From Edgewater People (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1918)
People as well as flowers escape from gardens, and legitimate environments. They stroll, either from perversity or idle wantonness, outside palings and specified abiding-places, and remain outside through the generations. No particular stigma attaches to them for so doing. The birth-bar is not sinister, simply mildly differential.
Old Man Edgewater lived in South Barr, and everybody in the four villages of Barr Center, Barr-by-the-Sea, Leicester, and South Barr knew that he was related to the real Edgewaters of Barr Center, although few could trace the relationship. Years before, one Eli Edgewater had slipped off the Family Tree and taken feeble, still tenacious, root as a thing apart. Old Man Eli Edgewater of the present day was like a small no-account sprout from the grand old family root.
Eli had never married. In his youth he had made futile efforts toward matrimony. He had aspired to Mrs. Augustus Cæsar Whittemore's mother. She had been the prettiest girl in the village, and had afterward married a Dunn from Leicester. Everybody had laughed at Eli for that, and the girl had been shamed and indignant. Later, he made sheepish efforts toward courting a lovely girl in Barr Center, and exposed himself again to ridicule. Eli had been incapable of turning his fancy toward a girl of his own lazy, shiftless type who might lazily and shiftlessly have accepted him. In his love-affairs the Edgewater blood had seemed to tell. He had therefore married nobody.
Now Eli was an old man, and his niece, his dead sister's daughter, kept house for him. She was a childless widow, named Deborah Glass. Deborah Glass had come of a family of a similar type to Eli's, only the Glass family had never been inside garden pales. They had not broken loose from stately and progressive rules of life. They had always been simple and ineffectual, although good enough. Deborah Glass was of a pious disposition, devoted to church-going and a religious paper. She was clean, but not orderly. Eli's house was scrubbed daily, but was chaotic. Eli would have preferred order to cleanliness, although he did not exactly realize it. He would regard with a puzzled, sad expression the impossible sitting-room, with every cheap picture hung at different angles, with the books and papers looking as if they had been hurled by some fiend of disrule at the table, whose cloth dragged dismally on one side, at the chairs set as if they had just emerged from a violent collision, at the mantel-shelf immaculately dusted, but decked with kerosene-lamps and vases and a clock at such degrees of variance that an effect of positive immorality was achieved. Eli would sigh, not knowing exactly what the matter was, and look out of the window. Then his face would clear. It was always charming at all seasons, that window outlook.
There was a broad front yard, and in the midst stood a superb oak-tree. That tree was a delight. It clung to its splendid rags of beauty nearly through the winter, and when at last its leaves were fallen, it stood in a gorgeous russet mat of them, and birds' nests on its magnificent branches were disclosed. It was late about putting forth leaves in the spring, but at last it was a triumphant song of vernal bass, and the wonder of that tree in the autumn was almost enough to content the soul of one old man with earth.
There was only one drawback about the oak — Eli was quite sure that its wide circle of shadow hindered the growth and bloom of his rhododendron-bush. Old Man Edgewater had a great rhododendron-bush which was his high light of existence. The oak meant much, so did the deep yard and road beyond, which circled gracefully just there, and the pretty Whittemore house across the way, but that bush was the star in the opal, the eye of the ruby, the expression unto himself of his own soul.
It was really a wonderful thing, that bush. When, late in spring, it was in full bloom, it stood forth like a white angel, arresting the almost awed attention of all who saw. Old Man Eli used to sit on his door-step and watch the passers-by stop and stare, and the pride of life, of which he had known so little, quickened within him. When the bush was at the full tide of its glorious bloom, Old Man Edgewater reached the high-water mark of his race. He was for a little while as fine an Edgewater as any of them. He thought well of himself, looked, and was, another person. He was a Man. Then Deborah Glass insensibly respected him. She was far from realizing why, but her whole manner toward him changed. Usually she treated him as a rather troublesome child whom Providence had intrusted to her care. Hers was entirely a duty-task, for Eli paid her nothing. But Deborah Glass had lived all her life under an autocracy of Duty without thought of revolution. She paid the mortgage on Eli's house, she had it repaired. Then she lived there and cared for the old man.
