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Title: Annie Laurie and Azalea
Author: Peattie, Elia W.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Annie Laurie and Azalea" ***

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                          [Picture: Book cover]

               [Picture: Azalea and Carin and Annie Laurie]



                               ANNIE LAURIE
                                AND AZALEA


                                    BY
                             ELIA W. PEATTIE

                                * * * * *

                            _Illustrations by_
                         _Joseph Pierre Nuyttens_

                                * * * * *

                       [Picture: Publisher’s logo]

                                * * * * *

                         The Reilly & Britton Co.
                                 Chicago

                                * * * * *

                             Copyright, 1913
                                    by
                         The Reilly & Britton Co.

                                * * * * *

                        _Annie Laurie and Azalea_

                                * * * * *

                        _Annie Laurie and Azalea_
                         _beg to be presented to_
             _Loraine_, _Catherine_, _Elizabeth and Bernice_



CONTENTS

CHAPTER                                       PAGE
          I  TWO AND ONE MAKE—HOW MANY?         11
         II  ANNIE LAURIE PACE                  30
        III  TRIAL WITHOUT JURY                 47
         IV  A RAINY NIGHT                      68
          V  THE SUMMERS                        87
         VI  SUNDAY                            100
        VII  THE SIGNAL                        119
       VIII  THE MYSTERY                       128
         IX  THE DISBROWS                      147
          X  SAM                               167
         XI  MARCHING ORDERS                   181
        XII  “THE DOLL LADY”                   198
       XIII  THE LONG RED ROAD                 217
        XIV  HI’S HOUN’ DOG                    231
         XV  THE VOICE IN THE MIST             247
        XVI  GOOD FOR EVIL                     261
       XVII  AZALEA’S PARTY                    281



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

                                                                  PAGE
Azalea and Carin and Annie Laurie                       _Frontispiece_
Carin stood awaiting them, her hands outstretched                   64
Back and forth went her lantern, saying: “All is                   122
well!  All is well!”
“But you’ve come back, son, to face the music.”                    192
“Come in,” she said in a strange voice                             266



CHAPTER I
TWO AND ONE MAKE—HOW MANY?


The long red clay road, winding down from the cabin where the McBirneys
lived on their high shelf of Tennyson mountain, was frosted delicately
with white, and by the roadside the curious frost flowers lifted their
heads, as airy-fine as fern.  From the half-hidden cabins all around the
semicircle of mountains that skirted the valley of Lee, shafts of smoke
arose, showing that the people were about the business of the day.
Straight, gray and shadowy these smoke-shafts lifted through the
lilac-tinted air; and below in the little town, other shafts of smoke
ascended as if in friendly answer.

Azalea McBirney, in her dark riding skirt and bright knitted cap and
reefer, came running from the cabin with the manner of a girl very much
behindhand.

“Ain’t he there yet, Zalie?” a voice called from the cabin.  “Ain’t Jim
brought them ponies around yet?”

“No, mother,” Azalea answered over her shoulder, starting toward the
stable.  “Maybe the ponies have been naughty again.  I’ll go see.”

“You just stay where you be,” commanded James Stuart McBirney from the
stable.  “You’ve got all your work done, ben’t you?  Well, that’s all you
have to think about.  This here is my job and I mean to do it whatever
comes, though these here ponies certainly do act up on a morning like
this.”

“Well, I _would_ just as soon get my breath for a moment,” Azalea
remarked to nobody in particular, seating herself on the bench by the
side of the door.  “As Hi Kitchell’s mother says, ‘I bin goin’ like a
streak o’ lightnin’ since sunup.’”

Her cheeks were, indeed, a trifle over-flushed, and forgetting for a
moment how time was hastening along, and that she and Jim ought already
to be on the road to school, she leaned her head against the side of the
cabin and looked about her contentedly.  She loved the scene before her;
loved the pines with their light coating of hoarfrost; loved the
waterfall with its gleaming icicles; loved the scent of the wood-smoke
and the sight of “Molly Cottontail” scampering through the bushes.

Moreover, the kiss of Mary McBirney lay warm on her lips—Mary McBirney
who had taken her in when she was a motherless and friendless girl, and
whom she found it sweet to call mother.  “Mother” was a longer word than
Jim—otherwise James Stuart McBirney, the true son of the house—found it
convenient to use when he spoke of the woman who was the background of
his world.  “Ma” was the term he chose, and Mary McBirney would not have
cared to have him try any other.

For Jim was just Jim—her own freckled, shy, plucky fellow.  He went down
to the district school, riding on the pony the Carsons had given him,
while beside him, quite as if she were his own sister, rode Azalea, who
trusted him to see her through any danger of the road, who laughed as
much as anybody could wish at his “hill billy” jokes, and who never,
never forgot how he had welcomed her into his home, to share all he had,
though there never had, at any time, been very much to share.

Yet, though she had been only the “child wonder” of a wandering “show”
when she came to the McBirney’s—her own poor little mother lying dead in
one of the wagons—it was she, and not Jim, the carefully reared boy, who
had the grand little ways.  Jim was a country boy, with a country boy’s
straightforward, simple manners.  But about Azalea there was
something—well, something different.  So different was she from the
McBirneys that she seemed like a cardinal bird which had been
storm-driven into one of the martin gourds that hung in the high
cross-trees before the McBirney’s door.

All that was easily understood by the few who knew her story.  Her
grandfather had been Colonel Atherton, the richest, the proudest, and the
most elegant gentleman in all the countryside.  He had owned great
plantations in the old slave days, and had built the beautiful manor
house which their new, wonderfully kind neighbors, the Carsons, recently
had bought.  Azalea’s mother had exiled herself by a marriage with a man
of whom no parent could approve, and as misfortune drove her ever lower
and lower, she came at length to be a performer in the miserable roadside
show with which she had come, in her last hour, to the scene of her
father’s old home.  That home had long since passed into other hands, and
concerning it Azalea’s mother had told her daughter nothing.  It had been
by an accident that she later learned the truth.

When Mr. and Mrs. Carson, the friends who had from the first of their
acquaintance with her endeavored to add to her happiness, learned her
story, they asked her to come into their home to be a sister to their own
girl, Carin.  And Azalea in her secret heart had longed to go—more than
she ever would have told, she longed to be with these accomplished and
gracious friends, whose wealth made it possible for them to do almost
anything they pleased, and who seemed pleased to do only interesting
things.  But when she remembered the welcome that had been given her by
Mary McBirney, and indeed, by all of the McBirney family, and how she
had, in a way, taken the place of their little dead Molly, she was able
to put temptation from her; and the hour in which she had made her choice
and been gathered in “Ma” McBirney’s arms was the happiest she ever had
known.

So, though she was born Azalea Knox, the granddaughter of Colonel
Atherton, she was now known as Azalea McBirney, the waif the McBirneys
had taken into their cabin to grow up side by side with their son James
Stuart.  And all over the Valley of Lee an interest was felt in her;
partly because of her being an orphan, and a child of quaint and lovable
ways, and partly because of a strange happening.  Not long after she had
come to live with the good mountain folk, the owner of the show with
which she had once traveled had kidnapped her, and the search for her had
been long and anxious.

When she was rescued and brought back to the home where she was so
welcomed and loved, all of the neighbors had a protective feeling for
her, and rejoiced that the Carsons, who had come down from the North, and
who seemed so eager to be of help to everybody, should have taken her in
to be taught with their daughter.  Never had there been such neighbors as
the Carsons in Lee.  They made goodness their business, it seemed.
Through them the mountain folk were finding a market for their homemade
wares—their woven cloth and their counterpanes, their baskets and chairs,
and comfort had come into many a home where hitherto there had been cruel
poverty.

But there on the bench by the doorway in the nipping morning air sits
Azalea, with her nose and ears growing redder and redder!

“Jim,” she called, awakening from her reverie, “we’ll be late as sure as
anything.”

“Coming right along now, sis,” answered the boy as he came running from
the stable with the two ponies.  “Hop into the saddle, Zalie, and we’ll
just pelt it down the mountain.  Here, I’ll hold him.  There you are.
Hi—they’re off.”

They surely were.  Pa McBirney, busy in his little smithy, heard the
clatter of hoofs and thrust his head from the door.

“Watch out, you two!” he warned.

“We will,” they called in chorus as they dashed on.

“My sakes,” said pa, coming in from the shop and wiping his hands on his
leathern apron, “I trust to luck ma didn’t see ’em going off.  Them young
uns are getting too much spirit in ’em to suit me; and as for the ponies,
I think they ought to be cut down on their feed.”

But neither Azalea nor James Stuart was wanting anyone to cut down on
anything.  As the firm-footed ponies took the cut-offs, minding neither
curve nor steep, the children shouted with delight.

“Late?” yelled Jim mockingly.  “Who said late?  We couldn’t be late if we
tried.”

They reached the parting of their ways, and Azalea, who was leading,
turned in her saddle to wave to Jim.

“Good-bye, boy,” she called.

“So long, sis,” he answered, and turned to follow the creek, and then to
mount the hill at the top of which stood the district school.  But Azalea
kept on along the low-winding road till she came to The Shoals, from
whose four tall chimneys the smoke mounted into the tinted air.
Benjamin, the polite black boy, was at the horse-block to help her
dismount and to lead away Paprika, her pony; and Tulula Darthula, the
maid, opened the door to welcome her.  Azalea spoke a laughing word of
greeting and ran on down the corridor to the schoolroom.

It was a small room, semicircular in shape, opening on the wintry garden.
The rounding portion of the wall was all of glass, which in summer time
gave way to screens, so that it then seemed an actual part of the garden.
Now, the polished panes reflected the flames leaping in the fireplace,
and revealed the frost-fringed hemlocks without.  Before the fire sat
Miss Parkhurst, the quiet, gray-eyed governess, and with her, Carin, the
friend whose approval was more to Azalea than anything else in the world
save the love of the new “mother.”

“Oh, here I am, late!” cried Azalea contritely.  “Please forgive me,
ma’am.”

Helena Parkhurst gave a pardoning smile.

“I really think we’re ahead of time this morning—Carin and I.  Take off
your things, child, and come up to the fire.  We’ve been trying to have
it at its best when you came.”

But Azalea’s fingers, stiffened with holding the bridle reins, made sorry
work with her buttons, and Carin flew to her aid.

“You smell like winter, Azalea,” she laughed, sniffing; “all cold and
clean.”

Azalea laughed happily.  Whatever this blue-eyed, golden-haired friend of
hers did seemed right to her—nay, better than merely right—complete.  It
warmed Azalea more than the glow of the room to have Carin snatch her cap
from her, and pull her reefer off, and tumble her with affectionate
roughness into the chair before the blaze.

“Colonial history again this morning,” said Miss Parkhurst after a time.
“We’re to read about the Delaware and the Virginia Colonies, since
Carin’s ancestors came from the first and Azalea’s from the second.”

“Well, they’ll be different enough, won’t they?” remarked Carin.  “They
were different sort of folk before they crossed the Atlantic, and their
differences grew after they settled here.  And yet here Azalea and I are,
as alike as can be.”

“But I don’t think the differences of the colonists grew, Carin,” said
Azalea, “and I’m terribly afraid you and I aren’t alike.  I couldn’t be
like you if I tried for ever and ever.”  She gave a wistful sigh, and
Miss Parkhurst, watching her without seeming to do so, saw the light of
hero-worship in her eyes.  She knew that Azalea was one of those who are
born to love hungrily, and to live eagerly; and she was thankful that,
having so hungry a heart, she was able, when it came to a matter of
opinion, to form her own ideas, and to hold to them.  Azalea’s heart was
in leading strings to Carin, but her excellent little brain went on its
independent way, though Carin had traveled and studied, and been all her
life with charming and cultivated people, and Azalea had been tended no
more than a patch of wayside daisies.

Miss Parkhurst brought the books they were needing from the library, and
Carin taking hers, sighed happily: “Isn’t it beautiful to be here by
ourselves—just the three of us?  No one else would fall into our way of
doing.  How nice it is of you, Miss Parkhurst, to let us follow up
whatever idea we’re interested in, and to help us learn all we can about
that subject, instead of making us dash from one thing to another, till
we haven’t a notion what we are trying to learn.  I’d never get anywhere,
studying in the old-fashioned way, jumping from subject to subject, and
having to wait for a whole class of stupid creatures to come tagging
along.”

“But you might be the stupid one, you know, Carin,” smiled Miss
Parkhurst.  “I’m afraid it doesn’t do to go around the world supposing
yourself to be the cleverest one.”

Carin shrugged her pretty shoulders.

“I don’t think that,” she said.  “I always think Azalea the cleverest
one.  I’m only saying that we three understand each other, and that we
don’t have to spend half our time explaining, and that we’re just as
contented together as mortals can be.”

And just then the door opened and Mrs. Carson came into the room.  Her
face had lost something of the look of transparency it had worn when she
first came to Lee, when she had been fresh from a terrible sorrow, but it
was still pale and strangely tender to Azalea’s admiring eyes.

“I do hope you’ll excuse me, Miss Parkhurst,” she said in her soft voice,
“for breaking into the study hour.  But I’ve something important to talk
over, and so I’ve come while all the members of the academy are
together.”

She shook hands with Azalea as she spoke, and patted Carin caressingly on
the shoulder.

“I’ve come,” she went on, “to talk to you about taking in another girl.”

“Another girl!” cried Carin in dismay.  “What girl, please, mamma?”  She
had sprung to her feet, and stood before her mother with the color
sweeping over her face; but Azalea, keeping her thoughts to herself, grew
paler, and pinched the edge of the table in her effort to keep the tears
of vexation and disappointment from coming to her eyes.

Another girl!  And this perfect possession of Carin would be taken from
her, and there’d be, as Carin put it, need to “explain” all of the time.
How could Mrs. Carson spoil such a perfect thing as their association
there?  Who else would love to study, and to write, and paint and sing
the way they did?  Who else would make a game out of it all, and long to
get to the schoolroom in the morning and hate to leave at night?

“It’s Annie Laurie Pace,” went on Mrs. Carson, apparently taking no heed
of their misery.  “Have you met her?  Perhaps not, since she goes to the
Baptist Meeting House, and you, Azalea, are such a faithful young
Methodist, and Carin goes with me to the Episcopal Church.  But anyway, I
think you must have seen her—a tall girl, with red hair.  She’s been
helping me some at The Mountain Industries rooms, and I’ve become well
acquainted with her.  She’s ahead of anything she can get at the district
school.  Of course I don’t mean that she couldn’t do more mathematics and
that sort of thing, but I am convinced that she has a strength and
originality of thought which is very unusual.  She came here this morning
to borrow some books I had offered to lend her, and I have been talking
with her for the last hour.  I am so convinced that the work here under
Miss Parkhurst and with you two shining little stars will give her
precisely what she is hungering for, that I have invited her to join
you.”

“But, mamma,” expostulated Carin, “we’ll be wretched with her!  She’s a
nice enough girl, I’m sure, and no doubt she’s bright, but she’ll never
be able to really understand Azalea and me, will she, Azalea?”

Azalea said nothing.  She was dreadfully embarrassed.  She was wondering
if Mrs. Carson had some secret reason for forcing another girl in with
them?  Could it possibly be that she—Azalea—who had been a wandering
child, traveling with coarse people in a low circus, was, without knowing
it, doing harm to Carin?  Perhaps.  Carin was so fine, so gay, so sweet,
so “like a flower” as the song had it which Mrs. Carson sang, that very
likely she seemed no more than a weed beside her.

“Probably that is all I am—a horrid, stupid weed,” said Azalea to herself
bitterly as her thoughts flashed this way and that like troubled birds,
seeking for what was wrong.

“You can see how Azalea hates the idea, mamma,” said Carin.  “And as for
me, if that girl comes in here, my education will be ruined.”

She looked a haughty and determined young person as she stood there, her
chin lifted and her blue eyes darting cold fires.  Mrs. Carson had a
twinkle in her eye as she surveyed her.  Carin had been a gentle princess
in the schoolroom, with Miss Parkhurst for her willing guide and Azalea
her adoring servitor.  The truth was, the two girls had become so bound
up in each other that they saw nothing beyond their own horizon.  The
dark-eyed girl from the mountain cabin, with her strange, romantic
history, and the blue-eyed one from the mansion, loving romance above all
imaginable things, had made a compact of undying friendship; and
unconsciously, they had also determined to exclude the rest of the world.

“It may seem a little hard for you and Azalea to take Annie Laurie in
just at first, Carin,” Mrs. Carson went on, with no show of
yielding—indeed, quite as if everything were settled—“but she desperately
needs the schooling, and I believe that, without realizing it, you need
her.  What do you think, Miss Parkhurst; am I right?”

To the increasing dismay of the friends, Helena Parkhurst nodded her nice
little head.

“One of the chief reasons why a girl should go to school,” went on Mrs.
Carson, smilingly, “is to learn to get along with other girls.  You and
Azalea are so wrapped up in each other that you actually don’t see other
girls as they pass you on the road, and it never seems to occur to you to
visit their homes, or to ask them here.  It has been borne in upon me for
some time that if I don’t watch out, you’ll become a pair of horrid
little snobs.  Of course you wouldn’t know that you were, and equally of
course I wouldn’t admit it to anybody else.  But such would be the case,
I feel sure.”

“Oh, mother, we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t!” protested Carin.  “Just try us a
little longer and see.”

But at that moment there came a knock at the door, and Mrs. Carson arose
to open it.  The girls could see without in the hallway the figure of
Annie Laurie Pace, the red-haired, surprisingly tall girl whom they had
occasionally seen in town; and now it occurred to each of them that they
had not particularly wished to know her.

“Did you say I was to come down here, Mrs. Carson, after I had found that
book?” she asked shyly.

“Why, no,” said Mrs. Carson impulsively, “I didn’t say that, Annie
Laurie, but now that you are here, come in and meet my daughter and her
friend.”

She entered with a quiet dignity, and it took but one second for Carin
and Azalea to see that here would be no timid imitator of their whims.
If “follow-my-leader” was played, it was not at all certain that they
would be in the fore.

“Carin,” said Mrs. Carson, recovering herself from a moment’s
embarrassment, “make your new schoolmate welcome.  Annie Laurie Pace,
Azalea McBirney.”

Carin held out a chilly white hand.

“How do you do?” she said stiffly.

Azalea arose and gave her hand to the new girl.  She had been a stranger
herself—had many a time been among men and women unknown to her, waiting
wistfully to see if she would be welcomed—and she understood, as Carin
could not possibly, what brought the veiled look in the new girl’s eyes.
Yet she could not venture to offend Carin—her own Carin, whose ways
always seemed charming to her.

“How do you do?” she echoed.  “I—I hope you are well, Annie Laurie.
This—this is a very—pleasant school.”

The words stuck in her throat, and she was ashamed to find how much she
wanted to cry.

The new girl looked toward Mrs. Carson.

“Ought I to stay, ma’am?” she asked.  “You know I could manage at the
other school some way.  Wouldn’t it be better if—”

“You will do us a favor if you stay with us,” Mrs. Carson said.  And:
“Yes, stay, my dear,” urged Helena Parkhurst, making the girls realize
for the first time that Annie Laurie had not been presented to Miss
Parkhurst, and that the two must have been acquainted before.  How long,
the girls wondered, had this conspiracy been in the air?  Had it really
been decided only that morning?

“Will you take up your studies to-day, then, Annie Laurie?” Miss
Parkhurst asked.  “Mrs. Carson, do you think her father would object?”

“I can telephone him,” Mrs. Carson replied.  “We already have had some
conversation about the matter.  He has been thinking of sending Annie
Laurie away to school, but to do such a thing, he said, would leave him
very, very lonely, since Annie Laurie is his only child.”

“Oh, it could be managed,” the girl broke in.  “I know it could, but—”

Mrs. Carson raised a white hand.

“It will be quite all right,” she said with gentle firmness.  “Miss
Parkhurst, you have three pupils.”

She withdrew smilingly; and in spite of the leaping flame in the
fireplace, and the sunshine stealing like pale gold in at the window, a
chill settled down over the room.  It crept into the farthermost corners,
and gleamed cold as little bergs from the eyes of the three girls.

The three girls?

There were two girls—and one girl.  And the sum was not yet three.



CHAPTER II
ANNIE LAURIE PACE


Annie Laurie Pace was making ready for church.

Her Sunday frock of dark blue serge lay on the bed; her silk petticoat
rustled as she stepped briskly about the room; and her heavy coat and
gloves, and her hat with the ostrich plumes, were primly awaiting her
need.  All was durable about her clothing, and orderly within the room.

A very clean room it was, somewhat bare and bleak, with a ceiling too
high for its size.  The floor was uncarpeted, the walls white and without
pictures.  No unnecessary thing was in sight—not even a pretty foolish
trinket on the dresser.  Through the windows with their dark green shades
Annie Laurie could look out into the dairy yard with its whitewashed
houses.  Beyond stretched the pastures in which grazed the fine herd that
was the pride of her father, Simeon Pace.

Usually, Annie Laurie sang as she dressed for church.  She had a warm
full voice, with notes in it not unlike the whistle of an oriole.  But
this morning no song came from her lips.  She had a set, almost stern
look; her chin came out a little farther than was necessary, and there
was battle in her eye.

Her aunts, dressing in the next room, spoke of it.

“Annie Laurie is not herself,” declared Miss Adnah to Miss Zillah.  “I
can see that she is terribly put about.  I do hope and pray that we
haven’t made a mistake in letting her leave the district school and go in
with Carin Carson and that other girl.  It looks to me as if Mrs. Carson
was the only person that wanted her—except, perhaps, the governess, Miss
Parkhurst—and staying where we’re not wanted is not a thing that we could
ever put up with, we Paces.”

“Don’t worry about Annie Laurie, sister,” replied Miss Zillah, setting
her queer lid-like hat on her short gray curls.  “She made the change of
her own free will, remember.  She’s run up against a stone wall for the
first time in her life, and I’ll be interested to see whether she climbs
over or burrows under it.  Those two girls she’s studying with don’t like
her—or at least they don’t like to have her intruding on them.  I don’t
know as I blame them very much.  There they were, enjoying each other’s
society, and in comes a stranger and thrusts them apart, you may say.
Annie Laurie is as unlike them as she can be—quite of a different class,
indeed.”

Miss Adnah snapped the fasteners of her gloves sharply.

“What do you mean by a different class, sister?” she said reprovingly.
“Is it possible you consider the Paces inferior to anyone in this
community?”

“Now, Adnah dear, I didn’t say anything about inferiority.  I spoke of a
difference.  What the Paces know, they’ve mostly taught themselves; and
what they have, they’ve honestly earned.  They’re proud of it.  But
they’re no prouder of being what they are—well-to-do, reliable,
respectable members of the community—than the Carsons are of being highly
cultivated, rich, much-traveled gentle-folk, or the McBirneys of being
industrious, independent mountain people.  The truth is, Adnah, if there
were fewer kinds of pride in this community, and less of each kind, it
would be a better thing.”

“The team is up, aunts,” called Annie Laurie in her clear voice.

“Very well, child; we are ready,” came the reply.

Of course they were ready.  It was seldom, indeed, that anyone in that
house kept anyone else waiting.  Simeon Pace, holding his fine large
grays in check, knew almost to a second how long before the front door
would open and three tall, upright figures emerge.  And this morning was
no exception.  At the right instant his sisters, in their well-preserved
cloaks, came out together, followed by his daughter.  The door was
locked, the key placed in the crotch of the sycamore, the aunts were
helped to their places by Annie Laurie’s strong arms and then she swung
herself into the seat beside her father, and took the reins from his
hands.  As she did so, she happened to hit her father’s left arm, which
gave forth a sound like the rattling of an eave trough in the wind.

And truth to tell, it was made of the same material, for where Simeon
Pace’s muscular member of flesh and blood had once swung, there now was
an unjointed tin substitute for it, hollow as a drum.  An ill-advised
visit to a sawmill five years before was responsible for this defect,
which indeed, might have been all but concealed had Mr. Pace been willing
to buy one of the excellent modern imitations of an arm.  His sisters and
his daughter continually urged him to do this, but Simeon said that his
tin arm had helped him when his trouble was new, and that he refused to
throw it on the trash heap as a reward for faithful service.  It was
nothing to him that his gestures startled nervous folk.  He remained
loyal to his battered, awkward tin convenience, and seemed to take an
innocent joy in waving it in the air, offering it as a support to old
ladies, and sawing it up and down when he became excited.  All the Paces
were independent and Simeon was the most independent of them all.

He led his women folk well up to the front of the church and eyed them
with critical kindness as they filed past him into the pew, confident
that their thoughts would not wander from the preacher’s words during the
service.  So it was good for his fatherly satisfaction that he did not
look into his daughter’s mind, for barely a sentence of the sermon did
she hear that day.  Her thoughts were slipping back and forth like
shuttles in a loom.  The past week in Mrs. Carson’s home has been a
strange—and in some ways, a distressing—one.  True, never had she learned
so much in so short a space of time.  If she asked a question everyone
tried to answer it.  Little as the other two girls had seemed to like
her, when it came to a question of ideas, they paid instant and warm
attention.  An idea was an idea with them, and entitled to respect.

If the combined wit of Miss Parkhurst and her pupils failed to supply a
good answer to an inquiry, plenty of books were at hand to consult, and
as a last reference, there were Mr. and Mrs. Carson, who seemed to have
been almost everywhere and to know something about almost everything.  As
Annie Laurie had heard them talk, speaking with interest about all
manners of people, her little local standards began to vanish like mist
before the sun.  For the first time it was borne in upon her that Lee,
North Carolina, was not the center of civilization.  All the world, it
appeared, was full of interest—full of good neighborly folk.  All one had
to do was to learn their language to find out how very nice they really
were.  It was such a new and brilliant idea to Annie Laurie that it
almost dazzled her.

She had been used to thinking herself a bright girl—a girl who could keep
at the head of her classes—so it was but natural in those first angry
hours when she raged at the cold reception Carin and Azalea had given
her, that she should have thought: “Just wait till we get down to
lessons, and then I’ll show them.”

But to her surprise, she had not been able to “show them.”  Carin and
Azalea did not attack their studies so fiercely as she did.  They seemed
to make more of a game of them and less of a task.  They laughed over
things that puzzled her.  But for all that they were clever, and it did
not seem strange to them that Annie Laurie should be clever too.  Her
cleverness, as they knew, was Mrs. Carson’s excuse for asking her to join
them.  After that first chilly day they had been polite enough.  But they
somehow put her in the wrong.  She felt awkward and strange.  She fatally
said the wrong thing—or the right thing in the wrong place.  Even her
clothes had seemed stiff and unlovely beside theirs, though they were of
good material and honestly and thoroughly made.  However, as Annie Laurie
had more than once reflected, their clothes were made for them by their
mothers, who asked nothing better than to see them looking their best.
That Mary McBirney was not really Azalea’s mother made no difference—she
loved Azalea almost as much, judging from what Azalea said.

Annie Laurie stole a glance at her two excellent aunts—always so really
kind and just to her—but rather stern, like her father.  The Paces seldom
laughed; they almost never kissed each other; they said what they
thought—and they quite lacked that pretty foolishness which Mrs. Carson
sometimes indulged in with Carin.

Annie Laurie could remember that her own mother had been something like
Mrs. Carson.  It was she who had given her the name after the sweet old
song.  She had laughed and danced and sung, and the aunts had not quite
liked it, although they mourned her deeply when she died, still in her
youth.  And they had treasured as keepsakes the things which had been
hers.

But what was the preacher saying all this time?  Something about Ananias
and the doom which overtook him because of his lies.  It was not a
subject in which she could feel much interest.  Sometimes, up at her
house they suffered from too much truth telling—hard, cold truth
telling—but not a soul of them would have been guilty of a lie.

“Plant a lie in the garden of your soul,” said the minister, “and it will
flourish worse than any poisonous weed.  And do not think that you can
uproot it when you will, for it will grow and grow, till it is stronger
than you, and not all your prayers and tears can tear it out of your
life.”

Annie Laurie wondered why he should be talking like that to those
friendly, good neighbors, who seemed to be doing the best they could’
from morning till night.  She wished he would talk about something that
would help her through the coming week, for she dreaded going back with
those girls who did not like her.  Why couldn’t preachers know what was
going on in the back of one’s mind?  She looked up wearily and met the
gaze of “that Disbrow boy,” as her aunts always called Sam Disbrow, the
son of the undertaker.  For some reason they did not like him.  They “had
no use for the whole kit and b’ilin’ of Disbrows.”  Yet, someway, Annie
Laurie, though she had grown up with this sentiment ringing in her ears,
thought Sam Disbrow rather a nice boy.  At this moment he seemed to be as
impatient as she was at the way the minister was scolding about liars.
Evidently liars failed to interest Sam, also.

It happened that Annie Laurie and Sam were near together as the people
came out of church, and while the rest stood talking in the bright winter
sunshine, they talked, too.

“How are you liking it at your new school, Annie Laurie?” he inquired.

The girl flushed hotly—it was easy for a person with such white skin as
Annie Laurie’s to blush.  Sam knew this and made allowances, but he saw
there was something more than ordinary the matter.  He looked at her a
moment, half closing his eyes, and turning his head a little on one side
in a way he had.

“They’ve been snubbing you—those girls!” he declared.  “I knew they
would—knew it as well as anything.”

“I don’t see how you could know that,” said Annie Laurie with a sudden
feeling that she ought not say anything against Carin and Azalea.
“They’re the nicest girls I ever knew; the nicest girls anywhere about
here.  If I haven’t been able to—to make them understand me, it’s my own
fault, I suppose.”

“Nonsense!” cried Sam.  “They’re not nice if they’ve been making you
unhappy.  How can you let them do it?  No fellow could put it over me,
now, I tell you.  If he didn’t treat me fair and square, I’d have it out
with him.  We’d soon see who was the best man.”

“Girls don’t do things that way, Sam.”

“I know they don’t.  They sit around and mope and sniff and feel mean,
instead of making a good healthy row.  I didn’t think you were such a
hypocrite.”

“Hypocrite?” gasped the girl, too surprised to feel angry.  “How am I a
hypocrite, Sam?”

“Because you’re pretending to be contented when you aren’t.  You probably
act as if you liked those girls.  And you don’t—you can’t—if they’re
snubby.  I say, stir up a fuss.  Have a row.  Tell ’em what you think of
’em.  That will clear the air.”

“I’m under too many obligations to Mrs. Carson to do a thing like that,
Sam.”

“Obligations!” snorted Sam.  “Nobody is under obligations to be a
doormat.”

All the way home the girl kept thinking of what Sam Disbrow had said to
her.  She would have liked to talk the whole matter over with her Aunt
Zillah, but something held her back from complaining of the girls.  Deep
down within her was the feeling that if only she could manage right, they
would yet be friends, true, “forever and forever” friends.  If that
should prove to be so, it wouldn’t do for this one and that one to be
remembering that she had criticised them.

And yet, how they had tormented her with their way of seeing and yet not
seeing her, and answering and yet not answering.  And she was
lonely—desperately lonely.  She longed to see the gleam come in the
girls’ eyes when they looked at her, which they turned upon each other.
All the long, quiet Sunday afternoon she thought of it, though she tried
to read.  She knew Azalea and Carin were together, for she had heard them
planning a horseback ride, while she was alone, and as she told herself
sadly, likely to be alone every Sunday, since she knew no one she really
wished to be with—save those two, of course.

She had an hour of trying to hate them, but she failed miserably.  For
all they had made her suffer, she could not get as far as hating them.
She failed to sleep well that night.  Her mind whirled like a
merry-go-round, always bringing back the same thoughts and persons.
Azalea and Carin, Carin and Azalea.  The bright and charming faces kept
returning, but never once did they seem to bear the smiles of friendship
and understanding.

Naturally she was far from being herself when she went down to breakfast
the next morning, and when her Aunt Adnah said, “You see to it, Ann, that
you’re not put upon there at Mrs. Carson’s,” her patience snapped like a
wind-filled bag.

“Oh, please leave me alone, Aunt Adnah,” she cried hotly.  “I’ll take
care of myself all right.”

“My dear, my dear,” murmured Miss Zillah, “ought you to be speaking like
that to your Aunt Adnah?”

Annie Laurie knew very well that she ought not, and she was morally
certain that if Carin and Azalea could have heard her, they would have
cried: “There, see!  You call her a nice girl?”

Well, maybe she wasn’t a nice girl, but certainly she was an unhappy one.

She put her head up as high as she could comfortably carry it on her very
slim neck and marched away to school.  It was a wonderful winter
morning—the sort that got into the blood of horses and made them prance.
Perhaps it was in Annie Laurie’s blood, too, as she entered the
schoolroom that morning.  Miss Parkhurst had not yet come, and Carin and
Azalea sat together laughing over some charts of the South Sea Isles.
Miss Parkhurst had laid out an interesting course for them, all relating
to the Archipelago; and geography, history, biography, poetry and fiction
were to be woven together until the life of the “burning isles” appeared
before them in a series of vivid mental pictures.

If Annie Laurie had been aware of the amount of explosive material in her
brain and heart that morning, perhaps she would have had the discretion
to remain at home.  She really was about as dangerous as a keg of
gunpowder, and it chanced that Carin’s first words were as a match to
produce the inevitable explosion.

“I don’t suppose you’d care about reading Stevenson’s ‘Ebb Tide,’ would
you, Annie Laurie?  Not, I mean, as a part of the South Sea study?”  She
put the question in that cold, detached little voice which she had used
from the first to the “new girl.”  “We couldn’t expect a thorough person
like yourself to enjoy such an unbusiness-like way of getting at things.
I said to Miss Parkhurst that probably Azalea and I had better keep that
for reading after hours, and during school we’ll study any old
Smithsonian Institute reports you and she manage to look up.”

