Margaret Wade Campbell Deland.

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doubtless secure the person of his grandson by appealing to the courts
_in the character of a grandfather_ - for Miss Lydia had never taken out
papers for adoption.

"The lady has nine-tenths of the law," said Mr. Smith's legal adviser,
who had been consulted, first, as to a hypothetical case, and then told
the facts. "The other one-tenth won't secure a child whom you don't
claim as a relative. And the law means publicity."

"The hussy!" said Mr. Smith. "She's put a spoke in my wheel."

"She has," said the lawyer, and grinned behind his hand.

Mr. Smith glared at him. "That little wet hen!"

Well! after one or two more efforts, he swallowed his defeat, and,
though for nearly a year he would not recognize Miss Lydia when he met
her in the street, he made fast friends with the freckled, very
pugnacious boy at his gates. He used to stop and speak to him and tell
him to say his multiplication table, and then give him a quarter and
walk off, greatly diverted. Sometimes when he saw his daughter in
Philadelphia, he would tell her, sardonically, that "that child" had
more brains than his father and mother put together!

"Not than his father," poor, cowering Mary would protest. And her
father, looking at her with unforgiving eyes, would say, "I wish I owned
him." ("I like to scare 'em!" he added to himself.) He certainly scared
Mary. Scared her, and made her feel a strange anger, because he had
something which did not belong to him; "after all, the boy is _ours_,"
she told her husband. She always went to bed with a headache after one
of Mr. Smith's visits. As for Carl, his face would grow crimson with
helpless mortification under the gibes of his father-in-law as Mary
repeated them to him.

Once, when she told him that her father had "taken the boy home to
supper with him," he swore under his breath, and she agreed, hurriedly:

"Father was simply mad to notice him! People will guess - "

But Carl broke in: "Oh, I didn't mean _that_. No one would ever suspect
anything. I meant, what right has _he_ to get fond of - the boy?"

"Not the slightest!" Mary said. And they neither of them knew that they
were beginning to be jealous.

The occasion of Mr. Smith's "madness" was one winter afternoon when,
meeting Johnny in the road, he took him into his carriage, then sent
word to Miss Lydia that he was keeping the child to supper. He put him
in a big chair at the other end of the table and baited him with
questions, and roared with laughter and pride at his replies. Also, he
gave him good advice, as a grandfather should:

"I hear you are a bad boy and get into fights. Never fight, sir, never
fight! But if you do fight, lick your man."

"Yes, sir," said Johnny.

"And don't be afraid to tackle a bigger man than yourself. Only cowards
are afraid to do that!"

"Yes, sir," said Johnny.

"But of course I don't approve of fighting. Only bad boys fight.
Remember that!"

"Yes, sir," said Johnny, and scraped his plate loudly to attract the
attention of old Alfred, his grandfather's man, who, familiar and
friendly from thirty years' service, said, as he brought the desired
flannel cakes, "The little man holds his fork just as you do, sir!" At
which Mr. Smith stopped laughing, and said:

"Miss Sampson ought to teach him better manners."

He did not invite Johnny to supper again, which would have been a relief
to Mary if she had known it; and was just as well, anyhow, for Miss
Lydia, quaking at her own supper table (while Johnny was "holding his
fork" in his grandfather's fashion!) had said to herself, "I'll tell him
to say, 'No, thank you, sir,' if Mr. Smith ever asks him again."

It was about this time that Miss Lydia's landlord softened toward her
sufficiently to bow to her as he passed her house. Once he even stopped
her in the street to ask the particulars of one of Johnny's escapades:
It appeared that a boy - one of the Mack boys, as it happened, who was
always in hot water in Old Chester - got the credit of a smashed sash in
Mr. Steele's greenhouse, which was really Johnny's doing; and in spite
of sniffling denials, the (for once) innocent Mack boy was just about to
get what the irate owner of the sash called a walloping, when Johnny
Smith, breathless, and mad as a hatter, rushed into the greenhouse to
say, "It was me done it!" - upon which the richly deserved walloping was
handed over to the real culprit. Later, for some private grudge, Johnny
paid it all back to young Mack, but for the moment - "I take my
medicine," said Johnny, showing his teeth. "I don't hide behind another
feller. But you bet I'll smash Andy Steele's hotbed sashes every chance
I get!" Poor little Miss Lydia was frightened to death at such a wicked
remark, and prayed that God would please forgive Johnny; and she was
very bewildered to have Mr. Smith, listening to this dreadful story,
chuckle with delight: "He'll come to a bad end, the scoundrel! Tell him
I say I expect he'll be hanged. I'll give him a quarter for every pane
he broke." After this interview Mr. Smith used to call on Miss Lydia
occasionally just to inquire what was Johnny's latest crime, and once he
invited his tenant to supper, "with your young scamp," his invitation
ran. She went, and wore her blue silk, and sat on the edge of her chair,
watching the grandfather and grandson, while the vein on her thin temple
throbbed with fright. But it took another year of longing for his own
flesh and blood before the new Mr. Smith reached an amazing, though
temporary, decision.

