The Red Book Magazine/Volume 44/Number 3/Miss Gee
WHEN “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” made her début in American fiction, all America read her story—and is still reading it. And here is the first story the author of that famous book has written in a month of Sundays. When you've read it, you'll understand why Mrs. Rice's place is fixed in our literature.
[illustration: “What do you want?” Miss Gee demanded. The man's mouth opened and shut, but no sound reached her]
MISS GEE'S five years' sojourn in Purdyville had been nothing less than cyclonic. She had deposed the mayor, changed the town's politics, split the Bull Fork Church, not to mention minor whirlwinds. From the day she arrived, a tall, raw-boned woman of thirty, to take possession of the small farm left her by her grandfather, she had been the center of some sort of agitation. After putting her newly acquired property in good condition, she purchased a high-stepping horse, and a shiny new buggy, across the back of which she had painted in bold letters: “Bon Ton Sewing Machines.”
Then, not being content to emulate Solomon's model woman who arose early and went about her business, she proceeded to go about everyone else's business as well. Her first victim was her pastor and next-door neighbor, Dr. Mawkins, whose pig-pen was in unpleasant proximity to her front yard. Heretofore the parson's pigs had been sacrosanct. But Miss Gee was no respecter of persons, ecclesiastical or otherwise. She argued the matter, at first in private, then in the courts. The decision went against her, and she had to console herself with an unsightly spite fence, both sides of which she utilized to advertise the sewing machines for which she was county agent.
Having once gotten on Dr. Mawkins' trail, she stayed there For a quarter of a century he had led his flock, and realizing the difficulty the rich had in entering the kingdom of heaven, he rather specialized on their salvation. As for the poor of his congregation, he believed in keeping them content with flannel petticoats in winter, generous baskets at Christmas, and at all seasons a kind and patronizing word. That word was generally “resignation.”
Miss Gee substituted the word “protest” for “resignation.” In going about the poorer parts of the town and county selling her machines, she lost no chance to incite the proletariat to defend its rights. She urged the people to ask for sewers, for street lights, for paved streets, for more schools. The result was that before long the town's money, which had hitherto flowed to foreign missionary fields, began to go into taxes to meet the long-neglected needs of Purdyville.
The fight between Miss Gee and Dr. Mawkins reached a climax over the Danvers Fund. Philemon Danvers, Purdyville's one rich citizen, had died and left twenty-five thousand dollars to be spent for a cause benefiting the morals and beautifying the aspect of my beloved city.” The committee of five, appointed by the will to handle the fund, were all members of the Bull Fork congregation, and three of them had decided with Dr. Mawkins, that stained-glass windows for the new church might legitimately meet the requirements of the will.
Miss Gee, being the fifth wheel to the cart, refused to turn in the popular direction. She advocated an expenditure of the money that would benefit the whole community. She wanted a creation place for the young people, a hall which would prove a counter-attraction to the pool-rooms. With such stubborn persistency did she hold to her point that already one of the opposing four had been won over to her side.
It was during a heated committee meeting when Dr. Mawkins was trying in his most conciliatory manner to coax her into casting her vote with the majority, that she let fly her famous insult. She called him “Old Molasses Jug!” It was a dreadful thing to say to a round, stout dignitary whose favorite motto was “Sweetness and light.” It was an appellation calculated to echo hollowly not only in his own mind, but in that of his listeners as well, whenever the accustomed flow of verbal sweetness began to pour across his lips.
From that time on Miss Gee found herself equally unpopular with the Stained Glass contingent and with the People's Hall advocates. According to Purdyville standards she was not a perfect lady. Instead of attending missionary meetings and sewing societies, and occupying herself in collecting money for the church, she was always bringing up new and disturbing questions that had nothing whatever to do with religion. She seemed to belong to every organization in existence that militated against personal liberty. She objected to a man's beating his own horse; she reported women who chose to keep their own children home from school; she was as keen after a bootlegger is a hound after a hare.
In the county she was no more popular than she was in town. To be sure, when anyone was ill, she was usually the first person to arrive after the doctor. But her visits were regarded as catastrophes. She always urged the most drastic measures—ice-baths for fevers, fresh air for colds, emetics, castor oil, operations. The fact that she often paid for the medicine out of her own pocket did not win her a welcome.
