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The Road to Providence By Maria Thompson Daviess Characters: 29701

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"Miss Elinory, do you think getting married and such is ketching, like the mumps and chickenpox?" asked Eliza Pike as she sat on the steps at the daintily shod feet of the singer lady, who sat in Mother Mayberry's large arm-chair, swinging herself and Teether slowly to and fro, humming happily little vagrant airs that floated into her brain on the wings of their own melody. Teether's large blue eyes looked into hers with earnest rapture and his little head swayed on his slender neck in harmony with her singing.

"Why, Eliza, I'm sure I don't know. Do you think so?" answered Miss Wingate, as she smiled down into the large eyes raised to hers. The heart-to-heart communions, which she and Eliza found opportunities to hold, were a constant source of pleasure to Miss Wingate, and the child's quaint little personality unfolded itself delightedly in the sunshine of appreciation from this lady of her adoration.

"Yes'm, I believe I do. Mis' Pratt and Mr. Hoover started it, and last night Mr. Petway walked home with Aunt Prissy and Maw set two racking-chairs out on the front porch for 'em. Paw said he was more'n glad to set in the back yard and smoke his pipe. Maw wouldn't put Teether to bed, but rocked him in her lap 'cause he might wake up and disturb 'em. She let me set up with her and Paw and he told tales on the time he co'ted her. She said hush up, that co'ting was like mumps and chickenpox and he was about to get a second spell. Does it make you want a beau too, Miss Elinory?"

"Well," answered Miss Wingate slowly with a candor that would have been vouched no other soul save the sympathetic Eliza, "it might be nice."

"I thought you would like one," answered Eliza enthusiastically, "and you know I had done picked out Doctor Tom for you, but since I saw him dress up so good this morning and go to Bolivar to take the train to the City and he got the letter from Miss Alford day before yesterday-that is, Aunt Prissy says Mr. Petway thinks it was from her-I reckon it won't be fair to get him for you, when she had him first last summer. Oughtn't you to be fair about taking folk's beaux just like taking they piece of cake or skipping rope?" Eliza was fast developing a code of morals that bade fair to be both original and sound.

"Yes," answered Miss Wingate with the utmost gravity and not a little perturbation in her voice, "yes, of course. When did Doctor Mayberry go?"

"This morning before you came down-stairs. He give Mother Mayberry some drops for Mis' Bostick and told me, too, how to give 'em to her. Mother Mayberry is down there now and I'm a-going to stay with her this afternoon. But I tell you what we can do, Miss Elinory, there is Sam Mosbey-I believe you can get him easy. He picked up a rose you dropped when you went in the store to get your letters the other day, and when Mr. Petway laughed he got red even in his ears. And just this week he have bought a pair of pink suspenders, some sweet grease for his hair and green striped socks. He'll look lovely when he gets fixed up and I hope you will notice him some." Eliza spoke in the most encouraging of tones of the improvement in appearance of the suitor she was advocating, and was just about to continue her machinations by further enthusiasm when, from down the road at the Bosticks, came Mother Mayberry's voice calling her, and like a little killdee she darted away to the aid of her confrere.

And for several long minutes Miss Wingate sat perfectly still and looked across the meadow to the sky-line with intent eyes. Teether was busily engaged in drawing by degrees his own pink toes up to his rosy lips in an effort to get his foot into his mouth, an ambition that sways most mortals from their seventh to tenth month. A thin wraith of Miss Alford's personality had been drifting through the singer lady's consciousness for some days, but she was positively stunned at this sudden materialization. There come moments in the lives of most women when they get glimpses into the undiscovered land of their own hearts and are appalled thereby. Suddenly she hugged the chuckling baby very close and began a rapid rocking to the humming accompaniment of a rollicking street tune, a seemingly inexplicable but perfectly natural proceeding.

"Well, I'd like to know which is the oldest, you or the baby, honey-bird!" exclaimed Mother Mayberry as she came up the steps in the midst of the frolic. "You and him a-giggling make music like a nest full of young cat-birds. Did you ever notice how 'most any down-heart will get up and go a-marching to a laugh tune? I needed just them chuckles to set me up again." As she finished speaking Mother Mayberry seated herself on the top step and Miss Wingate slipped down beside her with the baby in her arms.

