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The Runaway Grandmother by Nellie McClung

(Reprinted by permission of The Globe, Toronto.)

George Shaw came back to his desolate hearth, and, sitting by the untidy table, thought bitter things of women. The stove dripped ashes; the table overflowed with dirty dishes.

His last housekeeper had been gone a week?she had left by request. Incidentally there disappeared at the same time towels, pillow-covers, a few small tools, and many other articles which are of a size to go in a trunk.

His former housekeeper, second to the last, had been a teary-eyed English lady, who, as a child, had played with King George, and was well beloved by all the Royal family. She had a soul above work, and utterly despised Canadians. Once, when her employer remonstrated with her for wearing his best overcoat when she went to milk, she fell a-weeping and declared she wasn't going to be put on. Mr. Shaw said the same thing about his coat, and it led to unpleasantness. The next day he found her picking chips in his brown derby, and when he expressed his disapproval she told him it was no fit hat for a young man like him?he should have a topper. Mr. Shaw decided that he would try to do without her.

Before that he had had a red-cheeked Irishwoman, who cooked so well, scrubbed so industriously, that he had thought his troubles were all over. But one day she went to Millford, and came home in a state of wild exhilaration, with more of the same in a large black bottle. When Mr. Shaw came to put away the horse, she struck him over the head with her handbag, playfully blackening one of his eyes, and then begged him to come and make up?"kiss and forgit, like the swate pet that he was."

Exit Mrs. Murphy.

George Shaw decided to do his own cooking, but in three days every dish in the house was dirty; the teapot was full of leaves, the stove full of ashes, and the floor was slippery.

George Shaw's farm lay parallel with the Souris River in that fertile region which lies between the Brandon and the Tiger Hills. His fields ran an unbroken mile, facing the Tiger Hills, blue with mist. He was a successful young farmer, and he should have been a happy man without a care in the world, but he did not look it as he sat wearily by his red stove, with the deep furrows of care on his young face.

The busy time was coming on; he needed another man, and he did hate trying to do the cooking himself.

As a last hope he decided to advertise. He hunted up his writing-pad and wrote hastily:

"Housekeeper wanted by a farmer; must be sober and steady. Good wages to the right person. Apply to George Shaw, Millford, Man."

He read it over reflectively. "There ought to be someone for me," he said. "I am not hard to please. Any good, steady old lady who will give me a bite to eat, not swear at me or wear my clothes or drink while on duty will answer my purpose."

Two days after his advertisement had appeared in the Brandon Times, "she" arrived.

Shaw saw a smart-looking woman gaily tripping along the road, and his heart failed.

As she drew near, however, he was relieved to find that her hair was snowy white.

"Good evening, Mr. Shaw!" she called to him as soon as she was within speaking distance.

"Good evening, madam," he replied, lifting his hat.

"I just asked along the road until I found you," she said, untying her bonnet strings; "I knew this lonesome little house must be the place. No trees, no flowers, no curtains, no washing on the line?I could tell there was no woman around." She was fixing her hair at his little glass as she spoke. "Now, son, run out and get a few chips for the fire, and we'll have a bite of supper in a few minutes."

Shaw brought the chips.

"Now, what do you say to pancakes for supper?"

Shaw declared that nothing would suit him so well as pancakes.

The fire crackled merrily under the kettle, and soon the two of them were sitting down to an appetizing meal of pancakes and syrup, boiled eggs and tea.

"Land sakes, George, you must have had your own time with those housekeepers of yours! Some of them drank, eh? I could tell that by the piece you put in the paper. But never mind them now; I'll soon have you feeling fine as silk. How's your socks? Toes out, I'll bet. Well, I'll hunt you up a pair, if there's any to be found. If I can't find any you can go to bed when you get your chores done, and I'll wash out them you've on?I can't bear my men folks to have their toes out; a hole in the heel ain't so bad, it's behind you and you can forget it, but a hole in the toe is always in your way no matter which way you're going."

After supper, when Shaw was out doing his chores, he could see her bustling in and out of the house; now she was beating his bedclothes on the line; in another minute she was leaning far out of a bedroom window dusting a pillow.

When he came into the house she reported that her search for stockings, though vigorous, had been vain. He protested a little about having to go to bed when the sun was shining, but she insisted.

