Bessie was the only child of a poor widow. The mother and daughter lived alone together in a small house, about half a mile from Nelly's home.
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Bessie's father died when she was quite young, so young that she did not remember him. There was a portrait of him, which her mother kept in her top bureau drawer in her own room. Occasionally the little girl was allowed to look at it. It made her feel very sad to do so, and the tears rose in her eyes whenever she thought of what her mother must have suffered in so great a loss. In the hard task which fell to that mother of supporting herself and her child, she did not murmur. Before her husband's death, she had lived in very comfortable circumstances, but this did not unfit her to work for her living afterwards.
She gathered and sent fruit to market from her little place, she made butter and sold it to whomever cared to buy, she knit stockings for her neighbors' children, and, every winter, quilted to order at least one dozen patchwork counterpanes, with wonderful yellow calico suns in their centre. By these means she contrived to keep out of debt, and amass a little sum besides. At the commencement of our story, however, a severe fit of illness had so wasted her strength and devoured her little means, that the poor widow felt very much discouraged. The approach of winter filled her with dread, for she knew that it would be to her a time of great suffering.
Still, feeble as she was, she managed to continue, but very irregularly, Bessie's reading and writing lessons. Bessie was not a promising scholar; she liked to do any thing in the world but study. She would look longingly out of the window a dozen times in the course of a single lesson, and when her mother reproved her by rapping her rather smartly on the head with her thimble, Bessie would only laugh, and say she guessed her skull must be thick, for the lesson would notget through, and the thimble did not hurt a bit!
Bessie, and Nellie Brooks, of whom my readers have heard in the former stories of this series, were very much attached to each other. Bessie was younger than Nellie, but that did not stand in the way of their affection. Nellie, imperfect as she was herself, used to try sometimes to teach Bessie how to improve her wild ways. Bessie would listen and listen, as grave as a cat watching a rat hole, but her little eyes would twinkle in the midst of the reproof, and she would burst into a merry shout, and say, "I do declare, Nell, it isn't any use at all to talk to me about being any better. I'm like the little birds; they're born to fly and sing, and I'm born to be horrid and naughty, and dance, and cry, and laugh, just when I shouldn't,—there! I can't be good, anyway. Sometimes I try, and mother looks as pleased as can be, and all at once, before I know it, I flounder straight into mischief again."
One beautiful autumn day, Nellie and Bessie went nutting in the woods. Each of the little girls had a basket on her arm, and Bessie had a bag besides; for they had great hopes of coming home heavily loaded. It was early in October. The leaves of the trees had begun to fall, but those that remained were bright with many colors, the crimson of the maple trees particularly, making the whole woods look gay. A soft, golden mist, such as we only see at this season of the year, hung over every thing, and veiled even the glitter of a little river which flowed past the village and coursed onward to the ocean.
At first the children met with very little success. The first few nut-trees they encountered had evidently been visited by some one before. The marks of trampling feet were visible on the damp ground beneath, and the branches had been stripped in such rude haste as to take away both the leaves and the fruit.
"We'll meet better luck further back in the woods," said Nell; "this is too near home. The village people can come here too easily for us to expect to find any thing."
They walked further on in very good spirits, climbing over rocks when they came to them, and swinging their empty baskets in time to snatches of songs which they sang together. They had gone in this way about a mile, when suddenly Bessie stopped, and fixed her eyes searchingly on something near them in the grass.
"What is the matter?" said Nellie.
"Hush, hush!" said Bessie, softly, "don't speak for a minute till I see! It's an animal!"
"A bear?" exclaimed Nellie, in some alarm, quite unmindful of Bessie's request for silence, for Nelly was a little bit of a coward, and had a firm belief in all woods being full of wild animals. As she spoke, the noise seemed to startle whatever the creature was that Bessie was watching, for it ran quickly among the dried leaves that strewed the grass, and bounded on a high rock not far distant.
"There!" said Bessie, in a vexed tone, "you've frightened him away. We might have tracked him to his hole if you had kept still."
"I was afraid it was a bear," said Nelly, half ashamed.