There came a time when Miss Gee's sole friend and companion was her young maid Minnie, and even that relationship came to a disastrous end. She had taken Minnie out of an orphanage, clothed and fed her and sent her to school, only to find that the one object of the girl's life was matrimony. In vain did Miss Gee tell her of the perfidy of men; Minnie hopefully continued her search for the Exception that was to prove the rule. When he was found, he received drastic treatment from Minnie's mistress.
“That bone-head grocery boy,” she said, “what's he hanging around here for?”
Minnie dropped her lids and said she did not know.
“Well, if you can't find out, I can,” said Miss Gee. “Has he ever said anything to you about getting married?”
“No ma'am. Not—not—yet.”
“He's had time enough. I bet he don't mean any good. I'm going to ask him his intentions.”
“Oh! Miss Gee! Please, ma'am! Id rather die than have you speak to him. He's bashful and—”
But Miss Gee ruthlessly dug up the tender budding romance in order to examine its roots, and it promptly died of exposure.
Soon after that Minnie left her, and from that time on, she lived quite alone, with no companionship except her dog and her chickens and her beloved horse. The affection that the average woman distributes among her friends and family she concentrated on Bonnie Prince. She combed and curried him herself, and taught him to lift his forefoot to be shaken when she held out her hand. She exhibited him at the County Fair, and invariably made trouble when he was not awarded a prize.
Through the long, hard winters, and hot summers, Miss Gee pursued her militant way, apparently independent of human companionship, and superbly indifferent to criticism. But when May came and the locust bloomed, Miss Gee drooped. At other times of the year she could keep the doors of memory closed, but when the poignant fragrance of the creamy locust-blossoms filled the air, she always took sulphur and molasses, and spent her days and nights in trying not to remember.
[illustration: “I guess I'll have to try to get him in at the hospital,” he said dubiously.]
It was at one of these disturbing seasons, five years after her arrival in Purdyville, that she stood on a stepladder in her side yard, painting her shutters. Her lean, muscular figure was clothed in overalls, and her heavy drab hair was drawn uncompromisingly back from her strong, rather handsome features.
Overhead the tender green of the interlaced boughs made a network against the radiant blue of the sky; dog-roses were doing their best to cover the unsightly spite fence; everywhere about her was the hum of bees, the chatter of mating birds, the thrilling, sentient excitement of the earth's rebirth.
“Gosh! How I hate spring!” said Miss Gee savagely, slapping the shutter with her paint-brush as if she were administering chastisement. It was only when she spied a bird's nest under the eaves that her energy abated, and she strove with infinite caution not to disturb its occupant. But the bright-eyed little song-sparrow had already taken fright, and fluttered away as if from an ogre.
Miss Gee sighed and continued her painting. Now and again her glance wandered off to the hills, in the hollows of which clustered the locusts, and once she forgot her work and stood with her arms folded on the top of the ladder and her chin on them, gazing out into space.
As she stood thus, a sound below recalled her to the present. Dr. Mawkins' small grandson, aged five, was peering at her through the fence. His round blue eyes and fluff of golden curls seemed part and parcel of the day. Her own eyes softened strangely.
“Hello, Ted,” she called down to him, striving to keep the gruffness out of her voice. “If you'll come round to the kitchen, I'll give you a cookie.”
Instantly the cherubic countenance below was twisted into a scowl, the soft round lips parted, and a small tongue was thrust out as far as Nature permitted.
[illustration: “I couldn't help overhearing,” he whispered. “I had no idea my presence here would be misunderstood. I'll go at once.”]
Miss Gee furiously resumed her painting. So determined was she not to let her thoughts wander again, that it was some time before she noticed a muddy Ford car that had stopped at her gate. Peering out from under the hood was a cadaverous face surmounted by a derby hat, and supported by a long, thin neck with a conspicuous Adam's apple.
“What do you want?” Miss Gee demanded from the top of her ladder.
The man's mouth opened and shut, and his arms gesticulated but no sound reached her. Exasperated, she laid down her paint brush and descended.
