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Right in front of the school door, and some little distance from it, in the midst of a clump of maples, stood an old beech-tree with a dead top, and half-way down where a limb had once been and had rotted off, a hole. Inside this hole two very respectable but thoroughly impudent red squirrels had made their nest. The hole led into the dead heart of the tree, which had been hollowed out with pains so as to make a roomy, cosy home, which the squirrels had lined with fur and moss, and which was well stored with beechnuts from the tree, their winter's provisions.
Between the boys and the squirrels there existed an armed neutrality. It was understood among the boys that nothing worse than snowballs was to be used in their war with the squirrels, while with the squirrels it was a matter of honor that they should put reasonable limits to their profanity. But there were times when the relations became strained, and hence the holidays were no less welcome to the squirrels than to the boys.
To the squirrels this had been a day of unusual anxiety, for the school had taken up again after its two weeks' holidays, and the boys were a little more inquisitive than usual, and unfortunately, the snow happened to be good for packing. It had been a bad day for nerves, and Mr. Bushy, as the boys called him, found it impossible to keep his tail in one position for more than one second at a time. It was in vain that his more sedate and self- controlled partner in life remonstrated with him and urged a more philosophic mind.
"It's all very well for you, my dear," Mr. Bushy was saying, rather crossly I am afraid, "to urge a philosophic mind, but if you had the responsibility of the family upon you--Goodness gracious! Owls and weasels! What in all the woods is that?"
"Can't be the wolves," said Mrs. Bushy, placidly, "it's too early for them."
"Might have known," replied her husband, quite crossly; "of course it's those boys. I wonder why they let them out of school at all. Why can't they keep them in where it is warm? It always seems to me a very silly thing anyway, for them to keep rushing out of their hole in that stupid fashion. What they do in there I am sure I don't know. It isn't the least like a nest. I've seen inside of it. There isn't a thing to eat, nor a bit of hair or moss. They just go in and out again."
"Well, my dear," said his wife, soothingly, "you can hardly expect them to know as much as people with a wider outlook. We must remember they are only ground people."
"That's just it!" grumbled Mr. Bushy. "I only wish they would just keep to themselves and on the ground where they belong, but they have the impudence to come lumbering up here into our tree."
"Oh, well," replied his partner, calmly, "you must acknowledge they do not disturb our nest."
"And a good thing for them, too," chattered Mr. Bushy, fiercely, smoothing out his whiskers and showing his sharp front teeth, at which Mrs. Bushy smiled gently behind her tail.
"But what are they doing now?" she inquired.
"Oh, they are going off into the woods," said Mr. Bushy, who had issued from his hole and was sitting up on a convenient crotch. "And I declare!" he said, in amazed tones, "they haven't thrown one snowball at me. Something must be badly wrong with them. Wonder what it is? This is quite unprecedented."
At this Mrs. Bushy ventured carefully out to observe the extraordinary phenomenon, for the boys were actually making their way to the gate, the smaller ones with much noisy shouting, but the big boys soberly enough engaged in earnest conversation. It was their first day of the new master, and such a day as quite "flabbergastrated," as Don Cameron said, even the oldest of them. But of course Mr. and Mrs. Bushy knew nothing of this, and could only marvel.
"Murdie," cried Hughie to Don's big brother, who with Bob Fraser, Ranald Macdonald, and Thomas Finch was walking slowly toward the gate, "you won't forget to ask your pa for an excuse if you happen to be late to-morrow, will you?"
Murdie paid no attention.
"You won't forget your excuse, Murdie," continued Hughie, poking him in the back.
Murdie suddenly turned, caught him by the neck and the seat of his trousers, and threw him head first into a drift, from which he emerged wrathful and sputtering.
"Well, I hope you do," continued Hughie, "and then you'll catch it. And mind you," he went on, circling round to get in front of him, "if you want to ask big Bob there for his knife, mind you hold up your hand first." Murdie only grinned at him.
The new master had begun the day by enunciating the regulations under which the school was to be administered. They made rather a formidable list, but two of them seemed to the boys to have gone beyond the limits of all that was outrageous and absurd. There was to be no speaking during school hours, and if a boy should desire to ask a question of his neighbor, he was to hold up his hand and get permission from the master. But worse than all, and more absurd than all, was the regulation that all late comers and absentees were to bring written excuses from parents or guardians.
