While Caroline Was Growing/An Idyl of the Road
WHILE CAROLINE WAS GROWING
AN IDYL OF THE ROAD
Caroline rocked herself back and forth from her waist, defying the uncompromisingly straight chair which inclosed her portly little person.
"Bounded 'n th' north by Mass'joosetts; bounded 'n th' north by Mass'joosetts; bounded 'n th' north by Mass'joosetts," she intoned in a monotonous chant. But her eyes were not upon the map; like those of the gentleman in the poem, they were with her heart, and that was far away.
Out of the window the spring was coming on, in waves of tree-bloom and bright grass; the birds bickered sweetly in the sun-patches; everything was reaching on tiptoe for the deliciou s thrill of May—and she was bounding Connecticut! It was idiotic. What was a knowledge of the uninteresting limits of her native State compared to that soft fresh wind on her cheek, that indescribable odor of brown earth?
Two fat birds descended with a twitter into a crystal rain-pool, and bathed, with splashes of spray; Caroline's feet itched in her ribbed stockings. A soiled and freckled boy, bare from the knees, whistled by the window, jangling a can of bait, his pole balanced prettily on one ragged shoulder. As he reached the puddle, a pure inconsequence of good feeling seized him, and he splashed deliberately in it, grinning around him. Caroline mechanically bent and unbuttoned the top button of her stout boots. He caught her eye.
"Where you going?" she called through the glass.
"Oh, I d'no—anywheres, I guess!" he answered invitingly. "Want to come?"
"I can't. I have to go to school," she said shortly.
"And so ought he—you ought to be ashamed of yourself, calling through the window to that Simms boy!" cried a disgusted voice. Caroline twitched her shoulder spitefully.
"A great girl like you, too! Why, he's no better than a common tramp, that boy," proceeded the voice. "Look at his clothes!"
"Nobody wears good clothes to go fishing," Caroline grumbled. "I wish he had mine!"
"Fishing! He never wears them anywhere. He hasn't got them to wear. And he'd be glad enough to get yours, I can tell you."
"He wouldn't do any such thing! He told me Saturday he'd rather be a dog than a girl; he'd get more use of his legs!"
There was a scandalized silence. Caroline waited grimly.
"What are you doing?" said the voice at last. "Studying my jography," she replied.
"Well, mind you do, then."
"I can't, if everybody talks to me all the time," she muttered sullenly.
Nevertheless she resumed her rocking and crooning.
"Bounded 'n th' east by Rho Disland; bounded ' n th' east by Rho Disland; bounded 'n th' east by Rho Disland."
The housemaid appeared just under the window, dragging a small step-ladder and a pail of glistening, soapy water. Her head was coifed in a fresh starched towel, giving her the appearance of a holy sister of some clean blue-and-white order; her eyes were large and mournful. She appealed instantly to Caroline's imagination.
"Oh, Katy, what a lovely Mother Superior you would make!" she cried enthusiastically.
"I'm a Presbyterian, Miss Car'line," said Katy reprovingly. "You'd better go on with your lessons," and she threw up the window from the outside.
A great puff of spring air burst into the room and turned it into a garden. Moist turf and sprouting leaves, wet flagstones and blowing fruit-blossoms, the heady brew of early morning in the early year assailed Caroline's quivering nostrils and intoxicated her soul.
"Oh, Katy, don't it smell grand!" she cried.
Katy wrung the soapy cloth and attacked the upper sash.
"You've got the nose of a bloodhound," she observed. "I b'lieve you'd smell molasses cookies half a mile."
"I didn't mean them," she said. "I meant——"
"You'd better be at your lesson; your aunty'll be here in a minute if she hears you talking, now!"
Katy was severe, but fundamentally friendly. Caroline groaned and applied herself.
"Bounded 'n th' south by Long Island Sound; bounded 'n th' south by Long Island Sound; bounded 'n th' south—oh, look!"
