Much Ado About Peter/Chapter 8

 

A USURPED PREROGATIVE

 

 

VIII
A USURPED PREROGATIVE

PETER scooped a quart of oats into a box, took out the bottle of liniment the veterinary surgeon had left, and started, grumbling, for the lower meadow. Trixy had hurt her foot, and it was Billy's fault. A groom who knew no better than to tie a horse to a barbed-wire fence on a day when the flies were bad, ought, in Peter's estimation, to be discharged.

He had some trouble in catching Trixy and applying the liniment, but he finally accomplished the matter, and dropped down to rest in the shade of the straggling hedge that divided the grounds of Willowbrook from Jasper Place. He lighted his pipe and fell to a lazy contemplation of the pasture—his thoughts neither of Trixy nor the cows nor anything else pertaining to his duties, but now as always playing with a glorified vision of Annie, the prettiest little parlour-maid in the whole wide world. He was completely lost to his surroundings, when the sound of pistol shots on the other side of the hedge recalled him to the present with a jerk.

"What are them young devils up to now?" he muttered, as he raised himself to look through the branches.

A group of boys was visible down on the Jasper beach, firing, somewhat wildly, toward a target they had set up on the bank. Peter squinted his eyes and peered closely; one of the boys was Bobby Carter, and Peter more than suspected that the revolver was his father's. The boy had been strictly forbidden to play with firearms, and Peter's first impulse was to interfere; but on second thoughts he hesitated. Bobby was very recently thirteen, and was feeling the importance of no longer being a little boy. He would not relish being told to come home and mind his father.

While Peter stood hesitating, a sudden frightened squawk rang out, and he saw one of Mr. Jasper's guinea fowls fly a few feet into the air and plump heavily to the ground. At the same instant Patrick appeared at the top of the meadow, bearing down upon the scene of the crime, shouting menacingly as he advanced. The boys broke and ran. They came crashing through the hedge a few feet from Peter and made for cover in a clump of willows. Peter recognized them all—Bobby and Bert Holliday and the two Hartridge boys, the latter the horror of all well-regulated parents. He saw them part, the two Hartridge boys heading for the road, while Bobby and Bert Holliday turned toward the house, keeping warily under the bank, Bobby buttoning the revolver inside his jacket as he ran. Peter crouched under the branches and laid low; he had no desire to be called into the case as witness.

Patrick panted up to the hedge and surveyed the empty stretch of meadow with a disappointed grunt. He caught a glimpse of the Hartridge boys as they climbed the fence into the high-road, but they were too far off for recognition. He mopped his brow and lumbered back to examine the body of the guinea fowl. Poor Patrick was neither so slender nor so young as when he entered Mr. Jasper's service twenty years before; as he daily watched Peter's troubles across the hedge, he thanked the saints that the Jasper family contained no boys.

Peter waited till Patrick was well out of sight, when he rose and turned back toward the stables. He met Bobby and Bert Holliday in the lane, armed with a net, a basket, and a generous hunk of raw meat.

"Hello, Pete!" Bobby hailed him cheerily. "We 're going crabbing, Bert and me. If you hear Nora asking after some soup meat that strayed out of the refrigerator, don't let on you met it."

"Trust me!" said Peter with an answering grin; but he turned and looked after the boys a trifle soberly.

Bobby's escapade with the revolver was on a different plane from such mild misdemeanours as abstracting fishing bait from the kitchen. Peter felt keenly that Mr. Carter ought to know, but he shrank from the idea of telling. For one thing, he hated tale-bearing; for another, he had a presentiment as to the direction Bobby's punishment would take.

As an indirect result of his thirteenth birthday, the boy was to have a new horse—not another pony, but a grown-up horse—provided always that he was good. Mr. Carter, being occupied with business out of town, had not been able to give the matter his immediate attention; and poor Bobby had been dwelling on the cold heights of virtue for nearly a month. He had undergone, a week or so before, a mild attack of three-day measles which he had borne with a sweet gentleness quite foreign to his nature. Peter had openly scouted the doctor's diagnosis of the case.

