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  • 1915
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Give it up.”

“Give it up?”

“Yes, give it up. Give up this wearin’ yourself out keepin’ boarders and runnin’ this big house. Why don’t you stop takin’ care of other folks and take care of yourself for a spell?”

“But I can’t. I can’t take care of myself. All I have is invested in this place and if I give it up I lose everything.”

“Yes, yes, I know what you mean. But what I mean is–is–“

“What do you mean?”

“I mean–I mean why don’t you let somebody take care of you? That’s what I mean.”

Thankful turned to stare at him.

“Somebody–else–take care of me?” she repeated.

“Yes–yes. Don’t look at me like that. If you do I can’t say it. I’m–I’m havin’ a–a hard enough time sayin’ it as ’tis. Thankful Barnes, why–don’t LOOK at me, I tell you!”

But she still looked at him, and, if a look ever conveyed a meaning, hers did just then.

“I ain’t crazy,” declared Captain Obed. “I can see you think I am, but I ain’t. Thankful, I– Oh, thunderation! What is the matter with me? Thankful, let ME take care of you, will you?”

Thankful rose to her feet. “Obed Bangs!” she exclaimed.

“I mean it. I’ve been meanin’ it more and more ever since I first met you, but I ain’t had the spunk to say it. Now I’m goin’ to say it if I keel over on the last word. Thankful, why don’t you marry me?”

Thankful was speechless. The captain plunged desperately on.

“Will you, Thankful?” he begged. “I know I’m an old codger, but I ain’t in my second childhood, not yet. I–I’d try mighty hard to make you happy. I haven’t got anybody of my own in the world. Neither have you–except this brother of yours, and, judgin’ from his letter and what you say, HE won’t take any care; he’ll BE a care, that’s all. I ain’t rich, but I’ve got money enough to help you–and him–and me afloat and comf’table. Thankful, will you?”

Thankful was still looking at him. He would have spoken again, but she raised her hand and motioned him to silence.

“Obed,” she asked, after a moment, “what made you say this to me?”

“What made me say it? What kept me still so long, you ought to ask. Haven’t I come to think more and more of you ever since I knew you? Haven’t I been more and more sorry for you? And pitied you? I–“

She raised her hand again. “I see,” she said, slowly. “I see. Thank you, Obed. You’re so kind and self-sacrificin’ you’d do anything or say anything to help a–friend, wouldn’t you? But of course you can’t do this.”

“Can’t? Why can’t I? Self-sacrifice be hanged! Thankful, can’t you see–“

“Yes. Oh yes. I can see. . . . Now let’s talk about Jedediah. Do you think–“

“Jedediah be keelhauled! Will you marry me, Thankful Barnes?”

“Why no, Obed; of course I won’t.”

“You won’t? Why not?”

“Because–well, because I–I can’t. There, there, Obed! Please don’t ask me again. Please don’t!”

Captain Obed did not ask. He did not speak again for what, to Mrs. Barnes, seemed a long, long time. At length she could bear it no longer.

“PLEASE, Obed,” she begged.

The captain slowly shook his head. Then he laughed a short, mirthless laugh.

“What an old fool I am!” he muttered. “What an old fool!”

“Obed, don’t talk so! Don’t! Do you want to make this– everything–harder for me?”

He straightened and squared his shoulders.

“Thank you, Thankful,” he said, earnestly. “Thank you for sayin’ that. That’s the way to talk to me. I know I’m an old fool, but I won’t be any more, if I can help it. Make it harder for you? I guess not!”

“Obed, I’m so sorry.”

“Sho! sho! You needn’t be. . . . I’m all right. I’ve been dreamin’ foolish dreams, like a young feller after a church picnic dinner, but I’m awake now. Yes’m, I’m awake. Now just you forget that I talked in my sleep. Forget the whole of it and let’s get back to–to that brother of yours. We’ve got to locate him, that’s the first thing to be done. I’ll send a telegram right off to that Kelly man out in ‘Frisco askin’ if what’s-his-name–Jedediah–is there yet.”

“Obed, you won’t–you won’t feel hard towards me? You won’t let– this–interfere with our friendship?”

“Sho! Hush, hush, Thankful! You make me more ashamed of myself than ever, and that ain’t necessary. Now the first thing is to send that telegram. If we locate your brother then we’ll send him a ticket to Boston and some money. Don’t you worry, Thankful; we’ll get him here. And don’t you fret about the money neither. I’ll ‘tend to that and you can pay me afterwards.”

“No, no; of course I shan’t let–“

“Yes, you will. There’s some things you can’t stop and that’s one of ’em. You talked about our friendship, didn’t you? Well, unless you want me to believe I ain’t your friend, you’ll let me run my own course this time. So long, Thankful; I’m off to Chris Badger’s to send that telegram.”

He snatched up his cap and was on his way to the door. She followed him.

“Obed,” she faltered, “I–I– What CAN I say to you? You are SO good!”

“Tut! tut! Me good? Don’t let Heman Daniels hear you say that. He’s a church deacon and knows what goodness is. So long, Thankful. Soon’s I hear from Kelly, I’ll report.”

He hurried from the house. Thankful watched him striding down the path. Not once did he hesitate or look back. She turned from the door and, returning to her chair by the center table, sat down. For a moment she sat there and then, leaning her head upon her arms on the table, wept tears of absolute loneliness and despair.

The telegram to Michael Kelly of San Francisco brought an answer, but a most unsatisfactory one. Jedediah Cahoon had not been in the Kelly employ for more than six weeks. Kelly did not know where he had gone and, apparently, did not care. Captain Obed then wired and wrote the San Francisco police officials, urging them to trace the lost one. This they promised to do, but nothing came of it. The weeks passed and no word from them or from Jedediah himself was received. His letter had come to prove that, at the time it was written, he was alive; whether or not he was still alive, or where he might be if living, was as great a mystery as ever. Day after day Thankful watched and waited and hoped, but her waiting was unrewarded, and, though she still hoped, her hope grew steadily fainter; and the self-reproach and the worry greater in proportion.

She and Georgie and Imogene spent Thanksgiving Day alone. Heman Daniels and Mr. Hammond were invited out and Captain Obed, who had meant to eat his Thanksgiving dinner at the High Cliff House, was called to Boston on business connected with his fish selling, and could not return in time.

Early in December Thankful once more drove to Trumet to call upon Solomon Cobb. The question of the renewal of the mortgage she felt must remain a question no longer. But she obtained little satisfaction from her talk with the money-lender. Mr. Cobb’s first remark concerned the Holliday Kendrick offer to buy the “Cap’n Abner place.”

“Did he mean it, do you think?” he demanded. “Is he really so sot on buyin’ as folks say he is?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Huh! And he’s hired his lawyer–that young cousin of his–Bailey Kendrick’s son–to make you sell out to him?”

“Yes.”

“What’s the young feller done about it; anything?”

“No; nothin’ that I know of.”

“Humph! Sure of that, be ye? I hear he’s been spendin’ consider’ble time over to Ostable lately, hangin’ round the courthouse, and the probate clerk’s office. Know what he’s doin’ that for?”

“No, I didn’t know he had. How did you know it?”

“I knew. Ain’t much goin’ on that I don’t know; I make it my business to know. Why don’t you sell out to old Holliday?”

“I don’t want to sell. My boardin’-house has just got a good start and why should I give it up? I won’t sell.”

“Oh, you won’t! Pretty independent for anybody with a mortgage hangin’ over ’em, ain’t ye?”

“Solomon, are you goin’ to renew that mortgage when it comes due?”

Mr. Cobb pulled his whiskers. “I don’t know’s I am and I don’t know’s I ain’t,” he said. “This Kendrick business kind of mixes things up. Might be a good idea for me to foreclose that mortgage and sell the place to him at my own price. Eh? What do you think of that?”

“You wouldn’t do it! You couldn’t be so–“

“So what? Business is business and if he’s goin’ to put you out anyhow, I don’t see why I shouldn’t get my share of the pickin’s.”

“But he ain’t goin’ to put me out.”

“He says he is. Now–now–clear out and don’t bother me. When that mortgage falls due I’ll let you know what I intend doin’ with it. If you pester me now I won’t renew anyhow. Go along home and quit your frettin’. Long’s you’re there, you BE there. What more do you want?”

There was a good deal more of this sort of thing, but it was all quite as unsatisfactory. Thankful gave it up at last.

“I shan’t come here again,” she declared desperately. “If you want to see me you can come to my place.”

“Humph!”

“Well, you will, or not see me. Why haven’t you been there? Time and time again you have promised to come, but you never have. I shall begin to believe there is some reason why you don’t want to go into that house.”

She was on her way to the door, but Solomon called after her.

“Here!” he shouted. “Hold on! What do you mean by that? Why shouldn’t I go into that house if I want to? Why shouldn’t I?”

“I don’t know; all I know is that you don’t seem to want to. I can’t say why you don’t want to, but–“

“But what?”

“But, maybe, if someone that’s dead and gone was here–he could.”

“He–he–who? What? Hi! Where you goin’?”

“I’m goin’ home.”

“No, you ain’t–not until you tell me what you mean by–by somebody that’s dead and gone. What kind of talk is that? What do you mean?”

“Maybe I don’t know what I mean, Solomon; but I think you do. If you don’t then your looks belie you, that’s all.”

