Miss Cordelia's Accommodation by Lucy Maud Montgomery
"Poor little creatures!" said Miss Cordelia compassionately.
She meant the factory children. In her car ride from the school where she taught to the bridge that spanned the river between Pottstown, the sooty little manufacturing village on one side, and Point Pleasant, which was merely a hamlet, on the other, she had seen dozens of them, playing and quarrelling on the streets or peering wistfully out of dingy tenement windows.
"Tomorrow is Saturday," she reflected, "and they've no better place to play in than the back streets and yards. It's a shame. There's work for our philanthropists here, but they don't seem to see it. Well, I'm so sorry for them it hurts me to look at them, but I can't do anything."
Miss Cordelia sighed and then brightened up, because she realized that she was turning her back upon Pottstown for two blissful days and going to Point Pleasant, which had just one straggling, elm-shaded street hedging on old-fashioned gardens and cosy little houses and trailing off into the real country in a half-hour's walk.
Miss Cordelia lived alone in a tiny house at Point Pleasant. It was so tiny that you would have wondered how anyone could live in it.
"But it's plenty big for a little old maid like me," Miss Cordelia would have told you. "And it's my own--I'm queen there. There's solid comfort in having one spot for your own self. To be sure, if I had less land and more house it would be better."
Miss Cordelia always laughed here. It was one of her jokes. There was a four-acre field behind the house. Both had been left to her by an uncle. The field was of no use to Miss Cordelia; she didn't keep a cow and she hadn't time to make a garden. But she liked her field; when people asked her why she didn't sell it she said:
"I'm fond of it. I like to walk around in it when the grass grows long. And it may come in handy some time. Mother used to say if you kept anything seven years it would come to use. I've had my field a good bit longer than that, but maybe the time will come yet. Meanwhile I rejoice in the fact that I am a landed proprietor to the extent of four acres."
Miss Cordelia had thought of converting her field into a playground for the factory children and asking detachments of them over on Saturday afternoon. But she knew that her Point Pleasant neighbours would object to this, so that project was dropped.
When Miss Cordelia pushed open her little gate, hung crookedly in a very compact and prim spruce hedge, she stopped in amazement and said, "Well, for pity's sake!"
Cynthia Ann Flemming, who lived on the other side of the spruce hedge, now came hurrying over.
"Good evening, Cordelia. I have a letter that was left with me for you."
"But--that--horse," said Miss Cordelia, with a long breath between every word. "Where did he come from? Tied at my front door--and he's eaten the tops off every one of my geraniums! Where's his owner or rider or something?"
The horse in question was a mild-eyed, rather good-looking quadruped, tied by a halter to the elm at Miss Cordelia's door and contentedly munching a mouthful of geranium stalks. Cynthia Ann came through the hedge with the letter.
"Maybe this will explain," she said. "Same boy brought it as brought the horse--a little freckly chap mostly all grin and shirtsleeves. Said he was told to take the letter and horse to Miss Cordelia Herry, Elm Street, Point Pleasant, and he couldn't wait. So he tied the creature in there and left the letter with me. He came half an hour ago. Well, he has played havoc with your geraniums and no mistake."
Miss Cordelia opened and read her letter. When she finished it she looked at the curious Cynthia Ann solemnly.
"Well, if that isn't John Drew all over! I suspected he was at the bottom of it as soon as I laid my eyes on that animal. John Drew is a cousin of mine. He's been living out at Poplar Valley and he writes me that he has gone out west, and wants me to take 'old Nap.' I suppose that is the horse. He says that Nap is getting old and not much use for work and he couldn't bear the thought of shooting him or selling him to someone who might ill-treat him, so he wants me to take him and be kind to him for old times' sake. John and I were just like brother and sister when we were children. If this isn't like him nothing ever was. He was always doing odd things and thinking they were all right. And now he's off west and here is the horse. If it were a cat or a dog--but a horse!"
"Your four-acre field will come in handy now," said Cynthia Ann jestingly.
