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CHAPTER VII MARY-JANE PEG
Mary-Jane Peg was munching a green apple. Green apples had never swamped her. To her they were the prize and the poetry of existence.

Other things were well enough in their way, such as a daily mess that had as many flavors in it as there were airs in a musical medley or scents in a pot-pourri. A succulent cabbage or young turnip weren’t bad. Indeed, so far as satisfying hunger went, all was grist that came to the mill of her astounding digestion, roots, leaves, land-turtle’s eggs found among potato rows, anything, everything went, from a lately hatched chicken killed by herself to an old shoe of her owner’s.

But the real greens of life, that which lent to it a bitter-sweet rapture, were the hard windfall apples of July, shaken by the orchard breeze from a tree whose fruit would not ripen until fall; she preferred them even to a red astrachan, with the early bloom of maturity upon its cheek.

“Ungh! Ung-gh!” muttered Mary-Jane, closing her white eyelashes until her little grey-green eye almost vanished into her head over which two quivering upright ears stood sentinel. “Ungh! Ungh!” That apple tasted uncommonly good. She nodded over it like a hungry child over his bread and milk when it exactly hits his taste. As its tart juices slid down her capacious throat she said a grunting grace to the universe and started upon a rooting search for another.

“Oh! Mary-Jane Peg, how—how everlastingly happy you are! You haven’t a thing to worry you!”

As the envious human voice fell upon Mary-Jane’s now slanting ears, coming from the edge of a shabby, swaying hammock slung between two orchard trees, the muncher of green apples raised her head and, happening at that moment to be in the vicinity of that hammock, rubbed her white-haired side against a pair of small muslin knees drooping over its edge. “Ungh! Ungh!” she vouchsafed in a snort of semi-intelligent sympathy. “Ungh! Un-ngh!” her conversation, except in some squealing emergency, being monotonously limited to this monosyllable.

“Oh, Mary-Jane! Oh, Mary-Jane Peg, I don’t want to die—to die before you do—I don’t want to die young!”

It was a frankly doomed cry now; had there been an executioner in waiting behind an orchard tree, had Mary-Jane Peg been the sheriff whose business it was to hurry a victim off to an untimely end, the voice could not have carried more pathetic conviction.

“Die! Lord ha’ mercy! who’s talking about dying?—not you, Kitty? You talking about ‘stepping out’ at the advanced age of fourteen!” came a blusterous voice, suddenly breezing-up among the apple and cherry trees.

The doomed one, the occupant of the hammock and owner of the muslin knees, dropped, startled, to her feet and whisked around like a shaken leaf, the orchard zephyr fluttering the hem of her green muslin frock, lengthened to suit her years, but falling shrunkenly short in that respect.

“You don’t want to die, eh?” challenged the breezy voice again in an orchard gust. “You don’t want to die before that pampered pig that’s hazaracking round here, surfeiting herself with windfall apples. Well! she’s sure to lie down an’ grunt her last, some time, if she don’t make tasty bacon first, but where’s the fun of sitting in a hammock, talking to her about it? That’s what I’d like to know!”

“She’ll never make bacon—although she may after I’m gone!” This last was a plaintive after-clap of thought; the wearer of the muslin dress of shrunken green looked up with melting defiance into the face which upon a far-away city playground had reminded a Camp Fire Girl of “sheltering flame.”

It flamed protectively now all over the massive features as its narrowed blue eyes from under their heavy, weather-beaten eyelids dropped a glance half of amusement, half of deep concern, that floated downward quite a distance like the petal of a flower to alight on the brown head of the little four-feet-seven figure in green.

Yes, it was scarcely half an inch taller, that figure, than the buoyant little form of Betty Ayres, whose Camp Fire name was Psuti, the Holly, chosen from a book of symbols because the holly is “gayest when other trees are bare.”

