The White Shield
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"Yes, I did," answered John, "an' I thought it was cunnin', but I see now, what a blamed fool I was. I should have come and asked you like a man an' not trusted to your understandin' no fool valentine. I made a great mistake – Elmiry, dear, won't you never forgive me?"
The poor little old maid smiled through her blinding tears.
"Oh, John," she said, "I've waited so long!" Then she broke down and sobbed helplessly in his arms.
Elmiry forgot the empty years, and the pathetic valentines, so dearly bought – it was so sweet to be loved and taken care of by a masterful man.
Neither heard the jingle of sleigh-bells 'till a voice shouted:
"Whoa," outside, and Doctor Jones started towards the gate.
"Who's that?" said Elmiry.
"It's the Doctor – he wants to see me about something and I'll go right out."
"No, I'm sure it's me, he wants to see, John," said Elmiry sadly.
"'Tain't neither. He see me a-comin' here."
Without stopping to put on his overcoat Weeks rushed out slamming the door behind him, as he went. The conversation was brief, but to the point, and presently the Doctor drove off with a smile on his face.
"Didn't he want to see me, John?" asked Elmiry tearfully.
"No, it was me, as I told you, but he sent in his congratulations."
"His congratulations! Oh, John! What did you tell him?"
"I told him," said John, taking her into his arms, "that we was engaged an' that you was goin' to be my valentine."
The Knighthood of Tony
It was such a pretty bicycle! Tony fondled the glittering spokes and examined the pedals with the air of a connoisseur. He forgot the hump on his back, and his solitary little house on the outskirts of the village in the joy of his new possession.
Only the night before Mrs. Carroll had sent for him and given it to him. "Arthur wanted you to have it;" she said with a tremor in her voice. Between Tony and the delicate child for whom the wheel was bought, there had been a strong bond of sympathy. Tony was always ready to talk to him, or to take him to the woods, and Arthur was the only human being Tony knew, aside from Mrs. Carroll, who did not jeer at the hump on his back, or shrink from him as though he were an evil thing.
When Arthur died, Tony felt a terrible sense of loss, although he was a man in years and his friend was but a child.
On account of his deformity, the wheel was none too small. If he could only ride it! He shivered as he thought of the shout of derision which would inevitably be his share, should he venture to ride it through the village streets. But there was the long smooth stretch of road which led to the next town, and there were innumerable paths through the woods that he knew and loved. The people in the village need never know that he had it. He could ride out there and no one be the wiser.
He pushed it into his bedroom and shut the door. He had one other treasure – an old flute; and in spite of the cruel hump it was a very happy Tony who went to sleep that night, with one hand stretched out upon the saddle of the beautiful new wheel.
His father had been a shoemaker and by lifelong toil had left a little competence to his son.Tony knew the trade also and sometimes worked at it. All that he was thus enabled to make by his own efforts, he invested in books at the store in the next town. He felt dimly that it would not be right to use his father's money in this way, but his own was a different matter.
There was a tiny paint-box too, with which he sometimes copied the pictures in the books. On the white wall of his bedroom was a poor copy of a Madonna, whose beauty he felt, but could not express. In some way, the Madonna took the place of the mother he had never known, and whose picture, even, he had never seen.
Man though he was in years, Tony had dreams of a soft hand brushing back his hair, and sweet cool lips pressed against his own. When he came back from his weekly trips to the village store, stung to the quick by the taunts and derisions of his fellow-men, he had sobbed himself to sleep many a time longing for that gracious hollow in a woman's shoulder, which seemed made for such as he.
With the first streaks of dawn, Tony started for the woods with his bicycle. There was a wide shady path, well hidden by trees, and here, he made his first attempts. It seemed a long, long time before he could ride even a little way, and the hard falls bruised, but did not discourage him. Day after day, in the early light, he led his silent steed to the secret place and returned after nightfall that none might see him.
The trees at the side of the path were more of a help than a hindrance. Often he had restored his balance by reaching out to a friendly trunk. The feeling of confidence which every bicyclist remembers, came at last, and he rode up and down the path, making the turns at the end with perfect ease, until he dropped off from sheer weariness.
The next day he took his flute and his wheel and a bit of lunch into the woods. He rode on the path until he was a bit tired, and then sat down on the grass and began to play. He knew no music but what the birds had taught him, and the simple little melodies he had heard his father hum.