“Why in the dickens don't you open your face and speak out so I can hear you?” she demanded indignantly as she approached the car. “What did you make me get off that ladder for? To answer some fool question?”
The derby hat was lifted respectfully, but though the Adam apple worked convulsively, and the thin lips formed words, still no sound issued.
Miss Gee strode through the gate and out to the machine:
“Say, are you dumb?” she asked almost accusingly.
The man shook his head.
“Temporary hoarseness,” he whispered through chattering teeth “Sorry to trouble you, ma'am, but could you tell me how far it is to Purdyville?”
“A mile and a half. What's the matter with you? Sick?”
“Well, nothing to speak of,” he began apologetically, but he was contradicted by a violent attack of coughing that left him quite exhausted.
Miss Gee stood with one foot on the running-board, and scowled at him:
“Where you trying to get to? Who are you looking for?”
“A party by the name of Gee,” whispered the stranger. “She's agent for the Bon Ton sewing machines.”
“Well, that's me,” said Miss Gee. “What do you want?”
“My name is Lukins,” he explained weakly. “I am the field agent for this territory.”
“Why, you aint no such a thing,” said Miss Gee. “Jim Hauser been the agent for Kentucky and Tennessee for going on four years.”
“Yes ma'am,” said the small man patiently, “but he died in March, and they've taken me on.”
She scrutinized him from head to foot:
“Well, for mercy's sake—” she began then, seeing how he was shaking, she changed her tone:
“How long have you been breathing like that?”
“For some time, off and on, but it gets better. It was just my luck to get worse when I got a good job. Maybe you can direct me to a hotel, and I can come back this afternoon and talk business.”
“Talk nothing!” said Miss Gee. “You haven't got breath enough to raise a feather.”
“I'll be better soon,” he urged hopefully “A business man can't afford to be sick, you know.”
Miss Gee scowled at him: “You'll be selling sewing machines to the angels the next thing you know. You look to me like you got a chill.”
“Well, as a matter of fact,” he admitted guiltily, “I believe I have!”
Miss Gee wasted no more time in talk. She thrust a strong hand under his arm and ordered him to get out of the car. In vain did Mr. Lukins protest. His verbal effort only brought on another violent attack of coughing, and in the end he allowed himself to be led into the house and deposited on a sofa in the parlor.
There was no doubt whatever about its being a chill. Mr. Lukins almost shook himself to pieces. The more he tried to control it, the more he shook, and the more he shook the more apologetic he became.
“I wish you'd shut up!” said Miss Gee sharply, tucking a comfort about him. “If you talk this much without a voice, the Lord only knows what you do when you've got one!”
[illustration: In going about the town selling her machines she lost no chance to incite the proletariat to demand its rights.]
“But I am very, very grateful,” insisted Mr. Lukins, his lips trembling. “I aint used to having a lady look after me like this.”
“That's all right. I'll take your word for it. Just drink this and keep quiet. I'm going for the doctor. Don't you stir; do you hear?”
He nodded. Alternate currents of fire and ice were playing through him, and he had not the slightest inclination to stir.
When the doctor arrived, he pronounced the case pneumonia.
“I guess I'll have to try to get him in at the hospital,” he said dubiously. “But he's in a bad fix to move.”
“Then why don't you leave him where he's at?” demanded Miss Gee.
The doctor cleared his throat.
“Well, I thought perhaps as you were here alone, it might not look so well—”
“For the Lord's sake!” interrupted Miss Gee contemptuously. “I suppose there'd been no end of a scandal if the Good Samaritan had happened to be a woman. What do I care what anybody says? If you think that man's too sick to be moved, he aint going to be moved.”
“Well, I admit it would be a risk.”
“That settles it. If you and me can pull him through, wegive a tinker's damn what the loose-lippers say.”
For two weeks Mr. Lukins hesitated about dying, just as he hesitated about everything else. One day it would seem as if he had really determined to go, and the next he rallied and again laid feeble hold on life.
It was Miss Gee who did not hesitate. up her mind he was going to get well. Abandoning all other activities, she devoted herself to the task of nursing. Night and day she was by his bedside, bullying him into taking nourishment, forcing him to take his medicine, sharply rallying him to renewed effort when his courage ebbed.
