From Needlecraft Vol. X No. 1 (September, 1918)
The road was wider by the schoolhouse. It made a broad loop to the west, then it bent along again to the south.
The small schoolhouse stood on one side of the loop; old Daniel Price's and George's on the other. Old Daniel's, directly opposite the schoolhouse, was a tiny, bright-colored building. There were only two rooms and a loft in it. The clapboards were painted red, and the little window- and door-casings white. It was close to the road, and seemed to start up suddenly and artlessly, like a red wayside flower.
Old Daniel sat in an armchair in his front door, and looked over at the schoolhouse. The windows were open, and the shrill babble of children's voices floated out. Now they spelled in unison; now they multiplied; now a thin, sweet little voice piped up alone, and an older one was heard between-whiles, in reproof or direction.
The old man listened admiringly.
“That's Sonny spellin',” he said to himself, when a certain childlike voice rang out by itself. And he leaned forward and fixed his sharp black eyes more intently on the open windows. He was old — over eighty — but his deepset eyes were very bright still, and sharp.
It was an afternoon in the latter part of August. The wind was very cool; the tree-boughs tossed up lightly in it. Every leaf pointed out crisply and had a dark glisten of its own. A patch of ripe corn in a field swayed over, and looked as if it were covered with a thick silver fleece.
The afternoon sun shone on Daniel's bald head, but its heat was so mild that he did not mind it.
He sat with his arms in their calico shirt-sleeves on the arms of the chair, and watched the schoolhouse. Now and then a pair of young wistful eyes peered over a window-sill. Some tiny wild creature looked out at the wide, shady road, and at the fields, all gold and white with fall dandelions and wild carrot, and seemed almost to flutter invisible wings with eagerness to be out there.
When one little yellow poll appeared, the old man opposite nodded violently, with grimaces of delight.
“Hullo, Sonny,” he sang out, softly. And the child's face showed, all distended with a smile, for an instant, above the window-sill, before it bobbed out of sight.
It was almost time for the school to be closed, when Daniel started up suddenly.
“What's that!” cried he. He heard the sharp swish of a switch, then a shrill wail, “O—o—oh!”
“What in creation's she doin' to Sonny?”
The old man was lame, but he appeared to move across the street only the faster. The extra impetus necessary to swing that stiff limb seemed to overlap and carry the rest of the body with additional speed.
When he stood in the schoolroom-door, there was a little flaxen-haired boy beside the desk, sobbing in his crooked arm, while the teacher switched his small legs.
Daniel Price stumped over to her, and caught her arm.
“What air you a-doin' of Sonny?”
The child stopped sobbing, and peeped over his arm; the other children stared, their mouths open and the corners drooping.
The teacher was a thin, light-haired woman, with small-pox marks on her high-featured face. She had an air at once aggressive and miserable.
“William has been disobedient,” said she, stiffly, “and I was obliged to punish him.”
“Disobedient, hey? What's he been a-doin' of?”
“He has failed in his spelling-lesson every day for a week; and I told him I should be obliged to punish him if he did again. I was sorry to, but I felt that I must, for William's own good.”
The schoolteacher released her arm from the old man's grasp with determined dignity. That thin, sharp-elbowed arm was hard with muscles.
“Missed his spellin'-lesson, hey? Well, I know a good many other folks that miss spellin'-lessons, an' don't get thrashed fur it. What was the word he missed on, marm?”
“Elephant,” replied the teacher, shortly. “You may go to your seat now, William.”
“Elephant, hey? Well, I s'pose you wouldn't miss on elephant, Miss Peters; I s'pose an elephant to you's the same as a cow is to Sonny here — that is, in the way of spellin'. But there was a word we used to have put out to us in spellin'-school in my young days.” Daniel paused a moment, and stood gazing at her. His old face broadened out; every seam in it took on an upward, facetious curve. “Now, marm, I'm jest a-goin' to put out a word to you, if you're willin'.”
