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CHAPTER II


HOSPITALITY UNDER DIFFICULTIES


Betty Gordon had come to Bramble Farm, as Mr. Peabody's home was known, early in the summer to stay until her uncle, Richard Gordon, should be able to establish a home for her, or at least know enough of his future plans to have Betty travel with him. He was interested in mines and oil wells, and his business took him all over the country.

Betty was an orphan, and this Uncle Dick was her only living relative. He came to her in Pineville after her mother's death and when the friends with whom she had been staying decided to go to California. He remembered Mrs. Peabody, an old school friend, and suggested that Betty might enjoy a summer spent on a farm. These events are related In the first book of this series, called "Betty Gordon at Bramble Farm."

That story tells how Betty came to the farm to find Joseph Peabody a domineering, pitiless miser, his wife Agatha, a drab woman crushed in spirit, and Bob Henderson, the "poorhouse rat," a bright intelligent lad whom the Peabodys had taken from the local almshouse for his board and clothes. Betty Gordon found life at Bramble Farm very different from the picture she and her uncle had drawn in imagination, and only the fact that her uncle's absence in the oil fields had prevented easy communication with him had held her through the summer.

Once, indeed, she had run away, but circumstances had brought her and Bob to the pleasant home of the town police recorder, and Mr. and Mrs. Bender had proved themselves true and steadfast friends to the boy and girl who stood sorely in need of friendship. It was the Benders who had exacted a promise from both Bob and Betty that they would not run away from Bramble Farm without letting them know.

Betty had been instrumental in causing the arrest of two men who had stolen chickens from the Peabody farm, and at the hearing before the recorder something of Mr. Peabody's characteristics and of the conditions at Bramble Farm had been revealed.

Anxious to have Betty and Bob return, Joseph Peabody had practically agreed to treat them more humanely, and for a few weeks, during which the Benders had gone away for their annual vacation, matters at Bramble Farm had in the main improved. But they were gradually slipping back to the old level, and this morning, when Peabody had gored the cow with his pitch-fork, Bob had thought disgustedly that it was useless to expect anything good at the hands of the owner of Bramble Farm.

As he and Betty tramped back after delivering the cow, Bob's mind was busy with plans that would free him from Mr. Peabody and set him forward on the road that led to fortune. Bob included making a fortune in his life work, having a shrewd idea that money rightly used was a good gift.

"Where do you suppose your uncle is?" he asked Betty, coming out of a reverie wherein he bade Bramble Farm and all the dwellers there with a single exception a cold and haughty farewell.

"Why, I imagine he is in Washington," returned Betty confidently. "His last letter was from there, though two days ago a postal came from Philadelphia. I think likely he went up to see his lawyer and get his mail. You know it was held there while he was out West. I hope he has all my letters now, and last night I wrote him another, asking him if I couldn't leave here. I said I'd rather go to the strictest kind of a boarding school; and so I would. I'll mail the letter this afternoon in Glenside."

"It's too long a walk for you to take on a hot afternoon," grumbled Bob. "I'm going over to Trowbridge, and I'll mall it there for you."

Betty pulled the letter from her blouse pocket and handed it to him.

"Where's Trowbridge?" she asked, as they came in sight of the boundary line of Bramble Farm and sighted Mr. Peabody in conversation with the mail carrier at the head of the lane. "Can I go with you?"

"We'd better hurry," suggested Bob, quickening his steps. "Trowbridge is four miles beyond Laurel Grove. You've never been there. No, you can't go, Betty, because I have to ride the sorrel. I suppose in time old Peabody will buy another wagon, but no one can tell when that will come to pass."

The wagon house had burned one night, and the master of Bramble Farm could not bring himself to pay out the cash for even a secondhand wagon. As a result, the always limited social activities of the farm were curtailed to the vanishing point.

"What are you going for?" persisted Betty, who had her fair share of feminine curiosity with the additional excuse that interesting events were few and far between in her present everyday life.

Bob grinned.

"Going to a vendue," he announced. "Now how much do you know?"

Betty tossed her head, and elevated her small, freckled nose.

"A vendue?" she repeated. "Why, a vendue is a—a—what is it, Bob?"

"A sale," said Bob. "Some farmer is going to sell out and Peabody wants a wagon. So I have to ride that horse fourteen miles and back—and he has a backbone like a razor blade!—to buy a wagon; that is, if no one bids over me."

"And Mr. Peabody won't pay more than six dollars; he said so at the supper table last night," mourned Betty. "You'll never be able to buy a wagon for that. I wish I could go, too. Bob, I never saw a country vendue. Please, can't I?"

