It was in the latter part of August of that year that it became necessary for some one in the office in which I was engaged to go to St. Louis to attend to important business. Everything seemed to point to me as the fit person, for I understood the particular business better than any one else. I felt that I ought to go, but I did not altogether like to do it. I went home, and Euphemia and I talked over the matter far into the regulation sleeping hours.
There were very good reasons why we should go (for of course I would not think of taking such a journey without Euphemia). In the first place, it would be of advantage to me, in my business connection, to take the trip, and then it would be such a charming journey for us. We had never been west of the Alleghanies, and nearly all the country we would see would be new to us. We would come home by the Great Lakes and Niagara, and the prospect was delightful to both of us. But then we would have to leave Rudder Grange for at least three weeks, and how could we do that?
This was indeed a difficult question to answer. Who could take care of our garden, our poultry, our horse, and cow, and all their complicated belongings? The garden was in admirable condition. Our vegetables were coming in every day in just that fresh and satisfactory condition—altogether unknown to people who buy vegetables—for which I had labored so faithfully, and about which I had had so many cheerful anticipations. As to Euphemia’s chicken-yard—with Euphemia away—the subject was too great for us. We did not even discuss it. But we would give up all the pleasures of our home for the chance of this most desirable excursion, if we could but think of some one who would come and take care of the place while we were gone. Rudder Grange could not run itself for three weeks.
We thought of every available person. Old John would not do. We did not feel that we could trust him. We thought of several of our friends; but there was, in both our minds, a certain shrinking from the idea of handing over the place to any of them for such a length of time. For my part, I said, I would rather leave Pomona in charge than any one else; but then Pomona was young and a girl. Euphemia agreed with me that she would rather trust her than any one else, but she also agreed in regard to the disqualifications. So when I went to the office the next morning we had fully determined to go on the trip, if we could find some one to take charge of our place while we were gone. When I returned from the office in the afternoon I had agreed to go to St. Louis. By this time I had no choice in the matter unless I wished to interfere very much with my own interests. We were to start in two days. If in that time we could get any one to stay at the place, very well; if not, Pomona must assume the charge. We were not able to get any one, and Pomona did assume the charge. It is surprising how greatly relieved we felt when we were obliged to come to this conclusion. The arrangement was exactly what we wanted, and now that there was no help for it our consciences were easy.
We felt sure that there would be no danger to Pomona. Lord Edward would be with her, and she was a young person who was extraordinary well able to take care of herself. Old John would be within call in case she needed him, and I borrowed a bulldog to be kept in the house at night. Pomona herself was more than satisfied with the plan.
We made out, the night before we left, a long and minute series of directions for her guidance in household, garden and farm matters, and directed her to keep a careful record of everything noteworthy that might occur. She was fully supplied with all the necessaries of life, and it has seldom happened that a young girl has been left in such a responsible and independent position as that in which we left Pomona. She was very proud of it. Our journey was ten times more delightful than we had expected it would be, and successful in every way; and yet, although we enjoyed every hour of the trip, we were no sooner fairly on our way home than we became so wildly anxious to get there that we reached Rudder Grange on Wednesday, whereas we had written that we would be home on Thursday. We arrived early in the afternoon and walked up from the station, leaving our baggage to be sent in the express wagon. As we approached our dear home we wanted to run, we were so eager to see it.
There it was, the same as ever. I lifted the gate-latch; the gate was locked. We ran to the carriage gate; that was locked, too. Just then I noticed a placard on the fence; it was not printed, but the lettering was large, apparently made with ink and a brush. It read—
To Be Sold For Taxes.
We stood and looked at each other. Euphemia turned pale.
“What does this mean?” said I. “Has our landlord——?”
I could say no more. The dreadful thought arose that the place might pass away from us. We were not yet ready to buy it. But I did not put the thought in words. There was a field next to our lot, and I got over the fence and helped Euphemia over. Then we climbed our side fence. This was more difficult, but we accomplished it without thinking much about its difficulties; our hearts were too full of painful apprehensions. I hurried to the front door; it was locked. All the lower windows were shut. We went around to the kitchen. What surprised us more than anything else was the absence of Lord Edward. Had he been sold?