“Well,” said the teacher, trembling helplessly. Her indignation, to which she dared not give vent, rushed through her, and shook her like steam.
“Well, marm, if you'd spell — Syzygy.”
“I don't understand the word, Mr. Price. Is it in the dictionary?”
“Yes, marm, 'twas, the last I knew.”
Then poor Miss Peters spelled.
“S-i-z-a-g-y,” said she.
“No, marm; that ain't jest right.”
There was a little chorus of soft titters from the small scholars. Miss Peters looked at them fiercely, and they were sober and attentive again.
“How do you spell it, Mr. Price?”
Acknowledged defeat seemed to her now more dignified than further contest.
Old Daniel spelled it.
Miss Peters opened the big dictionary on her desk, and looked up the word, hoping that she should not find it.
“Yes, you're right,” said she. “I had never seen it before.”
“Well, you needn't feel bad, marm, 'cause you couldn't spell it. I ain't goin' to give you a switchin'.”
The whole school broke out in a laugh at that. The old man winked comically at them, as he said it. Miss Peters brought down her ruler on the desk with a heavy thud; her hard, thin face was flaming.
Daniel pretended to jump sidewise with alarm, and that amused the scholars still more. Miss Peters had to pound her desk again.
“Have you got any objections to lettin' Sonny go now?” said Daniel. “I've — got a leetle work I'd like to have him help me about.”
He gave a knowing look at Sonny.
“No; he can go,” said the teacher, taking up a book, and clutching at her old prestige at the same time. It seemed to soar high above her head, like an aerial body, however, and her fingers only brushed it. “The second class in geography may take their places,” said she, nervously.
Sonny looked at her, then at his grandfather; he bobbed up from his seat, then went down again.
“You may go, William,” said Miss Peters. Then he pattered quickly down between the desks to his grandfather, and clung to his horny, protecting hand with his own soft little fingers.
Sonny wore baggy little trousers, and a checkered gingham tunic. His small face, which was generally upturned, was pink-cheeked and peaked-chinned; the mouth was small and sweet; the eyes china-blue, round and innocent. He was almost always smiling, as if to himself; he was now, and his late tears had not left a trace on his pretty cheeks.
When he reached the door, Daniel turned about and faced the teacher once more. He lifted his right hand, as if he were orating.
“Miss Peters —”
“I'm afraid I can't stop to talk any longer, Mr. Price.”
“Oh, I ain't a-goin' to hender you, Miss Peters. I jest wanted to say one thing; an' I want you to kinder lay it up an' think about it. When it comes to downright wickedness, there's some sense in thrashin'; but there ain't none unless it does come to it. If everybody was to be thrashed for spellin' wrong, there wouldn't be no room on this airth for any trees but birches, an' you couldn't hear the meetin'-bell for the swishin' of 'em. Come, Sonny.”
“Did she hurt you much?” asked the old man, when he and the child were safely in the little house across the way.
“Dreadful! Kin I have a pear, grandpa?”
“She sha'n't lay her hand on you ag'in, if I have my say about it. Jest go right upstairs an' help yourself, Sonny. Don't take none but what's mellar.”
After Sonny had gone to bed that night, Daniel went over to his nephew George's to talk about the matter. George had gone down to the village, but his wife Hannah was at home. She was fleshy and pretty-faced, and quick-spoken.
“Sonny ain't goin' to school to that woman another day,” declared old Daniel, after he had finished the recital of his wrongs.
“Why, how can you get along it he don't, grandpa? You don't want him to grow up an not know anything.”
“I reckon I kin learn him awhile.”
“Land sakes, grandpa!”
“You kin pooh at it all you want to, Hannah. I kin learn him to spell as well as Miss Peters, I reckon, an' not thrash him to death, nuther.”
“Now, grandpa, I don't b'lieve she meant to hurt him much.”
