Norman Douglas came to church the first Sunday in November and made all th_ensation he desired. Mr. Meredith shook hands with him absently on the churc_teps and hoped dreamily that Mrs. Douglas was well.
"She wasn't very well just before I buried her ten years ago, but I recko_he has better health now," boomed Norman, to the horror and amusement o_very one except Mr. Meredith, who was absorbed in wondering if he had mad_he last head of his sermon as clear as he might have, and hadn't the leas_dea what Norman had said to him or he to Norman.
Norman intercepted Faith at the gate.
"Kept my word, you see—kept my word, Red Rose. I'm free now till the firs_unday in December. Fine sermon, girl—fine sermon. Your father has more in hi_ead than he carries on his face. But he contradicted himself once—tell him h_ontradicted himself. And tell him I want that brimstone sermon in December.
Great way to wind up the old year—with a taste of hell, you know. And what'_he matter with a nice tasty discourse on heaven for New Year's? Though i_ouldn't be half as interesting as hell, girl—not half. Only I'd like to kno_hat your father thinks about heaven—he CAN think—rarest thing in the world—_erson who can think. But he DID contradict himself. Ha, ha! Here's a questio_ou might ask him sometime when he's awake, girl. 'Can God make a stone so bi_e couldn't lift it Himself?' Don't forget now. I want to hear his opinion o_t. I've stumped many a minister with that, girl."
Faith was glad to escape him and run home. Dan Reese, standing among th_rowd of boys at the gate, looked at her and shaped his mouth into "pig-girl," but dared not utter i_loud just there. Next day in school was a different matter. At noon reces_aith encountered Dan in the little spruce plantation behind the school an_an shouted once more, "Pig-girl! Pig-girl! ROOSTER-GIRL!"
Walter Blythe suddenly rose from a mossy cushion behind a little clump o_irs where he had been reading. He was very pale, but his eyes blazed.
"You hold your tongue, Dan Reese!" he said.
"Oh, hello, Miss Walter," retorted Dan, not at all abashed. He vaulte_irily to the top of the rail fence and chanted insultingly, "Cowardy, cowardy-custard Stole a pot of mustard, Cowardy, cowardy- custard!"
"You are a coincidence!" said Walter scornfully, turning still whiter. H_ad only a very hazy idea what a coincidence was, but Dan had none at all an_hought it must be something peculiarly opprobrious.
"Yah! Cowardy!" he yelled gain. "Your mother writes lies—lies— lies! An_aith Meredith is a pig-girl—a—pig-girl—a pig-girl! And she's a rooster-girl—_ooster-girl—a rooster-girl! Yah! Cowardy—cowardy—cust—"
Dan got no further. Walter had hurled himself across the intervening spac_nd knocked Dan off the fence backward with one well-directed blow. Dan'_udden inglorious sprawl was greeted with a burst of laughter and a clappin_f hands from Faith. Dan sprang up, purple with rage, and began to climb th_ence. But just then the school-bell rang and Dan knew what happened to boy_ho were late during Mr. Hazard's regime.
"We'll fight this out," he howled. "Cowardy!"
"Any time you like," said Walter.
"Oh, no, no, Walter," protested Faith. "Don't fight him. I don't mind wha_e says—I wouldn't condescend to mind the like of HIM."
"He insulted you and he insulted my mother," said Walter, with the sam_eadly calm. "Tonight after school, Dan."
"I've got to go right home from school to pick taters after the harrows, dad says," answered Dan sulkily. "But to-morrow night'll do."
"All right—here to-morrow night," agreed Walter.
"And I'll smash your sissy-face for you," promised Dan.
Walter shuddered—not so much from fear of the threat as from repulsion ove_he ugliness and vulgarity of it. But he held his head high and marched int_chool. Faith followed in a conflict of emotions. She hated to think of Walte_ighting that little sneak, but oh, he had been splendid! And he was going t_ight for HER—Faith Meredith—to punish her insulter! Of course he woul_in—such eyes spelled victory.
Faith's confidence in her champion had dimmed a little by evening, however.
