Pippin; A Wandering Flame
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Jacob looked troubled. "I couldn't do that, Lucy; women-folks, you know!"
"No, you couldn't. I wish I'd been there."
"But I give Brand another dish, and filled it plumb up, so he got more than she did after all." He looked up, and received a cheerful nod of approval.
"That's good. Brand likes prune sauce, and he has so few pleasures. Not that he's anyways greedy or lick-lappin'; far from it; but he tastes more than others do. Did he finish the two-bushel basket? He aimed to finish it to-day."
Jacob's brow clouded again. "He would have, but he couldn't lay his hand on his splints, and I was out of the way, so he had to wait a considerable time."
"Where was Flora May? Didn't she help him? I told her be sure to!"
"That was the trouble!" Jacob spoke reluctantly. "Flora May had an odd spell, and she – fact is, she took and carried the splints up chamber, and run out and hid in the haymow till dinner."
"She did! now, Jacob! Why didn't you call me? You can't cope with Flora May in her odd spells, nor it isn't right you should. Why didn't you call me?"
"I set out to, Lucy. I came to the door to speak to you, but I heard the Old Man mournin' and I – it didn't appear as if I could go in just then."
"No, you couldn't!" said his wife again. Then she sighed. "I don't hardly know what to do with Flora May," she said. "She's havin' those odd spells right along, sometimes two or three a week. She's been havin' 'em ever since – Jacob – " She looked around and lowered her voice. "I don't hardly know about his comin' back here – to stay any time, that's to say."
Jacob Bailey also glanced around apprehensively and spoke almost in a whisper. "You mean – Pippin?"
"Hush! Yes! She hasn't been the same girl since he was here. I'm scared for her, Jacob."
"Lucy, Pippin is as good as gold. There couldn't no father nor brother have handled her better than what he did that day."
"Hush! What was that?" She went quietly to the door that led to the back stairs, and opened it with a quick, noiseless motion. In the dusk of the stairway a board creaked, something white glimmered. "Who's there?" No answer. "Flora May, is that you? Answer when I speak to you!"
The voice was gentle, but compelling; the answer came, half sullen, half frightened. "I want a drink of water, Aunt Lucy."
"You go right back to bed, Flora May! I'll bring you a drink when I come up. Let me hear your door shut now!" She waited till a door closed upstairs; then latching the one she held in her hand, beckoned her husband, and stole to the other side of the room. "Like as not she'll be down again!" she whispered. "I've caught her listenin' here and there any time this past week. She thinks she'll hear when he's comin', or hear about him anyway. Jacob – whisper! I know Pippin's good; it isn't him I'm afraid of. It's her. It isn't a father that poor thing wants, nor yet a brother!"
"Flora May's a good girl!" Jacob spoke as if in defense of the girl who so short a time ago had been his little pet, his pretty kitten-like child plaything."She's always been a good innocent girl, Lucy."
"Oh, good!" Lucy Bailey, sixty years old, New England born and bred, made an almost impatient gesture. "Who's to say good or bad, when folks haven't their reason? I tell you there's things workin' inside that poor child that knows nothing about good or bad, things that's stronger than her. I hate to say it, but she ought not to be here any longer, Jacob."
"There ought to be places for such as her – there is, I b'lieve, if we but knew – places where they can be kep' and cared for and learned all they can learn. Yes, I know we've done our best – " in answer to a murmur of protest – "but our best ain't good enough, that's all. There! We must go to bed, father; 'tis late, and I promised that child a drink of water. Poor lamb! She was so happy till this come up! Let Rover in, will you? He's scratchin' all that nice new paint off the door. I'll put kitty down cellar. Here, kitty, kitty! The stove is all right, father; you lock up and come right up to bed, won't you? You've had a tirin' day with all them potatoes to dig."
She was tired too, good Lucy Bailey! Every part of her strong body seemed to ache; yet she lay awake long after Jacob's deep breathing gave her comfortable assurance of his sleeping. It did seem strange, how their quiet life was all jolted up, she thought, as she lay staring at the elm shadows that tossed in the moonlight. So long it had run on a level, as you might say, day by day, month by month, year by year. For her the years had been marked chiefly by the growth of the two young creatures, her nephew and the "simple" girl who had been a town charge from early childhood. Such a contrast! Myron so bright and quick; how his eyes would light up when he laughed! And poor Flora May; well! the Lord knew best! And now Myron was doing so well over at Kingdom, and so happy! Those nice Baxters! she must certainly ask them over to spend the day! If only they didn't spoil her boy, making of him so! But he was gone from Cyrus Poor Farm whose light he had been; and now came this old man whom Mrs. Bailey could not like, try as she might, sorry as she was for him; and then came Pippin, like a wandering flame, setting fire – so to say – where before was just straw or like that.
