I reckon I kin learn jest as fast in these as in any. I was jest thinkin' about Miss Sarah. She--she might not like it, hevin' two men folks a-raound the house, under foot. He laughed, unsteadily, with relief. For an instant he had been inexplicably afraid that the boy was going to refuse his offer. For I'll tell her--I'll tell her you're a Baptist, too! Will you--will you stay? Later, when alone, Caleb chuckled mountainously over his reply. It had grown colder with the storm and directly after a hastily swallowed supper, with many indignant glances for her brother, Sarah had bundled the boy off upstairs to bed, for he had come in out of the rain as sleekly wet as a water-rat, and blue-fingered and blue-lipped from cold.
So it happened that they were alone before the fireplace when Caleb made known his decision.
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You--you like the boy, don't you, so far as you have become acquainted with him? It was hard to know what she was thinking when she sat like that, staring into the fire. He waited, not without grave misgivings, for her reply. There didn't seem much ground to be gained along that tack, so Caleb gave up trying to apologize for what he had done.
Her eyes were unaccountably wet, but there was laughter on her lips. I was certain of it, even then. And if you hadn't decided to, why, I'd made up my mind that I'd do it myself, if you ever came back from that endless fishing-trip! For it was Sarah who monopolized the conversation that evening. She ran on and on, from one plan to another, eager, half-breathless, and more wildly prophetic than the man had dared to be, until the realization gradually dawned in her brother's brain that great as had been his desire to keep the boy there in the white place on the hill, it had been dwarflike beside her woman-hunger.
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It astonished him, when he mentioned the subject of clothes, to find how far she had outstripped him in actual deed. I laid some of them out for him to put on when he gets up in the morning.
And, Cal, who'd ever believe now that a plump behemoth like you ever could have worn such--such dainty and cunning things! Instead he blushed uncomfortably at the gurgle in her throat. And so, the next morning, when a little figure in velvet jacket and pantaloons--velvet of the same jet hue in which Barbara Allison had first appeared to the boy a day or two before--stopped at the head of the long stairway, the moment was robbed of not one whit of its sensationalism.
Caleb remembered then; and it did seem inconceivable that he could ever have worn that costume, for the boy in the black velvet might have stepped bodily from the pages of sheerest romance. There were red-topped boots upon the slim feet which the day before had been encased in Old Tom's cast-off brogans; these were ruffed cuffs of sheerest white linen at brown and sinewy wrists, and burnished silver buttons down the front of the jacket for the silken corded clasps which fastened it across his small chest--silver buttons to match upon the quaintly short sleeves.
Stephen O'Mara hesitated just the fraction of a moment before he started methodically down the stairs. And immediately Caleb's amazement at the thought that those clothes had once been worn by him gave way to a newer wonder. For the boy, in spite of the fact that his small face above the pleated collar was burning hot with consciousness of self, wore them in a fashion unforgettable. Then Caleb realized how great an effort it must be costing the boy to make that slow descent in the face of his goggle-eyed stare, and with the most casual of good mornings he led the way to the table.
There was something in Sarah's fluttering delight over the boy's appearance that morning which awoke an almost hysterical impulse in her brother. For he knew, as completely as though he had heard it from the boy's own lips, that nothing in the world but the knowledge that "Miss Sarah" wished it would have carried Steve through the ordeal of his first appearance. They had a word together--Sarah and Caleb--after breakfast. Oh, I never dared hope he would look like that! And then, offhandedly: "What--did he say anything, last night, when you told him to wear those things, this morning.
But he--Cal, he just sat and looked at me, oh, so soberly, for the longest time. He made me think somehow of a puppy that knows he's going to be scrubbed and--and dreads it exceedingly. It's because of those dreadful things he's been wearing, don't you suppose so? And now I'm going over to invite Dexter Allison to come and take a look at him. I was telling him only yesterday that a gentleman had to be a gentleman born. In his perplexity he appealed to Sarah, who followed him to the front door.
Sarah nodded to Allison.
He's gone, and if he doesn't have to fight his way back then I" Sarah's alarm changed to fear instantly. She stepped out upon the porch. But Allison, after placing a chair for her, drew one up for himself and, with an expansive smile of anticipation upon his face, propped his feet upon the rail.
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As he appeared at the gate Sarah, with a strange choking sound in her throat, half rose and then dropped weakly back into her chair. And even to Allison, who had fondly looked forward to the worst, the little suit with the pretty ruffed cuffs was an unbelievable wreck. The coat had been ripped from hem to collar and dangled loose upon either side as the boy advanced toward them; the knees of the trousers were split till the bare skin showed through beneath, and those portions of the fabric which were not encrusted with dirt were liberally o'er-spread with egg.
After one stricken glance at the spectacle Sarah tottered to her feet and retreated none too steadily into the house. But it wasn't the condition of the boy's clothes which held Caleb's gaze. He was watching his face. For as Steve marched across the lawn the dangerous whiteness of the boy's countenance half frightened the man.
His lips were a thin streak across a jaw tight clamped and flecked with blood in one corner. And his eyes had the wide-open fixity of a sleep-walker. Steve had reached the top of the steps in his mechanical approach before Caleb spoke. And even then, when he turned, he seemed only half to see the two men who were waiting his coming. The boy stopped short and slowly turned his head. Both men heard that breath, short and harsh, in the moment of silence. And Steve, teeth set, waited without moving until the noisy outburst was over.
He paused a minute to explain, however. You'll have to bring that youngster over, Cal, and introduce him to the children. That was only a beginning. The next fortnight was filled with more new experiences than either Caleb or his sister would have believed could be crammed into twenty times that duration.
And Caleb spent most of his waking hours boasting to the tolerant Allison of new and quite astonishing traits which he found in the boy. Acting upon Dexter's suggestion the man took Steve across the very next day and presented him to the children who were guests in the big stucco and timber house: Little, shy, transparent-skinned Mary Graves and Garret Devereau and Archibald Wickersham--the Right Honorable Archie.
But from the very first, Steve's lack of enthusiasm for their company impressed itself upon Caleb.
English grammar - Reported speech
As a matter of fact, the boy did cross over and join in their games the first day or two, but it was only after Caleb himself had suggested it. And more often than not he would be back again, before an hour had passed, to sit silent and moody, chin in hand, upon the steps, gazing north at the hills. It puzzled Caleb mightily; he laid it to homesickness at the beginning. Toward Barbara Allison, throughout those days, Steve's bearing was that of frank and undisguised wonder and worship.
Whatever they did, no matter what they played at, his eyes rarely left the little girl's bobbed head. For any feat which he performed he invariably turned to her for approbation. And in return for that worship Barbara's treatment of him was truly feminine. He out-ran the other boys as a deer might outrun an ox; he out-leaped them without putting himself to an effort, but he won scant attention or visible admiration from the dark-eyed Barbara.
She was far more likely to turn from his hungry eyes to compliment the Honorable Archie upon his clumsy performance with a sweetness that left Steve biting his lips in lack of understanding.
More than once it made even Caleb grit his teeth--the little girl's disdainfully tilted chin--and when Steve's reluctance to leave his own yard became an unmistakable thing, he spoke to Sarah about it. If that Barbara was a boy I'd catch her and switch her--Allison or no Allison! They have been laughing at him, Cal; they have all been making fun of him, openly--mocking his speech and--and manners!
All of them, that is, save Garry Devereau. I just gathered it from something he let drop the other day. You know, Cal, he hardly knows one figure from the other, but his reading is truly marvelous. He can read as fluently, as expressively, as you or I can; and one day, after he had been reading aloud for me, I asked him why he didn't talk as--as he read.