"A bear!" cried Bessie, in great scorn; "I'd like to see a bear in these woods."
"Would you? I wouldn't," said Nelly.
"I mean—well—I mean there isn't a bear around here for hundreds of miles. That was a squirrel you frightened away. Didn't he look funny springing up there?"
"He's there now, looking at us. Don't you see his head sticking out of that bush? What bright eyes he has."
Bessie found that it was so. There was the squirrel's head, twisted oddly on one side, in order to get a good view of his disturbers. His keen eyes were fixed anxiously on them, as though to discover the cause of their intrusion. Presently he leaped on a branch of a shrub, and sat staring solemnly at them.
"It can't be a squirrel," said Bessie, "after all; its tail is not half bushy or long enough."
"It jumps like one," said Nellie, "and its eyes and ears are just like a squirrel's too. See, it's gray and white!"
They approached slowly, the little animal permitting them to come quite close, and then the children saw that it was indeed a squirrel, but that its tail had, by some accident, been torn nearly half away.
"Perhaps it has been caught in a trap," suggested Nelly.
"Or in a branch of a tree," said Bessie. "Well, anyway, little Mr. Squirrel, we shall know you again if we meet you."
"I should say," exclaimed Nelly, "that there must be plenty of nuts somewhere near us, or that gray squirrel would not be likely to be here."
The two girls now set about searching for a hickory nut-tree, quite encouraged in the thought that their walk was to be rewarded at last. Nelly was right in herconjecture. It was not long before they recognized the well-known leaf of the species of tree of which they were in quest. A small group of them stood together, not far distant, and great was the delight of the children to find the ground beneath well strewed with nuts, some of them lying quite free from their rough outer shells, others only partially opened, while many of them were still in the exact state in which they hung upon the tree. Of course the former were preferred by the little nut gatherers, but it was found that as these did not fill the bag and baskets, it was necessary to shell some of the remainder. Accordingly, Bessie selected a large flat stone, as the scene of operation, and providing herself with another small one, as a hammer, she began pounding the unshelled nuts, and by these means accumulated a second store; Nelly gathering them, and making a pile beside her, ready to be denuded of their hard green coverings.
"There," triumphantly said Nelly, after a little while; "that dear little squirrel told the truth. Here is quite a pile of shells showing the mark of his teeth. See, Bessie, he has nibbled away the sides of all these, and eaten the meat. How neatly it is done, and what sharp little fangs he must have!"
The bag and baskets were soon filled, and the two children turned homeward. The day was a warm one for that season of the year, and their burdens were very hard to carry on that account. Many a time they paused on the path to put down the baskets and rest.
"I hope," said Nelly, "that when we get out to the open road, some wagon will come along that will give us a lift. Who would have thought that nuts could be so heavy? I am so warm and so thirsty, I do not know how to get along, and there isn't a single brook about here that we can drink out of."
"I'll tell you how we will fix it," said Bessie. "I remember, last year, when I came nutting, I saw a little house, a poor little concern,—not half as nice as ours, and dear knows that is poor enough,—standing in the edge of the wood, about half a mile below where we are now. We can stop when we get there, and I will go in and borrow a tin cup to drink out of the well."
"A half mile!" echoed Nelly, in a tone of weariness; "I don't believe we shall get there in an hour, I am so very, very tired."
They walked on slowly, the peculiar heaviness of the warm October day making each of them feel that to go nutting in such weather was very hard work. At last the little house presented itself. It was a poor place indeed. It was built of rough pine boards that had never been painted. A dog lay sleeping before the door, the upper half of which was open, and through which the sunshine poured into the room. The house stood, as Bessie had said, on the edge of the wood, large, fertile fields extending in the distance, on the opposite side from that by which the children had approached it.
"You knock," said Bessie, getting struck with a fit of shyness, as the two walked up the path to the door.
"No, you," said Nelly, "I don't know what to say."
The dog got up, stretched himself, and gave vent to a low growl, as he surveyed the new comers.
