Overhead the clouds cloaked the sky; a ragged cloak it was, and, here and there, a star shone through a hole, to be obscured almost instantly as more cloud tatters were hurled across the rent. The pines threshed on the hill tops. The bare branches of the wild-cherry and silverleaf trees scraped and rattled and tossed. And the wind, the raw, chilling December wind, driven in, wet and salty, from the sea, tore over the dunes and brown uplands and across the frozen salt-meadows, screamed through the telegraph wires, and made the platform of the dismal South Harniss railway station the lonesomest, coldest, darkest and most miserable spot on the face of the earth.
At least that was the opinion of the seventeen-year-old boy whom the down train—on time for once and a wonder—had just deposited upon that platform. He would not have discounted the statement one iota. The South Harniss station platform WAS the most miserable spot on earth and he was the most miserable human being upon it. And this last was probably true, for there were but three other humans upon that platform and, judging by externals, they seemed happy enough. One was the station agent, who was just entering the building preparatory to locking up for the night, and the others were Jim Young, driver of the “depot wagon,” and Doctor Holliday, the South Harniss “homeopath,” who had been up to a Boston hospital with a patient and was returning home. Jim was whistling “Silver Bells,” a tune much in vogue the previous summer, and Doctor Holliday was puffing at a cigar and knocking his feet together to keep them warm while waiting to get into the depot wagon. These were the only people in sight and they were paying no attention whatever to the lonely figure at the other end of the platform.
The boy looked about him. The station, with its sickly yellow gleam of kerosene lamp behind its dingy windowpane, was apparently the only inhabited spot in a barren wilderness. At the edge of the platform civilization seemed to end and beyond was nothing but a black earth and a black sky, tossing trees and howling wind, and cold—raw, damp, penetrating cold. Compared with this even the stuffy plush seats and smelly warmth of the car he had just left appeared temptingly homelike and luxurious. All the way down from the city he had sneered inwardly at a one-horse railroad which ran no Pullmans on its Cape branch in winter time. Now he forgot his longing for mahogany veneer and individual chairs and would gladly have boarded a freight car, provided there were in it a lamp and a stove.
The light in the station was extinguished and the agent came out with a jingling bunch of keys and locked the door. “Good-night, Jim,” he shouted, and walked off into the blackness. Jim responded with a “good-night” of his own and climbed aboard the wagon, into the dark interior of which the doctor had preceded him. The boy at the other end of the platform began to be really alarmed. It looked as if all living things were abandoning him and he was to be left marooned, to starve or freeze, provided he was not blown away first.
He picked up the suitcase—an expensive suitcase it was, elaborately strapped and buckled, with a telescope back and gold fittings—and hastened toward the wagon. Mr. Young had just picked up the reins.
“Oh,—oh, I say!” faltered the boy. We have called him “the boy” all this time, but he did not consider himself a boy, he esteemed himself a man, if not full-grown physically, certainly so mentally. A man, with all a man’s wisdom, and more besides—the great, the all-embracing wisdom of his age, or youth.
“Here, I say! Just a minute!” he repeated. Jim Young put his head around the edge of the wagon curtain. “Eh?” he queried. “Eh? Who’s talkin’? Oh, was it you, young feller? Did you want me?”
The young fellow replied that he did. “This is South Harniss, isn’t it?” he asked.
Mr. Young chuckled. “Darn sure thing,” he drawled. “I give in that it looks consider’ble like Boston, or Providence, R. I., or some of them capitols, but it ain’t, it’s South Harniss, Cape Cod.”
Doctor Holliday, on the back seat of the depot wagon, chuckled. Jim did not; he never laughed at his own jokes. And his questioner did not chuckle, either.
“Does a—does a Mr. Snow live here?” he asked.
The answer was prompt, if rather indefinite. “Um-hm,” said the driver. “No less’n fourteen of him lives here. Which one do you want?”
“A Mr. Z. Snow.”
“Mr. Z. Snow, eh? Humph! I don’t seem to recollect any Mr. Z. Snow around nowadays. There used to be a Ziba Snow, but he’s dead. ‘Twan’t him you wanted, was it?”
“No. The one I want is—is a Captain Snow. Captain—” he paused before uttering the name which to his critical metropolitan ear had seemed so dreadfully countrified and humiliating; “Captain Zelotes Snow,” he blurted, desperately.
Jim Young laughed aloud. “Good land, Doc!” he cried, turning toward his passenger; “I swan I clean forgot that Cap’n Lote’s name begun with a Z. Cap’n Lote Snow? Why, darn sure! I . . . Eh?” He stopped short, evidently struck by a new idea. “Sho!” he drawled, slowly. “Why, I declare I believe you’re . . . Yes, of course! I heard they was expectin’ you. Doc, you know who ‘tis, don’t you? Cap’n Lote’s grandson; Janie’s boy.”
