Chapter 4 Wherein the Sintons are disappointed, and Mrs. Comstock learn_hat she can laugh
With the first streak of red above the Limberlost Margaret Sinton was bus_ith the gingham and the intricate paper pattern she had purchased. Wesle_ooked the breakfast and worked until he thought Elnora would be gone, then h_tarted to bring her mother.
"Now you be mighty careful," cautioned Margaret. "I don't know how she wil_ake it."
"I don't either," said Wesley philosophically, "but she's got to take it som_ay. That dress has to be finished by school time in the morning."
Wesley had not slept well that night. He had been so busy framing diplomati_peeches to make to Mrs. Comstock that sleep had little chance with him. Ever_tep nearer to her he approached his position seemed less enviable. By th_ime he reached the front gate and started down the walk between the rows o_sters and lady slippers he was perspiring, and every plausible and convincin_peech had fled his brain. Mrs. Comstock helped him. She met him at the door.
"Good morning," she said. "Did Margaret send you for something?"
"Yes," said Wesley. "She's got a job that's too big for her, and she wants yo_o help."
"Of course I will," said Mrs. Comstock. It was no one's affair how lonely th_revious day had been, or how the endless hours of the present would drag.
"What is she doing in such a rush?"
Now was his chance.
"She's making a dress for Elnora," answered, Wesley. He saw Mrs. Comstock'_orm straighten, and her face harden, so he continued hastily. "You see Elnor_as been helping us at harvest time, butchering, and with unexpected visitor_or years. We've made out that she's saved us a considerable sum, and as sh_ouldn't ever touch any pay for anything, we just went to town and got a fe_lothes we thought would fix her up a little for the high school. We want t_et a dress done to-day mighty bad, but Margaret is slow about sewing, and sh_ever can finish alone, so I came after you."
"And it's such a simple little matter, so dead easy; and all so between ol_riends like, that you can't look above your boots while you explain it,"
sneered Mrs. Comstock. "Wesley Sinton, what put the idea into your head tha_lnora would take things bought with money, when she wouldn't take the money?"
Then Sinton's eyes came up straightly.
"Finding her on the trail last night sobbing as hard as I ever saw any one a_ funeral. She wasn't complaining at all, but she's come to me all her lif_ith her little hurts, and she couldn't hide how she'd been laughed at, twitted, and run face to face against the fact that there were books an_uition, unexpected, and nothing will ever make me believe you didn't kno_hat, Kate Comstock."
"If any doubts are troubling you on that subject, sure I knew it! She was s_nxious to try the world, I thought I'd just let her take a few knocks and se_ow she liked them."
"As if she'd ever taken anything but knocks all her life!" cried Wesle_inton. "Kate Comstock, you are a heartless, selfish woman. You've never show_lnora any real love in her life. If ever she finds out that thing you'll los_er, and it will serve you right."
"She knows it now," said Mrs. Comstock icily, "and she'll be home to-nigh_ust as usual."
"Well, you are a brave woman if you dared put a girl of Elnora's make throug_hat she suffered yesterday, and will suffer again to-day, and let her kno_ou did it on purpose. I admire your nerve. But I've watched this since Elnor_as born, and I got enough. Things have come to a pass where they go bette_or her, or I interfere."
"As if you'd ever done anything but interfere all her life! Think I haven'_atched you? Think I, with my heart raw in my breast, and too numb to resen_t openly, haven't seen you and Mag Sinton trying to turn Elnora against m_ay after day? When did you ever tell her what her father meant to me? Whe_id you ever try to make her see the wreck of my life, and what I've suffered?
No indeed! Always it's been poor little abused Elnora, and cakes, kissing, extra clothes, and encouraging her to run to you with a pitiful mouth ever_ime I tried to make a woman of her."
"Kate Comstock, that's unjust," cried Sinton. "Only last night I tried to sho_er the picture I saw the day she was born. I begged her to come to you an_ell you pleasant what she needed, and ask you for what I happen to know yo_an well afford to give her."
"I can't!" cried Mrs. Comstock. "You know I can't!"
"Then get so you can!" said Wesley Sinton. "Any day you say the word you ca_ell six thousand worth of rare timber off this place easy. I'll see t_learing and working the fields cheap as dirt, for Elnora's sake. I'll buy yo_ore cattle to fatten. All you've got to do is sign a lease, to pull thousand_rom the ground in oil, as the rest of us are doing all around you!"
"Cut down Robert's trees!" shrieked Mrs. Comstock. "Tear up his land! Cove_verything with horrid, greasy oil! I'll die first."
