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Jim's Aunt

( Originally Published 1927 )



BY FRANCES BENT DILLINGHAM

" I wish you could take him in," the minister said, almost entreatingly. " He isn't a bad boy, you know ; his family is quite respectable; but when his aunt said she couldn't afford to take him into the country with her children, it seemed too bad for him to stay in the city."

" Oh, yes, of course," Miss Lucinda assented hastily. " If only he wasn't a boy ! "

The minister sighed. " I want you to do what you think best."

It was Miss Lucinda's turn to sigh now -- a long-drawn breath of surrender. " Well, I'll take him," she said.

The minister rose to go. " It's very kind of you, Miss Tarbox; be sure I appreciate your self-sacrifice ; " and then he added, in a hesitating sort of way, " You are always full of good works."

The color flamed up in Miss Lucinda's face. " Oh ! " she exclaimed, lifting her proud head still higher, " I don't do anything!" and the minister felt the usual sense of defeat he experienced in Miss Tarbox's presence.

He was quite dejected as he went down the garden walk. " So excellent a woman," he murmured to him-self, and he mournfully contrasted her uncompromising manner with the flattering air of other single ladies of his parish as he glanced back furtively toward her parlor window.

But Miss Tarbox would have considered it unpardonable coquetry to peep after the minister, since he was an unmarried man, and she an eligible if not youthful spinster, so she went at once into the kitchen to prepare her supper. But the color did not at once fade from her cheeks as she moved about in her rapid, methodical manner, and she thought not so much of the boy who was to come, as of the man who had just gone. If the minister felt overcome in Miss Lucinda's presence, she, too, had a similar feeling after he had left her with some unspoken word on his lips.

" It seems as though he was going t0 say something sometimes, but I kill it out of him. I wonder what is the matter with me, anyway? " Miss Lucinda had acquired a habit of talking to herself, and now nodded gravely to her reflection in the little mirror over the kitchen shelf. " I'm not bad-looking and I mean to be pleasant, but, somehow most folks seem kind of afraid of me. I s'pose I have an up-and-coming way with me that scares most of them. I don't seem to be the sort they take to; though I must say it's forlorn to be that way," and the image in the mirror sighed audibly.

When Miss Lucinda had seated herself at her lonely tea-table, her thoughts took another channel. " What in the world am I to do with a boy? He'll upset things on the table-cloth, and let flies in the house and rub his fingers on the window-pane, and holler. Well, there's one thing about it, he's got to mind every word I say to him!" But here Miss Lucinda drew herself up with a jerk. " There you go, Lucinda, complaining of your loneliness, and then finding fault when someone comes to see you ; thinking you're too fond of running things, and then saying you're going to make this boy do just as you want him to."

It was only a few days later when the boy came, in company with the minister. He was not so large a boy as Miss Lucinda had expected from his age, and he was rather thin and pale.

" I'll give him enough to eat, that's one thing," she told the minister. " And I've been thinking there's one comfort in a boy: he doesn't talk so much as a girl— that is, he isn't likely to."

" No, he isn't likely to," the minister assented, a little doubtfully.

After the minister had gone, Miss Lucinda began to wonder what she should do with the boy the rest of the morning. She found him in the kitchen, his short legs stretched to their utmost, trying to capture two flies buzzing on the window-pane. He paused in his exertions, and turned on her with a beaming smile.

" Hullo ! Is dinner ready ? " he asked.

Miss Lucinda drew herself up. " We don't have dinner till twelve o'clock," she said frigidly.

" Oh, that's all right; you needn't hurry," the boy said pleasantly. " I'm kinder grub-struck, but I guess I kin wait."

Miss Lucinda stared at him in rebuke. " Perhaps you'd better go out and play," she suggested, " while I get dinner ; " and off he went.

When the dinner-table was laid, Miss Lucinda rang her seldom-used bell out of the back door, and the boy came in promptly, with quite a color in his cheeks.

