The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XXIX. Martha's Strong Arguments
"How does love speak?"
The next week Mr. Donald moved over to the Perkins home. His trunks had been sent over in the morning, and after school he walked home with Pearl. Mr. Donald had seen Martha at the services in the schoolhouse, but had not spoken to her. Pearl now brought him in triumphantly and introduced him to Mrs. Perkins and Martha.
The cleanliness and comfort of the big square kitchen, with its windows filled with blooming plants, the singing canary, the well-blackened range with its cheerful squares of firelight, the bubbling tea-kettle, all seemed to promise rest and comfort. Martha, neatly dressed in a dark blue house dress, with dainty white collar and apron, greeted, him hospitably, and told, him she hoped he would be comfortable with them. There was no trace of awkwardness in her manner, only a shy reserve that seemed to go well with her steady gray eyes and gentle voice. Pearl was distinctly proud of Martha.
When Mr. Donald went up to his room he looked around him in pleased surprise. It was only a small room, but it was well-aired, and had that elusive, indescribable air of comfort which some rooms have, and others, without apparent reason, have not. The stovepipe from the kitchen range ran through it, giving it ample warmth. His room at Mrs. Steadman's had been of about the temperature of a well. It was with a decided feeling of satisfaction that the school-master hung his overcoat on a hook behind the door and sat down in the cushioned rocking-chair. A rag carpet, gaily striped in red, green, and yellow, covered the floor, and a tawny wolf-skin lay in front of the bed.
"This looks good to me," said the schoolmaster, stretching himself luxuriously in his chair and enjoying the warmth of the room, with the pleasant feeling that at last he had one little spot that he could call his own, where he could sit and read and think, or, if he wanted to, just sit and be comfortable. From below came the pleasant rattle of dishes and an appetizing odour of baking chicken.
Mr. Donald went to the wash-stand, and washed his hands, smiling pleasantly to himself. "Martha, like you," he was saying, "and I'll gladly make a deal with you. I have quite a stock of history and geography and literature and other things which we call knowledge, and I will gladly, part with it for just such things as these," looking around him approvingly. "Give me cream on my porridge, Martha, and I'll teach you all I know and more." A few minutes later Mr. Donald went down to supper.
Mr. Perkins did the honours of the table, and each wore his coat while he carved the chicken, as a token of respect for the new boarder. He hospitably urged Mr. Donald to eat heartily, though there was no special need of urging him, for Martha's good cooking and dainty serving were proving a sufficient invitation.
Mr. Perkins was in fine fettle, and gave a detailed account of the visit he and Sam Motherwell made to Winnipeg to interview the Department of Education about the formation of the Chicken-Hill School District. Mr. Donald was much amused by his host's description of the "Big Chief" of educational matters.
"You see, I knowed cousins of his down below, near Owen Sound," Mr. Perkins said, "though I didn't see that he favoured them at all at first; but when I got a look at him between the ears I could see the very look of the old man his uncle. Maybe you've seen him, have you? Long-faced, lantern-jawed old pelter, with a face like a coffin--they're the kind you have to look out for; they'd go through you like an electric shock! Well, sir, Sam and me was sittin' there on the edge of our chairs, and that old rack o' bones just riddled us with questions. Sam got suspicious that there was a job gittin' put up on us some way, and so he wouldn't say a word for fear it would raise the taxes, and that left all the talkin' to me. Now, I don't mind carryin' on a reasonable conversation with any one, but, by jinks, nobody could talk to that man. I tried to get a chance to tell him about knowin' his folks, and a few amusin' things that came to me about the time his uncle Zeb was married and borrowed my father's black coat for the occasion, but, land alive, he never let up on his questions. He asked me every blamed thing about every family in the neighbourhood. He had the map of the township right before him, and wrote down everything I told him nearly. I was scared to death we hadn't enough children to get the Gover'ment grant, and so I had to give twins to the Steadmans twice, both pairs of school age. I wasn't just sure of how many we needed to draw the grant, but I was bound to have enough to be sure of it. Sam Motherwell's no good to take along with you at a time like that; he kinda gagged when I gave George the second pair of twins, and when the old man went out he went at me about it, and said it was not a decent way to treat a neighbour and him not there to deny it. I told him: 'My land sakes alive! I hadn't said nothin' wrong about either George Steadman or the twins; and it's no disgrace to have 'em. Plenty of good people have twins.'
"Well, sir, when the old man came back he asked me a whole string of questions about them two pair of twins, just as if everything depended on them. I had to name them first thing. I got the girls all right--Lily and Rose I called them--but when he asked me about the boys I couldn't think of anything that would do for the boys except 'Buck' and 'Bright.' Of course I explained that them wasn't really their names, but that's what everyone called them, they were such cute little chaps and looked just alike, only Buck toed in a little. I kicked Sam to pitch in and tell something about their smart ways, but he just sat like a man in a dream; he never seemed to get over his surprise at them comin'. All this time the old lad was leafin' over a great big book he had, and askin' the greatest lot of fool questions about the twins. I told him that Lily and Rose was pretty little things with yalla hair and they sang 'The Dyin' Nun' at a concert we had in the church at Millford somethin' grand; and the two boys were the greatest lads, I said, to trap gophers--terrible shame not to have a school for them. Then the old chap looked at me, and his face seemed to be as long as a horse's, an' he says, lookin' square at me: 'I'm real glad you told me about Mr. Steadman's twins, because it's the first we've heard of them. Mr. Steadman is a mightly careless man to only register two children--Thomas J., born October 20, 1880, and Maud Mary, born sick a time 1882, and not a single entry of the twins, either pair; and here the first we hear of them is when they begin to feel the need of an education--Buck and Bright trappin' gophers, and Lily and Rose delightin' large audiences with 'The Dyin' Nun' and other classic gems. Any father might well be proud of them. I'll write to Mr. Steadman and tell him just what I think of such carelessness. Even if Buck does toe in a little that's no reason why him and his runnin' mate shouldn't have a place in the files of his country. I'll mention to Mr. Steadman that we're deeply indebted to his friend and neighbour for putting us right in regard to his family tree.
