From the Children’s Friend, December 1903 –
Miss Benson’s Hired Man
By Elizabeth Robbins
Robert sat on the doorstep, his elbow on his patched knees, his face resting in his hands. He was thinking so hard that his forehead was criss-crossed with big wrinkles.
At a little distance was two-year-old Dannie, playing in the loose sand of the driveway with a tin cocoa-can and a broken-handled spoon. Robert sighed heavily as he watched him. “Two weeks ago mother was alive, and we were all together and so happy,” he said to himself. “Now mother is dead, and Dannie and I haven’t any home at all – only here. Mr. Davis said we might stay till school begins. That will be just a week from day after tomorrow. It was good of him to let us stay so long, for he’s got two men and don’t need my help, and I’m quite sure Mrs. Davis doesn’t like the bother of having us round.”
Here Dannie came trotting up to lean on his brother’s knee, laugh up at him, and pat his face softly with his chubby little hand. Then with some baby jargon on his lips he trotted back again to his play.
After supper, Mr. and Mrs. Davis had gone to ride. Robert had watched them drive away. Further down the road, Miss Benson had come out, and they had stopped to talk with her. Then they had gone along and soon disappeared from sight.
One of the men was hoeing in the garden, a whippoorwill was singing somewhere, and there was a gorgeous sunset in the west, but Robert was in such a brown study that he did not notice any of these things.
The sound of footsteps close at hand made him look up. Miss Benson was coming up the driveway toward him.
“I want you over to my house,” she said abruptly.
Robert rose to his feet, a little startled. He had always stood in considerable awe of Miss Benson, she was so straight and prim and severe, and had such a brusque way of speaking.
“I’ve just had a difference with my hired man,” she explained, “and he’s packed up his things and left. I shall get a new man as soon as I can – probably by the end of the week. Meantime my cows have got to be milked. Mr. Davis says you can milk and he don’t know any reason why you can’t help me out.”
“Yes’m, I can milk, and I’d be glad to do it for you,” said Robert.
“There’ll be quite a little other choring to do, so perhaps you’d better come and stay – come tonight so as to be on hand in the morning.”
“All right, I will,” Robert agreed. “Come, Dannie,” he called to the child.
“Mercy me! You’re not going to bring him?” exclaimed Miss Benson.
“I think I’ll have to, if I come,” faltered Robert.
“Two boys – and one of ‘em a baby! It’s too much of a good thing,” said Miss Benson in a vexed tone. “Dear me! isn’t there somebody else I could get, I wonder?” and she bit her lip and pondered. “No,” she sighed at last, “I can’t think of another living soul. Well, perhaps I can get the new man around by the middle of the week. I don’t see but what I shall have to take both of you, though the remedy is almost worse than the disease,” she ended, with an uncomfortable laugh.
“I’ll get a few of our things together and come right over,” Robert told her.
“Very well, I won’t wait for you,” said Miss Benson, and she walked rapidly away.
When Robert and Dannie reached the house, she had prepared a room for them, and Robert put Dannie right to bed, where he fell asleep very quickly.
“Shall I take the lantern and go and see if everything is all right in the barn, and then lock up?” Robert asked.
“Yes. I’ll go with you,” Miss Benson answered, taking up the lantern.
Robert went into the stall beside the horse. “He’s gentle, isn’t he?” he asked.
“He used to be, but I guess Mike and the man I had before him have ruined his disposition, between them. He’s got the habit of biting and snapping lately.”
“My! don’t you call his halter pretty tight?” said Robert.
Miss Benson reached over the side of the stall and felt of it.
“Humph! I should think so! If that’s the way he’s been kept all the time I don’t wonder it has made him feel ugly.”
“Shall I let it out two holes?” asked Robert.
Then Robert went along in front of the cows. All but one of the six shrank back when he put his hand out toward them, and the sixth hooked at him. “I don’t believe they’ll always act that way – not when they find out I’m their friend,” Robert said.
He saw that the stanchions were all fastened, the scuttles in place, the chain up behind the horse, and then he locked the doors and they went back to the house.
Robert awoke at half-past four the next morning and tip-toed out of the house to go to the barn. He came in with the milk at six, having in the meantime given the cows a very thorough carding and brushing, besides milking them and feeding them. Only four of them were giving milk.