As he reluctantly struggled back to life, he clung to Miss Gee as a drowning man clings to a spar. He was at best a nebulous person, speaking hesitatingly as if ever on the search for an elusive fact, and always seeming to be slightly beyond his mental depth. Miss Gee not only furnished him with facts, but she afforded him a foothold on life. Being low-keyed and negative, he found her major note thrilling in the extreme. Even her bullying did not offend him; he liked to be regulated and to have his mind made up for him. It lifted a frightful burden of responsibility from his sloping shoulders. He saw in her dominance only a heavenly inclination to be kind.
The first day he was allowed to sit up, he poured out his troubles to Miss Gee. During the four months he had been with the Bon Ton Sewing Machine Company he had failed to make his collections, and his accounts were in a hopeless tangle.
“I couldn't force payments, when the agents assured me they had no money!” he said helplessly. “Some of them had sickness in the family, and some of them had gotten a bit behind. I suppose I wa'n't quite firm enough at times.”
“Firm!” repeated Miss Gee. “Why, you were just putty to them. They need somebody hard-boiled, like me. I bet I'd make 'em come across!”
“I bet you would, too,” said Mr. Lukins admiringly.
“Well, I aint going to have you worrying about it,” she said. “I've had enough trouble keeping your fever down. Give me the list of all those Kentucky agents, and I'll go the rounds and clean up the whole bunch by the time you're able to be up and about.”
THUS it was that Miss Gee and Mr. Lukins changed places for the time being, she going forth in her buggy with Prince, sometimes for several days at a time, while Mr. Lukins remained on the place. He was still too weak to do more than prepare his food and creep about doing small jobs. All afternoon he lay happily in a hammock on the vine-clad porch and watched the birds. They soon accepted as a friend the hollow-eyed little man who could lie still by the hour, if need be, a bit of bread on his palm, waiting for their confidence to be established.
Then Ted Mawkins discovered him, and making sure that Miss Gee was away, became a daily visitor. Other children, arch enemies of Miss Gee's, soon drifted in. Mr. Lukins attracted the children very much as he attracted the birds. He lay quiet among them, holding out his little crumbs of affection or interest, and they fluttered about him and chattered of their own affairs quite as if he were not there.
When Miss Gee came home after a strenuous day, she always found the place tidy and trim, the inside and outside chores carefully attended to, and Mr. Lukins lying in the hammock, weak and practically voiceless, smiling up at her in utter contentment.
At such times she would sink into a comfortable chair, take off her hat and her shoes, and heave a sigh of satisfaction. It was like coming into a cool twilit wood, from a hot and dusty highroad. For the first time in her life she tasted the joy of recounting each day's experience to a thrilled and appreciative listener. Ordinary happenings became dramatic incidents in which she always played the leading rôle. The more caustic her reported words, and the more drastic her reported action, the more hearty was Mr. Lukins' approval.
“I think you're a wonder!” he wheezed. I don't believe there's another lady in the State—no, nor a man either—that can put things over like you can.”
Incense was something new to Miss Gee. It had a strange effect upon her. She, who had waxed strong and aggressive under abuse, grew almost gentle under the ardent admiration and gratitude of Mr. Lukins. Whatever darts of cynicism now shot from her bow, they were never aimed at her patient.
It was inevitable that word should soon go abroad that Miss Gee had a beau. The news filled Purdyville with unholy glee. Every morsel of gossip concerning the incongruous couple was eagerly pecked at. Only Dr. McLean had seen her suitor, but it was rumored that he was about the color and proportions of a match, and that he could not speak above a whisper. When the clerk at the Men's Furnishing Store reported that Miss Gee had purchased a pair of white flannel trousers, a seersucker coat and a Panama hat, the town bubbled over with mirth.
But as the weeks slipped into months and the situation remained unchanged, the public became critical. It was one thing for a woman to befriend a stranger, taken ill on her doorstep, and quite another for her to entertain him indefinitely after he was able to be up and about. Matters reached a climax on the opening day of the Hardin County Fair.
Miss Gee, as usual, had entered Bonnie Prince in the contest for “the best harness gelding driven to a buggy, the driver being accompanied by a lady.” When she dashed into the ring, head and reins held high, a thin, pale little man with large sunken eyes and sloping shoulders sat beside her. He was attired in a seersucker coat, white trousers and a jaunty Panama hat.
