The Little Colonel's House Party, Chapter 12: A Pillow Case Party

 

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

Illustrated by Louis Meynell
Published 1900

 

CHAPTER XII
A PILLOW-CASE PARTY

THEY were all sitting on the vine-covered porch, looking out between the tall white pillars into the sultry June darkness. The light from the hall lamp streamed across the steps where the four Bobs rolled and tumbled around over each other, but except for that one broad path of light they could see nothing. There was not even starlight.

"How hot and still it is," said Mrs. Sherman.  "There doesn't seem to be a leaf stirring, and there's not a star in sight. I think it will surely storm before morning."

"Betty," said Joyce, "your 'shadowy queen who rules the realms of shade' has forgotten to put on her crown. Now if I could write poetry like some people I know, I would write an ode to Night and compare it to a stack of black cats. It wouldn't sound so pretty as your description, but it would be nearer the truth."

"Well, cats or queens, it doesn't make any difference what you call it," said the Little Colonel, "it's the stupidest night I evah saw. I wish something would happen. It seems ages since we have done anything lively. Now that we are ovah the measles it's wastin' time to be sittin' heah so poky and stupid. What can we do, mothah?"

"Let's tell ghost stories," said Mrs. Sherman, who knew what was going to happen in a short time, and wanted to keep the girls occupied until then. "I know a fine one," she began, sinking her voice to a creepy undertone that made the girls cast uneasy glances behind them. "It's all about a haunted house that has clanking chains in the cellar, and muffled footsteps, and icy fingers that c-lutch you by the throat on the stairs as the clock tolls the midnight hour."

" Ugh! How good and spooky!" said Joyce, with a little shiver. "I love that kind."

They drew their chairs around Mrs. Sherman to listen, so interested in the story that two of the Bobs rolled over each other and off the high porch, and nobody noticed their whining. Presently, in the most thrilling part of her story, Mrs. Sherman paused and pointed impressively down the avenue.

"Oo-oo-oo! what is it? Ghosts?" shrieked the Little Colonel, her teeth chattering, and in such haste to throw herself into her mother's arms that her chair turned over with a bang.

"It is a pillow-case party," answered Mrs. Sherman laughing, "but it is certainly the most ghostly-looking affair that I ever saw."

Down the long avenue toward them came a wavering line of white-sheeted, masked figures. They had square heads, and great round holes for eyes, and the candle that each one carried flashed across a hideous grinning face, whose mouth and nose had been drawn with burnt cork. The leader of this strange procession was a veritable giant, --- the Goliath of all the ghosts, --- for he loomed up above them to nearly twice the height of the tallest one in the line. It took two sheets to cover him; one flapped about his long thin legs, and one swung from his shoulders, swaying from side to side as he moved noiselessly along with gigantic strides.

"Oh, mothah, it's awful!" whispered the Little Colonel, clinging around Mrs. Sherman's neck.

"It is almost enough to frighten one," she replied. "But they are all friends of yours, Lloyd. For instance, the giant is nobody but your good friend and playfellow, Robby Moore, on stilts; and somewhere in that bunch of little tots at the tail end of the procession are those funny little Cassidy twins, Bethel and Ethel. They begged so hard to be allowed to come that their mother at last consented, although they are only six years old. She said she would dress up in a sheet and pillow-case herself, and come with them, to see that nothing happened to them, so I suppose she is somewhere in the line. I was told that everybody in the neighbourhood was coming; old people as well as children, but I'll leave you to find out for yourself, as the fun of a party like this is in the guessing. They will unmask before they go home."

The procession glided on in silence until it reached the house, and then ranged itself in a long line in front of the group on the porch.

"There are thirty-eight," whispered Joyce. "I counted them. Isn't that one at the end funny?  That one in a bolster-case tied at the top, and his hands sticking out of the slits at the sides, like fishes' fins I'm almost sure that it is Keith. I could tell if I could only see his hands, but he has white stockings drawn over them."