Before we reached the back part of the house Euphemia said she felt faint and must sit down. I led her to a tree nearby, under which I had made a rustic chair. The chair was gone. She sat on the grass, and I ran to the pump for some water. I looked for the bright tin dipper which always hung by the pump. It was not there. But I had a traveling cup in my pocket, and as I was taking it out I looked around me. There was an air of bareness over everything. I did not know what it all meant, but I know that my hand trembled as I took hold of the pump-handle and began to pump.
At the first sound of the pump-handle I heard a deep bark in the direction of the barn, and then furiously around the corner came Lord Edward.
Before I had filled the cup he was bounding about me. I believe the glad welcome of the dog did more to revive Euphemia than the water. He was delighted to see us, and in a moment up came Pomona, running from the barn. Her face was radiant, too. We felt relieved. Here were two friends who looked as if they were neither sold nor ruined.
Pomona quickly saw that we were ill at ease, and before I could put a question to her she divined the cause. Her countenance fell.
“You know,” said she, “you said you wasn’t coming till to-morrow. If you only had come then—I was going to have everything just exactly right—an’ now you had to climb in——”
And the poor girl looked as if she might cry, which would have been a wonderful thing for Pomona to do.
“Tell me one thing,” said I. “What about—those taxes?”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she cried. “Don’t think another minute about that. I’ll tell you all about it soon. But come in first, and I’ll get you some lunch in a minute.”
We were somewhat relieved by Pomona’s statement that it was “all right” in regard to the tax-poster, but we were very anxious to know all about the matter. Pomona, however, gave us little chance to ask her any questions.
As soon as she had made ready our lunch she asked us as a particular favor to give her three-quarters of an hour to herself, and then, said she, “I’ll have everything looking just as if it was to-morrow.”
We respected her feelings, for, of course, it was a great disappointment to her to be taken thus unawares, and we remained in the dining-room until she appeared and announced that she was ready for us to go about. We availed ourselves quickly of the privilege, and Euphemia hurried to the chicken-yard, while I bent my steps toward the garden and barn. As I went out I noticed that the rustic chair was in its place, and passing the pump I looked for the dipper. It was there. I asked Pomona about the chair, but she did not answer as quickly as was her habit.
“Would you rather,” said she, “hear it altogether, when you come in, or have it in little bits, head and tail, all of a jumble?”
I called to Euphemia and asked her what she thought, and she was so anxious to get to her chickens that she said she would much rather wait and hear it all together. We found everything in perfect order—the garden was even free from weeds, a thing I had not expected. If it had not been for that cloud on the front fence, I should have been happy enough. Pomona had said it was all right, but she could not have paid the taxes—however, I would wait; and I went to the barn.
When Euphemia came in from the poultry-yard, she called me and said she was in a hurry to hear Pomona’s account of things. So I went in, and we sat on the side porch, where it was shady, while Pomona, producing some sheets of foolscap paper, took her seat on the upper step.
“I wrote down the things of any account what happened,” said she, “as you told me to, and while I was about it I thought I’d make it like a novel. It would be jus’ as true, and p’r’aps more amusin’. I suppose you don’t mind?”
No, we didn’t mind. So she went on.
“I haven’t got no name for my novel. I intended to think one out to-night. I wrote this all of nights. And I don’t read the first chapters, for they tell about my birth and my parentage, and my early adventures. I’ll just come down to what happened to me while you was away, because you’ll be more anxious to hear about that. All that’s written here is true, jus’ the same as if I told it to you, but I’ve put it into novel language because it comes easier to me.”
