HALF A DOZEN GIRLS
ANNA CHAPIN RAY
TO MY PARENTS
I OFFER THESE MEMORIES OF A HAPPY, NAUGHTY CHILDHOOD.
My fairest child, I have no song to give you; No lark could pipe to skies so dull and gray: Yet, ere we part, one lesson I can leave you For every day.
"Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever; Do noble things, not dream them, all day long: And so make life, death, and that vast forever One grand, sweet song."
I. THE ADAMS FAMILY
II. THE V
III. THE GIRLS TRY TO IMPROVE THEIR MINDS
IV. MISS BEAN COMES TO LUNCH
V. TWO MORE GIRLS
VI. POLLY ENCOUNTERS THE SERVANT QUESTION
VII. POLLY'S HOUSEKEEPING
IX. THE NEW READING CLUB
X. POLLY'S POEM
XI. JEAN'S CHRISTMAS EVE
XII. HALF A DOZEN COOKS
XIII. ALAN AND POLLY HAVE A DRESS REHEARSAL
XIV. POLLY'S DARK DAY
XV. THE PLAY
XVI. JOB GOES TO A FUNERAL
XVII. MISS BEAN'S VISIT IS RETURNED
XVIII. MR. BAXTER TAKES A NAP
XIX. KATHARINE'S CALL
XX. ONE LAST GLIMPSE
THE ADAMS FAMILY.
"'There was a little girl, And she had a little curl, And it hung right down over her forehead; And when she was good, She was very, very good, And when she was bad, she was horrid!'"
"And that's you!" chanted Polly Adams in a vigorous crescendo, as she watched the retreating figure of her guest. Then climbing down from her perch on the front gate, she added to herself, "Mean old thing! I s'pose she thinks I care because she's gone home; but I'm glad of it, so there!" And with an emphatic shake of her curly head, she ran into the house.
Up-stairs, in the large front room, sat her mother and her aunt, busy with their sewing. The blinds were closed, to keep out the warm sun of a sultry July day, and only an occasional breath of air found its way in between their tightly turned slats. The whir of the locust outside, and the regular creak, creak of Aunt Jane's tall rocking-chair were the only sounds to break the stillness. This peaceful scene was ruthlessly disturbed by Polly, who came flying into the room and dropped into a chair at her mother's side.
"Oh, how warm you are here!" she exclaimed, as she pushed back the short red-gold hair that curled in little, soft rings about her forehead.
"Little girls that will run on such a day as this must expect to be warm," remarked Aunt Jane sedately, while she measured a hem with a bit of paper notched to show the proper width. "Now if you and Molly would bring your patchwork up here, and sew quietly with your mother and me, you would be quite cool and comfortable."
"Patchwork!" echoed Polly, with a scornful little laugh. "Girls don't sew patchwork nowadays, Aunt Jane."
"It would be better for them if they did, then," returned Aunt Jane severely. "It is a much more useful way of spending one's time, than embroidering nonsensical red wheels and flowers and birds on your aprons, as you have been doing. Your grandmother used to make us sew patchwork; and before I was your age, I had pieced up three bedquilts,—one rising-sun, one fox-chase, and the other just plain boxes."
"I don't care," Polly interrupted saucily; "I never could see the use of cutting up yards and yards of calico, just for the sake of sewing it together again. Wouldn't you rather have me make you a pretty apron, Jerusalem?" And she leaned over to pat her mother's cheek affectionately, as she added, "And besides, Molly's gone home."
"Has she?" asked Mrs. Adams, in some surprise. "I thought she was going to spend the day."
Polly blushed a little.
"So she was," she admitted at length; "but she changed her mind."
Mrs. Adams looked at her little daughter inquiringly for a moment, and seemed about to speak, but catching the eye of Aunt Jane, who was watching them sharply, she only said,—
"I am sorry; for I wanted to send a pattern to Mrs. Hapgood, when she went home, and now I shall have to wait."
"I'll take it over now, mamma; I'd just as soon." And Polly jumped up and caught her sailor hat from the table where she had tossed it.
"I should like to have you, if you will, Polly. It is in my room, and I'll get it for you."
She put down her work and went out into the hall, followed by Polly.
"Have you and Molly been quarrelling again?" she asked, when the door had closed between them and Aunt Jane.
"Only a little bit, mamma," confessed Polly. "Molly was teasing me all the time, and at last I was mad, so I said I wished she'd go home, and she went right straight off."
"I am sorry my daughter should be so rude to her company," began Mrs. Adams soberly.
"So'm I," interrupted Polly; "I don't mean to; but she makes me cross, and before I know it I flare up. I wish she hadn't gone, too; for we promised to go over to see Florence this afternoon, and she'll think it is queer if we don't."
"I wish you would try to be a little more patient, Polly," said her mother. "You mustn't be cross every time that Molly laughs at you; and you answered Aunt Jane very rudely just now. You need to watch that tongue of yours, my dear, and not let it run away with you. And now take this to Mrs. Hapgood, and tell her she will need to allow a good large seam when she cuts it, for Molly is taller than you."
"Yes'm," said Polly meekly, as she held up her face for the kiss, without which she never left the house.
Then she slowly went down the stairs, and out at the door, thinking over what her mother had just said to her, and resolving, as she did at least twice every day, that she would never, never quarrel with Molly again. But not in vain had Mrs. Adams devoted the past thirteen years to watching her only child, and she understood Polly's present mood well enough to call to her from the window,—
"You'd better bring Molly back to lunch, I think. We're going to have raspberry shortcake, and you know she likes that."
And Polly looked up, with a brightening face, to answer,—
Then, in spite of the warm day, she went hurrying off down the street, while her mother stood by the window, watching until the bright curls under the blue sailor hat had passed out of sight. Then she turned away with a half-smile, saying to herself,—
"Poor Polly! She has hard times fighting her temper; but Molly does tease her unmercifully. After all, she comes naturally by it, for she's very much as I was, at her age."
"What's the matter?" queried Aunt Jane, as her sister came back and took up her work once more. "Have Molly and Polly been having another fuss?"
"Nothing serious, I think," said Mrs. Adams lightly.
Aunt Jane's thin lips straightened out into an ominous line as she answered,—
"Strange those two children can't get on together! I think it is largely Polly's fault, for Molly is a sweet, quiet girl. You are spoiling Polly, Isabel, as I keep telling you. Some day you'll come to realize it, and be sorry."
Mrs. Adams bit her lip for an instant, and a clear, bright color came into her cheeks; but after a moment she replied quietly,—
"You must allow me to be the judge of that, Jane."
"Of course you can do as you like with your own child," retorted Aunt Jane stiffly; "but I can't shut my eyes to what is going on around me, and let a naturally good child be spoiled for want of a firm hand, without saying a word to stop it. Your mother didn't bring you up in that way, Isabel, though she did indulge you a great deal more than she did us older children."
As Aunt Jane paused, Mrs. Adams rose abruptly and left the room, saying something about a letter which she must write in time for the next mail.
