Read CHAPTER XVIII - THE SEVEN MCGEES of Heart of Gold , free online book, by Ruth Alberta Brown, on

The last week at Danbury Hospital rolled by almost too quickly to suit even Peace, busy saying good-bye to the hosts of friends which that great roof sheltered; for now that the time had come for her to go, she found herself strangely loath to leave the little white room where she had spent so many months.

“I knew, of course, that I loved all the doctors and nurses,” she explained in apologetic, troubled tones to the sympathizing sister, Gail, “but I never s’posed I’d hate to go home so bad when it came time.  I-I really want to go home, too, but somehow-I’m going to miss the hospital dreadfully, Gail.”

“Certainly you will, dear,” the older girl answered with an understanding heart.  “You have been here such a long time and had such a delightful experience for the most part,-”

“And made so many really, truly friends,” Peace chimed in eagerly.

“Yes, and made so many friends, that it is no wonder you rather hate to leave it all, even if you are going home.  But you wouldn’t want to stay here always-”

“O, mercy, no!” Peace shivered.  “There are too many sick folks here.  They ache and yell and cry, because they can’t help themselves.  Now I didn’t hurt real much this time, though it’s taken a long time to finish the job, but I could have ’most anything to eat and could get around in my wheel-chair or with my crutches for weeks and weeks; while most folks are so awfully sick that they have to live on mottled milk and beef juice, and they get so skinny and white and weak that they don’t know what to do with themselves.  That must be dreadful hard and I’ll really be glad to get away where I can’t see so many sick people.  Yes, it is awfully nice to have such a lovely home to go to, and it’ll be so much fun to get around again, even if ’tis on crutches.  There are lots of games I can play no matter if I can’t run, and Allee and me are going to plan out lots more while we are visiting Mrs. Wood.  I ’xpect maybe she will be able to help us some, too, ’cause Billy Bolée won’t ever be able to run about like other boys, and he’ll want to know some nice, int’resting games that can be played sitting still.”

“Yes, I think that will be a good scheme,” Gail agreed, wondering why Peace never seemed to suspect the secret of those awkward crutches.  “But now you better rest awhile, for Dick-er Dr. Shumway will soon be here with his auto ready to take us out to his sister’s house, and you want to be bright and fresh for dinner tonight.”

So with much laughter and many regrets, the hospital staff and all the patients watched Peace depart from its portals,-laughter, because she was to be strong and well once more; regrets because of the void she left behind her.  And Peace, surprised that they cared so much, went her way almost content.  It was such a joy to be out-of-doors again; so wonderful to get close to the heart of nature once more; and she improved every moment of the week that followed in getting acquainted with every being, beast and bird on the place, from grave-eyed Mr. Wood who was at home only in the evenings, down to Twitter, the yellow-coated, golden-throated canary, which sang all day in his cage.  She romped with Billy Bolée, made pies with Kate, the cook, played checkers with their kindly host, and tried to master the art of embroidery under Mrs. Wood’s instruction; but her favorite occupation was stumping about the grassy yard with her crutches, and it surprised and delighted her to find how little they really hampered her.  When she tired of her explorations, there was a great elm by the fence where she loved to rest, and it was here that she sat playing with Billy Bolée one hot afternoon when she was startled to hear a strange voice demand, “Are you truly lame?”

Glancing up in surprise, she beheld a fat, dirty face, crowned by a shock of tumbled red hair, pressed against the lattice-work, while a pair of alert, gray eyes peered at her through the narrow opening.  So unexpected was the query,-for Peace had not been aware of another’s presence,-that she could think of nothing to say, and merely grunted, “Huh?”

The stranger outside the gate obediently repeated, “Are you truly lame?”

“Yes.  Why?”

“’Cause Ma says she guesses this must be a lame house,” piped up another voice close by, and Peace discovered a second dirty-faced, red-headed youngster peering between the slats.

“A lame house?” echoed Peace in bewilderment.  “How can a house be lame?”

“Aw, Antonio don’t mean the house, nor neither does Ma.  They just mean that every one what lives in it is lame.”

“I don’t see how you make that out,” Peace began, still puzzled.

