do was to suck the place, and it wouldn't amount to more than two little pricks as if pins had stuck you; but a big snake was a good excuse. I rolled from the floodgate among the ducks, and cried, "Snake!" They scattered everywhere. The snake lazily uncoiled and slid across the straw so slowly that--thank goodness! Amanda Deam got a fair look at it. She immediately began to jump up and down and scream. Leon grabbed a stick and came running to the water. I cried so he had to help me out first.
"Don't let her count them!" I whispered.
Leon gave me one swift look and all the mischief in his blue eyes peeped out. He was the funniest boy you ever knew, anyway. Mostly he looked scowly and abused. He had a grievance against everybody and everything. He said none of us liked him, and we imposed on him. Father said that if he tanned Leon's jacket for anything, and set him down to think it over, he would pout a while, then he would look thoughtful, suddenly his face would light up and he would go away sparkling; and you could depend upon it he would do the same thing over, or something worse, inside an hour. When he wanted to, he could smile the most winning smile, and he could coax you into anything. Mother said she dreaded to have to borrow a dime from him, if a peddler caught her without change, because she knew she'd be kept paying it back for the next six months. Right now he was the busiest kind of a boy.
"Where is it? Let me get a good lick at it! Don't scare the ducks!" he would cry, and chase them from one bank to the other, while Amanda danced and fought imaginary snakes. For a woman who had seen as many as she must have in her life, it was too funny. I don't think I could laugh harder, or Leon and Sammy. We enjoyed ourselves so much that at last she began to be angry. She quit dancing, and commenced hunting ducks, for sure. She held her skirts high, poked along the banks, jumped the creek and didn't always get clear across. Her hair shook down, she lost a sidecomb, and she couldn't find half the ducks.
"You younguns pack right out of here," she said. "Me and Sammy can get them better ourselves, and if we don't find all of them, we'll know where they are."
"We haven't got any of your ducks," I said angrily, but Leon smiled his most angelic smile, and it seemed as if he were going to cry.
"Of course, if you want to accuse mother of stealing your ducks, you can," he said plaintively, "but I should think you'd be ashamed to do it, after all the trouble we took to catch them before they swam to the river, where you never would have found one of them. Come on, Little Sister, let's go home."
He started and I followed. As soon as we got around the bend we sat on the bank, hung our feet in the water, leaned against each other and laughed. We just laughed ourselves almost sick. When Amanda's face got fire red, and her hair came down, and she jumped and didn't go quite over, she looked a perfect fright.
"Will she ever find all of them?" I asked at last.
"Of course," said Leon. "She will comb the grass and strain the water until she gets every one."
I looked at Leon. He was so intently watching an old turkey buzzard hanging in the air, he never heard the call that meant it was time for us to be home and cleaning up for Sunday. It was difficult to hurry, for after we had been soaped and scoured, we had to sit on the back steps and commit to memory verses from the Bible. At last we waded toward home. Two of the ducks we had lost swam before us all the way, so we knew they were alive, and all they needed was finding.
"If she hadn't accused mother of stealing her old ducks, I'd catch those and carry them back to her," said Leon. "But since she thinks we are so mean, I'll just let her and little Sammy find them."
Then we heard their voices as they came down the creek, so Leon reached me his hand and we scampered across the water and meadow, never stopping until we sat on the top rail of our back orchard fence. There we heard another call, but that was only two. We sat there, rested and looked at the green apples above our heads, wishing they were ripe, and talking about the ducks. We could see Mrs. Deam and Sammy coming down the creek, one on each side. We slid from the fence and ran into a queer hollow that was cut into the hill between the never-fail and the Baldwin apple trees.
That hollow was overgrown with weeds, and full of trimmings from trees, stumps, everything that no one wanted any place else in the orchard. It was the only unkept spot on our land, and I always wondered why father didn't clean it out and make it look respectable. I said so to Leon as we crouched there watching down the hill where Mrs. Deam and Sammy hunted ducks with not such very grand success. They seemed to have so many they couldn't decide whether to go back or go on, so they must have found most of them.
"You know I've always had my suspicions about this place," said Leon. "There is somewhere on our land that people can be hidden for a long time. I can remember well enough before the war ever so long, and while it was going worst, we would find the wagon covered with more mud in the morning than had been on it at night; and the horses would be splashed and tired. Once I was awake in the night and heard voices. It made me want a drink, so I went downstairs for it, and ran right into the biggest, blackest man who ever grew. If father and mother hadn't been there I'd have been scared into fits. Next morning he was gone and there wasn't a whisper. Father said I'd had bad dreams. That night the horses made another mysterious trip. Now where did they keep the black man all that day?"