"I'm sorry, George," she said, "to have to make you go to bed, but it's the only thing we can do. You'll find your bed feels a lot better since I took the horse collar and the pair of rubber boots out from under the mattress. That's a poor place to keep things. Good-night now?don't read lying down."

When he went upstairs Shaw noticed with dismay that his lamp had gone from the box beside his bed. So he was not likely to disobey her last injunction?at least, not for any length of time.

Just at daylight the next morning there came a knock at his door.

"Come, George?time to get up!"

When he came in from feeding his horses a splendid breakfast was on the table.

"Here's your basin, George; go out and have a good wash. Here's your comb; it's been lost for quite awhile. I put a towel out there for you, too. Hurry up now and get your vittles while they are nice!"

When Shaw came to the table she regarded him with pleasure.

"You're a fine-looking boy, George, when you're slicked up," she said. "Now bow your head until we say grace! There, now pitch in and tell me how you like grandma's cooking."

Shaw ate heartily and praised everything.

A few days afterwards she said, "Now, George, I guess I'll have to ask you to go to town and get some things we need for the house."

Shaw readily agreed, and took out his paper and pencil.

"Soap, starch, ten yards of cheesecloth?that's for curtains," she said. "I'll knit lace for them, and they'll look real dressy; toilet soap, sponge and nailbrush?that's for your bath, George; you haven't been taking them as often as you should, or the hoops wouldn't have come off your tub. You can't cheat Nature, George; she always tells on you. Ten yards flannelette?that's for night-shirts; ten yards sheeting?that's for your bed?and your white shirts are pretty far gone."

"How do you know?" he asked in surprise; "they are all in my trunk."

"Yes, I know, and the key is in that old cup on the stand, and I know how to unlock a trunk, don't I?" she replied with dignity. "You need new shirts all right, but just get one. I never could abear them boughten shirts, they are so skimpy in the skirt; I'll make you some lovely ones, with blue and pink flossin' down the front."

He looked up alarmed.

"Then about collars," she went on serenely. "You have three, but they're not in very good shape, though, of course, you couldn't expect anything better of them, kept in that box with the nails?oh, I found them, George, you needn't look so surprised. You see I know something about boys?I have three of my own." A shadow passed over her face and she sighed. "Well, I guess that is all for to-day. Be sure to get your mail and hurry home."

"Shall I tell the postmaster to put your mail in my box?" he asked.

"Oh, no, never mind?I ain't expectin' any," she said, and Shaw drove away wondering.

A few nights after she said, "Well, George, I suppose you are wonderin' now who this old lady is, though I am not to say real old either."

"Indeed you are not old," Shaw declared with considerable gallantry; "you are just in your prime."

She regarded him gratefully. "You're a real nice boy, George," she said, "and there ain't going to be no secrets between us. If you wet your feet, or tear your clothes, don't try to hide it. Don't keep nothing from me and I won't keep nothing from you. Now I'll tell you who I am and all about it. I am Mrs. Peter Harris, of Owen Sound, Ontario, and I have three sons here in the West. They've all done well, fur as money goes. I came up to visit them. I came from Bert's here. I couldn't stand the way Bert's folks live. Mind you, they burn their lights all night, and they told me it doesn't cost a cent more. Land o' liberty! They can't fool me. If lights burn, someone pays?and the amount of hired help they keep is something scandalous. Et, that is Bert's wife, is real smart, and they have two hired girls, besides their own two girls, and they get in a woman to wash besides. I wanted them to let the two girls go while I was there, but no, sir! Et says, 'Grandma, you didn't come here to work, you must just rest.' They wouldn't let me do a thing, and that brazen hired girl?the housemaid, they call her?one day even made my bed; and, mind you, George, she put the narrow hem on the sheet to the top, and she wasn't a bit ashamed when I told her. She said she hoped it didn't make me feel that I was standin' on my head all night; and the way that woman hung out the clothes was a perfect scandal!" Her voice fell to an awed whisper. "She hangs the underwear in plain sight. I ain't never been used to the like of that! I could not stay. Bert is kind enough, so is Et, and they have one girl, Maud, that I really do like. She is twenty-one, but, of course, brought up the way she has been, she is awful ignorant for that age. Mind you, that girl had never turned the heel of a stocking until I got her at it, but Maud can learn. I'd take that girl quick, and bring her up like my own, if Bert would let me. Well, anyway, I could not put up with the way they live, and I just ran away."

