Mr. Simpson spent little time with his family, owing to certain awkward methods of horse-trading, or the "swapping" of farm implements and vehicles of various kinds,-- operations in which his customers were never long suited. After every successful trade he generally passed a longer or shorter term in jail; for when a poor man without goods or chattels has the inveterate habit of swapping, it follows naturally that he must have something to swap; and having nothing of his own, it follows still more naturally that he must swap something belonging to his neighbors.
Mr. Simpson was absent from the home circle for the moment because he had exchanged the Widow Rideout's sleigh for Joseph Goodwin's plough. Goodwin had lately moved to North Edgewood and had never before met the urbane and persuasive Mr. Simpson. The Goodwin plough Mr. Simpson speedily bartered with a man "over Wareham way," and got in exchange for it an old horse which his owner did not need, as he was leaving town to visit his daughter for a year, Simpson fattened the aged animal, keeping him for several weeks (at early morning or after nightfall) in one neighbor's pasture after another, and then exchanged him with a Milltown man for a top buggy. It was at this juncture that the Widow Rideout missed her sleigh from the old carriage house. She had not used it for fifteen years and might not sit in it for another fifteen, but it was property, and she did not intend to part with it without a struggle. Such is the suspicious nature of the village mind that the moment she discovered her loss her thought at once reverted to Abner Simpson. So complicated, however, was the nature of this particular business transaction, and so tortuous the paths of its progress (partly owing to the complete disappearance of the owner of the horse, who had gone to the West and left no address), that it took the sheriff many weeks to prove Mr. Simpson's guilt to the town's and to the Widow Rideout's satisfaction. Abner himself avowed his complete innocence, and told the neighbors how a red-haired man with a hare lip and a pepper-and- salt suit of clothes had called him up one morning about daylight and offered to swap him a good sleigh for an old cider press he had layin' out in the dooryard. The bargain was struck, and he, Abner, had paid the hare-lipped stranger four dollars and seventy-five cents to boot; whereupon the mysterious one set down the sleigh, took the press on his cart, and vanished up the road, never to be seen or heard from afterwards.
"If I could once ketch that consarned old thief," exclaimed Abner righteously, "I'd make him dance,--workin' off a stolen sleigh on me an' takin' away my good money an' cider press, to say nothin' o' my character!"
"You'll never ketch him, Ab," responded the sheriff. "He's cut off the same piece o' goods as that there cider press and that there character and that there four-seventy-five o' yourn; nobody ever see any of 'em but you, and you'll never see 'em again!"
Mrs. Simpson, who was decidedly Abner's better half, took in washing and went out to do days' cleaning, and the town helped in the feeding and clothing of the children. George, a lanky boy of fourteen, did chores on neighboring farms, and the others, Samuel, Clara Belle, Susan, Elijah, and Elisha, went to school, when sufficiently clothed and not otherwise more pleasantly engaged.
There were no secrets in the villages that lay along the banks of Pleasant River. There were many hard-working people among the inhabitants, but life wore away so quietly and slowly that there was a good deal of spare time for conversation,-- under the trees at noon in the hayfield; hanging over the bridge at nightfall; seated about the stove in the village store of an evening. These meeting-places furnished ample ground for the discussion of current events as viewed by the mas- culine eye, while choir rehearsals, sewing societies, reading circles, church picnics, and the like, gave opportunity for the expression of feminine opinion. All this was taken very much for granted, as a rule, but now and then some supersensitive person made violent objections to it, as a theory of life.
Delia Weeks, for example, was a maiden lady who did dressmaking in a small way; she fell ill, and although attended by all the physicians in the neighborhood, was sinking slowly into a decline when her cousin Cyrus asked her to come and keep house for him in Lewiston. She went, and in a year grew into a robust, hearty, cheerful woman. Returning to Riverboro on a brief visit, she was asked if she meant to end her days away from home.
"I do most certainly, if I can get any other place to stay," she responded candidly. "I was bein' worn to a shadder here, tryin' to keep my little secrets to myself, an' never succeedin'. First they had it I wanted to marry the minister, and when he took a wife in Standish I was known to be disappointed. Then for five or six years they suspicioned I was tryin' for a place to teach school, and when I gave up hope, an' took to dressmakin', they pitied me and sympathized with me for that. When father died I was bound I'd never let anybody know how I was left, for that spites 'em worse than anything else; but there's ways o' findin' out, an' they found out, hard as I fought 'em! Then there was my brother James that went to Arizona when he was sixteen. I gave good news of him for thirty years runnin', but aunt Achsy Tarbox had a ferretin' cousin that went out to Tombstone for her health, and she wrote to a postmaster, or to some kind of a town authority, and found Jim and wrote back aunt Achsy all about him and just how unfortunate he'd been. They knew when I had my teeth out and a new set made; they knew when I put on a false front- piece; they knew when the fruit peddler asked me to be his third wife--I never told 'em, an' you can be sure HE never did, but they don't need to be told in this village; they have nothin' to do but guess, an' they'll guess right every time. I was all tuckered out tryin' to mislead 'em and deceive 'em and sidetrack 'em; but the minute I got where I wa'n't put under a microscope by day an' a telescope by night and had myself TO myself without sayin' `By your leave,' I begun to pick up. Cousin Cyrus is an old man an' consid'able trouble, but he thinks my teeth are handsome an' says I've got a splendid suit of hair. There ain't a person in Lewiston that knows about the minister, or father's will, or Jim's doin's, or the fruit peddler; an' if they should find out, they wouldn't care, an' they couldn't remember; for Lewiston 's a busy place, thanks be!"
