“What are you two giggling about?” asked a sudden voice, and Berty, looking up from the hall, and Tom, from the staircase, saw Bonny standing on the steps above them.
“Meow, meow,” murmured Tom, in a scarcely audible voice.
“What’s up with him, Berty?” asked Bonny, good-naturedly.
“I think his head must be growing weak,” said the girl. “Everything lately seems to amuse him. If you hold up a finger, he goes into fits of laughter.”
“Poor Tom,” said Bonny, “and once he was a joy to his friends—I say, old man, uncurl yourself and tell us the joke.”
“Go ’way, Berty,” ejaculated Tom, partly straightening himself, “go ’way. You hate to see me laugh. Just like all girls. They haven’t any more sense of humour than sticks.”
“Bonny,” said Berty, turning to her brother, “how is Grandma?”
“Asleep, and resting quietly.”
“I’ll go sit beside her,” said the girl; then, turning to her visitor, “Tom Everest, are you going to do that commission for me, or are you not? I’ve stood a good deal from you to-night. Just one word more, and I take it from you and give it to Bonny.”
“I’m ready and willing if it’s anything good,” said the light-haired boy.
“Sha’n’t have it, Bonny,” said Tom, staggering to his feet. “That jewel is mine. I’ll love and cherish him, Berty, until to-morrow afternoon, then I’ll report to you.”
“Good night, then,” said Berty, “and don’t make a noise, or you’ll wake Grandma.”
“Come on, Bonny, let’s interview Berty’s treasure,” exclaimed Tom, seizing his hat.
“What is it?” inquired Bonny, curiously, following him through the hall.
“A black pearl. Didn’t she tell you?”
“No, I haven’t been here long. We were busy at the works.”
Without speaking, Tom led the way down the back staircase, through the lower hall, and out to the wood-shed at the back of the house.
“Listen to it,” he said to Bonny, with his hand on the door-knob.
“Who is snoring in there?” said the boy, quickly.
“One of your sister’s bits of driftwood. I’ve got to haul this one into port.”
“I wish Berty would look out for number one, and let number two, and three, and four, and five, take care of themselves,” said the lad, irritably. Then he suddenly recollected himself. “I suppose I am a brute, but I do hate dirty people. Berty is an angel compared with me.”
“Hello,” said Tom, opening the door and scratching a match to light the candle in a lantern hanging near him.
There was no response. Tom held the lantern and pushed the sleeping man with his foot.
“Here, you—wake up.”
The man rolled over, blinking at them in the light. “Hello, comrade, what you want?”
“Get up,” said Tom, commandingly.
“What for?” asked the sleeper, yawningly.
“To get out of this. I’ll find you another sleeping-place.”
“Oh, come, comrade,” said the man, remonstratingly, “this is cruelty to animals. I was having the sleep of my life—like drugged sleep—takes me back to my boyhood. Move on, and let me begin again. Your diamonds are safe to-night. I’ve had a first-class supper, and I’m having a first-class sleep. I wouldn’t get up to finger the jewels of the Emperor of Russia.”
“Get up,” said Tom, inexorably.
“Let him stay,” said Bonny. “I’m going to be here all night. If he gets dangerous, I’ll take the poker.”
“Oh, you’re going to stay all night,” remarked Tom. “Very good, then. I’ll come early in the morning and get him out of this.”
“Talking about me, gentlemen?” asked the man, sleepily.
Tom and Bonny stared at him.
“I haven’t done anything bad yet,” said the tramp, meekly, “unless I may have corrupted a few of those guinea-pigs by using bad language. They’re the most inquisitive creatures I ever saw. Stuck their noses in my food, and most took it away from me.”
“Who are you?” asked Bonny, abruptly.
“A poor, broken-down sailor, sir,” whined the man. “Turned out of his vessel the first day in port, because he had a little weakness of the heart.”
“I heard you were a doctor,” interposed Tom.
“So I was this afternoon, sir. That nice young lady said I looked like a sailor, so I thought I’d be one to please her.”
“You’re a first-class liar, anyway,” said Tom.
The man rolled over on his back and sleepily blinked at him. “That I am, sir. If you’d hear the different stories I tell to charitable ladies, you’d fall down in a fit. They’re too funny for words.”
