Laddie, A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter III. Mr. Pryor's Door
"Grief will be joy if on its edge Fall soft that holiest ray, Joy will be grief if no faint pledge Be there of heavenly day."
Have Sally and Peter said anything about getting married yet?" asked my big sister Lucy of mother. Lucy was home on a visit. She was bathing her baby and mother was sewing.
"Not a word!"
"Are they engaged?"
"Sally hasn't mentioned it."
"Well, can't you find out?"
"How could I?" asked mother.
"Why, watch them a little and see how they act when they are together. If he kisses her when he leaves, of course they are engaged."
"It would be best to wait until Sally tells me," laughed mother.
I heard this from the back steps. Neither mother nor Lucy knew I was there. I went in to see if they would let me take the baby. Of course they wouldn't! Mother took it herself. She was rocking, and softly singing my Dutch song that I loved best; I can't spell it, but it sounds like this:
"Trus, trus, trill; Der power rid der fill, Fill sphring aveck, Plodschlicter power in der dreck."
Once I asked mother to sing it in English, and she couldn't because it didn't rhyme that way and the words wouldn't fit the notes; it was just, "Trot, trot, trot, a boy rode a colt. The colt sprang aside; down went the boy in the dirt."
"Aw, don't sing my song to that little red, pug-nosed bald-head!" I said.
Really, it was a very nice baby; I only said that because I wanted to hold it, and mother wouldn't give it up. I tried to coax May to the dam snake hunting, but she couldn't go, so I had to amuse myself. I had a doll, but I never played with it except when I was dressed up on Sunday. Anyway, what's the use of a doll when there's a live baby in the house? I didn't care much for my playhouse since I had seen one so much finer that Laddie had made for the Princess. Of course I knew moss wouldn't take root in our orchard as it did in the woods, neither would willow cuttings or the red flowers. Finally, I decided to go hunting. I went into the garden and gathered every ripe touch-me-not pod I could find, and all the portulaca. Then I stripped the tiger lilies of each little black ball at the bases of the leaves, and took all the four o'clock seed there was. Then I got my biggest alder popgun and started up the road toward Sarah Hood's.
I was going along singing a little verse; it wasn't Dutch either; the old baby could have that if it wanted it. Soon as I got from sight of the house I made a powderhorn of a curled leaf, loaded my gun with portulaca powder, rammed in a tiger lily bullet, laid the weapon across my shoulder, and stepped high and lightly as Laddie does when he's in the Big Woods hunting for squirrel. It must have been my own singing--I am rather good at hearing things, but I never noticed a sound that time, until a voice like a rusty saw said: "Good morning, Nimrod!"
I sprang from the soft dust and landed among the dog fennel of a fence corner, in a flying leap. Then I looked. It was the Princess' father, tall, and gray, and grim, riding a big black horse that seemed as if it had been curried with the fine comb and brushed with the grease rag.
"Good morning!" I said when I could speak.
"Am I correct in the surmise that you are on the chase with a popgun?" he asked politely.
"Yes sir," I answered, getting my breath the best I could.
It came easier after I noticed he didn't seem to be angry about anything.
"Where is your hunting ground, and what game are you after?" he asked gravely.
"You can see the great African jungle over there. I am going to hunt for lions and tigers."
You always must answer politely any one who speaks to you; and you get soundly thrashed, at least at our house, if you don't be politest of all to an older person especially with white hair. Father is extremely particular about white hair. It is a "crown of glory," when it is found in the way of the Lord. Mahlon Pryor had enough crown of glory for three men, but maybe his wasn't exactly glory, because he wasn't in the way of the Lord. He was in a way of his own. He must have had much confidence in himself. At our house we would rather trust in the Lord. I only told him about the lions and tigers because he asked me, and that was the way I played. But you should have heard him laugh. You wouldn't have supposed to see him that he could.
"Umph!" he said at last. "I am a little curious about your ammunition. Just how to you bring down your prey?"
"I use portulaca powder and tiger lily bullets on the tigers, and four o'clocks on the lions," I said.
You could have heard him a mile, dried up as he was.
"I used to wear a red coat and ride to the hounds fox hunting," he said. "It's great sport. Won't you take me with you to the jungle?"
I didn't want him in the least, but if any one older asks right out to go with you, what can you do? I am going to tell several things you won't believe, and this is one of them: He got off his horse, tied it to the fence, and climbed over after me. He went on asking questions and of course I had to tell him. Most of what he wanted to know, his people should have taught him before he was ten years old, but father says they do things differently in England.
"There doesn't seem to be many trees in the jungle."
