It is dreadfully wicked to disobey one's parents. The child sat in the swing in the vine-wreathed arbor and wondered if she dared. Through the honeysuckle she could see the long rows of trees in the orchard and the smooth green sward between them. The grass was freshly mown and tossed into great hay-cocks, among which the child had gamboled gaily yesterday. The fruit-laden branches of the trees hung low and swayed slightly in the breeze. Some of the peaches had fallen from the trees and lay in the grass with their red cheeks turned temptingly toward her. But today neither hay-cocks nor peaches held any allurement for the child.
"Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee."
If one dishonors–disobeys–then surely one's days will be short. Perhaps one will be suddenly cut off as the creepy texts threaten. The child called them creepy texts because of the cold creepy feeling it gives one to hear Grandpa read them. "Shall be suddenly destroyed and that without remedy." "In the midst of life we are in death." "The day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night."
The child gazed out through the sunny orchard and struggled with her problem.
If every one would only be good to little kittens then no one would need to disobey. But when cruel, mean, horrid people have left a kitten to starve how could any little girl help wishing to adopt it in her own family of cats? How could she help it?
The child heard her father's voice at the other side of the house and slipped out of the swing with a sudden desperate resolve. She would ask them once more. If they refused then she must disobey them and the bible and the Lord God.
She walked slowly around the house. Her father had just mounted his biggest, blackest horse – the one she liked best to ride with him. He bent down and held out his hand. "Want a ride?" he asked. The child shook her head.
"Papa," she said, with a determination in her voice which he hardly noticed at the time, but understood afterward, "pleathe, Papa, won't 'oo det 'e kitty Robinthonth left when 'ey moved away ?"
Her father laughed.
"I will not, Honeydarling," he said. "You have picked up no less than seventeen dozen forlorn cats and dogs in the course of your four and a half years of mortal existence. We must draw the line somewhere."
He touched his horse and cantered away. At the gate he looked back and waved his hand. "Goodby, Honeydarling," he called.
She threw a kiss and watched him galloping along the level road until a cloud of dust hid him from view. Then she went into the house. Her mother was sitting in a low chair by the window with the baby in her lap. The child took its soft, little hand in hers, straightened out the tiny fingers and kissed the wee, pink tips of them.
"Mama," she said, "pleathe mayn't I have 'e kitty Robinthonth left when 'ey moved away?"
"My child," her mother said, "you have asked me that question three times this morning. Run and play now and don't make a little nuisance of yourself."
Play! While a kitten starved! The child turned and marched out of doors. All doubt and hesitation were gone from her mind. She knew she was horribly wicked, but she did not much care. What is one's own soul compared with a suffering little kitten?
She went through the sunny orchard and climbed the fence. She was afraid to cross the pasture when she saw how close the cattle were to the path she must take, but she went steadily on. If the cattle killed her perhaps her papa and mama would be so sorry that they would ever after be good to all kittens for her sake. It was the same spirit in the child that leads the pioneers of the world's progress to face death serenely, confident that there is "not a grave of the murdered for freedom but bears seed for freedom, in its turn to bear seed."
Beyond the pasture was a great field of sugarcane. The child had never been in it before except when her father was with her. A cane field is a delightful playground with one's papa for a playmate. The endless rows of tall, bushy greenness, with their changing lights and shadows, are beautiful as a fairy forest. And one's papa always cuts off some of the biggest, juiciest stalks and peels them and cuts them in short lengths, just right for a little girl to chew. There is nothing lovelier than a cane field and the right sort of a papa. But a cane field all alone is different. One can't help thinking of the fearful things that may be lurking in those green shadows. One thinks, too, of the danger of getting lost. Could even one's papa, who knows so nearly everything, ever find a little lost girl in such a great field? And if one wandered about and died it would be worse than the babes in the woods, for there were no leaves that Robin Redbreast could cover one with. Far overhead a buzzard was wheeling in slow circles. The child looked up at it and shuddered.
The cane was rustling all about her and whispering of frightful things. Of wolves that hunt in packs for little girls. Of goblins and mad dogs. If a wolf should swallow one whole, like Little Riding-hood, one's papa could cut it open and save his child. Or the wolf might spit one out again after three days, like the whale that swallowed Jonah. But if a mad dog bites one it is certain death. Or a snake! The child looked down at the ground and stepped carefully.