“The driver to be accompanied by a lady,” the phrase was repeated from group to group, and a chuckle went around the amphitheater.
HAT evening when Miss Gee and Mr. Lukins reached home, a proud blue ribbon fluttering at Bonnie Prince's bridle, they found a visitor waiting on the porch.
Miss Gee could scarcely credit her eyes when she recognized the round figure and complacent face of Dr. Mawkins.
“I have come on a little matter of business, Sister Gee,” he said suavely. “I am sure your friend will excuse us.”
Mr. Lukins promptly faded into oblivion, and the Doctor cleared his throat.
“I come,” he said, “on a somewhat painful mission. But it is not my nature to shirk my duty, however disagreeable.”
“What's the trouble?” demanded Miss Gee. “The fence again?”
He smiled deprecatingly. “That matter was closed long ago. I trust I am too good a Christian to harbor a grievance against a next-door neighbor. I forgave you for that fence a week after it was erected!”
“Yes, and you've been forgiving me in public for it ever since.”
“You are oversensitive, Sister Gee,” said the Doctor, “and that makes what I am about to say doubly difficult. I hope you know that whatever disagreement we may have had in the past, I entertain the highest regard for your character, and for—your—your—”
It seemed rather difficult for him to find further cause for regard, and he looked relieved when she interrupted him impatiently:
“For mercy's sake, what are you driving at? What's the sense in pussy-footing around like this? If you've come to argue with me about the Danvers Fund, you might as well go home. Now that I've about got another member over on my side, I'll never give in till we get a hall.”
The Doctor stopped her. “You don't understand,” he said. “As a matter of fact, this is a purely personal question that's involved.”
“Personal to you—or to me?”
“To you, Sister Gee.”
His jaws snapped together like a trap, and she eyed him stonily.
“For some time,” continued the Doctor, and his voice dropped significantly, “I regret to say there has been some talk in town concerning your—your—well, I may say your unconventionality in—in entertaining a gentleman in your home.”
The light broke upon Miss Gee, and she blazed into instant flame.
“So that's it, is it? A decent middle-aged woman can't take a sick stranger in and nurse him without getting a handful of pitch in her face! Who sent you here?”
“Gently, my friend,” urged the Doctor. “Your character has not been assailed. It is only that some of our congregation feel that if one of our flock is wandering, however innocently, into a false position, it is but right that a warning should be spoken. I, as your shepherd, was the one appointed to come to you with all kindness, to suggest that a different course might be advisable.”
“What do they want me to do? Throw Mr. Lukins out in the road?”
“It has been suggested,” said Dr. Mawkins, “that he might return to his home.”
“Home, nothing!” said Miss Gee. “He hasn't got any home, nor any people. Where he's got to go, as soon as he's fit to travel, is to Arizona for the rest of his life.”
“In the mean season,” said the Doctor suavely, “if he is a gentleman, I feel sure he would not wish to compromise a lady by remaining here.”
At this moment a sound behind them caused them both to look up. Mr. Lukins, very white and agitated, stood in the doorway, supporting himself on a cane.
“I couldn't help overhearing,” he whispered apologetically; “and as it concerns me, I think I am justified in intruding. I had no idea—my presence here would be—misunderstood. I'll—I'll go at once—I will take the train tonight.”
“You'll do nothing of the kind!” announced Miss Gee, taking him by the arm. “You'll sit right down here in this chair, and use your common sense. A man in your condition is a fine one to talk about starting across the continent by himself. What do you care what those old twaddlers say? If I told what I know about some of the Danvers Fund Committee, it would knock the whole church silly.”
“I can speak for one member of that committee,” said the Doctor, his fat face mottling with purple. “When I leave this community, all I shall take with me will be a blameless conscience, and the love of my fellow-man.”
“That wont break your back,” said Miss Gee.
Dr. Mawkins rose with an air of injured dignity, but Mr. Lukins put out a detaining hand.
“I am sure you meant well in coming, sir,” he said; “I've been most thoughtless in staying here. I had no idea—I—”
The sentence was not finished, for Mr. Lukins' features underwent a sudden spasm, and his Adam's apple began to work violently.
