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- A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill - 4/51 -
reached the prize, and with arms and legs entwined rolled toward it.
Chick was underneath when they arrived, but he loosened his clutch of Skeeter's throat, and darted forth a small, grimy hand that closed upon the treasure. In an instant Skeeter seized upon the clenched fist, and was wrenching it open, when a third party entered the fray.
"The little one got it!" cried Miss Lady indignantly; "he got it first! Give it to him this minute!"
"I be damned if I do!" shouted Skeeter, roused to fury by the combat.
"I'll be damned if you don't," said Miss Lady, equally determined.
The skirmish was fierce but short, and by the time Don got to them, Miss Lady had restored the spoils to the lawful victor, and was assisting the vanquished foe to wipe the dust from his eyes.
"Well, partner," said Donald to Chick, "what have you got to say to the young lady for taking your part?"
"He ain't got nothin' to say," said Skeeter glibly. "He's dumb. Nobody but me can't understand him. He says thank you, ma'am."
Chick having uttered no sound, it was evident that Skeeter depended upon telepathy.
"He's a ash-barrel baby," went on Skeeter, eager to impart information; "he ain't got no real folks, and he's been to the Juvenile Court twict; onct for hopping freights and onct fer me and him smashin' winders."
All eyes were turned upon the hero, who immediately became absorbed in his whip-handle. He was small, and exceedingly thin, and exceedingly dirty. The most conspicuous things about him were his large, wistful eyes, and his broad smile that showed where his teeth were going to be. Across his narrow chest a ragged elbowless coat was hitched together by one button, while a pair of bare, spindling legs dwindled away respectively into a high black shoe, and a low-cut tan one, both of which were well ventilated at the heels.
"I don't believe he's very bad," smiled Miss Lady, catching his chin in her hand and turning his face up to hers. "Are you, Chick?"
He made a queer guttural sound in his throat but, his official interpreter being by this time absorbed in the horses, was unable to make himself understood.
"It must be awful for a boy not to be able to ask questions!" she went on, looking down at him, then seeing something in his face that other people missed, she suddenly drew him to her and gave him a little motherly squeeze.
The ride home was somewhat leisurely, for the accident, slight as it was, had sobered the riders, and there was, moreover, a subject under discussion that called for considerable earnest expostulation on one side, and much tantalizing evasion on the other.
"It all depends upon you," Donald was saying, as they climbed the last hill. "Cropsie Decker starts for the coast to-morrow but the steamer doesn't sail for ten days. Shall I go or stay?"
"But you were so mad about it two weeks ago, you could scarcely wait to start."
"Lots of things can happen in two weeks. Shall I stay?"
"What do your family think about it?"
"My family? Oh, you mean my sister. She doesn't make a habit of losing sleep over my affairs. She'd probably say go. I am rather unpopular with her just now, because I don't approve of this affair between my niece Margery and Fred Dillingham. I fancy she'd be rather relieved to get me out of the way. In fact, everybody says go, except Doctor Queerington. He is a cousin of ours, used to be my English professor, up at the university. He has always harbored the illusion that I can write. Wants me to settle down some place in the country and go at it in earnest."
"You don't mean John Jay Queerington, the author?" Miss Lady said eagerly. "Is he really your cousin? Daddy went to school to his father, and has told me so much about him, that without seeing him, I could write a book on the subject."
"Great old chap in his way, an authority on heaven knows how many subjects, yet he scarcely makes enough money to take care of his children."
"But think of the books he is giving to the world! He told Daddy he was on his thirteenth volume!"
"Yes, he swims around most of the time in a sea of declensions, conjugations, and syntaxes, in Greek, Latin and English."
"I think he's magnificent!" cried Miss Lady, trying to hold Prince down to a walk. "I adore people who do great things and amount to something."
"All of which I suppose is meant to reflect on a poor devil who doesn't do things and doesn't amount to anything?"
"I never said so."
"See here," said Donald whimsically, "for two weeks you have been getting me _not_ to do things. When I think of all the things I have promised you, I can feel my hair turning white. Having polished me off on the don'ts, you aren't going to begin on the do's, are you?"
"Indeed I am. Does Doctor Queerington really think you could be a writer?"
"He has been after me about it ever since I was a youngster. I'm always scribbling at something, but there is nothing in it. Besides," he added with a smile, "I'm going to be a farmer."
Miss Lady threw back her head and laughed:
"He wants to be a farmer And with the farmers stand The hay seed on his forehead And a rake within his hand."
"Oh! Don Morley, one minute it's the Orient, the next it's literature, and the next a farm; you don't know what you want!"
"Yes, I do, too," he caught her bridle and brought the horses close together. "I know perfectly what I want, and so do you. Haven't I told you four times a day for two weeks?"
She looked away to the far horizon where a bank of formidable clouds was forming:
"Oh, we all think we want things one day and forget about them the next. Life is made up of desires that seem big and vital one minute, and little and absurd the next. I guess we get what's best for us in the end."
"I haven't so far!" Don said fiercely. "I've gotten what was worst for me and I've made the worst of it."
They had turned into the lane now and were walking their horses up to the stile where Jimpson was waiting to take them.
"Don't put my mare up," directed Donald. "I've got to ride back to town to-night. There's rain in those clouds; I ought to be starting this minute."
But his haste was evidently not imperative, for he followed Miss Lady through the narrow winding paths, between a tangle of shrubs and vines, into the old-fashioned flower garden. The spiraea was just putting out its long, feathery plumes of white, and the lilacs nodded white and purple in the breeze.
"Here's the first wild rose!" cried Miss Lady, darting to a corner of the old stone wall; "the idea of its daring to come out so soon!"
He took the frail little blossom and smiled at it half quizzically: "It's funny," he said awkwardly, "your giving me this. You know, it's what you made me think of, the first time I saw you,--a wild rose. Didn't she, Mike?"
Mike, who had been dreaming all afternoon on the porch, had gotten up reluctantly as they passed and followed them. He had a slow, lopsided gait, and his tongue dangled from the side of his mouth. It was evidently a sacrifice for him to accompany them, but duty was duty.
"You angel dog! Come here to your Missus!" commanded Miss Lady, as she and Donald dropped down in the old barrel-stave hammock, that had swung beneath the lilacs since the Colonel was a boy.
But Mike ambled past her, and after snuggling up to Don with a great show of intimacy lay down at his feet.
"I'm glad somebody loves me," Donald said.
"It's your riding boots, Mike likes. He never had a chance to taste tan shoe polish before!"
"What do you like me for?"
"Me? Who said I did?"
"Oh, yes, I like tan boots, too. Why didn't you tell me my hair had tumbled down again?"
"Because you are so beautiful, with it like that, Miss Lady--"
"Now, Don, if you begin again I shall go straight in the house. What did you mean by saying you had gotten what was worst for you, and you had made the worst of it?"
"Oh, the way I've been brought up. You see my sister took me when I was a baby, and I guess I was an awful nuisance to her. She liked to travel, and kept it up a good while even after Margery was born. I grew up in hotels and on steamers and trains, going to school wherever we happened to be staying long enough; sometimes in France, sometimes in Switzerland, sometimes in America. I remember one Christmas when I was about six, we were in a hotel in Paris. My nurse put me to bed
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