“Well, you’re lame, ain’t you?”


“And that little baby is lame.”


“And the doctor man is lame-”

“But not for keeps,” Peace eagerly interrupted.  “He just broke his leg and some day it will be all well again, and he won’t even limp or need a cane.”

“Oh!” The first speaker seemed relieved.

“And will the baby some day walk all right?” asked the second tousled figure.

“No-o, I don’t s’pose his short leg will ever catch up with the other one now,” Peace reluctantly admitted.  “But he’s not very lame anyway.  He don’t limp much.”

“Neither do you,” persisted the boy called Antonio, “but you use crutches.  You’re worser off than the rest of the bunch.”

“But I don’t live here,” she flashed triumphantly, bound to uphold the honor of that household at any cost.  “I’m just visiting for this week.”

“Oh!” This time the exclamation expressed such regret that Peace asked solicitously, “What’s the matter?  Did you like to think of a whole bunch of lame folks living in one house?”

“No,” the older boy declared, “but we was in hopes you lived here, for then we could come over sometimes and play with you maybe.”

Peace surveyed her two uninvited guests dubiously and then glanced at her own spotless frock and at Billy’s spandy new rompers.  “Who-who-are you?” she finally stammered, unable to keep her pert little nose from showing some of the disgust she felt.

“My name is Tobias McGee,” he answered pompously, as if proud of the fact.  “I’m ten years old.  Tony-he’s one of the twins-he’s eight.”

“I am Antonio,” the second boy interrupted, bristling belligerently.  “How many times has Ma told you to quit calling me Tony?”

“She’s told you to leave off calling me Toby, too,” retorted Tobias scathingly, “but you hain’t did it.  Gus is the other twin-”

“Augustus,” corrected the offended Antonio.

“See here,” blustered Tobias threateningly, “are you telling this, or me?”

Peace, watching with fascinated eyes the pending scrap, became suddenly aware that her guests had increased in number, and, glancing over her shoulder, she found five other dirty, ragged, red-headed, unattractive looking children lined up outside the fence, peeping at her through the slats.  “Are-are there any more of you?” she demanded, taking a rapid inventory of the new arrivals.

The largest of the visitors, a girl of perhaps twelve years, swept her eyes down the line and answered briefly, “Nope.”

“Well, how’d you get here, Feely?” asked Tobias, forgetting his battle with the twin in his surprise at his sister’s presence. “’Twas your turn to go with the milk today.”

“The Carters and Moodys quit taking,” she answered indifferently.  “There was only the Bowmans to d’liver.”

“The Carters and Moodys quit?” echoed Tobias and Antonio in dismay.

“That’s what I said,” she answered sharply.

“But what for?”

“I dunno.”  She gathered up the smallest of her kin, a fretful, whining child of about two years, and set it upon the fence-rail so its dirty, bare legs dangled on the inside of the enclosure.

“Does Ma know?”

“She ain’t to home yet.”

“Y’ know she said it would mean another washing if any more of the milk customers quit us.”

The oldest girl nodded her head dully.

“Who do you s’pose she will get?” persisted Tobias.

“How d’ you s’pose I know?” snapped the girl.

“P’r’aps Mrs. Wood might let her do her clothes again,” suggested Antonio, in wheedling tones.

“Mrs. Wood?” asked Peace, rousing suddenly to speech.  “My Mrs. Wood?”

Seven dirty, frowsy heads nodded solemnly.

“Is your mother her washwoman?”

“She used to be,” the whole line chorused.

“Why ain’t she now?”

“’Cause Mrs. Wood quit her.”

“But what for?”

There was an embarrassing pause while the tribe of McGee glanced inquiringly from one to the other.  At last Antonio timidly ventured the explanation, “She said Ma’s tubs got iron rust all over her clo’es.”

“Ain’t that reason enough for Mrs. Wood to quit?” demanded Peace, cocking her head judiciously.

“Ma was awful careful,” the girl called Feely defended.

“But her tubs are awful old,” half whispered a smaller girl, who up to this moment had stood silently sucking her thumb.

“Shut up, Vinie, she ain’t talking to you,” commanded Tobias, raising a threatening hand.

