Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil/Chapter 19

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CHAPTER XIX


LOOKING BACKWARD


Doctor Morrison declared that it was due to Betty's skill in nursing more than to his drugs, but it is certain that, once started, the aunts gained steadily. In two or three days from the time they first sat up he pronounced it safe for them to be dressed, and while they were still a bit shaky, they took great delight in walking about the house.

Bob was introduced to them off-handedly one morning by the doctor, and though both old ladies started at his name, they said nothing. After the physician's car had gone. Miss Hope came out on to the back porch where Betty was peeling potatoes and Bob mending a loose floor-board.

"My sister and I—" stammered Miss Hope, "we were wondering if you were a neighbor's boy. We've seen so little of our neighbors these last few years, that we haven't kept track of the new families who have moved into the neighborhood. I don't recollect any Hendersons about here, do you, Sister?"

Miss Charity, who had followed her, shook her head.

Bob looked at Betty, and Betty looked helplessly at Bob. Now that the time had come they were afraid of the effect the news might have on the sisters. Bob, as he said afterward, "didn't know how to begin," and Betty wished fervently that her uncle could be there to help them out.

"A long time ago," said Miss Hope dreamily, "we knew a man named Henderson, David Henderson. He married our younger sister."

Caution deserted Bob, and, without intending to, he made his announcement.

"David Henderson was my father," he stated.

Miss Hope turned so white that Betty thought she would faint, and Miss Charity's mouth opened in speechless amazement.

"Then you are Faith's son," said Miss Hope slowly, clinging to the door for support. "Ever since Doctor Morrison introduced you, I wanted to stare at you, you looked so like the Saunders. Faith didn't—she was more like the Dixons, our mother's people. But you are Saunders through and through; isn't he. Charity?"

"He looks so much like you," quavered Miss Charity, "that I'd know in a minute he was related to us. But Faith—your mother—is she, did she—?"

"She died the night I was born,"" said Bob simply. "Almost fifteen years ago."

The sisters must have expected this; indeed, hope that their sister lived had probably deserted them years ago; and yet the confirmation was naturally something of a shock. They clung to each other for a moment, and then Miss Hope, rather to Bob's embarrassment, walked over to him and solemnly kissed him.

"My dear, dear nephew!" she murmured.

Then Miss Charity, more timidly, kissed him too, and presently they were all sitting down quietly on the porch, checking up the long years.

When Bob's tin box was finally opened, and the marriage certificate of his parents, the picture of his mother in her wedding gown, and a yellowed letter or two examined and cried over softly by the aunts. Miss Hope began to piece together the story of their lives since Bob's mother had left them. Bob and Betty had found Faith's photograph in the famuly album, but Miss Hope brought out the old Bible and showed them where her mother had made the entry of the marriage of his mother and father.

"They went away for a week for their wedding trip, and then came back to get a few things for housekeeping," said the old lady, patting Betty's hand where it lay in her lap. Bob was still looking over the Bible. "Then they said they were going to Chicago, and they drove away one bright morning, eighteen years ago. And not one word did we ever hear from Faith, or from David, not one word. It killed father and mother, the anxiety and the suspense. They died within a week of each other and less than a year after Faith went. Charity and I always wanted to go to Chicago and hunt for 'em, but there was the expense. We had only this farm, and the interest took every cent we could rake together. How on earth we'll pay it this year is more than I can see."

"What do you think was the reason they didn't write?" urged Miss Charity, in her gentle old voice. "There were almost three years 'fore you came along. Why couldn't they write? I know David was good to Faith—he worshiped her. So that couldn't have been the reason. Bob, is your father dead, too?"

"I'll tell you, though perhaps I shouldn't," said Bob slowly. "If I give you pain, remember it is better to hear It from me than from a stranger, as you otherwise might. Aunt Hope—and Aunt Charity—I was born in the Gladden county poorhouse, in the East."

There was a gasp from Miss Hope, but Bob hurried on, pretending not to hear.

