Aunt Jane's Nieces at Millville/Chapter 3
MILLVILLE HEARS EXCITING NEWS.
Millville is rather difficult to locate on the map, for the railroads found it impossible to run a line there, Chazy Junction, the nearest station, is several miles away, and the wagon road ascends the foothills every step of the distance. Finally you pass between Mount Parnassus (whoever named it that?) and Little Bill Hill and find yourself on an almost level plateau some four miles in diameter, with a placid lake in the center and a fringe of tall pines around the edge. At the South, where tower the northern sentries of the Adirondacks, a stream called Little Bill Creek comes splashing and dashing over the rocks to force its way noisily into the lake. When it emerges again it is humble and sedate, and flows smoothly to Hooker's Falls, from whence it soon joins a tributary that leads it to far away Champlain.
Millville is built where the Little Bill rushes into the lake. The old mill, with its race and sluice-gates, still grinds wearily the scanty dole of grain fed into its hoppers and Silas Caldwell takes his toll and earns his modest living just as his father did before him and "Little Bill" Thompson did before him.
Above the mill a rickety wooden bridge spans the stream, for here the highway from Chary Junction reaches the village of Millville and passes the wooden structures grouped on either side its main street on the way to Thompson's Crossing, nine miles farther along. The town boasts exactly eleven buildings, not counting the mill, which, being on the other side of the Little Bill, can hardly be called a part of Millville proper. Cotting's Store contains the postoffice and telephone booth, and is naturally the central point of interest. Seth Davis' blacksmith shop comes next; Widow Clark's Emporium for the sale of candy, stationery and cigars adjoins that; McNutt's office and dwelling combined is next, and then Thorne's Livery and Feed Stables. You must understand they are not set close together, but each has a little ground of its own. On the other side of the street is the hardware store, with farm machinery occupying the broad platform before it, and then the Millville House, a two-storied "hotel" with a shed-like wing for the billiard-room and card tables. Nib Corkins' drug store, jewelry store and music store combined (with sewing machines for a "side line"), is the last of the "business establishments," and the other three buildings are dwellings occupied by Sam Cotting, Seth Davis and Nick Thorne.
Dick Pearson's farm house is scarcely a quarter of a mile up the highway, but it isn't in Millville, for all that. There's a cross lane just beyond Pearson's, leading east and west, and a mile to westward is the Wegg Farm, in the wildest part of the foothills.
It is a poor farming country around Millville. Strangers often wonder how the little shops of the town earn a living for their proprietors; but it doesn't require a great deal to enable these simple folk to live. The tourist seldom penetrates these inaccessible foothills; the roads are too rough and primitive for automobiles; so Millville is shamefully neglected, and civilization halted there some half a century ago.
However, there was a genuine sensation in store for this isolated hamlet, and it was the more welcome because anything in the way of a sensation had for many years avoided the neighborhood.
Marshall McMahon McNutt, or, as he was more familiarly called by those few who respected him most highly, "Marsh" McNutt (and sundry other appellations by those who respected him not at all), became the recipient of a letter from New York announcing the intention of a certain John Merrick, the new owner of the Wegg Farm, to spend the summer on the place. McNutt was an undersized man of about forty, with a beardless face, scraggly buff-colored hair, and eyes that were big, light blue and remarkably protruding. The stare of those eyes was impenetrable, because observers found it embarrassing to look at them. "Mac's" friends had a trick of looking away when they spoke to him, but children gazed fascinated at the expressionless blue eyeballs and regarded their owner with awe.
The "real estate agent" was considered an enterprising man by his neighbors and a "poor stick" by his wife. He had gone to school at Thompson's Crossing in his younger days; had a call to preach, but failed because he "couldn't get religion"; inherited a farm from his uncle and married Sam Cotting's sister, whose tongue and temper were so sharp that everyone marveled at the man's temerity in acquiring them. Finally he had lost one foot in a mowing machine, and the accident destroyed his further usefulness to the extent of inducing him to abandon the farm and move into town. Here he endeavored to find something to do to eke out his meagre income; so he raised "thoroughbred Plymouth Rocks," selling eggs for hatching to the farmers; doctored sick horses and pastured them in the lot back of his barn, the rear end of which was devoted to "watermelons in season"; sold subscription books to farmers who came to the mill or the village store; was elected "road commissioner" and bossed the neighbors when they had to work out their poll-tax, and turned his hand to any other affairs that offered a penny's recompense. The "real estate business" was what Seth Davis labeled "a blobbering bluff," for no property had changed hands in the neighborhood in a score of years, except the lot back of the mill, which was traded for a yoke of oxen, and the Wegg farm, which had been sold without the agent's knowledge or consent.
