There was no answer.
"Don Alonzo! Deacon Bassett's here, and wishful to see you. Don Alonzo Pit-kin!"
Mrs. Joe Pitkin stood at the door a moment, waiting; then she shook her shoulders with a despairing gesture, and went back into the sitting-room. "I don't know where he is, Deacon Bassett," she said. "There! I'm sorry; but he's so bashful, Don Alonzo is, he'll creep off and hide anywheres sooner than see folks. I do feel mortified, but I can't seem to help it, no way in the world."
"No need to, Mis' Pitkin," said Deacon Bassett, rising slowly and reaching for his hat. "No need to. I should have been pleased to see Don 'Lonzo, and ask if he got benefit from those pills I left for him last time I called; what he wants is to doctor reg'lar, and keep straight on doctorin'. But I can call again; and I felt it a duty to let you know what's goin' on at your own yard-gate, I may say. Mis' Pegrum's house ain't but a stone's throw from yourn, is it? Well, I'll be wishing you good day, and I hope Joseph will be home before there's any trouble. I don't suppose you've noticed whether Don Alonzo has growed any, sence he took those pills?"
"No, I haven't!" said Mrs. Pitkin, shortly. "Good day, Deacon Bassett."
"Yes, you can call again," she added, mentally, as she watched the deacon making his way slowly down the garden walk, stopping the while to inspect every plant that looked promising. "You can call again, but you will not see him, if you come every day. It does beat all, the way folks can't let that boy alone. Talk about his being cranky! I'd be ten times as cranky as he is, if I was pestered by every old podogger that's got stuff to sell."
She closed the door, and addressed the house, apparently empty and still. "He's gone!" she said, speaking rather loudly, "Don 'Lonzo, he's gone, and you can come out. I expect you're hid somewheres about here, for I didn't hear you go out."
There was no sound. She opened the door of the ground-floor bedroom and looked in. All was tidy and pleasant as usual. Every mat lay in its place; the chairs were set against the wall as she loved to see them; the rows of books, the shelves of chemicals, at which she hardly dared to look, and which she never dared to touch for fear something would "go off" and kill her instantly, the specimens in their tall glass jars, the case of butterflies, all were in their place; but there was no sign of life in the room, save the canary in the window.
"Deacon Bassett's gone!" she said, speaking to the canary.
There was a scuffling sound from under the bed; the valance was lifted, and a head emerged cautiously.
"I tell you he's gone!" repeated Mira Pitkin, rather impatiently. "Come out, Don Alonzo! There! you are foolish, I must say!"
The head came out, followed by a figure. The figure was that of a boy of twelve, but the head belonged to a youth of seventeen. The rounded shoulders, the sharp features, the dark, sunken eyes, all told a tale of suffering; Don Alonzo Pitkin was a hunchback.
His pretty, silly mother had given him the foolish name which seemed a perpetual mockery of his feeble person. She had found it in an old romance, and had only wavered between it and Senor Gonzalez,--which she pronounced Seener Gon-zallies,--the other dark-eyed hero of the book. Perhaps she pictured to herself her baby growing up into such another lofty, black-plumed hidalgo as those whose magnificent language and mustachios had so deeply impressed her. It was true that she herself had pinkish eyes and white eyelashes, while her husband was familiarly known as "Carrots,"--but what of that?
But he had a fall, this poor baby,--a cruel fall, from the consequences of which no high-sounding name could save him; and then presently the little mother died, and the father married again.
The boy's childhood had been a sad one, and all the happiness he had known had been lately, since his elder brother married. Big, good-natured Joe Pitkin, marrying the prettiest girl in the village, had been sore at heart, even in his new-wedded happiness, at the thought of leaving the deformed, sensitive boy alone with the careless father and the shrewish stepmother. But his young wife had been the first to say:
"Let Don Alonzo come and live with us, Joe! Where there is room for two, there is room for three, and that boy wants to be made of!"
