In the early gray dawn David awoke. His first sensation was the physical numbness and stiffness that came from his hard bed on the floor.
"Why, daddy," he began, pulling himself half-erect, "I slept all night on—" He stopped suddenly, brushing his eyes with the backs of his hands. "Why, daddy, where—" Then full consciousness came to him.
With a low cry he sprang to his feet and ran to the window. Through the trees he could see the sunrise glow of the eastern sky. Down in the yard no one was in sight; but the barn door was open, and, with a quick indrawing of his breath, David turned back into the room and began to thrust himself into his clothing.
The gold in his sagging pockets clinked and jingled musically; and once half a dozen pieces rolled out upon the floor. For a moment the boy looked as if he were going to let them remain where they were. But the next minute, with an impatient gesture, he had picked them up and thrust them deep into one of his pockets, silencing their jingling with his handkerchief.
Once dressed, David picked up his violin and stepped softly into the hall. At first no sound reached his ears; then from the kitchen below came the clatter of brisk feet and the rattle of tins and crockery. Tightening his clasp on the violin, David slipped quietly down the back stairs and out to the yard. It was only a few seconds then before he was hurrying through the open doorway of the barn and up the narrow stairway to the loft above.
At the top, however, he came to a sharp pause, with a low cry. The next moment he turned to see a kindly-faced man looking up at him from the foot of the stairs.
"Oh, sir, please—please, where is he? What have you done with him?" appealed the boy, almost plunging headlong down the stairs in his haste to reach the bottom.
Into the man's weather-beaten face came a look of sincere but awkward sympathy.
"Oh, hullo, sonny! So you're the boy, are ye?" he began diffidently.
"Yes, yes, I'm David. But where is he—my father, you know? I mean the—the part he—he left behind him?" choked the boy. "The part like—the ice-coat?"
The man stared. Then, involuntarily, he began to back away.
"Well, ye see, I—I—"
"But, maybe you don't know," interrupted David feverishly. "You are n't the man I saw last night. Who are you? Where is he—the other one, please?"
"No, I—I wa' n't here—that is, not at the first," spoke up the man quickly, still unconsciously backing away. "Me—I'm only Larson, Perry Larson, ye know. 'T was Mr. Holly you see last night—him that I works for."
"Then, where is Mr. Holly, please?" faltered the boy, hurrying toward the barn door. "Maybe he would know—about father. Oh, there he is!" And David ran out of the barn and across the yard to the kitchen porch.
It was an unhappy ten minutes that David spent then. Besides Mr. Holly, there were Mrs. Holly, and the man, Perry Larson. And they all talked. But little of what they said could David understand. To none of his questions could he obtain an answer that satisfied. Neither, on his part, could he seem to reply to their questions in a way that pleased them.
They went in to breakfast then, Mr. and Mrs. Holly, and the man, Perry Larson. They asked David to go—at least, Mrs. Holly asked him. But David shook his head and said: "No, no, thank you very much; I'd rather not, if you please—not now." Then he dropped himself down on the steps to think. As if he could eat—with that great choking lump in his throat that refused to be swallowed!
David was thoroughly dazed, frightened, and dismayed. He knew now that never again in this world would he see his dear father, or hear him speak. This much had been made very clear to him during the last ten minutes. Why this should be so, or what his father would want him to do, he could not seem to find out. Not until now had he realized at all what this going away of his father was to mean to him. And he told himself frantically that he could not have it so. He could not have it so! But even as he said the words, he knew that it was so—irrevocably so.
David began then to long for his mountain home. There at least he would have his dear forest all about him, with the birds and the squirrels and the friendly little brooks. There he would have his Silver Lake to look at, too, and all of them would speak to him of his father. He believed, indeed, that up there it would almost seem as if his father were really with him. And, anyway, if his father ever should come back, it would be there that he would be sure to seek him—up there in the little mountain home so dear to them both. Back to the cabin he would go now, then. Yes; indeed he would!
With a low word and a passionately intent expression, David got to his feet, picked up his violin, and hurried, firm-footed, down the driveway and out upon the main highway, turning in the direction from whence he had come with his father the night before.
The Hollys had just finished breakfast when Higgins, the coroner, drove into the yard accompanied by William Streeter, the town's most prominent farmer,—and the most miserly one, if report was to be credited.
"Well, could you get anything out of the boy?" demanded Higgins, without ceremony, as Simeon Holly and Larson appeared on the kitchen porch.
"Very little. Really nothing of importance," answered Simeon Holly.
"Where is he now?"
"Why, he was here on the steps a few minutes ago." Simeon Holly looked about him a bit impatiently.
"Well, I want to see him. I've got a letter for him."
"A letter!" exclaimed Simeon Holly and Larson in amazed unison.
"Yes. Found it in his father's pocket," nodded the coroner, with all the tantalizing brevity of a man who knows he has a choice morsel of information that is eagerly awaited. "It's addressed to 'My boy David,' so I calculated we'd better give it to him first without reading it, seeing it's his. After he reads it, though, I want to see it. I want to see if what it says is any nearer being horse-sense than the other one is."
"The other one!" exclaimed the amazed chorus again.
