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THE WARRIOR QUEEN.
Happily, happily, the days and weeks slipped by at Hartley Farm; and now September was half gone, and in two weeks more Hilda's parents would return. The letter had just arrived which fixed the date of their homecoming and Hildegarde had carried it upstairs to feast on it in her own room. She sat by the window in the little white rocking-chair, and read the words over and over again. In two weeks--really in two little weeks--she should see her mother again! It was too good to be true.
"Dragons, do you hear?" she cried, turning towards the wash-handstand. "You have seen my mother, Dragons, and she has washed her little blessed face in your bowl. I should think that might have stopped your ramping, if anything could. Or have you been waving your paws for joy ever since? I may have been unjust to you, Dragons."
The blue dragons, as usual, refused to commit themselves; and, as usual, the gilt cherubs round the looking-glass were shocked at their rudeness, and tried to atone for it by smiling as hard as they possibly could.
"Such dear, sympathetic cherubs!" said the happy girl, bending forward to kiss one of them as she was brushing her hair. "You do not ramp and glower when one tells you that one's mother is coming home. I know you are glad, you dear old things!"
And then, suddenly, even while she was laughing at the cherubs, a thought struck her which sent a pang through her heart. The cherubs would still smile, just the same, when she was gone! Ah! it was not all delight, this great news. There was sorrow mingled with the rapture. Her heart was with her parents, of course. The mere thought of seeing her mother's face, of hearing her father's voice, sent the blood dancing through her veins. And yet--she must leave the farm; she must leave Nurse Lucy and the farmer, and they would miss her. They loved her; ah! how could they help it, when she loved them so much? And the pain came again at her heart as she recalled the sad smile with which the farmer had handed her this letter. "Good news for you, Huldy," he said, "but bad for the rest of us, I reckon!" Had he had word also, or did he just know that this was about the time they had meant to return? Oh, but she would come out so often to the farm! Papa and mamma would be willing, would wish her to come; and she could not live long at a time in town, without refreshing herself with a breath of real air, country air. She might have wilted along somehow for sixteen years; but she had never been really alive--had she?--till this summer.
Pink and Bubble too! they would miss her almost as much. But that did not trouble her, for she had a plan in her head for Pink and Bubble,--a great plan, which was to be whispered to Papa almost the very moment she saw him,--not quite the very moment, but the next thing to it. The plan would please Nurse Lucy and the farmer too,--would please them almost as much as it delighted her to think about it.
Happy thought! She would go down now and tell the farmer about it. Nurse Lucy was lying down with a bad headache, she knew; but the farmer was still in the kitchen. She heard him moving about now, though he had said he was going off to the orchard. She would steal in softly and startle him, and then--
Full of happy and loving thoughts, Hildegarde slipped quietly down the stairs and across the hall, and peeped in at the kitchen-door to see what the farmer was doing. He was at the farther end of the room, with his back turned to her, stooping down over his desk. What was he doing? What a singular attitude he was in! Then, all in a moment, Hilda's heart seemed to stop beating, and her breath came thick and short; for she saw that this man before her was not the farmer. The farmer had not long elf-locks of black hair straggling over his coat-collar; he was not round-shouldered or bow-legged; above all, he would not be picking the lock of his own desk, for this was what the man before her was doing. Silent as her own shadow, Hildegarde slipped back into the hall and stood still a moment, collecting her thoughts. What should she do? Call Dame Hartley? The "poor dear" was suffering much, and why should she be disturbed? Run to find the farmer? She might have to run all over the farm! No; she would attend to this herself. She was not in the least afraid. She knew pretty well what ugly face would look up at her when she spoke; for she felt sure that the slouching, ungainly figure was that of Simon Hartley. Her heart burned with indignation against the graceless, thankless churl who could rob the man on whose charity he had been living for two years. She made a step forward, with words of righteous wrath on her lips; then paused, as a new thought struck her. This man was an absolute ruffian; and though she believed him to be an absolute coward also, still he must know that she and Dame Hartley were alone in the house. He must know also that the farmer was at some distance, else he would not have ventured to do this. What should she do? she asked herself again. She looked round her, and her eyes fell upon the old horse-pistol which rested on a couple of hooks over the door. The farmer had taken it down only a day or two before, to show it to her and tell her its story. It was not loaded, but Simon did not know that. She stepped lightly up on a chair, and in a moment had taken the pistol down. It was a formidable-looking weapon, and Hildegarde surveyed it with much satisfaction as she turned once more to enter the kitchen. Unloaded as it was, it gave her a feeling of entire confidence; and her voice was quiet and steady as she said:
"Simon Hartley, what are you doing to your uncle's desk?"