Up the neat flagged path of the side yard a spotted fox-terrier approached, delicately erect upon his hind legs, his mouth spread in cheerful smiles, his ears cocked becomingly. He paused, he waved a salute, and as a shrill whistle from behind struck up a popular tune, he waltzed accurately up to the side porch and back, retaining to the last note his pleased if painstaking smile.
Caroline gasped delightedly; Katy's severity relaxed.
"That's a mighty cute little dog," she admitted.
Another shrill whistle, and the dog returned, limping on three legs, his ears drooping, his stumpy tail dejected. He paused in the middle of the walk, and at a sharp clap, as of two hands, he dropped limply on his side, rolled to his back, and stiffened there pathetically, his eyes closed.
Caroline's chin quivered; Katy's position on the ladder was frankly that of one who has paid for an orchestra-chair; Maggie had left the cookies and stood grinning in the kitchen door; an aunt appeared in an upper window.
One more clap, and the actor returned to life and left them, but only for a moment. He was back again, erect and smiling, a small wicker basket balanced on his paws. Marching sedately up to Maggie, he paused, and glanced politely down at the basket, then up at her.
Flesh and blood could not resist him. Hastily tugging out from her petticoat a bulging pocket-book, she deposited a dime in the basket; the aunt, with extraordinary accuracy, dropped a five-cent piece from the window; Katy mourned her distance from her own financial center, and Caroline ran for her bank. It was a practical mechanism, the top falling off at her onslaught with the ease of frequent exercise, and she returned in time to slip six pennies under the two hot cookies that Maggie had added to her first contribution. At each tribute the terrier barked twice politely, and only when there was no more to be hoped for did he trot off around the corner of the house, the cookies swaying at a perilous angle under his quivering nostrils.
A moment later a tall young man stepped across the grass and lifted a worn polo-cap from a reddish-yellow head.
"Much obliged, all," he said, with an awkward little bow. "Good day!"
He turned, whistled to the terrier, and was going on, when he caught the heartfelt admiration of Caroline's glance.
"Want to pat him?" he inquired.
She nodded and approached them.
"Shake hands with the lady, William Thayer, and tell her how d'you do," he commanded, as she knelt beside the wonderful creature.
The terrier offered a cool, tremulous paw, and barked with cheerful interrogation as she shook it rapturously.
"Those were fine cookies," said the young man. "I had 'em for breakfast. I'm going to buy a bone for William Thayer, and then he'll have some, too."
"Was that all you had?" she inquired, horror-stricken. He nodded. "But I'll make it up on dinner," he added lightly.
Caroline sprang to her feet.
"You go over there behind that barn and wait a minute," she commanded.
The young man—he was only a boy—blushed under his tan and bit his lip.
"I didn't mean—I'll get along all right; you needn't bother," he muttered, conscious of Katy's suspicious eye.
"Oh, do! Please do!" she entreated. "I'll be out there in just a minute; hurry up, before Maggie gets through those cookies!"
He turned toward the barn, and Caroline ran back to the house.
"Is that man gone? What are you doing, Caroline?" called the invisible voice.
"Yes, he's gone. I was patting the dog," she answered boldly, stepping through the dining-room into the pantry and glancing hastily about. Only a plate of rolls was in sight; the place was ostentatiously clean and orderly. She sighed and pushed through the swinging door; the refrigerator was a more delicate affair. But Maggie's broad back was bent over her ovenful, and Caroline clicked the door-knob unchallenged.
Two chops sat sociably on a large plate; a little mound of spinach rested on one side of them, a huge baked potato on the other. She slid the plate softly from the metal shelf, peeping apprehensively at Maggie, tumbled the rolls on to the top, and sped into the dining-room. From a drawer in the sideboard she abstracted a silver fork which she slipped into her pocket, adding, after a moment of consideration, a salt-shaker. Stepping to the door, she paused on the little porch for a hasty survey. The coast seemed clear, and she sped across the yard, the silver jingling in her pocket. She was safe from the back, but a flank movement on Maggie's part would have been most disastrous, and it was with full appreciation of the audacity of her performance that she scudded around the barn and gained the cherry-tree behind it.
