Aunt Jane's Nieces at Millville/Chapter 24
PEGGY HAS REVENGE.
Joe Wegg made a rapid recovery, his strength returning under the influence of pleasant surroundings and frequent visits from Ethel and Uncle John's three nieces. Not a word was hinted to either the invalid or the school teacher regarding the inquiries Mr. Merrick was making about the deed to the Bogue timber lands, which, if found, would make the young couple independent. Joe was planning to exploit a new patent as soon as he could earn enough to get it introduced, and Ethel exhibited a sublime confidence in the boy's ability that rendered all question of money insignificant.
Joe's sudden appearance in the land of his birth and his generally smashed up condition were a nine days' wonder in Millville. The gossips wanted to know all the whys and wherefores, but the boy kept his room in the hotel, or only walked out when accompanied by Ethel or one of the three nieces. Sometimes they took him to ride, as he grew better, and the fact that Joe "were hand an' glove wi' the nabobs" lent him a distinction he had never before possessed.
McNutt, always busy over somebody else's affairs, was very curious to know what had caused the accident Joe had suffered. Notwithstanding the little affair of the letter, in which he had not appeared with especial credit, Peggy made an effort to interview the young man that resulted in his complete discomfiture. But that did not deter him from indulging in various vivid speculations about Joe Wegg, which the simple villagers listened to with attention. For one thing, he confided to "the boys" at the store that, in his opinion, the man who had murdered Cap'n Wegg had tried to murder his son also, and it wasn't likely Joe could manage to escape him a second time. Another tale evolved from Peggy's fertile imagination was that Joe, being about to starve to death in the city, had turned burglar and been shot in the arm in an attempt at housebreaking.
"Wouldn't be s'prised," said the agent, in an awed voice, "ef the p'lice was on his track now. P'raps there's a reward offered, boys; let's keep an eye on him!"
He waylaid the nieces once or twice, and tried to secure from them a verification of his somber suspicions, which they mischievously fostered.
The girls found him a source of much amusement, and relieved their own disappointment at finding the "Wegg Mystery" a pricked bubble by getting McNutt excited over many sly suggestions of hidden crimes. They knew he was harmless, for even his neighbors needed proof of any assertion he made; moreover, the investigation Uncle John was making would soon set matters right; so the young ladies did not hesitate to "have fun" at the little agent's expense.
One of McNutt's numerous occupations was raising a "patch" of watermelons each year on the lot back of the house. These he had fostered with great care since the plants had first sprouted through the soil, and in these late August days two or three hundreds of fine, big melons were just getting ripe. He showed the patch with much pride one day to the nieces, saying:
"Here's the most extry-fine melling-patch in this county, ef I do say it myself. Dan Brayley he thinks he kin raise mellings, but the ol' fool ain't got a circumstance to this. Ain't they beauties?"
"It seems to me," observed Patsy, gravely, "that Brayley's are just as good. We passed his place this morning and wondered how he could raise such enormous melons."
"I'm sure they are finer than these," said Beth.
"Well, I'll be jiggered!" Peggy's eyes stared as they had never stared before. "Dan Brayley, he's a miser'ble ol' skinflint. Thet man couldn't raise decent mellings ef he tried."
"What do you charge for melons, Mr. McNutt?" inquired Louise.
"Charge? Why—er—fifty cents a piece is my price to nabobs; an' dirt cheap at that!"
"That is too much," declared Patsy. "Mr. Brayley says he will sell his melons for fifteen cents each."
"Him! Fifteen cents!" gasped Peggy, greatly disappointed. "Say, Brayley's a disturbin' element in these parts. He oughter go to jail fer asking fifteen cents fer them mean little mellings o' his'n."
"They seem as large as yours," murmured Louise.
"But they ain't. An' Brayley's a cheat an' a rascal, while a honester man ner me don't breathe. Nobody likes Brayley 'round Millville. Why, on'y las' winter he called me a meddler—in public!—an' said as I shot off my mouth too much. Me!"