"Rats!" he remarked to Annie, after viewing the boy's speckled surface. "That ain't measles. It's his natural badness working out. I knew it were n't healthy for him to be so good. If Mr. Carter don't make up his mind about that horse pretty soon the boy 'll go into a decline."

But at last the question was on the point of being settled. Mr. Carter, having visited every horse dealer in the neighbourhood, had, in his carefully methodical manner, almost made up his mind. The choice was a wiry little mustang, thin-limbed and built for running; he could give even Blue Gypsy some useful lessons in speed, and she had a racing pedigree four generations long. Peter had fallen in love with the mustang; he wanted it almost as much as Bobby. And he realized that these next few days were a critical period; if the boy were discovered in any black offence, the horse would be postponed until his fourteenth birthday. His father had an unerring sense of duty in the matter of punishments.

It was Saturday and Mr. Carter would be out on the noon train. Peter drove to the station to meet him, still frowning over the question of Bobby and the revolver. He finally decided to warn the boy; there would be time enough to speak if the offence were repeated. Mr. Carter proved to be in an unusually genial frame of mind. He chatted all the way out on matters pertaining to the stables; and as they drew up at the porte-cochère he paused to ask:

"Ah, Peter, about this new mustang for Master Bobby, what do you think?"

"He's a fine horse, sir, though I suspicion not too well broke. But he's got a good pair o' legs—I should say two pair, sir—an' sound wind. That's the main thing. We can finish his trainin' ourselves."

"Then you advise me to get him?"

"I should say that ye would n't be makin' no mistake. I 'll be glad, sir, to see Master Bobby with a horse of his own. He's gettin' too heavy for Toddles."

"Very well. I 'll do it. You may have Blue Gypsy saddled immediately after luncheon and I will ride over to Shannon Farms and close the deal."

At two o'clock Blue Gypsy stood pawing impatiently before the library door with Peter soothingly patting her neck. Mr. Carter paused on the steps to survey her shining coat with the complaisant approval of ownership.

"Pretty good animal, is n't she, Peter?"

"She is that," said Peter, heartily. "You'd search a long time before——"

His sentence broke down in the middle as his eye wandered to the stretch of lawn beyond the hedge. Patrick was visible hurrying toward them, a white envelope waving in his hand, plainly bent on gaining the hole in the hedge and Mr. Carter's side before that gentleman's departure. Peter tried to cover his slip and induce his master to mount and ride off; but it was too late.

"Here, Peter, just hold her a minute longer. I think that note is for me."

Patrick with some difficulty squeezed himself through the hole—it had been made originally by Mr. Harry so that he might run over and call on Miss Ethel without having to go around; and Mr. Harry was thin. Patrick emerged with hair awry and puffing. He stood anxiously mopping his brow while Mr. Carter read the note. Peter likewise eyed his master with a touch of anxiety; he had a foreboding that the contents of the letter meant no good to the cause of the new mustang.

Mr. Carter ran his eye down the page with a quickly gathering frown and then faced the man.

"You saw my son shoot the guinea fowl?"

"No, sir—that is, sir, I ain't sure. Mr. Jasper he asked me who I thought the boys was, and I told him I did n't get close enough to see, but I fancied one was Bobby Carter, because they run this way, and I thought I recognized Master Bobby's legs as he crawled under the hedge. I told Mr. Jasper it was only guess, but he was mad because she was one of his prize hens, and he said he'd just drop a line to you and let you investigate. It was dangerous, he said, if Master Bobby was playin' with firearms, and you'd ought to know it."

"Yes, certainly; I understand."

Mr. Carter raised his voice and called to the boy who was visible sprawling on a bench by the tennis-court.

"Bobby! Come here."

He pulled himself together with obedient haste and advanced to meet his father, somewhat apprehensively, as his eye fell upon Patrick.

"Bobby, here is a note from Mr. Jasper. He says that some boys were shooting at a target on his beach this morning and killed one of his prize guinea fowls. He is not sure, but he thinks that you may have been one of them. How about it?"

Bobby looked uncomprehending for a moment while he covertly studied Patrick. The man's air was apologetic; his accusation was evidently based upon suspicion rather than proof.

"I went crabbing with Bert Holliday this morning," said Bobby.