"You ran away!" echoed Shaw. "They'll be looking for you!"

"Let 'em look!" said the old lady, grimly. "They won't ever find me here."

"I'll hide you in the haymow, and if they come in here to search for you I'll declare I never knew you?I am prepared to do desperate things," Shaw declared.

"George, if they ever get in here?that is, Et anyway?she'll know who did the fixin' up. There ain't many that know how to do this Rocky Road to Dublin that is on your lounge. Et would know who'd been here."

"That settles it!" declared Shaw. "Et shall not enter. If Et gets in it shall be over my prostrate form, but maybe it would be better for you to take the Rocky Road with you to the hayloft!"

The old lady laughed heartily. "Ain't we happy, George, you and me? I've tried all my own, and they won't let me have one bit of my own way. Out at Edward's?he's a lawyer at Regina?I tried to get them all to go to bed at half-past ten?late enough, too, for decent people?and didn't Edward's wife get real miffed over it? And then I went to Tom's ?he's a doctor down at Winnipeg, but he's all gone to politics; he was out night after night makin' speeches, and he had a young fellow lookin' after his practice who wouldn't know a corn from a gumboil only they grow in different places. Tom's pa and me spent good money on his education, and it's hard for us to see him makin' no use of it. He was nice enough to me, wanted me to stay and be company for Edith, but I told him he should try to be company for Edith himself. Well, he didn't get elected?that's one comfort. I believe it was an answer to prayer. Maybe he'll settle down to his doctorin' now. Then I went to Bert's, and I soon saw I could not stay there. Just as soon as I saw your little bit in the paper, I says, 'The Lord has opened a door!' I gave Maud a hint that I would clear out some day and go where I would be let work, and the dear child says to me, 'Grandma, if I ever get a house of my own you can come and live with me, and you can do every bit of the work, and everyone will have to do just what you say; they'll have to go to bed at sundown if you say so.' Maud's the best one I have belongin' to me. She'll give them a hint that I'm all right."

But Shaw was apprehensive. He knew who Bert was, and he had uncomfortable visions of Mr. Albert Harris driving up to his door some day and demanding that Mrs. Peter Harris, his mother, immediately come home with him; and the fear and dread of former housekeepers swept over George Shaw's soul. No, he would not give her up! Of course, there were times when he thought she was rather exacting, and when he felt some sympathy for Edward's wife forgetting "miffed."

When she was with him about a week she announced that he must have a daily bath! "It is easier to wash you than the bed-clothes, that's one reason," she said, "and it's good for you besides. That's what's wrong with lots of young boys; they git careless and dirty, and then they take to smoking and drinking just natcherally. A clean hide, mind you, is next to a clean heart. Now go along upstairs; everything is ready for you."

Henceforth there was no danger of the hoops falling off the tub, for it was in daily use, and, indeed, it was not many nights until George Shaw looked forward with pleasure to his nightly wash.

The old lady's face glowed with pleasure as she went about her work, or sat sewing in the shade of the house. At her instigation Shaw had put up a shed for his machinery, which formerly had littered the yard, and put his wood in even piles.

The ground fell away in a steep ravine, just in front of the house, and pink wild roses and columbine hung in profusion over the spring which gushed out of the bank. Away to the east were the sand-hills of the Assiniboine?the bad lands of the prairie, their surface peopled with stiff spruce trees that stand like sentries looking, always looking out across the plain!

Mrs. Harris often sat with her work in the shade of the house, on pleasant afternoons, looking at this peaceful scene, and her heart was full of gladness and content.

The summer passed pleasantly for George Shaw and his cheery old housekeeper. Not a word did they hear from "Bert's" folks.

"I would like to see Maud," Mrs. Harris said one night to Shaw as she sat knitting a sock for him beside their cheerful fireside. He was reading.

"What is Maud like?" he asked.

"Maud favors my side of the house," she answered. "She's a pretty good- looking girl, very much the hi'th and complexion I used to be when I was her age. You'd like Maud fine if you saw her, George."

"I don't want to see her," Shaw replied, "for I am afraid that the coming of Maud might mean the departure of Grandma, and that would be a bad day for me."