"Guardian," Thomas Finch had grunted, "what's that?"
"Your grandmother," whispered Don back.
It was not Don's reply that brought Thomas into disgrace this first day of the new master's rule, it was the vision of big Murdie Cameron walking up to the desk with an excuse for lateness, which he had obtained from Long John, his father. This vision breaking suddenly in upon the solemnity of Thomas Finch's mind, had sent him into a snort of laughter, not more to the surprise of the school than of himself. The gravity of the school had not been greatly helped by Thomas sheepish answer to the master's indignant question, "What did you do that for, sir?"
"I didn't; it did itself."
On the whole, the opening day had not been a success. As a matter of fact, it was almost too much to expect that it should be anything but a failure. There was a kind of settled if unspoken opinion among the children that no master could ever fill Archibald Munro's place in the school. Indeed, it was felt to be a kind of impertinence for any man to attempt such a thing. And further, there was a secret sentiment among the boys that loyalty to the old master's memory demanded an attitude of unsympathetic opposition to the one who came to take his place. It did not help the situation that the new master was unaware of this state of mind. He was buoyed up by the sentiments of enthusiastic admiration and approval that he carried with him in the testimonials from his last board of trustees in town, with which sentiments he fully agreed, and hence he greeted the pupils of the little backwoods school with an airy condescension that reduced the school to a condition of speechless and indignant astonishment. The school was prepared to tolerate the man who should presume to succeed their former master, if sufficiently humble, but certainly not to accept airy condescension from him.
"Does he think we're babies?" asked Don, indignantly.
"And did you see him trying to chop at recess?" (Ree'cis, Hughie called it.) "He couldn't hit twice in the same place."
"And he asked me if that beech there was a maple," said Bob Fraser, in deep disgust.
"Oh, shut up your gab!" said Ranald, suddenly. "Give the man a chance, anyway."
"Will you bring an excuse when you're absent, Ranald?" asked Hughie.
"And where would I be getting it?" asked Ranald, grimly, and all the boys realized the absurdity of expecting a written excuse for Ranald's absence from his father. Macdonald Dubh was not a man to be bothered with such trifles.
"You might get it from your Aunt Kirsty, Ranald," said Don, slyly. The boys shouted at the suggestion.
"And she could do it well enough if it would be necessary," said Ranald, facing square round on Don, and throwing up his head after his manner when battle was in the air, while the red blood showed in his dark cheek and his eyes lit up with a fierce gleam. Don read the danger signal.
"I'm not saying she couldn't," he hurried to say, apologetically, "but it would be funny, wouldn't it?"
"Well," said Ranald, relenting and smiling a little, "it would be keeping her busy at times."
"When the deer are running, eh, Ranald," said Murdie, good- naturedly. "But Ranald's right, boys," he continued, "give the man a chance, say I."
"There's our bells," cried Thomas Finch, as the deep, musical boom of the Finch's sleigh-bells came through the bush. "Come on, Hughie, we'll get them at the cross." And followed by Hughie and the boys from the north, he set off for the north cross-roads, where they would meet the Finch's bob-sleighs coming empty from the saw-mill, to the great surprise and unalloyed delight of Mr. and Mrs. Bushy, who from their crotch in the old beech had watched with some anxiety the boys' unusual conduct.
"There they are, Hughie," called Thomas, as the sleighs came out into the open at the crossroads. "They'll wait for us. They know you're coming," he yelled, encouragingly, for the big boys had left the smaller ones, a panting train, far in the rear, and were piling themselves upon the Finch's sleighs, with never a "by your leave" to William John--familiarly known as Billy Jack--Thomas' eldest brother, who drove the Finch's team.
Thomas' home lay a mile north and another east from the Twentieth cross-roads, but the winter road by which they hauled saw-logs to the mill, cut right through the forest, where the deep snow packed hard into a smooth track, covering roots and logs and mud holes, and making a perfect surface for the sleighs, however heavily loaded, except where here and there the pitch-holes or cahots came. These cahots, by the way, though they became, especially toward the spring, a serious annoyance to teamsters, only added another to the delights that a sleigh-ride held for the boys.