There was a little click in Annie Laurie’s throat, but no spoken word.
Carin, looked up, saw the anger blazing in the girl’s eyes, and started
to say that she was only joking; but before she could frame the words
Annie Laurie found her tongue.

“Why wouldn’t I like to read Stevenson as well as you two?” she demanded.
“Why do you make out that I try to do things in the hard and stupid way?
You’ve certainly made them hard and stupid enough for me the past week.
You’re supposed to have such fine manners, and Azalea is thought ‘so
sweet.’  I haven’t seen your fine manner or her sweetness.  I imagined it
was going to be lovely here with you two—that my life would grow to be
interesting when we three were friends.  Well, perhaps it would—if we
could be friends.  But we can’t.  First, because you won’t be—and second
because I won’t.  I’m through.  I shouldn’t have come.  I’m disgusted
that I gave you a chance to snub me.  I’m going now, and after this when
you poke fun at me you’ll have to do it behind my back.”

“Why—why—Annie Laurie—” gasped Carin, “I didn’t know—”

But Annie Laurie already had left the room and was stalking down the
corridor.  Carin sank back in her chair and covered her face with her
hands.  As for Azalea, her book crashed to the floor.

“Oh, Carin,” she cried, “what have we done?”

Miss Parkhurst still was absent, but if she had been there, it is
doubtful if the girls would have consulted her.  The battle which had
been threatening all week was on, and the victory at present was, oddly
enough, with the fleeing enemy.

She was already out of the front door by the time Azalea had reached the
hall; and once she was in the open, her dignity deserted her and she ran
toward the gate as if fleeing from a lava stream.  Azalea, who had
stopped to snatch her cap and reefer, reached the gate only to see her
racing along the road as fast as her long legs would carry her.

Meantime, Hi Kitchell, the boy who had traveled with Azalea in those old,
half-forgotten days, and who was now happily settled with his mother and
“the kids” in the cabin in which the Carsons had placed them, opened his
sharp eyes to see two girls racing along the frozen road, stumbling over
hard ruts, and then plunging on again.  He knew them both—liked Annie
Laurie and swore by Azalea.  He saw the anger in the first girl’s face
and the anxiety in Azalea’s every gesture.  He couldn’t for the life of
him see why, if Annie Laurie felt like that, she didn’t turn around and
“baste” Azalea.  But if she did he’d be on Azalea’s side all right
enough.

Goodness, how they were running!  He simply couldn’t stand not knowing
what it all was about.  He knew it was none of his business, but for all
of that, a second later he was pelting down the road after them.  He
could run like a rabbit and it was not long before he overtook them.

But that was just at the moment when Annie Laurie reached her home and,
dashing in, slammed the door behind her; and Azalea, panting on the
doorstep, furiously rang the bell.



CHAPTER III
TRIAL WITHOUT JURY


Miss Adnah was washing dishes in her spotless kitchen when the inner door
burst open and a wild-eyed Annie Laurie stood before her.

“Child!” gasped Miss Adnah.

Annie Laurie stood panting breathlessly, her hands on her sides, her eyes
blazing.

“Well, you said I wasn’t to let myself be put upon,” she managed to say
at length.  “So I didn’t.  I had my say.  I’m through!”

“What have you done?”

“I’m through,” she went on shrilly.  “To-morrow I’ll go back to the
district school.  The other thing wasn’t for me.”

The anger in her eyes began to give way in misery.  Miss Adnah stared at
her, trying for once to get at the girl’s point of view.  Then came the
frantic ringing at the bell.

“Mercy on us,” cried Miss Adnah, “what can that mean?”

“Don’t go, aunt.  Don’t you go.  It’s Azalea McBirney.  She followed me.
You mustn’t—”

“Stand out of my way, Ann.  How can you put yourself between me and the
door?  When the bell rings, it is to be answered.  I do not approve of
your actions, allow me to say.”

But just then the breathless voice of Azalea was heard in the hall.  Miss
Zillah had got to the door before them, and had admitted her.

“Don’t try to talk, my dear,” they heard Miss Zillah saying.  “Whatever
it is, it can wait till you get your breath.  Come in, please, and sit
down.”

In the kitchen, Annie Laurie was declaring that whatever came she would
not go into the parlor.

“I won’t talk the matter over, that’s all,” she said.  “It’s no use for
you to try to make me go in there.”

Miss Adnah moved back from her niece with a look of displeasure.

“You’d better quiet down, Ann,” she said severely.  “I can’t imagine what
you’ve done or what’s been done to you, but I do feel certain that you
are making a mountain out of a molehill.”

At that moment something bobbed up at the window and then bobbed down
again.

“Mercy, what’s that?” cried Miss Adnah.

“A head,” said Annie Laurie disgustedly.

“A head!  Whose?”

“Hi Kitchell’s.  He must have seen us running and followed.”

“The inquisitive little imp!  A pretty sight the three of you must have
made.  Never have I heard such goings on in the house of Simeon Pace.
Let me pass, Ann.  I must look into this matter.”

Annie Laurie never yet had disobeyed when her aunt spoke in that manner,
and she stood aside, lifting her eyebrows with annoyance at the “Ann”
which was the sign of Miss Adnah’s displeasure.  She began to grow a
little calmer, but at the same time the feeling of heaviness at her heart
increased.  It actually seemed as if it had turned into a stone and was
dragging her down.  And worse still, there was a hand of iron at her
throat.  That sharp despair of the young was upon her—that foolish
despair, which sees no way out of hard circumstance.

Meantime Miss Adnah had gone on into the hall.  She had meant to make her
way at once into that grim parlor upon which her best efforts at
cleanliness were so rigorously expended, but the sound of voices made her
pause.  She heard a girl’s excited voice broken by tears.

“Oh, you’re Annie Laurie’s aunt, aren’t you?” said the voice.  “Which
aunt, please?  Her aunt Zillah?  Oh, yes.  She has told me about you.
Oh, Miss Pace, it’s so dreadful!  We’ve broken Annie Laurie’s heart,
that’s what we’ve done.  We didn’t intend it, you know.  It came about
because—may I tell you everything?”

“Yes, tell me everything,” answered Miss Zillah.

“Of course Zillah will be soft with her,” thought Miss Adnah.  “She’s
soft with everybody.  I’d like to go in and shake her—upsetting Annie
Laurie like that.”

There were long panes of glass running down beside the front hall door,
and at this moment the ferret face of Hi Kitchell, seamed with anxiety,
peered in one of them.  This was really too much for Miss Adnah.  She
rushed to the door and threw it open, sending Hi off backward into the
althea bush.  It was no trick at all for Miss Adnah to stoop and pick him
up as if he were a slug.

“What do you mean, you unmannerly, prying boy?” she demanded.  “Peeking
in folk’s windows, like you were a wild Indian!”

“Tell me what you’re doing to Azalea,” squealed Hi defiantly.  “Azalea’s
all right, ma’am.  I don’t want anything done to her.”

“Well, she wasn’t invited here any more than you,” snapped Miss Adnah,
dropping him on the brick walk.  “You run home and leave us to conduct
our own affairs.  Hear?”

“Oh, aunt!” Annie Laurie whispered agonizingly, “Azalea will hear you.”

“Why didn’t you stay in the kitchen, miss?  You seemed very anxious not
to leave it a few minutes ago.  I won’t have boys looking in my windows.”

“But it’s only Hi.  He’s crazy about Azalea—like her little brother, you
know.  Azalea will think we’re dreadful.”

“Dreadful?  We may be a terror to evil doers—well, hear that telephone,
will you?  Ringing like mad.  Never did I know such a morning.  No, I’ll
answer it, Ann.  Hello!  Hello!  Yes.  The Pace residence.  Who?  Carin
Carson.  Very well, what is it?  Yes, Ann is home.  All right?  Of course
she’s all right.  Why shouldn’t she be?  You want to speak to her?  She’s
busy just now.”

“Oh, oh, don’t speak like that, aunt,” implored Annie Laurie.  “Not in
that tone of voice.  Let me have the telephone, Aunt Adnah,
please—please.  I was bad, honestly, aunt—not at all the way I ought to
have been.  Carin’s sorry, I reckon.”

But Miss Adnah had hung up the receiver, and she turned toward Annie
Laurie with a stormy look in her eye.

“I reckon I did you an injustice, Ann.  It must have been something
pretty bad they did to you.  You can back down as much as you please, but
for my part I mean to teach them that if they think they can fool with
the Paces, they are making a mistake.”

“But my child,” the clear tones of Miss Zillah could be heard saying from
the drawing room meantime, “why didn’t you like Annie Laurie?  She seems
the nicest sort of a girl to me.  I’ve taken care of her—I and my sister,
that is—since she was a little one, and she’s all that a daughter should
be to us.  Of course I realize that we may not have succeeded in taking
her mother’s place to her.  That was hardly to have been expected.  But
we have done the best we could for her, and when we saw her coming on in
school so splendidly, and realized that she was likely to do something
fine, we were very proud indeed.  I can’t tell you how grateful we were
to Mrs. Carson for giving her a chance for special instruction, and for
being in with girls like you and Miss Carin.  But we saw from the first
that something was going wrong.  The child seemed too excited to eat.
Once or twice I’ve heard her cry out in the night—she sleeps next me, and
after she’s asleep I open the door between our rooms so as to hear if
anything goes wrong.”

“And a very silly habit it is,” muttered Miss Adnah from the hall.

“Oh, don’t say any more, Miss Pace,” Azalea broke in with a sob in her
voice.  “If anybody in this world ought to have been good to Annie Laurie
it is myself, for I haven’t any mother, either, you know, though of
course Mrs. McBirney is as good to me as any mother could be.  I can’t
explain the way we’ve acted.  It all came about from Carin and myself
having some lovely secrets together, and games we liked to play that we
didn’t want to share with any one.  And we were writing poems, and Carin
was painting me.  We were happy in each other all the time.  Then Annie
Laurie came and—and we didn’t know her.  It wouldn’t have made any
difference who the girl was that broke in on us, we wouldn’t have liked
it.  Mrs. Carson said we were getting selfish and snobbish, and I suppose
we were.  And Annie Laurie was proud, too—and—and well, a little—”

“Say it, my dear.  I am not laboring under the delusion that Annie Laurie
is wearing a halo on her head.”

“Well, sulky.  So she didn’t give us a chance to see the—the nice side
which she simply must have since you love her so.  And we wouldn’t show
ours to her.  We were all stupid, I think.  But of course we didn’t have
an idea how she really felt until this morning when she got so angry.
And then I was—was just paralysed.”

“You talk very well, my child, for a person suffering with paralysis.  I
can see very well how it came about, however.  Now may I ask why you came
here?”

“To say how sorry we were—and to beg Annie Laurie to come back with us.”

“But have you the right to do this?  Did Mrs. Carson tell you to come?”

Azalea, who had been sitting on the very edge of Miss Zillah’s horsehair
sofa, now got to her feet, her face flaming till it was almost as red as
her knitted reefer.

“No,” she said frankly.  “She—she didn’t tell me to come, Miss Pace.  I
just ran after Annie Laurie as hard as I could.”

“And very sweet it was of you, my dear.  It shows you have a generous
heart, and that you couldn’t imagine Mrs. Carson or her daughter would
feel any differently from you.  But you can see for yourself that I must
wait till I hear from them.”

“We have heard from them,” cried Annie Laurie eagerly from the hall.
“Carin telephoned, Aunt Zillah; but Aunt Adnah wouldn’t let her talk.”

“I should think not, indeed,” came the voice of Aunt Adnah.

“Oh, come in, Annie Laurie, please,” cried Azalea, running toward the
hall door.

Annie Laurie made a motion as if for flight, then brought herself up
sharply, and faced Azalea.  Miss Zillah had arisen and stood smiling and
trembling a trifle, too, like a rose bush softly shaken by the wind.  Her
lips moved slightly, and Annie Laurie, flashing a glance at her as she
came into the room, understood that Aunt Zillah was putting up one of her
gentle supplications for peace.

“Oh, Annie Laurie,” Azalea burst forth, “I’ve come to ask you to forgive
me.  You really, really must.  I had no idea how you were feeling.  I’m
terribly unhappy about it.  Don’t you think you can forgive me?”

“What is there for me to forgive?” asked Annie Laurie.  “You didn’t want
me—you and Carin—and you showed it.  That’s all there is to it.  I shan’t
bother you any more.”

“Well, I want you now,” declared Azalea.  “You can see yourself that it
would be impossible for Carin and me to be happy with you leaving that
way, all hurt and angry.  I don’t blame you a bit, really.  Except, of
course, I think you shut up like a clam when you saw that we didn’t like
a third person in the classes.  It wasn’t that we objected to you in
particular.  We were selfish, that’s all, and fond of our own good times;
but it won’t be like that again, honestly it won’t.  Your aunt says I
mustn’t speak for Carin and Mrs. Carson, and I see that I mustn’t, but I
know so well that I am saying just what they would want me to say, that I
can’t keep still.”  She turned toward Miss Zillah, and caught the worn
hand of the woman in hers.  “Truly,” she said, “they’d be saying just
what I am, if they were here.”

“That boy again!” exploded Miss Adnah from the hall.  “He’s looking in
the hall window again.”

“It’s only poor Hi,” explained Azalea.  “You see, he’s always afraid
something is going to happen to me.”

“Well, if I had my way, it would,” snapped Miss Adnah.

“Oh, sister, sister,” murmured Miss Zillah.

And just then the eyes of Azalea and Annie Laurie met.  There was a flash
between them and then something exploded—exploded in helpless laughter.
Miss Zillah, unable to believe her senses, called faintly, “Adnah!
Adnah!”  And Adnah, on the point of making another sortie into the yard
for the prying Hi, answered her appeal, and came to the parlor.  There
she saw the two girls in convulsions of laughter, and Zillah stiff and
incredulous on the piano stool.  Miss Adnah surveyed the scene for a
moment in wrath.

“Come, Zillah,” she commanded, and dragged her sister from the room.

The girls heard the kitchen door slam behind the two, and rocked again
with painful mirth.

“Oh, oh,” half-sobbed Annie Laurie at length, “how ridiculous we’ve
been!”

“Dreadful,” agreed Azalea.  “I’m just as ashamed of myself as I can be.
Can’t I go and apologize to your aunts?”

“Not on any account,” said Annie Laurie firmly.  “They’ll never
understand.  Never!  You couldn’t expect them to.”

“Will you come back with me, Annie Laurie?  We’re bound to like each
other now after we’ve laughed together like that.”

Annie Laurie gave a final gurgle.

“I know,” she said.  “Let’s go out and tell Hi.”

“No, just let’s walk out together, arm in arm.  That will make it all
right.  Let’s never, never tell anyone what happened.”

“Very well, then.  And you think I ought to go back?”

“I know it.  You must go on Carin’s account and on mine—just prove we’re
not so horrid as you thought us.”

The telephone rang again.  They could hear Miss Zillah begging to be
allowed to answer it and Miss Adnah refusing.  So Annie Laurie took down
the receiver.

“Yes, Mrs. Carson,” Azalea heard her say.  “Yes, it’s Annie Laurie.  Yes,
Azalea is here.  Forgive Carin?  Yes, Mrs. Carson.  I reckon it was my
fault, too.  Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t _your_ fault, whosever it was, ma’am.
We’ve been bad, that’s all.  Everybody is bad sometimes, I suppose.  I
never was so horrid before, though, honestly.  You say Carin never was,
either.  Well, I’m coming back now.  Azalea and I were just starting.
What is it?  Oh, yes, we’ll not talk of it.  Very well, Mrs. Carson.
Good-bye.”

She turned to Azalea.

“Come,” she said, “if we go right along we’ll be able to finish our South
Sea Island study hour.”

She put her head in the kitchen door.  “Good-bye, aunts,” she said.  “Try
to forget about it all.  I’m going back.”

“Annie Laurie,” came the austere voice of her Aunt Adnah, “how can you?”

Annie Laurie ran in and threw her arms around her aunt’s neck.

“Because I have to, auntie,” she said, “to be happy and—”

“And good,” broke in Aunt Zillah.  She followed them out into the hall.
Her pale face was shining, and her short curls bobbed about on her
trembling head.  She knew that her prayer for peace had been answered.
It did not matter to her that it had come in gusts of laughter.  Miss
Zillah was not one to quarrel with ways and means.

As for the girls, they set out on the road with vigor.  The air was full
of life, the mountains were brown beneath their purple bloom, and the
roadway was beginning to fill with folk driving in to market.  Azalea and
Annie Laurie knew almost every one—knew Mr. Disbrow, the undertaker,
driving his black horses—which now were hitched to a somewhat rickety
buggy—they knew “Haystack” Thompson, who was eating up the road with his
great strides, his fiddle under his arm; they knew Elder Mills, twisted
and tormented with rheumatism, who was about to “accept a call” in
Florida, thus leaving vacant the pulpit of the Methodist church; they
were well acquainted with the grocer, and the miller, and the postmaster,
and the sheriff.  From each they received a salutation, and from most of
them an inquiry as to why they were not in school.  Annie Laurie, used to
the “yea and nay” of the Pace household, wondered what they ought to
answer, and she was astonished that Azalea had no difficulty at all in
finding a fit reply.

“Oh, we’ve been to school this morning,” she said smilingly.  “And we’ve
learned a hard lesson, too.  Now we’re on our way back again.”

But they had got no more than half the way to The Shoals when the
familiar surrey of the Carsons appeared, with Mrs. Carson sitting in it.

“Goodness,” cried Annie Laurie, “she’s coming for me!  What trouble I
have put everybody to.”

But Mrs. Carson didn’t seem to think that anybody was making her trouble.
She wore that pleasant, dreamy smile of hers—her “moonlight” smile, as
Carin called it, and her voice was as even and low as ever as she bade
Benjamin turn the horses, and invited the girls to get in beside her.

“I thought I’d come to meet you,” she said blandly, and quite as if
nothing had happened.  They rode along together in silence for a while,
almost wondering if anything unpleasant really had occurred, Mrs. Carson
seemed so unconscious of it.  But when they got out of the carriage at
the house door she said:

“I’m so glad you’ve talked everything out.  You’ll find it much better
always, I believe—to talk things out.  By the way, Carin is up in her
studio.  Lessons are to be up there this morning, for a change.  Azalea,
will you kindly show Annie Laurie the way?  Your luncheon will be served
there too.  We thought we’d celebrate the formation of the Triple
Alliance.

“What, ma’am?” said Azalea.

“The Three Girls’ Alliance,” smiled Mrs. Carson.  “Drive back to town,
please Ben.  I must do my marketing.”

As she rode off, Annie Laurie looked at Azalea in a puzzled way.

“How quiet she is,” she said.  “I can’t make her out.  Nothing seems to
matter to her, yet she’s always doing good.  I never heard of anyone who
did so much good.  Can you understand her?”

Azalea shook her head.

“No—and yet a great sorrow, such as hers—it makes you still, I reckon.
My mother—I call Mrs. McBirney my mother, you know—is still.  Yet she has
lost only one child, and little Molly died right in her arms.  But Mrs.
Carson lost her three sons in a theatre fire in Chicago, and it did
something to her, I suppose.  The heart went out of her, though not the
goodness.”

“Oh, dear no,” agreed Annie Laurie, “not the goodness.”

They left their outer wraps in the vacant schoolroom, and then made their
way up the wide mahogany stairs, with the gleaming white banisters and
mahogany rail.  Curious old prints lined the side of the wall, and Annie
Laurie wanted to pause and look at them, but Azalea urged her on.

“If you stopped to look at every interesting thing in this house,” she
said, “you’d never get anywhere.”

They went on past the floor where the bedrooms were, and then up a
narrower flight of stairs to the third story.

“Half of this story is Carin’s,” explained Azalea.  “The servants sleep
in the other half.”

A tall, curious door, much paneled, with a shining brass knob, stood
before them.  There was also a knocker of brass, shaped like a lyre.
Azalea rapped with it.

“Come in,” said the voice of Carin, and Azalea threw wide the door and
motioned Annie Laurie to enter.

What she saw then she was never to forget.  It was as bright to her, as
different from anything she ever had seen, as the green Azores are to one
who has ridden long upon the gray Atlantic.  The room was paneled high in
white, and above it, decorations of tropical flowers and parokeets made
the wall gay.  Muslin curtains hung at the dormer windows, beneath
draperies of delicate green.  Near the north window was Carin’s easel,
with the unfinished portrait of Azalea upon it.  Chairs of green wicker
stood about; a huge divan was piled with dainty pillows; in the white
wooden fireplace, with its tiles of parrots, palms and pagodas, a bright
fire burned.  Japanese rugs of gray and white lay on the floor, and in
jars of pale green, or gray, were beautiful blossoming plants.

But exquisite as the room was, and deeply as it satisfied Annie Laurie’s
beauty-starved heart, it was as nothing to the girl who was the center of
it.

       [Picture: Carin stood awaiting them, her hands outstretched]

In her crimson school frock, soft and graceful, her golden hair shining
on her shapely head, her eyes full of tears of repentance, Carin stood
awaiting them, her hands outstretched.  It all seemed so different from
what Annie Laurie knew of her, that at first she hesitated to go forward,
but Carin came on, still with that look of solicitude in her face.

“Oh, Annie Laurie,” she said, “I see everything now.  I see how I acted
and how I made you feel.  You’ll have to forgive me.  I never was like
that before.  It was as if imps got inside me, and the worst of it was
that I seemed to want to hang on to them.  I knew I was wicked, but I
liked to be that way.  I just wouldn’t give up, though I was unhappy all
the time.  I told mother all about it, and she said that was the way it
was when you got perverse.  You liked it.  Perversity seemed sweeter than
anything.  She said it was like being a drunkard.  You enjoyed the thing
that ruined you.  I can see just what she meant.  I’ll tell you now,
Annie Laurie, that after the first day or two I found myself liking you,
and I hated to admit it.  I tried not to as hard as I could.  I didn’t
like mamma’s putting a girl in with us without talking it over, do you
see?  But I do like you—I had to.  The whole trouble was that I couldn’t
bear to give up.  But you’ve made me, and now I’m well again.  For it’s
just like a spell of sickness, having a horrid, wicked idea like mine and
holding on to it.  Do you understand?”

Annie Laurie’s face had flushed softly; her eyes were misty, her
handsome, large mouth slightly tremulous.  She withdrew her hands from
Carin’s, and put her arms close about her.

“When I say I forgive,” she said, “I do.”

“And do you say it?”

Annie Laurie laughed deep in her throat—and again her voice reminded one
of an oriole’s.

“I do say it,” she said.  “Your mother called it the Triple Alliance—the
Three Girls’ Alliance.”

“We must swear fealty!” cried Azalea.  She ran to the table and brought
back Howard Pyle’s “Robin Hood,” in which the story of the forester and
his faithful crew is told in equally beautiful words and pictures.

“Swear!” she commanded.  Carin, laughing somewhat uncertainly, dropped
her slender white hand on it.  Annie Laurie laid her firm brown one over
it; Azalea placed on top her sensitive, odd hand, which always quivered
when she cared about anything.

“We swear,” they said in chorus.

The door opened and Miss Parkhurst entered, her arms full of books.



CHAPTER IV
A RAINY NIGHT


After that, the short days of winter passed as happily for the three
girls as days can be expected to pass in a world which some discouraged
person called “a vale of tears.”  Alert as their minds were, each was
decidedly different from the other, and they had the effect of spurring
each other on.  Carin was, of course, really more interested in her
drawing and painting than in anything else, although she was a good
student, too.  Annie Laurie simply devoured books, and her happiest
diversion was music.  A good teacher came weekly from Rutherford, a town
near by, to give her instruction.  But Azalea took neither drawing nor
singing lessons.  She had much housework to do before and after school,
and her long ride down the mountain each morning and back again at night,
with the fatigue it entailed, had to be taken into account.  Then she
helped with the sewing and with the weaving, and so had neither time nor
strength for anything else.  Once Mrs. Carson said to her husband:

“Perhaps we were wrong not to insist on having Azalea live with us.  It
is true that few children have so much love and care given them as she
has there with the dear McBirneys.  But she has to share their poverty
too, and their hard work.  Do you think she will be worn out, Charles?
Children seem so precious to me.  I can’t bear to see their strength
wasted.”

“My dear, she is being made into a very capable girl,” Mr. Carson
answered reassuringly.  “She is having the sort of training our pioneer
ancestors had, and they grew stronger for their tasks and hardships.  You
and I are not going to live forever, you know, and our Carin will never
want to take up the work we’re doing here among the mountain people.
She’ll be off to Paris or Rome, I suppose, picture seeing and making.
But here’s Azalea, in the most practical arts and crafts school possible.
She sees the mountain handicrafts made every day right before her eyes,
and when she’s grown she’ll be able to teach others.  She’ll come in here
and take up the work where we leave off.”

“Charles Carson,” cried his wife indignantly, shocked for once out of her
sweet placidity, “what do you mean by speaking of us as if we were old?
Why, we’re hardly middle-aged.”

“Aren’t we?” said Mr. Carson rather wearily, yet smiling too.  “I didn’t
know, Lucy.  Sometimes it seems to me as if I had lived a long time.”

His wife was silent.  She knew what he meant.  Who could know better?
The day of blight that took from them their three fine sons had left them
disinclined to go on playing the game of life.  They had tried many
things, and at length had come into this quiet valley, where there was so
much uncomplaining poverty, where the people had latent talents that only
needed encouragement to make them bread-winning forces, and they had
endeavored to make themselves necessary.

They had bought the beautiful old home that long years before had
belonged to Azalea’s grandfather, Colonel Atherton, and they had showered
their favors right and left and tried to make their influence felt in all
parts of the county.  Their love of doing something, of building up, was
as a fresh wind blowing in a sultry plain.  For a lassitude had hung over
the beautiful valley of Lee—a lassitude born of long years of loneliness,
lack of opportunity and monotony.  Too little had happened; there had
been too few ways of earning money; too few strangers had come that way.
One day was so like another that a spell lay upon the people, and they
moved as in a long dream.  But it was different now.  There was some use
in making the strong, hand-woven cloth, the durable, quaint chairs and
the curious baskets, for Mr. Carson saw that they were profitably
marketed.

Mr. Carson had induced the mother of Hi Kitchell, a little worn woman
with three children to support, to come down from the mountains and
oversee his industries for him.  He had given her a little home on the
level spot known as the Field of Arrows, an ancient Indian camping
ground, and here the young women came to learn the weaving of baskets and
of cloth.  The front room was the shop, where the people came to buy
these interesting wares.

Here, too, the three girls came sometimes after school for a cup of tea
and some homemade cake—for Mrs. Kitchell served these comforts to all who
wished them—and sitting around her fire, they listened to her stories and
told tales of their own adventures.  Sometimes there would be a dozen or
more in the tea room, whiling away the tedium of a winter afternoon.  Hi
and the other children helped with the serving, and now and then “for the
fun of it” Jim McBirney or Sam Disbrow took a hand.  There always was
plenty to do at the Mountain Industries, it seemed, however slack work
might be elsewhere.

One day of cold rain, Azalea and Annie Laurie had stopped in at Mrs.
Kitchell’s for a cup of tea before they made their way to their distant
homes.  There was no one there that afternoon, save the sharp-eyed, busy
Mrs. Kitchell, and she, having served them, went back to the loom-room
and left them to themselves.  The girls were excellent friends now.  They
trusted and admired each other—counted on each other, as true friends
should.

“Azalea,” said Annie Laurie, “I never understood rightly about your
‘cousin Barbara.’  I’ve heard you speak of her, but I’m not quite clear
as to who she is.”

Azalea laughed lightly.

“She isn’t really my cousin at all,” she said.  “I have no kin, Annie
Laurie.  But I have told you, have I not, how my poor mamma and I were
traveling with a dreadful show when she died; and how we had got as far
as the McBirney’s cottage, and Ma McBirney—as Jim calls her—had my dear
mamma buried right there near the house, where her own little Molly’s
grave is?  Then she asked the show people to let her take me, and they
wouldn’t.  And so the dear, brave thing took me anyway, and ran away up
into the mountains with me and hid with me in a cave.  And Pa McBirney
and some of his friends stayed down at the house, with shotguns, and
scared the show folk away.  Well, Sisson, Hi Kitchell’s uncle, who was at
the head of the show, was terribly angry, and he made up his mind he
would have me back again.  So one time, when we all went off to a
‘Singing,’ he managed to get me, and to carry me away, and for weeks I
was taken from one place to another in the mountains, away off the beaten
tracks, always hiding.  Oh, it was such a time, Annie!”

“I know,” said the other sympathetically.  “Of course I heard about that.
We were all so excited, wondering if you’d be found, and I just cried
when I heard that you were, and that good old Haystack Thompson was
bringing you home.  I didn’t know you—and I couldn’t even remember having
seen you—but I felt interested in you from that moment.”

“Well, perhaps you heard that I managed to run away from the people who
were hiding me, and I went down the mountain in the night, and came to
the little town at the foot of it, and crept into a house there, and into
a sleeping-porch with a bed in it.  Oh, I was so tired—so tired it was
almost like dying.  I don’t really remember getting in that bed; but I
was found there in the morning by Mr. Summers, who is a Methodist
minister, you know.  His wife is Barbara Summers.  And they have the
dearest baby you ever saw or heard of—Jonathan Summers, he is, bless him.
Well, Mrs. Summers is just a little dear thing with brown eyes—she’s no
bigger than I am.  And from the minute we saw each other, we loved each
other and felt at home.  So we decided that we’d be kin.  I write to her
one week, and she writes to me the next.  She sends me pictures of
Jonathan that she takes with her little camera, and I send her presents
when I can—little woven table-covers or baskets.  You’ve no idea how
sweet she is, Annie Laurie.”

“You seem to make friends whenever you please, Azalea.  It’s so easy for
you!  The Paces aren’t like that.  It’s hard for them to let themselves
go and say the thing that comes into their minds.  We’re stiff, someway.
But when we do make friends, we keep them.”

“Be sure to keep me, Annie Laurie.  I nearly lost you through my own
carelessness, and I mean to hang on to you now.  Well, come, let’s start
for home.”

But as it turned out, it was raining most dismally.  A dark cloud had
tumbled off the mountain and settled down over the valley, and though it
was not late, it seemed almost like night.

“Goodness me,” said Annie Laurie, “I don’t like to think of you riding
away up on the mountain a night like this.  Why, you’d be drenched.”

“I ought to have accepted Carin’s invitation and stayed all night with
her,” said Azalea.  “Mother doesn’t expect me on bad nights.  She’s not
to worry about me if I don’t come when it rains or snows.”

“Oh, stay with me, Azalea!  It’s just the chance I’ve been wanting.
You’ve never been in my home except on that funny day when we all had
conniption fits—especially Aunt Adnah.  But, honestly, Aunt Adnah is a
brick if you know her.”

Azalea giggled.  “Yes, she did seem to have some of the properties of a
brick—hardness, for example.  She hit me between the eyes.”

“Well, she’ll make it up to you now, if you’ll give her a chance.  Of
course she wouldn’t say that she wants to make up, but she does.”

“I’d just love to stay all night with you,” Azalea said.  “I’ll take the
pony back to the Carsons’ stable, and then we’ll walk over to your
house.”

“Very well.  I’ll go with you to the stable.”  They put the pony in the
stall, and then, wrapped in their raincoats, tramped along over the red
pine needles to Annie Laurie’s home.

“Don’t feel at all backward, will you, Azalea?” the other girl said as
they stood on the doorstep.  “You just have a little pluck and everything
will come out all right.”

Azalea laughed.

“You don’t half understand me yet, Annie Laurie,” she said.  “You’re so
much more serious than I am.  I can’t help enjoying things even when they
are serious.  I know I oughtn’t to feel that way, but I think it will be
awfully funny to see your Aunt Adnah’s face when she finds I’ve had the
impudence to come again.”

Annie Laurie frowned a trifle.  She was not quite sure she liked to have
her aunt regarded as amusing.  However, they went in together.  The door
of the grim little parlor was closed, but the living-room door stood open
and Annie Laurie led the way in.  There was an ugly brussels carpet on
the floor, and a center table covered with a chenille cloth; on it was
the reading lamp, and ranged about it were comfortable chairs.  A black
marble clock ticked noisily on the mantel shelf, and a low fire
smouldered among the ashes.  The scrim curtains had many colored figures
in them, and helped to keep out the light of the declining day.  Azalea
could not help contrasting it with the exquisite rooms at The Shoals, and
with the quaint, charming rooms in the McBirney cabin.  She could
understand some of the bitter things that Annie Laurie had said to
her—could see that, somehow, life had been commonplace for this girl from
the first, and that, though she did not altogether realize it, it was
this common-placeness which made her dissatisfied.

“Wherever can the aunts be?” said Annie Laurie.  “The fire is out in the
kitchen, and there are no signs of supper.  Usually at this hour, things
are humming like a bee hive.  Take off your things, Azalea.  I’ll hang
them up where they’ll dry.  You sit right down before the fire, and I’ll
bring in some wood.”

“But let me help, Annie Laurie.”

“No, no.  You’re company.  I don’t often have company.”  She went away
with Azalea’s things and then came back and stood looking at her guest
with her glowing eyes.  “Azalea,” she said intensely, “I never have
company!”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know why not.  I’m not supposed to want it.  I’m to study and
work, and mend and practice my music, and be doing something from early
till late.  It isn’t that they’re not kind to me—my aunts and my
father—but they’re so dreadfully serious and conscientious.”

“It _does_ throw a damper over everything, being conscientious like
that,” mused Azalea.

Annie Laurie looked startled to hear her own secret idea put in words.

“For goodness sake,” she cried, “don’t let the aunts hear you say that!”

