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She was rent by the first spasm of womanly jealousy that any other woman should come between her brother and his mother and sisters.
“Don’t be cross, Maria,” pleaded Annabel. “I didn’t know nothin’ of it.
You know I’ve been down to see the Robinses, and intended to stay till tomorrer, but something moved me to come home today, and I just happened to take this train. I really didn’t know. Yet,” and the instinctive rights of her womanhood and her future relations with Si a.s.serted themselves to her own wonderment, “I had what the preachers call an inward promptin’, which I felt it my dooty to obey, and I now think it came from G.o.d. You know I ought to be with Si as soon as anybody,” and she hid her face in her hands in maidenly confusion.
“Of course you ought, you dear thing,” said Maria, her own womanhood overcoming her momentary pique. “It was hateful o’ me to speak that way to you.”
And she kissed Annabel effusively, though a little deadness still weighed at her heart over being supplanted, even by the girl she liked best in all the world after her own sister.
If the young folks had not been so engaged in their own affairs they would have seen the Deacon furtively undoing his leathern pocket-book and slipping a greenback into the weeping Mrs. Blagdon’s hand, as the only consolation he was able to give her.
There were plenty of strong, willing hands to help carry Si from the caboose to the wagon. It was strange how tender and gentle those strong, rough farmers could be in handling a boy who had been stricken down in defense of his country. Annabel’s face was as red as a hollyhock over the way that everybody a.s.sumed her right to be next to Si, and those who could not get a chance at helping him helped her to a seat in the wagon alongside of him, while the dethroned Maria took her place by her father, as he gathered the reins in his sure hands and started home.
Maria had to expend some of the attentions she meant for Si upon Shorty, who received them with awkward confusion.
“Now, don’t make no great shakes out o’ me, Miss Maria,” he pleaded. “I didn’t do nothin’ partickler, I tell you. I was only along o’ Si when he s.n.a.t.c.hed that rebel flag, and I got a little crack on the head, which wouldn’t ‘ve amounted to nothin’, if I hadn’t ketched the fever at Chattanoogy. I’m a’most well, and only come back home to please the Surgeon, who was tired seein’ me around.”
They found the house a blaze of light, shining kindly from the moment it came in sight, and there was a welcome in Towser’s bark which touched Si’s heart.
“Even the dogs bark differently up here. Shorty,” he said. “It’s full and honest, and don’t mean no harm. You know that old Towser ain’t barkin’ to signal some bushwhackers that the Yankees ‘s comin’. It sounds like real music.”
It was Mrs. Klegg’s turn to receive a shock when she rushed out to greet her son, and found Annabel by his side. It went deeper to her heart than it had to Maria’s; but, then, she had more philosophy, and had foreseen it longer.
After everything had been done, after she had fed them her carefully-prepared dishes, after the boys had been put to bed in the warmed room, and she knew they were sleeping the sound sleep of deep fatigue, she went to her own room to sit down and think it all over.
There Maria found her, wiping away her tears, and took her in her arms, and kissed her.
“It’s right. It’s all right. It’s G.o.d’s ways,” said the mother.
“A son’s a son till he gets a wife; But a daughter’s a daughter all her life.”
CHAPTER VII. WEEKS OF CONVALESCENCE
PLENTY OF NURSING FROM LOVING, TENDER HANDS.
WHAT days those were that followed the arrival of the boys home. In Shorty’s hard, rough life he had never so much as dreamed of such immaculate housekeeping as Mrs. Klegg’s. He had hardly been in speaking distance of such women as Si’s mother and sisters. To see these bright, blithe, sweet-speeched women moving about the well-ordered house in busy performance of their duties was a boundless revelation to him. It opened up a world of which he had as little conception as of a fairy realm. For the first time he began to understand things that Si had told him of his home, yet it meant a hundredfold more to him than to Si, for Si had been brought up in that home. Shorty began to regard the Deacon and Si as superior beings, and to stand in such awe of Mrs. Klegg and the girls that he became as tongue-tied as a bashful school-boy in their presence.
It amazed him to hear Si, when the girls would teaze him, speak to them as sharply as brothers sometimes will, and just as if they were ordinary mortals.
“Si, you orter to be more careful in talkin’ to your sisters,” he remonstrated when they were alone.
“You’ve bin among rough men so long that you don’t know how to talk to real ladies.”
“O, come off,” said Si, petulantly. “What’s a-eatin you. You don’t know them girls as well as I do. Particularly Maria. She’ll run right over you if you let her. She’s one o’ the best girls that ever breathed, but you’ve got to keep a tight rein on her. The feller that marries her’s got to keep the whip-hand or she’ll make him wish that he’d never bin born.”