The figures began waving to and fro, faster and faster, until they were all drawn into a weird, uncanny dance, in which each one flapped or writhed or swayed back and forth as he pleased, in ghostly silence The movements of the ones in the bolster cases were the most comical, and the little audience on the porch laughed until they could only gasp and hold their sides.

At a signal from the tall leader, the sheeted party suddenly divided, half of the masked faces grinning on one side of the steps, and half going to the other. Then an auction began, one side being sold to the other. The bidding was all in pantomime, and they all looked so much alike that nobody knew whom he was bidding for, or to whom he was knocked down. The giant was the auctioneer.

At last each bidder was provided with a partner, and two by two they all went gravely up the steps to shake hands with Mrs. Sherman and the girls. Every one spoke in an assumed voice, and recognition was almost impossible. The girls talked with every one in turn, but Rob and Keith were the only boys they had recognised when the signal for unmasking was given, and little Bethel Cassidy was the only girl. They knew her queer little lisp.

Cake and sherbet were brought out, and great was everybody's astonishment when masks were slipped off, and the pillow-cases jerked away from the wearers' rumpled hair. To Keith's disgust, he found that the partner whom he had bid for energetically, thinking it was Sally Fairfax, was only his brother Malcolm, and Malcolm teased him all evening by quoting aloud some of the complimentary speeches Keith had whispered to him under cover of their disguises.

"Oh, gracious!" roared Malcolm. "It was too funny; Keith, fanning me with one of those stubby little stocking-covered fins of his, and making complimentary speeches about my eyes. Told me he would know them anywhere. And he spouted poetry, he did," added Malcolm, doubling up with another laugh. "Oh, it was too good! Hi, Buddy," chucking Keith under the chin, "are you of the same opinion still? Ain't they pretty, 'mine eyes so blue and tender?"'

"Aw, hush!" growled Keith, in a shamefaced sort of way, adding, in a savage undertone, "I'll make black eyes of 'em if you don't stop."

That was not the only odd assortment of partners, for Miss Allison had bid for plump little Mrs. Cassidy, thinking it was one of the boys in her Sunday school class; and one little maid of seven found that an old bachelor uncle had fallen to her lot.

"You see we made a wholesale affair of it," said Miss Allison to Eugenia. "We drove around the neighbourhood in two big wagonettes, and picked up whole families at a time."

"It is the jolliest surprise I ever saw," answered Eugenia looking all around at the little groups laughing and talking over their refreshments. "It is hard to tell which are having the best time, the children or the grown people; they are all mixed tip together."

As she spoke the buzz of voices ceased, for there was a sudden blinding flash of lightning and a loud peal of thunder that made the windows rattle. The storm which Mrs. Sherman had predicted would come before morning, had crept up unnoticed, and caught them unawares.

"Come inside!" cried Mrs. Sherman, as, with a furious rush and roar the wind swept across them, banging window shutters, whirling leaves and gravel in their faces, and lashing the trees until they were bent almost double. Another blinding glare of lightning followed, with such a crash of thunder that Eugenia put her fingers in her ears and screamed, and Betty hid her face in her hands.

Hurry!" cried Mrs. Sherman. "I am afraid that some of these flying shingles, or whatever they are, will hurt some one. It is almost a cyclone."

Breathless and excited, they all hurried into the house, and banged the great front door in the face of the storm. The children tumbled into the drawing-room, the smaller ones huddling in a frightened heap in the middle of the floor, until the fury of the storm was over. There was nothing to do but wait with bated breath after each vivid flash of lightning for the terrific crash that always followed, and listen to the wind outside as it fought with the sturdy tree-tops. Now and then a limb snapped in the fierce struggle, and fell to the ground with a loud crackling noise.

"I hope there will be enough of a roof left over our heads to shelter us," said Mrs. Sherman, as bricks from the chimney tops began rolling down the roof and falling to the ground below with heavy thuds

"We expected to start home about this time,"Miss Allison was saying. "We ordered the wagonettes to come back for us at ten o'clock, but it looks now as if we are storm-bound for the night. Did you ever hear such a downpour?"

"It's the clatter of the rain on the tin roof of the porch," answered Mrs. Sherman, speaking at the top of her voice in order to be heard above the deafening din of the rain and wind.

