PASSENGERS FOR BEE TREE

Three weeks later there was a notable gathering at the railroad station
at Lee. The Carsons were there, the Paces, the McBirneys, including Jim,
in a new straw hat, Dick Heller, just up from the Rutherford Academy, Sam
Disbrow, happy now and full of wholesome activity, Hi Kitchell and his
sister, and ever so many others, some black and some white. The baggage
man was oppressed with a sense of the importance of the luggage he was to
put on the train, for it included, as he realized full well, the summer
outfit of Miss Zillah Pace and her charges. That is, if Azalea and
Carin, so important and full of business, so suddenly grown up as it
seemed, and their own mistresses, could possibly be looked upon as
“charges.”

“Wire Mr. Summers if anything goes wrong, Carin,” Mr. Carson was
commanding.

“Mind you write me everything—simply everything,” warned Annie Laurie.

“You will find it very profitable to keep a diary, Sister Zillah,” Miss
Adnah Pace commented.

“It’s a burning shame we’re not all going,” little Mrs. Summers sighed.
“I’m sure the mountain air is just what Jonathan needs.”

Jonathan, who was toddling from friend to friend, sociably offering the
words: “Don’t go” as an example of his conversational powers, really did
not seem to need much of anything.

“If you all went,” broke in the Reverend Absalom Summers, “we’d have just
as much of a town up at the Gap as we have down here in the valley, and
then that would spoil it all, and we’d have to light out again. Queer,
isn’t it, how we all swarm to a town and then hike out to the solitude,
and fret wherever we are?”

“Oh, there’s the train,” cried Azalea. “Oh, mother McBirney, dear, I’ve
got to go. You’re sure you won’t mind?”

“It’s pretty late in the day to be thinking about that,” said Ma McBirney
with laughing tremulousness. “You take care yo’self, Zalie, and look
after Miss Zillah and Miss Carson, and yo’r pa and me’ll be all right.
Do yo’r level best to pass on the l’arnin’ to them pore untaught folks,
Zalie. We’ll be honin’ for you, but we’re mighty proud that yo’re able
to be a help to others.”

Azalea blushed violently.

“Oh, mother,” she whispered, “the people will hear you and they’ll think
I’m a regular missionary!”

“Shake hands, girl,” cried Pa McBirney. “Here’s the train.”

So they were off. Miss Zillah had a seat to herself and her bags and
boxes. Carin and Azalea sat together, and for a time said very little.
Both were a bit tearful—Carin particularly, at the thought that her
parents were going over-seas. But after a while they grew interested in
the flowering mountain side and the little cabins tucked away on the
shelves of the mountains. Azalea even caught a glimpse of the McBirney
cabin lying so confidently on its high ledge—the cabin through whose
hospitable door she had entered to find the only home she knew.

To keep the tears from getting out beyond her lids, where they were
swimming at rising flood, she turned her attention to the people with her
in the car. Opposite was an old woman in a sun bonnet, chewing her snuff
stick and staring straight before her, without, apparently, the slightest
curiosity about anyone. In front of her sat a little girl of seven, who
evidently was traveling quite alone. She was just the sort of a child
Azalea liked—though, come to think of it, Azalea had never seen any sort
of a child she did not like. This one, however, was especially
attractive, no doubt about that. She had purplish-blue eyes, like
pansies, and dark hair and lashes so long they swept her cheeks. She
looked both shy and innocently bold, both plain and pretty, both graceful
and awkward, both wistful and mischievous. Azalea decided that when she
grew up she probably would be lovely.

She kept glancing at the girls as if she would like to be acquainted with
them, and finally Azalea motioned for her to come over to their seat.
The little girl got up at the first crook of Azalea’s finger and crossed
the aisle, smiling and coloring as she came.

“You don’t like sitting all alone very well, do you?” Azalea asked. “I
think it’s horrid traveling in the cars with no one to talk to. Don’t
you think I’m lucky to have my friend with me?”

“Yes’m,” said the little girl in a very sweet voice. Then after a pause:
“I couldn’t bring any of my friends with me.”

