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- Beasley's Christmas Party - 5/10 -
Finding that I had still some leisure before me, I got a book from my room and repaired to the bench in the garden. But I did not read; I had but opened the book when my attention was arrested by sounds from the other side of the high fence--low and tremulous croonings of distinctly African derivation:
"Ah met mah sistuh in a-mawnin', She 'uz a-waggin' up de hill SO slow! 'Sistuh, you mus' git a rastle in doo time, B'fo de hevumly do's cloze--iz!'"
It was the voice of an aged negro; and the simultaneous slight creaking of a small hub and axle seemed to indicate that he was pushing or pulling a child's wagon or perambulator up and down the walk from the kitchen door to the stable. Whiles, he proffered soothing music: over and over he repeated the chant, though with variations; encountering in turn his brother, his daughter, each of his parents, his uncle, his cousin, and his second-cousin, one after the other ascending the same slope with the same perilous leisure.
"Lay still, honey." He interrupted his injunctions to the second-cousin. "Des keep on a-nappin' an' a-breavin' de f'esh air. Dass wha's go' mek you good an' well agin."
Then there spoke the strangest voice that ever fell upon my ear; it was not like a child's, neither was it like a very old person's voice; it might have been a grasshopper's, it was so thin and little, and made of such tiny wavers and quavers and creakings.
"I--want--" said this elfin voice, "I--want--Bill--Hammersley!"
The shabby phaeton which had passed my cousin's house was drawing up to the curb near Beasley's gate. Evidently the old negro saw it.
"Hi dar!" he exclaimed. "Look at dat! Hain' Bill a comin' yonnah des edzacly on de dot an' to de vey spot an' instink when you 'quiah fo' 'im, honey? Dar come Mist' Dave, right on de minute, an' you kin bet yo' las hunnud dollahs he got dat Bill Hammersley wif 'im! Come along, honey-chile! Ah's go' to pull you 'roun in de side yod fo' to meet 'em."
The small wagon creaked away, the chant resuming as it went.
Mr. Dowden jumped out of the phaeton with a wave of his hand to the driver, Beasley himself, who clucked to the horse and drove through his open carriage-gates and down the drive on the other side of the house, where he was lost to my view.
Dowden, entering our own gate, nodded in a friendly fashion to me, and I advanced to meet him.
"Some day I want to take you over next door," he said, cordially, as I came up. "You ought to know Beasley, especially as I hear you're doing some political reporting. Dave Beasley's going to be the next governor of this state, you know." He laughed, offered me a cigar, and we sat down together on the front steps.
"From all I hear," I rejoined, "YOU ought to know who'll get it." (It was said in town that Dowden would "come pretty near having the nomination in his pocket.")
"I expect you thought I shifted the subject pretty briskly the other day?" He glanced at me quizzically from under the brim of his black felt hat. "I meant to tell you about that, but the opportunity didn't occur. You see--"
"I understand," I interrupted. "I've heard the story. You thought it might be embarrassing to Miss Apperthwaite."
"I expect I was pretty clumsy about it," said Dowden, cheerfully. "Well, well--" he flicked his cigar with a smothered ejaculation that was half a sigh and half a laugh; "it's a mighty strange case. Here they keep on living next door to each other, year after year, each going on alone when they might just as well--" He left the sentence unfinished, save for a vocal click of compassion. "They bow when they happen to meet, but they haven't exchanged a word since the night she sent him away, long ago." He shook his head, then his countenance cleared and he chuckled. "Well, sir, Dave's got something at home to keep him busy enough, these days, I expect!"
"Do you mind telling me?" I inquired. "Is its name 'Simpledoria'?"
Mr. Dowden threw back his head and laughed loudly. "Lord, no! What on earth made you think that?"
I told him. It was my second success with this narrative; however, there was a difference: my former auditor listened with flushed and breathless excitement, whereas the present one laughed consumedly throughout. Especially he laughed with a great laughter at the picture of Beasley's coming down at four in the morning to open the door for nothing on sea or land or in the waters under the earth. I gave account, also, of the miraculous jumping contest (though I did not mention Miss Apperthwaite's having been with me), and of the elfin voice I had just now overheard demanding "Bill Hammersley."
"So I expect you must have decided," he chuckled, when I concluded, "that David Beasley has gone just plain, plum insane."
"Not a bit of it. Nobody could look at him and not know better than that."
