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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Poor Little Rich Girl By Eleanor Gates Characters: 23692

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Without another moment's delay Gwendolyn and her father set forth, traveling a road that stretched forward beside the stream of soda, winding as the stream wound, to the music of the fuming water-music with a bass of deep pool-notes.

How sweet it all was! Underfoot the dirt was cool. It yielded itself deliciously to Gwendolyn's bare tread. Overhead, shading the way, were green boughs, close-laced, but permitting glimpses of blue. Upon this arbor, bouncing along with an occasional chirp of contentment, and with the air of one who has assumed the lead, went the Bird.

Gwendolyn's father walked in silence, his look fixed far ahead. Trotting at his side, she glanced up at him now and then. She did not have to dread the coming of Jane, or Miss Royle, or Thomas. Yet she felt concern-on the score of keeping beside him; of having ready a remark, gay or entertaining, should he show signs of being bored.

No sooner did the thought occur to her than the Bird was ready with a story. He fluttered down to the road, hunted a small brush from under his left wing and scrubbed carefully at the feathers covering his crop. "Now I can make a clean breast of it," he announced.

"Oh, you're going to tell us how you got the lump?" asked Gwendolyn, eagerly.

The feathers over his crop were spotless. He nodded-and tucked away the scrubbing brush. "Once upon a time," he began-

She dimpled with pleasure. "I like stories that start that way!" she interrupted.

"Once upon a time," he repeated, "I was just an ordinary sparrow, hopping about under the kitchen-window of a residence, busily picking up crumbs. While I was thus employed, the cook in the kitchen happened to spill some salt on the floor. Being a superstitious creature she promptly threw a lump of it over her shoulder. Well, the kitchen window was open, and the salt went through it and lit on my tail," (Here he pointed his beak to where the crystal had been). "And no sooner did it get firmly settled on my feathers-"

"The first person that came along could catch you!" cried Gwendolyn, "Jane told me that."

"Jane?" said the Bird.

"The fat two-faced woman that was my nurse."

The Bird ruffled his plumage. "Well, of course she knew the facts," he admitted "You see, she was the cook."

"Oh!"

"As long as that lump was on my tail," resumed the Bird, "anybody could catch me, and send me anywhere. And nobody ever seemed to want to take the horrid load off-with salt so cheap."

"Did you do errands for my fath-er?"

Her father answered. "Messages and messages and messages," he murmured wearily. (There was a rustle, as of paper.) "Mostly financial," He sighed.

"Sometimes my work has eased up a trifle," went on the Bird, more cheerily; "that's when They hired Jack Robinson, because he's so quick."

"Oh, yes, you worked for They," said Gwendolyn. "Please, who are They? And what do They look like? And how many are there of 'em?"

Ahead was a bend in the road. He pointed it out with his bill. "You know," said he, "it's just as good to turn a corner as a stone. For there They are now!" He gave an important bounce.

She rounded the bend on tiptoe. But when she caught sight of They, it seemed as if she had seen them many times before. They were two in number, and wore top hats, and plum-covered coats with black piping. They were standing in the middle of the road, facing each other. About their feet fluttered dingy feathers. And between them was a half-plucked crow, which They were picking.

Once she had wanted to thank They for the pocket in the new dress. Now she felt as if it would be ridiculous to mention patch-pockets to such stately personages. So, leaving her father, she advanced modestly and curtsied.

"How do you do, They," she began. "I'm glad to meet you."

They stared at her without replying. They were alike in face as well as in dress; even in their haughty expression of countenance.

"I've heard about you so often," went on Gwendolyn. "I feel I almost know you. And I've heard lots of things that you've said. Aren't you always saying things?"

"Saying things," They repeated. (She was astonished to find that They spoke in chorus!) "Well, it's often So-and-So that does the talking, but we get the blame." Now They glared.

Gwendolyn, realizing that she had been unfortunate in the choice of a subject, hastened to reassure them. "Oh, I don't want to blame you," she protested, "for things you don't do."

At that They smiled. "I blame him, and he blames me," They answered. "In that way we shift the responsibility." (At which Gwendolyn nodded understandingly.) "And since we always hunt as a couple" (here They pulled fiercely at the feathers of the captured bird between them) "nobody ever knows who really is to blame."