He took the lighted lantern from under the wagon seat and held it up so that its glow shone upon the face of the youth standing by the wheel.
“Hum,” he mused. “Don’t seem to favor Janie much, does he, Doc. Kind of got her mouth and chin, though. Remember that sort of good-lookin’ set to her mouth she had? And SHE got it from old Cap’n Lo himself. This boy’s face must be more like his pa’s, I cal’late. Don’t you cal’late so, Doc?”
Whether Doctor Holliday cal’lated so or not he did not say. It may be that he thought this cool inspection of and discussion concerning a stranger, even a juvenile stranger, somewhat embarrassing to its object. Or the lantern light may have shown him an ominous pucker between the boy’s black brows and a flash of temper in the big black eyes beneath them. At any rate, instead of replying to Mr. Young, he said, kindly:
“Yes, Captain Snow lives in the village. If you are going to his house get right in here. I live close by, myself.”
“Darned sure!” agreed Mr. Young, with enthusiasm. “Hop right in, sonny.”
But the boy hesitated. Then, haughtily ignoring the driver, he said: “I thought Captain Snow would be here to meet me. He wrote that he would.”
The irrepressible Jim had no idea of remaining ignored. “Did Cap’n Lote write you that he’d be here to the depot?” he demanded. “All right, then he’ll be here, don’t you fret. I presume likely that everlastin’ mare of his has eat herself sick again; eh, Doc? By godfreys domino, the way they pet and stuff that fool horse is a sin and a shame. It ain’t Lote’s fault so much as ‘tis his wife’s—she’s responsible. Don’t you fret, Bub, the cap’n’ll be here for you some time to-night. If he said he’ll come he’ll come, even if he has to hire one of them limmysines. He, he, he! All you’ve got to do is wait, and . . . Hey! . . . Hold on a minute! . . . Bub!”
The boy was walking away. And to hail him as “Bub” was, although Jim Young did not know it, the one way least likely to bring him back.
“Bub!” shouted Jim again. Receiving no reply he added what he had intended saying. “If I run afoul of Cap’n Lote anywheres on the road,” he called, “I’ll tell him you’re here a-waitin’. So long, Bub. Git dap, Chain Lightnin’.”
The horse, thus complimented, pricked up one ear, lifted a foot, and jogged off. The depot wagon became merely a shadowy smudge against the darkness of the night. For a few minutes the “chock, chock” of the hoofs upon the frozen road and the rattle of wheels gave audible evidence of its progress. Then these died away and upon the windswept platform of the South Harniss station descended the black gloom of lonesomeness so complete as to make that which had been before seem, by comparison, almost cheerful.
The youth upon that platform turned up his coat collar, thrust his gloved hands into his pockets, and shivered. Then, still shivering, he took a brisk walk up and down beside the suitcase and, finally, circumnavigated the little station. The voyage of discovery was unprofitable; there was nothing to discover. So far as he could see—which was by no means far—upon each side of the building was nothing but bare fields and tossing pines, and wind and cold and blackness. He came to anchor once more by the suitcase and drew a long, hopeless breath.
He thought of the cheery dining room at the school he had left the day before. Dinner would be nearly over by now. The fellows were having dessert, or, probably, were filing out into the corridors, the younger chaps to go to the study hall and the older ones—the lordly seniors, of whom he had been one—on the way to their rooms. The picture of his own cheerful, gay room in the senior corridor was before his mind; of that room as it was before the telegram came, before the lawyer came with the letter, before the end of everything as he knew it and the beginning of—this. He had not always loved and longed for that school as he loved and longed for it now. There had been times when he referred to it as “the old jail,” and professed to hate it. But it had been the only real home he had known since he was eight years old and now he looked back upon it as a fallen angel might have looked back upon Paradise. He sighed again, choked and hastily drew his gloved hand across his eyes. At the age of seventeen it is very unmanly to cry, but, at that age also, manhood and boyhood are closely intermingled. He choked again and then, squaring his shoulders, reached into his coat pocket for the silver cigarette case which, as a recent acquisition, was the pride of his soul. He had just succeeded in lighting a cigarette when, borne upon the wind, he heard once more the sound of hoofs and wheels and saw in the distance a speck of light advancing toward the station.
The sounds drew nearer, so did the light. Then an old-fashioned buggy, drawn by a plump little sorrel, pulled up by the platform and a hand held a lantern aloft.
