Margaret Wade Campbell Deland.

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wanted her to say - "if you insist. But I don't believe you'll like it."

So that was how it happened that the weatherworn "For Sale or To Let"
sign was taken down, and the rusty iron gates were opened, and the weedy
graveled driveway made clean and tidy as it used to be in Johnny's
grandfather's time. Johnny himself was immensely interested in all that
went on in the way of renovation, and in the beautiful horses that came
down before Mr. and Mrs. Robertson arrived.

"Aunty, they must be pretty rich," he said.

"They are," said Miss Lydia.

"I guess if they had a boy they'd give him a pony," Johnny said,
sighing.

"Very likely," Miss Lydia told him. And she, too, watched the opening up
of the big house with her frightened blue eyes.

"Lydia, you're losing flesh," Mrs. Barkley said in an anxious bass.
Indeed, all Old Chester was anxious about Miss Sampson's looks that
summer. "What _is_ the matter?" said Old Chester.

But Miss Lydia, although she really did grow thin, never said what was
the matter.

"I do dislike secretiveness!" said Mrs. Drayton; "I call it vulgar."

"I wonder what she calls curiosity?" Doctor Lavendar said when this
remark was repeated to him.

Miss Lydia may have been vulgar, but her vulgarity did not save her from
terror. When Mary drove past the little house, the Grasshopper's heart
was in her mouth! Would Johnny's mother stop? - or would Mrs. Robertson
go by? There came, of course, the inevitable day when the mother
stopped. . . . It was in June, a day of white clouds racing in a blue
sky, and tree tops bending and swaying and locust blossoms showering on
the grass. Johnny was engaged in trying to lure his cat out of a pear
tree, into which a dog had chased her.

"Stop!" Mary Robertson called to the coachman; then, leaning forward,
she tried to speak. Her breath came with a gasp. "Are you the - the boy
who lives with Miss Sampson?"

"Yes'm," Johnny said. "Kitty, Kitty!" Then he called: "Say, Aunty! Let's
try her with milk!"

Miss Lydia, coming to the door with a saucer of milk, stood for a
paralyzed moment, then she said, "How do you do, Mary?"

"You haven't forgotten me?" Mrs. Robertson said.

"Well, no," said Miss Lydia.

"Lovely day," Mary said, breathing quickly; then she waved a trembling
hand. "Good-by! Go on, Charles." Charles flicked his whip and off she
rumbled in the very same old victoria in which her father had rolled by
Miss Lydia's door in the September dusk some fifteen years before.

That night Johnny's mother said to her husband, almost in a whisper,
"I - spoke to him."

He put a kindly arm around her. "Isn't he as fine a boy as you ever
saw?"

After that Mrs. Robertson spoke to Johnny Smith frequently and Miss
Lydia continued to lose flesh. The month that Mr. and Mrs. Robertson
were to spend in Old Chester lengthened into two - into three. And while
they were there wonderful things happened to Johnny in the way of
presents - a lathe, a velocipede, a little engine to turn a wheel in the
run at the foot of old Mr. Smith's pasture. Also, he and his aunt Lydia
were invited to take supper with Mr. and Mrs. Robertson. "We'll have to
ask _her_," Johnny's mother had said to Johnny's father, "because it
would look queer to have him come by himself. Oh, Carl, I am beginning
to hate her!"

"You mustn't, dear; she's good to him."

"_I_ want to be good to him!"

However, Miss Lydia, in her once-turned and twice-made-over blue silk,
came and sat at the big table in the new Mr. Smith's dining room. She
hardly spoke, but just sat there, the vein on her temple throbbing with
fright, and listened to Johnny's mother pouring herself out in fatuous
but pathetic flattery and in promises of all sorts of delights.

"Mary, my _dear_!" Carl Robertson protested, but he felt the pain of the
poor, child-hungry woman at the other end of the table.

