Mr. Simpson spent little time with hisfamily, owing to certain awkward methodsof horse-trading, or the "swapping"of farm implements and vehicles of various kinds,--operations in which his customers were never longsuited. After every successful trade he generallypassed a longer or shorter term in jail; for when apoor man without goods or chattels has the inveteratehabit of swapping, it follows naturally that hemust have something to swap; and having nothingof his own, it follows still more naturally that hemust swap something belonging to his neighbors.
Mr. Simpson was absent from the home circlefor the moment because he had exchanged theWidow Rideout's sleigh for Joseph Goodwin'splough. Goodwin had lately moved to NorthEdgewood and had never before met the urbaneand persuasive Mr. Simpson. The Goodwin ploughMr. Simpson speedily bartered with a man "overWareham way," and got in exchange for it an oldhorse which his owner did not need, as he wasleaving town to visit his daughter for a year,Simpson fattened the aged animal, keeping him forseveral weeks (at early morning or after nightfall) inone neighbor's pasture after another, and thenexchanged him with a Milltown man for a top buggy.
It was at this juncture that the Widow Rideoutmissed her sleigh from the old carriage house.
She had not used it for fifteen years and mightnot sit in it for another fifteen, but it wasproperty, and she did not intend to part with itwithout a struggle. Such is the suspicious nature ofthe village mind that the moment she discoveredher loss her thought at once reverted to AbnerSimpson. So complicated, however, was the natureof this particular business transaction, and sotortuous the paths of its progress (partly owing to thecomplete disappearance of the owner of the horse,who had gone to the West and left no address),that it took the sheriff many weeks to prove Mr.
Simpson's guilt to the town's and to the WidowRideout's satisfaction. Abner himself avowed hiscomplete innocence, and told the neighbors howa red-haired man with a hare lip and a pepper-and-salt suit of clothes had called him up one morningabout daylight and offered to swap him a goodsleigh for an old cider press he had layin' out inthe dooryard. The bargain was struck, and he,Abner, had paid the hare-lipped stranger four dollarsand seventy-five cents to boot; whereupon themysterious one set down the sleigh, took the presson his cart, and vanished up the road, never to beseen or heard from afterwards.
"If I could once ketch that consarned old thief,"exclaimed Abner righteously, "I'd make himdance,--workin' off a stolen sleigh on me an'
takin' away my good money an' cider press, to saynothin' o' my character!""You'll never ketch him, Ab," responded thesheriff. "He's cut off the same piece o' goods asthat there cider press and that there character andthat there four-seventy-five o' yourn; nobody eversee any of 'em but you, and you'll never see 'emagain!"Mrs. Simpson, who was decidedly Abner's betterhalf, took in washing and went out to do days'
cleaning, and the town helped in the feeding andclothing of the children. George, a lanky boy offourteen, did chores on neighboring farms, andthe others, Samuel, Clara Belle, Susan, Elijah, andElisha, went to school, when sufficiently clothedand not otherwise more pleasantly engaged.
There were no secrets in the villages that layalong the banks of Pleasant River. There weremany hard-working people among the inhabitants,but life wore away so quietly and slowly that therewas a good deal of spare time for conversation,--under the trees at noon in the hayfield; hangingover the bridge at nightfall; seated about thestove in the village store of an evening. Thesemeeting-places furnished ample ground for thediscussion of current events as viewed by the mas-culine eye, while choir rehearsals, sewing societies,reading circles, church picnics, and the like, gaveopportunity for the expression of feminine opinion.
All this was taken very much for granted, as arule, but now and then some supersensitive personmade violent objections to it, as a theory of life.
Delia Weeks, for example, was a maiden ladywho did dressmaking in a small way; she fell ill,and although attended by all the physicians inthe neighborhood, was sinking slowly into adecline when her cousin Cyrus asked her to come andkeep house for him in Lewiston. She went, and ina year grew into a robust, hearty, cheerful woman.
Returning to Riverboro on a brief visit, she wasasked if she meant to end her days away fromhome.
"I do most certainly, if I can get any otherplace to stay," she responded candidly. "I wasbein' worn to a shadder here, tryin' to keep mylittle secrets to myself, an' never succeedin'. Firstthey had it I wanted to marry the minister, andwhen he took a wife in Standish I was known tobe disappointed. Then for five or six years theysuspicioned I was tryin' for a place to teach school,and when I gave up hope, an' took to dressmakin',they pitied me and sympathized with me for that.
When father died I was bound I'd never let anybodyknow how I was left, for that spites 'emworse than anything else; but there's ways o'
findin' out, an' they found out, hard as I fought'em! Then there was my brother James that wentto Arizona when he was sixteen. I gave good newsof him for thirty years runnin', but aunt AchsyTarbox had a ferretin' cousin that went out toTombstone for her health, and she wrote to apostmaster, or to some kind of a town authority, andfound Jim and wrote back aunt Achsy all abouthim and just how unfortunate he'd been. Theyknew when I had my teeth out and a new setmade; they knew when I put on a false front-piece; they knew when the fruit peddler askedme to be his third wife--I never told 'em, an' youcan be sure HE never did, but they don't NEED to betold in this village; they have nothin' to do butguess, an' they'll guess right every time. I wasall tuckered out tryin' to mislead 'em and deceive'em and sidetrack 'em; but the minute I got whereI wa'n't put under a microscope by day an' atelescope by night and had myself TO myself withoutsayin' `By your leave,' I begun to pick up. CousinCyrus is an old man an' consid'able trouble, but hethinks my teeth are handsome an' says I've gota splendid suit of hair. There ain't a person inLewiston that knows about the minister, or father'swill, or Jim's doin's, or the fruit peddler; an' ifthey should find out, they wouldn't care, an' theycouldn't remember; for Lewiston 's a busy place,thanks be!"Miss Delia Weeks may have exaggerated matterssomewhat, but it is easy to imagine that Rebeccaas well as all the other Riverboro childrenhad heard the particulars of the Widow Rideout'smissing sleigh and Abner Simpson's supposedconnection with it.