To Hughie, the ride this evening was blissful to an unspeakable degree. He was overflowing with new sensations. He was going to spend the night with Thomas, for one thing, and Thomas as his host was quite a new and different person from the Thomas of the school. The minister's wife, ever since the examination day, had taken a deeper interest in Thomas, and determined that something should be made out of the solemn, stolid, slow-moving boy. Partly for this reason she had yielded to Hughie's eager pleading, backing up the invitation brought by Thomas himself and delivered in an agony of red-faced confusion, that Hughie should be allowed to go home with him for the night. Partly, too, because she was glad that Hughie should see something of the Finch's home, and especially of the dark-faced, dark-eyed little woman who so silently and unobtrusively, but so efficiently, administered her home, her family, and their affairs, and especially her husband, without suspicion on his part that anything of the kind was being done.
In addition to the joy that Hughie had in Thomas in his new role as host, this winter road was full of wonder and delight, as were all roads and paths that wound right through the heart of the bush. The regular made-up roads, with the forest cut back beyond the ditches at the sides, were a great weariness to Hughie, except indeed, in the springtime, when these ditches were running full with sun-lit water, over the mottled clay bottom and gravelly ripples. But the bush roads and paths, summer and winter, were filled with things of wonder and of beauty, and this particular winter road of the Finch's was best of all to Hughie, for it was quite new to him, and besides, it led right through the mysterious, big pine swamp and over the butternut ridge, beyond which lay the Finch's farm. Balsam-trees, tamarack, spruce, and cedar made up the thick underbrush of the pine swamp, white birch, white ash, and black were thickly sprinkled through it, but high above these lesser trees towered the white pines, lifting their great, tufted crests in lonely grandeur, seeming like kings among meaner men. Here and there the rabbit runways, packed into hard little paths, crossed the road and disappeared under the thick spruces and balsams; here and there, the sly, single track of the fox, or the deep hoof-mark of the deer, led off into unknown depths on either side. Hughie, sitting up on the bolster of the front bob beside Billy Jack, for even the big boys recognized his right, as Thomas' guest, to that coveted place, listened with eager face and wide- open eyes to Billy Jack's remarks upon the forest and its strange people.
One thing else added to Hughie's keen enjoyment of the ride. Billy Jack's bays were always in the finest of fettle, and pulled hard on the lines, and were rarely allowed the rapture of a gallop. But when the swamp was passed and the road came to the more open butternut ridge, Billy Jack shook the lines over their backs and let them out. Their response was superb to witness, and brought Hughie some moments of ecstatic rapture. Along the hard-packed road that wound about among the big butternuts, the rangey bays sped at a flat gallop, bounding clear over the cahots, the booming of the bells and the rattling of the chains furnishing an exhilarating accompaniment to the swift, swaying motion, while the children clung for dear life to the bob-sleighs and to each other. It was all Billy Jack could do to get his team down to a trot by the time they reached the clearing, for there the going was perilous, and besides, it was just as well that his father should not witness any signs on Billy Jack's part of the folly that he was inclined to attribute to the rising generation. So steadily enough the bays trotted up the lane and between long lines of green cordwood on one side and a hay-stack on the other, into the yard, and swinging round the big straw-stack that faced the open shed, and was flanked on the right by the cow-stable and hog-pen, and on the left by the horse-stable, came to a full stop at their own stable door.
"Thomas, you take Hughie into the house to get warm, till I unhitch," said Billy Jack, with the feeling that courtesy to the minister's son demanded this attention. But Hughie, rejecting this proposition with scorn, pushed Thomas aside and set himself to unhitch the S-hook on the outside trace of the nigh bay. It was one of Hughie's grievances, and a very sore point with him, that his father's people would insist on treating him in the privileged manner they thought proper to his father's son, and his chief ambition was to stand upon his own legs and to fare like other boys. So he scorned Billy Jack's suggestion, and while some of the children scurried about the stacks for a little romp before setting off for their homes, which some of them, for the sake of the ride, had left far behind, Hughie devoted himself to the unhitching of the team with Billy Jack. And so quick was he in his movements, and so fearless of the horses, that he had his side unhitched and was struggling with the breast-strap before Billy Jack had finished with his horse.
