- PART III
- CHAPTER II THE LITTLE RED CLOAK
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THE LITTLE RED CLOAK
Col. Crompton was in a bad way, both mentally and bodily. The pain in his gouty foot had extended to his knee, and was excruciating in the extreme; but he almost forgot it in the greater trouble in his mind. In the same mail which had brought Eloise's letter from California there had been one for him, which in the morning Peter had taken from the postman and examined carefully, until he made out its direction.
"Mister Kurnel Krompton, of Krompton Plais, Krompton, Massachusetts."
So much room had been taken up on one side of the envelope with the address, that half of "Massachusetts" was on the other side, and Peter's memory instantly went back to years before, when a letter looking like this and odorous with bad tobacco had come to the Colonel. He had a copy of the letter still, and could repeat it by heart, and knew that it was from Jake Harris,--presumably the "Shaky" for whom the little girl Eudora had cried so pitifully. This was undoubtedly from the same source. "What can he want now? and what will the Colonel say?" he thought, as he took the letter to his master's room.
"A letter for you, sir," he said, putting it down upon the table by the Colonel's chair, and then linger- | | 295 ing on the pretence of adjusting a curtain and brushing up the hearth, but really waiting to see what effect the letter would have.
It was different from what he expected. With one glance at the superscription, the Colonel grew deathly pale, and his hands shook so that the letter dropped upon the floor. Peter picked it up and handed it to him, saying, "Can I help you, sir?"
"Yes, by leaving me, and holding your tongue! There's the devil to pay!" was the answer.
Peter was accustomed to hearing of his master's debts in that direction, and to being told to hold his tongue, and he answered, "All right, sir," and left the room. For some moments the Colonel sat perfectly still, his heart beating so fast that he could scarcely breathe. Then he opened Jake's letter, and read as follows:
"Glory to God. I'se done sung all day for his mussy in lettin' me heer from lil Miss Dory onc't mo' an' 'noin' she ain't ded as I feared she was. Mas'r Minister Mason, who done 'tended the funeral of t'other Miss Dory done tole me how she's livin' with you, an' a lil off in her mind. The lam'! What happened her, I wonder? Her granny, ole Miss Lucy, was quar. All the Harrises was quar. Mebby she got it from them. A site of me will cure her sho'. Tell her I'se comin' to see her as soon as I hear from you that it is her, sho'. Thar might be some mistake, an' I doan' want to take the long journey for nothin', 'case I'm ole, tho' I feels mighty peart now wid de | | 296 news. Rite me wen you git this. I shall wait till I har, an' then start to onc't."Yours to command, "JAKE HARRIS."
"P.S.--Mandy Ann, you 'members her, what took care of lil chile. She's a grown woman now in course, an' has ten chillen, 'sides Ted. You 'members Ted, on de 'Hatty' No 'count at all; but Mandy Ann, wall, she's a whopper, an' when she hears de nuse, she 'most had de pow'. She sen's her regrets, an' would come, too, if she hadn't so many moufs to feed, an' Ted doin' nothin' but playin' gemman."Onc't mo', yours, "JAKE."
To describe the Colonel's state of mind as he read this letter is impossible. He forgot the pain in his leg and knee in the greater sensation of the cold, prickly feeling which ran through his veins, making his fingers feel like sticks, and powerless to hold the letter, which dropped to the floor. With every year he had hugged closer and closer the secret of his life, becoming more and more morbid and more fearful, lest in some way his connection with the palmetto clearing should be known and he fall from the high pedestal on which he had stood so long, and from which his fall would be greater because he had been there so long. It would all be right after he was dead. He had seen to that, and didn't care what the world would say when he was not alive to hear it. But he was very much alive now, and his sin bade fair to find him out.
