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We heard a great deal concerning "Reconstruction" of the Union that summer. The Old Squire was painfully concerned about it; he feared that Congress had made mistakes which would nullify the results gained by the Civil War. The low character of the men, sent to the South to administer the government, revolted him. He used to bring his newspaper to the table nearly every meal and would sometimes fling it down indignantly, crying, "Wrong! wrong! all wrong!" Then he and Addison would discuss current politics, while the rest of us listened, Theodora gravely, Halstead scoffing, and I often very absently, for as a boy I had other more trivial interests chiefly in mind. I recall that the old gentleman used frequently to exclaim, "You boys must begin to read the Constitution. Next after the Bible, the Constitution ought to be read in every family in our land."
I have to confess that at this particular time I was much less interested in the Constitution than in the luscious fall apples out in the orchard, and the rivalry to secure them.
"Have you got a hoard?" was the question which, at about this time, began to be whispered among us.
At first the query was a novelty to me; my thoughts went back to a story which I had once read concerning a horde of robbers on the steppes of Central Asia. In this case, however, the thing referred to was a hoard of early apples. I had gone to the Edwardses on some domestic errand; it was directly after breakfast, and Thomas, who was putting a new tooth in the "loafer rake," had set a fine, mellow "wine-sap," from which he had taken a bite, on the shed sill beside him. "Got a pile of those fellows in my hoard," he remarked, with a boastful wink. "Have you got a hoard down at your house?"
"Tom is always bragging about his hoard," said Catherine, who had come to the kitchen door, to hear any news which I might have to impart. "He thinks nobody can have a hoard but himself."
"She's got one," Tom whispered to me, as Catherine turned away. "She's awful sly about it, for fear I'll find it, and I think I know where it is. I'll bet she has gone to it now," he added, taking another bite; and jumping up, he peeped into the kitchen. "She has" he whispered to me. "Come on, still; don't say a word and we will catch her."
I remember feeling a certain faint sense of repugnance to engaging in a hunt for Catherine's apple preserve; but I followed Tom around the wood-shed, past a corn-crib, and then around to the north side of the barn.
"Now sneak along beside the stone wall here," said Tom. "Keep down. Don't get in sight."
We crawled along in cover of the stone wall and came down opposite the garden and orchard. Tom then peeped stealthily over.
"There she is!" he whispered, "right out there by the Isabella grape trellis; keep still now, she's going back to the house. We'll find her hoard."
We searched about the grape trellis and over the entire garden for ten minutes or more, but found no secret preserve of apples.
As we returned to the wood-shed, Kate came out, smiling disdainfully.
"Found it?" she asked us, — a question which I felt to be an embarrassing one. With an air of triumph, she then displayed a fine yellow Sweet Harvey. "Oh, don't you think you are cunning?" muttered Tom. "But I'll find your hoard all the same."
"Let me know when you do," replied Kate, with a provoking laugh.
"Oh, you'll know when I find it," said Tom. "I'll take what there is in it. That was all a blind — her going out to the grape-vine," he remarked to me, as Kate turned away about her work. "She went down there on purpose to fool us, and get us to hunt there for nothing."
I went home quite fully informed in regard to the ethics of apple-hoards. The code was simple; it consisted in keeping one's own hoard undiscovered, and in finding and robbing those of others.
"Have you got an apple-hoard?" I asked Addison, as soon as I reached home.
For all reply, he winked his left eye to me.
"Doad's got one, too," he said, after I had had time to comprehend his stealth.
"You didn't tell me," I remarked.
Addison laughed. "That would be great strategy!" he observed, derisively, "to tell of it! But I only made mine day before yesterday. I thought the early apples were beginning to get good enough to have a hoard. I want to get a big stock on hand for September town-meeting," he added. "I mean to carry a bushel or two, and peddle them out for a cent apiece. The Old Squire put me up to that last year, and I made two dollars and ninety cents. That's better than nothing."
"Are you really contented here? Are you homesick, ever?" I asked him.