"What did they have a black man for?"
"They were helping him run away from slavery to be free in Canada. It was all right. I'd have done the same thing. They helped a lot. Father was a friend of the Governor. There were letters from him, and there was some good reason why father stayed at home, when he was crazy about the war. I think this farm was what they called an Underground Station. What I want to know is where the station was."
"Maybe it's here. Let's hunt," I said. "If the black men were here some time, they would have to be fed, and this is not far from the house."
So we took long sticks and began poking into the weeds. Then we moved the brush, and sure as you live, we found an old door with a big stone against it. I looked at Leon and he looked at me.
"Hoo-hoo!" came mother's voice, and that was the third call.
"Hum! Must be for us," said Leon. "We better go as soon as we get a little dryer."
He slid down the bank on one side, and I on the other, and we pushed at the stone. I thought we never would get it rolled away so we could open the door a crack, but when we did what we saw was most surprising. There was a little room, dreadfully small. but a room. There was straw scattered over the floor, very deep on one side, where an old blanket showed that it had been a bed. Across the end there was a shelf. On it was a candlestick, with a half-burned candle in it, a pie pan with some mouldy crumbs, crusts, bones in it, and a tin can. Leon picked up the can and looked in. I could see too.
It had been used for water or coffee, as the plate had for food, once, but now it was stuffed full of money. I saw Leon pull some out and then shove it back, and he came to the door white as could be, shut it behind him and began to push at the stone. When we got it in place we put the brush over it, and fixed everything like it had been.
At last Leon said: "That's the time we got into something not intended for us, and if father finds it out, we are in for a good thrashing. Are you just a blubbering baby, or are you big enough to keep still?"
"I am old enough that I could have gone to school two years ago, and I won't tell!" I said stoutly.
"All right! Come on then," said Leon. "I don't know but mother has been calling us."
We started up the orchard path at the fourth call.
"Hoo-hoo!" answered Leon in a sick little voice to make it sound far away. Must have made mother think we were on Deams' hill. Then we went on side by side.
"Say Leon, you found the Station, didn't you?"
"Don't talk about it!" snapped Leon.
I changed the subject
"Whose money do you suppose that is?"
"Oh crackey! You can depend on a girl to see everything," groaned Leon. "Do you think you'll be able to stand the switching that job will bring you, without getting sick in bed?"
Now I never had been sick in bed, and from what I had seen of other people who were, I never wanted to be. The idea of being switched until it made me sick was too much for me. I shut my mouth tight and I never opened it about the Station place. As we reached the maiden's-blush apple tree came another call, and it sounded pretty cross, I can tell you. Leon reached his hand.
"Now, it's time to run. Let me do the talking."
We were out of breath when we reached the back door. There stood the tub on the kitchen floor, the boiler on the stove, soap, towels, and clean clothing on chairs. Leon had his turn at having his ears washed first, because he could bathe himself while mother did my hair.
"Was Mrs. Deam glad to get her ducks back?" she asked as she fine-combed Leon.
"Aw, you never can tell whether she's glad about anything or not," growled Leon. "You'd have thought from the way she acted, that we'd been trying to steal her ducks. She said if she missed any she'd know where to find them."
"Well as I live!" cried mother. "Why I wouldn't have believed that of Amanda Deam. You told her you thought they were wild, of course."
"I didn't have a chance to tell her anything. The minute the ducks struck the water they started right back down stream, and there was a big snake, and we had an awful time. We got wet trying to head them back, and then we didn't find all of them."
"They are like little eels. You should have helped Amanda."
"Well, you called so cross we thought you would come after us, so we had to run."
"One never knows," sighed mother. "I thought you were loitering.
Of course if I had known you were having trouble with the ducks! I think you had better go back and help them."
"Didn't I do enough to take them home? Can't Sammy Deam catch ducks as fast as I can?"
"I suppose so," said mother. "And I must get your bathing out of the way of supper. You use the tub while I do Little Sister's hair."
I almost hated Sunday, because of what had to be done to my hair on Saturday, to get ready for it. All week it hung in two long braids that were brushed and arranged each morning. But on Saturday it had to be combed with a fine comb, oiled and rolled around strips of tin until Sunday morning. Mother did everything thoroughly. She raked that fine comb over our scalps until she almost raised the blood. She hadn't time to fool with tangles, and we had so much hair she didn't know what to do with all of it, anyway. When she was busy talking she reached around too far and combed across our foreheads or raked the tip of an ear.