Aunt Jane could be exasperating at times, as even her younger sister was forced to admit, and occasionally she was driven to the necessity of running away from her, rather than yield to the temptation of answering sharp words with sharper. Mrs. Adams could and did bear patiently with unasked advice in all matters but one; but in regard to the discipline of her little daughter she stood firm, for she and her husband had agreed that here Aunt Jane was not to be allowed to interfere. Yet, though Aunt Jane soon found that her sister left her and went away whenever the subject was mentioned, the worthy woman was not to be turned aside, but returned to the charge with unfailing persistency.
The intimacy between mother and daughter was a peculiar one, and at times seemed far more like that between two sisters. Mrs. Adams was one of the women whose highest ambition was of the rather old- fashioned kind,—to make a pleasant, homelike home, and to be an intelligent, helpful wife and mother. From her quiet corner she looked out at her friends who had "careers," with curiosity rather than envy, and, for herself, was content to have her world bounded by the interests of her husband and Polly. It might be a narrow life, but it was a busy and a happy one. With all her household cares, she still found time to look into the books which were interesting her husband, and intelligently discuss their contents with him; she read aloud with Polly, played games with her, and watched over her with a quick understanding of this warm-hearted, impetuous little daughter, in whom she saw herself so closely reflected that she knew, from the memory of her own childhood, just how to deal with all of Polly's freaks and whims. And her endless patience and devotion were well rewarded, for Polly adored her pretty, bright little mother with all the fervor of her being. There were times, it is true, when Polly rebelled against all restraint; but such moments were of short duration, and, for the most part, she yielded easily to the pleasant, firm discipline which made duty enjoyable, and punishment the necessary result of wrong-doing, a result as hard for the mother to inflict as for the child to bear. In her gentler moods, Polly realized that nowhere else could she find so good a friend, so interested and sympathetic in all that concerned her, and the two spent long hours together, now talking quite seriously, now chattering and laughing like children, with a perfect good-fellowship which appeared very disrespectful to Aunt Jane, who believed in the old- time rule, that children should be seen, not heard. However, Polly never minded Aunt Jane's frown in the least, but went on playing with her mother and petting her, confiding to her her joys and sorrows, her friendships and her quarrels, and calling her by an endless succession of endearing names, of which her latest was Jerusalem, an epithet taken from her favorite, "Oh, Mother dear, Jerusalem," and adapted to its present use, to the great mystification of her aunt, to whom Polly refused to explain its derivation.
Between his office hours and his patients, Polly saw but little of her father; for Dr. Adams was the popular physician of the large, quiet, old New England town where they lived. A man who had grown up among books, and among thinking, wide-awake people, he was a worthy descendant of the two presidents with whom he claimed kinship. He was a strong, fine-looking man, so full of quiet energy that his very presence in the sick-room was encouraging to the invalid; and he had come to be at once the friend, physician, and adviser of every family in town, whether rich or poor. If his patients could afford to pay him for his visits, very well; if not, it was just as well, for neither Dr. Adams nor his wife desired to be rich. To live comfortably themselves, to lay up a little for the future, and to be able to help their poorer neighbors, now and then,—this was all they wished, and this was easily accomplished. In past years, two or three other doctors had settled in the town; but after a few months of trial they had closed their offices and gone away, because not one of Dr. Adams's patients could be tempted to leave him, and his lively black horse and shabby buggy were seen flying about the streets, while their shiny new carriages either stood idle in their stables, or were taken out for an occasional pleasure drive.
If Polly had been asked what was her greatest trial, her answer, truthful and emphatic, would have been: "Aunt Jane." It was a mystery to her as, indeed, it was to every one else, how two sisters could be so unlike. Mrs. Adams was a pretty, graceful little woman, with a dainty charm about her, and a winning, off- hand manner, which made her a favorite with both young and old. Aunt Jane Roberts was tall and thin, with a cast-iron sort of countenance, surmounted by a row of little, tight, gray frizzles of such remarkable durability that, though evidently the result of art rather than nature, neither wind nor storm, appeared to have any effect upon them. On festal occasions it was her habit to adorn herself with a symmetrical little blue satin bow, placed above these curls and slightly to one side; but there was nothing in the least flippant or coquettish about this decoration, for it was as precise and unvarying as the gray frizz below it, and only seemed to intensify the hard, unyielding lines of her face.
Miss Roberts was fifteen years older than her sister, and she appeared to have been stamped with the seal of single blessedness while she still lay in her cradle and played with her rattle;— that is, if she ever had unbent so far as to play with anything. Even her walk was not like that of most women; she moved along with a slow, deliberate stride which was at times almost spectral, and reminded one of the resistless, onward march of the fates. Aunt Jane was serious-minded and progressive, and, worst of all, she was conscientious. However great a blessing a conscience must be considered, there are some consciences that make their owners extremely unpleasant. Whenever Aunt Jane was particularly trying, her friends brought forward the singular excuse: "Jane is so conscientious; she means to do just right." And she certainly did. So far as she could distinguish its direction, Aunt Jane trod the path of duty, but she trod it as a martyr, not like one who finds it a pleasant, sunshiny road, with bright, interesting spots scattered all along its way. She had advanced ideas about women and pronounced theories as to the rearing of children; she was a member of countless clubs, and served on all the committees to talk about reform; she visited the jail periodically, and marched through the wards of the hospital with a stony air of sympathy highly gratifying to the inmates, who tried to be polite to her because of her relationship to the doctor, whom they all adored. The demands of her public duties left Miss Roberts little time for home life; but in the few rare intervals, she sewed for her sister, refusing the more attractive work, and devoting herself to sheets, pillow-cases, and kitchen towels, in the penitential, self-sacrificing way which is so trying to the person receiving the favor. She appeared to regard these labors as an offset to the frank criticisms of her sister's housekeeping, which she never hesitated to make when the opportunity offered. Aunt Jane had come to live with her sister soon after Mrs. Adams was married; and the doctor's happy, even temper enabled him to make the best of the situation, though he had at once given Miss Roberts to understand that she was in no way to interfere with him or his concerns.
No introduction to the Adams family would be complete which failed to mention Job Trotter, for Job was a faithful servant who had done good service for many a long day. He was the old family horse whom the doctor had driven for years, but who, owing to age and infirmity, had been put on the retired list as a veteran, and given over to the tender mercies of Mrs. Adams. She changed his youthful nickname of Trot to the more fitting one of Job, and stoutly maintained his superiority to the lively colt that succeeded him between the thills of the doctor's buggy. Job, too, appeared to share her opinion, and never failed to give a vicious snap at his rival, whenever they came in contact. There was a family legend that Job had been a fast animal in his day, and Mrs. Adams often told the story of the doctor's first ride after him: how, at the end of a mile, he had turned his pale face to the horse-dealer who was driving, and piteously besought him: "In mercy's name, man, let me get out; I've had enough of this!" But all this was enveloped in the haze of the remote past, and now Job was neither a dangerous nor exhilarating steed, but rather, a restful one, who allowed his driver to contemplate the landscape and impress its charms upon his memory. Job had been twenty-three years old when the doctor handed him over to his wife; and, as if to prove his relationship to the family, and to Aunt Jane in particular, he had never advanced a year in age since then, but, long, long afterwards, his headstone bore the legend:
IN MEMORY OF JOB TROTTER, A FAITHFUL FRIEND, WHO DIED AT THE AGE OF TWENTY-THREE.