So the strong, cheerful, wholesome young woman took the sickly lad into her house and heart, and "made of him," to use her own quaint phrase; and she became mother and sister and sweetheart, all in one, to Don Alonzo.
Now she stood looking at him, shaking her head, yet smiling. "Don 'Lonzo, how can you behave so?" she asked. "This is the third time Deacon Bassett has been here to see you, and he's coming again; and what be I to say to him next time he comes? You can't go through life without seeing folks, you know."
Don Alonzo shook his shoulders, and pretended to look for dust on his coat. He would have been deeply mortified to find any, for he took care of his own room, and prided himself, with reason, on its neatness. Also, the space beneath his bedstead was cupboard as well as hiding-place.
"He troubles me," he said, meekly. "Deacon Bassett troubles me more than any of 'em. Did he ask if I'd grown any?"
"Well, he did," Mira admitted. "But I expect he didn't mean anything by it."
"He's asked that ever since I can remember," said Don Alonzo; "and I'm weary of it. There! And then he says that if I would only take his Green Elixir three times a day for three months, I'd grow like a sapling willow. He hopes to make his living out of me, yet!"
Mrs. Pitkin laughed, comfortably, and smoothed the lad's hair back with a motherly touch. "All the same," she said, "you must quit hiding under the bed when folks come to call, Don 'Lonzo. You don't want 'em to think I treat you bad, and keep you out o' sight, so's they'll not find it out." Then, seeing the boy's face flush with distress, she added, hastily, "Besides, you're getting to be 'most a man now; I want strangers should know there's men-folks about the place, now Joe's away. There's burglars in town, Don 'Lonzo, and we must look out and keep things shut up close, nights."
"Burglars!" repeated the youth.
"Yes; Deacon Bassett was telling me about 'em just now. I guess likely half what he came for was to give me a good scare, knowing Joe was away. Now, ain't I uncharitable! 'Twas just as likely to be a friendly warning. Anyway, he was telling me they came through from Tupham Corner day before yesterday, and they've been lurking and spying round."
"Some boys saw them, coming through Green Gully, and were scared to death at their looks; they said they were big, black-looking men, strangers to these parts; and they swore at the boys and ordered 'em off real ugly. Nobody else has seen them in honest daylight, but they broke into Dan'l Brown's house last night. He's deaf, you know, and didn't hear a sound. They came right into the room where he slept, --Deacon Bassett was there the next day, and saw their tracks all over the floor,--and took ten dollars out of his pants pocket. The pants was hanging right beside the bed, and they turned them clean inside out, and Dan'l never stirred."
"My, oh!" exclaimed Don Alonzo.
"Why, it's terrible!" Mira went on. "Then, last night, they got into Mis' Pegrum's house, too. She's a lone woman, you know, same as Dan'l is a man. Seems as if they had took note of every house where there wasn't plenty of folks to be stirring and taking notice. They got into the pantry window, and took every living thing she had to eat. They might do that, and still go hungry, Deacon Bassett says; you know there's always been a little feeling between him and Mis' Pegrum; her cat and his hens--it's an old story. Well, and she did hear a noise, and came out into the kitchen, and there sat two great, black men, eating her best peach preserves, and the cake she'd made for the Ladies' Aid, to-day. She was so scare't, she couldn't speak a word; and they just laughed and told her to go back to bed, and she went. Poor-spirited, it seems, but I don't know as I should have done a bit better in her place. There! I wish Joe'd come back! I feel real nervous, hearing about it all. Oh, and her gold watch, too, they got, and three solid silver teaspoons that belonged to her mother. She's sick abed, Deacon Bassett says, and I don't wonder. I don't feel as if I should sleep a wink to-night!"
The color came into Don Alonzo's thin cheeks. "There sha'n't no one do you any hurt while I'm round, Mira!" he said; and for a moment he forgot his deformity, and straightened his poor shoulders, and held up his head like a man.
There was no shade of amusement in Mira Pitkin's honest smile. "I expect you'd be as brave as a lion, Don 'Lonzo," she said. "I expect you'd shoo 'em right out of the yard, same as you did the turkey gobbler when he run at my red shawl; don't you remember? But all the same, I hope they will not come; and I shall be glad to see Joe back again."
