Early next morning, Nelly was off for her school. Kitty, after waving her good-bye from the gate, went back into the house; into the kitchen, where she knew Sarepta was expecting her. "You come out quick as you get shet of her!" had been the mandate, which Kitty would never have thought of disobeying.
"Dear kitchen!" she said. "I saw nothing like this, in Europe, Sarepta!"
"I expect not!" said Sarepta, with a lift of her chin. "Take a seat!"
Kitty sat down obediently in a Windsor chair, and looked about her with great content. Her eyes passed from the shining stove to the cupboard full of beautiful old blue crockery, the pride of Sarepta's heart; to the scarlet geraniums in the window, the yellow cat on her scarlet cushion. All good, all delightful. She had come home.
"But what is all this, Sarepta?" asked Kitty.
On the shining table sat a number of plump little bags, of stout unbleached cotton, bearing brief inscriptions in blackest ink. Kitty took them up one by one, and read in wonder: "Eggs," "Tomatoes," "Sarce."
[pg 42] "What in the world, Sarepta?"
Sarepta, standing rigid, her hands folded in her apron, made austere reply.
"There was no reason as I know of why things should go to waste. Your Ma wasn't fit to see to 'em before she went away. There wasn't no need she should. I should hope I knew something! This—" she took up the stoutest bag, "is the egg and chicken money. The hens has done real well; I've sold eggs and broilers and roosters. You count that!" She named a sum. "I expect it's right."
"Sarepta! you dear, good soul! How could you—"
"This is sarce!" Sarepta continued, taking up another bag. "Sugar was low and fruit was high, so I done well there too. I made two hundred glasses of currant jell, and three hundred of grape, and—"
"But, Sarepta! What did you do with them all?"
"Sold 'em! Mis' Flynt wasn't puttin' up, herself, this year, didn't want to bother with it. No more did Miss Bygoods. And Mr. Mallow gi' me the hull of his order, so you see—"
"I see!" Kitty became thoughtful. "Sarepta—"
"Well!" the answer was a snap, thrown backward over an uncompromising shoulder. Sarepta was suddenly very busy at the stove, rattling and raking with much commotion.
"Sarepta! You didn't—you didn't ask for these orders, did you?"
Sarepta turned round; her face was like an iceberg carved with a jackknife.
"Was your Pa satisfied with me?"
[pg 43] "Sarepta! You know he adored you!"
"Was your Ma satisfied with me?"
"Sarepta dear! Don't be cantankerous!"
"Was your Ma satisfied with me?"
"Of course she was! How can you—"
"I made sarce before you was born or thought of!" Sarepta's tone expressed finality. "I've always made it—and I've never took it!" she added with a grim chuckle which splintered the iceberg in a singular way. "Anything else?" Sarepta's tone was amiable, but conveyed the idea that she had things to do, however it might be with other people.
"Just one thing, Sarepta dear, and then I'll go. Have you taken your wages out of this money? If not, hadn't we better settle it now?"
Sarepta made no immediate reply. Instead, she examined the draughts of the stove one by one, with meticulous care. Apparently satisfied with their condition, she next proceeded to brush the stove top (which did not need brushing) and to fill the kettle with ostentatious zeal. Kitty waited patiently, enjoying the kitchen and stroking the yellow cat. Finally, Sarepta washed her hands elaborately, rolled them in her apron, and turned round. So turning, she displayed the iceberg set again in rigid lines. The words appeared to freeze as they dropped from her lips. Sarepta had come to this house with Kitty's Ma, she intimated, when first she come here a bride.
"Sarepta," Mrs. Ross had said, "this is my home, and it is yours, too, as long as you live." Was that so, or wasn't it?
[pg 44] "Yes, Sarepta, that is true."
"Well, then! I was offered a home, and I expect a home, long as I need it. When I want wages, I'll ask for 'em. It's likely I'd take 'em from a child like you."
"But—" cried Kitty.
"Butter!" replied Sarepta. Then they both felt better, for this was the give and take of Kitty's childhood.
"But I do wish you would be reasonable, Sarepta! John Tucker has always had his wages, hasn't he?"
"John Tucker has a wife and fam'ly. His wife has about as much gumption as a week-old guinea-pig, and the way that eldest boy of theirs is growin' up is enough to scare the feathers off a hen; he's got to have wages, of course. And I've had 'em, Kitty, all I wanted, and money in the bank. My uncle left me his farm and savin's, last year, if you have to know. And if I'm pestered any more—" Sarepta's voice dropped to an ominous note—"I'll go and live there!"
