Much Ado About Peter/Chapter 3

 

THEIR INNOCENT DIVERSIONS

 

 

III
THEIR INNOCENT DIVERSIONS

WE GOT three kids visitin' to our house, and there won't be nothin' left o' Willowbrook by the time they goes away. Hold up, Trixy! What are ye tryin' to do?"

Peter paused to hook the line out from under Trixy's tail, and then re-cocking his hat at a comfortable angle and crossing his legs, he settled himself for conversation. Peter loved to talk and he loved an audience; he was essentially a social animal. His listeners were two brother coachmen and a bandy-legged young groom, who were waiting, like himself, for "ladies' morning" to draw to its usual placid termination—sandwiches and lemonade on the club veranda after a not too heated putting contest on the first green.

"Yes, we got three visitin' kids; with Master Bobby it makes four, and I ain't drawed an easy breath since the mornin' they arrived. They keep up such an everlastin' racket that the people in the house can't stand them, an' we 've had them in the stables most o' the time. Mrs. Brainard, that's their mother, is Mr. Carter's sister, and I can tell ye she makes herself to home.

"That's her over there with the lavender dress and the parasol"—he jerked his head in the direction of a gaily dressed group of ladies trailing across the links in the direction of the first green. "She's mournin' for her husband—light mournin', that is; he's dead two years."

"She picked me the first day to look after the la-ads. 'Peter,' she says, 'me dear boys are cr-razy to play in the stables, but I can't help worryin' for fear they 'll get under the horses' feet. I have perfect confidence in you,' she says, 'and I 'll put them under yer special care. Just keep yer eye on the la-ads an' see that they don't get hur-rt.'

"'Thank ye, ma'am,' says I, flattered by the attention, I 'll do the best I can.' I had n't made the acquaintance o' the little darlin's yet, or I would 'a' chucked me job on the spot.

"Master Augustus—he's the youngest—has gold curls an' blue eyes and a smile as innocint as honey. He's the kind the ladies stops an' kisses, and asks, 'Whose little boy is you?' At the first glance ye'd think to see a couple o' wings sproutin' out behind, but when ye knowed him intimately, ye'd look for the horns an' tail. I 've pulled that little divvil three times out o' the duck pond, and I 've fished him out from the grain chute with a boat hook. I could n't tell ye the number o' trees he's climbed after birds' eggs and got stuck in the top of; we keeps a groom an' ladder on tap, so to speak. One afternoon I caught the four o' them smokin' cigarettes made o' dried corn silk up in the hay loft as comfortable as ye please—'tis many a stable-boy as has been bounced for less. Between them they finished up the dope the vet'rinary surgeon left when Blue Gipsy had the heaves, thinkin' it was whisky—an' serves them right, I say. I did n't tell on 'em, though, when the doctor asked what I thought the trouble was; I said I guessed it was green apples.

"But them's only the minor divarsions that occupy their leisure; they 're nothin' to the things they think of when they really get down to business. The first thing they done was to pretend the victoria was a pirate ship; an' they scratched the paint all up a-tryin' to board her. Joe turned 'em out o' doors to play, an' they dug up the whole o' the strawberry bed huntin' for hidden treasure. Their next move was to take off their shoes an' stockin's, turn their clothes wrong side out, an' dirty up their faces with huckleberry juice—ye would have sworn they was a lot o' jabberin' Dagoes. They went beggin' in all the houses o' the neighbourhood, includin' Willowbrook, an' Nora never knew them an' give them some cold potatoes.

"One day last week they nearly broke their blame young necks slidin' down the waggon-shed roof on a greased tea-tray. There's a pile o' straw at the bottom that kind of acted as a buffer, but Master Augustus did n't steer straight an' went over the edge. 'Twas only a drop o' four feet, but he come up lookin' damaged.

"That ain't the worst though. Last Sunday afternoon they frightened the cow into hysterics playin' she was a bull, an' they was matydoors or torydoors, or whatever ye call them. They stuck pins into her with paper windmills on the end, and she ain't give more 'n six quarts at any milkin' since. I was mad, I was, an' I marched 'em to the house an' tole their mother.