And then, in a voice somewhat different from her ordinary tones, as if the “novel language” demanded it, she began to read:
“’Chapter Five. The Lonely House and the Faithful Friend. Thus was I left alone. None but two dogs to keep me com-pa-ny. I milk-ed the lowing kine and water-ed and fed the steed, and then, after my fru-gal repast, I clos-ed the man-si-on, shutting out all re-collections of the past and also foresights into the future. That night was a me-mor-able one. I slept soundly until the break of morn, but had the events transpired which afterward occur-red, what would have hap-pen-ed to me no tongue can tell. Early the next day nothing happen-ed. Soon after breakfast the vener-able John came to bor-row some ker-o-sene oil and a half a pound of sugar, but his attempt was foil-ed. I knew too well the in-sid-i-ous foe. In the very out-set of his vil-la-in-y I sent him home with a empty can. For two long days I wan-der-ed amid the ver-dant pathways of the garden and to the barn, when-ever and anon my du-ty call-ed me, nor did I ere neg-lect the fowlery. No cloud o’erspread this happy peri-od of my life. But the cloud was ri-sing in the horizon, although I saw it not.
“‘It was about twenty-five minutes after eleven, on the morning of a Thursday, that I sat pondering in my mind the ques-ti-on what to do with the butter and the veg-et-ables. Here was butter, and here was green corn and lima beans and trophy tomats, far more than I ere could use. And here was a horse, idly cropping the fol-i-age in the field, for as my employer had advis-ed and order-ed, I had put the steed to grass. And here was a wagon, none too new, which had it the top taken off, or even the curtains roll-ed up, would do for a li-cen-sed vender. With the truck and butter, and mayhap some milk, I could load the wagon——’”
“Oh, Pomona,” interrupted Euphemia, “you don’t mean to say that you were thinking of doing anything like that?”
“Well, I was just beginning to think of it,” said Pomona. “But I couldn’t have gone away and left the house. And you’ll see I didn’t do it.” And then she continued her novel. “‘But while my thoughts were thus employ-ed, I heard Lord Edward burst into bark-ter——’”
At this Euphemia and I could not help bursting into laughter. Pomona did not seem at all confused, but went on with her reading.
“‘I hurried to the door, and, look-ing out, I saw a wagon at the gate. Re-pair-ing there, I saw a man. Said he “Wilt open the gate?” I had fasten-ed up the gates and remov-ed every stealable ar-ticle from the yard.’”
Euphemia and I looked at each other. This explained the absence of the rustic seat and the dipper.
“‘Thus, with my mind at ease, I could let my faith-ful fri-end, the dog, for he it was, roam with me through the grounds, while the fi-erce bulldog guard-ed the man-si-on within. Then said I, quite bold unto him, “No. I let in no man here. My em-ploy-er and employ-er-ess are now from home. What do you want?” Then says he, as bold as brass, “I’ve come to put the light-en-ing rods upon the house. Open the gate.” “What rods?” says I. “The rods as was order-ed,” says he. “Open the gate.” I stood and gazed at him. Full well I saw through his pinch-beck mask. I knew his tricks. In the ab-sence of my employer, he would put up rods and ever so many more than was wanted, and likely, too, some miserable trash that would attract the light-en-ing, instead of keep-ing it off. Then, as it would spoil the house to take them down, they would be kept, and pay demand-ed. “No, sir,” says I. “No light-en-ing rods upon this house whilst I stand here,” and with that I walk-ed away, and let Lord Edward loose. The man he storm-ed with pas-si-on. His eyes flash-ed fire. He would e’en have scal-ed the gate, but when he saw the dog he did forbear. As it was then near noon, I strode away to feed the fowls; but when I did return I saw a sight which froze the blood with-in my veins——’”
“The dog didn’t kill him?” cried Euphemia.
“Oh, no, ma’am!” said Pomona. “You’ll see that that wasn’t it. ‘At one cor-ner of the lot, in front, a base boy, who had accompa-ni-ed this man, was banging on the fence with a long stick, and thus attrack-ing to hisself the rage of Lord Edward, while the vile intrig-er of a light-en-ing rodder had brought a lad-der to the other side of the house, up which he had now as-cend-ed, and was on the roof. What horrors fill-ed my soul! How my form trembl-ed!’ This,” continued Pomona, “is the end of the novel,” and she laid her foolscap pages on the porch.
Euphemia and I exclaimed, with one voice, against this. We had just reached the most exciting part, and I added we had heard nothing yet about that affair of the taxes.
“You see, sir,” said Pomona, “it took me so long to write out the chapters about my birth, my parentage, and my early adventures, that I hadn’t time to finish up the rest. But I can tell you what happened after that jus’ as well as if I had writ it out.” And so she went on, much more glibly than before, with the account of the doings of the lightning-rod man.