Azalea laughed teasingly.

“I’d really like to try that on Aunt Adnah,” she said.

Annie Laurie was getting used to her friend, and she made no reply.  She
ran upstairs for a moment, and came down clothed in a warm brown wrapper,
and carrying another one of equally uninviting color on her arm.

“Slip into this, Azalea,” she commanded, “and let me hang your dress out
in the hall near the heater.  There now, lie down on the sofa—so.  I’ll
lie down too with my head the other way, and we’ll wrap ourselves in my
grandfather’s old army blankets.  I’m dead tired, aren’t you?  I don’t
see _where_ the aunts are.”

She yawned wearily, and Azalea caught the contagion and stretched her
pretty mouth in imitation.

“Oh, it’s cosy, isn’t it?” Azalea murmured.  Neither spoke again.  Their
eyes were fixed on the smouldering coals, which seemed to hypnotize them,
and presently they both slept.

Just how long they lay there, comfortably resting, Azalea could not tell,
but when she opened her eyes the twilight had deepened.  Annie Laurie was
still deep in sleep.  The fire had quickened, and by its glow Azalea
could see that some one had entered the room.  For a moment she was
startled, but then she saw that it was Annie Laurie’s father, Simeon
Pace; so she lay still, not liking to speak, since she was not sure he
would know her.  He did not see the two girls on the sofa, and it was
quite evident that he thought himself alone.  Azalea watched him
sleepily, and saw him take off his coat and throw it on the chair.  Then
he began twisting his arm in a most inhuman manner, and Azalea’s blood
was frozen as she saw him loosen it at the elbow and lay it beside the
coat, until she chanced to remember about its being merely a tin
substitute for an arm.  His next act was to take a long pocketbook or
wallet from the mantel, draw something from it, stuff it into his hollow
arm and deftly strap the arm into place again.

“How funny,” thought Azalea.  “How Jim will laugh when I tell him about
it!”

Then she remembered that she had been unintentionally spying, and that it
would not be at all fair to tell what she had seen.  She knew Ma McBirney
would not like her to mention anything she had seen under such
circumstances.  So she lay as still as a lizard, hardly breathing, and
finally Mr. Pace left the room.  A moment later she heard the two aunts
bustling about in the kitchen.  There was a poking at the stove, a
lighting of lamps, a rattling of dishes, and it was evident that the
household was being set in motion again.

“Where are you, Annie Laurie, child?” called the voice of Miss Zillah.
“We’ve been out to the sewing circle, and it was so late before the
refreshments were served that we couldn’t hold our business meeting till
after five.  Then on the way home we heard Mrs. Disbrow was worse and
Hannah laid up with a cold and we dropped in to see them, though I must
say they’re a shiftless lot.  We thought you and your father wouldn’t
mind if supper was a little late.  What you lying there for, child?  And
mercy me, how big you look!  Why, no wonder, there’s two of you.  It’s
you, Azalea?  How do you do?”

“I’m very well, ma’am,” said Azalea rather shyly.  “I hope you didn’t
mind my coming.  It was so rainy and horrid, Annie Laurie asked me to
spend the night.”

“Why, you’re as welcome as sunrise, of course.  Sister Adnah, here is
Azalea McBirney.  She’s come to spend the night with us.”

Azalea wondered what was going to happen then.  Miss Adnah had been quite
vicious on the occasion of her former visit; but the mischievous spirit
in the girl made her rather enjoy the uncertainty.  Miss Adnah, she
decided, could do no more than eat her up.  But Miss Adnah was over her
bad temper.  She came in holding out her hand gravely.

“It was a wise thing for you to stay in the valley to-night,” she said
primly.  “I’m sure Mrs. McBirney wouldn’t want you to climb the mountain
in such a drizzle.”

She avoided committing herself to a mere piece of flattery.  She didn’t
say she was glad Azalea was there, but for some reason, the girl did not
feel chilled.  She knew Annie Laurie wanted her, and it seemed to her
that as the daughter of the house, Annie Laurie ought to enjoy some
privileges.  However, a few minutes later, when she was in Annie Laurie’s
sober, tidy room, putting on her dress and freshening her hair, she
overheard Miss Zillah saying softly to Annie Laurie in the next room:

“Sister Adnah thinks you should not invite anyone to the house without
first asking permission, my dear.  As for myself, I’m glad to see you
have friends and feel free to ask them, but it would be well to make
certain preparations.”

“Not at all, Aunt Zillah,” answered Annie Laurie hotly.  “I’ve never had
a girl to stay all night—never.  I asked Azalea because it was raining.
I couldn’t tell it was going to rain, or that I was going to ask her.
I’m old enough now to use some sense, I hope, and I want it so that I can
act without first having a period of fasting and prayer.  You and Aunt
Adnah were late to-night—”

“My dear, it is the first time we have been late to our duties, so far as
I can remember, since we assumed them.”

“Oh, you don’t understand at all.  I’m glad you were late.  Why shouldn’t
you be, if you wished?  And your duties—why do you speak of what you do
in the house like that?  It’s not a duty to live and work and eat and
sleep and all.  It’s a pleasure.  At least, that’s the way Carin and
Azalea look at it.  What I wanted to say was that for once you acted on
impulse.  You stayed till meeting was out, and you stopped in to see some
sick neighbors.  Well, I think that’s fine.  Now, I asked my friend to
stay all night.  No preparation is needed.  The cellar is bursting with
food, the pantry is plumb full of it; there’s milk and cream to float a
town and butter enough to grease all the engines in the world—”

“Annie Laurie!”

“Well, Aunt Adnah wears my patience out.  I’m going to ask my friends
here when it seems best.”

“My dear, you know we only ask you to use judgment.”

“Judgment?  I don’t know what that means.  I’ll use hospitality, if you
like, and courtesy—”

“To your aunts, among others, I hope.”

“Bless your heart!” Azalea heard Annie Laurie cry softly.  “You’re a
dear, Aunt Zillah.  Was I ever rude to you?”

“Not directly, my dear child.  But you sometimes speak of my sister in a
manner which I cannot regard as really respectful.”

“Forgive me, Aunt Zillah.  I’ve too much mustard and pepper in my
disposition.  But there’s the supper bell.  Azalea!  Azalea, are you
ready?”

They sat down at a bountiful table, and Simeon Pace folded his hand of
flesh and his hand of tin together and prayed long and loud—something
about the “sundering of joints and marrow.”  Azalea, who was very hungry,
hardly seemed to get the drift of these words.  But she was startled from
her dazed reverie by a sharp inquiry from Mr. Pace.

“So you two girls were asleep there before the fire, were you?  Did you
see me when I came in?”  He turned his large eyes—so like and yet so
unlike Annie Laurie’s—upon first one girl and then the other.

“I didn’t,” said his daughter.

“And you, Miss Azalea?”

“I awoke while you were in the room,” she said, feeling somewhat like
Jack when he talked with the Giant Eater.

“So?” he looked at her sharply.  “Why didn’t you speak?”

“I—I wasn’t sure you’d know me, sir.”  She paused a moment and sat steady
under the look he kept upon her.  “Anyway, I was just as good as
asleep—half dreaming.”

“And you never tell your dreams, I hope?  It’s a bad habit.”

Azalea smiled at him.

“I never, never tell them, sir,” she said.

“Good,” cried Simeon Pace.  “A sensible girl wouldn’t, of course.  Let me
serve you some meat, Miss Azalea.”

And she understood clearly that she had given a tacit promise that she
would not tell what she had seen; and Simeon Pace felt the reliable
character of her, beneath her soft, girlish aspect, and trusted her.



CHAPTER V
THE SUMMERS


While they were at supper a strong cold wind sprung up, so that Mr. Pace
had to heap wood on the fire.  And afterward, when the two girls ran to
the door, they could see that the sky had cleared and the stars were out,
looking, it seemed, unusually large and bright and sociable.

“Why not go to prayer meeting?” said Azalea.

“At your church or mine?”

“Oh, if you don’t mind, Annie Laurie, at mine this time.  Dear old Elder
Mills is leaving, you know.  You’ve heard how sick he is with the
rheumatism, haven’t you?  He’s going down to Florida where the climate
will be better for him.  They say he’s wonderful these last few weeks.
He’s trying to say everything he can think of that will help the people
he’s known so long.  I love to hear people talk when they are really,
really in earnest, don’t you?”

Annie Laurie looked at her friend understandingly.

“You are just like me, Azalea; you always want mountains to be higher
than they really are, and stars brighter, and sermons deeper, and friends
more loving.  Nothing is ever quite big enough to suit me—nor quite
_hard_ enough.”

“Not intense enough, Carin would say.”

“That’s it.  Yes, let’s go to prayer meeting.  I’ll ask father if I may.”

They presently were on their way, walking briskly because they were late.
The little Methodist church was full of the old friends of Elder Mills,
who as he stood before them, his white hair hanging around his shoulders,
his face haggard with pain, yet had a look in his eyes of exaltation and
joy which seemed to make a light thing of his physical distress.

“Oh, I want you to love one another,” he said during the evening.  “I
want you to forgive one another.  Be honest, be brave in saying what you
think, live truly, avoid lies.  Above everything, avoid lies—in word and
in act.”

“For goodness sake,” thought Annie Laurie, “Can’t preachers find anything
else to talk about but lies?  Whether I go to my own church or another,
that seems to be the theme.”  She remembered how she had caught Sam
Disbrow’s eye that day at the Baptist church when the minister had been
talking about lies, and how queer it had been to realize that she was
reading Sam’s mind, and could tell that he, like herself, was wondering
why the preacher kept harping on that.  Annie Laurie’s mind drifted off
to Sam’s home—to his mother who never was well, to their untidy little
house, and to his cross-eyed sister, who never would make friends with
anybody.  Sam seemed so different from the rest of the family, with his
hearty downright ways, his energy, his determination to make something of
himself.

Was meeting over?  She aroused herself as from a dream.

“There’s to be a business meeting,” Azalea said to her as the people
arose.  “They’re to talk about who is to be our new minister.  Since it
is not conference time, we are to ask for some one we want, and then if
the bishop thinks best we can have him.”

“I see,” said Annie Laurie vaguely.  Though she did not really see.

The two girls started out together, crowding softly by their elders who
were gathered about in the aisles talking over the trial that had come to
the church in losing Elder Mills, and in being obliged to bring a new
minister in at the middle of the session.  And then, suddenly, a
beautiful idea came to Azalea.  Why couldn’t they ask the Rev. Absalom
Summers?  He was in that tiny backwoods village where there were so few
to hear or enjoy him; and he was such a wonderful man, all wrapped up in
his religion, and talking about it as if it must be the business of
everyone.  And if he came, her “pretend cousin” Barbara, his wife, would
come also, and that blessed baby, Jonathan.  To think was to act with
Azalea, now as always.  She broke from Annie Laurie and ran up to her old
friend and protector, Haystack Thompson.

“Oh, Mr. Thompson, dear,” she whispered, “if only you could manage to put
in a word for Mr. Summers!  You know what he is—how he talks and sings
and laughs and keeps everybody stirred up.  He’d put life into any
church, wouldn’t he?  He’s just wasted down in that little valley where
he lives.  Hardly anybody comes to church, and those who do, don’t like
him.  They think he’s too new-fashioned.  But here he’d be appreciated.”

“Well, now,” drawled Mr. Thompson, running his hand through his wild head
of hair—the hair that gave him his nickname of “Haystack”—“I don’t know
but there might be something in that.  He sure has got a lot of ginger in
him, ‘the power of the Lord,’ he calls it, and I reckon maybe that’s what
it is.  Anyway, as you insinuate, Zalie, the Seven Sleepers would have
had a hard time of it trying to keep up their slumbers anywhere around
his neighborhood.”

“And then Mrs. Summers,” went on Azalea breathlessly; “think what she
would mean to the church!  She’s so lively, you know, and so interested
in everyone—sorry for them when she ought to be, and happy with them all
other times.”

“Sharin’ their sorrows an’ their joys with ’em, I reckon you mean,
daughter.”

“Yes; and the baby—”

“Of course, the baby!  He’d be a drawin’ card to any congregation.”

“Oh, Mr. Thompson, if I could have that baby around I’d—”

“Yes?”

“I’d—I’d be good all the rest of my days.”

“Be a practicin’ Christian, eh?  Well, as you say, Summers is a mighty
fetching man—don’t know of any with more—well, more radiation.  I reckon
I’d better mention him to the bretherin.  Perhaps the bishop would hear
to his being moved up this a-way—particularly if I told him you was
wantin’ to play with the baby.”

Azalea never cared how much fun her kind old Haystack made of her.  He
had followed her over mountains and through valleys, in sun and rain, in
a certain terrible episode of her life, when she had been stolen away
from Mrs. McBirney and all but forced back into her hateful life with a
traveling show, and she let him joke and fleer all he pleased, knowing
him, as she did, for one of her staunchest friends.

“Yes, please do,” she urged.  “They’re just going into meeting now.  Just
tell them how he laughs and talks and cuts up!”

“Fine recommendations for a pastor!”

“Well, they are,” insisted Azalea.  “Of course they are.  He wants
everyone to be as good and happy as he is, and if they aren’t, he’ll find
out why.”

Haystack Thompson brought his huge brows together and regarded Azalea
with his sharp eyes.  Neither spoke for a moment.  Then: “Yes-sum,” he
said, and moved toward the front to join the representative members of
the congregation.

So it came about that a month later Azalea had the great happiness of
knowing that her friends, the Reverend Absalom Summers and his wife and
baby were coming to Lee as the result of her suggestion.  It was rather a
joke among those who knew of it.  “Azalea’s choice” they called the new
minister.  But it was no joke to Azalea.  It meant more to her than she
ever could explain.

“You see,” she said to Carin, “it’s ideas that count—right ideas.  Now,
I’m a person of no importance whatever.  But because I happened to have
the right idea, those men listened to me and did what I wanted them to
do.”

“And the point of it all is,” laughed Carin, “that if you have enough
right ideas and can find enough persons to listen to them, you’ll be
important, see?”

“Don’t laugh,” said Azalea.  “If you knew what it meant for me to have
the Summerses come—”

“I know well enough—know too well.  After they come, what chance will I
have of getting your attention?”

“Carin, how can you?  No one can take your place.  My friends are all
separate.  I can’t spare one, and not one can take the place of another.”

They were in Carin’s pony cart as they held this conversation, on their
way down to the station, and it seemed as they drove along the one
macadamized road in the county, that everyone they knew was bent in the
same direction.

True, it was nighttime, but the lanterns and lamps revealed the identity
of the travelers.  Amusements were not many at Lee, and the coming of the
new Methodist minister and his family was an event worthy of notice.
Moreover, the fame of the Reverend Absalom Summers had gone abroad.  His
strong bright gifts, his hearty, brotherly nature, his way of finding
nothing too small for his interest or too great for his inquisitiveness,
had won him friends.  So they gathered—these friendly, waiting
neighbors—in the draughty little waiting room of the station and waited
for the nine o’clock train.

The peculiarities of this nine o’clock train were well known.  It had
acquired a habit of arriving at about a quarter of ten, and it was not
until the hands of the clock and of the frequently consulted watches of
the male members approached that hour, that anyone thought of going out
to look up the track.  But there it was, sure enough, faithful to the
time it had chosen for itself.  Its flaring headlight could be seen away
up the mountains.  The air was nipping, and the company of watchers
shivered together, but they would none of them go back into the station
now that the headlight really was in sight.

Moreover, though they would not say so, they loved to be out among the
mountains—those mountains that were as the very soul of their lives, that
held them together, that gave meaning to their secret motives, to their
religion, to their daily work.  They loomed now, darkest purple against
the starry sky.  The wind swept down from them, fresh with an
indescribable freshness.  An owl called—was silent—then called again.
Lights shone out from the houses in the village, and from the scattered
cabins along the mountain sides.  Now and then there was a movable light
high on the mountain, as some hill farmer made his way to his house from
a neighbor’s, or from his visit to town, or from looking after his stock.

The headlight disappeared as the train swept around the horseshoe bend.
Then it burst upon them like a menacing star.  It rushed towards them.
There was a shriek as of a giant taken prisoner.  The train was there!
The conductor got down and exchanged greetings, and an enormously tall
and thin man appeared, carrying many bundles.

“There he is!  It’s the Elder.  There’s Mr. Summers,” cried the people.
They surged forward, pulled the man from the steps, seized his bundles,
and waited while he assisted a little lady to alight.

“Why, she isn’t as large as we are, Azalea,” whispered Carin.

“I know,” Azalea whispered back, quivering as she hugged her companion’s
arm.  “I told you—”

But Carin was not to know what Azalea had told her, for at that moment
the voice of the little lady was heard saying:

“And where’s Azalea?”

It was, for Azalea, a thrilling moment.  Afterward, thinking it all over,
she could not tell why her heart so leaped at that first word.  Was it
because she had no kin, really, that this voice of loving friendship was
so sweet to her?  Was it that she was proud—she who had been a wanderer
and a beggar—to be asked for before all the people?  Was it just
abounding love for Barbara Summers, her “pretend cousin”?

It made no difference, really.  There was Barbara, her dark eyes shining;
there was her babe in her arms, fresh and wonderful from sleep; and there
was his mother offering him to Azalea.

The two kissed above the baby.

“Honey bunch!” murmured Azalea, and gathered him into her arms.

She saw nothing of how the people came forward to make Mr. Summers and
his wife welcome; heard nothing of what Pa McBirney said to them, urging
them into his comfortable old mountain wagon.  Even the voice of Carin
was vague in her ears, though she knew she was murmuring her appreciation
of golden curls and blue eyes, of tiny teeth, of dimples, or chubby
little hands.  But nothing that anybody could say would be too much,
Azalea thought.  Her hungry heart, never yet satisfied, with all the love
that had come to her, wrapped a thousand quivering tendrils about this
little laughing child.

“You riding with Miss Carin, Zalie?” asked Pa McBirney.

“Yes, thank you, father.  We’ll drive right up to the parsonage, won’t
we, Carin?”

“As fast as Mustard can take us,” replied Carin.  “The baby won’t mind
leaving you a moment, will he, Mrs. Summers?”

Barbara Summers shook her head.  She was not given to passing Jonathan
over to the care of others, but there was something in the satisfied
expression of Azalea’s face that forbade her to take him away.

Carin turned the head of the little yellow pony toward the Methodist
parsonage.  They had a hill to climb and a dark, curving little road to
traverse.  But five or six vehicles were ahead of them, and Mustard, who
felt like a mere boy in the horse world, and who always was pleased if he
could get in a grown-up affair of any kind, trotted along importantly.
Lights shone out from among the armored pines.  Azalea got out and
carried Jonathan through the freshly decorated rooms, with their newly
polished furniture and snowy curtains, to the bedroom where the little
iron cot awaited Jonathan.

“Shut the door, Carin dear,” she whispered happily.  “Let’s undress him.
His mother said we’d find his nightie in that bag.”



CHAPTER VI
SUNDAY


   “Once there was a bear,
   And he made his pasture there;
   And he crept, and he crept, and he crept,
   ’Till he got away up there!”
   “Gurgle—gurgle—gurgle!”
   “And once there was a bear—”

This conversation took place between Azalea McBirney and Jonathan Summers
one Sunday morning while Jonathan’s mother was at church.  Azalea had
been to Sunday-school, and had run over to ask her “Cousin” Barbara if
she wouldn’t like to attend service to hear her husband preach.  Barbara
would—Oh, most undeniably she would.  It was her firm conviction that if
all men could hear her husband, and would give heed to what he said, they
would be able to resist all temptations and would live in peace with the
world.  So she kissed Azalea and permitted her to button her into her
pretty golden-brown frock, and then, clapping her large hat over her
wayward hair and putting on her gloves as she hastened down the street,
she was off, her heart beating high with loving pride of the man whose
life was united with her own, and who had already found warm friends in
his new parish.

Jonathan had been asleep when his mother left him, but it was not long
before he opened his eyes and looked about him to see whom he could get
to serve him.  For Jonathan was, in his own opinion, the Prince of the
World, and everyone in it was to do his bidding.  He preferred, of
course, his chief slave—the one called “Mamma”—and not seeing her, he
opened his mouth and let out a more or less cheerful roar, not so much
showing rage, as a healthful imitation of it.

Azalea was delighted.  She picked him up, fed him his bottle, arranged
him among the sofa pillows, and then, taking a dimpled hand in her own,
she pointed delicately to the rosy palm.

    “Once there was a bear,
    And he made his pasture there.”

It must have been a particularly small bear to have pastured in such a
tiny pink palm, but Jonathan saw nothing inconsistent in it, and remarked
enthusiastically:

“Gurgle—gurgle—gurgle.”

The bear began creeping slyly up Jonathan’s arm.  It snuggled for a
moment at his elbow, went on—and Jonathan shivered happily—up to his
shoulder, and then settled right down in his neck, and seemed to think it
a good place to stay.  At least, Jonathan laughed delightedly.

Azalea looked at him with her soul in her eyes.

“Mercy me,” she sighed.  “How well I understand kidnappers!”

Then she remembered that she had once been kidnapped herself, and that
she had not liked it at all.

“Oh, Jonathan,” she cried, looking at him critically, “it seems
impossible that anything as soft and lovely as you are can grow up to be
just a hard, common, big man!  If only I could put you in some kind of a
preserve jar and keep you the way you are, I’d just give anything.  Tired
of sitting still?  Well, come to Azalea, and we’ll go exploring.  It’s a
pretty house, isn’t it?  But my goodness, you ought to have seen it a
little while ago!  It was as dull as Monday washday.

“Then, when it was decided that your papa and mamma were coming here to
live, we all turned in and worked like sixty to make it look nice.
Haystack Thompson—that’s the man that throws you up so high, you
know—prepared it with his own hands.  But you make up your mind we didn’t
let him pick out the paper.  Haystack is a dear, but he couldn’t be
trusted to pick out wall paper.  No, sir, my friends Carin and Annie
Laurie and I did that.  Brown for the sitting room, and green for the
dining room, and pink and pale blue for the bedrooms.

“And we got these pretty print hangings and covers—at least, Mrs. Carson
paid for them and we picked them out.  And Ma McBirney wove these
rugs—brown for the sitting room and green for the dining room.  Aren’t
they beauties?  And Mr. Carson had the furniture done at his shop—the
very best he could make.  And Sam Disbrow, he brought this fern, and
somebody else sent the palm, and Carin gave the pictures, and Annie
Laurie made the table cover, and I don’t know what all.  You see, some of
these people don’t belong to your church at all, Jonathan.  They just
gave these things because you were so sweet that they couldn’t bear to
have you come into any but a pretty house.  Dear me, boy, stop pulling my
hair!  You treat me just as if I were a step-child.  And I’m not.  I’m
your pretend cousin—which is ever and ever so much nicer than being a
real cousin, because you do your own picking out.”

Jonathan replied after his own manner, and the morning wore on
pleasantly.  Azalea put the potatoes and the stew over to cook, and made
some apple sauce.  Then she set the table; and “toted” Jonathan some
more.  For once she forgot to think.  The sad little thoughts that would
mope around in the back of her mind, because she was, after all, a child
without a father or a mother, kept entirely out of sight that morning.
She was so busy that she could waste no time whatever on merely thinking;
and the first thing she knew she saw the people pouring along the street
from church.

Annie Laurie drove by with her aunts and her father, and waved to Azalea.
Sam Disbrow walked by with his father, and Azalea thought what a dull
time Sam had of it, with that heavy looking father with his hanging head
and big, rolling eyes, both going home to a mother who was always sick,
and to that queer sister of Sam’s, who had too much work to do, and who
never seemed to want to talk with anybody.  And then the Carson carriage
rushed by with black Ben driving, and Mr. Carson, so handsome and
straight, beside him, and Carin and Mrs. Carson on the back seat in their
beautiful furs, smiling and bowing to everybody.

Then the McBirney wagon came, with Mr. and Mrs. Summers in with Pa and Ma
McBirney and Jim.  And Azalea was thanked and kissed, and had the pain of
seeing Jonathan tear himself away from her to rush to his mother’s
embrace, and then Azalea went out and got in with her foster parents, and
Pa McBirney hissed to his horses in an odd way he had, and they started
for their long drive up the mountain.

“It sure is a mighty curious thing how that man goes on, Mary,” said Mr.
McBirney to his wife as they were driving by the prosperous dairy farm of
Simeon Pace.  “He’s jest rolling up money, but no one can tell what he
does with it.  Heller, the banker, he says nary a cent of it comes his
way.  Pace don’t believe in banks—got stung some time I reckon, and lost
his nest egg by the busting of a bank.  Anyhow, he hangs on to what he
gets nowadays.  It beats all to see anyone so old-fashioned.  Heller says
he supposes he hides it away in his old stocking or buries it in the
yard.  I suppose I’m something of a mossback myself, but anyway I know
enough to bank my money when I get it—which ain’t any too often.”

“He don’t look like such an old-fashioned man, Simeon Pace don’t,” mused
Mrs. McBirney.  “He certainly does keep his place up right smart.  Them
cattle o’ his’n is the best to be seen in the country, and everything
around the place is right up in G.”

“Well, old-fashioned he is, but he’s far-seeing too.  About five years
ago he bought the Caruth Valley and all the uplying land beyond it.  I
couldn’t see what his idea was, but now I hear that he’s selling it out
to Mr. Carson for five times what he paid for it.  Mr. Carson wants it
for the water power on it.  He’s adding to his factory, you see.”

“That will mean work for a good many more of us mountain folks,” observed
Mrs. McBirney.  “The way Mr. Carson has opened up things for us is just
stirring to think about.  I don’t know as his efforts are appreciated,
but I, for one, know who I have to thank when I see the new things in the
house and the good new clothes we’ve been able to get for the children.
Why, only this morning I was calling Jim’s attention to it.  ‘Look at
you,’ I said, ‘in your store clothes and brown shoes and new overcoat and
all.  You look like a rich man’s son,’ says I.  And I declare to goodness
when I got out this here new cloak o’ mine, and this bonnet Mrs. Carson
made for me out of silk velvet and a real ostrich tip, I could hardly
believe it was me.  I’m so used to wearing rusty black that I don’t know
as I feel quite at home in good deep black like this a-here.”

Jim McBirney, who was sitting on the back seat with Azalea, not caring to
listen longer to the conversation of his elders and knowing it was bad
manners to disturb them, began whispering.

“I went to Sam Disbrow’s house last evening, sis.”  When Jim said
“evening” he meant afternoon.

“Did you, Jim?  What was it like?”

“Shades all down—rooms all hot—Mrs. Disbrow lying on the settle—Hannah
sitting by her, knitting and knitting, and her eyes so crossed you
couldn’t think how she could do anything but cross stitch.”

“I’m sorry for Hannah.  That’s a dreadful life to lead—being shut up all
the time with a sick person.  I’ve a good mind to give her a party if
mother will let me.”

“Give Hannah Disbrow a party?  Why, she’d run like a hare if she saw
anybody coming, and she’d drop her ice cream and go home crying.  I know
Hannah.”

He spoke as if he had made girls and their outlandish ways his particular
study.

“Well, anyway, I’m going to see her.  And I’ll get the other girls to
go.”

“Oh, yes, th’ other girls!  Why, Zalie, you can’t move around by your
lone no more; you’re just hitched on to them friends of yours.  Ain’t you
ever going to have any separate thoughts again?”

Azalea laughed lightly, and at the chime of her merriment Mary McBirney
turned around to look at the occupants of the rear seat.  It was at such
times that Azalea loved her most—when the light of love flooded her face
with its high brow and soft eyes.  It always made Azalea feel as if there
must be a lamp burning there behind the kind face.  She gave a pleasant,
inarticulate murmur that served better than words to let the children
know that her love was round about them.  Then she turned back to resume
her conversation with her husband, and the horses—nimble
mountain-climbers—pulled on up the road steadily, stopping now and again
to breathe, and then sweeping around another curve of the ever winding
road.

Azalea amused herself by noticing the little plateaus or “benches” along
the mountain side.  She played a little game with herself, building
imaginary houses in this cove or on that bench among the maples.  There
was one place in particular, where three lofty tulip trees guarded a
spring of cold water, and where there was a little almost level cove from
which one could look off for miles and miles along the purple valley,
where she put first one sort of a house and then another.

When she began thinking of it, she built—in her mind of course—a little
house of cedar logs, with an open chamber between, like the one she now
called home; but as time went on she changed her plans.  Barbara Summers
had tried to persuade her that a rambling bungalow of pine, with high
chimneys and wide porches would be the thing; and Carin had been in favor
of a cement bungalow with a pergola with trumpet vines growing over it.
Annie Laurie thought it would be better to have a tent pitched there, and
to eat off wooden plates and use paper napkins.

“Then you could heave everything into the fire,” said this practical
young woman, “and there’d be no dishes to wash.”

As they passed the place this Sunday Azalea asked Jim what kind of a
house he thought it would be best to put up there, but Jim was not fond
of playing at air castles.

“We-all don’t own the land,” he said, “and we ain’t got the money for the
house, so what’s the use of talking?”

Azalea felt just a trifle out of patience.

“The use of talking,” she said rather sharply, “is that it interests
you.”

“Keeping still interests me all right.”

“Keep still, then, if you want to.  I’m sure I’ve plenty to think about.”

It was then that Mary McBirney began singing softly:

    “‘Sweet are the hillsides, pleasant are the valleys,
    Bright is the sky o’er the home of my heart.’”

Both Azalea and Jim knew very well why she was singing.  She never could
bear to reprove them; and she had a little theory that music could drive
out any evil spirit.  Such music as she made ought to, certainly, the
children thought, sitting for a moment in silence, ashamed of their
stupid quarrel.  Neither one was of the sort to sulk.  Jim gave a little
twist on his seat, and joined in the fourth line:

    “‘And my home, gentle friend, is wherever thou art.’”

Azalea loved the quaint old song.  It was one of many such which Mary
McBirney knew.

“I’d love to see the words and music of the songs you sing, mother,”
Azalea had said to her once.  “Where can I find them?  Are they in any of
the books you have?”

But Mary McBirney had shaken her head with a smile.

“The mountain folks have many a song that never yet has been writ down,
child,” she said.  “In the lonely nights in the little cabins away back
on the mountains, all still and peaceful, the folks weave the songs out
of their hearts.  Grandmothers and mothers and daughters have sung them,
and not one of them all had the knowledge to write them down.  They make
me think of wild roses.  They grow beside the roadway, and they are the
sweetest of them all.”

“‘Early in the morning I can hear the thrushes singing,’” Mary McBirney
sang on, and Azalea, joining in, put all her love for the sweet woman
into the words:

“‘Dear as the voice that I love best of all.’”

They stopped at the waterfall for the horses to drink.  The cataract
leaped down delicately and gayly from the height above, paused at the
roadway, rippling along among the pebbles at the edges and rushing
between the great boulders in the center of the ford, and then with a
wild laugh plunged off over the edge and foamed down the mountain side.
The sky was rather overcast on this particular day, and the trees wore a
patient look; even the waterfall seemed subdued, and its rush of sound
was more liquid and less like music than on brighter days.  A heaviness
and quietude lay over everything.  But the McBirneys loved the mountain
in all its moods, and little by little they set themselves to fit in with
its whims, so that by the time they reached their home they were quiet,
too.

But they were happy—Oh, most distinctly, they were that.  They loved
every inch of the old place.  The cabin of logs, divided in the center
with an open air chamber, the little loft where Azalea slept, looking up
the mountain side, the Pride of India tree beneath which lay the graves
of little Molly McBirney and of Azalea’s poor mother, the tulip trees at
the outlook, the little smithy, the stable, the barn, the smoke house,
the corn crib, the chicken house and the bee hives, the pigeon coops and
the swinging gourds where the martins nested, all were dear to them.
Vines, flowers, and bushes grew all about them.  The farm slanted down
the hillside at a dangerous angle, but contrived to soak into its produce
the sweet Southern sun, and it gave of its rich bounty in return for
Thomas McBirney’s hard toil.

Human care and enthusiasm showed in every foot of it.  Even the most
casual passer-by could see at a glance that here was a home in which
people lived who loved life and each other.

“Happy and good folk live here,” it seemed to say.

And there were, first and last, a good many to read its message, for it
was on the highway and whoever came over Tennyson Mountain down to Lee
must pass almost through the doorway.

This gray, pleasant Sunday, Mrs. McBirney and Azalea jumped from the
wagon at the house door, and Jim and his father went on to the stable to
look after the horses.  The cow was munching contentedly in her stall,
but the chickens seemed a little depressed and in need of their midday
drink of hot water and their feeding of hot meal.  The pigeons cooed
chillily from their cote.  As for the horses, they knew almost as much
about unhitching as their betters, and if either Jim or Mr. McBirney had
done anything they ought not to have done they would have turned their
critical eyes upon them.  The real pride of Jim’s heart, however, was the
two ponies which he and Azalea rode to school.  They had been the gift of
Mr. Carson to them, and they were the brothers of Carin’s pony, Mustard,
and bore the exciting names of Pepper and Paprika.

Jim lingered for a moment or two, loath to leave them.  He loved the
velvet noses of them the friendly eyes and the warm heaving sides.  They
muzzled him, and he put their noses in his neck and gave them to
understand that their affection was returned.  The cool, damp air
billowing in at the door was delicious, and he almost hated to go in the
house.