She seemed to think she would have been the one to do the “bringing.” It
evidently did not occur to her that she would have been “brought.”

“I’ll turn over this seat if you like,” said Azalea, “and then you may
sit with us. Mayn’t she, Carin?”

“Why, of course,” said Carin. She got up to turn over the seat, but it
stuck and rocked and acted in a singularly perverse way, as car seats
sometimes will, and at that a lad who had been sitting with his nose
buried in a book, arose and came quickly to her assistance.

He was so slender and graceful, his dark eyes were so friendly and quick
to make responses, that the girls and Miss Zillah could not help staring
at him for a few seconds with surprise and admiration in their eyes. In
America lads and young men often have a way of looking like grown men
before their time. They are too business-like, too responsible, too
seasoned. But this boy was as eager, as gentle as the girls themselves.
He not only had not grown up—though he was as tall as the majority of
men—but he looked as if he had no intention of doing so for some time to
come. He held his cap in his hand, and showed a beautifully shaped head
overgrown by a short crop of dark curls which he had, apparently, tried
in vain to straighten.

“That seat,” he said with a sudden smile, showing two rows of teeth that
could be described in no other way save as “gleaming,” “has a bad
disposition.”

“Yes, hasn’t it?” said Carin. “But I’m sorry to have troubled you.”

“It’s no trouble,” he said, “for me to shake the cussedness out of
anything that acts like that. It’s a pleasure.”

He gave the seat such a shake as irritable parents give to naughty
children, and got it over in place somehow, and he settled the little
girl in it.

“Have you anything that you’d like to have brought over here, Miss
Rowantree?” he asked.

“Please,” said the little girl, “my dolly and my package.”

She spoke with a fine distinctness and with a charming accent.

“She’s English, I’m sure,” whispered Carin to Azalea.

The doll, a battered but evidently well-loved affair, was brought, and a
box held in a shawl strap, which no doubt contained the small person’s
wearing apparel.

“But how did you know her name was Miss Rowantree?” Azalea asked, or
started to ask. Before she had finished her question she saw on the
child’s dark blue reefer a piece of cloth, neatly sewn in place, and with
these words on it in indelible ink:

“Constance Rowantree. Please see that she leaves the train at Rowantree
Road.”

“You’re terrible young to be traveling alone, child,” said Aunt Zillah
seriously. “How ever could they let you do it?”

“I got so homesick they had to,” explained the child with equal gravity.
“Nobody could come with me, so I had to come alone. I don’t mind,” she
added valiantly.

“I hope you reach your home before dark,” went on Aunt Zillah, quite at
ease now that she had somebody to worry about.

“Oh, yes, ma’am,” the child answered, “I’ll get home a long time before
sundown, and my father will meet me.” She spoke in such a slow and
particular fashion that she made them all smile.

“That’s all right then,” said Azalea cheerfully, who was afraid the
little girl was having some fears manufactured for her. “Now, please
tell me the name of your doll.”

“It’s Mary Cecily Rowantree, after my mamma,” said the little girl.
“Isn’t that a pretty name?”

“Pretty as a song,” said the youth, who was still standing by them.

“I wish it was my name,” the little girl added. “I’m only named
Constance.”

“But that’s a lovely name,” Carin told her. “It means that you will
always have to be true to those you love.”

“I love ever so many people,” said the child. “And I’m going to keep
right on loving them as long as I live.”

They chatted on for a while, as congenial folk will on the train. No
doubt if Azalea had been left to herself she would frankly have told her
new acquaintances just where she and her friends were going and what they
intended to do, but the more reserved Carin and the cautious Miss Zillah
forbade, by their eyes, any such confidences. So, after Constance had
finished telling how a lady named Miss Todd has come to live with them
for a while, and how she had taken her—Constance—home with her, and how
Constance had stayed till the “spell” of homesickness conquered her, no
more confidences were made save by the young man.