There was a sort of grimness rather than gaiety about this other small girlish figure palpitating under the orchard trees as if at its core there was a spike rather than an elastic spring, that steely spike being fairly well covered up by the rounded, childish form, whose curves were not quite as well-filled out as they ought to be, the curly brown hair and dimpling face—quite a shade paler than nature intended—and the mischievous brown eyes, more liquid than Sally’s, now amber pools of sunlight in which a tiny brown trout seemed perversely to leap, refusing to be caught.

Captain Andy, looking down upon the brown head, made up his mind that, now or never, he would catch that little perverse troutlet which had been dodging him and everybody else for some months and extract the spiky hook about which it played in Kitty’s being; in other words, that he would get at the grim core of secret fear, or whatever it might be, which, as he put it to himself, seemed to be eating the very heart out of the child.

“Come! let’s sit down an’ talk a while; I’m just full to the hatches with things I want to tell you, Kitty,” he said. “That hammock looks too skittish to bear my weight; let’s put for the seat under the cherry-tree there, the tree that you an’ I did some grafting on last spring,” indicating a bandaged trunk on which a surgical operation had been performed. “Neat piece of vegetable surgery it was, too, grafting a slip from a tree bearing fine ox-heart cherries on to one bearing mighty poor bleeding-hearts, eh?” muttered the captain as he caught the hand of his little grandniece, Kitty Sill. “Sounds some like a parable that!” under his breath. “Maybe there’s the same ticklish job ahead o’ me, now, to graft something on to this little bleeding heart,” glancing askance at Kitty’s face with its set lips in contrast to the fluctuating dimples. “But, first, to find out why it bleeds—and there I’ve got my work before me!... Let’s see, what d’ye call that crunching pig that you swap secrets with, here, secrets you won’t tell your mother?” he asked aloud.

“Mary-Jane Peg.” Kitty linked the two first names, emphasizing the last like a surname. “She won a prize at a fair; she’s a pedigreed pig.”

“Ungh! Ungh!” corroborated Mary-Jane, boastfully, rubbing herself against the captain’s legs as he seated himself with his grandniece.

“Avast there!” boomed Captain Andy. “I haven’t got any prizes, nor yarns to swap with you, either,” applying the toe of his boot to the pink-shot side of the pedigreed pig. “Don’t you—don’t you come hazaracking around me!”

Mary-Jane understood that raging word beginning with “h” as little as Kitty Sill did, and Kitty had never found it in a school dictionary yet, but, somehow, it always cowed her as it did the corkscrew-tailed pig; Mary-Jane made off and Kitty felt constrained to answer something when her great-uncle baldly put the question to her: “Now then, chicken, out with it; what did you mean by talking ’bout dying—dying young, too, as if you meant it?”

But the trout was not caught yet, nor the spiky hook extracted: Kitty opened her mouth, indeed, but this is what she coolly said, with a little, sly smile of mischief, kicking at a leg of the orchard bench with the heel of her swinging slipper:

“Well, I don’t know but what it would be better to die young than have the things that preacher said come true!” with nonchalant indifference.

“What did he say? Where did you hear him?”

“Two years ago at Ma’am Barrows’s house; he had a meeting Sunday afternoon; she said he was a revival preacher,”—the foot swinging vehemently—“but most o’ the folks let on that they considered him a ‘survival,’ or something like that.”

“What did he preach about?”

“Oh! I don’t take any stock in it now; I did then; he talked a whole lot about wrath an’ anger comin’ in pailfuls on the earth—that’s what I understood him to say—and ’bout folks calling on the rocks to fall on them an’ hide ’em, so’s the hot wrath couldn’t strike.”

“And what did you do, little Kitty?” Captain Andy was much interested, although he knew he had not got at the spiky secret yet.

“Me!” Kitty raised her level brown eyebrows; the dimples flashed. “Me! Why, I just came home, all tuckered out, and went down to the bottom of the orchard there and picked out that big, tall rock near the stream that has a bed of soft earth under it, an’ I thought that, if worst came to worst, I’d lie down and call on that rock to fall, for ’twas the earth that would, really, tumble on to me—an’ that wouldn’t hurt very much!”

If only the preacher could have seen Kitty’s outwitting expression, her swinging shoe!

