The Little Colonel's Holidays, Chapter 11: The Hallowe'en Party

THE LITTLE COLONEL'S HOLIDAYS
By Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1901
Illustrated by L.J. Bridgman

 

CHAPTER XI.
A HALLOWE'EN PARTY.

NOTHING worse than rats and spiders haunted the old house of Hartwell Hollow, but set far back from the road in a tangle of vines and cedars, it looked lonely and neglected enough to give rise to almost any report. The long unused road, winding among the rockeries from gate to house, was hidden by a rank growth of grass and mullein. From one of the trees beside it an aged grape-vine swung down its long snaky limbs, as if a bunch of giant serpents had been caught up in a writhing mass and left to dangle from tree-top to earth. Cobwebs veiled the windows, and dead leaves had drifted across the porches until they lay knee-keep in some of the corners.

As Miss Allison paused in front of the doorstep with the keys, a snake glided across her path and disappeared in one of the tangled rockeries. Both the coloured women who were with her jumped back, and one screamed.

"It won't hurt you, Sylvia," said Miss Allison, laughingly.  "An old poet who owned this place when I was a child made pets of all the snakes, and even brought some up from the woods as he did the wild flowers. That is a perfectly harmless kind."

"Maybe so, honey," said old Sylvia, with a wag of her turbaned head, "but I 'spise 'em all, I sho'ly do. It's a bad sign to meet up wid one right on de do'step. If it wasn't fo' you, Miss Allison, I wouldn't put foot in such a house. An' I tell you p'intedly, what I says is gospel truth, if I ketch sound of a han't, so much as even a rustlin' on de flo', ole Sylvia gwine out'n a windah fo' you kin say scat! Don't ketch dis ole niggah foolin' roun' long whar ghos'es is. Pete's got to go in first an' open de house."

But not even the rats interrupted Sylvia in her sweeping and garnishing, and by four o'clock all the rooms which were to be used were as clean as three of Mrs. MacIntyre's best trained servants could make them.

"Even ole Miss would call that clean," said Sylvia, looking around on the white floors and shining windowpanes with a satisfied air.

Mrs. Sherman had driven down some time before, with a carriage-load of jack-o'-lanterns, and was now arranging them in rows on all the old-fashioned black mantels. She looked around as Sylvia spoke.

"It would have been spookier to have left the dust and cobwebs," she said, "but this is certainly nicer and more cheerful."

Fires were blazing on every hearth, in parlour, (lining-room, and hall, to dissipate the dampness of the long unused rooms. A kettle was singing on the kitchen stove, and tables and chairs had been brought over and arranged in the empty rooms. All that the woods could contribute in the way of crimson berries, trailing vines, and late autumn leaves, had been brought in to brighten the bare walls and festoon the uncurtained windows. The chestnuts, the apples, the tubs of water, the lead, and everything else necessary for the working of the charms was in readiness; the refreshments were in the pantry, and on the kitchen table Lloyd was arranging the ingredients for the fate cake.

"There couldn't be a bettah place for a Hallowe'en pahty," she said, looking around the rooms when all was done. "No mattah how much we romp and play, there's nothing that can be hurt. Won't it look shivery "when all the jack-o'-lanterns are lighted? Just as if some old ogah of a Bluebeard lived heah, who kept the heads of all his wives and neighbours sittin' around on all the mantels an' shelves."

It was in the ruddy glow of the last bright October sunset that they drove away from the house to go home to dinner. Even then the grounds looked desolate and forlorn; but it was doubly gruesome when they came back at night. The Little Colonel and her mother were first to arrive. They had offered to come early and light the lanterns, as Miss Allison was expecting all her nieces and nephews on the seven o'clock train, and wanted to go down to meet them.

The wind was blowing in fitful gusts, rustling the dead leaves and swaying the snaky branches of the grape-vine until they seemed startlingly alive. Now and then the moon looked out like a pale bleared eye.

"It is a real Tam O'Shanter night," said Miss Allison, as she led the way up the winding walk to the front door. "I can easily imagine witches flying over my head. Can't you?" she asked, turning to the little group surrounding her. There were eight children. For not only Ranald and his sisters had come with Malcolm and Keith, but Rob Moore and his cousin Anna had been invited to come out from town to try their fortunes at Hartwell Hollow, and spend the night in the Valley where they always passed their happy summers.

"Oh, auntie! What's that?" cried little Elise, holding tightly to Miss Allison's hand, as she caught sight of Lloyd's old Popocatepetl, grinning a welcome by the front door. He looked' like a mammoth dragon, spouting fire from nose, eyes and mouth.

