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Chapter 1

Dr. Lavendar and Goliath had toiled up the hill to call on old Mr. Benjamin Wright; when they jogged back in the late afternoon it was with the peculiar complacency which follows the doing of a disagreeable duty. Goliath had not liked climbing the hill, for a heavy rain in the morning had turned the clay to stiff mud, and Dr. Lavendar had not liked calling on Benjamin Wright.

"But, Daniel," said Dr. Lavendar, addressing a small old dog who took up a great deal more room on the seat of the buggy than he was entitled to, "Daniel, my boy, you don't consult your likings in pastoral calls." Then he looked out of the mud-spattered window of the buggy, at a house by the roadside--"The Stuffed Animal House," Old Chester children called it, because its previous owner had been a taxidermist of some little local renown. "That's another visit I ought to make," he reflected, "but it can wait until next week. G'long, Goliath!"

Goliath went along, and Mrs. Frederick Richie, who lived in the Stuffed Animal House, looking listlessly from an upper window, saw the hood of the buggy jogging by and smiled suddenly. "Thank Heaven!" she said.

Benjamin Wright had not thanked Heaven when Dr. Lavendar drove away. He had been as disagreeable as usual to his visitor, but being a very lonely old man he enjoyed having a visitor to whom to be disagreeable. He lived on his hilltop a mile out of Old Chester, with his "nigger" Simmons, his canary-birds, and his temper. More than thirty years before he had quarrelled with his only son Samuel, and the two men had not spoken to each other since. Old Chester never knew what this quarrel had been about; Dr. Lavendar, speculating upon it as he and Goliath went squashing through the mud that April afternoon, wondered which was to blame. "Pot and kettle, probably," he decided. "Samuel's goodness is very irritating sometimes, and Benjamin's badness is-- well, it's not as distressing as it should be. But what a forlorn old critter he is! And this Mrs. Richie is lonely too--a widow, with no children, poor woman! I must call next week. Goliath wouldn't like to turn round now and climb the hill again. Danny, I fear Goliath is very selfish."

Goliath's selfishness carried them home and landed Dr. Lavendar at his own fireside, rather tired and full of good intentions in regard to calls. He confided these intentions to Dr. William King who looked in after supper to inquire about his cold.

"Cold? I haven't any cold! You can't get a job here. Sit down and give me some advice. Hand me a match first; this ragamuffin Danny has gone to sleep with his head on my foot, and I can't budge."

The doctor produced the match; "I'll advise you not to go out in such weather. Promise me you won't go out to-morrow."

"To-morrow? Right after breakfast, sir! To make calls on the people I've neglected. Willy, how can I find a home for an orphan child? A parson up in the mountains has asked me to see if I can place a little seven-year-old boy. The child's sister who took care of him has just died. Do you know anybody who might take him?"

"Well," said Willy King, "there's Mrs. Richie."

Dr. Lavendar looked at him over his spectacles. "Mrs. Frederick Richie?--though I understand she calls herself Mrs. Helena Richie. I don't like a young female to use her own name, William, even if she is a widow! Still, she may be a nice woman I suppose. Do you think a little boy would have a good home with her?"

"Well," the doctor demurred, "of course, we know very little about her. She has only been here six months. But I should think she was just the person to take him. She is mighty good-looking, isn't she?"

"Yes," Dr. Lavendar said, "she is. And other things being equal I prefer a good-looking woman. But I don't know that her looks are a guarantee that she can train up a child in the way he should go. Can't you think of anybody else?"

"I don't see why you don't like Mrs. Richie?" "I never said I didn't like her," protested Dr. Lavendar; "but she's a widow."

"Unless she murdered the late Richie, that's not against her."

"Widows don't always stay widows, Willy."

"I don't believe she's the marrying kind," William said. "I have a sort of feeling that the deceased Richie was not the kind of husband who receives the compliment of a successor--"

"Hold on; you're mixing things up! It's the bad husband and the good wife that get compliments of that kind."

William laughed as he was expected to, but he stuck to his opinion that Mrs. Richie had had enough of husbands. "And anyway, she's devoted to her brother--though he doesn't come to see her very often."

"There's another point," objected Dr. Lavendar; "what kind of a man is this Mr. Pryor? Danny growled at him once, which prejudiced me against him."

"I don't take to him much myself," William King confessed; "though I must say he seems a decent man enough. He doesn't cultivate acquaintances in Old Chester, but that only shows bad taste."

"She says he is not very well," Dr. Lavendar explained; "she says he likes to keep quiet when he comes down here."

"I don't see anything wrong with him."

