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- Across the Years - 3/34 -
from the floor, "they will find out if you don't hide these 'ere pep'mints!"
The tree and the peppermints had scarcely disappeared from the "front room" when Frank arrived.
"Oh, they're all coming in a minute," he laughed gayly in response to the surprised questions that greeted him. "And we've brought the children, too. You'll have a houseful, all right!"
A houseful it certainly proved to be, and a lively one, too. In the kitchen "the girls" as usual reigned supreme, and bundled off the little mother to "visit with the boys and the children" during the process of dinner-getting, and after dinner they all gathered around the fireplace for games and stories.
"And now," said Frank when darkness came and the lamps were lighted, "I've got a new game, but it's a very mysterious game, and you, Father and Mother, must not know a thing about it until it's all ready." And forthwith he conducted the little old man and the little old woman out into the kitchen with great ceremony.
"Say, Samuel, seems as if this was 'most as good as the party," whispered Lydia Ann excitedly, as they waited in the dark. "I know it; an' they hain't asked us once if we was gettin' too tired! Did ye notice, Lyddy Ann?"
"Yes, an' they didn't make us take naps, either. Ain't it nice? Why, Samuel, I--I shan't mind even the bed-slippers now," she laughed.
"Ready!" called Frank, and the dining-room door was thrown wide open.
The old eyes blinked a little at the sudden light, then widened in amazement. Before the fireplace was a low sewing-table with a chair at each end. The table itself was covered with a white cloth which lay in fascinating little ridges and hillocks indicating concealed treasures beneath. About the table were grouped the four eager-eyed grandchildren and their no less eager-eyed parents. With still another ceremonious bow Frank escorted the little old man and the little old woman to the waiting chairs, and with a merry "One, two, three!" whisked off the cloth.
For one amazed instant there was absolute silence; then Lydia Ann drew a long breath.
"Samuel, Samuel, they're presents--an' for us!" she quavered joyously. "It's the bed-slippers and the neckerchiefs, an' they did 'em all up in white paper an' red ribbons just for us."
At the corner of the mantelpiece a woman choked suddenly and felt for her handkerchief. Behind her two men turned sharply and walked toward the window; but the little old man and the little old woman did not notice it. They had forgotten everything but the enchanting array of mysteries before them.
Trembling old hands hovered over the many-sized, many-shaped packages, and gently patted the perky red bows; but not until the grandchildren impatiently demanded, "Why don't you look at 'em?" did they venture to untie a single ribbon. Then the old eyes shone, indeed, at sight of the wonderful things disclosed; a fine lace tie and a bottle of perfume; a reading-glass and a basket of figs; some dates, raisins, nuts, and candies, and a little electric pocket lantern which would, at the pressure of a thumb, bring to light all the secrets of the darkest of rooms. There were books, too, such as Ella and Frank themselves liked to read; and there was a handsome little clock for the mantel--but there was not anywhere a pair of bed-slippers or a neckerchief.
At last they were all opened, and there remained not one little red bow to untie. On the table, in all their pristine glory, lay the presents, and half-buried in bits of paper and red ribbon sat the amazed, but blissfully happy, little old man and little old woman. Lydia Ann's lips parted, but the trembling words of thanks froze on her tongue--her eyes had fallen on a small pink peppermint on the floor.
"No, no, we can't take 'em," she cried agitatedly. "We hadn't ought to. We was wicked and ongrateful, and last night we--we--" She paused helplessly, her eyes on her husband's face. "Samuel, you--you tell," she faltered.
Samuel cleared his throat.
"Well, ye see, we--yes, last night, we--we--" He could say no more.
"We--we had a party to--to make up for things," blurted out Lydia Ann. "And so ye see we--we hadn't ought ter take these--all these!"
Frank winced. His face grew a little white as he threw a quick glance into his sister's eyes; but his voice, when he spoke, was clear and strong from sheer force of will.
"A party? Good! I'm glad of it. Did you enjoy it?" he asked.
Samuel's jaw dropped. Lydia Ann stared speechlessly. This cordial approval of their folly was more incomprehensible than had been the failure to relegate them to naps and knitting earlier in the afternoon.