When Miss Lydia and Johnny walked home together in the darkness her boy
said: "A fellow'd be lucky with a mother like that, wouldn't he? She'd
give him everything he wanted. She'd give him a pony," Johnny said,
wistfully.

"Yes," said Miss Lydia, faintly.

"Wish I had a mother who'd gimme a pony," Johnny said, with the brutal
honesty of his sex and years.

And Miss Lydia said again, "Yes."

"Maybe Mrs. Robertson'll gimme one," Johnny said, hopefully; "she's
always giving me things!"

However, though Johnny's gratitude consisted of a lively hope of
benefits to come, he had some opinions of his own.

"She kisses me," he said to Miss Lydia, wrinkling up his nose. "I don't
like kissing ladies."

Poor Mary couldn't help kissing him. The fresh, honest, ugly young face
had become more wonderful to her than anything else on earth! But
sometimes she looked at him and then at his father, and said to herself,
"His eyes are not like Carl's, but his mouth is as Carl's used to be
before he wore a beard; but nobody would know it now."

Mr. Robertson looked pleased when she told him, anxiously, that "it
_was_ showing - the likeness. He has your mouth. And people might - "

"I wish to God I could own him," said Carl Robertson.

"Carl, he wants a pony! Buy one for him."

But Johnny didn't get his pony, because when Mr. Robertson told Miss
Lydia he was thinking of buying a horse for his boy, she said:

"No; it isn't good for him, please, to have so many things."

"The idea of her interfering!" Mary told her husband.




CHAPTER V


"I'M going to invite him to visit us next winter," Mary said.

This was at the end of the summer, and the prospect of saying good-by to
Johnny for almost a year was more than she could bear.

"My dear!" her husband protested, "if you got him under your own roof
you wouldn't be able to hold on to yourself! I could, but you couldn't.
You'd tell him."

"I wouldn't! Why, I _couldn't_. Of course he can never know. . . . But
I'm going to see - that woman, and tell her that I shall have him visit
us."

"She'll not permit it."

"'Permit'!" Mary said. "Upon my word! My own child not '_permitted_'!"

"It's hard," Carl said, briefly.

"You want him, too," she said, eagerly; "I can see you do! Think of
having him with us for a week! I could go into his room and - and pick up
his clothes when he drops them round on the floor, the way boys do."
She was breathless at the thought of such happiness. "I'll tell her I'm
going to have him come in the Christmas vacation. Oh, Carl" - her black,
heavy eyes suddenly glittered with tears - "I want my baby," she said.

The words stabbed him; for a moment he felt that there was no price too
great to pay for comfort for her. "We'll try it," he said, "but we'll
have to handle Miss Lydia just right to get her to consent to it."

"'Consent'?" she said, fiercely. "Carl, I just hate her!" The
long-smothered instinct of maternity leaped up and scorched her like a
flame; she put her dimpled hands over her face and cried.

He tried to tell her that she wasn't just. "After all, dear, we disowned
him. Naturally, she feels that he belongs to her."

But she could not be just: "He belongs to us! And she prejudices him
against us. I know she does. I said to him yesterday that her clothes
weren't very fashionable. I just said it for fun; and he said, 'You shut
up!'"

"_What!_" Johnny's father said, amused and horrified.

"I believe she likes him to be rude to me," Mary said.

Her jealousy of Miss Lydia had taken the form of suspicion; if Johnny
was impertinent, if that shabby Miss Lydia meant more to him than she
did - the rich, beneficent, adoring Mrs. Robertson! - it must be because
Miss Lydia "influenced" him. It was to counteract that influence that
she planned the Christmas visit; if she could have him to herself, even
for a week, with all the enjoyments she would give him, she was sure she
could rout "that woman" from her place in his heart!

"I sha'n't ask for what is my own," she told Carl; "I'll just say I'm
going to take him for the Christmas holidays. She won't dare to say he
can't come!"

Yet when she went to tell Miss Lydia that Johnny was coming, her
certainty that the shabby woman wouldn't "dare," faded.