Her granduncle stared at her a minute. Then the orchard rang with his gusty laugh.

“Great Kingdom! if you ain’t the sly-boots,” he blankly ejaculated. “If you haven’t an eye to business, picking out a rock that’s bedded in good soft earth so’s the earth might smother, but not mangle you, cheating the anger of the Almighty!”

But Captain Andy’s laughter was a brief puff. It died summarily. He rose and paced the orchard, thrusting Mary-Jane out of the way with his meditative foot, his figure looming massively against the background of fruit-trees.

Just as suddenly he sat down again and touched Kitty’s hand with a horny forefinger, his face at this moment a sheltering flame, indeed, fed by an inner fire.

“Kitty child! listen to me,” he said. “You ain’t so ready to tell me things, but I’m going to tell you something that I never told yet to a soul outside my wife—your gran’aunt, Kitty—who died more’n five years ago. Kitty, I’ve led a rough an’ racking life, take it all together, with maybe more storm than shine in it—I’ve gone winter-fishing for years to the far-away ocean fishing-grounds an’ that’s about the hardest life a man can lead—an’ he’s sure to ask at times what’s the meaning of it all. Kitty, I don’t set up to know the meaning. But two or three times in my life, once when I was a boy of your age, again when I was a tossed seaman standing to the wheel o’ my vessel at twilight, something has come to me like a flash an’ I’ve seemed to see surer than sunlight the Power behind everything an’—and it was the ‘Big Good Thing,’ as somebody calls it, Fatherhood an’ Truth an’ Understanding—and it isn’t dropping rocks on anybody. Pretty often we roll ’em on to ourselves, though, or get on the rocks, whichever way you like to put it, by taking false bearings, by our mistakes and the like. Now, little girl, don’t you go and make the big mistake of shutting up tighter’n a clam on any secret that’s troubling you—sharing it only with a pig!

“Bless your heart!” went on the moved captain after an interval during which tears had begun to steal down his grandniece’s cheeks. “Why, bless your heart, dearie, Death and I ain’t strangers. I’ve seen him and his shadow often enough to know him pretty well, an’ two-thirds of the time I’ve ousted him, too, when he was just setting up a claim.” Something superb stirred in the speaker’s tones at memory of the lives he had saved. “An’, maybe, if he was casting an eye on you at all—else why should you talk about ‘dying young’—I might be able to drive him off again.”

“It—’twas what Aunt Hannah said,” began Kitty weakly, no longer perverse. “She said it to Aunt Kate, sitting on this very seat under the cherry-tree, only last spring. I”—with a stifled sob—“was playing ’round with Mary-Jane and my little topknot duck; she thought I didn’t hear.”

“Great Neptune, I’d as lief be with Davy Jones as to live with that woman’s scarecrow tongue; she’s always ridden by a nightmare or a daymare or something.” Captain Andy sprang to his feet again with nautical restlessness, but he did not pace the orchard; he stood glaring down in a half-savage, half-tender way on Kitty.

“What did she say—what scare was she passing on to somebody then? Now, out with it—no bushwhacking—no beatin’ about the bush—you can’t get by me, you know!”

Kitty rubbed the back of a freckled little hand against her right eye and her right dimple blossomed forth; already she was feeling better, deriving a comfort which neither Mary-Jane nor the topknot duck nor any other member of her animal kingdom could impart; if this heroic granduncle of hers would rather depart this life with Davy Jones (the fabulous gentleman who summons sailors when death claims them at last) than to live with the tongue and the scares of Mrs. Hannah Beals, her aunt by marriage, then, perhaps, there wasn’t much in the spiky scare which the said Aunt Hannah had planted in her heart three months earlier.

“She said I was the livin’ image of my Aunt Lottie, father’s sister, who died when she was less than seventeen,” returned Kitty sedately. “Then Aunt Kate said she thought I looked a little peaked and thin—that I ought to go round more with girls of my own age.”

“So you ought! An’ that’s what I’m going to talk to you about presently,” put in the listener. “Well! an’ did Aunt Hannah drive the nightmare then?” laughingly.