"I'll have him," he said to himself; "I _will_ have him! I'll swallow
the wet hen, if I can't get him any other way. I'll - I'll marry the
woman." . . . But he hesitated for still another month or two, for,
though he wanted his grandson, he did not hanker to make a fool of
himself; and a rich man in the late seventies who marries an impecunious
spinster in the fifties looks rather like a fool.

But when he finally reached the point of swallowing Miss Lydia he lost
no time in walking out from his iron gates one fine afternoon and
banging on her front door with his stick. When she opened it he
announced that he had something he wanted to say. In his own mind, the
words he proposed to speak were to this effect: "I'm going to marry
you - to get the boy." To be sure, he would not express it just that
way - one has to go round Robin Hood's barn in talking to females! So he
began:

"I have been planning more comfortable quarters for you, ma'am, than
this house. More suitable quarters for my - for the boy; and I - " Then he
stopped. Somehow or other, looking at Miss Lydia, sitting there so small
and frightened and brave, he was suddenly ashamed. He could not offer
this gallant soul the indignity of a bribe! "If I can't get the boy by
fair means, I won't by foul," he told himself; so instead of offering
himself, he talked about the weather; "and - and I want you to know that
Johnny shall be put down for something handsome in my will. It won't be
suspicious. Everybody in Old Chester knows that I like him - living here
at my gates; though he has the devil of a temper! Bad thing. Very bad
thing. He should control it. I've always controlled mine."

Miss Lydia felt a sudden wave of pity; he was so helpless, and she was
so powerful - and so lucky! All she said, in her breathless voice, was
that he "was very kind - about the will."

Johnny's grandfather, looking into her sweet, blue eyes, suddenly
said - and with no thought whatever of Johnny - "I wish I was twenty years
younger!" The wistful genuineness of that was the nearest he came to
asking her to marry him. He went home feeling, as he walked up to his
great, empty house, very old and forlorn, and yet relieved that he had
not offered an affront to Miss Lydia nor, incidentally, made a fool of
himself. Then he thought with the old, hot anger, of Carl Robertson, and
with a dreary impatience of his daughter; it was their doing that he
couldn't own his own grandson! "Well, the boy shall have his
grandfather's money," he said to himself, stumbling a little as he went
up the flight of granite steps to his front door. "Every bit of it! I
don't care whether people think things or not. Damn 'em, let them think!
What difference does it make? Robertson can go to hell." He was so
dulled that, for the moment, he forgot that if Robertson went to hell
Mary would have to go, too. Later that night his tired mind cleared, and
he knew it wouldn't do to let Johnny have his "grandfather's" money, and
that even Mr. Smith's money must be bestowed with caution.

"I'll leave a bequest that won't compromise Mary, but she and Robertson
must somehow do the rest. I'll send for her next week and tell her what
to do; and then I'll fix up a codicil."

But next week he said _next_ week; and after that he thought,
listlessly, that he wasn't equal to seeing her. "She's fond of
Robertson - I can't stand that! I never forgive."

So he didn't send for his daughter. But a week later William King
did. . . .

"I suppose I've got to go?" Mary told her husband, looking up from the
doctor's telegram with scared eyes.

"It wouldn't be decent not to," he said.

"But _he_ is right there, by the gate! I might see him. Oh - I don't
dare!"

"Women are queer," Johnny's father ruminated. "I should think you'd like
to see him. I guess all this mother-love talk is a fairy tale"; then,
before she could retort, he put his arms around her. "I didn't mean it,
dear! Forgive me. Only, Mary, I get to thinking about him, and I feel as
if I'd like to see the little beggar!"

"But how can I 'love' him?" she defended herself, in a smothered voice;
"I don't know him."

"Stop and speak to him while you're at your father's," he urged; "and
then you will know him."

"Oh, I couldn't - I couldn't! I'd be afraid to."

"But why? Nobody could possibly suppose - "

"Because," she said, "if I saw him once _I might want to see him
again_."