Miss Lydia was in the kitchen, making cookies for her boy, and she could
not instantly leave her rolling-pin when his mother knocked at the front
door. Mary had not been at that door since the September night when she
had crouched, sobbing, on the steps. And now again it was September,
and again the evening primroses were opening in the dusk. . . . As she
knocked, a breath of their subtle perfume brought back that other dusk,
and for an instant she was engulfed in a surge of memory. She felt faint
and leaned against the door, waiting for Miss Lydia's little running
step in the hall. She could hardly speak when the door opened.
"Good - good evening," she said, in a whisper.

Miss Lydia, her frightened eyes peering at her caller from under that
black frizette, could hardly speak herself. Mary was the one to get
herself in hand first. "May I come in, Miss Sampson?"

"Why, yes - " said Miss Lydia, doubtfully, and dusted her floury hands
together.

"I came to say," Mary began, following her back to the kitchen, "I
came - "

"I'm making cookies for Johnny," Miss Lydia said, briskly, and Mary's
soft hands clenched. Why shouldn't _she_ be making cookies for Johnny!

"I've got a pan in the oven," said Miss Lydia, "and I've got to watch
'em."

Mary was silent; she sat down by the table, her breath catching in her
throat. Miss Lydia did not, apparently, notice the agitation; she
bustled about and brought her a cooky on a cracked plate - and watched
her.

"I want - " Mary said, in a trembling voice, and crumbling the cooky with
nervous fingers - "I mean, I am going to have Johnny visit me this
winter."

"Oh," said Miss Lydia, and sat down.

"I'll have him during the holidays."

"No."

"Why not?" Mary said, angrily.

"He'd guess."

"You needn't be afraid of _that_!"

Miss Lydia silently shook her head; instantly Mary's anger turned to
fright.

"Oh, Miss Lydia - please! I promise you he shall never have the dimmest
idea - why, he _couldn't_ have! It wouldn't do, you know. But I want him
just to - to look at."

Miss Lydia was pale. She may have been a born gambler, but never had she
taken such a chance as this - to give Johnny back, even for a week, to
the people who once had thrown him away, but who now were ready to do
everything for him, give him anything he wanted! - and a boy wants so
many things! "No," she said, "no."

Mary gave a starved cry, then dropped on her knees, clutched at the
small, rough, floury hand and tried to kiss it.

"A mother has a claim," she said, passionately.

Miss Lydia, pulling her hand away, nodded. "Yes, a mother has."

"Then let him come. Oh, let him come!"

"_Are you his mother?_"

Mary fell back, half sitting on the floor, half kneeling at Miss Lydia's
feet. "What do you mean? You know - "

"Sometimes," said Miss Lydia, "I think _I'm_ his mother."

Mary started. "She's crazy!" she thought, scared.

"He is mine," Miss Lydia said, proudly; "some foolish people have even
thought he was mine in - in your way."

"Absurd!" Mary said, with a gasp.

"You have never understood love, Mary," Miss Lydia said; "never, from
the very beginning." And even as Johnny's mother recoiled at that
sword-thrust, she added, her face very white: "But I'll chance it. Yes,
if he wants to visit you I'll let him. But I hope you won't hurt him."

"Hurt him? Hurt my own child? He shall have everything!"

"That's what I mean. It may hurt him. He may get to be like you," Miss
Lydia said. . . . "Oh, my cookies! They are burning!" She pushed
Johnny's mother aside - she wanted to push her over! to trample on her!
to tear her! But she only pressed her gently aside and ran and opened
the oven door, and then said, "Oh _my_!" and raised a window to let the
smoke out. . . . "I'll let him go," she said. But when Mary tried to put
her arms around her, and say brokenly how grateful she was, Miss Lydia
shrank away and said, harshly, "_Don't!_"

"I couldn't bear to have her touch me," she told herself afterward; "she
didn't love him when he was a baby."