The young man was sitting on the grass, his head against the tree; his eyes brightened as she approached.
"Have any luck?" he inquired.
She held out the plate, and, as he took it, fumbled in her pocket for the fork.
"It's all cold," she murmured apologetically, "but I knew Maggie'd never warm it. Do you mind?"
"Not a bit," he answered, with a whimsical glance at her eagerness to serve him. "I always did like greens," he added, as he accepted the fork and attacked the spinach.
"Here, William Thayer!"
He handed one of the chops to the dog, and stared as Caroline drew out the salt-cellar.
"Did you—well, by—that's pretty kind, now!"
"Potatoes are so nasty without it," she explained.
"Yes, that's why I don't us'ally eat 'em," he replied.
There was a moment's silence, while he ate with the frank morning appetite of twenty, and Caroline watched him, her sympathetic jaws moving with his, her eyes shining with hospitality.
"Nice place you've got here," he suggested, breaking a roll.
"Yes. I wish I'd brought you some butter, but I didn't dare cut any off; it was in a jar, and it clatters so. ("Oh, that's all right!") This is nicer than it used to be out here. It was the chicken-yard, and ashes and things got put here; but nobody keeps chickens any more, and this is all new grass. They took down the back part of the barn, too, and painted it, and now it's the stables, or you can say carriage-house," she explained instructively.
He threw his chop-bone to William Thayer and drew a long breath.
"That was pretty good," he said, "and I'm much obliged to you, Miss." Caroline swelled with importance at the title. "I must have walked four or five miles, and it's not such fun with an empty stomach. I came from Deepdale."
"Oh, how lovely!" cried she. "By the pond?"
"Yes, by the pond. I gave William Thayer a swim, and I had a little nap. It's nice and pretty all around there. I cut some sassafras root; want some?"
He felt in his pockets, and produced a brown, aromatic stump; Caroline sucked at it with a relish.
"Where are you going now?" she asked respectfully, patting William Thayer's back while his master caressed his ear.
"Oh, I don't know exactly. There's some nice woods back of the town; I think I'll look 'em through, and then go on to New Derby. I read in the paper about some kind of a firemen's parade there to-morrow, and if there's a lot of people, we'll earn something. We haven't made much lately, because William Thayer hurt his leg, and I've been sparing of him—haven't I, pup? But he's all right now."
He squeezed the dog's body and tickled him knowingly; the little fellow grinned widely and barked. Caroline sighed.
"It must be grand," she said wistfully, "to walk from one town to another, that way. Where do you sleep?"
"In barns, sometimes, and there's lots of covered wagons all around the farm-houses, outside the towns, you know. A church shed's as good a place as any. I don't like the towns as big as this, though; I like the country this time o' year."
Caroline nodded comprehendingly, breathing deep breaths of the fresh, earth-scented air.
"I wish there never were any houses in the world—nor any schools, either!" she cried.
He smiled. "I never was much for schools, myself," he said. "They don't smell good."
Caroline looked at him solemnly. She felt that the resolution of her life was taken. In one ecstatic flash she beheld her future.
"I shall never go to school again," she announced. "I shall—" A wave of joyous possibility broke over her, but modesty tied her tongue.
"Could I—would you—I'm a real good walker!" she burst out, and blushed furiously. Who was she to associate with a dog like William Thayer?
The young man looked curiously at her. A kind of anxiety clouded his frank gray eyes. "Oh, you mustn't talk like that," he urged, laying one brown hand on her apron. "That wouldn't do for a young lady like you. I guess you better go to school. Girls, you know!"
He waited a moment, but she scowled silently. He began again:
"I guess it's different with girls, anyway. You see, you have to get your education. A young lady——"
"I'm not a young lady," snapped Caroline. "I'm only ten 'n' a quarter!"
"Well, anyway, it isn't respectable," he argued hastily. Caroline opened her eyes wide at him.
