Seventeen (novel)/Chapter 11

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XI

BEGINNING A TRUE FRIENDSHIP

THIS was Miss Jane Baxter. She opened her eyes upon the new-born day, and her first thoughts were of Mr. Parcher. That is, he was already in her mind when she awoke, a circumstance to be accounted for on the ground that his conversation, during her quiet convalescence in his library, had so fascinated her that in all likelihood she had been dreaming of him. Then, too, Jane and Mr. Parcher had a bond in common, though Mr. Parcher did not know it. Not without result had William repeated Miss Pratt's inquiry in Jane's hearing: "Who IS that curious child?" Jane had preserved her sang-froid, but the words remained with her, for she was one of those who ponder and retain in silence.

She thought almost exclusively of Mr. Parcher until breakfast-time, and resumed her thinking of him at intervals during the morning. Then, in the afternoon, a series of quiet events not unconnected with William's passion caused her to think of Mr. Parcher more poignantly than ever; nor was her mind diverted to a different channel by another confidential conversation with her mother. Who can say, then, that it was not by design that she came face to face with Mr. Parcher on the public highway at about five o'clock that afternoon? Everything urges the belief that she deliberately set herself in his path.

Mr. Parcher was walking home from his office, and he walked slowly, gulping from time to time, as he thought of the inevitable evening before him. His was not a rugged constitution, and for the last fortnight or so he had feared that it was giving way altogether. Each evening he felt that he was growing weaker, and sometimes he thought piteously that he might go away for a while. He did not much care where, though what appealed to him most, curiously enough, was not the thought of the country, with the flowers and little birds; no, what allured him was the idea that perhaps he could find lodgment for a time in an Old People's Home, where the minimum age for inmates was about eighty.

Walking more and more slowly, as he approached the dwelling he had once thought of as home, he became aware of a little girl in a checkered dress approaching him at a gait varied by the indifferent behavior of a barrel-hoop which she was disciplining with a stick held in her right hand. When the hoop behaved well, she came ahead rapidly; when it affected to be intoxicated, which was most often its whim, she zigzagged with it, and gained little ground. But all the while, and without reference to what went on concerning the hoop, she slowly and continuously fed herself (with her left hand) small, solemnly relished bites of a slice of bread-and-butter covered with apple sauce and powdered sugar.

Mr. Parcher looked upon her, and he shivered slightly; for he knew her to be Willie Baxter's sister.

Unaware of the emotion she produced in him, Jane checked her hoop and halted.

"G'd afternoon, Mister Parcher," she said, gravely.

"Good afternoon," he returned, without much spirit.

Jane looked up at him trustfully and with a strange, unconscious fondness. "You goin' home now, Mr. Parcher?" she asked, turning to walk at his side. She had suspended the hoop over her left arm and transferred the bread-and-butter and apple sauce and sugar to her right, so that she could eat even more conveniently than before.

"I suppose so," he murmured.

"My brother Willie's been at your house all afternoon," she remarked.

He repeated, "I suppose so," but in a tone which combined the vocal tokens of misery and of hopeless animosity.

"He just went home," said Jane. "I was 'cross the street from your house, but I guess he didn't see me. He kept lookin' back at your house. Miss Pratt was on the porch."

"I suppose so." This time it was a moan.

Jane proceeded to give him some information. "My brother Willie isn't comin' back to your house to-night, but he doesn't know it yet."

"What!" exclaimed Mr. Parcher.

"Willie isn't goin' to spend any more evenings at your house at all," said Jane, thoughtfully. "He isn't, but he doesn't know it yet."

Mr. Parcher gazed fixedly at the wonderful child, and something like a ray of sunshine flickered over his seamed and harried face. "Are you sure he isn't?" he said. "What makes you think so?"

"I know he isn't," said demure Jane. "It's on account of somep'm I told mamma."

And upon this a gentle glow began to radiate throughout Mr. Parcher. A new feeling budded within his bosom; he was warmly attracted to Jane. She was evidently a child to be cherished, and particularly to be encouraged in the line of conduct she seemed to have adopted. He wished the Bullitt and Watson families each had a little girl like this. Still, if what she said of William proved true, much had been gained and life might be tolerable, after all.


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My brother Willie isn't coming back to your house to-night, but he doesn't know it yet."


"He'll come in the afternoons, I guess," said Jane. "But you aren't home then, Mr. Parcher, except late like you were that day of the Sunday-school class. It was on account of what you said that day. I told mamma."

"Told your mamma what?"

"What you said."

Mr. Parcher's perplexity continued. "What about?"

"About Willie. You know!" Jane smiled fraternally.

"No, I don't."

"It was when I was layin' in the liberry, that day of the Sunday-school class," Jane told him. "You an' Mrs. Parcher was talkin' in there about Miss Pratt an' Willie an' everything."

"Good heavens!" Mr. Parcher, summoning his memory, had placed the occasion and Jane together. "Did you hear all that?"

"Yes." Jane nodded. "I told mamma all what you said."

"Murder!"

"Well," said Jane, "I guess it's good I did, because look—that's the very reason mamma did somep'm so's he can't come any more except in daytime. I guess she thought Willie oughtn't to behave so's't you said so many things about him like that; so to-day she did somep'm, an' now he can't come any more to behave that loving way of Miss Pratt that you said you would be in the lunatic asylum if he didn't quit. But he hasn't found it out yet."

"Found what out, please?" asked Mr. Parcher, feeling more affection for Jane every moment.

"He hasn't found out he can't come back to your house to-night; an' he can't come back to-morrow night, nor day-after-to-morrow night, nor—"

"Is it because your mamma is going to tell him he can't?"