"Well, there's one, and it's about the most important on our land," I told him. "Father wouldn't cut it down for a farm. You see that little dark bag nearly as big as your fist, swinging out there on that limb? Well, every spring one of these birds, yellow as orange peel, with velvet black wings, weaves a nest like that, and over on that big branch, high up, one just as bright red as the other is yellow, and the same black wings, builds a cradle for his babies. Father says a red bird and a yellow one keeping house in the same tree is the biggest thing that ever happened in our family. They come every year and that is their tree. I believe father would shoot any one who drove them away."
"Your father is a gunner also?" he asked, and I thought he was laughing to himself.
"He's enough of a gunner to bring mother in a wagon from Pennsylvania all the way here, and he kept wolves, bears, Indians, and Gypsies from her, and shot things for food. Yes sir, my father can shoot if he wants to, better than any of our family except Laddie."
"And does Laddie shoot well?"
"Laddie does everything well," I answered proudly. "He won't try to do anything at all, until he practises so he can do it well."
"Score one for Laddie," he said in a queer voice.
"Are you in a hurry about the lions and tigers?"
"Not at all," he answered.
"Well, here I always stop and let Governor Oglesby go swimming," I said.
Mr. Mahlon Pryor sat on the bank of our Little Creek, took off his hat and shook back his hair as if the wind felt good on his forehead. I fished Dick Oglesby from the ammunition in my apron pocket, and held him toward the cross old man, and he wasn't cross at all. It's funny how you come to get such wrong ideas about people.
"My big married sister who lives in Westchester sent him to me last Christmas," I explained. "I have another doll, great big, with a Scotch plaid dress made from pieces of mine, but I only play with her on Sunday when I dare not do much else. I like Dick the best because he fits my apron pocket. Father wanted me to change his name and call him Oliver P. Morton, after a friend of his, but I told him this doll had to be called by the name he came with, and if he wanted me to have one named for his friend, to get it, and I'd play with it."
"What did he do?"
"He didn't want one named Morton that much."
Mr. Pryor took Dick Oglesby in his fingers and looked at his curly black hair and blue eyes, his chubby outstretched arms, like a baby when it wants you to take it, and his plump little feet and the white shirt with red stripes all a piece of him as he was made, and said: "The honourable governor of our sister state seems a little weighty; I am at a loss to understand how he swims."
"It's a new way," I said. "He just stands still and the water swims around him. It's very easy for him."
Then I carried Dick to the water, waded in and stood him against a stone. Something funny happened instantly. It always did. I found it out one day when I got some apple butter on the governor giving him a bite of my bread, and put him in the wash bowl to soak. He was two and a half inches tall; but the minute you stood him in water he went down to about half that height and spread out to twice his size around. You should have heard Mr. Pryor.
"If you will lie on the bank and watch you'll have more to laugh at than that," I promised.
He lay down and never paid the least attention to his clothes. Pretty soon a little chub fish came swimming around to make friends with Governor Oglesby, and then a shiner and some more chub. They nibbled at his hands and toes, and then went flashing away, and from under the stone came backing a big crayfish and seized the governor by the leg and started dragging him, so I had to jump in and stop it. I took a shot at the crayfish with the tiger ammunition and then loaded for lions.
We went on until the marsh became a thicket of cattails, bulrushes, willow bushes, and blue flags; then I found a path where the lions left the jungle, hid Mr. Pryor and told him he must be very still or they wouldn't come. At last I heard one. I touched Mr. Pryor's sleeve to warn him to keep his eyes on the trail. Pretty soon the lion came in sight. Really it was only a little gray rabbit hopping along, but when it was opposite us, I pinged it in the side, it jumped up and turned a somersault with surprise, and squealed a funny little squeal,--well, I wondered if Mr. Pryor's people didn't hear him, and think he had gone crazy as Paddy Ryan. I never did hear any one laugh so. I thought if he enjoyed it like that, I'd let him shoot one. I do May sometimes; so we went to another place I knew where there was a tiger's den, and I loaded with tiger lily bullets, gave him the gun and showed him where to aim. After we had waited a long time out came a muskrat, and started for the river. I looked to see why Mr. Pryor didn't shoot, and there he was gazing at it as if a snake had charmed him; his hands shaking a little, his cheeks almost red, his eyes very bright.
"Shoot!" I whispered. "It won't stay all day!"
He forgot how to push the ramrod like I showed him, so he reached out and tried to hit it with the gun.
"Don't do that!" I said.
"But it's getting away! It's getting away!" he cried.
"Well, what if it is?" I asked, half provoked. "Do you suppose I really would hurt a poor little muskrat? Maybe it has six hungry babies in its home."
