BETTY GORDON AT BRAMBLE FARM
THE wagon was rattling down a narrow lane, for though the horse went at a snail's pace, every bolt and hinge in the wagon was loose and contributed its own measure of noise to their progress. Betty looked about her with interest. On either side of the lane lay rolling fertile fields— in the highest state of cultivation, had she known it. Bramble Farm was famed for its good crops, and whatever people said of its master, the charge of poor farming was never laid at his door. The lane turned abruptly into a neglected driveway, and this led them up to the kitchen door of the farmhouse.
"Never unlocks the front door 'cept for the minister or your funeral," whispered Bob in an aside to Betty, as the kitchen door opened and a tall, thin man came out.
"Took you long enough to get here," he greeted the two young people sourly. "Dinner's been over two hours and more. Hustle that trunk inside, you Bob, and put up the horse. Wapley and Lieson need you to help 'em set tomato plants."
Betty had climbed down and stood helplessly beside the wagon. Mr. Peabody, for she judged the tall, thin man must be the owner of Bramble Farm, though he addressed no word directly to her and. Bob, was too evidently subdued to at- tempt any introduction, but swung on his heel and strode off in the direction of the barn. There was nothing for Betty to do but to follow Bob and her trunk into the house.
The kitchen was hot and swarming with flies. There were no screens at the windows, and though the shades were drawn down, the pests easily found their way into the room.
"How do you do, Betty? I hope your trip was pleasant. Dinner's all put away, but it won't be long till supper time. I'm just trying to brush some of the flies out," and to Betty's surprise a thin flaccid hand was thrust into hers. Mrs. Peabody was carrying out her idea of a hand- shake.
Betty stared in wonder at the lifeless creature who smiled wanly at her. What would Uncle Dick say if he saw Agatha Peabody now? Where were the long yellow braids and the blue eyes he had described? This woman, thin, absolutely colorless in face, voice and manner, dressed in a faded, cheap, blue calico wrapper—was this Uncle Dick's old school friend?
"Perhaps you'd like to go upstairs to your room and lie down a while," Mrs. Peabody was saying. "I'll show you where you're to sleep. How did you leave your uncle, dear?"
Betty answered dully that he was well. Her mind was too taken up with new impressions to know very clearly what was said to her.
"I'm sorry there aren't any screens," apologized her hostess. "But the flies aren't bad on this side of the house, and the mosquitoes only come when there's a marsh wind. You'll find water in the pitcher, and I laid out a clean towel for you. Do you want I should help you unpack your trunk?"
Betty declined the offer with thanks, for she wanted to be alone. She had not noticed Mrs. Peabody's longing glance at the smart little trunk but later she was to understand that that afternoon she had denied a real heart hunger for handling pretty clothes and the dainty accessories that women love.
When the door had closed on Mrs. Peabody, Betty sat down on the bed to think. She found herself in a long, narrow room with two windows, the sashes propped up with sticks. The floor was bare and scrubbed very clean and the sheets and pillow cases on the narrow iron bed, though of coarse unbleached muslin, were immaculate. Something peculiar about the pillow case made her lean closer to examine it. It was made of flour or salt bags, overcasted finely together!
"'Puts every copper through the wringer.'" The phrase Bob had used came to Betty.
"There's no excuse for such things if he isn't poor," she argued indignantly. "Well, I suppose I'll have to stay a week, anyway. I might as well wash."
A half hour later, the traces of travel removed and her dark frock changed to a pretty pink chambray dress, Betty descended the stairs to begin her acquaintance with Bramble Farm. She wandered through several darkened rooms on the first floor and out into the kitchen without finding Mrs. Peabody. A heavy-set, sullen-faced man was getting a drink from the tin dipper at the sink.
"Want some?" he asked, indicating the pump. Betty declined, and asked if he knew where Mrs. Peabody was.
"Out in the chicken yard," was the reply. "You the boarder they been talking about?"
"I'm Betty Gordon," said the girl pleasantly.
"Yes, they've been going on for a week about you. Old man's got it all figured out what he'll do with your board. The missis rather thought she ought to have half, but he shut her up mighty quick. Women and money don't hitch up in Peabody's mind."
He laughed coarsely and went out, drawing a plug of tobacco from his hip pocket and taking a tremendous chew from it as he closed the door.
Betty felt a sudden longing for fresh air, and, waiting only for the man to get out of sight, she stepped out on the back porch. A regiment of milk pans were drying in the late afternoon sun and a churn turned up to air showed that Mrs. Peabody made her own butter. Betty was still hungry, and the thought of slices of home-made bread and golden country butter smote her tantalizingly.