"Well," replied Ad, judicially, after weighing my question a little, "it isn't, of course, as it would have been with me if it had not been for the War, and father had lived. I should be at school now and getting ahead fast. But it is of no use to think of that; father and mother are both in their graves, and here I am, same as you and Doad are. We have got to make our way along somehow and get what education we can. It is of no use to be discontented. We are lucky to have so good a place to go to. I like here pretty well, for I like to be in the country better, on the whole, than in the city. Things are sort of good and solid here. The only drawback is that there isn't much chance to go to school; but after this year, I hope to go to the Academy, down at the village, ten or twelve weeks every season."
"Then you mean to try to get an education?" I asked, for it looked to me to be a vast undertaking.
"I do," replied Addison, hopefully. "Father meant for me to go to college, and I mean to go, even if I get to be twenty before I am fitted to enter. I will not grow up an ignoramus. A man without education is a nobody nowadays. But with a good education, a man can do almost anything."
"Halse doesn't talk that way," said I.
"I presume to say he doesn't," replied Addison. "He and I do not think alike."
"But Theodora says that she means to go to school and study a great deal, so as to do something which she has in mind, one of these days," I went on to say. "Do you know what it is?"
"Cannot say that I do," Addison replied, rather indifferently, as I thought.
"Oh, I suppose it is a good thing for girls to study and get educated," Addison continued. "But I do not think it amounts to so much for them as it does for boys."
This, indeed, was an opinion far more common in 1866 than at the present time.
"Perhaps it is to be a teacher?" I conjectured.
"Maybe," said Addison.
But I was thinking of apple-hoards. There was a delightful proprietary sense in the idea of owning one. It stimulated some latent propensity to secretiveness, as also the inclination to play the freebooter in a small way.
This was the first time that I had ever had access to an orchard of ripening fruit, and those "early trees" are well fixed in my youthful recollections. Several of them stood immediately below the garden, along the upper side of the orchard. First there was the "August Pippin" tree, a great crotched tree, with a trunk as large round as a barrel. Somehow such trees do not grow nowadays.
The August Pippins began to ripen early in August. These apples were as large as a teacup, bright canary yellow in color, mellow, a trifle tart, and wonderfully fragrant. When the wind was right, I could smell those pippins over in the corn-field, fifty rods distant from the orchard. I even used to think that I could tell by the smell when an apple had dropped off from the tree!
Then there were the "August Sweets," which grew on four grafts, set into an old "drying apple" tree. They were pale yellow apples, larger even than the August Pippins, sweet, juicy and mellow. The old people called them "Pear Sweets."
Next were the "Sour Harvey," the "Sweet Harvey," and the "Mealy Sweet" trees. The "Mealy Sweet" was not of much account; it was too dry, but the Harveys were excellent. Some of the Sweet Harveys were almost as sweet as honey; at least, I thought so then.
Then there were the "Noyes Apple" and the "Hobbs Apple." The Noyes was a deep-red, pleasant-sour apple, which ripened in the latter part of August; the Hobbs was striped red and green, flattened in shape, but of a fine, spicy flavor.
The "sops-in-wines," as, I believe, the fruit men term them, but which we called "wine-saps," were a pleasant-flavored apple, scarcely sweet, yet hardly sour. A little later came the "Porters" and "Sweet Greenings," also the "Nodheads" and the "Minute Apples," the "Georgianas" and the "Gravensteins," and so on until the winter apples, the principal product of the orchard, were reached.
We began eating those early apples by the first of August, in spite of all the terrible stories of colic which Gram told, in order to dissuade us from making ourselves ill. As the Pippins and August Sweets began to get mellow and palatable, we rivalled each other in the haste with which we tumbled out of doors early in the morning, so as to capture, each for himself or herself, the apples which had dropped from the trees overnight. Every one of us soon had a private hoard in which to secrete those apples which we did not eat at the time. There were numerous contests in rapid dressing and in reckless racing down-stairs and out into the orchard.