For nearly half an hour they sat waiting for the storm to pass. Several games were proposed, but none of the children wanted to play. They seemed to feel more comfortable when they were snuggled tip close against some grown person, or holding some elderly protecting hand. But gradually the lightning grew fainter and fainter, and the thunder went growling away in the distance, although the rain kept steadily on. Mrs. Sherman called for some music in the drawing-room, and while Miss Allison and Mrs. Cassidy played the liveliest duets they knew, the children drifted out into the hall and over the house as they pleased.

Most of the older boys and girls sat on the stairs in groups of twos and threes, while from the upper hall the scurry of feet, and the singsong cry that London Bridge was falling down, showed what the little ones were playing. It was after eleven o'clock when the wagonettes came rumbling up to the door.  The rain had stopped, and a few stars were beginning to struggle through the clouds.

" How cold and damp it is! " exclaimed Mrs. Sherman as she stepped out on the front porch. " The thermometer must have fallen twenty degrees since you came. You will all need wraps of some kind.  Wait till I can get you some shawls and things."

"No, indeed!" every one protested. "We will wrap up in our sheets again. We do not need anything else."

There was a laughing scrimmage over the pile of sheets that had been thrown hastily into one corner of the hall, when the party ran in out of the storm. Nearly all the masks and pillowcases were put on again, too, so that the party broke up in laughing confusion. Nobody recognised his neighbour or knew who he was bumping against as he hurried up to bid his perplexed hostess good night.

With a great cracking of whips and creaking of wheels the spectral party drove off, to the tune of "Good-night, ladies, we're going to leave you now." Far down the road the chorus came floating back to the listeners on the porch, "Merrily we roll along, roll along, roll along."

"Wasn't it funny?" yawned Lloyd, as she went sleepily up the stairs. "But oh, I'm so tiahed. I believe if they had stayed much longah, I'd have fallen ovah in a heap on the flo'."

All the lights were out down-stairs, and the girls were nearly undressed, when they were surprised to hear one of the wagonettes coming back. A frantic clang of the knocker on the front door brought them all to the windows.

"Oh, Mrs. Sherman!" cried an agonised voice out of the darkness, that they recognised as Mrs. Cassidy's, "are the twins here? Bethel and Ethel? We can't find them anywhere. I was sure that I lifted them into the wagonette myself, but every one was so disguised that I must have mistaken somebody else's children for mine."

"They are not in either wagonette," added Rob Moore's voice. "We never thought to count noses until we reached the Cassidy place, and then we found they were missing."

Hastily slipping into a wrapper, Mrs. Sherman ran downstairs with a candle in her hand, and opened the front door. Plump little Mrs. Cassidy was standing there, wringing her hands.

"Oh, don't tell me that they are not here!" she cried. "Didn't you see them when you were locking up the house after we left? Then I know they're lost. They must have slipped away from the porch before the storm came up, and were playing outside somewhere when we all ran inside and shut the door. Oh, my babies! " she wailed. "If they were out in all that awful storm it has killed them, I know. Oh, why did I do such a foolish thing as to bring them? They were too little to come, I knew that. But they begged so hard, and they looked so cute in those little ruffled pillow-cases, that I hadn't the heart to refuse. Oh, what shall I do?"

"They must be somewhere about the house," said Mrs. Sherman, with such decision that Mrs. Cassidy was comforted, and began wiping her eyes.

"Come in, and help me search. Maybe they slipped up-stairs when the other children were playing, and went to sleep in some dark comer. Come on, boys. Light up the house from attic to cellar, and see who will be first to find them. It will be a game of hunt the twins, instead of hunt the slipper."

Then up-stairs, and down-stairs, and in my lady's chamber, went a strange procession, for nearly every one was still draped in sheet and pillow-case. Into closets, behind screens, in all the corners, and under all the beds they looked. Keith, remembering the sad story of Ginevra, even lifted the lid of every chest and trunk in the linen room. Poor little Mrs. Cassidy followed, wringing her hands, and sobbing that she knew that they had been shut outside in the storm and the night. Suddenly, when they had been all over the house for the third time, she caught up a lamp, and ran out in the dark, like some poor mad creature, calling, "Oh, Bethel! Oh, my little Ethel! Don't you hear your mother?"