"Just as I feared when that rector told me who | | 297 his father was," he thought, cursing the chance which had sent the Rev. Arthur Mason to Crompton,--cursing the Rev. Charles for giving information to Jake,--and cursing Jake for the letter, which he spurned with his well foot, as it lay on the floor. He had hoped the negro might be dead, as he had heard nothing from him in a long time; and here he was, alive and waiting for a word to come. "If he waits for that he will wait to all eternity," he said to himself. "I shall write and make it worth his while to stay where he is. He knows too much of Amy's birth and her mother's death to be trusted here. Uncertainty is better than the truth. I have made matters right for Amy, and confessed everything. They'll find it when I'm gone, and can wag their tongues all they please. It won't hurt me then, but while I live I'll keep up the farce. It might have been better to have told the truth at first, but I didn't, and it's too late now. Who in thunder is that knocking at the door? Not Amy, I hope,--and I can't reach that letter," he continued, as there came a low rap at the door.
"Come in!" he called, when it was repeated, and Cora, the housemaid, entered.
She had been in the family but a few days and did not yet understand her duties with regard to the Colonel, and know that she was not to trouble him. Tim Biggs had been commissioned by Eloise to take her note to Mrs. Amy, together with the chairs.
"You can't carry both at one time, so take the sea this morning, and the wheel this afternoon," Mrs. Biggs said, just as Tom Walker appeared.
He had been to the house two or three times since the Rummage, ostensibly to ask when Eloise was | | 298 going to commence her duties as teacher, but really to see her and hear her pleasant "Good-morning, Thomas, I am glad to see you."
Whatever Mrs. Biggs knew was soon known to half of District No. 5, and the news that Eloise was going to California had reached Tom, and brought him to inquire if it were true.
"And won't you come back?" he asked, with real concern on his homely face.
"Perhaps so. I hope so," Eloise replied, and he continued, "I'm all-fired sorry you are goin', because,--well, because I am; and I wish I could do something for you."
"You can," Eloise said. " You can take the wheel chair back to the Crompton House and save Tim one journey."
Tom cared very little about saving Tim, but he would do anything to serve Eloise, and the two boys were soon on their way, quarrelling some as they went, for each was jealous of the other's attention to the "little schoolmarm," as they called her. Tom reached the house first, but Tim was not far behind, and both encountered Cora, who bade them leave the chairs in the hall, while she inquired as to their disposition. Had Peter been in sight she might have consulted him, but he was in the grounds, and, entering the Colonel's room she said, "If you please, sir, what shall I do with the chairs?"
"What chairs?" the Colonel asked, and Cora replied, "A sea chair, I think, and a wheel chair, which Tom Walker and Tim Biggs have just brought home."
"My sea chair, and my wheel chair! How in thunder can that be, when I'm sitting in the wheel, | | 299 and how came Tom Walker, the biggest rascal in town, by my chairs, or Tim Biggs either?" the Colonel exclaimed; and Cora replied, "I think they said the schoolma'am had them. Here's a note from her to Mrs. Amy."
Since his last attack of the gout the Colonel had in a measure forgotten Eloise, and ceased to care whether she were rooted and grounded in the fundamentals or not. That Howard and Jack had been in the habit of calling upon her he did not suspect, and much less that for the last two weeks or more she had been enjoying his sea chair, and the fruit and flowers sent her with Mrs. Amy's compliments. At the mention of her he roused at once.
"That girl had my chair! How the devil came she by it? A note for Mrs. Amy! Give it to me, and pick up that paper on the floor and go!"
Cora was not long in obeying, and the irascible old man was again alone. First tearing Jake's letter in strips, he turned Eloise's note over in his hand, and read, "Mrs. Amy Smith, Crompton Place." The name "Smith" always made him angry, and he repeated it with a quick shutting together of his teeth.
"Smith!" he said, "I can't abide it! And what has she to say to Mrs. Smith?"
The note was not sealed, and without the least hesitancy he opened it and read, commenting as he did so.
"My dear Mrs. Smith." (Her dear Mrs. Smith! I like that.) "I am going away (Glad to hear it) and I wish to thank you for the many things you have sent me. (The deuce she has! I didn't know it.) The pretty hat I want to keep, with the slippers, which remind me of my mother. (Slippers,--remind | | 300 her of her mother, who, I dare say, never wore anything but big shoes, and coarse at that," the Colonel growled, and read on.) The chairs I return, with my thanks for them, and the fruit and flowers and books. I would like so much to see you, and thank you personally, but as this cannot be I must do it on paper. Be assured I shall never forget your kindness to me, a stranger."Your very truly, "E. A. SMITH."