“You are still weak, I see,” said the Doctor kindly. “I am sorry Miss Gee and I couldn't have arranged this without you.”
“No—no!” he protested. “I am the one to act—and to act at once. I shall leave on the evening train.”
In vain did Miss Gee remonstrate, command and threaten. For once Mr. Lukins opposed his will to hers and remained firm in his decision. Even Dr. Mawkins forgot his own grievance in witnessing Mr. Lukins' anguish.
“I had no idea, after hearing you were at the Fair today, that you were still so feeble,” he said. “If I may advise, I think you would better go in to the hospital and remain for a week or two, until you grow stronger.”
“I shall start at once, for the West,” almost sobbed Mr. Lukins. “Not to save my life would I cause any criticism of the noblest lady I ever met up with.”
“Oh! You make me sick, both of you!” cried Miss Gee, by this time thoroughly out of patience. “Anybody would think I was a paper doll, to hear you talk! If Mr. Lukins stays in Purdyville, he stays right here, and if he sticks to this fool notion of going tonight to Arizona, why, I'm going with him!”
It would be difficult to say which of the two gentlemen was the more shocked. Dr. Mawkins was the first to speak:
“But can't you see,” he said, aghast, “that this would confirm every rumor? That it would be most damaging to your reputation?”
“Not if I married him,” said Miss Gee calmly.
MR. LUKINS' jaw dropped. The idea had never entered his head before. It was such a large one that it could scarcely find room for itself now.
“I suppose you are willing?” said Miss Gee, looking at him with a cynical twist to her lip. “Or are you going to act stubborn about that too?”
“Willing?” he repeated feebly. “Why, I never dreamed that there was the slightest chance of a lady of your intellect and power and—and health, condescending to marry a wreck like me.”
“Then it's settled,” said Miss Gee in a businesslike tone. “I'll get in the buggy and go to town right now for the license. You go over home, Dr. Mawkins, and get a couple of witnesses. I guess this will stop folks' mouths.”
Thus it happened that Miss Gee and Mr. Lukins were that evening unexpectedly joined in the bonds of holy wedlock. The next day Miss Gee rented her house furnished, sold her beloved Bonnie Prince, and by the end of the week they were on their way to Arizona.
OR a long time Purdyville knew Miss Gee no more. The town grew and prospered; the many seeds of reform she had planted bore a rich harvest, but no one thought of her in connection with them.
Almost two years after her departure Dr. McLean had received a post card from Mr. Lukins. It bore this message:
“Wish to advise you of the arrival of a little son. Mother and child doing well. Own health poorly.”
The joke of Miss Gee's having a baby never lost its zest. It always recalled other stories concerning her—her obstinate stand in regard to the Danvers Fund, her fights in the courthouse, her spite fence, her adoption of Mr. Lukins. For years, whenever conversation lagged at a social gathering, Miss Gee's name revived it. But after a time new victims were found and even she was forgotten.
For ten springs the locusts had bloomed in the hollows, and for ten winters the snow had lain in heavy drifts along the Bull Fork Road, before Miss Gee came back to Purdyville.
It was Christmas Eve when she stepped off the train, gaunt as a hound, and gray, with tragedy deep-seated in her eyes. But her shoulders and her jaw were still square, and she swung out of the station with her old independent, mannish stride.
At the door she encountered Dr. Mawkins, slightly shriveled now, like a partly deflated balloon. For a moment they eyed each other uncertainly; then they each took a step forward.
“Why, it's Miss Gee!” exclaimed the Doctor, and there was actually a note of cordiality in his voice.
“Yes,” she said in her old gruff way. “I see I am still that in Purdyville. You had a fit till I changed my name; now you refuse to change it yourself!”
“And Mr. Lukins?” inquired the Doctor.
“He's dead,” said Miss Gee stoically, “—died last month in Phoenix.”
“Dear me! Dear me! And your children?”
“All dead. Had two. None of 'em lived the year out. Is the hotel bus around here?”
Whatever words of platitudinous sympathy rose to Dr. Mawkins' lips, were discouraged by Miss Gee's voice and manner. She was evidently not a candidate for consolation.