By this time, the servants' quarters were aroused, and Mrs. Sherman, now really alarmed, called for Walker and Alec to bring lanterns. The lawn was a wreck, strewn with leaves and fallen limbs and pieces of broken flower urns that had been overturned by the wind. The searchers stumbled over them as they waded through the wet grass, looking in every nook and corner where it was possible for a child to have strayed, but their search was in vain. Never a trace did they find of the lost twins.

"Stay in the house, girls," said Mrs. Sherman, as she caught up the trail of her wrapper, and ran out to follow the flickering lanterns and Mrs. Cassidy's frantic cries. "It might give you your death of cold to expose yourselves so soon after the measles."
As they stood in the door watching the wavering lights, Lloyd exclaimed, "The puppies are gone, too. I wonder where they can be. Maybe they were left outside in the storm when we all ran indoors in such a hurry. Maybe the twins were playing with them."

She leaned out of the door, peering into the night. "Heah, Bob!" she called, snapping her fingers, and whistling the shrill signal she always gave when she fed them. There was no response from the darkness outside, and she turned indoors repeating the whistle, and calling, "Heah, Bob! Heah, puppy! Come to yo' miss!"

In answer there was a stir under the low Persian couch in the library, then a whine, and an inquiring little nose was thrust through the heavy knotted fringe that draped the lower part of the couch. The next instant Lloyd's Bob came sprawling joyously toward her, his pink bow cocked rakishly over one ear. Lloyd dropped on her knees, and, lifting the fringe, looked under. Then she gave an excited scream.

"Heah they are!" she called. "I've found them! Heah's the twins, and all the Bobs!"

"They're found!" called Joyce, running out on the porch and shouting the news until the searchers farthest from the house heard, and ran joyfully back. " They're found! Lloyd's found them!"

"Whoever would have thought of squeezing into such a place as that?" said Miss Allison, as she came running in, out of breath. "I started to look under that couch twice, but it was so low I thought they couldn't possibly have crawled under. Besides, some one was sitting on it all evening, and they surely would have been seen if they had attempted it."

Rob and Malcolm lifted the couch and set it aside, and there, curled up on two fat sofa cushions, with the puppies beside them, lay the twins fast asleep. Great beads of perspiration stood on their foreheads and trickled down their dimpled faces. Their hair curled in little wet rings all over their heads, and their chubby arms and necks were red with prickly heat.

"It is a wonder that they weren't smothered," cried Mrs. Cassidy, taking them up in her arms and waking them with her tearful kisses." Oh, why did you hide away from mother, precious?" she asked, reproachfully, as Bethel's eyes opened with a dazed stare at the crowd of faces around her. She leaned her head heavily on her mother's shoulder, for she was not fully awake, and clung around her neck with both arms. Finally, in answer to the chorus of questions that came from all sides, she roused enough to answer.

"It lightened, that's why we hid. Mammy Chloe thed if you go get in a dark plathe on a pile of featheths, no lightnin' can hurt you. Mammy Chloe always puth uth in the middle of her feather-bed. Tho me and thithter took a thofa pillow and got under the thofa and shut our eyeth tight. We wath hot"' she added, gravely, "and tho wath the puppieth, but the lightnin' couldn't get uth."

The laugh that went up from the amused listeners aroused both the twins so thoroughly that they joined in without knowing what they were laughing about. Then Alec and Walker carried them triumphantly on their shoulders to the wagonette, and once more the party started homeward. This time they moved off without singing, but from the gate came back three cheers for the twins, then three cheers for the Little Colonel, who had found them. Once started to cheering, somebody proposed three for the pillowcase party, and so lustily did they give them, that an old rooster, awakening from sleep as the wheels creaked by, thought it the call of some giant chanticleer, and promptly crowed an answering challenge, that was echoed by every cock in the Valley.

 
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