Vinie stuffed her thumb hastily into her mouth again and shrank back against the fence, the picture of fear; but Peace forestalled the blow by crying, “Let her be, Tobias McGee.  She can talk if she wants to.”

The boy flushed angrily and muttered, “She’s always butting in.  She’s a reg’lar tattle-tale.”

“Well, you’re a reg’lar coward,” Peace sputtered.  “She’s lots littler than you.”

“I wouldn’t have hit her.”

“You would, too,” Vinie removed her thumb long enough to say.

“If you’re going to fight, you can go straight home,” Peace interposed.  “Mrs. Wood wants Billy to grow up a gentleman.”

“We ain’t fighting,” they chorused indignantly.

“You looked like it all right.  You’re always jawing each other, and I don’t like scrappers.”

“We won’t jaw any more,” they meekly promised, “if you will let us come over and play.”

“I-I’ll have to ask Mrs. Wood,” she stammered, for, while the newcomers interested her, their slovenly appearance made her recoil from any closer contact.

“Then we can’t come,” wailed Antonio despairingly.

“Why not?”

“’Cause Mrs. Wood don’t like us.”

“How do you know?”

“She won’t let us play with Billy.”

“P’r’aps you are too rough.”

“We wouldn’t hurt him the least speck.”

“Maybe it’s ’cause you are so dirty.”

A chorus of indignant denial arose, but at that moment Mrs. Wood herself appeared at an open window and called for Billy Bolée.  Immediately the McGees scattered like startled pheasants, and Peace wonderingly turned her steps toward the house, surprising her hostess as she entered the cool room by the blunt question, “Don’t you like the McGee family?”

“Why-er-I can get along nicely without their company,” Mrs. Wood answered evasively.

“But what’s the matter with them?” Peace insisted.

“Nothing, I guess, except they are never clean,” laughed the woman, and Gail looked up from a letter she was writing long enough to ask, “Who are the McGees, Peace?  Your latest acquaintances?”

“Mrs. McGee is a widow who takes in washing,” explained their hostess, without giving Peace a chance to make reply.  “She and her seven children live in that three-room shack across the field.  When her husband died she took plain sewing to do for a time, but couldn’t earn enough at it to keep her family from want, so she turned to the washtubs.  She does her work well or did at first, but of late she has attempted more than she can handle satisfactorily, and has grown so careless that several of us have had to take our washings elsewhere.”

“’Twasn’t careless,” Peace interrupted earnestly.  “It’s her tubs.  They are so old and rusty now.”

“Then she should get new ones if she expects people to hire her.  I can’t afford to send my clothes to the wash and have them come back all spotted up with iron-rust.  It is almost impossible to get it out.”

“I guess maybe she hasn’t money enough to buy more tubs,” Peace hazarded.  “All her milk customers are quitting her.”

“I can’t say that I blame them,” Keturah Wood shrugged her shapely shoulders.

“Did you quit her?”

“No, I never took milk from there.”

“Ain’t it good milk?”

“It ought to be.  Their cow is a Holstein and gives lots of milk.  But someway I can’t stomach the children.”

“Can’t stomach the children?” echoed Peace wonderingly.

“They are so dirty,” Mrs. Wood explained in apologetic tones.  “Mrs. McGee used to keep them as neat as pins when I first came here to live, and her kitchen was simply spotless.  But she has too much to attend to now, and the children run wild.”

“Would you get your milk there if they were clean?”

“Possibly.  My milkman isn’t real dependable.  Sometimes there will be three or four days in a month when I can’t get all I need, and if I ever want any extra, I always have to tell him two or three days before.  The McGees seem to be able to supply a body at any time with any amount.  But no one enjoys having such inexcusably dirty children bring their milk even if they know the milk itself is absolutely clean.  Somehow it takes away one’s appetite.”

“Why don’t that big girl keep the others clean?  She’s old enough, ain’t she?”

“She’s too lazy.  They all are.  They fight all day sometimes over whose turn it is to carry the milk or bring in the wood.  Mrs. McGee never has trained them to help her a bit, and though Ophelia is past twelve years old, she is as useless as the baby when it comes to doing the housework.”