The man started violently and turned round, his hands full of papers, which he had taken from one of the drawers. He changed color when he saw "the city gal," as he invariably termed Hilda, and he answered sullenly, "Gitt'n someth'n for Uncle."
"That is not true," said Hildegarde, quietly, "I have heard your uncle expressly forbid you to go near that desk. Put those papers back!"
The man hesitated, his little, ferret eyes shifting uneasily from her to the desk and back again. "I guess I ain't goin' to take orders from no gal!" he muttered, huskily.
"Put those papers back!" repeated Hildegarde sternly, with a sudden light in her gray eyes which made the rascal step backward and thrust the papers hurriedly into the drawer. After which he began to bluster, as is the manner of cowards. "Pooty thing, city gals comin' hectorin' round with their airs an'--"
"Shut the drawer!" said Hildegarde, quietly.
But Simon's sluggish blood was warmed by his little bluster, and he took courage as he reflected that this was only a slight girl, and that no one else was in the house except "Old Marm," and that many broad meadows intervened between him and the farmer's stout arm. He would frighten her a bit, and get the money after all.
"We'll see about that!" he said, taking a step towards Hilda, with an evil look in his red eyes. "I'll settle a little account with you fust, my fine lady. I'll teach you to come spyin' round on me this way. Ye ain't give me a civil word sence ye come here, an' I'll pay ye--"
Here Simon stopped suddenly; for without a word Hildegarde had raised the pistol (which he had not seen before, as her hand was behind her), and levelled it full at his head, keeping her eyes steadily fixed on him. With a howl of terror the wretch staggered back, putting up his hands to ward off the expected shot.
"Don't shoot!" he gasped, while his color changed to a livid green. "I--I didn't mean nothin', I swar I didn't, Miss Graham. I was only--foolin'!" and he tried to smile a sickly smile; but his eyes fell before the stern glance of the gray eyes fixed so unwaveringly on him.
"Go to your room!" said Hilda, briefly. He hesitated. The lock clicked, and the girl took deliberate aim.
"I'm goin'!" shrieked the rascal, and began backing towards the door, while Hilda followed step by step, still covering him with her deadly(!) weapon. They crossed the kitchen and the back hall in this way, and Simon stumbled against the narrow stairs which led to his garret room.
"I dassn't turn round to g' up!" he whined; "ye'll shoot me in the back." No answer; but the lock clicked again, more ominously than before. He turned and fled up the stairs, muttering curses under his breath. Hildegarde closed the door at the foot of the stairs, which generally stood open, bolted it, and pushed a heavy table against it. Then she went back into the kitchen, sat down in her own little chair, and--laughed!
Yes, laughed! The absurdity of the whole episode, the ruffian quaking and fleeing before the empty pistol, her own martial fierceness and sanguinary determination, struck her with irresistible force, and peal after peal of silvery laughter rang through the kitchen. Perhaps it was partly hysterical, for her nerves were unconsciously strung to a high pitch; but she was still laughing, and still holding the terrible pistol in her hand, when Dame Hartley entered the kitchen, looking startled and uneasy.
"Dear Hilda," said the good woman, "what has been going on? I thought surely I heard a man's voice here. And--why! good gracious, child! what are you doing with that pistol?"
Hildegarde saw that there was nothing for it but to tell the simple truth, which she did in as few words as possible, trying to make light of the whole episode. But Dame Hartley was not to be deceived, and saw at once the full significance of what had happened. She was deeply moved. "My dear, brave child," she said, kissing Hilda warmly, "to think of your facing that great villain and driving him away! The courage of you! Though to be sure, any one could see it in your eyes, and your father a soldier so many of his days too."
"Oh! it was not I who frightened him," said honest Hilda, "it was the old pistol." But Nurse Lucy only shook her head and kissed her again. The thought of Simon's ingratitude and treachery next absorbed her mind, and tears of anger stood in her kind blue eyes.