"You mean you'll let Elnora go like a beggar, and hurt and mortify her pas_earing. I've got to the place where I tell you plain what I am going to do.
Maggie and I went to town last night, and we bought what things Elnora need_ost urgent to make her look a little like the rest of the high school girls.
Now here it is in plain English. You can help get these things ready, and le_s give them to her as we want——"
"She won't touch them!" cried Mrs. Comstock.
"Then you can pay us, and she can take them as her right——"
"Then I will tell Elnora just what you are worth, what you can afford, and ho_uch of this she owns. I'll loan her the money to buy books and decen_lothes, and when she is of age she can sell her share and pay me."
Mrs. Comstock gripped a chair-back and opened her lips, but no words came.
"And," Sinton continued, "if she is so much like you that she won't do that, I'll go to the county seat and lay complaint against you as her guardia_efore the judge. I'll swear to what you are worth, and how you are raisin_er, and have you discharged, or have the judge appoint some man who will se_hat she is comfortable, educated, and decent looking!"
"You—you wouldn't!" gasped Kate Comstock.
"I won't need to, Kate!" said Sinton, his heart softening the instant the har_ords were said. "You won't show it, but you do love Elnora! You can't hel_t! You must see how she needs things; come help us fix them, and be friends.
Maggie and I couldn't live without her, and you couldn't either. You've got t_ove such a fine girl as she is; let it show a little!"
"You can hardly expect me to love her," said Mrs. Comstock coldly. "But fo_er a man would stand back of me now, who would beat the breath out of you_neaking body for the cowardly thing with which you threaten me. After al_'ve suffered you'd drag me to court and compel me to tear up Robert'_roperty. If I ever go they carry me. If they touch one tree, or put down on_reasy old oil well, it will be over all I can shoot, before they begin. Now, see how quick you can clear out of here!"
"You won't come and help Maggie with the dress?"
For answer Mrs. Comstock looked around swiftly for some object on which to la_er hands. Knowing her temper, Wesley Sinton left with all the hast_onsistent with dignity. But he did not go home. He crossed a field, and in a_our brought another neighbour who was skilful with her needle. With sinkin_eart Margaret saw them coming.
"Kate is too busy to help to-day, she can't sew before to-morrow," said Wesle_heerfully as they entered.
That quieted Margaret's apprehension a little, though she had some doubts.
Wesley prepared the lunch, and by four o'clock the dress was finished as fa_s it possibly could be until it was fitted on Elnora. If that did not entai_oo much work, it could be completed in two hours.
Then Margaret packed their purchases into the big market basket. Wesley too_he hat, umbrella, and raincoat, and they went to Mrs. Comstock's. As the_eached the step, Margaret spoke pleasantly to Mrs. Comstock, who sat readin_ust inside the door, but she did not answer and deliberately turned a lea_ithout looking up.
Wesley Sinton opened the door and went in followed by Margaret.
"Kate," he said, "you needn't take out your mad over our little racket o_aggie. I ain't told her a word I said to you, or you said to me. She's not s_ery strong, and she's sewed since four o'clock this morning to get this dres_eady for to-morrow. It's done and we came down to try it on Elnora."
"Is that the truth, Mag Sinton?" demanded Mrs. Comstock.
"You heard Wesley say so," proudly affirmed Mrs. Sinton.
"I want to make you a proposition," said Wesley. "Wait till Elnora comes. The_e'll show her the things and see what she says."
"How would it do to see what she says without bribing her," sneered Mrs.
"If she can stand what she did yesterday, and will to-day, she can bear 'mos_nything," said Wesley. "Put away the clothes if you want to, till we tel_er."
"Well, you don't take this waist I'm working on," said Margaret, "for I hav_o baste in the sleeves and set the collar. Put the rest out of sight if yo_ike."
Mrs. Comstock picked up the basket and bundles, placed them inside her roo_nd closed the door.
Margaret threaded her needle and began to sew. Mrs. Comstock returned to he_ook, while Wesley fidgeted and raged inwardly. He could see that Margaret wa_ervous and almost in tears, but the lines in Mrs. Comstock's impassive fac_ere set and cold. So they sat while the clock ticked off the time—one hour, two, dusk, and no Elnora. Just when Margaret and Wesley were discussin_hether he had not better go to town to meet Elnora, they heard her coming u_he walk. Wesley dropped his tilted chair and squared himself. Margare_ripped her sewing, and turned pleading eyes toward the door. Mrs. Comstoc_losed her book and grimly smiled.
"Mother, please open the door," called Elnora.
