Under the Lilacs

by Louisa May Alcott

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Chapter XXIII. Somebody Comes

Chapter XXIII. Somebody Comes

Bab and Betty had been playing in the avenue all the afternoon several weeks later, but as the shadows began to lengthen both agreed to sit upon the gate and rest while waiting for Ben, who had gone nutting with a party of boys. When they played house Bab was always the father, and went hunting or fishing with great energy and success, bringing home all sorts of game, from elephants and crocodiles to humming-birds and minnows. Betty was the mother, and a most notable little housewife, always mixing up imaginary delicacies with sand and dirt in old pans and broken china, which she baked in an oven of her own construction.

Both had worked hard that day, and were glad to retire to their favorite lounging-place, where Bab was happy trying to walk across the wide top bar without falling off, and Betty enjoyed slow, luxurious swings while her sister was recovering from her tumbles. On this occasion, having indulged their respective tastes, they paused for a brief interval of conversation, sitting side by side on the gate like a pair of plump gray chickens gone to roost.

"Don't you hope Ben will get his bag full? We shall have such fun eating nuts evenings observed Bab, wrapping her arms in her apron, for it was October now, and the air was growing keen.

"Yes, and Ma says we may boil some in our little kettles. Ben promised we should have half," answered Betty, still intent on her cookery.

"I shall save some of mine for Thorny."

"I shall keep lots of mine for Miss Celia."

"Doesn't it seem more than two weeks since she went away?"

"I wonder what she'll bring us."

Before Bab could conjecture, the sound of a step and a familiar whistle made both look expectantly toward the turn in the road, all ready to cry out in one voice, "How many have you got?" Neither spoke a word, however, for the figure which presently appeared was not Ben, but a stranger, -- a man who stopped whistling, and came slowly on dusting his shoes in the way-side grass, and brushing the sleeves of his shabby velveteen coat as if anxious to freshen himself up a bit.

"It's a tramp, let's run away," whispered Betty, after a hasty look.

"I ain't afraid," and Bab was about to assume her boldest look when a sneeze spoilt it, and made her clutch the gate to hold on.

At that unexpected sound the man looked up, showing a thin, dark face, with a pair of sharp, black eyes, which surveyed the little girls so steadily that Betty quaked, and Bab began to wish she had at least jumped down inside the gate.

"How are you?" said the man with a goodnatured nod and smile, as if to re-assure the round-eyed children staring at him.

"Pretty well, thank you, sir," responded Bab, politely nodding back at him.

"Folks at home?" asked the man, looking over their heads toward the house.

"Only Ma; all the rest have gone to be married."

"That sounds lively. At the other place all the folks had gone to a funeral," and the man laughed as he glanced at the big house on the hill.

"Whh, do you know the Squire?" exclaimed Bab, much surprised and re-assured.

"Come on purpose to see him. Just strolling round till he gets back," with an impatient sort of sigh.

"Betty thought you was a tramp, but I wasn't afraid. I like tramps ever since Ben came," explained Bab, with her usual candor.

"Who 's Ben!" and the man came nearer so quickly that Betty nearly fell backward. "Don't you be scared, Sissy. I like little girls, so you set easy and tell me about Ben," he added, in a persuasive tone, as he leaned on the gate so near that both could see what a friendly face he had in spite of its eager, anxious look.

"Ben is Miss Celia's boy. We found him most starved in the coach-house, and he's been here ever since," answered Bab, comprehensively.

"Tell me about it. I like tramps, too," and the man looked as if he did very much, as Bab told the little story in a few childish words that were better than a much more elegant account.

"You were very good to the little feller," was all the man said when she ended her somewhat confused tale, in which she had jumbled the old coach and Miss Celia, dinner-pails and nutting, Sancho and circuses.

"'Course we were! He's a nice boy and we are fond of him, and he likes us," said Bab, heartily.

" 'Specially me," put in Betty, quite at ease now, for the black eyes had softened wonderfully, and the brown face was smiling all over.

"Don't wonder a mite. You are the nicest pair of little girls I've seen this long time," and the man put a hand on either side of them, as if he wanted to hug the chubby children. But he didn't do it; he merely smiled and stood there asking questions till the two chatterboxes had told him every thing there was to tell in the most confiding manner, for he very soon ceased to seem like a stranger, and looked so familiar that Bab, growing inquisitive in her turn, suddenly said, --

"Haven't you ever been here before? It seems as if I'd seen you."

"Never in my life. Guess you've seen somebody that looks like me," and the black eyes twinkled for a minute as they looked into the puzzled little faces before him, then he said, soberly, --

"I'm looking round for a likely boy; don't you think this Ben would suite me? I want just such a lively sort of chap."

"Are you a circus man?" asked Bab, quickly.

"Well, no, not now. I'm in better business."

"I'm glad of it -- we don't approve of 'em; but I do think they're splendid!"

Bab began by gravely quoting Miss Celia, and ended with an irrepressible burst of admiration which contrasted drolly with her first remark.

Betty added, anxiously: "We can't let Ben go any way. I know he wouldn't want to, and Miss Celia would feel bad. Please don't ask him."