"Smith again! E. A. Smith!" the Colonel said. "Why couldn't she write her whole name? E. A., ELIZA ANN, of course! That's who she is, ELIZA ANN SMITH!"
If there was one name he disliked as much as he did Smith, it was Eliza Ann, and he repeated it again: "ELIZA ANN SMITH! Fruit and flowers and books, and shoes and my sea chair and a wheel chair sent to her by Amy! Where did she get the wheel, I'd like to know? I don't believe it!" he added, as a sudden light broke upon him. "It's that dog Howard's work, and that other chap."
Ringing the bell which stood on the table beside him, he bade Cora, who appeared, to send Mrs. Amy to him. Amy had not slept well, and was more easily confused than usual, but she came and asked what he wanted. It did not occur to him to give her the note, which he kept in his hand while he said, in a much softer tone than that in which he had been talking to himself, "Have you sent things to Eliza Ann Smith,--fruit and flowers and books, and my sea chair and a wheel chair, and a bonnet and shoes, and the Lord knows what else?"
Amy was bewildered at once.| | 301
"Eliza Ann Smith!" she repeated. "I don't know her. Who is she?"
"Why, the girl that jammed a hole in Brutus's neck and stained the cushions of my carriage, and broke her leg at Mrs. Biggs's," the Colonel replied.
At the mention of Mrs. Biggs, Amy's face brightened. Since the day after the accident, when she sent the hat and slippers, Eloise had not been mentioned in her presence, and she had entirely forgotten her. Now she was all interest again, and said, " Oh, yes; I remember now, Poor girl! I did send her a hat and some slippers, which I hated because I wore them when I sang. Did they fit her?"
"Lord Harry! How do I know? It isn't likely your shoes would fit her. They would be a mile too small!" the Colonel said, and Amy asked, "Does she want anything?"
"No," the Colonel replied. "Somebody has sent her flowers and chairs and books and things. She thought it was you and wished to thank you."
"It was not I, and I am sorry I forgot her," Amy rejoined, as she turned to leave him, with a confused feeling in her brain, and a pang of regret that she had perhaps neglected the little girl at Mrs. Biggs's.
Once the Colonel thought to call her back and give her the note. Then, thinking it did not matter, he let her go without it. Just what influence was at work in Amy's mind that morning it were difficult to tell. Whatever it was, it prompted her on her return to her room to take the little red cloak from the closet where it was kept and examine it carefully. It had been the best of its kind when it was bought, and, though somewhat faded and worn, had withstood the ravages of time wonderfully. It had en- | | 302 circled her like a friend, both when she was sad and when she was gay. It had been wrapped around the Baby, of whom she never thought without a pang and a blur before her eyes. It was the dearest article she had in her wardrobe, and because of that and because she had been so forgetful, she would send it to Eliza Ann. Smith!
"But not for good," she said to Sarah, who was commissioned to take it to Eloise the next morning. "She can keep it till she is well. Somebody told me she had a sprained ankle. I had one once, and I put it across my lap and foot, it was so soft and warm. Tell her I am sorry I forgot about her. I am not always quite myself."
"Sent that old red cloak she's had ever since she was knee high! I shouldn't s'pose there'd be a rag of it left! She must be crazy as a loon to-day," was Mrs. Biggs's comment, when Sarah told her errand. "What possessed her?"
Sarah only knew that her mistress was more dazed than usual that morning, and had insisted upon her bringing the cloak.
"I think it rattled her when the chairs came back. She didn't know anything about 'em, nor the Colonel either," Sarah said.
Mrs. Biggs laughed, and replied, "I didn't s'pose they did. Them young men, I b'lieve, was at the bottom of it, and I or'to have told Miss Smith to send her thanks to them, but I wasn't quite sure about the sea chair. So I let it slide, thinkin' it was a good joke on 'em to thank Amy. They pretended the things was from her."
Taking the cloak from the girl, she carried it into | | 303 the room where Eloise had fallen asleep, with her foot resting upon a hassock, and a shawl thrown over it. Removing the shawl and putting the red cloak in its place, Mrs. Biggs stole noiselessly out, saying to herself, "I guess she'll wonder where that came from when she wakes up."
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