She went out of the “henhouse.” As she drove away she saw Mr. Cobb peering at her through the window. He was “weeding” with both hands and he looked agitated and–yes, frightened. Thankful was more than ever certain that his mysterious behavior was in some way connected with his past dealings with her Uncle Abner, but, not knowing what those dealings might have been, the certainty was not likely to help her. And he had not said that he would renew the mortgage.

Georgie was the first to meet her when she drove into the yard. He had been spending the day with Captain Obed and had coaxed the latter into telling him stories of Santa Claus. Georgie’s mind was now filled with anticipations of Christmas and Christmas presents, and his faith in Santa, which had been somewhat shaken during his year at kindergarten in South Middleboro, was reviving again. The captain and Imogene and Mrs. Barnes all helped in the revival. “Christmas loses three-quarters of its fun when old Santa’s took out of it,” declared Captain Obed. “I know, ‘count of havin’ been a young one myself a thousand year ago or such matter. This’ll probably be the second mate’s last Santa Claus Christmas, so let’s keep this one the real thing for the boy.”

So he and Imogene and Thankful–yes, even Kenelm–discussed Santa for Georgie’s benefit and Georgie believed, although his belief was not as absolute and unquestioning as it had once been. He asked a great many questions, some of which his elders found hard to answer. His dearest wish was for an air-gun, but somehow Mrs. Barnes did not seem to think the wish would be gratified. She had a strong presentiment that the combination of Georgie and an air- gun and the chickens might not be a desirable one, especially for the chickens.

“But why won’t he bring it, Auntie?” demanded Georgie. “You say he brings good boys what they want. I’ve been a good boy, ain’t I?”

“‘Deed you have. I wouldn’t ask for a better one.”

“Then why won’t Santa bring me the gun?”

“Perhaps he’ll think a gun isn’t nice for such a little boy to have.”

“But it is nice. It’s nicer’n anything. If I’m good and I want it I don’t see why I can’t have it. I think Santa’s mean if he don’t bring it.”

“Oh no, he isn’t mean. Just think how good he is! He comes to every boy and girl–“

“No, he don’t.”

“Why yes, he does. To every good little boy and girl.”

“He never came to Patsy Leary that lived up on the lots in Middleboro. Patsy said he didn’t; he said there wasn’t any Santa Claus, Patsy did.”

“Hum! Perhaps Patsy wasn’t good.”

“Gee! Yes, he was. He can play baseball better’n any boy I know. And he can lick any kid his size; he told me he could.”

This crushing proof of young Leary’s goodness was a staggerer for Thankful. Before she could think of a reply Georgie asked another question.

“You say he’ll come down the chimney?” he queried.

“Yes.”

“The livin’-room chimney?”

“Yes, probably.”

“No, he won’t.”

“Georgie!”

“How can he? He’s so fat; he’s ever so fat in the pictures. How can he get through the stovepipe?”

Mrs. Barnes’ answer was evasive and Georgie noticed the evasion. However, his trust in his Aunt Thankful was absolute and if she said a fat man could get through a stovepipe he probably could. But the performance promised to be an interesting one. Georgie wished he might see it. He thought a great deal about it and, little by little, a plan began forming in his mind.

Three days before Christmas Emily Howes arrived at the High Cliff House. She was received with rejoicings. The young lady looked thinner than when she went away and seemed more grave and careworn. But when Thankful commented upon her appearance Emily only laughed and declared herself quite well and perfectly happy. She and her cousin discussed all topics of common interest except one, that one was John Kendrick. Once or twice Thankful mentioned the young man’s name, but invariably Emily changed the subject. It was evident that she did not wish to speak of John; also it was, to Mrs. Barnes, just as evident that she thought of him. Thankful believed that those thoughts were responsible for the change in her relative’s look and manner.

Christmas was to be, as Thanksgiving had been, a day free from boarders at the High Cliff House. Caleb was again “asked out,” and Mr. Daniels, so he said, “called away.” He had spent little time in East Wellmouth of late, though no one seemed to know exactly where he had been or why.

The day before Christmas was cold and threatening. Late in the afternoon it began to rain and the wind to blow. By supper time a fairly able storm had developed and promised to develop still more. Captain Obed, his arms filled with packages, all carefully wrapped and all mysterious and not to be opened till the next day, came in just after supper.

“Where’s that second mate of mine?” whispered the captain, anxiously. When told that Georgie was in the kitchen with Imogene he sighed in relief.

“Good!” he said. “Hide those things as quick as ever you can, afore he lays eyes on ’em. He’s sharper’n a sail needle, that young one is, and if he can’t see through brown paper he can GUESS through it, I bet you. Take em away and put ’em out of sight– quick.”

Emily hurried upstairs with the packages. Captain Obed turned to Thankful.

“How is she these days?” he asked, with a jerk of the head in the direction taken by Miss Howes.

“She’s pretty well, or she says she is. I ain’t so sure myself. I’m afraid she thinks about–about HIM more than she makes believe. I’m afraid matters between them two had gone farther’n we guessed.”

Captain Obed nodded. “Shouldn’t wonder,” he said. “John looks pretty peaked, too. I saw him just now.”

“You did? John Kendrick? He’s been out of town for a week or two, so I heard. Where did you see him?”

“At the Centre depot. I was up to the Centre–er–buyin’ a few things and he got off the noon train.”

“Did you speak to him?”

“Yes, or he spoke to me. He and I ain’t said much to each other– what little we’ve seen of each other lately–but that’s been his fault more’n ’twas mine. He sung out to me this time, though, and I went over to the platform. Say,” after a moment’s hesitation, “there’s another thing I want to ask you. How’s Heman Daniels actin’ since Emily come? Seems more’n extry happy, does he?”

“Why–why, no. He’s been away, too, a good deal; on business, he said.”

“Humph! He and–er–Emily haven’t been extra thick, then?”

“No. Come to think of it they’ve hardly seen each other. Emily has acted sort of–sort of queer about him, too. She didn’t seem to want to talk about him more’n she has about John.”

“Humph! That’s funny. I can’t make it out. You see Heman got on that same train John got off. He was comin’ along the depot platform just as I got to it. And the depot-master sung out to him.”

“The depot-master? Eben Foster, you mean?”

“Yup. He sung out, ‘Congratulations, Heman,’ says he.”

“‘What you congratulatin’ him for?’ says I.

“‘Ain’t you heard?’ says he. ‘He’s engaged to be married’.”

Thankful uttered an exclamation.

“Engaged!” she repeated. “Mr. Daniels engaged–to be married?”

“So Eben said. I wanted to ask a million questions, of course, but John Kendrick was right alongside me and I couldn’t. John must have heard it, too, and it did seem to me that he looked pretty well shook up, but he wa’n’t any more shook than I was. I thought– Well, you see, I thought–“

Thankful knew what he had thought. She also was “shaken up.”

“I don’t believe it,” she cried. “If–if–it can’t he HER. Why, she would have told me, I’m sure. Obed, you don’t think–“

“I don’t know what to think. Heman’s been writin’ her pretty reg’lar, I know that, ’cause Chris Badger told me so a week after she’d gone. I don’t know, Thankful; one thing’s sartin, Heman’s kept his engagement mighty quiet. How Eben learned of it I don’t know, but nobody in East Wellmouth knows, for I’ve been soundin’ ever since I struck here.”

Thankful was greatly troubled. “I HOPE it ain’t true,” she cried. “I suppose he’s all right, but–but I didn’t want Emily to marry him.”

“Neither did I. Perhaps she ain’t goin’ to. Perhaps it’s just a round-the-stove lie, like a shipload of others that’s set afloat every day. But, from somethin’ John Kendrick said to me on that platform I knew he heard what Eben said.”

“How do you know?”

“‘Cause he as much as told me so. ‘Is it true?’ says he.

“‘I don’t know,’ says I. ‘First I’d heard of it, if ’tis.’

“He just nodded his head and seemed to be thinkin’. When he did speak ’twas more to himself than to me. ‘Well,’ says he, ‘then that settles it. I can do it now with a clear conscience.’

“‘Do what?’ I asked him.

“‘Oh, nothin’,’ he says. ‘Cap’n Obed, are you goin’ to be busy all day tomorrow? I know it’s Christmas, of course; but are you?’

“‘Not so busy it’ll wreck my nerves keepin’ up with my dates,’ says I. ‘Why?’

“‘Can you spare a half-hour or so to come ’round to my office at– well, say two tomorrow afternoon? I’ve got a little business of my own and I’d like to have you there. Will you come?’

“‘Sartin,’ I told him.

“‘Of course, if you’re afraid of the moral leprosy–‘

“‘I ain’t.’

“‘Then I’ll look for you,’ says he, and off he went. I ain’t seen him since. He come down along of Winnie S. and I had one of Chris Badger’s teams. Now WHAT do you cal’late it all means?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. But I can’t think Emily– Hush! she’s comin’.”

Emily entered the room and Captain Obed began philosophically concerning the storm, which he declared was “liable to be a hooter.”

He went away soon after. At the door, when he and Mrs. Barnes were alone, he whispered, “Ain’t changed your mind, have you, Thankful? About–about what I said to you that day?”

“Obed, please! You said you wouldn’t.”

“All right, all right. Well, good night. I’ll be around tomorrow to wish you and Emily and the second mate a merry Christmas. Good night, Thankful.”

