The idea of the thief-hunt

“Jack-we-li-ner!”

A girlish head, “running over with curls,” lifted itself from the long
orchard grass, and listened–the slender, arched black brows met over
the bright, dark eyes in a vexed frown.

The woman who was calling Jaquelina in that loud, shrill, uncultivated
voice stood in the doorway of a low, unpainted farm-house, prettily
situated on the gentle slope of a green hill at whose foot a silvery
little brook ran singing past.

Beyond it was a strip of fertile meadow. Then the ground took a sloping
rise again into the orchard now glowing white and red in the flush of
its spring-time blossoming.

Under the branches of a wide-spreading apple tree a girl lay at length
in the emerald grass and blossoming clover, her curly head bent over a
book.

The sunshine sifted down through the fragrant boughs on the soft
chestnut locks with a glint of gold in their brownness, and on the
arch, pretty face with its soft skin tanned to a clear brune by
exposure, and the pouting lips that were tinted with the vivid scarlet
of youth and bounding vitality.

“Jack-we-li-ner!” came the loud, elongated scream again.

Jaquelina Meredith sprang up so impatiently that her head struck
against a low-bending branch, and a shower of the fragrant
apple-blossoms fluttered down into the folds of her faded print dress.

A robin that had been singing in the tree broke off in his warble and
stared down at her in round-eyed surprise.

“What now, I wonder?” she said, as she took up her book and her
sun-bonnet, and wended her way to the house.

“Hurry up, will you now, Lina?” cried the woman in the doorway, as she
crossed the log over the little brook. “You must come in the house and
tend the baby while I hasten the dinner a bit. Your uncle wants to go
over to the Grange meeting directly.”

Jaquelina went into the clean, neat sitting-room and took the cross,
heavy child into her slender young arms, and proceeded to walk up
and down the floor with it–the only method she knew of to still its
clamorous cries, for its mother had gone to the kitchen to hurry the
noonday meal for her farmer husband.

Her uncle and the hired man, who had just come in from the field, sat
at the window discussing the country news in general.

“The gang of horse-thieves seems to be getting into our neighborhood,”
said the plowman. “Squire Stanley’s fine bay mare was taken from the
stable last night.”

Farmer Meredith started and looked anxious.

“Is it possible?” he said. “Why, Stanley’s isn’t more than two miles
from here. Who knows but they may come here next? It would be a
terrible thing if they took my two horses now, and the plowing not half
done.”

“Dreadful,” said the man, “but it’s a desperate gang–little they’d
care if the plowing be done or not. But they do say as how the thieves
don’t meddle with poor men’s beasts much. It’s the rich farmers as has
fine horses and such that they go for. I suppose they don’t find a
ready market for common plow-horses.”

“Likely not,” said Mr. Meredith. “Well, I wish the gang could be
smoked out of the country, or caught up with in their thieving. It’s a
terrible scourge to the country–this gang.”

“There’s a large reward out for the ringleader,” said the hired man. “I
saw the posters out on Smith’s fence as I came along this morning. Two
hundred dollars for his apprehension.”

Jaquelina, who had been listening, gave a startled cry.

“Two hundred dollars! Oh, my! I wish I could catch the wretch! Two
hundred dollars would give me a whole year at a good boarding-school!”

Farmer Meredith looked round in surprise. Something in the girl’s
unconscious wistfulness struck him oddly.

“Boardin’-school,” he said; “what put that foolish idea in your head,
Lina? Haven’t you larnt enough readin’ and writin’ at the public school
four months in every winter?”

“No, indeed, Uncle Charlie;” and Lina shook her head so decisively that
the short, soft rings of hair danced coquettishly with the movement.
“It’s very little I know, indeed, and if I only knew how to catch that
horse-thief I’d spend every cent of the reward in getting myself a good
education.”

“You’ve more learning than is good for you now,” said Mrs. Meredith,
sharply, as she re-entered the room and overheard the words. “Every
time I want you there you are out of the way, with your face poked into
a book. And me slaving my life away all the time. Is the baby asleep?
Put her into the cradle, then. Come, men–dinner’s ready.”

The sharp-faced, sharp-voiced mistress of the house bustled out.

Jaquelina put the heavy child out of her tired, aching arms into the
cradle, and sat down to rock it.

