CHAPTER I THE ESCAPE
"Now then, you, Bessie, quit your loafin' and get them dishes washed! An' then you can go out and chop me some wood for the kitchen fire!"
The voice was that of a slatternly woman of middle age, thin and complaining. She had come suddenly into the kitchen of the Hoover farmhouse and surprised Bessie King as the girl sat resting for a moment and reading.
Bessie jumped up alertly at the sound of the voice she knew so well, and started nervously toward the sink.
"Yes, ma'am," she said. "I was awful tired—an' I wanted to rest for a few minutes."
"Tired!" scolded the woman. "Land knows you ain't got nothin' to carry on so about! Ain't you got a good home? Don't we board you and give you a good bed to sleep in? Didn't Paw Hoover give you a nickel for yourself only last week?"
"Yes—an' you took it away from me soon's you found it out," Bessie flashed back. There were tears in her eyes, but she went at her dishes, and Mrs. Hoover, after a minute in which she glared at Bessie, turned and left the kitchen, muttering something about ingratitude as she went.
As she worked, Bessie wondered why it was that she must always do the work about the house when other girls were at school or free to play. But it had been that way for a long time, and she could think of no way of escaping to happier conditions. Mrs. Hoover was no relation to her at all. Bessie had a father and mother, but they had left her with Mrs. Hoover a long time before, and she could scarcely remember them, but she heard about them, her father especially, whenever she did something that Mrs. Hoover didn't like.
"Take after your paw—that's what you do, good-for-nothin' little hussy!" the farmer's wife would say. "Leavin' you here on our hands when he went away—an' promisin' to send board money for you. Did, too, for 'bout a year—an' since then never a cent! I've a mind to send you to the county farm, that I have!"
"Now, maw," Paw Hoover, a kindly, toil-hardened farmer, would say when he happened to overhear one of these outbursts, "Bessie's a good girl, an' I reckon she earns her keep, don't she, helpin' you like, round the place?"
"Earn her keep?" Mrs. Hoover would shrill. "She's so lazy she'd never do anythin' at all if I didn't stand over her. All she's good fer is to eat an' sleep—an' to hide off som'ere's so's she can read them trashy books when she ought to be reddin' up or doin' her chores!"
And Paw Hoover would sigh and retire, beaten in the argument. He knew his wife too well to argue with her. But he liked Bessie, and he did his best to comfort her when he had the chance, and thought there was no danger of starting a dispute with his wife.
Bessie finished her dishes, and then she went out obediently to the wood pile, and set to work to chop kindling. She had been up since daylight—and the sun rose early on those summer mornings. Every bone and muscle in her tired little body ached, but she knew well that Mrs. Hoover had been listening to the work of washing the dishes, and she dared not rest lest her taskmistress descend upon her again when the noise ceased....