"Oh that way," he said, but he kept looking at it, so he made me think if I hadn't been there, he would have thrown a stone or hit it with a stick. It is perfectly wonderful about how some men can't get along without killing things, such little bits of helpless creatures too. I thought he'd better be got from the jungle, so I invited him to see the place at the foot of the hill below our orchard where some men thought they had discovered gold before the war. They had been to California in '49, and although they didn't come home with millions, or anything else except sick and tired, they thought they had learned enough about gold to know it when they saw it.
I told him about it and he was interested and anxious to see the place. If there had been a shovel, I am quite sure he would have gone to digging. He kept poking around with his boot toe, and he said maybe the yokels didn't look good.
He said our meadow was a beautiful place, and when he praised the creek I told him about the wild ducks, and he laughed again. He didn't seem to be the same man when we went back to the road. I pulled some sweet marsh grass and gave his horse bites, so Mr. Pryor asked if I liked animals. I said I loved horses, Laddie's best of all. He asked about it and I told him.
"Hasn't your father but one thoroughbred?"
"Father hasn't any," I said. "Flos really belongs to Laddie, and we are mighty glad he has her."
"You should have one soon, yourself," he said.
"Well, if the rest of them will hurry up and marry off, so the expenses won't be so heavy, maybe I can."
"How many of you are there?" he asked.
"Only twelve," I said.
He looked down the road at our house.
"Do you mean to tell me you have twelve children there?" he inquired.
"Oh no!" I answered. "Some of the big boys have gone into business in the cities around, and some of the girls are married.
Mother says she has only to show her girls in the cities to have them snapped up like hot cakes."
"I fancy that is the truth," he said. "I've passed the one who rides the little black pony and she is a picture. A fine, healthy, sensible-appearing young woman!"
"I don't think she's as pretty as your girl," I said.
"Perhaps I don't either," he replied, smiling at me.
Then he mounted his horse.
"I don't remember that I ever have passed that house," he said, "without hearing some one singing. Does it go on all the time?"
"Yes, unless mother is sick."
"And what is it all about?"
"Oh just joy! Gladness that we are alive, that we have things to do that we like, and praising the Lord."
"Umph!" said Mr. Pryor.
"It's just letting out what our hearts are full of," I told him. "Don't you know that song:
"`Tis the old time religion And you cannot keep it still?'"
He shook his head.
"It's an awful nice song," I explained. "After it sings about all the other things religion is good for, there is one line that says: `It's good for those in trouble.'"
I looked at him straight and hard, but he only turned white and seemed sick.
"So?" said Mr. Pryor. "Well, thank you for the most interesting morning I've had this side England. I should be delighted if you would come and hunt lions in my woods with me some time."
"Oh, do you open the door to children?"
"Certainly we open the door to children," he said, and as I live, he looked so sad I couldn't help thinking he was sorry to close it against any one. A mystery is the dreadfulest thing.
"Then if children don't matter, maybe I can come lion-hunting some time with the Princess, after she has made the visit at our house she said she would."
"Indeed! I hadn't been informed that my daughter contemplated visiting your house," he said. "When was it arranged?"
"My mother invited her last Sunday."
I didn't like the way he said: "O-o-o-h!" Some way it seemed insulting to my mother.
"She did it to please me," I said. "There was a Fairy Princess told me the other day that your girl felt like a stranger, and that to be a stranger was the hardest thing in all the world. She sat a little way from the others, and she looked so lonely. I pulled my mother's sleeve and led her to your girl and made them shake hands, and then mother had to ask her to come to dinner with us. She always invites every one she meets coming down the aisle; she couldn't help asking your girl, too. She said she was expected at home, but she'd come some day and get acquainted. She needn't if you object. My mother only asked her because she thought she was lonely, and maybe she wanted to come."
He sat there staring straight ahead and he seemed to grow whiter, and older, and colder every minute.
"Possibly she is lonely," he said at last. "This isn't much like the life she left. Perhaps she does feel herself a stranger. It was very kind of your mother to invite her. If she wants to come, I shall make no objections."
"No, but my father will," I said.
He straightened up as if something had hit him. "Why will he object?"
"On account of what you said about God at our house," I told him. "And then, too, father's people were from England, and he says real Englishmen have their doors wide open, and welcome people who offer friendliness."
Mr. Pryor hit his horse an awful blow. It reared and went racing up the road until I thought it was running away. I could see I had made him angry enough to burst. Mother always tells me not to repeat things; but I'm not smart enough to know what to say, so I don't see what is left but to tell what mother, or father, or Laddie says when grown people ask me questions.
I went home, but every one was too busy even to look at me, so I took Bobby under my arm, hunted father, and told him all about the morning. I wondered what he would think. I never found out.