"Man! you're a regular farmer," said Billy Jack, admiringly, "only you're too quick for the rest of us."
Hughie, still struggling with the breast-strap, found his heart swell with pride. To be a farmer was his present dream.
"But that's too heavy for you," continued Billy Jack. "Here, let down the tongue first."
"Pshaw!" said Hughie, disgusted at his exhibition of ignorance, "I knew that tongue ought to come out first, but I forgot."
"Oh, well, it's just as good that way, but not quite so easy," said Billy Jack, with doubtful consistency.
It took Hughie but a few minutes after the tongue was let down to unfasten his end of the neck-yoke and the cross-lines, and he was beginning at his hame-strap, always a difficult buckle, when Billy Jack called out, "Hold on there! You're too quick for me. We'll make them carry their own harness into the stable. Don't believe in making a horse of myself." Billy Jack was something of a humorist.
The Finch homestead was a model of finished neatness. Order was its law. Outside, the stables, barns, stacks, the very wood-piles, evidenced that law. Within, the house and its belongings and affairs were perfect in their harmonious arrangement. The whole establishment, without and within, gave token of the unremitting care of one organizing mind, for, from dark to dark, while others might have their moments of rest and careless ease, "the little mother," as Billy Jack called her, was ever on guard, and all the machinery of house and farm moved smoothly and to purpose because of that unsleeping care. She was last to bed and first to stir, and Billy Jack declared that she used to put the cats to sleep at night, and waken up the roosters in the morning. And through it all her face remained serene, and her voice flowed in quiet tones. Billy Jack adored her with all the might of his big heart and body. Thomas, slow of motion as of expression, found in her the center of his somewhat sluggish being. Jessac, the little dark-faced maiden of nine years, whose face was the very replica of her mother's, knew nothing in the world dearer, albeit in her daily little housewifely tasks she felt the gentle pressure of that steadfast mind and unyielding purpose. Her husband regarded her with a curious mingling of reverence and defiance, for Donald Finch was an obstinate man, with a man's love of authority, and a Scotchman's sense of his right to rule in his own house. But while he talked much about his authority, and made a great show of absolutism with his family, he was secretly conscious that another will than his had really kept things moving about the farm; for he had long ago learned that his wife was always right, while he might often be wrong, and that, withal her soft words and gentle ways, hers was a will like steel.
Besides the law of order, another law ruled in the Finch household-- the law of work. The days were filled with work, for they each had their share to do, and bore the sole responsibility for its being well done. If the cows failed in their milk, or the fat cattle were not up to the mark, the father felt the reproach as his; to Billy Jack fell the care and handling of the horses; Thomas took charge of the pigs, and the getting of wood and water for the house; little Jessac had her daily task of "sorting the rooms," and when the days were too stormy or the snow too deep for school, she had in addition her stent of knitting or of winding the yarn for the weaver. To the mother fell all the rest. At the cooking and the cleaning, and the making and the mending, all fine arts with her, she diligently toiled from long before dawn till after all the rest were abed. But besides these and other daily household duties there were, in their various seasons, the jam and jelly, the pumpkin and squash preserves, the butter-making and cheese-making, and more than all, the long, long work with the wool. Billy Jack used to say that the little mother followed that wool from the backs of her sheep to the backs of her family, and hated to let the weaver have his turn at it. What with the washing and the oiling of it, the carding and the spinning, the twisting and the winding, she never seemed to be done. And then, when it came back from the weaver in great webs of fulled-cloth and flannel and winsey, there was all the cutting, shaping, and sewing before the family could get it on their backs. True, the tailor was called in to help, but though he declared he worked no place else as he worked at the Finch's, it was Billy Jack's openly expressed opinion that "he worked his jaw more than his needle, for at meal-times he gave his needle a rest."