"Aren't you respectable?" she demanded, appraising unconsciously his clothes, which were, if not fine, at least clean and whole, his flannel shirt finished with a neat blue tie, his shoes no dustier than the country roads accounted for.
He flushed under his thick freckles, and plucked at the grass nervously.
"N-n—yes, I am!" he shouted defiantly. "I know lots of people don't think so, but I am! We earn our way, William Thayer an' me, an' we don't want much. I don't see as we do any harm. It don't take much to live, anyhow; it's coal-scuttles an' lookin'-glasses an'—an' carpets that cost money. And if you don't want them—oh, what's the use talking? I never could live all tied up."
"Caroline! Caroline!" A loud voice cut across her meditative silence. She shrugged her shoulders stubbornly and put her finger on her lip. The boy shook his head.
"You better go," he said soothingly. "You'll have to sometime, you know. Here, take these," as she jumped up, forgetting the fork and the salt-shaker. "Be sure to put 'em back where you got 'em, won't you?"
"Oh, leave 'em here. I'll come back," she said carelessly, but the boy insisted.
"No, you take 'em right now," he commanded. "I wouldn't want any mistake made."
"Just wait a minute—I'll come back," she repeated, as the call sounded again.
"Caroline! where are you?"
The boy stood up, holding out the silver. "You—you don't want 'em to say I—I took 'em?" he blurted out.
Her eyes opened wide; she looked all the incredulous horror she felt.
"Steal?" she cried, "with a dog like that?"
He nodded. "That's the way I look at it, but some don't," he said shortly. "You better go now. Much obliged for the breakfast. If I come back this way, maybe I'll stop in again, if you'd like to see William Thayer."
"I think she went across behind the stable, Miss Carrie," Katy called helpfully.
Caroline thrust the silver into her pocket and turned to go.
"I'm coming!" she cried desperately, and, patting William Thayer, she took a few backward steps.
"There's a nice brook in those woods," she observed irrelevantly, "if you should want to take another nap," and, turning her back resolutely, she rounded the barn and disappeared.
The boy picked up the empty plate and slipped it into a door at the back of the stable. Then, lifting the dog over the nearest fence, he climbed it and stepped through the next yard into the street.
"That was a mighty nice little girl, William Thayer," he said thoughtfully. "She seemed to understand a lot, for such a little one."
Caroline stalked aggressively into the dining-room, and finding it for the moment empty, hastily replaced the salt-shaker. The fork she laid in the pantry. Hardly was her pocket clear of the telltale stuff when her aunt appeared before her.
"I suppose you know you're late for school, Caroline," she began, with evident self-control. "If you think I am going to write you an excuse, you are very much mistaken."
"All right," Caroline returned laconically. "Is my lunch ready?"
"It was nothing in the world but that dog; I cannot understand the fascination that tramps and loafers have for you! You never got it from this family. Why do you like to talk to dirty tramps! Some day a strange dog will bite you. Then you'll be sorry!"
"He wasn't a bit dirty. If you weren't so afraid of dogs, you'd know William Thayer wouldn't bite!" she retorted indignantly. "I think I might have three cookies—those are nasty little thin ones. And you never put enough butter."
Caroline and her namesake-aunt were as oil and water in their social intercourse.
"Now, that's another thing. I cannot see where you put all the food you eat! You get more than the boys, a great deal. And boys are supposed—not that any one grudges it to you, child, but really——"
"I'm getting later all the time," Caroline remarked impartially. "You needn't cut the crusts off; I like 'em."
Her aunt sighed, and handed her the lunch-basket; a fringe of red-and-white napkin dangled invitingly from the corner.
"Now run along; what are you going in there for?"
She stood for a moment looking out at the flagstone where William Thayer had waltzed so seductively, then strolled slowly out, along the porch and by the house. The lilies-of-the-valley were white in the sidebeds; their odor, blown to her on quick puffs of west wind, filled her with a sort of pleasant sadness, the mingled sorrow and delight of each new spring. She bent her strong little legs and squatted down among them, sniffing ecstatically. What was it she was trying to remember? Had it ever happened? Years ago, when she was very little——
"Caroline! are you trying purposely to be naughty! It is twenty minutes past nine!"