The hotel bus not being in sight, and the night being a bad one, Dr. Mawkins offered to give her a lift, but she declined.
“No use in your going back up town over those slippery streets. I guess my place looks pretty rotten, don't it? Haven't had a tenant for a year.”
Dr. Mawkins had to acknowledge that it did.
“My spite fence still standing?” she asked with something of her old audacity.
“Still standing. At least, half of it is.”
“Well, it wont stand long. I've learned a thing or two since I left God's country. Good night—neighbor.”
Turning up her coat collar, and seizing her two heavy bags, she left him abruptly and started up Main Street. A devastating loneliness swept over her as she trudged into the town which had been her home for five years. No familiar face greeted her among those who trudged by, laden with packages, holly-trimmed and beribboned. Even the new frame cottages, throwing their Christmas cheer from glowing windows, were strangers to her.
It was not until she reached Courthouse Square that she recognized old landmarks Here at last was Purdyville, but a new and glorified Purdyville that stirred her civic pride and lifted a little the burden of her loneliness. Overhead were electric lights for which she had fought single-handed; on one corner a bank had replaced her old enemy “The Stumble Inn Pool Parlor;” on another corner was an imposing new building out of which poured a throng of children singing carols, and laughing and pushing each other in high spirits.
“What building is that?” she asked of a passer-by.
“That's Danvers' Hall,” said the man proudly; “there aint anything to beat it in the county!”
Miss Gee caught her breath. That was her work, the tangible evidence of her victory in the Danvers Fund fight. She stood with eager, hungry eyes watching the youngsters—a strange, awkward presence, unknown and unnoticed.
SUDDENLY a commotion rose back of her. Turning, she saw a crowd gathering about a horse that had fallen in the street. He had been hitched to a post, and had fallen between the shafts of a dilapidated old buggy.
Miss Gee dropped her bags and strode into the crowd.
“Loosen that harness!” she commanded. “Can't you see it's about choking him? Pull those shafts up, can't you?”
Not getting it done to her satisfaction, she lent a hand, and soon had the beast standing on his trembling legs.
“Whose horse is this, anyway?” she demanded angrily. “He's got no business being in harness. He's got the phthisic, and look at his ribs!”
“What he needs is a Christmas dinner,” volunteered a bystander. “Old man Fleming feeds him about once a week. It aint no wonder he fell in his tracks; he's been standing here since morning.”
Miss Gee laid her hand on the horse's heaving neck, and stroked him reassuringly. He stretched his head toward her, and began to sniff; then, stirred by some old memory, he painfully lifted a feeble forefoot to be shaken.
“Why!” exclaimed Miss Gee. “I know this horse! He used to belong to me. Let me see his teeth? Yes, it's him! And the buggy—see if there is anything painted on the back of it!”
Investigation showed, through a coat of ancient paint, the dim inscription: “Bon Ton Sewing Machines.”
“Where's the owner?” Miss Gee cried excitedly. “Find him right away. Tell him a party wants to buy his horse and buggy.”
Old man Fleming was found with some difficulty, but once found, the transaction was quickly effected. He removed a sack of potatoes and a bottle of moonshine from under the seat of the buggy, pocketed a roll of bills and departed, a well-satisfied man.
“What you going to do with him now you got him?” asked a jeering voice of Miss Gee.
“I'm going to take him home, where you ought to be,” she answered curtly.
She flung her bags into the dirty vehicle, climbed in after them, and took up the muddy reins.
“It wont be me that'll pay for the next horse that's mistreated in this town!” was her parting shot as she drove through the laughing crowd.
Only once did she stop on her way through town, and that was to buy a lantern, and to lay in provender for herself and the horse. By the time she started for the farm, darkness had closed in, and it was a question whether Bonnie Prince would survive the short journey. Valiantly he strained and plunged through the mud and snow. Again and again he stumbled, and at every mudhole Miss Gee climbed out of the buggy to pull and tug at his head. Once he fell, and not having the customary stimulus of a lash, seemed inclined to lie there and die in peace. But Miss Gee would not consider it. By coaxing and bullying she got him up again and on his way.