"What is the trouble this morning, Mrs. Mayberry?" she asked, as she moved a little closer, so Teether could reach out and nozzle against Mother Mayberry's shoulder. "Anybody sick?"

"No, not to say sick much," answered Mother, with a touch of wistfulness in her gentle eyes, "but it looks like, day by day, I can see Mis' Bostick slipping away from us, same as one of the white garden lilies what on the third day just closes up its leaves when you ain't looking and when you go back is gone."

"She isn't so old she can't-can't recuperate when the lovely warm days come to stay this summer, is she?" asked the singer lady with a quick sympathy in her voice and eyes.

"No, she ain't so old as to die by old age, but what hurts me, child, is that it is just her broke heart giving out. She have always been quiet and gentle-smiling, but since the news of Will's running off with that money came to Providence she have just been fading away. A mother's heart don't break clean over a child, but gets a jagged wound that won't often heal. When I think of her suffering it puts a hitch in my enjoying of that Tom Mayberry." And Mother blinked away the suspicion of a tear.

"But Mrs. Bostick and the Deacon both are so fond of Doctor Mayberry that it must be a joy to have him such a comfort to them," said Miss Wingate softly, as she carried one of Teether's pink hands to her lips.

"Yes, child, I know he is all that. Somehow, here in Providence, we women have all tried to put some of our own sister love for one another in our young folks. I hold that when the whole world have learned to cut sister and brother deep enough into they children's hearts, then His kingdom is a-going to come in about one generation from them. Now there's a picture that goes on the page with my remarks! Bettie sure do look pretty with that white sunbonnet on her head, and count how many Turners, Pratts, Hoovers and Pikes she have got trailing peacefully behind her, all like full-blood brothers and sisters. I'm so glad she's a-bringing her sewing to set a spell. Come in, Bettie, here's a rocker a-holding out arms to you!" Little Hoover was as usual bobbing in Bettie's arms and he gurgled at the sight of Teether Pike as if in joy at this encounter with his side partner and when deposited upon the floor beside him made a brotherly grab at one of young Pike's pink feet in the most manifest interest.

"Well, if this just ain't filling at the price," said the widow as she settled herself in the rocker, and Mother Mayberry established herself in one opposite, while Miss Wingate elected to remain on the step by the babies. "I left Pattie over to my house helping Clara May get a little weed-pulling outen 'Lias and Henny in my garden. Buck Peavey have just passed by looking like the last of pea-time and the first of frost. I do declare it were right down funny to see Pattie toss her head at him, and them boys both giggled out loud. He ain't spoke to Pattie for a week 'cause she sang outen Sam Mosbey's hymn-book last Wednesday night at prayer meeting. He've got a long-meter doxology face for sure."

"And he's a-suffering, too," answered Mother Mayberry with the utmost sympathy in her placid face at the troubles of her favorite, Buck, the lover. "To some folks love is a kinder inflammatory rheumatism of the soul and a-deserving of pity."

A vision of a girl at a college commencement with her nose buried in a pink peony, looking up and smiling, flashed across the consciousness of the singer lady and she pressed her head between little Hoover's chubby shoulders, and acknowledged herself a fit subject for sympathy. To go and not even think of telling her good-by was cruel, and a forlorn little sob stifled itself in the mite's pink apron.

"Well, folks," broke in the widow's cheerful voice that somehow reminded one of peaches and cream, "I come over to-day to get a little help and encouragement about planning the wedding. I knowed Miss Elinory would think it up stylish for me and Mis' Mayberry would lend her head to help fitting notions to what can be did. Mr. Hoover's clover hay will be laid by next week and he says they ain't nothing more to keep us back. I've sewed up four bolts of light caliker, two of domestic, one of blue jeans, and three of gingham into a trousseau for us all to wear on the wedding trip, and Mr. Petway are a-going to take measures and bring out new shoes and tasty hats all 'round, next wagon, trip to town. I think we will make a nice genteel show."

"Are you-going to take everybody on the trip?" asked Miss Wingate, roused out of her woe by the very idea of the tour in the company of the seventeen.