Her full red lips were quivering; her dark eyes were misty with tears
that her girlish pride would not suffer to fall.

“How hard and unkind Aunt Meredith is,” she said to herself. “Ah! if
only papa and mamma had lived, how different my life would have been.
I wish I had died, too. Shall I go on forever like this, minding the
baby, washing the dishes, bringing the cows, serving as scape-goat for
Aunt Meredith’s ill tempers, and considered a burden in spite of all I
can do to help? I wish when papa died he had left me to the alms-house
at once.”

“Miss Jack-o’-lantern,” said a voice at the window; and she looked
around with a start.

It was only a neighbor’s cow-boy–a good-natured, ignorant negro lad,
who had converted her odd name of Jaquelina into “Jack-o’-lantern.”

“Well,” she said, “what do you want, Sambo? Why do you come to the
window and frighten me so?”

“I’m in a hurry, if you please, Miss Jack,” said the lad. “Is your
uncle at home?”

“Yes–at dinner,” said the girl.

“Master sent me over to see if Mr. Meredith and his man would jine
a party to hunt the horse-thieves to-night,” said Sambo. “Squire
Stanley’s headin’ it; his stable was robbed last night.”

Jaquelina went into the kitchen with her message, and Mr. Meredith came
out himself.

“Tell your master I’ll be going over to the Grange meeting this
afternoon, and I’ll stop by and make arrangements to join them in the
hunt,” he said.

He finished his dinner and started.

The idea of the thief-hunt so inspired the plowman that he begged to
be excused from working the balance of the day, and went away full of
enthusiasm to join the gallant band of pursuers.

Jaquelina washed the dishes, and while Mrs. Meredith sat by the cradle
with her knitting, the girl took her book and sat down on the doorstep
to read.

Half an hour went by quietly. The hum of the bees and the warble of the
birds were all that broke the silence, save the low whisper of the wind
as it sighed among the trees.

Jaquelina enjoyed the silence thoroughly, every moment dreading to hear
the fretful wail of her aunt’s baby, and to be summoned to tend it
again.

But lifting her head at last, as she turned a page, she saw a lady
crossing the narrow foot-bridge that spanned the brook.

“Aunt Meredith,” she said, turning her head toward the sitting-room,
“there’s company coming.”

Mrs. Meredith whisked off her kitchen apron, slipped a white ruffled
one over her dark print dress, and appeared at the door just in time to
hear a musical voice saying, kindly:

“Good-afternoon, Lina–ah, good-afternoon, Mrs. Meredith.”

The new-comer was Violet Earle, a girl scarcely older than Jaquelina,
but taller, better dressed, and exquisitely lovely. She was fair as a
lily, with soft, languishing blue eyes, and golden curls falling in
beautiful luxuriance upon her graceful shoulders.

A cool, tasteful costume of blue and white lawn, with pale-blue ribbons
fluttering here and there, lent an artistic grace to her appearance
that made Jaquelina shrink into herself upon the doorstep, feeling
dowdy, miserable and commonplace by the contrast.

Jaquelina knew no one on earth whom she envied so much as this fair and
self-possessed young lady–the petted, only daughter of the wealthiest
man in the county.

“Good-afternoon, Miss Earle. Will you walk into the sitting-room?”
inquired Mrs. Meredith, a little flustered by the lovely young
visitor’s appearance.

She led the way to the little sitting-room where the baby slumbered
peacefully still, and they sat down, Jaquelina with her slim finger
between the pages of her book.

“Lina, I have come to invite you to a party to-morrow night,” Violet
said, graciously.

Jaquelina’s brune face flushed, her scarlet lips trembled with pleasure.

“My brother and one of his classmates are come from college for a
visit, and mamma is going to give us a party. Will you come, Lina?”

Jaquelina glanced at Mrs. Meredith.

“Yes, if Aunt Meredith will permit me,” she answered, frankly.

“Of course she will,” Violet said, looking at the hostess, who frowned
slightly as she said, almost bruskly:

“Lina has nothing fit to wear to a party.”

Lina’s sensitive cheeks turned crimson, but Miss Earle only laughed.

