Her face flushed like a girl's under his direct, admiring gaze, makintheta unitg her all the more pretty. She hastened to divert direct attention from herself by asking, "You haven't heard from anyone this morning?"
"Well, I won't give you the keys. I'm the proper person app to buy tron cointo put things in order if you did not replace them properly. You are just making an excuse to rummage yourself. My motive for inspecting is very different from yours.""Shouldn't wonder if you was sorry some day," the girl had remarked, and so the matter had dropped and been forgotten.
Holcroft solaced himself with the fact that Jane and Mrs. Wiggins served his meals regularly and looked after the dairy with better care than it had received since his wife died. "If I had only those two in the house, I could get along first-rate," he thought. "After the three months are up, I'll try to make such an arrangement. I'd pay the mother and send her off now, but if I did, Lemuel Weeks would put her up to a lawsuit."April days brought the longed-for plowing and planting, and the farmer was so busy and absorbed in his work that Mrs. Mumpson had less and less place in his thoughts, even as a thorn in the flesh. One bright afternoon, however, chaos came again unexpectedly. Mrs. Wiggins did not suggest a volatile creature, yet such, alas! she was. She apparently exhaled and was lost, leaving no trace. The circumstances of her disappearance permit of a very matter-of-fact and not very creditable explanation. On the day in question she prepared an unusually good dinner, and the farmer had enjoyed it in spite of Mrs. Mumpson's presence and desultory remarks. The morning had been fine and he had made progress in his early spring work. Mrs. Wiggins felt that her hour and opportunity had come. Following him to the door, she said in a low tone and yet with a decisive accent, as if she was claiming a right, "Master, hi'd thank ye for me two weeks' wages."He unsuspectingly and unhesitatingly gave it to her, thinking, "That's the way with such people. They want to be paid often and be sure of their money. She'll work all the better for having it."Mrs. Wiggins knew the hour when the stage passed the house; she had made up a bundle without a very close regard to meum or tuum, and was ready to flit. The chance speedily came.The "caretaker" was rocking in the parlor and would disdain to look, while Jane had gone out to help plant some early potatoes on a warm hillside. The coast was clear. Seeing the stage coming, the old woman waddled down the lane at a remarkable pace, paid her fare to town, and the Holcroft kitchen knew her no more.
That she found the "friend" she had wished to see on her way out to the farm, and that this friend brought her quickly under Tom Watterly's care again, goes without saying.As the shadows lengthened and the robins became tuneful, Holcroft said, "You've done well, Jane. Thank you. Now you can go back to the house.""No," said Holcroft, arresting his hickory. "I'll send you to jail, Tim Weeks. That stone you fired cut my head. Was your father in that crowd?"
"No-o-o!" blubbered Tim."If he was, I'd follow him home and whip him in his own house. Now, clear out, and tell the rest of your rowdy crew that I'll shoot the first one of you that disturbs me again. I'll send the constable for you, and maybe for some of the others."Dire was the dismay, and dreadful the groaning in Oakville that night. Never before had salves and poultices been in such demand. Not a few would be disfigured for weeks, and wherever Holcroft's blows had fallen welts arose like whipcords. In Lemuel Weeks' dwelling the consternation reached its climax. Tim, bruised from his fall, limped in and told his portentous story. In his spite, he added, "I don't care, I hit him hard. His face was all bloody.""All bloody!" groaned his father. "Lord 'a mercy! He can send you to jail, sure enough!"
Then Mrs. Weeks sat down and wailed aloud.Chapter 26 ＂You Don't Know.＂
As Timothy Weeks limped hastily away, Holcroft, with a strong revulsion of feeling, thought of Alida. HE had been able to answer insults in a way eminently satisfactory to himself, and every blow had relieved his electrical condition. But how about the poor woman who had received worse blows than he had inflicted? As he hastened toward the house he recalled a dim impression of seeing her sink down on the doorstep. Then he remembered her effort to face the marauders alone. "She said she was to blame, poor child! As if there were any blame at all! She said, 'spare him,' as if I was facing a band of murderers instead of a lot of neighborhood scamps, and that she'd go away. I'd fight all Oakville--men, women, and children--before I'd permit that," and he started on a run.He found Alida on the step, where she had sunk as if struck down by the rough epithets hurled at her. She was sobbing violently, almost hysterically, and at first could not reply to his soothing words. He lifted her up, and half carried her within to a chair. "Oh, oh," she cried, "why did I not realize it more fully before? Selfish woman that I was, to marry you and bring on you all this shame and danger. I should have thought of it all, I ought to have died rather than do you such a wrong.""Alida, Alida," protested Holcroft, "if it were all to do over again, I'd be a thousand times more--""Oh, I know, I know! You are brave and generous and honest. I saw that much when you first spoke to me. I yielded to the temptation to secure such a friend. I was too cowardly to face the world alone. And now see what's happened! You're in danger and disgrace on my account. I must go away--I must do what I should have done at first," and with her face buried in her hands she rocked back and forth, overwhelmed by the bitterness and reproach of her thoughts.
"Alida," he urged, "please be calm and sensible. Let me reason with you and tell you the truth. All that's happened is that the Oakville cubs have received a well-deserved whipping. When you get calm, I can explain everything so it won't seem half so bad. Neither you nor I are in any danger, and, as for your going away, look me in the eyes and listen."His words were almost stern in their earnestness. She raised her streaming eyes to his face, then sprung up, exclaiming, "Oh! You're wounded!""What's that, compared with your talk of going away?"All explanations and reassurances would have been trivial in effect, compared with the truth that he had been hurt in her defense. She dashed her tears right and left, ran for a basin of water, and making him take her chair, began washing away the blood stains.