“Ophelia-ain’t that a funny name!”

“Ridiculous!” laughed Mrs. Wood.  “But so are all the rest.  Having no fortune to endow his children with, old Pat McGee gave his offspring as ‘high-toned and iligent names as iver belonged to rich folks.’  They are Ophelia and Tobias, Antonio and Augustus, Lavinia and Humphrey, and the poor little babe Nadene.  Commonly they are known as Feely, Toby, Tony, Gus, Vinie, Humpy and Deanie.  Their real names are just for dress-up occasions.”

“It takes me back to Parker days,” said Gail reminiscently.  “Only the McGees are worse off than the Greenfields were, for there are seven of them and all so small.  What would happen if the mother should slip away as our mother did?”

“O, the orphan asylum would open its doors, of course.  But even at that they might stand a better chance than they do now.  They never will amount to anything, growing up as they are, like weeds.  She can’t give them the attention they ought to have, and she is not teaching them to be independent or helpful in any way.  Toby and the twins are almost beyond her control now.  Some of us neighbors have tried to get her to send part of the tribe at least to a Children’s Home.  Such an institution would certainly give them the training that she can’t-”

“O, but think of having to eat oatmeal every morning without milk or sugar,” interrupted Peace in horrified accents, “and your bread and potatoes without any butter, and never having any pie or cake, and meat only once a week, and hardly any fruit, and-ugh!  I’d starve!”

“Peace, oh, Peace,” called Allee’s voice from outside the window, “come see what I’ve found.”  And the crippled sister, hastily adjusting her crutches, went to discover what was wanted.

The next day while she was sitting alone under the great tree in the back yard, she heard a stealthy rustling in the grass beyond the fence, and glancing up from the book she had been trying to interest herself in, she again saw the dirty face of Tobias McGee peering at her through the lattice work.  Then Antonio appeared, followed one by one by the rest of the tousled McGees.  She surveyed them critically from head to heels and then scathingly remarked, “I sh’d think you would be ashamed to go so dirty.”

“We-we ain’t none of us got such pretty clo’es as you,” stammered Tobias, much confused by this unlooked-for reception, and he thrust both grimy hands behind his back as if that would hide all his filth.

“You don’t have to have pretty clothes to have ’em clean,” Peace retorted.

“Ma ain’t got time to keep us washed up,” explained Tobias, apologetically.

“Why don’t you do it yourselves then?”

“But-we-can’t,” they gasped in chorus.

“I don’t see why.”

“We ain’t big enough.”

“You are, too.  Feely’s as old as Hope was when we were in Parker, and Hope kept after us till we were glad to wash our faces and hands and brush our hair.  Of course she helped, but there were Cherry and Allee and me all younger’n her.  And we helped Gail, too.  I churned the butter once, and we helped houseclean and-and pick chickens, and run errands and bring in the wood-”

“Huh, us boys do that,” broke in Gus scornfully.  “Girls ain’t s’posed to fetch wood and water.”

“All our boys were girls,” replied Peace loftily, “and some of us had to bring in the wood or else how would it have got there?”

“Did you wash dishes?” asked Ophelia, with a slight display of curiosity.

“Cherry washed and I wiped.”

“How old was Cherry?” demanded Antonio.

“O, about ten, when we lived in Parker, I guess.”

“Feely’s twelve and she don’t wash the dishes yet,” tattled Vinie, and was promptly rewarded with a smart slap from the older sister.

“Shame on you!” cried Peace indignantly.  “You are the meanest family I ever knew.  Mrs. Wood said you are always fighting, and that’s all you’ve done every time you’ve been over here.”

“I don’t care, Vinie had no business to say that,” muttered Ophelia, scowling sullenly.  “She can’t never keep her mouth shut.  I just hate to wash dishes.”

“So do I,” Peace cheerfully agreed.  “But I don’t go around slapping folks’ faces ’cause of it.  Besides, Gail had all she could ’tend to without bothering about the dishes.  We had to do them or go hungry.  Who does them at your house?”

“Ma,” volunteered Vinie once more, edging warily out of range of the big sister’s hand.

“After she’s washed all day?” asked Peace in horrified accents.