“Everyone says _that_ when invited to a party,” she observed lightly.
“It was what I said about myself, when mamma first named the party this
morning. But you see, after all, this will only be a kind of impromptu
party–a lawn party. We will have Chinese lanterns and colored lamps
hung in the trees, and refreshments served out of doors, and games, you
know.”

“Yes,” said Lina, and her cheeks glowed, and her eyes beamed. She
forgot the embarrassing sense of dowdiness that often overwhelmed her
in Miss Earle’s elegant presence, and sat up straight, and forgot to
draw her shabby little slippers under her chair.

There was a great deal of dainty, untutored grace in the slim figure,
and Violet, who was inclined to patronize the shy orphan girl, decided
to herself that Lina Meredith would be rather a pretty girl if only
she were not so tanned, and if only her uncle and aunt would dress her
decently.

“I have invited several people,” she went on, looking at Mrs. Meredith,
“and they all said they would be sure to come. Mamma said she thought
you would be very glad to have Lina come, as she sees so very little
pleasure.”

Miss Violet’s fine little shaft of malice told.

Mrs. Meredith’s face turned red in a moment. She could not but be
aware that the neighbors gossiped over her treatment of her husband’s
niece, and said that she kept her a dowdy and a drudge.

“Lina sees as much pleasure as she can afford to see,” she retorted,
a little shortly. “She wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth,
like some people. She has to work for her living the same as I do.
As for the party, I’m obliged to your mother, I’m sure, for inviting
Jaquelina. I’ve not a word to say against her going, but she’s nothing
but calico dresses.”

Lina glanced at Miss Earle’s pretty blue-and-white lawn, and the deep
color flushed into her face again. Even Violet looked disconcerted.

“Haven’t you even a white?” she said, after a minute. “Almost any kind
of a white would look well at a lawn-party at night, you know. You can
wear natural flowers.”

Jaquelina looked at her aunt with a sudden gleam in her eyes.

“Aunt Meredith, there’s mamma’s white dress in the chest up in the
garret–her wedding-one, you know,” she said.

“Old-fashioned–and yellow as gold!” sniffed Mrs. Meredith
contemptuously.

“The very thing,” cried Violet Earle. “Yellow-white is the rage, and
antique styles are very fashionable. Wear your mother’s wedding-dress
by all means, Lina. And plenty of flowers, remember.”

“It’s ill-luck wearing the clothes of them that’s dead and gone,” said
Mrs. Meredith, half-fearfully.

“Oh! Aunt Meredith–could you think mamma would care for me wearing her
wedding-dress?” cried Jaquelina, reproachfully.

“Certainly not,” said Violet Earle. “Could an angel in Heaven care for
an old dress she had left upon earth? What do cast-off garments matter
to one wearing the robe of righteousness? Wear it by all means Lina!”

She rose as she spoke and moved toward the door.

“Good-bye, Lina; good-bye, Mrs. Meredith. Lina, don’t fail us! We have
only invited a certain number of girls and we count on everyone being
there.”

Miss Earle went away. Jaquelina brought the cows from the pasture,
and tended the baby while her aunt did the milking. It was a dull and
prosaic life enough for a young girl who was pretty, spirited and
imaginative.

No wonder her thoughts dwelt eagerly and longingly on the lawn-party to
which Violet Earle had invited her. The girl felt as if she were going
to have a peep into fairyland.

She thought Violet Earle was the dearest and kindest girl in the world.

She did not know how Violet had said, half-laughingly, half-carelessly,
when she went home:

“Mamma, I cannot see why you were so anxious to have that shy, awkward
Jaquelina Meredith come to our party. She has not a decent thing to
wear–her aunt said so. She will have to come in an old white dress
that belonged to her mother.”

Violet’s brother, the young collegian, laughed.

Gentle Mrs. Earle looked at them both a little reproachfully.

“My dears, I wish you would not laugh at little Lina’s poverty,” she
said. “The Merediths do not treat her right. But aside from her poverty
she ranks as high in the social scale as we do. Her father was an
artist of no mean ability. He would have made his mark if he had not
died young. I feel sorry for little Jaquelina.”

“Was her mother a nice person, too, mamma?” Violet asked, interested.