“Hello!” hailed a voice. “Where are you?”
The hail did not have to be repeated. Before the vehicle reached the station the boy had tossed away the cigarette, picked up the suitcase, and was waiting. Now he strode into the lantern light.
“Here I am,” he answered, trying hard not to appear too eager. “Were you looking for me?”
The holder of the lantern tucked the reins between the whip-socket and the dash and climbed out of the buggy. He was a little man, perhaps about forty-eight or fifty, with a smooth-shaven face wrinkled at the corners of the mouth and eyes. His voice was the most curious thing about him; it was high and piping, more like a woman’s than a man’s. Yet his words and manner were masculine enough, and he moved and spoke with a nervous, jerky quickness.
He answered the question promptly. “Guess I be, guess I be,” he said briskly. “Anyhow, I’m lookin’ for a boy name of—name of—My soul to heavens, I’ve forgot it again, I do believe! What did you say your name was?”
“Speranza. Albert Speranza.”
“Sartin, sartin! Sper—er—um—yes, yes. Knew it just as well as I did my own. Well, well, well! Ye-es, yes, yes. Get right aboard, Alfred. Let me take your satchel.”
He picked up the suitcase. The boy, his foot upon the buggy step, still hesitated. “Then you’re—you’re not my grandfather?” he faltered.
“Eh? Who? Your grandfather? Me? He, he, he!” He chuckled shrilly. “No, no! No such luck. If I was Cap’n Lote Snow, I’d be some older’n I be now and a dum sight richer. Yes, yes. No, I’m Cap’n Lote’s bookkeeper over at the lumber consarn. He’s got a cold, and Olive—that’s his wife—she said he shouldn’t come out to-night. He said he should, and while they was Katy-didin’ back and forth about it, Rachel—Mrs. Ellis—she’s the hired housekeeper there—she telephoned me to harness up and come meet you up here to the depot. Er—er—little mite late, wan’t I?”
“Why, yes, just a little. The other man, the one who drives the mail cart—I think that was what it was—said perhaps the horse was sick, or something like that.”
“No-o, no, that wan’t it this time. I—er—All tucked in and warm enough, be you? Ye-es, yes, yes. No, I’m to blame, I shouldn’t wonder. I stopped at the—at the store a minute and met one or two of the fellers, and that kind of held me up. All right now? Ye-es, yes, yes. G’long, gal.”
The buggy moved away from the platform. Its passenger, his chilly feet and legs tightly wrapped in the robes, drew a breath of relief between his chattering teeth. He was actually going somewhere at last; whatever happened, morning would not find him propped frozen stiff against the scarred and mangy clapboards of the South Harniss station.
“Warm enough, be you?” inquired his driver cheerfully.
“Yes, thank you.”
“That’s good, that’s good, that’s good. Ye-es, yes, yes. Well—er—Frederick, how do you think you’re goin’ to like South Harniss?”
The answer was rather non-committal. The boy replied that he had not seen very much of it as yet. His companion seemed to find the statement highly amusing. He chuckled and slapped his knee.
“Ain’t seen much of it, eh? No-o, no, no. I guess you ain’t, guess you ain’t. He, he, he . . . Um . . . Let’s see, what was I talkin’ about?”
“Why, nothing in particular, I think, Mr.—Mr.—”
“Didn’t I tell you my name? Sho, sho! That’s funny. My name’s Keeler—Laban B. Keeler. That’s my name and bookkeeper is my station. South Harniss is my dwellin’ place—and I guess likely you’ll have to see the minister about the rest of it. He, he, he!”
His passenger, to whom the old schoolbook quatrain was entirely unknown, wondered what on earth the man was talking about. However, he smiled politely and sniffed with a dawning suspicion. It seemed to him there was an unusual scent in the air, a spirituous scent, a—
“Have a peppermint lozenger,” suggested Mr. Keeler, with sudden enthusiasm. “Peppermint is good for what ails you, so they tell me. Ye-es, yes, yes. Have one. Have two, have a lot.”
He proceeded to have a lot himself, and the buggy was straightway reflavored, so to speak. The boy, his suspicions by no means dispelled, leaned back in the corner behind the curtains and awaited developments. He was warmer, that was a real physical and consequently a slight mental comfort, but the feeling of lonesomeness was still acute. So far his acquaintanceship with the citizens of South Harniss had not filled him with enthusiasm. They were what he, in his former and very recent state of existence, would have called “Rubes.” Were the grandparents whom he had never met this sort of people? It seemed probable. What sort of a place was this to which Fate had consigned him? The sense of utter helplessness which had had him in its clutches since the day when he received the news of his father’s death was as dreadfully real as ever. He had not been consulted at all. No one had asked him what he wished to do, or where he wished to go. The letter had come from these people, the Cape Cod grandparents of whom, up to that time, he had never even heard, and he had been shipped to them as though he were a piece of merchandise. And what was to become of him now, after he reached his destination? What would they expect him to do? Or be? How would he be treated?
