The Little Colonel's House Party, Chapter 11: Some Stories And A Poem

 

THE LITTLE COLONEL'S HOUSE PARTY
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Illustrated by Louis Meynell
Published 1900

 

CHAPTER XI.

SOME STORIES AND A POEM.

"WHAT is the worst thing you evah did in yo' life, Joyce?" asked the Little Colonel. It was the first day after their recovery from the measles that the girls had been allowed to go down-stairs, and they were trying to amuse themselves in the library. Time had dragged for the last half-hour, and Lloyd's question was welcomed with interest.

"Um, I don't know," answered Joyce, half closing her eyes as she tried to remember. "I've done so many bad things that I have been ashamed of afterward, that I can hardly tell which is the worst. One of the meanest things I ever did was when I was too small to know how cruel it was. It was so long ago that I could not talk plainly, but I remember distinctly what a stifling hot day it was. Mamma had been packing her furs away for the summer in mothballs. You know how horridly those camphor things smell. I hung over her and asked questions every time she moved. She told me how the moth-millers lay eggs in the furs if they are not protected, and showed me an old muff that she had found in the attic, which was so badly moth-eaten that it had to be thrown away. I watched her lay the little balls all among the furs, and then tie them up in linen bags, and pack them away in a chest.

"It happened that I had an old cat named Muff, and as soon as mamma had gone down-stairs, I took it into my head to pack her away in camphor balls. So I put her into an old pillowcase with a handful of suffocating moth-balls, and tied her up tight. She mewed and scratched at a terrible rate, but I tugged away at the heavy lid of the chest until I got it open, and then pop went poor old Muff in with the other furs.

"Luckily, mamma found an astrakhan cape, several hours later, that she had overlooked, and went back to the attic to put it into the chest, or the poor cat would have smothered. When she raised the lid there was that pillow-case squirming around as if it were alive. It frightened her so that she jumped back and dropped the lid, and then stood screaming for Bridget. I didn't know what had startled her, and she did not know that I had any connection with it, for I stood looking on as innocent as a lamb, with my thumb in my mouth.

"When Bridget came and saw the pillow-case squirming and bumping around, she said, 'Shure' ma'am, an' it's bewitched them furs is, and I'd not be afther touching 'em wid a tin-fut pole. I'll run call the gard'ner next dure.' So she put her head out at the attic window and screamed for Dennis, and Dennis thought the house was on fire, and came running up the stairs two steps at a time. He untied the pillow-case and turned it upside down with a hard shake, and, of course, out bounced poor old Muff in a shower of moth-balls, nearly smothered from being shut up so long with that stifling odour. She was sick all day, and Bridget said that it was a lucky thing that cats have nine lives, or she couldn't have gotten over it.

"I cried because they had let her out, and said I didn't want the nasty moths to spoil my kitty's fur,-and mamma laughed so hard that she sat right down on the attic floor. Then she took me in her and explained how Muff took care of her own fur, and did not need to be packed away in the summer-time."

"That makes me think of a scrape that Lloyd and I got into," said Eugenia," when she lived in New York. We had seen a mattress sent away from the house to be renovated, and had asked the nurse all sorts of questions about it. We concluded it would be a fine thing to renovate the mattress of one of our doll-beds. So we ripped one end open and pulled out all the cotton and excelsior it was stuffed with, and burned it in the nursery grate. Then we began to look around the house for something to refill it with.

Down in the library was a beautiful fur rug. I don't remember what kind of a wild beast it was made from; I was so little, then, you know. But papa was very proud of it, for he had killed the animal himself out in the Rocky Mountains, and had had the skin made into a rug as a souvenir of that hunting trip. It had the head left on it, and we were a little afraid of that head. The glass eyes glared so savagely, and the teeth were so sharp in its open jaws! But the fur was long and soft and thick, and we decided to shear off a little to stuff our mattress with. We thought it wouldn't take much. So I took the nurse's scissors, and we slipped down into the library with the empty mattress-tick.

"The beast's eyes seemed to look at me in such a life-like way that I was afraid to touch it until Lloyd put a sofa pillow over its head and sat down on it. Then I began to shear off a little near the tail, where I thought it wouldn't show much; but the mattress didn't fill up very fast. So I kept on shearing, a little farther and a little farther, here a patch and there a patch, until I had taken a great streak out of the middle of the back, and the rug was ruined."