He wouldn't say anything, so Bobby and I went across the lane, and climbed the gate into the orchard to see if Hezekiah were there and wanted to fight. He hadn't time to fight Bobby because he was busy chasing every wild jay from our orchard. By the time he got that done, he was tired, so he came hopping along on branches above us as Bobby and I went down the west fence beside the lane.
If I had been compelled to choose the side of our orchard I liked best, I don't know which I would have selected. The west side-- that is, the one behind the dooryard--was running over with interesting things. Two gates opened into it, one from near each corner of the yard. Between these there was quite a wide level space, where mother fed the big chickens and kept the hens in coops with little ones. She had to have them close enough that the big hawks were afraid to come to earth, or they would take more chickens than they could pay for, by cleaning rabbits, snakes, and mice from the fields. Then came a double row of prize peach trees; rare fruit that mother canned to take to county fairs. One bore big, white freestones, and around the seed they were pink as a rose. One was a white cling, and one was yellow. There was a yellow freestone as big as a young sun, and as golden, and the queerest of all was a cling purple as a beet.
Sometimes father read about the hairs of the head being numbered, because we were so precious in the sight of the Almighty. Mother was just as particular with her purple tree; every peach on it was counted, and if we found one on the ground, we had to carry it to her, because it might be sound enough to can or spice for a fair, or she had promised the seed to some one halfway across the state. At each end of the peach row was an enormous big pear tree; not far from one the chicken house stood on the path to the barn, and beside the other the smoke house with the dog kennel a yard away. Father said there was a distinct relationship between a smoke house and a dog kennel, and bulldogs were best. Just at present we were out of bulldogs, but Jones, Jenkins and Co. could make as much noise as any dog you ever heard. On the left grew the plum trees all the way to the south fence, and I think there was one of every kind in the fruit catalogues. Father spent hours pruning, grafting, and fertilizing them. He said they required twice as much work as peaches.
Around the other sides of the orchard were two rows of peach trees of every variety; but one cling on the north was just a little the best of any, and we might eat all we wanted from any tree we liked, after father tested them and said: "Peaches are ripe!" In the middle were the apple; selected trees, planted, trimmed, and cultivated like human beings. The apples were so big and fine they were picked by hand, wrapped in paper, packed in barrels, and all we could not use at home went to J. B. White in Fort Wayne for the biggest fruit house in the state. My! but father was proud! He always packed especially fine ones for Mr. White's family. He said he liked him, because he was a real sandy Scotchman, who knew when an apple was right, and wasn't afraid to say so.
On the south side of the orchard there was the earliest June apple tree. The apples were small, bright red with yellow stripes, crisp, juicy and sweet enough to be just right. The tree was very large, and so heavy it leaned far to the northeast.
This sounds like make-believe, but it's gospel truth. Almost two feet from the ground there was a big round growth, the size of a hash bowl. The tree must have been hurt when very small and the place enlarged with the trunk. Now it made a grand step. If you understood that no one could keep from running the last few rods from the tree, then figured on the help to be had from this step, you could see how we went up it like squirrels. All the bark on the south side was worn away and the trunk was smooth and shiny. The birds loved to nest among the branches, and under the peach tree in the fence corner opposite was a big bed of my mother's favourite wild flowers, blue-eyed Marys. They had dainty stems from six to eight inches high and delicate heads of bloom made up of little flowers, two petals up, blue, two turning down, white. Perhaps you don't know about anything prettier than that. There were maiden-hair ferns among them too! and the biggest lichens you ever saw on the fence, while in the hollow of a rotten rail a little chippy bird always built a hair nest. She got the hairs at our barn, for most of them were gray from our carriage horses, Ned and Jo. All down that side of the orchard the fence corners were filled with long grass and wild flowers, a few alder bushes left to furnish berries for the birds, and wild roses for us, to keep their beauty impressed on us, father said.
The east end ran along the brow of a hill so steep we coasted down it on the big meat board all winter. The board was six inches thick, two and a half feet wide, and six long. Father said slipping over ice and snow gave it the good scouring it needed, and it was thick enough to last all our lives, so we might play with it as we pleased. At least seven of us could go skimming down that hill and halfway across the meadow on it. In the very place we slid across, in summer lay the cowslip bed. The world is full of beautiful spots, but I doubt if any of them ever were prettier than that. Father called it swale. We didn't sink deep, but all summer there was water standing there. The grass was long and very sweet, there were ferns and a few calamus flowers, and there must have been an acre of cowslips--cowslips with big-veined, heartshaped, green leaves, and large pale gold flowers. I used to sit on the top rail of that orchard fence and look down at them, and try to figure out what God was thinking when He created them, and I wished that I might have been where I could watch His face as He worked.