Little Wealthy, on account of her youth, was, to some degree, exempted from this ruthless looting. We all knew where her hoard was, but spared it for a long time. She believed that she had placed it in a wonderfully secret place, and because none of us seemed to discover it, she boasted so much that Ellen and I plundered it one morning, before she was awake, to give her a wholesome lesson in humility.
A little later, just before the breakfast hour, Wealthy stole out to her preserve — to find it empty. I never saw a child more mortified. She felt so badly that she could scarcely eat breakfast, and her lip kept quivering. The others laughed at her, and soon she left the table, and no doubt shed tears in secret over her loss.
After breakfast Ellen and I sought her out, and offered to give back the apples that we had taken. The child was too proud, however, to obtain them in such a way, and refused to touch one of them.
No such clemency as had been
shown to Wealthy was
practised by any one toward the others; no quarter was given or taken
matter of robbing hoards. For a month this looting went on, and was a
contest of wits.
THE EARLY APPLES.
Theodora's was the only hoard that escaped detection during the entire summer and autumn. She had her apples hidden in an empty bee-hive, which stood out in the garden under the "bee-shed" about midway in the row of thirteen hives. The most of us were a little afraid of the bees, but Theodora was one of those persons whom bees seem never to sting. She was accustomed to care for them, and thus to be about the hives a great deal. Not one of us happened to think of that empty bee-hive. The shed and some lilac shrubs concealed the place from the house; and Doad went unsuspected to and from the hive, which she kept filled with apples. We spent hours in searching for her hoard, but did not learn where she had concealed it until she told us herself, two years afterwards.
Ellen had the worst fortune of us all. We found her hoard regularly every few days. At first she hid it in the wagon-house, then up garret, and afterward in the wood-shed; but no sooner would she accumulate a little stock of apples than some one of us, who had spied on her goings and comings, would rob her. Even Wealthy found Nell's hoard once, and robbed it of nearly a half-bushel of apples. Nell always bore her losses good-denature, and obtained satisfaction occasionally by plundering Halse and me.
I remember that my first hoard was placed in the very high, thick "double" wall of the orchard. I loosened and removed a stone from the orchard side of the wall, and then took out the small inside stones from behind it until I had made a cavity sufficient to hold nearly a bushel. Into this cavity I put my apples, and then fitted the outer stone back into its place, thus making the wall look as if it had not been disturbed. This device protected my apples for nearly a fortnight; but at length Ellen, who was on my track, observed me disappear suspiciously behind the wall one day, and an hour or two later took occasion to reconnoiter the place where I had disappeared.
She passed the hidden cavity several times, and would not have discovered it, if she had not happened to smell the mellow August Pippins of my hoard. Guided by the fragrance which they emitted, she examined the wall more closely, and finally found the loose stone. When I went to my preserve, after we had milked the cows that evening, I found only the empty hole in the wall.
I next essayed to conceal my hoard in the ground. In the side of a knoll, screened from the house by the orchard wall and a thick nursery of little apple trees, I secretly dug a hole which I lined with new cedar shingles. For a lid to the orifice leading into it, I fitted a sod. A little wild gooseberry bush overhung the spot, and I fancied that I had my apples safely hidden.
But never was self-confidence worse misplaced! It was a cloudy, wet afternoon in which I had thus employed myself. Halse had gone fishing; but Addison chanced to be up garret, reading over a pile of old magazines, as was his habit on wet days. From the attic window he espied the top of my straw hat bobbing up and down beyond the wall, and as he read, he marked my operations.
With cool, calculating shrewdness he remained quiet for three or four days, till I had my new hoard well stocked with "Sweet Harveys," then made a descent upon it and cleared it out. Next morning, when, with great stealth and caution, I had stolen to the place, I found my miniature cavern empty except for a bit of paper, on which, with a lead-pencil, had been hastily inscribed the following tantalizing bit of doggerel:
"He hid his hoard in the ground
And thought it couldn't be found;
But forgot, as indeed he should not,
That the attic window overlooked the spot."
For about three minutes I felt very angry, then I managed to summon a grin, along with a resolve to get even with Addison — for I recognized his handwriting — by plundering his hoard, if by any amount of searching it were possible to find it. Addison was supposed to have the best and biggest hoard of all, and thus far none of us had got even an inkling as to where it was hidden.