“Don't keer what she meant; she won't git another chance while I live. Sha'n't nobody abuse Sonny while I'm around. When I ain't, I s'pose I shall have to grin an' bear it, an' not say nothin'. See here, Hannah, you ain't forgittin' what I've told you about Sonny in case anythin' happened to me?”
“Of course I ain't, grandpa.”
“You'll see to it he don't work too hard, an' has what he wants to eat? Sonny ain't pertickler, but there's some things he likes. You'll see to it he has his flapjacks for breakfast?”
“Land, yes, he shall have his flapjacks! Don't you worry, grandpa.”
Daniel kept his resolution; Sonny never went again to Miss Peters' school. Every day the old man labored faithfully with him over spelling-book and reader, trying to call to mind, for love's sake, the forgotten learning of his youth. The two would watch gleefully Miss Peters hieing in angular majesty to the schoolhouse of a morning.
“There's madam,” Daniel would say, chuckling, and poking Sonny. “Couldn't spell syzygy; could she, Sonny, hey?”
However, as the time wore on, old Daniel took less delight in his part of schoolmaster. Not that the duties pertaining thereto were too onerous for his painstaking affection; but the position itself grew to be an unstable one. Sonny was a mild, sweet-tempered little fellow, but he disregarded entirely his grandfather's orders in the matter of education. Sonny, disobeying, with his sweet, smiling little mouth, and his gentle, innocent eyes, was a perplexity.
“I can't do nothin' with him,” the poor old man confessed, one day, to Hannah Price. “He won't learn his lessons; but there don't seem to be no sense in scoldin' of him for't, when he's so pleasant about it.”
“It's turnin' out jest the way I thought 'twould,” said Hannah. “You'd better make up your mind to send him back to school, grandpa.”
“Who's that goin' by?” said Daniel.
“That's John Stebbins. If you want Sonny to amount to —”
“John's goin' kinder lame, ain't he?”
“I don't know. Is he? I heard lately he wanted to marry Mrs. Bancroft, and she wouldn't have him.”
“Silas Bancroft's widder?”
Daniel sat staring out of the window at the limping, gray-bearded, round-shouldered man passing up the road. Just then Miss Peters came out of the schoolhouse, and the two saluted each other stiffly.
Suddenly Daniel's old round face twitched, and all its hard seams deepened with laughter.
“What's the matter, grandpa?”
“Oh, nothin', nothin'!” But he still chuckled.
Some weeks later, Hannah came over to his house one afternoon with a piece of news.
“Guess what I heerd this morning, grandpa,” said she.
The old man's eyes twinkled.
“How should I know what you've heerd, Hannah?”
“Well, you can send Sonny to school again before long, I guess. Miss Peters is going to be married.”
“Guess I knew that afore you did.”
“How did you know?”
“Oh, I knew. John Stebbins' the one, ain't he?”
“Now, how did you know, grandpa?”
“Well, me an' John talked it over a leetle aforehand.”
“Grandpa Price, what do you mean?”
“Well, I'll tell you, Hannah, if you won't say anythin' 'bout it. It kinder struck me, you know, when you said that 'bout Mrs. Bancroft's not havin' of him that Miss Peters would make him a good wife.”
Daniel chuckled between his sentences, as he went on: “So one day I kinder dropped over there, to see if he didn't want ter sell a leetle of his trash-wood, an' I spoke 'bout it, kinder easy. I said somethin' 'bout its bein' pretty hard for him gittin' along the way he was, alone. An' then I sorter joked him 'bout gittin' married. ‘Lots of nice girls round here,’ says I; ‘there's Miss Peters,’ says I. ‘I'm kinder afeared of her,’ says he; ‘she looks as if she might be pretty high-spirited.’ ‘No, she ain't, very,’ says I; ‘she looks a leetle that way, but she ain't. She's jest as gentle as a lamb.’ Well, I kinder praised her up, an' I see he listened. The next Sunday night I watched, an' I see him go home from meetin' with her.”