Halfway across the east side was a gully where Leon and I found the Underground Station, and from any place along the north you looked, you saw the Little Creek and the marsh. At the same time the cowslips were most golden, the marsh was blue with flags, pink with smart weed, white and yellow with dodder, yellow with marsh buttercups having ragged frosty leaves, while the yellow and the red birds flashed above it, the red crying, "Chip," "Chip," in short, sharp notes, the yellow spilling music all over the marsh while on wing.
It would take a whole book to describe the butterflies; once in a while you scared up a big, wonderful moth, large as a sparrow; and the orchard was alive with doves, thrushes, catbirds, bluebirds, vireos, and orioles. When you climbed the fence, or a tree, and kept quiet, and heard the music and studied the pictures, it made you feel as if you had to put it into words. I often had meeting all by myself, unless Bobby and Hezekiah were along, and I tried to tell God what I thought about things. Probably He was so busy making more birds and flowers for other worlds, He never heard me; but I didn't say anything disrespectful at all, so it made no difference if He did listen. It just seemed as if I must tell what I thought, and I felt better, not so full and restless after I had finished.
All of us were alike about that. At that minute I knew mother was humming, as she did a dozen times a day:
"I think when I read that sweet story of old, When Jesus was here among men How He called little children as lambs to His fold, I should like to have been with Him then."
Lucy would be rocking her baby and singing, "Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber." Candace's favourite she made up about her man who had been killed in the war, when they had been married only six weeks, which hadn't given her time to grow tired of him if he hadn't been "all her fancy painted." She arranged the words like "Ben Battle was a soldier bold," and she sang them to suit herself, and cried every single minute:
"They wrapped him in his uniform, They laid him in the tomb, My aching heart I thought 'twould break, But such was my sad doom."
Candace just loved that song. She sang it all the time. Leon said our pie always tasted salty from her tears, and he'd take a bite and smile at her sweetly and say: "How uniform you get your pie, Candace!"
May's favourite was "Joy Bells." Father would be whispering over to himself the speech he was preparing to make at the next prayer-meeting. We never could learn his speeches, because he read and studied so much it kept his head so full, he made a new one every time. You could hear Laddie's deep bass booming the "Bedouin Love Song" for a mile; this minute it came rolling across the corn:
"Open the door of thy heart, And open thy chamber door, And my kisses shall teach thy lips The love that shall fade no more Till the sun grows cold, And the Stars are old, And the leaves of the Judgment Book unfold!"
I don't know how the Princess stood it. If he had been singing that song where I could hear it and I had known it was about me, as she must have known he meant her, I couldn't have kept my arms from around his neck. Over in the barn Leon was singing:
"A life on the ocean wave, A home on the rolling deep, Where codfish waggle their tails 'Mid tadpoles two feet deep."
The minute he finished, he would begin reciting "Marco Bozzaris," and you could be sure that he would reach the last line only to commence on the speech of "Logan, Chief of the Mingoes," or any one of the fifty others. He could make your hair stand a little straighter than any one else; the best teachers we ever had, or even Laddie, couldn't make you shivery and creepy as he could. Because all of us kept going like that every day, people couldn't pass without hearing, so that was what Mr. Pryor meant.
I had a pulpit in the southeast corner of the orchard. I liked that place best of all because from it you could see two sides at once. The very first little, old log cabin that had been on our land, the one my father and mother moved into, had stood in that corner. It was all gone now; but a flowerbed of tiny, purple iris, not so tall as the grass, spread there, and some striped grass in the shadiest places, and among the flowers a lark brooded every spring. In the fence corner mother's big white turkey hen always nested. To protect her from rain and too hot sun, father had slipped some boards between the rails about three feet from the ground. After the turkey left, that was my pulpit.
I stood there and used the top of the fence for my railing.
The little flags and all the orchard and birds were behind me; on one hand was the broad, grassy meadow with the creek running so swiftly, I could hear it, and the breath of the cowslips came up the hill. Straight in front was the lane running down from the barn, crossing the creek and spreading into the woods pasture, where the water ran wider and yet swifter, big forest trees grew, and bushes of berries, pawpaws, willow, everything ever found in an Indiana thicket; grass under foot, and many wild flowers and ferns wherever the cattle and horses didn't trample them, and bigger, wilder birds, many having names I didn't know. On the left, across the lane, was a large cornfield, with trees here and there, and down the valley I could see the Big Creek coming from the west, the Big Hill with the church on top, and always the white gravestones around it. Always too there was the sky overhead, often with clouds banked until you felt if you only could reach them, you could climb straight to the gates that father was so fond of singing about sweeping through. Mostly there was a big hawk or a turkey buzzard hanging among them, just to show us that we were not so much, and that we couldn't shoot them, unless they chose to come down and give us a chance.
