FictionForest

Chapter 23 – Somebody Comes

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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Bab and Betty had been playing in the avenue all the afternoon several
weeks later, but as the shadows began to lengthen both agreed to sit
upon the gate and rest while waiting for Ben, who had gone nutting with
a party of boys. When they played house Bab was always the father, and
went hunting or fishing with great energy and success, bringing home all
sorts of game, from elephants and crocodiles to humming-birds and
minnows. Betty was the mother, and a most notable little housewife,
always mixing up imaginary delicacies with sand and dirt in old pans and
broken china, which she baked in an oven of her own construction.

Both had worked hard that day, and were glad to retire to their favorite
lounging-place, where Bab was happy trying to walk across the wide top
bar without falling off, and Betty enjoyed slow, luxurious swings while
her sister was recovering from her tumbles. On this occasion, having
indulged their respective tastes, they paused for a brief interval of
conversation, sitting side by side on the gate like a pair of plump gray
chickens gone to roost.

"Don’t you hope Ben will get his bag full? We shall have such fun
eating nuts evenings observed Bab, wrapping her arms in her apron, for
it was October now, and the air was growing keen.

"Yes, and Ma says we may boil some in our little kettles. Ben promised
we should have half," answered Betty, still intent on her cookery.

"I shall save some of mine for Thorny."

"I shall keep lots of mine for Miss Celia."

"Doesn’t it seem more than two weeks since she went away?"

"I wonder what she’ll bring us."

Before Bab could conjecture, the sound of a step and a familiar whistle
made both look expectantly toward the turn in the road, all ready to cry
out in one voice, "How many have you got?" Neither spoke a word,
however, for the figure which presently appeared was not Ben, but a
stranger, – a man who stopped whistling, and came slowly on dusting his
shoes in the way-side grass, and brushing the sleeves of his shabby
velveteen coat as if anxious to freshen himself up a bit.

"It’s a tramp, let’s run away," whispered Betty, after a hasty look.

"I ain’t afraid," and Bab was about to assume her boldest look when a
sneeze spoilt it, and made her clutch the gate to hold on.

At that unexpected sound the man looked up, showing a thin, dark face,
with a pair of sharp, black eyes, which surveyed the little girls so
steadily that Betty quaked, and Bab began to wish she had at least
jumped down inside the gate.

"How are you?" said the man with a goodnatured nod and smile, as if to
re-assure the round-eyed children staring at him.

"Pretty well, thank you, sir," responded Bab, politely nodding back at
him.

"Folks at home?" asked the man, looking over their heads toward the
house.

"Only Ma; all the rest have gone to be married."

"That sounds lively. At the other place all the folks had gone to a
funeral," and the man laughed as he glanced at the big house on the
hill.

"Whh, do you know the Squire?" exclaimed Bab, much surprised and
re-assured.

"Come on purpose to see him. Just strolling round till he gets back,"
with an impatient sort of sigh.

"Betty thought you was a tramp, but I wasn’t afraid. I like tramps ever
since Ben came," explained Bab, with her usual candor.

"Who ‘s Ben!" and the man came nearer so quickly that Betty nearly fell
backward. "Don’t you be scared, Sissy. I like little girls, so you set
easy and tell me about Ben," he added, in a persuasive tone, as he
leaned on the gate so near that both could see what a friendly face he
had in spite of its eager, anxious look.

"Ben is Miss Celia’s boy. We found him most starved in the coach-house,
and he’s been here ever since," answered Bab, comprehensively.

"Tell me about it. I like tramps, too," and the man looked as if he did
very much, as Bab told the little story in a few childish words that
were better than a much more elegant account.

"You were very good to the little feller," was all the man said when she
ended her somewhat confused tale, in which she had jumbled the old coach
and Miss Celia, dinner-pails and nutting, Sancho and circuses.

"’Course we were! He’s a nice boy and we are fond of him, and he likes
us," said Bab, heartily.

" ‘Specially me," put in Betty, quite at ease now, for the black eyes
had softened wonderfully, and the brown face was smiling all over.

