The long twilight of the June day had changed into a night that was scarcely darker, so bright was the moonlight. Seen from the house, the barn and the low buildings beyond loomed shadowy and unreal, yet very beautiful. On the side porch of the house sat Simeon Holly and his wife, content to rest mind and body only because a full day's work lay well done behind them.
It was just as Simeon rose to his feet to go indoors that a long note from a violin reached their ears.
"Simeon!" cried the woman. "What was that?"
The man did not answer. His eyes were fixed on the barn.
"Simeon, it's a fiddle!" exclaimed Mrs. Holly, as a second tone quivered on the air. "And it's in our barn!"
Simeon's jaw set. With a stern ejaculation he crossed the porch and entered the kitchen. In another minute he had returned, a lighted lantern in his hand.
"Simeon, d—don't go," begged the woman, tremulously. "You—you don't know what's there."
"Fiddles are not played without hands, Ellen," retorted the man severely. "Would you have me go to bed and leave a half-drunken, ungodly minstrel fellow in possession of our barn? To-night, on my way home, I passed a pretty pair of them lying by the roadside—a man and a boy with two violins. They're the culprits, likely,—though how they got this far, I don't see. Do you think I want to leave my barn to tramps like them?"
"N—no, I suppose not," faltered the woman, as she rose tremblingly to her feet, and followed her husband's shadow across the yard.
Once inside the barn Simeon Holly and his wife paused involuntarily. The music was all about them now, filling the air with runs and trills and rollicking bits of melody. Giving an angry exclamation, the man turned then to the narrow stairway and climbed to the hayloft above. At his heels came his wife, and so her eyes, almost as soon as his fell upon the man lying back on the hay with the moonlight full upon his face.
Instantly the music dropped to a whisper, and a low voice came out of the gloom beyond the square of moonlight which came from the window in the roof.
"If you'll please be as still as you can, sir. You see he's asleep and he's so tired," said the voice.
For a moment the man and the woman on the stairway paused in amazement, then the man lifted his lantern and strode toward the voice.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" he demanded sharply.
A boy's face, round, tanned, and just now a bit anxious, flashed out of the dark.
"Oh, please, sir, if you would speak lower," pleaded the boy. "He's so tired! I'm David, sir, and that's father. We came in here to rest and sleep."
Simeon Holly's unrelenting gaze left the boy's face and swept that of the man lying back on the hay. The next instant he lowered the lantern and leaned nearer, putting forth a cautious hand. At once he straightened himself, muttering a brusque word under his breath. Then he turned with the angry question:—
"Boy, what do you mean by playing a jig on your fiddle at such a time as this?"
"Why, father asked me to play," returned the boy cheerily. "He said he could walk through green forests then, with the ripple of brooks in his ears, and that the birds and the squirrels—"
"See here, boy, who are you?" cut in Simeon Holly sternly. "Where did you come from?"
"From home, sir."
"Where is that?"
"Why, home, sir, where I live. In the mountains, 'way up, up, up—oh, so far up! And there's such a big, big sky, so much nicer than down here." The boy's voice quivered, and almost broke, and his eyes constantly sought the white face on the hay.
It was then that Simeon Holly awoke to the sudden realization that it was time for action. He turned to his wife.
"Take the boy to the house," he directed incisively. "We'll have to keep him to-night, I suppose. I'll go for Higgins. Of course the whole thing will have to be put in his hands at once. You can't do anything here," he added, as he caught her questioning glance. "Leave everything just as it is. The man is dead."
"Dead?" It was a sharp cry from the boy, yet there was more of wonder than of terror in it. "Do you mean that he has gone—like the water in the brook—to the far country?" he faltered.
Simeon Holly stared. Then he said more distinctly:—
"Your father is dead, boy."
"And he won't come back any more?" David's voice broke now.
There was no answer. Mrs. Holly caught her breath convulsively and looked away. Even Simeon Holly refused to meet the boy's pleading eyes.
With a quick cry David sprang to his father's side.
"But he's here—right here," he challenged shrilly. "Daddy, daddy, speak to me! It's David!" Reaching out his hand, he gently touched his father's face. He drew back then, at once, his eyes distended with terror. "He is n't! He is—gone," he chattered frenziedly. "This is n't the father-part that knows. It's the other—that they leave. He's left it behind him—like the squirrel, and the water in the brook."
Suddenly the boy's face changed. It grew rapt and luminous as he leaped to his feet, crying joyously: "But he asked me to play, so he went singing—singing just as he said that they did. And I made him walk through green forests with the ripple of the brooks in his ears! Listen—like this!" And once more the boy raised the violin to his chin, and once more the music trilled and rippled about the shocked, amazed ears of Simeon Holly and his wife.
For a time neither the man nor the woman could speak. There was nothing in their humdrum, habit-smoothed tilling of the soil and washing of pots and pans to prepare them for a scene like this—a moonlit barn, a strange dead man, and that dead man's son babbling of brooks and squirrels, and playing jigs on a fiddle for a dirge. At last, however, Simeon found his voice.