Shorty’s heart bounded at the thought of any man having the unspeakable happiness of marrying that peerless creature, and then having the meanness not to let her do precisely as she wanted to.
Both the boys had been long enough in the field to make that plain farm home seem a luxurious palace of rest. The beds were wonders of softness and warmth, from which no unwelcome reveille or cross-grained Orderly-Sergeant aroused them with profane threats of extra duty.
Instead, after peeping cautiously through the door to see that they were awake, the girls would come in with merry greeting, bowls of warm water, and soft, white towels fragrant of the lawn. Maria would devote herself to helping Shorty get ready for breakfast, and Amanda to Si.
Shorty trembled like a captured rabbit when Maria first began her ministrations. All his blood rushed to his face, and he tried to mumble something about being able to take care of himself, which that straightforward young woman paid not the slightest attention to. After his first fright was over there was a thrilling delight about the operation which electrified him.
When the boys were properly washed and combed, Mrs. Klegg, her kind, motherly face beaming with consciousness of good and acceptable service, would enter with a large tray, laden with fragrant coffee, delicious cream, golden b.u.t.ter, her own peerless bread and bits of daintily-broiled chicken.
“Si,” said Shorty, one morning after he had finished the best breakfast he had ever known, the girls had gone away with the things, and he was leaning back thinking it all over in measureless content, “if the preachers’d preach that a feller’d go to such a place as this when he died if he was real good, how good we’d all be, and we’d be rather anxious to die. How in the world are we ever goin’ to git up s.p.u.n.k enough to leave this and go back to the field?”
“You’ll git tired o’ this soon enough,” said Si. “It’s awful nice for a change, but I don’t want it to last long. I want to be able to git up and git out. I hate awfully to have women-folks putterin’ around me.”
The boys could not help rapidly recovering under such favorable conditions, and soon they were able to sit up most of the day. In the evening, ensconced in the big Shaker rocking chairs, sitting on pillows, and carefully swathed in blankets, they would sit on either side of the bright fire, with the family and neighbors forming the semi-circle between, and talk over the war interminably. The neighbors all had sons and brothers in the army, either in the 200th Ind. or elsewhere, and were hungry for every detail of army news. They plied Si and Shorty with questions until the boys’ heads ached. Then the Deacon would help out with his observations of camp-life.
“I’m not goin’ to believe,” said one good old brother, who was an exhorter in the Methodist Church, “that the army is sich a pitfall, sich a snare to the feet o’ the unwary as many try to make out. There’s no need of any man or boy who goes to serve his country and his G.o.d, fallin’ from grace and servin’ the devil. Don’t you think so, too.
Deacon? There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be jest as good a man there as he is at home. Don’t you think so, too. Deacon Klegg?”
“Um–um-um,” hemmed the Deacon, getting red in the face, and avoiding answering the question by a vigorous stirring of the fire, while Si slily winked at Shorty. “I impressed that on son Jed’s mind when he enlisted,” continued the brother. “Jed was always a good, straight up-and-down boy; never gave me or his mother a minute’s uneasiness. I told him to have no more to do with cards than with smallpox; to avoid liquor as he would the bite of a rattlesnake; to take nothin’ from other people that he didn’t pay full value for; that swearin’ was a pollution to the lips and the heart. I know that Jed hearkened to all that I said, and that it sank into his heart, and that he’ll come back, if it’s G.o.d’s will that he shall come back, as good a boy as when he went away.”
Si and Shorty did not trust themselves to look at one another before the trusting father’s eyes, for Jedediah Bennett, who was one of the best soldiers in Co. Q, had developed a skill at poker that put all the other boys on their mettle; and as for foraging–well, neither Si nor Shorty ever looked for anything in a part where Jed Bennett had been.
“Deacon,” persisted Mr. Bennett, “you saw a great deal o’ the army. You didn’t see the wickedness down there that these Copperheads ‘s chargin’, did you? You only found men wicked that’d be wicked any place, and really good men jest as good there as at home?”
“It’s jest as you say, Mr. Bennett,” answered the Deacon, coughing to gain time for a diplomatic answer, and turning so that the boys could not see his face. “A wicked man’s wicked anywhere, and he finds more chance for his wickedness in the army. A good man ought to be good wherever he’s placed, but there are positions which are more tryin’ than others. By the way, Maria, bring us some apples and hickory nuts. Bring in a basketful o’ them Rome Beauties for Mr. Bennett to take home with him. You recollect them trees that I budded with Rome Beauty scions that I got up the river, don’t you, Bennett? Well, they bore this year, and I’ve bin calculatin’ to send over some for you and Mrs. Bennett. I tell you, they’re beauties indeed. Big as your fist, red as a hollyhock, fragrant as a rose, and firm and juicy. I have sent for scions enough to bud half my orchard. I won’t raise nothin’ hereafter but Rome Beauties and Russets.”