"My father, they think, was killed in a railroad wreck," he said. "At least there was a bad wreck several miles from where they found my mother nearly crazed and with no baggage beyond this little tin box and the clothes she wore. Grief and exposure had driven her almost out of her mind, and in her ravings, they tell me, she talked continuously about 'the brakes' and 'that glaring headlight.' And then, toward the end, she spoke of her husband and said she couldn't wake him up to speak to her. There is small doubt in my mind but that he died in the wreck. Mother died the night I was born, and until I was ten I lived in the poorhouse. Then I was hired out to a farmer, and the third year on his place I met Betty, who came to spend the summer there. An old bookman, investigating a pile of old books and records at the poorhouse, found that Saunders was my mother's maiden name and he traced my relatives for me."

Bob briefly sketched his trip to Washington and his experiences there, and during the recital the aunts learned a great deal about Betty, too. Their first shock at hearing that their sister had died in the poorhouse gradually lessened, but they were still puzzled to account for the three years' silence that had preceded his birth.

"I'll tell you how I think it was," said Bob. "This is only conjecture, mind. I think my father wasn't successful in a business way, and he must have wanted to give my mother comforts and luxuries and a pleasant home. He probably kept thinking that in a few weeks things would be better, and insensibly he persuaded her to put off writing till she could ask you to come to see her. If she had lived after I was born, I am sure she would have written, whether my father prospered or not. But I imagine they were both proud."

"Faith was," assented Miss Hope. "Though dear knows, she needn't have hesitated to have written home for a little help. Father would have been glad to send her money, for he admired David and liked him. He was a fine looking young man, Bob, tall and slender and with such magnificent dark eyes. And Faith was a beautiful girl."

All the rest of that day the aunts kept recalling stories of Bob's mother, and in the attic, just as Betty had known there would be, they opened a trunk that was full of little keepsakes she had treasured as a girl.

Bob handled the things in the little square trunk very tenderly and reverently and tried to picture the young girl who had packed them away so carefully the week before her wedding.

"They're yours. Bob," said Miss Hope. "Faith was going to send for that trunk as soon as she was settled. Of course she never did. The farm will be yours, too, some day; in fact, a third of it's yours now, or will be when you come of age. Father left it that way in his will—to us three daughters share and share alike, and you'll have Faith's share. Poor Father! He was sure that we'd hear from Faith, and he thought he'd left us all quite well off. But we had to put a mortgage on the farm about ten years ago, and every year it's harder and harder to get along. Charity and I are too old—that's the truth. And some stock Father left us we traded off for some paying eight per cent, and that company failed."

"You see," explained Miss Charity in her gentle way, "we don't know anything about business. That man wasn't honest who sold us the stock, but Hope and I thought he couldn't cheat us—he was a friend of Father's."

"Well, don't let any one swindle you again," said Bob, a trifle excitedly. "You don't have to worry about interest and taxes, any more, Aunts. You have a fortune right here in your own dooryard; or if not exactly out by the pump, then very near it!"

The sisters looked bewildered.

"Yes, yes," insisted Betty, as they gazed at her to see if Bob were in earnest. "The farm is worth thousands of dollars."

"Oil!" exploded Bob. "You can lease or sell outright, and there isn't the slightest doubt that there's oil sand on the place. Betty's uncle will know. Uncle Dick is an expert oil man."

Miss Hope shook her head.

"My dear nephew," she urged protestingly, "surely you must be mistaken. Sister and I have seen no evidences of oil. No one has ever mentioned the subject or the possibilities to us. There are no oil wells very near here. Don't you speak unadvisedly?"

"I should say not!" Bob was positive if not as precise as his aunt. "There's oil here, or all the wells in the fields are dry. The farm is a gold mine."

Betty rose hurriedly and pointed toward the window in alarm. They had been sitting in the parlor, and she faced the bar of late afternoon sunlight that lay on the floor.

"I saw the shadow of some one," she whispered In alarm. "It crossed that patch of sunlight. Bob, I am afraid!"