In his extensive reading—he had been an omnivorous reader—there were numerous examples of youths left, like him, to the care of distant relatives, or step-parents, or utter strangers. Their experiences, generally speaking, had not been cheerful ones. Most of them had run away. He might run away; but somehow the idea of running away, with no money, to face hardship and poverty and all the rest, did not make an alluring appeal. He had been used to comfort and luxury ever since he could remember, and his imagination, an unusually active one, visualized much more keenly than the average the tribulations and struggles of a runaway. David Copperfield, he remembered, had run away, but he did it when a kid, not a man like himself. Nicholas Nickleby—no, Nicholas had not run away exactly, but his father had died and he had been left to an uncle. It would be dreadful if his grandfather should turn out to be a man like Ralph Nickleby. Yet Nicholas had gotten on well in spite of his wicked relative. Yes, and how gloriously he had defied the old rascal, too! He wondered if he would ever be called upon to defy his grandfather. He saw himself doing it—quietly, a perfect gentleman always, but with the noble determination of one performing a disagreeable duty. His chin lifted and his shoulders squared against the back of the buggy.
Mr. Keeler, who had apparently forgotten his passenger altogether, broke into song,
“She’s my darlin’ hanky-panky And she wears a number two, Her father keeps a barber shop Way out in Kalamazoo.”
He sang the foregoing twice over and then added a chorus, plainly improvised, made up of “Di doos” and “Di dums” ad lib. And the buggy rolled up and over the slope of a little hill and, in the face of a screaming sea wind, descended a long, gentle slope to where, scattered along a two-mile water frontage, the lights of South Harniss twinkled sparsely.
“Did doo dum, dee dum, doo dum Di doo dum, doo dum dee.”
So sang Mr. Keeler. Then he broke off his solo as the little mare turned in between a pair of high wooden posts bordering a drive, jogged along that drive for perhaps fifty feet, and stopped beside the stone step of a white front door. Through the arched window above that door shone lamplight warm and yellow.
“Whoa!” commanded Mr. Keeler, most unnecessarily. Then, as if himself a bit uncertain as to his exact whereabouts, he peered out at the door and the house of which it was a part, afterward settling back to announce triumphantly: “And here we be! Yes, sir, here we be!”
Then the door opened. A flood of lamplight poured upon the buggy and its occupants. And the boy saw two people standing in the doorway, a man and a woman.
It was the woman who spoke first. It was she who had opened the door. The man was standing behind her looking over her shoulder—over her head really, for he was tall and broad and she short and slender.
“Is it—?” she faltered.
Mr. Keeler answered. “Yes, ma’am,” he declared emphatically, “that’s who ‘tis. Here we be—er—er—what’s-your-name—Edward. Jump right out.”
His passenger alighted from the buggy. The woman bent forward to look at him, her hands clasped.
“It—it’s Albert, isn’t it?” she asked.
The boy nodded. “Yes,” he said.
The hands unclasped and she held them out toward him. “Oh, Albert,” she cried, “I’m your grandmother. I—”
The man interrupted. “Wait till we get him inside, Olive,” he said. “Come in, son.” Then, addressing the driver, he ordered: “Labe, take the horse and team out to the barn and unharness for me, will you?”
“Ye-es, yes, yes,” replied Mr. Keeler. “Yes indeed, Cap’n. Take her right along—right off. Yes indeedy. Git dap!”
He drove off toward the end of the yard, where a large building, presumably a barn, loomed black against the dark sky. He sang as he drove and the big man on the step looked after him and sniffed suspiciously.
Meanwhile the boy had followed the little woman into the house through a small front hall, from which a narrow flight of stairs shot aloft with almost unbelievable steepness, and into a large room. Albert had a swift impression of big windows full of plants, of pictures of ships and schooners on the walls, of a table set for four.
“Take your things right off,” cried his grandmother. “Here, I’ll take ‘em. There! now turn ‘round and let me look at you. Don’t move till I get a good look.”
He stood perfectly still while she inspected him from head to foot.
“You’ve got her mouth,” she said slowly. “Yes, you’ve got her mouth. Her hair and eyes were brown and yours are black, but—but I THINK you look like her. Oh, I did so want you to! May I kiss you, Albert? I’m your grandmother, you know.”