"It was a black day for my poor man," she said, "when he brought that fellow to the house. I mistrusted him from the first look at his sulky face. A man who can't look you in the eyes,--well, there! that's my opinion of him!"
"Why did the farmer bring him here?" asked Hilda. "I have often wondered."
"Why, 'tis a long story, my dear," said Nurse Lucy, smoothing her apron and preparing for a comfortable chat ("For," she said, "Simon will not dare to stir from his room, even if he could get out, which he can't."). "Of all his brothers, my husband loved his brother Simon best. He was a handsome, clever fellow, Simon was. Don't you remember, my dear, Farmer speaking of him one day when you first came here, and telling how he wanted to be a gentleman; and I turned the talk when you asked what became of him?" Hilda nodded assent "Well," Nurse Lucy continued, "that was because no good came of him, and I knew it vexed Farmer to think on it, let alone Simon's son being there. It was all through his wanting to be a gentleman that Simon got into bad ways. Making friends with people who had money, he got to thinking he must have it, or must make believe he had it; so he spent all he had, and then--oh, dear!--he forged his father's name, and the farm had to be mortgaged to get him out of prison; and then he took to drinking, and went from bad to worse, and finally died in misery and wretchedness. Dear, dear! it almost broke Jacob's heart, that it did. He had tried, if ever man tried, to save his brother; but 'twas of no use. It seemed as if he was bound to ruin himself, and nothing could stop him. When he died, his wife (he married her, thinking she had money, and it turned out she hadn't a penny) took the child and went back to her own people, and we heard nothing more till about two years ago, when this boy came to Jacob with a letter from his mother's folks. She was dead, and they said they couldn't do for him any longer, and he didn't seem inclined to do for himself. Well, that is the story, Hilda dear. He has been here ever since, and he has been no comfort, no pleasure to us, I must say; but we have tried to do our duty by him, and I hoped he might feel in his heart some gratitude to his uncle, though he showed none in his actions. And now to think of it! to think of it! How shall I tell my poor man?"
"What was his mother like?" asked Hildegarde, trying to turn for the moment the current of painful thought.
Nurse Lucy gave a little laugh, even while wiping the tears from her eyes. "Poor Eliza!" she said. "She was a good woman, but--well, there! she had no faculty, as you may say. And homely! you never saw such a homely woman, Hilda; for I don't believe there could be two in the world. I never think of Eliza without remembering what Jacob said after he saw her for the first time. He'd been over to see Simon; and when he came back he walked into the kitchen and sat down, never saying a word, but just shaking his head over and over again. 'What's the matter, Jacob?' I said. 'Matter?' said he. 'Matter enough, Marm Lucy' (he's always called me Marm Lucy, my dear, since the very day we were married, though I wasn't very much older than you then). 'Simon's married,' he said, 'and I've seen his wife.' Of course I was surprised, and I wanted to know all about it. 'What sort of a girl is she?' I asked. 'Is she pretty? What color is her hair?' But Jacob put up his hand and stopped me. 'Thar!' he says, 'don't ask no questions, and I'll tell ye. Fust place, she ain't no gal, no more'n yer Aunt Saleny is!' (that was a maiden aunt of mine, dear, and well over forty at that time.) 'And what does she look like?' 'Wal! D'ye ever see an old cedar fence-rail,--one that had been chumped out with a blunt axe, and had laid out in the sun and the wind and the snow and the rain till 'twas warped this way, and shrunk that way, and twisted every way? Wal! Simon's wife looks as if she had swallowed one o' them fence-rails, and shrunk to it! Dear, dear! how I laughed. And 'twas true, my dear! It was just the way she did look. Poor soul! she led a sad life; for when Simon found he'd made a mistake about the money, there was no word too bad for him to fling at her."
At this moment Farmer Hartley's step was heard in the porch, and Nurse Lucy rose hurriedly. "Don't say anything to him, Hilda dear," she whispered,--"anything about Simon, I mean. I'll tell him to-morrow; but I don't want to trouble him to-night. This is our Faith's birthday,--seventeen year old she'd have been to-day; and it's been a right hard day for Jacob! I'll tell him about it in the morning."
Alas! when morning came it was too late. The kitchen door was swinging idly open; the desk was broken open and rifled; and Simon Hartley was gone, and with him the savings of ten years' patient labor.
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