The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XXXI. Mrs. Cavers's Neighbours
O! the world's a curious compound, With its honey and its gall, With its cares and bitter crosses-- But a good world after all.
----James Whitcomb Riley.
The people of the neighbourhood were disposed to wonder why Mrs. Cavers lived on in the old tumble-down Steadman house after her husband's death. "Why doesn't she go home to her own people?" they asked each other--not in any unkindly, spirit, but because they naturally expected that she would do this. Libby Anne had told the children at school so much about her mother's lovely home in Ontario, where her Grandmother and Aunt Edith still lived, that the people of the neighbourhood had associated with it the idea of wealth. Unfortunately, they were wrong about this. Mrs. Cavers's mother and sister lived in a pretty white cottage, just outside one of Ontario's large cities. Roses ran over the porch, and morning-glory vines shut in the small verandah. It was a home of refinement and good taste, but not of wealth or even competence. Mrs. Cavers's only sister, Edith, and the sweet-faced mother lived there in peace and contentment, but every dollar of Edith's small salary as milliner's assistant was needed for their sustenance.
Mrs. Cavers had never let her mother and sister know what hard times she had come through. It was her good gift that she could hide her troubles even from them. Even now her letters were cheerful and hopeful, the kindness of her neighbours being often their theme. She made many excuses for not coming home to live. She was afraid the damp winters would not agree with Libby Anne; she had not disposed of all of her stock and machinery yet. These and other reasons she gave, but never the real one. She knew how hard it was to find a situation in Ontario, and now, faded and wrinkled and worn as she was, what chance had she among the many? She would stay in the West and get a position as house-keeper on a farm. She could earn her own living and Libby Anne's, and Libby Anne would go to school.
Mrs. Cavers was a brave woman and faced the issues of life without a murmur. She told herself over and over again that she should be thankful that she had her health and such kind friends and neighbours. But sometimes at night when Libby Anne was sleeping, and she sat alone by the fire, the weariness of the years rolled over her. If she could only see, her mother, she often thought, and feel once more that gentle touch of sympathy that never fails, if she could creep into her mother's arms, as she had often done as a child, and cry away all the pain and sorrow she had ever known--she could forget that life had held for her so much of ill.
The Watsons' gift of two hundred dollars came like a prisoner's release, for with it she could go home. She and Libby Anne would have a visit at home anyway. Then she would come back on the Harvesters' excursion and work for three months during the busy time, and perhaps go home again. She would not think of the future beyond that--it was enough to know that she and Libby Anne would go home in the spring.
It was in February that Libby Anne took a cold. When she had been away from school a few days Pearl Watson went over to see what was wrong. Libby Anne's flushed face and burning eyes so alarmed Pearl that next day she sent a note by her father, who was going to Millford, to her friend, Dr. Clay.
Dr. Clay went out at once to see Libby Anne, and, without alarming Mrs. Cavers, made a thorough examination of the child's lungs. He found that one of them undoubtedly was affected.
Mrs. Cavers was telling him about their proposed journey east, which the generous gift from the Watsons had made possible. They would go just as soon as Libby Anne's cold got better now--the damp weather would be over then.
The doctor's face was turned away. How' could he tell her? He could not tell her here in this forsaken, desolate little house. "Come for a drive, Mrs. Cavers," he said at last. "Let me take you and Libby Anne over to see Mrs. Perkins and Martha. It will do you both good."
Mrs. Cavers gladly assented, but would going out hurt Libby Anne?
"Oh, no!" the doctor assured her, "the fresh air will do her good."
When they drove into the Perkins yard Martha and Mrs. Perkins warmly welcomed them. The doctor had some calls to make across the river, but he would be back in time to take them home before dark, he said. When Mrs. Perkins had taken the visitors into the parlour the doctor followed Martha into the kitchen. He would tell Martha, for Dr. Clay, like every one else who knew her, had learned that Martha's quiet ways were full of strength. Martha would know what to do.
He told her in a few words.
"Has she a chance?" asked Martha, quietly.
"She has a good chance," he answered. "It is only in an early stage, but she must be put in a tent, kept in bed, and have plenty of nourishing food; either that or she must be sent to a sanitarium."
"Where is there one?" Martha asked.
"At Gravenhurst, Muskoka."
"Oh, not among strangers!" she said quickly.
"But her mother can't be left alone with her," said the doctor.
Martha stood still for some moments with one hand on the tea-kettle's shining lid. Then she spoke. "The tent can be put up here in our yard," she said.