Mrs. Comstock arose, and swung back the screen. Elnora stepped in beside her, bent half double, the whole front of her dress gathered into a sort of ba_illed with a heavy load, and one arm stacked high with books. In the di_ight she did not see the Sintons.
"Please hand me the empty bucket in the kitchen, mother," she said. "I jus_ad to bring these arrow points home, but I'm scared for fear I've spoiled m_ress and will have to wash it. I'm to clean them, and take them to the banke_n the morning, and oh, mother, I've sold enough stuff to pay for my books, m_uition, and maybe a dress and some lighter shoes besides. Oh, mother I'm s_appy! Take the books and bring the bucket!"
Then she saw Margaret and Wesley. "Oh, glory!" she exulted. "I was jus_ondering how I'd ever wait to tell you, and here you are! It's too perfectl_plendid to be true!"
"Tell us, Elnora," said Sinton.
"Well sir," said Elnora, doubling down on the floor and spreading out he_kirt, "set the bucket here, mother. These points are brittle, and should b_ut in one at a time. If they are chipped I can't sell them. Well sir! I'v_ad a time! You know I just had to have books. I tried three stores, and the_ouldn't trust me, not even three days, I didn't know what in this world _ould do quickly enough. Just when I was almost frantic I saw a sign in a ban_indow asking for caterpillars, cocoons, butterflies, arrow points, an_verything. I went in, and it was this Bird Woman who wants the insects, an_he banker wants the stones. I had to go to school then, but, if you'l_elieve it"—Elnora beamed on all of them in turn as she talked and slipped th_rrow points from her dress to the pail—"if you'll believe it—but you won't, hardly, until you look at the books—there was the mathematics teacher, waitin_t his door, and he had a set of books for me that he had telephoned _ophomore to bring."
"How did he happen to do that, Elnora?" interrupted Sinton.
"It was a fool mistake I made yesterday in thinking books were just handed ou_o one. There was a teachers' meeting last night and the history teacher tol_bout that. Professor Henley thought of me. You know I told you what he sai_bout my algebra, mother. Ain't I glad I studied out some of it myself thi_ummer! So he telephoned and a girl brought the books. Because they are marke_nd abused some I get the whole outfit for two dollars. I can erase most o_he marks, paste down the covers, and fix them so they look better. But I mus_urry to the joy part. I didn't stop to eat, at noon, I just ran to the Bir_oman's, and I had lunch with her. It was salad, hot chocolate, and lovel_hings, and she wants to buy most every old scrap I ever gathered. She want_ragonflies, moths, butterflies, and he—the banker, I mean—wants everythin_ndian. This very night she came to the swamp with me and took away enoug_tuff to pay for the books and tuition, and to-morrow she is going to buy som_ore."
Elnora laid the last arrow point in the pail and arose, shaking leaves an_its of baked earth from her dress. She reached into her pocket, produced he_oney and waved it before their wondering eyes.
"And that's the joy part!" she exulted. "Put it up in the clock till morning, mother. That pays for the books and tuition and—" Elnora hesitated, for sh_aw the nervous grasp with which her mother's fingers closed on the bills.
Then she continued, but more slowly and thinking before she spoke.
"What I get to-morrow pays for more books and tuition, and maybe a few, just _ew, things to wear. These shoes are so dreadfully heavy and hot, and the_ake such a noise on the floor. There isn't another calico dress in the whol_uilding, not among hundreds of us. Why, what is that? Aunt Margaret, what ar_ou hiding in your lap?"
She snatched the waist and shook it out, and her face was beaming. "Have yo_aken to waists all fancy and buttoned in the back? I bet you this is mine!"
"I bet you so too," said Margaret Sinton. "You undress right away and try i_n, and if it fits, it will be done for morning. There are some low shoes, too!"
Elnora began to dance. "Oh, you dear people!" she cried. "I can pay for the_o-morrow night! Isn't it too splendid! I was just thinking on the way hom_hat I certainly would be compelled to have cooler shoes until later, and _as wondering what I'd do when the fall rains begin."
"I meant to get you some heavy dress skirts and a coat then," said Mrs.
"I know you said so!" cried Elnora. "But you needn't, now! I can buy ever_ingle stitch I need myself. Next summer I can gather up a lot more stuff, an_ll winter on the way to school. I am sure I can sell ferns, I know I ca_uts, and the Bird Woman says the grade rooms want leaves, grasses, birds'
nests, and cocoons. Oh, isn't this world lovely! I'll be helping with the tax, next, mother!"
Elnora waved the waist and started for the bedroom. When she opened the doo_he gave a little cry.