Ophelia was scowling threateningly; Vinie drew a little further away and nodded silently.

“Don’t any of you do anything to help her?”

“I mind the kids,” said Ophelia defiantly.

“I should think you would keep ’em scrubbed up a little cleaner, then,” observed Peace critically.  “They-you are all so dirty you-you-smell.  I don’t wonder folks won’t buy milk from you.”

“Ma takes care of the milk herself and washes the buckets and covers ’em all up careful before she gives ’em to us to tote,” cried Tobias, much insulted by Peace’s frank words.

“I don’t care,” retorted that young lady with dignity.  “Mrs. Wood herself says she can’t swallow you children, you are so dirty; and she would take milk from you if you were clean, ’cause I asked her.”

Silence reigned while each young McGee dug his bare toes into the soft earth and chewed his finger or thumb.  Then Tobias growled, “Mrs. Wood is too p’tic’lar.  Ma says so.”

“I’ll bet Mrs. Moody and Mrs. Carter are just as p’tic’lar,” Peace declared hotly.  “If you’d ask them why they quit taking milk of you, and just made ’em tell you the truth, I’ll bet they would say that you kids were always so dirty it made ’em sick to look at you.”

Vinie withdrew her thumb from her mouth, stopped shuffling her dirty little feet in the grass, stared thoughtfully at the candid young hostess on the other side of the fence, and quietly disappeared, followed by solemn-eyed Humphrey.  No one noticed her going, no one missed her from her place in the rank, but while belligerent Tobias was still arguing the question with stubborn Peace, Vinie returned with Humpy still at her heels.  She had hurried, and her breath came quick and fast, but before she had reached her place in the line-up again, she called excitedly, “That pretty girl is right.  We’re all too dirty to suit Mrs. Moody and Mrs. Carter.”

“Wh-at?” shrieked the brothers and sisters, wheeling about in consternation to face their new accuser,-one of their own kin.

“Well, I asked ’em honest true, just like she said to do, and after a bit they owned up that it wasn’t the milk they didn’t like, but the looks of us was too much.”

Ophelia stared dully at the small sister for a long moment, then suddenly slumped down in the tall grass and wept.  Tobias, Antonio and Augustus all followed suit, and even baby Nadene lifted her voice in lament, though she did not know what she was crying about.

Surprised, awed and troubled, Peace drew near to the fence and pressed her face against the lattice work to watch this unusual performance; but Vinie, after one contemptuous glance at the snivelling group, turned energetically away toward the little green shack across the field, still holding fast to Humpy’s grimy fist.

“Where you going?” demanded Antonio, peeping at her from under his arm as he lay sprawled in the clover.

“I ain’t got time to bawl,” she flung back over her shoulder.  “I promised to go home and clean up Humpy and me.  Then Mrs. Carter’s going to give me two cents to go to the store for her.”

Peace watched the two little figures trudging off across the meadow, and then she said thoughtfully, “She’s right, and I b’lieve you could get back all your milk customers if you’d everyone clean up once and stay clean.  Why don’t you try?”

Antonio lifted his head, looked at his twin and began slowly to struggle to his feet.  Augustus joined him, then Tobias, and finally Ophelia.  She looked timidly toward Peace, and asked meekly, “Don’t you s’pose Ma would scold?”

“What for?  Washing your faces?  No, I don’t.  She’s a funny mother if she does.  It’s easier work to sell milk than to do washings, and I should think you’d try to help her all you can so she won’t get sick and die and all of you have to go to an orphant asylum.”

The round-eyed children gazed at her in affright, then swiftly made off through the tall grass in Vinie’s wake.

They did not return that day or the next; and Peace had concluded that they were angry with her; but the third morning bright and early they appeared at the gate, unlatched it, and marched in solemn file up the path to the house.  Mrs. Wood herself, with Peace close behind, answered their timid knock, and Ophelia, clad in a clean, neatly patched gingham dress, with her hair hanging in two smooth plaits down her back, faltered, “Ma wants to know would you like to get milk of us?  The little heifer has just come in fresh and we’ve got plently to sell.”

“Ma’d ‘a’ come herself,” piped up Vinie from the rear, “but she’s sick today.”