“What’s the use in living in houses?” he thought.  He had known a young
fellow who traveled over the mountains all the time with two ponies.  One
he rode, the other carried his pack which consisted of a hammock, a
frying pan, some blankets and a square of canvas, out of which he could,
at need, fashion a sort of tent.  He never had slept under a roof since
he was a baby.  Jim thought of this boy as a very fortunate fellow.  He
chose not to remember the desperate ill health that had driven the lad
into the life.  However, he must go in the house, he must!  Ma had got
the fire going in the kitchen, judging from the smoke that rolled from
the chimney.  Well, he was glad he didn’t have to build it.  He didn’t
feel like doing anything just then—except, perhaps, sitting by the door
and looking off at the valley.  Usually when he wanted to do this, some
one straightway thought of some chore for him.  So he slid softly onto
the bench, sitting where he could be seen neither from the door nor the
window, and fell into a comfortable though somewhat hungry day dream.

Meantime, odors of frying chicken were wafted to him, along with the
smell of slightly burned corn cake and very good coffee.  The odors grew
stronger and pleasanter and after a time Jim decided that he wasn’t doing
right to stay outside while everyone was working in the house.  It really
was his duty to go in.  So in he went.  The fire was leaping, the table
was set, his mother was bustling around in her calico dress, Azalea was
putting the chairs to the table, and his father looked ready primed for a
long Sunday grace.

It proved to be even longer than Jim had feared.  Thomas McBirney was one
of those who count it a fault if they neglect to mention every event of
their lives to the Almighty.  He thanked the Lord for their united
family, for food and fire, for roof and friends, for the privilege of
attending divine service, and for the love of God which warmed their
hearts.  Meantime his son’s eyes wandered restlessly from the heaped
plate of chicken to the bowl of gravy and “fixin’s.”  He wondered if he
would have no more than a “drumstick” and why there should be such
intimate relations between boys and drumsticks.  The world over, fathers
seemed to think they should go to their sons.  No doubt Chinese fathers
held just the same opinion.

Imagine then, his surprise—his unbelieving surprise—when his father,
having first served his mother and Azalea, took the “wish-bone,”
beautifully burdened with tender white meat and laid it on Jim’s plate.

“For a good boy,” he said, as he heaped on the potatoes and gravy, and
passed the corn bread.  “Once in a while, Jim, we men folks have to set
ourselves against these here women, eh?  Them with their wishbones!  Who
said they was to eternally have the wishbones?  No king that ever I hearn
tell of.  I say, let’s head a revolution and declare that they ken have
only every other wishbone.  That’s fair, ain’t it?”

A nice, warm feeling gathered in Jim’s heart.  It was splendid to have a
dad like that—a dad who could tell what was going on in a fellow’s mind.
And his mother and Azalea seemed to be glad he had the wishbone, too.
They were looking at him just the way a fellow likes to have his family
look at him.  My, what a nice day Sunday was!  And wasn’t he glad he had
helped haul those hickory logs!  And wasn’t the room nice, with the
settle there next the fire, and the old clock tickin’, tickin’ away, and
striking now and then with a voice like Haystack Thompson’s when he led
in prayer.  And there was a white table cloth on for Sunday, and Ma was
smiling almost the way she used before Molly died.  And the cat was
stretching herself, and outside, Peter, the hound, was sniffling to let
them know he was there and hadn’t had his dinner yet.

“Goodness gracious,” sighed Jim, “ain’t it lucky we’re all alive!”



CHAPTER VII
THE SIGNAL


Night came down sweetly over the mountain that quiet day.  It wrapped the
village in soft gray folds; the stars came out hazily and shone with a
misty golden light; the wind merely whispered in the pines and the
hemlocks, and the sound of the falling water was lonely and sad in the
ears of Azalea.

Yet she had to be out in the night because—well, that’s a secret.  At
least it was a secret from Jim.  Because he would have laughed.  She was
to signal the other two girls.  It had been agreed upon.

“You see, I nearly die, Sundays,” Annie Laurie had said.  “Our
house—really I can’t describe our house on Sunday.  I feel as if my heart
were turning into old red sandstone.”

To have the strong-beating heart of Annie Laurie turn into structural
rock was something the friends could not permit.  Anyway it would be an
excellent thing for Azalea in the mountain to know that her friends in
the valley were doing well.  She could tell if they were doing well, if
the lantern was waved sideways; if anything was wrong it was to be swung
up and down.

“But I reckon you-all had better not swing it up and down,” she had said,
“for though I’ll know by that that something is wrong, of course I won’t
know what it is.  And the waiting to find out would be dreadful.”

“It will have to be a pretty dreadful ‘something’ to make us give the bad
signal, won’t it, Annie Laurie?” Carin had remarked.

So it was with a light heart and a mysterious manner that Azalea, who was
supposed to leave the kitchen-living room to go to her own little loft,
stole out the back way, took the lantern from its nail, lighted it, and
crept to the outlook.  She had five minutes to wait before the time
appointed, and these moments proved to be a “perfect caution” for
slowness.  She counted the seconds to make sure—and yet was not sure, for
she managed to get in about two counts and a half to each second.
However, at last she felt justified in bringing out her light from behind
the tree bole where she had hidden it, and waving it back and forth in
enthusiastic announcement that all was right.  She couldn’t help thinking
with a throb of the heart how very, very right it all was!  How sweet the
day had been; how filled with comfort for body and soul; how beautiful to
be loved as she was loved in that little home!  Of course she might have
repined that she had not been made Carin’s adopted sister and surrounded
with all manner of luxuries, but the love she felt for Mrs. McBirney was
too deep, too sincere, to permit such a thought to have a place in her
heart for very long.

Yes, her home was a log cabin, and her family simple mountain people.
But she could not feel cheated.  The taste of the Things That Were was
sweet on her palate, and her hope for the future bubbled in her heart as
the spring, whose whispering she could hear, bubbled from the ground.

So back and forth in the gray air went her lantern, saying:

“All is well!  All is well!”

Azalea actually laughed aloud to think of Carin, all in her Sunday best,
stealing out of that stately drawing-room and creeping up the stairs to
the huge cupola and standing there on the roof in the wind and night,
waving her lantern.  What fun it was to know a girl like that—a girl who
wasn’t afraid to do things, if she was rich and beautiful.  There was
some “go” in Carin, no doubt about it, though she did look so delicate
and alabasterish.  Azalea loved to invent words, and she invented
“alabasterish” on the moment.

 [Picture: Back and forth went her lantern, saying: “All is well!  All is
                                 well!”]

But what did that mean?  Annie Laurie’s lantern, full and strong and like
a star, had shone through the light mist and was being waved frantically
up and down.  Mercy! how it waved.

“All is wrong!  All is wrong!” it protested.

What could that mean?  Carin, of course, would know in a few minutes.
She would telephone.  But Azalea had no telephone and she would not be
allowed to ride to the valley at night.

“All is wrong—oh, very, very, wrong!” the lantern kept on saying.

What could she do to let Annie Laurie know that she understood?  Poor
Annie Laurie, who was brave about everything!  It was a real trouble,
Azalea felt sure.  Had one of the aunts fallen and broken a bone?  Could
Mr. Pace be ill?  Were the cattle poisoned?  Azalea took her lantern and
twisted it around and around until it must have looked to Annie Laurie
like a snare of fireflies.  Then Carin, understanding, did the same
thing.  After that it was dark on Carin’s roof; then Annie Laurie’s
lantern disappeared too.  They had gone to the telephone, Azalea
inferred.

She stamped back through the dew, hot with impatience.  “I shan’t sleep a
wink to-night,” she declared.

She undressed in anguish of soul, sank on her knees and sent up a fervent
prayer for her friend, and then throwing herself on what she expected and
desired to be a sleepless bed, fell fast asleep.

Yet in her sleep she had many dreams, and in each of them Annie Laurie
appeared, always in some horrid plight.  Now wolves were chasing her; now
she had fallen over the cataract; now the horses were running away with
her; now she was speeding down the road again, away from the scorn of her
schoolmates, and little drops of blood were falling on the road from her
shattered heart.

But none of these things were anywhere near the truth, though nothing
could be more terrible to Annie Laurie than what actually had happened.

It had come about after church.  Dinner was over; the house had been
tidied, and the two aunts and Mr. Pace and Annie Laurie sat in the
sitting room before a fine fire.  The aunts had taken out their pious
books and were reading them.  Mr. Pace was engaged in plodding sleepily
through somebody’s account of the “Thirty Year’s War.”  As for Annie, she
was supposed to be writing to a friend, but as a matter of fact she was
scribbling some verses which she meant to show to the girls the next day.
Nibbling the end of one’s pen is more or less of a necessity when one is
writing verses, and Annie Laurie, having got as far as that—and not much
farther—was sampling the fine inky flavor of hers, and so chanced to look
up and to let her glance fall on her father.

At first she was only conscious that his expression was not quite
familiar to her.  Then—well, then suddenly and terribly, she saw that he
was indeed changed—that something frightful had happened to him.  She
sprang toward him, calling his name.

“Father—father!”

But no answer came.

The aunts came running, terror in their faces.

“Paralysis,” said Miss Adnah.  “Zillah, call the doctor.  Azalea, help me
lay him down—yes, on the floor.  Open the window.  Go get his bed ready,
Zillah, after you’ve got the doctor.  We and the doctor between us must
get him in bed.”

Annie Laurie did all she was told.  She couldn’t realize what had
happened.  Something seemed to be whirling around and around in her
brain, and all it said was:

“Isn’t Aunt Adnah wonderful?  Isn’t Aunt Adnah wonderful?”

She was indeed a general in times of trouble.  Why, once when she was
young—but there isn’t time to tell Aunt Adnah’s story now.

There was time for nothing, it seemed.  It had come like a
lightning-flash.  Even the doctor was unable to aid.  Simeon Pace lay in
his bed, looking at them with tortured eyes.  It seemed to Annie Laurie
that he was trying to make her understand something—with all his
vanishing power he was trying to give her some important piece of
information.  She put her ear to his lips; she listened with the very
ears of her soul; but the thing he wished her to know went into silence
with him.  A dread convulsion brought the end.

Annie Laurie, standing aghast, knew she was fatherless as well as
motherless.  Yet it couldn’t be!  Why, only a little while before
everything had been well.  Had been well!  That reminded her of the
signal they were to send—the signal that was to remind each member of the
Girl’s Triple Alliance that they had not forgotten each other.  And they
had agreed not to send the “bad” message unless something very terrible
happened.  They had laughed about it!  And now the terrible thing really
had happened.  Or had it?  Was it, perhaps, only a frightful dream?  But
no, it was true—and her heart ached so!  If only the girls knew!  Well,
she would tell them.  She sat near the clock, watching it.  Perhaps when
she let the girls know, her throat wouldn’t ache so with that new,
strange, crushing pain.  Perhaps her eyeballs would cease burning.  How
busy it seemed around the house!  People were coming and going.  They
stopped to speak to her, and she found herself saying mechanically:

“Yes, I know.  You are very kind.  To-morrow I’ll understand better.
Thank you—to-morrow.”

Out of sheer compassion they left her alone.

Seven o’clock.  It was time for the signal.  She found the lantern and
made her way, unseen, to the roof.  Azalea’s light shone at her from the
gray air, far, far up the ridge.  Carin’s light flashed from the roof of
the mansion.  All was well with them.  They were laughing—Annie Laurie
knew they were laughing.  And she—she waved her lantern up and down and
up and down with a kind of passion.  She must make them know how deep was
the sorrow that had befallen her.  And they seemed to know.  It was as if
she could feel the streams of their sympathy rolling toward her.  Yes,
they understood.  That queer fluttering of their lanterns assured her of
it.  Annie Laurie left her roof and descending into the attic, sank on an
old settle there.  She dragged a horse blanket over her and at last the
storm of her anguish broke, and she wept and wept.



CHAPTER VIII
THE MYSTERY


Was it a long time—weary hours and hours—before Annie Laurie found her
way down the stairs?  She never could be sure.  A man, whom she did not
at first recognize, was leaving her father’s room.  For a second she felt
like rushing at him to tell him that he, a stranger, should not be in
there—in that sacred chamber where her father lay dead and defenseless.
Then she saw that it was Mr. Disbrow, the undertaker, and realized what
his task had been.  He had been making her father ready for his last
resting place.

But surely the man was not ashamed of his task!  He shot one glance at
Annie Laurie, and then without speaking, hastened down the stairs and out
of the front door.  Was he sorry for her and at a loss to say how sorry,
and so had run away?  Annie Laurie could understand that.  She would have
felt much the same way herself.  Yet it was, she decided, an odd way for
a man to feel who was so often in the house of mourning as an undertaker
naturally would be.  However, it mattered little.  She was glad he hadn’t
spoken to her.  And yet, when she thought of him as Sam’s father, it was
curious that he hadn’t.  Of course it might be that he knew nothing of
the good friendship which existed between Sam and herself, and he might
not approve of it anyway.  The Disbrows were great for keeping to
themselves.  So were the Paces, but the Paces were busy folk; they liked
their neighbors even if they didn’t see much of them.  But one always had
the feeling that the Disbrows shut themselves away from society because
they had something against it—nobody quite knew what.  Only Sam—Sam was
different.  He was made to live in the world and to enjoy it.

A vision of him, wide-shouldered, brown-haired—his hair would have curled
a trifle if he had not continually discouraged it—brown-eyed, smiling,
frank, energetic, arose before Annie Laurie.  He had a ringing laugh, and
the neighbors said he dared to laugh even in that silent shut-up house
where his mother lay on her sofa, with mouse-like, cross-eyed Hannah
watching beside her.  It came over Annie Laurie that she had disliked
them for things that were none of their fault.  Mrs. Disbrow couldn’t
help being ill; Hannah couldn’t help being cross-eyed; and it was
beautiful of her to be always beside her mother.

Yet, as she paced the floor of her bedroom thinking about her father,
with her tortured thoughts leaping this way and that as if they were
struggling to escape from sorrow, a conviction came over her that
sickness often was the fault of the person who suffered from it.  She
knew that an atmosphere of gloom hung over Sam’s house; that if he opened
up the windows Hannah was told to close them; if he brought in flowers
they had to be thrown out because they gave his mother a cold; if he
built a fire in the fireplace for cheerfulness, it was considered unsafe,
owing to a defect in the chimney.  The stove was sufficient—and indeed
more than sufficient, since the temperature of the room was at least
eighty the winter through.  Poor Sam!  Annie Laurie knew that he had
suggested that the chimney be mended so that they might sometimes sit by
the open fire, letting the raging stove subside; he had urged Hannah to
have an operation that would set her eyes straight, but the family had
been too fearful of the results.  So they sat in gloom and hideousness
within their power to remedy.  At least that was how it looked to Sam’s
impatient, energetic nature, and Annie Laurie took the same view.

Miss Zillah came in after a time, with arms and words of comfort for her
girl.

“Carin called up about seven o’clock,” she said, after a time when Annie
Laurie had wept out her grief on her good aunt’s shoulder.  “She seemed
to know you were in trouble, though I don’t understand how she could have
found out.”

Annie Laurie told her of the signalling.

“Well, she wanted to come right over to you, but I told her to wait until
to-morrow.  Was I right?”

Annie Laurie nodded.

“Get undressed now, poor one,” soothed Aunt Zillah.  “See, I’ll open your
bed and warm it for you.  Put on this flannel nightgown, that’s a dear.
And I’ll bring you a glass of milk—unless you want something heartier.”

It was wonderful, being petted like this.  She had led a chilly life, had
Annie Laurie.  She had known kindness, but not, it must be confessed,
warm love.  Yet now Aunt Zillah’s compassion and affection wrapped her
about like a cloak.  How did the old song run?

    “Come under my plaidie, the night’s gaun to fa’;
    Come in frae the cauld blast, the drift and the snaw;
    Come under my plaidie and sit down beside me,
    There’s room in’t, dear lassie, believe me, for twa.”

Yes, she would get in under Aunt Zillah’s plaidie and she would let the
dear old lady know that she was grateful to her for having asked her.
So, when she had drunk the warm fresh milk and been tucked in her bed,
she put her arms around Aunt Zillah’s wrinkled neck and gave her a long,
long hug.

“We’ll never, never go back on each other, will we?” she whispered
tremulously.

“Never, lass, never,” responded the old lady, the tears dripping from her
eyes on Annie Laurie’s upturned face.  So, sweetened by a sorrow, which
was after all but a natural and right sorrow such as must come to all,
Annie Laurie sank into the dead sleep of grief.

The next few days were blurred and strange.  Friends came to the house.
Flowers arrived in boxes.  There were many telephone messages.  The aunts
were called up from the telegraph office.  There was business to do at
the cemetery; arrangements to make at the church.  Through it all, Annie
Laurie strove to do her part.  There would be time enough for grieving
afterward, she decided.  The thing now was not to let too heavy a burden
fall on her aunts, who were, as Annie Laurie seemed to discover for the
first time, really getting to be old ladies.

But at last it all was over.  The house was quiet and peaceful.  And the
help on the farm came to Miss Adnah for instructions.

It must have been three days after the funeral that Mr. Carson called one
afternoon and asked to see Annie Laurie and her aunts.  It was like him,
in his thoughtfulness to include her, Annie Laurie thought.  She did not
know that Charles Carson, who liked almost everybody and who had the best
will in the world toward all mankind, nevertheless, knowing as much of
human nature as he did, thought it best to take her at once into council
concerning matters that would affect her future life.

He was received in the stiff little parlor, the two sisters sitting
opposite him in prim dignity, and Annie Laurie instinctively putting her
chair near his.

“I am sure you will pardon me for speaking to you concerning your
affairs,” he said in his hearty way.  “I would not venture to do so
uninvited, were it not a matter that in a way concerns me also.”

“Yes, sir,” said Miss Adnah and Miss Zillah in unison.  Annie Laurie
fixed her reddish-brown eyes upon him with devotion, and said nothing.

“The day before Mr. Pace died,” he went on, “I paid him twenty thousand
dollars in cash.”

Annie Laurie stared; the sisters started.

“It seemed to me foolish enough to pass such a sum of money over in
simple currency, but as you probably know, your brother”—he was now
addressing himself to the elder ladies—“had a prejudice against banks.  I
wished to give him my check.  He said he had no use for checks.  He
wanted money.  It was a curious idiosyncrasy of his, but since he wished
it that way I humored him.  He put the roll of bills into his pocket—I
paid the money to him at Mr. Heller’s bank—and drove away with it.  That
was Saturday afternoon.  He died Sunday.  I have come to inquire—with
only neighborly motives, I beg you to believe—whether or not you have
seen anything of that roll of bills.”

There was a slight pause.  Then:

“I have seen nothing of it, sir,” said Miss Adnah.

“Nor I, sir,” added Miss Zillah.

“Oh, and there must have been more money,” broke in Annie Laurie, “much,
much more!  I know papa always had a lot, Mr. Carson, but I haven’t an
idea where he kept it.  None of us had.  If we ever asked him for money
he would go away for a time and presently come back with the bills he
meant to give us.  He had some place where he hid it, and I used to think
he ought to tell some one of us where it was.”

“I should think so, indeed,” said Mr. Carson rather heatedly.  “Then you
haven’t any of you a notion where he kept his funds?”

“Not an earthly idea!” cried Annie Laurie.

“We haven’t the faintest notion, sir,” said Miss Adnah.  “I will confess
now that sister and I got up in the night—last night it was—and looked
everywhere in his room.  We even lifted the edges of the carpet and took
the back off the steel engravings.  We looked, of course, in the bureau,
and the chest and the closet.  We found nothing.  It was our intention to
begin to-night searching in the other rooms of the house.”

“But why in the night, ladies?”

Miss Adnah looked rather offended, as if Mr. Carson had gone a little too
far in asking such questions.  But Miss Zillah broke out with:

“Oh, you see, sir, it seemed so silly and absurd for us to have to do a
thing like that.  My opinion is that brother Simeon should have kept up
with the times and used a bank like other men.  I hate to have the
neighbors know what trouble and embarrassment he has put us to.”

Miss Adnah looked at her sister in amazement.  She, who was so gentle of
judgment and of speech, was actually criticising a Pace—and her own dead
brother at that!  But Mr. Carson turned a look of appreciation on the
flushed little face of the old lady.

“The Paces are not all cranks, anyway,” was his thought.  “This Miss
Zillah seems a very sensible sort of a woman—quite fit to be related to
Annie Laurie.”

The reflection would have surprised Miss Adnah very much had she known of
it, for she regarded herself as a person of singular good sense.  Indeed,
she secretly thought that she had, so far as the Paces were concerned,
rather a monopoly of it.  Zillah she regarded as something of a dreamer,
too sentimental, or “soft,” as she put it, by half; and she felt very
disapproving when she heard her pass uncomplimentary judgment upon one of
the family.  That was a privilege which Miss Adnah reserved for herself.

“You see, sir,” Miss Zillah went on, blurting out a family secret which
Miss Adnah would have starved rather than let anyone know, “we haven’t a
cent in the world.  The small amount which my sister and I had in our
purses has been used up during the last few days.  We owe for all the
expenses of our brother’s funeral.  Really, I may say that we don’t know
which way to turn.”

“My dear Miss Zillah,” responded Mr. Carson, “I will place a sum of money
at your disposal immediately.”

Why, Miss Adnah wondered, did he turn to Zillah instead of to her?  It
seemed to her that it ought to be evident to anyone that she was now the
head of the house.

“Moreover,” Mr. Carson went on, “I will deposit the sum in the bank and
send you the bank book.  I know this will be more in accord with your
ideas.”

There was a little twinkle in his eye as he said this, but Miss Zillah
did not catch it.  She was really much flattered that he should think her
a person capable of conducting things in a businesslike way, and she
would not have shown by the flutter of an eyelash how frightened she
really was at the suggestion.

“Then,” continued Mr. Carson, “our next business will be to find that
money.  I propose that you call in one or two trusty neighbors, not given
to gossiping, and that they assist you in looking over the premises.  The
money must be here somewhere.  It merely devolves on us to find it.”

Miss Adnah made a gesture of distress.

“I don’t believe, sir,” she said, “that you can have any notion of how
intensely distressing it is to us to do such a thing.  And I may say that
we have no neighbors who wouldn’t gossip.  If you have any such, please
show them to me.”

Annie Laurie, who knew her Aunt Adnah’s tempestuous nature, saw that a
storm was rising, and she cast about for a way of diverting it.

“Aunt Adnah,” she broke in, “let Azalea and Carin help us hunt.  You know
if it’s a secret they’ll never, never, tell it.  We’ve pledged ourselves
to keep each other’s secrets, you see.  And no one can look as hard as we
girls can.  We’re like ferrets.”

“An excellent idea, Miss Pace,” said Mr. Carson, nodding at Aunt Adnah.
“Let the members of the Triple Alliance have a hand at it.  It will seem
natural enough for Annie Laurie’s friends to be here with her in her
trouble; the girls will tell nothing; and their keen young wits are the
best ones imaginable to set at this task.”

Upon consultation it struck the sisters that this would be the case.  Bad
as it would be to have three “young-ones” ranging over their orderly
house, tearing up this and that, they would at least take the thing only
as a sort of game.  They wouldn’t be ill-natured and sneering about it as
their elders might be.

So it was agreed that they would accept Mr. Carson’s offer of a generous
loan of money, and that on Saturday the three girls were to start in
under the direction of the Misses Pace, and make a search of both house
and yard.

“Their eyes certainly are sharper than ours, Adnah,” Miss Zillah said.

“Yes,” snapped Miss Adnah, worn and weary with the difficulties of life,
“they’re sharp enough.  Oh, Zillah, Zillah, why should we Paces be
humiliated like this?”

“No humiliation about it, sister,” Miss Zillah replied.  “Take things a
little easier, Adnah; let some one help us out.  We’re very much
shaken—very much shaken, indeed.  We’re getting old, and we’ve had a
great sorrow.  If folks want to help, why let ’em.”

There was no doubt about it, they were shaken.  The excitement and
courage that had borne them up at first, failed them as the week went on.
Miss Adnah, who had felt herself so able to attend to the business of the
farm, not only found it beyond her power to give an order, but she found
it impossible to fix her mind on the bookkeeping, which was a necessary
part of the business.  Annie Laurie had been obliged to consult with the
help after her school hours, and to straighten out the accounts as best
she could during the evening.  They felt the need of a strong, quiet man
of affairs—a good, reliable overseer—but the men who were helping them
were not of that sort, and they knew of no one in the country who seemed
to meet their need.

Saturday morning by nine o’clock, according to Annie Laurie’s invitation,
Azalea and Carin arrived on their ponies.  These being given to the
stable men, the two girls, in no little awe at entering a house of
sorrow, came in to pay their respects to Miss Zillah and her sister.  The
two sat shivering before the fire, tearful and nervous, and even Miss
Adnah was now willing to give over the search for their lost fortune into
the hands of these respectful and sympathetic girls.

“At first, my dear girls,” said Aunt Zillah brokenly, “it seemed as if we
couldn’t let anyone in to help us and it’s hard enough now, but we’d
rather it would be you than anyone.”

“Oh, Miss Zillah,” cried Azalea in her impulsive way, “we understand just
how you feel.  But Annie Laurie’s fortune just must be found, mustn’t it?
Why, it’s a quest, you know.  A sacred quest—like you read about.”

That glow which was Azalea’s greatest charm, lit up her dark face and
Miss Zillah felt that here was a girl who was one of them.  She need fear
nothing from her.  As for that sweet-faced Carson girl, with her golden
hair and her lovely voice, how could anyone do anything but trust her?
Yes, it was all as it should be.  They were old women and must give their
cares into the hands of others.

So the three girls began their never-to-be-forgotten search for Annie
Laurie’s lost fortune.

Although the aunts had gone over the dead man’s room, they thought best
to begin there.  So thorough was their search that they even ripped open
the lining of his coats; they looked in his shoes; they investigated his
hat linings.  Nothing was found.

Then they searched the hallways, the pantries and cupboards.  They looked
throughout the parlor, through the living room, through the kitchen.
They had one of the men in to pull up the window sills.  They took the
bricks from the hearth.  Nightfall found them wearily searching the dusty
debris in the old attic.

Sunday was a day of rest for all of these people, but it was very, very
hard for them to sit in idleness while their imaginations were rioting
through the Pace property, searching out every corner and cubbyhole for
the lost money.  Naturally enough, Monday found the girls in no condition
to settle down to their studies, and as Mrs. Carson said, it was so much
more important that the money should be found than that they should learn
a lesson or two, that they were excused from school and permitted to
resume their search.

The yard was their point of attack this morning.  They looked over every
inch of it, but nowhere did they see anything save the hard, frozen
surface.  No hollow tree offered a place for hiding.  The solid
substructure of the house forbade them to hope for anything there.  Next
they went to the barns, the stables and outhouses, but here the prospect
was discouraging indeed.

“Besides,” said Annie Laurie, “when papa wanted to get money for any
purpose he always went to his own room and locked the door.  It seemed as
if he must have kept it with him.”

“But how can that be,” argued Carin, dropping white and worn into her
chair—they were in Annie Laurie’s room,—“when nothing has been found
anywhere about his clothes?  Why, the only pocketbook he appeared to have
was that little one for silver.  Didn’t you ever see him with a large
leather pocketbook, Annie?”

“Never,” said Annie Laurie.  “Never.”

“But now, when papa paid him that twenty thousand dollars,” Carin
insisted.  “Do you suppose he brought that home in his hand the way a
child would a penny, or rolled it up in his pocket where it could fall
out any minute?  It doesn’t seem reasonable; honestly it doesn’t.”

And then, suddenly, Azalea had a vision.  She saw a man come into a dark
room—a room lighted only by a flickering fire.  She saw him lay aside his
coat, unscrew his tin arm, take something from the mantel shelf, place it
within, then replace the arm and the coat.  She remembered how he had
asked her if she ever dreamed, and how she had said she never told her
dreams, and he had said that was right.  And she had remembered the look
that had gone from him to her and back again—a look which was a promise
on her part not to tell what she had seen and a message from him of
confidence in her.  She sat rigid, going over the scene again before she
spoke.  When she did the girls hardly recognized her voice.

“I know!” she said—not very loud.

“You know?”  The others cried it together.

“He kept his money in his tin arm.”

“No!”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw him put some there once.”

“When?”

“Where?”

“The night Annie Laurie and I fell asleep on the sofa.”

“Tell me more, ’Zalie.”

“Yes, yes, I will.  I’ll tell you everything.  Oh, Annie Laurie, was the
tin arm buried with him?”

“No—no, I’m sure it wasn’t.  It was hanging on a nail in his bedroom the
day after he was buried, but the aunts couldn’t bear to see it there and
they carried it to the attic.”

“Then the money couldn’t have been in it after all.”

“Oh, it might still be there.  Let’s go see.”

Up to the attic they went, trembling with eagerness.  There, sure enough,
from a beam hung the tin arm.  Annie Laurie could not quite bring herself
to touch it.  It seemed almost like a part of her father.  But Azalea
took it down, convinced that she was right.  She looked into it; carried
it to one of the windows and looked again.  She ran her fingers into the
hand of it.  She turned her disappointed face toward her friends.  There
was nothing there.

“All the same,” she said with earnestness, “it _was_ there.”

“But then some one has taken it out.”

“That’s it,” said Carin.  “Some one has taken it out.”

“Not the aunts!” cried Annie Laurie, fiercely.

“Oh, mercy no,” agreed Azalea, “not the aunts.”

“But who else handled the arm?” asked Carin.

Annie Laurie stood thinking.  Then a deep flush spread over her face.

“I—I don’t—who else could have?” she stammered.  She couldn’t bear to
place anyone under suspicion.

But Azalea was more impulsive.

“Why Mr. Disbrow, the undertaker, of course,” she said.  “He must have
taken it off.  He must have—” she stopped and the three stared at each
other.

And then Annie Laurie remembered how he had crowded by her in the hall,
not speaking, and looking the other way.



CHAPTER IX
THE DISBROWS


The three girls made up their minds to tell no one of their suspicions
concerning the disappearance of Simeon Pace’s money.  But Azalea could
not but talk it over with Pa McBirney, and Thomas McBirney could not
resist cogitating about the matter with Haystack Thompson, and he, in
turn, was impelled to go with it to his trusted pastor, Absalom Summers.
And Absalom whispered it to his Barbara, and Barbara—but perhaps she told
no one.  In looking the matter over afterward, she was almost sure that
she had told no one.  At least she hadn’t told of it right out.  And
Carin spoke of it only to her father; and he mentioned it merely to the
banker Heller, and he only spoke of it to his fellow officers in the
bank, and they told no one but their intimate friends.

As for Annie Laurie, she refrained with a mighty effort from confiding
her suspicions to her aunts, and she warned her friends not to tell them.
Had they mulled that matter over and over during the long, lonely winter
evenings, the poor girl would have felt as if she were losing her reason
as well as her fortune.  Indeed, the winter had settled down heavily over
the Pace household.  The dairy met with reverses.  Two of the best cows
died.  The accounts would not balance.  And worst of all, the helpers
were hard to manage and would not take orders willingly from Miss Adnah.
The strong will and hand of Simeon Pace were sorely missed.

And along with all this distress was the sense that Annie Laurie and her
aunts had of burning injustice.  Somewhere in the world was money in
abundance, belonging to them.  Just how much it was they could not even
guess.  Of Mr. Carson’s purchase money of twenty thousand dollars they
felt sure.  He had Simeon Pace’s receipt to show for that.  But there was
other money beyond question—the savings of years.  The old aunts, waking
in the night, would arise and fumble in the places in which they had
looked so often; and Annie Laurie, strong and sensible as she was, found
that it required all of her will to keep from following their example.

This girl, so straightforward, so energetic and hopeful by nature, found
it almost intolerable to sit around, patient under injustice.  She
proposed to Mr. Carson that he should go to Hector Disbrow and accuse him
of the theft of the money—tell him the whole thing was known, and that he
must refund it or be arrested.  But Mr. Carson shook his head.

“As a matter of fact, my dear,” he said, “the thing isn’t known at all.
It is only surmised.  Azalea, in semi-darkness, thought she saw your
father put something in his arm.  She may have been mistaken.  Or even if
she were not mistaken about his doing so on that particular occasion, it
doesn’t in the least follow that your father carried the money in
question there.  Above all, it does not follow that it was in the arm the
day of his death; or that, even if it was there, that the undertaker
stole it.  The tin arm must have hung in the room for days.  Many persons
visited that room.  Any one of them might be guilty.”

“Then is there nothing at all that can be done, sir?”

“Nothing at present.  I am watching Disbrow—indeed, I may say the whole
community has him under suspicion.  If he is guilty be sure that sooner
or later it will come out.”

“But here we are, getting deeper and deeper in debt to you!”

“Annie Laurie, I am convinced that every cent I have advanced you will be
paid back to me in time.  You are a brave girl.  I trust you completely.
I feel that you are going to make a success of life.  Meantime, you are
living on borrowed capital.  But so are thousands of others.  Back of it
all, you must remember, is the fine farm as security.  It is a perfectly
clear business proposition.  Have no fears, child.”

She strengthened under the tone he used in speaking to her.  If he had
pitied her, she would have broken down, but he merely put it to her that
she was playing her part in the world, and she braced herself to play
that part well and not disappoint him or any of her other friends.

She tried to avoid Sam Disbrow, yet it seemed to be her luck to meet him
oftener than usual.  He was very sorry for her, she could see, and he
assumed his brightest and heartiest manner when he was with her, in his
efforts to help her to be happy.

One day when there was a feeling of spring in the air, and she had gone
along one of the little winding paths through the pine wood, she met him
with his gun on his shoulder and his dogs at his heels.

“Why, Annie Laurie,” he cried, “are you out hunting too?”

The deep suspicion and anger she felt toward his father put some
irritation into her tone as she said:

“And why are you hunting, Sam?  I thought you were working in the box
factory office.”

