Read CHAPTER XIX of Chicken Little Jane on the Big John , free online book, by Lily Munsell Ritchie, on


“Sherm, don’t you just love this room?” Chicken Little gazed about Captain Clarke’s big library with a real affection. “I don’t know why it is, but this room makes me feel the same way a sunset, or the prairie when it’s all in bloom, does. I can’t just tell you, but it makes me so satisfied with everything ... as if the world was so beautiful it couldn’t possibly be very bad.”

“I know it’s the harmony, like in music. The colors all seem to go together ... everything seems to belong. I like that, too, but it doesn’t mean just that, to me. I see the Captain every time I step in here. It’s a part of him almost as if he had worked his own bigness and the kind of things he loves, into furniture and books and fixings.”

“Yes, there’s so much room to breathe here I s’pose being at sea so much, he had to have that. And he picked up most of these things on his voyages he must have wanted them pretty bad or he wouldn’t have carried them half around the world with him.”

The young people had come over to the Captain’s for supper. School had closed the day before, and Chicken Little was the proud possessor of an elaborate autograph album, won as a spelling prize. Captain Clarke had attended the closing exercises at her request. He had invited them over to celebrate, this evening. He declared he had never learned to spell himself and he wanted the honor of entertaining some one who knew how.

Chicken Little had brought the album along for the Captain’s signature. “And write something, too, won’t you? Something specially for me,” she had begged winningly.

“Have they all written something specially for you, Chicken Little? I should like to read them.”

“I haven’t asked very many people yet, just Mr. Clay and Grant Stowe and Mamie Jenkins’ little sister Mamie’s in town you know. I asked Sherm, but he hasn’t thought up anything.”

The Captain glanced at Sherm and smiled whimsically. “Now, if I were as young as Sherm, I shouldn’t have to think up things the trouble would be to restrain my eloquence.”

Sherm grinned and looked uncomfortable.

The Captain was merciful; he changed the subject.

“Isn’t the middle of May a little early to close school?”

“No, it is the usual time. You see the older children have to help at home as soon as the weather gets warm.”

“Of course. What are you going to do this summer?”

“Wish Ernest was home,” Jane answered pertly, but there was a wistful look in her eyes.

Before the Captain could reply, Wing came to the door to announce a man to see him. The Captain was gone some time. When he returned, he explained that it was a buyer from Kansas City after his corn, and he should have to leave them to entertain themselves for a while.

“I’ll tell you what you can do,” he paused in the doorway as the idea occurred to him. “You two may rummage in the drawers of the cabinet. Take out anything you like the looks of. I think you will find a lot of interesting stuff there. Make yourselves at home.”

They lingered, discussing the room for several minutes after his departure, then Jane went over to the cabinet.

“Come on there are heaps of wonderful things here. He showed me some of them the day I ran off and came to see him on my own hook. That’s a year ago! My, I feel as if it were a dozen it seems as if I were just a little girl then.”

“And now?” Sherm adored to set Jane off.

“None of your sarcasm, Mr. Dart.” Then soberly: “Truly, Sherm, I know I’m a lot older. Things seem so different to me.”

“I know you are, too, Lady Jane. I was only teasing you.”

They had a beautiful half hour among the Captain’s treasures. Sherm gloated especially over the prints their wonderful composition and soft color.

“Say, the Japs know a thing or two, don’t they? That wouldn’t be my idea of what to put into a picture, but it’s awfully satisfying.” He held the print off and closed one eye to see the outlines more vividly.

“Sherm, you surely were intended for an artist.” Chicken Little had gone on to the drawer below. “Oh, Sherm, I believe this is the drawer the Captain didn’t show me before. Do you suppose he wants us to go through it?”

“He said all of them. What’s in it?”

“Oh, sashes and scarfs and things. I thought maybe they used to belong to his wife.”

Sherm lifted a Roman scarf of crimson and yellow and rich blue, and examined it admiringly. “It doesn’t look as if this had ever been worn. I guess he wouldn’t have told us to go ahead if there had been anything here he didn’t want us to find. Say, Chicken Little, this would look dandy on you. Here, I’m going to fix you up for Captain Clarke to see.”

Sherm shook out the glowing silken folds and proceeded to wreathe the scarf around Chicken Little’s head, turban fashion. Her brown eyes glowed and the color in her cheeks grew deeper, as she met the admiration in Sherm’s eyes. He was staring at her, enchanted at the result of his efforts. Jane moved restlessly.

“Hold still there, can’t you? I want to try it another way. Didn’t I see one of those sleeveless jacket affairs in there?”

Jane rummaged and brought to light a crimson silk Turkish jacket embroidered in gold thread. She noticed that it, too, seemed perfectly fresh.

“Sherm, I do wonder how Captain Clarke happened to buy all these woman’s things. Do you suppose he bought them for his wife and she was dead when he got home with them?”