The only surprising thing about the sale of the Wegg farm was that anyone would buy it. Captain Wegg had died three years before, and his son Joe wandered south to Albany, worked his way through a technical school and then disappeared in the mazes of New York. So the homestead seemed abandoned altogether, except for the Huckses.
When Captain Wegg died Old Hucks, his hired man, and Hucks' blind wife Nora were the only dependents on the place, and the ancient couple had naturally remained there when Joe scorned his inheritance and ran away. After the sale they had no authority to remain but were under no compulsion to move out, so they clung to their old quarters.
When McNutt was handed his letter by the postmaster and storekeeper he stared at its contents in a bewildered way that roused the loungers to amused laughter.
"What's up, Peggy?" called Nick Thorne from his seat on the counter.
"Somebody gone off'n me hooks an' left ye a fortun'?"
"Peggy" was one of McNutt's most popular nicknames, acquired because he wore a short length of pine where his absent foot should have been.
"Not quite," was the agent's slow reply; "but here's the blamedest funniest communicate a man ever got! It's from some critter that knows the man what bought the Wegg farm."
"Let's hear it," remarked Cotting, the store-keeper, a fat individual with a bald head, who was counting matches from a shelf into the public match-box. He allowed "the boys" just twenty free matches a day.
So the agent read the letter in an uncertain halting voice, and when he had finished it the little group stared at one another for a time in thoughtful silence.
"Wall, I'll be plunked," finally exclaimed the blacksmith. "Looks like the feller's rich, don't it?"
"Ef he's rich, what the tarnation blazes is he comin' here for?" demanded Nib Corkins, the dandy of the town. "I was over t' Huntingdon las' year, 'n' seen how the rich folks live. Boys, this h'ain't no place for a man with money."
"That depends," responded Cotting, gravely. "I'm sure we'd all be better off if we had a few real bloods here to squander their substance."
"Well, here's a perposal to squander, all right," said McNutt. "But the question is, Does he know what he's runnin' up agin', and what it'll cost to do all the idiotic things as he says?"
"Prob'ly not," answered the storekeeper.
"It's the best built farm house 'round thest parts," announced the miller, who had been silent until now. "Old Wegg were a sea-cap'n once, an' rich. He dumped a lot o' money inter that place, an' never got it out agin', nuther."
"'Course not. Sixty acres o' cobble-stone don't pay much divvydends, that I ever hearn tell on," replied Seth.
"There's some good fruit, though," continued Caldwell, "an' the berries allus paid the taxes an' left a little besides. Ol' Hucks gits along all right."
"Jest lives, 'n' that's all."
"Well, thet's enough," said the miller. "It's about all any of us do, ain't it?"
"Do ye take it this 'ere Merrick's goin' to farm, er what?" asked Nib, speculatively.
"I take it he's plumb crazy," retorted the agent, rubbing the fringe of hair behind his ears. "One thing's certain boys, I don't do nuthin' foolish till I see the color of his money."
"Make him send you ten dollars in advance," suggested Seth.
"Make him send fifty," amended the store-keeper. "You can't buy a cow, an' pigs, an' chickens, an' make repairs on much less."
"By jinks, I will!" cried McNutt, slapping his leg for emphasis. "I'll strike him fer a cool fifty, an' if the feller don't pay he kin go to blazes. Them's my sentiments, boys, an' I'll stand by 'em!"
The others regarded him admiringly, so the energetic little man stumped away to indite his characteristic letter to Major Doyle.
If the first communication had startled the little village, the second fairly plunged it into a panic of excitement. Peggy's hand trembled as he held out the five hundred dollar draft and glared from it to his cronies with a white face.
"Suff'rin' Jehu!" gasped Nick Thorne. "Is it good?"