I watched him as a cat might watch a mouse for two days, and made pretty sure that he did not go to his hoard in the daytime. Then I bethought myself that he always had a pocketful of apples every morning, and concluded that he must visit his preserve sometime "between days," most likely directly after he appeared to retire to his room at night.
So on the following night I lay awake and listened. After about half an hour of silence, I heard the door of his room open softly. With equal softness I stole out, and followed Addison through the open chamber of the ell, down a flight of stairs into the wagon-house, and then down another flight into the carriage-house cellar.
He had a lamp in his hand. When he entered the cellar the door closed after him, so that I did not dare go farther. I went back into the chamber, concealing myself, and waited to observe his return. He soon made his appearance, eating an apple; there was a smile on his face, and his pockets were protuberant.
Next day I proceeded to search the wagon-house cellar, but for some time my search was in vain.
There was in the cellar a large box-stove, into which I had often looked, but had seen only a mass of old brown paper and corn-husks. On this day I went to the stove and pulled out the rubbish, when lo! in the farther end I saw three salt boxes, all full of Pippins and August Sweetings.
I was not long in emptying those boxes, but I wanted to leave in the place of the apples a particularly exasperating bit of rhyme. I studied and rhymed all that forenoon, and at last, with much mental travail, I got out the following skit, which I left in the topmost box:
"He was a cunning cove
Who hid his hoard in the stove;
And he was so awful bright
That he went to it only by night.
But there was still another fellow
Whose head was not always on his pillow."
I knew by the sickly grin on Ad's face when we went out to milk the cows next morning that my first effort at poetry had nauseated him; he could not hold his head up all day, to look me in the face, without the same, sheepish, sick look.
Where to put my next hoard was a question over which I pondered long. I tried the hay-mow and several old sleighs set away for the summer, but Addison was now on my trail and speedily relieved me of my savings.
There were many obstacles to the successful concealment of apples. If I were to choose an unfrequented spot, the others, who were always on the lookout, would be sure to spy out my goings to and fro. It was necessary, I found, that the hoard should be placed where I could visit it as I went about my ordinary business, without exciting suspicion.
We had often to go into the granary after oats and meal, and the place that I at last hit on was a large bin of oats. I put my apples in a bag, and buried them to a depth of over two feet in the oats in one corner of the bin. I knew that Addison and Halse would look among the oats, but I did not believe that they would dig deeply enough to find the apples, and my confidence was justified.
It was a considerable task to get at my hoard to put apples into it, or to get them out; but the sense of exultation which I felt, as days and weeks passed and my hoard remained safe, amply repaid me. I was particularly pleased when I saw from the appearance of the oats that they had been repeatedly dug over.
As I had to go to the granary every night and morning for corn, or oats, I had an opportunity to visit my store without roundabout journeys or suspicious trips, which my numerous and vigilant enemies would have been certain to note.
The hay-mow was Halse's hoarding-place throughout the season, and although I was never but once able to find his preserve, Addison could always discover it whenever he deemed it worth while to make the search.
To ensure fair play with the early apples, the Old Squire had made a rule that none of us should shake the trees, or knock off apples with poles or clubs. So we all had equal chances to secure those apples which fell off, and the prospect of finding them beneath the trees was a great premium on early rising in the months of August and September.
I will go on in advance of my story proper to relate a queer incident which happened in connection with those early apples and our rivalry to get them, the following year. The August Sweeting tree stood apart from the other trees, near the wall between the orchard and the field, so that fully half of the apples that dropped from it fell into the field instead of into the orchard.
We began to notice early in August that no apples seemed to drop off in the night on the field side of the wall.
For a long time every one of us supposed that some of the others had got out ahead of the rest and picked them up. But one morning Addison mentioned the circumstance at the breakfast table, as being rather singular; and when we came to compare notes, it transpired that none of us had been getting any apples, mornings, on the field side of the wall.