"And you've got another party to-night, too; haven't you?" went on Frank smoothly. "As for those things there"--he waved his hand toward the table--"of course you'll take them. Why, we picked them out on purpose for you,--every single one of them,--and only think how we'd feel if you didn't take them! Don't you--like them?"
"'Like them'!" cried Lydia Ann, and at the stifled sob in her voice three men and three women caught their breath sharply and tried to swallow the lumps in their throats. "We--we just love them!"
No one spoke. The grandchildren stared silently, a little awed. Ella, Frank, and Ned stirred restlessly and looked anywhere but at each other.
Lydia Ann flushed, then paled. "Of course, if--if you picked 'em out 'specially for us--" she began hesitatingly, her eyes anxiously scanning the perturbed faces of her children.
"We did--especially," came the prompt reply.
Lydia Ann's gaze drifted to the table and lingered upon the clock, the tie, and the bottle of perfume. "'Specially for us," she murmured softly. Then her face suddenly cleared. "Why, then we'll have to take them, won't we?" she cried, her voice tremulous with ecstasy. "We'll just have to--whether we ought to or not!"
"You certainly will!" declared Frank. And this time he did not even try to hide the shake in his voice.
"Oh!" breathed Lydia Ann blissfully. "Samuel, I--I think I'll take a fig, please!"
It was only after serious consideration that Miss Prue had bought the little horse, Jupiter, and then she changed the name at once. For a respectable spinster to drive any sort of horse was bad enough in Miss Prue's opinion; but to drive a heathen one! To replace "Jupiter" she considered "Ann" a sensible, dignified, and proper name, and "Ann" she named him, regardless of age, sex, or "previous condition of servitude." The villagers accepted the change--though with modifications; the horse was known thereafter as "Miss Prue's Jupiter Ann."
Miss Prue had said that she wanted a safe, steady horse; one that would not run, balk, or kick. She would not have bought any horse, indeed, had it not been that the way to the post office, the store, the church, and everywhere else, had grown so unaccountably long--Miss Prue was approaching her sixtieth birthday. The horse had been hers now a month, and thus far it had been everything that a dignified, somewhat timid spinster could wish it to be. Fortunately--or unfortunately, as one may choose to look at it--Miss Prue did not know that in the dim recesses of Jupiter's memory there lurked the smell of the turf, the feel of the jockey's coaxing touch, and the sound of a triumphant multitude shouting his name; in Miss Prue's estimation the next deadly sin to treason and murder was horse racing.
There was no one in the town, perhaps, who did not know of Miss Prue's abhorrence of horse racing. On all occasions she freed her mind concerning it; and there was a report that the only lover of her youth had lost his suit through his passion for driving fast horses. Even the county fair Miss Prue had refused all her life to attend--there was the horse racing. It was because of all this that she had been so loath to buy a horse, if only the way to everywhere had not grown so long!
For four weeks--indeed, for five--the new horse, Ann, was a treasure; then, one day, Jupiter remembered.
Miss Prue was driving home from the post office. The wide, smooth road led straight ahead under an arch of flaming gold and scarlet. The October air was crisp and bracing, and unconsciously Miss Prue lifted her chin and drew a long breath. Almost at once, however, she frowned. From behind her had come the sound of a horse's hoofs, and reluctantly Miss Prue pulled the right-hand rein.
Jupiter Ann quickened his gait perceptibly, and lifted his head. His ears came erect.
"Whoa, Ann, whoa!" stammered Miss Prue nervously.
The hoof beats were almost abreast now, and hurriedly Miss Prue turned her head. At once she gave the reins an angry jerk; in the other light carriage sat Rupert Joyce, the young man who for weeks had been unsuccessfully trying to find favor in her eyes because he had already found it in the eyes of her ward and niece, Mary Belle.
"Good-morning, Miss Prue," called a boyish voice.
"Good-morning," snapped the woman, and jerked the reins again.
Miss Prue awoke then to the sudden realization that if the other's speed had accelerated, so, too, had her own.
"Ann, Ann, whoa!" she commanded. Then she turned angry eyes on the young man. "Go by--go by! Why don't you go by?" she called sharply.
In obedience, young Joyce touched the whip to his gray mare: but he did not go by. With a curious little shake, as if casting off years of dull propriety, Jupiter Ann thrust forward his nose and got down to business.
Miss Prue grew white, then red. Her hands shook on the reins.
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