Eli had a tiny income, just enough to buy his clothes and pay for his food. Sarah Edgewater in Barr Center had settled that upon him years before. Sarah seldom came to see him, but she would not allow him to suffer materially. After Deborah went to live there she called on her, but the untidiness of the house and Deborah's extreme tension of duty rather wearied her. She thought Deborah very good, but she did not wish to see much of her.
One afternoon in spring, when the bush was in full glory, Sarah drove over to South Barr with her married niece. Both exclaimed, and praised the bush. Old Man Edgewater exulted.
Going home, Sarah Edgewater and her niece Margy remarked upon his manner. “He seemed more like one of our family than I have ever seen him,” said Sarah. She, a large, majestic, richly dressed woman, was driving, lines held high.
“He must have been handsome when he was young,” said the younger woman.
“Handsome? Yes, he was.”
“He is handsome now for an old man — and he did not look so very old, either.”
“No; when I come to think of it, not so much older than I; but generally he does look old, and although he was handsome, he never had the appearance of being able to keep up with his looks.”
“He did to-day.”
“Yes, he did to-day.”
“His bush is marvelous.”
“Yes, the most beautiful one of the kind in the country, I believe.”
After his callers had gone, Old Man Edgewater sat on his front door-step and imbibed to his spiritual growth the beauty of his blooming bush. He was alone, for the day before Deborah Glass had been called away by the illness of a cousin who lived in Barr-by-the-Sea. The cousin had been taken ill suddenly, and since she lived alone, Deborah's narrow path of duty branched.
“I hate to leave you, Uncle Eli,” she said; “but Lizzie is sick and she's all alone, and I don't see any way but to go. I'll be back as soon as I can. There's plenty of bread baked, and cake and pie and doughnuts, and that cold lamb.”
“I can get along all right,” returned Eli, absently. He was obsessed by his bush and hardly grasped anything else.
That afternoon Eli forgot that Deborah was not there. When she did not call him to supper, he did not think of it. He did not feel hunger. He sat staring at the bush, and realized complete nourishment of soul and body. There was a full moon, and the bush gleamed like a thing of Heaven plumed with silver. It was not fragrant, of course, but that was better, although the old man did not realize it. A great flood of fragrance from the marvelous bush would have made it more of earth. He sat on the door-step, beside his beloved bush, and worshipped until very late. When at last he rose, he bent over the splendor of white bloom, as if saluting it. He cast a last loving look at it before closing and locking the door.
The next morning Old Man Edgewater, who waked early, as is the habit of age, opened the front door at dawn, and the bush was despoiled. Not only the flowers had been broken off, but great branches. Never again while Old Man Edgewater was out of his grave would the bush be what it had been the night before. It was a piteous, mangled thing. The old man stood gazing at it in a dazed fashion. He put his hand to his head, he rubbed his eyes. He tottered down the steps, and went close to the insulted floral beauty. It was true. At last, he realized. The poor old man's face crumpled up with grief like a child's. Tears rolled down his furrowed cheeks. His dim blue eyes were pools of sorrow.
Then he looked around, and comprehended to the full the miserable wrong. The magnificent blossoms had not been even valued enough to be taken away by the thief. All torn and stamped into the mold, they lay about. It was incredible, the gratuitous insult. There had not been even the excuse of temptation to own beauty. Beauty had been ruined and slain through sheer wantonness. Old Man Edgewater wept aloud.
Suddenly he heard a thin, mocking voice, “Cry-baby.”
His face changed marvelously. It was no longer sorrowful, it was malignant with the terrible malignancy of the aged, robbed by the years of the power of self-protection. He looked around. Just outside the circles of ruined blossoms and broken branches lay a boy. He was a small boy for his age, which might have been nine or ten. His expression was old. He was lying on the dew-soaked grass in a curiously weak attitude, but his blue eyes twinkled and his peaked face was impish with glee.