"Mother and I will help Mrs. Cavers. I'll ask father and mother, but I'm sure they'll be willing. They never went back on a neighbour. We must give Libby Anne her chance."
The doctor looked at her with admiration. "Will you tell Mrs. Cavers, Martha? You're the best one to tell her."
"All right," she answered. "I will tell her."
The doctor drove away with a great reverence in his heart for the quiet Martha. Pearl had told him about Martha's hopes and fears, and the great ambition she had for an education. "She won't have much time to improve her mind now," he said to himself. "She never hesitated, though. She may not be acquainted with the binomial theorem, but she has a heart of gold, and that's more important. I wonder what Arthur is thinking. He's foolish to grieve for the tow-haired Thursa when queens are passing by."
When Martha went to the stable to consult with her father she found that he had been having trouble with the hired man, the one who, according to Mr. Perkins, "ate like a flock of grasshoppers." Ted had been milking a cow, when his employer came in to remonstrate with him about wasting oats when he was feeding the horses. Ted made no reply until he had the pail half-full. Then suddenly he sprang up and threw it over his employer.
"You howld w'eat-plugger," he cried, "you drove Bud aw'y with your meanness, but you can't put hon me. Do your bloomin' chores yourself!"
When Martha reached the barn she found her father wiping his clothes with an empty grain-sack. He told her what had happened.
"Jes' think, Martha, that beggar did not say a word until he got the pail half full, and then he soused it onto me, good hay-fed new milk, and from the half-Jersey too--he didn't care. This'll set ye back one churnin' too. But he won't dare to ask me for this week's wages. I paid him up just a week ago--that'll more than settle for the milk. So it ain't as bad as it might be." He was shoving a red handkerchief down the back of his neck, trying to locate some of the lost milk. "You wouldn't think that half a pail of milk would go so far, now, would you, Martha? but I tell ye he threw it strong."
Martha suggested dry clothes, and when he was dressed in them she told him about Libby Anne.
"Certainly she can stay here," Mr. Perkins cried heartily. "No one will be able to say that we went back on a neighbour. I always liked Bill, and I always liked Mrs. Cavers, and we'll do our best for the little girl. George Steadman is the one that ought to take her, but his missus is away, of course, to Ontario; they'd never take any one, anyway. People that don't look after their own ain't likely to do for strangers. When old Mrs. Steadman, George's mother, was there sick, Mrs. Steadman followed the doctor out one day and asked him how long the old lady would last; couldn't he give her a rough estimate--somethin' for her to go by like--for she was wantin' to send word to the paperhangers; and then she told him that they was goin' to have the house all done over as soon as Granny was out of the way, 'but', says she, 'just now we're kinda at a standstill.' One of Bruce Simpson's girls was working there, and she heard her."
A few days after this Libby Anne's tent raised its white head under the leafless maples that grew around the Perkins home. It was a large tent, floored and carpeted, and fitted with everything that would add to the little girl's comfort or the convenience of those who waited on her.
Dr. Clay told Mrs. Cavers that a friend of his had presented him with the whole outfit for the use of any one who might need it.
The neighbours, moved now by the same spirit that prompted them to harvest Mrs. Cavers's crop, came bringing many and various gifts. Mrs. Motherwell brought chickens, Mrs. Slater fresh eggs, Mrs. Green a new eiderdown quilt; Aunt Kate Shenstone came over to sit up at nights. Aunt Kate had had experience with the dread disease, and felt in a position to express an expert opinion on it. There was no cure for it; Bill had not recovered, neither would Libby Anne--this she told Mrs. Perkins and Martha. She knew it--it would let your hopes rise sometimes, but in the end it always showed its hand, unmistakable and merciless--oh, she knew it!
The doctor, knowing more about it than even Aunt Kate, was hopeful, and never allowed a doubt of the ultimate result to enter his mind.
Pearl Watson came in every night on her way home from school to see Libby Anne, and many were the stories she told and the games she invented to beguile the long hours for the little girl. One night when she came into the tent Dr. Clay was sitting beside Libby Anne's bed, gently stroking her thin little hand. The child's head was turned away from the door, and she did not hear Pearl coming in.
Libby Anne and the doctor were having a serious conversation.
"Doctor," she said, "am I going to die?"
"Oh, no, Libby," the doctor answered quickly, "you're just staying out here in the tent to get rid of your cold, so you can go to your grandmother's. You would like to go to Ontario to see your Grandmother and Aunt Edith, wouldn't you?"
"I want to go to my grandmother's," she said slowly, "but I'd like to see Bud first. I'm Bud's girl, you know," and a smile played over her face. "Bud said I must never forget that I am his girl. Have you a girl, Doctor?"