"You cannot," replied Bob with unaccustomed decision. Betty usually wheedled him into granting her requests. "Haven't I just told you there is nothing to go in? If you see yourself perched on that raw-boned nag with me, I don't, that's all. But I tell you what; there's a sale to-morrow at a farm this side of Glenside—I'll take you to that, if you like. I guess Peabody will let me off, seeing as how there are wagons advertised. We can easily walk to Faulkner's place."

This promise contented Betty, and she ate her dinner quietly. Bob rode off on the old horse directly after dinner, and then for the first time Betty noticed that Mrs. Peabody seemed worried about something.

"Don't you feel well? Won't you go upstairs and lie down and let me do the dishes?" urged the girl. "Do, Mrs. Peabody. You can have a nice, long rest before it's time to feed the chickens."

"I feel all right," said Mrs. Peabody dully. "Only—well, I found this card from the new minister back of the pump this morning. It's a week old, and he says he's coming out to call this afternoon. There's no place in the house I can show him, and I haven't got a decent dress, either."

Betty swallowed her first impulse to say what she thought of a husband who would make no effort to see that his wife received her mail, and instead turned her practical mind to consideration of the immediate moment. The so-called parlor was hopeless she knew, and she dismissed it from the list of possibilities at once. It was a sparsely furnished, gloomy room, damp and musty from being tightly closed all summer, and the unpainted, rough boards had never been carpeted.

"There's the porch," said Betty suddenly. "Luckily that's shady in the afternoon, and we can bring out the best things to make it look used. You let me fix it, Mrs. Peabody. And you can wear—let me see, what can you wear?"

Mrs. Peabody waited patiently, her eyes mirroring her explicit faith in Betty's planning powers.

"Your white shirtwaist and skirt," announced the girl at length. "They're both clean, aren't they? I thought so. Well, I'll lend you a ribbon girdle, and you can turn in the high neck so it will be more in style. You'll see, it will look all right."

While Mrs. Peabody washed her dishes with more energy than usual because she had a definite interest in the coming hours, Betty flew to the shabby room that was titled by courtesy the parlor. She flung up the windows and opened the blinds recklessly. She would take only the plain wooden chair and the two rockers, she decided, for the stuffed plush furniture would look ridiculous masquerading as summer furnishings. The sturdy, square table would fit into her scheme, and also the small rug before the blackened fireplace.

She dashed back to the kitchen and grabbed the broom. She did not dare scrub the porch floor for fear that it would not dry in time, but she swept it carefully and spread down the rug. Then one by one, and making a separate trip each time, she carried out the table and the chairs. With a passing sigh for the bouquet abandoned in the field and probably withered by this time, she managed to get enough flowers from the overgrown neglected garden near the house to fill the really lovely colonial glass vase she had dlscovered that morning.

"It looks real pretty," pronounced Mrs. Peabody, when she was brought out to see the transformed corner of the porch. "Looks as if we used it regular every afternoon, doesn't it? Do you think it will be all right not to ask him in, Betty?"

"Of course," said Betty stoutly. "Don't dare ask him in! If he wants a drink of water, call me, and I'll get it for him. You must be sitting in your chair reading a magazine when he comes and he'll think you always spend your afternoons like that."

"I'll hurry and get dressed," agreed Mrs. Peabody, giving a last satisfied glance at the porch. "I declare, I never saw your beat, Betty, for making things look pretty."

Betty needed that encouragement, for when it came to making Mrs. Peabody look pretty in the voluminous white skirt and stiff shirtwaist of ten years past, the task seemed positively hopeless. Betty, however, was not one to give in easily, and when she had brushed and pinned her hostess's thin hair as softly as she could arrange it, and had turned in the high collar of her blouse and pinned it with a cameo pin, the one fine thing remaining to Mrs. Peabody from her wedding outfit, adding a soft silk girdle of gray-blue, she knew the improvement was marked. Mrs. Peabody stared at herself in the glass contentedly.

"I didn't know I could look that nice," she said with a candor at once pathetic and naïve. "I've been wishing he wouldn't come, but now I kinda hope he will."

Betty gently propelled her to the porch and established her in one of the rocking chairs with a magazine to give her an air of leisure.

"You'll come and talk to him, won't you?" urged Mrs. Peabody anxiously. "It's been so long since I've seen a stranger I won't know what to say."

"Yes, you will," Betty assured her. "I'll come out after you've talked a little while. He won't stay long, I imagine, because he will probably have a number of calls to pay."

"Well, I hope Joseph stays out of sight," remarked Joseph Peabody's wife frankly. "Of course, in time the new minister will know him as well as the old one did; but I would like to have him call on me like other parishioners first."