Walter had seemed so very quiet and dull the rest of the day in school.
"If it were only Jem," she sighed to Una, as they sat on Hezekiah Pollock'_ombstone in the graveyard. "HE is such a fighter—he could finish Dan off i_o time. But Walter doesn't know much about fighting."
"I'm so afraid he'll be hurt," sighed Una, who hated fighting and couldn'_nderstand the subtle, secret exultation she divined in Faith.
"He oughtn't to be," said Faith uncomfortably. "He's every bit as big a_an."
"But Dan's so much older," said Una. "Why, he's nearly a year older."
"Dan hasn't done much fighting when you come to count up," said Faith. "_elieve he's really a coward. He didn't think Walter would fight, or h_ouldn't have called names before him. Oh, if you could just have see_alter's face when he looked at him, Una! It made me shiver—with a nic_hiver. He looked just like Sir Galahad in that poem father read us o_aturday."
"I hate the thought of them fighting and I wish it could be stopped," sai_na.
"Oh, it's got to go on now," cried Faith. "It's a matter of honour. Don'_ou DARE tell anyone, Una. If you do I'll never tell you secrets again!"
"I won't tell," agreed Una. "But I won't stay to-morrow to watch the fight.
I'm coming right home."
"Oh, all right. I have to be there—it would be mean not to, when Walter i_ighting for me. I'm going to tie my colours on his arm—that's the thing to d_hen he's my knight. How lucky Mrs. Blythe gave me that pretty blue hair- ribbon for my birthday! I've only worn it twice so it will be almost new. Bu_ wish I was sure Walter would win. It will be so—so HUMILIATING if h_oesn't."
Faith would have been yet more dubious if she could have seen her champio_ust then. Walter had gone home from school with all his righteous anger at _ow ebb and a very nasty feeling in its place. He had to fight Dan Reese th_ext night—and he didn't want to—he hated the thought of it. And he kep_hinking of it all the time. Not for a minute could he get away from th_hought. Would it hurt much? He was terribly afraid that it would hurt. An_ould he be defeated and shamed?
He could not eat any supper worth speaking of. Susan had made a big batc_f his favourite monkey-faces, but he could choke only one down. Jem ate four.
Walter wondered how he could. How could ANYBODY eat? And how could they al_alk gaily as they were doing? There was mother, with her shining eyes an_ink cheeks. SHE didn't know her son had to fight next day. Would she be s_ay if she knew, Walter wondered darkly. Jem had taken Susan's picture wit_is new camera and the result was passed around the table and Susan wa_erribly indignant over it.
"I am no beauty, Mrs. Dr. dear, and well I know it, and have always know_t," she said in an aggrieved tone, "but that I am as ugly as that pictur_akes me out I will never, no, never believe."
Jem laughed over this and Anne laughed again with him. Walter couldn'_ndure it. He got up and fled to his room.
"That child has got something on his mind, Mrs. Dr. dear," said Susan. "H_as et next to nothing. Do you suppose he is plotting another poem?"
Poor Walter was very far removed in spirit from the starry realms of poes_ust then. He propped his elbow on his open window-sill and leaned his hea_rearily on his hands.
"Come on down to the shore, Walter," cried Jem, busting in. "The boys ar_oing to burn the sand-hill grass to-night. Father says we can go. Come on."
At any other time Walter would have been delighted. He gloried in th_urning of the sand-hill grass. But now he flatly refused to go, and n_rguments or entreaties could move him. Disappointed Jem, who did not care fo_he long dark walk to Four Winds Point alone, retreated to his museum in th_arret and buried himself in a book. He soon forgot his disappointment, revelling with the heroes of old romance, and pausing occasionally to pictur_imself a famous general, leading his troops to victory on some grea_attlefield.
Walter sat at his window until bedtime. Di crept in, hoping to be told wha_as wrong, but Walter could not talk of it, even to Di. Talking of it seeme_o give it a reality from which he shrank. It was torture enough to think o_t. The crisp, withered leaves rustled on the maple trees outside his window.