At that moment the lad caught sight of himself in the little looking-glass that hung over his chest of drawers. Mira, watching him, saw the sparkle go out of his eyes, saw his shoulders droop, and his head sink forward; and she said, quickly:
"But there! we've said enough about the burglars, I should think! How's the experiments, Don 'Lonzo? I heard an awful fizzing going on, just before Deacon Bassett came in. I expect you've got great things hidden under that bed; I expect there's other perils round besides burglars! Joe may come back and find us both blown into kindlin'-wood, after all!"
This was a favorite joke of theirs; she had the pleasure of seeing a smile come into the boy's sad eyes; then, with another of those motherly touches on his hair, she went away, singing, to her work.
Don Alonzo looked after her. From the way his eyes followed her, she might have been a glorified saint in robe and crown, instead of a rosy-cheeked young woman in a calico gown. "There sha'n't nothing hurt her while I'm round!" he muttered again.
The night fell, dark and cloudy. Mrs. Pitkin went to bed early, after shaking every door and trying every window to make sure that all was safe. Don Alonzo went through the same process twice after she was gone, but he did not feel like sleeping, himself. He lay down on his bed, but his thoughts seemed dancing from one thing to another,--to Brother Joe, travelling homeward now, he hoped, after a week's absence; to Mira's goodness, her patience with his wayward self, her kindness in letting him mess with chemicals, and turn the shed into a laboratory, and frighten her with explosions; to Dan'l Brown and Mis' Pegrum and the burglars.
Ah, the burglars! What could he do, if they should really come to the house? They were two men, probably well-grown; he--he knew what he was! How could he carry out his promise to Mira, if she should be in actual danger? Not by strength, clearly; but there must be some way; bodily strength was not the only thing in the world. He looked about him, seeking for inspiration; his eyes, wandering here and there, lighted upon something, then remained fixed. The room was dimly lighted by a small lamp, but the corners were dark, and in one of these dark corners something was shining with a faint, uncertain light. The phosphorescent match-box! He had made it himself, and had ornamented it with a grotesque face in luminous paint. This face now glimmered and glowered at him from the darkness; and Don Alonzo lay still and looked back at it. Lying so and looking, there crept into his mind an old story that he had once read; and he laughed to himself, and then nodded at the glimmering face. "Thank you, old fellow!" said Don Alonzo.
Was there a noise? Was it his imagination, or did a branch snap, a twig rustle down the road? The hunchback had ears like a fox, and in an instant he was at the window, peering out into the darkness. At first he could see nothing; but gradually the lilac bushes at the gate came into sight, and the clumps of flowers in the little garden plot. Not a breath was stirring, yet--hark! Again a twig snapped, a branch crackled; and now again! and nearer each time. Don Alonzo strained his eyes to pierce the darkness. Were those bushes, those two shapes by the gate? They were not there a moment ago. Ha! they moved; they were coming nearer. Their feet made no sound on the soft earth, but his sharp ears caught a new sound,--a whisper, faint, yet harsh, like a hiss. Don Alonzo had seen and heard enough. He left the window, and the next moment was diving under the bed.
* * * * *
Mira Pitkin usually slept like a child, from the moment her head touched the pillow till the precise second when something woke in her brain and said "Five o'clock!" But to-night her sleep was broken. She tossed and muttered in her dreams; and suddenly she sat up in bed with eyes wide open and a distinct sense of something wrong. Her first thought was of fire; she sniffed; the air was pure and clear. Then, like a cry in her ears, came--"The burglars!" She held her breath and listened; was the night as still as it was dark? No! a faint, steady sound came to her ears. A mouse, was it, or--the sound of a tool?
