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IVORY BOYNTON drove home from the woods that same afternoon by way of the bridge, in order to buy some provisions at the brick store. When he was still a long distance from the bars that divided the lane from the highroad, he espied a dark-clad little speck he knew to be Rodman leaning over the fence, waiting and longing as usual for his home-coming, and his heart warmed at the thought of the boyish welcome that never failed.
The sleigh slipped quickly over the hard-packed, shining road, and the bells rang merrily in the clear, cold air, giving out a joyous sound that had no echo in Ivory's breast that day. He had just had a vision of happiness through another man's eyes. was he always to stand out-side the banqueting-table, he wondered, and see others feasting while he hungered
Now the little speck bounded from the fence, flew down the road to meet the sleigh, and jumped in by the driver's side.
"I knew you'd come to-night," Rodman cried eagerly. "I told Aunt Boynton you'd come."
"How is she, well as common?"
"No, not a bit well since yesterday morning, but Mrs. Mason says it's nothing worse than a cold. Mrs. Mason has just gone home, and we've had a grand house-cleaning to-day. She's washed and ironed and baked, and we've put Aunt Boynton in clean sheets and pillow-cases, and her room's nice and warm, and I carried the eat in and put it on her bed to keep her company while I came to watch for you. Aunt Boynton let Mrs. Mason braid her hair, and seemed to like her brushing it. It's been dreadful lonesome, and oh! I am glad you came back, Ivory. Did you find any more spruce gum where you went this time?"
"Pounds and pounds, Rod; enough to bring me in nearly a hundred dollars. I chanced on the greatest place I've found yet. I followed the wake of an old whirlwind that had left long furrows in the forest,--I've told you how the thing works,--and I tracked its course by the gum that had formed wherever the trees were wounded. It's hard, lonely work, Rod, but it pays well."
"If I could have been there, maybe we could have got more. I'm good at shinning up trees."
"Yes, sometime we'11 go gum-picking together. We'll climb the trees like a couple of cats, and take our knives and serape off the precious lumps that are worth so much money to the druggists. You've let down the bars, I see."
"'Cause I knew you'd come to-night," said Rodman. "I felt it in my bones. We're going to have a splendid supper."
"Are we? That's good news." Ivory tried to make his tone bright and interested, though his heart was like a lump of lead in his breast. "It's the least I can do for the poor little chap," he thought, "when he stays as caretaker in this lonely spot.--I wonder if I hadn't better drive into the barn, Rod, and leave the harness on Nick till I go in and see mother? Guess I will."
"She's hot, Aunt Boynton is, hot and restless, but Mrs. Mason thinks that's all."
Ivory found his mother feverish, and her eyes were unnaturally bright; but she was clear in X mind and cheerful, too, sitting up in bed to r^ breathe the better, while the Maltese eat snuggled under her arm and purred peacefully
"The cat is Rod's idea," she said smilingly but in a very weak voice. "He is a great nurse I should never have thought of the eat myself but she gives me more comfort than all the medicine."
Ivory and Rodman drew up to the supper table, already set in the kitchen, but before Ivory took his seat he softly closed the door that led into the living-room. They ate their beans and brown bread and the mince pie that had been the "splendid" feature of the meal, as reported by the boy; and when they had finished, and Rodman was clearing the table, Ivory walked to the window, lighting his pipe the while, and stood soberly looking out on the snowy landscape. One could scarcely tell it was twilight, with such sweeps of whiteness to catch every gleam of the dying day.
"Drop work a minute and come here, Rod," he said at length. "Can you keep a secret?"
"'Course I can! I'm chock full of 'em now, and nobody could dig one of 'em out o' me with a pickaxe!"
"Oh, well! If you're full you naturally couldn't hold another!"
"I could try to squeeze it in, if it's a nice one," coaxed the boy.
"I don't know whether you'11 think it's a nice one, Rod, for it breaks up one of your plans. I'm not sure myself how nice it is, but it's a very big, unexpected, startling one. What do you think? Your favorite Patty has gone and got married."
"Patty! Married!" cried Rod, then hastily putting his hand over his mouth to hush his too-loud speaking.
"Yes, she and Mark Wilson ran away last Monday, drove over to Allentown, New Hampshire, and were married without telling a soul. Deacon Baxter discovered everything this afternoon, like the old fox that he is, and turned Patty out of the house."
"Mean old skinflint!" exclaimed Rod excitedly, all the incipient manhood rising in his ten-year-old breast. "Is she gone to live with the Wilsons?"
"The Wilsons don't know yet that Mark is married to her, but I met him driving like Jehu, just after I had left Patty, and told him everything that had happened, and did my best to cool him down and keep him from murdering his new father-in-law by showing him it would serve no real purpose now."
"Did he look married, and all different?" asked Rod curiously.
