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"Let me be," he added, querulously to Dick Bullen, who had caught him up, blanket and all, and was affecting to toss him into the fire ; “let go o' me, you d-d old fool, d'ye hear?"
Thus adjured, Dick Bullen lowered Johnny to the ground with a smothered laugh, while the men, entering quietly, ranged themselves around a long table of rough boards which occupied the centre of the room.
Johnny then gravely proceeded to a cupboard, and brought out several articles which he deposited on the table.
“Thar's whisky and crackers, and red herons and cheese.” He took a bite of the latter on his way to the table. “ And sugar.”
He scooped up a mouthful en route with a small and very dirty hand. 6. And terbacker. Thar's dried appils too on the shelf, but I don't admire 'em. Appils is swellin'. Thar," he continued ; “now wade in,
and don't be afeared. I don't mind the old woman. She don't b’long to me. S'long."
He had stepped to the threshold of a small room, scarcely larger than a closet, partitioned off from the main apartment, and holding in its dim recess a small bed.
He stood there a moment looking at the company, his bare feet peeping from the blanket, and nodded.
“Hello, Johnny! You ain't goin' to turn in agin, are ye?” said Dick.
“Yes, I are," responded Johnny, decidedly.
“I've got a fevier. And childblains. And roomatiz,” returned Johnny, and vanished within. After a moment's pause, he added in the dark, apparently from under the bed-clothes—" And biles !”
There was an embarrassing silence. The men looked at each other and at the fire.
Even with the appetising banquet before them, it seemed as if they might again fall into the despondency of Thompson's grocery, when the voice of the Old Man, incautiously lifted, came deprecatingly from the kitchen.
“Certainly! Thet's so. In course they is. A gang o' lazy drunken loafers, and that ar Dick Bullen's the ornariest of all. Didn't hev no more sabe than to come round yar with sickness in the house and no provision. Thet's what I said: 'Bullen,' sez I, “it's crazy drunk you are, or a fool,' sez I, “to think o' such a thing.' 'Staples,' I sez, ‘be you a man, Staples, and 'spect to raise h-11 under my roof and invalids lyin' round?' But they would come—they would. Thet's wot you must 'spect o' such trash as lays round the Bar.”
A burst of laughter from the men followed this unfortunate exposure.
Whether it was overheard in the kitchen, or whether the Old Man's irate companion had just then exhausted all other modes of expressing her contemptuous indignation, I cannot say, but a back door was suddenly slammed with great violence.
A moment later and the Old Man reappeared, haply unconscious of the cause of the late hilarious outburst, and smiled blandly.
“The old woman thought she'd jest run over to Mrs. McFadden's for a sociable call,” he explained, with jaunty indifference, as he took a seat at the board.
Oddly enough, it needed this untoward incident to relieve the embarrassment that was beginning to be felt by the party, and their natural audacity returned with their host.
I do not propose to record the convivialities of that evening. The inquisitive reader will accept the statement that the conversation was characterised by the same intellectual exaltation, the same cautious reverence, the same fastidious delicacy, the same rhetorical precision, and the same logical and coherent discourse somewhat later in the evening, which distinguish similar gatherings of the masculine sex in more civilised localities, and under more favourable auspices.
No glasses were broken in the absence of any; no liquor was uselessly spilt on floor or table in the scarcity of that article.
It was nearly midnight when the festivities were interrupted. Hush,”
,” said Dick Bullen, holding up his hand. It was the querulous voice of Johnny from his adjacent closet.
The Old Man arose hurriedly and disappeared in the closet. Presently he reappeared.
“His rheumatiz is coming on agin bad,” he explained, “and he wants rubbin'."
He lifted the demijohn of whisky from the table and shook it. It was empty.
Dick Bullen put down his tin cup with an embarrassed laugh. So did the others.
The Old Man examined their contents, and said, hopefully
“I reckon that's enough; he don't need much. You hold on all o’ you for a spell, and I'll be back ;” and vanished in the closet with an old flannel shirt and the whisky.
The door closed but imperfectly, and the following dialogue was distinctly audible :
“Now, sonny, whar does she ache worst ? ”
“Sometimes over yar and sometimes under yer; but it's most powerful from yer to yer Rub yer, dad.”
A silence seemed to indicate a brisk rubbing. Then Johnny
“Hevin' a good time out yer, dad ? ”
Better. Rub a little furder down. Wot's Chrismiss, anyway? Wot's it all about?”
"Oh, it's a day."
This exhaustive definition was apparently satisfactory, for there was a silent interval of rubbing. Presently Johnny again
“Mar sez that everywhere else but yer everybody gives things to everybody Chrismiss, and then she just waded inter you. She sez thar's a man they call Sandy Claws, not a white man, you know, but a kind o' Chinemin, comes down the chimbley night afore Chrismiss and gives things to chillern-boys likes me. Puts 'em in their butes ! Thet's what she tried to play upon me.
Easy now, pop; whar are you rubbin' to—thet's a mile from the place. She jest made that up, didn't she, jest to aggrewate me and you? Don't rub thar- Why, dad ! ”
In the great quiet that seemed to have fallen upon the house the sigh of the near pines and the drip of leaves without was very distinct.
Johnny's voice, too, was lowered as he went on
“ Don't you take on now, fur I'm gettin' all right fast. Wot's the boys doin' out thar ?”
The Old Man partly opened the door and peered through.
His guests were sitting there sociably enough, and there were a few silver coins in a lean buckskin purse on the table.
“Bettin' on suthin',--some little game or ’nother. They're all right,” he replied to Johnny, and recommenced his rubbing
“I'd like to take a hand and win some money,” said Johnny, reflectively, after a pause.
The Old Man glibly repeated what was evidently a familiar formula, that if Johnny would wait until he struck it rich in the tunnel he'd have lots of money, etc., etc.
“Yes,” said Johnny, “but you don't. And whether you strike it or I win it, it's about the same. It's all luck. But it's mighty cur'o's about Chrismiss-ain't it? Why do they call it Chrismiss ?”
Perhaps from some instinctive deference to the overhearing of his guests, or from some vague sense of incongruity, the Old Man's reply was so low as to be inaudible beyond the room.
“Yes," said Johnny, with some slight abatement of interest, “ I've heard o' him before. Thar, that'll do, dad. I don't ache near so bad as I did. Now wrap me tight in this yer blanket. So. Now," he added in a muffled whisper, “ sit down yer by me till I go asleep.”