“Cry-baby!” he squeaked again.
Old Man Edgewater gathered himself together. When young he had been spare but muscular. Now a strange force of that passed youth seemed to inform his old muscles. He was upon the gibing boy in the dewy grass; he had him by the collar of his little jacket; he shook him. The fabric of the garment was so frail it gave way. The boy fell again on the grass, but his impish little face looked up at the old man grinning and unconquered. Eli had him again, firm grip of knotted hands on his shoulders this time. Old Man Edgewater shook and shook. He retained his hold with one hand, then he cuffed and spanked with the other.
“Got 'nough?” he snarled. He let go, and the boy rolled at his feet quite unconscious.
Old Man Edgewater stood staring at him. He touched him, not very gently, with one foot. “Playin' 'possum, be ye?” he inquired.
The boy remained perfectly still.
Eli touched him again, more gently. “Git up and quit this tomfoolery,” he ordered.
The boy made no response. His pale profile lay motionless along the grass.
Old Man Edgewater began to be frightened. He bent over the boy, cautiously. He suspected a feint. The old man lifted a grimy claw of a hand. It was flaccid.
“I swan!” said Old Man Edgewater, in a scared whisper. “Git up, can't ye?” he said again, but quaveringly. “Lord-a-massy, I 'ain't killed him, have I?” he muttered.
The boy stirred. Instantly the old man was on guard again. His terror left him. “Knowed ye was playin' 'possum, ye young varmit,” said he.
The boy gazed at him, and all the impishness was gone from his face; he looked pitiful.
“What d'ye mean?” inquired Old Man Edgewater, in a doubtful voice.
There was a faint murmur in response.
“Hey?” said Old Man Edgewater.
“I didn't mean nothin',” was faintly audible.
“Yes, you did, too. What did ye sp'ile my bush for, hey? Tell me ye didn't mean nothin'!”
The boy's face was still very white, but a twinkle leaped into his blue eyes. He winked at Old Man Edgewater.
The old man almost danced with rage. “Sp'iled that bush! Wa'n't another in the hull town to tech it!” he screamed at the boy. “Tore off all them blooms and tore 'em to bits! What did ye do it for? Answer me! No more playin' 'possum. That don't go down.”
Old Man Edgewater shook the boy again, with different result. This time the boy did not become insensible. He whimpered feebly and the twinkle of his blue eyes was dulled with gathering tears of self-pity.
“I'm 'most starved,” he muttered, sullenly.
“'Most starved, be ye? Funny way to get a meal of vittles, sp'ilin' my bush! Durn ye, that bush was worth enough more 'n 't you be, do ye know that — hey?”
The boy wept like a little child.
“I swan!” said Old Man Edgewater.
He looked about him. It was still very early. The two seemed alone in the world. The curtains were drawn in the Whittemore house opposite, not even the milk-wagon was in sight. The grass was bending with dewdrops like lilies-of-the-valley. Cobwebs sparkling like wheels of diamonds were everywhere. Somewhere a cock crew, then another answered him. There was a chorus of birds at the left.
“I swan!” said Old Man Edgewater.
He was still angry, but not angry enough to have quite as much strength as when he had picked up the boy and shaken him.
“I'll get ye in out of the wet grass, durn ye!” said he; “but you've got to help all ye can. Can't lift no dead weight. I'm an old man.”
However, almost by main strength Old Man Edgewater dragged the boy, whose knees visibly bent under him, although he made an effort to walk. Once in the house, Eli stood holding to the boy's thin arm.
“Durned if I know what to do with him,” he muttered.
“Seems as if nobody did,” returned the boy, in a weak voice.
“Seems as if nobody did.”
Eli stared at him. “Durned if I know,” he said, again.
“Why don't ye lock me up?” suggested the boy. His mouth twisted slightly as if beginning a smile.