“I did not know her mother very well,” said Mrs. Earle. “She was
Jaquelina Ardell, a young French girl whom Claude Meredith married
while he was abroad. She did not live but a few months after they
returned here. When her little girl was born she died.”

“And Mr. Meredith soon after,” said the student; “I remember it myself.
I was a lad of five years at the time.”

“Yes, he died of a fever,” said Mrs. Earle, with a sigh, quickly
suppressed.

“Did he leave no money for his daughter?” inquired Violet.

“No–he spent the few thousands his farmer-father bequeathed him upon
his education and his art-studies abroad. So Lina is dependent upon her
uncle’s charity.”

“A cold charity it is too,” said Violet, thinking of cold, hard Mrs.
Meredith.

“Charlie Meredith is not purposely unkind,” Mrs. Earle said, quickly,
“but he is thoughtless and careless, and his wife rules him. Still,
for the sake of his feelings, I should not like to slight Claude’s
daughter.”

“I do hope she will make a respectable appearance so that no one will
be able to laugh at her,” said Violet. “It was on my mind to offer to
lend her a party-dress, but I decided that she would not have accepted
it.”

“I am glad you did not,” her mother said promptly. “I think Lina is
proud in her way. She would have been hurt.”

Violet and her brother thought their mamma was very kind and thoughtful
over Jaquelina Meredith.

No one had ever told them that Claude Meredith and their mother had
been lovers in their boy and girl days, and that an ambitious father
had come between them and persuaded the girl into a loveless union with
the wealthy Mr. Earle.

Jaquelina herself did not know what an interest the pretty, faded
woman took in her fate. As she walked up and down the low sitting-room
with her little cousin in her arms she remembered how tenderly Violet
had said “Mamma,” and a vague yearning stood over her to feel herself
enfolded in the sweetness of a mother’s love, which she, poor child,
was never to know.

At twilight Sambo came over from the neighboring farm with a message
for Mrs. Meredith. Her husband had joined the band of men who were
going to pursue the horse-thieves, and would not be home until morning.

If she and Jaquelina were afraid they were to take the child and go to
a neighbor’s to spend the night.

Mrs. Meredith laughed at the idea of fear. So did Jaquelina. Both felt
perfectly safe in the quiet, peaceful little farm-house. They sent word
that they would remain at home.

At eight o’clock Mrs. Meredith, according to her usual custom, retired
to bed with her child. Jaquelina took a lamp and went to her own room,
but not to sleep. It was too early. The night hours were golden ones to
her.

Then she was free to read or study as she liked. True, her aunt
grumbled over the useless waste of a light, but her Uncle Charlie was
wont to interfere so decidedly on that point that the orphan girl had
her way.

But to-night the book was laid on the shelf of the little
garret-chamber, and the girl dragged out a little cedar chest from
under the high-posted bed.

She unlocked it and took out the dress she had told Violet she would
wear to the lawn-party–her mother’s wedding-dress.

Jaquelina shook out the cedar-scented folds of the dress and spread it
out on the bed to look at. It was a fine, soft India muslin, trimmed
with a good deal of fine, pretty lace and bows of satin ribbon–all of
which had turned very yellow in the years while it lay folded in the
cedar chest.

It was made in a quaint, pretty style, too; but Jaquelina looked at
it doubtfully. She did not know enough of dry goods to know that the
garment was made of the finest materials, and was costly as well as
pretty.

She thought of Violet’s crisp, fresh costumes, and the limp India
muslin suffered in her guileless mind by the contrast. She actually
brought out her Sunday calico, with its fine pink dots and two frills
on the skirt, and laid it beside the India muslin, anxiously comparing
them.

“The calico is the fresher-looking, certainly,” she said, turning her
pretty head sidewise in bird-like fashion, and eyeing the dresses
thoughtfully, “but I am quite sure, from the way Violet looked, she
would not like for me to wear _that_. Mamma’s dress is very pretty, if
only it were not so limp. I should not dare try to starch it, though. I
might make it look worse.”

Then she took a little box from the chest and opened it. It contained
her dead mother’s little store of jewelry.

There were two or three simple rings, a thin gold chain with a locket
that held her father’s and mother’s pictures.

She fastened the chain around her neck and slipped one of the
rings–the prettiest one–on her finger.