At the farther side of the cane field was a barbed wire fence. The child lay down flat on her stomach and wriggled under it. A piece of her little, blue gown was left on one of the barbs, but she was too near the brown cottage where Robinsons had lived to care much for a trifle of that sort.
She ran down the dusts road and stopped at the gate. It was here that she had seen the kitten last evening. It had stood by the side of the road and mewed piteously. But now she could not see it anywhere. She looked under the house and through the windows. She called softly "Kitty, kitty, kitty."
Then she went to the henhouse. The door was shut and the hook and staple that fastened it were beyond her reach. She peeped through a crack in the door and saw the kitten curled up in the sunshine that fell through the window. It was very quiet; at first she thought it was dead.
"Kitty, " she called lovingly, "kitty, kitty." It raised its head and looked around. Then it crept to the door and looked up at her through the crack, meowing beseechingly. She went around the henhouse, trying to find some way to rescue it. The window, through which it must have climbed, was beyond her reach, but she found a box half filled with old iron and scraps of various things. It was not a large box, but it seemed large to the child, and very heavy. She dragged it around the corner, close to the door; now exerting all her puny strength; now leaning, panting, against the box while she rested for another effort. When she had dragged it near enough, she climbed up on the edge of it, stood on tiptoe and raised the hook from the staple. The door swung outward. She scrambled down and clasped the kitten to her breast.
It was a very bony little kitten. Every rib showed distinctly and there was a sore between its ears that would have made it loathsome to anyone but a child. She smoothed the rough fur and crooned to it caressingly. The mother instinct, that loves most the forlornest and most helpless, had wakened early in her.
Ah, but the bliss of that moment was full of recompense for the struggle, the disobedience, the long, fear-haunted journey. It was worth being suddenly destroyed, and that without remedy, to feel how confidingly the little thing nestled down in her arms and rested there.
She could never remember an incident of the trip homeward. She seemed flying, with winged feet. But halfway through the orchard she caught a glimpse of her mother at the open window and paused–a new strange fear taking possession of her.
What do mamas do to little girls who disobey? Once before she had felt something like this fear, when she broke mama's prettiest vase. But mama had said that was an accident. This was not an accident and mama could not think so.
The child went on very slowly. Her feet seemed heavy and hard to drag toward the house. Sometimes, in the story books mama reads, there are people who whip little girls–their own little girls.
She went slowly up the steps and across the wide gallery. Mama did not look up from her sewing, until the child stood before her – a defiant little figure, with the wretched kitten clasped close in her arms.
"I dot my kitty," she announced with a challenge in her voice.
Her mother smiled.
"Better take it to the kitchen," she suggested, "and ask Celestine to give it some milk. The poor little thing looks hungry."
The child reached out one grimy, little hand, grasped her mother's and kissed it in an ecstasy of thankfulness.
"Dood mama," she cooed, "dood mama." But after all it is not strange that one's mama can understand. It is usually the papas who beat their little ones in the story books. The child submitted without a murmur to being washed and dressed and curled before her father came home. A subtle, feminine instinct made her wish to appear pleasing in his sight. She stood on the gallery with her chin on the railing and looked down the level road. She knew just how it would look –first a cloud of dust far away; then a horse and rider showing through the dust; then at last she would see plainly the beautifulest man in all the world, on big, black Ben.
She had placed the kitten on a soft pillow in the sunniest corner of the gallery. She looked around at it and then through the window at her mother. Perhaps if papa was very terrible mama would protect her. She saw him coming at last, and scarcely took her eyes from him until he stopped at the hitching post and threw the rein over it.
He came up the steps three at a bound, caught up the child and tossed her high in the air, demanding a bearhug. While she administered it his eyes fell on the forlorn little cat. He laughed appreciatively.
"You've got your kitten, have you?" he said.
He tossed her ceilingward again, and this time the child was shrieking with glee.
"What's the matter with my Honeydarling," he cried. "She's all right. She's inherited her mother's spunk – eh, mama?"