Chapter IV. Rodney Develops
 

The entire parish of Hillcrest soon took much interest in Rodney the waif. Tongues became loosened and people freely expressed their opinion about Parson Dan's action in taking the child into his house. Some were most harsh in their criticism, especially Tom Dunker, who had been defeated in the lighthouse affair owing to the letter the parson had written on behalf of Widow Marden. He was very angry, and nursed his wrath against the day when he could get even with the clergyman.

"We don't want a boy like that at the rectory," he complained. "He should have been sent to the Orphanage or the Poor House. We pay the parson's salary, an' we have a right to say who is to live by means of the money we give."

Now, Tom Dunker contributed only one dollar a year to the support of the Church, and he always gave that in a most begrudging manner. He even refused to give this small amount after the parson sided with the widow.

There were others, however, who stood loyally by their rector. They praised him for what he had done, and did all they could to assist him.

Thus this discussion was general throughout the parish for several weeks. Some were sure that they saw the woman who had left the child at the rectory. She had taken the early steamer the next morning for the city, so they said. Though the stories were somewhat different yet all agreed that the woman was beautiful, though her face was very sad, as if she had been weeping bitterly, and had not slept at all during the night.

Although the Royals heard faint rumours at times of what was being said, they went on their way undisturbed, happy in the feeling that they had done their duty, and pouring out their affection upon the little lad who had become so dear to their lonely hearts.

At Christmas they were greatly surprised when a letter from Boston reached them, with a post-office order enclosed for one dollar.

"I am hungry for news of my baby," so the letter ran, "and will you please drop me a line to let me know how he is. I hope to send more money when I can. The above address will find me.

"ANNA LAYOR."

Parson Dan held the post-office order in his hand for some time after he had read the letter. His eyes stared straight before him into the fire, though he saw nothing there.

"That money goes into the bank, Martha," he at length remarked. "I shall open an account in Rodney's name. I could not use that money as it would weigh too heavily upon my conscience. A sacrifice has been made, there is no doubt of that. It is the price of blood, as truly as was the water brought to David from the well of Bethlehem."

"You are quite right, Daniel," his wife replied. "Something tells me that she is a good true woman, and that Rodney need never be ashamed of her. But do you notice her name, 'Anna Layor'?"

"Don't let that worry you, dear. I have the feeling that it is not her real name. Anyway, until we are sure let the boy keep ours."

That night Parson Dan wrote a long letter in answer to the brief one he had received that day. It was all about Rodney--in fact, a complete life history of the lad from the cold night he had been left at the rectory. Far away in the big American city a few days later, in a scantily furnished room, it was read by a woman whose tears fell upon the pages as she eagerly drank in every word which told her of the welfare of her darling child.

The next year Rodney's mother wrote every month, enclosing one dollar each time. This amount was duly deposited in the bank to the child's account. This was kept up with great regularity for several years, and during that time numerous letters were exchanged. The ones from the mother were always very brief, and never once did she mention anything about herself. It was all of Rodney she wrote, for her heart seemed full of love and longing for the child.

"Your letters are all too short," she once wrote. "I read them over and over again, and as you describe my little darling, how I long to see him and clasp him in my arms. God grant I may ere long have that blessed privilege. He is enshrined in my heart, and his sweet face is ever before me. I console myself with the thought that he is safe and well provided for. Some day, I feel sure, I shall to a certain extent repay you for all that you have done for him and me."

When Rodney was five years old, the money from his mother began to increase. At first it was two dollars a month, then three, and at last five. This somewhat worried the Royals, for they believed that Rodney's mother was in better circumstances, and would soon return for her boy. Their faces always grew very grave and their hearts heavy as they discussed this with each other. They dreaded the thought of parting with the little lad who had so completely won their affection.

Rodney was rapidly developing into a strong sturdy lad. He was the joy of the house, and though of a most loveable disposition, he was like a will-o'-the-wisp, full of fun and life. He spent most of the time out of doors in summer among the birds and flowers. There was hardly a creature in the vicinity of the rectory which he did not know. He found birds' nests in the most unlikely places, and he often caused Parson Dan many a tramp, as he eagerly pointed out his numerous treasures in tree, field, or vine-covered fence. It was often hard for the clergyman to keep up with his young guide, who sped on before, his bare, curly hair gleaming like gold in the sun. Then, when he had parted several small bushes and exposed the nest of a grey-bird or a robin, his cheeks would glow with animation, and his eyes sparkle with delight. Parson Dan found more pleasure in watching this joy-thrilled lad than in the tiny eggs which were exhibited for his benefit.

This was an almost daily occurrence through the summer. Then at night, when tired with his day's rambles, Rodney would rest his head upon the soft pillow while Mrs. Royal read him to sleep. Stories he loved, and never wearied of them. One by one the books were brought from the Room of Sacred Memories until the boy knew them all.

"Did you read all of those books when you were little, Grandma?" Rodney once asked.

"Not when I was little, dear," was the quiet reply. "But I read them to a little boy, though, who was as fond of them then as you are now."

"Whose little boy was he, Grandma?"

"He was my little boy, Rodney."

"Was he? Isn't that funny? I didn't know that. What was his name?"

"It was Alec."

"And where is he now?"