" My!" he exclaimed, staring at the neat, plentiful table, " ain't this a feed ! "

" You'd better go and wash your hands," Miss Lucinda suggested, and the boy went cheerily to the sink, scrubbing himself vigorously and then wiping his hands on the spick-and-span roller. Miss Lucinda groaned at the great black marks on the towel, and went out into the kitchen to turn it about so that she might not have to look at them through the dining-room doorway.

" Mercy on us! " she cried in distress as she came out into the kitchen, "you've left the door open. The house'll be full of flies!"

" Now, don't you trouble," the boy said soothingly. " I'll catch every single fly that's got in. I'm a great flycatcher, I am. I'm used to flies."

At the table, conversation did not at all flourish. Miss Lucinda had heard of a boy's appetite, but she had never dreamed of such awful capacity as this young person displayed. After he had taken the first keen edge from his hunger he laid down his knife and fork and looked at her inquiringly.

" Should you mind if I was to call you aunt?" he asked smilingly. " You know I useter live with my aunt, and I'm kinder useter sayin' it."

" I think it would be better if you called me Miss Tarbox," Miss Lucinda said, surprised, but not thrown off her guard.

" That's rather long," the boy said meditatively ; " but I guess if I say it often enough I kin git it Miss Tarbox, Misstarbox, Misstubox, Misstibox, Miss —"

" Don't say that over again, for goodness' sake," Miss Lucinda said irritably. " What is your name? "

" Well, the whole of it is James Wilson, but I guess you'd better call me Jim. I'm useter that."

" What did you do this morning?" Miss Tarbox felt called upon to sustain and direct further conversation.

" I went over to see the boy 'cross the street and we're goin' to play Indian this afternoon. Did you ever play Indian? "

Miss Tarbox shook her head.

" You stick feathers all 'round your hat, and you make a fire and roast potatoes, and yell and eat the potatoes. That boy is a mighty nice feller. I told him I was stoppin' with you and goin' to have a dandy time. I guess he don't know you very well. I told him I thought you was kinder hard to git acquainted with. He said we'd git our feathers 0ut o' his hen-yard, and I thought p'r'aps I might bring the potatoes. Do you think you could let me have two potatoes? I won't eat quite so much next time."

Miss Lucinda drew a long breath. " Yes," she said, " I'll let you have the potatoes."

" Now that's real nice. I told him I thought you'd be willin'."

As soon as dinner was over Miss Lucinda brought the two potatoes from the cellar, but the boy did not go at once ; he sat on a chair in the kitchen, and watched her brisk movements as she cleared the table and made ready to wash the dishes.

" Say, you're awful smart, ain't you? " he asked after a moment of observation, and Miss Tarbox, somewhat overwhelmed did not reply.

He placed his elbow on his round knee and his chin on his small hand and stared a few moments in silence.

" It looks awful kinder nice the way you hold up your head. Now, my aunt, she kinder slumps along.

She's a real nice woman, you know, but she don't look's though she had much gumption."

Another silence.

" Say, what kin I do? " he asked next.

" Mercy on us!" ejaculated Miss Lucinda, " don't ask me. I thought you were going to roast potatoes."

" I thought p'r'aps you might be kinder lonesome all alone, and I'd jest as soon help you wash up. I'm useter it. I kin make beds and sweep and wash dishes and do lots o' things. Try me and see."

" Thank you, I can get along very well ; you needn't help," Miss Lucinda said in grim accents of dismissal but the boy did not move.

" I s'pose you're pretty busy," he ventured presently. " Well, yes, rather," Miss Lucinda answered shortly. " Do you usually have a real good time Fourth o'

July? " he went on.

Miss Lucinda gasped. " Well, no. I can't say I do," she answered in mournful truthfulness.

" Now that's funny," the boy said, in a surprised tone. " Seem's though the country'd be an awful nice place to have a good time in, Fourth o' July. Mebbe it's 'cause you never had nobody to cel'brate with ; but you will this year. You'll have a real nice time, too; I always enjoy Fourth o' July."