She muttered impatiently, stamped her foot deliberately upon the lilies, and ran out of the yard.
It will never be known what Caroline's definite intentions were on that morning. It is not improbable that she meant to go to school. She undoubtedly walked to the building devoted to the instruction of her generation and began to mount the steps. What power weighted her lagging feet and finally dragged her to a sitting position on the top step, she could not have told; but certain it is that for ten minutes she sat upon the text-book of geography, thoughtfully interposed between her person and the cold stone, her chin in her hand, her eyes fixed and vague. Behind her a chorus of voices arose in the melody that accompanied a peculiarly tedious system of gymnastics; she scowled unconsciously. Before her, clear to the inward vision, lay a pleasant little pond, set in a ring of new grass. Clear lay the pebbles and roots at the bottom; clear was the reflection of the feathering trees about it; clear shone the eyes of William Thayer as he joyously swam for sticks across it. Great patches of sun warmed the grass and cheered the hearts of two happy wanderers, who fortified themselves from a lunch-basket padded with a red-fringed napkin. Happy yellow dandelions were spotted about, and the birds chirped unceasingly; the wind puffed the whole spring into their eager nostrils. Truly a pleasant picture! As in a dream, Caroline walked softly down the steps and toward the north.
For ten minutes she kept steadily on, looking neither to the right nor to the left, when the rattle of a particularly noisy wagon attracted her attention. She caught the eye of the driver; it was the egg-and-chicken man. He nodded cheerfully.
"Hello, there!" said he.
"Hello!" Caroline returned. "You going home?"
"Sure," said the egg-and-chicken man. "Want a ride?"
Caroline wasted no breath in words, but clambered up to the seat beside him.
"Startin' out early, ain't you?" he queried. "Goin' far up my way?"
"Pretty far," she answered cautiously, "but not so very."
"Oh!" said he, impressed by such diplomacy. "'Bout where, now?"
"Have you sold many eggs this morning?" she inquired with amiable interest.
"Twenty-three dozen, an' seven pair o' broilers," he informed her. "Goin' as far as my place?"
"I s'pose it's pretty cold as early as you get up," Caroline suggested pleasantly.
The egg-and-chicken man surrendered. "Middling," he answered respectfully, "but it smells so good and things looks so pretty, I don't mind. I'm glad I don't live in the city. It's all pavin'-stone an' smoke. This time o' year I like to feel the dirt under m' feet, somehow."
"So do I," said Caroline fervently. They jogged on for a mile in silence.
"I have to get out here," said he, finally, "but don't be scared. That horse won't move a peg without me. I'll be back in a minute."
But when he returned she was not there.
The houses were thinning out rapidly; one side of the road was already only a succession of fields, and along a tiny worn path through one of these Caroline was hurrying nervously. She crossed the widening brook, almost a little river now, and kept along its farther bank for half an hour, then left it and struck into the fringe of the woods.
It was very still here; the road was far away, and only the chatter of the birds and the liquid cluck of the little stream disturbed the stillness of the growing things. She walked softly, except for the whisper of brushing against the spreading branches that choked the tiny path. The heat of noon was rising to its climax, and the shafts of light struck warm on her cheeks.
Suddenly a sound disturbed the peace of the woods—a scratching, rattling, scurrying sound. Something was moving through the dead leaves that had gathered among the roots and trunks. She started back nervously, but jumped forward again with a cry of delight, and caught William Thayer in her arms.
Even as he was licking her cheek, the path widened, the trees turned into bushes, the underbrush melted away, and the brook, a little river now, bent in upon them in a broad curve, spanned only by stepping-stones. It ran full between its grassy banks, gurgling and chuckling as it lapped the stones, a mirror for the fat white clouds where it lay in still pools.