A rear view of Job still showed him a fine-looking horse, for his delicate skin, slightly dappled here and there, his long, thick tail and proudly arching neck plainly betokened his aristocracy. But unfortunately, reckless driving in his youth had bent his fore legs to a decided angle, and turned in his toes in an absurdly deprecating fashion, until Mrs. Adams declared that she would put a skirt on him to cover these defects, unless people stopped turning to look after him and laugh.
But it was when he was in motion that Job exhibited his peculiarities to the best advantage. His ordinary gait was a slow, dignified walk, varied, at times, by a trot of which the direction was of the up-and-down species, and made his progress even slower than usual. But now and then the old fellow would seem to be inspired with a little of his former spirit, and, after a skittish little kick, he would straighten his body with a suddenness which brought Mrs. Adams to her feet, and rush off at a mad pace that soon faltered and failed, when the old brown head would turn, and the gentle eyes seem to say pleadingly,—
"I did try, but I can't."
In reality, the cause of Job's slowness lay, not so much in his age as in his afflicted knees; and they kept his driver in a constant state of anxiety as to which pair would give out next. Now his hind legs would suddenly fail him, and he would apparently attempt to seat himself in the dust; then, just as he had recovered from that shock, his front knees would collapse, and Job would plunge madly forward on his venerable nose.
But, after all, they had many a pleasant drive up and down the country roads, where the old horse plodded onwards, apparently enjoying the scenery as much as his mistress did, now stopping to graze by the roadside, now suddenly turning aside and, before his driver was aware of his intention, landing her in the dooryard of some farmhouse where the doctor had visited a patient years before. For Job had a retentive memory, and was never known to forget a road or a house where he had once been. During the last of the time that the doctor had driven him, he had lent him to do occasional service at funerals, where Job was never known to disgrace himself by breaking into an indecorous trot. Something in the ceremony of these melancholy journeys had struck Job's fancy and impressed the circumstances on his memory to such an extent that, ever after, he was reluctant to pass the cemetery gate, but tugged hard at the lines to show his desire to enter. It was not so bad when Mrs. Adams and Polly were by themselves; but Mrs. Adams often invited some convalescing patient of the doctor to go for a quiet little drive, and it was mortifying to have Job, taking advantage of the moment when his mistress was deep in conversation, stalk solemnly under the arching gateway and bring his invalid passenger to a halt beside some new-made grave. There seemed to be no apology that could fitly meet the occasion and do away with the gloomy suggestiveness of the situation.
Aunt Jane rarely had time to drive with Job, for an ordinarily fast walker could pass him by; but Polly and her mother enjoyed him to the utmost, and spoiled him as much as they enjoyed him, letting him stroll along as he chose, stopping whenever and wherever he wished. To avoid being dependent on the man, who was often away driving the doctor upon his rounds, Mrs. Adams had learned to harness Job herself, and nearly every pleasant day she could be seen buckling the straps and fastening him into the carriage, while the old creature stood quiet, rubbing his head against her shoulder, now and then, with a gentle, caressing motion, or turning suddenly to pretend to snap at Polly, who was much in awe of him, and then throwing up his head and showing his teeth, in a scornful laugh at her fear.
This was the family circle in which Polly Adams had spent the thirteen happy years of her life, respecting and loving her father, adoring her mother, and continually coming in conflict with Aunt Jane. And Polly herself? Like countless other girls, she was good and bad, naughty and lovable by turns, now yielding to violent fits of temper, now going into the depths of penitence for them; but always, in the inmost recesses of her childish soul, possessed with a firm resolve to be as good a woman as her mother was before her. She knew no higher ambition.
Everybody in town knew the Hapgood house. It stood close to the street, under a row of huge elms, and surrounded with clumps of purple and white lilac bushes whose topmost blossoms peeped curiously in at the chamber windows. Such houses are only found in New England, but there they abound with their broad front "stoops," the long slant of their rear roofs, where a ladder is firmly fixed, to serve in case of fire, and the great, low rooms grouped around the immense chimney in the middle. The Hapgood house had been in the family for generations, and was kept in such an excellent state of repair that it bade fair to outlast many of the more recent houses of the town. A wing had been built out at the side; but even with this modern addition, no one needed to glance up at the date on the chimney—sixteen hundred and no- matter-what—to assure himself of the great age of the stately old house before him.
Up in the Hapgood attic a serious consultation was going on.
"Now, girls," Polly Adams began solemnly, "'most half of our vacation has gone, and I think we ought to do something before it's over."
"Aren't we doing something this very minute, I should like to know?" inquired Molly Hapgood, who had felt privileged, in her capacity as hostess, to throw herself down on the old bed which occupied one corner of the garret.
Polly frowned on such levity.
"I don't mean that, Molly, and you know it. What I think is, that we should get together regularly every two or three days and do something special. Aunt Jane is in lots of clubs and things, and— "
"I've heard it said," interrupted Jean Dwight solemnly, "that Aunt Jane spent so much time doing good outside that she never had a chance to be good at home." "Now, Jean, that isn't fair," said Polly laughing. "You know I'd be the very last one to hold up Aunt Jane as an example, only she has such good times with her everlasting old people that I thought we might do something like it."
"Which do you propose to do," asked Molly disrespectfully, "start a society for the improvement of the jail or open a mission at the poor-house to teach Miss Bean some manners?"
"Let's have a dramatic club, and get up a play," suggested the fourth member of the group, who was seated on a dilapidated hair- covered trunk under the open window, regardless of the strong east wind which now and then lifted a stray lock of her long yellow hair and blew it forward across her cheek.
"What a splendid idea, Florence!" said Jean, rapturously bouncing about in her seat on the foot of the bed. "How does that suit you, Polly?"
"We might do that, for one thing," assented Polly cautiously; "but oughtn't we to try something a little—well, a little improving, too." "I'd like to know if that wouldn't be improving?" asked Molly. "It would teach us to act, and then, if we wanted, we could charge an admission fee and raise some money."
"I think it would be splendid, girls," said Polly, in spite of herself carried away by the prospect, and forgetting her own plan. "What shall we take?"
"Let's take 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,'" said Jean. "We could make it over into a play easily enough, and Florence would be just the one for Eva. Alan could be Uncle Tom, you know."
"I think we could get something better than that," remarked Florence, in some disgust. "If I'm Eva, I'll have to die, and I don't know the first thing about that."
"Oh, that's easy enough," answered Molly, with the air of one who had experience; "just stiffen yourself out and fall over. But I don't believe you could ever get Alan to act."
"Why not take a ready-made play?" asked Polly. "It would save ever so much work."
"What is there?" said Molly, sitting up to discuss the matter.
"We don't want any Shakespeare," added Jean; "that's all killing, and Florence doesn't want to go dead, you know."
"I'll tell you what, girls," said Molly, as if struck with a sudden idea, "we'll have an original play, and Jean shall write it."
