A Question of Names
The girls of Silver Spur ranch were all very busy helping Mary, the eldest, with her wedding sewing. Silver Spur was rather a pretentious name for John Spooner's little Texas cattle-farm, but Elizabeth, the second daughter, who had an ear attuned to sweet sounds, had chosen it; as a further confirmation of the fact she had covered an old spur with silver-leaf and hung it over the doorway. The neighboring ranchers had laughed, at first, and old Jonah Bean, the one cowboy left in charge of the small Spooner herd, always sniffed scornfully when he had occasion to mention the name of his ranch, declaring that The Tin Spoon would suit it much better. However, in time everybody became used to it, and Silver Spur the ranch remained--somehow Elizabeth always had her own way.
This young lady sat by the window in the little living-room where they were all at work, and carefully embroidered a big and corpulent "B" on a sofa-pillow for Mary, who was to marry, in a few days, a young man from another state who owned the euphonious name of Bellamy--a name Elizabeth openly envied him.
"I do think Spooner is such a horrid, commonplace sort of name," she declared with emphatic disapproval. "Aren't you glad you'll soon be rid of it, Mary?"
"Um-m," murmured Mary, paying scant heed to Elizabeth's query; she was hemming a ruffle to trim the little muslin frock which was the last unfinished garment of her trousseau, and she was too busy for argument.
"As if," continued Elizabeth, "the name wasn't odious enough, father must needs go and choose a spoon for his brand! And he might so easily have made it a fleur-de-lys--fairly rubbing it in, as if it was something to be proud of!"
Just then Mary, finding that the machine needle kept jabbing in one place, looked about for a cause, and perceived Elizabeth tranquilly rocking upon one of the unhemmed breadths of her ruffle.
"I'll be much obliged if you'll take your chair off my ruffle, Saint Elizabeth," she laughed, tugging at the crumpled cloth, "and just don't worry over the name--try and live up to your looks."
Elizabeth blushed a little as she stooped to disentangle the cloth from her rocker; she was a very handsome girl, altogether unlike her sisters, who were all rather short and dark, and plump looking, Cousin Hannah Pratt declared, as much alike as biscuits cut out of the same batch of dough. Elizabeth was about sixteen, tall and fair and slim, with large, serious blue eyes and long, thick blond hair, which she wore plaited in the form of a coronet or halo about her head--privately, she much preferred the halo, as best befitting the character of her favorite heroine, Saint Elizabeth, a canonized queen whom she desired to resemble in looks and deportment.
"One would have to be a saint to bear with the name of Spooner," she said, rather crossly, as she tossed Mary her ruffle.
Cousin Hannah Pratt, rocking in the biggest chair, which she filled to overflowing, lifted her eyes from her work and regarded Elizabeth meditatively. "How'd you like to swap it for Mudd, Libby?" she asked tranquilly.
Elizabeth shuddered--she hated to be called Libby, it was so commonplace; and Cousin Hannah persisted in calling her that when she knew how it annoyed her. Elizabeth was thankful that Cousin Hannah--who kept a boarding-house in Emerald, the near-by village, and had kindly come over to help with the wedding--was only kin-in-law, which was bad enough; to have such an uncultured person for a blood relation would have been worse.
"Mudd! O, poor Elizabeth!" giggled Ruth, the third of the Spooner sisters, a merry-hearted girl of fifteen, who looked on all the world with mirthful eyes. "Cousin Hannah, what made you think of such an awful name?"
"Don't be so noisy, Ruth," cautioned Mary, with what seemed unnecessary severity. "Mother's neuralgia is bad to day. You can hear every sound right through in her room. Cousin Hannah, won't you please make her a cup of tea? I think it would do her good; you make such nice tea."
"Sure and certain!" agreed Cousin Hannah, heartily. Rising ponderously from her chair, she moved on heavy tiptoes out into the kitchen, the thin boards creaking as she walked.
"I might also remark that a person would have to be a saint to bear with Cousin Hannah," said Elizabeth, "she doesn't intend it, maybe, but she does rile me so!"
"I don't see why anybody would want to be a saint; I'd heap rather be a knight," spoke up little Harvie, nicknamed by her family "the Babe." She lay curled up on a lounge in the corner, ostensibly pulling out bastings, but really reading a worn old copy of Ivanhoe, which was the book of her heart. There were no children living near the lonely little ranch, and the Babe, who was only ten, solaced herself with the company of heroes and heroines of romance--much preferring the heroes.