They cast aside the crow, then, and led the way along the road, walking briskly. Behind them walked the Policeman, one hand to his cap.

"Say, please don't put me off the Force," he begged.

Grass and flowers grew along the center of the road. No sooner did the Policeman make his request than They moved across this tiny hedge and traveled one side of the road, giving the other side over to the Officer. Whereupon he strode abreast of They, swinging his night-stick thoughtfully.

The walking was pleasant there by the stream-side. The fresh breeze caressed Gwendolyn's cheeks, and swirled her yellow hair about her shoulders. She took deep breaths, through nostrils swelled to their widest.

"Oh, I like this place best in the whole, whole world!" she said earnestly.

The next moment she knew why! For rounding another bend, she caught sight of a small boyish figure in a plaid gingham waist and jeans overalls. His tousled head was raised eagerly. His blue eyes shone.

"Hoo-hoo-oo-oo!" he called.

She gave a leap forward. "Why, it's Johnnie Blake!" she cried. "Johnnie! Oh, Johnnie!"

It was Johnnie. There was no mistaking that small freckled nose. "Say! Don't you want to help dig worms?" he invited. And proffered his drinking-cup.

She needed no urging, but began to dig at once; and found bait in abundance, so that the cup was quickly filled, and she was compelled to use his ragged straw hat. "Oh, isn't this nice!" she exclaimed. "And after we fish let's hunt a frog!"

"I know where there's tadpoles," boasted he. "And long-legged bugs that can walk on the water, and-"

"Oh, I want to stay here always!"

She had forgotten that there were others about. But now a voice-her father's- broke in upon her happy chatter:

"Without your mother?"

She had been sitting down. She rose, and brushed her hands on the skirt of her dress. "I'll find my moth-er," she said.

The little old gentleman was beside Johnnie, patting his shoulder and thrusting something into a riveted pocket. "There!" he half-whispered. "And tell your father to be sure to keep this nose away from the grindstone."

Gwendolyn wrinkled her brows. "But-but isn't Johnnie coming with me?" she asked.

At that Johnnie shook his head vigorously. "Not away from here," he declared. "No!"

"No," repeated Puffy. "Not away from the woods and the stream and fishing, and hunting frogs and tadpoles and water-bugs. Why, he's the Rich Little Poor Boy!"

"Oh!-Well, then I'll come back!" She moved away slowly, looking over a shoulder at him as she went. "Don't forget! I'll come back!"

"I'll be here," he answered. "And I'll let you use my willow fish-pole." He waved a hand.

There were carriage-lamps along the stream now. Alternating with these were automobile lights-brass side-lights, and larger brass search-lights, all like great glowing eyes.

Again They were in advance. "We can't be very far from the Barn," They announced. And each waved his right arm in a half-circle.

"Robin Hood's Barn?" whispered Gwendolyn.

The Policeman nodded. "The first people to go around it," said he, "were ladies who used feather-dusters on the parlor furniture."

"I s'pose it's been built a long time," said Gwendolyn.

"Ah, a long time!" Her father was speaking. Now he halted and pointed down-to a wide road that crossed the one she was traveling. "Just notice how that's been worn."

The wide road had deep ruts. Also, here and there upon it were great, bowl-like holes. But a level strip between the ruts and the holes shone as if it had been tramped down by countless feet.

"Around Robin Hood's Barn!" went on her father sadly. "How many have helped to wear that road! Not only her mother, but her mother before her, and then back and back as far as you can count."

"I can't count back very far," said Gwendolyn, "'cause I never have any time for 'rithmatic. I have to study my French, and my German, and my music, and my-"

Her father groaned. "I've traveled it, too," he admitted.

She lifted her eyes then. And there, just across that wide road, was the Barn!-looming up darkly, a great framework of steel girders, all bolted together, and rusted in patches and streaks. Through these girders could be seen small regular spots of light.

"Nobody has to go round the Barn," she protested. "Anybody could just go right in at one side and right out at the other."

"But the road!" said her father meaningly. "If ever one's feet touch it-!"

She thought the road wonderful. It was river-wide, and full of gentle undulations. Where it was smoothest, it reflected the Barn and all the surrounding lights. Yet now (like the shining tin of a roof-top) it resounded-to a foot-fall!

"Some one's coming!" announced the Piper.

Buzz-z-z-z!

It was a low, angry droning.