"Oh, yes, there's another one," spoke up William Streeter tersely. "And I've read it—all but the scrawl at the end. There could n't anybody read that!"
"Well, I'm free to confess 't is a sticker—that name," he admitted. "And it's the name we want, of course, to tell us who they are—since it seems the boy don't know, from what you said last night. I was in hopes, by this morning, you'd have found out more from him."
Simeon Holly shook his head.
" 'T was impossible."
"Gosh! I should say 't was," cut in Perry Larson, with emphasis. "An' queer ain't no name for it. One minute he'd be talkin' good common sense like anybody: an' the next he'd be chatterin' of coats made o' ice, an' birds an' squirrels an' babbling brooks. He sure is dippy! Listen. He actually don't seem ter know the diff'rence between hisself an' his fiddle. We was tryin' ter find out this mornin' what he could do, an' what he wanted ter do, when if he did n't up an' say that his father told him it did n't make so much diff'rence what he did so long as he kept hisself in tune an' did n't strike false notes. Now, what do yer think o' that?"
"Yes, I know," nodded Higgins musingly. "There was something queer about them, and they were n't just ordinary tramps. Did I tell you? I overtook them last night away up on the Fairbanks road by the Taylor place, and I gave 'em a lift. I particularly noticed what a decent sort they were. They were clean and quiet-spoken, and their clothes were good, even if they were rough. Yet they did n't have any baggage but them fiddles."
"But what was that second letter you mentioned?" asked Simeon Holly.
Higgins smiled oddly, and reached into his pocket.
"The letter? Oh, you're welcome to read the letter," he said, as he handed over a bit of folded paper.
Simeon took it gingerly and examined it.
It was a leaf torn apparently from a note book. It was folded three times, and bore on the outside the superscription "To whom it may concern." The handwriting was peculiar, irregular, and not very legible. But as near as it could be deciphered, the note ran thus:—
Now that the time has come when I must give David back to the world, I have set out for that purpose. But I am ill—very ill, and should Death have swifter feet than I, I must leave my task for others to complete. Deal gently with him. He knows only that which is good and beautiful. He knows nothing of sin nor evil.
Then followed the signature—a thing of scrawls and flourishes that conveyed no sort of meaning to Simeon Holly's puzzled eyes.
"Well?" prompted Higgins expectantly.
Simeon Holly shook his head.
"I can make little of it. It certainly is a most remarkable note."
"Could you read the name?"
"Well, I could n't. Neither could half a dozen others that's seen it. But where's the boy? Mebbe his note'll talk sense."
"I'll go find him," volunteered Larson. "He must be somewheres 'round."
But David was very evidently not "somewheres 'round." At least he was not in the barn, the shed, the kitchen bedroom, nor anywhere else that Larson looked; and the man was just coming back with a crestfallen, perplexed frown, when Mrs. Holly hurried out on to the porch.
"Mr. Higgins," she cried, in obvious excitement, "your wife has just telephoned that her sister Mollie has just telephoned her that that little tramp boy with the violin is at her house."
"At Mollie's!" exclaimed Higgins. "Why, that's a mile or more from here."
"So that's where he is!" interposed Larson, hurrying forward. "Doggone the little rascal! He must 'a' slipped away while we was eatin' breakfast."
"Yes. But, Simeon,—Mr. Higgins,—we had n't ought to let him go like that," appealed Mrs. Holly tremulously. "Your wife said Mollie said she found him crying at the crossroads, because he did n't know which way to take. He said he was going back home. He means to that wretched cabin on the mountain, you know; and we can't let him do that alone—a child like that!"
"Where is he now?" demanded Higgins.
"In Mollie's kitchen eating bread and milk; but she said she had an awful time getting him to eat. And she wants to know what to do with him. That's why she telephoned your wife. She thought you ought to know he was there."
"Yes, of course. Well, tell her to tell him to come back."
"Mollie said she tried to have him come back, but that he said, no, thank you, he'd rather not. He was going home where his father could find him if he should ever want him. Mr. Higgins, we—we can't let him go off like that. Why, the child would die up there alone in those dreadful woods, even if he could get there in the first place—which I very much doubt."
"Yes, of course, of course," muttered Higgins, with a thoughtful frown. "There's his letter, too. Say!" he added, brightening, "what'll you bet that letter won't fetch him? He seems to think the world and all of his daddy. Here," he directed, turning to Mrs. Holly, "you tell my wife to tell—better yet, you telephone Mollie yourself, please, and tell her to tell the boy we've got a letter here for him from his father, and he can have it if he'll come back."
"I will, I will," called Mrs. Holly, over her shoulder, as she hurried into the house. In an unbelievably short time she was back, her face beaming.
"He's started, so soon," she nodded. "He's crazy with joy, Mollie said. He even left part of his breakfast, he was in such a hurry. So I guess we'll see him all right."
"Oh, yes, we'll see him all right," echoed Simeon Holly grimly. "But that is n't telling what we'll do with him when we do see him."
"Oh, well, maybe this letter of his will help us out on that," suggested Higgins soothingly. "Anyhow, even if it does n't, I'm not worrying any. I guess some one will want him—a good healthy boy like that."