"That we are," responded the widow heartily, "but not all to onct. We'll have to make two bites of the cherry. The day after the wedding we are a-going to take the two-horse team, a trunk and the ten youngest and go a-visiting over the Ridge at Mr. Hoover's brother's, Mr. Biggers. We won't stay more'n a week and stop a day or two coming back to see Andy and Carrie Louise. Then we'll drop the little ones here on you neighbors and pick up the seven big ones, add Buck for a compliment and go on down to the City for two days' high jinks. We're going to take 'em up to the capitol and over the new bridge and we hope to strike some kind of band music going on somewhere for 'em to hear. We want a photygraft group of us all, too. We are going to put up at the Teamsters' Hotel up on the Square and Mr. Hoover have got party rates. He says he are a-going to get that seven town-broke anyway, if it costs two acres of corn. Now won't we have a good time?" The bright face of the prospective bride fairly radiated with joy at the prospect-Miss Wingate could but be sympathetically involved, and Mother Mayberry beamed with delight at the plan.

"That'll be a junket that they won't never a one of 'em forget, Bettie!" she exclaimed with approval. "They ain't nothing in the world so educating as travel. And you can trust a country child to see further and hear more than any other animal on earth. I wouldn't trust Tom to go to town now without coming back pop-eyed over the ottermobiles," and Mother Mayberry laughed at her own fling at the sophisticated young Doctor. Another dart of agony entered the soul of the singer lady and this time the vision of the girl and the peony was placed in a big, red motor-car-why red she didn't know, except the intensity of her feelings seemed to call for that color. She was his patient and courtesy at least demanded that he should tell her of his intended absence. What could-

"Well, to come out with the truth," Mrs. Pratt was going on to say by the time Miss Wingate brought herself to the point of listening again, "it's just the wedding itself that have gave me all these squeems. Why, Mis' Mayberry, how on earth are we a-going to parade all the seventeen into the Meeting-house without getting the whole congregation into a regular giggle? I don't care, 'cause I know the neighbors wouldn't give us a mean laugh, but I can see Mr. Hoover have got the whole seventeen sticking in his craw at the thought, and I'm downright sorry for him."

"Yes, Bettie, men have got sensitive gullets when it comes to swollering a joke on theyselves," said Mother Mayberry, as she joined in the widow's merry laugh at the plight of the embarrassed widower. "Looks like when we all can trust Mr. Hoover to be so good and kind to you and your children, after he have done waded into the marrying of you, we oughter find some way to save his feelings from being mortified. Can't you hatch out a idea, Elinory?"

"Oh, yes, I know, I know just what to do-it came to me in a flash!" exclaimed the singer lady with pink-cheeked enthusiasm over the inspiration that had risen from the depths at the call of Mrs. Pratt and brought her up to the surface of life with it for a moment anyway. "I saw a wedding once in rural England. All the children in the village in a double line along the path to the church, each with baskets of flowers from which they threw posies in front of the bride as she came by them! Let's get all the children together and mix them up and let them stand along the walk to the church door. It will just make a beautiful picture with no-no thought of-of who belongs to anybody. Everybody from Pattie and Buck down to little Bettie and Martin Luther! Won't it be lovely? I can show them just how to march, down the road with their baskets in their arms, and Mrs. Pratt, you can come from your house with the Deacon and Mr. Hoover can come out of the back of the store-with-with, who is going to be his groomsman?"

"Lawsy me, I hadn't thought of that," answered the widow. "I'll tell you, Mr. Pratt's brother is coming over from Bolivar to the wedding, and as he is a-going to be a kinder relation in law by two marriages with Mr. Hoover, I think it would be nice to ask him."

"Er-yes," assented the singer lady, controlling a desire to smile at this mix-up of the bride's present and past relations to life. "The little girls ought to have white dresses and the boys-well, what could the little boys wear?" Miss Wingate felt reasonably sure that white dresses for all the feminine youth of Providence would be forthcoming, but she hesitated at suggesting a costume for the small boys.

"Yes, all the little girls have got white dresses and ribbons and fixings, but dressing up a herd of boys is another thing," answered Mother Mayberry. "If just blue jeans britches could be made to do we might make out to get the top of them rigged out in a white shirt apiece; couldn't we, Bettie?"

"That we can," answered the bride heartily. "Give me a good day at the sewing-machine, with somebody to cut and somebody to baste, and I will get 'em all turned out by sundown. But they feet! Mis' Mayberry, could we get Jem into shoes, do you reckon? About how many bad stumped toes is they in Providence now?"