The apples and nuts were brought in, together with some of Mrs. Klegg’s famous crullers and a pitcher of sweet cider, and for awhile all were engaged in discussing the delicious apples. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, G.o.d undoubtedly could make a better fruit than a Rome Beauty apple from a young tree, growing in the right kind of soil, but undoubtedly He never did. The very smell of the apple is a mild intoxication, and its firm, juicy flesh has a delicacy of taste that the choicest vintages of the Rhine cannot surpa.s.s.
But Mr. Bennett was persistent on the subject of morality in the army.
He soon refused the offer of another apple, laid his knife back on the plate, put the plate on the table, wiped his mouth and hands, and said:
“Deacon, these brothers and sisters who have come here with me to-night are, like myself, deeply interested in the moral condition of the army, where we all have sons or kinsmen. Now, can’t you sit right there and tell us of your observations and experiences, as a Christian man and father, from day to day, of every day that you were down there? Tell us everything, just as it happened each day, that we may be able to judge for ourselves.”
Si trembled a httle, for fear that they had his father cornered. But the Deacon was equal to the emergency.
“It’s a’most too late, now, Mr. Bennett,” he said, looking at the clock, “for it’s a long story. You know I was down there quite a spell. We can’t keep these boys out o’ bed late now, and by the time we have family worship it’ll be high time for them to be tucked in. Won’t you read us a chapter o’ the Bible and lead us in prayer, Brother Bennett?”
While Shorty was rapidly gaining health and strength, his mind was ill at ease. He had more time than ever to think of Jerusha Briggs, of Bad Ax, Wis., and his surroundings accentuated those thoughts. He began by wondering what sort of a girl she really was, compared to Si’s sisters, and whether she was used to such a home as this? Was she as handsome, as fine, as high-spirited as Maria? Then his loyal soul reproached him. If she would have him he would marry her, no matter who she she was. Why should he begin now making comparisons with other girls? Then, she might be far finer than Maria. How would he himself compare with her, when he dared not even raise his eyes to Maria?
He had not written her since the Tullahoma campaign. That seemed an age away, so many things had happened in the meanwhile.
He blamed himself for his neglect, and resolved to write at once, to tell her where he was, what had happened to him, and that he was going to try to visit her before returning to the field. But difficult as writing had always been, it was incomparably more so now. He found that where he thought of Jerusha once, he was thinking of Maria a hundred times. Not that he would admit to himself there was any likeness in his thoughts about the two girls. He did not recognize that there was anything sentimental in those about Maria. She was simply some infinitely bright, superior sort of a being, whose voice was sweeter than a bird’s, and whose presence seemed to brighten the room. He found himself uncomfortable when she was out of sight. The company of Si or his father was not as all-sufficient and interesting as it used to be.
When Maria went out of the room they became strangely dull and almost tiresome, unless they talked of her.
Worse yet. As he grew stronger and better able to take care of himself Maria dropped the familiarity of the nurse, and began putting him on the footing of a young gentleman and a guest of the house. She came no more into the room with the basin of warm water, and got him ready for his breakfast. She toned down carefully with every improvement in his strength. First, she merely brought him the basin and towel, and then as he grew able to go about she would rap on his door and tell him to come out and get ready for breakfast. Shorty began to feel that he was losing much by getting well, and that his convalescence had been entirely too rapid.
Then he would go off and try to compose his thoughts for a letter to Jerusha Briggs, but before he knew it he would find himself in the kitchen watching, with dumb admiration, Maria knead bread, with her sleeves rolled to her shoulders, and her white, plump arms and bright face streaked with flour. There would be little conversation, for Maria would sing with a lark’s voice, as she worked, some of the sweet old hymns, chording with Amanda, busy in another part of the house. Shorty did not want to talk. It was enough for him to feast his eyes and ears.
They were sitting down to supper one evening when little Sammy Woggles came in from the station.
“There’s your Cincinnati Gazette,” he said, handing the paper to the Deacon, “and there’s a letter for Si.”
“Open it and read it, Maria,” said Si, to whom reading of letters meant labor, and he was yet too weak for work.
“It’s postmarked Chattanooga, Tenn.,” said she, scanning the envelope carefully, “and addressed to Sergeant Josiah Klegg, 200th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Bean Blossom Creek, Ind.”
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