"Hasn't taken any of your pills? Maybe he doesn't believe in doctors. I don't myself."

"Thank you," said William King.

"There's too much fuss anyway over our precious carcasses! And you fellows encourage it," Dr. Lavendar grumbled. Then he said he wished he knew more about Mrs. Richie. "I ask you for information and all you say is that she's good-looking, and her brother doesn't take your pills."

William laughed.

"She doesn't come to church very regularly, and she never stops afterwards to talk," Dr. Lavendar ruminated.

"Well, she lives 'way up there on the hill road--"

"Yes, she does live pretty far out of town," Dr. Lavendar admitted, "but that's not a reason for not being neighborly after church."

"She's shy," said William King, "that's all. Shyness isn't anything very wrong. And she's mighty pleasant when she does talk to you. I tell you Dr. Lavendar, pleasantness goes a good way in this world. I'd say it was better than goodness--only they are the same thing."

"No, they're not," said Dr. Lavendar.

"I grant she doesn't belong to the sewing society," William said grinning. "Martha says that some of the ladies say she doesn't show proper grief for her husband. She actually smiles sometimes! They say that if the Lord were to remove their beloved husbands, they would never smile again."

"William," said Dr. Lavendar chuckling, "I begin to like your widow."

"She's not my widow, thank you! But she's a nice woman, and she must be pretty lonely up there all by herself."

"Wish I had gone in to see her this afternoon," the old man said thoughtfully. "As you say she may be a suitable person to take this little boy. I wonder if she's going to stay in Old Chester?"

"Sam Wright says she has spoken to him of buying the house. That looks as if she meant to settle down. Did you know that Sam's Sam is casting sheep's eyes at her?"

"Why, she's old enough to be his mother!" said Dr. Lavendar.

"Oh, no. Sam's Sam is twenty-three, and one of my patients says that Mrs. Richie will never see forty-five again. Which leads me to conclude that she's about thirty."

"Of course she doesn't encourage him?" Dr. Lavendar said anxiously.

"She lets him come to see her, and she took him out once in that wicker-work vehicle she has--looks like a clothes-basket on wheels. And she provides the clothes to put into it. I'm told they're beautiful; but that no truly pious female would be willing to decorate poor flesh and blood with such finery. I'm told--"

"William! Is this the way I've brought you up? To pander to my besetting sin? Hold your tongue!" Dr. Lavendar rose chuckling, and stood in front of the fireplace, gathering the tails of his flowered cashmere dressing-gown under his arms. "But Willy I hope Sam isn't really smitten? You never can tell what that boy will do."

"Yes, he's a hair-trigger," the doctor agreed, "a hair-trigger! And his father understands him about as well as--as Danny there understands Hebrew! I think it's a case of Samuel and his father over again. Dr. Lavendar, do you suppose anybody will ever know what those two quarrelled about?"

"Probably not."

"I suppose," William King ruminated, "that you'd call Sam a genius?"

"No, I wouldn't; he has no patience. You can't have genius without patience. Sam hasn't a particle."

"Well," the doctor explained, "he hasn't the slightest sense of responsibility; and I notice that when people have no sense of responsibility, you call them either criminals or geniuses."

"I don't," said Dr. Lavendar dryly, "I call 'em poor critters, either way. But Willy, about this little boy; the great point is who needs him? I expect he'll be here on Saturday."

"What! This week? But you haven't found anybody to take him."

"Oh, he'll stay with me for a while, Mary'll look after him. And I'll play marbles with him. Got any white alleys? Gimme six, and I'll give you an agate."

"But Dr. Lavendar, that will be a nuisance to you," William King protested. "Let me take him. Or, at least--I'll ask Martha; she's house-cleaning now, and she says she's very tired; so I'm not sure--" William ended weakly.

"No, no; I want him myself," said the old minister.

"Well," Dr. King said with evident relief, "shall I speak to Mrs. Richie about him? I'm going up there to-morrow; she's got a sick cook, and she asked me to call. What's his name?"

"David Allison. You might sound her William, but don't be definite. Don't give her any chance to say yes or no. I want to know her a little better before I make up my mind. When the boy comes I'll happen along in my buggy with him, and then we'll see. And meantime Willy, keep your eye on Sam's Sam. He mustn't get too much interested up there. A little falling in love with an older woman doesn't hurt most boys; in fact, it's part of their growing up and likely as not it does 'em good. But Sam's Sam isn't like most boys."

"That's so," said William King, "he may not be a genius and he certainly isn't a criminal, but he has about as much stability as a sky-rocket."