The next moment a figure came into sight at a corner of the Barn. It was a slender, girlish figure, and it came hurrying forward along the circular way with never a glance to right or left. Gwendolyn could see that whoever the traveler was, her dress was plain and scant. Nor were there ornaments shining in her pretty hair, which was unbound. She was shod in dainty, high-heeled slippers. And now she walked as fast as she could; again she broke into a run; but taking no note of the ruts and rough places, continually stumbled.

"She's watching what's in her hand," said the Man-Who-Makes-Faces. "Contemplation, speculation, perlustration." And he sighed.

"She'll have a fine account to settle with me,"-this the Piper again. He whipped out his note-book. "That's what I call a merry dance."

"See what she's carrying," advised the Bird. In one hand the figure held a small dark something.

Gwendolyn looked. "Why,-why," she began hesitatingly, "isn't it a bonnet?"

A bonnet it was-a plain, cheap-looking piece of millinery.

BUZZ-Z-Z-Z-Z!

The drone grew loud. The figure caught the bonnet close to her face and held it there, turning it about anxiously. Her eyes were eager. Her lips wore a proud smile.

It was then that Gwendolyn recognized her. And leaned forward, holding out her arms. "Moth-er!" she plead. "Mother!"

Her mother did not hear. Or, if she heard, did not so much as lift her eyes from the bonnet. She tripped, regained her balance, and rushed past, hair wind-tossed, dress fluttering. At either side of her, smoke curled away like silk veiling blown out by the swift pace.

"Oh, she's burning!" cried Gwendolyn, in a panic of sudden distress.

The Doctor bent down. "That's money," he explained; "-burning her pockets."

"She can't see anything but the bee. She can't hear anything but the bee." It was Gwendolyn's father, murmuring to himself.

"The bee!"

Now the Bird came bouncing to Gwendolyn's side. "You've read that bees are busy little things, haven't you?" he asked. "Well, this particular so-cial hon-ey-gath-er-ing in-sect-"

"That's the very one!" she declared excitedly.

"-Is no exception."

"We must get it away from her," declared Gwendolyn. "Oh, how tired her poor feet must

be!" (As she said it, she was conscious of the burning ache of her own feet; and yet the tears that swam in her eyes were tears of sympathy, not of pain.) "Puffy! Won't you eat it?"

Puffy blinked as if embarrassed. "Well, you see, a bee-er-makes honey," he began lamely.

The figure had turned a corner of the Barn. Now, on the farther side of the great structure, it was flitting past the openings.

Gwendolyn rested a hand on the wing of the Bird. "Won't you eat it?" she questioned.

The Bird wagged his bumpy head. "It's against all the laws of this Land," he declared.

"But this is a society bee."

"A bird isn't even allowed to eat a bad bee. But"-chirping low-"I'll tell you what can be tried."

"Yes?"

"Ask your mother to trade her bonnet for the Piper's poke."

Gwendolyn stared at him for a moment. Then she understood. "The poke's prettier," she declared. "Oh, if she only would! Piper!"

The Piper swaggered up. "Some collecting on hand?" he asked. Swinging as usual from a shoulder was the poke.

Gwendolyn thought she had never seen a prettier one. Its ribbon bows were fresh and smart; its lace was snow-white and neatly frilled.

"Oh, I know she'll make the trade!" she exclaimed happily.

The Piper considered the matter, pursing his lips around the pipe-stem in his mouth; standing on one foot.

Gwendolyn appealed to the Man-Who-Makes-Faces. "Maybe moth-er'll have to have her ears sharpened," she suggested.

The little old gentleman shook his shaggy head. "Don't let her hear that pig!" he warned darkly.

"She'll come round in another moment!" It was the Doctor, voice very cheery.

At that, the Piper unslung the poke and advanced to the edge of the road. "I've never wanted this crazy poke," he asserted over a shoulder to Gwendolyn. "Now, I'll just get rid of it. And I'll present that bonnet with the bee" (here he laughed harshly) "to a woman that hasn't footed a single one of my bills. Ha! ha!"

Buzz-z-z-z!

Again that high, strident note. Gwendolyn's mother was circling into sight once more. Fortunately, she was keeping close to the outer edge of the road. The Piper faced in the direction she was speeding, and prepared to race beside her.

BUZZ-Z-Z-Z!