“Well, so I was.  You see, I had finished school here and dad couldn’t
afford to send me away.  I might have gone anyway, and somehow worked my
way through Rutherford Academy, but Hannah said I oughtn’t to leave
mother.  So I stayed—though it didn’t seem to me quite the best thing to
do.  But now, suddenly, dad says I’m to go away to school.  At first I
refused.  I was afraid it would mean pinching and scrimping for all the
rest of them at home.  But dad said, no, things were a little easier with
him now, and I’d better take the chance while I had it.”

Annie Laurie stood before him in the path staring, while Sam waited in
vain for her congratulations.

“So, yesterday,” he went on in a somewhat dashed tone, “a fellow came to
the factory looking for work.  He said he needed it very badly—had his
mother to look after.  So I spoke up and said I was leaving to go into
the Rutherford Academy at the spring term, and that I’d get out and let
him have my place.  You see, there were a number of things I wanted to do
around home before I went away.  And I was just crazy to get off in the
hills for a day or two.  That’s the way with us down here, isn’t it,
Annie Laurie?  We can keep under roof only about so long.  Then we have
to go roving for a spell.”

Annie Laurie hardly heard what he said.  She could with difficulty keep
from breaking out with:

“But where is the money coming from that is to send you away to the
academy?  Didn’t you ask your father how he came by this money so
suddenly?  Have you no notion of what he has done to earn this money?
Can you be living a lie—just as he is?”

There swept back to her memory the words the minister had said that day
in church when she had caught Sam’s eye, and had known what he was
thinking.

“Plant a lie in the garden of your soul,” he had said, “and it will
flourish worse than any poisonous weed.  Do not think you can uproot it
when you will, for it will grow and grow till it is stronger than you,
and not all your prayers and tears can rend its terrible roots out of
your life.”

Sam had wondered, as she had, why the preacher should have talked like
that to a congregation of good people.  For they had all seemed good to
her; but now she realized that if the Disbrows were living a lie perhaps
other persons whom she knew and liked were doing so, too.  For the first
time in Annie Laurie’s life a tidal wave of suspicion, distrust and
hatred of the world swept over her, and it seemed like a wicked place—a
place made up of beings who tried to injure each other.

She felt so ill that she leaned against a tree.

Sam seemed to take no notice, however.  He was watching his dogs, and
talking on and on in his cheerful way.

“And another fine thing is going to happen,” he said.  “Dad has got up
spunk enough at last to send Hannah up to Williamsburg to have her eyes
operated upon, and sis has found the courage to go.  Do you know, I
believe that after she gets those poor eyes of hers straightened she
won’t be so shy and queer as she is now.  I suppose she loathes going out
where she’ll meet people, when she has to look all over the premises
whenever she tries to fix her eyes on the person she’s talking to.  Then,
if dad could only get some one in to take care of poor mother, Hannah
could go away to school too, perhaps, and grow to be a little more like
other folks.”

Annie Laurie knew that Sam would not have talked about his own people in
this free way to anyone but her.  The two had spoken out their minds to
each other for years, and it had come to be second nature for them to do
it.

And now here they were with a black secret between them.  She, Annie
Laurie, who had meant always to be Sam’s true friend, was suspicious of
him!  Yet she could not look at him, standing there smiling in the spring
sunlight, his eyes full of enthusiasm, and think him guilty of any
knowledge of wrong-doing on the part of his father.

How very, very strange life seemed!  Once she had thought it like a road.
One had only to walk ahead, doing right and nodding to the passers-by,
and all would be well.  Now she saw how it twisted, turned, and
split—this road—and how difficult it was to tell which turning to take,
or which by-path to seek.

Then an impulse came over her almost as strong and swift as one of those
which were forever besetting Azalea.

“Sam,” she said, “I haven’t been in your house for years.  Do you know, I
would like to go.  I’d like to go now.  Do you think I might?”

Sam flushed a little and hesitated a moment.

“Why, yes, Annie, I don’t know why you shouldn’t.  Mother doesn’t see
many people, as you know; and they won’t be expecting you, but if you’ll
take things as you find them—”

“Oh, yes, Sam,” she aid dryly.  “That’s just what I mean.  I want to take
them as they are.  I want to get acquainted with your family.”

He looked pleased and softened at that.

“Do you, Annie Laurie?” he said with a little thrill in his voice.
“Well, that sure is nice of you.  Not very many of the neighbors seem to
care whether they live or die.  Come along, then.  Let’s go now.”

So they turned in the direction of the Disbrow house, Annie Laurie
leading and Sam walking behind, nervously smiling, the dogs at his heels.

They turned in at the Disbrow place, passing through the sagging gate,
and Sam uttered his first apology.

“I’ve tried and tried to get that old gate to stay up on the level,” he
said.  “But seems like we never have the proper tools to do anything
with; and anyhow, the wood’s so rotten it won’t hold a nail, hardly.”

“Oh, a sagging gate is nothing,” answered Annie Laurie dully.

The little garden had not yet felt the influence of spring, and it looked
dejected enough.  Fragments of last year’s mosquito netting dangled at
the windows; the paint of the little house was weather-worn; the arms
were off the bench on the porch.  Green shades kept the light from making
its way into the low rooms.  Indeed, so dim was the room into which Annie
Laurie stepped that at first she could see nothing.  The heat was fairly
sweltering, and the atmosphere was lifeless and stale-smelling.

“Mother,” said Sam gently, “I’ve brought a friend to see you—Annie Laurie
Pace.”

“Oh,” sighed a voice from the gloom, struggling between reproachfulness
and natural politeness, “have you?  How do you do, Annie Laurie?”

“I’m very well, thank, you ma’am.  Are you feeling any better?”

“No—no, I don’t seem to get any better.  Sam, you’ll have to pull up a
shade.  Annie Laurie won’t be able to see a thing.”

Annie Laurie closed her eyes for an instant.  She dreaded what she would
see, and yet she had long wished to know the truth—to know what Sam’s
strange home was like.  She heard the shade being raised, and with
something of an effort she opened her eyes and looked about.  What she
saw gave her a shock.  Her own home was ugly enough, as she knew well;
but poverty was here, and worse than poverty—indifference to appearances.
The almost bare apartment wore that dejected and unhappy aspect of a room
for which no one cares and in which no one hopes.  It was a sad room—a
sick room—with a long couch and its occupant for the chief objects.

Yes, the couch was long and wide, though the woman who lay on it was so
small.  Figured brown calico covered the bed, and the woman was dressed
in a wrapper of faded blue.  There was no collar about her throat—only
the coarse open neck-band, showing a shriveled neck.  Her face was
bloodless and bleached like a vegetable that has grown in the dark, and
out of it looked a pair of weary eyes, beneath which were deep, dark
circles.  Her hair—brown, touched with gray—was brushed back straight and
flat from her bulging brow, and this, with her high-arched eyebrows, gave
her an almost Chinese look.  Her hands, thinner and more apathetic than
any hands Annie Laurie ever had seen, lay on the calico cover.

“It’s not very often I have light let in here,” she said.  “It makes my
head ache so.”

Annie Laurie did not say that she ought not to have let it in for her, if
that was the case.  She couldn’t really feel that this was the case.  She
was glad the light was in the room for once, and by it, she moved toward
Mrs. Disbrow’s bed, her hand outstretched with something almost like
satisfaction, for she knew as she looked in that woman’s face, that if
her fortune had been stolen from her by the undertaker, his wife did not
know it.  She was as convinced of this woman’s innocence when she looked
at her, as she was of her pitiful condition.  So she took one of the
claw-like hands in her own strong grasp and sat down beside her.  Mrs.
Disbrow’s face was quivering with the excitement of meeting a stranger.

“Sam often talks of you,” said his mother in her fluttering voice.  “I’ve
been wanting to see you.  You’re a strong, fine girl, Annie.”

“Yes, I’m strong and well,” the girl answered.  “I’m very thankful.”

“Well, I haven’t known a well day for years,” said the invalid.  “Here I
lie, racked with pain, and I declare I don’t know whether it’s one day or
another.”

Annie Laurie felt herself bracing against this discouraged tone.

“Well,” she said, “I don’t suppose you really have to worry about what
day it is.  You have nothing to do—no Monday washing to think of, or
Saturday baking.  Some one else does all that for you.”

She spoke merely to present a cheerful side, but Mrs. Disbrow flushed a
trifle.  Annie Laurie saw that she had said something that annoyed her.

“Yes,” the sick woman replied still more dejectedly, “I’m nothing but a
drag on my family.  I often say to them that it would be better if I was
out of their way.”

“I don’t suppose that makes them very happy—hearing you say that.”  Annie
Laurie replied in her hearty way.  It really seemed to her as if that was
the unkindest thing a mother could say to her children.  “If only I could
have my mother, sick or well, or any way at all, I’d be the happiest girl
in the world.  It’s terribly lonely being without a mother—or a father,”
she added almost in a whisper.

Mrs. Disbrow reached out her hand and laid it on Annie Laurie’s.

“Poor girl,” she murmured with what was almost her first thought of
anyone save herself, that winter.

“And—Oh, I feel so sorry for Sam and Hannah, with you ill always,” went
on Annie Laurie.  “Of course it spoils their happiness.  It seems such a
pity!  Isn’t there anything that can be done, Mrs. Disbrow?  Doesn’t any
doctor know how to cure you?  Haven’t you any idea yourself of what ought
to be done?”

“Well, my husband talks of going West soon,” answered Mrs. Disbrow with
something like vivacity—or rather, like a shadow of it.  “I’m looking
forward to that.  If we could get to a new place and to a new house, and
if there was something to look forward to, and hope for the children to
make something of themselves, I don’t know—maybe—” her voice trailed off
and her eyes fixed themselves in an aimless reverie on the opposite wall.

So they were going West!  That was the plan.  The man who had been unable
to give his family a chance, who had been broken by this long illness of
his wife’s, who had failed to make his place among men, was going West.
His chance had come to him at last.  Had it come through theft?  Annie
Laurie found herself wishing that they might indeed have the chance,
these poor people who seemed never to have been able to step out into the
sunshine.  Yet had they a right to this chance—if it meant her defeat?
Could she let them go this way, while she was left to struggle with
poverty?

The door opened and a girl entered.  Hannah!  She was so slender that
Annie Laurie, who was broad of shoulder, with a backbone that might have
been made of steel, wondered how the poor thing managed to keep upright.
Her face was ivory-colored, her frock an ill-fitting gingham of a hideous
“watermelon” pink.  She turned her dreadfully crossed eyes on Annie
Laurie—or to be correct, turned one of them on her—and looked at her
resentfully.

“This is sister Hannah, Annie Laurie,” said Sam in rather a stifled
voice.  “You two girls ought to know each other, you know.”

“How do you do?” said Hannah, miserable with shyness.

“Oh, I’m pretty well, thank you, Hannah,” Annie Laurie answered, and then
she added: “But I can’t say I’m very happy.  You wouldn’t expect that.
I’m very, very lonely without my father.”

She had risen and stood before the girl, with her bald little statement
of sorrow, and Hannah, forgetting herself and her fears for a moment,
looked up at Annie Laurie with sympathy in her face.

“Oh,” she said, “it’s too bad.  I—I cried after I heard of it.”

She seemed astonished at herself for saying so much, and Sam looked at
her with amazement.  Had Hannah actually cried over some one else’s
troubles?

“Did you?” exclaimed Annie Laurie.  “Oh, that was sweet of you, Hannah.”

She forgot her Aunt Adnah’s axiom that the Paces seldom kissed, and
leaned forward and planted a warm kiss on Hannah’s cheek.

“I like to know that,” she went on.  “You see I feel so—so friendless.”

“Why, with your aunts and all?” inquired Mrs. Disbrow.

“I feel as if I ought to be protecting my aunts, you see,” explained
Annie.  “They are old and terribly broken by father’s death.  And then,
everything has gone so wrong with us.  We haven’t been able to find
father’s money anywhere, you know, and we’re really poor.  We’ve no money
to run the dairy on, and the men need overseeing, and I’ve blundered
along with my bad bookkeeping.  Altogether, it looks as if things were
going to ruin, and I just can’t bear that, Mrs. Disbrow.”

“Why, you’ve always been so prosperous!” exclaimed Mrs. Disbrow.  “My
husband often has spoken of how prosperous your father was, and has
contrasted him with himself.  You see, Mr. Disbrow never has got on well
here.  His farm has paid poorly, and of course the undertaking business
is of very little consequence in a community like this.  I declare I
can’t blame him for being discouraged and bitter and sort of half-hating
the men who are successful.  It’s hard to like people when everything is
going against you.”

Annie Laurie swept her glance around the room again, taking in the
brother and sister, and resting it at last on the sick woman.

“I suppose it is,” she said slowly.  “I suppose it is.  But Mrs. McBirney
says you have to give out liking to have people like you, and that you
have to think you are going to succeed in order to do it.”

“And you have to think well in order to be well, I suppose,” said the
invalid angrily.  “I suppose that’s her idea.  Well, you can tell her for
me that she’s mistaken.”

Annie Laurie did not look rebuked.  She sat still, thinking.

“I know so little about sickness,” she said slowly,  “that I can’t even
sympathize the way I ought to, I suppose.  Oh, Mrs. Disbrow, don’t you
suppose you could go riding with me?  I’m such a good driver, I wouldn’t
let you be shaken up at all.  Sam and Hannah could sit beside you to keep
you from being joggled.”

“A pretty sight I’d make!” cried Mrs. Disbrow.  “There’s too many of the
neighbors would be peeking out to see what I looked like, after all these
years of being shut away.  No, thank you, child, I don’t believe I want
to try.”

“But you could go at twilight.  We could go when the neighbors are at
supper.  Wouldn’t it be fun, Sam?  Could you sit up, ma’am?”

“No, I don’t believe I could.  And even if I did, like as not I’d pay for
it the next day.”

“But why not try?  Maybe you wouldn’t have to pay for it.  Oh, ma’am,
it’s so wonderful to be out of doors.  You can’t think what you miss
staying in here—can she, Sam?”

“No,” said Sam, “she can’t have an idea.  Oh, mother, you never would
listen to me, though truly I believe you’d be ever so much better if you
would get out.  Please try.  The three of us will be able to take good
care of you.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then the boy flung out his arms with
sudden passion.

“Oh, mother, mother, please try!  Why need we all be so unhappy?  Why
can’t we have a little joy like other people?”

Annie Laurie felt the tears leap into her eyes.  She had never before
seen Sam as other than the cheerful, hearty boy, but now she knew that
the cheerfulness and heartiness had been an imitation of the real thing.
They had been but his courage masquerading as something else.

Mrs. Disbrow raised herself on her elbow and looked at her son.  Suddenly
a great light broke over her.  She had not been the only sufferer in that
house.  Before her were the two whose youth she had shadowed with her
pain.

“I’ll go,” she said in a strange voice.  “When shall it be?”

“Now,” cried Annie Laurie.  “I’ll run right home and have the men hitch
up.  Oh, Hannah, be sure she’s dressed warm enough.  I’ll have something
warm put in for her feet.  Oh, Sam, maybe she’ll like it!”

She turned toward the boy with outstretched hands and he caught and held
them for a moment.  Then she was off, running as fast as she could to
serve the people into whose house she had gone with the motives of a spy.



CHAPTER X
SAM


Of course Annie Laurie told Azalea and Carin all about it as the three
sat together the next day after luncheon, in the schoolroom.

“Papa said he’d seen you,” Carin answered.  “He was horseback riding and
late getting home, and he said he saw you out with the Disbrows, and that
Mrs. Disbrow looked like a ghost that had got back to earth and didn’t
like it very well.  But he thought you were wonderful to do that.  He
didn’t quite see how you could, feeling as you do, but he thought it
lovely of you just the same!”

“Well,” said Annie Laurie.  “You see I didn’t feel quite the way I
thought I did when I saw that poor woman and Hannah; and then poor Sam
looked at me as if he thought I could set his world right if I only
would.”

“It’s a terribly twisted world,” mused Azalea.  “Now, what if poor little
Hannah has her eyes straightened, and Sam goes to college, and Mrs.
Disbrow gets her health out West all out of the money that was stolen
from you, Annie Laurie?  Those are all good things to have happen.”

“Yes, they are,” answered Annie Laurie without anger.  “They are good
things.  But you remember what Elder Mills said that last night about
avoiding lies in word and act.  I remember particularly because it was
something like what the preacher had been saying over to the Baptist
church only a few Sundays before.  It seemed to me they were all harping
on that subject, but I begin to see why, now.  I can see that all false
things are lies—that stealing is a sort of lie—a saying that something is
yours which isn’t.  It will be like that with the Disbrows, I suppose; no
matter what good comes to them, it won’t seem good—at least not to Mr.
Disbrow, who knows the truth about how he came by the money.  It’s
dreadful, when you come to think of it, that a nice boy like Sam should
be having things out of that money he’s no right to.”

“You oughtn’t to speak as if it was an absolutely sure thing that he took
the money, Annie Laurie,” warned Carin.  “Papa says we mustn’t do that.
He says it’s a kind of crime in itself to accuse people of sins when
you’re not sure they’re guilty.”

“I’ll try not to,” sighed Annie Laurie penitently, “but it’s very hard.
And, oh, Carin, it’s getting to be so sad at the house with the old aunts
always talking about the lost money and hunting and hunting for it, and
the business going to pieces and I not able to prevent it.”

That night when the Carsons sat at dinner, Carin told her father that
Annie Laurie had said Mrs. Disbrow was expecting her husband to take the
family West.

Mr. Carson brought his fist down on the table.

“Now, that can’t be,” he cried.  “I won’t have that!  I simply won’t.  No
matter what risk I run of doing the man an injustice, I won’t have him
leave this community.  He’s under suspicion and he’s got to stay here.
I’m sorry for him, sometimes, when I see him walk into town and all the
men turn their backs on him and walk away.  Of course, it isn’t really
fair—or at least, it may not be fair, for it is possible that he is as
innocent as you or I.  But if he is guilty, he’s getting only a small
part of what he deserves.  At any rate, I can understand that he’s very
uncomfortable in this town nowadays, and that he’d like mighty well to
get out of it.  But he shan’t, if I have anything to say about it.”

The next morning, however, Annie Laurie came with startling news.

“They’re gone!” she cried as she dashed into the schoolroom.

“Who?” the girls asked in unison.

“The Disbrows.”

“No!”

“Yes, they have.  I was walking along the road and I happened to look
over toward their house, and there wasn’t any smoke coming from the
chimney.  And there was something about the place—I can’t describe it,
because the curtains are forever down anyway—but something that looked
deserted.  So I pelted across the field and knocked at the door and no
one answered.  And then I tried the door and it was locked.  I saw the
chickens were gone, too, and the cow and the horses.  They all went in
the night.”

“But do you think Sam would let his family act like that?”

“Sam went to Rutherford yesterday to the academy.  No, I don’t think he
knew a thing about it.  He came over after I got home from school to say
good-bye, and he was very happy and—oh, well—good, you know.  No one
could have looked as he did if he had thought his father was a thief and
his family sneaks.”

“But my goodness,” exclaimed Azalea, “don’t you suppose he’s noticed how
the men were treating his father—turning their backs on him and all that?
Pa McBirney said he just couldn’t bring himself to shake hands with him
any more.  Don’t you suppose Mr. Disbrow ever had spoken of that at
home?”

“He always was bitter and fault-finding anyway,” said Annie Laurie.
“Mrs. Disbrow told me that.  I suppose a little more or less complaining
wouldn’t mean anything to her.”

“But she certainly must have wondered at having the house torn up in an
hour or two, and at setting out in the night that way like fugitives,”
said Carin.

“Oh, well, you know she hated to go out driving with me for fear the
neighbors would be peeping at her, so I suppose she was well pleased to
go in the night.  She’d hate to have folks find out what a poor little
handful of things they had, and all that.”

“Of course,” said Azalea, “it would be easy enough to find which way they
went, by the wagon marks.  They must have had the cow tied on behind the
wagon, and so they could be followed easily and overtaken if—if you
wanted them to be, Annie Laurie.”

“Yes,—I know.  If—I wanted them to be.”

The girl sank into a chair and rested her face in her hand, staring
straight before her.  Azalea and Carin said nothing.  They were thinking
very, very hard, too.  The silence was long and intense.  Then they heard
Miss Parkhurst’s steps approaching down the hall.  Annie Laurie struck
her two hands together sharply.

“I can’t do it!” she cried.  “I can’t let Sam’s people be chased like
that and brought back.  I may be wrong, and weak, and not fair to the
poor old aunts, but I just can’t do it, that’s all there is to it.”

Carin and Azalea looked at her with perfect understanding.

“No,” said Carin softly, “you couldn’t do that, could you?  Plenty of
people could, and they’d be just and right—maybe.  But you couldn’t, and
I like you, Annie Laurie, because you can’t.”

Azalea clapped her hands.

“So do I!” she agreed.  “It will all come right for you, Annie.  That’s
what dear Ma McBirney would say if she knew.  Somehow it will all come
right.  But to have that poor, sneaking, miserable man chased, and that
sick woman, and little Hannah who is half-frightened out of her life
anyway—oo-oo-oo!  You couldn’t.”

Miss Parkhurst opened the door.  The three girls arose respectfully and
answered her good morning.

“Algebra this morning,” she said briskly.  Perforce they turned their
thoughts to matters that were anything but exciting.

But if they could have known the experiences their friend Sam Disbrow was
going through, their lesson would have been even poorer than it was—and
Miss Parkhurst had already been obliged to tell them that as
mathematicians she did not consider them brilliantly successful.

Sam had set off with a light heart.  For the first time in his life he
was going away from home—that depressing and melancholy home, against the
gloom of which he had set all the forces of his really happy and brave
nature.  But the home had been too much for him.  He could feel it slowly
and surely dragging him down into that pit of gloom and distrust where
the others lived, and to leave it behind, to have a chance to go to
school and get the education which he felt he must have if he was to make
anything of himself, filled him not only with joy but gratitude.

Of course, he still wondered how his father had been able to manage it.
He knew that they were very poor—that his father had not been able to
make a success at anything.  His garden never flourished like that of his
neighbors; his chickens never laid well; his cow gave only a fraction of
the milk she should; his cotton was but a scanty crop; and even as an
undertaker, the only one in Lee, he sometimes was passed over for his
remote rival in Rutherford.

Recently things had been going even more wrong than usual.  Sam could not
explain it, but a general dislike of the whole Disbrow family seemed to
have invaded the town.  His father never had been popular, but lately Sam
had noticed signs of actual aversion.  How was it to be accounted for?
If ever the faintest shadow of an idea as to the real reason for this
dislike entered Sam’s mind, he thrust it out, strangled and
unrecognizable, from his consciousness.  He believed in his father
because he believed in himself.  He was not a person to whom suspicion
came naturally, although he had lived in the midst of it all his days.
There is a thing called reaction—the sharp turning of the spirit against
a condition or an idea.  Sam had reacted against the gray dispositions in
his family.  He was ready to blossom into the scarlet of courage and good
will, of power and joy, if only a little sun could shine on him.

And now it seemed to be shining.  He was going away to school as other
boys did.  There would be a number of fellows he knew, and chief among
them would be Richard Heller, the banker’s son.  He liked Heller.  He
counted on him to “show him the ropes” at the academy.

It was a long time since he had been in the smart town of Rutherford.
His heart leaped in him as he stepped out from the station, his bag in
his hand, and felt the throb of the busy town about him.  Automobiles
were ranged in line about the station, carriages with well-kept horses
stood in the shade beneath the fine elms, the paved streets were clean,
the street cars new and fresh looking, and everywhere were busy, active
people, moving along with that air of confidence and efficiency which too
often was lacking at Lee.  And it exhilarated Sam.  All that was strong
and eager in him liked it.  He wanted to be a part of a community like
that.

He took the street car that ran to the academy, and sat wrapt in interest
at noting the fine homes, the well-kept lawns, the excellent public
buildings.  People were doing things here that were worth while, said Sam
to himself.  And he, in his way, was going to be a part of it.  Perhaps
he could stay in the Academy till he was graduated—with honors, maybe—and
then he would stay on at Rutherford, and become a part of its busy,
stirring life.  He would have a home like the one he was passing, with
tall windows, and the light streaming in through beautiful trees, and a
porch like that, with his family sitting out on it in the open, and not
hiding away in the shadow.  Then there would be bright flowers, like
those in that yard, and friends coming and going the way they were from
that house.  And they would be laughing—Annie Laurie loved to laugh—and
sometimes they would eat on the lawn.  But he drew himself up with a
flush.  What had Annie Laurie to do with it all?  A girl like that—would
she care seriously for one of the queer, shiftless tribe of Disbrow?  Sam
hit his knee angrily.  Let him attend to what was before him and stop
thinking nonsense.

He reached the Academy, and walked along under its wonderful white oaks
to the Ballenger dormitories, where he knew Heller stayed.  Perhaps
Heller could get him a room near his own.  It was rather a trick to get
in the Ballenger dormitories and the fellows who succeeded were
considered lucky.  But perhaps Heller could manage it for him
somehow—they always had been good friends.

He was directed along the corridors, hung with their many pictures, and
decorated with plaster casts, to a corner room on the third story.

He knocked expectantly.

“Come!” commanded Heller’s voice.

Sam threw open the door.

“Dick!” he cried, “I’ve come on to school.  What do you think of that?”

He dropped his suit case and hastened toward Richard with outstretched
hand.

Dick took it silently.  His eyes, that used to be so cordial in their
glances, turned upon Sam with a scrutinizing look.  They searched his
drooping face sharply.  Then something like the old expression returned.
Sam was not slow.  He saw that something was quite wrong—that Dick had
been thinking evil of him in some way, and that now that he had met him
face to face, he was finding it difficult to sustain the suspicion.

“What’s the matter, man?” Sam cried.  “What are you looking at me like
that for?  Why don’t you speak?”

“Sit down,” answered Dick brusquely.  “Something is the matter, Sam, but
I’d rather be skinned than tell you what it is.  All the same I’m not
going to go around snubbing you and leaving you in the dark after all the
good times we’ve had together.”

“I should think not, indeed,” cried Sam.  “Skin away, old man.  Let’s
have the operation over with.”

Dick, it was evident, dared not give himself time to think.  He blurted
out what he had to say.

“My dad wrote me that you were thinking of coming down here to school.”

“Well?”

“Well, and he said the neighbors all were wondering where in the dickens
your father got the money to send you.”

“I don’t know,” answered Sam angrily, “that it is any of their blamed
business.”

“It mightn’t be under some circumstances,” Dick went on.  “But—”

“Yes?”

“This is where the skinning process comes in.”

“Rip ahead.”

“But they think it mighty queer, you know, that your dad should come into
money just at the time that Simeon Pace’s money disappeared.”

Sam was on his feet.

“Say!” he gasped, “I don’t understand.”

“They say,” went on Dick, gulping with distress, yet determined to finish
the whole story then and there, “that Simeon Pace carried his money in
his hollow tin arm, and that your father took that arm from Simeon Pace’s
body, and helped himself to the money.  Now, there you are, and—dang it,
Sam,—you’ll have to try to forgive me for telling you.”

Sam sank into his seat again and sat staring.  The little clock on the
mantel shelf ticked off the seconds briskly—ticked on and on, and still
Sam sat and stared, and Dick waited, hardly daring to breathe.  He could
see that Sam was going over the whole situation—was balancing this
against that, thinking over the things he had noticed, “sizing up” the
situation with his good clear brain.

Suddenly he got up and seized his suit case.

“Where you going?” shouted Dick.

“Home,” said Sam quietly.  “I’m going home.”

Dick ran forward and, grasping Sam’s hand, wrung it with all his
strength.

“Oh, Sam,” he cried.  “How I wish it could have been otherwise!  But I
had to tell you.  I couldn’t let a thing like that lie between us.”

“No,” said Sam wearily.  “It’s got to be cleared up.  Living a lie!  I
remember a sermon—Annie Laurie and I heard it—living a lie!  No, I
couldn’t.  Good-bye, Dick.  It—it wasn’t for me, was it?”  He looked
about the charming room, and through the window at the great campus.
“Good-bye.  And—thank you.  You did right.  It was the only thing to do,
since we were such old—”

“Friends!” cried Dick with a half-sob.  “Such old friends, Sam.  Yes, go
home and clear it up.  And come back, old man—whatever you do, come
back!”



CHAPTER XI
MARCHING ORDERS


Sam saw nothing now of the inviting homes and their lovely gardens as he
rode back to the station.  The world seemed black shot through with
little darts of scarlet.  They kept teasing him—these darting flecks of
red, sharp-pointed and angry.  At the station he found that it was an
hour and a half before train time, so he sat down stolidly to wait.  He
had missed his luncheon, and it was now near dinner time, but it did not
occur to him to get anything to eat.

The time, too, raced by, keeping pace with those swift-speeding thoughts
of his, on which he could not have drawn the reins had he tried.  And
presently he was on the train again, going homeward.  He soon would see
his father, who would not, Sam had to confess with biting shame, look him
in the eye nor answer any question frankly.  Moreover, it would be his
fate to add to his mother’s misery; he would see Hannah turning away from
him even more than she had.  And all the town would be looking at him
with the eyes of suspicion.  He would read: “Son of a thief!  Son of a
thief!” in their averted glances.

Of course his father might not be guilty.  And yet, somehow, shamefully,
heart-breakingly, it was borne in upon him that he was.  And why should
he, Sam, who had done no harm to anyone, go back to face it?  Why should
Annie Laurie and her friends see his shame?  He could disappear now—slip
off the train at the next station—and walk and walk till he reached some
place where nobody knew him, and then he could go to work and care for
himself, and win an honorable name.  That was what America was for, he
had heard Mr. Carson say, to give a chance to the individual.  A man had
a right to prove himself, and to be judged by himself, apart from and
regardless of his family.

Yet, to run away from a thing like that, to let the old neighbors think
him a poor wretch, to lose the regard of—of all those he cared about, was
out of the question.  And moreover, he couldn’t let his father go on
keeping back the fortune that belonged to others.  He’d have to go back
and make him right himself.

His thoughts came clashing together as a returning wave meets and breaks
against an advancing one upon the seashore.  And the tumult and raging
was too much for him.  He found himself incapable of going on just then.
The train stopped for a moment at some woodland siding—the track was but
a single one and such stops were occasionally necessary—and almost
without thinking, Sam leaped from the platform and slipped away into the
twilight.

He walked along, hardly knowing where he was going.  His suit case was
not much of a handicap, for there was little enough in it.  He could not
have told, if any one had asked him, why he kept on pounding along the
road, nor why, when he came to a heavily wooded hill, he should have gone
in through an opening in the trees and begun to climb its gentle slope.
He only knew that he was grateful to have the trees closing around him
like that, hiding him from the sight of men.

He went on, stumbling over roots, half-starting at deep shadows, and
reached the summit.  Here the trees had been cut away, and though the
songs of those beneath him surged up to his ears, he presently found
himself standing beneath the clear sky, perfectly sheltered from view.
There was a scythe-like young moon, well toward the zenith, and a few
pale stars.  The weather had softened and warmed and spring was sending
her sweet messages abroad.  He stood for a moment looking upward; then he
cast himself on the ground, with his face to the earth, and in the
solitude his sharp suffering gave vent to itself in sobs.

Nor was it alone for the shame and sorrow of the present that he wept.
It seemed as if all the tears he had held back during his lonely and
baffled boyhood had their way now and streamed from his eyes.  He cried
blindly, passionately.  He emptied his soul of grief.  And then he sat up
weakly and looked around him.  The whippoorwills were calling to each
other.  Distant hounds were barking.  The delicate little moon was
running her fragile skiff over the sky-sea toward its western port.  It
was night, and the world was asleep.  What was it Annie Laurie sang?

    “All are sleeping, weary heart.
    Thou, thou only sleepless art.”

He hoped she was sleeping—that poor Annie Laurie, who was having so much
trouble, and none of it in any way her fault.  And had she, too, been
suspecting him?  Had she held this terrible idea of his father and kept
it to herself?  Had she come to his house that day she had been so kind
and good, to see what they were like—the Disbrows?  He seemed to be on
fire from head to foot with shame.  Back and forth, like wild beasts
pacing, raged his thoughts.  He had no idea of the passage of time.  Only
the stars kept moving on, beautifully, in their wonderful order, and the
wind, growing chillier now, blew upon him, and still the whippoorwills
called.  By and by the color of the world began to change.  Something
strange happened to the night—it grew pale, thin, transparent.  The birds
began stirring about, making soft noises.  The cattle lowed in the
near-by fields.  Then a kind of milky lightness, delicate as one of
Carin’s scarfs, drifted up into the sky.  Presently it turned a soft
pink; then rosy red; then it was edged with orange and embroidered with
saffron.  It was sunup, and Sam Disbrow faced the most important day of
his life.

He had to make up his mind whether he was a coward or a brave man—whether
he was going to run away or stay and fight.  And he didn’t know.  As he
got dizzily to his feet, he hadn’t an idea which he was.  But the colors
in the sky seemed to be cheering him on like trumpets.  Something wild,
strange and splendid swept into his spirit—something that made him feel
as if he were about to set out on a march with brave men—men who could
die for an idea.  It was as if he had swung into the ranks, and his
leader had shouted “Forward, march!”

Sam went down the hill, and struck a road on the far side of it.  He
followed it to a farmhouse and asked if he might have some breakfast.
They gave him good bacon and corn bread, butter and milk.  He ate like
one famished, and then, having learned the schedule of the trains, and
that he had barely time to catch the next one bound toward Lee, he ran as
hard as he could to the distant station.  The train drew in while he was
yet a block away, but he sent out a shout that startled the engineer in
his cab.  Good-naturedly, they held the train for him.  He swung on the
rear platform.  And, though he could not forget for a moment all that he
was going back to, still he was indefinably happy.