And then, almost noiselessly, a window was opened, the window of the upper entry, next her room. Mira was at her own window in an instant, raising it; that, too, opened silently, for Joe was a carpenter and detested noisy windows. She peered out into the thick darkness. Black, black! Was the blackness deeper there, just at the front door? Surely it was! Surely something, somebody, was busy with the lock of the door; and then she heard, as Don Alonzo had heard, a low sound like a hiss, beside the soft scraping of the tool. What should she do? The windows were fast, there was a bar and chain inside the door, but what of that? Two desperate men could force an entrance anywhere in a moment. What could she do, a woman, with only a sickly boy to help her? And--who had opened that upper window? Was there a third accomplice--for she thought she could see two spots of deeper blackness by the door--hidden in the house? Oh, if only Joe had borrowed his father's old pistol for her, as she had begged him to do!
Mira opened her lips to shout, in the hope of rousing the nearest neighbors, though they were not very near. Opened her lips--but no sound came from them. For at that instant something appeared at the window next her own; something stepped from it, out on to the little porch over the front door. Mira Pitkin gasped, and felt her heart fail within her. A skeleton! Every limb outlined in pale fire, the bony fingers points of wavering flame. What awful portent was this? The Thing paused and turned, a frightful face gazed at her for an instant, a hand waved, then the Thing dropped, silent as a shadow, on that spot of deeper blackness that was stooping at the front door.
Then rose an outcry wild and hideous. The burglar shouted hoarsely, and tried to shake off the Thing that sat on his shoulders, gripping his neck with hands of iron, digging his sides with bony knees and feet; but the second thief, who saw by what his comrade was ridden, shrieked in pure animal terror, uttering unearthly sounds that cut the air like a knife. For a moment he could only stand and shriek; then he turned and fled through the yard, and the other fled after him, the glimmering phantom clutching him tight. Down the road they fled. Mira could now see nothing save the riding Thing, apparently horsed on empty air; but now she saw it, still clutching close with its left hand, raise the right, holding what looked like a shining snake, and bring it down hissing and curling. Again, and again! and with every blow the shrieks grew more and more hideous, till now they had reached the cluster of houses at the head of the street, and every window was flung open, and lights appeared, and voices clamored in terror and amaze. The village was roused; and now--now, the glimmering skeleton was seen to loose its hold. It dropped from its perch, and turning that awful face toward her once more, came loping back, silent as a shadow. But when she saw that, Mira Pitkin, for the first and last time in her sensible life, fainted away.
When she came to herself, the skeleton was bending over her anxiously, but its face was no longer frightful; it was white and anxious, and the eyes that met hers were piteous with distress.
"My, oh!" cried Don Alonzo. "I vowed no one should do her any hurt, and now I've done it myself."
There was little sleep in the Pitkin house that night. The neighbors came flocking in with cries and questions; and when all was explained, Don Alonzo found himself the hero of the hour. For once he did not hide under the bed, but received everybody--from Deacon Bassett down to the smallest boy who came running in shirt and trousers, half-awake, and athirst for marvels--with modest pride, and told over and over again how it all happened.
'Twas no great thing, he maintained. He had fooled considerable with phosphorus, and had some of the luminous paint that he had mixed some time before. Thinking about these fellows, he remembered a story he read once, where they painted up a dead body to scare away some murdering robbers. He thought a living person was as good as a dead one, any day; so he tried it on, and it appeared to succeed. He didn't think likely those men would stop short of the next township, from the way they were running when he got down. Oh, the snake? That was Joe's whip. He presumed likely it hurt some, from the way they yelled.
But the best of all was when Joe came home, the very next day, and when, the three of them sitting about the supper-table, Mira herself told the great story, from the first moment of Deacon Bassett's visit down to the triumphant close--"And I see him coming back, shining like a corpse-candle, and I fell like dead on the floor!"
"There!" she continued, beaming across the table at Joe, as she handed him his fourth cup of coffee, "you may go away again whenever you're a mind to; I sha'n't be afraid. You ain't half the man Don 'Lonzo is!"
"I don't expect I be!" said big Joe, beaming back again.
It seemed to Don Alonzo that their smiles made the kitchen warm as June, though October was falling cold that year.