Florence and Polly applauded the suggestion, while Jean groaned,—
"I can't, girls. I never could in this world."
"Yes, you can," returned Molly, who had firm faith in her friend's ability. "You go right to work on it, and you ought to get it all done in a week or two, so we can give it before school opens."
"And we want just five people in it," said Polly. "I know I can get Alan to act, if Molly can't."
Molly shrugged her shoulders incredulously, while Jean inquired, with the calmness of desperation,—
"What shall it be about?"
"John Smith and Pocahontas," replied Polly promptly. "He almost gets killed, and doesn't quite; so that will get the audience all stirred up, but save the trouble of dying."
"But that only needs three," observed Florence thoughtfully, "and there are five of us."
"Doesn't he take her home to England, I'd like to know? There's a picture in the history where he shows Pocahontas to the queen. One of us can be king, and the other queen."
"But at court there are always lots of people round," remonstrated Florence, with an eye to the truth of the situation.
"Never mind; we can make believe that the queen has sent them off, so as not to scare Pocahontas; that's what they call poetical license," said Polly. "Jean can see about that. There are lots of splendid things to wear, right here in this garret. Don't you suppose your mother would let us take them, Molly?"
"Yes, I know she will," replied Molly.
There was silence for a moment, while the girls considered the matter. Then Polly returned to her first charge.
"But it will take a good while to get ready to start this, so I'd like to suggest our doing something else, while we wait."
"Polly has something in her head," said Jean. "Tell us what 'tis, Poll,"
"Well, I'll tell you," said Polly, as she rose and began to walk up and down the floor. "Aunt Jane was scolding, the other day, because I hadn't read 'Pilgrim's Progress.' She said it was a living disgrace to me, and that I must do it, right off. Now, what if we have a reading club and do it together? Have any of you read it? I don't believe you ever have."
The girls admitted that they had not.
"That's just what I thought," said Polly triumphantly. "It's so stupid that I can't do it alone, for I read the first page yesterday, and I know. But we don't any of us want to be 'a living disgrace'; so what if we read aloud an hour every other afternoon? 'T wouldn't take us so very long, and," here she laughed frankly, "I don't suppose it would hurt us any."
"I don't know but we ought to," remarked Molly virtuously, while Jean added,—
"I've heard people say it was like measles. You'd better take it young, if you did at all."
"When shall we begin?" demanded Polly, fired with enthusiasm at the prospect.
"To-morrow," said Molly; "and you'd better come here to read, for we can be nice and quiet up here. Come to-morrow at three, and we'll read till four."
"Oh!" exclaimed Florence, suddenly springing up, as a small, dark body came flying in at the open window above her head, and went tumbling across the floor and down the stairs.
"What was that?" asked Molly, rolling off the bed.
"A green apple. I think," replied Polly, as she ran after it and seized it. "Yes; here it is."
"That's Alan's doing," said Molly sternly, "I do wish he'd ever let us alone."
"I don't," said Polly, coming to his defence; "he's ever so much fun. I get tired of all girls."
"Thank you, ma'am," said Jean quickly, bowing low, in answer to the compliment.
But Polly missed the bow, for her curly head was out of the window, and she was laughing down at a slender, light-haired lad who was just taking fresh aim at the open window.
"Come up here, Alan!" she called.
"Oh, don't, Polly!" remonstrated Molly from within. "He'll laugh at us, and spoil all our fun."
"No, he won't," answered Polly valiantly; then, more loudly, "What did you say, Alan?"
"What are you girls about up there?" he inquired.
"Come up and see." And she drew in her head just in time to escape a second missile.
"All right; I'll come if you'll promise to play something, and not spend all your time gabbling." And Alan vanished through the side door. A minute or two afterwards, his shoes were heard clattering up the attic stairs.
The four girls, whom he found sitting in a row on the edge of the bed, were such good friends of him and of each other, that the five were commonly spoken of as "the V," or, sometimes, as "the quintette." Alan Hapgood, who was regarded as the point of the V, was a wide-awake, irrepressible youth of twelve, who had a large share in the doings of his older sister and her friends. They did their best to spoil him by their unlimited admiration; but, to be sure, the temptation to do so was a strong one, for Alan was a lovable fellow, always merry and good-natured, generous and accommodating to his friends, and quick to plan and execute the pranks which added the spice of mischief to the doings of the V. In person he was tall for his age, and slight, with thick, yellow hair, that lay in a smooth, soft line across his forehead, large gray eyes, and a generous mouth, full of strong, white teeth which were usually in sight, for Alan was nearly always laughing,—not a handsome boy, exactly, for his features were quite irregular, but a splendid one, whom one would instinctively select as a gentleman's son, and an intelligent, manly lad.
His sister Molly, two years older, was an attractive, bright girl, whose only beauty lay in her smooth, heavy braids of brown hair. She and Polly had been constant companions from their babyhood, had quarrelled and "made up," had quarrelled and made up again, three hundred and sixty-five days a year for the last thirteen years, and at the end of that time they were closer friends than ever. Two girls more unlike it would have been hard to find, for Molly was as quiet and deliberate as Polly was impetuous; but nevertheless, in spite of their continual disagreements, they were inseparable. They were in the same class in school and in Sunday- school, they had the same friends, and read the same books, and had a share in the same mischief. They even carried this trait so far as to both come down with mumps on the same day, when their unwonted absence from school was the source of much speculation among their friends, who fondly pictured them as indulging in some frolic, until the melancholy truth was known.
Next to Alan, Jean Dwight was the boy of the V, a strong, hearty, happy young woman of fourteen, who succeeded in getting a great deal of enjoyment out of this humdrum, work-a-day world. Her rosy cheeks glowed and her brown eyes shone with health; for Jean was as full of life as a young colt, and vented her superfluous energy in climbing trees, walking fences, and running races, until Aunt Jane and her followers raised their hands and eyes in well-bred horror. But Jean's unselfish devotion to her mother, her real refinement, her quick understanding, and her sound common sense did much to atone for her hoydenish ways, and gave promise of the fine womanhood which lay before her. At first it had been a matter of some surprise, in the aristocratic old town, that Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Hapgood, representatives of "our first families," as they were universally acknowledged to be, could allow their children to be so intimate with Jean Dwight, whose father was only a carpenter, and whose mother took in sewing. However, any comments were promptly silenced when Mrs. Adams had been heard to say, one day, that she was always glad to have Polly with such a womanly girl as Jean Dwight, so free from any nonsensical, grown-up airs. From that time onward Jean's position was an established fact.
Florence Lang was the acknowledged beauty of the V, a dainty maiden of thirteen, with fluffy, yellow hair, great blue eyes, and a pink and white skin which might have made a French doll sigh with envy. The only daughter of a luxurious home, she was always beautifully dressed, always quiet in her manners. No matter how excited and demoralized the rest of the V might become, Florence never failed to come out of the frolic as gentle and unspotted as she went in, greatly to the disgust and envy of Polly, whose clothes had a tendency to get mysteriously torn, whose shoes appeared to go in search of dust, and whose short, curly hair had a perfect genius for getting into a state of wild disorder. It was not that Florence seemed to take any more care of herself than the others, but she was naturally one of those favored beings to whom no particle of dust could cling, who could use none but the choicest language. Such gentle children have admirers enough; it is the luckless, quick-tempered Pollies, the warm-hearted, harum- scarum Jeans, who need a champion.