“There was that wretch on top of the house, a-fixin’ his old rods and hammerin’ away for dear life. He’d brought his ladder over the side fence, where the dog, a-barkin’ and plungin’ at the boy outside, couldn’t see him. I stood dumb for a minute, and then I know’d I had him. I rushed into the house, got a piece of well-rope, tied it to the bulldog’s collar, an’ dragged him out and fastened him to the bottom rung of the ladder. Then I walks over to the front fence with Lord Edward’s chain, for I knew that if he got at that bulldog there’d be times, for they’d never been allowed to see each other yet. So says I to the boy, ‘I’m goin’ to tie up the dog, so you needn’t be afraid of his jumpin’ over the fence’—which he couldn’t do, or the boy would have been a corpse for twenty minutes, or maybe half an hour. The boy kinder laughed, and said I needn’t mind, which I didn’t. Then I went to the gate, and I clicked to the horse which was standin’ there, an’ off he starts, as good as gold, an’ trots down the road. The boy, he said somethin’ or other pretty bad an’ away he goes after him; but the horse was a-trottin’ real fast, an’ had a good start.”
“How on earth could you ever think of doing such things?” said Euphemia. “That horse might have upset the wagon and broken all the lightning-rods, besides running over I don’t know how many people.”
“But you see, ma’am, that wasn’t my lookout,” said Pomona. “I was a-defendin’ the house, and the enemy must expect to have things happen to him. So then I hears an awful row on the roof, and there was the man just coming down the ladder. He’d heard the horse go off, and when he got about half-way down an’ caught a sight of the bulldog, he was madder than ever you seed a lightnin-rodder in all your born days. ‘Take that dog off of there!’ he yelled at me. ‘No, I won’t,’ says I. ‘I never see a girl like you since I was born,’ he screams at me. ‘I guess it would ’a’ been better fur you if you had,’ says I; an’ then he was so mad he couldn’t stand it any longer, and he comes down as low as he could, and when he saw just how long the rope was—which was pretty short—he made a jump and landed clear of the dog. Then he went on dreadful because he couldn’t get at his ladder to take it away; and I wouldn’t untie the dog, because if I had he’d ’a’ torn the tendons out of that fellow’s legs in no time. I never see a dog in such a boiling passion, and yet never making no sound at all but bloodcurdlin’ grunts. An’ I don’t see how the rodder would ’a’ got his ladder at all if the dog hadn’t made an awful jump at him, and jerked the ladder down. It just missed your geranium-bed, and the rodder, he ran to the other end of it, and began pulling it away, dog and all. ‘Look a-here,’ says I, ‘we can fix him now;’ and so he cooled down enough to help me, and I unlocked the front door, and we pushed the bottom end of the ladder in, dog and all; an’ then I shut the door as tight as it would go an’ untied the end of the rope, an’ the rodder pulled the ladder out while I held the door to keep the dog from follerin’, which he came pretty near doin’, anyway. But I locked him in, and then the man began stormin’ again about his wagon; but when he looked out an’ see the boy comin’ back with it—for somebody must ’a’ stopped the horse—he stopped stormin’ and went to put up his ladder ag’in. ‘No, you don’t,’ says I; ‘I’ll let the big dog loose next time, and if I put him at the foot of your ladder you’ll never come down.’ ‘But I want to go and take down what I put up,’ he says; ‘I ain’t a-goin’ on with this job.’ ‘No,’ says I, ‘you ain’t; and you can’t go up there to wrench off them rods and make rain-holes in the roof, neither.’ He couldn’t get no madder than he was then, an’ fur a minute or two he couldn’t speak, an’ then he says, ‘I’ll have satisfaction for this.’ An’ says I, ‘How?’ An’ says he, ‘You’ll see what it is to interfere with a ordered job.’ An’ says I, ‘There wasn’t no order about it;’ an’ says he, ‘I’ll show you better than that;’ an’ he goes to his wagon an’ gits a book, ‘There,’ says he, ‘read that.’ ‘What of it?’ says I; ‘there’s nobody of the name of Ball lives here.’ That took the man kinder back, and he said he was told it was the only house on the lane, which I said was right, only it was the next lane he oughter ’a’ gone to. He said no more after that, but just put his ladder in his wagon and went off. But I was not altogether rid of him. He left a trail of his baleful presence behind him.
