Ruth Fielding at Lighthouse Point/Chapter 6
UNCLE JABEZ AT HIS WORST
It was true that Mr. Potter had promised Ruth only one year at school. The miller considered he owed his grand-niece something for finding and restoring to him his cash-box which he had lost, and which contained considerable money and the stocks and bonds in which he had invested. Jabez Potter prided himself on being strictly honest. He was just according to his own notion. He owed Ruth something for what she had done—something more than her "board and keep"—and he had paid the debt. Or, so he considered.
There had been a time when Uncle Jabez seemed to be less miserly. His hard old heart had warmed toward his niece—or, so Ruth believed. And he had taken a deep interest—for him in Mercy Curtis, the lame girl. Ruth knew that Uncle Jabez and Dr. Davison together had made it possible for Mercy to attend Briarwood Hall. Of course, Uncle Jabez would cut off that charity as well, and the few tears Ruth cried that night after she went to bed were as much for Mercy's disappointment as for her own.
"But maybe Dr. Davison will assume the entire cost of keeping Mercy at school," thought the girl of the Red Mill. "Or, perhaps, Mr. Curtis may have paid the debts he contracted while Mercy was so ill, and will be able to help pay her expenses at Briarwood."
But about herself she could have no such hope. She knew that the cost of her schooling had been considerable. Nor had Uncle Jabez been niggardly with her about expenditures. He had given her a ten-dollar bill for spending money at the beginning of each half; and twice during the school year had sent her an extra five-dollar bill. Her board and tuition for the year had cost over three hundred dollars; it would cost more the coming year. If Uncle Jabez had actually lost money in this Tintacker Mine Ruth could be sure that he meant what he had left to Aunt Alvirah to tell her. He would not pay for another school year.
But Ruth was a persevering little body and she came of determined folk. She had continued at the district school when the circumstances were much against her. Now, having had a taste of Briarwood for one year, she was the more anxious to keep on for three years more. Besides, there was the vision of college beyond! She knew that if she remained at home, all she could look forward to was to take Aunt Alvirah's place as her uncle's housekeeper. She would have no chance to get ahead in life. Life at the Red Mill seemed a very narrow outlook indeed.
Ruth meant to get an education. Somehow (there were ten long weeks of Summer vacation before her) she must think up a scheme for earning the money necessary to pay for her second year's tuition. Three hundred and fifty dollars! that was a great, great sum for a girl of Ruth Fielding's years to attempt to earn. How should she "begin to go about it"? It looked an impossible task.
But Ruth possessed a fund of good sense. She was practical, if imaginative, and she was just sanguine enough to keep her temper sweet. Lying awake and worrying over it wasn't going to do her a bit of good; she knew that. Therefore she did not indulge herself long, but wiped away her tears, snuggled down into the pillow, and dropped asleep.
In the morning she saw Uncle Jabez when she came down stairs. The stove smoked and he was growling about it.
"Good morning, Uncle!" she cried and ran to him and threw her arms around his neck and kissed him—whether he would be kissed, or not!
"There! there! so you're home; are you?" he growled.
Ruth was glad to notice that he called it her home. She knew that he did not want a word to be said about what Aunt Alvirah had told her over night, and she set about smoothing matters over in her usual way.
"You go on and 'tend to your outside chores, Uncle," she commanded. "I'll build this fire in a jiffy."
"Huh! I reckon you've forgotten how to build a kitchen fire—livin' so long in a steam-heated room," he grunted.
"Now, don't you believe that!" she assured him, and running out to the shed for a handful of fat-pine, or "lightwood," soon had the stove roaring comfortably.
"What a comfort you be, my pretty creetur," sighed Aunt Alvirah, as she hobbled down stairs. "Oh, my back and oh, my bones! This is going to be a creaky day. I feel the dampness."
"Don't you believe it, Aunty!" cried the girl. "The sun's going to come out and drive away every atom of this mist. Cheer up!"
And she was that way all day; but deep down in her heart there was a very tender spot indeed, and in her mind the thought of giving up Briarwood rankled like a barbed arrow. She would not give it up if she could help. But how ever could she earn three hundred and fifty dollars? The idea seemed preposterous.
Aside from being with Aunt Alvirah, and helping her, Ruth's homecoming was not at all as she had hoped it would be. Uncle Jabez was more taciturn than ever, it seemed to the girl. She could not break through the crust of his manner. If she followed him to the mill, he was too busy to talk, or the grinding-stones made so much noise that talking was impossible. At night he did not even remain in the kitchen to count up the day's gains and to study his accounts. Instead, he retired with the cash-box and ledger to his own room.
She found no opportunity of opening any discussion about Briarwood, or about the mysterious Tintacker Mine, upon which subject Aunt Alvirah had been so voluble. If the old man had lost money in the scheme, he was determined to give her no information at first hand about it.
At first she was doubtful whether she should go to Lighthouse Point. Indeed, she was not sure that she could go. She had no money. But before the week was out at dinner one day Uncle Jabez pushed a twenty-dollar bill across the table to her, and said:
"I said ye should go down there to the seaside for a spell, Ruth. Make that money do ye," and before she could either thank him or refuse the money, Uncle Jabez stumped out of the house.
In the afternoon Helen drove over in the pony carriage to take Ruth to town, so the latter could assure her chum that she would go to Lighthouse Point and be one of Jennie Stone's bungalow party. They called on Dr. Davison and the girl from the Red Mill managed to get a word in private with the first friend she had made on her arrival at Cheslow (barring Tom Cameron's mastiff, Reno) and told him of conditions as she had found them at home.
"So, it looks as though I had got to make my own way through school, Doctor, and it troubles me a whole lot," Ruth said to the grave physician. "But what bothers me, too, is Mercy——"
"Don't worry about Goody Two-Sticks," returned the doctor, quickly. "Your uncle served notice on me a week before you came home that he could not help to put her through Briarwood beyond this term that is closed. I told him he needn't bother. Sam Curtis is in better shape than he was, and we'll manage to find the money to put that sharp little girl of his where she can get all the education she can possibly soak in. But you, Ruth——"
"I'm going to find a way, too," declared Ruth, independently, yet secretly feeling much less confidence than she appeared to have.
Mercy was all ready for the seaside party when the girls called at the Curtis cottage. The lame girl was in her summer house, sewing and singing softly to herself. She no longer glared at the children as they ran by, or shook her fist at them as she used to, because they could dance and she could not.
On Monday they would start for the shore, meeting Heavy and the others on the train, and spending a good part of the day riding to Lighthouse Point. Mr. Cameron had exercised his influence with certain railroad officials and obtained a private car for the young folk. The Cameron twins and Ruth and Mercy would get aboard the car at Cheslow, and Jennie Stone and her other guests would join them at Jennie's home town.
Between that day and the time of her departure Ruth tried to get closer to Uncle Jabez; but the miller went about with lowering brow and scarcely spoke to either Ruth or Aunt Alvirah.
"It's jest as well ye air goin' away again so quick, my pretty," said the old woman, sadly. "When Jabez gits one o' these moods on him there ain't nobody understands him so well as me. I don't mind if he don't speak. I talk right out loud what I have to say an' he can hear an' reply, or hear an' keep dumb, jest whichever he likes. They say 'hard words don't break no bones' an' sure enough bein' as dumb as an oyster ain't hurtin' none, either. You go 'long an' have your fun with your mates, Ruthie. Mebbe Jabez will be over his grouch when you come back."
But Ruth was afraid that the miller would change but little unless there was first an emphatic betterment in the affairs of the Tintacker Mine.