"You're right THERE!" said Dowden, heartily. "And now I'll tell you all there is TO it. You see, Dave grew up with a cousin of his named Hamilton Swift; they were boys together; went to the same school, and then to college. I don't believe there was ever a high word spoken between them. Nobody in this life ever got a quarrel out of Dave Beasley, and Hamilton Swift was a mighty good sort of a fellow, too. He went East to live, after they got out of college, yet they always managed to get together once a year, generally about Christmas-time; you couldn't pass them on the street without hearing their laughter ringing out louder than the sleigh-bells, maybe over some old joke between them, or some fool thing they did, perhaps, when they were boys. But finally Hamilton Swift's business took him over to the other side of the water to live; and he married an English girl, an orphan without any kin. That was about seven years ago. Well, sir, this last summer he and his wife were taking a trip down in Switzerland, and they were both drowned--tipped over out of a rowboat in Lake Lucerne--and word came that Hamilton Swift's will appointed Dave guardian of the one child they had, a little boy--Hamilton Swift, Junior's his name. He was sent across the ocean in charge of a doctor, and Dave went on to New York to meet him. He brought him home here the very day before you passed the house and saw poor Dave getting up at four in the morning to let that ghost in. And a mighty funny ghost Simpledoria is!"
"I begin to understand," I said, "and to feel pretty silly, too."
"Not at all," he rejoined, heartily. "That little chap's freaks would mystify anybody, especially with Dave humoring 'em the ridiculous way he does. Hamilton Swift, Junior, is the curiousest child I ever saw--and the good Lord knows He made all children powerful mysterious! This poor little cuss has a complication of infirmities that have kept him on his back most of his life, never knowing other children, never playing, or anything; and he's got ideas and ways that I never saw the beat of! He was born sick, as I understand it--his bones and nerves and insides are all wrong, somehow--but it's supposed he gets a little better from year to year. He wears a pretty elaborate set of braces, and he's subject to attacks, too--I don't know the name for 'em--and loses what little voice he has sometimes, all but a whisper. He had one, I know, the day after Beasley brought him home, and that was probably the reason you thought Dave was carrying on all to himself about that jumping-match out in the back-yard. The boy must have been lying there in the little wagon they have for him, while Dave cut up shines with 'Bill Hammersley.' Of course, most children have make-believe friends and companions, especially if they haven't any brothers or sisters, but this lonely little feller's got HIS people worked out in his mind and materialized beyond any I ever heard of. Dave got well acquainted with 'em on the train on the way home, and they certainly are giving him a lively time. Ho, ho! Getting him up at four in the morning--"
Mr. Dowden's mirth overcame him for a moment; when he had mastered it, he continued: "Simpledoria--now where do you suppose he got that name?--well, anyway, Simpledoria is supposed to be Hamilton Swift, Junior's St. Bernard dog. Beasley had to BATHE him the other day, he told me! And Bill Hammersley is supposed to be a boy of Hamilton Swift, Junior's own age, but very big and strong; he has rosy cheeks, and he can do more in athletics than a whole college track-team. That's the reason he outjumped Dave so far, you see."
Miss Apperthwaite was at home the following Saturday. I found her in the library with Les Miserables on her knee when I came down from my room a little before lunch-time; and she looked up and gave me a smile that made me feel sorry for any one she had ceased to smile upon.
"I wanted to tell you," I said, with a little awkwardness but plenty of truth, "I've found out that I'm an awful fool."
"But that's something," she returned, encouragingly--"at least the beginning of wisdom."
"I mean about Mr. Beasley--the mystery I was absurd enough to find in 'Simpledoria.' I want to tell you--"
"Oh, _I_ know," she said; and although she laughed with an effect of carelessness, that look which I had thought "far away" returned to her eyes as she spoke. There was a certain inscrutability about Miss Apperthwaite sometimes, it should be added, as if she did not like to be too easily read. "I've heard all about it. Mr. Beasley's been appointed trustee or something for poor Hamilton Swift's son, a pitiful little invalid boy who invents all sorts of characters. The old darky from over there told our cook about Bill Hammersley and Simpledoria. So, you see, I understand."
"I'm glad you do," I said.
A little hardness--one might even have thought it bitterness--became apparent in her expression. "And I'm glad there's SOMEbody in that house, at last, with a little imagination!"
"From everything I have heard," I returned, summoning sufficient boldness, "it would be difficult to say which has more--Mr. Beasley or the child."
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