I set Bobby and Hezekiah on the fence and stood between them. "We will open service this morning by singing the thirty-fifth hymn," I said. "Sister Dover, will you pitch the tune?"
Then I made my voice high and squeally like hers and sang:
"Come ye that love the Lord, And let your joys be known, Join in a song of sweet accord, And thus surround the throne."
I sang all of it and then said: "Brother Hastings, will you lead us in prayer?"
Then I knelt down, and prayed Brother Hastings' prayer. I could have repeated any one of a dozen of the prayers the men of our church prayed, but I liked Brother Hastings' best, because it had the biggest words in it. I loved words that filled your mouth, and sounded as if you were used to books. It began sort of sing- songy and measured in stops, like a poetry piece:
"Our Heavenly Father: We come before Thee this morning, Humble worms of the dust, imploring thy blessing. We beseech Thee to forgive our transgressions, Heal our backsliding, and love us freely."
Sometimes from there on it changed a little, but it always began and ended exactly the same way. Father said Brother Hastings was powerful in prayer, but he did wish he'd leave out the "worms of the dust." He said we were not "worms of the dust"; we were reasoning, progressive, inventive men and women. He said a worm would never be anything except a worm, but we could study and improve ourselves, help others, make great machines, paint pictures, write books, and go to an extent that must almost amaze the Almighty Himself. He said that if Brother Hastings had done more plowing in his time, and had a little closer acquaintance with worms, he wouldn't be so ready to call himself and every one else a worm. Now if you are talking about cutworms or fishworms, father is right. But there is that place where--"Charles his heel had raised, upon the humble worm to tread," and the worm lifted up its voice and spake thus to Charles:
"I know I'm now among the things Uncomely to your sight, But, by and by, on splendid wings, You'll see me high and bright."
Now I'll bet a cent that is the kind of worm Brother Hastings said we were. I must speak to father about it. I don't want him to be mistaken; and I really think he is about worms. Of course he knows the kind that have wings and fly. Brother Hastings mixed him up by saying "worms of the dust" when he should have said worms of the leaves. Those that go into little round cases in earth or spin cocoons on trees always live on leaves, and many of them rear the head, having large horns, and wave it in a manner far from humble. So father and Brother Hastings were both partly right, and partly wrong.
When the prayer came to a close, where every one always said "Amen," I punched Bobby and whispered, "Crow, Bobby, crow!" and he stood up and brought it out strong, like he always did when I told him. I had to stop the service to feed him a little wheat, to pay him for crowing; but as no one was there except us, that didn't matter. Then Hezekiah crowded over for some, so I had to pretend I was Mrs. Daniels feeding her children caraway cake, like she always did in meeting. If I had been the mother of children who couldn't have gone without things to eat in church I'd have kept them at home. Mrs. Daniels always had the carpet greasy with cake crumbs wherever she sat, and mother didn't think the Lord liked a dirty church any more than we would have wanted a mussy house. When I had Bobby and Hezekiah settled I took my text from my head, because I didn't know the meeting feeling was coming on me when I started, and I had brought no Bible along.
"Blessed are all men, but most blessed are they who hold their tempers." I had to stroke Bobby a little and pat Hezekiah once in a while, to keep them from flying down and fighting, but mostly I could give my attention to my sermon.
"We have only to look around us this morning to see that all men are blessed," I said. "The sky is big enough to cover every one.
If the sun gets too hot, there are trees for shade or the clouds come up for a while. If the earth becomes too dry, it always rains before it is everlastingly too late. There are birds enough to sing for every one, butterflies enough to go around, and so many flowers we can't always keep the cattle and horses from tramping down and even devouring beautiful ones, like Daniel thought the lions would devour him--but they didn't. Wouldn't it be a good idea, O Lord, for You to shut the cows' mouths and save the cowslips also; they may not be worth as much as a man, but they are lots better looking, and they make fine greens. It doesn't seem right for cows to eat flowers; but maybe it is as right for them as it is for us. The best way would be for our cattle to do like that piece about the cow in the meadow exactly the same as ours:
"`And through it ran a little brook, Where oft the cows would drink, And then lie down among the flowers, That grew upon the brink.'
"You notice, O Lord, the cows did not eat the flowers in this instance; they merely rested among them, and goodness knows, that's enough for any cow. They had better done like the next verse, where it says:
"`They like to lie beneath the trees, All shaded by the boughs, Whene'er the noontide heat came on: Sure, they were happy cows!'