With embarrassed shyness he leaned forward while she put her arms about his neck and kissed him on the cheek. As he straightened again he became aware that the big man had entered the room and was regarding him intently beneath a pair of shaggy gray eyebrows. Mrs. Snow turned.
“Oh, Zelotes,” she cried, “he’s got Janie’s mouth, don’t you think so? And he DOES look like her, doesn’t he?”
Her husband shook his head. “Maybe so, Mother,” he said, with a half smile. “I ain’t a great hand for locatin’ who folks look like. How are you, boy? Glad to see you. I’m your grandfather, you know.”
They shook hands, while each inspected and made a mental estimate of the other. Albert saw a square, bearded jaw, a firm mouth, gray eyes with many wrinkles at the corners, and a shock of thick gray hair. The eyes had a way of looking straight at you, through you, as if reading your thoughts, divining your motives and making a general appraisal of you and them.
Captain Zelotes Snow, for his part, saw a tall young fellow, slim and straight, with black curly hair, large black eyes and regular features. A good-looking boy, a handsome boy—almost too handsome, perhaps, or with just a touch of the effeminate in the good looks. The captain’s glance took in the well-fitting suit of clothes, the expensive tie, the gold watch chain.
“Humph!” grunted Captain Zelotes. “Well, your grandma and I are glad to have you with us. Let me see, Albert—that’s your right name, ain’t it—Albert?”
Something in his grandfather’s looks or tone aroused a curious feeling in the youth. It was not a feeling of antagonism, exactly, but more of defiance, of obstinacy. He felt as if this big man, regarding him so keenly from under the heavy brows, was looking for faults, was expecting to find something wrong, might almost be disappointed if he did not find it. He met the gaze for a moment, the color rising to his cheeks.
“My name,” he said deliberately, “is Alberto Miguel Carlos Speranza.”
Mrs. Snow uttered a little exclamation. “Oh!” she ejaculated. And then added: “Why—why, I thought—we—we understood ‘twas ‘Albert.’ We didn’t know there was—we didn’t know there was any more to it. What did you say it was?”
Her grandson squared his shoulders. “Alberto Miguel Carlos Speranza,” he repeated. “My father”—there was pride in his voice now—“my father’s name was Miguel Carlos. Of course you knew that.”
He spoke as if all creation must have known it. Mrs. Snow looked helplessly at her husband. Captain Zelotes rubbed his chin.
“We—ll,” he drawled dryly, “I guess likely we’ll get along with ‘Albert’ for a spell. I cal’late ‘twill come more handy to us Cape folks. We’re kind of plain and everyday ‘round here. Sapper’s ready, ain’t it, Mother? Al must be hungry. I’m plaguey sure I am.”
“But, Zelotes, maybe he’d like to go up to his bedroom first. He’s been ridin’ a long ways in the cars and maybe he’d like to wash up or change his clothes?”
“Change his clothes! Lord sakes, Olive, what would he want to change his clothes this time of night for? You don’t want to change your clothes, do you, boy?”
“No, sir, I guess not.”
“Sartin sure you don’t. Want to wash? There’s a basin and soap and towel right out there in the kitchen.”
He pointed to the kitchen door. At that moment the door was partially opened and a brisk feminine voice from behind it inquired: “How about eatin’? Are you all ready in there?”
It was Captain Snow who answered.
“You bet we are, Rachel!” he declared. “All ready and then some. Trot her out. Sit down, Mother. Sit down, Al. Now then, Rachel, all aboard.”
Rachel, it appeared, was the owner of the brisk feminine voice just mentioned. She was brisk herself, as to age about forty, plump, rosy and very business-like. She whisked the platter of fried mackerel and the dishes of baked potatoes, stewed corn, hot biscuits and all the rest, to the table is no time, and then, to Albert’s astonishment, sat down at that table herself. Mrs. Snow did the honors.
“Albert,” she said, “this is Mrs. Ellis, who helps me keep house. Rachel, this is my grandson, Albert—er—Speranza.”
She pronounced the surname in a tone almost apologetic. Mrs. Ellis did not attempt to pronounce it. She extended a plump hand and observed: “Is that so? Real glad to know you, Albert. How do you think you’re goin’ to like South Harniss?”
Considering that his acquaintance with the village had been so decidedly limited, Albert was somewhat puzzled how to reply. His grandfather saved him the trouble.
“Lord sakes, Rachel,” he declared, “he ain’t seen more’n three square foot of it yet. It’s darker’n the inside of a nigger’s undershirt outdoors to-night. Well, Al—Albert, I mean, how are you on mackerel? Pretty good stowage room below decks? About so much, eh?”