Miss Delia Weeks may have exaggerated matters somewhat, but it is easy to imagine that Rebecca as well as all the other Riverboro children had heard the particulars of the Widow Rideout's missing sleigh and Abner Simpson's supposed connection with it.
There is not an excess of delicacy or chivalry in the ordinary country school, and several choice conundrums and bits of verse dealing with the Simpson affair were bandied about among the scholars, uttered always, be it said to their credit, in undertones, and when the Simpson children were not in the group.
Rebecca Randall was of precisely the same stock, and had had much the same associations as her schoolmates, so one can hardly say why she so hated mean gossip and so instinctively held herself aloof from it.
Among the Riverboro girls of her own age was a certain excellently named Minnie Smellie, who was anything but a general favorite. She was a ferret- eyed, blond-haired, spindle-legged little creature whose mind was a cross between that of a parrot and a sheep. She was suspected of copying answers from other girls' slates, although she had never been caught in the act. Rebecca and Emma Jane always knew when she had brought a tart or a triangle of layer cake with her school luncheon, because on those days she forsook the cheerful society of her mates and sought a safe solitude in the woods, returning after a time with a jocund smile on her smug face.
After one of these private luncheons Rebecca had been tempted beyond her strength, and when Minnie took her seat among them asked, "Is your headache better, Minnie? Let me wipe off that strawberry jam over your mouth."
There was no jam there as a matter of fact, but the guilty Minnie's handkerchief went to her crimson face in a flash.
Rebecca confessed to Emma Jane that same afternoon that she felt ashamed of her prank. "I do hate her ways," she exclaimed, "but I'm sorry I let her know we 'spected her; and so to make up, I gave her that little piece of broken coral I keep in my bead purse; you know the one?"
"It don't hardly seem as if she deserved that, and her so greedy," remarked Emma Jane.
"I know it, but it makes me feel better," said Rebecca largely; "and then I've had it two years, and it's broken so it wouldn't ever be any real good, beautiful as it is to look at."
The coral had partly served its purpose as a reconciling bond, when one afternoon Rebecca, who had stayed after school for her grammar lesson as usual, was returning home by way of the short cut. Far ahead, beyond the bars, she espied the Simpson children just entering the woodsy bit. Seesaw was not with them, so she hastened her steps in order to secure company on her homeward walk. They were speedily lost to view, but when she had almost overtaken them she heard, in the trees beyond, Minnie Smellie's voice lifted high in song, and the sound of a child's sobbing. Clara Belle, Susan, and the twins were running along the path, and Minnie was dancing up and down, shrieking:--
"`What made the sleigh love Simpson so?' The eager children cried; `Why Simpson loved the sleigh, you know,' The teacher quick replied."
The last glimpse of the routed Simpson tribe, and the last Rutter of their tattered garments, disappeared in the dim distance. The fall of one small stone cast by the valiant Elijah, known as "the fighting twin," did break the stillness of the woods for a moment, but it did not come within a hundred yards of Minnie, who shouted "Jail Birds" at the top of her lungs and then turned, with an agreeable feeling of excitement, to meet Rebecca, standing perfectly still in the path, with a day of reckoning plainly set forth in her blazing eyes.
Minnie's face was not pleasant to see, for a coward detected at the moment of wrongdoing is not an object of delight.
"Minnie Smellie, if ever--I--catch--you-- singing--that--to the Simpsons again--do you know what I'll do?" asked Rebecca in a tone of concentrated rage.
"I don't know and I don't care," said Minnie jauntily, though her looks belied her.
"I'll take that piece of coral away from you, and I think I shall slap you besides!"
"You wouldn't darst," retorted Minnie. "If you do, I'll tell my mother and the teacher, so there!"
"I don't care if you tell your mother, my mother, and all your relations, and the president," said Rebecca, gaining courage as the noble words fell from her lips. "I don't care if you tell the town, the whole of York county, the state of Maine and-- and the nation!" she finished grandiloquently. "Now you run home and remember what I say. If you do it again, and especially if you say `Jail Birds,' if I think it's right and my duty, I shall punish you somehow."
The next morning at recess Rebecca observed Minnie telling the tale with variations to Huldah Meserve. "She threatened me," whispered Minnie, "but I never believe a word she says."
The latter remark was spoken with the direct intention of being overheard, for Minnie had spasms of bravery, when well surrounded by the machinery of law and order.
As Rebecca went back to her seat she asked Miss Dearborn if she might pass a note to Minnie Smellie and received permission. This was the note:--
Of all the girls that are so mean There's none like Minnie Smellie. I'll take away the gift I gave And pound her into jelly.
P. S. Now do you believe me?
The effect of this piece of doggerel was entirely convincing, and for days afterwards whenever Minnie met the Simpsons even a mile from the brick house she shuddered and held her peace.