After he had gone Thankful and Emily assisted Georgie in hanging up his stocking and preparing for bed. The boy seemed willing to retire, a most unusual willingness for him. His only worry appeared to be concerning Santa Claus, whom he feared might be delayed in his rounds by the storm.

“He’ll be soaked, soppin’ wet, won’t he?” he asked anxiously.

“Oh, he won’t mind. Santa Claus don’t mind this kind of weather. He lives up at the North Pole, so folks say.”

“Yes. Won’t the chimney soot all stick to him when he’s wet? He’ll be a sight, won’t he?”

“Perhaps so, but he won’t mind that, either. Now, you go to bed, Georgie, like a good boy.”

“I’m a-goin’. Say, Aunt Thankful, will the soot come all off on my presents?”

They got him into bed at last and descended to the living-room. The storm was worse than ever. The wind howled and the rain beat. Emily shivered.

“Mercy! What a night!” she exclaimed. “It reminds me of our first night in this house, Auntie.”

“Does; that’s a fact. Well, I hope there’s nobody prowlin’ around lookin’ for a place to put their head in, the way we were then. I–what’s that?”

“What? What, Auntie? I didn’t hear anything.”

“I thought I did. Sounded as if somebody was–and they are! Listen!”

Emily listened. From without, above the noise of the wind and rain and surf, came a shout.

“Hi!” screamed a high-pitched voice. “Hi! Let me in. I–I’m drownin’.”

Thankful rushed to the door and, exerting all her strength, pushed it open against the raging storm.

“There’s nobody here,” she faltered.

“But–but there is, Auntie. I heard someone. I–“

She stopped, for, out of the drenched darkness staggered a figure, the figure of a man. He plunged across the threshold, tripped over the mat and fell in a heap upon the floor.

Emily shrieked. Mrs. Barnes pulled the door shut and ran to the prostrate figure.

“Who is it?” she asked. “Who IS it? Are you hurt?”

The figure raised its head.

“Hurt!” it panted. “It’s a wonder I ain’t dead. What’s the matter with ye? Didn’t you hear me yellin’ for you to open that door?”

Thankful drew a long breath.

“For mercy sakes!” she cried. “Solomon Cobb! WHAT are you doin’ over here a night like this?”

CHAPTER XIV

Mr. Cobb slowly raised his head. He looked about him in a bewildered way, and then his gaze fixed itself upon Mrs. Barnes.

“What–why–YOU!” he gasped.

“Eh?” stammered Thankful, whose surprise and bewilderment were almost as great as his. “Eh? What?”

“You?” repeated Solomon. “What–what are you doin’ here?”

“What am I doin’ here? What am I doin’?”

“Yes.” Then, after another stare about the room, he added: “This ain’t Kenelm Parker’s house? Whose house is it?”

“It’s my house, of course. Emily, go and fetch some–some water or somethin’. He’s out of his head.”

Emily hurried to the kitchen, Thankful hastened to help the unexpected visitor to his feet. But the visitor declined to be helped.

“Let me alone,” he roared. “Let me be. I–I want to know whose house this is?”

“It’s my house, I tell you. You ought to know whose house it is. Land sakes! You and I have had talk enough about it lately. Don’t you know where you are? What are you sittin’ there on the floor for? Are you hurt?”

Slowly Mr. Cobb rose to his feet.

“Do you mean to tell me,” he demanded, “that this is–is Abner’s place? How’d I get here?”

“I don’t know. I ain’t hardly had time to make sure you are here yet. And I’m sartin YOU ain’t sure. That was an awful tumble you got. Seems as if you must have hurt yourself. And you’re soppin’ wet through! What in the WORLD?”

She moved toward him again, but he waved her away.

“Let me alone!” he ordered. “I was headin’ for Kenelm Parker’s. How’d I get here?”

“I tell you I don’t know. I suppose you lost your way. No wonder, such a night’s this. Set down. Let me get you somethin’ hot to drink. Come out in the kitchen by the cookstove. Don’t–“

“Hush up! Let me think. I never see such a woman to talk. I–I don’t see how I done it. I left Chris Badger’s and came across the fields and–“

“And you took the wrong path, I guess, likely. Did you WALK from Chris Badger’s? Where’s your horse and team? You didn’t walk from the Centre, did you?”

“‘Course I didn’t. Think I’m a dum fool? My horse fell down and hurt his knee and I left him in Badger’s barn. I cal’lated to go to Kenelm’s and put up over night. I–“

He was interrupted by Emily, who entered with a glass in her hand.

“Here’s the water, Auntie,” she said. “Is he better now?”

“Better?” snorted Solomon. “What’s the matter with you? I ain’t sick. What you got in that tumbler? Water! What in time do I want of any more water? Don’t I look as if I’d had water enough to last me one spell? I’m–consarn it all, I’m a reg’lar sponge! How far off is Kenelm’s from here? How long will it take me to get there?”

Thankful answered, and her answer was decisive.

“I don’t know,” she said, “but I do know you ain’t goin’ to try to get anywhere ’till mornin’. You and I ain’t been any too lovin’, Solomon Cobb, but I shan’t take the responsibility of your dyin’ of pneumonia. You’ll stay right here, and the first thing I’ll do is head off that chill you’ve got this very minute.”

There was no doubt about the chill. Solomon’s face and hands were blue and he was shaking from head to foot. But his determination was unshaken. He strode to the door.

“How do I get to Parker’s?” he demanded.

“I tell you you mustn’t go to Parker’s or anywhere else. You’re riskin’ your life.”

Mr. Cobb did not answer. He lifted the latch and pulled the door open. A howling gust of wind-driven rain beat in upon him, drenching the carpet and causing the lamp to flicker and smoke. For a moment Solomon gazed out into the storm; then he relinquished his hold and staggered back.

“I–I can’t do it!” he groaned. “I’ve GOT to stay here! I’ve GOT to!”

Thankful, exerting all her strength, closed the door and locked it. “Indeed you’ve got to,” she declared. “Now go out into the kitchen and set by the stove while I heat a kettle and make you some ginger tea or somethin’.”

Solomon hesitated.

“He must, Aunt Thankful,” urged Emily; “he really must.”

The visitor turned to stare at her.

“Who are you?” he demanded, ungraciously. Then, as another chill racked him from head to foot, he added: “I don’t care. Take me somewheres and give me somethin’–ginger tea or–or kerosene or anything else, so it’s hot. I–I’m–sho–oo–ook all to–pi–ic– ces.”

They led him to the kitchen, where Thankful prepared the ginger tea. During its preparation she managed to inform Emily concerning the identity of their unexpected lodger. Solomon, introduced to Miss Howes, merely grunted and admitted that he had “heard tell” of her. His manner might have led a disinterested person to infer that what he had heard was not flattering. He drank his tea, and as he grew warmer inside and out his behavior became more natural, which does not mean that it was either gracious or grateful.

At length he asked what time it was. Thankful told him.

“I think you’d better be gettin’ to bed, Solomon,” she suggested. “I’ll hunt up one of Mr. Caleb Hammond’s nightshirts, and while you’re sleepin’ your wet clothes can be dryin’ here by the cookstove.”

Solomon grunted, but he was, apparently, willing to retire. Then came the question as to where he should sleep. Emily offered a suggestion.

“Why don’t you put him in the back room, Auntie,” she said. “The one Miss Timpson used to have. That isn’t occupied now and the bed is ready.”

Thankful hesitated. “I don’t know’s he’d better have that room, Emily,” she said.

“Why not? I’m sure it’s a very nice room.”

“Yes, I know it is, but–“

“But what?”

Mr. Cobb had a remark to make.

“Well, come on, come on,” he said, testily. “Put me somewheres and do it quick. Long’s I’ve GOT to sleep in this house I might’s well be doin’ it. Where is this room you’re talkin’ about? Let’s see it.”

Emily took the lamp and led the way up the back stairs. Solomon followed her and Thankful brought up the rear. She felt a curious hesitancy in putting even her disagreeable relative in that room on this night. Around the gables and upon the roof the storm whined and roared as it had the night when she first explored that upper floor. And she remembered, now, that it had stormed, though not as hard, the night when Miss Timpson received her “warning.” If there were such things as ghosts, and if the little back bedroom WAS haunted, a night like this was the time for spectral visitations. She had half a mind to give Mr. Cobb another room.

But, before she could decide what to do, before the struggle between her common-sense and what she knew were silly forebodings was at an end, the question was decided for her. Solomon had entered the large room and expressed his approval of it.

“This’ll do first rate,” he said. “Why didn’t you want to put me in here? Suppose you thought ’twas too good for me, eh? Well, it might be for some folks, but not for me. What’s that, a closet?”

He was pointing to the closed door of the little room, the one which Miss Timpson had intended using as a study. Thankful had, after her last night of fruitless spook hunting, closed the door and locked it.

“What’s this door locked for?” asked Mr. Cobb, who had walked over and was trying the knob.

“Oh, nothing; it’s just another empty room, that’s all. There’s nothin’ in it.”

“Humph! Is that so? What do you lock up a room with nothin’ in it for?” He turned the key and flung the door open. “Ugh!” he grunted, in evident disappointment. “‘Tis empty, ain’t it? Well, good night.”

Emily, whose face expressed a decided opinion concerning the visitor, walked out into the hall. Thankful remained.