Mrs. Snow interrupted.
“Zelotes,” she said reprovingly, “ain’t you forgettin’ somethin’?”
“Eh? Forgettin’? Heavens to Betsy, so I am! Lord, we thank thee for these and all other gifts, Amen. What did I do with the fork; swallow it?”
As long as he lives Albert Speranza will not forget that first meal in the home of his grandparents. It was so strange, so different from any other meal he had ever eaten. The food was good and there was an abundance of it, but the surroundings were so queer. Instead of the well-ordered and sedate school meal, here all the eatables from fish to pie were put upon the table at the same time and the servant—or housekeeper, which to his mind were one and the same—sat down, not only to eat with the family, but to take at least an equal part in the conversation. And the conversation itself was so different. Beginning with questions concerning his own journey from the New York town where the school was located, it at length reached South Harniss and there centered about the diminutive person of Laban Keeler, his loquacious and tuneful rescuer from the platform of the railway station.
“Where are your things, Albert?” asked Mrs. Snow. “Your trunk or travelin’ bag, or whatever you had, I mean?”
“My trunks are coming by express,” began the boy. Captain Zelotes interrupted him.
“Your trunks?” he repeated. “Got more’n one, have you?”
“Why—why, yes, there are three. Mr. Holden—he is the headmaster, you know—”
“Eh? Headmaster? Oh, you mean the boss teacher up there at the school? Yes, yes. Um-hm.”
“Yes, sir. Mr. Holden says the trunks should get here in a few days.”
Mrs. Ellis, the housekeeper, made the next remark. “Did I understand you to say you had THREE trunks?” she demanded.
“Three trunks for one boy! For mercy sakes, what have you got in ‘em?”
“Why—why, my things. My clothes and—and—everything.”
“Everything, or just about, I should say. Goodness gracious me, when I go up to Boston I have all I can do to fill up one trunk. And I’m bigger’n you are—bigger ‘round, anyway.”
There was no doubt about that. Captain Zelotes laughed shortly.
“That statement ain’t what I’d call exaggerated, Rachel,” he declared. “Every time I see you and Laban out walkin’ together he has to keep on the sunny side or be in a total eclipse. And, by the way, speakin’ of Laban—Say, son, how did you and he get along comin’ down from the depot?”
“All right. It was pretty dark.”
“I’ll bet you! Laban wasn’t very talkative, was he?”
“Why, yes, sir, he talked a good deal but he sang most of the time.”
This simple statement appeared to cause a most surprising sensation. The Snows and their housekeeper looked at each other. Captain Zelotes leaned back in his chair and whistled.
“Whew!” he observed. “Hum! Sho! Thunderation!”
“Oh, dear!” exclaimed his wife.
Mrs. Ellis, the housekeeper, drew a long breath. “I might have expected it,” she said tartly. “It’s past time. He’s pretty nigh a month overdue, as ‘tis.”
Captain Snow rose to his feet. “I was kind of suspicious when he started for the barn,” he declared. “Seemed to me he was singin’ then. WHAT did he sing, boy?” he asked, turning suddenly upon his grandson.
“Why—why, I don’t know. I didn’t notice particularly. You see, it was pretty cold and—”
Mrs. Ellis interrupted. “Did he sing anything about somebody’s bein’ his darlin’ hanky-panky and wearin’ a number two?” she demanded sharply.
“Why—why, yes, he did.”
Apparently that settled it. Mrs. Snow said, “Oh, dear!” again and the housekeeper also rose from the table.
“You’d better go right out to the barn this minute, Cap’n Lote,” she said, “and I guess likely I’d better go with you.”
The captain already had his cap on his head.
“No, Rachel,” he said, “I don’t need you. Cal’late I can take care of ‘most anything that’s liable to have happened. If he ain’t put the bridle to bed in the stall and hung the mare up on the harness pegs I judge I can handle the job. Wonder how fur along he’d got. Didn’t hear him singin’ anything about ‘Hyannis on the Cape,’ did you, boy?”
“That’s some comfort. Now, don’t you worry, Mother. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Mrs. Snow clasped her hands. “Oh, I HOPE he hasn’t set the barn afire,” she wailed.
“No danger of that, I guess. No, Rachel, you ‘tend to your supper. I don’t need you.”
He tramped out into the hall and the door closed behind him. Mrs. Snow turned apologetically to her puzzled grandson, who was entirely at a loss to know what the trouble was about.