"Well, Sir, I could see I had put my foot in it up to the knee, but I was game, you bet, and looked back at him as cool as a cucumber. I wasn't going to go back on them twins now when I had brought them into the world, as you might say; so I just said George Steadman was kinda careless about some things, he'd been cluttered up with politics for quite a while, and I guess he'd overlooked having the kids registered, but I'd speak to him about it. I'm a pretty good bluffer myself, but I couldn't fool that man. His face seemed to me to get longer every minute, and says he, when we were coming away, 'Give my love to the twins, Mr. Perkins, both pair--interestin' children, I'm sure they are.'
"My land sakes alive, you should have heard Motherwell pitch into me when we got out. Sam was as huffy about it as a wet hen.
"It's no good tryin' to fool them lads. I got my lesson that time, if I'd just had sense enough to know it; but if you believe me, sir, I got caught again. (Eh, what's that? Have another piece of chicken.) It was when I went to Montreal to see about the lump in my jaw. Did ye hear about the trouble we had that year, summer of '87? Big crop, but frozen--forty-seven cents, by George, best you could do. Well, sir, didn't I take a lump in my jaw--just like you've seen in those mangy steers. It wasn't very big at first, but it grooved something awful. I got a bottle of Mason's Lump jaw cure, but it just peeled the hide off me, and the lump grew bigger than ever. The missus here got scared she was goin' to lose me, and nothin' would do her but that I'd have to go to Montreal to see Dr. Murray. Now, I've always heard that he's awful easy on poor men, but takes it out of the rich ones, so you can bet I went prepared to put up a hard-luck story. I wore a boiled shirt, goin' down, but you bet I peeled it off before I went to see him, and I told him a pretty likely story about livin' on a rented farm, and me with a big family, most of them sickly like their ma's folks. He seemed awful sorry for me and wrote down my name and where I lived, and all that, and by George, I began to think he was goin' to pay my way back or give me the price of a cow or somethin'. He husked out the lump quick enough, had me come at seven o'clock--that man gets up as early as a farmer--and when I came to settle up he says to me: 'Mr. Perkins, if I was you I wouldn't live on a rented farm any longer. I'd go on one of my own--the north half of seventeen there--what's the matter with that? My secretary tells me you own that and there's two hundred acres under cultivation, and then there's that quarter-section of yours just across the Assiniboine, where you keep your polled Angus cattle. It really seems too bad for you to be grubbin along on a rented farm when you have four hundred and eighty acres of your own--good land, too.' Then he laughed, and I knew I was up against it, and I tried to laugh, too, but my laugh wasn't near as hearty as his. Then he says: 'It do beat all how many poor men with large sickly families, livin' on rented farms, come here to see me; but'--says; he, gittin' close up to me, and kinda tappin' me on the shoulder 'did you ever hear about an angel writin' in a big book--writin' steady day and night? Well, says he, 'here's one of them books,' and he whipped over the pages and showed me my name, where I lived and all. 'Ye can't fool the angels,' says he, 'and now I'll just trouble you for an even hundred,' says he. 'I have had three workin'-girls in to see me about their eyes today, and I done them free. I was writin' for some one like you to come along and settle for them when he was settlin' for his own. I paid it without a kick, you bet. Don't it beat the cars? Eh? What?"
Mr. Donald laughed heartily and agreed with Mr. Perkins that honesty was the best policy.
While her father was telling his story Martha sat thinking her own thoughts. She had listened to his reminiscences so often that they had long ago ceased to interest her. The schoolmaster studied her face closely. "No wonder she is quiet," he thought to himself, "she has never had a chance to talk. There is no room in the conversation for any one else when her voluble parent unfurls his matchless tongue. Martha cannot or does not talk for the same reason that people that live in the dark in time lose the power to see, because they haven't had it to do."
That night Arthur came over for his bread. The schoolmaster noticed the sudden brightening of Martha's face when Arthur's knock sounded on the door, and the animated, eager way in which she listened to every word he said. There was a feeling of good-fellowship, too, between them which did not escape the sharp eyes of the schoolmaster. "Arthur likes her," he thought, "that's a sure thing; but I'm afraid it's that brotherly, sort of thing that's really no good. But, of course, time may bring it all right. He's thinking too much now of the fair-haired Thursa. It's hard to begin a new song when the echoes of the old song are still ringing in your ears."
Through the open doorway he could see Martha in the kitchen filling the basket that Arthur had brought over for his bread. The bread--three loaves--was put in the bottom, rolled in a snow-white flour-sack; then she put in a roasted chicken, a fruit-cake and a jar of cream.
"Strong arguments in your favour, Martha," the teacher said, smiling to himself as he watched her.
"They are good, sensible, cogent arguments, every one of them, Martha, and my own opinion is that you will win."