However, it was arranged, and the visit was made. It was a great
experience for Johnny! The stage to Mercer, the railroad journey across
the mountains, the handsome house, the good times every minute of every
day! Barnum's! Candy shops! New clothes (and old ones dropped about on
the floor for Mrs. Robertson to pick up!) And five five-dollar bills to
carry back to Old Chester! Then the week ended. . . . Mrs. Robertson,
running to bring him his hat and make sure he had a clean handkerchief,
and patting the collar of his coat with plump fingers, cried when she
said good-by; and Johnny sighed, and said he had a stomach ache, and he
hated to go home. His mother glanced triumphantly at his father.

"(Do you hear that?) Do you love me, Johnny?" she demanded.

"Yes'm," Johnny said, scowling.

"As much as Miss Lydia?"

Johnny stared at her. "Course not."

"She doesn't give you so many presents as I do."

"_Mary!_" Johnny's father protested.

But Johnny was equal to the occasion.

"I'd just as leaves," said he, "give you one of my five dollars to pay
for 'em" - which made even his mother laugh. "Goo'-by," said Johnny. "I
guess I've eaten too much. I've had a fine time. Much obliged. No, I do'
want any more candy. O-o-o-h!" said Johnny, "I wish I hadn't eaten so
much! I hate going home."

But he went - bearing his sheaves with him, his presents and his five
five-dollar bills and his stomach ache. And he said he wished he could
go right straight back to Philadelphia!

"Do you?" said Miss Lydia, faintly.

"But she's - funny, Aunt Lydia."

"How 'funny'?"

"Well," said Johnny, scrubbing the back of his hand across his cheeks,
"she's always kissing me and talking about my liking her. Oh - I don't
really mind her, much. She's nice enough. But I _don't_ like kissing
ladies. But I like visiting her," he added, candidly; "she takes me to
lots of places and gives me things. I like presents," said Johnny. "I
hope she'll gimme a gun." . . .

That night, the kissing lady, pacing up and down like a caged creature
in her handsome parlor, which seemed so empty and orderly now, said
suddenly to her husband, "Why don't we adopt him?"

"H-s-s-h!" he cautioned her; then, in a low voice, "I've thought of
that."

At which she instantly retreated. "It is out of the question! People
would - think."




CHAPTER VI


JOHNNY would have had his gun right off, and many other things, too, if
Miss Lydia hadn't interfered. "Please don't send him so many presents,"
she wrote Mrs. Robertson in her scared, determined way. And Mary,
reading that letter, fed her bitterness with the memory of something
which had happened during the visit.

"It's just what I said," she told Johnny's father; "she influences him
against us by not letting us give him presents! I know that from the way
he talks. I told him, after I bought the stereopticon for him, that I
could give him nicer things than she could, and - "

"Mary! You mustn't say things like that!"

"And - and - " Mary said, crying, "he said, 'I like Aunty without any
presents.' You see? Influence! The idea of her daring to say we mustn't
give him a gun. He's _ours_!"

"No, he's hers," Johnny's father said, sadly; "she has the whip hand,
Mary - unless we tell the truth."

"Of course we can't do that," she said, sobbing.

But after that Philadelphia experience Miss Lydia - a fragile creature
now, who lived and breathed for her boy - was obliged every winter to let
Johnny visit these people who had disowned him, cast him off, deserted
him! - that was the way she put it to herself. She had to let him go
because she couldn't think of any excuse for saying he couldn't go. She
even asked Doctor Lavendar for a reason for refusing invitations, which
the appreciative and frankly acquisitive Johnny was anxious to accept.
With a present of a bunch of lamplighters in her hand she went to the
rectory, offering, as an explanation of her call, the fact that Johnny
had got into a fight with the youngest Mack boy and rubbed his nose in
the gutter, and Mrs. Mack was very angry, and said her boy's nose would
never be handsome again; and she, Miss Lydia, didn't know what to do
because Johnny wouldn't tell her what the fight was about and wouldn't
apologize.

"Johnny's fifteen and the Mack boy is seventeen; and a boy doesn't need
a handsome nose," said Doctor Lavendar. "I'd not interfere, if I were
you."

