The Carter Girls' Week-End Camp
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“Tom Tit does, but I have to go away for a time every fall and winter and Tom Tit keeps house for me while I am gone. He is a famous housekeeper.”
“Do you get lonesome all by yourself?” asked Lucy.
“We uns ain’t never alone. There’s the baby fox and the cow and the chickens, and every day we uns tries to find something and then we uns has to write it down for the spring-keeper ’ginst he comes home. Every day we uns has to go to the post office for the letter, too, and that takes time. The days in winter are so short.”
“Oh, do you get a letter every day? How jolly! My mother doesn’t write to me but once a week,” said Lil, “ – although of course she ’phones me in the meantime and sends me candy and things.”
“We uns never does git letters from maw,” and poor Tom Tit’s eyes clouded sadly. “Ever since the men came and found her and hid her in that hole she ain’t writ a line to poor Tom Tit.”
“But you write to her every time you write to me, don’t you, Tom Tit?” and the old gentleman put a calming and kindly hand on the shoulder of the trembling youth. It seemed that at every mention of mothers the thought of his own mother came back to him and the agony he went through with at the time of her death seized hold of him. The young people learned later from their host, while Tom Tit was washing the supper dishes, all about the poor boy’s history.
“Tom Tit’s mother was a very fine woman of an intelligence and character that was remarkable even in these mountains where intelligence and character are the rule rather than the exception. She had no education, but the things she could accomplish without education were enough to make the ones who have been educated blush to think how little they do with it. She had evolved a philosophy of her own of such goodness and serenity that to know her and talk with her was a privilege. She seemed to me to be like these mountains, where she was born and where she died. She had had trouble enough to break the spirit of any ordinary mortal, but she said her spirit was eternal and could not be broken.
“Her husband was a very desperate character. Convicted of illicit distilling, he was sentenced to serve a term in the penitentiary, but he managed to escape and for one whole year he evaded the sheriff, hiding in the mountains. Of course his wife had to go through the agony of this long search. She told me she had never slept more than an hour at a time while her husband was in hiding. That was the one thing she was bitter over – that long hounding of her husband. She used to say if the government had spent the money and energy in educating the mountaineers that they had in hunting for them, there would have been no cause for hunting for them. Moonshining is to them a perfectly reasonable and lawful industry, and nothing but education can make them see it differently. His hiding place was finally ferreted out and he was surrounded and captured, but not before he had managed to shoot five men, killing two of them and being fatally wounded himself.
“That was many years ago when Tom Tit was a little chap of three.Melissa, the mother, was wrapped up in the child. His intelligence then was keen and his love of Nature and beautiful things was so pronounced from the beginning that if this cloud had not come over his intellect he would surely have been a great artist of some kind, whether poet, painter or musician, I can’t say.”
“Perhaps all of them, like Leonardo da Vinci!” exclaimed Lil, who always did know things.
The old gentleman smiled at her appreciatively.
“What is an artist but a person who finds things, just like my poor Tom Tit, and then is able to tell to the world what he has found?”
“When he writes to you, does he tell you things in poetical language?” asked Lucy, her gray eyes very teary as she listened to the story of the mountain youth.
“My dear, his writing is not ordinary writing. He can neither read nor write as you think of it. His letters to me are written in another way. He tells me what he has found each day with some kind of rude drawing or with some device of his own.”
“Please show us some of them!” begged all four of the guests.
“I am going to let you guess what he meant.” He took from his desk in the corner a packet of large envelopes. “I leave with my friend enough addressed and stamped envelopes to run him until I return, and all he has to do is put in his letter and seal it and drop it in the box at Bear Hollow, our post office. Sometimes he draws me a picture and sometimes he just sends me something he has found. What do you think he intended to convey by this?”
On a sheet of paper were drawn many stars of various kinds and sizes, and down in the corner was what was certainly meant for an axe.
“Clear night and going coon hunting, I think,” said Skeeter solemnly.
“No!” cried Lucy and Lil in a breath. “Those are meant for snow flakes! It has begun to snow!”
“Right you are! Good girls, go up head! And how about the axe, since it is not meant to signify coon hunting?”
“It is going to be cold,” suggested the practical Frank, “and he must go to work and lay in wood before the snow gets deep.”
“Fine! I am glad to see there are others who can interpret my poor Tom Tit’s letters. Now this is the one I received the next day.”
It was evidently meant for a deep snow. The roof of a house and a few bare branches were shown but from the chimney a column of smoke ascended and in that smoke was plainly drawn a grin: a mouth with teeth.
“Snowed under!” cried Skeeter.
“But he got his wood cut and is now sitting by the fire quite happy, even grinning,” declared Lucy.