But though Hughie, of course, knew nothing of this toiling and moiling, he was distinctly conscious of an air of tidiness and comfort and quiet, and was keenly alive to the fact that there was a splendid supper waiting him when he got in from the stables with the others, "hungry as a wild-cat," as Billy jack expressed it. And that was a supper! Fried ribs of fresh pork, and hashed potatoes, hot and brown, followed by buckwheat pancakes, hot and brown, with maple syrup. There was tea for the father and mother with their oat cakes, but for the children no such luxury, only the choice of buttermilk or sweet milk. Hughie, it is true, was offered tea, but he promptly declined, for though he loved it well enough, it was sufficient reason for him that Thomas had none. It took, however, all the grace out of his declining, that Mr. Finch remarked in gruff pleasantry, "What would a boy want with tea!" The supper was a very solemn meal. They were all too busy to talk, at least so Hughie felt, and as for himself, he was only afraid lest the others should "push back" before he had satisfied the terrible craving within him.
After supper the books were taken, and in Gaelic, for though Donald Finch was perfectly able in English for business and ordinary affairs of life, when it came to the worship of God, he found that only in the ancient mother tongue could he "get liberty." As Hughie listened to the solemn reading, and then to the prayer that followed, though he could understand only a word now and again, he was greatly impressed with the rhythmic, solemn cadence of the voice, and as he glanced through his fingers at the old man's face, he was surprised to find how completely it had changed. It was no longer the face of the stern and stubborn autocrat, but of an earnest, humble, reverent man of God; and Hughie, looking at him, wondered if he would not be altogether nicer with his wife and boys after that prayer was done. He had yet to learn how obstinate and even hard a man can be and still have a great "gift in prayer."
From the old man's face, Hughie's glance wandered to his wife's, and there was held fascinated. For the first time Hughie thought it was beautiful, and more than that, he was startled to find that it reminded him of his mother's. At once he closed his eyes, for he felt as if he had been prying where he had no right.
After the prayer was over they all drew about the glowing polished kitchen stove with the open front, and set themselves to enjoy that hour which, more than any other, helps to weave into the memory the thoughts and feelings that in after days are associated with home. Old Donald drew forth his pipe, a pleased expectation upon his face, and after cutting enough tobacco from the black plug which he pulled from his trousers pocket, he rolled it fine, with deliberation, and packed it carefully into his briar-root pipe, from which dangled a tin cap; then drawing out some live coals from the fire, he with a quick motion picked one up, set it upon the top of the tobacco, and holding it there with his bare finger until Hughie was sure he would burn himself, puffed with hard, smacking puffs, but with a more comfortable expression than Hughie had yet seen him wear. Then, when it was fairly lit, he knocked off the coal, packed down the tobacco, put on the little tin cap, and sat back in his covered arm-chair, and came as near beaming upon the world as ever he allowed himself to come.
"Here, Jessac," he said to the little dark-faced maiden slipping about the table under the mother's silent direction. Jessac glanced at her mother and hesitated. Then, apparently reading her mother's face, she said, "In a minute, da," and seizing the broom, which was much taller than herself, she began to brush up the crumbs about the table with amazing deftness. This task completed, and the crumbs being thrown into the pig's barrel which stood in the woodshed just outside the door, Jessac set her broom in the corner, hung up the dust-pan on its proper nail behind the stove, and then, running to her father, climbed up on his knee and snuggled down into his arms for an hour's luxurious laziness before the fire. Hughie gazed in amazement at her temerity, for Donald Finch was not a man to take liberties with; but as he gazed, he wondered the more, for again the face of the stern old man was transformed.
"Be quaet now, lassie. Hear me now, I am telling you," he admonished the little girl in his arms, while there flowed over his face a look of half-shamed delight that seemed to fill up and smooth out all its severe lines.
Hughie was still gazing and wondering when the old man, catching his earnest, wide-open gaze, broke forth suddenly, in a voice nearly jovial, "Well, lad, so you have taken up the school again. You will be having a fine time of it altogether."
The lad, startled more by the joviality of his manner than by the suddenness of his speech, hastily replied, "Indeed, we are not, then."
"What! what!" replied the old man, returning to his normal aspect of severity. "Do you not know that you have great privileges now?"
"Huh!" grunted Hughie. "If we had Archie Munro again."
"And what is wrong with the new man?"
"Oh, I don't know. He's not a bit nice. He's--"
"Too many rules," said Thomas, slowly.
"Aha!" said his father, with a note of triumph in his tone; "so that's it, is it? He will be bringing you to the mark, I warrant you. And indeed it's high time, for I doubt Archie Munro was just a little soft with you."