“That horrid bulldog wouldn’t let me come into the house! No matter what door I tried, there he was, just foamin’ mad. I let him stay till nearly night, and then went and spoke kind to him; but it was no good. He’d got an awful spite ag’in me. I found something to eat down cellar, and I made a fire outside an’ roasted some corn and potatoes. That night I slep’ in the barn. I wasn’t afraid to be away from the house for I knew it was safe enough, with that dog in it, and Lord Edward outside. For three days, Sunday an all, I was kep’ out of this here house. I got along pretty well with the sleepin’ and the eatin’, but the drinkin’ was the worst. I couldn’ get no coffee or tea; but there was plenty of milk.”
“Why didn’t you get some man to come and attend to the dog?” I asked. “It was dreadful to live in that way.”
“Well, I didn’t know no man that could do it,” said Pomona. “The dog would ’a’ been too much for old John, and besides, he was mad about the kerosene. Sunday afternoon, Captain Atkinson and Mrs. Atkinson and their little girl in a push-wagon come here, and I told ’em you was gone away; but they says they would stop a minute, and could I give them a drink; an’ I had nothin’ to give it them but an old chicken-bowl that I had washed out, for even the dipper was in the house, an’ I told ’em everything was locked up, which was true enough, though they must ’a’ thought you was a queer kind of people; but I wasn’t a-goin’ to say nothin’ about the dog, fur, to tell the truth, I was ashamed to do it. So as soon as they’d gone, I went down into the cellar—and it’s lucky that I had the key for the outside cellar door—and I got a piece of fat corn-beef and the meat ax. I unlocked the kitchen door and went in, with the ax in one hand and the meat in the other. The dog might take his choice. I know’d he must be pretty nigh famished, for there was nothin’ that he could get at to eat. As soon as I went in, he came runnin’ to me; but I could see he was shaky on his legs. He looked a sort of wicked at me, and then he grabbed the meat. He was all right then.”
“Oh, my!” said Euphemia, “I am so glad to hear that. I was afraid you never got in. But we saw the dog—is he as savage yet?”
“Oh, no!” said Pomona; “nothin’ like it.”
“Look here, Pomona,” said I, “I want to know about those taxes. When do they come into your story?”
“Pretty soon, sir,” said she, and she went on:
“After that, I know’d it wouldn’t do to have them two dogs so that they’d have to be tied up if they see each other. Just as like as not I’d want them both at once, and then they’d go to fighting, and leave me to settle with some bloodthirsty lightnin’-rodder. So, as I know’d if they once had a fair fight and found out which was master, they’d be good friends afterward, I thought the best thing to do would be to let ’em fight it out, when there was nothin’ else for ’em to do. So I fixed up things for the combat.”
“Why, Pomona!” cried Euphemia, “I didn’t think you were capable of such a cruel thing.”