“I guess they ain’t used to me,” he said apologetically, as he set down the pails. “Sometimes they don’t give down their milk good with a new milker.”
“That’s more than they’ve been giving,” said Miss Benson.
“It is? Why, I thought – it seems as if they ought to give more than that. Mr. Davis said you had some extra good cows.”
“Yes, I bought them for extra good ones, but somehow they’ve never come up to what they were represented, or anywhere near it. I suppose it’s because they haven’t been treated decently. Now, that cow that kicks – Did she kick you?” she stopped herself suddenly to ask.
“Ye–es, she kinder did,” Robert answered, coloring.
“What did you do when she kicked?’ Miss Benson asked, looking at him sharply. “Did you hit her with the first thing that came handy?”
“No’m,” said Robert indignantly. “I just backed away a little and waited. I wouldn’t hit a cow that was tied up in the barn, whatever she did.”
“Why wouldn’t you hit her in the barn?”
“Why, because if you scare a cow, or even do anything to make her uneasy, she won’t give so much milk, and the milk won’t be so rich. Mr. Davis says a man’s a fool who isn’t kind to his animals, for it’s just taking money out of his own pocket. He says the more comfortable and happy you make ‘em, the more they’ll do for you. But,” he added, “I wouldn’t abuse ‘em anyway, because I like animals.”
“I think your brother is awake and wants to get up,” said Miss Benson.
Robert fancied she spoke coldly. “I guess she thinks I talk too much,” he thought. He went and dressed Dannie and took him out to the barn, where he put him in an empty bin in the grain chest to keep him out of mischief while he finished the chores.
At breakfast Miss Benson at first took no notice of Dannie, except to look with disgust at his grimy dress, but he smiled so engagingly when she did chance to glance his way that she had perforce to smile back, and before the meal was over he had made her laugh outright.
“I think I’ll go to church,” said Miss Benson. “I’m in danger of forgetting the way, it’s so long since I’ve been.”
She forgot to tell Robert to harness the horse, but he did it without being told, so that when Miss Benson was ready she did not have to wait.
When she returned from church she noticed that Dannie looked cleaner, though she saw he had on the same dress. She asked Robert if he had washed it.
“Yes, in the brook, and let it dry in the sun,” he explained. “And gave Dannie a good scrub in the brook, too.”
Robert thought she would be pleased, for she herself was as neat as wax, and dirt was her especial abhorrence, but she made no comment.
“I wish I could please her,” he thought a little sadly, “but as long as I can’t, I’ll do the best I can, and try to deserve that she should be pleased.”
So he carded the cows very conscientiously, and fed them exactly according to directions, and finding that Miss Benson had a fly-repellant and a sprayer, that she said none of the men she had hired had ever been willing to use, he sprayed the cows night and morning. He kept the tubs well filled with fresh water, and mended the fence in an unused pasture, so they could have more green feed. And he did other things – tidied up the yard, kept the wood-box filled, hoed in the garden, fed the pigs and hens, picked the vegetables.
But Robert’s heart was very heavy as he worked. Thoughts of the future filled him with hopelessness, and though he studied over it till his head would ache, he found nothing that afforded him any comfort or encouragement. And the worst of it was, he could not talk about his troubles with anyone. He almost knew he would cry if he tried to, and to have anybody see him crying he felt would be unbearable.
Then there was that new hired man, who might come any day now. Robert dreaded it unspeakably, for he hated to go back to Mr. Davis’s, where he and Dannie were not wanted, even for a day. It was so much pleasanter at Miss Benson’s, too, in spite of her abrupt ways and plain speaking. She never scolded, and Robert saw more and more that she had a kind heart.
“What makes you look so thin and woebegone?” she suddenly demanded of Robert one day, in her most brusque tone. “Are you worried about something? Don’t you get enough to eat?”
“Oh, yes! I have more than enough to eat,” he assured her, ignoring her first question.
“Then it must be I work you too hard,” she said. “You’re a disgrace to me, with your hollow cheeks and big eyes,” and she wouldn’t let him work at all in the afternoons till chore time, at about four o’clock, though he protested that he felt perfectly able to and wanted to.