"But that's Dan Brayley. My mellings at fifty cents is better 'n his'n at fifteen."
"Tell me," said Patsy, with a smile, "did you ever rob a melon-patch, Mr. McNutt?"
"Me? I don't hev to. I grow 'em."
"But the ones you grow are worth fifty cents each, are they not?"
"Sure; mine is."
"Then every time you eat one of your own melons you eat fifty cents. If you were eating one of Mr. Brayley's melons you would only eat fifteen cents."
"And it would be Brayley's fifteen cents, too," added Beth, quickly.
Peggy turned his protruding eyes from one to the other, and a smile slowly spread over his features.
"By jinks, let's rob Brayley's melling-patch!" he cried.
"All right; we'll help you," answered Patsy, readily.
"Oh, my dear!" remonstrated Louise, not understanding.
"It will be such fun," replied her cousin, with eyes dancing merrily. "Boys always rob melon-patches, so I don't see why girls shouldn't. When shall we do it, Mr. McNutt?"
"There ain't any moon jest now, an' the nights is dark as blazes. Let's go ternight."
"It's a bargain," declared Patsy. "We will come for you in the surrey at ten o'clock, and all drive together to the back of Brayley's yard and take all the melons we want."
"It'll serve him right," said Peggy, delightedly. "Ol' Dan called me a meddler onc't—in public—an' I'm bound t' git even with him."
"Don't betray us, sir," pleaded Beth.
"I can't," replied McNutt, frankly; "I'm in it myself, an' we'll jest find out what his blame-twisted ol' fifteen-cent mellings is like."
Patsy was overjoyed at the success of her plot, which she had conceived on the spur of the moment, as most clever plots are conceived. On the way home she confided to her cousins a method of securing revenge upon the agent for selling them the three copies of the "Lives of the Saints."
"McNutt wants to get even with Brayley, he says, and we want to get even with McNutt. I think our chances are best, don't you?" she asked.
And they decided to join the conspiracy.
There was some difficulty escaping from Uncle John and the Major that night, but Patsy got them interested in a game of chess that was likely to last some hours, while Beth stole to the barn and harnessed Joe to the surrey. Soon the others slipped out and joined her, and with Patsy and Beth on the front seat and Louise inside the canopy they drove slowly away until the sound of the horse's feet on the stones was no longer likely to betray them.
McNutt was waiting for them when they quietly drew up before his house. The village was dark and silent, for its inhabitants retired early to bed. By good fortune the sky was overcast with heavy clouds and not even the glimmer of a star relieved the gloom.
They put McNutt on the back seat with Louise, cautioned him to be quiet, and then drove away. Dan Brayley's place was two miles distant, but in answer to Peggy's earnest inquiry if she knew the way Beth declared she could find it blind-folded. In a few moments Louise had engaged the agent in a spirited discussion of the absorbing "mystery" and so occupied his attention that he paid no heed to the direction they had taken. The back seat was hemmed in by side curtains and the canopy, so it would be no wonder if he lost all sense of direction, even had not the remarks of the girl at his side completely absorbed him.
Beth drove slowly down the main street, up a lane, back by the lake road and along the street again; and this programme was repeated several times, until she thought a sufficient distance had been covered to convince the agent they had arrived at Brayley's. They way was pitch dark, but the horse was sensible enough to keep in the middle of the road, so they met with no accident more than to jolt over a stone now and then.
But now the most difficult part of the enterprise lay before them. The girls turned down the lane back of the main street and bumped over the ruts until they thought they had arrived at a spot opposite McNutt's own melon patch.
"What's wrong?" asked the agent, as they suddenly stopped with a jerk.
"This ought to be Brayley's," said Beth; "but it's so dark I'm not certain just where we are."
McNutt thrust his head out and peered into the blackness.
"Drive along a little," he whispered.
The girl obeyed.
"Stop—stop!" said he, a moment later. "I think that's them contwisted fifteen-cent mellings—over there!"