"He can do as he likes, I suppose. He hasn't got any folks of his own, has he?"

"No, his father died in California, and Ben felt so bad he cried, and we were real sorry, and gave him a piece of Ma, 'cause he was so lonesome," answered Betty, in her tender little voice, with a pleading look which made the man stroke her smooth check and say, quite softly, --

"Bless your heart for that! I won't take him away, child, or do a thing to trouble anybody that's been good to him."

"He 's coming now. I hear Sanch barking at the squirrels!" cried Bab, standing up to get a good look down the road.

The man turned quickly, and Betty saw that he breathed fast as he watched the spot where the low sunshine lay warmly on the red maple at the corner. Into this glow came unconscious Ben, whistling "Rory O'Moore," loud and Clear, as he trudged along with a heavy bag of nuts over his shoulder and the light full on his contented face. Sancho trotted before and saw the stranger first, for the sun in Ben's eyes dazzled him. Since his sad loss Sancho cherished a strong dislike to tramps, and now he paused to growl and show his teeth, evidently intending to warn this one off the premises.

"He won't hurt you -- " began Bab, encouragingly; but before she could add a chiding word to the dog, Sanch gave an excited howl, and flew at the man's throat as if about to throttle him.

Betty screamed, and Bab was about to go to the rescue when both perceived that the dog was licking the stranger's face in an ecstasy of joy, and heard the man say as he hugged the curly beast, --

"Good old Sanch!" I knew he wouldn't forget master, and he doesn't"

"What's the matter?" called Ben, coming up briskly, with a strong grip of his stout stick. There was no need of any answer, for, as he came into the shadow, he saw the man, and stood looking at him as if he were a ghost.

"It's father, Benny; don't you know me?" asked the man, with an odd sort of choke in his voice, as he thrust the dog away, and held out both hands to the boy. Down dropped the nuts, and crying, "Oh, Daddy, Daddy!" Ben cast himself into the arms of the shabby velveteen coat, while poor Sanch tore round them in distracted circles, barking wildly, as if that was the only way in which he could vent his rapture.

What happened next Bab and Betty never stopped to see, but, dropping from their roost, they went flying home like startled Chicken Littles with the astounding news that "Ben's father has come alive, and Sancho knew him right away!"

Mrs. Moss had just got her cleaning done up, and was resting a minute before setting the table, but she flew out of her old rocking-chair when the excited children told the wonderful tale, exclaiming as they ended, --

"Where is he? Go bring him here. I declare it fairly takes my breath away!"

Before Bab could obey, or her mother compose herself, Sancho bounced in and spun round like an insane top, trying to stand on his head, walk upright, waltz and bark all at once, for the good old fellow had so lost his head that he forgot the loss of his tail.

"They are coming! they are coming! See, Ma, what a nice man he is," said Bab, hopping about on one foot as she watched the slowly approaching pair.

"My patience, don't they look alike! I should know he was Ben's Pa anywhere!" said Mrs. Moss, running to the door in a hurry.

They certainly did resemble one another, and it was almost comical to see the same curve in the legs, the same wide-awake style of wearing the hat, the same sparkle of the eye, good-natured smile and agile motion of every limb. Old Ben carried the bag in one hand while young Ben held the other fast, looking a little shame-faced at his own emotion now, for there were marks of tears on his cheeks, but too glad to repress the delight he felt that he had really found Daddy this side heaven.

Mrs. Moss unconsciously made a pretty little picture of herself as she stood at the door with her honest face shining and both hands ont, saying in a hearty tone, which was a welcome in itself,

"I'm real glad to see you safe and well, Mr. Brown! Come right in and make yourself to home. I guess there isn't a happier boy living than Ben is to-night."

"And I know there isn't a gratefuler man living than I am for your kindness to my poor forsaken little feller," answered Mr. Brown, dropping both his burdens to give the comely woman's hands a hard shake.

"Now don't say a word about it, but sit down and rest, and we'll have tea in less'n no time. Ben must be tired and hungry, though he's so happy I don't believe he knows it," laughed Mrs. Moss, bustling away to hide the tears in her eyes, anxious to make things sociable and easy all round.

With this end in view she set forth her best china, and covered the table with food enough for a dozen, thanking her stars that it was baking day, and every thing had turned out well. Ben and his father sat talking by the window till they were bidden to "draw up and help themselves" with such hospitable warmth that every thing had an extra relish to the hungry pair.

Ben paused occasionally to stroke the rusty coat-sleeve with bread-and-buttery fingers to convince himself that "Daddy" had really come, and his father disposed of various inconvenient emotions by eating as if food was unknown in California. Mrs. Moss beamed on every one from behind the big tea-pot like a mild full moon, while Bab and Betty kept interrupting one another in their eagerness to tell something new about Ben and how Sanch lost his tail.

"Now you let Mr. Brown talk a little; we all want to hear how he 'came alive,' as you call it," said Mrs. Moss, as they drew round the fire in the "settin'-room," leaving the tea-things to take care of themselves.

It was not a long story, but a very interesting one to this circle of listeners; all about the wild life on the plains trading for mustangs, the terrible kick from a vicious horse that nearly killed Ben, sen., the long months of unconsciousness in the California hospital, the slow recovery, the journey back, Mr. Smithers's tale of the boy's disappearance, and then the anxious trip to find out from Squire Allen where he now was.