It was an exciting moment! She was holding out the bonnet as before. He thrust the poke between her face and it, carefully keeping the lace and the bows in front of her very eyes.

"Madam!" he shouted. "Trade!"

"Moth-er!"

Her mother heard. Her look fell upon the poke. She slowed to a walk.

"Trade!" shouted the Piper again, dangling the poke temptingly.

She stopped short, gazing hard at the poke. "Trade?" she repeated coldly. (Her voice sounded as if from a great distance.) "Trade? Well, that depends upon what They say."

Then she circled on-at such a terrible rate that the Piper could not keep pace. He ceased running and fell behind, breathing hard and complaining ill-temperedly.

"Oh! Oh!" mourned Gwendolyn. The smoke blown back from that fleeing figure smarted her throat and eyes. She raised an arm to shield her face. Disappointed, and feeling a first touch of weariness, she could not choke back a great sob that shook her convulsively.

The Man-Who-Makes-Faces, whiskers buried in his ragged collar, was nodding thoughtfully "By and by," he murmured; "-by and by, presently, later on."

The Doctor was even more comforting. "There! There!" he said. "Don't cry."

"But, oh," breathed Gwendolyn, her bosom heaving, "why don't you feel her pulse?"

"It's-it's terrible," faltered Gwendolyn's father. His agonized look was fixed upon the road.

Now the road was indeed terrible. For there were great chasms in it-chasms that yawned darkly; that opened and closed as if by the rush and receding of water. Gwendolyn's mother crossed them in flitting leaps, as from one roof-top to another. Her daintily shod feet scarcely touched the road, so swift was her going. A second, and she was whipped from sight at the Barn's corner. About her slender figure, as it disappeared, dust mingled with the smoke-mingled and swirled, funnel-like in shape, with a wide base and a narrow top, like the picture of a water-spout in the back of Gwendolyn's geography.

The Piper came back, wiping his forehead. "What does she care about a poke!" he scolded, flinging himself down irritably. "Huh! All she thinks about is what They say!"

At that Gwendolyn's spirits revived. Somehow, instantly and clearly, she knew what should be done!

But when she opened her mouth, she found that she could not speak. Her lips were dry. Her tongue would not move. She could only swallow.

Then, just as she was on the point of throwing herself down and giving way utterly to tears, she felt a touch on her hand-a furry touch. Next, something was slipped into her grasp. It was the lip-case!

"Well, Mr. Piper," she cried out, "what do They say?"

They were close by, standing side by side, gazing at nothing. For their eyes were wide open, their faces expression-less.

Gwendolyn's father addressed them. "I never asked my wife to drop that sort of thing," he said gravely, "-for Gwendolyn's sake. You might, I suppose." One hand was in his pocket.

The two pairs of wide-open eyes blinked once. The two mouths spoke in unison: "Money talks."

Gwendolyn's father drew his hand from his pocket. It was filled with bills. "Will these-?" he began.

It was the Piper who snatched the money out of his hand and handed it to They. And thinking it over afterward, Gwendolyn felt deep gratitude for the promptness with which They acted. For having received the money, They advanced into that terrible road, faced half-about, and halted.

The angry song of the bee was faint then. For the slender figure was speeding past those patches of light that could be seen through the girders of the Barn. But soon the buzzing grew louder-as Gwendolyn's mother came into sight, shrouded, and scarcely discernible.

They met her as she came on, blocking her way. And, "Madam!" They shouted. "Trade your bonnet for the Piper's poke!"

Gwendolyn held her breath.

Her mother halted. Now for the first time she lifted her eyes and looked about-as if dazed and miserable. There was a flush on each smooth cheek. She was panting so that her lips quivered.

The Piper rose and hurried forward. And seeing him, half-timidly she reached out a hand-a slender, white hand. Quickly he relinquished the poke, but when she took it, made a cup of his two hands under it, as if he feared she might let it fall. The poke was heavier than the bonnet. She held it low, but looked at it intently, smiling a little.

Presently, without even a parting glance, she held the bonnet out to him. "Take it away," she commanded. "It isn't becoming."

He received it; and promptly made off along the road, the bonnet held up before his face. "When it comes to chargin'," he called back, with an independent jerk of the head, "I'm the only chap that can keep ahead of a chauffeur." And he laughed uproariously.