They all got out and Beth tied the horse to the fence. Peggy climbed over and at once whispered:
"Come on! It's them, all right."
Through the drifting clouds there was just enough light to enable them to perceive the dark forms of the melons lying side by side upon their vines. The agent took out his big clasp knife and recklessly slashed one of them open.
"Green's grass!" he grumbled, and slashed another.
Patsy giggled, and the others felt a sudden irresistible impulse to join her.
"Keep still!" cautioned McNutt. "Wouldn't ol' Dan be jest ravin' ef he knew this? Say—here's a ripe one. Hev a slice."
They all felt for the slices he offered and ate the fruit without being able to see it. But it really tasted delicious.
As the girls feasted they heard a crunching sound and inquired in low voices what it was.
McNutt was stumping over the patch and plumping his wooden foot into every melon he could find, smashing them wantonly against the ground. The discovery filled them with horror. They had thought inducing the agent to rob his own patch of a few melons, while under the delusion that they belonged to his enemy Brayley, a bit of harmless fun; but here was the vindictive fellow actually destroying his own property by the wholesale.
"Oh, don't! Please don't, Mr. McNutt!" pleaded Patsy, in frightened accents.
"Yes, I will," declared the agent, stubbornly. "I'll git even with Dan Brayley fer once in my life, ef I never do another thing, by gum!"
"But it's wrong—it's wicked!" protested Beth.
"Can't help it; this is my chance, an' I'll make them bum fifteen-cent mellings look like a penny a piece afore I gits done with 'em."
"Never mind, girls," whispered Louise. "It's the law of retribution. Poor Peggy will be sorry for this tomorrow."
The man had not the faintest suspicion where he was. He knew his own melon patch well enough, having worked in it at times all the summer; but he had never climbed over the fence and approached it from the rear before, so it took on a new aspect to him from this point of view, and moreover the night was dark enough to deceive anybody.
If he came across an especially big melon McNutt would lug it to the carriage and dump it in. And so angry and energetic was the little man that in a brief space the melon patch was a scene of awful devastation, and the surrey contained all the fruit that survived the massacre.
Beth unhitched the horse and they all took their places in the carriage again, having some difficulty to find places for their feet on account of the cargo of melons. McNutt was stowed away inside, with Louise, and they drove away up the lane. The agent was jubilant and triumphant, and chuckled in gleeful tones that thrilled the girls with remorse as they remembered the annihilation of McNutt's cherished melons.
"Ol' Dan usu'lly has a dorg," said Peggy, between his fits of laughter; "but I guess he had him chained up ternight."
"I'm not positively sure that was Brayley's place," remarked Beth; "it's so very dark."
"Oh, it were Brayley's, all right," McNutt retorted. "I could tell by the second-class taste o' them mellings, an' their measley little size. Them things ain't a circumstance to the kind I raise."
"Are you sure?" asked Louise.
"Sure's shootln'. Guess I'm a jedge o' mellings, when I sees 'em."
"No one could see tonight," said Beth.
"Feelin's jest the same," declared the little man, confidently.
After wandering around a sufficient length of time to allay suspicion, Beth finally drew up before McNutt's house again.
"I'll jest take my share o' them mellings," said Peggy, as he alighted. "They ain't much 'count, bein' Brayley's; but it'll save me an' the ol' woman from eatin' our own, or perhaps I kin sell 'em to Sam Cotting."
He took rather more than his share of the spoils, but the girls had no voice to object. They were by this time so convulsed with suppressed merriment that they had hard work not to shriek aloud their laughter. For, in spite of the tragic revelations the morrow would bring forth, the situation was so undeniably ridiculous that they could not resist its humor.
"I've had a heap o' fun," whispered McNutt. "Good night, gals. Ef ye didn't belong to thet gum-twisted nabob, ye'd be some pun'kins."
"Thank you, Mr. McNutt. Good night."
And it was not until well on their journey to the farm that the girls finally dared to abandon further restraint. Then, indeed, they made the grim, black hills of the plateau resound to the peals of their merry laughter.