The glow of rose and flame had died out of the hollow, silvery sky, and th_ull moon was rising gloriously over Rainbow Valley. Afar off, a rudd_oodfire was painting a page of glory on the horizon beyond the hills. It wa_ sharp, clear evening when far-away sounds were heard distinctly. A fox wa_arking across the pond; an engine was puffing down at the Glen station; _lue-jay was screaming madly in the maple grove; there was laughter over o_he manse lawn. How could people laugh? How could foxes and blue-jays an_ngines behave as if nothing were going to happen on the morrow?
"Oh, I wish it was over," groaned Walter.
He slept very little that night and had hard work choking down his porridg_n the morning. Susan WAS rather lavish in her platefuls. Mr. Hazard found hi_n unsatisfactory pupil that day. Faith Meredith's wits seemed to be wool- gathering, too. Dan Reese kept drawing surreptitious pictures of girls, wit_ig or rooster heads, on his slate and holding them up for all to see. Th_ews of the coming battle had leaked out and most of the boys and many of th_irls were in the spruce plantation when Dan and Walter sought it afte_chool. Una had gone home, but Faith was there, having tied her blue ribbo_round Walter's arm. Walter was thankful that neither Jem nor Di nor Nan wer_mong the crowd of spectators. Somehow they had not heard of what was in th_ind and had gone home, too. Walter faced Dan quite undauntedly now. At th_ast moment all his fear had vanished, but he still felt disgust at the ide_f fighting. Dan, it was noted, was really paler under his freckles tha_alter was. One of the older boys gave the word and Dan struck Walter in th_ace.
Walter reeled a little. The pain of the blow tingled through all hi_ensitive frame for a moment. Then he felt pain no longer. Something, such a_e had never experienced before, seemed to roll over him like a flood. Hi_ace flushed crimson, his eyes burned like flame. The scholars of Glen St.
Mary school had never dreamed that "Miss Walter" could look like that. H_urled himself forward and closed with Dan like a young wildcat.
There were no particular rules in the fights of the Glen school boys. I_as catch-as-catch can, and get your blows in anyhow. Walter fought with _avage fury and a joy in the struggle against which Dan could not hold hi_round. It was all over very speedily. Walter had no clear consciousness o_hat he was doing until suddenly the red mist cleared from his sight and h_ound himself kneeling on the body of the prostrate Dan whose nose—oh, horror!—was spouting blood.
"Have you had enough?" demanded Walter through his clenched teeth.
Dan sulkily admitted that he had.
"My mother doesn't write lies?"
"Faith Meredith isn't a pig-girl?"
"Nor a rooster-girl?"
"And I'm not a coward?"
Walter had intended to ask, "And you are a liar?" but pity intervened an_e did not humiliate Dan further. Besides, that blood was so horrible.
"You can go, then," he said contemptuously.
There was a loud clapping from the boys who were perched on the rail fence, but some of the girls were crying. They were frightened. They had see_choolboy fights before, but nothing like Walter as he had grappled with Dan.
There had been something terrifying about him. They thought he would kill Dan.
Now that all was over they sobbed hysterically—except Faith, who still stoo_ense and crimson cheeked.
Walter did not stay for any conqueror's meed. He sprang over the fence an_ushed down the spruce hill to Rainbow Valley. He felt none of the victor'_oy, but he felt a certain calm satisfaction in duty done and honou_venged—mingled with a sickish qualm when he thought of Dan's gory nose. I_ad been so ugly, and Walter hated ugliness.
Also, he began to realize that he himself was somewhat sore and battere_p. His lip was cut and swollen and one eye felt very strange. In Rainbo_alley he encountered Mr. Meredith, who was coming home from an afternoon cal_n the Miss Wests. That reverend gentleman looked gravely at him.
"It seems to me that you have been fighting, Walter?"
"Yes, sir," said Walter, expecting a scolding.
"What was it about?"
"Dan Reese said my mother wrote lies and that that Faith was a pig-girl,"
answered Walter bluntly.
"Oh—h! Then you were certainly justified, Walter."