“Forward, march,” his invisible leader had commanded.  Sam did not stop
to find a name for this leader—to call him God.  He obeyed, and having
placed himself under marching orders, he fell asleep, and when the
conductor called him at Lee, arose refreshed, and went out to fight his
battle.

There were not many persons on the street.  A mid-forenoon quietude
rested over the little town.  A few neighbors Sam did meet, but they had
no chance to turn the cold shoulder to him this morning for he hardly saw
them.  He was bent for home, and he strode forward with no thought of
anything but meeting his father face to face and hurling at him the
question:

“Did you take Simeon Pace’s money?”

He forgot that he was a son, and must pay a son’s deference, or that
Hector Disbrow, suspected of being a thief, was his father.  He felt as
if his soul must put that inquiry to the soul of the man.  And on his
answer depended honor, happiness, everything.

As he drew near the house, he saw that there was something unusual about
it.  With a sick feeling, he realized that it looked even more vacant and
dejected than ordinarily.  He tried the front door; found it locked; sped
to the rear; was unable to enter; and then, rushing to the stable,
realized the whole truth.  His family had gone.  They had run away in the
night.  The whole thing was true.  His father was a thief—and now he was
making of himself a fugitive.

But the feeling of having come back to fight a battle as a brave man
would fight it, did not desert him.  The black despair of the night
before had been routed by all the better angels of his nature.  He was in
the thick of the battle now, beyond question.  He turned his back on the
house and went toward the town.

On his way, he met Hi Kitchell, who had been excused from school because
of a toothache, and who was running along, his hand to his face, quite
willing to talk about his misery to anyone.  Sam called him.

“Hello, Hi.  Toothache?”

“You bet!”

“What you going home for?  Why don’t you go to a dentist?”

“Naw.  I’m going home.”

“No use in that.  Turn around the other way.  Come on down to the
dentist’s.”

Hi wriggled.  “I’m afraid.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“Will yeh?”

“You bet I will.  And Hi, I’ve got a trouble that’s much worse than
toothache.”

“Have you, Sam—for sure?”

“For sure I have, Hi.  Now if you had a terrible trouble what would you
do?  I’ve told you where to go to get a toothache cured, but where would
you go if—if everything you cared for seemed tumbling to pieces?”

Hi came up close to Sam.  He had forgotten about his toothache, and he
looked at Sam with his ferret eyes, in which the tears had now gathered.

“Sam,” he said under his breath, “I know about your trouble.  I’ve heard
of it.  And—and you know your people have gone away.  They’ve gone over
the mountain, I reckon.  Why, Sam, if I was in trouble like that I’d go
straight to Mr. Summers.”

“But he’s the Methodist preacher, you know, and my folks are Baptists.”

“What’s the difference?” cried Hi defiantly.  “I don’t see no difference.
Anyway, if Mr. Summers was a Populist I’d go to him just the same.”

Sam was surprised to hear himself laughing.

“I will,” he declared, and he and Hi tramped on toward town.  At the
dentist’s office Sam started to turn in with Hi, but Hi stopped him.

“You don’t need to come,” he said.  “I reckon I can stand a little
tooth-tinkering.  You get on to Mr. Summers.  And—and, Sam—”

“Yes?”

“If you don’t want to stay up there to the house alone, you come down to
our place.  My ma, she’d love to have you.  Sam—”

“Yes.”

“We know what trouble is, ma and me, see?  Don’t nobody around these
parts know better than we do.  Mr. Carson, he set us on our feet, and now
we can hold up our heads and look people in the face.  My, but it feels
good!  But we know what trouble is—all kinds, pretty near.  You come to
us.”

Sam held out a tense hand.

“Put it there, Hi.”

Hi “put it there” and turned valorously up the dentist’s terrible stairs.

As for Sam, he kept vigorously on his way.  He thought of those
automobiles he had seen the day before, and he felt as if he were all
cranked up, with a good spark on, and was ready for a long hard run.  So
he turned up Burchard Avenue, and in at the gate of the little Methodist
parsonage.

The first person he saw was Mrs. Summers, who had just got baby Jonathan
asleep and was setting him out of doors in his carriage, to grow.  She
held up a small brown finger to warn Sam that conversation was not to be
permitted in the vicinity of the sleeping prince, and led the way into
the living room.  Then she went in search of her husband, who, it
appeared, was shut up in the cell-like room he called his study.  He came
striding out of his retreat and grasped Sam by the hand.

“Thought you were off to Rutherford, son.”

“So I was, sir, but—I came back.”

“So I see.  Why?”

“I—I heard what they were saying about my father, sir.  Dick Heller told
me.”

“Well, well, he did, eh?  It was better on the whole, I reckon.  I had
two minds to tell you myself, and then I just lacked the ginger.  But now
you know what you’re up against, don’t you?  And your folks left last
night, too.  Some of the neighbors wanted to have a posse set out after
them and bring them back, but Mr. Carson said Annie Laurie Pace was dead
set against it.  So he forbade it.  You don’t mind my speaking right out?
It’s best that way, isn’t it?”

“Best that way,” murmured Sam with dry lips.

“But you’ve come back, son, to face the music.  Well, what can I do to
help you?”

“Mr. Summers, do you think my father guilty?  Do you think he took the
money?”

“I’ve no more information on the subject than you,” said Mr. Summers.
“What do you think—as man to man?”

        [Picture: “But you’ve come back, son, to face the music.”]

They faced each other silently.  Each knew that the other gave verdict
and that it was “guilty.”

“And yet,” said Mr. Summers, “circumstantial evidence is a shaky thing.
A very shaky, tricky thing.”

“Yes,” said Sam.  But there was no hope in his tone.

“What do you mean to do, Sam?”

“I’ve come to ask you, sir.  I’ve a hundred dollars that father gave me.
I’d like to give that to Annie Laurie if it would help her out any.  But
what is a hundred dollars?  Why, Mr. Pace had thousands and thousands!
And I hear they’re having a terrible hard time altogether—that they can’t
get fit helpers, and that Miss Adnah isn’t turning out so good a boss
after all, and that the accounts are getting all mixed up.  It looks as
if the whole thing was going to pieces.”

“It needn’t,” said Mr. Summers rather sharply.

Sam looked up questioningly.

“If they had one good strong, capable helper on the place, say a man who
was willing to work for nothing for the time being, a man with sense
enough to find out the best ways of feeding cattle and caring for them,
and peddling milk, and who wouldn’t mind sitting up after a hard day’s
work to straighten out books, and who’d try to build up instead of
putting in his best licks tearing down—the way those fool hands they have
now seem to be doing—why, there’d be some hope.  See?”

Sam got to his feet.

“Do you mean, Mr. Summers, that I—”

Mr. Summers took his pipe from the mantel shelf, deliberately knocked the
tobacco out of it, refilled it from a generous tobacco can and lit a
match.  While the match burned he turned toward Sam.

“You can just stake your life I mean it, son,” said he.

“But will Annie Laurie—will the aunts let me?”

The reverend Mr. Summers nodded his long, thin head.

“I’ll tell ’em to,” he said.  “Mr. Carson will advise ’em too.  You’ll be
making reparation, Samuel.  You’ll be squaring yourself and your family.
You’ll get back what belongs to you, the respect of the community, the
regard of your—particular friends.  And you’ll live here, in my house,
understand?”

“Oh, Mr. Summers, I couldn’t do that.”

“I say you’ll live here,” roared the tall preacher.  “Do you think I’d
let you go back to that forsaken house and sit there with all the
sneaking ghosts of memory putting their miserable noses in the doors and
windows o’ nights, making goblin faces at you?  Not much.  Barbara!
Barbara, I say!”

Mrs. Barbara came running on her little feet.

“Absalom,” she whispered excitedly, “what’s the use in waking the baby?
Don’t you know any better than that?”

The giant collapsed.

“Willow waly,” he gasped.  “Can’t I ever remember about that young-un?
But, Barbara, I suppose you have been listening to our conversation?”

“I have been sitting in the next room,” replied little Mrs. Summers with
dignity.  “It would have been impossible for me to avoid hearing parts of
it.”

“Well, then, what do you think?  Is this boy going back to that shut-up
house of his, or is he going to stay here at the parsonage?  That’s what
I want to know.”

Mrs. Barbara smiled her sidelong smile.

“What’s the use of asking such a silly question as that?” she inquired.
“Of course he’s going to stay here.  I was just thinking I’d run up that
rosebud muslin into curtains for his room.”

The Reverend Summers turned a radiant smile on Sam.

“That’s the woman for you!” he cried.  “You think you can get ahead of
her, but you can’t!  You’d have to be smarter than a possum to get ahead
of her.  Rosebud curtains!  Now, what do you think of that, Sam?  Could
you have got as far as rosebud curtains in that length of time?”

He caught his little wife up in his great arms and tossed her toward the
ceiling as if she had been a baby.  Then he kissed her so loud that the
smack must have been heard in the street, and dropped her in his sleepy
hollow chair.

“Where’s my hat?” he demanded.  “My nice, six-year-old Panama—the Panama
of many journeys, of my courtship, of my marriage, and probably of my old
age?  Why, Sam, you ought to count the rings on that hat.  It’s more’n a
hundred, I reckon—if you judge it like you do oaks.  Come, sneak out the
back way so as not to shake the royal bed of the slumbering potentate.
Where are we going?  To talk with Miss Adnah Pace.  Yes, I know she’s
rather a difficult one to manage.  But I can manage her.  That’s my
specialty, managing women.”

He stopped at the window to throw a kiss to his smiling wife.

“Come on, son,” he commanded; “forward, march!”

Had he heard the words ringing in Sam’s brain?

Perhaps so.  Anyway he spoke them.  “Forward, march!” he said.  He, too,
knew Sam was going into battle.



CHAPTER XII
“THE DOLL LADY”


“My dear Annie Laurie,” said Mrs. Carson one Friday afternoon not long
after this, “will you do Carin and myself the favor of spending the week
end with us?  I will send for you to-morrow morning, if you will do so,
and we’ll have a chance to talk.  Whenever we try to talk nowadays, Miss
Helena Parkhurst cries out ‘Physiography!’ or ‘Grammar!’ or ‘American
History!’  Anyone would think she didn’t want us to become acquainted.”

She shook her finger smilingly at Miss Parkhurst, who was putting the
schoolroom in order at the close of five hard days of teaching, and was
well pleased at the thought that she could retire to the peace of her own
little sitting room and follow her own inclination for a day or two.
There were stitches to take and letters to write and thoughts to think,
and the young woman who gave so unstintingly of her time and knowledge to
three restless girls, sighed with relief at the thought of being her own
mistress for a while.

“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Carson,” Annie Laurie had answered.  “I should love
to come.  You can’t think what a pleasure it would be.  But ought I to
leave the aunts?  They just sit and watch for me to come home.”

“The aunts shall be bidden to Sunday dinner,” said Mrs. Carson.  “We’ll
all be gay together.”

She did not say it, but she knew that the flutter of getting ready for
such an event as going out to The Shoals to dinner would keep Miss Adnah
and Miss Zillah well occupied over Saturday.

“Please come, Annie Laurie,” begged Carin.  “I’m getting quite dull,
really.”

Annie Laurie turned to laugh at her friend.  Quite dull!  It seemed
impossible that anyone could be dull in the Carson house.  Something was
nearly always going on.  Mrs. Carson would be giving a luncheon to the
ladies interested in the Mountain Industries, or Mr. Carson would have
gentlemen to dinner—gentlemen who came down from New York or Chicago—or
there would be a moonlight picnic, or a riding party, or a musicale, or
Mr. and Mrs. Carson would be packing up for one of their sudden journeys.
It was the first time that Annie Laurie had been asked to stay overnight
at the mansion.  She had been Carin’s schoolmate, but hardly more than
that, as she understood very well.  She had a clear mind, capable of
seeing things as they were, and it seemed to her to be a sort of victory
that she should, at last, be asked to join them in so intimate and social
a manner.  It showed her that perhaps she was not so “stiff” after all.

Her thoughts flew to her clothes, as the thoughts of any girl will when
bidden for a visit.  The wardrobe that used to be so well kept up, in its
narrow limits, had grown shabby now.  She had been wearing black for her
father, and her mourning had consisted of frocks which originally had
been colored and which had been dyed.  They had not taken the dye very
well, and they felt either rough or flimsy to the touch.  Annie Laurie
would have liked to put charming clothes on that big strong body of hers.
Her ideal of beautiful dressing was before her daily, in Mrs. Carson,
whose dresses, lovely in color and texture, never seemed to have too much
trimming on them, or to do anything but drape and decorate her slender
graceful figure.  But Annie Laurie had more sense than vanity, and she
said to herself that she would not miss such a pleasure and privilege as
a two-day visit at The Shoals because of shabby garments.

She sat, however, late that night, pressing her best black frock, and
sewing fresh ruchings into it, curling her plume with her sharp little
penknife, polishing her boots, putting new bows on her slippers, and
running fresh ribbons in her underclothes.  She packed her satchel
daintily, wrapping up her garments in fresh tissue paper and dropping in
a little bag of lavender.  Carin should see that she had the tastes of a
lady, at least.

There was much to do the next morning, too, for the Pace house was a
systematic one, and the Saturday routine must in no way be neglected.
But by half-after-ten, Annie Laurie, fresh, and glowing with
anticipation, stood with her hat and jacket on waiting for Carin; and not
more than a minute behind time, Carin drove up to the door, all in
charming spring green, and carrying a bunch of pink tulips in her hands
for the aunts.

“We’re to take a little drive the first thing, Annie Laurie,” announced
Carin.  “The valley is delightful.  Everything is bursting into bloom at
once.  Mother said we must go and look and look and smell and smell till
we have soaked in the spring.”

What care-free, happy people the Carsons were, Annie Laurie thought.  One
had only to be with them a very short time to be convinced that the world
was an immensely pleasant place.

So on they went up the sweet valley, over which the mountains hung with a
friendly and benevolent air.  The Judas trees were in bloom and the
orchards budding; on every branch the fresh leaves were starting out, and
the crimson maple had flung forth its beautiful foliage.  Annie Laurie
felt her heart leaping in her, and the black care that had been hanging
over her of late lifted like mist before the sun.  Looking up, she could
see where Azalea’s house was perched fairly upon the edge of the mountain
ledge.  There it hung, like an eagle’s great nest, daringly near the long
slope of old Mount Tennyson.

“Isn’t she a dear—that Azalea girl?” asked Carin enthusiastically.
“Never was there such a friend!  Why, just having her believe in me the
way she does, makes me long to do things.  For example, I had known since
I was a very, very small girl that I could draw and paint a little, and I
was forever asking for a studio.  But when mama had given me one, I was
so lazy and dreamy that I hardly did anything in it.  Then Azalea got
after me.  She said I was going to be a great painter.  She found trees
and hills for me to paint.  She sat for me herself, patiently, hour after
hour, while I made horrible daubs of her.  But she kept saying I could do
better if I tried, and do you know, by and by I actually did do better.
Then papa decided I had a bit of talent, and he arranged with Mr. Bascomb
to come up from Rutherford once a week to give me instruction.  And by
and by when I’m old enough I’m to go back to Chicago to the Art
Institute, maybe; or to New York; and afterward if I show I’m worth it,
to Paris or Rome.”

“Oh, oh!” sighed Annie Laurie in a sort of rapture.  “Paris!  Rome!  Will
you really be able to go to places like that, Carin?  But I forget—you
already have been to them.”

“Yes, I’ve been,” said Carin.  “And you’ll go too, sometime, if you want
to badly enough.  Of course, it happened to be easy for me.  Papa and
mama took me, and I didn’t half appreciate it, I was so young and the
chance came so easily.  But I shall appreciate it next time; and maybe
you’ll go with me.  Who knows?”

Annie Laurie drew back in her seat with a sort of shudder.

“Oh, Carin,” she said, “I’m afraid things aren’t going to be like that
with me.  Fine chances aren’t going to come my way.  Once I might have
thought they would, but now everything is changed.  There seems to be so
little chance of finding poor dad’s money, and I know so little about
earning any.  Of course since Sam came, it’s better.  The cows are being
properly cared for, the milk gets off in time, and the bills are sent out
correctly, and all that.”

“Wasn’t it fine of him to come back and work for you like that?”

“Fine?  I think it was magnificent.  At first, the aunts couldn’t
understand it at all.  You know I hadn’t told them my suspicions about
Mr. Disbrow, and I had begged the neighbors not to do so.  The idea
hadn’t occurred to them.  It was better for them to go on hunting and
prying around all their lives than to get to hating some one and feeling
revengeful.  So they couldn’t see what Sam meant by saying he would come
and work for us for nothing.  Aunt Adnah never had liked him very well.
She called him ‘that Disbrow boy.’  But Mr. Summers and Mr. Carson
persuaded her that Sam was going into the dairy business sometime and
that he would consider it a privilege to work for us and learn the
business, and that contented her.  It made her think he was practical and
she began to like him better.  As for Sam, he works from early morning
till late at night, and the place begins to look the way it did when dad
was managing it.”

“And does he seem happy—Sam?” asked Carin.

“No—o, I can’t say he does quite.  But he’s something better than happy.
He goes around with a strange look on his face, as if his own thoughts
interested him more than anything else.  He’ll hardly talk with me at
all.  I’d think that he disliked me, only I know better.  He’s ashamed
for his family and he won’t intrude on me.  That’s what he’s thinking.
At first I tried to make him feel differently, but then I saw I was
bothering him, and so I made up my mind to let him alone.  I reckon he
knows I’ll never go back on him.”

“And he hasn’t an idea where his people are?”

“Not an idea.”

“If they were going West why didn’t they take the train here at Lee?
What made them go wandering away in the mountains?”

“Well, I’ve talked with Mr. McBirney about that, and he says Mr. Disbrow
was a mountain man born and bred, although he’s been living in town the
last few years, and he says no mountain man would go off and leave his
chickens and cow and dogs behind him.  It wouldn’t so much as occur to
him to do it.  Then, too, he thinks Mr. Disbrow didn’t dare try to take
the train at Lee.  If the people had seen him going they would have
stopped him.  Besides that, I don’t believe Mrs. Disbrow would be willing
to go on the train where everybody could see and stare at her.  You know
she can’t bear to be looked at.  I suppose it’s because she’s so like a
ghost.  Why, her clothes just hang about her like the rags on a
scarecrow, and her face is the color of dough and all fallen in.  It’s a
fact; everyone would turn to look at her.  She doesn’t look as if she had
lived in the world at all—and she hasn’t for a good many years.”

“Well, how do you account for Sam?  How could a boy like that come from
such a family?”

“Mr. Summers says that there’s no inheritance for souls—that every soul
comes fresh from the hand of God.  Sam’s soul is too brave to be overcome
by his surroundings.  That’s all I can make out of it.”

Carin shook her head doubtfully.

“Well, maybe that’s so.  Yet it seems to me there’s more of a mystery to
it than that.  Your Aunt Adnah may think he’s a ‘Disbrow boy,’ but he
certainly doesn’t seem like it to me.”

They were turning in at the gate of The Shoals now, and Annie Laurie
looked about her with delight.  Gardeners were busy all over the place;
fresh awnings of orange and black had been hung from the many windows;
yellow tulips appeared in flaming companies along the walks and about the
house.  Chairs and tables of brown rattan were on the porches; swinging
couches heaped with pillows invited one to take one’s ease; books and
magazines were placed temptingly at hand.  Annie Laurie thought what a
contrast all this was to her own meager home, and gave a sharp little
sigh.  But she was determined to enjoy herself without stint for these
two bright days.

And this, indeed, was easy to do.  Luncheon was served to the girls in
Carin’s studio, and there for the greater part of the afternoon the two
read, sang and laughed together.  Carin had at least three books which
Annie Laurie “simply must read”; and Annie Laurie was insistent that
Carin should do some painting, “beginning at the very beginning,” and
show her how it was done.

“Then I’ll paint you,” declared Carin, and made her friend stand,
straight and tall before a draping of red-brown velvet which was just a
shade browner than Annie Laurie’s hair.

“But I ought to be a fine artist to do you justice,” Carin protested,
“not just a silly niggling beginner.  Just you wait, Annie Laurie!  Some
day you are going to be a beautiful woman, and by that time I hope to
know enough to paint you the way you ought to be.”

Then there was a walk in the late afternoon, and tea with Mrs. Kitchell
at the Industries, and then the stroll back in the lilac-tinted air, and
the fun of dressing together for dinner.

Annie Laurie could hardly make her own toilet for watching Carin, as she
came all fresh from her bath, in her dainty garments, and slipped into
her simple, exquisite frock of clinging white silk.  A maid came to tie
her corn-colored scarf, and to wind the broad corn-colored ribbon about
her wonderful hair, which was almost the same color, only full of light
and shine as no ribbon ever could be.  Her slender feet were in white,
too, and about her neck was a necklace of clouded amber beads.

“What a love you are,” cried Annie Laurie.

“No more a love than you are yourself,” retorted Carin.  “Look!”

She swung her friend around to face the cheval glass, and Annie Laurie
saw her own tall, almost haughty, young figure mirrored there, in its
plain, well fitting gown of black.  She caught a glimpse of her own
pretty slippers with their smart bows, of her straight fair neck—Carin
had forbidden her to wear her net yoke—and of her red-brown hair wound
around and around her head.

“Talk about loves!” said Carin, and led her friend down to the drawing
room.  There were a number of persons there, it seemed, and Annie Laurie
had a confused moment as she was presented to them.  She had not been in
this room before—at most had glimpsed it from the corridor.  Now that she
was in it, with the many candles burning in their sconces, the flowers
everywhere in vases little and great, with the delicate pinks and yellows
of the draperies and furniture making an effect like a wonderful
manufactured flower garden all about her, she had a sick feeling of
shyness and almost wished that she had not accepted Mrs. Carson’s
invitation.

“But that’s being cowardly,” she told herself sharply.  “And I’m not
afraid of these people, really.  They’re all kind and good.  What I’m
afraid of is merely furniture!  Now, who would be afraid of wood and
cloth and brass!  Silly goose!”

Some one—a pleasant-faced gentleman with white hair—offered his arm to
the “silly goose,” and the next moment they were all making their way to
the dining room.  It was wonderful there, too.  The lights seemed to be
picked up by the silver and the crystal and to be thrown back in little
sparks at Annie Laurie’s dazzled eyes.  There was a bright, hurried
talking all about her; a talking she could not quite follow.  But she had
got that new idea in her head, that she was not to be afraid of things
like silver and glass and linen, and that certainly no reasonable person
could fear kind friends, and so, in a minute or two, her shyness passed,
and she was herself again.

There were delicious things passed her to eat, and Annie Laurie wondered
what they really could be and why they tasted different from anything she
ever had eaten before.  The gentleman who had taken her out to dinner was
very kind, and talked to her about her lessons, and the early coming of
the spring, and how he had not been in those parts previously, and how
much he liked it, and how he wished he did not have to go back to Town.
By Town, Annie Laurie discovered that he meant New York.

Then, presently, the conversation died down, and everyone seemed to be
listening to the lady who sat at Mr. Carson’s right.  Her name, it
seemed, was Miss Borrow, and she was known, as Mrs. Carson explained,
over the mountains as “the doll lady.”  She had made a great study of the
mountain country, its flowers and trees, its little wild, harmless
creatures, furred and feathered, and its lonely, quiet people.  Sometimes
she traveled for months in a wagon, sleeping in a mountain cabin or in
her wagon as the case might be, eating at the simple, hospitable tables
of the mountaineers, or cooking by the roadside.  And because she was
simple and earnest and truly, truly, a friend to all the world, she had
been permitted to enter the hearts of the people and they had learned to
trust her and to speak out to her almost as freely as they would to one
of themselves.

“But please tell us why you are called the ‘doll lady,’ Miss Borrow,”
said Carin.  “I think I know, but I would so love it if you would explain
to Annie Laurie, ma’am.”

“Well,” said Miss Borrow, turning her dark, rather sad eyes upon Annie
Laurie, “it was this way.  I had not traveled far in the lonely, silent
country that lies back among the mountains, before I discovered that the
saddest thing about it all was the children—the little children who had
nothing to look forward to, and who did not know how to laugh in the
happy, free way that children should.  They got into bad and silly ways
because there was nothing for them to do.  So I fell to wondering how I
could help them enjoy themselves, and to tell the truth, I hadn’t to
wonder very long, for almost immediately it occurred to me that I would
give them toys.

“I decided that I would take the boys good knives, so that they could
make things, and marbles and balls, so that they might have games; and to
the girls I would take dolls.  I have gone out from my starting point
with hundreds of the dearest, most delightful dollies you could think of,
tucked away in my wagon.  I have even had to have a second wagon to start
with, because of the many things I was carrying along.  At first there
would be no need to give these things at the houses at which I stayed—the
houses nearer the towns.  But as I went on and on, over this mountain,
and down into that valley and up over the next mountain, I would come on
the people who lived in the hollow land.

“They had few friends, or none.  They went nowhere.  They had nothing to
do, except scratch the ground for a little food.  One day was like
another; and in the faces of the children was a look like that to be seen
in the face of a dog—a look of terrible wistfulness, as if there was that
in the soul which never could be expressed.  To these children I brought
my gifts.  The boys were glad of the knives and marbles and balls; but
nothing like so glad as the girls were of the dolls.  Many and many of
them never had seen a doll at all.  Yet never once did I have to tell
them what they were for.  They simply reached out their arms and took
them, and hugged them up to them—not before people, understand, but as
soon as ever they were alone.

“Some of these lonely little girls had hardly known what it was to be
kissed, and they would have been ashamed to throw their arms around their
mother’s necks and hug and kiss them; but when they got alone with
dolly—their own, own dolly—they kissed and hugged it as if they had been
starved for want of things like that.  Then when I could take along some
extra things, so that they could really change the doll’s clothes, and
wash and iron for their pets, then, at last, they really had something to
do.  They seemed to come to life—not the dolls, but the little mothers.
Perhaps the dolls did, too.  I’m not sure.  They were loved enough to
make them.”

“Oh, Miss Borrow,” cried Mrs. Carson, “you lucky, lucky woman, to be able
to think of such a lovely thing and to carry it out!”

“Lucky is that lucky does,” said the old gentleman beside Annie Laurie,
twisting an old saying to suit his purposes.

“Well,” said Carin across the table, under cover of the conversation,
“that’s why she’s called the ‘doll lady,’ Annie Laurie.  Isn’t it
beautiful?”

“Beautiful,” replied the other.  “And—and why couldn’t we help get some
of the dolls ready, Carin?  And my aunts—if I could get them to working
on those dolls, perhaps they wouldn’t be worrying and wondering so much.”

Mr. Carson overheard her remark, though it was intended only for Carin.

“Excellent and sensible, Annie Laurie,” he said in his light way—that way
which meant so much yet seemed to mean so little.  “You have said a wise
thing.  I believe the Misses Pace are to honor us with their presence at
dinner to-morrow, are they not, Lucy?”

“Yes,” responded Mrs. Carson, “I am glad to be able to say that they
are.”

“We will try then, as you say, my dear Annie Laurie, to help the aunts
find a new and interesting occupation.  We will give them—some dolls to
play with,” smiled Mr. Carson.

For he knew, and Annie Laurie knew, that the poor fretted old ladies
needed them as much as any heart-starved mountain child.



CHAPTER XIII
THE LONG RED ROAD


There was music after dinner, and Mrs. Carson asked Annie Laurie to sing.
It was a great moment in its way—that in which the shy girl with the
oriole’s voice went out before all the company to sing to Mrs. Carson’s
accompaniment.  For a second or two she thought that she really could
not.  Then it came over her that it was a chance—that she who had lived
that plain drab life was standing now where beautiful colors played about
her.  She was, she said to herself, in the heart of a rainbow.  And a
song was a song, just as a piece of furniture was a piece of furniture.
She had already decided that she was not to be afraid of upholstering and
silver and fine glass.  Very well, then, why should she be afraid of a
song, since she really had a voice and could sing?  Her music lessons had
been stopped since her father’s death, but Mrs. Carson often invited her
to sing with her in the schoolroom where Carin’s piano stood, and she was
quite aware that she had learned more from Mrs. Carson with her taste and
her beautiful, delicate fashion of expression than she could from her
teacher.  So now, full, free, sad and deep, her young voice arose in:

    “All are sleeping, weary heart,
    Thou, thou only sleepless art.”

She thought of Sam away in his bare room, bending over those puzzling
accounts of hers, working for her without pay, to redeem so far as he
could his father’s terrible wrong.  And as she thought of him, and the
beauty of the song opened the doors of her heart, it seemed as if all
that distrust of mankind which had come to her so bitterly when she first
realized the great wrong that had been done her, went drifting out on the
tide of song.  So the lovely words to their noble setting poured from her
lips with a sort of splendor, and when she had ceased, and had stood for
a moment, motionless, her slender straight body tense with the rapture of
it, she had the great happiness of hearing sincere and enthusiastic
applause break from all the company in the drawing room.

Mrs. Carson and Carin were hardly less happy than she.  They made her
sing again and again; then Mrs. Carson forbade more.

“We’ll not have our singing bird excited so that she’ll lose her sleep
the first night she stays under this roof,” she said.  And then she
herself, at the solicitation of her guests, sang some of those wonderful
songs of hers.  Annie Laurie could not understand the words, for they
were now in one tongue and now another; but as the music rose and fell,
shifting in its beauty as a sunset shifts its colors, or as water ripples
in the wind, a great happiness flooded her.  She sat thrilling to it,
moved to the core of her being by its rhythm, and Mrs. Carson, arising
from the piano, came straight to her.

“Annie Laurie Pace,” she said in her charming way, “I could feel all the
strings of the piano vibrating again in you.  You are a true musician.
Sometime you and I will sit together night after night and listen to
opera.”

“Oh!” Annie Laurie gasped.  “It—it couldn’t be!”

“It shall be,” smiled Mrs. Carson.  “Wait, child.  Wait just a little
while.”

So, with a head full of new, rich ideas, the girl lay down to sleep that
night in the “poppy room,” as the little bedroom opening off Carin’s was
called.  Poppies decorated the wall, were embroidered on the linen covers
to dresser, chairs and bed, and the spirit of poppies, sleep, hovered
lightly over the room.

The next day dawned beautifully—one of those Sundays which seem to have
the very breath of holiness in them.  Annie Laurie went with the Carsons
to the Episcopal Church, and then they all drove over to the Methodist
Church for the aunts.  They could see the two, prim and starched,
awaiting them on the high church steps, and Mr. Carson leaped from the
carriage to assist the ladies down and to help them into his vehicle.
Annie Laurie couldn’t help giving an affectionate chuckle at the labored
propriety of their remarks.  They had on their best dresses and they were
determined to use their best language.  But Mrs. Carson gave no sign that
she perceived their stiffness.  She chatted on in that winning way of
hers, till even the proud and difficult Aunt Adnah felt at ease.

At dinner the conversation turned upon the “doll lady,” and Mr. Carson
had an idea.

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do, we’ll hike it!  We’ll trek it!  We’ll
mush-mush!”

“Papa,” Carin protested, “what ever _do_ you mean?”

“Mean?  I mean we’ll follow the long red road, every one of us.  Your
mother, Carin, and your friends Annie Laurie and Azalea, and Miss Zillah
and Miss Adnah.  We’ll take to the high road—in mountain wagons—and we’ll
go gypsying.  It’s the spring vacation—or we can make it so if we have a
mind.  What do you say, Miss Parkhurst?  Shall we call it vacation?  And
will you go with us over the mountains?”

“I’ll call it vacation if you please, sir,” smiled Helena Parkhurst.
“But if I have any time away from my duties, I’d love to go home to my
mother.  She’s very lonely without me.”

“You shall, then.  Of course she’s lonely without you.  But what do you
say, ladies?” he asked, turning to Annie Laurie’s aunts.

Miss Adnah wiped her lips carefully before replying.

“You are very kind indeed, sir, but I never have done such a thing in my
life, though I must say that I have rather envied people when I saw them
starting off on such an expedition.”

“Of course you have envied them, and you shall do so no longer.  You
shall go and know the joys they have known.  As for the dairy, Sam will
look after that.  If necessary he can have one of my men to help him.
You are pleased, I hope, Miss Zillah?”

Miss Zillah turned her faded, quiet eyes on him, and smiled slowly.

“Mr. Carson,” she said “all my life I have slept properly under a roof.
I have done my duty as I saw it to do.  I have conducted myself, I hope,
in a ladylike and discreet manner, but—” she hesitated.

“But what, madam?”

“But from childhood I have longed to cook my meal in a pot over a camp
fire and to sleep under the pines.”

Everybody laughed.

“What’s more,” went on Miss Zillah, showing the shadow of a dimple in her
withered cheek, “I feel that I would love to run about in a short skirt
and tie a turban about my head.”

“Delightful!  Delightful,” declared Mr. Carson.  “We’ll go by the middle
of this week.”

“But Mr. Carson, ought we?” Miss Adnah broke in.  “The—the expense—”

“Expense, madam?  There’s no expense.  All that is needed is time, and of
that we have as much as anybody living.”

He held up a hand for silence, and in his rich voice, warm with an almost
boyish enthusiasm, he repeated a poem he had read but whose author he did
not remember:

    “‘Beyond the East, the sunrise, beyond the West, the sea—
    And East or West, the wander-thirst will never let me be.
    It works in me like madness, dear, to make me say good-bye,
    For the stars call and the sea calls, and O! the call of the sky.

    “‘I know not where the white road leads, nor what the blue hills are,
    But a man can have the sun for a friend, and for his guide a star.
    And there’s no end of voyaging when once the voice is heard,
    For the river calls and the road calls, and O! the call of the bird.