"Ah!" his father's face cleared, though he still maintained his stern tone. "I gave you strict orders, you remember, never to touch my revolver when I was not with you?"

"Yes, father."

"You never have touched it?"

"No." Bobby's tone was barely audible.

"Speak up! I can't hear you."

"No!" snapped Bobby.

"Don't act that way. I am not accusing you of anything. I merely wish to know the truth." Mr. Carter turned to Patrick, who was nervously fumbling with his hat. "You see, Patrick, you were mistaken. Tell Mr. Jasper that I am sorry about the guinea fowl, but that Master Bobby had nothing to do with the shooting."

He dismissed the man with a nod, and mounted and rode away.

Peter watched him out of sight, then he turned and crossed the lawn to the tennis-court. Bobby was back on his bench again engaged in carving his name on the handle of a racket, though his face, Peter noted, did not reflect much pleasure in the work. He glanced up carelessly as Peter approached, but as he caught the look in his eye, he flushed quickly, and with elaborate attention applied himself to shaping a "C."

Peter sat down on the end of the bench and regarded him soberly. He was uncertain in his own mind how he ought to deal with the case, but that it must be dealt with, and drastically, he knew. Peter was by no means a Puritan. The boy could accomplish any amount of mischief—go crabbing instead of to Sunday-school, play fox and geese over the newly sprouted garden, break windows and hotbeds, steal cake from the pantry and peaches from Judge Benedict's orchard, and Peter would always shield him. His code of morals was broad, but where he did draw the line he drew it tight. Bobby's sins must be the sins of a gentleman, and Peter's definition of "gentleman" was old fashioned and strict.

Bobby grew restless under the silent scrutiny.

"What do you want?" he asked crossly. "If you don't look out you 'll make me cut my hand."

He closed the large blade with an easy air of unconcern, and opening a smaller one, fell to work again. The knife was equipped with five blades and a corkscrew; it was one of the dignities to which Bobby had attained on his recent birthday. Peter stretched out his hand and, taking possession of the knife, snapped it shut and returned it.

"Put it in yer pocket an' pay attention to me."

"Oh, don't bother, Pete. I'm busy."

"Your father will be home before long," said Peter, significantly.

"Well, fire ahead. What do you want?"

"Ye told a lie—two o' them, to be accurate. Ye were one o' them boys that shot the chicken an' ye did have the pistol."

"I did n't shoot his old chicken; it was Bert Holliday. And anyway he did n't mean to; it flew straight in front of the target just as he fired."

"He had no business to be firin'. But it's not the chicken I'm mournin' about; it's the lie."

"It's none of your business," said Bobby, sullenly.

"Then I 'll make it me business! Either ye goes to yer father an' tells him ye lied, or I will. Ye can take yer choice."

"Peter," Bobby began to plead, "he 'll not give me the mustang—you know he won't. I did n't mean to touch the revolver, but Bert forgot his air rifle, and the boys were waiting to have a shooting match. I won't do it again—honest, Peter—hope to die."

"It ain't no use, Master Bobby. Ye can't wheedle me. Ye told a lie an' ye 've got to be punished. Gentlemen don't tell lies—leastways, not direct. They hires a lawyer like Judge Benedict to do it for them. If ye keep on ye 'll grow to be like the Judge yerself."

Bobby smiled wanly. The Judge, as Peter knew well, was his chiefest aversion, owing to an unfortunate meeting under the peach trees.

"You 've told lots of lies yourself!"

"There's different kinds o' lies," said Peter, "an' this is the kind that I don't tell. It ain't that I'm fond o' carrying tales," he added, "but that I wants to see ye grow up to be a thoroughbred."

Bobby changed his tactics.

"Father 'll feel awfully bad; I hate to have him find it out."

Peter suppressed a grin.

"Boys ought always to be considerate o' their fathers' feelin's," he conceded.

"And you know, Pete, that you want me to have the mustang. You said yourself that it was a shame for a big boy like me to be riding Toddles."

Peter folded his arms and studied the distance a moment with thoughtful eyes; then he faced his companion with the air of pronouncing an ultimatum.