“Solomon,” she said, in a whisper, “tell me. Have you made up your mind about that mortgage?”

“Um? No, I ain’t. Part of what I came over here today for was to find out a little more about this property and about Holliday Kendrick’s offer for it. I may have a talk with him afore I decide about renewin’ that mortgage. It looks to me as if ‘twould be pretty good business to dicker with him. He’s got money, and if I can get some of it, so much the better for me.”

“Solomon, you don’t mean–“

“I don’t know what I mean yet, I tell ye. But I do tell you this: I’m a business man and I know the value of money. I worked hard for what I got; ‘twa’n’t left me by nobody, like some folks’s I hear of. Don’t ask me no more questions. I’ll see old Kendrick tomorrow, maybe; he’s expected down.”

“He is? Mr. Holliday Kendrick? How do you know?”

“I know ’cause I found out, same as I usually find out things. Chris Badger got a telegram through his office from Holliday to John Kendrick sayin’ he’d come on the noon train.”

“But why should he come? And on Christmas day?”

“I don’t know. Probably he ain’t so silly about Christmas as the average run of idiots. He’s a business man, too. There! Good night, good night. Leave me alone so’s I can say my prayers and turn in. I’m pretty nigh beat out.”

“And you won’t tell me about that mortgage?”

“No. I’ll tell you when my mind’s made up; that ain’t yet.”

Thankful turned to go. At the threshold she spoke once more.

“I wonder what you say in those prayers of yours, Solomon,” she observed. “I should imagine the Lord might find ’em interestin’.”

“I’m glad I said it, Emily,” she told her cousin, who was awaiting her in her bedroom. “I presume likely it’ll do more harm than good, but it did ME good while I was sayin’ it. The mean, stingy old hypocrite! Now let’s go downstairs and fill Georgie’s stockin’.”

But that ceremony, it appeared, must be deferred. Georgie was still wide-awake. He called to Emily to ask if the man who had come was Santa Claus.

“The little rascal,” chuckled Thankful. “Well,” with a sigh, “he’ll never make a worse guess if he lives to be as old as Methuselah’s grandmarm. Emily, you sneak down and fetch the stockin’ and the presents up here to my room. We’ll do the fillin’ here and hang up the stockin’ in the mornin’ afore he gets up.”

While they were filling the stocking and tying the packages containing gifts too bulky to be put in it Miss Howes cross- questioned her cousin. Emily had been most unfavorably impressed with Mr. Cobb during this, her first, meeting with him, and her suspicions concerning Thankful’s financial affairs, already aroused by the lady’s reticence, were now active. She questioned and, after a time, Thankful told her, first a little and then all the truth.

“I didn’t mean to tell you, Emily,” she said, tearfully. “I didn’t mean to tell a soul, but I–I just couldn’t keep it to myself any longer. If he doesn’t renew that mortgage–and goodness knows what he’ll do after he talks with Mr. Holliday Kendrick–I–I don’t see how I can help losin’ everything. It’s either that or sell out, and I don’t want to sell–Oh, I don’t! I know I can make a go of this place of mine if I have another year of it. I KNOW I can.”

Emily was very much excited and fiercely indignant.

“The beast!” she cried, referring to the pious occupant of the back bedroom; “the mean, wicked, miserable old miser! To think of his being a relative of yours, Aunt Thankful, and treating you so! And accepting your hospitality at the very time when he is considering taking your home away from you!”

Thankful smiled ruefully. “As to that, Emily,” she said, “I ain’t greatly surprised. Judgin’ by what I’ve seen of Sol Cobb, I should say ’twas a part of his gospel to accept anything he can get for nothin’. But how he can have the face to pray while he’s doin’ it I don’t see. What kind of a God does he think he’s prayin’ to? I should think he’d be scared to get down on his knees for fear he’d never be let up again. Well, if there IS a ghost in that room I should say this was its chance.”

“A ghost? What are you talking about, Auntie?”

“Eh? Oh, nothin’, nothin’. Did I say ‘ghost’? I didn’t realize what I said, I guess.”

“Then why did you say it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. . . . There, there, don’t let’s get any more foolish than we can help. Let’s go to bed. We’ll have to turn out awful early in the mornin’ to get Georgie’s stockin’ hung up and his presents ready. Now trot off to bed, Emily.”

“Aunt Thankful, you’re hiding something from me. I know you are.”

“Now, Emily, you know I wouldn’t–“

“Yes, you would. At least, you have. All this time you have been deceiving me about that mortgage. And now I think there is something else. What did you mean by a ghost in that room?”

“I didn’t mean anything. There ain’t any ghost in that room–the one Solomon’s in.”

“In THAT room? Is there one in another room?”

“Now, Emily–“

“Aunt Thankful, there is something strange in some room; don’t deny it. You aren’t accustomed to deceiving people, and you can’t deceive me now. Tell me the truth.”

“Well, Emily, it’s all such perfect foolishness. You don’t believe in ghosts, do you?”

“Of course I don’t.”

“Neither do I. Whatever it is that snores and groans in that little back room ain’t–“

“AUNTIE! What DO you mean?”

Thankful was cornered. Her attempts at evasion were useless and, little by little, Emily drew from her the story of the little back bedroom, of her own experience there the night of their first visit, of what Winnie S. had said concerning the haunting of the “Cap’n Abner place,” and of Miss Timpson’s “warning.” She told it in a low tone, so as not to awaken Georgie, and, as she spoke, the wind shrieked and wailed and groaned, the blinds creaked, the water dripped and gurgled in the gutters, and the shadows outside the circle of light from the little hand lamp were black and threatening. Emily, as she listened, felt the cold shivers running up and down her spine. It is one thing to scoff at superstition in the bright sunlight; it is quite another to listen to a tale like this on a night like this in a house a hundred years old. Miss Howes scoffed, it is true, but the scoffing was not convincing.

“Nonsense!” she said, stoutly. “A ghost that snores? Who ever heard of such a thing?”

“Nobody ever did, I guess,” Thankful admitted. “It’s all too silly for anything, of course. I KNOW it’s silly; but, Emily, there’s SOMETHIN’ queer about that room. I told you what I heard; somethin’ or somebody said, ‘Oh, Lord!’ as plain as ever I heard it said. And somethin’ or somebody snored when Miss Timpson was there. And, of course, when they tell me how old Mr. Eldredge snored in that very room when he was dyin’, and how Miss Timpson’s sister snored when SHE was sick, it–it–“

“Oh, stop, Auntie! You will have ME believing in–in things, if you keep on. It’s nonsense and you and I will prove it so before I go back to Middleboro. Now you must go to bed.”

“Yes, I’m goin’. Well, if there is a ghost in that room it’ll have its hands full with Sol Cobb. He’s a tough old critter, if ever there was one. Good night, Emily.”

“Good night, Aunt Thankful. Don’t worry about the–ha! ha!–ghost, will you?”

“No, I’ve got enough to worry about this side of the grave. . . . Mercy! what’s the matter?”

“Nothing! I–I thought I heard a noise in–in the hall. I didn’t though.”

“No, course you didn’t. Shall I go to your room with you?”

“No indeed! I–I should be ashamed to have you. Where is Imogene?”

“She’s up in her room. She went to bed early. Goodness! Hear that wind. It cries like–like somethin’ human.”

“It’s dreadful. It is enough to make anyone think. . . . There! If you and I talk any longer we shall both be behaving like children. Good night.”

“Good night, Emily. Is Georgie asleep at last?”

“I think so. I haven’t heard a sound from him. Call me early, Auntie.”

Thankful lit her own lamp; Emily took the one already lighted and hastened down the hall. Thankful shut the door and prepared for bed. The din of the storm was terrific. The old house shook as if it were trembling with fright and screaming in the agony of approaching dissolution. It was a long time before Thankful fell asleep, but at last she did.

She was awakened by a hand upon her arm and a voice whispering in her ear.

“Auntie!” whispered Emily. “Auntie, wake up! Oh, DO wake up!”

Thankful was broad awake in a moment. She sat up in bed. The room was in black darkness, and she felt rather than saw Miss Howes standing beside her.

“What is it, Emily?” she cried. “What is the matter?”

“Hush, hush! Don’t speak so loud. Get up! Get up and light the lamp.”

Thankful sprang out of bed and hunted for the matchbox. She found it after a time and the lamp was lighted. Emily, wearing a wrapper over her night clothes, was standing by the door, apparently listening. Her face was white and she was trembling.

“What IS it?” whispered Thankful.

“Hush! I don’t know what it is. Listen!”

Thankful listened. All she heard were the noises of the storm.

“I don’t hear anything,” she said.

“No–no, you can’t hear it from here. Come out into the hall.”

Cautiously and on tiptoe she led the way to the hall and toward the head of the front stairs. There she seized her cousin’s arm and whispered in her ear.

“Listen–!” she breathed.

Thankful listened.

“Why–why,” she whispered, “there’s somebody down in the livin’- room! Who is it?”

“I don’t know. There are more than one, for I heard them talking. Who CAN it be?”

Thankful listened again.

“Where’s Georgie?” she whispered, after a moment.

“In his room, I suppose. . . . What? You don’t think–“

Thankful had tiptoed back to her own room and was returning with the lamp. Together they entered Georgie’s bed chamber. But bed and room were empty. Georgie was not there.