Never was a more forlorn home-coming for woman or beast. The darkness hung like an impenetrable curtain all about them, and it was with a sense of uncertainty that Miss Gee pulled up at her own gate. Taking the lantern, she felt her way around to the back of the house and let herself into her once tidy kitchen. Dirt and disorder, cobwebs and blighting cold! After a search she found a coal-oil stove and a box of matches, and with these she waded through the snowdrifts out to the stable.
Pouring some of the oil from the lantern into the stove, she lit the wick, and set about filling a pail with snow and putting it on to boil. By this time she was acutely aware of her wet skirts and her benumbed hands and feet, but there was no time to warm herself. Even after she had brought Bonnie Prince into the dimly lit stable, there were many trips to the buggy, and much manipulating of pail and bucket over the stove. With an experienced hand she flung three quarts of bran and a pint of oats into the bucket; then she shelled in an ear of corn, added a handful of salt, and poured the hot water over the mixture.
But Bonnie Prince, whose forefeet were already planted on the Happy Hunting Ground, was sinking fast. Hastily pouring some of the water off the mixture, Miss Gee tried to force him to drink, but the beverage was as yet not sufficiently exciting to rouse him.
It was not until his legs began to stiffen and his eyes to glaze that Miss Gee gave up. With a groan she dropped her head in her hands and began to cry. A new and terrible sensation swept over her. Death was there in the stable, and she was afraid. Hadn't she fought it with savage resistance in the case of each baby? Hadn't she stood between it and the futile, adoring Mr. Lukins for ten years, fighting, hoping and failing in the end?
Tonight, for the first time in her life, she acknowledged that she was beaten. Her lifelong boast that she could stand alone, that she asked nothing of anybody, she knew now to be a lie. Life had disciplined her sternly, but now for the first time it brought her to her knees.
“O God,” she prayed passionately, “let my horse live! I never was first with anything or anybody but him and Mr. Lukins. I aint like other folks. I'm hard and mean, and I don't know how to make people like me. The more I do for them, the more they hate me. But animals are different. They can't hear my mean tongue, but they sense my kind feeling. I got to have something to love and look after. I can't go on alone—”
Either in answer to prayer, or in response to the odor of the steaming mash which was momentarily becoming more potent, Bonnie Prince opened his eyes and feebly craned his neck in the direction of the bucket.
Instantly Miss Gee was on her feet. Forcing a horseshoe between his jaws to hold them open, she began pouring the hot liquid between his teeth from the big spoon. It was a tedious business, for between every effort to swallow, Bonnie Prince tried to die. But Providence and Miss Gee were too much for him.
AT twelve o'clock that night Dr. Mawkins, putting the last touches on a Christmas tree for his grandchildren, spied a light in Miss Gee's stable.
“Mother,” he said to his wife, “I've got to go over and see about that. It's probably a tramp. He may burn the place up.”
“Well, what if he does?” said Mrs. Mawkins. “Little cause we've got to be keeping an eye on Miss Gee's property.”
“I know all that,” said the Doctor; “but she's had trouble enough. I couldn't help being sorry for her this evening, getting back after all these years, with no one to meet her, and nowhere to go.”
So, despite protest, the old Doctor plowed his way through the snow against the biting wind and flung open the door of the stable.
There, in the narrow circle of light from an oil stove, lay a horse, with a woman's long coat thrown over him, and huddled beside him, her shoes covered with mud, her skirts bedraggled, wisps of gray hair bristling from her head, and her sharp features accentuated by cold, hunger and fatigue, sat Miss Gee.
“Why! Why, what on earth—” began the Doctor, but she cut him short:
“Found my old horse about to die in his tracks up there in Main Street. Brought him home and took care of him. Just wait until I get the law on that damned old Fleming.”
“But Miss Gee!” protested the Doctor. “You must come over to our house and let Mrs. Mawkins give you dry clothes and some food and a warm bed. To think of your doing this for a horse! Spending a night like this in this terrible place!”
“It aint so bad, now I've pulled him through,” said Miss Gee, struggling stiffly to her feet; “besides,” she added with her scoffing one-sided smile, “you oughtn't to be so shocked. I aint the first woman that ever spent Christmas Eve in a stable!”