But on Sunday morning we forgot all that, when we walked down the aisle with shining curls hanging below our waists. Mother was using the fine comb, when she looked up, and there stood Mrs. Freshett. We could see at a glance that she was out of breath.
"Have I beat them?" she cried.
"Whom are you trying to beat?" asked mother as she told May to set a chair for Mrs. Freshett and bring her a drink.
"The grave-kiver men," she said. "I wanted to get to you first."
"Well, you have," said mother. "Rest a while and then tell me."
But Mrs. Freshett was so excited she couldn't rest.
"I thought they were coming straight on down," she said, "but they must have turned off at the cross roads. I want to do what's right by my children here or there," panted Mrs. Freshett, "and these men seemed to think the contrivance they was sellin' perfectly grand, an' like to be an aid to the soul's salvation. Nice as it seemed, an' convincin' as they talked, I couldn't get the consent of my mind to order, until I knowed if you was goin' to kiver your dead with the contraption. None of the rest of the neighbours seem over friendly to me, an' I've told Josiah many's the time, that I didn't care a rap if they wa'n't, so long as I had you. Says I, `Josiah, to my way of thinkin', she is top crust in this neighbourhood, and I'm on the safe side apin' her ways clost as possible.'"
"I'll gladly help you all I can," said my mother.
"Thanky!" said Mrs. Freshett. "I knowed you would. Josiah he says to me, `Don't you be apin' nobody.' `Josiah,' says I, `it takes a pretty smart woman in this world to realize what she doesn't know. Now I know what I know, well enough, but all I know is like to keep me an' my children in a log cabin an' on log cabin ways to the end of our time. You ain't even got the remains of the cabin you started in for a cow shed.' Says I, `Josiah, Miss Stanton knows how to get out of a cabin an' into a grand big palace, fit fur a queen woman. She's a ridin' in a shinin' kerridge, 'stid of a spring wagon. She goes abroad dressed so's you men all stand starin' like cabbage heads. All hern go to church, an' Sunday-school, an' college, an' come out on the top of the heap. She does jest what I'd like to if I knowed how. An' she ain't come-uppety one morsel.' If I was to strike acrost fields to them stuck-up Pryors, I'd get the door slammed in my face if 'twas the missus, a sneer if 'twas the man, an' at best a nod cold as an iceberg if 'twas the girl. Them as want to call her kind `Princess,' and encourage her in being more stuck up 'an she was born to be, can, but to my mind a Princess is a person who thinks of some one besides herself once in a while."
"I don't find the Pryors easy to become acquainted with," said mother. "I have never met the woman; I know the man very slightly; he has been here on business once or twice, but the girl seems as if she would be nice, if one knew her."
"Well, I wouldn't have s'posed she was your kind," said Mrs. Freshett. "If she is, I won't open my head against her any more.
Anyway, it was the grave-kivers I come about."
"Just what is it, Mrs. Freshett?" asked mother.
"It's two men sellin' a patent iron kiver for to protect the graves of your dead from the sun an' the rain."
"Who wants the graves of their dead protected from the sun and the rain?" demanded my mother sharply.
"I said to Josiah, `I don't know how she'll feel about it, but I can't do more than ask.'"
"Do they carry a sample? What is it like?"
"Jest the len'th an' width of a grave. They got from baby to six-footer sizes. They are cast iron like the bottom of a cook stove on the under side, but atop they are polished so they shine somethin' beautiful. You can get them in a solid piece, or with a hole in the centre about the size of a milk crock to set flowers through. They come ten to the grave, an' they are mighty stylish lookin' things. I have been savin' all I could skimp from butter, an' eggs, to get Samantha a organ; but says I to her: `You are gettin' all I can do for you every day; there lays your poor brother 'at ain't had a finger lifted for him since he was took so sudden he was gone before I knowed he was goin'.' I never can get over Henry bein' took the way he was, so I says: `If this would be a nice thing to have for Henry's grave, and the neighbours are goin' to have them for theirn, looks to me like some of the organ money will have to go, an' we'll make it up later.' I don't 'low for Henry to be slighted bekase he rid himself to death trying to make a president out of his pa's gin'ral."
"You never told me how you lost your son," said mother, feeling so badly she wiped one of my eyes full of oil.