“I wonder. Perhaps we oughtn’t to be handling them. See all those queer beads, and there’s a bracelet! Isn’t it a beauty? See, it is like silver lace. I guess those blue stones must be turquoises.”

“Isn’t it dainty? That must be the filigree work we read about.”

Sherm was staring thoughtfully at the contents of the drawer. “One thing sure,” he muttered, “he must have thought a heap of her.”

Chicken Little had continued exploring. “Here’s a photograph and two locks of hair in a little frame. Oh, Sherm, it’s her! Yes, it must be, this is the same baby. I wonder why he doesn’t have this on his bureau, too.”

Sherm took the picture and stared at it so long that Jane grew impatient.

“What is it, Sherm? What’s the matter?”

Sherm started, passing his hand over his forehead and eyes as if he were dazed.

“Funny, the face seems sort of familiar. I had such a queer feeling about it for a minute.”

“I know why it looks familiar there’s a tiny bit of resemblance to you not as much as in the pictures of the baby. I suppose the baby got it from the mother. Still, I think it looks like Captain Clarke, too, don’t you?”

“Let’s put these things back, Chicken Little. Poor little lady, I wonder what happened to her.” Sherm laid the picture gently back in the bottom of the drawer and helped Jane fold and lay away the other things. They had both forgotten the Roman sash which still adorned her dark hair.

Captain Clarke, coming in soon after, started when he saw her and glanced at the cabinet.

“Dressing up, Chicken Little? That gew gaw was evidently intended by Providence for you. Won’t you accept it as a present to keep that autograph album company?”

Chicken Little put her hand to her head in dismay. Captain Clarke must have thought she wanted it. She stammered awkwardly:

“Oh, Captain Clarke I couldn’t take it. I oughtn’t to have put it on.”

Sherm calmly took the matter out of her hands.

“She didn’t put it on, Captain Clarke. I’m the guilty party. I thought it would be so becoming to Chicken Little her dark hair and eyes you know. I didn’t realize till we came across the picture that it belonged to your wife and you might not like to have us handle it.”

“It was never Mrs. Clarke’s,” the Captain said evenly. “I bought it for her, but she” he hesitated an instant “she died before my return. I told you to rummage the drawers, and that scarf is entirely too becoming to Chicken Little’s bright eyes to be wasted in a drawer any longer. You will be doing me a favor, my dear.

“You seem to have an eye for color, Sherm. Juanita loved color, too, that is why I picked up so many gay things for her.” Captain Clarke seemed to have formed a sudden resolution. He plunged his hand down among the rustling silks and brought up the picture. His hand trembled a little as he handed it to Chicken Little. “I have never shown you her picture before. She had eyes something like yours.”

Chicken Little took the picture and tried to look as if nothing had happened. She described the scene to Marian afterwards. “O Marian, I felt as if I were standing in a story book. The Captain’s face was as white, but he went on talking just as if I knew all about his wife, and I do wonder! I felt so sorry for him. Sherm said he wanted to kick himself for being so thoughtless.”

“Don’t worry about it, Jane, and don’t be trying to make a mystery out of what was merely a big sorrow. It must have been an awful blow to him to come home and find wife and baby both dead, but it happened years ago. I expect it did him good to talk to you and Sherm about it.”

Chicken Little forgot about it after a few days, except when she went to the box where she kept the scarf. She always thought of the picture of the young mother and baby whenever she saw it.

“I don’t believe I ever can wear it,” she told Sherm.

“Oh, yes, you will, some of these days; the Captain would be hurt if you didn’t.”

Sherm hadn’t heard from his mother for over a week when a neighbor came one evening and handed Dr. Morton a yellow envelope. “No bad news, I hope,” he said.

It was addressed to Dr. Morton and read: “My husband died this morning. Break news to Sherm he must await letter.”

Sherm, too, was older than he had been a year before. He was coming up the lane whistling, swinging his supple young body along at a good pace, as if he enjoyed being alive. Dr. Morton watched him, dreading to have to tell him the bad news and wondering how he would take it. “It’s a pity,” he thought, “Sherm’s a fine manly fellow and ought to have his education and a chance at life, and I am afraid this means more than losing his father.”

He waited until the boy came up to him. He was still holding the telegram in his hand, but Sherm did not notice it until he spoke.

Dr. Morton’s voice was very kind. “My boy, I am afraid ” He got no farther. Sherm saw the telegram and understood. “Father?” he questioned. Dr. Morton nodded.

Sherm stood motionless, as if he were trying to realize that the blow he had so long dreaded, had fallen. Presently he looked up at the Doctor.

“There isn’t any train before to-morrow, is there?”

“No, Sherm, and I don’t think your mother expects here, read the message.”