"What did your father say?" asked Joyce.

"Oh, he was furious! He said a seven-year-old child ought to know better than to do a thing like that, and if she didn't she should be taught. But mamma wouldn't let him touch me, and only scolded the nurse for not watching me more closely."

"Now it is Betty's turn," said Joyce, when the giggling that followed Eugenia's tale had subsided. "What mischief did you get into, Betty?"

Before she could reply there was a step in the hall, a tap at the open door, and a pleasant voice said "Good morning, young ladies."

"Oh, it is the minister's wife, Mrs. Brewster," whispered Lloyd, jumping up from the sofa and going forward to greet her.

There was no need of introductions, for the girls had met the sweet-faced old lady several times.

"Mothah isn't heah, Mrs. Brewster," said Lloyd. "She went to town this mawnin' on the early train, but we are lookin' fo' her to come on this next train. And we are just dyin' fo' company, ou'selves. Won't you come in an' wait, please?"

Involuntarily on her arrival the girls stopped lolling in their chairs, and sat up straight, with their hands folded primly in their laps. Mrs. Brewster had an air of quiet dignity that always made people want to be on their best behaviour before her. Every one in the Valley was fond of the minister's wife, but most people stood in awe of her, and considered the turn of their sentences and the pitch of their voices when talking to her. She never had a pin awry. Her gray hair was always as smooth as a brush could make it, and every breadth of her skirts always fell in straight, precise folds. From bonnet-strings to shoe-laces there was never a wrinkle or a spot. But the Little Colonel felt no awe. She had discovered that under that prim exterior was a heart thoroughly in sympathy with all her childish joys and griefs, and in consequence the two had become warm friends. Lloyd stood beside the rocking-chair, where she had seated Mrs. Brewster, and waved a big fan so vigorously that the bonnet-strings fluttered, and a lock of gray hair was blown out of place and straggled across the placid brow.

"We were tellin' each othah about some of the worst things we evah did in ou' lives, Mrs. Brewster," said Lloyd. "Won't you tell us about some of the things you did when you were a naughty little girl?"

Mrs. Brewster laughed. Few people would have remembered that she had ever been a little girl, and only the Little Colonel would have dared to intimate that she had been a naughty one, for she was one of those dignified persons who look as if they had always been proper and grown up.

"'That is a long time ago to look back to, dear," she began. "I was very strictly brought up, and the training of my conscience began so early that I was always a good child in the main, I think. I was more timid than my brothers and sisters, which may account for some of my goodness, and for the most daring deed I ever did, I was punished so severely that it bad a restraining effect on me ever after."

"What was that?" asked Lloyd, with such an air of interest, that Mrs. Brewster, looking around on the listening faces, was beguiled into telling it.

"It was when we lived in a little New England village and I was about eight years old. Although I was a very quiet child, I dearly loved company, and always felt a delicious thrill of excitement when I heard that the Dorcas Sewing Society was to be entertained at our house, or that some one was coming to tea. Mother thought that growing children should eat only the simplest, most wholesome dishes, so usually we had very frugal fare. But on state occasions a great many tempting goodies were set out. I remember that we always had spiced buns and tarts and a certain kind of plum marmalade that mother had great skill in making. It was highly praised by every one. But it was not alone for these things that I was in a state of complete happiness from the time the company arrived until they departed. I enjoyed listening to every word that was said. An hour before the guests began to arrive I would station myself at the window to watch for them. I loved to see the ladies stepping primly down the garden path in their best gowns, between the stiff borders of box and privet, stopping to admire mother's hollyhocks or laburnum bushes.

"Children were seen and not heard in those days, and as soon as they had been ushered into the guest-chamber, where they laid aside their wraps, and had seated themselves in the parlour, I used to carry my little stool in and sit down in one corner to listen.

"One autumn it happened that for several reasons mother had had no invited company for weeks. I was hungry for some of the tarts and marmalade that I knew would appear if the guests would only arrive, and one night a plan came into my head that seemed to me so clever that I could hardly wait for morning to come, in order that I might carry it out.

"Mother sent me on an errand to the village store next day, and on the way I stopped at the doctor's house I could scarcely reach the great brass knocker on the front door, but when I did, standing on tiptoe, it sent such a loud clamour through the house that my heart jumped up in my throat, and I was minded to run away. But before I could do that the doctor's wife opened the door. I made my best courtesy that mother had carefully taught me, and then was so embarrassed I could not lift my eyes from the ground. When I spoke, my voice sounded so meek and shy and high up in the air that I scarcely recognised it as mine.