"Well," answered Mother Mayberry reflectively, "I don't know about but two, but we can ask 'Liza Pike. Thank you for your plan, honey-bird, and

we're a-going to put it through so as to be a credit to you. Children are sorter going out of style these days and I'm proud to make a show of our'n. Women's leaving babies outen they calculations is kinder like cutting buds offen the tree of life, and I'm glad no sech fashion have struck Harpeth Hills yet."

"Now, ain't that the truth?" exclaimed the Widow Pratt. "Sometimes when I read some of the truck about what women have took a notion to turn out and do in the world, I get right skeered about what are a-going to happen to the babies and men in the time to come."

"Don't worry about 'em, Bettie," laughed Mother Mayberry, with a quizzical sparkle in her eyes. "Even when women have got that right to march in the front rank with the men and carry some of the flags, that they are a-contending for, they'll always be some foolish enough to lag behind with babies on they breasts, a string of children following and with always a snack in her pocket to feed the broke down front-rankers, men or women. You'll find most Providence women in that tag-gang, I'm thinking; but let's do our part in whooping on the other sisters that have got wrongs to right."

"I suppose the world really has done women injustice in lots of ways," said the singer lady plaintively, for she had very lately, for the first time in her life, felt the sit-still-and-hold-your-hands-while-he-rides-away grind, and it had struck in deep.

"Yes, I suppose so," answered Mother Mayberry, as she picked up little Hoover, who was nodding like a top-heavy petunia in a breeze, and stretched him across her lap for a nap. "But as long as she have got the spanking of man sprouts from they one to ten years she oughter make out to get in a vote to suit herself, as time comes along, especially if she have picked her husband right."

"She-she can't-can't pick her husband," hazarded the singer lady desperately.

"Yes, she can, honey-child," answered Mother Mayberry comfortably. "The smile in her eye and the switch of her skirts is a woman's borned-vote, and she can elect herself wife to any man she cares to use 'em on. But what about the collation, Bettie? Everybody is going to help you with the cooking and fixings, and let's have a never-forget supper this onct."

"That we are," answered Mrs. Pratt emphatically. "Mr. Hoover says no hand-around, stand-around for him; he wants a regular laid table with a knife and fork set-down to it. He says we are a-going to feed our friends liberal, if it takes three acres of timothy hay to do it, and he's about right. We'll begin thinking about that and deciding what the first of the week. But I must be a-going to see that the dinner horn blows in time. I want to get my sparagrasses extra tender, for 'Liza have notified me that she is going to stop by to-day with the covered dish, and I want to fill it tasty for her. Come visiting soon, Miss Elinory, for I've got something to show you that are too foolish to speak about to Mis' Mayberry." And the widow gave a delicious little giggle as she lifted the sleeping baby from Mother Mayberry's lap and started down the steps.

"Dearie me, Bettie," answered Mother with a laugh, "don't you know that poking up a woman's curiosity is mighty apt to start a yaller jacket to buzzing? I'll be by your house sometime before sundown myself."

"Some women's ship of life is a steamboat that stops to take on passengers at every landing. Bettie's are one of them kind, and she'll tie up with 'em all in glory when the time comes," remarked Mother Mayberry as she watched the sturdy widow swing away down the Road with the baby asleep over her shoulder.

Just at this moment, Cindy found occasion to summon Mother Mayberry to the chicken yard on account of a dispute that had arisen between old Dominick and one of the ungallant roosters that had resulted in an injury to one of the small fry, which lay pitifully cheeping on the back steps. Dominick, with every feather awry, was holding command of the bowl of corn-meal while her family feasted, and the Plymouth rooster stood at a respectful distance with a weather eye on both the determined mother and Cindy's broom. Retribution in the form of Mother Mayberry descended upon him swiftly and certainly, and he lost no time in seeking seclusion under the barn.

And by the time order and peace were restored to the barn-yard, Mother came in to dinner and spent an hour in interested hen-lore with the singer lady, who was really fond of hearing about the feathered families when she saw how her interest in them pleased Mrs. Mayberry. The subject of the Doctor, his absence and the probable time of his return was not mentioned by his mother, and for the life of her Miss Wingate could not muster the courage for a single question. She felt utterly unable to stand even the most mild eulogy on the peony-girl and was glad that nothing occurred to turn the conversation in that direction. She was silent for the most part, and most assiduous in her attentions to Martin Luther, whose rapidly filling outlines were making him into a chubby edition of the Raphaelite angel. Martin had landed in the garden of the gods and was making the most of the golden days. He bore his order of American boyhood with jaunty grace, and the curl had assumed a rampant air in place of the pathetic.