“You see, Albert,” she hesitatingly explained, “Laban—Mr. Keeler—the man who drove you down from the depot—he—he’s an awful nice man and your grandfather thinks the world and all of him, but—but every once in a while he—Oh, dear, I don’t know how to say it to you, but—”
Evidently Mrs. Ellis knew how to say it, for she broke into the conversation and said it then and there.
“Every once in a while he gets tipsy,” she snapped. “And I only wish I had my fingers this minute in the hair of the scamp that gave him the liquor.”
A light broke upon Albert’s mind. “Oh! Oh, yes!” he exclaimed. “I thought he acted a little queer, and once I thought I smelt—Oh, that was why he was eating the peppermints!”
Mrs. Snow nodded. There was a moment of silence. Suddenly the housekeeper, who had resumed her seat in compliance with Captain Zelotes’ order, slammed back her chair and stood up.
“I’ve hated the smell of peppermint for twenty-two year,” she declared, and went out into the kitchen. Albert, looking after her, felt his grandmother’s touch upon his sleeve.
“I wouldn’t say any more about it before her,” she whispered. “She’s awful sensitive.”
Why in the world the housekeeper should be particularly sensitive because the man who had driven him from the station ate peppermint was quite beyond the boy’s comprehension. Nor could he thoroughly understand why the suspicion of Mr. Keeler’s slight inebriety should cause such a sensation in the Snow household. He was inclined to think the tipsiness rather funny. Of course alcohol was lectured against often enough at school and on one occasion a member of the senior class—a twenty-year-old “hold-over” who should have graduated the fall before—had been expelled for having beer in his room; but during his long summer vacations, spent precariously at hotels or in short visits to his father’s friends, young Speranza had learned to be tolerant. Tolerance was a necessary virtue in the circle surrounding Speranza Senior, in his later years. The popping of corks at all hours of the night and bottles full, half full or empty, were sounds and sights to which Albert had been well accustomed. When one has more than once seen his own father overcome by conviviality and the affair treated as a huge joke, one is not inclined to be too censorious when others slip. What if the queer old Keeler guy was tight? Was that anything to raise such a row about?
Plainly, he decided, this was a strange place, this household of his grandparents. His premonition that they might be “Rubes” seemed likely to have been well founded. What would his father—his great, world-famous father—have thought of them? “Bah! these Yankee bourgeoisie!” He could almost hear him say it. Miguel Carlos Speranza detested—in private—the Yankee bourgeoisie. He took their money and he married one of their daughters, but he detested them. During his last years, when the money had not flowed his way as copiously, the detest grew.
“You won’t say anything about Laban before Mrs. Ellis, will you, Albert?” persisted Mrs. Snow. “She’s dreadful sensitive. I’ll explain by and by.”
He promised, repressing a condescending smile.
Both the housekeeper and Captain Snow returned in a few minutes. The latter reported that the mare was safe and sound in her stall.
“The harness was mostly on the floor, but Jess was all right, thank the Lord,” observed the captain.
“Jess is our horse’s name, Albert,” explained Mrs. Snow. “That is, her name’s Jessamine, but Zelotes can’t ever seem to say the whole of any name. When we first bought Jessamine I named her Magnolia, but he called her ‘Mag’ all the time and I COULDN’T stand that. Have some more preserves, Albert, do.”
All through the meal Albert was uneasily conscious that his grandfather was looking at him from under the shaggy brows, measuring him, estimating him, reading him through and through. He resented the scrutiny and the twinkle of sardonic humor which, it seemed to him, accompanied it. His way of handling his knife and fork, his clothes, his tie, his manner of eating and drinking and speaking, all these Captain Zelotes seemed to note and appraise. But whatever the results of his scrutiny and appraisal might be he kept them entirely to himself. When he addressed his grandson directly, which was not often, his remarks were trivial commonplaces and, although pleasant enough, were terse and to the point.
Several times Mrs. Snow would have questioned Albert concerning the life at school, but each time her husband interfered.
“Not now, not now, Mother,” he said. “The boy ain’t goin’ to run away to-night. He’ll be here to-morrow and a good many to-morrows, if”—and here again Albert seemed to detect the slight sarcasm and the twinkle—“if we old-fashioned ‘down easters’ ain’t too common and every-day for a high-toned young chap like him to put up with. No, no, don’t make him talk to-night. Can’t you see he’s so sleepy that it’s only the exercise of openin’ his mouth to eat that keeps his eyes from shuttin’? How about that, son?”
It was perfectly true. The long train ride, the excitement, the cold wait on the station platform and the subsequent warmth of the room, the hearty meal, all these combined to make for sleepiness so overpowering that several times the boy had caught his nose descending toward his plate in a most inelegant nod. But it hurt his pride to think his grandfather had noticed his condition.