Elise clung a little closer to Miss Allison's side as they drew nearer. "What awful teeth it's got, hasn't it ? "

"Nothing but grains of corn, dear. Lloyd stuck them in. You haven't forgotten the Little Colonel, have you? She is inside the house now, waiting to see you." Then Miss Allison turned to the others. "Step high, children, every one of you, when you come to this broomstick lying across the door-sill. Be sure to step over it, or some witch might slip in with you. It is the only way to keep them out on Hallowe'en. Step high, Elise! Here we go!"

"That's one of the nice things about auntie,"  Kitty confided to Anna Moore as they followed." She acts as if she really believes those old charms, and that makes them seem so real that we enjoy them so much more."

The Little Colonel, waiting in the hall for the guests to arrive, had been feeling a little shy about renewing her acquaintance with Ranald and his sisters. It seemed to her that they must have seen so much and learned so much in their trip around the world, that they would not care to talk about ordinary matters. But when they all came tumbling in over the broomstick, they seemed to tumble at the same time from the pedestals where her imagination had placed them, back into the old familiar footing just where they had been before they went away.

Lloyd had thought about Ranald many times since Miss Allison's account of him had made him a hero in her eyes. She could not think of him in any way but as dressed in a uniform, riding along under fluttering flags to the sound of martial music. So when Miss Allison called, "Here is the captain, Little Colonel," her face flushed as if she were about to meet some distinguished stranger. But it was the same quiet Ranald who greeted her, much taller than when he went away, but dressed just like the other boys, and not even bronzed by his long marches under the tropical sun. The year that had passed since his return had blotted out all trace of his soldier life in his appearance, except, perhaps, the military erectness with which he held himself.

Kitty, after catching Lloyd by the shoulders for an impulsive hug and kiss, started at once to examine the haunted house.

"There'll be mischief brewing in a little bit, I'll promise you," said Miss Allison, as Kitty's head with its short black hair dodged past her, and there was a flash of a red dress up the stairway. " She is looking for the 'ghos'es' that Sylvia told her were up there."

Elise clung to Allison's hand, for the little sister wanted the protection of the big one, in those ghostly-looking rooms, lighted only by the fires and the yellow gleam of those rows of weird, uncanny jack-o'-lantern faces. Like Kitty, both Allison and Elise had big dark eyes that might have been the pride of a Spanish señorita, they were so large and lustrous. Kitty's curls had been cut, but theirs hung thick and long on their shoulders. The sight of them moved Rob to a compliment.

"You and Anna Moore make me think of night and morning," he said, looking from Anna's golden hair to Allison's dusky curls. "One is so light and one is so black. You ought to go around together all the time. You look fine together."

"Rob is growing up," laughed Anna. "Two years ago he wouldn't have thought about making pretty speeches about our hair; he'd just have pulled it."

"Here comes a whole crowd of people," exclaimed Allison , as the door opened again."  I wonder how many of the girls I'll know. Oh, there's Corinne and Katie and Margery and Julia Forrest. Why, nobody seems to have changed a bit. Come on, Lloyd, let's go and speak to them."

"I'm glad that everybody is coming early," said Lloyd, " so that we can begin the fate cake."

That was the first performance. When the guests had all arrived, they were taken into the kitchen. Under the ban of silence (for the speaking of a word would have broken the charm) they stood around the table, giggling as the cake was concocted, out of a cup of salt, a cup of flour, and enough water to make a thick batter. A ring, a thimble, a dime, and a button were dropped into it, and each guest gave the mixture a solemn stir before the pan was put into the oven, and left in charge of old Mom Beck.

By that time the two tubs of water had been carried into the hall. Several dozen apples were set afloat in them, with a folded strip of paper pinned to each bearing a hidden name. By the time these had been lifted out by their stems in the teeth of the laughing contestants, the lead was melted ready to use.

They tried their fate with that next, pouring a little out into a plate of water, to see into what shapes the drops would instantly harden. Strangely enough, Ranald's took the shape of a sword. Malcolm's was a lion and Keith's a ship, the Little Colonel's a star and Rob's a spur. Some could have been called almost anything, like the one little Elise found in her plate. She could not decide whether to call it a sugar-bowl or a chicken. But Miss Allison explained them all, giving some funny meaning to each, and setting them all to laughing with the queer fortunes she declared these lead drops predicted.

They tried all the old customs they had ever heard of. They popped chestnuts on a shovel, they counted apple-seeds, they threw the parings over their heads to see what initials they would form in falling. They blindfolded each other and groped across the room to the table, on which stood three saucers, one filled with ashes, one with water, and one standing empty, to see whether life, death, or single blessedness awaited them in the coming year.