"No, Mr. Parcher. Mamma says he's too old—an' she said she didn't like to, anyway. She just did somep'm."

"What? What did she do?"

"It's a secret," said Jane. "I could tell you the first part of it—up to where the secret begins, I expect."

"Do!" Mr. Parcher urged.

"Well, it's about somep'm Willie's been wearin'," Jane began, moving closer to him as they slowly walked onward. "I can't tell you what they were, because that's the secret—but he had 'em on him every evening when he came to see Miss Pratt, but they belong to papa, an' papa doesn't know a word about it. Well, one evening papa wanted to put 'em on, because he had a right to, Mr. Parcher, an' Willie didn't have any right to at all, but mamma couldn't find 'em; an' she rummidged an' rummidged 'most all next day an' pretty near every day since then an' never did find 'em, until don't you believe I saw Willie inside of 'em only last night! He was startin' over to your house to see Miss Pratt in 'em! So I told mamma, an' she said it 'd haf to be a secret, so that's why I can't tell you what they were. Well, an' then this afternoon, early, I was with her, an' she said, long as I had told her the secret in the first place, I could come in Willie's room with her, an' we both were already in there anyway, 'cause I was kind of thinkin' maybe she'd go in there to look for 'em, Mr. Parcher—"

"I see," he said, admiringly. "I see."

"Well, they were under Willie's window-seat, all folded up; an' mamma said she wondered what she better do, an' she was worried because she didn't like to have Willie behave so's you an' Mrs. Parcher thought that way about him. So she said the—the secret—what Willie wears, you know, but they're really papa's an' aren't Willie's any more'n they're mine—well, she said the secret was gettin' a little teeny bit too tight for papa, but she guessed they—I mean the secret—she said she guessed it was already pretty loose for Willie; so she wrapped it up, an' I went with her, an' we took 'em to a tailor, an' she told him to make 'em bigger, for a surprise for papa, 'cause then they'll fit him again, Mr. Parcher. She said he must make 'em a whole lot bigger. She said he must let 'em way, way out! So I guess Willie would look too funny in 'em after they're fixed; an' anyway, Mr. Parcher, the secret won't be home from the tailor's for two weeks, an' maybe by that time Miss Pratt'll be gone."

They had reached Mr. Parcher's gate; he halted and looked down fondly upon this child who seemed to have read his soul. "Do you honestly think so?" he asked.

"Well, anyway, Mr. Parcher," said Jane, "mamma said—well, she said she's sure Willie wouldn't come here in the evening any more when you're at home, Mr. Parcher—'cause after he'd been wearin' the secret every night this way he wouldn't like to come and not have the secret on. Mamma said the reason he would feel like that was because he was seventeen years old. An' she isn't goin' to tell him anything about it, Mr. Parcher. She said that's the best way."

Her new friend nodded and seemed to agree. "I suppose that's what you meant when you said he wasn't coming back but didn't know it yet?"

"Yes, Mr. Parcher."

He rested an elbow upon the gate-post, gazing down with ever-increasing esteem. "Of course I know your last name," he said, "but I'm afraid I've forgotten your other one."

"It's Jane."

"Jane," said Mr. Parcher, "I should like to do something for you."

Jane looked down, and with eyes modestly lowered she swallowed the last fragment of the bread-and-butter and apple sauce and sugar which had been the constantly evanescent companion of their little walk together. She was not mercenary; she had sought no reward.

"Well, I guess I must run home," she said. And with one lift of her eyes to his and a shy laugh—laughter being a rare thing for Jane—she scampered quickly to the corner and was gone.

But though she cared for no reward, the extraordinary restlessness of William, that evening, after dinner, must at least have been of great interest to her. He ascended to his own room directly from the table, but about twenty minutes later came down to the library, where Jane was sitting (her privilege until half after seven) with her father and mother. William looked from one to the other of his parents and seemed about to speak, but did not do so. Instead, he departed for the upper floor again and presently could be heard moving about energetically in various parts of the house, a remote thump finally indicating that he was doing something with a trunk in the attic.

After that he came down to the library again and once more seemed about to speak, but did not. Then he went up-stairs again, and came down again, and he was still repeating this process when Jane's time-limit was reached and she repaired conscientiously to her little bed. Her mother came to hear her prayers and to turn out the light; and—when Mrs. Baxter had passed out into the hall, after that, Jane heard her speaking to William, who was now conducting what seemed to be excavations on a serious scale in his own room.

"Oh, Willie, perhaps I didn't tell you, but—you remember I'd been missing papa's evening clothes and looking everywhere for days and days?"

"Ye—es," huskily from William.

"Well, I found them! And where do you suppose I'd put them? I found them under your window-seat. Can you think of anything more absurd than putting them there and then forgetting it? I took them to the tailor's to have them let out. They were getting too tight for papa, but they'll be all right for him when the tailor sends them back."

What the stricken William gathered from this it is impossible to state with accuracy; probably he mixed some perplexity with his emotions. Certainly he was perplexed the following evening at dinner.

Jane did not appear at the table. "Poor child! she's sick in bed," Mrs. Baxter explained to her husband. "I was out, this afternoon, and she ate nearly all of a five-pound box of candy."

Both the sad-eyed William and his father were dumfounded. "Where on earth did she get a five-pound box of candy?" Mr. Baxter demanded.

"I'm afraid Jane has begun her first affair," said Mrs. Baxter. "A gentleman sent it to her."

"What gentleman?" gasped William.

And in his mother's eyes, as they slowly came to rest on his in reply, he was aware of an inscrutability strongly remindful of that inscrutable look of Jane's.

"Mr. Parcher," she said, gently.