“Say, who be ye, anyhow? What's your name?” asked Old Man Edgewater.
“Name's Wash Townsley,” replied the boy, sulkily.
“Huh! one of that Townsley tribe.”
“Ain't no tribe.”
“Ain't no tribe. There ain't no other Townsley 'cept me.”
“Where's your pa?”
“Dunno. He's dead.”
“Where's you ma?”
“Dunno. She's dead, too.”
“When did she die, hey?”
“'Fore I can remember; then Pop married again, a widder with three children, and the Pop and the widder had three more —”
“Hold your hosses. Ain't those children's name Townsley?”
“Used to be. Dunno what 'tis now.”
“Why don't you know?”
“They died, too, just as quick as they could. The last was a baby with curls. I used to tend her.” The boy swallowed hard.
“Then Pop died. He was killed in that railroad smash-up, and then the widder she married again, and he had two children, and then they had one more, and then she died, and now he's married again and she's got a few children.”
“I swan, you stop!”
“Both of 'em is kind of ugly, and he drinks, and she don't wash the dishes.”
“And they told me to git and I got,” said the boy, simply and uncomplainingly.
“Three days ago.”
“What you been doin' since?”
“I went over to Barr Center to enlist.”
The boy nodded. His face flushed angrily. “The captain told me to git, too,” he said. “He told me I wa'n't any use to send over there, that I was only the kind they killed, that was all — couldn't fight. I'd like to show him. I whopped the Muggins kid, and he's twict as big as me. I whopped him, and he bawled and run home to his ma. Huh!”
Old Man Edgewater grinned. “So ye tried to enlist.”
“You bet I did, and he told me to git.”
“What ye been doing since?”
“Nothin', 'cept bein' told to git.”
“Don't see why that made ye sp'ile my bush.”
The boy looked at the man, and the most terrible revolt and defiance of all creation, that of the created against the Creator, was evident in his miserable little face. “I was bound to fight somethin',” he said, between closed teeth.
“Lord-a-massy, my bush wa'n't fightin' ye.”
“It was there, and all covered with flowers,” said the boy, decisively.
“I never see such a boy as ye be,” said Old Man Edgewater.
The boy yawned as if bored. “Wish ye'd lock me up, so I can set down. I'm wore out,” he said.
“You said ye was 'most starved, too, didn't ye?”
“That don't make no odds,” the boy said, dully. “Guess I've 'most got over that. I jest want to set somewhere.” He dropped as he spoke.
“You come right in here,” said Old Man Edgewater. He opened the door into the little room in the center of the house called the “dark bedroom,” because there was no window in it. There was a close but not unpleasant odor in the room; lavender was a part of it.
Eli piloted the boy to a large rocking-chair covered with red cotton, and adorned with a netted tidy. “Set down!” he ordered.
The boy obeyed. Eli went out and locked the door. The boy was then in a soft gloom, only broken by a narrow strip of light at the top of the door, which sagged on its hinges.
Soon the key turned in the lock and the old man appeared. He carried a tray on which were arranged a plate of doughnuts, a section of apple pie, a plate of bread, and a wedge of butter and a tumbler of milk.
“Better eat this,” advised Old Man Edgewater. He stood over Wash Townsley as he ate. The boy was ravenous.
“I swan! ye didn't lie when ye said ye was 'most starved,” said the old man.
“Try it yourself,” retorted the boy.
“Now, don't you be sassy.”
The boy had devoured all the food on the tray. He stuck out his tongue at Old Man Edgewater, and it was as if he stuck out a tongue of rebellion at Providence.
“You be a bad little boy,” said the old man. He went out and locked the door again. He returned to the front door-step and his demolished bush. He picked up one of the ravished white blossoms and regarded it pitifully. A horror of the young creature who could do such a wanton deed was over him. Never in his whole life had the possibility of such deeds under any circumstances been in his own nature. He sat down and reflected. The shades at the opposite windows were now up, and filmy lace curtains swayed in the morning breeze. Pretty Mrs. Whittemore came out with a little golden-haired boy at heel, and cut some pink roses. Wagons and automobiles passed. The village was awake. Old Man Edgewater had not eaten any breakfast himself. He was too disturbed. He was shaken out of his rut of life, and all his little details of existence were chaotic.