"I ain't goin' to leave you, George, and I believe Maud would be reasonable if she did come! She'd see how happy we are!"

It was in the early autumn that Maud came. The grain had all been cut and stacked, and was waiting for the thresher to come on its rounds. Shaw was ploughing in the field in front of his house when Maud came walking briskly up the road just as her grandmother had done four months before! The trees in the poplar grove beside the road were turning red and yellow with autumn, and Maud, in her red-brown suit and hat, looked as if she belonged to the picture.

Some such thought as this struggled in Shaw's brain and shone in his eyes as he waited for her at the headland.

He raised his hat as she drew near. Maud went right into the subject.

"Have you my grandmother?" she asked.

Shaw hesitated?the dreaded moment had come. Visions of former housekeepers?dirty dishes, unmade bed, dust, flies, mice?rose before him and tempted him to say "no," but something stronger and better, perhaps it was the "clean hide" prompting the clean heart, spoke up in him.

"I have your grandmother," he said slowly, "and she is very well and happy."

"Will you give her up?" was Maud's next question.

"Never!" he answered stoutly; "and she won't give me up, either. Your grandmother and I are very fond of each other, I would like you to know?but come in and see her."

That night after supper, which proved to be a very merry meal in spite of the shadow which had fallen across the little home, Mrs. Harris said almost tearfully: "I can't leave this pore lamb, Maud?there's no knowin' what will happen to him."

"I will go straight back to the blanket and dog soup," Shaw declared with cheerful conviction. "You can't imagine the state things were in when your grandmother came?bed not made since Christmas, horsenails for buttons, comb and brush lost but not missed, wash basin rusty! Your grandmother, of course, has been severe with me?she makes me go to bed before sundown. Yet I refuse to part with her. Who takes your grandmother takes me; and now, Miss Maud, it is your move!"

That night when they sat in the small sitting-room with a bright fire burning in the shining stove, Maud felt her claim on her grandmother growing more and more shadowy. Mrs. Harris was in a radiant humor. She was knitting lace for the curtains, and chatted gaily as she worked.

"You see, Maud, I am never lonely here; it's a real heartsome place to live. There's the trains goin' by twice a day, and George here is a real good hand to read out to me. We're not near done with the book we're reading, and I am anxious to see if Adam got the girl. He was set on havin' her, but some of her folks were in for makin' trouble."

"Folks sometimes do!" said Shaw, meaningly.

"Well, I can't go until we finish the book," the old lady declared, "and we see how the story comes out, and I don't believe Maud is the one to ask it."

Maud made a pretty picture as she sat with one shapely foot on the fender of the stove, the firelight dancing on her face and hair. Shaw, looking at her, forgot the errand on which she came?forgot everything only that she was there.

"Light the lamp and read a bit of the book now," Mrs. Harris said.
"Maud'll like it, I know. She's the greatest girl for books!"

Shaw began to read. It was "The Kentucky Cardinal" he read, that exquisite love-story, that makes us lovers all, even if we never have been, or worse still, have forgotten. Shaw loved the book, and read it tenderly, and Maud, leaning back in her chair, found her heart warmed with a sudden great content.

A week later Shaw and Maud walked along the river bank and discussed the situation. Autumn leaves carpeted the ground beneath their feet, and the faint murmur of the river below as it slipped over its pebbly bed came faintly to their ears. In the sky above them, wild geese with flashing white wings honked away toward the south, and a meadow lark, that jolly fellow who comes early and stays late, on a red-leafed haw-tree poured out his little heart in melody.

"You see, Mr. Shaw," Maud was saying, "it doesn't look right for Grandma to be living with a stranger when she has so many of her own people. I know she is happy with you?happier than she has been with any of us?but what will people think? It looks as if we didn't care for her, and we do. She is the sweetest old lady in the world." Maud was very much in earnest.

Shaw's eyes followed the wild geese until they faded into tiny specks on the horizon. Then he turned and looked straight into her face.

"Maud," he said, with a strange vibration in his voice, "I know a way out of the difficulty; a real good, pleasant way, and by it your grandmother can continue to live with me, and still be with her own folks. Maud, can you guess it?"

The blush that spread over Maud's face indicated that she was a good guesser!

Then the meadow-lark, all unnoticed, hopped a little nearer, and sang sweeter than ever. Not that anybody was listening, either!