“This country’s new to me,” he told them. “But I’ve heard a lot about
it, so I came up to see what it was like. You see, I’m a painter. At
least if I keep on working for the next twenty years maybe I’ll become
one. I’ve been sketching on the islands off the Carolina coast, and now
I’m going to see what I can do with the mountains. I painted some
pictures of the sea that were so bad the tide didn’t come in for three
days and maybe I can make the mountains so enraged that they’ll skip like
lambs. Anyway, it will be fun.”

“Where do you get off?” asked Azalea cheerfully.

“Hanged if I know,” the youth replied, turning on them again the radiance
of his beautiful smile. “Any place that looks wild enough will get me.”

“It’s wild at Rowantree Road,” said the little Constance gravely, looking
up from under her long lashes with almost the expression of some woods
creature. “We never see anybody hardly. You can’t think how wild it
is!”

Time went on and in spite of Miss Zillah’s reserved manner, all of the
young people were beginning to enjoy themselves and each other when the
train came to a sudden stop. It was so sudden that it threw Constance
forward on Carin’s lap and hurled the contents of the overhead carry-alls
down on the heads of the travelers.

“Oh!” cried Constance, righting herself, “I hope Mary Cecily isn’t
broken!”

“What is it?” asked Miss Zillah anxiously, addressing herself to the only
man in the party.

But the young man was already out of the car, making investigations, and
he was followed by four traveling men who plunged out of the smoking
room.

“Oh, let’s go see—” began Azalea. But Miss Zillah’s hand was on her arm.

“Sit still, my dear. The gentlemen will look to the matter,” she said
with the confidence of the old-time woman.

“Of course they will,” protested Azalea, half-vexed and half-laughing.
“They’ll have all the fun of seeing to it. I want some of the fun
myself.”

“No doubt the engine has broken down,” said Carin calmly, “and you
couldn’t do anything about that, could you, Azalea?”

Constance wriggled out of her seat and started for the door, but Miss
Zillah caught and held her gently.

“You are much better in here, my dear,” she said.

The child, rebuked, turned her attention to picking up the articles that
had fallen from their racks. There were, in the seat where their new
acquaintance had been sitting, a knapsack and an artist’s kit, marked K.
O’C. in large black letters on the canvas.

“K stands for Kitty,” said Miss Constance. “O stands for Oliver. C
stands for Constance.”

The young man came rushing back into the car, and he overheard.

“K stands for Keefe,” he declared, “and O’C for O’Connor. That’s myself,
such as I am. The engine has broken down—”

“Just as I thought,” murmured Carin.

“And we’re likely to be tied up here for hours.”

“It is a single track, I think,” said Miss Zillah with forced calm. “Are
we not in danger of a collision? Would you advise me, sir, to take the
young ladies out into the open air?”




“Why not?” asked Keefe O’Connor, packing articles back in the racks and
generally settling the car. “We may as well break up the time a little.”
He happened to look at Constance and caught a look of dismay on the face
that until now had been so cheerful.

“Well, Miss Rowantree, what is it?” he asked.

“If we stay here for hours,” said the wise little girl, “it will be jet
dark when I get to my place.” Her lips quivered a little.

“Come dark, come light,” said the young man, “you’ll be all right,
Constance Rowantree. Just you trust to me. Anyway, worry never yet
mended anything.”

But plenty of worrying was done on that train first and last that
afternoon. The engineer worried and the conductor worried, the brake-men
had their own troubles, and the passengers fretted as hard as they could.
Carin and Azalea walked up and down the track with Miss Zillah and
Constance, and tried to think they liked the adventure.

“Mr. Summers said that Mr. McEvoy would meet us no matter what happened,”
said Miss Zillah, “and I take it that what Mr. Summers says is so.”

“Of course it’s so,” Azalea assured her. “We’ll certainly be met, Miss
Zillah. But even if we shouldn’t be, there’d be some place for us to
stay. There are houses at Bee Tree, aren’t there? Or do you think there
is only a tree?”

“Oh, there are houses,” put in Constance. “Daddy goes there to get his
letters and the groceries.”

“Why don’t you get off at Bee Tree with us?” asked Azalea. “Then we can
look after you.”