"Yes, he did, and more like a man than ever he looked before in his life. We talked everything over together, and he went home at once to break the news to his family, without even going to take a peep at Patty. I couldn't bear to have them meet till he had something cheerful to say to the poor little soul. When I met her by Uncle Bart's shop, she was trudging along in the snow like a draggled butterfly, and crying like a baby."
Sympathetic tears dimmed Rodman's eyes. "I can't bear to see girls cry, Ivory. I just can't bear it, especially Patty."
"Neither can I, Rod. I came pretty near wiping her eyes, but pulled up, remembering she wasn't a child but a married lady. Well, now we come to the point."
"Isn't Patty's being married the point?"
"No, only part of it. Patty's being sent away from home leaves Waitstill alone with the Deacon, do you see? And if Patty is your favorite, Waitstill is mine--I might as well own up to that."
"She's mine, too," cried Rod. "They're both my favorites, but I always thought Patty was the suitablest for me to marry if she'd wait for me. Waitstill is too grand for a boy!"
"She's too grand for anybody, Rod. There isn't a man alive that's worthy to strap on her skates."
"Well, she's too grand for anybody except--" and here Rod's shy, wistful voice trailed off into discreet silence.
"Now I had some talk with Patty, and she thinks Waitstill will have no trouble with her father just at present. She says he lavished so much rage upon her that there'll be none left for anybody else for a day or two. And, moreover, that he will never dare to go too far with Waitstill, because she's so useful to him. I'm not afraid of his beating or injuring her so long as he keeps his sober senses, if he's ever rightly had any; but I don't like to think of his upbraiding her and breaking her heart with his cruel talk just after she's lost the sister that's been her only companion." And Ivory's hand trembled as he filled his pipe. He had no confidant but this quaint, tender-hearted, old-fashioned little lad, to whom he had grown to speak his mind as if he were a man of his own age; and Rod, in the same way, had gradually learned to understand and sympathize.
"It's dreadful lonesome on Town-House Hill," said the boy in a hushed tone
"Dreadful lonesome," echoed Ivory with a sigh; "and I don't dare leave mother until her fever dies down a bit and she sleeps. Now do you remember the night that she was taken ill, and we shared the watch?"
Rodman held his breath. " Do you mean you 're going to let me help just as if I was big? " he asked, speaking through a great lump in his throat.
"There are only two of us, Rod. You're rather young for this piece of work, but you're trusty--you 're trusty!"
"Am I to keep watch on the Deacon?"
"That's it, and this is my plan: Nick will have had his feed; you 're to drive to the bridge when it gets a little darker and hitch in Uncle Bart's horse-shed, covering Nick well. You're to go into the brick store, and while you're getting some groceries wrapped up, listen to anything the men say, to see if they know what's happened. When you've hung about as long as you dare, leave your bundle and say you'll call in again for it. Then see if Baxter's store is open. I don't believe it will be, and if it Isn't, look for a light in his kitchen window, and prowl about till you know that Waitstill and the Deacon have gone up to their bedrooms. Then go to Uncle Bart's and find out if Patty is there."
Rod's eyes grew bigger and bigger: "Shall I talk to her?" he asked; "and what'll I say?"
"No, just ask if she's there. If she's gone, Mark has made it right with his family and taken her home. If she hasn't, why, God knows how that matter will be straightened out. Anyhow, she has a husband now, and he seems to value her; and Waitstill is alone on the top of that wind-swept hill!"
"I'll go. I'll remember everything," cried Rodman, in the seventh heaven of delight at the responsibilities Ivory was heaping upon him. 318
"Don't stay beyond eight o'clock; but come back and tell me everything you've learned. Then, if mother grows no worse, I'll walk back to Uncle Bart's shop and spend the night there, just--just to be near, that's all."
"You couldn't hear Waitstill, even if she called," Rod said.
"Couldn't I? A man's ears are very sharp under certain circumstances. I believe if Waitstill needed help I could hear her--breathe! Besides, I shall be up and down the hill till I know all's well; and at sunrise I'11 go up and hide behind some of Baxter's buildings till I see him get his breakfast and go to the store. Now wash your dishes"; and Ivory caught up his cap from a hook behind the door.
"Are you going to the barn? " asked Rodman.
"No, only down to the gate for a minute. Mark said that if he had a good chance he'd send a boy with a note, and get him to put it under the stone gate-post. It's too soon to expect it, perhaps, but I can't seem to keep still."
Rodman tied a gingham apron round his waist, carried the tea-kettle to the sink, and poured the dishpan full of boiling water; then dipped the cups and plates in and out, wiped them and replaced them on the table' gave the bean-platter a special polish, and set the half mince pie and the butter-dish in the cellar-way.
"A boy has to do most everything in this family!" He sighed to himself. "I don't mind washing dishes, except the nasty frying-pan and the sticky bean-pot; but what I'm going to do to-night is different." Here he glowed and tingled with anticipation. "I know what they call it in the story-books--it's sentry duty; and that's braver work for a boy than dish-washing!"
Which, however, depends a good deal upon circumstances, and somewhat on the point of view.
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