The old man's tone was aggravating enough, but his reference to the old master was too much for Hughie, and even Thomas was moved to words more than was his wont in his father's presence.
"He has too many rules," repeated Thomas, stolidly, "and they will not be kept."
"And he is as proud as he can be," continued Hughie. "Comes along with his cane and his stand-up collar, and lifts his hat off to the big girls, and--and--och! he's just as stuck-up as anything!" Hughie's vocabulary was not equal to his contempt.
"There will not be much wrong with his cane in the Twentieth School, I dare say," went on the old man, grimly. "As for lifting his hat, it is time some of them were learning manners. When I was a boy we were made to mind our manners, I can tell you."
"So are we!" replied Hughie, hotly; "but we don't go shoween off like that! And then himself and his rules!" Hughie's disgust was quite unutterable.
"Rules!" exclaimed the old man. "Ay, that is what is the trouble."
"Well," said Hughie, with a spice of mischief, "if Thomas is late for school he will have to bring a note of excuse."
"Very good indeed. And why should he be late at all?"
"And if any one wants a pencil he can't ask for it unless he gets permission from the master."
"Capital!" said the old man, rubbing his hands delightedly. "He's the right sort, whatever."
"And if you keep Thomas home a day or a week, you will have to write to the master about it," continued Hughie.
"And what for, pray?" said the old man, hastily. "May I not keep-- but-- Yes, that's a very fine rule, too. It will keep the boys from the woods, I am thinking."
"But think of big Murdie Cameron holding up his hand to ask leave to speak to Bob Fraser!"
"And why not indeed? If he's not too big to be in school he's not too big for that. Man alive! you should have seen the master in my school days lay the lads over the forms and warm their backs to them."
"As big as Murdie?"
"Ay, and bigger. And what's more, he would send for them to their homes, and bring them strapped to a wheel-barrow. Yon was a master for you!"
Hughie snorted. "Huh! I tell you what, we wouldn't stand that. And we won't stand this man either."
"And what will you be doing now, Hughie?" quizzed the old man.
"Well," said Hughie, reddening at the sarcasm, "I will not do much, but the big boys will just carry him out."
"And who will be daring to do that, Hughie?"
"Well, Murdie, and Bob Fraser, and Curly Ross, and Don, and--and Thomas, there," added Hughie, fearing to hurt Thomas' feelings by leaving him out.
"Ay," said the old man, shutting his lips tight on his pipestem and puffing with a smacking noise, "let me catch Thomas at that!"
"And I would help, too," said Hughie, valiantly, fearing he had exposed his friend, and wishing to share his danger.
"Well, your father would be seeing to that," said the old man, with great satisfaction, feeling that Hughie's discipline might be safely left in the minister's hands.
There was a pause of a few moments, and then a quiet voice inquired gently, "He will be a very big man, Hughie, I suppose."
"Oh, just ordinary," said Hughie, innocently, turning to Mrs. Finch.
"Oh, then, they will not be requiring you and Thomas, I am thinking, to carry him out." At which Hughie and Billy Jack and Jessac laughed aloud, but Thomas and his father only looked stolidly into the fire.
"Come, Thomas," said his mother, "take your fiddle a bit. Hughie will like a tune." There was no need of any further discussing the new master.
But Thomas was very shy about his fiddle, and besides he was not in a mood for it; his father's words had rasped him. It took the united persuasions of Billy Jack and Jessac and Hughie to get the fiddle into Thomas' hands, but after a few tuning scrapes all shyness and moodiness vanished, and soon the reels and strathspeys were dropping from Thomas' flying fingers in a way that set Hughie's blood tingling. But when the fiddler struck into Money Musk, Billy Jack signed Jessac to him, and whispering to her, set her out on the middle of the floor.
"Aw, I don't like to," said Jessac, twisting her apron into her mouth.
"Come away, Jessac," said her mother, quietly, "do your best." And Jessac, laying aside shyness, went at her Highland reel with the same serious earnestness she gave to her tidying or her knitting. Daintily she tripped the twenty-four steps of that intricate, ancient dance of the Celt people, whirling, balancing, poising, snapping her fingers, and twinkling her feet in the true Highland style, till once more her father's face smoothed out its wrinkles, and beamed like a harvest moon. Hughie gazed, uncertain whether to allow himself to admire Jessac's performance, or to regard it with a boy's scorn, as she was only a girl. And yet he could not escape the fascination of the swift, rhythmic movement of the neat, twinkling feet.