"There!" she added in a different tone. "You just let me do the way I want to, Kitty, and we'll get along first rate. I'm crotchety, but yet I mean well; only I can't bear to be crossed. Run along now, child, and take your money. I'd put it in the bank if I was you. I'm busy now," she added abruptly, as Kitty tried to speak. "Besides, that John Tucker wanted you should come out to the stable right away. Dinner at one o'clock!"
"Dear me!" sighed Kitty, as she made her way toward the stable. "I feel just like Alice in Wonderland: [pg 45] I never was ordered about so in my life. Dear old thing! I shall always be ten to her, I suppose. But her name ought to be Pomona: she's right out of 'Rudder Grange'! Now for John Tucker! I hope he hasn't been making sarce!"
John Tucker was wont to say, Sarepty's kitchen was all right, but give him the harness-room! He was in the harness-room now, and it certainly was a pleasant place. A quaint little stove, of antiquated pattern, faced the door, and in front of the stove were two comfortable wooden arm-chairs, one for John and one for a visitor. John generally had visitors, in his few spare hours. People came to ask him everything—except in the medical way—that they used to ask Dr. Ross. The window of the little room looked out on the garden, the glazed upper half of the door gave a cheerful prospect of the stable, with its white-swathed vehicles—the doctor's buggy, the little phaeton, the old carryall, rather past use, but a wonderful place to play house in. You could not see the two box-stalls from the harness-room, for they were on the same side of the stable; but you could hear Pilot and Dan stamping and talking to each other through the partition. Kitty had already visited them, and given them sugar, and rubbed their dear velvet noses, and wept a little on their sympathetic necks.
"Good morning, John! How cosy you look in here!"
"Good morning, Miss Kitty! Step in! step in! I'm pleased to see you. Take a seat, won't you?"
Kitty sat down obediently, as she had done in the [pg 46] kitchen. John's tone was not Sarepta's: he was never autocratic. When Kitty was three, he had advanced the opinion that "this filly must be druv with the snaffle!" and had regulated his words and ways accordingly.
"The horses look beautifully, John! Of course, they always do."
John expected the horses might look worse. He didn't know as they would be special easy to beat in this county—or State, either, come to that!
"What a beauty Pilot is! And dear old Dan is just as handsome in his way. I suppose they are quite valuable horses, John?"
"I s'pose they be!" John Tucker spoke gruffly, and turned his head away. Something in the girl's tone and wistful look made his eyes smart. He put too much pepper on that fur robe, he knowed he did when he done it. Thus John Tucker, muttering.
"I asked, John dear, because—" Kitty's hand was on his arm now, fingering his rough sleeve as she used to in the days when she sat on his knee and, being interrogated as to whose gal she was, replied, "Don Tutter's dal!"—"because—I suppose we ought to sell them, John Tucker, dear. There is very, very little money, you know. Was that what you wanted to see me about, John?"
"Miss Kitty!" John Tucker turned his rugged face toward her now, and it was aglow with feeling: "Don't sell them hosses! That was what I wanted to say to you, and I say it again. Don't sell them hosses! If money is needed, and I'm aware it is, there is more [pg 47] money to be made by keepin' them hosses than by sellin' 'em. Lemme tell you; don't be mad with me, Miss Kitty, for I done the best I knew how."
"Of course you did, John! As if you ever did anything else. Why do you look at me so strangely, John Tucker?"
"Miss Kitty, I say it again, I done the best I knew how. Now lemme tell you! You remember Flanagan?"
"Flanagan, the cab-driver? Of course I do! Why, I didn't see him at the station yesterday. Wasn't he there? He used to say he never missed a train."
"He's missed consid'ble many lately," said John Tucker grimly. "Flanagan's complaint is that he's dead. Yes, ma'am," in answer to Kitty's exclamation, "dropped off settin' right there in his team at the depot. Folks was surprised."
"I should think so! Why, Flanagan! Why, John, I should as soon think of the train's dying! What do people do without him?"
John Tucker cleared his throat elaborately.
"I happened to be there, and I drove the folks home that he'd come to fetch. That was the way it began."
"The way what began, John Tucker?"
John Tucker rose and looked out of the window.