“I will wear these to the lawn-party,” she said to herself. “The ring
is very nice–it has such a pretty, shining stone!”

It was a pretty ring, as she said, but Jaquelina, brought up so
ignorantly in the lonely farm-house, did not know that the shining
little stone was a real diamond.

Charlie Meredith and his hard wife did not know it either. They all
thought it was a bright, pretty bit of glass.

There was a motto cut deeply inside the ring over which Jaquelina had
often puzzled.

Sometimes she thought she would ask Violet Earle, who had been to
boarding-school, to translate it for her, then she desisted from shame
at her own ignorance.

It was in her mother’s native tongue, but no one had taught the
artist’s orphan child a line of French.

The question of the party-dress being settled, Jaquelina put away the
India muslin and the jewelry, and sat down by the window, leaning
her curly head on her slim, brown hand, while she gazed out into the
moon-lighted night with her dark, dreamy eyes.

Everything was very still and peaceful. The full moon sailed on in calm
majesty through the purple sky, the distant hills were clearly outlined
in the brightness, and nearer home a faint, white mist curled over the
brook, and the perfume of the lilacs and the roses in the garden below
were borne sweetly on the wandering breeze.

Yet after all there was something weird and mysterious in the blended
brightness and shadows of the moon-lighted landscape, and the sensitive
mind of Jaquelina felt it so.

She shuddered, and her thoughts flew to the outlaw band said to be
lurking in the neighborhood and riding off with all the finest horses
of the farmers.

She thought of the pursuing party. Her mind pictured vividly the
conflict that would ensue when the robbers and their pursuers met, and
the capture of the daring chief whom rumor represented as brave and
handsome as a demi-god.

“Whoever captures the chief will have _two hundred_ dollars for a
reward,” the girl said to herself, wistfully. “Ah, if I only had two
hundred dollars I would go to boarding-school one whole year! I would
study so hard all the time that I would learn as much in twelve months
as any other girl would in twenty-four! Then I would not stay at the
farm any more. I would go away and earn my own living by teaching, or
perhaps I might paint pretty little pictures like papa did, and sell
them to rich people who have nothing to do but to be happy.”

Two crystal drops welled up into the dark eyes and splashed down upon
her cheeks.

She brushed them off impatiently.

“Crying, am I, like a great baby?” she said sharply, to herself. “What
good will that do? Will crying get me two hundred dollars and send me
to school, and deliver me from the jurisdiction of Aunt Meredith and
her cross baby? Oh! that I might be a man for a few hours! I would
sally forth and capture the robber-chief, and win the reward!”

Her thoughts having turned in this direction, Jaquelina forgot the
lawn-party for awhile, and remained lost in thought, wishing over and
over that she might capture the outlaw chief and claim the coveted
reward that appeared so large in her longing eyes.

At last, wearied by the duties of the day, the tired head drooped
upon the window-sill, the long, black lashes lay upon the warm, pink
cheeks–Jaquelina slept and dreamed she had captured the dreaded outlaw
chief, and bound him securely with a garland of roses.

Laughing at her ludicrous dream, the young girl woke–someone was
shaking her roughly by the arm.

“Lina Meredith, for shame,” said her aunt, towering above her, angular
and slim, in a striped calico night-dress. “Sleeping in the window at
midnight, and the lamp a-burnin’ bright, too! Willful waste makes woful
want! But I’ll not scold you this time. I’m glad you’re up and dressed;
you must fetch the doctor from town.”

Jaquelina rose, stretching her cramped limbs and yawning drearily, only
half awake. Mrs. Meredith grabbed a wet towel and deliberately mopped
her face with it.

“There, now! I’ve got you awake,” she said, triumphantly. “Did you
hear what I said, Lina? You’ll have to saddle Black Bess and fetch the
doctor from town. Baby’s got the cramp–dreadful bad, too!”

Jaquelina, broad awake now, stared in dismay at Mrs. Meredith.

“Why, aunt,” she cried, “how can I go for the doctor at midnight? The
town is at least a mile and a half from here.”

“Only a mile through the woods,” answered Mrs. Meredith, quickly.

The young girl shivered.

“Come, come, I never knew you afraid of anything,” Mrs. Meredith began
quickly; “surely you’ll do this much for me, Lina–if not for me, for
your poor little cousin Dollie, a-wheezin’ her life away, and none to
bring a doctor.”