The paper was passed reverently around, and examined with a succession of dubious head-shakes.
"Send for Bob West," suggested Cotting. "He's seen more o' that sort o' money than any of us."
The widow Clarke's boy, who was present, ran breathlessly to fetch the hardware dealer, who answered the summons when he learned that Peggy McNutt had received a "check" for five hundred dollars.
West was a tall, lean man with shrewd eyes covered by horn spectacles and a stubby gray mustache. He was the potentate of the town and reputed to be worth, at a conservative estimate, in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars—"er more, fer that matter; fer Bob ain't tellin' his business to nobody." Hardware and implements were acknowledged to be paying merchandise, and West lent money on farm mortgages, besides. He was a quiet man, had a good library in his comfortable rooms over the store, and took the only New York paper that found its way into Millville. After a glance at the remittance he said:
"It's a draft on Isham, Marvin & Company, the New York bankers. Good as gold, McNutt. Where did you get it?"
"A lunitic named John Merrick, him that's bought the Cap'n Wegg farm, sent it on. Here's his letter, Bob."
The hardware dealer read it carefully and gave a low whistle.
"There may be more than one John Merrick," he said, thoughtfully. "But I've heard of one who is many times a millionaire and a power in the financial world. What will you do for him, McNutt, to expend this money properly?"
"Bless't if I know!" answered the man, his eyes bulging with a helpless look. "What 'n thunder kin I do, Bob?"
"I don't wish to interfere in business matters," said he, "but it is plainly evident that the new owner wishes the farm house put into such shape that it will be comfortable for a man accustomed to modern luxuries. You don't know much about such things, Mac, and Mr. Merrick has made a blunder in employing your services in such a delicate matter. But do the best you can. Ride across to the Wegg place and look it over. Then get Taft, the carpenter, to fix up whatever is necessary. I'll sell you the lumber and nails, and you've got more money than you can probably use. Telegraph Mr. Merrick frankly how you find things; but remember the report must not be based upon your own mode of life but upon that of a man of wealth and refinement. Especially he must be posted about the condition of the furniture, which I can guess is ill-suited to his needs."
"How 'bout Hucks?" asked the agent.
They all hung eagerly on West's reply, for Old Hucks was a general favorite. The fact that the old retainer of the Weggs had a blind wife to whom he was tenderly devoted made the proposition of his leaving the farm one of intense interest. Old Hucks and his patient wife had not been so much "hired help" as a part of the Wegg establishment, and it was doubtful if they had ever received any wages. It was certain that Hucks had not a dollar in the world at the present time, and if turned out of their old home the ancient couple must either starve or go to the poorhouse.
"Say nothing further about Old Hucks or his wife to Mr. Merrick," advised West, gravely. "When the owner comes he will need servants, and Hucks is a very capable old fellow. Let that problem rest until the time comes for solution. If the old folks are to be turned out, make John Merrick do it; it will put the responsibility on his shoulders."
"By dum, yer right, Bob!" exclaimed McNutt. slapping the counter with his usual impulsiveness. "I'll do the best I kin for the rich man, an' let the poor man alone."
After an examination of the farm house and other buildings (which seemed in his eyes almost palatial), and a conference with Alonzo Taft, the carpenter, the agent began to feel that his task was going to prove an easy one. He purchased a fine Jersey cow of Will Johnson, sold his own flock of Plymouth Rocks at a high price to Mr. Merrick, and hired Ned Long to work around the yard and help Hucks mow the grass and "clean up" generally.
But now his real trouble and bewilderment began. A carload of new furniture and "fixin's" was sidetracked at the junction, and McNutt was ordered to get it unloaded and carted to the farm without delay. There were four hay-rack loads of the "truck," altogether, and when it was all dumped into the big empty barn at the Wegg farm the poor agent had no idea what to do with it.
"See here," said Nick Thorne, who had done the hauling, "you've got to let a woman inter this deal, Peggy."
"That's what my wife says, gum-twist her."
"Keep yer ol' woman out'n it. She'd spile a rotten apple."
"Who then, Nick?"
"Why, school-teacher's the right one, I guess. They've got a vacation now, an' likely she'll come over here an' put things to rights. Peggy, that air new furniture's the rambunctionest stuff thet ever come inter these parts, an' it'll make the ol' house bloom like a rose in Spring. But folks like us hain't got no call to tech it. You fetch school-teacher."