Then she got the real question out: Didn't Doctor Lavendar think it
might be bad for Johnny to visit Mr. and Mrs. Robertson? "They're very
rich, you know," Miss Lydia warned him, piteously.

"They've taken a fancy to him, have they?" Doctor Lavendar asked. She
nodded. The old man meditated. "Lydia," he said at last, "you are so
rich, and they're so poor, I'd be charitable, if I were you."

So she was charitable. And for the next three or four years Johnny went
away for his good times, and old Miss Lydia stayed at home and had very
bad times for fear that Mr. and Mrs. Robertson might suddenly turn into
Johnny's father and mother! Then the father and mother would come to Old
Chester in the summer and have their bad times, for fear that Miss Lydia
would "influence" Johnny against Mr. and Mrs. Robertson. (We got to
quite like the Robertsons, though we didn't see much of them. "Pity they
had no children," said Old Chester; "all that Smith money going
begging!")

The Smith money certainly went begging, so far as Johnny was concerned.
Every time his father and mother tried to spend it on him Miss Lydia put
her little frightened will between the boy and his grandfather's
fortune. "Boys can't accept presents, Johnny, except from relations, you
know," she would tell him; "it isn't nice." And Johnny, thinking of the
gun or the pony or what not, would stick out his lips and sigh and say
no, he "s'posed not." As a result of such remarks he developed as
healthy a pride as one could hope for in a lad, and by the time he was
eighteen he was hot with embarrassment when Mrs. Robertson tried to
force things upon him.

"No, ma'am," he would say, awkwardly. "I - I can't take any presents."

"Why not?" she would demand, deeply hurt.

"Well, you know, you are not a relation," Johnny would say; and his
mother would rush up to her room and pace up and down, up and down, and
cry until she could hardly see.

"She's robbed us of our own child!" she used to tell her husband.

As for Johnny, he told Miss Lydia once that Mrs. Robertson was kind,
and all that, but she was a nuisance.

"Oh, Johnny, I wouldn't say _that_, dear. She's been nice to you."

"What makes her?" said Johnny, curiously. "Why is she always gushing
round?"

"Well, she likes you, Johnny."

Johnny grinned. "I don't see why. I'm afraid I'm not awfully polite to
her. She was telling me she'd give me anything on earth I wanted; made
me feel like a fool!" said Johnny, "and I said, 'Aunty gives me
everything I want, thank you'; and she said, 'She doesn't love you as
much as I do.' And I said (all this love talk makes me kind of sick!) I
said, 'Oh yes, she does; she loved me when I was a squealing baby! You
didn't know me then.'"

"What did she say?" Miss Lydia asked, breathlessly.

"Oh, she sort of cried," said Johnny, with a bored look.

But his perplexity about Mrs. Robertson's gush lingered in his mind, and
a year or two later, on his twentieth birthday, as it happened, he asked
Miss Lydia again what on earth it meant? . . . The Robertsons had braved
the raw Old Chester winter and come down to the old house to be near
their son on that day. They came like the Greeks, bearing gifts, which,
it being Johnny's birthday, they knew could not be refused - and old Miss
Lydia, unlike the priest of Apollo, had no spear to thrust at them
except the forbidden spear of Truth! So her heart was in her mouth when
Johnny, who had gone to supper with his father and mother, came home at
nearly midnight and told her how good they were to him. But he was
preoccupied as he talked, and once or twice he frowned. Then suddenly he
burst out:

"Aunty, why does Mr. Robertson bother about me?"

"Does he?" Miss Lydia said.

"Well, yes; he says he wants me to go into his firm when I leave
college. He says he'll give me mighty good pay. But - but he wants me to
take his name."

"_Oh!_" said Miss Lydia. She looked so little and pretty, lying there in
her bed, with her soft white hair - the frizette had vanished some years
ago - parted over her delicate furrowed brow, and her blue eyes wide and
frightened, like a child's, that Johnny suddenly hugged her.