“She said that she didn’t see as ’twould do much good for me to go round more with girls an’ boys, go to their parties an’ such-like, because I was so like my Aunt Lottie in looks and ways that it seemed borne in on her—that’s what she said—that I’d start a cough one o’ these fine days, not far off, and go as Aunt Lottie did; an’ that I was looking more like it every day, getting thinner”—sniff—Kitty wiped away a tear.

“Gosh! I wish I had the keelhauling of that woman; she’d go down under a vessel’s keel an’ she’d never come up again! Now, Kitty child, listen to me!” Captain Andy touched the child’s shoulder. “And take it from me as straight that you’re like your Aunt Lottie”—Kitty sniffed forlornly again—“and you’re not like her; she was a grain taller an’ a bit narrower in the chest than you are,” critically eyeing the small green figure in the shrunken muslin dress. “But, even with that handicap, she wouldn’t have faded away before she was seventeen—not a bit of it—if she’d got it fast in her head, like those Camp Fire Girls who are in one of my camps over on the Sugarloaf sand-dunes, that to ‘Hold on to Health’ comes pretty near being the strongest point in the law of life.

“She was ambitious about her studies; she had her heart set on going to college; it was, with her, come home from high school, peck at her dinner, then out into this orchard, not to swap gossip with a pig an’ a crested duck, but to sit in a hammock with a study-book, or if ’twas winter, she’d be half the afternoon poring over that book or another, in her own little bedroom, maybe, and come down, weazened an’ blue-nosed”—sadly—“to peck like a bird at her supper. I told her mother that Lottie was going ahead on that tack under more sail than she could carry. ‘Take her out o’ school,’ I said; ‘turn her loose in the woods. I’ll teach her to swim an’ dive until she’s as much at home in the water as a young harbor-seal and has the appetite of a shark!’ ... Land! there’s a fine bathing-beach half-a-mile from this orchard, but she couldn’t swim any farther than that pedigreed pig there, ’bout the only animal that can’t hold its own in the water. Can you? Can you swim farther than Mary-Jane Peg?” He frowned fiercely on Kitty.

“Ye-es—with water-wings,” she faltered, “I can swim ten yards.”

“‘Ten yards! Water-wings!’ Gumph! An’ you of my breed! That’s the way with about half the boys an’ girls on this cape, of sea-faring stock, too! Can’t swim a stroke until some summer visitor who spends nine-tenths o’ the year away from the ocean takes pity on ’em and teaches ’em—then they’ll hand his name down to their children as a water-god who had Neptune ‘skun a mile.’” Honk! Captain Andy’s angry laughter scaled the bandaged tree.

“But to come back to Lottie!” He reseated himself mournfully. “Well, p’raps her mother would have hearkened to my advice, but the child herself was set against it, an’ nobody said her nay. She graduated from high school at sixteen with tall honors—an’ a face the color of sea-foam. The following winter she overworked at college, studied about every minute when she wasn’t waiting on table to win her way through, broke down, came home with a cough that turned to a galloping consumption or something o’ the sort—they buried her in the spring.”

Kitty drew a long sob-like breath.

“Well now, you ha’n’t got the over-study fever, but you’ve anchored in this orchard too long, with a pig an’ a duck for crew, fishing up scares. It’s ‘Up anchor!’ now; you’re going to be ready for me to-morrow when I come for you in my power-boat—I’ve been talking to your mother about it already—an’ you’ll spend a couple o’ weeks, at any rate, in one or other of those camps on the white Sugarloaf Peninsula, either among the Camp Fire Girls or sleeping in my big tent if you prefer it. You’ll do things ’long with other girls (that Mary-Jane she’s a mighty intelligent pig, but a silent partner), you’ll slide down sand-hills, watch the seals, learn to swim, breast-stroke, crawl-stroke——”

“I won’t do it!” That little brown trout, a minnow of perversity, leaped again in the amber pool of Kitty’s eyes.

But the flying-dolphin-like gleam in Captain Andy’s swallowed it up at a gulp.

