Chapter III. The Widow's Visit
 

Parson Dan spent most of the day in visiting his people in the parish, and accordingly had little time to give to Rodney. But after supper he began to romp with the wee man much to Mrs. Royal's amusement. There was considerable excitement for a while as the clergyman, on all-fours, carried the baby through the kitchen, into the dining-room, and back again. The boy shivered with delight as he sat perched upon the broad back. Forgotten were all parish cares as the venerable man gave himself up to the little waif. He had become a child again, and had entered that kingdom where children are the uncrowned monarchs, and the strong and the aged are willing subjects, yea, even most abject slaves.

In the midst of this hilarious frolic, the door of the dining-room, leading into the hall, was suddenly opened, and a woman entered. She was dressed all in black which costume was well in keeping with her face, which bore the same expression it did the day she buried her husband two years before. Her sober face grew a shade more sober as her eyes rested upon the undignified scene before her, and she was about to turn and hurry back out of doors, when the parson caught sight of her. His face, flushed with the excitement of the romp, took a deeper hue when he saw Mrs. Marden standing before him. He scrambled to his feet, and plunked Rodney down upon the floor, much to that young gentleman's disgust. He at once set up a dismal howl, which took Mrs. Royal some time to silence when she had him alone in the kitchen.

"I didn't see you, Mrs. Marden," the parson gasped, as he tried to recover his breath as well as his composure.

"So I observe," was the somewhat sarcastic reply, as the visitor surveyed her rector. "I knocked long and loud, but as there was no response, I took the liberty to enter. I am sorry that I have intruded. Perhaps I had better go."

"No, no, you must not think of such a thing," the parson replied, as he handed her a chair, and then struggled quickly into his coat, which he had cast aside at the beginning of the frolic. He was annoyed at Mrs. Marden's intrusion into the privacy of his family life, especially when he was off guard. He knew that she had come on some important business, as she otherwise never darkened the rectory door.

"You've become quite a family man, so I understand," she began. "It's the first time that I've seen the baby. I suppose you'll put him in the Orphan Home in the city."

"No, I shall do nothing of the sort," was the emphatic reply. "He shall stay here until his mother comes for him."

"H'm," and the widow tossed her head in a knowing manner, "then you'll have him on your hands for a long time. Do you for a moment imagine that a mother who is heartless enough to leave her baby with total strangers, will come for him? Not a bit of it. Mark my word, she's only too glad to be rid of it, and is off somewhere now having a good time. I should be very careful, if I were you, about bringing up such a child. You can't tell who his parents are, and he may inherit all their bad qualities."

The clergyman made no reply. He merely stroked his chin, and thought of the sob he had heard at the door that dark night.

"Such a child," Mrs. Marden continued, in her most doleful voice, "is sure to bring trouble upon you sooner or later. But, then, we all have our troubles, and must expect them. Ever since poor Abner was taken from me my life has been full of trials and tribulations. He was very good to me, and we were so happy."

At this point the widow produced her handkerchief, and wiped away the tears which were flowing down her cheeks. Parson Dan knew, and all the neighbours knew, that if Mrs. Marden's life was "full of trials and tribulations" after her husband's death, Mr. Marden had more than his share of them before he died, due directly to his wife's incessant nagging.

"Yes, I have my troubles," and the widow resumed her tale of woe. "They never cease, for just as soon as one is removed another springs up."

"Why, what's wrong now?" the parson queried.

"What! haven't you heard?" and the visitor looked sharply at the clergyman.

"No, I can't say that I have, especially of late."

"Dear me, and it's the talk of the whole parish. But, then, I suppose you've been so taken up with this new addition to your family that you have had no time to give to the cares of the widow and the fatherless."

A perceptible shade of annoyance passed over Parson Dan's face, and a sharp word of retort sprang to his lips. He repressed this, however, and answered as gently as possible.

"You know, Mrs. Marden," he began, "that often I am the last person to hear what is being said throughout the parish. I try not to listen to all the gossip which takes place, as I have more important things to occupy my mind. So----"

"And you don't consider my troubles important enough to listen to, eh?" Mrs. Marden interrupted. "Well, I declare. I never heard the like of that, and you my clergyman, too."

"Let me explain, please," the parson continued. "As I said, I seldom listen to gossip, because so much of it is of such a frivolous nature. Therefore, when anything of real importance is talked about, as a rule I do not hear that, either. In that way I have missed your story, Mrs. Marden. But when you come yourself to tell me, that makes all the difference, and I am ever ready to listen."

