THE SILVER TANKARD
DANIEL GORDON whistled as he backed Jerry into the buggy shafts and rapidly buckled the harness. It was Sunday morning and he and his wife would be late to meeting if they weren't off soon. The two boys had started on the ten-mile ride a half-hour ago but Jerry would soon overtake Dobbin, loaded as he was with the two of them on his back. Little Hetty would stay at home today. She did not mind being left alone and the long drive tired her. She was only nine too much must not be expected of the dear child.
Daniel's train of thought was broken by the sudden appearance of John Perkins around the corner of the barn. Daniel stared at Perkins in astonishment, for though he was his nearest neighbor, six miles of rough Maine wilderness lay between their fertile valley farms. Perkins should be on his way to meeting now, instead of calling on his friends. Daniel's cheery questions were interrupted by Perkins, who spoke quickly, with a solemn face. "I don't think it safe for you all to go to meeting today, Daniel."
"What's amiss, John? The boys are already off; wife and I are just leaving. Hetty will be here."
"Hetty mustn't be left alone. Listen, Daniel! Tom Smith and his two men have been seen in the wood by Crooked Fork. They know of your old silver tankard and plates, and Tom is reported to have sworn when drunk to get them from you before the summer passes. You know what that means."
Daniel knew only too well. Tom Smith and his gang were desperate men who lived by swooping down upon first one lonely farmhouse and then another, seizing by force whatever was valuable in the house, and then disappearing beyond the reach of the law. In this thinly settled country a hundred years ago a police force was unknown, and land pirates such as these had their own way. Everyone in this part of Maine knew of the Gordon tankard and plates, brought from England years before. Tom Smith had sworn to get them and he always kept his word in such matters.
Daniel stood in deep thought. His religious faith was very simple and profoundly deep. He believed with his whole soul that God would take care of those who did their duty and put their trust absolutely in Him. He had tried all his life to live in this faith. Here was indeed a severe test. The thieves might not come; neighbor Perkins might be mistaken; still the risk in leaving his little Hetty alone was great. Yet he would do it. His duty plainly was to go to meeting. To take her with him would be to teach her fear. He would place her in God's hands, and trust.
"Hetty," ' said Daniel as he kissed her rather more solemnly than usual, and climbed into the buggy beside his wife," if any strangers come while we are gone, treat them well. "We can spare of our abundance to feed the poor. What is gold and silver compared to God's words of love?" Hetty was puzzled to see her father's face so troubled.
After making the kitchen tidy, Hetty sat down by the window with a book. It was very quiet and she felt a little lonely. Only an hour had passed and the family would be away for a long time yet. She looked out of the window and was overjoyed to see three men walking rapidly up the road toward the house. Her father must have been expecting them, she thought. That was why he spoke about treating strangers well. She ran down the path to meet them, courtesied politely, and cried eagerly:
"Won't you please come in? Father will be so sorry not to see you, but he bade me serve you in any way I could."
"Are you alone here?" eagerly asked the youngest man, who was Tom Smith.
"Oh, yes, I am quite alone. If Mother were here she would do more for you, but I '11 do all I can."
The men stared at each other in silence, and entered the neat, comfortable kitchen. The silver tankard stood on the huge old sideboard, and behind it a row of silver plates. The men hesitated a moment then the oldest one stepped toward the sideboard.
"You're going to be seated and allow me to prepare a meal for you, are you not?" said Hetty, in a panic lest her guests would not feel at home and leave her alone again all too soon.
Smith dropped into a chair as though his knees had suddenly given way under him. "Yes, we will, thank you, my child, for we are all hungry," he replied in a voice that sounded to Hetty only rather husky, but made his companions turn and stare in astonishment.
For several minutes Hetty flitted in and out, while the men watched in silence. She dragged forward the table that stood against the wall, and Smith sprang forward to help her. While he was doing this she asked him to kindly lift down the tankard and three of the best silver plates. Cold cider she brought from the cellar and filled the tankard to the brim, butter from the springhouse, a huge loaf of bread. She paused a moment, her little forehead wrinkled in perplexity.
"Would you prefer to have some cold roast pork right away, or wait while I cook one of mother's chickens?" she asked.
"We can't wait. Give us what you have," muttered one of the older men, his eyes fixed on the food.
Soon all was ready, and with another gay little bow Hetty invited her guests to be seated. As she watched them eat she thought she had never in her life seen such strange manners. They seized the meat in their fingers and gulped it down ravenously as though they had not tasted food for days, which was indeed about the case. First one and then another took long drinks from the silver tankard until it was quite empty and Hetty hurried to fill it again. All the while no word was spoken and the men seemed to avoid looking in her direction.
Finally, when the table was almost bare and they had shaken their heads at all her offers of more bread or meat, Smith started from his chair with a sudden, "Come, let's go."
Hetty was surprised at his lack of politeness, and still more amazed when the older man replied, "What, go with empty hands with all this silver here?" and he seized the tankard.
For the first time Hetty felt a chill of fear. "Oh, please" she cried, "it is my father's."
Smith leaned across and clutched the man roughly by the arm. "Put that down" he shouted. "I'll shoot the man who takes a single thing from this house."
Hetty looked in terror from one to the other as they stood glaring across the table, then she ran to Smith's side and pressed close against his arm as the other men turned and walked sullenly out of the house, muttering to themselves. Smith looked down at Hetty's trusting little upturned face, and a strange softness came into his eyes. He turned abruptly after the others, and Hetty, very much puzzled, watched the three men stalk down the road and out of sight.
When Daniel and his wife drove in that afternoon an hour earlier than usual, the horse covered with lather, Hetty greeted them with:
"Your strangers came, Father, and I treated them well, but they forgot to thank me."