In the shelter of a boulder, a lad crouched over a fire, coaxing it with bits of paper and handfuls of dry leaves. Just as the flames shot up, the dog barked cheerily, and the lad turned to welcome him. His eye fell on Caroline; amazement and real pleasure grew into a delighted laugh.
"Well, if you don't beat the Dutch!" he cried. "How'd you get here?"
"I came in the wagon with the egg-and-chicken man," said she happily, "and then I walked 'cross lots. William Thayer knew me just as well!"
"'Course he did. He always knows his friends. Now, see here. You can stay and watch this fire, an' I'll go over there a ways where those men are buildin' a fence; I'll bet they'll give us something. You look after the fire an' put on these old pieces of rail; it was hard work gettin' dry stuff to-day. We won't be long."
They disappeared between the trees, and Caroline sat in proud responsibility before the delightful little fire. The minutes slipped by; from time to time she fed the blaze with bits of bent twigs, and at the proper moment, with a thrill of anxiety, she laid two pieces of the old fence-rail crosswise on the top. There was a second of doubt, and then they broke into little sharp tongues of flame. With a sigh of pleasure, she turned from this success, and, opening the lunch-basket, laid the napkin on the ground and methodically arranged four sandwiches, two cookies, and an orange on it. Then, with her fat legs crossed before her, she waited in silence. Between the sun at her back and the fire on her face, she grew pleasantly drowsy; the sounds about her melted imperceptibly to a soft, rhythmic drone; her head drooped forward....
She jumped and stared at the boy and the dog. For a moment she forgot. Then she welcomed them heartily and listened proudly to his admiring reception of her preparations.
"Well, William Thayer, will you look at that! How's this for a surprise? And see what we've got." He balanced a tin pail carefully between the two crossed sticks in the heart of the fire, and unfolded from a newspaper two wedges of pumpkin-pie. In William Thayer's little basket was a large piece of cheese.
"It's coffee 'n milk mixed together; they had bottles of it," he explained. "William Thayer 'll take back the pail. Are you hungry?"
"Awful," she stated briefly.
"Well, then," he said with satisfaction, "let's begin."
Caroline attacked a sandwich, with shining eyes, and when in another minute the boy took from his pocket a tin ring that slipped miraculously out of itself into a jointed cup, and dipped her a mug of hot coffee from the bubbling pail, she realized with a pang of joy that this was, beyond any question, the master moment of her life.
"I take this along," he explained, "so's when I go by, and they're milking, I can have some warm. Anybody'd give me all I want if William Thayer dances and drops dead for 'em. It tastes good early in the morning, I tell you."
She sighed with pleasure. To drink warm milk in the cool, early dawn, with the cows about you, and the long, sweet day free before!
They sipped turn about; the boy divided the orange mathematically; the pie was filled with fruit of the Hesperides.
"That was mighty good, that dinner," he announced luxuriously, "an' now I'll have a pipe."
The pungent, fresh odor of the burning tobacco was sweet in the air; a dreamy content held them quiet.
He did not ask her whence or whither; she had no apologies or regrets. Two vagabonds from every law of home and duty, they were as peaceful and unthoughtful of yesterday's bed and to-morrow's meal as William Thayer, who slept in the sun at their feet.
For long they did not talk. An unspoken comprehension, an essential comradeship, filled the deep spaces of silence that frighten and irritate those whom only custom has associated; and Caroline, flat on her filled stomach, her nose in the grass, was close in thought and vague well-being to the boy who puffed blue rings toward the little river, his head on his arms.
"I put the plate into that door in the barn," he said, finally. "Did you put those silver things back?"
Caroline grunted assent.
"But they wouldn't think that you—what you said," she assured him earnestly. "It's only tramps they're afraid of."
He glanced quickly over at her, but she was utterly innocent.
"One came to the kitchen once, and asked Mary for some hot tea or coffee, and she hadn't any, but she said if he was very hungry she'd give him a piece of bread and butter, and he said to go to hell with her bread and butter. So she doesn't like them."