"Now, O Lord, this plainly teaches that if cows are happy, men should be much more so, for like the cows, they have all Thou canst do for them, and all they can do for themselves, besides. So every man is blessed, because Thy bounty has provided all these things for him, without money and without price. If some men are not so blessed as others, it is their own fault, and not Yours. You made the earth, and all that is therein, and You made the men. Of course You had to make men different, so each woman can tell which one belongs to her; but I believe it would have been a good idea while You were at it, if You would have made all of them enough alike that they would all work. Perhaps it isn't polite of me to ask more of You than You saw fit to do; and then, again, it may be that there are some things impossible, even to You. If there is anything at all, seems as if making Isaac Thomas work would be it. Father says that man would rather starve and see his wife and children hungry than to take off his coat, roll up his sleeves, and plow corn; so it was good enough for him when Leon said, `Go to the ant, thou sluggard,' right at him. So, of course, Isaac is not so blessed as some men, because he won't work, and thus he never knows whether he's going to have a big dinner on Sunday, until after some one asks him, because he looks so empty. Mother thinks it isn't fair to feed Isaac and send him home with his stomach full, while Mandy and the babies are sick and hungry. But Isaac is some blessed, because he has religion and gets real happy, and sings, and shouts, and he's going to Heaven when he dies. He must wish he'd go soon, especially in winter.
"There are men who do not have even this blessing, and to make things worse, O Lord, they get mad as fire and hit their horses, and look like all possessed. The words of my text this morning apply especially to a man who has all the blessings Thou hast showered and flowered upon men who work, or whose people worked and left them so much money they don't need to, and yet a sadder face I never saw, or a crosser one. He looks like he was going to hit people, and he does hit his horse an awful crack. It's no way to hit a horse, not even if it balks, because it can't hit back, and it's a cowardly thing to do. If you rub their ears and talk to them, they come quicker, O our Heavenly Father, and if you hit them just because you are mad, it's a bigger sin yet.
"No man is nearly so blessed as he might be who goes around looking killed with grief when he should cheer up, no matter what ails him; and who shuts up his door and says his wife is sick when she isn't, and who scowls at every one, when he can be real pleasant if he likes, as some in Divine Presence can testify. So we are going to beseech Thee, O Lord, to lay Thy mighty hand upon the man who got mad this beautiful morning and make him feel Thy might, until he will know for himself and not another, that You are not a myth. Teach him to have a pleasant countenance, an open door, and to hold his temper. Help him to come over to our house and be friendly with all his neighbours, and get all the blessings You have provided for every one; but please don't make him have any more trouble than he has now, for if You do, You'll surely kill him. Have patience with him, and have mercy on him, O Lord! Let us pray."
That time I prayed myself. I looked into the sky just as straight and as far as I could see, and if I had any influence at all, I used it then. Right out loud, I just begged the Lord to get after Mr. Pryor and make him behave like other people, and let the Princess come to our house, and for him to come too; because I liked him heaps when he was lion hunting, and I wanted to go with him again the worst way. I had seen him sail right over the fences on his big black horse, and when he did it in England, wearing a red coat, and the dogs flew over thick around him, it must have looked grand, but it was mighty hard on the fox. I do hope it got away. Anyway, I prayed as hard as I could, and every time I said the strongest thing I knew, I punched Bobby to crow, and he never came out stronger. Then I was Sister Dover and started: "Oh come let us gather at the fountain, the fountain that never goes dry."
Just as I was going to pronounce the benediction like father, I heard something, so I looked around, and there went he and Dr. Fenner. They were going toward the house, and yet, they hadn't passed me. I was not scared, because I knew no one was sick. Dr. Fenner always stopped when he passed, if he had a minute, and if he hadn't, mother sent some one to the gate with buttermilk and slices of bread and butter, and jelly an inch thick. When a meal was almost cooked she heaped some on a plate and he ate as he drove and left the plate next time he passed. Often he was so dead tired, he was asleep in his buggy, and his old gray horse always stopped at our gate.
I ended with "Amen," because I wanted to know if they had been listening; so I climbed the fence, ran down the lane behind the bushes, and hid a minute. Sure enough they had! I suppose I had been so in earnest I hadn't heard a sound, but it's a wonder Hezekiah hadn't told me. He was always seeing something to make danger signals about. He never let me run on a snake, or a hawk get one of the chickens, or Paddy Ryan come too close. I only wanted to know if they had gone and listened, and then I intended to run straight back to Bobby and Hezekiah; but they stopped under the greening apple tree, and what they said was so interesting I waited longer than I should, because it's about the worst thing you can do to listen when older people don't know. They were talking about me.