If Molly and Polly had never disagreed, the quintette would have been only a trio; for, when they were at peace, they were all in all to each other. But in times of strife Molly was devoted to Florence Lang, while Polly took refuge with Jean Dwight. In this way the V was formed; and though the closest intimacy was between Molly and Polly, the four girls were firm friends, and there were few days when they were not to be found together, usually either at the Hapgood house, or at Polly's, where their visit was never quite satisfactory unless Mrs. Adams was in the midst of the group. Alan, too, was often with them, for a tendency to rheumatism, which occasionally developed into a severe attack of the disease, kept him in rather delicate health, and prevented his entering into the athletic sports which are the usual amusement for lads of his age. But though he was thus, of necessity, thrown much with his sister and her girl friends, Alan was far from belonging to that uninteresting species of humanity, the girl-boy; instead of that, he was a genuine, rollicking boy, with never a trace of the prig about him.
"Well, what was it you wanted of me?" Alan asked, as soon as his head reached the level of the attic floor.
"We didn't want you; you came," retorted Molly, with the frankness of a sister.
"No such thing; you called me,—at least, Polly did." And Alan marched across the floor to seat himself beside his champion, sure that there he would find a welcome.
He was not mistaken, for Polly remarked protectingly,—
"I did call you, Alan, for we want to have some fun, this horrid day, and we need you to stir us up."
"All right; how shall I go to work?" inquired Alan cheerfully. "Shall I dance a breakdown, or will you play tag?"
"Let's play hide-and-seek," suggested Jean; "it's so nice and dark up here, to-day."
"Wait a minute," interposed Florence. "Alan, we may as well tell you now: Jean is going to write a play for us to act, and you are going to be John Smith and have your head cut off."
"The mischief, I am!" with a prolonged whistle of surprise and disgust. "It strikes me I have something to say about what shall be done with my head."
"Stop using such dreadful expressions, Alan," said Molly primly. "You know mamma doesn't like to hear you say 'the mischief.'"
"Well, she didn't, 'cause she isn't here," returned Alan, in nowise abashed by his reproof. "And I don't believe she'd like to hear you girls planning to cut my head off, either."
"Oh, Alan, you goose!" said Polly. "John Smith's head wasn't cut off, for Pocahontas saved him, you know. All you'll have to do will be to lie down with your head on a stone, and have one of us girls get ready to hit you with a club."
"If you girls are going to manage the club," remarked the boy, with masculine scorn, "I'd much rather have you try to hit me, for then I'd be safe."
"That's a very old joke, Alan," said Jean, with disgust; "and besides, it isn't polite. You ought to be proud to be asked to have a part in our grand play."
"Will you act, or won't you?" demanded Polly sternly, as she seized him by his short, thick hair.
"Oh, anything to get peace," groaned Alan.
"Say yes, then."
"Very well. Now, you are to be ready whenever we want you; you are to do just what we want, and do it in just the way we want. Do you promise?"
"Yes, yes! But do hurry up and play something, or it will be dark before you begin."
"There!" said Polly, nodding triumphantly to the girls as she released him. "Didn't I tell you I'd get him to act?"
"You couldn't bribe him to keep out of it," said Jean, as they sprang up for their game.
The old attic was a favorite meeting-place for the V, who held high carnival there, now racing up and down the great floor and hiding in dark corners behind aged chests and spinning-wheels, now robing themselves in the time-honored garments which had done duty for various ancestors of the Hapgood family, and exchanging visits of mock ceremony, or inviting Mrs. Hapgood up to witness a remarkable tableau or an impromptu charade. Piles of illustrated papers filled one corner, and, when all else failed, the children used to pore over the sensational pictures of the Civil War, dwelling with an especial interest on the scenes of death and carnage. In another corner was arranged a long row of old andirons, warming-pans, and candlesticks, flanked by an ancient wooden cradle with a projecting cover above the head. Rows of dilapidated chairs there were, of every date and every degree of shabbiness,—those old friends which start in the parlor and slowly descend in rank, first to the sitting-room or library, then up-stairs, and so, by easy stages, to the hospital asylum of the garret. And up through the very midst of it all, midway between the two small windows which lighted the opposite ends of the attic, rose the huge gray stone chimney, like a massive backbone to the body of the house. What stories of the past the old chimney could have told! What descriptions of Hapgoods, long dead, who had warmed themselves about it! What secret papers had been burned in its wide throat! What sweet and tender home scenes had been enacted on the old settles ranged before its glowing hearths, which put to shame our tiny modern fireplaces and insignificant grates! But the old chimney kept its own counsel, and did not whisper a word, even to the swallows that built their nests in the crannies of its sides. If it had spoken, there would be no need for any one else to write of the doings of the V; for the chimney had silently watched the children day by day, and knew, better than any one besides, the simple story of their young lives.
"Now," Polly reminded them, as they were running down the stairs an hour later; "remember to come to-morrow at just three, all of you."
"What's up?" inquired Alan curiously.
"'Pilgrim's Progress,'" said Jean, as she leaped down from the fourth stair, and landed in an ignominious pile on her knees; "we're going to read it aloud together."
"I'm sorry for you, then," responded Alan. "Mother read it to me when I had scarlet fever, ever so long ago, and it's no end stupid."
"We're going to try it, anyway," said Polly, with an air of determination. "Come on, Jean; it's time I was at home. I'll see you to-morrow, girls."
THE GIRLS TRY TO IMPROVE THEIR MINDS.
Polly's reading-club started off valiantly the next afternoon, and for an hour the girls read aloud industriously, while the rain pattered on the shingles above their heads. The experiment had all the charm of novelty, and the weather was in their favor, since there was little temptation to be out of doors; so, at the close of the first day, the reading was voted a great success. However, the next time there was a slight decrease in the interest, and Jean's suggestion as they sat down, that they should read for half an hour and play games the rest of the time, was hailed with delight by all but Polly, who was haunted by the possibility of being that "living disgrace" which Aunt Jane had pronounced her. Still, Polly was in the minority, and the change of programme was adopted. At the third meeting, Molly was the one to propose an adjournment at the end of the first quarter of an hour, and the girls were not slow to take advantage of the suggestion, and go rushing down-stairs, and out into the bright afternoon sunshine, to join Alan who was lazily swinging in the hammock, with his eyes fixed on the bits of white cloud that went drifting across the blue above him.
It was with an air of great decision that Polly marched up the attic stairs, two days later. She had purposely delayed her coming, and the others were anxiously awaiting her. The warm sun streamed in at the western window, and threw a golden light over the dainty summer gowns of the three girls who were in a row on the slippery haircloth seat of an old mahogany sofa, which had an empty starch-box substituted for its missing leg. Alan sat in front of them, placidly rocking to and fro, astride the cradle that he had dragged out into the middle of the floor, to serve as an easy-chair.