"'Mrs. Mayfair, please come to tea to-morrow" I said. Then I courtesied again, and hurried off, while Mrs. Mayfair was calling after me to tell my mother that it gave her great pleasure to accept her invitation. But you see it wasn't mother's invitation. I didn't say 'mother says please come to tea.' I just I asked them to come of my own accord, in a fit of reckless daring, and then waited to see what would happen. I invited nearly all the Dorcas Society."

"And what happened? " asked the Little Colonel, eagerly.

Mrs. Brewster laughed at the remembrance, such a contagious, hearty laugh, that her bonnet-ribbons shook.

"I never said a word about it at home, but next day, a little while before sundown, I went to the window to watch for them. Mother, who had been busy all day, boiling cider and making apple-butter, sat down with her knitting to rest a few minutes before supper. She said she was tired, and that she would not cook much; that mush and milk would be enough.

"She couldn't imagine what had happened when all the ladies appeared, and she sent me to open the door while she hurried to change her dress. I followed the usual programme; invited them into the guest-chamber to lay aside their wraps and mantles, and then gave them seats in the parlour. Mother was puzzled when she came in and saw them with their bonnets off, for she supposed, when she saw them coming down the path, that they were a committee from the Dorcas Society, on some business. But presently one of the ladies patted me on the head, and complimented my pretty manners in delivering the invitation to tea.

"If a piece of the sky had fallen, mother could not have been more surprised, but she gave no sign of it then. She only smiled and made a pleasant answer.

"I began to feel very comfortable, and to congratulate myself on the success of my little plan. Presently she excused herself, and beckoned me to follow her out of the room. Without a word, or even a glance of reproach, she bade me run across the street and ask my Aunt Rachel and her daughter Milly to come over at once and help her prepare for the unexpected guests. They were both of them quick, capable women and fine housekeepers, and I flew around, as they expressed it, in such a marvellous way that at the proper time the customary feast was spread.

"It did look so good! I walked around the table, my mouth watering as I looked at the tarts and marmalade and spiced buns, and all the other tempting dishes. Mother watched me do it, and then, just before she invited the ladies out to the table, she sent me off to bed without a morsel to eat, --- not even a spoonful of mush and milk.

"I lay in an adjoining room, listening to the clatter of knives and forks, and the ladylike hum of conversation, and knew that the good things were slowly but surely disappearing, and that I could not have a taste. I was so hungry and disappointed that I cried myself to sleep. That disappointment and the lecture which followed next morning was punishment enough, and you may be sure that that was the last time I ever invited my mother's friends on my own responsibility."

Mrs. Brewster paused amid the girls' laughing exclamations, and just then Mrs. Sherman came in from the train, hot and dusty, and her arms full of little packages. "Come on up to my room with me" she said to Mrs. Brewster, who was a frequent and familiar visitor at Locust.

"Don't take her away," begged the Little Colonel, "she is entertaining us."

"My turn now," laughed Mrs. Sherman. And the two ladies went up-stairs, once more leaving the girls to the task of providing their own amusement.

"Wasn't that a picture?" said Joyce, when Mrs. Brewster had left the room. "Can't you just see it? that quaint little girl in her old-fashioned dress, going from door to door with her courtesies and her invitations, and, afterward, all the ladies coming down the stiff-bordered path between the rows of hollyhocks. I'd love to draw that picture if I could."

"Try it," urged the girls, so warmly that Joyce went up-stairs for her drawing material. Betty watched her spread her paper on the library table."I believe that I could put that story into rhyme," she said, after a few minutes of silent thought. "I can feel it humming in my head."

"Oh, I didn't know that you could write poetry," exclaimed Lloyd. "Try it now, and see what you can do. You write the poem, and Joyce will illustrate it."

"I have to be by myself when I write, and I never know how long it will take. It is like making butter. Sometimes it will come in a few minutes, and sometimes I have to churn away for hours."