“Right again! Now comes a piece of holly and a pressed violet. That means that he finds a little belated violet in our flower beds in spite of the fact that the holly is king at this season. Sometimes he has so much to tell me that he must make many pictures. Here he found a sunset and it was so beautiful that he had to paint it with his colored crayons. This is where he fed the birds during the deep snow. He has a trough where he puts grain and seeds and crumbs for his winged friends. This is a picture of the trough and see the flocks of birds he has tried to draw to show how many are fed in his trough. This means a stranger has come in on him!” It was a picture of a hat and staff and down one side of the page were many drops of water, at least that was what the interested audience thought they were. At the top was an eye.
“Oh, I know!” exclaimed Lil. “If a hat and staff mean a stranger, those drops of water must mean rain.”
“The eye looks like a Mormon sign,” suggested Skeeter.
“I bet it means this,” said Lil, studying the page intently. “It means the stranger is old, or he would not have a staff, and it means he is unhappy. Those drops are tear drops. See how sad the eye looks!”
“‘Oh, a Daniel come to judgment!’ Young lady, you are right. That was a tired, sick traveler that our Tom Tit found and brought in and looked after for two weeks last winter. He was trying to cross the mountains and got lost and Tom Tit picked him up, almost starved and frozen. In this one, he shows the sick guest is still with him and in bed. He cannot draw faces well and hates to make anything too grotesque, so he usually has a sign or symbol for persons. The staff and hat in bed mean the guest is there. These little saddle-bags and hat mean he had to send for the doctor. Look at the medicine the poor staff and hat must take from the cruel saddle-bags! His own symbol is usually a jew’s-harp, although sometimes he makes himself a kind of butterfly – ”
“Just like Whistler!” cried Lil.
“Yes, and in his way he is as great an artist as Whistler,” said the old man sadly. “If he had only had his chance! Well, well! Maybe he is happier as he is. I never saw a happier person, as a rule, than my poor boy. Tom Tit could never have written letters that would have been put in a book and called ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies,’ as that other great artist did. He makes friends with every living thing, and inanimate objects are friendly to him, too, I sometimes think. If his wits had been spared him, the world would have called him and the peace of the mountains would no longer have been his.”
The old man fingered the packet of letters tenderly while the young guests sat thoughtfully by. They could hear the cheerful Tom Tit in the kitchen washing dishes and whistling a strange crooning melody.
“Here it is spring and he has found the first hepatica. See, he sends me a pressed one! And this is my love letter. What do you make of it?”
It was six little stamped envelopes, all with wings, and in the corner was a jew’s-harp unmistakably dancing a jig.
“I know! I know!” cried Lucy.
“So do I!” from Lil.
“I can’t see any kind of sense in it!” pondered Frank.
“Nor I,” grumbled Skeeter. “You girls just make up answers.”
“I’m going to whisper my answer to Mr. Spring-keeper,” suggested Lil.
The old man smiled as Lil whispered her answer.
“Good! Splendid! And now what do you think?” turning to Lucy.
“I think that he has only six envelopes left, and that means you will be back in six days. He is so happy he is dancing and he is so busy the days are just flying away.”
“Well, if you girls aren’t clever! No wonder they say women are the most appreciative sex although men are the creative. A few men create while all women appreciate. And now, my dear young people, this is so pleasant for me that I am afraid of being selfish, so I am going to insist on your going to bed. You have had a hard day and must be tired.”
“We have had a wonderful day with a wonderful en – ” said Lil, a yawn hitting her midway so she could not get out the “ding.”
“But I hate to go to bed until you tell us something about yourself,” blurted out Skeeter.
The story of the half-witted young mountaineer was very interesting, no doubt, but Skeeter wanted to know why this highly educated gentleman was spending so much time in the mountains, cooking for himself and taking care of lost sheep.
“Oh, my story is such an ordinary one I can tell it while I light a candle for these young ladies,” laughed their host, not at all angry at Skeeter’s curiosity, although Lil and Lucy were half dead of embarrassment when Skeeter came out so flat-footed with the question which was almost bubbling over on their lips, but which they felt they must not put.
“I am a successful manufacturer – I have made enough money selling clothes pins and ironing boards and butter tubs to stop. In fact, I stopped many years ago and now I do nothing but enjoy myself in my own way.”
“And that way is – ?”
“Trying to help a little. In the winter I live in New York and teach the boys’ clubs on the East Side, and in the summer I am spring-keeper in the mountains.”
“But isn’t your name Mr. Spring-keeper?” asked Lil.
“No, my dear, spring-keeping is my occupation. My name is Walter McRae. Here is your candle, and pleasant dreams.”
“Won’t you tell us some more about yourself?” asked Lucy as she took the candle from him.
“Another time! Anything so dry as my story will keep.”