"Don’t wonder a mite. You are the nicest pair of little girls I’ve seen
this long time," and the man put a hand on either side of them, as if he
wanted to hug the chubby children. But he didn’t do it; he merely smiled
and stood there asking questions till the two chatterboxes had told him
every thing there was to tell in the most confiding manner, for he very
soon ceased to seem like a stranger, and looked so familiar that Bab,
growing inquisitive in her turn, suddenly said, –

"Haven’t you ever been here before? It seems as if I’d seen you."

"Never in my life. Guess you’ve seen somebody that looks like me," and
the black eyes twinkled for a minute as they looked into the puzzled
little faces before him, then he said, soberly, –

"I’m looking round for a likely boy; don’t you think this Ben would
suite me? I want just such a lively sort of chap."

"Are you a circus man?" asked Bab, quickly.

"Well, no, not now. I’m in better business."

"I’m glad of it – we don’t approve of ’em; but I do think they’re
splendid!"

Bab began by gravely quoting Miss Celia, and ended with an irrepressible
burst of admiration which contrasted drolly with her first remark.

Betty added, anxiously: "We can’t let Ben go any way. I know he
wouldn’t want to, and Miss Celia would feel bad. Please don’t ask him."

"He can do as he likes, I suppose. He hasn’t got any folks of his own,
has he?"

"No, his father died in California, and Ben felt so bad he cried, and we
were real sorry, and gave him a piece of Ma, ’cause he was so lonesome,"
answered Betty, in her tender little voice, with a pleading look which
made the man stroke her smooth check and say, quite softly, –

"Bless your heart for that! I won’t take him away, child, or do a thing
to trouble anybody that’s been good to him."

"He ‘s coming now. I hear Sanch barking at the squirrels!" cried Bab,
standing up to get a good look down the road.

The man turned quickly, and Betty saw that he breathed fast as he
watched the spot where the low sunshine lay warmly on the red maple at
the corner. Into this glow came unconscious Ben, whistling "Rory
O’Moore," loud and Clear, as he trudged along with a heavy bag of nuts
over his shoulder and the light full on his contented face. Sancho
trotted before and saw the stranger first, for the sun in Ben’s eyes
dazzled him. Since his sad loss Sancho cherished a strong dislike to
tramps, and now he paused to growl and show his teeth, evidently
intending to warn this one off the premises.

"He won’t hurt you – " began Bab, encouragingly; but before she could
add a chiding word to the dog, Sanch gave an excited howl, and flew at
the man’s throat as if about to throttle him.

Betty screamed, and Bab was about to go to the rescue when both
perceived that the dog was licking the stranger’s face in an ecstasy of
joy, and heard the man say as he hugged the curly beast, –

"Good old Sanch!" I knew he wouldn’t forget master, and he doesn’t"

"What’s the matter?" called Ben, coming up briskly, with a strong grip
of his stout stick. There was no need of any answer, for, as he came
into the shadow, he saw the man, and stood looking at him as if he were
a ghost.

"It’s father, Benny; don’t you know me?" asked the man, with an odd sort
of choke in his voice, as he thrust the dog away, and held out both
hands to the boy. Down dropped the nuts, and crying, "Oh, Daddy, Daddy!"
Ben cast himself into the arms of the shabby velveteen coat, while poor
Sanch tore round them in distracted circles, barking wildly, as if that
was the only way in which he could vent his rapture.

What happened next Bab and Betty never stopped to see, but, dropping
from their roost, they went flying home like startled Chicken Littles
with the astounding news that "Ben’s father has come alive, and Sancho
knew him right away!"

Mrs. Moss had just got her cleaning done up, and was resting a minute
before setting the table, but she flew out of her old rocking-chair when
the excited children told the wonderful tale, exclaiming as they ended,

"Where is he? Go bring him here. I declare it fairly takes my breath
away!"

Before Bab could obey, or her mother compose herself, Sancho bounced in
and spun round like an insane top, trying to stand on his head, walk
upright, waltz and bark all at once, for the good old fellow had so lost
his head that he forgot the loss of his tail.