"Thunder!" he said, laughing, "How quickly we've changed places!""Oh, oh!" she moaned, "It's a terrible wound; it might have killed you, and they WILL kill you yet."
He took her hands and held them firmly. "Alida," he said, gravely yet kindly, "be still and listen to me."For a moment or two longer her bosom heaved with convulsive sobs, and then she grew quiet. "Don't you know you can't go away?" he asked, still retaining her hands and looking in her face.
"I could for your sake," she began."No, it wouldn't be for my sake. I don't wish you to go, and wouldn't let you. If you should let the Oakville rabble drive you away, I WOULD be in danger, and so would others, for I'd be worse on 'em than an earthquake. After the lesson they've had tonight, they'll let us alone, and I'll let them alone. You know I've tried to be honest with you from the first. Believe me, then, the trouble's over unless we make more for ourselves. Now, promise you'll do as I say and let me manage.""I'll try," she breathed softly."No, no! That won't do. I'm beginning to find you out. You may get some foolish, self-sacrificing notion in your head that it would be best for me, when it would be my ruination. Will you promise?""Yes.""Famous! Now you can bathe my head all you please for it feels a little queer."
"It's an awful wound," she said in tones of the deepest sympathy. "Oh, I'm so sorry!""Pshaw! My head is too hard for that little scamp of a Weeks to break. His turn'll come next."
She cut away the blood-clotted hair and bound up the rather severe scalp wound with a tenderness and sympathy that expressed itself even in her touch. She was too confused and excited to be conscious of herself, but she had received some tremendously strong impressions. Chief among them was the truth that nothing which had happened made any difference in him--that he was still the same loyal friend, standing between her and the world she dreaded--yes, between her and her own impulses toward self-sacrifice. Sweetest of all was the assurance that he did this for his own sake as well as hers. These facts seemed like a foothold in the mad torrent of feeling and shame which had been sweeping her away. She could think of little more than that she was safe--safe because he was brave and loyal--and yes, safe because he wanted her and would not give her up. The heart of a woman must be callous indeed, and her nature not only trivial but stony if she is not deeply touched under circumstances like these.In spite of his laughing contempt of danger, she trembled as she saw him ready to go out again; she wished to accompany him on his round of observation, but he scouted the idea, although it pleased him. Standing in the door, she strained her eyes and listened breathlessly. He soon returned and said, "They've all had enough. We won't be disturbed again."
He saw that her nerves needed quieting, and he set about the task with such simple tact as he possessed. His first step was to light his pipe in the most nonchalant manner, and then he burst out laughing. "I'll hang that hickory up. It has done too good service to be put to common use again. Probably you never heard of a skimelton, Alida. Well, they are not so uncommon in this region. I suppose I'll have to own up to taking part in one myself when I was a young chap. They usually are only rough larks and are taken good-naturedly. I'm not on jesting terms with my neighbors, and they had no business to come here, but I wouldn't have made any row if they hadn't insulted you."Her head bowed very low as she faltered, "They've heard everything."
He came right to her and took her hand. "Didn't I hear everything before they did?""Yes.""Well, Alida, I'm not only satisfied with you, but I'm very grateful to you. Why shouldn't I be when you are a good Christian woman? I guess I'm the one to be suited, not Oakville. I should be as reckless as the devil if you should go away from me. Don't I act like a man who's ready to stand up for and protect you?""Yes, too ready. It would kill me if anything happened to you on my account."
"Well, the worst would happen," he said firmly, "if we don't go right on as we've begun. If we go quietly on about our own affairs, we'll soon be let alone and that's all we ask.""Yes, yes indeed! Don't worry, James. I'll do as you wish."
"Famous! You never said 'James' to me before. Why haven't you?""I don't know," she faltered, with a sudden rush of color to her pale face.
"Well, that's my name," he resumed, laughing. "I guess it's because we are getting better acquainted.She looked up and said impetuously, "You don't know how a woman feels when a man stands up for her as you did tonight."
"Well, I know how a man feels when there is a woman so well worth standing up for. It was a lucky thing that I had nothing heavier in my hand than that hickory." All the while he was looking at her curiously; then he spoke his thought. "You're a quiet little woman, Alida, most times, but you're capable of a thunder gust now and then.""I'll try to be quiet at all times," she replied, with drooping eyes."Oh, I'm not complaining!" he said, laughing. "I like the trait."He took a small pitcher and went to the dairy. Returning, he poured out two glasses of milk and said, "Here's to your health and happiness, Alida; and when I don't stand up for the woman who started out to save me from a mob of murderers, may the next thing I eat or drink choke me. You didn't know they were merely a lot of Oakville boys, did you?"
"You can't make so light of it," said she. "They tried to close on you, and if that stone had struck you on the temple, it might have killed you. They swore like pirates, and looked like ruffians with their blackened faces. They certainly were not boys in appearance.""I'm afraid I swore too," he said sadly.
"You had some excuse, but I'm sorry. They would have hurt you if you hadn't kept them off.""Yes, they'd probably have given me a beating. People do things in hot blood they wish they hadn't afterward. I know this Oakville rough-scuff. Since we've had it out, and they know what to expect, they'll give me a wide berth. Now go and sleep. You were never safer in your life."
She did not trust herself to reply, but the glance she gave him from her tearful eyes was so eloquent with grateful feeling that he was suddenly conscious of some unwonted sensations. He again patrolled the place and tied the dog near the barn."It's barely possible that some of these mean cusses might venture to kindle a fire, but a bark from Towser will warn 'em off. She IS a spirited little woman," he added, with a sharp change in soliloquy. "There's nothing milk-and-water about her. Thunder! I felt like kissing her when she looked at me so. I guess that crack on my skull has made me a little light-headed."