"Do you think it's right to fight, sir?" asked Walter curiously.
"Not always—and not often—but sometimes—yes, sometimes," said Joh_eredith. "When womenkind are insulted for instance—as in your case. My motto, Walter, is, don't fight till you're sure you ought to, and THEN put ever_unce of you into it. In spite of sundry discolorations I infer that you cam_ff best."
"Yes. I made him take it all back."
"Very good—very good, indeed. I didn't think you were such a fighter, Walter."
"I never fought before—and I didn't want to right up to the last—and then,"
said Walter, determined to make a clean breast of it, "I liked it while I wa_t it."
The Rev. John's eyes twinkled.
"You were—a little frightened—at first?"
"I was a whole lot frightened," said honest Walter. "But I'm not going t_e frightened any more, sir. Being frightened of things is worse than th_hings themselves. I'm going to ask father to take me over to Lowbridge to- morrow to get my tooth out."
"Right again. 'Fear is more pain than is the pain it fears.' Do you kno_ho wrote that, Walter? It was Shakespeare. Was there any feeling or emotio_r experience of the human heart that that wonderful man did not know? Whe_ou go home tell your mother I am proud of you."
Walter did not tell her that, however; but he told her all the rest, an_he sympathized with him and told him she was glad he had stood up for her an_aith, and she anointed his sore spots and rubbed cologne on his aching head.
"Are all mothers as nice as you?" asked Walter, hugging her. "You're WORT_tanding up for."
Miss Cornelia and Susan were in the living room when Anne came downstairs, and listened to the story with much enjoyment. Susan in particular was highl_ratified.
"I am real glad to hear he has had a good fight, Mrs. Dr. dear. Perhaps i_ay knock that poetry nonsense out of him. And I never, no, never could bea_hat little viper of a Dan Reese. Will you not sit nearer to the fire, Mrs.
Marshall Elliott? These November evenings are very chilly."
"Thank you, Susan, I'm not cold. I called at the manse before I came her_nd got quite warm—though I had to go to the kitchen to do it, for there wa_o fire anywhere else. The kitchen looked as if it had been stirred up with _tick, believe ME. Mr. Meredith wasn't home. I couldn't find out where he was, but I have an idea that he was up at the Wests'. Do you know, Anne dearie, they say he has been going there frequently all the fall and people ar_eginning to think he is going to see Rosemary."
"He would get a very charming wife if he married Rosemary," said Anne, piling driftwood on the fire. "She is one of the most delightful girls I'v_ver known—truly one of the race of Joseph."
"Ye—s—only she is an Episcopalian," said Miss Cornelia doubtfully. "O_ourse, that is better than if she was a Methodist—but I do think Mr. Meredit_ould find a good enough wife in his own denomination. However, very likel_here is nothing in it. It's only a month ago that I said to him, 'You ough_o marry again, Mr. Meredith.' He looked as shocked as if I had suggeste_omething improper. 'My wife is in her grave, Mrs. Elliott,' he said, in tha_entle, saintly way of his. 'I suppose so,' I said, 'or I wouldn't be advisin_ou to marry again.' Then he looked more shocked than ever. So I doubt i_here is much in this Rosemary story. If a single minister calls twice at _ouse where there is a single woman all the gossips have it he is courtin_er."
"It seems to me—if I may presume to say so—that Mr. Meredith is too shy t_o courting a second wife," said Susan solemnly.
"He ISN'T shy, believe ME," retorted Miss Cornelia. "Absent-minded,—yes—bu_hy, no. And for all he is so abstracted and dreamy he has a very good opinio_f himself, man-like, and when he is really awake he wouldn't think it much o_ chore to ask any woman to have him. No, the trouble is, he's deludin_imself into believing that his heart is buried, while all the time it'_eating away inside of him just like anybody else's. He may have a notion o_osemary West and he may not. If he has, we must make the best of it. She is _weet girl and a fine housekeeper, and would make a good mother for thos_oor, neglected children. And," concluded Miss Cornelia resignedly, "my ow_randmother was an Episcopalian."