"They are coming! they are coming! See, Ma, what a nice man he is," said
Bab, hopping about on one foot as she watched the slowly approaching
pair.

"My patience, don’t they look alike! I should know he was Ben’s Pa
anywhere!" said Mrs. Moss, running to the door in a hurry.

They certainly did resemble one another, and it was almost comical to
see the same curve in the legs, the same wide-awake style of wearing the
hat, the same sparkle of the eye, good-natured smile and agile motion of
every limb. Old Ben carried the bag in one hand while young Ben held the
other fast, looking a little shame-faced at his own emotion now, for
there were marks of tears on his cheeks, but too glad to repress the
delight he felt that he had really found Daddy this side heaven.

Mrs. Moss unconsciously made a pretty little picture of herself as she
stood at the door with her honest face shining and both hands ont,
saying in a hearty tone, which was a welcome in itself,

"I’m real glad to see you safe and well, Mr. Brown! Come right in and
make yourself to home. I guess there isn’t a happier boy living than Ben
is to-night."

"And I know there isn’t a gratefuler man living than I am for your
kindness to my poor forsaken little feller," answered Mr. Brown,
dropping both his burdens to give the comely woman’s hands a hard shake.

"Now don’t say a word about it, but sit down and rest, and we’ll have
tea in less’n no time. Ben must be tired and hungry, though he’s so
happy I don’t believe he knows it," laughed Mrs. Moss, bustling away to
hide the tears in her eyes, anxious to make things sociable and easy all
round.

With this end in view she set forth her best china, and covered the
table with food enough for a dozen, thanking her stars that it was
baking day, and every thing had turned out well. Ben and his father sat
talking by the window till they were bidden to "draw up and help
themselves" with such hospitable warmth that every thing had an extra
relish to the hungry pair.

Ben paused occasionally to stroke the rusty coat-sleeve with
bread-and-buttery fingers to convince himself that "Daddy" had really
come, and his father disposed of various inconvenient emotions by eating
as if food was unknown in California. Mrs. Moss beamed on every one from
behind the big tea-pot like a mild full moon, while Bab and Betty kept
interrupting one another in their eagerness to tell something new about
Ben and how Sanch lost his tail.

"Now you let Mr. Brown talk a little; we all want to hear how he ‘came
alive,’ as you call it," said Mrs. Moss, as they drew round the fire in
the "settin’-room," leaving the tea-things to take care of themselves.

It was not a long story, but a very interesting one to this circle of
listeners; all about the wild life on the plains trading for mustangs,
the terrible kick from a vicious horse that nearly killed Ben, sen., the
long months of unconsciousness in the California hospital, the slow
recovery, the journey back, Mr. Smithers’s tale of the boy’s
disappearance, and then the anxious trip to find out from Squire Allen
where he now was.

"I asked the hospital folks to write and tell you as soon as I knew
whether I was on my head or my heels, and they promised; but they
didn’t; so I came off the minute I could, and worked my way back,
expecting to find you at the old place. I was afraid you’d have worn out
your welcome here and gone off again, for you are as fond of travelling
as your father."

"I wanted to sometimes, but the folks here were so dreadful good to me I
couldn’t," confessed Ben, secretly surprised to find that the prospect
of going off with Daddy even cost him a pang of regret, for the boy had
taken root in the friendly soil, and was no longer a wandering
thistle-down, tossed about by every wind that blew.

"I know what I owe ’em, and you and I will work out that debt before we
die, or our name isn’t B.B.," said Mr. Brown, with an emphatic slap on
his knee, which Ben imitated half unconsciously as he exclaimed
heartily, –

"That’s so!" adding, more quietly, "What are you going to do now? Go
back to Smithers and the old business?"

"Not likely, after the way he treated you, Sonny. I’ve had it Out with
him, and he won’t want to see me again in a hurry," answered Mr. Brown,
with a sudden kindling of the eye that reminded Bab of Ben’s face when
he shook her after losing Sancho.