But Jaquelina hesitated.

“Aunt Meredith,” she said, “the road through the woods is very dark and
lonely, and, you may see for yourself, the moon is going down, and then
those dreadful outlaws may be lurking in the woods. Is Dollie so very
bad? Perhaps she would do until daylight.”

“Come,” said Mrs. Meredith, pulling the girl by the sleeve, “you shall
see.”

Jaquelina followed her down stairs to the room where the fat baby lay
upon the bed wheezing terribly, while now and then a hoarse, whistling
cough echoed painfully through the room.

Jaquelina’s heart, always tender to pain, was touched by the sight of
the infant’s suffering.

“Oh, Lina, will you let the darling die?” cried the frightened mother,
whose hard heart could soften, at least, to her own child’s suffering.
“Surely you’ll bring the doctor to little Dollie?”

“Can’t I go over to Brown’s and send Sambo?” asked the girl, still
shrinking from the thought of the lonely midnight ride.

“No, no,” wailed the mother, clasping the sick child frantically in her
arms, “I’ll not trust that negro! I’ll trust no one but you, Lina, to
go and come in a hurry; I can depend on you to do your best. Oh, for
God’s sake, Lina, _do_ go for the doctor; no one will hurt you–there’s
not a sign of danger. Your uncle and them other men have captured
the outlaws long before this time of night. Oh, Dollie! Dollie! my
darling–I do believe she’s dying now!”

Jaquelina waited for no more urging. She ran out of the house with the
cry of the frightened, helpless mother still ringing in her ears, and
made her way to the stable.

Her uncle had ridden one of the horses. Black Bess, the remaining one,
stood patiently in the stall.

The mare was gentle, and quite accustomed to Jaquelina. She saddled her
with deft, skillful fingers, led her out, and vaulted lightly to her
back.

Then in the dim light of the waning moon, the girl rode out of the
stable-yard, and set forth at a swift gallop for the town a mile away.

There was something weird and strange in that midnight ride through the
lonely wood to Jaquelina.

Her heart beat fast as she guided the mare through the thick woods
where the tall pines stood around dark and grim like silent sentinels.

The moon had gone down, and she had only the faint light of the stars
to guide her on her perilous way.

Every moment she expected to be confronted by the outlaw band, of whom
she had heard such terrible stories.

A foreboding dread lent her fresh impetuosity. Black Bess was panting
and covered with perspiration, when her rider at length emerged safely
from the woods and found herself on the outskirts of the town.

A few minutes brought her to the physician’s neat residence. Her loud
halloo soon brought him to the window. He promised to dress and come to
the baby’s assistance immediately.

“If you will wait a few minutes, Miss Meredith, I will ride back with
you. The road at night is lonely and dangerous for a woman,” the old
doctor said, courteously.

But having come over the road safely, Jaquelina’s courage had risen.

“Aunt Meredith will, perhaps, need my assistance with the child,” she
said, “so I had better ride on at once. I do not think there can be any
danger, but if you ride fast enough to overtake me, I shall be very
glad of your company.”

She turned as she spoke and galloped away. A sudden storm was rising.

A cool wind blew into her face, and for a second the face of the
heavens was divided by a keen flash of lightning that glittered steely
blue, like a sword point, against the darkness.

Two or three drops of rain swirled down on the uncovered head and face.

“It was fortunate I did not wait,” she thought, “I shall barely escape
the storm if I do my best.”

She urged Black Bess to her highest speed.

The wind increased. It blew Jaquelina’s short, soft curls into her
face, and across her eyes.

The strong, sweet breath of the pines mixed refreshingly with “the
scent of violets hidden in the green.”

Jaquelina never forgot that hour. It came back to her in after
years–dark years, when memory was a nameless pain.

“The smell of violets hidden in the green,
Poured back into my fainting soul and frame
The times when I remember to have been
Joyful and free from blame.”

* * * * *

She had reached the thickest part of the woods in safety when suddenly
Black Bess came to such a sudden stop that her rider came near being
thrown over her head.

In the next moment a vivid flash of lightning showed Jaquelina a tall,
masked outlaw clutching her bridle rein.

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