"Hurry up, Polyanthus," he remarked encouragingly. "These girls are scolding me like everything, and I want you to come and fight for me."
"Do help us to send him off, Polly," his sister begged. "He insisted on coming up here with us, even after I told him we didn't want him."
"Why don't you go out and play ball with the other boys, Alan?" urged Jean.
"Now, Jean, that's too bad!" said Polly, filled with righteous indignation. "It's not fair to twit Alan because there are some things he can't do."
"Let him be," said Florence; "he'll get so tired of it at the end of ten minutes, that nothing would tempt him to stay here."
"Good for you, Florence; you're a trump," returned Alan. "I promise you, I won't so much as speak, if you'll let me stay; but it's awfully dull doing nothing, and mother's bound I shan't play ball. You wouldn't catch me here, if I could."
"Ungrateful wretch!" exclaimed Polly, while Jean added,—
"No danger of your saying anything! You'll be sound asleep before we've read a page."
"What's the use of reading it, then?" was Alan's pertinent question.
"I'm sure I don't know," answered Florence. "It's one of Polly's ideas, or rather, Aunt Jane's."
"Aunt Jane ought to be ganched!" remarked Alan, with calm disrespect; for Polly made no secret of Aunt Jane's eccentricities, and they were a common subject of discussion among the V.
"I know it," confessed Polly, filled with shame at the thought of having such a relative.
"Come, Polly, what is the use of reading this poky old book?" urged Molly. "'T isn't doing any of us the least bit of good. I've listened just as hard as I could, and I'm sure I haven't any idea what it's all about, it's told in such a queer way."
Molly's use of the word "queer" said more than a dozen lesser adjectives. She had a singularly expressive manner of drawing it out, that threw untold meaning into its simple form. Alan used to declare that, if Molly once pronounced anything queer, its reputation was spoiled, as far as her hearers were concerned. This time Jean upheld her.
"It is very poky," she announced, as she pulled a bit of hair out from one of the holes in the cushion, and fell to picking it to pieces. "I think it's too warm weather for it, Polly. I don't care what Aunt Jane says; I'm not going to waste these glorious summer days over such stuff." And she pointed disdainfully at the book, a square, clumsy volume, bound in dingy black cloth covers.
Polly looked rather hurt.
"I know all that, girls," she began; "but an hour a day, and only every other day, too, isn't very much to spend on it."
"It's an hour too much, though, Polly," said Molly decisively. "This garret is so warm; wait till cooler weather, and then we'll try again. We shouldn't have time to finish it, anyway, before Jean had the play ready for us. How is it getting along, Jean?"
"Awfully!" confessed Jean. "Whenever I sit down to write, my head is as empty as an egg is, after you've blown it."
"Now, you girls let me plan for you," said Alan, moved to pity by Polly's downcast face. "You let your old book go till fall, and then start again, but only read half an hour a day. That's all your brains can take in, and I'll try to be on hand to explain it to you. How does that suit, Poll?"
"I suppose it will have to do," sighed Polly. "I hate to give up, now we've started; but if you won't read, you won't."
"Very true," remarked Jean, while Florence added,—
"Now, tell us truly, Polly, do you know what the man is talking about half the time?"
"No, I don't know as I do," admitted Polly.
"Then what do you want to read it for?" pursued Florence, determined to come to an understanding.
"Oh, it sounds sort of good, you know," said Polly vaguely; "just as if we ought to like it. 'Most everybody does read it, and I didn't know but, if we kept at it long enough, it might teach us a little something."
"Who wants to be taught? And besides, I'd rather have something a little fresher than this," said Jean, making no secret of her heresy.
"Polly! Polly!" called a voice from below.
Polly sprang up from the floor, where she had seated herself.
"That's mamma; what can she want?" she exclaimed, running to the window and putting her head out.
Down in the street sat Mrs. Adams in their low, two-seated carriage, while Job stood nodding sleepily in the sun, as he waited for the signal to proceed.
"Don't you girls want to go for a little drive?" she called, as her daughter's head came in sight.
In an instant three other heads appeared, and she was saluted with three voices,—
"We'll be down in a minute."
The minute was a short one; for the girls snatched their hats in passing through the hall, and quickly surrounded the carriage, in a gay, laughing group. Alan came sauntering down the stairs after them, and stood leaning in the doorway, watching them settle themselves preparatory to starting. Something in the lad's position struck Mrs. Adams, and she beckoned to him.
"Come too, Alan; that is, if you can stand it with so many girls."
"May I? Is there room?"
He ran out to the carriage, then stopped, hesitating, as he saw Polly touch her mother's arm, and shake her head silently.
"I don't believe I'll go," he said, drawing back.
"Why not?" asked Mrs. Adams, in surprise.
"I don't think Polly wants me to," answered the boy frankly. "I don't want to be in the way." And he turned back to the house.
"'Tisn't that, mamma," said Polly, blushing at being caught. "I'd like to have Alan go, well enough, only I was afraid it would be too much for Job to take so many of us."
"In that case, you might have offered to be the one to give up," said her mother, in a low tone, which, though very gentle, still brought a deeper flush to Polly's face. Then she added to Alan, "Nonsense, my boy! You are thin as a rail, and don't weigh anything to speak of. Get in here this minute, and if Job gets tired, I'll make you all walk home."
Alan mounted to the front seat, where he made himself comfortable, with a boyish disregard of Florence's fresh pink gingham gown; Mrs. Adams shook the lines persuasively; Job waked and began to trudge along with an air of sombre patience which would have done credit to the scriptural original of his name.
"I am glad you are all of you used to Job," said Mrs. Adams smilingly, as they moved slowly down the main street and across the railroad track. "He really has been a valuable horse in his day, and there was a time when nothing could go by him,—why, what is the matter?" And she looked around at the girls on the back seat, as they burst into an irreverent laugh.
"Nothing, mamma," said Polly, leaning forward with her elbows on the back of the seat in front of her; "only we thought we'd heard you say something about it before."
"Let's drop them out, if they're so saucy," suggested Alan. "Don't you want me to drive, Mrs. Adams?"
"Thank you, Alan; but I don't dare trust you, when you are no more used to him, for he stumbles so. Go on, Job!" she added, with an inviting chirrup, as she leaned forward and rattled the whip up and down in its socket, to remind Job of its existence.
But Job was familiar with that operation, and from long experience he had learned its lack of significance. Accordingly, he only tilted one ear back towards his mistress, and went on at his former jog.
It was one of the finest days of the summer, one of the days when the season seems to have reached its height and appears to be standing still, for a moment, in the full enjoyment of its own beauty. A shower early in the day had washed away the dust, and every leaf and blossom by the roadside stood up in all the glad pride of its clean face, and turned its eyes disdainfully upward, away from the brown earth below. The girls chattered and laughed while they rode through the town, past the cemetery, where Mrs. Adams had some difficulty in overcoming Job's desire to turn in, across the long white bridge over the river, and through the quiet little village on its eastern bank. Then they turned southward, where the road lay over the level meadows, now past a great corn- field, now by the side of a piece of grass land dotted thickly with large yellow daisies. At their right was the broad blue river, shining like metal in the sun; before them rose the two mountains that watch over the old town, one beautiful in its irregular outlines, the other impressive in its bold dignity. No one who has lived near these hills can ever forget their spell. Though long years may have passed before his return, yet his first glance is always towards the bare, rugged cliffs, the wooded sides, and the white summit houses of these twin guardians of the quiet valley town.