"I wonder where the chicken yard is," she thought, going down to the limp gate that swung disconsolately on a rusty hinge.
The Bramble Farm house, she discovered, looking at it critically, was apparently suffering for the minor repairs that make a home attractive. The blinds sagged in several places and in some instances were missing altogether; once white, the paint was now a dirty gray; half the pickets were gone from the garden fence; the lawn was ragged and overgrown with weeds; and the two discouraged-looking flower-beds were choked this early in the season. Betty's weeding habits moved her irresistibly to kneel down and try to free a few of the plants from the mass of tangled creepers that flourished among them.
"Better not let Joe Peabody see you doing that," said Bob Henderson's voice above her. bent head. "He hasn't a mite of use for a person who wastes time on flower-beds. If you want to see things in good shape, take a look at the vegetable gardens. The missis has to keep that clear, 'cause after it's once planted, she's supposed to feed us all summer from it."
Betty shook back her hair from a damp forehead.
"For mercy's sake," she demanded with heat, "is there one pleasant, kind thing connected with this place? Who was that awful man I met in the kitchen?"
"Guess it was Lieson, one of the hired men," replied Bob. "He came down to the house to get a drink a few minutes ago. He's all right, Betty, though not much to look at."
"You, Bob!" came a stentorian shout that shot Bob through the gate and in the general direction of the voice with a speed that was little less than astonishing.
Betty stood up, shook the earth from her skirt, and, guided by the shrill cackle of a proud hen. picked her way through a rather cluttered barnyard till she came to a wire-enclosed space that was the chicken yard. Mrs. Peabody, staggering under the weight of two heavy pails of water, met her at the gate.
"How nice you look!" she said wistfully. "Don't come in here, dear; you might get something on your dress."
"Oh, it washes," returned Betty carelessly. "Do you carry water for the chickens?"
"Twice a day in summer," was the answer. "Before Joe, Mr. Peabody, had water put in the barns, it was an awful job; but he couldn't get a man to help him with the cows unless he had running water at the barn, so this system was new last year. It's a big help."
Silently, and feeling in the way because she could not help, Betty watched the woman fill troughs and drinking vessels for the parched hens that had evidently spent an uncomfortable and dry afternoon in the shadeless yard. Scattering a meager ration of corn, Mrs. Peabody went into the hen house and reappeared presently with a basket filled with eggs.
"They'd lay better if I could get 'em some meat scraps," she confided to Betty as they walked toward the house. "But I dunno—it's so hard to get things done, I've about given up arguing."
She would not let Betty help her with the sup- per, and was so insistent that she should not touch a dish that Betty yielded, though reluctantly. The heat of the kitchen was intense, for Mrs. Peabody had built a fire of corn cobs in the range Gas, of course, there was none, and she evidently had not an oil stove or a fireless cooker.
Precisely at six o'clock the men came in.
"They milk after supper, summers," Mrs. Pea- body had explained. "The milk stays sweet longer."
Betty watched in round-eyed amazement as Mr. Peabody and the two hired men washed at the sink, with much sputtering and blowing, and combed their hair before a small cracked mirror tacked over the sink. If she had not been very hungry, she was sure the sight would have taken her appetite away. Bob did not come in till they were seated. He had washed outside, he explained, and Betty cherished the idea that perhaps he had acted out of consideration for her.
"What's that?" demanded Mr. Peabody, pointing his fork at a tiny pat of butter before Betty's plate.
There was no other butter on the table, and only a very plain meal of bread, fried potatoes, raspberries and hot tea.
"I—I had a little butter left over from the last churning," faltered Mrs. Peabody. " 'Twasn't enough to make even a quarter-pound print, Joe."
"Don't believe it," contradicted her husband. "I told you flat, Agatha, that there was to be no pampering. Betty can eat what we eat, or go without. Take that butter oft, do you hear me?"
A sallow flush rose to Mrs. Peabody's thin cheeks, and her lips moved rebelliously. Evidently her husband was practiced at reading her soundless words.
"Board?" he cried belligerently. "What do I care whether she's paying board or not? Don't I have to be the judge of how the house should be run? Food was never higher than 'tis now, and you've got to watch every scrap. You take that butter off and don't let me catch you doing nothin' like that again."
The men were eating stolidly, evidently too used to quarrels to pay any attention to anything but their food. Betty had listened silently, but the bread she ate seemed to choke her. Suddenly she rose to her feet, shaking with rage.
"Take your old butter!" she stormed at the astonished Mr. Peabody. "I wouldn't eat it, if you begged me to. And I won't stay in your house one second longer than it takes to have Uncle Dick send for me—you—you old miserable miser!"
On to chapter eight
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