"I'd rather be 'most anything than a 'mover'," declared Elizabeth, emphatically. "And if you want to know the reason, just look out of the window and watch this procession coming up from the road."
Ruth and the Babe ran to the window; Mary, leaving her machine, slipped quietly out of the room to see about her mother. Also Mary desired to have a little private talk with Cousin Hannah.
It was a pitifully ludicrous spectacle that the girls beheld. Up the driveway leading to the house came a dreary procession of those unfortunates known in western parlance as "movers," family tramps who follow the harvests in hope of getting a little work in the fields; always moving on when the crops are gathered, or planted, as the case may be--movers never became dwellers in any local territory.
These movers were, in appearance, even more wretched than usual. In a little covered cart drawn by a diminutive donkey, sat a pale woman with a baby in her arms, and two small and pallid children crouching beside her. Behind the cart the father of the family pushed valiantly, in a kindly endeavor to help along the donkey, while just ahead of that overburdened animal walked a small boy, holding, as further inducement, an alluring ear of corn just out of reach of the donkey's nose. Certainly the family justified Elizabeth's declaration that 'most anything was preferable to being a mover!
Ruth and Elizabeth both laughed at the comical procession, but the Babe's eyes were full of pity. "The poor things are coming up for water," she said sorrowfully. "Father always let them get water at our well--I'll go show them the way." And she ran out to meet the movers and show them the well at the back of the house, where they filled their water-jugs and quenched the thirst of the patient and unsatisfied donkey.
"I wish to goodness Father never had gone to Cuba," sighed Ruth, as she turned from the window to take up her button-holes, "it is so awfully lonesome without him."
"I think it was splendid," said Elizabeth, with shining eyes, "to be among the very first of the volunteers. And maybe he'll do some deed of daring and be made an officer. Think how nice it will be to say, when the war is over, that our father figures in history--maybe as one of the foremost heroes of the Spanish-American war."
"You're always dreaming of things that never happen, Elizabeth," scoffed practical Ruth. "Of course he won't be made a big officer. If he comes back just a plain Captain I'll be mighty glad."
"O, well, the world's greatest men and women have always been dreamers," asserted Elizabeth, cheerfully, "I can't help being born different from the rest of you, can I?"
"H'm, I reckon not--but you can start a fire in the stove. People must eat, no matter how great they are. It's your time to get supper."
"O, dear, it's bad to be born poor!" sighed Elizabeth, as she arose reluctantly. "Especially when there's a longing within you to do perfectly fine things, and not mere drudgery. I wish I were a princess--it seems to me I was born to rule. I'm sure I would be a wise and capable sovereign. Well, even queens stoop to minister to the lowly, like Saint Elizabeth, so I'll go get supper for the Spooners!"
And with her head in the clouds, the throneless queen marched majestically kitchenward, to engage in the humble occupation of cooking supper for her family.
Voices from her mother's closed door reached her ears as she passed. Elizabeth would have scorned eavesdropping, but--the ranch being located in the prairie region of Texas, where lumber is so scarce that just as little as possible is used in building, and the walls being merely board partitions, she could not help hearing Cousin Hannah's voice, always strident, rising above her mother's and Mary's lower tones.
"Fiddle-diddle! What's the use of mincin' matters anyway? She's bound to know, sooner or later--ought to know without--tellin', if she had a grain o' common sense. Ain't a single, solitary thing about her favors the rest of you all."
The words sounded very clearly in Elizabeth's startled ears, arousing a train of troubled thoughts in her mind, as she moved mechanically about the kitchen. She felt quite certain that they were talking about her, and that Cousin Hannah wanted to tell her something that Mrs. Spooner and Mary didn't want known.
"I wonder what it can be," pondered Elizabeth, as she slowly stirred the hominy pot. "Whether Cousin Hannah thinks so or not, I've always known I wasn't like the rest."
This was quite true; Elizabeth, though she dearly loved the parents and sisters who had always, Cousin Hannah declared, spoiled her, yet could not help feeling that she was, mentally and physically superior to them, "made of finer clay," she would have put it. People often remarked on this lack of resemblance to the others, and when they did so in Mrs. Spooner's presence she always hastily changed the subject. Elizabeth had often wondered why. Somehow there seemed always to have been a mystery surrounding her--something that, if explained, would prove very thrilling indeed.