"Martin, do you want me to wash your face and hands and come go visiting with me?" asked the singer lady, as she stood on the front steps and watched Mother Mayberry depart in her old buggy on the way to visit a patient over the Nob. A long, lonely afternoon was more than she could face just now, and she felt certain that distraction, if not amusement, could be found in a number of places along the Road.

"Thank, ma'am, please," answered Martin Luther, who still clung to the formula that he had found to be a perfectly good open sesame to most of the pleasant things of life, when used as he knew how to use it.

So, taking her rose-garden hat in one hand and Martin Luther's chubby fist in the other, Miss Wingate started down Providence Road for a series of afternoon calls, at the fashionable hour of one-thirty. She was just passing by Mrs. Peavey's gate with no earthly thought of going in when she beheld the disconsolate Buck stretched full length on the grass under a tree, which was screened by a large syringa bush from the front windows of the maternal residence. A hoe rested languidly beside him, and it was a plain case of farm hookey.

"Oh, Miss Elinory," called his mother from the side steps, "did Mis' Mayberry hear about that fire down in town that burned up two firemen, a police and a woman?" At the sound of his mother's strident voice, Buck curled up in a tight knot and with a despairing glance rolled under the bush.

"I don't know, Mrs. Peavey, but I'll tell her," Miss Wingate called back as she prepared to hasten on for fear Mrs. Peavey would come to the gate for further parley, and thus discover the exhausted culprit.

"And a man tooken pisen on account of a bank's failing in Louisville," she added in a still shriller tone, which just did carry across the distance to Mrs. Pike's front door, through which Miss Wingate was disappearing. Her prompt flight had saved the day for the disconsolate lover, who cautiously rolled from under the bush again and went on with his interrupted nap.

She found Mrs. Pike and Miss Prissy at home, and spent a really delightful hour in speculating and unfolding possible plans for the Pratt-Hoover nuptials. Miss Prissy blushed and giggled at an elephantine attempt at badinage that her sister-in-law directed at her on the subject of Mr. Petway, and after a while Miss Wingate went on her way, in a manner comforted by their wholesome merriment. She hesitated at the front gate of the Tutt residence, but the sight of the Squire pottering around in a diminutive garden at the side of the house decided her to enter, for Squire Tutt held the charm for her that a still-fused fire-cracker holds for a small boy.

"I ain't well at all," he exploded, in answer to her polite question, asked in the meekest of voices. "Don't you set up to marry Tom Mayberry, girl, if you don't wanter get a numbskull. Told me to eat a passel of raw green stuff for my liver, like I was a head of cattle. I'll die if I follow him. Everybody he doctors'll die. Snake bite is the only thing he knows how to cure, and snakes don't crawl until the last of the month. Don't marry him, I say, don't marry him!"

And it took Miss Wingate several minutes after her hurried adieus to get over the effect of the Squire's inhibitory caution. But the haven for which she had been instinctively aiming was just across the Road, and she found a peace and quiet which sank into her perturbed soul like a benediction. The Deacon sat by Mrs. Bostick's bed with his Bible across his thin old knees, and Eliza was crouched on the floor just in front of him, with her knees in her embrace and her eyes fixed on his gentle face. Little Bettie Pratt lay across Mrs. Bostick's bed, deep in her afternoon nap, and Henny Turner was stretched out full length on the floor in front of the window, while 'Lias sat with his back against the wall with the puppy in his arms. The pale face of the sweet invalid was lit by a gentle smile, and she held one of the sleeping child's warm little hands in her frail, knotted, old fingers. Unnoticed, Miss Wingate and Martin Luther paused a moment at the door.

"Golly, Deacon, but didn't he do him up at one shot, and nothing but a little piece of rock in the gum-sling!" exclaimed 'Lias in excitement over the climax of the tale the Deacon had just completed. "I wisht I was that strong!"

"It was the strength the Lord gived to him, 'Lias Hoover, to special kill the giant with," said Eliza in an argumentative tone of voice. "Do you reckon He tooken the strength away from David the next morning, Deacon, or let him keep it to use all the time?" Eliza's extreme practicality showed at all times, even in those of deepest excitement.