CHAPTER XV

Georgie had gone to bed that Christmas Eve with a well-defined plan in his small head. He knew what he intended doing and how he meant to do it. The execution of this plan depended, first of all, upon his not falling asleep, and, as he was much too excited to be in the least sleepy, he found no great difficulty in carrying out this part of his scheme.

He had heard the conversation accompanying Mr. Cobb’s unexpected entrance and had waited anxiously to ask concerning the visitor’s identity. When assured by his sister that Santa had not arrived ahead of time he settled down again to wait, as patiently as he could, for the “grown-ups” to retire.

So he waited and waited. The clock struck ten and then eleven. Georgie rose, tiptoed to his door and listened. There were no sounds except those of the storm. Then, still on tiptoe, the boy crept along the hall to the front stairs, down these stairs and into the living-room. The fire in the “airtight” stove showed red behind the isinglass panes, and the room was warm and comfortable.

Georgie did not hesitate; his plan was complete to the minutest details. By the light from the stove he found his way to the sofa which stood against the wall on the side of the room opposite the windows. There was a heavy fringe on the sofa which hung almost to the floor. The youngster lay flat upon the floor and crept under the fringe and beneath the sofa. There he lay still. Aunt Thankful and Captain Obed and Imogene had said there was a Santa Claus; the boy in South Middleboro had said there was none; Georgie meant to settle the question for himself this very night. This was his plan: to hide in that living-room and wait until Santa came–if he came at all.

It was lonely and dark and stuffy under the sofa and the beat of the rain and the howling gale outside were scary sounds for a youngster no older than he. But Georgie was plucky and determined beyond his years. He was tempted to give up and scamper upstairs again, but he fought down the temptation. If no Santa Claus came then he should know the Leary boy was right. If he did come then– well then, his only care must be not to be caught watching.

Twelve o’clock struck; Georgie’s eyes were closing. He blinked owl-like under the fringe at the red glow behind the isinglass. His head, pillowed upon his outstretched arms, felt heavy and drowsy. He must keep awake, he MUST. So, in order to achieve this result, he began to count the ticks of the big clock in the corner. One–two–three–and so on up to twenty-two. He lost count then; his eyes closed, opened, and closed again. His thoughts drifted away from the clock, drifted to–to . . .

His eyes opened again. There was a sound in the room, a strange, new sound. No, it was not in the room, it was in the dining-room. He heard it again. Someone in that dining-room was moving cautiously. The door between the rooms was open and he could hear the sound of careful footsteps.

Georgie was frightened, very much frightened. He was seized with a panic desire to scream and rush up-stairs. He did not scream, but he thrust one bare foot from beneath the sofa. Then he hastily drew it in again, for the person in the dining-room, whoever he or she might be, was coming toward the door.

A moment later there was a scratching sound and the living-room was dimly illumined by the flare of a match. The small and trembling watcher beneath the sofa shut his eyes in fright. When he opened them the lamp upon the center table was lighted and Santa Claus himself was standing by the table peering anxiously about.

It was Santa–Georgie made up his mind to that immediately. There was the pack, the pack which the pictured Santa Claus always carried, to prove it, although in this instance the pack was but a small and rather dirty bundle. There were other points of difference between the real Santa and the pictures; for instance, instead of being clothed entirely in furs, this one’s apparel seemed to be, for the most part, rags, and soaked and dripping rags at that. But he did wear a fur cap, a mangy one which looked like a drowned cat, and his beard, though ragged like his garments, was all that might be desired. Yes, it was Santa Claus who had come, just as they said he would, although–and Georgie’s doubts were so far justified–he had NOT come down the living-room chimney.

Santa was cold, it seemed, for his first move was to go to the stove and stand by it, shivering and warming his hands. During this operation he kept looking fearfully about him and, apparently, listening. Then, to Georgie’s chagrin and disappointment, he took up the lamp and tiptoed into the dining-room again. However, he had not gone for good, for his pack was still upon the floor where he had dropped it. And a few minutes later he reappeared, his pockets bulging and in his free hand the remains of half a ham, which Georgie himself had seen Aunt Thankful put away in the pantry.

He replaced the lamp on the table and from his pockets extracted the end of a loaf of bread, several doughnuts and a half-dozen molasses cookies. Then he seated himself in a chair by the stove and proceeded to eat, hungrily, voraciously, first the ham and bread and then the doughnuts and cookies. And as he ate he looked and listened, occasionally starting as if in alarm.

At last, when he had eaten everything but the ham bone, he rose to his feet and turned his attention to the pack upon the floor. This was what Georgie had been waiting for, and as Santa fumbled with the pack, his back to the sofa, the boy parted the fringe and peered at him with eager expectation.

The pack, according to every story Georgie had been told, should have been bulging with presents; but if the latter were there they were under more old clothes, even worse than those the Christmas saint was wearing. Santa Claus hurriedly pawed over the upper layer and then took out a little package wrapped in tissue paper. Untying the string, he exposed a small pasteboard box and from this box he lifted some cotton and then–a ring.

It was a magnificent ring, so Georgie thought. It had a big green stone in the center and the rest was gold, or what looked like gold. Santa seemed to think well of it, too, for he held it to the lamplight and moved it back and forth, watching the shine of the green stone. Then he put the ring down, tore a corner from the piece of tissue paper, rummaged the stump of a pencil out of his rags, and, humping himself over the table, seemed to be writing.

It took him a long time and was plainly hard work, for he groaned occasionally and kept putting the point of the pencil into his mouth. Georgie’s curiosity grew stronger each second. Unconscious of what he was doing, he parted the fringe still more and thrust out his head for a better view. The top of his head struck the edge of the sofa with a dull thump.

Santa Claus jumped as if someone had stuck a pin into him and turned. That portion of his face not covered by the scraggly beard was as white as mud and dirt would permit.

“Who–who be YOU?” he demanded in a frightened whisper.

Georgie was white and frightened also, but he manfully crept out from beneath the sofa.

“Who be you?” repeated Santa.

“I–I’m Georgie,” stammered the boy.

“Georgie! Georgie who?”

“Georgie Hobbs. The–the boy that lives here.”

“Lives–lives HERE?”

“Yes.” It seemed strange that the person reputed to know all the children in the world did not recognize him at sight.

Apparently he did not, however, for after an instant of silent and shaky inspection he said:

“You mean to say you live here–in this house? Who do you live with?”

“Mrs. Barnes, her that owns the house.”

Santa gasped audibly. “You–you live with HER?” he demanded. “Good Lord! She–she ain’t married again, is she?”

“Married! No–no, sir, she ain’t married.”

“Then–then–See here, boy; what’s your name–your whole name?”

“George Ellis Hobbs. I’m Mr. Hobbs’s boy, up to South Middleboro, you know. I’m down here stayin’ with Aunt Thankful. She–“

“Sshh! sshh! Don’t talk so loud. So you’re Mr. Hobbs’s boy, eh? What–eh? Oh, yes, yes. You’re ma was–was Sarah Cahoon, wa’n’t she?”

“Yes, sir. I–I hope you won’t be cross because I hid under the sofa. They said you were coming, but I wasn’t sure, and I–I thought I’d hide and see if you did. Please–” the tears rushed to Georgie’s eyes at the dreadful thought–“please don’t be cross and go away without leaving me anything. I’ll never do so again; honest, I won’t.”

Santa seemed to have heard only the first part of this plea for forgiveness. He put a hand to his forehead.

“They said I was comin’!” he repeated. “They said– WHO said so?”

“Why, everybody. Aunt Thankful and Emily and Imogene and Cap’n Bangs and Mr. Parker and–all of ’em. They knew you was comin’ tonight, but I–“

“They knew it! Boy, are you crazy?”

Georgie shook his head.

“No, sir.” Then, as Santa Claus sat staring blankly with open mouth and fingers plucking nervously at what seemed to be the only button on his coat, he added, “Please, sir, did you bring the air- gun?”

“Hey?”

“Did you bring the air-gun I wanted? They said you probably wouldn’t, but I do want it like everything. I won’t shoot the hens, honest I won’t.”

Santa Claus picked at the button.

“Say, boy,” he asked, slowly. “Who am I?”

Georgie was surprised.

“Why, Santa Claus,” he replied. “You are Santa Claus, ain’t you?”

“Eh? San . . . Oh, yes, yes! I’m Santa Claus, that’s who I be.” He seemed relieved, but still anxious. After fidgeting a moment he added, “Well, I cal’late I’ll have to be goin’ now.”

Georgie turned pale.

“But–but where are the presents?” he wailed. “I–I thought you wasn’t goin’ to be cross with me. I’m awfully sorry I stayed up to watch for you. I won’t ever do it again. PLEASE don’t go away and not leave me any presents. Please, Mr. Santa Claus!”

Santa started. “Sshh!” he commanded in an agonized whisper. “Hush up! Somebody’ll hear. . . . Eh? What’s that?”

The front stairs creaked ominously. Georgie did not answer; he made a headlong dive for his hiding-place beneath the sofa. Santa seemed to be even more alarmed than the youngster. He glanced wildly about the room and, as another creak came from the stairs, darted into the dining-room.

For a minute or more nothing happened. Then the door leading to the front hall, the door which had been standing ajar, opened cautiously and Mrs. Barnes’ head protruded beyond its edge. She looked about the room; then she entered. Emily Howes followed. Both ladies wore wrappers now, and Thankful’s hand clutched an umbrella, the only weapon available, which she had snatched from the hall rack as she passed it. She advanced to the center table.