Bonny was staring at him with wide-open eyes. He had never spoken to a tramp before in his life. If he saw one on the right side of the street, he immediately crossed to the left.
“I say,” he began, with a fastidious curl of his lip, “it must be mighty queer not to know in the morning where you are going to lay your head at night. Queer, and mighty uncomfortable.”
“So it is, young man, till you get used to it,” responded the tramp, amiably.
Bonny’s countenance expressed the utmost disdain, and suddenly the tramp raised himself on an elbow. “Can you think of me, my fine lad, young and clean and as good-looking as you are?”
“No, I can’t,” said Bonny, frankly.
“Fussy about my tailor,” continued the man. “Good heavens, just think of it—I, bothering about the cut of my coat. But I was, and I did, and I’ve come down to be a trailer over the roads.”
“How can persons take a jump like that?” said the boy, musingly.
“It isn’t a jump,” pursued the tramp, lazily, “it’s a slide. You move a few inches each day. I’m something of a philosopher, and I often look back on my career. I’ve lots of time to think, as you may imagine. Now, gentlemen, you wouldn’t imagine where my slide into trampdom began.”
“You didn’t start from the gutter, anyway,” remarked Bonny, “for you talk like a gentleman.”
“You’re right, young man. I can talk the slang of the road. I’ve been broken to it, but I won’t waste it on you, for you wouldn’t understand it—well, my first push downward was given me by my mother.”
“Your mother?” echoed Bonny, in disgust.
“Yes, young sir—one of the best women that ever lived. She held me out to the devil, when she allowed me to kick the cat because it had made me fall.”
“Nonsense,” said Bonny, sharply.
“Not nonsense, but sound sense, sir. That was the beginning of the lack of self-restraint. Did I want her best cap to tear to ribbons? I got it.”
“Oh, get out,” interposed Tom, crossly. “You needn’t tell us that all spoiled children go to the bad.”
“Good London, no,” said the man, with a laugh. “Look at our millionaires. Could you find on the face of the earth a more absolute autocrat, a more heartless, up-to-date, determined-to-have-his-own-way, let-the-rest-of-you-go-to-the-dogs kind of a man, than the average American millionaire?”
The two young men eyed each other, and Bonny murmured, “You are an extremist.”
“It began away back,” continued the tramp, now thoroughly roused from his sleepy condition. “When our forefathers came from England, they brought that ugly, I’m-going-to-have-my-own-way spirit with them. Talk about the severity of England precipitating the Revolution. If they hadn’t made a revolution for us, we’d made one to order. Did you ever read about the levelling spirit of those days? I tell you this American nation is queer—it’s harder for a real, true blue son of the soil to keep straight, than it is for the son of any other nation under the heaven. We lack self-restraint. We’ll go to the bad if we want to, and none shall hinder us.”
The tramp paused for a minute in his semi-lazy, semi-animated discourse, and Tom, feeling that some remark was expected from him, said feebly, “You’re quite a moralizer.”
The tramp did not hear him. “I tell you,” he said, extending a dirty hand, “we’re the biggest, grandest, foolishest people on earth. We’re the nation of the future. We’ll govern the earth, and at the same time fail in governing ourselves. Look at the lynchings we have. The United States has the highest murder rate of any civilized country in the world. The average American will be a decent, moral, pay-his-bills sort of man, and yet he’ll have more tolerance for personal violence than a Turk has.”
“You’re a queer man,” said Bonny, musingly.
“We’ve got to have more law and order,” pursued the tramp. “The mothers have got to make their little ones eat their mush, or porridge, as they say over the line in Canada—not fling it out the window to the dogs. I tell you that’s where it begins, just where every good and bad thing begins—in the cradle. The average mother has too much respect for the squallings of her Young America. Let her spank him once in awhile, and keep him out of sight of the eagle.”
“Do you suppose,” said Bonny, solemnly, “that if you had been well spanked you would not be lying here?”
“Suppose,” repeated the tramp, leaning back, “I don’t suppose anything about it. I know it. If my mother and father had made me mind them, and kept me in nights, and trained me into decent, self-respecting manhood, I’d be standing beside you to-night, young sirs, beside you—beyond you—for I guess from your bearing you are only young men of average ability, and I tell you I was a power, when I’d study and let the drink alone.”