While Parson Dan was thus enduring with considerable patience his wearisome visitor, Rodney was creeping about the kitchen floor in a most lively manner. The dining-room door was ajar, and at last when Mrs. Royal's back was turned, he reached forth a small chubby hand, opened the door and entered. The parson saw him, but paid no attention to his movements. Mrs. Marden, however, who was sitting with her back to the door, was so occupied with her load of troubles that she neither saw nor heard the baby's entrance. On all-fours Rodney glided behind the widow's chair. Here against the wall stood a tall, slender cabinet, the lower shelves of which were filled with books, while above were various knick-knacks, all neatly arranged. It took Rodney but a second to scramble to his feet, and balance himself by clutching firmly at the cabinet which was not fastened to the wall. Then the inevitable happened. The cabinet at first trembled, and then began to fall. Parson Dan saw it coming, and with a cry he leaped to his feet, and caught it as it was about to crash upon Mrs. Marden's head. He could not, however, stop the knick-knacks, and so tea-cups, saucers, work-basket, a china dog, and numerous other articles were showered upon the widow, thus adding to her woes.

With a startled cry Mrs. Marden sprang to her feet, certain that the ceiling had fallen upon her. Hearing the confusion, Mrs. Royal rushed into the room, rescued Rodney unhurt from the ruins, and carried him back into the kitchen. The clergyman at once turned his attention to his visitor.

"I trust that you are not hurt," he remarked. "I am so sorry that this accident happened."

"I'm not hurt," was the feeble response, "but I feel very faint," and the widow sank into a chair, and closed her eyes. "There, I feel better now," she continued, breathing heavily. "Oh, what a shock that gave me! My troubles never cease. Just think, I might have been killed if the good Lord had not stopped that thing from falling."

The clergyman repressed a smile as he well knew that the Lord had nothing to do with it. He kept his thoughts to himself, however, and busied himself with picking up the various articles and broken fragments which strewed the floor.

"What an awful baby he is," Mrs. Marden at length, exclaimed. "If he can do such a terrible thing now, what will he do when he grows up? It is not safe to have such a child in your house."

"Why, any child would have done the same," the parson replied. "He didn't mean any harm."

"He didn't! Why, what else did he mean, then? Children should be taught to behave themselves. I never allowed a child of mine to climb up and pull things over. Poor dear Abner often said that I was the one woman in the whole parish who knew how to bring up children. But, there, I must go. My head is aching badly, and I know that I shall get no rest to-night. Oh, what troubles we poor mortals are heir to in this mundane sphere."

"You must not walk, Mrs. Marden," Parson Dan insisted. "I shall drive you home. It will take me only a few minutes to harness Sweepstakes."

"But I'm afraid it will be too much trouble," was the reply.

"Not at all, not at all, Mrs. Marden, I shall be only too glad to do it." In fact the rector was most anxious to get his visitor out of the house before she began to pour forth her tale of woe, which he believed she had forgotten. But in this he was doomed to disappointment.

"Just a minute, parson," the widow began. "I haven't told you yet the object of my visit here to-night."

"Doesn't your head trouble you too much to bother with it now?" the clergyman asked, trying to look as sympathetic as possible. "Suppose you wait until you feel better."

"No, I can't do that, for it might be too late. Just think what might become of me and my poor fatherless children if I put it off until to-morrow."

"Oh, is it as serious as that, Mrs. Marden?"

"Indeed it is, and it is but another example of how the widow is oppressed. If poor Abner was only alive! But now that he is gone, people think that they can do what they like with a lonely widow."

"What, has any one been trying to injure you, Mrs. Marden?"

"Yes, that's just it. Tom Dunker is the one, and he's trying to get the lighthouse from me."

"Ah, so that's it?" and the parson gave a deep sigh.

"Yes. He's had the promise of it, so I understand. I've looked after that lighthouse ever since Abner died, and I have never failed in my duty once. But Tom Dunker, the sneak, wants it. He's a Government supporter, and thinks he ought to have it for what he did at the last election. Abner voted opposition, and though they let me keep it ever since he died, the Dunkers have been making such a fuss about it that something has to be done to pacify them."

"I am very sorry to hear this, Mrs. Marden," and Parson Dan placed his hand to his forehead. This news troubled him, for he saw breakers ahead.

"I knew that you would be sorry," the widow replied, "and so I have come to ask you to write to headquarters. A letter from you explaining the whole matter will have much effect."

The Bunkers were members of his flock, and Parson Dan was well aware how troublesome they could become if things did not go their way. But when his duty was clear he never hesitated, and as this was a case where it was necessary to protect the weak against the strong, he promised the widow that he would write at once on her behalf.

So at last the clergyman was free from the woman of many troubles, and with a deep sigh of relief he sought the kitchen where Mrs. Royal had Rodney all ready for bed.