"'It grieves me,' she says, 'to think that me boys should be so troublesome; but they did n't mean to be cruel to the poor dumb brute. They 're spirited la-ads,' she says, 'an' their imaginations run away wid them. What they needs is intilligent direction. Ye should try,' she says, 'to enter into the spirit o' their innocint divarsions; an' when ye see them doin' somethin' dangerous, gintly turn their thoughts into another channel. Their grattytood,' she says, 'will pay ye for yer trouble.'

"'Wery well, ma'am,' says I, not too enthusiastic, 'I 'll do the best I can,' and I bows meself out. I 've been superintendin' their innocint divarsions ever since, and if there's any one as wants the job, I 'll turn it over to him quick."

Peter paused to back his horses farther into the shade; then having climbed down and taken a drink at a near-by hydrant, he resumed his seat and the conversation.

"But ye should have seen them this mornin' when I drove off! They was a sight if there ever was one. Joe's away with Mr. Carter and I'm takin' charge for the day. When I went into the carriage-house to give Billy orders about hitchin' up, what should I find but them precious little lambkins gambolin' around in stri-ped bathin' trunks, an' not another stitch. They was further engaged in paintin' their skins where the trunks left off—an' that was the most o' them—with a copper colour foundation and a trimmin' o' black stripes.

"'Holy Saint Patrick!' says I. 'What the divvil are ye up to now?'

"'Whoop!' says Master Bobby. 'We 'll scalp ye and eat yer heart. We 're Comanche braves,' he says, 'an' we 're gettin' ready for the war-path.'

"'Ye look more like zebras,' says I, 'escaped from a menagerie.'

"'Wait till we get our feathers on,' he says, 'an' Pete,' he adds, 'will you do me back? There's a place in the middle that I can't reach.'

Wid that he turns a pink an' white surface a yawnin' for decoration, an' presses a can o' axle grease in me hands. And I 'll be darned if them young imps had n't covered their skins with axle grease and red brass polish, an' for variety, a touch o' bluing they'd got off Nora in the kitchen. An' they smelt—Gee! they smelt like a triple extract harness shop. I tole them I thought they'd be havin' trouble when they was ready to return to the haunts o' the pale-face; but Master Bobby said their clothes would cover it up.

"I done the job. I don't set up to be a mural artist, and I ain't braggin', but I will say as Master Bobby's back beat any signboard ye ever see when I finished the decoratin'. I fastened some chicken feathers in their hair, and I hunted out some tomahawks in the lumber room, an' they let out a war-whoop that raised the roof, an' scalped me out o' grattytood.

"'Now see here,' says I to Master Bobby, 'in return for helpin' along yer innocint amusements, will ye promise to do yer scalpin' in the paddock, an' not come near the stables? 'Cause me floor is clean,' I says, 'and I don't want no blood spattered on it. 'Tis hard to wash up,' I says. I was, ye 'll observe, gintly turnin' their thoughts into another channel, like their mother recommended. An' they promised sweet as cherubs. She was right; they 're spirited la-ads, an' they won't be driven. 'Tis best to use diplomacy.

"I left them crawlin' on all fours through the bushes by the duck pond, shootin' arrers in the air as innocint as ye please. I dunno, though, how long 'twill last. I tole Billy to keep an eye on them, and I s'pose when I get back, I 'll find his head decoratin' the hitchin'-post an' his hair danglin' from their belts."

A movement of farewell on the club veranda brought the men back to their official selves. Peter straightened his hat, stiffened his back, and gathered up the reins.

"So long, Mike," he remarked as he backed into the driveway. "I 'll see ye to-morrow at the Daughters o' the Revolution; and if ye hear of anyone," he added, "as is wantin' a combination coachman an' first class nursemaid, give them my address. I'm lookin' for an easier place."

"Peter," said Mrs. Carter, as they trotted out of the club-house gateway and swung on to the smooth macadam of the homeward road, "I meant to ask you what the children were doing this morning. Have they been amusing themselves?"

"Yes, they 've been amusin' themselves. They was playin' Indian, ma'am, with chicken feathers in their heads." He wisely suppressed the remainder of the costume. "I found them some tomahawks in the lumber room, an' the last I see o' them they was in the paddock scalpin' each other as happy as ye please."

"Those delicious boys!" murmured their mother. "I never know what they will think of next. It is such a relief to get them into the country, where they can have plenty of room to play and I can be sure they are not in mischief. They are so exuberant, that when we are stopping in a summer hotel I am always uneasy for fear they may disturb the guests."