“Durned if I know what to do with him,” he muttered to himself. He wished that he had somebody whom he could consult. He felt injured because Deborah Glass was not there. As well as he knew Deborah Glass, he had not the slightest conception as to her probable conduct in such a case. The boy was so small and wretched, although he had done such a dreadful thing, and Deborah was a woman. Nobody ever knew what a woman might do when a miserable child was in question.
The grass no longer glittered with its web of dew. The sun was rising hotly, the sky was purple along the horizon.
“Goin' to be a br'ilin' day,” said Old Man Edgewater. A moist whiff of heat came in his face. “There ain't one mite of air in that bedroom,” he muttered. “That good-for-nothin' boy might faint away in there, he's so dead beat.”
Old Man Edgewater got up and shuffled into the house. He unlocked the door of the dark bedroom and peered in. There was no movement. A thrill of horror came over him. Then he heard steady, delicate breathing. The boy was fast asleep in a little coil on the braided mat.
“Git up,” said Old Man Edgewater.
Those two words had immediate effect upon the boy named Wash Townsley. He had responded to them as to the sting of a lash so often that he got up, half awake. He was so sleepy he staggered.
“What do ye want?” he murmured, thickly. His head wagged to one side like a baby's. He stood before the old man and slept standing. He drew a long breath of slumber.
“Come, you've got to git out of this close place or you'll be sick,” said the old man.
The boy slept.
“You've got to git out of here, durn ye,” said the old man.
The boy woke and regarded him with blinking blue eyes in which tears stood. His mouth quivered, then he stuck out his tongue languidly. “You put me in here,” he mumbled, defensively.
“Who said I didn't? Now I say you've got to git out.”
The boy emerged staggeringly. Old Man Edgewater took him by the arm, noting how small it was, and led him across the sitting-room into his own bedroom. It was a large bedroom with three windows.
“Set down here,” said the old man. He pushed the boy into a chair, then he straightened the bed.
When he turned the boy was asleep again. The old man had some difficulty in getting him to the bed. The minute the childish head touched the pillow the room was filled with the hum of complete slumber. The old man pulled off the boy's shoes. They were dreadful shoes; one had a flapping sole.
“Now lay there, and git your sleep out, durn ye,” said he.
Eli sat again beside his demolished bush, and reflected. Responsibility weighed upon him heavily. “No use tellin' his folks; he 'ain't got any,” he said, aloud. He wished Deborah Glass would come home. Then suddenly a fear seized him lest she should come. “Most likely that boy's dretful dirty,” he said, “and Deborah she's so awful clean, there's no tellin' what she might take it into her head to do.” Eli considered uneasily how very miserable the boy's clothes had looked. “What's she goin' to say when she sees him sleepin' right in the bed with them dirty clothes on?” he thought.
Finally Old Man Edgewater shuffled into the house again. He unlocked the bedroom door. The boy stirred slightly. He had been so badgered and driven about that suspicion never completely slept in his young mind. He stirred, and slept again. Eli bent over him. The boy asleep looked a mere baby. He had heavy yellow lashes and they lay damply upon his white cheeks. His hands were flung out helplessly.
Old Man Edgewater tiptoed out across the sitting-room into the kitchen and returned with a basin of water and a dish-cloth. He approached the boy, wrung out the dish-cloth, and wiped the lightly curved young cheek streaked with tears. He did it so gently that the boy did not wake. He sighed once, and that was all. Tears welled up in the old man's eyes and rolled down his cheek furrows; his old mouth quivered with pity and tenderness like a woman's.