Carl frowned with bewilderment, but Johnny's mother began to pace up and
down, back and forth - then suddenly flew out of the room and upstairs,
to fall, crying, upon her bed.

However, she obeyed Doctor King's summons. The day the stage went
jogging and creaking past Miss Lydia's door the lady inside looked
straight ahead of her, and some one who saw her said she was very
pale - "anxious about her father," Old Chester said, sympathetically.
Then Old Chester wondered whether Carl was so unchristian as to refuse
to come and see his father-in-law - "on his deathbed!" - or whether old
Mr. Smith "on his death bed" was so unchristian as to refuse to see his
son-in-law. "What _did_ they quarrel about!" Old Chester said.
"Certainly Mr. Smith seemed friendly enough to the young man before
Mary married him."

[Illustration: "IF I SAW HIM ONCE I MIGHT WANT TO SEE HIM AGAIN"]

When Mary - she was in the early thirties now, and Johnny was
thirteen - came into her father's room and sat down beside him, the old
man opened his eyes and looked at her.

"Pleasant journey?" he said, thickly.

"Yes, father. I hope you are feeling better?"

His eyes closed and he seemed to forget her. Later, looking up at her
from the pillows of his great carved rosewood bed - the headboard looked
like the Gothic doors of a cathedral - he said, "Tell your husband" - he
lifted his upper lip and showed his teeth - "to educate him."

Mary said, "Who?" - then could have bitten her tongue out, for of course
there was only one "him" for these three people! She gave a frightened
glance about the room, but there was no one to hear that betraying
pronoun. She said, faintly: "Yes, father. Now try to rest and don't
talk. You'll feel better in the morning."

"He hates a coward as much as I do," Mr. Smith mumbled. "And he has
brains; doesn't get 'em from you two. Guess he gets 'em from me."

"Father! Please - _please_!" she said, in a terrified whisper. "Somebody
might hear."

"They're welcome. Mary . . . he handed me back my own quarter for my own
apples. No fool." He gave a grunt of laughter. "He said, 'Twelve times
twelve' like lightning - when he was only ten! . . . Last year he took
his own licking, though the Mack boy was in for it. . . . I'm going to
give him a pony."

After that he seemed to forget her and slept for a while. A day or two
later he forgot everything, even Johnny. The last person he remembered,
curiously enough, was Miss Lydia Sampson.

It was when he was dying that he said, suddenly opening those marvelous
eyes and smiling faintly: "Little wet hen! Damned game little party.
Stood right up to me. . . . Wish I'd married her thirteen years ago.
Then there'd have been no fuss about my grandson."

"_Grandson?_" said Doctor King, in a whisper to Mrs. Robertson. And she
whispered back, "He is wandering."

When Mary's husband arrived for the funeral and for the reading of the
will (in which there was nothing "handsome" for Johnny!) the doctor
told him of the new Mr. Smith's last words; and Mr. Robertson said,
hurriedly, "Delirious, of course."

"I suppose so," said Doctor King.

But when he walked home with Doctor Lavendar, after the funeral, he
said, "Have you any idea who Johnny Smith belongs to, Doctor Lavendar?"

"Miss Lydia," said Doctor Lavendar, promptly.

To which William King replied, admiringly, "I have never understood how
anybody _could_ look as innocent as you, and yet be so chock-full of
other people's sins! Wonder if his mother will ever claim him?"

"Wonder if Miss Lydia would give him up if she did?" Doctor Lavendar
said.

"She'd have to," William said.

"On the principle that a 'mother is a mother still, the holiest thing
alive'?" Doctor Lavendar quoted.

"On the principle of ownership," said William King. "As to a mother
being a 'holy thing,' I have never noticed that the mere process of
child-bearing produces sanctity."

"William," said Doctor Lavendar, "Mrs. Drayton would say you were
indelicate. Also, I believe you know that two and two make four?"

"I have a pretty good head for arithmetic," said William King, "but I
only added things up a day or two ago."




CHAPTER IV


AFTER Mr. Smith's death the Robertsons stayed on in Old Chester to close
the house. Mary hardly left it, even to walk in the garden behind the
circling brick wall. But she sent her husband on innumerable errands
into Old Chester, and when he came back she would say, "Did you
see - _him_?"

And sometimes Johnny's father would say, "Yes."

"You didn't speak to him?" she would ask, in a panic.

"Of course not! But he's an attractive boy." Once he added, "Why don't
you go and call on Miss Lydia - and see him yourself?"

She caught her soft hands together in terror. "Go to Miss Lydia's? I?
Oh, I couldn't! Oh, Carl, don't you see - _I might like him_!"