"There’s more circuses than his in the world; but I’ll have to limber
out ever so much before I’m good for much in that line," said the boy,
stretching his stout arms and legs with a curious mixture of
satisfaction and regret.

"You’ve been living in clover and got fat, you rascal," and his father
gave him a poke here and there, as Mr. Squeers did the plump Wackford,
when displaying him as a specimen of the fine diet at Do-the-boys Hall.
"Don’t believe I could put you up now if I tried, for I haven’t got my
strength back yet, and we are both out of practice. It’s just as well,
for I’ve about made up my mind to quit the business and settle down
somewhere for a spell, if I can get any thing to do," continued the
rider, folding his arms and gazing thoughtfully into the fire.

"I shouldn’t wonder a mite if you could right here, for Mr. Towne has a
great boarding-stable over yonder, and he’s always wanting men." Said
Mrs. Moss, eagerly, for she dreaded to have Ben go, and no one could
forbid it if his father chose to take him away.

"That sounds likely. Thanky, ma’am. I’ll look up the concern and try
my chance. Would you call it too great a come-down to have father an
‘ostler after being first rider in the ‘Great Golden Menagerie, Circus,
and Colossem,’ hey, Ben?" asked Mr. Brown, quoting the well-remembered
show-bill with a laugh.

"No, I shouldn’t; it’s real jolly up there when the big barn is full and
eighty horses have to be taken care of. I love to go and see ’em. Mr.
Towne asked me to come and be stable-boy when I rode the kicking gray
the rest were afraid of. I hankered to go, but Miss Celia had just got
my new books, and I knew she’d feel bad if I gave up going to school.
Now I’m glad I didn’t, for I get on first rate and like it."

"You done right, boy, and I’m pleased with you. Don’t you ever be
ungrateful to them that befriended you, if you want to prosper. I’ll
tackle the stable business a Monday and see what’s to be done. Now I
ought to be walking, but I’ll be round in the morning ma’am, if you can
spare Ben for a spell to-morrow. We’d like to have a good Sunday tramp
and talk; wouldn’t we, Sonny?" and Mr. Brown rose to go with his hand on
Ben’s shoulder, as if loth to leave him even for the night.

Mrs. Moss saw the longing in his face, and forgetting that he was an
utter stranger, spoke right out of her hospitable heart.

"It’s a long piece to the tavern, and my little back bedroom is always
ready. It won’t make a mite of trouble if you don’t mind a plain place,
and you are heartily welcome."

Mr. Brown looked pleased, but hesitated to accept any further favor from
the good soul who had already done so much for him and his. Ben gave him
no time to speak, however, for running to a door he flung it open and
beckoned, saying, eagerly, –

"Do stay, father; it will be so nice to have you. This is a tip-top
room; I slept here the night I came, and that bed was just splendid
after bare ground for a fortnight."

"I’ll stop, and as I’m pretty well done up, I guess we may as well turn
in now," answered the new guest; then, as if the memory of that homeless
little lad so kindly cherished made his heart overflow in spite of him,
Mr. Brown paused at the door to say hastily, with a hand on Bab and
Betty’s heads, as if his promise was a very earnest one, –

"I don’t forget, ma’am, these children shall never want a friend while
Ben Brown’s alive;" then he shut the door so quickly that the other
Ben’s prompt "Hear, hear!" was cut short in the middle.

"I s’pose he means that we shall have a piece of Ben’s father, because
we gave Ben a piece of our mother," said Betty, softly.

"Of course he does, and it’s all fair," answered Bab, decidedly. "Isn’t
he a nice man, Ma?

"Go to bed, children," was all the answer she got; but when they were
gone, Mrs. Moss, as she washed up her dishes, more than once glanced at
a certain nail where a man’s hat had not hung for five years, and
thought with a sigh what a natural, protecting air that slouched felt
had.

If one wedding were not quite enough for a child’s story, we might here
hint what no one dreamed of then, that before the year came round again
Ben had found a mother, Bab and Betty a father, and Mr. Brown’s hat was
quite at home behind the kitchen door. But, on the whole, it is best not
to say a word about it.

 

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