Sherm’s hand shook. He read the meager words through twice, then crushed the paper in his fist.

“I am going home to-morrow,” he said doggedly. “I’ve got enough saved up for the railroad fare. He was my father I haven’t seen him for a year. They might have told me! I am not a child any longer!”

Dr. Morton laid his hand on his shoulder. “Don’t, Sherm don’t add bitterness to grief. Your mother may not have known in time. Death often comes suddenly at the last in such cases. And, my boy, I would think twice before setting out rashly. Your mother asks you to wait for her letter she must have some good reason. The message was sent this morning. There will probably be a letter to-morrow.”

“I don’t care whether there’s a letter or not, I’m going.” There was a hard look on the boy’s face.

Chicken Little came running up, with Jilly panting alongside. “My, we had a good race, didn’t we, Jilly Dilly? Why what’s ” She stopped short at sight of their grave faces.

Dr. Morton told her.

She stood a moment awestruck; Chicken Little had never had death come so near her before. Then she turned to Sherm, her face so full of tender pity that his face softened a trifle.

“Don’t worry about me, Chicken Little,” he said gruffly, “I am all right. If you’ll help me knock my things together after a while, I’ll be grateful. I guess I’ll take a walk now.” His voice broke a little at the last.

He did not wait for an answer, but walked hurriedly away. Jane gazed after him, undecided whether to follow or not. Dr. Morton divined her thought. “I wouldn’t, dear. Let him have it out alone first you can comfort him later on. I want you to help me persuade him not to rush off before he receives his mother’s letter. I must say I don’t blame Sherm for resenting his mother’s attitude. I think she is making a big mistake.”

Dusk came and the darkness closed round while Chicken Little strained her eyes in vain for Sherm. It was almost ten before he came back. She was standing at the gate watching for him. The rest of the family had gone to bed. “Chicken Little can comfort him better than any of us,” Dr. Morton had told his wife. “He will be glad not to have to face any of the rest of the family to-night.”

“You shouldn’t have stayed up, Chicken Little,” Sherm called, as soon as he caught sight of her. “I forgot I asked you to help me I’d have come home sooner if I’d remembered. The duds can wait till morning I can get up early.” He spoke quietly.

“Do you think you ought to go, Sherm?”

Sherm’s eyes smouldered. Jane could not see him very distinctly, but she could fairly feel his determination.

“It’s no use talking, I’m going!”

They went up the walk in silence. The lilacs and the white syringia in the borders were in bloom. She hoped Sherm did not notice the heavy fragrance it was so like a funeral. He did not say anything till they got to the foot of the stairs.

“Thank you, Jane, for for waiting.” His voice broke pitifully.

When Dr. Morton discovered the next morning that Sherm was not to be moved from his purpose, he decided to go into town early and see if by any chance there might be another telegram or a letter. Letters from the east sometimes came down by a branch line from the north. There was nothing, and he finally resolved to telegraph Mrs. Dart as to Sherm’s state of mind. Sherm was to come later in the day with Frank in time to catch the evening train, which was the only one that made close connections at Kansas City. It was late afternoon before he received a reply. The message was emphatic. “Sherm must await letter.”

“Mrs. Dart evidently knows her own mind,” thought the Doctor. He drove a little way out of town and waited for Frank and Sherm. Chicken Little was with them. He gave the boy this second message, explaining what he had done. Sherm read it over and over, as if he hoped in some way to find a reason for his mother’s decision lurking between the lines.

At length he said stolidly: “I’ll wait till to-morrow. Perhaps the letter will come to-night.”

They talked it over and Sherm and Chicken Little went on to town with the light buggy to wait for the mail, while Dr. Morton and Frank drove home.

There was a handful of letters in the box. Sherm took them out hastily.

“I guess this is it,” he said, stuffing one into his pocket. “And here’s three for you.”

“Three? Whoever from?” Jane held out her hand. “Ernest and Katy and here’s another with an Annapolis postmark. Who do you suppose?”

Sherm glanced over her shoulder. “That’s Carol Brown’s handwriting.”

“Carol? writing to me? How funny!”

They hurried out to the team.

“Let me drive while you read your letter, Sherm.”

Sherm shook his head. “Read yours first this will keep.”

“The idea I wouldn’t be so piggy selfish.”

“Please, Jane, I’d rather get out of town before I tackle it.”

“Sherm, I wish I could ” She didn’t need to finish. Sherm understood.

“Read Carol’s first,” he said.

She read it with a beaming face. Sherm was looking at her without seeing her. She started to tell him the contents of the letter, then suddenly stopped. She couldn’t rejoice over being asked to a hop when Sherm was in such trouble. Laying the letter in her lap, she took up Ernest’s. Sherm noticed the movement and, remembering, asked her what Carol had to say.