"Boy, boy, stop that!" he thundered. "Are you mad—clean mad? Go into the house, I say!" And the boy, dazed but obedient, put up his violin, and followed the woman, who, with tear-blinded eyes, was leading the way down the stairs.
Mrs. Holly was frightened, but she was also strangely moved. From the long ago the sound of another violin had come to her—a violin, too, played by a boy's hands. But of this, all this, Mrs. Holly did not like to think.
In the kitchen now she turned and faced her young guest.
"Are you hungry, little boy?"
David hesitated; he had not forgotten the woman, the milk, and the gold-piece.
"Are you hungry—dear?" stammered Mrs. Holly again; and this time David's clamorous stomach forced a "yes" from his unwilling lips; which sent Mrs. Holly at once into the pantry for bread and milk and a heaped-up plate of doughnuts such as David had never seen before.
Like any hungry boy David ate his supper; and Mrs. Holly, in the face of this very ordinary sight of hunger being appeased at her table, breathed more freely, and ventured to think that perhaps this strange little boy was not so very strange, after all.
"What is your name?" she found courage to ask then.
"But your father's name?" Mrs. Holly had almost asked, but stopped in time. She did not want to speak of him. "Where do you live?" she asked instead.
"On the mountain, 'way up, up on the mountain where I can see my Silver Lake every day, you know."
"But you did n't live there alone?"
"Oh, no; with father—before he—went away," faltered the boy.
The woman flushed red and bit her lip.
"No, no, I mean—were there no other houses but yours?" she stammered.
"But, was n't your mother—anywhere?"
"Oh, yes, in father's pocket."
"Your mother—in your father's pocket!"
So plainly aghast was the questioner that David looked not a little surprised as he explained.
"You don't understand. She is an angel-mother, and angel-mothers don't have anything only their pictures down here with us. And that's what we have, and father always carried it in his pocket."
"Oh——h," murmured Mrs. Holly, a quick mist in her eyes. Then, gently: "And did you always live there—on the mountain?"
"Six years, father said."
"But what did you do all day? Were n't you ever—lonesome?"
"Lonesome?" The boy's eyes were puzzled.
"Yes. Did n't you miss things—people, other houses, boys of your own age, and—and such things?"
David's eyes widened.
"Why, how could I?" he cried. "When I had daddy, and my violin, and my Silver Lake, and the whole of the great big woods with everything in them to talk to, and to talk to me?"
"Woods, and things in them to—to talk to you!"
"Why, yes. It was the little brook, you know, after the squirrel, that told me about being dead, and—"
"Yes, yes; but never mind, dear, now," stammered the woman, rising hurriedly to her feet—the boy was a little wild, after all, she thought. "You—you should go to bed. Have n't you a—a bag, or—or anything?"
"No, ma'am; we left it," smiled David apologetically. "You see, we had so much in it that it got too heavy to carry. So we did n't bring it."
"So much in it you did n't bring it, indeed!" repeated Mrs. Holly, under her breath, throwing up her hands with a gesture of despair. "Boy, what are you, anyway?"
It was not meant for a question, but, to the woman's surprise, the boy answered, frankly, simply:—
"Father says that I'm one little instrument in the great Orchestra of Life, and that I must see to it that I'm always in tune, and don't drag or hit false notes."
"My land!" breathed the woman, dropping back in her chair, her eyes fixed on the boy. Then, with an effort, she got to her feet.
"Come, you must go to bed," she stammered. "I'm sure bed is—is the best place for you. I think I can find what—what you will need," she finished feebly.
In a snug little room over the kitchen some minutes later, David found himself at last alone. The room, though it had once belonged to a boy of his own age, looked very strange to David. On the floor was a rag-carpet rug, the first he had ever seen. On the walls were a fishing-rod, a toy shotgun, and a case full of bugs and moths, each little body impaled on a pin, to David's shuddering horror. The bed had four tall posts at the corners, and a very puffy top that filled David with wonder as to how he was to reach it, or stay there if he did gain it. Across a chair lay a boy's long yellow-white nightshirt that the kind lady had left, after hurriedly wiping her eyes with the edge of its hem. In all the circle of the candlelight there was just one familiar object to David's homesick eyes—the long black violin case which he had brought in himself, and which held his beloved violin.
With his back carefully turned toward the impaled bugs and moths on the wall, David undressed himself and slipped into the yellow-white nightshirt, which he sniffed at gratefully, so like pine woods was the perfume that hung about its folds. Then he blew out the candle and groped his way to the one window the little room contained.
The moon still shone, but little could be seen through the thick green branches of the tree outside. From the yard below came the sound of wheels, and of men's excited voices. There came also the twinkle of lanterns borne by hurrying hands, and the tramp of shuffling feet. In the window David shivered. There were no wide sweep of mountain, hill, and valley, no Silver Lake, no restful hush, no daddy,—no beautiful Things that Were. There was only the dreary, hollow mockery of the Things they had Become.
Long minutes later, David, with the violin in his arms, lay down upon the rug, and, for the first time since babyhood, sobbed himself to sleep—but it was a sleep that brought no rest; for in it he dreamed that he was a big, white-winged moth pinned with a star to an ink-black sky.