"Somebody's hooking those apples, then!" exclaimed Addison. "Now who can it be?" For we all knew that a good many apples must fall into the field.
"I'll bet it's Alf Batchelder!" Halse exclaimed. But it did not seem likely that Alfred would come a mile, in the night, to "hook" a few August Sweets, when he had plenty of apples at home.
Nor could we think of any one among our young neighbors who would be likely to come constantly to take the apples, although any one of them in passing might help himself, for fall apples were regarded much as common property in our neighborhood.
Yet every morning, while there would be a peck or more of Sweetings on the orchard side of the wall, scarcely an apple would be found in the field.
Addison confessed that he could not understand the matter; Theodora also thought it a very mysterious thing. The oddity of the circumstance seemed to make a great impression on her mind. At last she declared that she was determined to know what became of those Sweets, and asked me to sit up with her one night and watch, as she thought it would be too dark and lonesome an undertaking to watch alone.
I agreed to get up at two o'clock on the following morning, if she would call me, for we wisely concluded that the pilferer came early in the morning, rather than early in the night, else many apples would have fallen off into the field after his visit, and have been found by us in our early visits.
I did not half believe that Theodora would wake in time to carry out our plan, but at half-past two she knocked softly at the door of my room. I hastily dressed, and each of us put on an old Army over-coat, for the morning was foggy and chilly. It was still very dark. We went out into the garden, felt our way along to a point near the August Sweeting tree, and sat down on two old squash-bug boxes under the trellis of a Concord grape-vine, which made a thick shelter and a complete hiding-place.
For a mortal long while we sat there and watched and listened in silence, not wishing to talk, lest the rogue whom we were trying to surprise should overhear us. At intervals Theodora gave me a pinch, to make sure that I was not asleep. An hour passed, but it was still dark when suddenly we heard, on the other side of the wall, a slight noise resembling the sound of footsteps.
Instantly Doad shook my arm. "Sh!" she breathed. "Some one's come! Creep along and peep over."
I stole to the wall, and then, rising, slowly parted the vine leaves, and tried to see what it was there. Presently I discerned one, then another dim object on the ground beyond the wall. They were creeping about, and I could plainly hear them munch the apples.
Then Theodora peeped. "It's two little bears, I believe," she breathed in my ear, with her lightest whisper, yet in considerable excitement. "What shall we do?"
I peeped again. If bears, they were very little ones.
I mustered my courage. As a weapon I had brought an old pitchfork handle. Scrambling suddenly over the wall, I uttered a shout, and the dark objects scudded away across the field, making a great scurry over the stubble of the wheat-field, but they were not very fleet. I came up with one of them after a hundred yards' chase, when it suddenly turned and faced me with a strange loud squeak! Drawing back, I belabored it with my fork handle until the creature lay helpless, quite dead, in fact.
Theodora came after me in alarm. "Oh, my, you have killed it!" she exclaimed. "What can it be?"
I put my hand cautiously down upon its hair, which was coarser than bristles and sharp-pointed. Turning the body over with the fork handle, I found that it was really heavy.
We could not, in the darkness, even guess what the animal was, and went back to the house much mystified. The Old Squire had just arisen, and we told him the story of our early vigil. "Wood-chucks, I guess," was his comment, but we knew that they were not wood-chucks. Addison was then called up, to get his opinion, and when told of the animal's exceedingly coarse, sharp-pointed hair, he exclaimed, "I know what it is! It's a hedgehog!"
He bustled around, got on his boots, and went out into the field with me. It was now light, and he had no sooner bent down over it than he pronounced it to be a hedgehog fast enough, or rather a Canada porcupine. Its weight was over thirty pounds, and some of the quills on its back were four or five inches in length, with needle-like, finely barbed points.
The other hedgehog escaped to the woods, and did not again trouble us. The next summer the August Sweetings that fell into the field from the same tree were quite as mysteriously taken at night by a cosset sheep, which for more than a fortnight escaped nightly from the farm-yard, and returned thither of its own accord after it had stolen the apples. Again Theodora and I watched for the pilferer, and captured the cunning creature in the act.