“Now, Grandpa Price, ain't you ashamed of yourself? You know she won't make any kind of a wife for him.”
“Oh, p'r'aps she will, Hannah. Bein' in love works miracles, you know, sometimes.”
Daniel's scheme proved successful; that was Miss Peters' last term. The old man was exultant. He peeped slyly in the window on the last day of the school, after the pupils had gone. He intended to gratify his malice — which was well tempered by good nature, after all — by a few facetious remarks to her on her approaching nuptials. He was nonplused, however, to see the teacher with her head on her desk crying; and he withdrew softly.
“I wonder what on airth she was cryin' for,” he thought. His simple old man's imagination could not conceive the true cause of her grief — that this poor, elderly, pock-marked, hard-tempered woman was weeping over the tender, shamefaced romance, the natural gold of her womanhood, with which she was to part forever on the next day when she married John Stebbins for a home and support.
“Mebbe she wouldn't like to be joked,” said Daniel, thoughtfully. “Well, she'll have a good home with John, and I'm glad on't. She's had a kind of a hard time, poor thing.”
Miss Peters' successor was a pretty, happy-going girl, who was after Daniel's own heart. She was as lenient to Sonny as he could wish. He watched the boy trudge across the road to put himself under her easy rule, with satisfaction.
“Sonny's gittin' along fust-rate with the new teacher,” he told Hannah Price. “She's real pleasant with him, an' he got a reward of merit last night. He's a-comin' over to show it to you. He's dretful tickled with it.”
Old Daniel rose early of a morning, and laboriously made the fire, and fried the cakes in which Sonny's soul delighted. He covered them thickly with butter and maple-syrup, and then watched the child eating them, with their sweetness a thousand times intensified in his own consciousness. While Sonny ate material cakes, old Daniel fed on some which might have served angels. He never ate his own breakfast until the boy had gone; he could not forego the exquisite delight of watching him, and that finer way of satisfying his own hunger. The sweetness of the very honey of love seemed trickling down his throat and through his blissful soul as he looked at his beloved child eating with such delight the food which he had prepared for him. What cared he for other breakfast while that lasted!
Daniel was a small pensioner of the war of 1812. He had always regarded his little quarterly dole from a grateful government as a noble income. He went to the selectmen's room once in three months for it, with an air of a prince claiming his revenue.
“It don't actilly seem to me, sometimes, as if I had any right to 't,” he used to say, with a modest chuckle, which revealed his real pride and delight, like an opening door. “I only fit in that war 'bout three days, reely, an' the rest of the time I stayed in a fort. I didn't git hurt, as I know of, nuther. I don't s'pose I should ha' thought that gov'ment owed me anythin', if my son William, Sonny's father, hadn't set out I could git it. An' arter I got it I thought there wa'n't no use in my worryin' over it. Ef gov'ment wanted to give me that money, it wa'n't none of my lookout. Gov'ment ought to know better'n me whether I deserved it or not. It's got more brains than one man. I s'pose, most likely, I was more vallyble in that war than I knew for. I tell you, the United States gov'ment is the best one in this world to work for.”
Daniel was much troubled by the reflection that this fine income must cease at his death, and Sonny could then have no further benefit from it. He hoarded every cent which he could save from their simple expenses, and deposited it in the bank.
“Don't let 'em lay out no more on my buryin' than they kin help,” he told Hannah, to whom he had confided the matter. “I never wanted to make a show. An' the rest's fur Sonny — every cent. There mustn't nobody else tech it. I'm a-goin' to leave it with you, Hannah, to see to. When it comes to money-matters 'twixt relations, women is full as straight as men. Don't let George have any use on't.”
Daniel had many worries, as any one must who loves either himself or another much. His ever active anxiety was concerning Sonny's welfare after he should be gone. Would Hannah Price and George care for the child as faithfully and tenderly as he had? They had two boys of their own; how would little, pretty, petted Sonny fare in the same nest? The old man thought of it day and night; he often broached the subject to Hannah, but her good-humored assent did not satisfy him; he was still suspicious.