"You couldn't help it if you saw him."

"That's just it! I don't want to like him. Nothing would induce me to
see him."

Yet there came a moment when the urge of maternity was greater than the
instinct of secrecy, greater even than the fear of awakening in herself
that "liking" which would inevitably mean pain. She and Johnny's father
were to leave Old Chester the next day; for a week she had been counting
the hours until they would start, and she could turn her back on this
gnawing temptation! But when that last day came, she vacillated: "I'll
just walk down and look at Miss Lydia's; he might be going in or coming
out. . . . No! I won't; he might see me, and think - . . . I must - I
must. . . . Oh, I _can't_, I won't!" Yet in the late afternoon she
slipped out of the house and went stealthily down the carriage road,
and, standing in the shadow of one of the great stone gateposts, stared
over at Miss Lydia's open door. As she stood there she heard a sound.
Her heart leaped - and fell, shuddering. Just once in her life had she
felt that elemental pang; it was when another sound, the little, thin
cry of birth pierced her ears. Now the sound was of laughter, the
shrill, cracking laughter of an adolescent boy. She crept back to the
big house, so exhausted that she said to old Alfred, "Tell Mr.
Robertson that I have a headache, and am lying down."

Later, when her husband, full of concern at her discomfort, came
upstairs to sit on the edge of her bed and ask her how she felt, she
told him what had happened.

"I wouldn't see him for anything," she said, gasping; "even his voice
just about killed me! Oh, Carl, suppose I were to like him? Oh, what
shall I do? - _I don't want to like him._"

"Why, my dear, it would be all right if you did," he tried to reassure
her. "There's no reason why you shouldn't see him once in a while - and
like him, too. _I_ like him, though I haven't spoken to him. But I'm
going to."

"Oh, Carl, don't - " she besought him.

But he said: "Don't worry. You know I would never do anything rash."

And the next day he stopped boldly at Miss Lydia's door, and talked
about the weather, and gave Johnny a dollar.

"Go downstreet and buy something," he said.

And Johnny said, "Thank you, sir!" and went off, whistling.

"He's a promising boy," Mr. Robertson said, in a low voice.

Miss Lydia was extremely nervous during this five minutes. She had been
nervous during the weeks that Mary and Carl were up there in the big
house. Suppose they should see just how "promising" Johnny was - and want
him? - and say they would take him? Then she would reassure herself:
"They can only take their son - and they don't want _him_!" Yet she was
infinitely relieved when, the next day, the Smith house was finally
closed and the "For Sale or To Let" sign put up on the iron gates that
shut the graveled driveway from Old Chester's highroad.

"They'll sell the house and never come back," she told herself. And
indeed Johnny was a year older, a year more plucky and high-tempered and
affectionate, before Miss Lydia had any further cause for uneasiness.

Then, suddenly, Mr. Carl Robertson appeared in town; he came, he said,
to make sure that the still unsold Smith house was not getting
dilapidated. While he was looking it over he took occasion to tell
several people that that boy who lived with the old lady in the house by
the gate was an attractive youngster.

"I suppose," said Mr. Robertson, "Mary ought to sell that house to
settle the estate, but she says she won't turn the old lady out. The
little beggar she takes care of seems a nice little chap." Then he said,
casually, "Who were his father and mother?"

"That's what nobody knows," some one said; then added, significantly,
"Lydia is very secretive." And some one else said, "There _is_ a
suspicion that the child is her own."

"Her _own_?" Carl Robertson gaped, open-mouthed. And when he turned his
back on this particular gossip his face was darkly red. "Somebody in
this town needs a horse-whipping!" he told himself; "God forbid that
Miss Sampson knows there are such fools in the world!" He was so angry
and ashamed that his half-formed wish to do something for the child
crystallized into purpose. But before he made any effort to carry his
purpose out he discounted public opinion. "Nothing like truth to throw
people off the track," he reflected. So, with the frankness which may be
such a perfect screen for lack of candor, he put everybody he met off
the track by saying he was going to give Miss Lydia a hand in bringing
up that boy of hers.

"Very generous," said Mrs. Barkley, and told Old Chester that the fat
Mr. Robertson was an agreeable person, and she did wonder why his
father-in-law had not got along with him!

"The reason I spoke of it to Mrs. Barkley," Carl Robertson told Miss
Lydia, "was that I knew she'd inform everybody in town. So that if,
later on, I want to see the - the boy, once in a while, it won't set
people gossiping."