In the midst of these games Kitty beckoned the boys aside and led them out on the porch. "What do you think?" she whispered. "After all the trouble auntie has taken to plan different entertainments, Cora Ferris isn't satisfied. I heard her talking to some of the older girls. She told Eliza Hughes that she expected some excitement when she came, and that she was dying to go down cellar backward with a looking-glass in one hand and a candle in the other. You know if you do that, the person whom you're to marry will come and look over your shoulder, and you can see him in the glass.

"The girls begged her not to, and told her that she'd be frightened to death if she saw anybody, but she whispered to Eliza that she knew she wouldn't be scared, for she was sure Walter Cummins was her fate, and would have to be down in the cellar if she tried the charm, and that she wouldn't be afraid of going into a lion's den if she thought Walter would be there. And Eliza giggled and threatened to tell, and Cora got red and put her hand over Eliza's mouth, and carried on awfully silly. It made me tired. But she's bound to go down cellar after awhile, and somebody has told Walter what she said, and he's going, just for fun. Now I think it would be lots of fun to watch Walter, and keep him from going, on some excuse or another, and then one of you boys look over her shoulder."

"Rob, you're the biggest, and almost as tall as Walter. You ought to be the one to go," suggested Keith.

"Down in that spook cellar?" demanded Rob. "Not much, Keithie, my son. I might see something myself, without the help of a looking-glass or candle. I am not afraid of flesh and blood, but I vow I'm not ready to have my hair turn white in a single night. I have been brought up on stories of the haunts that live in that cellar. My old black mammy used to live here, and she has made me feel as if my blood had turned to ice-water, lots of times, with her tales."

"You go, captain," said Malcolm, turning to Ranald. "You've been under fire, and oughtn't to be afraid of anything. You've got a reputation to keep up, and here is a chance for you to show the stuff you are made of."

"I am not afraid of the, cellar," said the little captain, stoutly, " but I'm not going to be the one to look over her shoulder into the looking-glass. I don't want to run any risk of marrying that fat Cora Ferris."

A shout of laughter went up at his answer.

"You won't have to, goosey," said Rob. " There's nothing in those old signs."

"Well, I am not going to take any chances with her," he persisted, backing up against the wall. That settled it. They could have moved the rock foundation of the house itself easier than the captain, when he took that kind of a stand. Looking at it from Ranald's point of view, none of the boys were willing to go down cellar, for they could easily imagine how the others would tease them afterward. Kitty's prank would have fallen through, if she had not been quicker than a weasel at planning mischief.

"What's to hinder fixing up a dummy man, and putting him down there?" she suggested. "You boys can run home and get Uncle Harry's rubber boots, and his old slouch hat, and some pillows, and that military cape that Ginger's father left there, and she'll think it is an army officer that's she's going to marry. Won't she be fooled?"

The boys were as quick to act as Kitty was to plan. A noisy game of blind man's buff was going on inside the house, so no one missed the conspirators, although they were gone for some time.

"We just ran home a minute for something," was Keith's excuse, when he and Malcolm and Ranald came in, red-faced and breathless. Rob and Kitty were still in the cellar, putting the finishing touches to the army officer. Kitty was recklessly fastening the dummy together with big safety-pins, regardless of the holes she was making in her Uncle Harry's high rubber hunting-boots.

"Isn't he a dandy! " exclaimed Rob, putting the slouched hat on the pillow head at a fierce angle, and fastening the military cape up around the chin as far as possible. "Come on now, Kitty, let us make our escape before anybody comes."

Meanwhile, the boys had corralled Walter Cummins, and Cora, seeing him leave the room, thought that the proper time had come. Slipping the hand-mirror from the dressing-table in the room where they had left their wraps, she took a candle from one of the jack-o'-lanterns on the side porch, and signalled the girls who had agreed to follow her. She was nearly sixteen, but the three girls who groped their way across the courtyard in the flickering light of her candle were much younger.

The cellar was entered from the courtyard, by an old-fashioned door, the kind best adapted to sliding, and it took the united strength of all the girls to lift it. A rush of cold, damp air greeted them, and an earthy smell that would have checked the enthusiasm of any girl less sentimental than Cora.

"I am frightened to death, girls," she confessed at the last moment, her teeth chattering. Yet she was not so frightened as she would have been had she not been sure that Walter had gone down the steps ahead of her.

"Hold the door open," she said, preparing to back slowly down. Her fluffy light hair stood outlike an aureole in the yellow candle-light, and the face reflected in the hand-mirror was pretty enough to answer every requirement of the old spell, despite the silly simper on her lips. When she was nearly at the bottom of the cellar steps she began the old rhyme:

"If in this glass his face I see,
Then my true love will marry me."