"What have you people been doing?" she demanded. "I never saw so man_nteresting bundles in all my life. I'm 'skeered' to death for fear I can'_ay for them, and will have to give up something."
"Wouldn't you take them, if you could not pay for them, Elnora?" asked he_other instantly.
"Why, not unless you did," answered Elnora. "People have no right to wea_hings they can't afford, have they?"
"But from such old friends as Maggie and Wesley!" Mrs. Comstock's voice wa_ily with triumph.
"From them least of all," cried Elnora stoutly. "From a stranger sooner tha_rom them, to whom I owe so much more than I ever can pay now."
"Well, you don't have to," said Mrs. Comstock. "Maggie just selected thes_hings, because she is more in touch with the world, and has got such goo_aste. You can pay as long as your money holds out, and if there's mor_ecessary, maybe I can sell the butcher a calf, or if things are too costl_or us, of course, they can take them back. Put on the waist now, and then yo_an look over the rest and see if they are suitable, and what you want."
Elnora stepped into the adjoining room and closed the door. Mrs. Comstoc_icked up the bucket and started for the well with it. At the bedroom sh_aused.
"Elnora, were you going to wash these arrow points?"
"Yes. The Bird Woman says they sell better if they are clean, so it can b_een that there are no defects in them."
"Of course," said Mrs. Comstock. "Some of them seem quite baked. Shall I pu_hem to soak? Do you want to take them in the morning?"
"Yes, I do," answered Elnora. "If you would just fill the pail with water."
Mrs. Comstock left the room. Wesley Sinton sat with his back to the window i_he west end of the cabin which overlooked the well. A suppressed sound behin_im caused him to turn quickly. Then he arose and leaned over Margaret.
"She's out there laughing like a blamed monkey!" he whispered indignantly.
"Well, she can't help it!" exclaimed Margaret.
"I'm going home!" said Wesley.
"Oh no, you are not!" retorted Margaret. "You are missing the point. The poin_s not how you look, or feel. It is to get these things in Elnora's possessio_ast dispute. You go now, and to-morrow Elnora will wear calico, and Kat_omstock will return these goods. Right here I stay until everything we bough_s Elnora's."
"What are you going to do?" asked Wesley.
"I don't know yet, myself," said Margaret.
Then she arose and peered from the window. At the well curb stood Katharin_omstock. The strain of the day was finding reaction. Her chin was in the air, she was heaving, shaking and strangling to suppress any sound. The word tha_lipped between Margaret Sinton's lips shocked Wesley until he dropped on hi_hair, and recalled her to her senses. She was fairly composed as she turne_o Elnora, and began the fitting. When she had pinched, pulled, and patted sh_alled, "Come see if you think this fits, Kate."
Mrs. Comstock had gone around to the back door and answered from the kitchen.
"You know more about it than I do. Go ahead! I'm getting supper. Don't forge_o allow for what it will shrink in washing!"
"I set the colours and washed the goods last night; it can be made to fi_ight now," answered Margaret.
When she could find nothing more to alter she told Elnora to heat some water.
After she had done that the girl began opening packages.
The hat came first.
"Mother!" cried Elnora. "Mother, of course, you have seen this, but yo_aven't seen it on me. I must try it on."
"Don't you dare put that on your head until your hair is washed and properl_ombed," said Margaret.
"Oh!" cried Elnora. "Is that water to wash my hair? I thought it was to se_he colour in another dress."
"Well, you thought wrong," said Margaret simply. "Your hair is going to b_ashed and brushed until it shines like copper. While it dries you can ea_our supper, and this dress will be finished. Then you can put on your ne_ibbon, and your hat. You can try your shoes now, and if they don't fit, yo_nd Wesley can drive to town and change them. That little round bundle on th_op of the basket is your stockings."
Margaret sat down and began sewing swiftly, and a little later opened th_achine, and ran several long seams.
Elnora returned in a few minutes holding up her skirts and stepping daintil_n the new shoes.
"They seem just a trifle large, maybe," said Elnora dubiously, and Wesle_nelt to feel. He and Margaret thought them a fit, and then Elnora appealed t_er mother. Mrs. Comstock appeared wiping her hands on her apron. She examine_he shoes critically.
"They seem to fit," she said, "but they are away too fine to walk countr_oads."
"I think so, too," said Elnora instantly. "We had better take these back an_et a cheaper pair."
"Oh, let them go for this time," said Mrs. Comstock. "They are so pretty, _ate to part with them. You can get cheaper ones after this."
Wesley and Margaret scarcely breathed for a long time.
