The mother turned away, her wits groping for an answer.
“Hadn’t ought ‘a’ told mother, Tom,” said Paul, with a little quiver of reproach and pity. “’Tain’t so, anyway—we know ’tain’t so.”
He was looking into his mother’s face.
“Tain’t so,” Paul repeated with unshaken confidence.
“Mus’n’t believe all ye hear,” said the widow, who now turned to the doubting Thomas.
And that very moment Tom was come to the last gate of childhood, whereon are the black and necessary words, “Mus’n’t believe all ye hear.”
The boys in their new boots were on the track of a painter. They treed him, presently, at the foot of the stairs.
“How’ll we kill him?” one of them inquired.
“Just walk around the tree once,” said the mother, “an’ you’ll scare him to death. Why don’t ye grease your boots?”
“’Fraid it’ll take the screak out of ’em,” said Paul, looking down thoughtfully at his own pair.
“Well,” said she, “you’ll have me treed if you keep on. No hunter would have boots like that. A loud foot makes a still gun.”
That was her unfailing method of control—the appeal to intelligence. Polly sat singing, thoughtfully, the locket in her hand. She had kissed the sacred thing and hung it by a ribbon to her neck and bathed her eyes in the golden light of it and begun to feel the subtle pathos in its odd message. She was thinking of the handsome boy who came along that far May-day with the drove, and who lately had returned to be her teacher at Linley School. Now, he had so much dignity and learning, she liked him not half so well and felt he had no longer any care for her. She blushed to think how she had wept over his letter and kissed it every day for weeks. Her dream was interrupted, presently, by the call of her brother Tom. Having cut the frost on a window-pane, he stood peering out. A man was approaching in the near field. His figure showed to the boot-top, mounting hills of snow, and sank out of sight in the deep hollows. It looked as if he were walking on a rough sea. In a moment he came striding over the dooryard fence on a pair of snowshoes.
“It’s Mr. Trove, the teacher,” said Polly, who quickly began to shake her curls.
As the door swung open all greeted the young man. Loosening his snow-shoes, he flung them on the step and came in, a foxtail dangling from his fur cap.
He shook hands with Polly and her mother, and lifted Paul to the ceiling. “Hello, young man!” said he. “If one is four, how many are two?”
“If you’re speaking of new boots,” said the widow, “one is at least fifteen.”
The school teacher made no reply, but stood a moment looking down at the boy.
“It’s a cold day,” said Polly.
“I like it,” said the teacher, lifting his broad shoulders and smiting them with his hands. “God has been house cleaning. The dome of the sky is all swept and dusted. There isn’t a cobweb anywhere. Santa Claus come?”