"I 'll tell ye what I 'll do, Master Bobby, since ye 're so anxious to save yer father's feelin's. I 'll agree not to mention the matter, an' ye can take yer punishment from me at the end of a strap."

Bobby stared.

"Do you mean," he gasped, "that you want to whip me?"

"Well, no, I can't say as I want to, but I think it's me dooty. If ye was a stable-boy and I caught ye in a lie like that, I'd wallop ye till ye could n't stand."

"I never was whipped in my life!"

"The more reason ye need it now. I 've often thought, Master Bobby, that a thorough lickin' would do ye good."

Bobby sprang to his feet.

"Tell him if you want. I don't care!"

"Just as ye please. He's over to Shannon Farms now buyin' the mustang. When he gets back an' finds his son is a liar and a coward, he 'll be returnin' that horse by telephone."

Bobby's flight was suspended while he hung wavering between indignation and desire.

"There it is," said Peter. "I won't go back on me word. Either ye keeps a whole skin an' rides Toddles another year, or ye takes yer lickin' like a man an' gets the horse. Ye can have an hour to think it over."

He rose and sauntered unconcernedly toward the stables. Bobby stared after him, several different emotions struggling for supremacy in his freckled face; then he plunged his hands deep into his pockets and turned down the lane with an attempt at a swagger as he passed the stable door. At the paddock gate Toddles poked his shaggy little head through the bars and whinnied insistently. But Bobby, instead of bestowing the expected lump of sugar, shoved him viciously with his elbow and scuffed on. He seated himself precariously on the top rail of the pasture fence and fell to digging holes in the wood with his new knife, cogitating meanwhile the two alternatives he had been invited to consider.

They appealed to him as equally revolting. Only that morning he had carelessly informed the boys that his father was going to buy him a mustang—a brown and white circus mustang that was trained to stand on its hind legs. The humiliation of losing the horse was more than he could face. Yet, on the other hand, to be beaten like a stable-boy for telling a lie! He had boasted to the Hartridge boys, who did not enjoy such immunity, that he had never received a flogging in his life. He might have stood it from his father—but from Peter! Peter, who had always been his stanchest ally, who, on occasion, had even deviated from the strict truth himself in order to shield Bobby from justice. The boy already had his full quota of parents; he did not relish having Peter usurp the rôle.

For thirty minutes he balanced on the fence, testing first one then the other of the horns of his dilemma. But suddenly he saw, across the fields where the high-road was visible, a horse and rider approaching at a quick canter. He slid down and walked with an air of grim resolution to the stables.

Peter was in the harness-room busily engaged in cleaning out the closet. The floor was a litter of buckles and straps and horse medicine.

"Well?" he inquired, as Bobby appeared in the door.

"You can give me that licking if you want," said Bobby, "but I tell you now, I 'll pay you back!"

"All right!" said Peter, cheerfully, reaching for a strap that hung behind the door. "I'm ready if you are. We 'll go down in the lower meadow where there won't be no interruption."

He led the way and Bobby followed a dozen paces behind. They paused in a secluded clump of willows.

"Take yer coat off," said Peter.

Bobby cast him one appealing glance, but his face was adamant.

"Take it off," he repeated.

Bobby complied without a word, his own face growing white.

Peter laid on the strap six times. He did not soften the blows in the slightest; it was exactly the same flogging that a stable-boy would have received under the same circumstances. Two tears slipped down Bobby's cheeks, but he set his jaw hard and took it like a man. Peter dropped the strap.

"I'm sorry, Master Bobby. I did n't like it any better than you, but it had to be done. Are we friends?" he held out his hand.

"No, we 're not friends!" Bobby snapped. He turned his back and put on his coat; then he started for the house. "You 'll be sorry," he threw over his shoulder.

During the next few days Bobby ignored Peter. If he had any business in the neighbourhood of the stables he addressed himself ostentatiously to one of the under men. The rupture of their friendship did not pass unmarked, though the grooms soon found that it did not pay to be facetious on the subject. Billy, in return for some jocular comments, spent an afternoon in adding a superfluous lustre to already brilliant carriage lamps.