When Wesley went to do the feeding. Elnora set the table. When the water wa_ot, Margaret pinned a big towel around Elnora's shoulders and washed an_ried the lovely hair according to the instructions she had been given th_revious night. As the hair began to dry it billowed out in a sparkling shee_hat caught the light and gleamed and flashed.
"Now, the idea is to let it stand naturally, just as the curl will make it.
Don't you do any of that nasty, untidy snarling, Elnora," cautioned Margaret.
"Wash it this way every two weeks while you are in school, shake it out, an_ry it. Then part it in the middle and turn a front quarter on each side fro_our face. You tie the back at your neck with a string—so, and the ribbon goe_n a big, loose bow. I'll show you." One after another Margaret Sinton tie_he ribbons, creasing each of them so they could not be returned, as sh_xplained that she was trying to find the colour most becoming. Then sh_roduced the raincoat which carried Elnora into transports.
Mrs. Comstock objected. "That won't be warm enough for cold weather, and yo_an't afford it and a coat, too."
"I'll tell you what I thought," said Elnora. "I was planning on the way home.
These coats are fine because they keep you dry. I thought I would get one, an_ warm sweater to wear under it cold days. Then I always would be dry, an_arm. The sweater only costs three dollars, so I could get it and the raincoa_oth for half the price of a heavy cloth coat."
"You are right about that," said Mrs. Comstock. "You can change more with th_eather, too. Keep the raincoat, Elnora."
"Wear it until you try the hat," said Margaret. "It will have to do until th_ress is finished."
Elnora picked up the hat dubiously. "Mother, may I wear my hair as it is now?"
"Let me take a good look," said Katharine Comstock.
Heaven only knows what she saw. To Wesley and to Margaret the bright youn_ace of Elnora, with its pink tints, its heavy dark brows, its bright blue- gray eyes, and its frame of curling reddish-brown hair was the sweetest sigh_n earth, and at that instant Elnora was radiant.
"So long as it's your own hair, and combed back as plain as it will go, _on't suppose it cuts much ice whether it's tied a little tighter or looser,"
conceded Mrs. Comstock. "If you stop right there, you may let it go at that."
Elnora set the hat on her head. It was only a wide tan straw with thre_xquisite peacock quills at one side. Margaret Sinton cried out, Wesle_lapped his knee and sighed deeply while Mrs. Comstock stood speechless for _econd.
"I wish you had asked the price before you put that on," she said impatiently.
"We never can afford it."
"It's not so much as you think," said Margaret. "Don't you see what I did? _ad them take off the quills, and put on some of those Phoebe Simms gave m_rom her peacocks. The hat will only cost you a dollar and a half."
She avoided Wesley's eyes, and looked straight at Mrs. Comstock. Elnor_emoved the hat to examine it.
"Why, they are those reddish-tan quills of yours!" she cried. "Mother, loo_ow beautifully they are set on! I'd much rather have them than those from th_tore."
"So would I," said Mrs. Comstock. "If Margaret wants to spare them, that wil_ake you a beautiful hat; dirt cheap, too! You must go past Mrs. Simms an_how her. She would be pleased to see them."
Elnora sank into a chair and contemplated her toe. "Landy, ain't I a queen?"
she murmured. "What else have I got?"
"Just a belt, some handkerchiefs, and a pair of top shoes for rainy days an_older weather," said Margaret.
"About those high shoes, that was my idea," said Wesley. "Soon as it rains, low shoes won't do, and by taking two pairs at once I could get them som_heaper. The low ones are two and the high ones two fifty, together thre_eventy-five. Ain't that cheap?"
"That's a real bargain," said Mrs. Comstock, "if they are good shoes, and the_ook it."
"This," said Wesley, producing the last package, "is your Christmas presen_rom your Aunt Maggie. I got mine, too, but it's at the house. I'll bring i_p in the morning."
He handed Margaret the umbrella, and she passed it over to Elnora who opene_t and sat laughing under its shelter. Then she kissed both of them. Sh_rought a pencil and a slip of paper to set down the prices they gave her o_verything they had brought except the umbrella, added the sum, and sai_aughingly: "Will you please wait till to-morrow for the money? I will have i_hen, sure."
"Elnora," said Wesley Sinton. "Wouldn't you——"
"Elnora, hustle here a minute!" called Mrs. Comstock from the kitchen. "I nee_ou!"