The boy gasped.
"You oughtn't to—had you—that isn't just right for you to say, is it?" he asked awkwardly.
"What—hell?" Caroline inquired placidly. "No, I s'pose not. Nor damn nor devil, either. But, of course, I know 'em. Those are the only three I know. I guess they're about the worst, though," she added with pardonable pride. "My cousin, the Captain, knows some more. He's twelve 'n a half. But he won't tell 'em to me. He says boys always know more than girls. I suppose," respectfully, "you know more than those three, yourself?"
Her companion coughed.
"A boy — " he began, then paused, confronted with her round, trustful eyes.
"A boy — " he started again, and again he paused.
"Oh, well, a boy's different," he blurted, finally.
Caroline nodded humbly.
"Yes, I know," she murmured.
There was silence for a while. The river slipped liquidly over the stones, the white clouds raced along the blue above them, the boy smoked. At length he burst out with:
"You're all right, now! You're just a regular little chum, aren't you?"
She blushed with pleasure.
"I never had anybody along with me," he went on dreamily. "I always go alone. I — I didn't know how nice it was. I had a chum once, but he — he —"
The boy's voice trembled. Caroline's face clouded with sympathy.
"Did he die?" she ventured.
"No," he said, shortly; "no, he didn't die. He's alive. He couldn't stand my ways. I tried to stay in school and — and all that, but soon as spring came I had to be off. So the last time, he told me we had to part, him and me."
"What was his name?" she asked gently.
The boy jerked his head toward the dog.
"That's his name," he said, "William Thayer." A little frown gathered on Caroline's smooth forehead; she felt instinctively the cloud on all this happy wandering. The spring had beckoned, and he had followed, helpless at the call, but something — what and how much? — tugged at his heart; its shadow dimmed the blue of the April sky.
He shrugged his shoulders with a sigh; the smile came again into his gray eyes and wrinkled his freckled face.
"Oh, well, let's be jolly," he cried, with a humorous wink. "The winter's comin' soon enough!" and he burst into a song:
"There was a frog lived in a well,
Kitty alone, Kitty alone;
There was a frog lived in a well;
Kitty alone and I!"
His voice was a sweet, reedy tenor; the quaint old melody delighted Caroline.
"This frog he would a-wooing ride,
Kitty alone, Kitty alone."
She began to catch the air, and nodded to the time with her chin.
"Cock me cary, Kitty alone,
Kitty alone and I!"
The boy lifted his polo-cap in a courtly manner, and began with grimaces and bows to act out the song. His audience swayed responsive to his every gesture, nodding and beaming.
"Quoth he, 'Miss Mouse, I'm come to thee'—
Kitty alone, Kitty alone;
Quoth he, 'Miss Mouse, I'm come to thee,
To see if thou canst fancy me.'
Cock me cary, Kitty alone,
Kitty alone and I!"
Caroline swung her hat by its ribbons and shrilled the refrain, intoxicated with freedom and melody:
"Cock me cary, Kitty alone, Kitty alone and I!"
She drummed with her heels on the ground, the boy waved his cap, and William Thayer rolled over and over, barking loudly for the chorus. Suddenly the boy jumped up, pulled her to her feet, and with grotesque, skipping steps pirouetted around the dying fire. The dog waltzed wildly on his hind legs; Caroline's short petticoats stood straight out around her as she whirled and jumped, a Bacchante in a frilled pinafore. The little glade rang to their shouting:
"Kitty alone and I!"
He darted suddenly through an opening in the bushes, William Thayer close behind, Caroline panting and singing as she gave chase. Through a field, across a little bridge they dashed. He flung the empty coffee-pail at an astonished group of men, who stopped their work, their fence-posts in hand, to stare at the mad trio.
Breathless at last, they flung themselves on a bank by the road and smiled at each other. Caroline laughed aloud, even, in sheer, irresponsible light-headedness, but over the boy's face a little shadow grew.
"It won't seem so nice alone after this, will it, William Thayer?" he said, slowly.