 

"SHE BEGAN THE OLD RHYME"

 

 

But the couplet ended in a scream, so terrifying, so ear-splitting, so blood-curdling, that Katie dropped in a cold, trembling little heap on the ground, and Eliza Hughes sank down on top of Katie, weak and shivering. Cora had seen the pillow-man in the cellar. Dropping the looking-glass with a crash, but clinging desperately to the candle, she dashed up the steps shrieking at every breath. Just at the top she stepped on the front of her skirt, and fell sprawling forward. She dropped the candle then, but not before it had touched her hair and set it afire.

The soft fluffy bangs blazed up like tow, and too terrified to move, Eliza Hughes still sat on top of Katie, screaming louder than Cora had done. The sight brought Katie to her senses, however, and scrambling up from under Eliza, she flew at Cora and began beating out the fire with her bare hands. Cora, who had not discovered that her hair was ablaze, did not know what to make of such strange treatment. Her first thought was that Katie had gone crazy with fright, and that was why she had flown at her and begun to beat her on the head. It was all over in an instant, and the fire put out so quickly that only Cora's bangs were scorched, and Katie's fingers but slightly burned.

But the screams had reached through the uproar of blind man's buff, and the whole party poured out into the courtyard to see what had happened. There was great excitement for a little while, and Kitty, enjoying the confusion she had stirred up, giggled as she listened to Cora's startling description of the man that had peeped over her shoulder. "He didn't look like any one I'd ever seen before," she declared. "He was tall and handsome and dressed like a soldier."

"Oh, surely not, Cora," answered Miss Allison, who saw that some of the little girls gathered around her were badly frightened. "That couldn't be, you know. The cellar is quite empty. Give me the candle, and I'll go down and show you."

"Oh, no, please, auntie, don't go down," cried Kitty, seeing that the time had come to confess. "It is just a Hallowe'en joke. We didn't suppose
that Cora would be scared. We just wanted to tease her because she seemed so sure that she would find Walter down there. Go and bring him up, boys."

Ranald and Rob started down the stairs, with Keith carrying a candle, and Malcolm calling for Walter to come on and help carry out his rival. The four boys, picking up the dummy as if it had been a real man, carried it up the steps and laid it carefully on the ground. So comical did it look with its pudgy pillow face, that everybody laughed except Cora. She was furiously angry, and not all Kitty's penitent speeches or the boys' polite apologies could appease her. If it had not been for Miss Allison she would have flounced home in high displeasure. But she as usual poured oil on the troubled waters, and talked in such a tactful way of her harum-scarum niece's many pranks, that there was no resisting such an appeal. She allowed herself to be led back to the house, but she would not join in any of the games.

Mom Beck says I'll have bad luck for seven years because I broke that looking-glass," she said, mournfully.

"Oh, nonsense!" exclaimed Miss Allison. "Don't give it another thought, dear, it is only an old negro superstition."

She might have added that it was to herself and brother the ill luck had come, since it was her silver mirror that was broken, and Harry's rubber boots that would be henceforth useless for wading because of the holes thoughtless Kitty had made in them with safety-pins, when she fastened them to the pillows.

Refreshments were served soon after they went back to the house. Not the cakes and ices that usually attended parties in the Valley, but things suggestive of Hallowe'en. Pop-corn, nuts, and apples, doughnuts and molasses candy. Then the fate cake was cut, and everybody took a slice to carry home to dream on.

"Eat it the last thing before you retire," said Miss Allison. "Then walk to bed backwards without taking a drink of water or speaking another word to-night. It is so salty that it is likely you will dream of being thirsty, and of somebody bringing you water. They say if you dream of its being brought in a golden goblet you will marry into wealth. If in a tin cup poverty will be your lot. The kind of vessel you see in your dream will decide your fate. Ah, Walter got the button in his slice. That means he will be an old bachelor and sew his own buttons on all his life."

Anna Moore got the dime, and Eliza Hughes the ring, which foretold that she would be the first one in the company to have a wedding. The thimble fell to no one, as it slipped out between two slices in the cutting. "That means none of us will be old maids," said little Elise.  Miss Allison slipped it on Kitty's finger. "To mend your mischievous ways with," she said, and everybody who had enjoyed the pillow-man laughed.

The moon was hiding behind a cloud when at last the merry party said good-night, so Miss Allison provided each little group with a jack-o'-lantern to light them on their homeward way. As the grotesque yellow heads with their grinning fire-faces went bobbing down the lonely road, it was well for Tam O'Shanter that he need not pass that way. All the witches of Allway Kirk could not have made such a weird procession. Well, too, for old Ichabod Crane that he need not ride that night through the shadowy Valley. One pumpkin, in the hands of the headless rider, had been enough to banish him from Sleepy Hollow for ever. What would have happened no one can tell, could he have met the long procession of bodiless heads that straggled through the gate that Hallowe'en, from the haunted house of Hartwell Hollow.

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