It was the night before he was leaving Old Chester that he said this.
They were in Miss Lydia's parlor; the door was closed, for Johnny was in
the dining room, doing his examples, one leg around the leg of his
chair, his tongue out, and breathing heavily: "Farmer Jones sold ten
bushels of wheat at - "

"I do want to see more of him," Mr. Robertson said; "and I want Mary
to."

"Do you?" said Miss Lydia.

"Well, he's ours, and - "

"He's his father's and mother's," she conceded; "they would naturally
want to see him."

"Yes," Carl Robertson said; "but of course we could never do more than
that. We could never have him."

Miss Lydia felt her legs trembling, and she put her hands under her
black silk apron lest they might tremble, too. "No," she agreed, "I
suppose you couldn't."

He nodded. "It would be impossible; people must never suspect - " He
stopped through sheer shame at the thought of all the years he had
hidden behind this small, scared-looking woman, who had had no place to
hide from a ridiculous but pursuing suspicion.

When he got back to Philadelphia and told his wife about the boy, he
said, "Some of those old cats in Old Chester actually thought he
was - her own child."

"What!"

"Fools. But, Mary, she never betrayed us - that little old woman! She
never told the truth."

"She never knew it was said."

"God knows, I hope she didn't. . . . We ought to have kept him."

"Carl! You know we couldn't; it would have been impossible!"

"Well, we cared more for our reputations than for our - son," he said.

For a moment that poignant word startled Mary into silence; then she
said, breathlessly: "But, Carl, that isn't common sense! What
about - the boy himself? Would it have been a good thing for him that
people should know?"

"It might have been a good thing for us," he said; "and it couldn't be
any worse for him than it is. Everybody thinks he's illegitimate." He
paused, and then he said a really profound thing - for a fat, selfish
man. "Mary, I believe there isn't any _real_ welfare that's built on a
lie. If it was to do over again I'd stand up to my own cussed folly."

"You don't seem to consider me!" she said, bitterly.

But he only said, slowly, "He's the finest little chap you ever saw."

"Pretty?" she said, forgetting her bitterness.

"Oh, he's a boy, a real boy. Freckled. And when he's mad he shows his
teeth, just as your father used to; I saw him in a fight. No; of course
he's not 'pretty.'"

"I'd like to see him - if I wasn't afraid to," she said. She was
thirty-four now, a sad, idle, rich woman, with only three interests in
life: eating and shopping and keeping the Secret which made her cringe
whenever she thought of it, which, since the night she heard Johnny
laugh, was pretty much all the time. It was the shopping interest that
by and by united with the interest of the Secret; it occurred to her
that she might give "him" something. She would buy him a pair of skates!
"But you must send them to him, Carl."

"Why don't you do it yourself?"

"It would look queer. People might - think."

"Well, they 'thought' about that poor little woman."

"Idiots! She's a hundred years old!" Mary said, jealously.

"She wasn't when he was born," her husband said, wearily. He probably
loved his wife, but since that day when she had flung away the lure of
mystery, her mind had ceased to interest him. This was cruel and unjust,
but it was male human nature.

"Why don't you get acquainted with the youngster?" Carl said, yawning.

"_Carl!_ You know it wouldn't do. Besides, how could I?"

"We could take the house ourselves next summer. There's some furniture
in it still. It would come about naturally enough. And he would be at
our gates."

"Oh no - _no_! Maybe he looks like me."

"No, he doesn't. Didn't I tell you he isn't particularly good-looking?"

"Maybe he looks like you?" she objected, simply.

And he laughed, and said, "Thank you, my dear!"

But Mary didn't laugh. She got up and stood staring out of the window
into the rainy street; "You send him the skates," she said; "you've seen
him, so it wouldn't seem queer."

The skates were sent, and Johnny's mother was eager to see Johnny's
smudgy and laborious letter acknowledging "Mr. Robertson's kind
present."

"That's a very nice little letter!" she said; "he must be clever, like
you. I'll buy some books for him."

That was in January. By April Johnny and his books and his
multiplication table and his freckles were almost constantly in her
mind. It was about the middle of April that she said to her husband:

"If you haven't a tenant, I suppose we might open father's house for a
month? Perhaps being there would be better than - giving presents? If I
saw him just once I shouldn't want to give him things."

"I'm afraid you'd want to more than ever," he demurred, which, of
course, made her protest:

"Oh no, I shouldn't! Do let's do it!"

"Well," he conceded, in triumphant reluctance - for it was what he had


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Online LibraryMargaret Wade Campbell DelandAn Old Chester secret → online text (page 3 of 6)