“You must have had a strange mother,” remarked Bonny.
The tramp suddenly raised himself again, and his sunburnt face grew redder. “For the love of Heaven,” he said, extending one ragged arm, “don’t say a word against her. The thought of her is the only thing that moves me. She loved me, and, unclean, characterless wretch that I am, she would love me yet if she were still alive.”
The man’s head sank on his arm, but not quickly enough. Tom and Bonny had both seen glistening in his eyes, not the one jewel they were jestingly in search of, but two priceless jewels that were not pearls, but diamonds.
“Come on, Bonny,” said Tom, roughly, as he drew him from the shed.
“Tom,” remarked Bonny, softly, as they went slowly up-stairs, “Berty wants you to do something for that fellow, doesn’t she?”
“Do you think it is of any use?”
“Are you going to try?”
Bonny made no further remarks until some time later, when they were standing on the front door-step, then he asked, thoughtfully, “What does Berty want you to do, Tom?”
“Start a cat-farm.”
“A cat-farm! What kind of cats?”
“Gutter cats, back yard cats, disreputable cats, I should guess from the character of the superintendent she has chosen,” replied Tom, gruffly.
“The superintendent being the tramp,” said Bonny, slyly.
“There’s no one else in question,” responded Tom.
“I think you are wrong about the nature of the beasts,” continued Bonny. “I believe Berty means pet cats—Angoras, and so on.”
“What sort are they?”
“Do you mean to say you haven’t noticed them? It’s the latest cry among the women—‘Give me a long-haired cat!’ Mrs. Darley-James has a beauty—snow-white with blue eyes.”
“All nonsense—these society women don’t know what to do to kill time.”
“They’re not all society women that have them. Old Mrs. McCarthy has a pair of dandies—and I find that the women who take up cat-culture are more kind to back yard tabbies.”
“Maybe you’re right, Bonny. I don’t call round on these women as you do.”
“Well,” said Bonny, apologetically, “I don’t see any harm in putting on your best coat and hat, and doing a woman who has invited you to her house the compliment of calling on her day.”
“Oh, dressing up,” said Tom, “is such a nuisance.”
“You can’t call on many that you’d be bothered with calling on without it. Sydney Gray tried calling on Margaretta on her day in a bicycle suit. He had ridden fifty miles, and was hot and dusty and perspiring. He had the impudence to go into Margaretta’s spick and span rooms and ask for a cup of tea. She was so sweet to him that he came away hugging himself—but he never got asked there again, and every once in awhile he says to some one, ‘Queer, isn’t it, that Mrs. Stanisfield gives me the go-by. I don’t know what I’ve done to offend her.’”
“Suppose we come back to Berty,” observed Tom. “If all the women here have cats, what does she want to start a farm for?”
“The women aren’t all supplied. The demand is increasing, and many would buy here that wouldn’t send away for one. Berty is more shrewd than you think. These cats sell for five and six dollars apiece at the least, and some are as high as twenty. I shouldn’t a bit wonder if it would turn out to be a good business speculation.”
“Well, then, you just meet some of the fellows in my office to-morrow evening and arrange for a house and lot for this man who is to boss the cats,” said Tom, dryly.
“All right, I’ll come—maybe Roger will, too.”
“Good night,” said Tom, “I’m off.”
“Good night,” returned Bonny, laconically, and, standing with his hands thrust in his pockets, he was looking down the street, when Tom suddenly turned back.
“I say, Bonny, your grandmother must have a good history of the Revolution.”
“She has two or three.”
“Ask her to lend me one, will you? I half forget what I learned in school.”
“Yes, sir; I’ll bring it to-morrow.”
Tom really went this time, and as he quickly disappeared from sight, Bonny, from his station on the door-step, kept muttering to himself, “Slipping through life, slipping through life. How easy to get on that greased path!”
“What are you saying to yourself?” asked a brisk voice.
Bonny, turning sharply, found Berty beside him.
“Nothing much—only that I was hungry. Let’s see what’s in the pantry.”
“Bonny, if I show you where there is a pie, the most beautiful pumpkin pie you ever saw, will you help me with my tramp?”
“I’ll do it for half a pie,” said Bonny, generously. “Come on, you young monkey.”