Occupied with these thoughts, she moved from cupboard to table, and from table to fire, preparing the evening meal with deft skill, for anything Elizabeth Spooner did she did a little better than other people.
Outside the window stretched a vast brown-green plain, bounded by a horizon line like a ring. There was monotony in the prospect, and yet a curious sense of adventure and romance, as there is about the sea. Elizabeth delighted in the mystic beauty of the prairie, yet to-day her fine eyes studied the level unseeingly as she glanced through the window, looking to see if Jonah Bean was in sight; the glories of sunset that flooded the plain passed almost unnoticed. She was thinking too earnestly on her own problem to observe the outside world.
"If I were by chance adopted, I certainly have a right to know who I am," Elizabeth pondered, as she set the table beautifully, with certain artistic touches that the clumsier hands of the other girls somehow could never manage. "It won't make any difference in my feelings for father and mother and the girls if I should happen to be born in a higher station of life than theirs--though I can easily see how poor mother could think it might; I trust I'm above being snobbish--" Elizabeth's eyes began to glow with a resolute purpose--"I'm going to find out, that's what! I'll make Cousin Hannah tell me. She's so big it's awful to sleep with her, and she snores like thunder. Mary knows how bad it is, and how I hate it, that's the reason she made me sleep with Ruth, when one of us had to give up our place. To-night I'll make Mary take the Babe's place with Mother, who might need her in the night, and I'll sleep with Cousin Hannah--and find out what she knows about me!"
Jonah Bean came stamping up the steps just then to wash up for supper at the water-shelf just outside the kitchen door; informing anybody who chose to listen that he was mighty tired--there was two men's work to do on the Spooner ranch, anyhow, and he was gittin' old, same's other folks. Glancing in at the open door he observed who was the cook.
"Humph! So it's your night for gittin' supper? Well, I hope the truck'll taste as fancy as that air table looks."
"Sure, Jonah," answered Elizabeth, critically observing the effect of her handiwork. "If you'll just step outside and get me a big bunch of those yellow cactus-blooms to put in this brown pitcher it'll be perfect, and I'll see that you get a big painted cup full of coffee."
"Never could see no use in weeds--full o' stickers at that," grumbled Jonah, as he turned to go out for the flowers that were growing on the great cactus in the fence corner. "Hope that air coffee'll be strong and hot, though."
The coffee was strong and hot, and the hominy was white and well-cooked; the bacon was brown and crisp and the biscuits light as feathers. Elizabeth dished the supper in the flowered dishes kept for company, because she could not bear the heavy earthenware they used every day. She filled the squatty brown pitcher with the big bunch of golden blooms old Jonah bore gingerly, careful of the thorns, and then lighted the lamp with the red shade. Really they didn't need a lamp, but the glow from the red shade was so pretty that she lighted it anyway--she so loved beautiful things.
She arranged her mother's tray daintily, laying a cactus-bloom, freed of its thorns, beside the plate--somehow she felt as if she was preparing for some extra occasion.
"I declare Libby always cooks like she was fixin' for company," said Cousin Hannah, admiringly, as she sat at the gracefully arranged table. "Oughter keep boarders, and she wouldn't find no time for extra kinks."
Elizabeth shuddered a little as she poured Jonah's coffee in the biggest cup, with the painted motto on it--how she would hate to do such a sordid thing as keep boarders!
But she smiled very affably on Cousin Hannah, and asked if she wouldn't tell her how to make spice cake--she always noticed that Cousin Hannah's cake was so good. She wished to get the recipe to write in her scrap-book.
"Shore and certain," said Cousin Hannah, amiably, pleased at Elizabeth's praise, "I'll be glad to write it off. You're 'bout as good a cook as Ruth, though I always did say she was the born cook o' the family--you seemin' to be a master hand at managin'."
That she was indeed a master hand at the art, Elizabeth proved that night, when with a few energetic commands, she sent Mary obediently to her mother's room, to take the Babe's place, who in turn was put to sleep with Ruth.
"Why in the world don't you let Ruth sleep with Cousin Hannah?" argued Mary, "you know how you hate to--and she doesn't mind."