The Deacon was saved the strain of intellect involved in making reply to this demand by his wife's low exclamation of pleasure as she caught sight of the girl and the tot in the doorway. She smiled softly as the singer lady seated herself on the side of the bed and took both her hand and that of the sleeping baby in a firm, young one. A peculiar bond of sympathy had arisen between the girl and the gentle old invalid, both fighting pain and anxiety. Mrs. Bostick would lie for hours drinking in tales of Miss Wingate's travels in the world, which she had timidly but eagerly asked for from the beginning of their friendship. The girl knew that the anxious mother-heart vas using her descriptions to fare forth on quests for the wanderer into the wide world beyond the Harpeth Hills, that had all her life bounded her horizon, and she sat by her long hours, leading the way into the uttermost parts. After a fatherly greeting, the Deacon departed with the children to his bench under the trees and left the two alone for their talk, and the long shadows were stretched across the Road and the sun sinking beyond the Ridge before the singer lady wended her way dejectedly home with the play-wearied Martin Luther trailing beside her. She found Mother Mayberry, much to her relieved astonishment, placidly rocking in her accustomed place, with her palm-leaf ruffling the water-waves and a fresh lawn tie blowing in the breeze.

"Come in, honey-hearts," she said eagerly, with bright tenderness shining in her face for the girl and the barefoot young pilgrim; "I have been setting here a-missing you both for a hour. With you and my young mission boy both gone I'm like an old hawk-robbed hen. I knew you was with Mis' Bostick, and I didn't come for you 'cause somehow them rocking-chair-bed travels you and her take seems to comfort her. I wouldn't interrupt one of 'em for the world, though I was getting plumb lonesome. I was even a-hankering after that Tom Mayberry what I left not over two hours ago."

"Has the Doctor come back from the City this soon?" demanded the singer lady, with a queer thump in her cardiac region that almost smothered her voice.

"Well now, to tell the truth, Tom Mayberry haven't been to no City," answered his mother with a chuckle as she looked at Miss Wingate over Martin Luther's head on her shoulder where he had buried it with a demand for "milk, milk, thank ma'am, please." "I don't think he wants you to know what he have been having happen to him, but I can't keep from telling you 'cause I'm tickled clean to my funny bone. Dave Hanks come over here at daylight wanting a doctor quick, and I had a cramp in my leg what I forgot to tie a yarn string around before I went to bed, so I had to let Tom hurry on over there 'count of the push they was in. Then I got to studying it over and while I knewed how Tom had had a lot of practice in such things in a hospital, I thought it was just as well to let him get a little Harpeth experience along that line and sorter prove his character to Squire Tutt and the rest. About dinner time, though, I got sorry for him and hitched up and went over there to see how they was a-getting along, without telling you or Cindy anything about it. And what did I find? That Tom Mayberry and Dave Hanks out on the back porch, Dave taking a drink outen a bottle and Tom with two babies wrapped up in a shawl showing 'em to a neighbor woman, proud as a peacock over 'em. He most dropped 'em when he seen me and I promised not to tell you about it at all, but if you coulder seen him!" And the tried and proven young AEsculapius' mother fairly rolled in her chair with mirth at the recollection.

"Oh," gasped the singer girl, as she sank weakly down upon the top step and leaned her head against the convenient post. "It was awful-I-I-" she caught herself quickly in the expression of the intensity of her relief.

"No, it wasn't awful," answered Mother Mayberry, fortunately losing the trend of the exclamation. "They are mighty sweet little babies, both girls. The joke is mostly on me getting uneasy and following Tom up. When I pick out his wife, I must be sure and see she are a girl what don't worry none about what he is up to. A trouble-hunting wife is a rock sinker to any man, but around a doctor's neck she'll finish him quick. Don't let on to the shame-faced thing when he comes! He asked me what you'd been a-doing all day, and I told him I thought maybe you had a few custards in your mind for him to-night when he gets back from Flat Rock. Don't you want to beat up some with Cindy's help? And they is a bunch of pink peonies he sent you from Mis' Hank's bushes, sticking in a bucket on the back porch. Pin one in your hair to sorter compliment him after all the trouble he have had this day, poor Tom!"

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