"Law now, didn't I?" inquired Mrs. Freshett. "Well mebby that is bekase I ain't had a chance to tell you much of anythin', your bein' always so busy like, an' me not wantin' to wear out my welcome. It was like this: All endurin' the war Henry an' me did the best we could without pa at home, but by the time it was over, Henry was most a man. Seemed as if when he got home, his pa was all tired out and glad to set down an' rest, but Henry was afire to be up an' goin'. His pa filled him so full o' Grant, it was runnin' out of his ears. Come the second run the Gin'ral made, peered like Henry set out to 'lect him all by hisself. He wore every horse on the place out, ridin' to rallies. Sometimes he was gone three days at a stretch. He'd git one place an' hear of a rally on ten miles or so furder, an' blest if he didn't ride plum acrost the state 'fore he got through with one trip. He set out in July, and he rid right straight through to November, nigh onto every day of his life. He got white, an' thin, an' narvous, from loss of sleep an' lack of food, an' his pa got restless, said Henry was takin' the 'lection more serious 'an he ever took the war. Last few days before votin' was cold an' raw an' Henry rid constant. 'Lection day he couldn't vote, for he lacked a year of bein' o' age, an' he rid in with a hard chill, an' white as a ghost, an' he says: `Ma,' says he, `I've 'lected Grant, but I'm all tuckered out. Put me to bed an' kiver me warm.'"
I forgot the sting in my eyes watching Mrs. Freshett. She was the largest woman I knew, and strong as most men. Her hair was black and glisteny, her eyes black, her cheeks red, her skin a clear, even dark tint. She was handsome, she was honest, and she was in earnest over everything. There was something about her, or her family, that had to be told in whispers, and some of the neighbours would have nothing to do with her. But mother said Mrs. Freshett was doing the very best she knew, and for the sake of that, and of her children, anyone who wouldn't help her was not a Christian, and not to be a Christian was the very worst thing that could happen to you. I stared at her steadily. She talked straight along, so rapidly you scarcely could keep up with the words; you couldn't if you wanted to think about them any between. There was not a quiver in her voice, but from her eyes there rolled, steadily, the biggest, roundest tears I ever saw. They ran down her cheeks, formed a stream in the first groove of her double chin, overflowed it, and dripped drop, drop, a drop at a time, on the breast of her stiffly starched calico dress, and from there shot to her knees.
"'Twa'n't no time at all 'til he was chokin' an' burnin' red with fever, an' his pa and me, stout as we be, couldn't hold him down nor keep him kivered. He was speechifyin' to beat anythin' you ever heard. His pa said he was repeatin' what he'd heard said by every big stump speaker from Greeley to Logan. When he got so hoarse we couldn't tell what he said any more, he jest mouthed it, an' at last he dropped back and laid like he was pinned to the sheets, an' I thought he was restin', but 'twa'n't an hour 'til he was gone."
Suddenly Mrs. Freshett lifted her apron, covered her face and sobbed until her broad shoulders shook.
"Oh you poor soul!" said my mother. "I'm so sorry for you!"
"I never knowed he was a-goin' until he was gone," she said. "He was the only one of mine I ever lost, an' I thought it would jest lay me out. I couldn't 'a' stood it at all if I hadn't 'a' knowed he was saved. I well know my Henry went straight to Heaven. Why Miss Stanton, he riz right up in bed at the last, and clear and strong he jest yelled it: `Hurrah fur Grant!'"
My mother's fingers tightened in my hair until I thought she would pull out a lot, and I could feel her knees stiffen. Leon just whooped. Mother sprang up and ran to the door.
"Leon!" she cried. Then there was a slam. "What in the world is the matter?" she asked.
"Stepped out of the tub right on the soap, and it threw me down," explained Leon.
"For mercy sake, be careful!" said my mother, and shut the door.
It wasn't a minute before the knob turned and it opened again a little.
I never saw mother's face look so queer, but at last she said softly: "You were thinking of the grave cover for him?"
"Yes, but I wanted to ask you before I bound myself. I heard you lost two when the scarlet fever was ragin' an' I'm goin' to do jest what you do. If you have kivers, I will. If you don't like them when you see how bright and shiny they are, I won't get any either."
"I can tell you without seeing them, Mrs. Freshett," said my mother, wrapping a strand of hair around the tin so tight I slipped up my fingers to feel whether my neck wasn't like a buck- eye hull looks, and it was. "I don't want any cover for the graves of my dead but grass and flowers, and sky and clouds. I like the rain to fall on them, and the sun to shine, so that the grass and flowers will grow. If you are satisfied that the soul of Henry is safe in Heaven, that is all that is necessary. Laying a slab of iron on top of earth six feet above his body will make no difference to him. If he is singing with the angels, by all means save your money for the organ."