"Did you find any money on the body?" asked Streeter.
"A little change—a few cents. Nothing to count. If the boy's letter does n't tell us where any of their folks are, it'll be up to the town to bury him all right."
"He had a fiddle, did n't he? And the boy had one, too. Would n't they bring anything?" Streeter's round blue eyes gleamed shrewdly.
Higgins gave a slow shake of his head.
"Maybe—if there was a market for 'em. But who'd buy 'em? There ain't a soul in town plays but Jack Gurnsey; and he's got one. Besides, he's sick, and got all he can do to buy bread and butter for him and his sister without taking in more fiddles, I guess. He would n't buy 'em."
"Hm—m; maybe not, maybe not," grunted Streeter. "An', as you say, he's the only one that's got any use for 'em here; an' like enough they ain't worth much, anyway. So I guess 't is up to the town all right."
"Yes; but—if yer'll take it from me,"—interrupted Larson,—"you'll be wise if ye keep still before the boy. It's no use askin' him anythin'. We've proved that fast enough. An' if he once turns 'round an' begins ter ask you questions, yer done for!"
"I guess you're right," nodded Higgins, with a quizzical smile. "And as long as questioning can't do any good, why, we'll just keep whist before the boy. Meanwhile I wish the little rascal would hurry up and get here. I want to see the inside of that letter to him. I'm relying on that being some help to unsnarl this tangle of telling who they are."
"Well, he's started," reiterated Mrs. Holly, as she turned back into the house; "so I guess he'll get here if you wait long enough."
"Oh, yes, he'll get here if we wait long enough," echoed Simeon Holly again, crustily.
The two men in the wagon settled themselves more comfortably in their seats, and Perry Larson, after a half-uneasy, half-apologetic glance at his employer, dropped himself onto the bottom step. Simeon Holly had already sat down stiffly in one of the porch chairs. Simeon Holly never "dropped himself" anywhere. Indeed, according to Perry Larson, if there were a hard way to do a thing, Simeon Holly found it—and did it. The fact that, this morning, he had allowed, and was still allowing, the sacred routine of the day's work to be thus interrupted, for nothing more important than the expected arrival of a strolling urchin, was something Larson would not have believed had he not seen it. Even now he was conscious once or twice of an involuntary desire to rub his eyes to make sure they were not deceiving him.
Impatient as the waiting men were for the arrival of David, they were yet almost surprised, so soon did he appear, running up the driveway.
"Oh, where is it, please?" he panted. "They said you had a letter for me from daddy!"
"You're right, sonny; we have. And here it is," answered Higgins promptly, holding out the folded paper.
Plainly eager as he was, David did not open the note till he had first carefully set down the case holding his violin; then he devoured it with eager eyes.
As he read, the four men watched his face. They saw first the quick tears that had to be blinked away. Then they saw the radiant glow that grew and deepened until the whole boyish face was aflame with the splendor of it. They saw the shining wonder of his eyes, too, as he looked up from the letter.
"And daddy wrote this to me from the far country?" he breathed.
Simeon Holly scowled. Larson choked over a stifled chuckle. William Streeter stared and shrugged his shoulders; but Higgins flushed a dull red.
"No, sonny," he stammered. "We found it on the—er—I mean, it—er—your father left it in his pocket for you," finished the man, a little explosively.
A swift shadow crossed the boy's face.
"Oh, I hoped I'd heard—" he began. Then suddenly he stopped, his face once more alight. "But it's 'most the same as if he wrote it from there, is n't it? He left it for me, and he told me what to do."
"What's that, what's that?" cried Higgins, instantly alert. "Did he tell you what to do? Then, let's have it, so we'll know. You will let us read it, won't you, boy?"
"Why, y—yes," stammered David, holding it out politely, but with evident reluctance.
"Thank you," nodded Higgins, as he reached for the note.
David's letter was very different from the other one. It was longer, but it did not help much, though it was easily read. In his letter, in spite of the wavering lines, each word was formed with a care that told of a father's thought for the young eyes that would read it. It was written on two of the notebook's leaves, and at the end came the single word "Daddy."
David, my boy [read Higgins aloud], in the far country I am waiting for you. Do not grieve, for that will grieve me. I shall not return, but some day you will come to me, your violin at your chin, and the bow drawn across the strings to greet me. See that it tells me of the beautiful world you have left—for it is a beautiful world, David; never forget that. And if sometime you are tempted to think it is not a beautiful world, just remember that you yourself can make it beautiful if you will.
You are among new faces, surrounded by things and people that are strange to you. Some of them you will not understand; some of them you may not like. But do not fear, David, and do not plead to go back to the hills. Remember this, my boy,—in your violin lie all the things you long for. You have only to play, and the broad skies of your mountain home will be over you, and the dear friends and comrades of your mountain forests will be about you.
"Gorry! that's worse than the other," groaned Higgins, when he had finished the note. "There's actually nothing in it! Would n't you think—if a man wrote anything at such a time—that he'd 'a' wrote something that had some sense to it—something that one could get hold of, and find out who the boy is?"
There was no answering this. The assembled men could only grunt and nod in agreement, which, after all, was no real help.