"So it will." Miss Cordelia spoke absently. "The very thing! Yes, I'll put him in there."
"But you don't really mean that you're going to keep the horse, are you?" protested Cynthia Ann. "Why, he is no good to you--and think of the expense of feeding him!"
"I'll keep him for a while," said Miss Cordelia briskly. "As you say, there is the four-acre field. It will keep him in eating for a while. I always knew that field had a mission. Poor John Drew! I'd like to oblige him for old times' sake, as he says, although this is as crazy as anything he ever did. But I have a plan. Meanwhile, I can't feed Nap on geraniums."
Miss Cordelia always adapted herself quickly and calmly to new circumstances. "It is never any use to get in a stew about things," she was wont to say. So now she untied Nap gingerly, with many rueful glances at her geraniums, and led him away to the field behind the house, where she tied him safely to a post with such an abundance of knots that there was small fear of his getting away.
When the mystified Cynthia Ann had returned home Miss Cordelia set about getting her tea and thinking over the plan that had come to her concerning her white elephant.
"I can keep him for the summer," she said. "I'll have to dispose of him in the fall for I've no place to keep him in, and anyway I couldn't afford to feed him. I'll see if I can borrow Mr. Griggs's express wagon for Saturday afternoons, and if I can those poor factory children in my grade shall have a weekly treat or my name is not Cordelia Herry. I'm not so sure but that John Drew has done a good thing after all. Poor John! He always did take things so for granted."
* * * * *
All the point pleasant people soon knew about Miss Cordelia's questionable windfall, and she was overwhelmed with advice and suggestions. She listened to all tranquilly and then placidly followed her own way. Mr. Griggs was very obliging in regard to his old express wagon, and the next Saturday Point Pleasant was treated to a mild sensation--nothing less than Miss Cordelia rattling through the village, enthroned on the high seat of Mr. Griggs's yellow express wagon, drawn by old Nap who, after a week of browsing idleness in the four-acre field, was quite frisky and went at a decided amble down Elm Street and across the bridge. The long wagon had been filled up with board seats, and when Miss Cordelia came back over the bridge the boards were crowded with factory children--pale-faced little creatures whose eyes were aglow with pleasure at this unexpected outing.
Miss Cordelia drove straight out to the big pine-clad hills of Deepdale, six miles from Pottstown. Then she tied Nap in a convenient lane and turned the children loose to revel in the woods and fields. How they did enjoy themselves! And how Miss Cordelia enjoyed seeing them enjoy themselves!
When dinner time came she gathered them all around her and went to the wagon. In it she had a basket of bread and butter.
"I can't afford anything more," she told Cynthia Ann, "but they must have something to stay their little stomachs. And I can get some water at a farmhouse."
Miss Cordelia had had her eye on a certain farmhouse all the morning. She did not know anything about the people who lived there, but she liked the looks of the place. It was a big, white, green-shuttered house, throned in wide-spreading orchards, with a green sweep of velvety lawn in front.
To this Miss Cordelia took her way, surrounded by her small passengers, and they all trooped into the great farmhouse yard just as a big man stepped out of a nearby barn. As he approached, Miss Cordelia thought she had never seen anybody so much like an incarnate smile before. Smiles of all kinds seemed literally to riot over his ruddy face and in and out of his eyes and around the corners of his mouth.
"Well, well, well!" he said, when he came near enough to be heard. "Is this a runaway school, ma'am?"
"I'm the runaway schoolma'am," responded Miss Cordelia with a twinkle. "And these are a lot of factory children I've brought out for a Saturday treat. I thought I might get some water from your well, and maybe you will lend us a tin dipper or two?"
"Water? Tut, tut!" said the big man, with three distinct smiles on his face. "Milk's the thing, ma'am--milk. I'll tell my housekeeper to bring some out. And all of you come over to the lawn and make yourselves at home. Bless you, ma'am, I'm fond of children. My name is Smiles, ma'am--Abraham Smiles."