"I believe I am perfectly happy," said Florence, with a sigh of content, as she leaned back and surveyed the meadows.
"I should be, if I could have some of those daisies," said Polly, pointing to a great bunch of them close by.
"Want 'em? All right, here goes!" And before Mrs. Adams could bring Job to a halt, Alan was out over the wheel.
"Don't stop; I can catch up with you," he called. "It's too hard work to get Job under way again."
He was as good as his word; for he hastily pulled up the flowers by the roots, came running after the carriage, and tossed them into Polly's lap.
"There! Now aren't you glad you brought me?" he exclaimed triumphantly, as he scrambled up the back of the carriage, like a monkey, and worked his way along to the front seat again. "You're a daisy, yourself, Alan," answered Polly, leaning out over the wheel to break off the roots. "These are lovely. Want some, girls?"
"It's going to rain to-morrow, I just know," said Molly, disregarding the daisies. "If it does, it will spoil our picnic, and that will be a shame."
"Oh, it won't rain," said Jean. "What makes you think so, Molly?"
"It always does," said Molly wisely, "when the hills look such a lovely dark blue. I heard somebody say so, ever so long ago, and I never knew it to fail."
"I don't believe in signs," remarked Polly vindictively, with her mouth full of daisy stems. "It's all just as it happens, only some people have a sign for everything. For my part, I'll wait till I see the rain coming, before I believe in it."
"That's Polly all over," said Alan. "She won't take anything on trust; she has to see it first."
"How did the reading come on to-day?" inquired Mrs. Adams, leaning back in her seat, and letting Job ramble from side to side of the road, at his will.
"Not very well," said Florence, seeing that none of the others started to reply.
"I hope I didn't break it up," Mrs. Adams answered, as she took out the whip, to brush a fly from Job's plump side.
"You needn't be afraid, Mrs. Adams; the girls are glad to get off on any terms."
"I'll tell you how 'tis, Mrs. Adams," said Jean, coming to the rescue, rather to Polly's relief. "You see, it's such warm weather, and the book wasn't real interesting, so we decided to let it go till by and by. Do you think we're very dreadful?" And she laughed up into Mrs. Adams's face, with perfect confidence in her approval.
Mrs. Adams laughed too.
"I didn't really think you would carry out your plan for very long," she said. "Polly takes Aunt Jane's words too seriously. In old times, everybody read 'Pilgrim's Progress,' but it's going out of fashion now, and—Whoa, Job! What are you doing?" she exclaimed, as the carriage tilted to one side so unexpectedly that Florence and Molly screamed a little.
Job, grieved at finding himself ignored and left out of the conversation, had apparently determined to amuse himself in his own way. He had meandered back and forth across the road, as was shown by the serpentine character of his tracks; now, catching sight of a tempting stalk of mullein by the fence, he had walked across the gutter and was just stretching his head forward to seize the coveted morsel, when Mrs. Adams interrupted him. Her first impulse was to draw him back, but kinder feelings prevailed, and she bent forward to give him the full length of the lines, saying indulgently,—
"The mischief is done already, Job, so you may as well have your lunch, for you can't tip us up any farther." And she sat there quite patiently, in spite of her strained position, until Job had devoured the mullein in a leisurely fashion. Then she reined him back into the road, remarking, "It isn't fair for poor Job to do all the work and not have any of the fun, is it?"
"I'll tell you, Mrs. Adams," suggested Alan; "let's all get out and put Job into the carriage, and draw him a mile or two, just to rest him."
"You shan't make fun of Job!" said Polly indignantly. "You didn't like what Jean said to you, and now you go and say, Job is o-l-d and s-l-o-w."
"What in the world do you spell the words for, Poll?" asked Jean. "I never have been able to make out."
"Why, Job knows what you are saying, as well as anybody, and may be he is sensitive about it," replied Polly, to the great amusement of the girls.
"We might read 'Pilgrim's Progress' to him, then," said Jean wickedly. "Perhaps it would teach him to go ahead, if he knows so much."
"Poor old Job! his going days are nearly over, aren't they, Joby?" said Mrs. Adams caressingly, as she rubbed the whip up and down over his glossy side. "Well, he's a poor, tired old fellow with a heavy load, so perhaps we'd better turn here and go home."
This proceeding met with Job's full approval. He had been walking more and more slowly, as if overcome by the effort which he had been forced to make, and seemed scarcely able to totter onward, stumbling at every stone. But with the change of direction, his life came back to him, and with a whisk of his tail and an ungainly flourish of his hind legs, he started off at a trot, turning neither to the right nor the left, but only intent on reaching home and supper.
"There!" said Mrs. Adams in a tone of disgust; "when Job does that I just want to whip him. He has played that trick on me over and over again, and still I am always deceived by it. It isn't more than two weeks since Polly and I were driving to the Glen, one very warm day. It was a strange road, and all at once Job was taken ill in such a queer way; he staggered and almost fell. Polly and I were so frightened, for we thought he was going to die, right then and there. We jumped out and walked along beside him, leading him and petting him. The road was so narrow that we couldn't turn him around, without going on ever so far; nobody was in sight, and we were both of us just ready to cry from sheer nervousness. At last we came to where we could turn him, and backed him around as carefully as could be. What did the old goose do but put down his head and give it the funniest sideways toss, and then trot off towards home, leaving us standing there in the road."
"What did you do? did you walk home?" asked Alan, while the girls laughed.
"No, indeed! We made him stop for us, and he had to trot the rest of the way, you may be sure. Go on, Job!" urged Mrs. Adams, shaking the lines violently.
But Job settled that matter by whisking his tail over the lines and holding them firmly, in spite of the attempts his mistress made to free them once more. Finding her labors of no avail, she turned her attention to the girls again.
"What if you take another plan for your reading?" she asked, pulling off one of her long gloves and turning slightly, as she rested her elbow on the back of the seat. "If you care to come to our house one or two mornings a week, through the rest of the vacation, and read aloud with me some good book,—I don't mean goody,—I should be delighted to have you. You could do the reading and amuse me while I sew."
"That's elegant!" exclaimed Jean rapturously. "What shall we read, girls?"
"But are you sure that you want us?" asked Florence doubtfully, for her mother was not particularly hospitable to the members of the V, and it seemed impossible to her that Mrs. Adams could be in earnest in her proposition.
"Indeed I do," responded Mrs. Adams heartily. "I can take that time for darning the doctor's stockings, and Polly's too, for that matter, for her toes are always coming through. I don't like to do it, but I shall be so well entertained that I probably shan't mind it at all."
"See here," said the practical Jean; "let's all bring our stockings to darn. There can't but one of us read at a time, and I just hate to do nothing but sit and twirl my thumbs."
