“What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” the children asked him all at once. He flung himself on Ralph, burying his face in the other boy’s coat, and sobbed out some disjointed story which only Ralph could hear ... and then as last and final climax of the disaster, who should come looking over the shoulders of the children but Uncle Henry and Mr. Pond! And ’Lias all ragged and dirty again! Betsy sat down weakly on a pile of wood, utterly disheartened. What was the use of anything!
“What’s the matter?” asked the two men together.
Ralph turned, with an angry toss of his dark head, and told them bitterly, over the heads of the children: “He just had some decent clothes. ... First ones he’s ever had! And he was plotting on going to the exercises in the Town Hall. And that darned old skunk of a stepfather has gone and taken ’em and sold ’em to get whiskey. I’d like to Kill him!”
Betsy could have flung her arms around Ralph, he looked so exactly the way she felt. “Yes, he is a darned old skunk!” she said to herself, rejoicing in the bad words she did not know before. It took bad words to qualify what had happened.
She saw an electric spark pass from Ralph’s blazing eyes to Mr. Pond’s broad face, now grim and fierce. She saw Mr. Pond step forward, brushing the children out of his way, like a giant among dwarfs. She saw him stoop and pick little ’Lias up in his great, strong arms, and, holding him close, stride furiously out of the woodshed, across the playground to the buggy which was waiting for him.
“He’ll go to the exercises all right!” he called back over his shoulder in a great roar. “He’ll go, if I have to buy out the whole town to get him an outfit! And that whelp won’t get these clothes, either; you hear me say so!”
He sprang into the buggy and, holding ’Lias on his lap, took up the reins and drove rapidly forward.
They saw little ’Lias again, entering the Town Hall, holding fast to Mr. Pond’s hand. He was magnificent in a whole suit of store clothes, coat and all, and he wore white stockings and neat, low shoes, like a city child!
They saw him later, up on the platform, squeaking out his little patriotic poem, his eyes, shining like stars, fixed on one broad, smiling face in the audience. When he finished he was overcome with shyness by the applause, and for a moment forgot to turn and leave the platform. He hung his head, and, looking out from under his eyebrows, gave a quaint, shy little smile at the audience. Betsy saw Mr. Pond’s great smile waver and grow dim. His eyes filled so full that he had to take out his handkerchief and blow his nose loudly.
And they saw little ’Lias once more, for the last time. Mr. Pond’s buggy drove rapidly past their slow-moving hay-wagon, Mr. Pond holding the reins masterfully in one hand. Beside him, very close, sat ’Lias with his lap full of toys, oh, full—like Christmas! In that fleeting glimpse they saw a toy train, a stuffed dog, a candy-box, a pile of picture-books, tops, paper-bags, and even the swinging crane of the big mechanical toy dredge that everybody said the store-keeper could never sell to anybody because it cost so much!