"Because it isn't fair that I shouldn't have my turn as well as the others--it's disagreeable to all of us. Now you just let me have my way, and say nothing else about it!" declared Elizabeth with authority, and as usual, she was allowed to have her way.
While Cousin Hannah undressed, moving ponderously about the little room, Elizabeth sat on the side of the bed, brushing her long blond hair, watching with critical admiration of the beautiful, the gleams of red and gold the lamplight cast upon its glittering strands, and formulating in her mind a plan to find out the secret of her birth--if secret there was.
She finally decided that plain speech was better than beating about the bush, and spoke in a carefully suppressed tone.
"Cousin Hannah," she said, with whispering decisiveness, "I want to know what you, and Mother and Mary were talking about in her room."
"Why, Libby!" exclaimed Cousin Hannah, plumping down upon the bed in her astonishment, "did you go and listen to what we was sayin'?"
"Indeed I didn't! But I couldn't help hearing you--and I think it's my right to know, if you were talking about me."
"But your Ma--but Jennie said she didn't want you should know," argued the bewildered Cousin Hannah, "land o' livin', girl, ain't you got a home, and people to care for you? Why in tunket can't you be satisfied with that?"
Certainty made Elizabeth calmly triumphant.
"I have felt, for a long time--ever since I can remember, that I was different from the rest of my family, though you didn't give me credit for having sense enough to see it. Of course, I love them all dearly but I can't help feeling that it's my right to know the truth, whatever it is. Cousin Hannah, is or is not my name Spooner?"
"Well," Cousin Hannah evaded the question, "what would you get out of it if your name wasn't Spooner?"
Elizabeth leaped up softly, she held her hairbrush as though it were a scepter; her long hair flowed and billowed about her as she walked with majestic tread, up and down the tiny room--she was seeing visions!
If her name was not Spooner! That would mean that her birth was, she felt sure, indefinitely illustrious some way. Of course she would never desert the people who loved her, and whom she would always love, but--might not something come of it that would be grand for them all?
"Libby," Cousin Hannah's eyes followed the moving figure with a distressed look in them, "your ma--Jennie Spooner--your true ma, if love and tenderness count for anything, never wanted you told. Mary knows, and she don't want you should know. When I watch your uppity ways I tell 'em it's high time they explained the situation to you."
"The situation--" Elizabeth hung breathlessly on her words with shining eyes, and an eager tremble of her lips.
"Yes, the situation," repeated Cousin Hannah heavily. "Jennie Spooner had a tough time raisin' you--a troublesome young'un as ever I see. You teethed so hard that it looked like she never knew what a night's rest was till you got 'em through the gums. I used to come over here many a time and help her; what with Ruth bein' so nigh the same age, she had her hands full. It was kept from you for fear of hurtin' your feelin's, if you must know."
"How could it hurt my feelings?" questioned Elizabeth, a little puzzled. "I love them all--but they should have told me. They ought to have known they couldn't change--" a swan to a duckling had been on the tip of her tongue, but she stopped in time, "me to a Spooner, even by their love and kindness."
"Change you to a Spooner?" slow wrath mounted to Cousin Hannah's face. She caught Elizabeth's arm as the girl passed by. "I reckon they couldn't make a Spooner out o' you, that's a fact. The Spooners, bein', so far's known to me, respectable householders--"
"But not what my people were," suggested Elizabeth, her whole face alight, her eyes shining with eagerness. "You must tell me who they were--what my rightful name is."
Cousin Hannah groaned. "Looks like I've let the cat out of the bag--don't it? Well, what I've got to tell ain't nigh what you think I've got to tell," she asserted doggedly. "You'll be sorry for askin'."
Through Elizabeth's mind flashed visions of a wonderful ancestry; to do her justice these dream parents did not in any way displace the father and mother she really loved with all her young heart--they were only that vision which comes to us all in some shape when we feel we are misunderstood--different.
Mary's step was heard approaching in the little corridor. She had undoubtedly been disturbed by the sound of their voices, and was uneasy for fear Cousin Hannah would be teased into making in judicious revelations.
"Tell me--tell me quick--" whispered Elizabeth, shaking her room-mate's arm. "Tell me before Mary gets here."
"Well, I will," gasped Cousin Hannah. "You ought to know it--but I warn you it's not what you're expectin'!"