Miss Lucinda gave a feeble sigh. " What do you usually do Fourth o' July? " she asked, with the desire to learn her coming fate.

" Well, last year I had one bunch o' firecrackers that got fired off the very first thing. I thought mebbe this year I'd earn 'nough money to buy two bunches; d'you think I could?"

" Well, really, I don't know," Miss Lucinda said.

" And last year I went to see the percession, and the crowd jammed me, and I didn't see nothin'; but this year they're goin' to have a percession out here, and that feller asked me to be in it. D'you suppose I could? "

" I don't know," Miss Lucinda answered again.

They're goin' to have reg'lar uniforms, red, white, and blue "— evidently the boy took this as half consent —" and it's goin' to be jest great. I s'pose it'd be a good deal o' trouble to make me a uniform, seein's you're so busy?"

" A soldier suit? Dear me, yes, I should say so!" There was no doubt now in Miss Lucinda's tones.

The boy drew a deep breath as he rose to ga. " All right," he said cheerfully, " I'll tell the fellers ; p'r'aps they'll let me march, jest the same."

When supper-time came and Miss Lucinda rang her bell again out the door, she saw the boy coming along the path from the barn, helping Joshua, the man-of-allwork, bring in the brimming pail of milk.

" Supper is ready," Miss Lucinda said, and this time the boy washed his hands without special order.

" Say," he cried, waving the roller, " Josh's goin' to teach me how to milk, and you won't have to hire him any more. I kin do everything's well as not, can't I, Josh ? " But Joshua had, fortunately, gone and did not hear this threat to usurp his position.

" Well, you do have orful good meals," he said, sitting down opposite Miss Lucinda's handsome, severe figure. " I'm orful hungry, but I did have the dandiest time to-day you ever heard of. The potatoes didn't roast very well, but the fire burned like fun. My Jimmy —"

" James ! " called Miss Lucinda in an awful voice. James opened his innocent eyes and looked at her, then fell to eating with renewed vigor, and it was some time before he mustered courage to finish his recital.

But when he came out into the kitchen and watched her moving back and forth in the dusky light, Miss Lucinda somehow felt herself moved to open conversation.

" You didn't eat so very much for supper, James." " No, marm," James answered promptly. " Don't

you remember them potatoes? I was a-payin' for 'em."

" Mercy 0n us!" cried Miss Lucinda, and she went to the dining-room and brought from the table the cur-rant pie, of which the boy, to Miss Lucinda's amazement, had eaten only two pieces.

He ate the third generous slice she gave him, and again sat still, watching her with round, admiring eyes as she moved about.

" I think it's about time for you to go to bed now, James," his guardian said presently, and James rose promptly.

" Would you mind calling me Jim? It sounds kinder homesick to be called James," he said, with sudden wistfulness engendered, even in his boyish spirit, by the shadows and the newness of the place.

" Good-night, Jim," Miss Lucinda responded; but Jim still stood looking at her with serious eyes.

" My aunt useter kiss me good-night. You don't exactly look like the kissin' kind, and I ain't neither, but—but I didn't know, seein' 's you're so good to me, but — p'r'aps "— he flushed and shifted himself from one foot to the other.

Miss Lucinda flushed, too, and looked greatly embarrassed, but hers was no stony heart to refuse so gallant a suitor ; she stooped and kissed him awkwardly and flutteringly somewhere upon his forehead or hair; but when she would have felt her duty over, he suddenly seized her in an impetuous hug. He went up-stairs quickly, and Miss Lucinda sat down in her little rocking-chair with hot, red cheeks, and something deeper than embarrassment brought a new light into her clear eyes.

" I think he tries hard to be a good boy," Miss Lucinda said to the minister when he next called, " but he does a great many things that are rather startling, and now and then he says something he oughtn't to."

" Yes? " the minister said, in kindly interest.