" Begin, anyhow!" insisted the girls, and in a few minutes Betty slipped away to her room. At lunchtime they teased her to show them what she had written, but she had only a few lines completed, and would not let them see even the paper on which she had been scribbling. After lunch the others went to their rooms to write letters and sleep awhile, but she went back to her task. Joyce's picture did not turn out to her satisfaction, and she tore it up, but Betty did her work over and over, rewriting each line many times. When they were all dressed for dinner, she did not appear. Finally Joyce went to see what kept her so long. She found her bending over the paper, her cheeks flushed and her eyes shining.

"It is done," she cried, writing the last word with a flourish, " but I hadn't any idea it was so late. I thought I had been up here only a few minutes. Some of the rhymes just wouldn't twist into shape, but I think they fit now."

"I'm going to take it down and show it to the girls, while you dress," cried Joyce, catching up the paper and running off with it. Although Betty knew the time was short and she ought to hurry, she could not resist stealing to the banister and leaning over to hear how it sounded when her godmother, who was sitting in the lower hall with Lloyd and Eugenia, read it aloud.

Jemima Araminta knew
Whenever company
Sat round the frugal board, they had
Plum marmalade for tea.

And spiced buns and toothsome tarts,
And divers sweets beside,
Were set to tempt the appetite
With good housewifely pride.

While walking out one day, it chanced
She fell a-pondering sore.
A wicked thought in her small mind
Did tempt her more and more.

At all the neighbours' doors she paused,
Demure and shy was she.
With downcast eyes, she courtesied,
And said, "Please come to tea."

Next day along the garden path,
just as the sun went down,
A score of ladies primly walked
Each in her Sabbath gown.

Surprised, her mother heard them say,
"Dear child! So shy is she!
What pretty manners she did have
When asking us to tea."

Jemima now remembers well
They once had company,
Preserves and buns and toothsome tarts
When ne'er a taste had she.

For, supperless, to bed that night,
She went, severely chid;
No more the neighbours to invite,
Save at her mother's bid.

"Bravo! little girl," cried Mrs. Sherman, while the girls clapped loudly. "Have you anything else with you that you have written? If you have, bring it down with you when you come."

"Yes, godmother," answered Betty, over the banister, blushing until she could feel her cheeks burn. She was all atingle at the thought of her godmother seeing her verses. She wanted her to see them, and yet, --- she couldn't take down her old ledger for them all to read and criticise. Not for worlds would she have Eugenia read her verses on "Friendship," and there was one about "Dead Hopes" that she felt none of them would understand. They might even laugh at it.

Several minutes went by before she could make up her mind. When she went down-stairs she had put the old ledger back into her trunk and carried only one of the loose leaves in her hands.

"I'll show the others to godmother sometime when we are alone," she said to herself, as she went shyly up to the group waiting for her. "Here is one I called 'Night, '" she said, her cheeks flaming with embarrassment. "There are four verses."

Mrs. Sherman took it, and, glancing down the lines, read aloud the little poem, commencing:

"Oh, peaceful Night' thou shadowy Queen
Who rules the realms of shade'
Thy throne is. on the heaven's arch,
Thy crown of stars is made."

Oh, Betty, that's splendid! " cried the girls, in chorus. "How could you think of it?"

"It is remarkably good for a little girl of twelve," said Mrs. Sherman, glancing over the last verses again. "But I am not surprised. Your mother wrote some beautiful things. She scribbled verses all the time."

"Oh, I didn't know that!" cried Betty. "How I wish I could see some of them!"

"You shall, my dear! I have an old portfolio in the library, full of such things. Poems that she wrote and pictures that Joyce's mother drew; caricatures of the professors, the little pen and ink sketches of the places in the Valley we loved the best. I'll get them out for you, after dinner. You will all be interested in them, especially in a journal they kept for me one summer when I was at the seashore. One kept a record of all that happened in the Valley during my absence, and the other illustrated it."

"Dinner is ready now," said Lloyd, jumping up as the maid opened the dining-room door. As they all rose to go in, Mrs. Sherman lingered a moment in the hall, to take the paper from Betty's hand.

"Will you give me this little poem, dear?" she asked, slipping an arm around the child's waist. "I am very proud of my little god-daughter. The world will hear from you some day, if you keep on singing. Just do your bravest and best, and it will be glad to listen to your music."

She stooped and kissed Betty lightly on the forehead. It was as if she had set the seal of her approval upon her, and to be approved by her beautiful godmother, --- ah, that meant more to the devoted little heart than any one could dream; far more, even, than if she had been made the proud laureate of a queen.

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