"I don't know about the singin', but I'd stake my last red cent he's still hollerin' fur Grant. I was kind o' took with the idea; the things was so shiny and scilloped at the edges, peered like it was payin' considerable respect to the dead to kiver them that-a-way."
"What good would it do?" asked mother. "The sun shining on the iron would make it so hot it would burn any flower you tried to plant in the opening; the water couldn't reach the roots, and all that fell on the slab would run off and make it that much wetter at the edges. The iron would soon rust and grow dreadfully ugly lying under winter snow. There is nothing at all in it, save a method to work on the feelings of the living, and get them to pay their money for something that wouldn't affect their dead a particle."
"'Twould be a poor idea for me," said Mrs. Freshett. "I said to the men that I wanted to honour Henry all I could, but with my bulk, I'd hev all I could do, come Jedgment Day, to bust my box, an' heave up the clods, without havin' to hist up a piece of iron an' klim from under it."
Mother stiffened and Leon slipped again. He could have more accidents than any boy I ever knew. But it was only a few minutes until he came to mother and gave her a Bible to mark the verses he had to learn to recite at Sunday-school next day. Mother couldn't take the time when she had company, so she asked if he weren't big enough to pick out ten proper verses and learn them by himself, and he said of course he was. He took his Bible and he and May and I sat on the back steps and studied our verses. He and May were so big they had ten; but I had only two, and mine were not very long. Leon giggled half the time he was studying. I haven't found anything so very funny in the Bible. Every few minutes he would whisper to himself: "That's a good one!"
He took the book and heard May do hers until she had them perfectly, then he went and sat on the back fence with his book and studied as I never before had seen him. Mrs. Freshett stayed so long mother had no time to hear him, but he told her he had them all learned so he could repeat them without a mistake.
Next morning mother was busy, so she had no time then. Father, Shelley, and I rode on the front seat, mother, May, and Sally on the back, while the boys started early and walked.
When we reached the top of the hill, the road was lined with carriages, wagons, spring wagons, and saddle horses. Father found a place for our team and we went down the walk between the hitching rack and the cemetery fence. Mother opened the gate and knelt beside two small graves covered with grass, shaded by yellow rose bushes, and marked with little white stones. She laid some flowers on each and wiped the dust from the carved letters with her handkerchief. The little sisters who had scarlet fever and whooping cough lay there. Mother was still a minute and then she said softly: "`The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.'"
She was very pale when she came to us, but her eyes were bright and she smiled as she put her arms around as many of us as she could reach.
"What a beautiful horse!" said Sally. "Look at that saddle and bridle! The Pryor girl is here."
"Why should she come?" asked Shelley.
"To show her fine clothes and queen it over us!"
"Children, children!" said mother. "`Judge not!' This is a house of worship. The Lord may be drawing her in His own way. It is for us to help Him by being kind and making her welcome."
At the church door we parted and sat with our teachers, but for the first time as I went down the aisle I was not thinking of my linen dress, my patent leather slippers, and my pretty curls. It suddenly seemed cheap to me to twist my hair when it was straight as a shingle, and cut my head on tin. If the Lord had wanted me to have curls, my hair would have been like Sally's. Seemed to me hers tried to see into what big soft curls it could roll. May said ours was so straight it bent back the other way. Anyway, I made up my mind to talk it over with father and always wear braids after that, if I could get him to coax mother to let me.
Our church was quite new and it was beautiful. All the casings were oiled wood, and the walls had just a little yellow in the last skin coating used to make them smooth, so they were a creamy colour, and the blinds were yellow. The windows were wide open and the wind drifted through, while the birds sang as much as they ever do in August, among the trees and bushes of the cemetery. Every one had planted so many flowers of all kinds on the graves you could scent sweet odours. Often a big, black- striped, brown butterfly came sailing in through one of the windows, followed the draft across the room, and out of another. I was thinking something funny: it was about what the Princess had said of other people, and whether hers were worse. I looked at my father sitting in calm dignity in his Sunday suit and thought him quite as fine and handsome as mother did. Every Sabbath he wore the same suit, he sat in the same spot, he worshipped the Lord in his calm, earnest way. The ministers changed, but father was as much a part of the service as the Bible on the desk or the communion table. I wondered if people said things about him, and if they did, what they were. I never had heard. Twisting in my seat, one by one I studied the faces on the men's side, and then the women. It was a mighty good- looking crowd. Some had finer clothes than others--that is always the way--but as a rule every one was clean, neat, and good to see. From some you scarcely could turn away. There was Widow Fall. She was French, from Virginia, and she talked like little tinkly notes of music. I just loved to hear her, and she walked like high-up royalty. Her dress was always black, with white bands at the neck and sleeves, black rustly silk, and her eyes and hair were like the dress. There was a little red on her cheeks and lips, and her face was always grave until she saw you directly before her, and then she smiled the sweetest smile.