When his task was finished he went and rummaged in his bureau drawers. He drew out a clean nightshirt and regarded it doubtfully. It was made of coarse cotton, untrimmed. Old Man Edgewater shook his head. “Nothin' but a little baby boy,” he said. “Ought to be suthin' softer. All right for my old hide; his skin's like a little baby's.”
Old Man Edgewater finally mounted the stairs to the room where Deborah Glass slept. There he rummaged in her bureau. He glanced fearfully over his shoulder as he did so. He found in one corner of the lowest drawer a package of especially fine underwear. He could not dream of it, but Deborah, lonely woman, had designed these fine articles for her burial wear, and the cousin whom she was nursing knew of the little feminine cache, pitiful vanity and daintiness, for the last toilet of earth. Old Man Edgewater selected a nightgown of finest lawn trimmed with fine lace and white ribbons. It was sweet with lavender. He gathered it under his arm in a crumpled mass and hobbled stiffly downstairs.
He had a task before him: to undress the boy, bathe him, and clothe him in Deborah Glass's best nightgown. He could not accomplish it without awakening his charge, but the child was so spent that he slept again and waked again and slept again, and only whimpered faint protests, making no struggle. Finally he lay cleanly and softly robed in fine lawn, and drew beautiful, long, contented breaths of slumber.
Then Old Man Edgewater sat once more on the door-step. The day was growing hotter. The village street beyond the shady green yard swam in heat in long undulations. Eli reflected how very hot the bedroom where the boy slept would be presently. It therefore happened that by the time the torrid sunlight reached the bedroom where the boy lay, Eli was there, pulling and coaxing him out of bed, then leading him staggeringly through the cool parlor, and pushing him into the cool softness of the best-room bed.
Wash remembered once to stick out his tongue at the old man; then he was so tired he whimpered a bit, and he slept as he was led.
“You must be hungry ag'in,” said Eli. The boy made no reply.
Eli went out into the woodshed where the ice-box stood, and got a glass of cool milk. He returned, and had to shake the boy and pull at his thin shoulders to induce him to sit up and drink. Then he sank back and slept with his mouth still milky, like a young child's. Now that he was resting and fed, and not badgered by his little crowd of tormenting circumstances, the boy's face showed small and fair and sweet, and his mouth was childishly lovely.
Old Man Edgewater wiped his eyes when he sat again on the door-step. “Poor little feller! no real folks, nothin' but steps, kicked round from pillar to post, no wonder he was mad to see my bush all over flowers so much better off than he was,” he muttered. Eli Edgewater was a simple old soul, but to him as he sat there came a clear realization of the rebellion wreaking itself insanely upon cherished beauty. It was the primitive revolt of the human soul deprived, or rather never being given, its share of the sweets of the life into which it had been summoned without consultation. Old Man Edgewater did not reason it out any more than the boy had. He merely regarded the ravished bush of beauty, and understood. Finally he himself dropped off asleep as he sat there. He slept quite soundly, and did not wake until a rather sweet, but thin voice, with possibilities of anger in it, smote his ears.
“What ails that bush?” demanded the voice.
Eli stirred. “Hey?” he said, half awake.
“What ails the bush? Who tore all the blooms off? Wake up, Uncle Eli.”
Eli woke up. Deborah Glass had returned. Immediately a great fear smote him. What would she say about the little boy asleep in the best bedroom? He looked up at her rather pretty middle-aged face and said nothing. He smiled vacantly.
Deborah Glass, a tall, thin woman with smooth curves of light hair looped over her ears, and a pale, clear complexion, bent over him. This time there was an impatient note in her voice.
“What on earth ails you?” said she. She was so much younger that she often treated him as if he were imbecile with age. “Who broke all the blooms on that bush?” she demanded again.
“Guess likely some child.”
“Some child? Some imp. Why, I never saw anything like it. The blooms are all trampled into the grass. Whoever broke them off didn't even want them; just pure destruction, pure and simple. Lots of the branches are broke off. Eli Edgewater, that bush is about ruined. When did you first see it?”