"It suits you," said Miss Cordelia emphatically, before she thought, and then blushed rosy-red over her bluntness.
Mr. Smiles laughed. "Yes, I guess I always have an everlasting grin on. Had to live up to my name, you see, in spite of my naturally cantankerous disposition; But come this way, ma'am, I can see the hunger sticking out of those youngsters' eyes. We'll have a sort of impromptu picnic here and now, I'll tell my housekeeper to send out some jam too."
While the children devoured their lunch Miss Cordelia found herself telling Mr. Smiles all about old Nap and her little project.
"I'm going to bring out a load every fine Saturday all summer," she said. "It's all I can do. They enjoy it so, the little creatures. It's terrible to think how cramped their lives are. They just exist in soot. Some of them here never saw green fields before today."
Mr. Smiles listened and beamed and twinkled until Miss Cordelia felt almost as dazzled as if she were looking at the sun.
"Look here, ma'am, I like this plan of yours and I want to have a hand in helping it along. Bring your loads of children out here every Saturday, right here to Beechwood Farm, and turn them loose in my beech woods and upland pastures. I'll put up some swings for them and have some games, and I'll provide the refreshments also. Trouble, ma'am? No, trouble and I ain't on speaking terms. It'll be a pleasure, ma'am. I'm fond of children even if I am a grumpy cross-grained old bachelor. If you can give up your own holiday to give them a good time, surely I can do something too."
When Miss Cordelia and her brood of tired, happy little lads and lasses ambled back to town in the golden dusk she felt that the expedition had been an emphatic success. Even old Nap seemed to jog along eye-deep in satisfaction. Probably he was ruminating on the glorious afternoon he had spent in Mr. Smiles's clover pasture.
Every fine Saturday that summer Miss Cordelia took some of the factory children to the country. The Point Pleasant people nicknamed her equipage "Miss Cordelia's accommodation," and it became a mild standing joke.
As for Mr. Smiles, he proved a valuable assistant. Like Miss Cordelia, he gave his Saturdays over to the children, and high weekly revel was held at Beechwood Farm.
But when the big bronze and golden leaves began to fall in the beech woods, Miss Cordelia sorrowfully realized that the summer was over and that the weekly outings which she had enjoyed as much as the children must soon be discontinued.
"I feel so sorry," she told Mr. Smiles, "but it can't be helped. It will soon be too cold for our jaunts and of course I can't keep Nap through the winter. I hate to part with him, I've grown so fond of him, but I must."
She looked regretfully at Nap, who was nibbling Mr. Smiles's clover aftermath. He was sleek and glossy. It had been the golden summer of Nap's life.
Mr. Smiles coughed in an embarrassed fashion. Miss Cordelia looked at him and was amazed to see that not a smile was on or about his face. He looked absurdly serious.
"I want to buy Nap," he said in a sepulchral tone, "but that is not the only thing I want. I want you too, ma'am. I'm tired of being a cross old bachelor. I think I'd like to be a cross old husband, for a change. Do you think you could put up with me in that capacity, Miss Cordelia, my dear?"
Miss Cordelia gave a half gasp and then she had to laugh. "Oh, Mr. Smiles, I'll agree to anything if you'll only smile again. It seems unnatural to see you look so solemn."
The smiles at once broke loose and revelled over her wooer's face.
"Then you will come?" he said eagerly.
Half an hour later they had their plans made. At New Year's Miss Cordelia was to leave her school and sooty Pottstown and come to be mistress of Beechwood Farm.
"And look here," said Mr. Smiles. "Every fine Saturday you shall have a big, roomy sleigh and Nap, and drive into town for some children and bring them out here for their weekly treat as usual. The house is large enough to hold them, goodness knows, and if it isn't there are the barns for the overflow. This is going to be our particular pet charity all our lives, ma'am--I mean Cordelia, my dear."
"Blessings on old Nap," said Miss Cordelia with a happy light in her eyes.
"He shall live in clover for the rest of his days," added Mr. Smiles smilingly.