    “‘Yonder the long horizon lies, and there by night or day,
    The old ships draw to home again, the young ships sail away,
    And come I may, but go I must, and if you ask me why,
    You may put the blame on the stars and sun, and the white road and
    the sky.’

“Only it’s the red road with us, ladies—the long red road, and it winds
up the mountains, and down the mountains, and we’ll follow it till we
long for home again.”

“Oh,” whispered Annie Laurie to Carin as they walked from the dining room
together, “how fine it will be to get the poor aunts away from that house
where they worry and search, and search and worry!”

“And don’t you see,” returned Carin, “that papa is really having in the
back of his mind the idea that he may run across the Disbrows?  He thinks
that, after all, Mr. Disbrow won’t quite dare spend that money—at least
not much of it.  He could talk about going West but he hasn’t really the
courage to go.  He’ll drive around in the mountains, shooting a little,
and grazing his cow and horses, and eating up the chickens.  Papa says
that’s the way a man with his rearing would do, probably.  So we’re to
take to all sorts of byroads and odd ways in the hope of finding them.”

“Really?” said Annie Laurie.  “But—Oh, Carin, if we found them!  What a
humiliation for them!”

“Well, so far as Mr. Disbrow is concerned, I think he has some
humiliation coming to him,” said Carin sharply.

Annie Laurie hated to tell Sam they were going to the mountains.  She
feared he would read in her eyes her knowledge of this second
intention—this hope of finding the fugitives.  Perhaps he did.  He was
very silent these days, and he worked furiously.  Annie Laurie tried to
get him to sit with them evenings, but he would not.  His old-time
light-heartedness, preserved under so many difficulties, seemed to have
passed entirely.  Yet he was not sullen nor even sad—only very grave.  He
was indeed fighting his battle, and it was not an easy one.

But little by little he could see—everyone could see—that he was winning
the respect of the townspeople.  Men went out of their way to speak to
him and to ask him how he was getting on in his new business and to say
they’d be glad to help him out if he got in any difficulty.  Some of the
nicest women in Lee invited him to their homes; but to all such
invitations Sam sent a respectful refusal.  He seemed determined to keep
to himself until he had won his right to enter other men’s doors as an
honest boy, the son of an honest man.

He helped with the preparations for the mountain, saying nothing of his
shamed and tortured thought that his friends might come upon his skulking
family.  Mr. Carson was to drive his own team, and Benjamin, his man, was
to drive Annie Laurie’s horses.  So, on a perfumed spring morning the
little caravan set off, with Mrs. Carson and the two Misses Pace in the
Carson wagon, and Carin and Azalea in Annie Laurie’s.

Azalea was strangely excited by the idea of the journey, though she tried
to conceal the fact.  She could not forget how often she had gone upon
such long journeys in those wild, curious days when she was a “show
girl.”  Those days now seemed like a fantastic dream.  She felt as if she
always had been Azalea McBirney, wrapped about with love and
consideration; and even the memory of her poor dead little mother was
like a gray shadow.  True, it was a shadow which arose often before her
mental vision, but the outlines of it grew fainter and fainter.  Yet
Azalea loved it.  She could not think of that brave, yet broken woman, so
out of place with that sorry crew of show people, without a throb of
love.  Death had, at last, seemed the only happiness for her, and Azalea
loved to think of her as safe and at rest in that much-cared-for lowly
bed of hers beneath the Pride of India tree beside Ma McBirney’s door.

And, oh, the long red road!  How it wound up the hills and over them.
What valleys it glimpsed, what rivers, amber brown beneath the trees,
what spots of quietude and peace beneath the pines, what sunny openings,
where succulent odors of grass, freshly sprung, came to the travelers!
And, oh, the delight of sleeping in the hastily spread tents—which were
really no more than squares of canvas stretched on pointed sticks—and the
appetites that developed for the meals cooked over the coals on the
convenient tripod!

Now one and now another of the ladies cooked the meals, and they vied
with each other in the mixing of stews.  They grew bold and tried things
they never had heard of, but which seasoned with mountain air and tested
with mountain appetites, seemed the finest of discoveries.  And the day
and the night were sweet; the wind was their playful companion; the
showers were their friends; the sun their great protector; the moon their
comforter and all the stars were their intimates.

So the three girls grew browner and brighter-eyed each day, and the heart
in each of them—even Annie Laurie’s—was light as down.

But not a hint did they have of the Disbrows.  Though they plunged deeper
and deeper into the mountains, getting far beyond the towns, they saw
nothing of them.  They went so far that they came at last upon the
lonely, sad-eyed people whom Miss Borrow had described.  In their
miserable cabins, which were far from weatherproof, they lived their
curious, solitary lives.  Their faces were vacant and mournful; their
voices like the soughing of wind in the trees.  They walked languidly,
and there was a strange and repellent pallor in their faces.  Sometimes
they sang a little, sitting before their doors in the moonlight, and
their voices rose and fell with a curious cadence.  The monotony of their
lives rested upon them like a deadly spell, permitting them to nurse
senseless hates and animosities, and to keep up foolish family feuds.

Now and then they came upon a desolate schoolhouse, approached by little
winding paths, over which bare-footed children had run for weary miles.
For they prized their schooling beyond all words to express.

“Whar is her who tells us how?” one little, sallow-faced child had asked
when she had run eleven miles to the schoolhouse to find the teacher
absent.  They heard such stories of starved minds and all but starved
bodies, and a deep pity awoke in their hearts for these people of their
own blood and of an inheritance much like their own.

“When we are a little older,” said Azalea, her eyes shining with a deep
purpose, “we will come back and teach them.”

“Yes,” said Annie Laurie.  “We will teach them to read and to sing.”

“To read and to sing and to draw,” said Carin.

“Very well,” said Mr. Carson, laughingly and yet with meaning.  “And I’ll
send some one along to help with such trifles as arithmetic, geography,
grammar, et cetera, and incidentally I’ll foot the bills.  Is it a
bargain?”

“It’s a bargain,” said they in chorus.



CHAPTER XIV
HI’S HOUN’ DAWG


It was Saturday and Hi Kitchell and Jim McBirney, having done their
chores, met by appointment at the spring under the tulip trees where
Azalea intended to build her bungalow when she became very rich.

It was a lovely spot and they threw themselves down in perfect content,
their dogs near at hand, and looked off at what Hi called a “purty
worl’.”

“It jes’ seems like everything worth speakin’ about hed come my way,”
sighed Hi contently.  “You-all remember what a pore little forsaken cuss
I was, Jim, when me and ’Zalie came draggin’ along with that thar show of
Sisson’s a year back an’ more?”

“’Taint more’n a year, Hi.”

“Seems like a century.  An’ no sooner hed we laid eyes on your pa and ma
than things began to go right.  An’ now look at us.  ’Zalie’s like your
sister and gettin’ a tip-top education, and is off ridin’ the country
over with the Carsons; and me and ma hev a home anybody would be proud to
own, and that thar Industries business is lookin’ up more’n more every
livelong day.  Why we’re so happy we’re in danger of bustin’.  I asked ma
t’other day if she didn’t feel most like bustin’, and she said she did.”

“It’s a good place to live here-abouts,” agreed Jim.  “Pleasant things
have a way of happenin’ ’round here.  If it wa’n’t for that dod-gasted
hard luck of Annie Laurie’s, I’d think this was where the nicest folks in
creation lived.  But some one done her a mean, low-down trick.”

“It was that scowlin’, grumblin’ Disbrow,” averred Hi.  “I know it.  Ma
says she feels it in her bones, and so do I, and Kitchell bones is simply
great for givin’ pointers.  I say, what’s the use in you and me loafin’
’round here while that mis’able, sneakin’ houn’ gets off with Annie
Laurie’s money?  Ain’t we her friends and as nigh kin as she’s got?  What
say to you and me hikin’ out after that thar Disbrow an’ findin’ him and
bringin’ him back to justice?”

Hi’s sharp black eyes sparkled with the high intent of protecting the
friendless.  The bright light of adventure shone round about him, and Jim
thrilled to it.  Here was a friend worth having—a friend like those
knights of old of whom Azalea read to him, one who would go out and
conquer.  Jim stared off across the purple valley, rejoicing in his good
fortune at living in days when there was still a man’s work to do in the
world.

“Hi,” he breathed after a time, “I’m with you.”

“Then,” said Hi, with something of the air of an Arctic explorer about to
embark on his hazardous voyage, “we must make ready.  Thar’s no use in
waitin’ around here, dreamin’ and sighin’ the way the rest of the town is
doin’.  Let’s get our grub together and be on our way.”

“I wish I could take Peter,” said Jim wistfully.  Peter was his hound.
“But he’s got such a sore foot I don’t dast.  Ma, she doctors it up every
morning and she says we’ll have to be mighty careful or we won’t have no
dog at all—he’ll die from blood poisonin’.”

“It’s too bad,” agreed Hi, “but we-all ken take Bike.”  Bike, Hi’s hound,
wagged his tail in recognition of the attention paid him.

“It will make me feel awful bad for you to take Bike and me to be goin’
along without no dog at all,” mused Jim.

There seemed to be no limit to Hi’s chivalry to-day.

“Well then, by gum, I won’t take Bike,” he declared, his face lighting
with the glow of sacrifice.  Jim was not unappreciative.

“Honest, Hi!”

“Honest.”

“Well then, let’s send the dogs home and we can go right on from here.
We don’t need no provisions.  I’ve got some money—”

“So have I.”

“What’s the use of delayin’ then.  Let’s set off.”

So the dogs were commanded to go to their respective homes, and with
lowered tails and drooping ears, they obeyed.  Bike writhed along on his
belly, beating the ground with his tail.  He actually shed tears of
humiliation and depression, but Peter, more absorbed with the discomfort
in his foot, limped lamely and obediently on his way toward home.

“Pore houn’s,” sighed Hi, “they sure are cast down.”

“Ain’t it just their luck,” Jim sympathized.  “Pore critters.”

Both boys were talking their worst and enjoying it.  This spang-up
grammar was well enough to catch on to when a fellow was talking with
Mrs. Carson, or even to Azalea, but there was such a thing as letting
down and enjoying oneself when the ladies were out of the way.  Men must
be men now and then.

So, in all the freemasonry of their kind, the two set off across the
mountain.  Neither one would have confessed that the “wander-thirst” was
on them too.  But the truth was, Mr. Carson had set a most infectious
example.  Mountain folks have pretty hard work staying at home.  The
roads call, and they long to be up and away.  It always seems as if
something wonderful must be waiting for them over the next hill.  Jim and
Hi had the gypsy mood on them this day.  They actually ran for a long
time, taking the cut-offs that led them over the spur of the mountain to
Mulberry Valley, which lay “over-yon” and which they had seldom visited,
and then always under the guidance of some grown person who insisted on
pushing them along and getting home again.

Getting home seemed to them just now as the last thing in the world that
a fellow would care to do.  What was the use in getting home when a
person could run along paths bordered with trim huckleberry bushes, or
rest on a stone where lichen had woven a pale green lace?  There were
partridge berries peeping up between dark green leaves; here was tender
wintergreen; yonder the “sweet buds” were coming out, weighting the air
with their fruity odor.  Dear me, why should anybody go home?

There was an eagle hanging over the valley, strong, and calm, and sure.
Three buzzards sat on a blasted pine and shook their evil heads; a king
snake gave them a chase and got away from them in spite of their best
endeavors.  And still the little path went on and on.  It passed by a
deserted house, where the bats hung from the roof.  It wound by wooded
hills and fields that once had been tilled, but had perhaps proved too
unfertile, and so been left; it crept on up the farther mountain,—the
unknown mountain—and still coaxed, and lured, and solicited; and the boys
kept on.

Their brown, dusty feet had grown weary and their throats were dry when
at length they came upon a cabin.  They weren’t sure at first whether it
was lived in or not.  The heavy shutters—there were no windows—were
closed, but the door stood slightly ajar.  The chimney, which was made of
field stone held together with the red clay of the field, blossomed like
a garden with ferns and vines.  The yard was bare of grass, but the old
stone wall round about it was overgrown with green things, though it was
still so early in the year, and the myrtle and mimosa showed their green
beside that of the laurel and rhododendron.  There was a small well with
a sweep, and on the bench lay a broken gourd which had been used as a
drinking cup.  But over the place was the deepest silence, save for one
early bee which made a cheerful buzzing, and seemed to fairly boom, so
still was the place.

“I say,” whispered Hi, “don’t it look spooky?”

“Maybe a hermit lives here,” Jim suggested.

“Or a skelington,” added Hi.

It was Hi who had the courage to push back the warped door and look in.
Jim was a few feet behind him and he never forgot the yell of horror that
came from Hi’s throat, a yell that had fear in it, fear for the next
second’s happening.  Jim heard a swishing and a hissing, and he knew.
Neither formed the word “rattlers!” on their frozen tongues.  Hi tried to
leap backward and fell over a stub of a bush and lay prone.  Jim seized
his arm and dragged him along for a dozen feet, and even in the rush they
could hear their hearts beating frantically.  That swishing and hissing
kept up.  It seemed to grow louder.  Hi turned himself and got on his
feet like a monkey.  They both ran without looking behind.  And after
they had started and had got away from the real danger, they began to
fear imaginary evils.  Panic was on them.  With their blistered bare feet
they sped on and on, taking no note of where they were going.  Their
throats, which had been dry to start with, became like paper.  Their eyes
bulged from their heads.  They had started out great heroes, but they had
undergone a transformation and were two terribly frightened and tired
little boys.

Even as they sank exhausted beneath a pine tree they looked about them
shudderingly for snakes, but seeing none they lay there and gasped, their
hearts straining in their sides.  Then, as their panting ceased, a soft
noise struck their ears.  It sounded very familiar, and yet in their
utter bewilderment they could not at first tell what it was.  The meaning
penetrated first to Jim.

“A spring,” he whispered.  “A spring!”

They made their way toward it, dragging their feet like weary dogs, and
when they saw it, clear, cold and beautiful, gushing from the ground amid
wild forget-me-nots, they sank on their knees and drank long.  After that
they lay still, staring at the sky.  The world swam before them dreamily,
the clouds rocked back and forth; they slept.

When they awoke it was dark.  It was not just partly dark as it is most
nights of the year.  No, it was black.  They might have been shut up in a
black velvet box or lost in a large bottle of black ink.  There was
nothing above, below, around, so far as their sense could inform them.
It was Jim who had opened his eyes first.  At least, he thought he had
opened them, but when he found he could see nothing at all he had his
doubts about having done it.  He felt of his eyelids.  Yes, they were
open, beyond doubt.  Had he then suddenly gone blind?  He couldn’t
imagine why he should, and yet, judging from his present plight, it
seemed probable.

“Hi!” he shouted, as if Hi were on the other side of a forty-acre lot.

Hi’s voice answered close at hand, sleepily.  “Yep!”

“Hi, I believe I’ve gone blind.  I can’t see nothing—not a blamed thing.”

There was a short silence.

“I can’t neither,” cried Hi.  “Maybe we’re both blind.”

“It’s being so hungry, I reckon,” said Jim.  “Don’t you think a fellah
could get so run down from eatin’ nothing that he’d go blind?”

“I reckon he might,” sighed Hi.

Silence fell again.  They could hear the needles as they fell from the
trees, the low whispering of the spring, and the far-away sound of wind
or rain, they were not sure which.

Then suddenly they knew that they were not blind.  All the world was lit
up—lit up terribly and then engulfed in darkness again.  Then the thunder
came, clamoring and roaring about them.  They were mountain boys and they
had heard thunder roar and rumble over the hills many times, but had it
ever had such a frightful bellow as this?  It kept on and on and before
the first volley had quite died, again the world was lighted with that
fiery light—that forked flame—and again the voice of the sky awoke the
thousand voices of the hills.

“Oh, gosh!” groaned Hi.

“Ain’t there no place to hide?” demanded Jim with trembling voice.

No, there was no place to hide.  The storm king owned everything around
there that night.  It was all his domain and he meant to do with it as he
would.  So he blasted an oak, and the boys saw it; and he cracked his
horrid whip at the invisible horses of the air, and they rushed by
screaming.  And then the rain came; not drop by drop as rain should, but
in drops that chased each other so that they became streams; in streams
that became inverted fountains.

The boys couldn’t even call out to each other.  They fought for breath as
the furious winds whipped them and the drenching rain engulfed them
almost like a wave.  It was a cloudburst, they knew that much, and
finally, from mere animal instinct, they turned their faces to the
ground, wreathed their arms about their heads and lay prone.  Still the
lightning flashed and the thunder bellowed; still the winds wailed and
the trees snapped.  It seemed at last merely a question of keeping alive
till it was over.

But by and by it was over.  It ceased almost as suddenly as it had come,
and weak as half-drowned rats the two boys got to their feet, and looking
up into a clear sky, saw the morning star shining down at them.

“We’ve got to get home,” said Jim, breathing deep.

“Yes,” agreed Hi.

It was some time before they could find any sort of a trail whatever, but
after a while they came upon one, though whether it had been made by
human feet long since and overgrown, or whether it was merely a rabbit
run they could not decide.  However, they decided to take it.  The dawn
was flushing the sky and they could make their way without much
difficulty now, so far as seeing was concerned, but their feet were
blistered and their bodies felt as sore as if they had been pounded.
They went on and on, doggedly.

“We’re bound to come to a road soon,” they kept telling each other.

“Oh, yes, we’ll get somewhere.”

And they got “somewhere,” beyond any manner of doubt.  Lifting their eyes
at length, they saw before them that frightful cabin of “rattlers,” and
stealing to the door to greet the brightly shining sun was a fine,
confident father of rattlers.  Hi gave one despairing whoop and fled, Jim
following, and once more they sped on, taking however an opposite
direction from that of the night before and trying to keep their faces
toward home.  There was the mountain before them to cross, and then
Mulberry Valley, and then there was Tennyson mountain to climb.  It was
really quite simple.

“Anybody ought to be able to do that,” said Hi stoutly.

But the trouble was that after an hour’s hard plodding they came to a
sort of opening and thought they had reached a road at last, and there
before them once more was the House of Rattlers.  And that was the time
they gave up and cried.  They dared not stay near there, so they went on
their way hastily, but not running now, sobbing as they went.

They were lost, that was all there was to it.  They were quite completely
lost on a mountain they never had visited before—a mountain where nobody
lived and where the only neighborly things were rattle snakes.

They were both wondering if they were going to die there, to starve and
be heard of no more.  Of course, years and years from then their
“skelingtons” might be found.  But however interesting that might be for
others, it really would do them no good at all, when you came to think of
it.

Ugh, how chilly the morning air was!  And how wet their clothes were!
And how empty their stomachs!  And the rattlers—the rattlers!

There was a strange, bell-like sound in the distance, a deep, musical,
beautiful sound.  It rang over the hills with a note at once sad and
glad.  The boys stopped in their tracks and listened.  It came again,
like church bells, only faster.  It thrilled the two forlorn wanderers,
and brought the light back to their faces.

“Bike!” shouted Hi.  “It’s Bike.  He’s followed us.  Oh, Bike, Bike, here
we are, you blessed old houn’ dawg!  Here!  Here!”

They put their fingers in their mouths and whistled, they shouted, they
laughed, they hugged each other; and then, over a rise came Bike,
wild-eyed with delight, large, it seemed, as a bear, and bursting with
importance.

He leaped on them till he knocked them down; he insisted on licking their
faces, on pretending to bite their calves, on lathering them as if they
were puppies.  He couldn’t have enough of them nor they of him.  But
after all, he came to his senses sooner than they.

“Enough of this,” he seemed to say.  “For goodness sake, let’s be getting
home.”

He turned his back on them and started over the rise, wagging his tail
and giving vent to sharp, scolding barks.

“A fine lot of trouble you’ve put me to,” he appeared to be saying.
“Hustle yourselves now and get home.  Don’t you know your folks are
worried to death about you?  Such boys!  Such boys!  It wears a
respectable hound out trying to take care of you.”

And the boys understood and agreed with him.  So they followed meekly
enough, limping first on one foot and then on the other and calling to
him every few minutes not to go so fast.

They went on for hours and hours, as it seemed, but at last they stood
beneath the tulip trees by the spring on Azalea’s plateau.

“Well,” said Hi, “this here is whar we part.  We-all don’t seem to be
bringin’ the Disbrows back to get their just punishment.”

“I reckon we’d better not say much about punishment,” grinned the
leg-weary Jim.  “So long, Hi.  Hope it don’t hurt much.”

“Same to you,” called Hi.  He and Bike were already on their way down the
mountain, and Jim, tired almost to collapse, made his way up the road to
where Ma McBirney paced back and forth, pouring out her soul in prayer.

But Pa McBirney seemed to have some feelings which did not come under the
head of gratitude for his son’s return.  He knew what such a night of
torture meant to the dear woman beside him, who already had suffered too
many shocks.  He looked Jim over with a sternly parental eye.

“If you got what’s coming to you, son,” he said, “you’d be well
lathered.”

“I know it, sir,” said Jim with conviction.

Pa hesitated.  He was a gentle man.

“Well,” he said, “if you know it, and if you think you’ll remember it,
latherin’ wouldn’t teach you nothing.  Go in with your ma and get some
food, and then wash yourself up and go to bed.  Ma’d better give you some
of that salve o’ hern for your feet.  And Jim—”

“Yes, sir.”

“You watch out jest as hard as you can, and don’t grow up a plumb fool.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jim.



CHAPTER XV
THE VOICE IN THE MIST


It has been said that Mr. Carson set an example for the people at Lee
which many were tempted to follow.  And partly it was the spring calling
them; partly it was an itching desire to find the Disbrows.  Lee was
pretty well disgusted with itself as time went on, for not starting after
the absconding undertaker and his family immediately after their
disappearance, and they told themselves they certainly would have done it
if Mr. Carson hadn’t been so dead set against it.  And he was put up to
acting the way he did, they knew, by Annie Laurie, who was too
soft-hearted altogether.

It was a little surprising, all things considered, that the Reverend
Absalom Summers should have been the next after Hi and Jim to yield to
the temptation to take to the hills.  Resisting temptation, as his little
wife pointed out to him, ought to be his specialty.  But he contrived to
down her argument.

“You don’t seem to understand my noble soul at all, Barbara,” he said.
“My real reason for taking to the hills is that I want to visit my two
uncles back on Longstreet Mountain.”

“But why should you visit them, Absalom, dear?  Do you really care about
seeing them?  Aren’t they two quarrelsome old men?”

“Well, they are some quarrelsome, Barbara, and that’s why I think I ought
to see them, carrying a dove of peace on my shoulder.”

“They’d kill a dove of peace and eat it, wouldn’t they?” she asked
laughingly.  “Don’t they shoot everything in sight?”

“Pretty nigh,” agreed Absalom.  “They certainly do have nervous
dispositions.  They own a lot of land up there on Longstreet Mountain,
and the two of them used to live side by side.  But their chickens were
so inquisitive about what was doing in the next yard, and they got so
mixed up running through the fence and forgetting which place was home,
that there was a row on early and late between my uncles.  It was the
same with the calves.  If they wanted to break into a field and eat up
the corn, they always picked out the field of the next door neighbor.
And that made the brothers just dancing mad.  Then once Uncle Ephriam
shot a hound of Uncle Aaron’s—said he thought it was a timber wolf.

“And so it went.  There was always trouble.  When they heard I’d become a
preacher they sent for me to come up and straighten things out.  I stayed
up there a month and talked things over and I couldn’t get either old
stiff-neck to give an inch.  So I worked out a plan.  Aaron had a likely
building site for his house, but Uncle Ephriam’s was on a slope and water
ran into the cellar when it rained.  Well, just in front of them was a
deep ravine—mighty pretty it is too.  I proposed that Ephriam should move
across to the other side of that gulley.  I told him if he would, I’d
stay and help him put up his house.  So Aaron bought Ephriam’s old house
to use for a barn, and Ephriam moved—chickens, stock, truck and
all—across the gulley.  We got him a nice sizable house there, and
settled him and his wife as comfortable as you please.  It was altogether
too much work for the calves and the chickens to get across that crack in
the earth, and so everyone lived in peace.”

“That was fine.  But why should you leave Jonathan and me to go to see
them if they’re doing so well?”

“They aren’t doing so well as you might think, wife.  No sooner had I got
those families separated, by a convulsion of nature, so to speak, than
they took to pining for each other.”

“Nonsense, Absalom.”

“It’s a fact, my dear.  They were as lonely as owls.  Said they didn’t
have anyone to talk to, and that it wore them all out plunging up and
down that gulley.”

“Well, what can you do about that?  You don’t propose moving Uncle
Ephriam back again, do you?”

“Not at all, Barbara, not at all.  I merely propose making conversation
easy and simple for them.”

“With a telephone?”

“Not at all.  A telephone would be out of place in the hands of my
reverend uncles.  I can’t precisely tell you why, but you’ll have to take
my word that it would.  No, what I propose to do is to carry them
megaphones.”

“Megaphones, Absalom!”

“Certainly.  Megaphones will become them.  They are sturdy, seafaring
sort of men—”

“Why, they’ve never seen the sea!”

“Don’t be so literal, dear.  They are sturdy, space-roaming,
wilderness-faring men in whose hands megaphones will be appropriate.  I
shall strap one on each side of my horse and set forth—to-morrow.”

“But will you get your sermon prepared?”

“I shall prepare it while I’m riding.  Seriously, Barbara, the wild man
in me is uppermost.  You have tried to civilize me.  Our young son has
labored to do the same thing.  But you scratch a Russian and find a
Tartar; and you scratch a mountain man and you find a rover.”

“And you’ve been scratched, wild man?”

“I have.  I’m off to-morrow.  Bear with me, dear.  I’ll come back as tame
as a house cat.”

Barbara looked at him with shining eyes.

“You’ll have a wonderful sermon,” she said.  “I know you, dear.  Go to
your hills—”

“From whence,” broke in the Reverend Absalom, his voice changing, “cometh
help.”

So away he went in the early morning, knapsack well filled, blankets
rolled, and a megaphone dangling from each side of his excellent horse.

Yes, he was glad to leave domesticity and towns behind him; glad to be
away from the sound of voices and from the need of proprieties.  He was a
hill man, after all, he told himself, and lifting his face to the sky he
thanked God that he was.  They satisfied him, these ancient mountains
which once had been lofty peaks and which through all the changing
centuries had crumbled and shrunken till they were the friendly little
mountains that he knew.  They were so old—so old and so full of secrets.
And they satisfied his restless, longing, laughing, dreaming soul, the
curious soul of Absalom Summers, which differed from all the other souls
on earth.  Yes, he mused, each soul must differ from another, as the
stars in heaven differ.

On he rode through the long day, thinking, dreaming, living a deep and
silent life.  At night he made his meal, fed his horse, smoked his pipe
and thought of his sermon.  The stars rolled over him in their silent and
majestic courses, and beneath them he knelt to pray for his wife and
babe, those inestimably dear treasures of his, those lovely creatures of
the hearth-side.  They liked their roof; he liked his sky.  Well,
blessings on them, and might he be forgiven if he harbored too wild a
nature in his bosom!  It was not a silent prayer that the Reverend
Absalom put up.  Far from it.  He shouted to the whispering pines; he
addressed the distant stars; he felt as if he must send his voice beyond
the barriers of silence and reach his God.  For that was the kind of man
the Reverend Absalom was.

Then, as trusting as a child in his mother’s arms, he laid him down to
sleep.  For he felt the “Everlasting Arms” about him.

The next morning he arose at sunup and went singing on his way.  He
breakfasted at about seven o’clock, and stimulated by his powerful cup of
coffee—which, truth to tell, was a fearsome liquid—he pushed onward.  The
road he had chosen was difficult to keep and hard to traverse.  There
were, of course, easier ways of reaching Longstreet Mountain, but in
order to reach them he would have had to take a train, and nothing was
further from his inclination at present than riding by steam.  He wanted
just what he was having, the heave of good horseflesh beneath him.

The day passed without events other than the sort he desired: the lift of
a bird from a bush, the rippling of a stream across his path, the nosing
of the horse at the ford, a burst of laurel blossoms in a sunny path.  He
went on, whistling and singing.  Oftenest it was his old, best-loved
hymn: “A mighty fortress is our Lord.”

Along late in the afternoon a mist began to gather over the mountain.  It
blurred everything delicately; it put a soft, filmy veil over the face of
the landscape and enhanced its beauty by so doing.  But after a while it
began to be a bit eerie.  As the wanderer cooked his evening meal it
seemed as if shadowy white figures drew near, bending over him, and then
flitting away as he arose.  It did no more than amuse him, of course.  He
knew the tricks of the mountain mist.  But he couldn’t help remembering
how terrified he had been once as a child when he had been out on a night
much like this, and had had a five mile walk alone with a lantern in his
hand, which seemed to summon ghostly figures from the roadside.

“It would be a bad night for a man with a bad conscience,” he said aloud.
“He would think there were avenging spirits on his track, sure enough.
Come to think of it, I’ve plenty of things to have a bad conscience about
myself.  I’d better be watching out or the goblins will get me.  And
whatever would wife Barbara and baby Jonathan do then, poor things!”

The place where he had lighted his camp fire was in a little hollow and
the mist gathered very thickly there, so he concluded that it would be
better to go on farther up the mountain.  It was possible that he might
find an airier place where the draft would keep the heavier clouds away.
So once more he put his horse to the path and went on silently, rather
weary, and heartily wishing that the night were fair.

He was very far from the beaten road, in a place so solitary that he
could not hope to meet anyone, so it was with no little surprise that he
found himself, suddenly, almost upon a group of human beings.  They were
sitting, three of them, around a fire, well wrapped from the chill.
There was a sort of rude hut beside them, fashioned of saplings and
thatched with pine boughs.  Here, apparently, they slept.  They were not
then like himself, wanderers, but campers.  Well, it was a quiet place
for a camp, and no doubt a sightly one—

His thoughts broke off like a thread that is snapped.  He recognized the
persons at whom he was looking.  They were the Disbrows!  They were the
fugitives.  At first he thought of going right up to them, but something
withheld him.  He could hear Mrs. Disbrow’s voice, and he slid from his
horse and having tied him, crept nearer with as much stealth and skill in
silence as an Indian, that he might listen.  There were things he felt
that he must know, and that as Sam’s friend he had a right to know.

“I don’t mean to go on, pa,” Mrs. Disbrow was saying.  “What’s the use of
going on?  Whatever would it mean for me but another house to look after,
and me lacking the strength to do it?  Hannah would drudge and drudge,
and that’s all there’d be to it.  Living like this there aren’t any
pantry shelves to clean or doorsteps to scrub.  That’s a great point to a
woman with no elbow grease.  You understand, pa, it’s been pretty dull
for me these last few years back.  You can’t tell what it is to lie awake
all night wondering if the morning will ever come, and when the morning
comes, hating it because the light tears your eyes out and the noise
splits your ears.”

“But you seem to stand the light and the noise here well enough, ma.”

“So I do.  That’s why I want to stay.  The only noise is what the
crickets and birds make, with now and then a bee humming or an owl
screeching.  And the light is green, coming through the trees.  Why, it’s
as if a thousand years had rolled off my back.  There’s no one around
wondering about me, and trying this trick and that to get a sight of me.”

“No one ever did that, ma,” cried out the shrill voice of Hannah.  “That
was just your imagination.  It was your being sick made you think that
way.”

“Well, however that may be, out here we’re free.  Now I propose, since
you’ve got some money, pa, that we move around here and there, like a
nice family of bears—the father, and the mother and the baby bear.”

She gave a curious, unaccustomed laugh.  Then suddenly she turned toward
her husband, and Mr. Summers could see her wild eyes gleaming in the
firelight.

“But what I can’t make out, Hector,” she said, “is where you got that
money.  Why don’t you talk out the way a husband should to a wife?  Here
we’ve been living so close to the wind that we hadn’t enough to satisfy
us, and Hannah’s been going without enough to clothe her decently.  Now,
of a sudden, your pockets are full of money!  What does it mean, Hector?
And why did you clear out of Lee in the night?  When you gave the word to
go I was feeling so dull in my head that I didn’t care whether the thing
was right or wrong.  But now I seem to have come to life.  I’ve got to
thinking again, like I was a real human being.  And Hector—”

Her voice carried on the air with the wild note of a loon.

“Hector!”

“Well, ma, go on, for goodness sake.”

“How did it come that you got that money just when Simeon Pace’s money
disappeared?  Tell me that, husband!  Tell me you didn’t have anything to
do with it!  My life’s been queer and dark, but it’s been honest.  You’ve
turned out a different man from what I thought you’d be.  I hoped on and
on for you, but you didn’t get anywhere, and I got worn out and took to
my bed and meant never to get out of it.  But even when you’d taken all
the spunk out of me I never thought you was anything but honest.  Are
you, Hector?  Are you honest—or a thief?”

It wrung Summers’ heart; yet he knew that the time had come for judgment.
He had been a boy of wild pranks and he loved a prank still.  An idea
came flashing into his head.  He crept back to his horse, loosened one of
the megaphones and put it to his mouth, and in that voice which had
electrified great camp meetings, magnified many times by the horn, he
bellowed into the mist:

“Disbrow, thief!  Give back the money you stole!  Make restitution!
Return the money of the orphan!  Simeon Pace is in his grave, and his
orphan’s money is in your pocket!  Disbrow, thief!”

The great megaphone waved up and down in the air, and the accusing voice
was borne to the group around the fire, as if carried on winds from the
furthermost heaven.  In the white gloom, with the wreathing wraiths of
the mist dancing about them, the dark cavern below, the sighing trees
above, the monstrous voice, like that of an angry angel, besieged their
ears.  Summers was too far from them to see them cower, and he could not
see their stricken faces.  His heart secretly misgave him for what he
might be doing to the woman and the girl, but he did not flinch for all
that.  He gave out one last call:

“Make restitution!  To-morrow at sunrise set out upon your journey.  Do
not pause till wrong has been made right.  This is the first warning.
Beware the second!”