“This mornin' when I come out here,” replied Eli, meekly.
Deborah Glass stared at him. “You say a child did it?” she asked.
“Guess some child must have done it.”
“Well, I just wish I had hold of that child once. No child round here would have done such a thing. Child, my goodness! Who ever heard of a child going into a strange yard and ruining such a beautiful bush as that was?”
Eli said nothing.
“Eli Edgewater, are you sick, or what does ail you?” asked Deborah Glass, explosively.
“No, Deborah, I ain't sick.”
“Then what in creation does ail you? Why, you don't act as if you cared a mite about that bush, and yet I'd thought you set the world by it.”
“Bushes ain't everything,” said Old Man Edgewater, with such a strange accent for him that the woman regarded him with alarm.
“Did you eat your breakfast?” she asked.
“Of course you haven't had dinner. I've brought a nice little piece of beefsteak; and Lizzie's better. She told me to go out in her garden before I started and get a good mess of peas, and a summer squash, and some beets, and I'm going to put them right on. I haven't had any dinner myself.”
Old Man Edgewater thought that the boy would like some of that good dinner, and a sparkle of life came into his distrait face.
“Want me to shell the peas?”
“No, they're young peas, and it won't take long to get dinner.”
Deborah Glass went into the house. Eli leaned his head against the jamb and tried to sleep again, but could not. He listened eagerly. He expected every minute to hear an exclamation. He thought the boy would surely wake, that Deborah would enter the best bedroom for something and discover him. Eli was horribly frightened, but not disposed to abandon his post of protector to the forlorn child.
“Arter all, it's my house,” he muttered, after a while.
“What's that?” asked Deborah. She had come up behind him, and he had not heard.
Old Man Edgewater started violently.
“What's that? What were you saying to yourself?” persisted Deborah.
“It's no sort of a habit you've got, talking to yourself; seems sort of crazy,” said Deborah. She regarded him in a puzzled way. Eli raised his old eyes to her face, then lowered them. He colored, and hitched uneasily. What Deborah next asked was unexpected.
“Who's been here?” she said.
“I didn't say anybody had been here.”
Deborah lifted high, thin nostrils and sniffed. She had an uncannily keen sense of smell. “The house smells different, somehow,” said she. “Anybody been to the door?”
Eli thought with a gasp of relief who had been to the door besides the boy. Mrs. John Cummings had called and asked if Deborah were home. “Mis' Cummin's,” said he.
Deborah sniffed. “It was never Alma Cummings,” said she. “She's always been frying doughnuts. I can always tell her. She didn't go in the house, either, did she?”
“She stood here and asked if you was home.”
“That smell I smell is all through the sitting-room and the dark bedroom. I went in there to lay my things away till I had a chance to go up-stairs.”
“Mebbe you brought it from the electric car,” ventured Eli.
Deborah shook her head. She was so keen of smell that she was easily convinced of error. Sometimes it seemed to lapse into the realm of imagination. “Maybe I imagined it,” she said. “I've smelled roses when the snow was two feet deep, and I knew there were no roses within smelling distance. Dinner 'll be ready before long now.”
Deborah re-entered the house and soon Eli sniffed beefsteak broiling.
He was prepared for almost anything, but not for what happened. Suddenly, with a leap as of a young girl and a soft flop of skirts, Deborah had passed him, as he sat on the door-step, and stood facing him. She was deadly pale, but in her eyes was an expression he had never seen in them. It was incredible, but it seemed an expression of exulting joy, past belief.
“Who —?” said Deborah. Then she stopped.
Eli also was pale. He stared up at her.
“Who —?” began Deborah again. She did not finish for the second time. To Eli's utter astonishment, she pushed past him again. “Come right in when I call you,” said she. “I don't want the things to get cold.”
“I swan!” muttered Old Man Edgewater.