“Who’s here?” she demanded firmly. “Who lit this lamp? Georgie! Georgie Hobbs, we know you’re here somewhere, for we heard you. Show yourself this instant.”

Silence–then Emily seized her cousin’s arm and pointed. A small bare foot protruded from beneath the sofa fringe. Thankful marched to the sofa and, stooping, grasped the ankle above the foot.

“Georgie Hobbs,” she ordered, “come out from under this sofa.”

Georgie came, partly of his own volition, partly because of the persuasive tug at his ankle.

“Now, then,” ordered Thankful; “what are you doin’ down here? Answer me.”

Georgie did not answer. He marked a circle on the floor with his toe.

“What are you doin’ down here?” repeated Mrs. Barnes. “Did you light that lamp?”

“No’m,” replied Georgie.

“Of course he didn’t, Auntie,” whispered Emily. “There was someone here with him. I heard them talking.”

“Who did light it?”

Georgie marked another circle. “Santa Claus,” he muttered faintly.

Thankful stared, first at the boy and then at her cousin.

“Mercy on us!” she exclaimed. “The child’s gone crazy. Christmas has struck to his head!”

But Emily’s fears were not concerning her small brother’s sanity. “Hush, Auntie,” she whispered. “Hush! He was talking to someone. We both heard another voice. WHO did you say it was, Georgie?”

“Santa Claus. Oh, Emmie, please don’t be mad. I–I wanted to see him so–and–and when he came I–I–“

“There, there, Georgie; don’t cry, dear. We’re not cross. You were talking to someone you thought was Santa. Where is he?”

“He WAS Santa Claus. He SAID he was. He went away when you came– into the dinin’-room.”

“The dining-room? . . . Auntie, WHAT are you doing? Don’t!”

But Thankful had seized the lamp and was already at the threshold of the dining-room. Holding the light aloft she peered into that apartment.

“If there’s anybody here,” she ordered, “they’d better come out because. . . . Here! I see you under that table. I–“

She stopped, gasped, and staggered back. Emily, running to her side, was just in time to prevent the lamp falling to the floor.

“Oh, Auntie,” cried the young lady. “Auntie, what IS it?”

Thankful did not answer. Her face was white and she moved her hands helplessly. And there in the doorway of the dining-room appeared Santa Claus; and if ever Santa Claus looked scared and apprehensive he did at that moment.

Emily stared at him. Mrs. Barnes uttered a groan. Santa Claus smiled feebly.

“Hello, Thankful,” he said. “I–I cal’late you’re surprised to see me, ain’t you?”

Thankful’s lips moved.

“Are–are you livin’ or–or dead?” she gasped.

“Me–Oh, I’m alive, but that’s about all. Hey? It’s Emily, ain’t it? Why–why, Emily, don’t you know me?”

Miss Howes put the lamp down upon the table. Then she leaned heavily upon a chair back.

“Cousin Jedediah!” she exclaimed. “It can’t be–it–Auntie–“

But Thankful interrupted. She turned to Georgie.

“Is–is THIS your Santa Claus?” she faltered.

“Yes’m,” answered Georgie.

“Jedediah Cahoon!” cried Thankful. “Jedediah Cahoon!”

For Georgie’s “Santa Claus” was her brother, the brother who had run away from her home so long ago to seek his fortune in the Klondike; whose letter, written in San Francisco and posted in Omaha, had reached her the month before; whom the police of several cities were looking for at her behest.

“Auntie!” cried Emily again.

Thankful shook her head. “Help me to a chair, Emily,” she begged weakly. “This–this is–my soul and body! Jedediah come alive again!”

The returned gold-hunter swallowed several times.

“Thankful,” he faltered, “I know you must feel pretty hard agin me, but–but, you see–“

“Hush! hush! Don’t speak to me for a minute. Let me get my bearin’s, for mercy sakes, if I can. . . . Jedediah–HERE!”

“Yes–yes, I’m here. I am, honest. I–“

“Sshh! You’re here now, but–but where have you been all this time? For a man that is, I presume likely, loaded down with money– I presume you must be loaded down with it; you remember you’d said you’d never come back until you was–for that kind of a man I must say you look pretty down at the heel.”

“Thankful–“

“Have you worn out your clothes luggin’ the money around?”

“Auntie, don’t. Look at him. Think!”

“Hush, Emily! I am lookin’ at him and I’m thinkin’, too. I’m thinkin’ of how much I put up with afore he run off and left me, and how I’ve worried and laid awake nights thinkin’ he was dead. Where have you been all this time? Why haven’t you written?”

“I did write.”

“You wrote when you was without a cent and wanted to get money from me. You didn’t write before. Let me be, Emily; you don’t know what I’ve gone through on account of him and now he comes sneakin’ into my house in the middle of the night, without a word that he was comin’, sneakin’ in like a thief and frightenin’ us half to death and–“

Jedediah interrupted. “Sneakin’ in!” he repeated, with a desperate move of his hands. “I had to sneak in. I was scairt to come in when you was up and awake. I knew you’d be down on me like a thousand of brick. I–I–Oh, you don’t know what I’ve been through, Thankful, or you’d pity me, ‘stead of pitchin’ into me like this. I’ve been a reg’lar tramp–that’s what I’ve been, a tramp. Freezin’ and starvin’ and workin’ in bar-rooms! Why, I beat my way on a freight train all the way here from New Bedford, and I’ve been hidin’ out back of the house waitin’ for you to go to bed, so’s I’d dare come in.”

“So’s you’d dare come in! What did you want to come in for if I wa’n’t here?”

“I wanted to leave a note for you, that’s why. I wanted to leave a note and–and that.”

He pointed to the ring and the bit of tissue paper on the table. Thankful took up the paper first and read aloud what was written upon it.

“For Thankful, with a larst merry Christmas from brother Jed. I am going away and if you want me I will be at New Bedford for two weeks, care the bark Finback.”

“‘I am goin’ away’,” repeated Thankful. “Goin’ away? Are you goin’ away AGAIN?”

“I–I was cal’latin’ to. I’m goin’ cook on a whaler.”

“Cook! You a cook! And,” she took up the ring and stared at it, “for the land sakes, what’s this?”

“It’s a present I bought for you. Took my last two dollar bill, it did. I wanted you to have somethin’ to remember me by.”

Thankful held the gaudy ring at arm’s length and stared at it helplessly. There was a curious expression on her face, half-way between laughing and crying.

“You bought this–this thing for me,” she repeated. “And did you think I’d wear it.”

“I hoped you would. Oh, Thankful, if you only knew what I’ve been through. Why, I was next door to starvin’ when I got in here tonight. If I hadn’t eat somethin’ I found in the buttry I would have starved, I guess. And I’m soaked, soppin’ through and–“

“There, there. Hush! hush! Jedediah, you’re gold-diggin’ ain’t changed you much, I guess. You’re just as helpless as ever you was. Well, you’re here and I’m grateful for so much. Now you come with me out into the kitchen and we’ll see what can be done about gettin’ you dry. Emily, if you’ll just put that child to bed.”

But Georgie had something to say. He had listened to this long dialogue with astonishment and growing dismay. Now the dismay and conviction of a great disappointment overcame him.

“I don’t want to go to bed,” he wailed. “Ain’t he Santa Claus? He SAID he was Santa Claus. Where are my presents? Where’s my air- gun? I want my presents. Oh–Oh–Oh!”

He went out crying. Emily ran to him.

“Hush, hush, Georgie, dear,” she begged. “Come upstairs with sister–come. If you don’t you may be here when the real Santa comes and you will frighten him away. Come with me; that’s a good boy. Auntie, I will be down by and by.”

She led the disappointed and still sobbing boy from the room. Thankful turned to her brother.

“Now you march out into that kitchen,” she commanded. “I’ll get you warm first and then I’ll see about a bed for you. You’ll have to sleep up on the third floor tonight. After that I’ll see about a better room to put you in.”

Jedediah stared at her.

“What–what,” he faltered. “Do you mean–Thankful, do you mean you’re goin’ to let me stay here for–for good?”

“Yes, of course I do. You don’t think I’ll let you get out of my sight again, do you? That is, unless you’re real set on goin’ gold-huntin’. I’m sure you shan’t go cook on any whaler; I’ve got too much regard for sailors’ digestions to let you do that.”

“Thankful, I–I’ll work my hands off for you. I’ll–“

“All right, all right. Now trot along and warm those hands or you won’t have any left to work off; they’ll be SHOOK off with the shivers. Come, Jed, I forgive you; after all, you’re my brother, though you did run away and leave me.”

“Then–then you’re glad I came back?”

“Glad!” Thankful shook her head with a tearful smile. “Glad!” she repeated. “I’ve been workin’ heavens and earth to get you back ever since I got that pitiful letter of yours. You poor thing! You MUST have had a hard time of it. Well, you can tell me all about it by and by. Now you march into that kitchen.”

Another hour had passed before Mrs. Barnes reentered the living- room. There, to her astonishment, she found Emily awaiting her.

“Why, for goodness sakes!” cried Thankful. “What are you doin’ here? I thought you’d gone to bed long ago.”

Emily’s reply was given in an odd tone. She did not look at her cousin when she spoke.

“No, no,” she said, quickly. “I–I haven’t gone to bed.”