When Sonny had been in school with his new teacher a half term or so, he went home one night and did not find his grandfather in the house as usual.
He looked about a little, and called, “Grandpa!” several times; then he sat down and ate his supper. It was all set out for him on the table; the supper he liked best, too: gingerbread and milk, and plenty of sauce. There was a good fire in the stove. Everything was very comfortable. After the boy had eaten his supper, he began calling “Grandpa!” again.
The dusk was settling down fast. Sonny stood in the middle of the kitchen, his little face shining out like a star from the soft gloom, calling piteously, over and over, “Grandpa! Grandpa!”
It grew darker. Suddenly Sonny was wild with terror; the darkness and the loneliness seemed to hold terrible presences. His call spread out into an inarticulate howl, and he sprang out of the house and across the yard to his Aunt Hannah's, as he called her.
“What on earth's the matter, child?” said she.
He clung to her, choking with fear, trying to speak.
“Grandpa,” he gasped out finally.
“Grandpa! What's the matter with grandpa?”
“He's gone! He — ain't — there!”
“Is that all?” said Hannah, relieved. “He's gone down to the store for something or other, I guess, Sonny. You can just wait here till he comes back. You were afraid all alone there in the dark, wasn't you?”
Sonny, easily comforted, in the lamplight, with people around him, composed himself to wait, and after a while fell asleep in his chair, his pretty head wagging sidewise, his little pointed chin dipping down into his gingham breast.
Finally, Hannah was alarmed herself, as it grew later and Daniel did not appear. She sent George down to the village to inquire if he had been seen at the store, or at any of his wonted haunts. By midnight a search was fairly organized. Lanterns were flashing along the country roads; dark forms were running by and stooping now and then over some gloomy hollow, where a shadow looked like substance, to see if perchance poor old Daniel was lying there in some sore strait.
“He drew out his pension-money yesterday,” whispered one.
Then the surmises grew grim. Stretched out stiff and motionless in one of these black nooks they pictured to themselves old Daniel; his chin would be tipped back, his hands clutching helplessly. Every time they stooped over a long shadow at the roadside, a horror, as of certainty, seized them.
But the picture existed only in their searching imaginations, never in life. A month passed by, and they had found no trace of old Daniel Price. The prevalent theory was that he had been murdered for the sake of his pension-money; but, if he had, the murderer was an adept in concealing his crime. The river and the neighboring ponds had been dragged, and the woods ransacked, but not a shred of the supposed victim was found. Daniel had a brother over in Barnstable, a town about twenty miles distant, and the news was sent to him. George wrote on a forlorn conjecture that the old man might have taken it into his head to visit his brother.
“But it ain't any use,” he told his wife. “Uncle Dan'l ain't seen his brother for twenty years; an' there never was much love lost between 'em. Uncle Cyrus is an odd stick. It ain't reasonable that he'd go off there now this way an' not say anything about it.”
George settled down to this belief when no response came to the letter. At the end of a month they had nearly given up ever seeing old Daniel again. They had a little thrill of expectancy still on every new morning; but it was fast dulling. Sonny went to school as usual; he had cried some at first for his grandfather, but he no longer did. At times, when Hannah would not indulge him to an extent which he desired, he would appeal pitifully to the memory of his grandfather.
“Grandpa'd let me,” he would say, “if he was here.”
On these occasions, Sonny, with the artless and candid selfishness of childhood, suffered genuine regret for the absent Daniel. He would run raving over to his old home, and search through the rooms, to see if he had come.
But these occasions were few. Hannah Price treated Sonny with more leniency, generally, than she did her own boys, and the child was contented enough.
One night, about dusk, a limping old figure came plodding up the road to George Price's. There had been a fall of snow that day, and it was heavy walking. The figure pushed on resolutely. When it reached George Price's, the door suddenly opened, and a little form appeared in a radiance of yellow lamplight.