There is not an excess of delicacy or chivalry inthe ordinary country school, and several choiceconundrums and bits of verse dealing with the Simpsonaffair were bandied about among the scholars,uttered always, be it said to their credit, inundertones, and when the Simpson children were not inthe group.
Rebecca Randall was of precisely the same stock,and had had much the same associations as herschoolmates, so one can hardly say why she so hatedmean gossip and so instinctively held herself alooffrom it.
Among the Riverboro girls of her own age was acertain excellently named Minnie Smellie, who wasanything but a general favorite. She was a ferret-eyed, blond-haired, spindle-legged little creaturewhose mind was a cross between that of a parrotand a sheep. She was suspected of copying answersfrom other girls' slates, although she hadnever been caught in the act. Rebecca and EmmaJane always knew when she had brought a tart ora triangle of layer cake with her school luncheon,because on those days she forsook the cheerfulsociety of her mates and sought a safe solitude inthe woods, returning after a time with a jocundsmile on her smug face.
After one of these private luncheons Rebeccahad been tempted beyond her strength, and whenMinnie took her seat among them asked, "Is yourheadache better, Minnie? Let me wipe off thatstrawberry jam over your mouth."There was no jam there as a matter of fact,but the guilty Minnie's handkerchief went to hercrimson face in a flash.
Rebecca confessed to Emma Jane that sameafternoon that she felt ashamed of her prank. "Ido hate her ways," she exclaimed, "but I'm sorryI let her know we 'spected her; and so to makeup, I gave her that little piece of broken coral Ikeep in my bead purse; you know the one?""It don't hardly seem as if she deserved that,and her so greedy," remarked Emma Jane.
"I know it, but it makes me feel better," saidRebecca largely; "and then I've had it two years,and it's broken so it wouldn't ever be any realgood, beautiful as it is to look at."The coral had partly served its purpose as areconciling bond, when one afternoon Rebecca,who had stayed after school for her grammar lessonas usual, was returning home by way of theshort cut. Far ahead, beyond the bars, she espiedthe Simpson children just entering the woodsybit. Seesaw was not with them, so she hastenedher steps in order to secure company on her homewardwalk. They were speedily lost to view, butwhen she had almost overtaken them she heard,in the trees beyond, Minnie Smellie's voice liftedhigh in song, and the sound of a child's sobbing.
Clara Belle, Susan, and the twins were runningalong the path, and Minnie was dancing up anddown, shrieking:--"`What made the sleigh love Simpson so?'
The eager children cried;`Why Simpson loved the sleigh, you know,'
The teacher quick replied."The last glimpse of the routed Simpson tribe,and the last Rutter of their tattered garments,disappeared in the dim distance. The fall of one smallstone cast by the valiant Elijah, known as "the fightingtwin," did break the stillness of the woods fora moment, but it did not come within a hundredyards of Minnie, who shouted "Jail Birds" at thetop of her lungs and then turned, with an agreeablefeeling of excitement, to meet Rebecca, standingperfectly still in the path, with a day of reckoningplainly set forth in her blazing eyes.
Minnie's face was not pleasant to see, for a cowarddetected at the moment of wrongdoing is notan object of delight.
"Minnie Smellie, if ever--I--catch--you--singing--that--to the Simpsons again--do youknow what I'll do?" asked Rebecca in a tone ofconcentrated rage.
"I don't know and I don't care," said Minniejauntily, though her looks belied her.
"I'll take that piece of coral away from you, andI THINK I shall slap you besides!""You wouldn't darst," retorted Minnie. "Ifyou do, I'll tell my mother and the teacher, sothere!""I don't care if you tell your mother, my mother,and all your relations, and the president," saidRebecca, gaining courage as the noble words fell fromher lips. "I don't care if you tell the town, thewhole of York county, the state of Maine and--and the nation!" she finished grandiloquently.
"Now you run home and remember what I say.
If you do it again, and especially if you say `JailBirds,' if I think it's right and my duty, I shallpunish you somehow."The next morning at recess Rebecca observedMinnie telling the tale with variations to HuldahMeserve. "She THREATENED me," whispered Minnie,"but I never believe a word she says."The latter remark was spoken with the directintention of being overheard, for Minnie had spasmsof bravery, when well surrounded by the machineryof law and order.
As Rebecca went back to her seat she askedMiss Dearborn if she might pass a note to MinnieSmellie and received permission. This was the note:--Of all the girls that are so meanThere's none like Minnie Smellie.
I'll take away the gift I gaveAnd pound her into jelly.
_P. S. Now do you believe me?_R. Randall.
The effect of this piece of doggerel was entirelyconvincing, and for days afterwards whenever Minniemet the Simpsons even a mile from the brickhouse she shuddered and held her peace.