During that first year at the farm, the old folks did not pay much attention to our apple-hoards, but by the time our contests were under way the second season, they, too, caught the contagion of it, from hearing us talk so much about it at the breakfast table. At first the Old Squire merely dropped some remarks to the effect that, when he was a boy, he could have hidden a hoard where nobody could find it.
"Well, sir, we would like to see you do it!" cried Halse.
The old gentleman did not say at the time that he would, or would not, attempt such an exploit. Moved by Ellen's serio-comic lamentations over her losses, Gram also insinuated that she knew of places in the house in which she could make a hoard that would be hard for us to find; but the girls declared that they would like to see her try to hide a hoard away from them.
Not many days after these conversations had occurred, the Old Squire rather ostentatiously took a very fine August Pippin from his pocket, as we were gathering round the breakfast table, and, after thumbing it approvingly, set it beside his plate, remarking, incidentally, that if one wanted his apples to ripen well, and have just the right flavor, it was necessary that he should place his hoard in some dry, clean, perfectly sweet place.
Of course we were not long in taking so broad a hint as that. Several sly nudges and winks went around the table.
"He's got one!" Addison whispered to me, as Gram poured the coffee, and from that time the Old Squire, in all his goings and comings, was a marked man. He had thrown down a challenge to us, and we were determined to prove that we were as smart as he had been in his youthful days. But for more than a week we were unable to gain the slightest hint as to where his preserve was situated. Meantime Gram had also begun to place a nice August Sweet beside her own plate every morning, as she glanced with a twinkle in her eye over to the Old Squire.
We rummaged everywhere that week, and even forgot to carry on mutual injury and reprisal, in our desire to humble the pride of our elders. We even bethought ourselves of the words "perfectly sweet," which the old gentleman had used in connection with hoards, and looked in the sugar barrel, but quite in vain. Yet all the while we were daily going by the place where the Old Squire's hoard was concealed; passing so near it that we might have laid hands on it without stepping out of our way, for it was in the wood-house beside the walk which led past the tiered up stove wood into the wagon-house and stable.
Ten or twelve cords of wood, sawed short and split, had been piled loosely into the back part of the wood-house, but in front of this loose pile, and next the plank walk, the wood had been tiered up evenly and closely to a height of ten feet. The Old Squire managed to pull from this tier, at a height of about four feet, a good-sized block, and then, reaching in behind it, had made a considerable cavity. Here he deposited his apples, replacing the block, which fitted to its place in the tier so well that the woodpile appeared as if it had not been disturbed. Shrewdly mindful of the fact that our keen nostrils might smell out his preserve, he cunningly set an old pan with a few refuse pippins in it on a bench close beside the place.
Gram's hoard was hidden, with equal cunning, in the "yarn cupboard," where were kept the woollen balls and yarn hanks, used in darning and knitting, — a small, high cupboard, with a little panel door, set in the wall of the sitting-room next to the fireplace and chimney. The bottom of this cupboard was formed of one broad piece of pine board, which seemed to be nailed down hard and fast; but the old lady, who knew that this board was loose, had raised it and kept her apples in a yarn-ball basket beneath it.
She often had occasion to go to the cupboard to get or replace her knitting, and for a long time none of the girls suspected her hiding-place. The plain fact was that those girls, as a rule, steered clear of the yarn cupboard, for they none of them very much liked to knit or darn. But at last Ellen happened to go to it one day for a darning-needle, and smelled the apples. Even then she could not discover the hoard, but she went in search of Theodora, who penetrated the secret of the loose bottom board.
They came with great glee to tell us of their discovery, and we were thereby stimulated to renewed efforts to unearth the Old Squire's preserve. The girls promised to say nothing of their discovery for a day or two, and at Ellen's suggestion we agreed that if we could find Gramp's hoard, we would rob both hoarding-places at once and have the laugh on them both at the same time.