"I can't account for her," said father.
"I can!" said Dr. Fenner. "She is the only child I ever have had in my practice who managed to reach earth as all children should. During the impressionable stage, no one expected her, so there was no time spent in worrying, fretting, and discontent. I don't mean that these things were customary with Ruth. No woman ever accepted motherhood in a more beautiful spirit; but if she would have protested at any time, it would have been then. Instead, she lived happily, naturally, and enjoyed herself as she never had before. She was in the fields, the woods, and the garden constantly, which accounts for this child's outdoor tendencies. Then you must remember that both of you were at top notch intellectually, and physically, fully matured. She had the benefit of ripened minds, and at a time when every faculty recently had been stirred by the excitement and suffering of the war. Oh, you can account for her easily enough, but I don't know what on earth you are going to do with her. You'll have to go careful, Paul. I warn you she will not be like the others."
"We realize that. Mother says she doubts if she can ever teach her to sew and become a housewife."
"She isn't cut out for a seamstress or a housewife, Paul. Tell Ruth not to try to force those things on her. Turn her loose out of doors; give her good books, and leave her alone. You won't be disappointed in the woman who evolves."
Right there I realized what I was doing, and I turned and ran for the pulpit with all my might. I could always repeat things, but I couldn't see much sense to the first part of that; the last was as plain as the nose on your face. Dr. Fenner said they mustn't force me to sew, and do housework; and mother didn't mind the Almighty any better than she did the doctor. There was nothing in this world I disliked so much as being kept indoors, and made to hem cap and apron strings so particularly that I had to count the number of threads between every stitch, and in each stitch, so that I got all of them just exactly even. I liked carpet rags a little better, because I didn't have to be so particular about stitches, and I always picked out all the bright, pretty colours.
Mother said she could follow my work all over the floor by the bright spots. Perhaps if I were not to be kept in the house I wouldn't have to sew any more. That made me so happy I wondered if I couldn't stretch out my arms and wave them and fly. I sat on the pulpit wishing I had feathers. It made me pretty blue to have to stay on the ground all the time, when I wanted to be sailing up among the clouds with the turkey buzzards. It called to my mind that place in McGuffey's Fifth where it says:
"Sweet bird, thy bower is ever green, Thy sky is ever clear; Thou hast no sorrow in thy song, No winter in thy year."
Of course, I never heard a turkey buzzard sing. Laddie said they couldn't; but that didn't prove it. He said half the members of our church couldn't sing, but they did; and when all of them were going at the tops of their voices, it was just grand. So maybe the turkey buzzard could sing if it wanted to; seemed as if it should, if Isaac Thomas could; and anyway, it was the next verse I was thinking most about:
"Oh, could I fly, I'd fly with thee! We'd make with joyful wing, Our annual visit o'er the globe, Companions of the spring."
That was so exciting I thought I'd just try it, so I stood on the top rail, spread my arms, waved them, and started. I was bumped in fifty places when I rolled into the cowslip bed at the foot of the steep hill, for stones stuck out all over the side of it, and I felt pretty mean as I climbed back to the pulpit.
The only consolation I had was what Dr. Fenner had said. That would be the greatest possible help in managing father or mother.
I was undecided about whether I would go to school, or not. Must be perfectly dreadful to dress like for church, and sit still in a stuffy little room, and do your "abs," and "bes," and "bis," and "bos," all day long. I could spell quite well without looking at a schoolhouse, and read too. I was wondering if I ever would go at all, when I thought of something else. Dr. Fenner had said to give me plenty of good books. I was wild for some that were already promised me. Well, what would they amount to if I couldn't understand them when I got them? That seemed to make it sure I would be compelled to go to school until I learned enough to understand what the books contained about birds, flowers, and moths, anyway; and perhaps there would be some having Fairies in them. Of course those would be interesting.
I never hated doing anything so badly, in all my life, but I could see, with no one to tell me, that I had put it off as long as I dared. I would just have to start school when Leon and May went in September. Tilly Baher, who lived across the swamp near Sarah Hood, had gone two winters already, and she was only a year older, and not half my size. I stood on the pulpit and looked a long time in every direction, into the sky the longest of all. It was settled. I must go; I might as well start and have it over. I couldn't look anywhere, right there at home, and not see more things I didn't know about than I did. When mother showed me in the city, I wouldn't be snapped up like hot cakes; I'd be a blockhead no one would have. It made me so vexed to think I had to go, I set Hezekiah on my shoulder, took Bobby under my arm, and went to the house. On the way, I made up my mind that I would ask again, very politely, to hold the little baby, and if the rest of them went and pigged it up straight along, I'd pinch it, if I got a chance.