"One second, mother," answered Elnora, throwing off the coat and hat, an_losing the umbrella as she ran. There were several errands to do in a hurry, and then supper. Elnora chattered incessantly, Wesley and Margaret talked al_hey could, while Mrs. Comstock said a word now and then, which was all sh_ver did. But Wesley Sinton was watching her, and time and again he saw _eculiar little twist around her mouth. He knew that for the first time i_ixteen years she really was laughing over something. She had all she could d_o preserve her usually sober face. Wesley knew what she was thinking.
After supper the dress was finished, the pattern for the next one discussed, and then the Sintons went home. Elnora gathered her treasures. When sh_tarted upstairs she stopped. "May I kiss you good-night, mother?" she aske_ightly.
"Never mind any slobbering," said Mrs. Comstock. "I should think you'd live_ith me long enough to know that I don't care for it."
"Well, I'd love to show you in some way how happy I am, and how I thank you."
"I wonder what for?" said Mrs. Comstock. "Mag Sinton chose that stuff an_rought it here and you pay for it."
"Yes, but you seemed willing for me to have it, and you said you would help m_f I couldn't pay all."
"Maybe I did," said Mrs. Comstock. "Maybe I did. I meant to get you some heav_ress skirts about Thanksgiving, and I still can get them. Go to bed, and fo_ny sake don't begin mooning before a mirror, and make a dunce of yourself."
Mrs. Comstock picked up several papers and blew out the kitchen light. Sh_tood in the middle of the sitting-room floor for a time and then went int_er room and closed the door. Sitting on the edge of the bed she thought for _ew minutes and then suddenly buried her face in the pillow and again heave_ith laughter.
Down the road plodded Margaret and Wesley Sinton. Neither of them had words t_tter their united thought.
"Done!" hissed Wesley at last. "Done brown! Did you ever feel like a bloomin', confounded donkey? How did the woman do it?"
"She didn't do it!" gulped Margaret through her tears. "She didn't d_nything. She trusted to Elnora's great big soul to bring her out right, an_eally she was right, and so it had to bring her. She's a darling, Wesley! Bu_he's got a time before her. Did you see Kate Comstock grab that money? Befor_ix months she'll be out combing the Limberlost for bugs and arrow points t_elp pay the tax. I know her."
"Well, I don't!" exclaimed Sinton, "she's too many for me. But there is _augh left in her yet! I didn't s'pose there was. Bet you a dollar, if w_ould see her this minute, she'd be chuckling over the way we got left."
Both of them stopped in the road and looked back.
"There's Elnora's light in her room," said Margaret. "The poor child will fee_hose clothes, and pore over her books till morning, but she'll look decent t_o to school, anyway. Nothing is too big a price to pay for that."
"Yes, if Kate lets her wear them. Ten to one, she makes her finish the wee_ith that old stuff!"
"No, she won't," said Margaret. "She'll hardly dare. Kate made som_oncessions, all right; big ones for her—if she did get her way in the main.
She bent some, and if Elnora proves that she can walk out barehanded in th_orning and come back with that much money in her pocket, an armful of books, and buy a turnout like that, she proves that she is of some consideration, an_ate's smart enough. She'll think twice before she'll do that. Elnora won'_ear a calico dress to high school again. You watch and see if she does. Sh_ay have the best clothes she'll get for a time, for the least money, but sh_on't know it until she tries to buy goods herself at the same rates. Wesley, what about those prices? Didn't they shrink considerable?"
"You began it," said Wesley. "Those prices were all right. We didn't say wha_he goods cost us, we said what they would cost her. Surely, she's mistake_bout being able to pay all that. Can she pick up stuff of that value aroun_he Limberlost? Didn't the Bird Woman see her trouble, and just give her th_oney?"
"I don't think so," said Margaret. "Seems to me I've heard of her paying, o_ffering to pay those who would take the money, for bugs and butterflies, an_'ve known people who sold that banker Indian stuff. Once I heard that hi_ipe collection beat that of the Government at the Philadelphia Centennial.
Those things have come to have a value."
"Well, there's about a bushel of that kind of valuables piled up in th_oodshed, that belongs to Elnora. At least, I picked them up because she sai_he wanted them. Ain't it queer that she'd take to stones, bugs, an_utterflies, and save them. Now they are going to bring her the very thing sh_ants the worst. Lord, but this is a funny world when you get to studying!
Looks like things didn't all come by accident. Looks as if there was a pla_ack of it, and somebody driving that knows the road, and how to handle th_ines. Anyhow, Elnora's in the wagon, and when I get out in the night and th_ark closes around me, and I see the stars, I don't feel so cheap. Maggie, ho_he nation did Kate Comstock do that?"
"You will keep on harping, Wesley. I told you she didn't do it. Elnora did it!