We had watched the Old Squire closely, and felt sure that he did not go to his hoard at any time during the day. As he was an early riser, it seemed probable to us that he did his apple-hoarding before we were astir. Addison and I accordingly agreed to get up at three o'clock the following morning and secretly watch all his movements. By a great effort we rose long before light, and dressing, stole out through the wood-house chamber and down the wagon-house stairs into the stable. Here I concealed myself behind an old sleigh, while Addison went back into the wood-house and posted himself on the high tier of wood that fronted on the passageway, lying there in such a posture that he could get a peep of the long walk.
It had hardly begun to grow light, when we heard the old gentleman astir in the kitchen. Presently he came out through the stable and fed the horses, then returned. As he went back through the wood-house, he stopped on the walk beside the high tier of wood on which Addison lay. After listening and looking about him, he removed the block of wood, took out a fine pippin from his hoard, and carefully replaced the block.
This amused Ad so greatly that he nearly shook the tier of wood down in his efforts to repress laughter, and after the old gentleman had gone into the house, he came tiptoeing out into the stable to tell me, with much elation, what he had seen.
During the forenoon we examined the hoard and told the girls about it. We arranged to rob both the old folks' hoards late that evening, and fill our own with the plunder. To emphasize the exploit, we agreed to take some of the largest apples to the breakfast-table next morning. We fancied that when the old folks saw those apples, and found out where we got them, they would think there were young people living nearly as bright as those of fifty years ago.
Theodora did not really promise that she would assist in the scheme, but she laughed a good deal over it, and seemed to concur with the rest of us.
That evening as soon as the old folks had retired and the house had become quiet, Addison and I cleared out the Old Squire's preserve; and, meantime, Ellen and Theodora had slipped down-stairs into the sitting-room and emptied Gram's hoard in the yarn cupboard. We met out in the garden and divided the spoils; then not liking to trust each other to go directly to our respective hoards, we deposited our shares of the plunder in three different boxes in the wagon-house, and looked forward with no little zest to the fun next morning at the breakfast-table.
But on visiting the boxes next morning, they were all empty! Some one had made a clean sweep. Not an apple was left in them! Addison and I were astounded when we compared notes a few minutes before breakfast. "Who on earth could have done it?" he whispered, after he found out that I was not the traitor.
We hurried to the wood-house and peeped into the Old Squire's hoarding-place. It was brimful of apples! A light began to dawn upon us. Had the old gentleman watched our performance on the previous evening and outwitted us all? It looked so, for on going in to breakfast, there beside the plates of each of the old folks stood a great nappy dish, heaped full of choice Pippins and Sweets! Addison stole a look around and then dropped his eyes; I did the same, while Ellen looked equally amazed and disconcerted. Theodora, too, remained very quiet.
We concluded that our elders had completely outdone us, and that they were enjoying their victory in a manner intended to convey their ironical appreciation of our small effort to rob them. The more we considered the matter, the more sheepish we felt.
"These are charming good pippins, aren't they, Ruth?" said the old gentleman to Gram.
"Charming," answered she.
Addison gave me a punch under the table, as if to say, "Now they are giving us the laugh."
"And I'm sure we're much obliged for them," the Old Squire continued.
"Indeed, we are obliged," said Gram.
Their remarks seemed to me a little odd, but I didn't look up.
Not another word was spoken at the table, but afterwards Addison and Ellen and I got together in the garden and mutually agreed that we had been badly beaten at our own game.
"They are too old and long-headed for us to meddle with," said Addison. "I cannot even imagine how they did it. I guess we had better let their hoards alone in the future." None the less we could not help thinking that there had been something a little queer about our defeat.
It was nearly two years later before the truth about that night's frolic came to light. Theodora did it. She could not bear to have the old folks beaten and humiliated by us, for whom they were doing so much. After we had robbed their hoarding-places, she sallied forth again and took all of our shares as well as her own, and then having replenished the looted hoarding-places, she filled the two nappy dishes from her own hoard and set them beside their plates.
The best part of the joke was that the Old Squire and Gram never knew that they had been robbed, and thought only that we had made them a present of some excellent apples. When Theodora saw how chagrined the rest of us were, she kept the whole matter a secret.