"Well done, Jessac, lass," said her father, proudly. "But what would the minister be saying at such frivolity?" he added, glancing at Hughie.
"Huh! he can do it himself well enough," said Hughie, "and I tell you what, I only wish I could do it."
"I'll show you," said Jessac, shyly, but for the first time in his life Hughie's courage failed, and though he would have given much to be able to make his feet twinkle through the mazes of the Highland reel, he could not bring himself to accept teaching from Jessac. If it had only been Thomas or Billy Jack who had offered, he would soon enough have been on the floor. For a moment he hesitated, then with a sudden inspiration, he cried, "All right. Do it again. I'll watch." But the mother said quietly, "I think that will do, Jessac. And I am afraid your father will be going with cold hands if you don't hurry with those mitts." And Jessac put up her lip with the true girl's grimace and went away for her knitting, to Hughie's disappointment and relief.
Soon Billy Jack took down the tin lantern, pierced with holes into curious patterns, through which the candle-light rayed forth, and went out to bed the horses. In spite of protests from all the family, Hughie set forth with him, carrying the lantern and feeling very much the farmer, while Billy Jack took two pails of boiled oats and barley, with a mixture of flax-seed, which was supposed to give to the Finch's team their famous and superior gloss. When they returned from the stable they found in the kitchen Thomas, who was rubbing a composition of tallow and bees-wax into his boots to make them water-proof, and the mother, who was going about setting the table for the breakfast.
"Too bad you have to go to bed, mother," said Billy Jack, struggling with his boot-jack. "You might just go on getting the breakfast, and what a fine start that would give you for the day."
"You hurry, William John, to bed with that poor lad. What would his mother say? He must be fairly exhausted."
"I'm not a bit tired," said Hughie, brightly, his face radiant with the delight of his new experiences.
"You will need all your sleep, my boy," said the mother, kindly, "for we rise early here. But," she added, "you will lie till the boys are through with their work, and Thomas will waken you for your breakfast."
"Indeed, no! I'm going to get up," announced Hughie.
"But, Hughie," said Billy Jack, seriously, "if you and Thomas are going to carry out that man to-morrow, you will need a mighty lot of sleep to-night."
"Hush, William John," said the mother to her eldest son, "you mustn't tease Hughie. And it's not good to be saying such things, even in fun, to boys like Thomas and Hughie."
"That's true, mother, for they're rather fierce already."
"Indeed, they are not that. And I am sure they will do nothing that will shame their parents."
To this Hughie made no reply. It was no easy matter to harmonize the thought of his parents with the exploit of ejecting the master from the school, so he only said good night, and went off with the silent Thomas to bed. But in the visions of his head which haunted him the night long, racing horses and little girls with tossing curls and twinkling feet were strangely mingled with wild conflicts with the new master; and it seemed to him that he had hardly dropped off to sleep, when he was awake again to see Thomas standing beside him with a candle in his hand, announcing that breakfast was ready.
"Have you been out to the stable?" he eagerly inquired, and Thomas nodded. In great disappointment and a little shamefacedly he made his appearance at the breakfast-table.
It seemed to Hughie as if it must be still the night before, for it was quite dark outside. He had never had breakfast by candle-light before in his life, and he felt as if it all were still a part of his dreams, until he found himself sitting beside Billy Jack on a load of saw-logs, waving good by to the group at the door, the old man, whose face in the gray morning light had resumed its wonted severe look, the quiet, little dark-faced woman, smiling kindly at him and bidding him come again, and the little maid at her side with the dark ringlets, who glanced at him from behind the shelter of her mother's skirts, with shy boldness.
As Hughie was saying his good bys, he was thinking most of the twinkling feet and the tossing curls, and so he added to his farewells, "Good by, Jessac. I'm going to learn that reel from you some day," and then, turning about, he straight-way forgot all about her and her reel, for Billy Jack's horses were pawing to be off, and rolling their solemn bells, while their breath rose in white clouds above their heads, wreathing their manes in hoary rime.