“Oh, I’m all right,” he said, with dignity.
Somehow the dignity seemed to have little effect upon Captain Zelotes.
“Um—yes, I know,” observed the latter dryly, “but I guess likely you’ll be more all right in bed. Mother, you’ll show Albert where to turn in, won’t you? There’s your suitcase out there in the hall, son. I fetched it in from the barn just now.”
Mrs. Snow ventured a protest.
“Oh, Zelotes,” she cried, “ain’t we goin’ to talk with him at ALL? Why, there is so much to say!”
“‘Twill say just as well to-morrow mornin’, Mother; better, because we’ll have all day to say it in. Get the lamp.”
Albert looked at his watch.
“Why, it’s only half-past nine,” he said.
Captain Zelotes, who also had been looking at the watch, which was a very fine and very expensive one, smiled slightly. “Half-past nine some nights,” he said, “is equal to half-past twelve others. This is one of the some. There, there, son, you’re so sleepy this minute that you’ve got a list to starboard. When you and I have that talk that’s comin’ to us we want to be shipshape and on an even keel. Rachel, light that lamp.”
The housekeeper brought in and lighted a small hand lamp. Mrs. Snow took it and led the way to the hall and the narrow, breakneck flight of stairs. Captain Zelotes laid a hand on his grandson’s shoulder.
“Good-night, son,” he said quietly.
Albert looked into the gray eyes. Their expression was not unkindly, but there was, or he imagined there was, the same quizzical, sardonic twinkle. He resented that twinkle more than ever; it made him feel very young indeed, and correspondingly obstinate. Something of that obstinacy showed in his own eyes as he returned his grandfather’s look.
“Good-night—sir,” he said, and for the life of him he could not resist hesitating before adding the “sir.” As he climbed the steep stairs he fancied he heard a short sniff or chuckle—he was not certain which—from the big man in the dining-room.
His bedroom was a good-sized room; that is, it would have been of good size if the person who designed it had known what the term “square” meant. Apparently he did not, and had built the apartment on the hit-or-miss, higglety-pigglety pattern, with unexpected alcoves cut into the walls and closets and chimneys built out from them. There were three windows, a big bed, an old-fashioned bureau, a chest of drawers, a washstand, and several old-fashioned chairs. Mrs. Snow put the lamp upon the bureau. She watched him anxiously as he looked about the room.
“Do—do you like it?” she asked.
Albert replied that he guessed he did. Perhaps there was not too much certainty in his tone. He had never before seen a room like it.
“Oh, I hope you will like it! It was your mother’s room, Albert. She slept here from the time she was seven until—until she went away.”
The boy looked about him with a new interest, an odd thrill. His mother’s room. His mother. He could just remember her, but that was all. The memories were childish and unsatisfactory, but they were memories. And she had slept there; this had been her room when she was a girl, before she married, before—long before such a person as Alberto Miguel Carlos Speranza had been even dreamed of. That was strange, it was queer to think about. Long before he was born, when she was years younger than he as he stood there now, she had stood there, had looked from those windows, had—
His grandmother threw her arms about his neck and kissed him. Her cheek was wet.
“Good-night, Albert,” she said chokingly, and hurried out of the room.
He undressed quickly, for the room was very cold. He opened the window, after a desperate struggle, and climbed into bed. The wind, whistling in, obligingly blew out the lamp for him. It shrieked and howled about the eaves and the old house squeaked and groaned. Albert pulled the comforter up about his neck and concentrated upon the business of going to sleep. He, who could scarcely remember when he had had a real home, was desperately homesick.
Downstairs in the dining-room Captain Zelotes stood, his hands in his pockets, looking through the mica panes of the stove door at the fire within. His wife came up behind him and laid a hand on his sleeve.
“What are you thinkin’ about, Father?” she asked.
Her husband shook his head. “I was wonderin’,” he said, “what my granddad, the original Cap’n Lote Snow that built this house, would have said if he’d known that he’d have a great-great-grandson come to live in it who was,” scornfully, “a half-breed.”
Olive’s grip tightened on his arm.
“Oh, DON’T talk so, Zelotes,” she begged. “He’s our Janie’s boy.”
The captain opened the stove door, regarded the red-hot coals for an instant, and then slammed the door shut again.
“I know, Mother,” he said grimly. “It’s for the sake of Janie’s half that I’m takin’ in the other.”
“But—but, Zelotes, don’t you think he seems like a nice boy?”
The twinkle reappeared in Captain Lote’s eyes.
“I think HE thinks he’s a nice boy, Mother,” he said. “There, there, let’s go to bed.”
Categories: English Literature