The carriage had turned into the Willowbrook grounds, and was decorously rolling along between the smooth green lawns bordered by coloured foliage, the two ladies reclining against the cushions in placid contemplation of the summer noonday, when suddenly an ebullition of shouting and crying burst out across the shrubbery in the direction of the stables. It was not the mere joyous effervescence of animal spirits that had been gladdening Willowbrook for the past two weeks. There was an unmistakable note of alarm, a hoarser undertone, as of men joining in the tocsin. Peter pulled the horses sharply to their haunches and cocked his head to listen, while the ladies leaned forward in a flutter of dismay.

"Something has happened to my precious boys! Drive on quick, Peter," Mrs. Brainard gasped.

Peter used his whip and they approached the house at a gallop. The trouble was evident by now. Heavy clouds of smoke were curling up from among the willow trees while the cry of "Fire! Fire!" filled the air.

"Thank heaven it ain't the stables!" ejaculated Peter, as his eye anxiously studied the direction. "’Tis the waggon-shed—an' the buckboard's in it an' all the farmin' tools."

People were running from every side. Two men from Jasper Place came puffing through the hole in the hedge, dragging a garden hose behind them, while the house servants, bare-headed and excited, swarmed out from the back veranda.

"Annie! Annie!" called Mrs. Carter as the panting horses were dragged to a standstill, "turn on the fire alarm. Go to the telephone and call the engine house."

"Simpkins has done it, ma'am," called Annie over her shoulder, as she hurried on. "Ow! What's that?" she added with a scream of astonished terror, as a red and black striped figure, with a row of ragged feathers waving in a fringe about its ears, burst from the shrubbery and butted plump against her.

"Bobby!" gasped his mother, as after a moment of shocked hesitation she recognized her son. Bobby waved his arms and set up a howl. An expression of terror was plainly visible struggling through the war-paint.

"Pete, Billy, Patrick! Quick! Quick! We can't untie him and he's burning! We did n't mean to burn him," he added quickly. "It's an accident."

"Burn what?" cried Mrs. Carter.

"Augustus," Bobby sobbed.

And to the horror-stricken group was borne a shrill falsetto wail: "Help! H-e-l-p! They're burning me at the s-t-a-k-e!"—a wail apparently of mortal anguish, though an unexcited listener would have detected in the tones more of anger than of pain.

Mrs. Brainard, with a frenzied shriek, threw away her lavender parasol and dashed in the direction of the sounds. Peter jumped from the box and overtook her. He was first upon the spot. The waggon-shed roof was a blazing mass; the straw pile beneath it was sending up a stifling cloud of blue smoke, and the dry surrounding grass was crackling in a swiftly widening circle. But in the centre of the conflagration there still remained a little oasis of green, where a young willow sapling rose defiantly from the flames. And as the smoke blew momentarily to one side, the writhing figure of Augustus came to view lashed firmly to the tree trunk, his hands above his head. With the arrival of spectators he finished struggling and assumed an expression of stoicism that would have done credit to a true Comanche.

"My boy! My boy!" shrieked Mrs. Brainard, running forward with outstretched arms, as the smoke again closed around him.

Peter caught her. "Stand back, ma'am. For heaven's sake, stand back! Ye 'll ketch yer dress. He ain't hurt none; the fire ain't reached him. I 'll save him," and whipping out his knife, Peter dashed into the smoke. He returned three minutes later, a mass of stripes and mingled grease kicking in his arms.

Mrs. Brainard, who had closed her eyes preparing to faint, opened them again and looked at Augustus. He was a muddy copper colour with here and there a vivid touch of blue, and he exuded a peculiarly blent odour of brass polish and smoke.

"Is—is he dead?" she gasped.

"He's quite lively, ma'am," said Peter, grimly struggling to hold him.

She opened her arms with a sob of relief, and received the boy, grease and smoke and all; while the three remaining braves modestly tried to efface themselves.

"Robert," said Mrs. Carter, laying a detaining hand on her son's tri-coloured shoulder, "what is the meaning of this outrageous affair?"

Bobby dug his eyes with his greasy fists and whimpered.

"We just tied him to the stake and pretended to burn him. And then we sat down to smoke a pipe of peace, and I guess maybe the straw caught fire."

"It did—apparently," said his mother; her tone carried a suggestion of worse to come.