It was not long before Deborah called him, and he rose promptly and obeyed her summons. Deborah hardly gave him time to eat his beefsteak and vegetables before she shoved his plate aside for another with a wedge of pie. Eli himself felt hurried. He was in momentary anticipation that Wash Townsley would wake and appear, clad in Deborah's best nightgown. He felt cold when he thought of it. He was glad when the meal was over and he was back on the door-step.
He was soon astonished again, for Deborah came out with her sun-hat on. “I'm going down to Coleman's store a minute,” said she. “I've got an errand. I sha'n't be gone long. I'm going to leave the dishes until I come back.”
When she was out of sight, Eli rose and stole into the house and the parlor bedroom. He heard a low, peaceful murmur, not a snore, but the song of youthful slumber, like the purr of a comfortable little animal. Eli looked at the little creature in the bed, and started. Sleep and peace and rest had now changed the boy marvelously. His cheeks looked round like a baby's. Long golden lashes lay upon them in violet hollows. His hair, moist with heat, lay in little rings over his full temples, his mouth was slightly parted, his hands had the fingers curled like vine tendrils. Poor little Wash Townsley was charming. He was a darling little cherub of a child and years had rolled from him. He was no longer defiant and tiptoeing to heights of age. He lay cuddled in sleep, a sight for a mother's rapture. He was sweet and innocent. It was inconceivable that the little pink tongue had ever been impudent or been thrust out in derision.
Eli had thought the boy ten years old, now he thought certainly he was not over eight, small and babyish for his age at that.
As Old Man Edgewater gazed at the young sleeper, a great love which he had never known swept over his suddenly awakened heart. It seemed to him that he, for the first time, really knew that he had a heart. He saw before him a gift of life of which he had not dreamed, except vaguely, back in his youth, and the dreams had long ceased.
“That little feller ain't never goin' away, not if I know it,” he muttered.
Deborah was not gone long. Presently he saw her come hurrying along laden with great parcels. She flushed like a girl when he spoke. “What in creation you got there?” said he.
“Been buying something for him?” asked Eli.
Deborah came straight to him. “Then you know all about it?” she panted.
“Course, I know. How did you think he got in?”
Deborah flushed again, then paled. An awed expression was on her face. “I didn't know,” she said. “I went in there, and there he was. He looked like a little angel.”
Eli eyed her. “He's little Wash Townsley,” he said.
“That poor little boy!” said Deborah, in a beautiful voice. “I heard only the other day how he was treated. Nothing except stepfolks, knocked about from pillar to post. How did he happen to come here?”
Old Man Edgewater looked at the bush, then at Deborah.
“You don't mean —” she began. Then she threw her head back. “What's that?” she demanded, with the rancor of a mother defying justice itself for her child. “Children are all like that,” said Deborah, in her beautiful voice.
Old Man Edgewater nodded. “He ain't goin' to be turned adrift if I know it,” said he.
“If you turn him out I shall go too,” said Deborah.
“Lord A'mighty, who's goin' to turn him out?”
“I ain't, for one.”
“And I ain't, for two,” said Eli. He cackled a little, but tears rolled down his cheeks.
“I hear him,” said Deborah, and pushed past into the house.
She returned in about half an hour, and Wash Townsley was with her. He was clad in a charming little-boy suit. He even wore silk socks. His fair hair shone. He was a dear little boy, almost a baby boy. He clung fast to the woman's hand and his face was complex with emotions. It was at once defiant, timid, pleading, sullen, grateful, shamed, delighted, loving, angry — everything that a child's face could be when he was utterly surprised, and uncertain of what might be coming to him.
He stood directly in front of the demolished bush. There was a scared silence. Then a voice like the chirp of a bird broke it. “I'm sorry I did it,” chirped the voice.
Eli and Deborah gazed at each other with a look of awe. For a second it seemed to both of them that they saw the bush again in its full glory of bloom. Then both faces lit like lamps with tenderness, for they knew they saw the shining head of the child blooming for them in the place of the bush.