"But—but I'm coming! I'll be there," she cried. "I'm coming with you!"
He went on as if he had not heard.
"Who'll there be to eat our dinner with us to-morrow, William Thayer?" he questioned whimsically.
Caroline moved nearer and put her hand on his knee.
"There'll be—won't there be me?" she begged.
He shook his head.
"I guess not," he said bluntly.
Her eyes filled with tears.
"But—but you said I was a—a regular little chum," she whispered. "Don't you like me?"
He was silent:
"Don't you? Oh, don't you?" she pleaded. "I don't need much to eat, really!"
The lad looked at her with a strange longing. The fatherhood that lives in every boy thrilled at the touch of her fat little hand on his knee; the comradely glow in her round brown eyes warmed his restless, lonely heart. He shook her off almost roughly.
"I guess they'd miss you more'n that salt-shaker," he said grimly. "I wish I could take you with me—honest, I do. But you better stay home and go to school. You don't want to grow up ignorant, and have your folks ashamed of you."
"But you—you aren't ignorant!" she urged warmly, her admiration shining in her eyes.
He blushed and kicked nervously at the grass.
"I am," he said angrily. "I am, too. Oh, dear, I wish—I wish—"
They looked at each other, troubled and uncertain.
"You're a girl," he began again, "and girls can't; they just can't. They have to stay with their folks and keep nice. It's too bad, but that's the way it is. You'd want to see 'em, too. You'd miss 'em nights."
Caroline winced, but could not deny. "Oh," she cried passionately, "why do girls have to do all the missing? It's just what that Simms boy says: 'If I couldn't be a boy, I'd rather be a dog!'"
"There, there," he said soothingly, "just think about it. You'll see. And you're not exactly like a girl, anyhow. You're too nice."
He patted her shoulder softly, and they lay quietly against the bank. Her breathing grew slow and regular; raising himself cautiously on one elbow, he saw that she had fallen asleep, her arm about William Thayer, her dusty boots pathetically crossed. He watched her tenderly, with frequent glances up and down the road.
Presently an irregular beat of hoofs sounded around a bend, and a clattering wagon drew steadily nearer.
The egg-and-chicken man jumped out and strode angrily toward the little group.
"I've caught you, have I, you young——"
The boy put up a warning hand.
"She's fast asleep," he whispered. "Are you goin' to take her home?"
The man stared.
"Oh, I'm no child-stealer," said the boy lightly. "Here, just lift her soft with me, and I'll bet we can put her in without waking her up at all."
Without a word, the man slipped his hands under Caroline's shoulders, the boy lifted her dusty boots, and gently unloosing her arm from the dog, they carried her lax little body carefully to the wagon and laid her on the clean straw in the bottom, her head on a folded coat. She stirred and half opened her eyes, murmured broken words, and sank yet deeper into her dream.
The man pointed to a book on the seat.
"That's her lesson-book," he whispered hoarsely. It was the despised geography.
"Her folks think a heap of her, I tell you," he added, still eying the boy uncertainly. "She's about as bright as they make 'em, I guess."
"I guess she is," said the lad simply. "She'd ought to have been a boy. She'd have made a fine one."
The man's face cleared.
"Do—do you want a job?" he said abruptly. "We're short up at my place, and I wouldn't mind the dog. I remember you, now. You caught a chicken for me once; my wife gave you a hot supper."
The boy smiled faintly and shook his head. "I remember," he said. "No, I don't believe I want any job, thank you. I—I'm sort of—I have to keep along."
"Keep along? Where?"
He waved his hand vaguely.
"Oh, just along," he repeated. "This year, anyhow. Maybe—well, good-by. Her folks might be gettin' anxious."
He stepped up to the cart and looked once more at the flushed cheeks and brown hands, then strode off up the road.
The egg-and-chicken man gathered up the reins and the wagon started. Caroline scowled a little at the motion, but slept on. The boy whistled to the dog.
"Come on, William Thayer," he said. "I guess it's just you and me now."