“O grandpa! grandpa! Here's grandpa! Aunt Hannah, Aunt Hannah, here's grandpa!”
“Was you — a-lookin' — out fur — grandpa, Sonny?”
“I was lookin' out to see if Tommy was comin'. He's gone down to the store to buy a rat-trap. Say, ain't that him down the road?”
“Glad to see grandpa, ain't you, Sonny?”
Sonny flung his little arms tight around the old man's neck.
“Don't you go off ag'in, grandpa.”
“No, I ain't never goin' to. I wouldn't ha' gone this time, if it hadn't been on your account, Sonny.”
Then the two went into the house, Sonny running ahead, and crying, “Grandpa's come! Aunt Hannah, look here, quick! Grandpa's come!”
George Price and his wife appeared with white faces and awed eyes. They could not appreciate the simplicity of the marvelous, as could Sonny on his overlooking heights of childhood. Then, too, they had beliefs and theories, whose overthrow shocked them; and Sonny had nothing but his infantile acceptance of the situation.
“Where have you been, grandpa?” stammered Hannah, at length.
“You act mighty queer, seems to me, you an' George,” said Daniel. “I've jest been over to Barnstable, to Cyrus' to stay a few weeks.”
“Over to Barnstable, to Cyrus'!”
“Yes; I hadn't seen him for twenty years, an' I thought 'twas 'bout time. He didn't know me, as 'twas, at first. 'Tain't right fur brothers to be livin' so.”
“Why on earth didn't you say anything about it?”
“Why I didn't see no need of makin' a great lot of talk 'bout it. I thought I could jest slip off kinder quiet, an' come back when I got ready.”
“I should think you was crazy! Why, we've been 'most scared to death about you. Didn't Cyrus get that letter I wrote him?”
“I wrote to him, and asked him if he'd seen anything of you.”
“Lord! Cyrus never goes to the post-office. I don't believe he's had a letter in forty years.”
“Everybody's been hunting for you.”
“Huntin' for me! Well, I dun know what ye were thinkin' 'bout. I should ha' s'posed y'd thought I was 'bout old enough to take care of myself.”
As soon as he could escape from the wonder and reproaches, dimly tinctured with joy over his return, he retreated to his own little home with Sonny. After he had got a fire started, he sat down in his old chair, and took the child up on his knee.
“Look a-here, Sonny, I'm a-goin' to ask you somethin', an' you mustn't never say nothin' 'bout it to your Aunt Hannah. You'll rec'lect, won't you? Now, Sonny, I jest want to know how your Aunt Hannah treated you arter I was gone. Was she real pleasant with you?”
Sonny reflected. Then his innocent eyes kindled.
“She wouldn't let me go a-slidin' on the river, 'cause she thought the ice was too thin; it wa'n't.”
“She didn't thrash you, nor nothin', 'bout it, did she?”
“No; she give me some cake if I'd stay to home. The ice wa'n't too thin, grandpa.”
“Didn't she thrash you once while I was gone?”
“No; I guess she didn't, grandpa.”
“You'd rec'lect ef she did, wouldn't you?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“She didn't never give Tommy nor John pie an' not give you any, did she, now?”
“O grandpa! she give me some once when they didn't have any, 'cause she said, I was the littlest.”
“She did, hey? Did you have enough to kiver you up warm, nights?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, there's another thing; did you have flapjacks fur breakfast every mornin', Sonny?”
“Yes, I did. Say, grandpa, Aunt Hannah's flapjacks is better than yourn.”
“Well, Sonny, you must allers be a good boy, an' mind your Aunt Hannah. I guess she'll take real good care of you when grandpa ain't round.”
Daniel asked no more questions. Presently the child fell asleep in his arms; and he sat there for a long time, holding him, and looking straight ahead, with an expression as if he saw a bright future.