"Good fellow, nice fellow," said Bessie, coaxingly, putting out her hand towards him as she did so; but the good, nice fellow's growl deepened into a loud, savage bay. The children stood still, irresolute whether to retreat or not. Attracted by the noise, a pale, sickly girl about fifteen years of age, came to the door, and leaning over the lower half which was shut, seemed by looking at them to ask what they wanted.
"Please," said Bessie, "would you mind lending me a tin dipper to drink out of at your well?"
"Haven't got any well," said the girl; "but you can drink out of the spring if you've a mind to. There it is, down by that log: it runs right from under it. You'll find a mug lying 'long side. Do stop your noise, Tiger."
The children set down their baskets, and moved towards the spring very gladly. They found the mug, and each enjoyed a drink of the pure, cold water. While doing so, they observed that near the little barn at the rear of the house, a man was harnessing a sleek, comfortable looking horse to a market wagon, laden with cabbages and potatoes. The man was thin and white looking, and it seemed to the children as if the proper place for him were his bed. He did not see the visitors, but went on with his work. The girls having finished drinking, returned to the front door, over which still leaned the sickly girl.
"Much obliged to you," said Nelly, "it's a beautiful spring; clear and cold as ever I saw."
"'Tisn't healthy though," said the girl; "leastways, we think it's that that brings us all down with the fever every spring and fall."
"The fever!" echoed Bessie, "what fever?"
"The fever'n nager," replied the girl. "Mother is in bed with it now, and though father is getting ready to go to town to market, the shakin' is on him right powerful. I'm the only one that keeps about, and that is much as ever, too."
"What makes you drink it?" asked Bessie. "I wouldn't, if it made me so sick."
"Have to," said the girl, "there is no other water hereabouts."
"Can't your father move?" said Nelly.
The girl shook her head.
"Wouldn't he like to, if he could?" continued Nelly.
"I guess not," said the girl, "we mean to get used to it. We can't afford to move. Father owns the place, and he has no chance to sell it. The farm is good, too. We raise the best cabbages and potatoes around here. Guess you've been nutting, haven't you?"
"Yes," said Bessie, with some pride, "we have those two baskets and this bag full."
"Is it much fun?" asked the girl pleasantly.
"Splendid," said Bessie; "don't you ever try it?"
"No; I'm always too sick in nut season—have the shakes. But I do believe I should like to some time. Are you two little girls going soon again?"
"I don't know," said Bessie, "may be so. If we do, shan't we stop and see if you are able to go along? Your house isn't much out of the way; we can stop just as well as not."
The pale girl looked quite gratified at these words of Bessie, but said that she didn't know whether the "shakes" would allow her.
"Well," said Bessie, "we will stop for you, anyway. My mother would say, I am sure, that the walk would do you good. Good-by. I hope you will all get better soon."
"Stop a moment," said the girl, "don't you live somewhere down by the Brooks' farm?"
"Yes," said Nelly, "that is my home, and Bessie lives only a little way beyond."
"I thought so," said the girl, smiling, "I think I've seen you when I have been riding by with father. He's going that way, now: wouldn't you like to get in thewagon with him? He will pass your house."
"Oh, I guess his load is heavy enough already," said Nelly.
"Nonsense," said the girl; "you just wait here, while I go ask him."
She darted off before they could detain her, and in a short time more, the horse and wagon appeared round the corner of the house, the man driving the fat horse (which, as far as the children could see, was the only fat living creature on the place), and the girl walking at the wagon side.
"There they are," the children heard her say, as she neared them.
The man smiled good naturedly, and bade Bessie and Nelly jump in. He arranged a comfortable seat for them on the board on which he himself sat.
"But isn't your load very heavy already, sir?" asked Nelly.
"Not a bit of it," said the farmer; "my horse will find it only a trifle, compared to what we usually take. It isn't full market day to-morrow is the reason. Jump in! jump in!"
The children needed no other bidding, but clambered up by the spokes of the great wheels and seated themselves, one on each side of the farmer, who took their nuts, and placed them safely back among his vegetables.
Then he cracked his whip, and called out, "Good-by, Dolly. I'll be home about eleven o'clock to-night. Take good care of your mother."
The next moment the little girls were in the road, going homeward as fast as the sleek horse could carry them.