She walked in and took things right out of our hands. All Kate had to do wa_o enjoy having it go her way, and she was cute enough to put in a fe_uestions that sort of guided Elnora. But I don't know, Wesley. This thin_akes me think, too. S'pose we'd taken Elnora when she was a baby, and we'_eaped on her all the love we can't on our own, and we'd coddled, petted, an_hielded her, would she have made the woman that living alone, learning t_hink for herself, and taking all the knocks Kate Comstock could give, hav_ade of her?"
"You bet your life!" cried Wesley, warmly. "Loving anybody don't hurt them. W_ouldn't have done anything but love her. You can't hurt a child loving it.
She'd have learned to work, to study, and grown into a woman with us, withou_uffering like a poor homeless dog."
"But you don't see the point, Wesley. She would have grown into a fine woma_ith us; but as we would have raised her, would her heart ever have known th_orld as it does now? Where's the anguish, Wesley, that child can'_omprehend? Seeing what she's seen of her mother hasn't hardened her. She ca_nderstand any mother's sorrow. Living life from the rough side has onl_roadened her. Where's the girl or boy burning with shame, or struggling t_ind a way, that will cross Elnora's path and not get a lift from her? She'_ad the knocks, but there'll never be any of the thing you call 'false pride'
in her. I guess we better keep out. Maybe Kate Comstock knows what she'_oing. Sure as you live, Elnora has grown bigger on knocks than she would o_ove."
"I don't s'pose there ever was a very fine point to anything but I missed it,"
said Wesley, "because I am blunt, rough, and have no book learning to spea_f. Since you put it into words I see what you mean, but it's dinged hard o_lnora, just the same. And I don't keep out. I keep watching closer than ever.
I got my slap in the face, but if I don't miss my guess, Kate Comstock learne_er lesson, same as I did. She learned that I was in earnest, that I woul_aul her to court if she didn't loosen up a bit, and she'll loosen. You see i_he doesn't. It may come hard, and the hinges creak, but she'll fix Elnor_ecent after this, if Elnora doesn't prove that she can fix herself. As fo_e, I found out that what I was doing was as much for myself as for Elnora. _anted her to take those things from us, and love us for giving them. I_idn't work, and but for you, I'd messed the whole thing and stuck like a pi_n crossing a bridge. But you helped me out; Elnora's got the clothes, and b_orning, maybe I won't grudge Kate the only laugh she's had in sixteen years.
You been showing me the way quite a spell now, ain't you, Maggie?"
In her attic Elnora lighted two candles, set them on her little table, stacke_he books, and put away the precious clothes. How lovingly she hung the ha_nd umbrella, folded the raincoat, and spread the new dress over a chair. Sh_ingered the ribbons, and tried to smooth the creases from them. She put awa_he hose neatly folded, touched the handkerchiefs, and tried the belt. The_he slipped into her white nightdress, shook down her hair that it migh_ecome thoroughly dry, set a chair before the table, and reverently opened on_f the books. A stiff draught swept the attic, for it stretched the length o_he cabin, and had a window in each end. Elnora arose and going to the eas_indow closed it. She stood for a minute looking at the stars, the sky, an_he dark outline of the straggling trees of the rapidly dismantlin_imberlost. In the region of her case a tiny point of light flashed an_isappeared. Elnora straightened and wondered. Was it wise to leave he_recious money there? The light flashed once more, wavered a few seconds, an_ied out. The girl waited. She did not see it again, so she turned to he_ooks.
In the Limberlost the hulking figure of a man sneaked down the trail.
"The Bird Woman was at Freckles's room this evening," he muttered. "Wonde_hat for?"
He left the trail, entered the enclosure still distinctly outlined, an_pproached the case. The first point of light flashed from the tiny electri_amp on his vest. He took a duplicate key from his pocket, felt for th_adlock and opened it. The door swung wide. The light flashed the second time.
Swiftly his glance swept the interior.
"'Bout a fourth of her moths gone. Elnora must have been with the Bird Woma_nd given them to her." Then he stood tense. His keen eyes discovered the rol_f bills hastily thrust back in the bottom of the case. He snatched them up, shut off the light, relocked the case by touch, and swiftly went down th_rail. Every few seconds he paused and listened intently. Just as he reache_he road, a second figure approached him.
"Is it you, Pete?" came the whispered question.
"Yes," said the first man.
"I was coming down to take a peep, when I saw your flash," he said. "I hear_he Bird Woman had been at the case to-day. Anything doing?"
"Not a thing," said Pete. "She just took away about a fourth of the moths.
Probably had the Comstock girl getting them for her. Heard they were together.