“I see you haven’t, but why?”

“I didn’t want to. I–I’m not sleepy.”

“Not sleepy! At two o’clock in the mornin’? Well,” with a sigh, “I suppose ’tain’t to be wondered at. What’s happened this night is enough to keep anybody awake. I can’t believe it even yet. To think of his comin’ back after I’ve given him up for dead twice over. It’s like a story-book.”

“Where is he?”

“Up in bed, in one of the attic rooms. If he hasn’t got his death of cold it’ll be a wonder. And SUCH yarns as he’s been spinnin’ to me. I–Emily, what’s the matter with you? What makes you act so queer?”

Emily did not answer. Mrs. Barnes walked across the room and, stooping, peered into her face.

“You’re white as a sheet!” she cried, in alarm. “And you’re tremblin’ all over. What in the world IS the matter?”

Emily tried to smile, but it was a poor attempt.

“Nothing, nothing, Auntie,” she said. “That is, I–I’m sure it can’t be anything to be afraid of.”

“But you are afraid, just the same. What is it? Tell me this minute.”

For the first time Emily looked her cousin in the face.

“Auntie,” she whispered, “I am–I have been frightened. Something I heard upstairs frightened me.”

“Somethin’ you heard upstairs? Where? Has Georgie–“

“No, Georgie is asleep in his room. I locked the door. It wasn’t Georgie; it was something else.”

“Somethin’–Emily Howes, do you want to scare me to DEATH? What IS it?”

“I don’t know what it is. I heard it first when I came out of Georgie’s room a few minutes ago. Then I went down the hall to his door and listened. Aunt Thankful, he–he is in there talking– talking to someone.”

“He? Talkin’? Who?”

“Mr. Cobb. It was dreadful. He was talking to–to–I don’t know WHAT he was talking to, but it was awful to hear.”

“Talkin’? Solomon Cobb was talkin’? In his sleep, do you mean?”

“No, he wasn’t asleep. He was talking to someone, or some THING, in that room. And that wasn’t all. I heard–I heard–Oh, I DID hear it! I know I did! And yet it couldn’t be! It couldn’t!”

“Emily Howes, if you keep on I’ll–WHAT did you hear?”

“I don’t know. . . . Aunt Thankful, where are you going?”

Thankful did not answer. She was on her way to the front hall and the stairs. Emily rushed after her and would have detained her if she could, but Thankful would not be detained. Up the stairs they went together and along the narrow dark hall. At the end of the hall was the door of the back bedroom, or the larger room adjoining it. The door was closed, but from beneath it shone lamplight in sharp, yellow streaks. And from behind it came faintly the sound of a deep groan, the groan of a soul in agony.

“He’s sick,” whispered Thankful. “The man’s sick. I’m goin’ to him.”

“He isn’t sick. It–it’s something else. I tell you I heard–“

Thankful did not wait to learn what her cousin had heard. She tiptoed down the hall and Emily followed. The two women crouched beside the closed door of Mr. Cobb’s room. And within that room they heard Solomon’s voice, now rising almost to a shriek, now sinking to a groan, as its owner raved on and on, talking, pleading, praying.

“Oh, don’t–don’t, Abner!” cried Mr. Cobb. “Don’t, no more! PLEASE don’t! I know what you mean. I know it all. I’m sorry. I know I ain’t done right. But I’ll MAKE it right; I swear to the Almighty I will! I know I’ve broke my word to you and acted wicked and mean, but I give you my solemn word I’ll make everything right. Only just quit and go away, that’s all I ask. Just quit that–Oh, there you GO again! QUIT! PLEASE quit!”

It was dreadful to hear, but this was not the most dreadful. Between the agonized sentences and whenever the wind lulled, the listeners at the door heard another sound, a long-drawn gasp and groan, a series of gasps and groans, as of something fighting for breath, the unmistakable sound of snoring.

Emily grasped her cousin’s arm. “Come, come away!” she whispered. “I–I believe I’m going to faint.”

Mrs. Barnes did not wait to be urged. She put her arm about the young lady’s waist and together they tiptoed back to Thankful’s bedroom. There, Mrs. Barnes’s first move was to light the lamp, the second to close and lock the door. Then the pair sat down, one upon the bed and the other on a chair, and gazed into each other’s pale faces.

Emily was the first to speak.

“I–I don’t believe it!” she declared, shakily. “I KNOW it isn’t real!”

“So–so do I.”

“But–but we heard it. We both heard it.”

“Well–well, I give in I–I heard somethin’, somethin’ that. . . . My soul! Am I goin’ CRAZY to finish off this night with?”

“I don’t know. If you are, then I must be going with you. What can it be, Auntie?”

“I don’t know.”

“There is no other door to that room, is there?”

“No.”

“Then what CAN it be?”

“I don’t know. Imogene’s in her own room; I looked in and saw her when I took Jedediah up attic. And Georgie’s in his with the door locked. And you and I are here. There can’t be a livin’ soul in that room with Solomon, not a livin’ soul.”

“But we heard–we both heard–“

“I know; I know. And I heard somethin’ there before. And so did Miss Timpson. Emily, did–did you hear him call–call it ‘Abner’?”

“Yes,” with a shudder. “I heard. Who could help hearing!”

“And Cap’n Abner was my uncle; and he used to live here. . . . There!” with sudden determination. “That’s enough of this. We’ll both be stark, ravin’ distracted if we keep on this way. My soul! Hear that wind! I said once that all the big things in my life had happened durin’ a storm and so they have. Jedediah went away in a storm and he’s come back in a storm. And now if UNCLE ABNER’S comin’ back. . . . There I go again! Emily, do you feel like goin’ to bed?”

“To BED! After THAT? Auntie, how can you!”

“All right, then we’ll set up till mornin’. Turn that lamp as high as you can and we’ll set by it and wait for daylight. By that time we may have some of our sense back again and not behave like two feeble-minded fools. Turn that wick up–WAY up, Emily Howes! And talk–talk just as hard as you can–about somethin’ or somebody that’s ALIVE.”

CHAPTER XVI

Emily obeyed orders as far as turning up the wick was concerned, and she did her best to talk. It was hard work; both she and her cousin found themselves breaking off a sentence in the middle to listen and draw closer together as the wild gusts whistled about the windows and the water poured from the sashes and gurgled upon the sills. Occasionally Thankful went to the door to look down the dark hall in the direction of Mr. Cobb’s room, or to unlock Georgie’s door and peer in to make sure that the boy was safe and sleeping.

From the third of these excursions Mrs. Barnes returned with a bit of reassuring news.

“I went almost there this time,” she whispered. “My conscience has been tormenting me to think of–of Solomon’s bein’ alone in there with–with THAT, and I almost made up my mind to sing out and ask if he was all right. But I didn’t have to, thank goodness. His light’s still lit and I heard him movin’ around, so he ain’t been scared clean to death, at any rate. For the rest of it I don’t care so much; a good hard scarin’ may do him good. He needs one. If ever a stingy old reprobate needed to have a warnin’ from the hereafter that man does.”

“Did you hear anything–anything else?” whispered Emily, fearfully.

“No, I didn’t, and I didn’t wait for fear I MIGHT hear it. Did I lock the door when I came in? Emily, I guess you think I’m the silliest old coward that ever was. I am–and I know it. Tomorrow we’ll both be brave enough, and we’ll both KNOW there ain’t any spirits here, or anywhere else this side of the grave; but tonight– well, tonight’s different. . . . Ouch! what was that? There, there! don’t mind my jumpin’. I feel as if I’d been stuffed with springs, like a sofa. Did you ever know a night as long as this? Won’t mornin’ EVER come?”

At five o’clock, while it was still pitch dark, Thankful announced her intention of going downstairs. “Might as well be in the kitchen as up here,” she said, “and I can keep busy till Imogene comes down. And, besides, we’d better be puttin’ Georgie’s stockin’ and his presents in the livin’-room. The poor little shaver’s got to have his Christmas, even though his Santa Claus did turn out to be a walkin’ rag-bag.”

Emily started. “Why, it is Christmas, isn’t it!” she exclaimed. “Between returned brothers and,” with a little shiver, “ghosts, I forgot entirely.”

She kissed her cousin’s cheek.

“A merry Christmas, Aunt Thankful,” she said.

Thankful returned the kiss. “Same to you, dearie, and many of ’em,” she replied. “Well, here’s another Christmas day come to me. A year ago I didn’t think I’d be here. I wonder where I’ll be next Christmas. Will I have a home of my own or will what I’ve thought was my home belong to Sol Cobb or Holliday Kendrick?”

“Hush, Auntie, hush! Your home won’t be taken from you. It would be too mean, too dreadful! God won’t permit such a thing.”

“I sartin’ hope he won’t, but it seems sometimes as if he permitted some mighty mean things, ‘cordin’ to our way of lookin’ at ’em. That light’s still burnin’,” she added, peering out into the hall. “Well, I suppose I ought to pity Solomon, but I don’t when I think how he’s treated me. If the ghost–or whatever ’tis in there– weeded out the rest of his whiskers for him I don’t know’s I’d care. ‘Twould serve him right, I guess.”

They rehung Georgie’s stocking–bulging and knobby it was now–and arranged his more bulky presents beneath it on the floor. Then Thankful went into the kitchen and Emily accompanied her. The morning broke, pale and gray. The wind had subsided and it no longer rained. With the returning daylight Emily’s courage began to revive.