Peggy sighed. He was keeping track of his time and charging John Merrick at the rate of two dollars a day, being firmly resolved to "make hay while the sun was shining" and absorb as much of the money placed in his hands as possible. To let "school-teacher" into this deal and be obliged to pay her wages was an undesirable thing to do; yet he reflected that it might be wise to adopt Nick Thorne's suggestion.
So next morning he drove the liveryman's sorrel mare out to Thompson's Crossing, where the brick school-house stood on one corner and Will Thompson's residence on another. A mile away could be seen the spires of the little church at Hooker's Falls.
McNutt hitched his horse to Thompson's post, walked up the neat pebbled path and knocked at the door.
"Ethel in?" he asked of the sad-faced woman who, after some delay, answered his summons.
"She's in the garden, weedin'."
"I'll go 'round," said the agent.
The garden was a bower of roses. Among them stood a slender girl in a checked gingham, tying vines to a trellis.
"Morn'n', Ethel," said the visitor.
The girl smiled at him. She was not very pretty, because her face was long and wan, and her nose a bit one-sided. But her golden hair sparkled in the sun like a mass of spun gold, and the smile was winning in its unconscious sweetness. Surely, such attractions were enough for a mere country girl.
Ethel Thompson had, however, another claim to distinction. She had been "eddicated," as her neighbors acknowledged in awed tones, and "took a diploma from a college school at Troy." Young as she was, Ethel had taught school for two years, and might have a life tenure if she cared to retain the position. As he looked at her neat gown and noted the grace and ease of her movements the agent acknowledged that he had really "come to the right shop" to untangle his perplexing difficulties.
"New folks is comin' to the Cap'n Wegg farm," he announced, as a beginning.
She turned and looked at him queerly.
"Has Joe sold the place?" she asked.
"Near a year ago. Some fool rich man has bought it and is comin' down here to spend his summer vacation, he says. Here, read his letters. They'll explain it better 'n I can."
Her hand trembled a little as she took the letters McNutt pulled from his pocket. Then she sat upon a bench and read them all through. By that time she had regained her composure.
"The gentleman is somewhat eccentric," she remarked; "but he will make no mistake in coming to this delightful place, if he wishes quiet and rest."
"Don't know what he's after, I'm sure," replied the man. "But he's sent down enough furniture an' truck to stock a hotel, an' I want to know ef you'll go over an' put it in the rooms, an' straighten things out."
"Why, yes. You've lived in cities some, an' know how citified things go. Con-twist it, Ethel, there's things in the bunch that neither I ner Nick Thorne ever hearn tell of, much less knowin' what they're used for."
The girl laughed.
"When are the folks coming?" she asked.
"When I git things in shape. They've sent some money down to pay fer what's done, so you won't have to work fer nuthin'."
"I will, though," responded the girl, in a cheery tone. "It will delight me to handle pretty things. Are Nora and Tom still there?"
"Oh, yes. I had orders to turn the Huckses out, ye see; but I didn't do it."
"I'm glad of that," she returned, brightly "Perhaps we may arrange it so they can stay. Old Nora's a dear."
"But she's blind."
"She knows every inch of the Wegg house, and does her work more thoroughly than many who can see. When do you want me, Peggy?"
"Soon's you kin come."
"Then I'll be over tomorrow morning."
At that moment a wild roar, like that of a beast, came from the house. The sad faced woman ran down a passage; a door slammed, and then all was quiet again.
McNutt hitched uneasily from the wooden foot to the good one.
"How's ol' Will?" he enquired, in a low voice.
"Grandfather's about as usual," replied the girl, with trained composure.
"Still crazy as a bedbug?"
"At times he becomes a bit violent; but those attacks never last long."
"Don't s'pose I could see him?" ventured the agent, still in hesitating tones.
"Oh, no; he has seen no visitor since Captain Wegg died."
"Well, good-bye, Ethel. See you at the farm in the mornin'."
The girl sat for a long time after McNutt had driven away, seemingly lost in revery.
"Poor Joe!" she sighed, at last. "Poor, foolish Joe. I wonder what has become of him?"