“Oh, no,” said the child. “Daddy wrote that I was to get off at
Rowantree Road. It’s ever so much nearer our house. I must do just what
papa said. If he was there waiting for me and I stayed on the train,
he’d feel dread-ful-ly.”

She made a very long word of “dreadfully,” separating the syllables in
her queer way.

The conductor of the train overheard what was being said.

“I tell you what it is, Miss Constance,” he said: “I’ll have to see your
father standing right there before me ready to take you in charge before
I’ll let you off in those woods alone. It will be plumb night before we
get to your place.”

“Now, see here, conductor,” said one of the traveling men, “let one of us
boys get off with the little girl. It won’t do at all for her to be
dropped in the woods.”

“Draw lots to see who does it,” proposed another of the traveling men,
and began tearing up pieces of paper. “Here, you fellows!”

But Keefe O’Connor objected.

“Not a bit of it,” he cried. “You men are on business, and it throws you
out of your whole week’s schedule if you miss a town. I’m out gunning
for scenery. Want to paint it, you understand. I have no
destination—only a mileage ticket. Let me get off with the little girl.
If her father is on hand, I can swing back on the train again. If he
isn’t, she can guide me to her house.”

“It’s a terribly long way,” said Constance dolefully. “It’s right
through the woods. You haven’t a lantern with you, have you?”

“No,” admitted Keefe, “I’ve no lantern, but I’m sure we’d make our way.
Didn’t you promise me you wouldn’t worry?”

“No, sir,” said the child seriously, “I don’t think I promised.”

There really was only one person on the train who could be said to
refrain, and that was the mountain woman with the snuff stick.

“I’ve been a-studying nigh on three months about going to see my son
Jake,” she said, “and now it don’t seem to matter much when I do git
thar. I’ve got shet of the work to home for a spell, anyhow. I’ve kep’
at it twelve year without a let-up, and setting by a while won’t trouble
me none.”

No one had anything to eat, for all had counted on reaching their
destination by supper time, so that sundown saw a group of hungry people
with only Miss Zillah Pace’s generous supply of cookies to comfort them.
But at last the engine was repaired in such a way that the engineer
“reckoned it would hold,” and the train moved cautiously on through the
darkness, delayed here and there at sidings, and throwing trains all
along the line out of their time schedule.

There was silence in the car. The traveling men no longer told their
stories; Aunt Zillah nodded but dared not doze for fear of missing her
station; the mountain woman brooded patiently, caring little, it seemed,
as to what fate might have in store for her; and little Constance slept
in Azalea’s arms. Carin was supremely patient and quiet; and the bright
eyes of Keefe O’Connor gleamed now and then from under the rim of his
cap, which was pulled low over his face, and behind which he was occupied
in thinking his own thoughts.

But he was alert enough when the conductor came to warn him that they
were approaching Rowantree Road. He and Azalea between them got the
little girl awake, and with his packages and hers, the friends saw him
swing off the train in the black murk. The conductor’s lantern threw a
little glow around him where he stood holding the hand of Constance fast
in his own.

“Mighty good thing you’re here, sir,” they heard the conductor say. “I
certainly would have been put out if I’d had to leave the little one in
the dark by herself.”

“Oh, my daddy is somewhere,” Constance reassured him in her high ringing
tones; and as they pulled out they heard her voice calling “Daddy!
Daddy!”

“There’s a light!” cried Aunt Zillah excitedly. “See, it’s just up the
track a way. Her father must be there after all. Really, it’s the
greatest relief to me.”

The traveling men seemed to be relieved, too. So was the conductor; so,
no doubt, were the brakemen. No one knows what the engineer felt. He
probably was praying that his repairs would hold out. The mountain woman
took out her snuff stick again. Just then the conductor called:

“All out for Bee Tree.”

Azalea caught at her parcels; Carin gathered up hers more deliberately;
Aunt Zillah arose in a flutter, dropping things here and there which the
conductor and the youngest of the traveling men picked up, and presently
they were off in the mellow gloom. But it was a gloom with a
lantern-light to mitigate it.

“Be you the ladies Mr. Summers writ about?” a cordial voice inquired.
“I’m McEvoy. Step along this way, please.”