Gwendolyn's mother now began to admire the poke, turning it around, at the same time tilting her head to one side,-this very like the Bird! She fingered the lace, and picked at the ribbon. Then, having viewed it from every angle, she opened it-as if to put it on.

There was a bounce and a piercing squeal. Then over the rim of the poke, with a thump as it hit the roadway, shot a small black-and-white pig.

She dropped the poke and sprang back, frightened. And as the porker cut away among the trees, she wheeled, caught sight of Gwendolyn, and suddenly opened her arms.

With a cry, Gwendolyn flung herself forward. No need now to fear harming an elegant dress, or roughing carefully arranged hair. "Moth-er!" She clasped her mother's neck, pressing a wet cheek against a cheek of satin.

"Oh, my baby! My baby!-Look at mother!"

"I am looking at you," answered Gwendolyn, half sobbing and half laughing. "I've looked at you for a long time. 'Cause I love you so I love you!"

The next moment the Man-Who-Makes-Faces dashed suddenly aside-to a nearby flower-bordered square of packed ground over which, blazing with lights, hung one huge tree. Under the tree was a high, broad bill-board, a squat stool, and two short-legged tables. The little old gentleman began to bang his furniture about excitedly.

"The tables are turned!" he shouted. "The tables are turned!"

"Of course the tables are turned," said Gwendolyn; "but what diff'rence'll that make?"

"Difference?" he repeated, tearing back; "it means that from now on everything's going to be exactly opposite to what it has been."

"Oo! Goody!" Then lifting a puzzled face. "But why didn't you turn the tables at first? And why didn't we stay here? My moth-er was here all the time. And-"

The Man-Who-Makes-Faces regarded her solemnly. "Suppose we hadn't gone around," he said. "Just suppose." Before her, in a line, were They, the Doctor, the Policeman, Puffy and the Bird. He indicated them by a nod.

She nodded too, comprehending.

"But now," went on the little old gentleman, "we must all absquatulate." He took her hand.

"Oh, must you?" she asked regretfully. Absquatulate was a big word, but she understood it, having come across it one day in the Dictionary.

"Good-by." He leaned down. And she saw that his round black eyes were clouded, while his square brush-like brows were working with the effort of keeping back his tears. "Good-by!" He stepped back out of the waiting line, turned, and made off slowly, turning the crank of the hand-organ as he went.

Now the voices of They spoke up. "We also bid you good-night," They said politely. "We shall have to go. People must hear about this." And shoulder to shoulder They wheeled and followed the little old gentleman.

"But my Puffy!" said Gwendolyn. "I'd like to keep him. I don't care if he is shabby."

For answer there was a crackling and crashing in the underbrush, as if some heavy-footed animal were lumbering away.

"I think," explained her father, "that he's gone to make some poor little boy very happy."

"Oh, the Rich Little Poor Boy, I guess," said Gwendolyn, contented.

The Bird was just in front of her. He looked very handsome and bright as he flirted his rudder saucily, and darted, now up, now down. Presently, he began to sing-a glad, clear song. And singing, rose into the air.

"Oh!" she breathed. "He's happy 'cause he got that salt off his tail." When she looked again at the line, the Policeman was nowhere to be seen. "Doctor!"

"Yes."

"Don't you go."

"The Doctor is right here," said her mother, soothingly.

Gwendolyn smiled. And put one hand in the clasp of her mother's, the other in a bigger grasp.

"Tired out-all tired out," murmured her father.

She was sleepy, too-almost past the keeping open of her gray eyes. "Long as you both are with me," she whispered, "I wouldn't mind if I was back in the nursery."

The glow that filled the Land now seemed suddenly to soften. The clustered tapers had lessened-to a single chandelier of four globes. Next, the forest trees began to flatten, and take on the appearance of a conventional pattern. The grass became rug-like in smoothness. The sky squared itself to the proportions of a ceiling.

There was no mistaking the change at hand!

"We're getting close!" she announced happily.

The rose-colored light was dim, peaceful. Here and there through it she caught glints of white and gold. Then familiar objects took shape. She made out the pier-glass; flanking it, her writing-desk, upon which were the two silver-framed portraits. And there-between the portraits-was the flower-embossed calendar, with pencil-marks checking off each figure in the lines that led up to her birthday.

She sighed-a deep, tremulous sigh of content.

* * *

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