The mustang arrived, was christened Apache, and assigned to a box stall. He possessed a slightly vicious eye and a tendency to buck, as two of the grooms found to their cost while trying to ride him bareback in the paddock. Peter shook his head dubiously as he watched the unseating of the second groom.

"We 'll put a curb bit on that horse. I don't just like his looks for a youngster to ride."

"Huh!" said Billy, "Master Bobby ain't such a baby as everybody thinks; he can manage him all right."

Word came out from the house that afternoon that Bobby was to try the new mustang. Billy saddled the horses—Apache, and Blue Gypsy for Miss Ethel, and a cob for Peter—and led them out, while Peter in his most immaculate riding clothes swaggered after. The maids were all on the back porch and the family at the porte-cochère to watch the departure. Bobby would accept no assistance, but mounted from the ground with a fine air of pride. Apache plunged a trifle, but the boy was a horseman and he stuck to his saddle.

"Be careful, Bobby," his mother warned.

"You need n't worry about me," Bobby called back gaily. "I'm not afraid of any horse living!"

Blue Gypsy never stood well, and Miss Ethel was already off. Bobby started to follow, but he wheeled about to say:

"You come, Billy; I don't want Peter."

"Bobby, dear," his mother expostulated, "you don't know the horse; it would be safer——"

"I want Billy! I won't go if Peter has to come tagging along."

Peter removed his foot from the stirrup and passed the horse over to the groom. The cavalcade clattered off and he walked slowly back to the stables. He felt the slight keenly. He could remember when he had held Bobby, a baby in short dresses, on the back of his father's hunter, when he had first taught the little hands to close about a bridle. And now, when the boy had his first horse, not to go! Peter's feeling for Bobby was almost paternal; the slight hurt not only his pride but his affections as well.

He spent an hour puttering about the carriage room, whistling a cheerful two-step and vainly pretending to himself that he felt in a cheerful frame of mind. Then suddenly his music and his thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the house telephone bell, long and insistently. He sprang to the instrument and heard Annie's voice, her words punctuated by frightened sobs.

"Oh, Pete! Is that you? Something awful's happened. There's been an accident. Master Bobby's been throwed. The doctor's telephoned to get a room ready and have a nurse from the hospital here. You 're to hitch up Arab as fast as you can and drive to the hospital after her. Oh, I hope he won't die!" she wailed.

Peter dropped the receiver and ran to Arab's stall. He led him out and threw on the harness with hands that trembled so they could scarcely fasten a buckle.

"Why can't I learn to mind me own business?" he groaned. "What right have I to be floggin' Master Bobby?"

The young woman whom Peter brought back decided before the end of the drive that the man beside her was crazy. All that she could get in return for her inquiries as to the gravity of the accident was the incoherent assertion:

"He's probably dead by now, ma'am, and if he is it's me that done it."

As they turned in at the Willowbrook gate Peter strained forward to catch sight of the house. A strange coupé was drawn up before the porte-cochère. He involuntarily pulled Arab to a standstill and looked away, but the nurse reached out and grasped the reins.

"Here, man, what is the matter with you? Hurry up! They may want me to help get the boy in."

Peter drove on and sat staring woodenly while she sprang to the ground and hurried forward. Mrs. Carter and the maids were gathered in a frightened group on the steps. He could hear Miss Ethel inside the carriage calling wildly:

"Do be quick! His head has commenced to bleed again."

The driver climbed down to help the doctor lift him out. They jarred him going up the steps and he moaned slightly. Peter cursed the man's clumsy feet, though not for worlds could he himself have stirred to help them. The boy's head was bandaged with a towel, and he looked very limp and white, but he summoned a feeble smile at sight of his mother. They carried him in and the servants crowded after in an anxious effort to help.

Peter drove on to the stables and put up Arab. In a few minutes Billy returned leading the two horses. He was frightened and excited; and he burst into an account of the accident while he was still half way down the drive.

"It was n't my fault," he called. "Miss Ethel said it was n't my fault. We met a mowing-machine and Apache bolted. He threw the boy off against a stone wall, and by the time I reached 'em, Apache was eating grass in the next field and Master Bobby lying in the ditch with 'is head cut open."

"I don't want to hear about it," Peter returned shortly. "Put them horses up and get out."