The doctor laughed and looked up at Pearl. "No-body ever promised to be my girl, Libby," was his reply.
"I wish you had one, so you could tell me about it," she said, quite disappointed.
"I can tell you what it is like, all right--or at least, I can imagine what it would be like."
"Would you stay away from your girl and never come back, and forget all about her?" she asked wistfully.
Looking up, the doctor noticed that Pearl had picked up a newspaper and appeared to be not listening at all.
"If I had a girl, Libby Anne," he said, very slowly, "I might stay away a long time, but I'd come back sometime, oh, sure; and while I was away I'd want my girl to lie still, if she had a cold and was out in a tent trying to get better to go to her grandmother's, and I'd want my girl to be just as happy as she could be, and always be sure that I would come back."
"I like you, Doctor," she said, after a pause, "and if I wasn't Bud's girl I would like to be yours. Maybe Pearl Watson would be your girl, Doctor," she said quickly. "I'll ask her when she comes, if you like?"
"I wish you would, Libby Anne," he said gravely.
When he looked up Pearl had gone.
It was a week before the doctor saw Pearl. One night he met her coming home from school. It was the first day of March, and it seemed like the first day of spring as well. From a cloudless sky the afternoon sun poured down its warmth and heat.
The doctor turned his horses and asked if he might drive her home.
"Pearl," he said, with an' unmistakable twinkle in his eye, "I want to see you about Libby Anne. I hope you will humour her in any way you can."
Pearl stared at him in surprise--then suddenly the colour rose in her cheeks as she comprehended his meaning.
"Even if she asks you to do very hard things," he went on.
"She hasn't asked me yet," said Pearl honestly.
"Is it possible that Libby Anne has forgotten me like that? Well, I believe it is better for me to do it myself, anyway. How old are you, Pearl?"
"I was fifteen my last birthday."
"Don't put it that way," he corrected. "That's all right when you're giving your age in school, but just now I'd rather hear you say that you will be sixteen on your next birthday, because sixteen and three make nineteen, and when you're nineteen you will be quite a grown-up young lady."
"Oh, that's a long time ahead," said Pearl.
"Quite a while," he agreed, "but I am going to ask you that question which Libby Anne has overlooked, just three years from to-day. We can easily remember the date, March the first. It may be a cold, dark, wintry day, with the wind from the north, or it may be bright and full of sunshine like to-day. That will just depend on your answer."
He was looking straight into her honest brown eyes as he spoke. It was hard for him to realize that she was only a child.
"I don't like dark days," Pearl said, thoughtfully, looking away toward the snow-covered Tiger Hills, that lay glimmering in the soft afternoon sunshine.
Neither of them spoke for a few minutes. Then suddenly Pearl turned and met his gaze, and the colour in her cheeks was not all caused by the bright spring sun as she said, "I think, it is usually pretty fine on the first of March."
* * *
Before Libby Anne had been a week in the tent Mrs. Burrell came to offer consolation and to express her hopes for Libby Anne's recovery. Mrs. Burrell considered herself a very successful sick-visitor. In the kitchen, where she went first, she found Martha preparing a chicken for Libby Anne's dinner.
"It's really too bad for you to have so much to do, Martha," she began, when the greetings were over; "a young girl like you should be getting ready for a home of her own. Living single is all right when you're young, but it's different when you begin to get along in life. There's that young Englishman--, what's his name?--the one that his girl went back on him--he couldn't do better now than take you. I've heard people say so."
"Oh don't!" Martha cried, flushing Martha lacked the saving sense of humour.
Mrs. Burrell did not see the pain in the girl's face, and went on briskly, "I must go in and see Libby Anne and Mrs. Cavers. Of course I think it is very unwise to let every one go in to see the sick, but for a woman like me that has had experience it is different. I'll try to cheer them up, both of them."
"Oh, they're all right," Martha exclaimed in alarm. "They do not need any cheering. Pearl Watson is in the tent just now."
Martha's cheeks were still smarting with the "cheering" that Mrs. Burrell had just given her, and she trembled for Libby Anne and Mrs. Cavers.
Mrs. Burrell went into the tent resolved to be the very soul of cheerfulness, a real sunshine-dispenser.
Mrs. Cavers was genuinely glad to see her, for she had found out how kind Mrs. Burrell really was at heart.
"Oh, what a comfortable and cosy place for a sick little girl," she began gaily, "and a nice friend like Pearlie Watson to tell her stories. Wouldn't I like to be sick and get such a nice rest."