"As for the name part of it," he said, "I said my name was Smith. Not
handsome or distinguished, but my own. I said I had no desire to change
it, but if I ever did it would be to Sampson."

A meager tear stood in the corner of Miss Lydia's eye. "That was very
nice of you, Johnny," she said, quaveringly.

"I'd like the business part of it all right," said Johnny. . . . "Say,
Aunt Lydia - what _is_ all the milk in the coconut about me? Course I'm
not grown up for nothing; I know I'm - queer. I got on to that when I was
fifteen - I put the date on Eddy Mack's nose! But I'd like to know,
really, who I am?"

"You're my boy," said Miss Lydia.

"You bet I am!" said Johnny; "but who were my father and mother?"

"They lived out West, and - "

"I know all that fairy tale, Aunty. Let's have the facts."

Miss Lydia was silent; her poor old eyes blinked; then she said:
"They - deserted you, Johnny. But you mustn't mind."

The young man's face reddened sharply. "They weren't married, I suppose,
when I was born?" he said, in a husky voice.

"They - got married before you were born."

He frowned, but he was obviously relieved; then he looked puzzled. "Yet
they deserted me? Were they too poor to take care of me?"

"Well, no," Miss Lydia confessed.

"Not poor, yet they dumped me onto your doorstep?" he repeated,
bewildered, but with a slow anger growing in his face. "Well, I guess
I'm well rid of 'em if they were that kind of people! Cowards. I'd
rather have murderers 'round, than cowards!"

"Oh, my dear, you mustn't be unjust. They gave me money for your
support."

"Money!" he said. "They paid you to take me off their hands?" He paused;
"Aunt Lydia," he said - and as he spoke his upper lip lifted and she saw
his teeth - "Aunt Lydia, I'll never ask you about them again. I have no
interest in them. They are nothing to me, just as I was nothing to them.
But tell me one thing, is Smith my name?"

"Yes," said Miss Lydia (it's his _middle_ name, she assured herself
truthfully).

But Johnny laughed: "I guess you just called me Smith. Well, that's all
right, though I'd rather you'd made it Sampson. But Smith will do. I
said so to Mrs. Robertson. I said that my name was the same as her
father's, and I thought he was the finest old man I'd ever known, and,
though I was no relation, I hoped my Smith name would be as dignified as
his."

"What did she say?" said Miss Lydia.

"Oh, she got weepy," said Johnny, good-naturedly; "she's always either
crying or kissing. But she's kind. Look at those!" he said, displaying
some sleeve links that his mother's soft, adoring fingers had fastened
into his cuffs. "Well, I don't take a berth with a new name tacked on to
it, at Robertson & Carey's. He'll have to get some other fellow to swap
names for him!"

He went off to his room, his face still dark with the deep, elemental
anger which that word "deserted" had stirred in him, but whistling as if
to declare his entire indifference to the deserters. Old Miss Lydia,
alone, trembled very much. "Take their name! _What will they do next?_"
she said to herself.

The Robertsons were asking each other the same question, "What can we do
now to get him?" The lure of a business opportunity had not moved the
boy at all, and what he had said about being called Sampson had been
like a knife-thrust in their hearts. It made Mary Robertson so angry
that she sprang at a fierce retaliation: "She _couldn't_ keep him - he
wouldn't stay with her - if we told him the truth!" she said to Johnny's
father.

"But we never can tell him," Carl reminded her.

"Sometimes I think she'll drive me to it!" said Mary.

"No," Robertson said, shortly.

"No one would know it but the boy himself. And if he knew it he'd let us
adopt him. And that would mean taking his own name."

"No!" Carl broke out, "it won't do! You see, I - don't want him to know."
He paused, then seemed to pull the words out with a jerk: "I won't let
him have any disrespect for his mother, and - " He got up and tramped


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Online LibraryMargaret Wade Campbell DelandAn Old Chester secret → online text (page 4 of 6)