"I asked the hospital folks to write and tell you as soon as I knew whether I was on my head or my heels, and they promised; but they didn't; so I came off the minute I could, and worked my way back, expecting to find you at the old place. I was afraid you'd have worn out your welcome here and gone off again, for you are as fond of travelling as your father."

"I wanted to sometimes, but the folks here were so dreadful good to me I couldn't," confessed Ben, secretly surprised to find that the prospect of going off with Daddy even cost him a pang of regret, for the boy had taken root in the friendly soil, and was no longer a wandering thistle-down, tossed about by every wind that blew.

"I know what I owe 'em, and you and I will work out that debt before we die, or our name isn't B.B.," said Mr. Brown, with an emphatic slap on his knee, which Ben imitated half unconsciously as he exclaimed heartily, --

"That's so!" adding, more quietly, "What are you going to do now? Go back to Smithers and the old business?"

"Not likely, after the way he treated you, Sonny. I've had it Out with him, and he won't want to see me again in a hurry," answered Mr. Brown, with a sudden kindling of the eye that reminded Bab of Ben's face when he shook her after losing Sancho.

"There's more circuses than his in the world; but I'll have to limber out ever so much before I'm good for much in that line," said the boy, stretching his stout arms and legs with a curious mixture of satisfaction and regret.

"You've been living in clover and got fat, you rascal," and his father gave him a poke here and there, as Mr. Squeers did the plump Wackford, when displaying him as a specimen of the fine diet at Do-the-boys Hall. "Don't believe I could put you up now if I tried, for I haven't got my strength back yet, and we are both out of practice. It's just as well, for I've about made up my mind to quit the business and settle down somewhere for a spell, if I can get any thing to do," continued the rider, folding his arms and gazing thoughtfully into the fire.

"I shouldn't wonder a mite if you could right here, for Mr. Towne has a great boarding-stable over yonder, and he's always wanting men." Said Mrs. Moss, eagerly, for she dreaded to have Ben go, and no one could forbid it if his father chose to take him away.

"That sounds likely. Thanky, ma'am. I'll look up the concern and try my chance. Would you call it too great a come-down to have father an 'ostler after being first rider in the 'Great Golden Menagerie, Circus, and Colossem,' hey, Ben?" asked Mr. Brown, quoting the well-remembered show-bill with a laugh.

"No, I shouldn't; it's real jolly up there when the big barn is full and eighty horses have to be taken care of. I love to go and see 'em. Mr. Towne asked me to come and be stable-boy when I rode the kicking gray the rest were afraid of. I hankered to go, but Miss Celia had just got my new books, and I knew she'd feel bad if I gave up going to school. Now I'm glad I didn't, for I get on first rate and like it."

"You done right, boy, and I'm pleased with you. Don't you ever be ungrateful to them that befriended you, if you want to prosper. I'll tackle the stable business a Monday and see what's to be done. Now I ought to be walking, but I'll be round in the morning ma'am, if you can spare Ben for a spell to-morrow. We'd like to have a good Sunday tramp and talk; wouldn't we, Sonny?" and Mr. Brown rose to go with his hand on Ben's shoulder, as if loth to leave him even for the night.

Mrs. Moss saw the longing in his face, and forgetting that he was an utter stranger, spoke right out of her hospitable heart.

"It's a long piece to the tavern, and my little back bedroom is always ready. It won't make a mite of trouble if you don't mind a plain place, and you are heartily welcome."

Mr. Brown looked pleased, but hesitated to accept any further favor from the good soul who had already done so much for him and his. Ben gave him no time to speak, however, for running to a door he flung it open and beckoned, saying, eagerly, --

"Do stay, father; it will be so nice to have you. This is a tip-top room; I slept here the night I came, and that bed was just splendid after bare ground for a fortnight."

"I'll stop, and as I'm pretty well done up, I guess we may as well turn in now," answered the new guest; then, as if the memory of that homeless little lad so kindly cherished made his heart overflow in spite of him, Mr. Brown paused at the door to say hastily, with a hand on Bab and Betty's heads, as if his promise was a very earnest one, --

"I don't forget, ma'am, these children shall never want a friend while Ben Brown's alive;" then he shut the door so quickly that the other Ben's prompt "Hear, hear!" was cut short in the middle.

"I s'pose he means that we shall have a piece of Ben's father, because we gave Ben a piece of our mother," said Betty, softly.

"Of course he does, and it's all fair," answered Bab, decidedly. "Isn't he a nice man, Ma?

"Go to bed, children," was all the answer she got; but when they were gone, Mrs. Moss, as she washed up her dishes, more than once glanced at a certain nail where a man's hat had not hung for five years, and thought with a sigh what a natural, protecting air that slouched felt had.

If one wedding were not quite enough for a child's story, we might here hint what no one dreamed of then, that before the year came round again Ben had found a mother, Bab and Betty a father, and Mr. Brown's hat was quite at home behind the kitchen door. But, on the whole, it is best not to say a word about it.

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