Libby Anne smiled. "You can come and stay with me," she said hospitably.
Mrs. Burrell put her basket on the bed. "Everything in it is for Libby Anne," she said, "and Libby Anne must take them out herself. Pearl will help her."
Then came the joyous task of unpacking the basket. There were candy dogs and cats, wrapped in tissue paper; there were pretty boxes of home-made candy; there were gaily dressed black dolls, and a beautiful big white doll; there was a stuffed cat with a squeak in it, a picture book, and, at the bottom, in a dainty box, a five dollar bill.
"Oh, Mrs. Burrell!" was all that Mrs. Cavers could say.
Mrs. Burrell dismissed the subject by saying, "Dear me, everybody is kind to Libby Anne, I'm sure--it's just a pleasure."
Then Mrs. Cavers told her of the wonderful kindness the neighbours had shown her. That very day, two women had come from across the river--she had never heard of them before--and they brought Libby Anne two beautiful fleecy kimonos, and two hooked mats for the tent, and a crock of fresh butter; and as for the doctor's kindness, and Martha's, and Mr. and Mrs. Perkins's, and Arthur's and the Watson family's--only eternity itself would show what it had meant to her, and how it had comforted her.
Tears overflowed Mrs. Cavers' gentle eyes and her voice quivered.
"They love to do it, Mrs. Cavers," Mrs. Burrell answered, her own eyes dim, "and Mr. Braden, too. He's only too glad to show his repentance of the evil he brought into your life--he's really a reformed man. You'd be surprised to see the change in him. He told Mr. Burrows he'd gladly part with every cent he had to see somebody--" pointing to the bed--"well and strong; he's so glad to help you in any way he can; and I overheard him tell Mr. Burrell something--they were in the study and Mr. Burrell closed the door tight, so I couldn't hear very well, but I gathered from words here and there that he intended to do something real handsome for somebody"--again pointing with an air of great mystery to the little face on the bed.
Mrs. Cavers was staring at her with wide eyes, her face paler even than Libby Anne's.
"What do you mean?" she asked in a choked voice.
Mrs. Burrell blundered on gaily. "It's nothing more than he should do--he took your husband's money. If it had not been for his bar you would have been comfortably well off by this time, and I am sure he has so much money he will never miss the price Of this." She pointed to the tent and its furnishings.
"Do you mean to say--that Sandy Braden--bought this tent--for my little girl?" Mrs. Cavers asked, speaking very slowly.
"Yes, of course," replied the other woman, alarmed at the turn the conversation had taken, "but, dear me, he, should make some restitution."
"Restitution?" the other woman repeated, in a voice that cut like thin ice--"Restitution! Does anyone speak to me of restitution? Can anything bring back my poor Will from the grave? Can anything give him back his chance in this world and the next? Can anything make me forget the cold black loneliness of it all? I don't want Sandy Braden's money. Let it perish with him! Can I take the price of my husband's soul?"
Mrs. Cavers and Mrs. Burrell had gone to the farther end of the tent as they spoke, and Pearl, seeing the drift of the conversation, had absorbed Libby Anne's attention with a fascinating story about her new dolls. Yet not one word of the conversation did Pearl miss.
Mrs. Burrell was surprised beyond measure at Mrs. Cavers's words, and reproved her for them.
"It's really wrong of you, Mrs. Cavers, to feel so hard and bitter. I am astonished to find that your heart is so hard. I am really."
"My heart is not hard, Mrs. Burrell," she said, quietly, her eyes bright and tearless; "my heart is not hard or bitter--it's only broken."
That night when Mrs. Burrell had gone, Pearl told Martha what she had heard. "You see, Martha," she said, when she had related the conversation, "Mrs. Burrell is all right, only her tongue. It was nice of her to come--the things she brought Libby Anne are fine, and there's nothing wrong with her five dollars; if she'd a been born deaf and dumb she would have been a real nice woman, but the trouble with her is she talks too easy. If she had to spell it off on her fingers she'd be more careful of what she says, and it would give her time to think."
The next time the doctor came, Mrs. Cavers insisted on paying him for the tent and everything that was in it. There was a finality in her manner that made argument useless.
The doctor was distressed and earnestly tried to dissuade her.
"Let me pay for it, Mrs. Cavers, then," he said. "Surely you are willing that I should help you."
"Aren't you doing enough, doctor," she said. "You are giving your time, your skill, for nothing. Oh doctor, don't you see you are humiliating me by refusing to take this money?"
Then the doctor took the money, wondering with a heavy heart how he could tell Sandy Braden.