Call after call of the mocking-bird and robin he imitated on his flute, until the little creatures flocked around him as if he had been one of them.
Tony found the purest pleasure in the society of his feathered friends. They never noticed his crooked body, but with that unfailing sight which seems to belong to birds and animals, recognised the soul within, and knew that they need have no fear of him.
At that very minute, a robin was perched upon the handle-bar of his wheel, his bright eyes fixed upon Tony, who was calling to him with his own voice in such a wonderful way that the red-breasted visitor was well-nigh dumb with astonishment.
With a sudden cry of alarm, Sir Robin fluttered into a tree above and Tony looked up to behold a strange and altogether lovely thing.
It was only a pretty girl in a well-made bicycle suit of blue corduroy, with her wheel beside her, but to Tony she was even more beautiful than the Madonna.
"Excuse me," she said; "but I simply couldn't help stopping to listen."
Tony blushed uncomfortably but he made no reply.
"It must be a great pleasure to be able to call the birds to you like that," she went on; "I really envy you the gift."
He was transfixed with delight. This beautiful straight human being actually envied him the tiny bit of music he could make with his flute! His primitive hospitality came to the rescue.
"Won't you sit down?" he said timidly.
She was very willing to sit down, and almost before he knew it, he found himself telling her about his little cabin, the father who brought him up, and how Mrs. Carroll had given him the bicycle because he had been good to her little boy before he died.
She admired the wheel very much and talked over its good points with Tony until he felt perfectly at ease. She asked him his name and gave him her own. She was Miss Atherton, staying in a house just outside the village with her invalid brother.
The doctor thought the air of the woods would be good for him, so she had "packed up, bag and baggage," as she expressed it, and brought her horse, bicycle, piano and a trained nurse to the village for the summer.
She wanted Tony to come and see them the very next morning and bring his flute. Her brother would enjoy the music and he could come up on his wheel and stay all day.
She waved her hand to him as she rode away through the woods towards her home.
It was the first time Tony had ever been asked to visit any one except the little boy who had died. He remembered every detail of her face and dress, the velvety softness of the corduroy, the tiny watch at her belt, and the brown eyes, so much like those of the Madonna, that he felt as if he had known her always. But one thing troubled him. She did not seem to see the curve between his shoulders. Perhaps it was because he was leaning against a tree all the time she was there. If she had seen it, she would certainly have spoken of it. She might not make fun of him, but she would surely have pitied him, which was almost as bad. Even Mrs. Carroll who was always kind, did that. No, Miss Atherton had not seen it, and his dread of her discovering it was the one flaw in his present anticipations.
She, herself, in a pretty white gown, welcomed him at the door. Mr. Atherton lay in an invalid chair with a table at his side, and shook hands graciously with Tony.
It was such a happy day! He learned the first moves in chess and Miss Atherton played a tender, running accompaniment on the piano to the bird music he made with his flute.
They all had luncheon on the wide veranda and Tony had not dreamed such dainty things were possible.
They talked of their travels in Europe and Egypt, before Mr. Atherton was taken ill, and showed him pictures of wonderful things in the lands across the sea. She read aloud and sang softly to the half-hushed chords her brother picked out on the guitar, and Tony in a perfect wilderness of enjoyment, forgot all about his crooked shoulders.
That day was the first in a long series of happy ones. He learned to play chess well enough to make himself a formidable antagonist, and after Miss Atherton taught him the notes on the piano he found them on the flute, and began to play simple melodies from the music. Sometimes they all played together, very softly in the twilight – piano, flute and guitar; until it became time for the invalid to be wheeled into his room. Sometimes even after that, Tony would sit on the veranda while she sang or talked to him. Through the long night he dreamed of her, as many a lover dreams of his sweetheart. Beautiful Miss Atherton! He worshipped her from afar off, as a child looks at a star.
It was Tony who knew where the violets grew, and who in the dim silence of dawn laid handfuls of them at her door. And it was he who brought her a great sheaf of pond-lilies, dripping and sweet.
"Oh, Tony!" she cried, "where do they grow?"
His face flushed with pleasure. "I'll take you there if you want to go."
"Indeed I do," she exclaimed, "can we go on our wheels?"
"Yes, that's the best way, though it's rough in some places."
"I don't mind that," she answered, "come early in the morning and we'll stay all day."