"Git-ep, lads," said Billy Jack, hauling his lines taut and flourishing his whip. The bays straightened their backs, hung for a few moments on their tugs, for the load had frozen fast during the night, and then moved off at a smart trot, the bells solemnly booming out, and the sleighs creaking over the frosty snow.
"Man!" said Hughie, enthusiastically, "I wish I could draw logs all winter."
"It's not too bad a job on a day like this," assented Billy Jack. And indeed, any one might envy him the work on such a morning. Over the treetops the rays of the sun were beginning to shoot their rosy darts up into the sky, and to flood the clearing with light that sparkled and shimmered upon the frost particles, glittering upon and glorifying snow and trees, and even the stumps and fences. Around the clearing stood the forest, dark and still, except for the frost reports that now and then rang out like pistol shots. To Hughie, the early morning invested the forest with a new beauty and a new wonder. The dim light of the dawning day deepened the silence, so that involuntarily he hushed his voice in speaking, and the deep-toned roll of the sleigh-bells seemed to smite upon that dim, solemn quiet with startling blows. On either side the balsams and spruces, with their mantles of snow, stood like white-swathed sentinels on guard--silent, motionless, alert. Hughie looked to see them move as the team drove past.
As they left the more open butternut ridge and descended into the depths of the big pine swamp, the dim light faded into deeper gloom, and Hughie felt as if he were in church, and an awe gathered upon him.
"It's awful still," he said to Billy Jack in a low tone, and Billy Jack, catching the look in the boy's face, checked the light word upon his lips, and gazed around into the deep forest glooms with new eyes. The mystery and wonder of the forest had never struck him before. It had hitherto been to him a place for hunting or for getting big saw-logs. But to-day he saw it with Hughie's eyes, and felt the majesty of its beauty and silence. For a long time they drove without a word.
"Say, it's mighty fine, isn't it?" he said, adopting Hughie's low tone.
"Splendid!" exclaimed Hughie. "My! I could just hug those big trees. They look at me like--like your mother, don't they, or mine?" But this was beyond Billy Jack.
"Like my mother?"
"Yes, you know, quiet and--and--kind, and nice."
"Yes," said Thomas, breaking in for the first time, "that's just it. They do look, sure enough, like my mother and yours. They have both got that look."
"Git-ep!" said Billy Jack to his team. "These fellows'll be ketchin' something bad if we don't get into the open soon. Shouldn't wonder if they've got 'em already, making out their mothers like an old white pine. Git-ep, I say!"
"Oh, pshaw!" said Hughie, "you know what I mean."
"Not much I don't. But it don't matter so long as you're feelin' all right. This swamp's rather bad for the groojums."
"What?" Hughie's eyes began to open wide as he glanced into the forest.
"The groojums. Never heard of them things? They ketch a fellow in places like this when it's gettin' on towards midnight, and about daylight it's almost as bad."
"What are they like?" asked Hughie, upon whom the spell of the forest lay.
"Oh, mighty queer. Always crawl up on your back, and ye can't help twistin' round."
Hughie glanced at Thomas and was at once relieved.
"Oh, pshaw! Billy Jack, you can't fool me. I know you."
"I guess you're safe enough now. They don't bother you much in the clearing," said Billy Jack, encouragingly.
"Oh, fiddle! I'm not afraid."
"Nobody is in the open, and especially in the daytime."
"Oh, I don't care for your old groojums."
"Guess you care more for your new boss yonder, eh?" said Billy Jack, nodding toward the school-house, which now came into view.
"Oh," said Hughie, with a groan, "I just hate going to-day."
"You'll be all right when you get there," said Billy Jack, cheerfully. "It's like goin' in swimmin'."
Soon they were at the cross-roads.
"Good by, Billy Jack," said Hughie, feeling as if he had been on a long, long visit. "I've had an awfully good time, and I'd like to go back with you."
"Wish you would," said Billy Jack, heartily. "Come again soon. And don't carry out the master to-day. It looks like a storm; he might get cold."
"He had better mind out, then," cried Hughie after Billy Jack, and set off with Thomas for the school. But neither Hughie nor Thomas had any idea of the thrilling experiences awaiting them in the Twentieth School before the week was done.
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