"Wind's workin' round no'theast!" he muttered. "We shall have snow flyin' before night. Miss Kitty, you'll see it reasonable, I know you will. Take a look at it by and large!" He turned, and threw an appealing look at the girl. "Here was Flanagan dead, warn't he? And no insurance, so to speak. Hosses and cab [pg 48] sold to pay for the funeral and the board bill: hadn't no folks, Flanagan hadn't; boarded to Widow Peavey's. Well! there was the train to be met mornin' and night, and there was Madam Flynt to be took her airin', and Mr. Bygood sim'lar, to and from the store. The gals don't want him to walk up the hill, 'cause of his heart, and I dono as I blame 'em. Considerin' his age, you know. And—the hosses had to be exercised, no two ways about that."
He paused: Kitty's eyes were shining, and she took up the word eagerly.
"And you have been doing all this, John Tucker! You have been meeting the trains and taking the dear people to drive, while they are finding some one in Flanagan's place? You clever John! Why, I think it was a wonderful idea! Of course I am perfectly delighted. And have they found a new Flanagan yet? Because, of course, you'll go right on till they—"
John Tucker's face was almost as craggy as Sarepta's, as he faced Kitty again:
"Found?" he said gruffly. "They've found me. I'm Flanagan: you're Flanagan. Miss Kitty—" he lifted a newspaper from the little table, displaying sundry piles of silver coin, arranged in neat pyramids; the base "cart-wheels" dollars, the top dimes. "Here's your money!" said John. "All that's ben taken in this six months since Flanagan died. You can take out my wages, if you're a mind to, 'count of Mary and the children: the rest is yours, lawful money, well airned, if I say it. Don't—don't you cry, Miss Kitty! [pg 49] don't you now! I done the best I knew how. I talked it over with Judge Peters, and he said, 'Stu' boy'; 'twas the best I could do; Mis' Flynt the same, and Sarepty. Don't you cry, Miss Kitty!"
Kitty explained through her tears that she wasn't really crying; it was only because every one was so darling and kind, and—and—why did the tears come so easily? There had been none, until she came home; she had longed for them sometimes, when her head throbbed, and her eyes burned so hot and dry; now, the least thing brought them welling up, and every time some band seemed loosed from her heart.
"It seems very—very strange, John Tucker, dear, to be taking money from the neighbors!" Kitty dried her eyes and looked up. "I am going to be sensible, John, and I know you did the very best—but it does seem strange, John Tucker! do you think Father would like it?"
John Tucker's eyes were very blue and very bright.
"Miss Kitty, if there is one thing under the canopy that I am sure of, it's that Doctor would approve. Doctor, you see, was reasonable. He'd see right off that here on one side was hosses to be fed, and grain costin' thus and so; and hosses to be exercised, or they'd go lame and poor. And he'd see on the other side, here was folks needin' to be hauled, and no one to haul 'em. Well, then Doctor would say,—'pears like I could hear him, and have heard him right along, 'When you're dealin' with hosses,' he'd say, 'you need hoss sense.' And this is hoss sense, Miss Kitty, or I don't know it."
[pg 50] Kitty rose and held out her little hand, to be engulfed in John Tucker's huge brown one.
"That's enough, John Tucker!" she said; and up went her chin. "I can hear him, too. We will be partners, John: Tucker and Ross! Only you will do all the work, John Tucker dear, I know you will."
John Tucker, looking at her, fell into such a glowing state that the stove was nowhere beside him.
"Now there!" he said. "What did I tell you? She's her Pa's own gal!"
"And now I must go and see Madam Flynt! You say she knows all about the Great Plan, John?"
"And approves! Madam Flynt is a real sensible woman."
He followed Kitty out of the harness-room, and they moved instinctively to the stalls, where two dark satin heads were thrust eagerly forward, two velvet noses sneezed and sniffed in eager greeting.
"You darlings!" cried Kitty. "No, Dan, no more sugar. You are not a pet lamb any more, dear: you are a Horse of Business, and must realize your responsibilities. I shall drive Madam Flynt myself, John, most days."
"I thought likely you would!" chuckled John. "You'll have to go keerful, though, Miss Kitty; it's slow and sure with Madam Flynt. None of your Bible doin's with her along!"
"Bible doings? What do you mean, John Tucker?"
John Tucker chuckled again.
"I was only thinkin' of Doctor!" he said. "'A daughter of Jehu, for behold she driveth furiously'."