" The very first day he got here, he swore at the table." The minister looked horrified. " Of course I spoke of it right off and he hasn't done it again. He was kind of excited about playing Indian, and I don't suppose he really meant it ; he said "— the minister reddened and looked away, and Miss Lucinda flushed —" he said ` Jiminy.' " The minister drew out his handkerchief and coughed slightly. " But, as I say, he hasn't said anything since, and I think I could get along very well if Fourth of July wasn't coming so soon. But what do you think? He wants a soldier suit, and firecrackers, and all sorts of things. If only he hadn't come till after the Fourth ! I never did approve of it. I always did think it was a heathenish holiday," and Miss Lucinda broke off feelingly.

After the minister had gone Miss Lucinda started to go to the village store. Jim usually did the errands, but this was something that had been overlooked, and he was at play, out of calling distance.

On Miss Lucinda's return, as she came through the lane by a shorter road, she heard voices in the field beyond ; the speakers were hidden by a hedge, but she recognized the tones as Jim's and his playfellow's across the street.

" Say, can't you march? " said a wheedling voice.

" No, I guess not," Jim's voice answered, a trifle dolefully.

" Why not? Won't she make you a suit? "

There was a little pause before Jim answered: " Well, I don't know's I care 'bout marchin'."

" H'm ! you needn't say that. It's cause that stingy old maid won't make you anything to wear, I know."

There was a sudden movement on the other side of the hedge. " You call her a stingy old maid again and you'll see ! She's a handsome lady, she is, and it ain't none o' your business if I don't want to march."

" H'm ! you needn't git on your ear so dreadful quick. I wouldn't stand up for anybody that only let me earn money enough to buy two bunches of fire-crackers. Why, I've got tw0 packages ! A great Fourth o' July you'll have ! "

" I've got some more money, but I ain't goin' to buy firecrackers; I'm savin' it for a s'prise. Say, looka-here, you see, Miss Tibbox ain't never had a boy 'round, an' she don't understand 'bout Fourth o' July, that's all."

Miss Lucinda did not wait to hear the answer, but went swiftly back to the village.

The night before the Fourth, as Jim was going to bed, Miss Lucinda said : " Ain't you going to march with the boys to-morrow, Jim? "

Jim shook his head and looked at her solemnly. " I ain't got no suit. The fellers won't let you march without one. Never mind, I've given up lots of things. My aunt wa'nt much of a hand for doin' things, you know."

Jim had never asked Miss Lucinda to kiss him good-night since that first time, when he felt so markedly homesick, and certainly she would never have offered to kiss him, so she merely said, as he took his light to go upstairs, " Good-night, Jim."

But she sat down in her rocking-chair, quite near the dining-room door, with an expectant listening expression on her face. Suddenly there arose a great commotion above, and Jim came tumbling down the stairs with wild shrieks of delight.

"Oh, my gracious ! oh, my gracious ! " he cried. "Look-a-here, did you do it? Ain't they butes? I kin march now, can't I? Oh, my Jimi — my gracious, my gracious ! " And he danced about the room, first on one foot and then on the other, waving in one hand a wonderful pair of red, white, and blue trousers, in the other a similarly gorgeous jacket.

Miss Lucinda was really frightened ; she was not used to such demonstrations of joy. But Jim stopped his dancing presently, and, throwing his cherished out-fit on the floor, he embraced her rapturously, until she gravely extricated herself.

" I'm glad you like it, Jim," she said a little stiffly.

" Like it!" Jim shrieked, throwing himself about in another wild pantomime. " Like it ! Oh, my gracious, I'm 'fraid I shall bust!"

"I think you had better go to bed now," Miss Lucinda said, after a pause.

Jim gathered up his suit and looked at her anxiously. " Should you mind if I was to git up dreadful early, if I didn't wake you up? " he asked.

And Miss Lucinda, to her own amazement, found herself replying : " Well, no ; but don't get up too early."

And after Jim was asleep, and it was time for her to retire, she went softly into his room to lay two packages of firecrackers on the chair beside the gay garments.