The mountain echoes caught it up and shouted the words back, while up and
down the chasm below the roadway the mist figures writhed and climbed.
Summers mounted his horse and stole back the way he had come till he
reached the bottom of the gulch, then taking the path on the other side
of it, he proceeded on his way.  It was almost dawn when he drew rein,
tethered his horse, and laid him down to sleep.

“I hope,” he said to his horse, “that I haven’t scared those poor women
to death.  But it had to be, you see—nothing else for it.”  And then
suddenly he burst into a wild torrent of laughter.  It rolled out of him
in waves; it shook him like a convulsion.  And having eased his soul, he
lay down and slept.



CHAPTER XVI
GOOD FOR EVIL


The Carsons and the Paces, with Azalea, came driving home one chilly
evening in a light fall of rain.  They were tired and cold and had
altogether an after-the-picnic sort of feeling.  Indeed, when Azalea, who
was to stay in the valley for the night, and Annie Laurie had helped the
aunts into the house, they found them so travelworn that they insisted
that they should get into bed at once and have their suppers brought to
them.

A few weeks before, Aunt Adnah would have perished rather than submit to
such an indignity, no matter how comfortable she found it.  And Aunt
Zillah would not have indulged in such a luxury with her sister’s stern
eye upon her.  But more and more Annie Laurie’s determined will was
having its way in that household, and when to her command was added
Azalea’s importunities, the aunts yielded.

Sam had the fires burning for them in a few minutes, and as the old
ladies undressed and toasted their shins before the blaze, and thought of
the two competent young girls down in the kitchen who were preparing
supper for them, they experienced the luxurious feeling of those who are
old, well-loved, and carefully looked after.

“If they were girls who would be getting everything out of its place,”
said Miss Zillah to Miss Adnah, “I don’t suppose we’d feel as comfortable
as we do; but they take hold just as we would ourselves.  I’m bound to
say that I wouldn’t know how to stand on my feet to get supper to-night.”

“And here Annie Laurie has filled those new fangled water bottles for us,
and looked out our warmest nightgowns.  We certainly have a lot to be
thankful for, Zillah.  When brother passed away I thought that I would
just naturally step in and take charge of things—I believed I had the
strength for it and the brains for it,—but it seems it was not to be.
Whether it was the shock of Simeon’s death or merely that I’m getting
old, I wouldn’t undertake to say, but certainly I’m not the woman I was.
Why, suddenly when I think to be the strongest, I find myself all shaky
in the knees and confused in the head.”

“It’s just the nervous shock, sister.  You’ll be all right by and by.
Trouble is like sickness, it takes a while to recuperate from it.”

There was a knock at the door and Annie Laurie entered bearing a tray.
Behind her was Azalea with another.  Tea, toast, little golden omelettes,
preserves and other dainties tempting to the appetites of two jaded old
ladies appeared on the best dishes and the whitest napery that could be
found in the Pace household.

“My, my, what a fuss you make over us,” said Aunt Adnah, disapprovingly.
“I’m sure the common dishes would have done perfectly well, Ann.”

Annie Laurie shook her finger at her aunt.

“Don’t you call me Ann,” she laughed.  “The best dishes are none too good
for you two; and anyway, we’re celebrating because we’re home!”

Aunt Zillah narrowed her eyes in a way she had.

“You’re sure you love your home, child, now that there are only us two
old souls in it, and that we’re so poor and all?”

“Of course I love my home,” declared Annie Laurie.  “I should say I did!
And we’re not going to be poor.  I simply won’t be poor.  And I don’t
feel poor anyway.  It’s so meachin to feel poor!  Please don’t use the
word, Aunt.  How can you, when we have a fire like this and suppers as
good as those on the trays, and when we can ask a friend in whenever we
please, and go on lovely vacations?  Poor!”

She gave a little shiver of disgust at the word.

“Well, I’m sure you do put heart into one,” sighed Aunt Zillah, as if she
needed all the good cheer that anybody could spare her.  “Sometimes I do
think we’re falling off in our spirits, Adnah and I.”

The girls stood laughing and talking with the aunts a few minutes more,
and then ran down to get their own suppers.

“Let’s eat it before the living room fire,” said Azalea.  “We’ll put it
on the sewing table.”

“And we’ll have Sam to eat with us.  He simply must, that’s all, we’ve so
much to tell him,” added Annie Laurie.

It was a much easier thing for Azalea to cook the supper than it was for
Annie Laurie to persuade Sam to come in and eat with them.  But the
bright-faced girl, with her good will shining in her face, succeeded in
overcoming his scruples.  It was very hard for so social a creature as
Sam to keep to himself, holding before himself the hard fact:

“I am the son of a man who is under suspicion.  I must not be the friend
of honest folk until I am proved of an honest family.”

To-night, at any rate, he permitted himself to forget.  So, while the
rain dashed against the windowpane, the three sat, warm and dry, in the
familiar room and ate their supper, while the girls told stories of the
curious people they had seen, and of the nice and interesting ones, and
of dangers from which they had thrillingly escaped.

In the midst of it there came a knock at the door.

“I’ll go,” said Annie Laurie, “I’m nearest.  Who can it be on such a
night?”

She flung wide the door, and then as the other two turned to see who it
was, she half closed it again, involuntarily, and stepped back.
Something was the matter, Sam perceived as he started to his feet; then
he saw Annie Laurie fling open the door again and back away from it.

“Come in,” she said in a strange voice.

And a man entered with a curiously swift movement, almost as if he were
hunted.  The rain ran from his clothes and his beard; he was covered with
red clay, and he seemed to shrink from observation.  Yet after a second
he took off his hat, and then Sam saw that it was his father.  Mr.
Disbrow came into the room at last and closed the door behind him.

“Father!” Sam breathed, but Annie Laurie held up her hand and Sam said no
more.  She seemed for the moment to be carried out of herself, and to
cease to be a very young and inexperienced girl, and to take on the grave
look of one who was sitting in judgment.

Disbrow’s eyes, usually so wavering, fixed themselves on Annie Laurie’s.
They were quite on a level, these two, as to height, but the man looked
broken and beaten; the girl was strong and free and, in her simple way,
proud.  She stood there waiting, and Disbrow came on toward her.

            [Picture: “Come in,” she said in a strange voice]

“I’ve come to make it up to you, miss,” he said with trembling lips.
“I’ve come to give back what I took from you.”

Above the crackling of the fire and the beating of the rain on the
windows they heard her say:

“I am glad.”

The man tore off his dripping coat, and taking a knife from his pocket,
began cutting at the lining.  He took out package after package of bills
and laid them on the table.  And still he clipped, and still the money
appeared from the wadded lining of the coat.  Then he flung the coat on a
chair.

“I’ll leave it there,” he said.  “If there is more you can find it.”  He
folded his arms and looked at the girl.

“Well, that’s over,” he said.  “I tried to go on with the plan I’d laid
out for myself, but I couldn’t sleep for thinking I was a thief.  And
then a voice came from Heaven and told me so.  Don’t smile at that,
miss—my poor wife heard the voice, and Hannah heard it.  I’ve left them
out in the mountains and God only knows what will come to them, for I
reckon you’ll be wanting to hand me over to the sheriff.”

“Oh, Mr. Disbrow,” cried Annie Laurie, “you know I’ll not do anything of
the kind.  I couldn’t do such a thing to an old neighbor, and to Sam’s
father at that!”

Disbrow raised one arm in the air.

“I’ll make a clean breast of everything now,” he said in his deep
quavering voice.  “Sam ain’t my boy; nor he ain’t my wife’s boy.  He’s
taken from the asylum, Sam is.  We thought we wasn’t going to have a
child, and we took him and never told him.  Anybody could see he wa’n’t
our boy, if they’d had sense.”

Annie Laurie half turned.  There was a consuming pity in her heart, and a
great hope that Sam would not disappoint her.  And he did not.  He took
three strides and stood by the man he had all his life called father.

“I reckon we won’t go back on the relationship,” he said.  “If you took
me out of an asylum and cared for me when I was little, I don’t mean to
go back on you just now, sir, when you’re—when you’re down on your luck.”

“He’s not down on his luck,” said Annie Laurie in her clear tones.  “He’s
a lucky man to have the courage to bring back the thing he took that
wasn’t his, Sam.  Not everyone could have done it.  You ought to feel
proud of a father who could do that, Sam.”

“I am,” said Sam.  “I’m mighty proud of him.”

Their youth, and the generosity of their youth, their desire to do the
best they could for each other’s sake, had winged them up to that high
place where Mercy sits.  Azalea, watching them, thrilled to think they
were her friends.  They were doing precisely what Ma McBirney would have
wished them to do if she had been there to advise them.  They were not
being just—they were much, much better than just.  They were merciful.
Annie Laurie went on:

“I don’t know how much money there is there, sir,” she said, pointing to
the pile of bills on the table, “but I am sure there is a good deal and
that you have given me back all you took.”

“All but two hundred dollars, miss.  I gave Sam a hundred, and I used a
hundred myself.  I’ll pay it back some day, if I can.”

“What I was going to say was that I want you to count out a thousand
dollars of that money for yourself.  I’m not going to lend it to you.  I
don’t want you to go on thinking you have a debt like that.  I know
you’ve had a hard time, Mr. Disbrow.  Father used to speak of it and feel
sorry; and I’ve felt dreadfully sorry for you times and times.  Now,
you’re to take a thousand and just pretend, if you like, that my father
willed it to you, and then you’re to go away where you can begin over
with a little shop, or farm, and make your way.”

Pretend that Simeon Pace had willed it to him—Simeon Pace whom he had
hated because Pace was a successful man and he an unsuccessful one!  And
Pace had felt sorry for him!  But if that was the case, why hadn’t he
helped him?  Yet Hector Disbrow knew why—he knew it was because of his
lazy ways and his bitter tongue, and for the first time in his life he
saw himself as his neighbors had seen him, as a hang-dog man whom it was
anything but pleasant to meet.  Yes, he had missed the road, someway.  He
hadn’t known how to find the House of Good Will.  He had broken his
wife’s spirit, and had darkened the lives of the two children who lived
beneath his roof.  He had made a failure of everything—had even sunk to
be a thief.  And now here was this girl giving him another chance.  And
Sam was saying that he’d still be his son!

He was cold and hungry, worn with sleeplessness, shaken with the memory
of the terrible voice that had cried in the mist, and this unexpected
kindness was too much for him.  He had not meant to do it—did not know
that he ever could do such a thing—but he burst into the sobs of a broken
man, and when Sam had led him to a chair he dropped his head on the table
and wept.

They talked together, the four of them, when Mr. Disbrow had grown
calmer.  Azalea would have left them, but Annie Laurie wanted her to
stay.  She held her hand and kept her close beside her.

“You understand everything, Azalea,” she whispered.  “You don’t seem
surprised at good times or at bad times, dear.  You take things as they
come.  Stay with me, Azalea, I need you very much.”

“What will you do, miss?” Disbrow had asked.  “Will you let the people
know how you got your money back?”

Annie Laurie thought a moment.

“Don’t you think they have been suspecting you, Mr. Disbrow?” she asked.

The man nodded miserably.

“There wa’n’t a man in town would shake hands with me,” he confessed.

“And don’t you think,” went on the girl, “that they thought it fine of
Sam to give up his school and to come back here and help out the aunts
and myself?”

“They must have thought he was trying to give a square deal,” said
Disbrow.

“Well, then,” Annie Laurie went on, holding tight to Azalea’s hand to
gather courage, “I think I ought to tell them.  It will let them know you
were honest in your heart after all, and it will make them give Sam
credit for what he’s done.  I’m sure that’s the right way, Mr. Disbrow.
When I was naughty I used to like to be punished—it made me feel fair and
honest again.  And you’ll feel better if the neighbors know.  That will
be your punishment.  And what’s more, it will explain everything.  I
don’t want to have to tell a lie when I say how I got my money back.  I
never yet told a lie and I don’t want to begin now.”

The man bowed his head and sat staring into the fire.

“I reckon what you say is right,” he admitted.

Azalea had placed a heaping plate of food before him.  She made hot
coffee and urged him to drink it.  And she found a pouch of tobacco and
forced that on him.  His clothes had dried before the hearty fire, and
when he had lighted his pipe he began to feel master of himself again.

“I think, dad,” said Sam, “that the best thing for you to do is to get
out of here to-night before you’re seen.  I’ve some heavy new boots that
you can wear and you can have my raincoat and sou’wester.  That’s my
advice—hit the trail to-night and get so far out of the way that none of
your old neighbors will meet you.  Settle in some live town over the
mountain; put mother in a nice, light, little house—and whatever you do,
don’t have green shades to the windows—and maybe she’ll get well again.”

“She’s better now,” said Mr. Disbrow.  “Fifty percent better.  But of
course she looks with contempt on me.  I don’t know whether she’ll let me
go back to her or not, Sam.”

“Mother!” cried Sam.  “Of course she will!  You go back and don’t take no
for an answer.  You-all just hike over the mountain to a new place and
get a new start all ’round.  And one of the first things is to get
Hannah’s eyes straightened.  She can’t enjoy herself the way she is.  It
just spoils her life.”

“Yes, it does, Mr. Disbrow,” put in Azalea.  “It makes her so shy that
it’s terrible for her.  Do say you’ll have her eyes made right.”

Disbrow looked up at Azalea with something almost like a smile.  She was
bending forward pleading with him, her own odd, intense look on her face.
She did indeed seem to have a way of understanding the troubles of
people.

“I’ll do it, miss,” he said, “and I’ll tell Hannah you-all told me to.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, then Mr. Disbrow turned his eyes
on Sam and a deep flush spread over his face.

“It’s all right for you to say you’ll stand by me, son,” he said, “but if
I go sneakin’ off and hidin’ away, how am I going to be able to stand by
you?  What will ’come of you, anyway?”

“Now don’t worry about me, sir,” Sam said independently; “I’ll get on
somehow.”

“Oh, it’s going to be easy for Sam,” Annie Laurie broke in
enthusiastically.  “You see it’s this way.  Now I have my money I’ll be
able to pay for all the work he’s been doing for me, and he’ll keep right
on working and saving up his money, and next October he’ll go back to the
Rutherford Academy.  It’s not so far away but that he can afford to run
down here every week or two to go over the books, and he’ll get some good
man in to take his place while he’s away.  Vacations, he can take charge
himself.  Oh, we’ll get on now, Mr. Disbrow, both Sam and I, and we’ll
have plenty of schooling too.”

Hector Disbrow looked at the tall boy sitting beside him and at the
bright-faced girl who had spoken, and started to say something, but
thought better of it and put his hand up to his mouth instead.

“Oh, yes,” he heard Azalea murmur.  “They’ll get on now.  Things are
coming all right for them just as they have for me.  There’s an end to
trouble, isn’t there, if you just hang on and wait?”

“Well, there is, miss,” agreed Mr. Disbrow.  “And now I reckon I better
take the advice you all gave me and hike.”

“Are you going to walk, sir?” Sam asked.

“No, I’ve got one of the horses hid back here a ways.  I’ll slip on him
and get up the mountain before daybreak.  Your ma and Hannah will be
worrying about me, I reckon.  Ma’s down on me, but that won’t keep her
from worrying about me, you know.”

Sam nodded.

“They’re sleeping in a little tent I rigged up for them—kind of half
house, half tent.  Durn it, I wish I could buy something to take to ’em.
The food supply’s getting mighty low.”

“Have you saddle bags on your horse, Mr. Disbrow?” Annie Laurie asked.

“I reckon,” said Disbrow dryly, ashamed to test her generosity further.

“Then drive up to the storehouse door and we’ll be out with a lantern.
I’ve enough food to feed a little army and you-all mustn’t go hungry
while that’s the case.”

He avoided her look as he thanked her.  Was she going to remember her
offer to him of a thousand dollars?  She surely was.

“Azalea,” she said, “count out the money I promised Mr. Disbrow.”

Azalea turned to the table where the fascinating rolls lay.  There was
indeed, much of it.  Most of the bills were of the hundred dollar
denomination.  None of the children had seen anything like it—it was like
looking into Aladdin’s cave to stand there beside that old table with
rolls of bank notes.  Perhaps each one of the young persons wished that
it had been in gold instead of paper money, but even as it was it
thrilled them.  Azalea’s fingers trembled, as slowly and accurately she
counted out the ten one hundred-dollar bills and handed them to Annie
Laurie, who in turn gave them to Mr. Disbrow.  He would have liked, in
the shamed soul of him, to make some sort of a joke of it, but he could
not and the cheap words he tried to speak died on his lips.

“Thank you—thank you,” was all he said.

“It’s not because you brought back my money,” Annie Laurie added, with
something of the stern accent of her Aunt Adnah; “it’s because you’re an
old neighbor, as I said, and because I’ve known you ever since I was a
little girl and I have seen that things were hard for you.  Most of all,
it’s because Sam would like me to do it.  That’s so, isn’t it, Sam; you
like me to do it?”

“Oh, Annie Laurie,” Sam cried, choking, “I like you to do it.”

He lifted the old coat from the chair and helped his father into it, but
it was soaking wet and he flung it down again.

“Wait,” he said; “I’ll be back with the dry things in a minute.”

So in the new, dry boots, a reefer, raincoat and storm hat—fed, warmed,
forgiven, the man who had so failed went out from Annie Laurie’s door.

“We’ll be waiting at the storehouse for you,” she called after him.  And
half an hour later, with his saddle bags well filled, he was off up the
mountain, never to come into their lives again.

“Come back by the fire,” pleaded Azalea.  “Come, Sam, come back and get
warm before you go to bed.”

“I don’t see how it can be so chilly again after all the lovely days
we’ve had,” Annie Laurie remarked.  She was deeply moved and glad of the
opportunity to talk about something besides the man who had just ridden
away from them.

So the three went in and sat before the fire.

“Oh, Sam,” said Azalea, “you didn’t ask Mr. Disbrow who your father
really was.”

“I don’t suppose he knew,” Sam said, “and I’m not sure I want to.”  He
dropped his head in his hands and sat staring at the dying fire.

“Oh, well,” Annie Laurie said, “America’s for individuals.  That’s what
Mr. Summers says and that’s what I think too.  And as an individual, Sam,
you’ll pass muster, eh?”

Sam laughed rather bitterly.

“Oh,” he half groaned, “I wish—”

“What?” asked Azalea.

“Oh, I don’t know what.  I was just thinking what a queer, lonely trio we
are—orphans, the three of us.”

“Yes,” said the girls, “that’s so.”

They sat for a time in silence, each absorbed in thought.  The fire
crackled a little now and then, and sank lower and lower.  By and by
Annie Laurie spoke softly—

“Yes,” she said, “we’re orphans, but I reckon we’ll be taken care of.”

“Oh, yes,” murmured Azalea’s soft voice.  “I’m sure of it.  Why Ma
McBirney—”

“The rest of us have no Ma McBirney,” Sam reminded her.

But after all, though they were pensive, they were not unhappy.  The
feeling that they were close and trusted friends comforted them.  High
adventure seemed to be before them.  The fortune, so curiously lost and
so strangely regained lay there on the table by them.  Sam and Azalea
wondered that Annie Laurie did not count it to find out how much it was,
but she seemed oddly indifferent to that fact.  Only after a time she
arose, brushed the bills into her apron and stood for a moment smiling.

“Sam,” she said shyly, “creep up to the attic, softly, so as not to
disturb the aunts, and bring me down dad’s old tin arm!”

“Oh!” cried Sam, horrified.

“Please,” begged the girl.

So Sam brought it and the three laid the rolls of bills neatly within it.

“It will comfort father,” said Annie Laurie quaintly, “but to-morrow I’m
going to put it in the bank.”



CHAPTER XVII
AZALEA’S PARTY


Baby Jonathan had just been stung by one of Pa McBirney’s bees.

“I don’t like the way he kisseth,” he screamed, standing beside the clump
of golden glow.  “I don’t like it a bit.”

“I should think not, indeed, mamma’s own honey-bird,” soothed Mrs.
Barbara, dashing for him and gathering him into her arms.  “He thought
you were a flower, son-son, and just lighted on you.”

“He kisseth too hard,” sobbed Jonathan, plunging his golden head into the
hollow of his mother’s arm.  “I don’t want to play with him any more,
ever.”

“What a shame that he should be stung at his first party,” said his
mother indignantly, as she carried him to the seat at the McBirney
outlook where she had been sitting with young Richard Heller, Sam
Disbrow’s friend—the one who had spoken the cruel-kind words of truth to
him which had sent him away from the Rutherford Academy without so much
as putting his name on the register.  They had been talking about Sam
now, and when Mrs. Summers had plastered clay over the wounded cheek of
her son, and had soothed him with many kisses, they resumed their
conversation.

“It’s going to come all right with him next term,” Dick said to Mrs.
Summers.  “All the fellows in the country who know him at all realize
what a brick he’s been, staying right here and looking his trouble in the
face and helping the Paces out the way he did.  Why, some of the men
wanted him to change his name when it turned out that Disbrow was such a
thief, but he wouldn’t do it.  He said he’d promised his dad—he will call
him that—to stick to him, and that it wouldn’t be keeping his word to
take another name.  He said Disbrow was as good a name as any if he
_made_ it good.  So he’ll be given a hearty reception when he comes back
to Rutherford.  I’ve frozen onto the room next to mine there at the
Ballenger dormitories and I’m going to get the prefect to put him in
there.  The fellows shall see that he and I are friends, anyway.  I don’t
know as that counts for such a tremendous lot, but I’ll let it stand for
all it will.”

“Bless you,” said Mrs. Summers, turning her bright smile on the lad.  “I
can’t tell you what it means to me that my Sam is going to be happy.  As
you know, he’s been living with us the past few months, and never, never
did I see a boy who tried harder to do what was right.  But, dear me,
that isn’t all.  I’ve known good folk who almost wore me out.  But Sam is
charming.  Now that he’s happy once more he’s the very life of the place,
and that’s saying a good deal of a house where my husband lives.
Besides, Jonathan rather keeps things going.  Altogether, I suppose we’re
the noisiest and the happiest lot in Lee.”

“I dare say you are,” smiled the youth admiringly.  “I know Sam’s a
wonder at keeping things humming.  He’s been like that from the time he
was a little boy, and I never could make out how such a live one could
belong to a sour, down-in-the-mouth family like the Disbrows.  It was
quite a relief to me when I found he wasn’t really related to them after
all, but had just been dropped in the nest, so to speak.”

“It was a relief to everyone who cared for him, I imagine,” Mrs. Summers
said.  “But am I not keeping you here, Dick, away from the young people?”

“I wouldn’t stay here if I didn’t want to, Mrs. Summers,” Dick replied
gallantly.  “You see I don’t know these girls very well, but Sam wanted
me to come up with him, and Azalea was good enough to say she’d love to
have me, so of course I came.  I’ve often ridden by the McBirneys and
thought what a delightful little place it was, but I didn’t suppose I’d
ever be coming to a birthday party here.”

“Well, naturally you wouldn’t have supposed it.  There are you in your
fine, handsome home, the banker’s son, all of your paths running in a
different direction from those of the McBirneys, yet I doubt if ever in
your life you visited a house where there was more real courtesy and
hospitality than there is here.”

“Oh, I’m sure of that, Mrs. Summers.  And then Azalea—isn’t she a wonder?
She fascinates everybody.  As my mother was saying this morning, if ever
there was a girl who would make you forget all about social distinction
and just join in on a happy human basis to have a good time—all hands
’round—that person is Azalea.  Of course, as mother reminded me, Azalea
came from as cultivated a family as ever lived in this district, although
she is now to all intents the daughter of these mountain people.”

“It’s a privilege,” said Barbara Summers, “to live with Mrs. McBirney,
and anyone who has the sense to get the most out of it will grow up to be
good and patient and wise.”

Perhaps these virtues were not the ones which most appealed to Dick
Heller at that period of his life, but however that may be, he could not
keep his eyes off the mountain girl.  He could see her in her white,
hand-wrought frock, her hair blown about her dark face, flashing here and
there with her friends.  He saw her run to serve some one who was merely
driving along the road—for the road over Tennyson Mountain to Lee ran
quite through the McBirney yard, as has been said before.  It was evident
that the McBirney’s were asking everyone who passed to congratulate them
on their adopted daughter’s fifteenth birthday, and in return they were
served with the drink of sweetened limes and the honey cake which Ma
McBirney had prepared for the occasion.

And there was Pa McBirney in his white linen clothes—they had been his
father’s—talking with Mr. Carson, in his smart white flannels; and Miss
Adnah and Miss Zillah in new figured lawns, carrying their old fringed
parasols bought years before on a great occasion at Charleston; and near
them was Mrs. Kitchell with the younger children, brown and strong, and
quite in the spirit of the occasion; and Hi and Jim were putting boards
on saw horses, ready for the feast; and Carin and Annie Laurie were
running down the road to welcome some freshly arrived guests.

“I say,” boomed the great voice of the Reverend Absalom Summers, “there
never was another spot like this one!  Now, was there ever, anywhere?
When I get up here I feel just like a boy, I’m so happy—why, I’m just
silly with happiness.  I like the way the grass smells, and the road
winds, and the spring gushes, and the flowers blossom, and the clouds
sail, and the valley lies, and Mrs. McBirney cooks, and Mr. McBirney
tells stories, and Jim whistles, and I’ll be plagued if I don’t like
everything about it.”

“Well, be calm, Absalom dear,” smiled his wife.  “You don’t have to hoot
like an owl because you’re happy.”

“You know how to stop the hooting of an owl?” demanded the irrepressible
man of the company in general.  “You just stand it as long as you can
without swearing and then you take off your right slipper and put it on
your left foot and the owl will stop.  I’ve tried it dozens of times—and
the owl always stopped.”

“Git along!” called a voice from somewhere up among the trees.  “That way
don’t compare with my way.”

“Who is that challenging me?” roared Mr. Summers.  But he had no need to
ask.  It was Haystack Thompson who was dropping down on them from
somewhere up in the mountain, and who of course had his fiddle under his
arm.  For to go to a party without a fiddle was something of which Mr.
Thompson never yet had been guilty.

“What’s your receipt for stopping a hootin’ owl, Mr. Bones?” demanded Mr.
Summers.

“Why,” answered Haystack seriously, “you jest heat a poker white hot and
wave it in the air three times and they’ll stop clean off.”

Absalom Summers shook his great fist under Haystack’s nose—“What’s the
use in trying to force a fool superstition like that down our throats,
Thompson?” he roared.  “Changing slippers is the only up-to-date,
scientific way and Heller here, who’s been to school, can tell you so.”

But Haystack refused to yield an inch.  A heated poker was the thing for
him, he said.

“A fiddle’s the thing for you, Mr. Thompson,” cried Mrs. Carson.  “I
don’t believe you know how to handle anything else—not even a porridge
spoon.”

Indeed, unconsciously, the old man had been taking the covering from the
instrument.

“That’s right, that’s right,” Thomas McBirney said.  “Tune up, old
friend.  Then we’ll know that it’s a party for sure.”

And tune up he did.  At first it seemed only to be tuning, and they
couldn’t tell where he left off getting ready and when he began to play.
But by and by there were odd little sounds that might have been squirrels
chittering, or birds stirring in their nests.  Then they grew sweeter and
more liquid and seemed like water running over stones and wind singing in
the trees.  And by and by the whistle of a robin broke in and then a
thrush sang his soul out at the gates of Heaven; then the night seemed to
be falling, kindly, as if it would give rest to all the weary.  After
that it was black for a moment or two, as if a storm was gathering.
There seemed to be distant sounds of thunder.  But it passed quickly as
some nights do, if one is, for example, fifteen, and then the dawn came
over the hills, dancing.  There must have been blithe maidens ushering it
in—for who else would have had such light and lilting feet?  Yes, they
were dancing down over the hills, scattering flowers, and the birds were
perched upon their shoulders and rosy clouds were wreathing them.

At least that was the lovely picture that Haystack Thompson’s music
brought to Barbara Summers as she sat holding her little son, and then
the next thing she knew all of her friends really were dancing.  Ma
McBirney was dancing with Mr. Carson, and Pa McBirney had Annie Laurie
for a partner, and Sam had Azalea, and Carin was with Dick Heller, and
Jim was footing it with Hi’s little sister, and Hi and his mother were
making a show of hopping around.

Only Absalom Summers wasn’t dancing, because he was the Methodist
minister and didn’t believe in it—at least he said he didn’t.  He sat
beating juba with his great hands, making a terrific rhythmical
accompaniment and crying:

“That’s it—keep it up—go right along on the road to destruction—keep it
up there, McBirney—I’m here to see you through.”  He threw back his head
with its tossed straight hair and gave vent to a roar of laughter.

“You’re a comfortable preacher to have around,” declared Mr. Carson,
stopping to catch his breath.

“Comfortable!” roared Mr. Summers, giving a twist to Mr. Carson’s
meaning.  “I never was so comfortable in my life.”

Miss Adnah and Miss Zillah were helping Ma McBirney to set the table now,
and the young people were dashing about on errands, and more friends were
coming, some from over the mountains and some up from town, and by and by
they all sat down to the table and ate together.  There was fried
chicken, and rice cooked with cheese, and beaten biscuit, and golden
butter in little pats, and cooling drinks of lime and orange and mint,
and cakes—three kinds—and ice cream which the Carson’s had brought up in
great freezers.  It is necessary to tell what there was to eat, because
eating is a very important part of a party.

And then there were the gifts to see.  Almost everyone had brought a
gift.  Even some of the people who were passing and who had not known
there was to be a party at all, and who perhaps did not know the
McBirneys very well, had fished out something from their wagons for the
orphan girl who had made so many people love her.

So there was the little gold watch from Mrs. Carson, and the ivory toilet
set from Carin, a set of Tennyson from Mr. Carson, and a handmade
petticoat from Annie Laurie, and some old eardrops of pink coral made
into a brooch by Miss Adnah, and a knitted shoulder shawl from Miss
Zillah, and a kind of zither thing that Sam had made himself, and a box
of sweets from Dick Heller, and—are you out of breath?  Because there are
ever so many more things.  There was a rag rug, beautifully woven, from
Mrs. Kitchell, and a whisk broom holder from Hi, and a wonderful
melon-shaped basket, fine and delicate, from Haystack Thompson, who knew
more than most about weaving baskets, and there was a white parasol from
Ma McBirney—who never could afford a parasol for herself—and a new riding
whip from Pa McBirney, and from Jim a new curry comb which he said he
would use when he curried Paprika, the pony.  And then other people,
about whom you know nothing, brought their contributions.  Everything was
laid out in that pleasant, open chamber, which it will be remembered
divided the McBirney house in two.

The people who came to this party weren’t the sort whose singing is
ruined by something good to eat.  After the dishes had been cleared away
they sat where they could look off at the valley as the shadows began to
stretch long and purple down from the ridges.

And then everyone regretfully realized that it was time to go home.  So
there was a great mounting of horses and piling into wagons, and Jim and
Hi held stirrups and helped ladies into the high mountain wagons—the sort
you can turn the wheel under if you have to make a short curve—and
presently they were all off and away.

Azalea, all in her pretty white, slipped on Paprika’s back and rode for a
way with her guests.  But at the first turn she shouted her good-byes to
them and turned back up the mountain.  It was getting to be dusky now
even along her high path, and the coolness of the evening was settling
about her.  It was a fragrant dusk, for the summer was at its height and
sent out a thousand pleasant perfumes.  She brought her pony to a halt as
she reached the top of the ridge, and waited for a moment to let herself
sink fairly into the place and the hour.  The trees, whispering in her
ear, seemed her close friends; the night was like a protectress; the
little sleeping creatures in the trees and the holes of the ground seemed
close and kind.

For once that eager nature of hers, which asked for so full a measure of
joy and delight, was satisfied.  She spoke a word to her little mare,
which began picking out the road again with her sure feet.  As Paprika
drew near the house she whinnied, and Azalea laughingly imitated her.

“Send her along, sis,” shouted Jim from somewhere in the gloom.  “I’ll
put her up.”

“Thanks,” called back Azalea.  She slipped from her saddle and ran into
the lighted room.  Pa McBirney was smoking, Ma McBirney was still busy
putting thing to rights.  Azalea gave her a gentle push which sent her
into her own deep-armed rocker.

“Daughter will do the rest,” she said.

“Oh, my dear,” protested Mary McBirney, “aren’t you tired?  You’ve been
going like a streak all day.”

“Yes, but I didn’t begin before sunup the way you did, mother.  My, my,
what a happy day it’s been!  What a happy day!  And a little more than a
year ago—” she could not go on.

All three were silent, thinking of the changes a year had brought.
Azalea had remembered that morning to trim with flowers the graves
beneath the Pride of India tree, so that they would, in their way, be
included in the festival.  For Ma McBirney had taught her how love can
live on though death comes between, and how sorrow can be turned into
sweetness.

That seemed to be the secret of the whole thing anyway—turning sorrow
into sweetness.

Finally Azalea spoke again.  She had just set the best dishes in their
place and folded up the table cover.

“And the girls,” she said musingly, “they’ve come to me too, this
year—Carin and Annie Laurie.  Dear me, but we do have fun!”

“Yes,” responded Ma McBirney sympathetically, “I never did see three
girls have a better understanding of each other, or ones who enjoyed each
other’s society more.  What is it Mrs. Carson calls it?”

“The Triple Alliance,” smiled Azalea.  “And now, since it’s all right
about Annie Laurie’s money, I really and truly do think we’re the
happiest girls in the world.”

                                * * * * *

                                 THE END





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