Sleep came at last, deep and sweet; from the quiet chamber it seemed to pass through the old house, laying a quiet hand on every living thing. The dog slept beside the stove, the cat in her cushioned basket in the cellar, the bird on his swinging perch; only in the attic chamber Flora May lay broad awake, staring through the dark, tossing to and fro on her narrow bed.
Mary Blossom started on her journey with a heavy heart. Duty might lead her by the hand, but could not lighten her burden. She had slept ill for the past few nights, had eaten little; her head ached, and even Mr. Hadley's cheerful talk could hardly bring a smile to her lips. Once in the train, however, the swift motion, the rushing panorama before her eyes, roused and interested her in spite of herself. The chaplain noted with delight her brightening eyes, and the faint color that crept into her pale cheek. Thank God, she was young, and joy was always tagging after youth, trying to keep hold of her hand, even when things pushed in between.
It was the first time she had ever gone far from the city. The yearly excursion of the Home children had been to a grove not ten miles off; since she grew up and went to work there had been no time to think about going "any place else," as Mary would have expressed it. She watched with delight as the swift miles sped by, and responded eagerly when the chaplain pointed out this or that object of interest. That was Tankard Mountain, was it? My! wasn't it high? Mary had never seen a real mountain before. (She called it "mounting," but then so did Pippin; some people will, strive as you may to teach them otherwise.) And that was Blue Lake? Mary wanted to know! Well, it surely was blue, wasn't it? Did Mr. Hadley know what made water blue like that? 'Twas the sky reflected in it? He didn't say so! Well, creation was curious, wasn't it?
Lawrence Hadley enjoyed the journey, too; the familiar landscape took on fresh beauty for him, and he began to recall bits of half-forgotten legend and tale to adorn it. "You see that steep rock, Mary, overhanging the lake? There, where the big pine is? They say an Indian maiden threw herself from that rock, long ago, into the lake, and was drowned. Her lover was false to her, I believe, poor thing!"
"Poor thing!" The shadow darkened again over the girl's face, and she looked earnestly at the dark cliff. "But I wouldn't have given him that satisfaction. I'd never have let on that I cared – that much!"
She spoke low, but with suppressed energy. Hadley glanced at her; seemed about to speak, but checked himself, and presently called her attention to another object. They were still skirting Blue Lake, a ten-mile stretch of dimpling, crinkling sapphire.
"That little pile of rocks is Lone Man Island. It got its name from a hermit who lived there twenty-five years and never spoke to a soul in all that time but just once."
"My! he was a caution! What did he say, sir, the time he did speak? It ought to be worth hearing."
The chaplain laughed. "The story is, Mary, that his wife talked so much he couldn't stand it, and ran away. His house – it's gone now – stood on the shore, just opposite the island. He took the boat so she couldn't come out after him, but every day, they say, for a long time, she would stand on the shore and scream to him, till her voice was gone, telling him to come back. He would sit on a stone by the water's edge, rocking back and forth, rubbing his knees and never saying a word. When this had gone on for a year, more or less, the minister in the village over yonder – " he pointed to where a white spire twinkled among the trees – "thought it was his duty to interfere; so he came with his boat, and took the woman over to the island."
He paused and his eyes twinkled.
"Well, sir?" Mary's face was bright with eager interest. "It was then that he spoke? He freed his mind, I suppose?"
"She spoke first, and then the minister spoke. They both had a good deal to say, I have been told. And while they were talking, Jotham Wildgoose – yes, that was his actual name – sat on his stone, rocking back and forth, rubbing his hands on his knees, saying never a word. At last, when both of them were out of breath and out of patience, the old man spoke. 'Get out!' he said; and never said another word as long as he lived."
"The idea! Why, I never heard of such a thing, Mr. Hadley. Why, how did he live? How did he do his marketing?" The practical mind of the Scientific General pounced at once on the main issue. Man need not talk, but he must eat.
"He lived mostly on fish; he had his boat, you see, and he was a good fisherman. When he wanted other supplies, he took a string of fish to the nearest village and got what he wanted in exchange. He was very clever in making signs; he could write, too. Yes, I believe Jotham Wildgoose lived to a good old age, and counted himself a fortunate man."
"And what became of his wife?"
"Poor thing! They say she scolded herself to death. She was a sad shrew, from all accounts. Of course, I am not excusing Jotham," he added hastily; "I am only explaining."
Mary pondered. "'Tis a queer story!" she said at last. "'Twas strange he wouldn't listen to the minister, though. You'd thought he would!"
The chaplain's eyes twinkled.
"They are taken that way sometimes!" he said.
"I'll bet he'd have minded if you had told him to go home!" Mary spoke with conviction, but the chaplain shook his head.