She handed him the letter. He read it through absently. The houses were thinning along the road. The prairie stretched ahead of them in solitary sweeps of tender green, dappled with flowers. Jane reached for the reins.

“Read your letter, Sherm.”

He obeyed in silence. Chicken Little kept her eyes on the road ahead. A sharp exclamation from Sherm startled her:

“God, it can’t be true!”

Sherm swearing? She looked at him in amazement. The boy was not swearing; he had cried out in utter agony. He dropped the letter on the floor of the buggy and buried his face in his hands.

“Sherm, Sherm, what is it?” Chicken Little was frightened.

He did not answer. He did not seem to have noticed that she had spoken. She reached over and touched him. “Sherm! Sherm!” He shook off her hand impatiently.

Chicken Little hesitated a moment, then flicked the horses into a swift trot. She must get him home. Perhaps he was going to be ill. The boy did not move or look up for miles. When the horses splashed through the ford at Elm Creek, he roused himself and looked dully at Jane.

“Sherm, please tell me. It will make it easier for you to tell somebody, and I’m worried to death.”

He stooped and picked up the letter. Smoothing it out, he thrust it into her hand. “Read it.” He took the reins.

Chicken Little ran over the letter hurriedly. It bore a date some days previous.

“My Dear Boy:

“Dr. Jones has just told me it can be only a question of days now. I have been studying whether to send for you or not. Father settled the question for me. He said he wanted sorrowfully to see you, but in view of the things that must be told you, it would be too painful an ordeal for all of us. He said to tell you you were very precious to him as precious as if you had really been his own son.”

Chicken Little gave a little cry. “Sherm, what does she mean?”

“Read it all.”

“For, Sherm, you are not our own. If Father could have lived, we never intended you to know this at least not until you were a man and had made a place for yourself. But Father’s illness is leaving us penniless. Sue’s husband has offered Grace and myself a home with them, but he thinks you must be told the truth that it is only fair to you. We took you when you were about two and a half years old under very peculiar circumstances. It was while we were still living in New York, and Sue was a tot of five. We were going up to my father’s in Albany and were a little late. Father told the hackman to drive fast; he’d give him an extra dollar if he’d catch the train. The man had been drinking and drove recklessly. He was just dashing round the corner to the station the train was already whistling when he knocked down, and ran over, a woman with a child in her arms. The child was pitched to one side and escaped with a few bruises. The woman never regained consciousness. You have probably guessed that you were that child. We could never find out who she was, though we advertised for several weeks. We decided to bring you up with Sue, and when we moved to Centerville, soon after, no one knew you were not our own child. We had you baptized Sherman after the great general who had just won his way to notice then. I have saved the clothing you wore, and a brooch and wedding ring of your mother’s. I will send them to you, together with a hundred dollars, which is all I can give you to start you on your way.” The remainder of the letter was filled with her grief over parting with her husband, and her separation from Sherm himself.

Chicken Little swallowed hard something seemed to be gripping her by the throat.

“And your father isn’t your father, Sherm? or your mother or Sue or Grace?” The tragic extent of what had happened was dawning slowly upon Jane.

Sherm’s lips trembled.

“No, I haven’t any father I’ve never had a father!... I haven’t got anybody.... I haven’t even got a name that belongs to me!” Sherm’s voice grew shriller and shriller till it broke with a dry sob.

Chicken Little slipped her hand into his and the boy clung to it spasmodically, as if that slim, brown hand were all he had in the world to cling to. The tears were raining down Jane’s cheeks, but Sherm’s eyes were dry and burning. The team trotted along evenly. They turned mechanically into the stable yard when they reached the ranch. It was growing dusk.

Sherm helped her out, saying: “Will you please tell them, Chicken Little? I won’t come in just yet.”

She ran to the house and poured out her tale. Her father hurried to the stable. Sherm was not there. Jim Bart, who was milking in the corral near by, said he had saddled Caliph and gone off down the lane. Dr. Morton talked it over with Frank and they decided that Sherm had done the wisest thing possible in going for a gallop.

“He doesn’t mean to do anything rash or he wouldn’t have taken Ernest’s horse,” Frank declared.

But as hour after hour went by, the family grew more and more anxious. At eleven o’clock, Frank saddled Calico and tried to find him. He returned some time later in despair.

“You might as well try to look for a needle in a haystack. Poor lad, I have faith he will ride the worst of it off and Caliph is a pretty steady little beast now. He’ll bring him home.”

A few moments after his return, a messenger came from Captain Clarke, saying that he had been wakened by Caliph neighing at the gate and had gone out to find Sherm dazed and apparently completely exhausted. He had got him to bed where he was sleeping heavily. Captain Clarke was afraid they must be worried. He would care for him till morning, but he would be glad to have some inkling of what had happened so that he might know what to say to the boy when he waked.

Dr. Morton got out his medicine case and went back with the man.