Maybe Sarah Hood was not pretty, but there was something about her lean face and shining eyes that made you look twice before you were sure of it, and by that time you had got so used to her, you liked her better as she was, and wouldn't have changed her for anything. Mrs. Fritz had a pretty face and dresses and manners, and so did Hannah Dover, only she talked too much. So I studied them and remembered what the Princess had said, and I wondered if she heard some one say that Peter Justice beat his wife, or if she showed it in her face and manner. She reminded me of a scared cowslip that had been cut and laid in the sun an hour. I don't know as that expresses it. Perhaps a flower couldn't look scared, but it could be wilted and faded. I wondered if she ever had bright hair, laughing eyes, and red in her lips and cheeks. She must have been pretty if she had.
At last I reached my mother. There was nothing scared or faded about her, and she was dreadfully sick too, once in a while since she had the fever. She was a little bit of a woman, coloured like a wild rose petal, face and body--a piece of pink porcelain Dutch, father said. She had brown eyes, hair like silk, and she always had three best dresses. There was one of alpaca or woollen, of black, gray or brown, and two silks. Always there was a fine rustly black one with a bonnet and mantle to match, and then a softer, finer one of either gold brown, like her hair, or dainty gray, like a dove's wing. When these grew too old for fine use, she wore them to Sunday-school and had a fresh one for best. There was a new gray in her closet at home, so she put on the old brown to-day, and she was lovely in it.
Usually the minister didn't come for church services until Sunday-school was half over, so the superintendent read a chapter, Daddy Debs prayed, and all of us stood up and sang: "Ring Out the Joy Bells." Then the superintendent read the lesson over as impressively as he could. The secretary made his report, we sang another song, gathered the pennies, and each teacher took a class and talked over the lesson a few minutes. Then we repeated the verses we had committed to memory to our teachers; the member of each class who had learned the nicest texts, and knew them best, was selected to recite before the school. Beginning with the littlest people, we came to the big folks. Each one recited two texts until they reached the class above mine. We walked to the front, stood inside the altar, made a little bow, and the superintendent kept score. I could see that mother appeared worried when Leon's name was called for his class, for she hadn't heard him, and she was afraid he would forget.
Among the funny things about Leon was this: while you had to drive other boys of his age to recite, you almost had to hold him to keep him from it. Father said he was born for a politician or a preacher, if he would be good, and grow into the right kind of a man to do such responsible work.
"I forgot several last Sabbath, so I have thirteen to-day," he said politely.
Of course no one expected anything like that. You never knew what might happen when Leon did anything. He must have been about sixteen. He was a slender lad, having almost sandy hair, like his English grandfather. He wore a white ruffled shirt with a broad collar, and cuffs turning back over his black jacket, and his trousers fitted his slight legs closely. The wind whipped his soft black tie a little and ruffled the light hair where it was longest and wavy above his forehead. Such a perfect picture of innocence you never saw. There was one part of him that couldn't be described any better than the way Mr. Rienzi told about his brother in his "Address to the Romans," in McGuffey's Sixth. "The look of heaven on his face" stayed most of the time; again, there was a dealish twinkle that sparkled and flashed while he was thinking up something mischievous to do. When he was fighting angry, and going to thrash Absalom Saunders or die trying, he was plain white and his eyes were like steel. Mother called him "Weiscope," half the time. I can only spell the way that sounds, but it means "white-head," and she always used that name when she loved him most. "The look of heaven" was strong on his face now.
"One," said the recording secretary.
"Jesus wept," answered Leon promptly.
There was not a sound in the church. You could almost hear the butterflies pass. Father looked down and laid his lower lip in folds with his fingers, like he did sometimes when it wouldn't behave to suit him.
"Two," said the secretary after just a breath of pause.
Leon looked over the congregation easily and then fastened his eyes on Abram Saunders, the father of Absalom, and said reprovingly: "Give not sleep to thine eyes nor slumber to thine eyelids."
Abram straightened up suddenly and blinked in astonishment, while father held fast to his lip.