That afternoon he went to the village store to buy his week's provisions. Half-a-dozen men who were loafing in front of it asked no better sport than to get him into a corner, so that he could not escape, and fling at him taunts and jeers about his crooked body. It was fun to see the sensitive face flush with anger, or quiver with pain, and it was not until his self-control was entirely gone and he sank in a sobbing heap on the floor, that they let him go.
The night was one of torture to him. It was not the mother he had never seen who could comfort him now, but Miss Atherton. His idea of heaven was a place where he might always be within the sound of her voice, within reach of her hand, and where she would look kindly upon him.
He was thankful that the way to her house lay beyond the village and not through it. He would never dare to show himself there on his wheel. And the road to the lilies ran through the woods; none would see to-morrow when he went there with her.
She was already on the veranda in her bicycle suit when he rode up the next morning. She tied a basket of lunch to his wheel and a book to her own.
"You see we are going to stay all day," she said, "and I couldn't think of starting without refreshment for body and mind. My brother has an armful of new books which came from the city yesterday, and he didn't even hear me when I said good-bye."
They started, Miss Atherton chatting busily and Tony too happy to speak except in monosyllables. A turn in the road brought them to a branch of the river, white with lilies in full bloom. She dismounted with a little cry of delight. "Oh, how white and sweet they are!"
Tony found a boat moored by the side of the stream and they soon had gathered a great sheaf of the golden-hearted censers, rich with fragrance, which they covered with cool ferns in the shade of the trees until they should be ready to take them home. Being collected early in the day they were fresher and sweeter than if they had been allowed to feel the heat of the later morning sun.
The lilies well cared for, they sat down under a tree and she read to him the story of Launcelot. His brave deeds and manly service, his love for Guenevere, and the spirit of romance and knightly courage which seemed to fairly breathe from the pages, held Tony spellbound.
"Miss Atherton," he said wistfully, as she finished, "I'd like to be one of those fellows."
"You can be," she answered.
"How?" he asked, his eyes wide open in astonishment.
"Any man is a knight," she said, "who does what is given him to do, wisely and well. It's not the horses and the armour, Tony, it's the man, and you can be as brave and true as Launcelot, if you only will. Never permit yourself to speak, or even think slightingly of a woman, and if you have the opportunity to help one, do it at any cost. That's the foundation of true knighthood and true manhood, too. See, I give you my colours; be my knight if you will," and she leaned forward smilingly to tie a white fragrant scarf around his arm.
But to her surprise, Tony burst into tears. And then a part of his dream came true, for Miss Atherton put her arm around him and drew him close to her. "Tony, dear, what is it? Tell me!" With his face half buried in the sweet comforting place he had longed for, but had never known, he sobbed out all the bitterness of his heart. He told her of the taunts and jeers which made his crooked life a burden – of all the loneliness before he knew her, and someway too, he told her of his longing for his mother whom he had never seen, and whose place he had tried to fill with the picture of the Madonna.
That day in the woods gave Tony undreamed-of strength. He even offered to do Miss Atherton's errands at the store.
They did not know that he was a knight bearing his lady's colours – that he was in her service and would be to the very end of the world, for even death, he thought, could never make any difference in his loyalty to her. He was Launcelot and she was Guenevere – it was his secret, and even she must never know.
Toward the end of the summer he rode up to Miss Atherton's with a great bunch of goldenrod, which only he knew where to find. She came to the door white and worried. "My brother is very ill, Tony," she said, "and I have sent my groom for the doctor, but he has been gone so long that I fear something may have happened to him. Would you go – on your wheel?"
For a moment, as the vision of the village store, on the only street that led to the doctor's house, with its crowd of loafers came before him, Tony hesitated. Would Launcelot hesitate with Guenevere in need? "I'll go, Miss Atherton," he said quietly.
Terror struck him as he came in sight of the store and saw the men he most feared, sitting in front of it. Mutely praying for help, he bent to his pedals. But they had seen him, and rushed out into the street with a shout. It was an easy matter for them to stop his wheel.
"Let me go! Let me go!" he cried, "Miss Atherton's brother is sick, and I'm going for the doctor!"
"That's a likely story," said one of them. "Bet a hat you stole this velocipede. She wouldn't send a hunchy like you anywheres."
"Mebby she might," said the keeper of the store. "That's the city gal he's goin' to marry. I seen her in the woods kissin' him!"