"He grew to be a big man, and one day he went away from home, and--and I never saw him again."

"What are you crying for, Grandma?" the boy, asked, suddenly noticing that tears were streaming down Mrs. Royal's cheeks.

"I was thinking of my boy Alec, dear. He went away and never came back."

"Why didn't he?"

"Because he was killed."

"Oh!" and Rodney clasped his hands together,

"How was he killed, Grandma?"

"He was on a train which ran off the track. Many people were killed, and Alec was one of them."

"And that was his room, was it?" Rodney asked. "And those were his books which he had when he was a little boy?"

"Yes, dear. But go to sleep now, and I shall tell you more about Alec some other time."

So free was the life which Rodney led, that some of the neighbours often shook their heads, and prophesied trouble.

"If that boy Rod Royal isn't looked after more'n he is he will come to a bad end, mark my word," Tom Dunker ponderously remarked to his wife one evening. "He's runnin' wild, that's what he is."

"Well, what can you expect of a pauper child?" his wife replied.

"Oh, I know that, Jane. I'm not blamin' him; he can't help it. But them who has the bringin' up of him are at fault. What do the Royals know about the trainin' of a child? Didn't the only chick they ever had go wild, an' him a parson's son, too? I went to school with Alec, an' I tell ye they kept a tight rein on him. I was sure that he'd be a parson like his dad. But, no, sirree, jist as soon as he got his freedom, he kicked over the traces like a young colt, an' went away."

Rodney gave the neighbours numerous causes for criticism. Unconsciously and boy-like, he did things which were often misconstrued as downright badness, whereas the boy had not the slightest intention of doing anything wrong. He was simply natural, while many of his critical elders were most unnatural. They had their own hide-bound rules of what was proper, so they found it impossible to enter into the child's world, and look at things from his point of view.

One Sunday Rodney took a kitten with him to church. The little pet was smuggled in beneath his coat. So dearly did he love it that he could not bear to be parted with it during church time for fear that something would happen to it. And, besides, he liked to have it with him, that he might cuddle it during the service, which to him was long and uninteresting. There would have been no trouble if the kitten had been content to remain beneath its master's coat. But, alas, when the organ struck up for the first hymn, it began to wriggle vehemently in an effort to get its head out to see where the peculiar noise came from. Rodney tried to keep it back and soothe its fears. But all in vain, for the kitten suddenly slipped from his grasp, and sprang out into the aisle. Rodney instantly darted after his pet, and seized it just as it was about to disappear beneath the pulpit steps. Triumphantly he carried it back to the seat where Mrs. Royal was sitting.

To the latter it was only an amusing incident, as she understood the spirit in which it was done. But to many in the church it was a most disgraceful thing, and formed a choice topic of conversation for the rest of the day in various households. They could not, and in truth did not wish to remember the excellent sermon Parson Dan delivered that morning. The picture of a little curly-headed boy speeding up the aisle after the kitten obscured everything else.

It was that very week when Rodney made his next break, which branded him as a red-handed criminal to several in the parish. The Ladies' Aid Society was meeting at the rectory on a beautiful afternoon. There was a good attendance, and the members freely discussed many questions of vital interest.

The conversation at last drifted off to the training of children. This was brought about most deftly by Mrs. Harmon, solely for Mrs. Royal's benefit. Mrs. Harmon had no children, and, as is generally the case, she considered herself a great authority as to how children should be managed. There was no half-way measure in her system of training. She knew, and that ended it.

Mrs. Harmon was ably supported by Miss Arabella Simpkins, a woman of uncertain age, exceedingly precise, and subject to severe attacks of "nerves." Her thin lips remained tightly compressed as she listened for some time to the conversation. As mothers who had brought up children told how difficult a problem it was, Miss Arabella's eyes gleamed with a scornful pity, and her nose tilted higher in the air than ever. Then when at last she did open her lips, she uttered words laden with great wisdom. It was disgraceful, so she said, the way children were indulged at the present day. It was seldom that you could find parents who had any real control over their offspring. Oh, yes, she knew.

Scarcely had she finished speaking ere Rodney appeared at the door, barefooted, hatless, his blouse dirty, his cheeks aglow, and his eyes blazing with excitement. In his grimy hands he clasped some precious treasure. He hesitated for an instant when he saw so many women in the room. But nothing could restrain him. He had made a marvellous discovery, and wished to show it to others.

Miss Arabella was right before him, a few feet away. For her he darted, and dropped suddenly into her lap a big-eyed, hump-back toad. Instantly there followed a wild shriek of terror, as the spinster leaped from her chair, sending the innocent toad sprawling upon the floor. The strain was too much for Miss Arabella, and she properly collapsed, much to the consternation of the assembled women.

By the time she was revived, Rodney, the culprit, was nowhere in sight. He had rescued his precious toad, and had fled from the house, greatly puzzled over the confusion which had been made over his simple action. Little did he know, much less care, that for years to come he would be considered a "bad boy" by many of the leading people of Hillcrest, and totally unfit to associate with other children of the parish.

But Parson Dan and Mrs. Royal understood, and as they kissed him that night as he stood before them in his little nightgown, they knew that there was nothing bad about him. In truth they were somewhat pleased that Miss Arabella had at last been jarred out of her rigid self-complacency.