"Three," called the secretary hurriedly.
Leon shifted his gaze to Betsy Alton, who hadn't spoken to her next door neighbour in five years.
"Hatred stirreth up strife," he told her softly, "but love covereth all sins."
Things were so quiet it seemed as if the air would snap.
The mild blue eyes travelled back to the men's side and settled on Isaac Thomas, a man too lazy to plow and sow land his father had left him. They were not so mild, and the voice was touched with command: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise."
Still that silence.
"Five," said the secretary hurriedly, as if he wished it were over. Back came the eyes to the women's side and past all question looked straight at Hannah Dover.
"As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman without discretion."
"Six," said the secretary and looked appealingly at father, whose face was filled with dismay.
Again Leon's eyes crossed the aisle and he looked directly at the man whom everybody in the community called "Stiff-necked Johnny."
I think he was rather proud of it, he worked so hard to keep them doing it.
"Lift not up your horn on high: speak not with a stiff neck," Leon commanded him.
Toward the door some one tittered.
"Seven," called the secretary hastily.
Leon glanced around the room.
"But how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity," he announced in delighted tones as if he had found it out by himself.
"Eight," called the secretary with something like a breath of relief.
Our angel boy never had looked so angelic, and he was beaming on the Princess.
"Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee," he told her.
Laddie would thrash him for that.
Instantly after, "Nine," he recited straight at Laddie: "I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?"
More than one giggled that time.
"Ten!" came almost sharply.
Leon looked scared for the first time. He actually seemed to shiver. Maybe he realized at last that it was a pretty serious thing he was doing. When he spoke he said these words in the most surprised voice you ever heard: "I was almost in all evil in the midst of the congregation and assembly."
Perhaps these words are in the Bible. They are not there to read the way Leon repeated them, for he put a short pause after the first name, and he glanced toward our father: "Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, and to-day, and forever!"
Sure as you live my mother's shoulders shook.
Suddenly Leon seemed to be forsaken. He surely shrank in size and appeared abused.
"When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up," he announced, and looked as happy over the ending as he had seemed forlorn at the beginning.
"The Lord is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do unto me?" inquired Leon of every one in the church. Then he soberly made a bow and walked to his seat.
Father's voice broke that silence. "Let us kneel in prayer," he said.
He took a step forward, knelt, laid his hands on the altar, closed his eyes and turned his face upward.
"Our Heavenly Father, we come before Thee in a trying situation," he said. "Thy word of truth has been spoken to us by a thoughtless boy, whether in a spirit of helpfulness or of jest, Thou knowest. Since we are reasoning creatures, it little matters in what form Thy truth comes to us; the essential thing is that we soften our hearts for its entrance, and grow in grace by its application. Tears of compassion such as our dear Saviour wept are in our eyes this morning as we plead with Thee to help us to apply these words to the betterment of this community."
Then father began to pray. If the Lord had been standing six feet in front of him, and his life had depended on what he said, he could have prayed no harder. Goodness knows how fathers remember. He began at "Jesus wept" and told about this sinful world and why He wept over it; then one at a time he took those other twelve verses and hammered them down where they belonged much harder than Leon ever could by merely looking at people. After that he prayed all around each one so fervently that those who had been hit the very worst cried aloud and said: "Amen!" You wouldn't think any one could do a thing like that; but I heard and saw my father do it.
When he arose the tears were running down his cheeks, and before him stood Leon. He was white as could be, but he spoke out loudly and clearly.
"Please forgive me, sir; I didn't intend to hurt your feelings. Please every one forgive me. I didn't mean to offend any one. It happened through hunting short verses. All the short ones seemed to be like that, and they made me think----"
He got no farther. Father must have been afraid of what he might say next. He threw his arms around Leon's shoulders, drew him to the seat, and with the tears still rolling, he laughed as happily as you ever heard, and he cried: "`Sweeping through the Gates!' All join in!"
You never heard such singing in your life. That was another wonderful thing. My father didn't know the notes. He couldn't sing; he said so himself. Neither could half the people there, yet all of them were singing at the tops of their voices, and I don't believe the angels in Heaven could make grander music. My father was leading:
"These, these are they, who in the conflict dire----"
You could tell Emanuel Ripley had been in the war from the way he roared:
"Boldly have stood amidst the hottest fire----"
The Widow Fall soared above all of them on the next line; her man was there, and maybe she was lonely and would have been glad to go to him:
"Jesus now says, `Come up higher----'"
Then my little mother:
"Washed in the blood of the Lamb----"
Like thunder all of them rolled into the chorus:
"Sweepin, through the gates to the New Jerusalem----"
You wouldn't have been left out of that company for anything in all this world, and nothing else ever could make you want to go so badly as to hear every one sing, straight from the heart, a grand old song like that. It is no right way to have to sit and keep still, and pay other people money to sing about Heaven to you. No matter if you can't sing by note, if your heart and soul are full, until they are running over, so that you are forced to sing as those people did, whether you can or not, you are sure to be straight on the way to the Gates.