“It looks that way, ma’am, but really it ain’t,” replied the girl. “It seemed to me as if it would be a mercy to both of ’em to have the thing settled. So I cleared away a place in front of the woodshed and unchained Lord Edward, and then I opened the kitchen door and called the bull. Out he came, with his teeth a-showin’, and his bloodshot eyes, and his crooked front legs. Like lightnin’ from the mount’in blast, he made one bounce for the big dog, and oh! what a fight there was! They rolled, they gnashed, they knocked over the wood-horse and sent chips a-flyin’ all ways at onst. I thought Lord Edward would whip in a minute or two; but he didn’t, for the bull stuck to him like a burr, and they was havin’ it, ground and lofty, when I hears some one run up behind me, an’ turnin’ quick, there was the ’piscopalian minister. ‘My! my! my!’ he hollers, ‘what an awful spectacle! Ain’t there no way of stoppin’ it?’ ‘No, sir,’ says I, and I told him how I didn’t want to stop it and the reason why. ‘Then,’ says he, ‘where’s your master?’ and I told him how you was away. ‘Isn’t there any man at all about?’ says he. ‘No,’ says I. ‘Then,’ says he, ‘if there’s nobody else to stop it, I must do it myself.’ An’ he took off his coat. ‘No,’ says I, ‘you keep back, sir. If there’s anybody to plunge into that erena, the blood be mine;’ an’ I put my hand, without thinkin’, ag’in his black shirt-bosom, to hold him back; but he didn’t notice, bein’ so excited. ‘Now,’ says I, jist wait one minute, and you’ll see that bull’s tail go between his legs. He’s weakenin’.’ An’ sure enough, Lord Edward got a good grab at him, and was a-shakin’ the very life out of him, when I run up and took Lord Edward by the collar. ‘Drop it!’ says I; an’ he dropped it, for he know’d he’d whipped, and he was pretty tired hisself. Then the bulldog, he trotted off with his tail a-hangin’ down. ‘Now, then,’ says I, ‘them dogs will be bosom friends forever after this.’ ‘Ah, me!’ says he, ‘I’m sorry indeed that your employer, for whom I’ve always had a great respect, should allow you to get into such bad habits.’
“That made me feel real bad, and I told him, mighty quick, that you was the last man in the world to let me do anything like that, and that if you’d a-been here you’d a-separated them dogs if they’d a-chawed your arms off; that you was very particular about such things, and that it would be a pity if he was to think you was a dog-fightin’ gentleman, when I’d often heard you say that, now you was fixed and settled, the one thing you would like most would be to be made a vestry-man.”
I sat up straight in my chair.
“Pomona!” I exclaimed. “You didn’t tell him that?”
“That’s what I said, sir, for I wanted him to know what you really was; an’ he says, ‘Well, well, I never knew that. It might be a very good thing. I’ll speak to some of the members about it. There’s two vacancies now in our vestry.’”
I was crushed; but Euphemia tried to put the matter into the brightest light.
“Perhaps it may all turn out for the best,” she said, “and you may be elected, and that would be splendid. But it would be an awfully funny thing for a dog-fight to make you a vestry-man.”
I could not talk on this subject. “Go on, Pomona,” I said, trying to feel resigned to my shame, “and tell us about that poster on the fence.”
“I’ll be to that almost right away,” she said.
“It was two or three days after the dog-fight that I was down at the barn, and happenin’ to look over to old John’s, I saw that tree-man there. He was a-showin’ his book to John, and him and his wife and all the young ones was a-standin’ there, drinkin’ down them big peaches and pears as if they was all real. I know’d he’d come here ag’in, for them fellers never gives you up; and I didn’t know how to keep him away, for I didn’t want to let the dogs loose on a man what, after all, didn’t want to do no more harm than to talk the life out of you. So I just happened to notice, as I came to the house, how kind of desolate everything looked, and I thought perhaps I might make it look worse, and he wouldn’t care to deal here. So I thought of putting up a poster like that, for nobody whose place was a-goin’ to be sold for taxes would be likely to want trees. So I run in the house, and wrote it quick and put it up. And sure enough, the man he come along soon, and when he looked at that paper an’ tried the gate, an’ looked over the fence an’ saw the house all shut up an’ not a livin’ soul about—for I had both the dogs in the house with me—he shook his head an’ walked off, as much as to say, ‘If that man had fixed his place up proper with my trees he wouldn’t a-come to this!’ An’ then, as I found the poster worked so good, I thought it might keep other people from comin’ a-botherin’ around, and so I left it up; but I was a-goin’ to be sure and take it down before you came.”
As it was now pretty late in the afternoon, I proposed that Pomona should postpone the rest of her narrative until evening. She said that there was nothing else to tell that was very particular; and I did not feel as if I could stand anything more just now, even if it was very particular.
When we were alone, I said to Euphemia:
“If we ever have to go away from this place again——”
“But we won’t go away,” she interrupted, looking up to me with as bright a face as she ever had; “at least, not for a long, long, long time to come.
“And I’m so glad you’re to be a vestry-man.”
--By permission of Charles Scribner’s Sons
Return to the Frank Stockton library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Buller-Podington Compact