Poor Miss Lucinda hid her head under the bed-clothes during the night, and when there came an extra loud explosion thought of Jim. But at breakfast-time he turned up safe and smiling.

" I never had sech a good time in all my life be-fore. Say, Miss Tibbox, did you mean all those fire-crackers for me? Well, if you ain't the nicest woman in the world! I've got a s'prise for you, too. Just you wait and see! " and he nodded mysteriously across the table at Miss Lucinda, who felt a vague misgiving.

"Why didn't you wear your soldier suit?" she asked.

Jim beamed upon her. " Why, I'm a-savin' it. We don't march till ten o'clock. You don't know how much nicer it is to be in a percession than jest to l00k at it. I wish you could march, too," he added politely. " But you'll come out on the piazza and watch us go by, won't you? "

And Miss Lucinda promised to be on the spot.

If Jim had never passed another such day, it was as wholly unprecedented in Miss Lucinda Tarbox's calendar. Jim marched by the house as proud as a peacock in his new soldier suit, and raised a cheer to Miss Lucinda so loud and hearty that she retired blushing into the house. Then after dinner there was nothing for Miss Lucinda but to come out on the piazza and watch Jim fire off some 0f his crackers; and there the poor lady sat cringing and shrinking and trying to smile each time Jim would shout, " That's the loudest of all ! "

But the climax of the day was reached when Jim brought the minister home to supper. How it happened that the minister appeared upon the scene at tea-time, Miss Lucinda could not understand; but when he arrived, and Jim whispered in a loud aside, " I thought p'r'aps he might stay to supper," there was no alternative but a cordial invitation, which the minister accepted promptly. Miss Lucinda likewise never knew the remarks with which Jim escorted the minister to the house. " She's the very nicest woman in the world," he told the minister, " and I think she thinks you're a pretty nice sort of a chap." The minister never repeated these compliments of Jim's to Miss Lucinda.

After tea, Jim's secret was revealed; he had in-vested the larger part of his small earnings in fire-works, which he was quite sure Miss Lucinda would enjoy, and he had invited the minister to supper that he might help him set them off. So Miss Lucinda came out on the porch in the darkness, and the minister and Jim paraded about in the neat little garden in front, and proceeded to diminish Jim's purchases. Presently the minister came up on the piazza and sat down beside Miss Lucinda, for the remaining fire-works could easily be disposed of by Jim. But just as the minister was considering whether the time was propitious for an advancement of his own interests, there came a sudden sharp cry from Miss Lucinda, and he turned to see a line of flame running about the paper belt of the gallant little showman. The minister was quick in his movements, and was down the path and had Jim in his arms and the fire smothered in a few moments, while Miss Lucinda was by his side, sobbing and bending over Jim's little form.

" Oh, let me see him," she cried; "the dear child! Is he hurt very badly?"

Jim wriggled a little in the minister's arms, and opening his eyes, smiled on her. " Now don't you worry," he said cheerily, " I ain't hurt."

" But I'm 'fraid I've spoilt my suit," he added when the minister had placed him on the lounge in Miss Lucinda's little sitting-room.

" Oh, never mind the suit ! " Miss Lucinda cried, and Jim looked up at her in reproachful surprise.

But it was quite true that he was not hurt, though rather weak from the fright, and presently he came out again, between the minister and Miss Lucinda, to sit on the piazza and watch the neighbors' fireworks.

Jim, on the little stool at Miss Lucinda's feet, leaned his head against her knee. " I don't care, it's been a fine Fourth o' July," he murmured.

" So it has," echoed the minister ; " don't you think so, Lucinda?" But Miss Lucinda's only answer was a blush and a consenting silence.

" Do you mind now if I call you aunt ? " Jim's voice asked.

Miss Lucinda laid her hand gently on Jim's head. " No, dear," she said softly ; " no."

" You might call me uncle," suggested the minister. Jim nodded brightly. " All right," he said promptly ; "then we'll be a reg'lar family."

And the new uncle and aunt smiled in the darkness.



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