“I can’t understand,” she said, “how you and I could have been so childish last night. We should have insisted on calling to Mr. Cobb and then we should have found out what it was that frightened him and us. I mean to go over every inch of those two rooms before dinner time.”

Thankful nodded. “I’ll do it with you,” she said. “But I’ve been over ’em so many times that I’m pretty skeptical. The time to go over ’em is in the night when that–that snorin’ is goin’ on. A ghost that snores ought, by rights, to be one that’s asleep, and a sound-asleep ghost ought to be easy to locate. Oh, yes! I can make fun NOW. I told you I was as brave as a lion–in the daytime.”

It was easy to talk now, and they drifted into a discussion of many things. Thankful retold the story of her struggle to keep the High Cliff House afloat, told it all, her hopes, her fears and her discouragements. They spoke of Captain Bangs, of his advice and help and friendship. Emily brought the captain into the conversation and kept him there. Thankful said little concerning him, and of the one surprising, intimate interview between Captain Obed and herself she said not a word. She it was who first mentioned John Kendrick’s name. Emily was at first disinclined to speak of the young lawyer, but, little by little, as her cousin hinted and questioned, she said more and more. Thankful learned what she wished to learn, and it was what she had suspected. She learned something else, too, something which concerned another citizen of East Wellmouth.

“I knew it!” she cried. “I didn’t believe ’twas so, and I as much as told Cap’n Obed ’twasn’t this very day–no, yesterday, I mean. When a body don’t go to bed at all the days kind of run into one another.”

“What did you know?” asked Emily. “What were you and Captain Obed talking of that concerned me?”

“Nothin’, nothin’, dear. It didn’t concern you one bit, and ’twasn’t important. . . . Hi hum!” rising and looking out of the window. “It’s gettin’ brighter fast now. Looks as if we might have a pleasant Christmas, after all. Wonder how poor Jedediah’ll feel when he wakes up. I hope he slept warm anyhow. I piled on comforters and quilts enough to smother him.”

Her attempt at changing the subject was successful. Emily’s next question concerned Jedediah.

“What are you goin’ to do with him, Auntie?” she asked. “He must stay here, mustn’t he?”

“Course he must. I’ll never trust him out of my sight again. He ain’t competent to take care of himself and so I’ll have to take care of him. Well,” with a sigh, “it’ll only be natural, that’s all. I’ve been used to takin’ care of somebody all my days. I wonder how ‘twould seem to have somebody take care of me for a change? Not that there’s liable to be anybody doin’ it,” she added hastily.

“Jedediah might be useful to work about the place here,” said Emily. “You will always need a hired man, you know.”

“Yes, but I don’t need two, and I couldn’t discharge Kenelm on Imogene’s account. What that girl ever got engaged to that old image for is more’n I can make out or ever shall.”

Emily smiled. “I shouldn’t worry about Imogene,” she said. “I think she knows perfectly well what she is about.”

“Maybe so, but if she does, then her kind of knowledge is different from mine. If I was goin’ to marry anybody in that family ‘twould be Hannah; she’s the most man of the two.”

Imogene herself came down a few minutes later. She was much surprised to find her mistress and Miss Howes dressed and in the kitchen. Also she was very curious.

“Who’s that man,” she asked; “the one in the next room to mine, up attic? Is he a new boarder? He must have come awful late. I heard you and him talkin’ in the middle of the night. Who is he?”

When told the story of Jedediah’s return she was greatly excited.

“Why, it’s just like somethin’ in a story!” she cried. “Long-lost folks are always comin’ back in stories. And comin’ Christmas Eve makes it all the better. Lordy– There, I ain’t said that for weeks and weeks! Excuse me, Mrs. Thankful. I WON’T say it again. But–but what are we goin’ to do with him? Is he goin’ to stay here for good?”

Thankful answered that she supposed he was, he had no other place to stay.

“Is he rich? He ought to be. Folks in stories always come home rich after they’ve run off.”

“Well, this one didn’t. He missed connections, somehow. Rich! No,” drily, “he ain’t rich.”

“Well, what will he do? Will we have to take care of him–free, I mean? Excuse me for buttin’ in, ma’am, but it does seem as if we had enough on our hands without takin’ another free boarder.”

Thankful went into the dining-room. Emily, when the question was repeated to her, suggested that, possibly, Jedediah might work about the place, take care of the live-stock and of the garden, when there was one.

Imogene reflected. “Hum!” she mused. “We don’t need two hired hands, that’s a sure thing. You mean he’ll take Kenelm’s job?”

“That isn’t settled, so you mustn’t speak of it. I know my cousin will be very sorry to let Kenelm go, largely on your account, Imogene.”

“On my account?”

“Why, yes. You and he are engaged to be married and of course you like to have him here.”

Imogene burst out laughing. “Don’t you worry about that, Miss Emily,” she said. “I shan’t, and I don’t think Kenelm will, either.”

Breakfast was ready at last and they were just sitting down to the table–it had been decided not to call Jedediah or Mr. Cobb–when Georgie appeared. The boy had crept downstairs, his small head filled with forebodings; but the sight of the knobby stocking and the heap of presents sent his fears flying and he burst into the room with a shriek of joy. One by one the packages were unwrapped and, with each unwrapping, the youngster’s excitement rose.

“Gee!” he cried, as he sat in the middle of the heap of toys and brown paper and looked about him. “Gee! They’re all here; everything I wanted–but that air-gun. I don’t care, though. Maybe I’ll get that next Christmas. Or maybe Cap’n Bangs’ll give it to me, anyhow. He gives me most anything, if I tease for it.”

Thankful shook her head. “You see, Georgie,” she said, “it pays to be a good boy. If Santa had caught you hidin’ under that sofa and watchin’ for him last night you might not have got any of these nice things.”

Georgie did not answer immediately. When he did it was in a rather doubtful tone.

“There ain’t any soot on ’em, anyhow,” he observed. “And they ain’t wet, either.”

Imogene clapped her hand to her mouth and hurried from the room. “You can’t fool that kid much,” she whispered to Emily afterward. “He’s the smartest kid ever I saw. I’ll keep out of his way for a while; I don’t want to have to answer his questions.”

There were other presents besides those given to Georgie; presents for Emily from Thankful, and for Thankful from Emily, and for Imogene from both. There was nothing costly, of course, but no one cared for that.

As they were beginning breakfast Jedediah appeared. His garments, which had been drying by the kitchen stove all night and which Imogene had deposited in a heap at his bedroom door, were wrinkled, but his face shone from the vigorous application of soap and water and, as his sister said afterward, “You could see his complexion without diggin’ for it, and that was somethin’.”

His manner was subdued and he was very, very polite and anxious to please, but his appetite was in good order. Introduced to Imogene he expressed himself as pleased to meet her. Georgie he greeted with some hesitation; evidently the memory of his midnight encounter with the boy embarrassed him. But Georgie, when he learned that the shabby person whom he was told to call “Uncle Jed” was, although only an imitation Santa Claus, a genuine gold-hunter and traveler who had seen real Esquimaux and polar bears, warmed to his new relative immediately.

When the meal was over Jedediah made what was, for him, an amazing suggestion.

“Now,” he said, “I cal’late I’d better be gettin’ to work, hadn’t I? What’ll I do first, Thankful?”

Mrs. Barnes stared at him. “Work?” she repeated. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I want to be doin’ somethin’–somethin’ to help, you know. I don’t cal’late to stay around here and loaf. No, SIR!”

Thankful drew a long breath. “All right, Jed,” she said. “You can go out in the barn and feed the horse if you want to. Kenelm–Mr. Parker–generally does it, but he probably won’t be here for quite a spell yet. Go ahead. Imogene’ll show you what to do. . . . But, say, hold on,” she added, with emphasis. “Don’t you go off the premises, and if you see anybody comin’, keep out of sight. I don’t want anybody to see a brother of mine in THOSE clothes. Soon’s ever I can I’ll go up to the village and buy you somethin’ to wear, if it’s only an ‘ilskin jacket and a pair of overalls. They’ll cover up the rags, anyhow. As you are now, you look like one of Georgie’s picture-puzzles partly put together.”

When the eager applicant for employment had gone, under Imogene’s guidance, Emily spoke her mind.

“Auntie,” she said, “are you going to make him work–now; after what he’s been through, and on Christmas day, too?”

Thankful was still staring after her brother.

“Sshh! sshh!” she commanded. “Don’t speak to me for a minute; you may wake me up. Jedediah Cahoon ASKIN’ to go to work! All the miracles in Scriptur’ are nothin’ to this.”

“But, Auntie, he did ask. And do you think he is strong enough?”

“Hush, Emily, hush! You don’t know Jedediah. Strong enough! I’m the one that needs strength, if I’m goin’ to have shocks like this one sprung on me.”

Emily said no more, but she noticed that her cousin was wearing the two-dollar ring, the wanderer’s “farewell” gift, so she judged that brother Jed would not be worked beyond the bounds of moderation.

Left alone in the dining-room–Georgie had returned to the living- room and his presents–the two women looked at each other. Neither had eaten a breakfast worth mentioning and the same thought was in the mind of each.

“Auntie,” whispered Emily, voicing that thought, “don’t you think we ought to go up and–and see if he is–all right.”