White with rage, not for himself, but that the dear name of his Lady should be soiled by their lips, Tony raised his slender arm to strike. "Say what you please to me," he muttered between his clenched teeth, "but if you dare to even speak of her, I'll – "
Tony said no more, for one of the men half crazed with liquor, lifted the bicycle suddenly, and with a single blow across the curve between his shoulders, dashed him heavily to the ground. Thoroughly frightened, the crowd dispersed leaving Tony in the dusty road, amid the wreck of his wheel.
Meanwhile the doctor had arrived with Miss Atherton's servant. In half an hour the invalid was resting quietly, and as the doctor took his leave, Miss Atherton told him how she had sent Tony after him on his bicycle only a few minutes before he arrived.
"You shouldn't have done that," he said. "There's a rough crowd of men in the town, and they are very likely to harm the little chap if they have half a chance. I'll look for him as I go home and have him come and tell you that he is safe."
Not a man was in sight when the doctor found Tony, and even the shades of the store windows were closely drawn.
After vainly knocking at the door, he smashed in the window with a strong stick, and entering, found the men who were wont to loaf in front of the store, huddled in a corner of it. With the voice of one accustomed to command, he made them improvise a stretcher under his directions, and three of them helped him carry Tony home.
The doctor shook his head gravely when questioned as to the extent of the injury. "Some one must stay with him to-night," he said.
One of the men volunteered, but a look of such helpless terror came into Tony's eyes, that he sent them all away, telling the last one to go for Miss Atherton.
It was from him that she learned the whole story and fairly trembling with indignation, turned upon him.
"There isn't one of you in this whole village worthy to touch even the hand of the boy you have killed to-day. He was a man – you are nothing but brutes. Now go, and never let me see your face again."
The doctor met her at the door of Tony's little house. "You'd better stay with him," he said in a low tone. "He can't last until morning, and your brother will be perfectly safe with the nurse. I'll go up to your house and send down anything you may need. My man will come and stay within call."
Miss Atherton gave him a note to the nurse, and then went in to Tony. His eyes brightened at the sight of her, and he tried to speak.
"Hush, dear," she said, "it's all right. The doctor came just after you left, and my brother is in no danger now. I've come to stay with you."
Her cool hand brushed back the hair from his forehead, and moved by an impulse of womanly pity, she knelt beside him and laid her cheek against his own. He closed his eyes and seemed to sleep.
Her eyes wandered around the little room. A table stood in the corner of it. A cabinet photograph of herself in a pasteboard frame, around which Tony had painted a wreath of pond-lilies, stood in the centre of it beside a cracked cup filled with early autumn flowers. The flute lay straight across the front, like a votive offering, and underneath the photograph was written in his large, unformed hand: "My Guenevere."
At last she understood, and feeling that his little shrine was too holy for even her eyes to see, she turned them away.
Tony stirred, and she slipped her arm under his shoulders.
"Did – did – they – tell you – what they said?"
"Yes, dear." Her eyes filled.
"I didn't mind – for myself – but – "
"Hush, dear; I know."
Feeling herself unworthy in the presence of a true knightly soul, Miss Atherton held him untiringly in her arms. When he cried out with pain, she drew him close to her, and pillowed his head upon her breast. "Am – I – going to – die – Miss Atherton?"
She could hardly whisper the words: "I am afraid so, Tony."
"Will you – stay – until – "
"And – afterward – you won't let – them – touch me?"
"No, Tony, no."
His eyes followed hers as she looked at the little shrine again.
"Do you mind?" he whispered anxiously. "I thought – you wouldn't know – if I called – you – Guenevere – at home."
"Tony, dear, no queen ever had a braver, truer knight than you have been to me. Even Launcelot was not half so noble in the service of Guenevere, as you have been in mine."
He smiled happily and seemed to sleep again.
Just at dawn, he said weakly: "Miss Atherton?"
"What is it, Tony?"
"The lilies – are opening – about now, – ar'n't they?"
"I shouldn't wonder. Is there anything you want?"
"Would – you – you – kiss me – just – once? I used – to dream – you did – and – and – "
With a sob she could not hide, she drew him close. He sighed contentedly as he put his frail arms around her, like a weary child, and with his Guenevere's kisses on his lips and brow, her little Launcelot blossomed into the light of which she had told him.
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