Likely she'll get the rest to-morrow. Ain't picking gettin' bare these days?"
"Well, I should say so," said the second man, turning back in disgust. "Comin_ome, now?"
"No, I am going down this way," answered Pete, for his eyes caught the glea_rom the window of the Comstock cabin, and he had a desire to learn wh_lnora's attic was lighted at that hour.
He slouched down the road, occasionally feeling the size of the roll he ha_ot taken time to count.
The attic was too long, the light too near the other end, and the cabin stoo_uch too far back from the road. He could see nothing although he climbed th_ence and walked back opposite the window. He knew Mrs. Comstock was probabl_wake, and that she sometimes went to the swamp behind her home at night. A_imes a cry went up from that locality that paralyzed any one near, or sen_hem fleeing as if for life. He did not care to cross behind the cabin. H_eturned to the road, passed, and again climbed the fence. Opposite the wes_indow he could see Elnora. She sat before a small table reading from a boo_etween two candles. Her hair fell in a bright sheen around her, and with on_and she lightly shook, and tossed it as she studied. The man stood out in th_ight and watched.
For a long time a leaf turned at intervals and the hair-drying went on. Th_an drew nearer. The picture grew more beautiful as he approached. He coul_ot see so well as he desired, for the screen was of white mosquito netting, and it angered him. He cautiously crept closer. The elevation shut off hi_iew. Then he remembered the large willow tree shading the well and branchin_cross the window fit the west end of the cabin. From childhood Elnora ha_tepped from the sill to a limb and slid down the slanting trunk of the tree.
He reached it and noiselessly swung himself up. Three steps out on the bi_imb the man shuddered. He was within a few feet of the girl.
He could see the throb of her breast under its thin covering and smell th_ragrance of the tossing hair. He could see the narrow bed with its piece_alico cover, the whitewashed walls with gay lithographs, and every crevic_tuck full of twigs with dangling cocoons. There were pegs for the fe_lothes, the old chest, the little table, the two chairs, the uneven floo_overed with rag rugs and braided corn husk. But nothing was worth a glanc_xcept the perfect face and form within reach by one spring through the rotte_osquito bar. He gripped the limb above that on which he stood, licked hi_ips, and breathed through his throat to be sure he was making no sound.
Elnora closed the book and laid it aside. She picked up a towel, and turnin_he gathered ends of her hair rubbed them across it, and dropping the towel o_er lap, tossed the hair again. Then she sat in deep thought. By and by word_egan to come softly. Near as he was the man could not hear at first. He ben_loser and listened intently.
"—ever could be so happy," murmured the soft voice. "The dress is so pretty, such shoes, the coat, and everything. I won't have to be ashamed again, no_ver again, for the Limberlost is full of precious moths, and I always ca_ollect them. The Bird Woman will buy more to-morrow, and the next day, an_he next. When they are all gone, I can spend every minute gathering cocoons, and hunting other things I can sell. Oh, thank God, for my precious, preciou_oney. Why, I didn't pray in vain after all! I thought when I asked the Lor_o hide me, there in that big hall, that He wasn't doing it, because I wasn'_overed from sight that instant. But I'm hidden now, I feel that." Elnor_ifted her eyes to the beams above her. "I don't know much about prayin_roperly," she muttered, "but I do thank you, Lord, for hiding me in your ow_ime and way."
Her face was so bright that it shone with a white radiance. Two big tear_elled from her eyes, and rolled down her smiling cheeks. "Oh, I do feel tha_ou have hidden me," she breathed. Then she blew out the lights, and th_ittle wooden bed creaked under her weight.
Pete Corson dropped from the limb and found his way to the road. He stoo_till a long time, then started back to the Limberlost. A tiny point of ligh_lashed in the region of the case. He stopped with an oath.
"Another hound trying to steal from a girl," he exclaimed. "But it's likely h_hinks if he gets anything it will be from a woman who can afford it, as _id."
He went on, but beside the fences, and very cautiously.
"Swamp seems to be alive to-night," he muttered. "That's three of us out."
He entered a deep place at the northwest corner, sat on the ground and takin_ pencil from his pocket, he tore a leaf from a little notebook, an_aboriously wrote a few lines by the light he carried. Then he went back t_he region of the case and waited. Before his eyes swept the vision of th_lender white creature with tossing hair. He smiled, and worshipped it, unti_ distant rooster faintly announced dawn.
Then he unlocked the case again, and replaced the money, laid the note upo_t, and went back to concealment, where he remained until Elnora came down th_rail in the morning, appearing very lovely in her new dress and hat.