“It’s just a headache,” hastily explained Tobias, beginning to scowl at the family chatterbox, and then heroically smiling instead.

“She’s lost another customer,” confided Vinie, “a wash customer, ’cause her tubs are so rusty, and it made her cry.”

“But we’re going to get her some new tubs,” interrupted Antonio excitedly, “and then we can come for your clo’es if you want us to.”

“We’ve got seventy cents in our banks,” said Augustus shyly.

“And if you need any wood chopped or piled, or carpets beat up, or errands run, we’ll be glad to do it for you-cheap,” recited Tobias, in a curious singsong voice, as if he had learned the words by rote.

“But what about the milk?” reminded Vinie, when the sudden pause which followed had grown too oppressive.

“O!” Mrs. Wood roused to a realization that seven eager bodies were listening for her answer.  What should she say?  Once more her eyes travelled the length of the line.  What a transformation had taken place!  Each face was polished till it fairly glistened in the sun, each pair of bare, brown legs was clean and spotless, each fiery red head had been brushed till not a hair was out of place, and each small figure was clad in stiffly starched garments which looked as if they had just come from the ironing board.

As if reading the unspoken question which burned on Mrs. Wood’s lips, Tobias informed her, “We’ve cleaned up for keeps.”

“Ma’s going to give us each a penny every week that we stay clean so’s not to need more’n one waist or dress in that time,” eagerly explained Antonio.

“’Cause, you see,” tattled Vinie, “we ain’t none of us got more’n two, and we’ve got to stay clean so folks will buy our milk.”

“That girl,” lisped Humpy, pointing a stubby forefinger at Peace in the doorway, “thaid we wuth too dirty.”

“Oh!” Mrs. Wood was enlightened, and her memory flew back to a certain day a few weeks before when Peace had told her some unpleasant truths which had nevertheless changed the course of events in her life.  She had called the child “rude” at that time, but perhaps it was not rudeness after all.  It was certainly effective anyway, and she smiled amusedly at the neat line of McGees.

Encouraged by the smile, Vinie said coaxingly, “She said you’d take milk of us if we wuz clean all the time.”

“And you will, won’t you?” asked Peace, finding her tongue for the first time since the queer little procession had marched up to the door.

Recalling the usual appearance of the young McGees, Mrs. Wood could not help shivering, but she must be game.  It shamed her to think that already this brown-eyed child on crutches had more of the true missionary spirit within her than she, a woman grown, had ever possessed; so she forced a smile to her lips and a sound of heartiness to her voice, as she answered, “Yes, I will take a quart every morning.”

“And about the wash,” Vinie reminded her, when the elated brothers and sisters were about to retreat.

“Come for it Mondays as usual,” answered Mrs. Wood meekly, wondering all the while what had taken possession of her that she should give in so easily.

“Thank you.”  Vinie bowed profoundly, and to the amazement of the woman on the steps, the whole line of McGees stopped abruptly, touched their hands to their heads in a truly military style, and thundered as one man, “Thank you!”

Mrs. Wood beat a hasty retreat with her hand over her mouth, but Peace stood thoughtfully leaning on her crutches in the doorway as she watched their morning callers scatter through the wet grass when the gate had clicked behind the last one of them.

So absorbed was she that Gail, who had been a silent spectator from behind a curtained window, gently asked, “What is the matter, girlie?  Is anything troubling you?”

“No-o,” she slowly answered.  “I was only wishing that the McGees lived in Martindale, so’s our Gleaners could make ’em some clothes, like we did for Fern and Rivers Dillon.  Think of having only two dresses apiece!  Mercy!  I don’t see how folks can expect ’em to keep clean.”

“Why, our Ladies’ Aid does work of that kind,” gasped Mrs. Wood, her laughter forgotten.  “Why didn’t I think of that before?  We have lots of good material on hand now to make over, and I know the ladies will be glad to do it for Mrs. McGee.  I will call up Mrs. Jules right away.  She is our President, and the society meets next week Thursday.”

“O, dear,” sighed Peace.  “We go home in two days more.  I wish I could stay and help.  But then I’m glad the kids are going to have some decent clothes anyway.”