"Don't be too sure, Mary! Did you ever hear about Mr. Bourne and his wife? No, how should you! It was an old song when my father was a boy. Listen, now!
"And that is a pretty accurate statement of the case, I believe!" said the chaplain. "But here we are at Cyrus, my dear, and there, from Pippin's description, is Jacob Bailey himself waiting for us."
Mary shrank, and drew in her breath with a sob. The journey, the cheery talk, had dulled for the time the pain at her heart, the suffocating dread of what was before her; now both awoke and clutched at her. She clung to the chaplain's arm, trembling and sobbing, dry-eyed.
"I'm afraid!" she said. "I'm afraid!"
"Yes!" said Lawrence Hadley. "Yes, you are afraid, Mary, but that does not signify. What signifies is that you are bringing light into a dark place. Light, and warmth, and joy. Be thankful, my child; be thankful!"
He led her forward, and Jacob Bailey did the rest. His hearty, "Well! well! Here's the folks I'm downright glad to see," restored Mary's balance in an instant. "Elder Hadley, I presume?" he went on. "And this is Miss Blossom? Well, I am pleased to meet you! Step right this way, the team's waitin'."
It was dusk when they drove up to the door of Cyrus Poor Farm. Mary was stiff after the four-mile drive – she was not used to driving – and even a little chilly; at least, she was trembling, though the evening was mild. The cheerful rays that streamed from the opening door struck warm to her heart which was still throbbing painfully. She could not speak, could only return the warm pressure of Mr. Hadley's hand as he helped her to alight. Jacob Bailey held the other little cold hand and led her forward.
"This way!" he said heartily. "Here she is, Lucy. Make you 'quainted with m' wife, Miss Blossom. Reverend Mr. Hadley, make you 'quainted with Mis' Bailey. Walk in! walk in! I expect they're famished with hunger, Lucy; supper ready, hey?"
Ever since word had come that morning of the impending arrival, curiosity had run rampant through the house. Miss Mandy Whetstone's nose had been pressed against the window glass so often that Mr. Wisk (he was the fat old gentleman with the hoarse voice; his friends called him Whiskey, for reasons best known to themselves) asked her if she wasn't afraid of wearin' a hole in the glass. Miss Mandy, resenting this, replied that at least she hadn't been out the gate seventeen times – Mr. Wisk needn't say a word, she had counted! – to look down the road to see if they was any one coming. She had uses for her time, let it be with others as it might. Miss Lucilla Pudgkins, anxiously forecasting, presumed likely they would bring good appetites with them, traveling all the ways from the city. She took occasion, when the table was set for supper, to count the doughnuts on the plate, and with prudent forethought, Mrs. Bailey's back being turned, slipped two plump ones into a drawer of the table conveniently near her seat.
Now they were actually here, and the inmates took their fill of staring, open-eyed and unashamed; all except Brand in his corner, polishing a basket handle, and Flora May, rocking in her chair, crooning listlessly to the cat in her lap.
Pale and weary though she was, Mary's beauty shone in the doorway like a lamp, as Pippin would have said – poor Pippin, who was not there to see. Mr. Wisk rose to his feet and struck an attitude of respectful admiration; the two elderly women who had been plain all their lives uttered little whimpering moans of surprise. "What right has the daughter of that horrid old tramp to look like this?" they seemed to ask.
"I expect she's stuck-up!" whispered Aunt Mandy to Miss Pudgkins. "Look at that hat!"
It was the simplest possible hat, but it had an air, as all Mary's hats had. She trimmed them herself, and I believe the ribbons curved into pretty shapes for pure pleasure when she patted them.
Mrs. Bailey took no note of the hat; she looked straight into Mary's eyes, as clear and honest as her own, and answered hastily the unspoken question in them.
"Yes, he's livin', my dear, though feeble. I'm real glad you've come!"
"Thank you! Oh, thank you! So am I!"
The words came from her lips unbidden, and the girl marveled even as she spoke them. She was glad! What did it mean?
"She'd better have her supper before she goes in, Lucy," said hospitable Jacob, "seein' it's all ready, and she come so far!"
But his wife, still holding Mary's hand, shook her head, again in response to a mute appeal. "No, Jacob! She's goin' right in. I'll take her in a cup o' tea and a mite of something, and she can eat while she's sittin' there. This way, dearie!"
The door closed, and the inmates drew a long breath; it was as if the drop curtain had descended between the acts of a drama. It was cruel to shut them off from what was going on in that other room. Miss Whetstone even discovered that she had left her pocket handkerchief up chamber, and had her hand on the door when Mrs. Bailey, returning, intervened with the offer of a spandy clean one just ironed, and a bland but firm gesture toward the table.
"We'll set right down, if you please!" said the mistress of Cyrus Poor Farm. "Reverend Mr. Hadley, will you ask a blessin'?"