Before three lines were finished my father was keeping time like a choirmaster, his face all beaming with shining light; mother was rocking on her toes like a wood robin on a twig at twilight, and at the end of the chorus she cried "Glory!" right out loud, and turned and started down the aisle, shaking hands with every one, singing as she went. When she reached Betsy Alton she held her hand and led her down the aisle straight toward Rachel Brown.
When Rachel saw them coming she hurried to meet them, and they shook hands and were glad to make up as any two people you ever saw. It must have been perfectly dreadful to see a woman every day for five years, and not to give her a pie, when you felt sure yours were better than she could make, or loan her a new pattern, or tell her first who had a baby, or was married, or dead, or anything like that. It was no wonder they felt glad. Mother came on, and as she passed me the verses were all finished and every one began talking and moving. Johnny Dover forgot his neck and shook hands too, and father pronounced the benediction. He always had to when the minister wasn't there, because he was ordained himself, and you didn't dare pronounce the benediction unless you were.
Every one began talking again, and wondering if the minister wouldn't come soon, and some one went out to see. There was mother standing only a few feet from the Princess, and I thought of something. I had seen it done often enough, but I never had tried it myself, yet I wanted to so badly, there was no time to think how scared I would be. I took mother's hand and led her a few steps farther and said: "Mother, this is my friend, Pamela Pryor."
I believe I did it fairly well. Mother must have been surprised, but she put out her hand.
"I didn't know Miss Pryor and you were acquainted."
"It's only been a little while," I told her. "I met her when I was on some business with the Fairies. They know everything and they told me her father was busy"--I thought she wouldn't want me to tell that he was plain cross, where every one could hear, so I said "busy" for politeness--"and her mother not very strong, and that she was a good girl, and dreadfully lonesome. Can't you do something, mother?"
"Well, I should think so!" said mother, for her heart was soft as rose leaves. Maybe you won't believe this, but it's quite true. My mother took the Princess' arm and led her to Sally and Shelley, and introduced her to all the girls. By the time the minister came and mother went back to her seat, she had forgotten all about the "indisposed" word she disliked, and as you live! she invited the Princess to go home with us to dinner. She stood tall and straight, her eyes very bright, and her cheeks a little redder than usual, as she shook hands and said a few pleasant words that were like from a book, they fitted and were so right. When mother asked her to dinner she said: "Thank you kindly. I should be glad to go, but my people expect me at home and they would be uneasy. Perhaps you would allow me to ride over some week day and become acquainted?"
Mother said she would be happy to have her, and Shelley said so too, but Sally was none too cordial. She had dark curls and pink cheeks herself, and every one had said she was the prettiest girl in the county before Shelley began to blossom out and show what she was going to be. Sally never minded that, but when the Princess came she was a little taller, and her hair was a trifle longer, and heavier, and blacker, and her eyes were a little larger and darker, and where Sally had pink skin and red lips, the Princess was dark as olive, and her lips and cheeks were like red velvet. Anyway, the Princess had said she would come over; mother and Shelley had been decent to her, and Sally hadn't been exactly insulting. It would be a little more than you could expect for her to be wild about the Princess. I believe she was pleased over having been invited to dinner, and as she was a stranger she couldn't know that mother had what we called the "invitation habit."
I have seen her ask from fifteen to twenty in one trip down the aisle on Sunday morning. She wanted them to come too; the more who came, the better she liked it. If the hitching rack and barnyard were full on Sunday she just beamed. If the sermon pleased her, she invited more. That morning she was feeling so good she asked seventeen; and as she only had dressed six chickens--third table, backs and ham, for me as usual; but when the prospects were as now, I always managed to coax a few gizzards from Candace; she didn't dare give me livers--they were counted. Almost everyone in the church was the happiest that morning they had been in years. When the preacher came, he breathed it from the air, and it worked on him so he preached the best sermon he ever had, and never knew that Leon made him do it.
Maybe after all it's a good thing to tell people about their meanness and give them a stirring up once in a while.