He himself removed Apache's new saddle and bridle and drove him with a vicious whack into the stall. Billy took himself off to find a more appreciative audience, while Peter dropped down on a stool inside the stable door, and with his chin in his hands sat watching the house. He saw the nurse fling wide the blinds of Bobby's room and roll up the shades; he wondered with a choking sensation what they were doing to the boy that they needed so much light. He saw Annie come out and hang some towels on the line. The whole aspect of the place to Peter's sharpened senses wore an air of tragic bustle. No one came near to tell him how the boy was doing; he had not the courage to go to the house and ask. He sat dumbly waiting for something to happen while twilight faded into dusk. One of the stable-boys came to call him to supper and he replied crossly that he did n't want any supper. Presently he heard a step scrunching on the gravel, and he looked up to find Annie coming toward him.

"Is—is he dead?" he whispered.

"He's not goin' to die. He's feelin' better now; they 've sewed up the hole in his head. The doctor did it with a thread an' needle just like you'd sew a dress. He took ten stitches an' Master Bobby bled awful. He never cried once, though; he just got whiter an' whiter an' fainted away. Don't feel so bad, Pete, he's goin' to get well."

She laid her hand caressingly on his hair and brushed it back from his forehead. He caught her hand and held it.

"It's me that's to blame for his gettin' hurt. He won't never speak to me again."

"Yes, he will; he's wantin' to speak to you now. They sent me out to fetch you."

"Me?" he asked, shrinking back. "What's he wantin' with me?"

"He's been out of his head an' callin' for you; he won't go to sleep till he sees you. The doctor said to fetch you in. Come on."

Annie's manner was insistent and Peter rose and followed her.

"Here he is," she whispered, pushing him ahead of her into the darkened room.

Bobby made a half movement to turn as the door creaked, but a quick pain shot through his shoulder and he fell back with a little gasp.

"Take care, Bobby," the nurse warned. "You must n't move or you will hurt that bad arm." Her greeting to Peter was stern. "You may stay five minutes, and mind you don't get him excited!" She bent over the boy to loosen the bandage about his shoulder.

"You go out," said Bobby, querulously. "I want to see Peter alone."

"Yes, dear," she patted the bedclothes indulgently. "Remember, five minutes!" she added as she closed the door.

The two left alone stared at each other rather consciously for a moment. They both felt that the occasion demanded something heroic in the way of a reconciliation, but it was the natural instinct of each to fly from sentiment. The sight of Bobby's pale face and bandaged head, however, had their effect on Peter's already overwrought nerves.

"I'm a blunderin' fool!" he groaned. "I don't know why I can't never learn to attend to me own affairs. If I'd told yer father, as was me dooty, he'd never uv given ye that spotted devil of a horse."

"You are n't to blame, Pete. I guess I was hurt for more punishment 'cause I did n't take the first in the right spirit." He fumbled under his pillow and drew out the new five-bladed knife. "This is for a remembrance, and whenever you use it you will think 'it was me that cured Bobby Carter of telling lies.'"

Peter received the gift with an air of hesitation.

"I don't like to take it," he said, dubiously, "though I have a feelin' that perhaps I ought, for with five blades to choose from ye 'll be cuttin' yer blamed young throat—I'd hate to be the cause of any more accidents." He balanced it thoughtfully in his palm. "But I'm thinkin," he added softly, "that the corkscrew might be doin' as much damage to me as the five blades to you."

Bobby grinned appreciatively, and held out his uninjured left hand.

"Pete," he said, "if I promise never, never to tell any more lies, will you promise never, never to use that corkscrew?"

"It's a bargain!" said Peter, grasping the boy's hand. "And I'm glad that we 're friends again."

They stared at each other solemnly, neither thinking of anything further to add, when Peter suddenly became aware of the ticking of the clock.

"Holy Saint Patrick!" he ejaculated. "Me five minutes was up five minutes ago. I must be takin' me leave or that commandin' young woman will come back and eject me."

He moved toward the door, but paused to throw over his shoulder:

"I'd already promised the same to Annie, so ye need n't be takin' too much credit to yerself fer me conversion."