“Oh, tut, tut! Avast there! What I say goes, this trip!” The granduncle stamped his foot on the orchard buttercups just as he had many a time stamped it at Death upon a reeking deck which the seas were pounding like an earthquake, bidding that grim spectre begone; so he was bent on driving off his shadow now.

“They—they’d only laugh at me, those Camp Fire Girls; they wear short skirts or bloomers an’ middy blouses—I’ve seen a tribe of them before—an’ they dress up grandly at ceremonial meetings; I have only frocks like these; an’ they’d laugh at me for chumming with a pig an’ a duck an’ some hens.”

“I’ll warrant they wouldn’t. They’d give you a colored honor-bead, instead, to string on a leather thong round your neck—that is if you joined them—for knowing so much about a farmyard. As for the Camp Fire duds, I’ll see that you have ’em when you need ’em. Bless your heart, little Kitty, you won’t know yourself in green bloomers—any more’n a vessel seems to know herself when she gets her first suit o’ sails on and feels herself moving; all your fears’ll run to hide an’ laugh at you out o’ the knees of those bloomers. An’ you’ll laugh back at the fears once you join the Morning-Glory Camp Fire.”

“Is that what they call it?” A dawn-pink stole into Kitty’s cheeks.

“Sure. And they call the biggest o’ my camps that they roost in at night, twelve of ’em—not all the tribe could come—Camp Morning-Glory. Sounds slick, doesn’t it? Sounds as if they had hit the sun’s trail, doesn’t it? And, by gracious! they have. They’re a lighthearted tribe, always ‘on deck,’ always alert an’ doing something, swimming or rowing, dressing up in Indian toggery, singing, sliding, cooking—middling good cookery, too—I’ve tasted it—laundering their own blouses, even one or two rich girls among ’em, whose father could charter a laundry for the whole outfit an’ not miss it—‘glorifying work,’ they call it!”

“But—I don’t want to go.” Perversity’s last stand!

“Ah, but hearken a minute; do you know what I’m going to do when I get back to the Sugarloaf this afternoon? I’m going to prowl about the white sand-dunes until I find a nice hard chunk o’ birch-wood—there’s all sorts o’ driftage among those dunes, even to planks and great big logs washed down from Maine lumber camps an’ trundled ashore there—what d’you suppose I want that birch-chunk for?”

Kitty’s eyes widened.

“I’m going to make a top of it—a guessing-top, to spin on a flat stone—about a foot long that top’s to be, nine inches in circumference near the point, thirty at the head-end; ’twill be painted with symbols an’ it’s called by an Indian name ‘Kullibígan.’ It’s a magic top; it tells fortunes.”

“Non-sense!”

“You wait and see! ’Twas the Morning-Glory who thought of that game; she’s the prettiest little dancer and her name is Jessica, the sort of girl”—Captain Andy looked at some old-farm buildings beyond the orchard and drew his comparison, now, from the farm, not the foam—“the sort of girl who if she was run through a milk separator would come out all cream! From what I gather she’s pretty much alone in the world, too, has her own way to make; that don’t down her; she’s a Morning-Glory in spite of it—that’s her Camp Fire name.”

“An’ you’ll laugh back at the fears, once you join the Morning-Glory Camp Fire.”

“How did she learn about the Indian top?”

“Why! she learned of it from a professor who watched the Indian maidens play the Kullibígan spinner game in their own camps or on their reservations. They ask it a question about who’s going to marry first or that sort of thing, sitting round in a scattered ring, and the one toward whom the big painted top falls after it has spun itself dizzy, why, it has pitched on her for the answer to the question.”

“Something like playing ‘This year, next year, some time, never,’ with a holly leaf!”

“Hum-m! You see you might ask that Kullibígan guessing-top which of you were going to die young—you sitting round among the Camp Fire Girls—an’ it mightn’t topple your way at all.”

The Doomed One crowed triumphantly; Kullibígan had sent the orchard spectre that stalked her scampering, when Mary-Jane Peg had failed to root him out.


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