On Saturday afternoon, when Robert came into the house to bring the eggs, just before driving up the cows, he stopped at the kitchen pump to give Dannie a drink of water. Miss Benson had a caller, Mrs. Wade, who was very deaf. Robert could hear them talking in the sitting-room. “Yes,” Miss Benson was saying, “He’s coming this evening.”
Robert’s hand shook as he held the dipper to Dannie’s lips. HE must be the new hired man. Robert wondered if Miss Benson would send him and Dannie away that night.
When supper time came he could hardly eat anything. Dannie was tired, and Robert put him to bed early, then went outdoors. Down the road a young man was walking briskly. Robert watched him approach. He had a valise, and – yes, he was turning into the yard.
Robert went out to the barn. There was a pile of hay he had pitched off the mow for the cows’ morning feed. He threw himself face downward on it and lay there very still.
It was nearly nine o’clock when Miss Benson, with a lantern, came into the barn. She had been calling Robert from the back door of the house, but no one had answered. Everything seemed quiet in the barn, and she was about to go away, when her ears caught the sound of a stifled moan, and then she saw Robert.
She bent over him. “Robert! What is the matter? Are you hurt?”
“No’m,” he managed to answer.
“What is the matter, then? Why are you out here?”
“Your new hired man has come, and – and you won’t want me any more – and –”
“What makes you think I’ve got a new hired man?” asked Miss Benson.
“I heard you say he was coming this evening, and I saw him –”
“That wasn’t any hired man; it was my nephew, come to stay over Sunday.”
“Well, you’re going to have one –”
“I hope so,” said Miss Benson, crisply.
Robert had sat up, but now he cast himself down again.
“Go on,” commanded Miss Benson. “What were you going to say when I interrupted you?”
“You’re going to get somebody, and so you won’t want me any more, and, and school begins Monday, and the law compels me to go, and Dannie – Dannie –”
“Well, what about Dannie?”
“I can’t take care of him and of myself, and go to school, too, and so he’ll have to go to – to –”
Here Robert’s feelings overcame him.
“Where’ll he have to go?” insisted Miss Benson.
“To the – poor-house!” Robert burst out with a sob, “and I feel as if I’d rather die.”
“Is that what you’ve been worrying and growing thin about all the week?” demanded Miss Benson.
“Yes,” answered Robert. ‘I’ve been trying to think of some way to prevent it, and I couldn’t. If only I didn’t have to go to school –”
“How old are you, Robert?”
“Why,” said Miss Benson, “that is just the age of the fellow I’m thinking of hiring. He’s got a little brother that I’ve taken a great fancy to, and I thought perhaps they’d like to live with me, and the older boy go to school and work when he could at home, and I’d give them their board and clothes.”
Robert started up and gazed at Miss Benson with wondering, perplexed eyes. “Miss Benson, you don’t mean – you can’t mean –” It seemed too presumptuous for him to finish the sentence.
“Yes,” smiled Miss Benson, “I do mean you. Will you stay?”
“You’re not joking?” faltered Robert.
“Joking! No, my dear boy, I’m not joking. Do you know that never since I lived on this farm have my little Jerseys been taken such good care of as they have the past week? You think I haven’t noticed, but I have. Their coats shine, the flies are kept off them, and they’ve given more and richer milk every day – now, in August. And the horse is improving. It hasn’t looked so tidy about the house and yards for years. Don’t you think I know when I’ve got exactly what I want? By hiring a few days’ work now and then, I can get along with only you, and not work you too hard, either. And I’ve got attached to Dannie. He’s a dear little fellow. My! Do you think I’d let him go to the poorhouse? No!” And Miss Benson’s lips shut together in a determined line.
Robert arose from the hay and stood erect. he seemed to have gained in inches and in manliness. His eyes were shining. ‘If I don’t turn out to be the best hired man you ever had, Miss Benson,” he said, “then I hope – that somebody’ll take me out and shoot me,” he ended.
Then, somehow, she looked so kind and motherly and good – and she loved Dannie, which was best of all – Robert, big boy that he was, suddenly threw his arms about Miss Benson and kissed her. After which he gently took the lantern from her and, somewhat abashed by what he had done, led the way into the house.