Peter, having hastily organized a fire brigade, succeeded in saving the buckboard and a few of the farming tools, but the building itself was beyond salvation. The wood was dry and thoroughly seasoned, and the feeble stream of water from the garden hose served to increase the smoke rather than to lessen the flames. The men finally fell back in a panting circle and watched it burn.

"Gee!" ejaculated Peter, "I'm glad it was the waggon-shed. It might have been the stables."

"Or the house," added Mrs. Carter.

"Or Augustus!" breathed Mrs. Brainard.

The roof fell in with a crash, and the flames leaped up to surround it. A mild cheer broke from the spectators; since there was nothing more to be done, they might as well enjoy the bonfire. The cheer was echoed by an answering shout at the end of the avenue, and a moment later the Sea Garth volunteer hook and ladder company dashed into sight, drawn by two foam-covered horses, the firemen still struggling into belated uniforms.

They came to a stand; half a dozen men tore off the nearest ladder and dragged it to the burning building. There, they hesitated dubiously. It was clearly an impossible feat to lean a thirty-foot ladder against a one-story waggon-shed whose roof had fallen in. Their chief, an impressive figure in a scarlet shirt and a rubber helmet, advanced to take command. He grasped the painful situation, and for a moment he looked dashed. The next moment, however, he had regained his poise, and announced, in a tone of triumph; "We 'll save the stables!"

Mrs. Carter stepped forward with a voice of protest.

"Oh, no, I beg of you! It is n't necessary. The sparks are flying in the other direction. My own men have fortunately been able to cope with the fire, and while I am very much obliged for your trouble, there is no necessity for further aid."

"Madam," said the chief, "the wind is likely to change at any moment, and a single spark falling on that shingle roof would sweep away every building on the place. I am sorry to be disobliging, but it is my duty to protect your property." He waved her aside and issued his orders. For the first time in her life Mrs. Carter found that she was not master on her own place.

Five minutes later half a dozen ladders were resting against the main edifice of the stables, while the bucket brigade was happily splashing the contents of the duck pond over the shingle roof.

This precautionary measure was barely under way, when a second shouting and clanging of bells announced the approach of the Sea Garth Volunteer Hose Company No. 1. They did not possess horses and their progress had of necessity been slower. Accompanied by an excited escort of barefooted boys, they swept like a tidal wave across shaven lawns and flowered borders.

"Keep them back! Keep them back!" wailed Mrs. Carter, in a sudden access of helplessness. "Peter, William, stop them! Thank them and send them home." She accosted the hook and ladder chief. "Tell them it's all over. Tell them that you yourself have already done everything that's necessary."

"Sorry, Mrs. Carter, but it's impossible. There has n't been a fire in this town for the last three months, and then it was only a false alarm. They 're sore enough as it is because we got here first. A little water won't hurt anything; we 're in need of rain. You go in the house, Mrs. Carter, and trust to me. I won't let them do any more damage than necessary."

The hose company bore down upon the scene of confusion that surrounded the wrecked waggon-shed with an air of pleased expectancy. Their faces fell as they caught sight of the pitiable size of the fire; but the new chief, with quickly reviving cheerfulness, usurped dictatorship, and soon had a generous stream of water playing upon the embers.

Mrs. Carter, with a last plaintive appeal to Peter to get rid of them, resumed her natural aloofness; and she and Mrs. Brainard trailed their smoke-grimed splendour toward the house, driving the vanquished braves before them.

When, finally, the last spark was irretrievably dead, the duck pond was nearly dry and everything else was wet, the firemen reloaded their ladders and hose, their buckets and rubber helmets, and noisily trundled away. The Willowbrook contingent sat down and mopped their grimy brows.

"Will you look at my flower-beds?" mourned Tom. "Walked right over 'em, they did."

"An' will ye look at the clothes on the line?" cried Nora. "They walked slap through them wid their dir-rty hands."

"Go and look at the carriage-house floor," Peter growled. "They turned a three-inch stream o' water in at the front door; it looks as if the flood o' Arrerat had struck us. If I ever ketch that lobster of a fire chief out alone, I 'll teach 'im 'is dooty, I will." He paused to examine his person. "Gee! but I blistered me hands." He carried the examination further. "An' these is me best pants," he muttered. "The next time I helps along their innocint divarsions, I 'll get me life insured."