"But I don't know how to darn stockings," said Florence helplessly.
"Time you did, then," said Jean. "If you had as many small brothers as I do, you'd have plenty of practice. Besides, I think any girl as old as we are ought to know how to mend her own stockings, whether she's rich or poor."
"So do I, Jean," said Mrs. Adams approvingly; "and yet I am ashamed to say that I have never taught Polly. But I think I'll add your plan to mine, and tell the girls to bring their darning- bags with them; and I will give you all lessons in a duty and necessity that can be made almost a fine art."
"I hate to sew," said Molly disconsolately.
"So do I," responded Jean calmly, "but I have to just the same; and that's the reason I thought I'd like to take the time when we read to do some of the worst things."
"I say," remarked Alan meditatively, as he plunged his hands into his pockets, "where's my share in this coming in?"
"Why, nowhere; you're nothing but a boy, you know," replied his sister, with an air of conscious superiority.
"One boy is as good as a dozen girls, though, ma'am," retorted Alan.
"Do you want to come too?" asked Polly. "He can, can't he, mamma?"
"I don't know as I want to, all the time," said Alan. "I'd like it when I can't do anything else; but when the boys are round, I'd rather be with them, of course."
"That settles it," said Polly, leaning forward to tickle his ear with a long-stemmed daisy. "Take us or leave us; but we don't want any half-way friends that like us when they can't get anything any better."
"Don't you mind her, Alan," said Mrs. Adams. "You can come, if you want to, and I'll protect you myself."
"If you come, though," added Polly, determined to have the last word, "you'll have to bring some stockings to darn. We shan't let in any lazy people."
MISS BEAN COMES TO LUNCH.
"Oh, dear me, Jean!" sighed Polly. "I do believe there's Miss Deborah Bean coming down the street."
"What of her?" inquired Jean indifferently.
"Why, if 'tis, she's coming here to lunch. She says all the hateful things she can think of; and you don't know how queer she is. I can't help laughing at her; and that makes mamma cross, for she wants me to be polite to her, because she's old as Methuselah and poor as Job's turkey."
"I didn't suppose your mother was ever cross," said Jean.
"Oh, she isn't cross, exactly; but sometimes she doesn't like things as well as others."
"Most people don't," remarked Jean sagely.
Miss Bean's present home was in the poorhouse, from which place of retreat she made expeditions into the town, at intervals, to visit her old acquaintances, and among them was Mrs. Adams, for whose mother she had sewed, during her younger, stronger days. On these great occasions, she was wont to cast aside the plain gown which she ordinarily wore, and bring out to the light of day the one that had for years served as her best when she went into the institution. Accordingly, it was a strange figure that turned in at the doctor's gate, and came to a halt before the two girls who were sitting on the grass under one of the tall elms on the lawn. Her gown was of some black woollen stuff, figured with green, and its short, full skirt fell in voluminous folds over her large hoops. A white muslin cape covered her shoulders; and her head was adorned with a yellow straw shaker bonnet, in the depths of which her wrinkled face, with its pointed chin and bright eyes, looked like the face of some mammoth specimen of the cat tribe, an effect that was increased by her high, shrill voice. Black lace mitts covered her hands; and she carried, point upward, a venerable brown umbrella, loosely rolled up, and held in place with two rubber bands.
"Is your ma at home?" she asked Polly abruptly.
"She's in the house," answered Polly, rising with some reluctance. "I'll go and call her. You stay here, Jean."
"Jean who?" inquired Miss Bean, bringing her spectacles to bear on Jean's blooming face.
"Jean Dwight, ma'am," said Jean demurely, in spite of a strong desire to laugh.
"Bill Dwight's daughter?"
Jean nodded, while her color rose at the rough abbreviation of her father's name.
"I want to know! He was a son of old Enos Dwight and Melissy Pettigrew; and I can remember the time, and not so very long ago, either, when the Adamses wouldn't have had anything to do with such folks," remarked Miss Bean, who Avas not only a firm believer in the aristocracy of the old town, but regarded it as her right to utter all the disagreeable truths that came into her brain.
To-day she had spoken rashly, for Polly, angry at the insult to her friend, faced her with blazing eyes, while every little curl on her head was dancing with indignation.
"It doesn't make any difference what you think about it, Miss Bean. My mother has charge of me, not you; and she's glad to have Jean come here."
"Dear sakes! Red hair does show in the temper," sighed Miss Bean, unconsciously touching another sore spot, for Polly's hair was one of her trials.
"I'd rather have red hair and a temper, than meddle with what doesn't—" Polly was beginning hotly; but remembering that the old woman, though uninvited, was yet a guest, she added hastily, "Come into the house."
When she came out under the trees again, she found Jean still sitting on the grass, with a little suspicious moisture around her eyes. Polly dropped down by her side, and impulsively pulling Jean's head over into her lap, she bent down and kissed her.
"It's a shame, Jean!" said she. "Don't you mind a word the old thing says. I don't care anything about your grandpa and grandma; they might have been brought up in jail, for all I care. It's you that I like. She's a horrid old woman."
"I don't mean to care," said Jean disconsolately; "but some people always have to tell me I'm a nobody."
"No, you aren't, you're somebody," contradicted Polly. "And as long as you're splendid yourself, I don't see what difference it makes whether you have forty cents or forty million dollars, and whether you carpenter for a living or doctor for it,—or beg for it, the way she does."
They were silent for a minute, and then Polly added, with a laugh,—
"There's one thing about it, we'll have some fun out of her, for she's going to stay to lunch, and she's so funny at the table. She minces so, and she never refuses anything to eat without telling just why she doesn't like it. One time, mamma offered her some pie, and she said, 'Oh, my, no! I never eat it. Pie-crust is grease packed in flour.' I'm so glad you are here to-day."
When the girls went into the house at lunch time, Miss Bean was in the midst of a stream of gossip. Her usual surroundings gave rise to no more varied subjects than the personal appearance of her companions, and the routine of the housework, in which they all had a share. Doubtless it was partly for this reason that the worthy woman made the most of her brief outings, to gather up any bits of information which might serve to enliven the days to come, and render her an object of admiration in the community where she was passing her time. In spite of Aunt Jane's frowns, and the efforts of Mrs. Adams to turn the conversation, she was running on and on, helped by an occasional word from the doctor, who derived much amusement from the old woman's visits. As Polly and Jean seated themselves across the table from her, she glanced up to eye them with little favor, and then went on,—
"As I was saying, I stopped in to Miss Hapgood's on my way up, and she'd just got a letter from Kate. You remember Kate Harvey, her sister that married Henry Shepard and went out to Omaha to live, don't you? He's made a lot of money, but people always said he was a miserable sort of fellow."
"Let the doctor give you some of the oysters, Miss Bean," interrupted Mrs. Adams desperately. "No, I don't eat oysters now; there's no R in August," replied Miss Bean frankly.
"Unless you spell it O-r-gust," whispered Jean, in an aside which made Polly choke over her glass of water.
"Well," resumed Miss Bean tranquilly, "Kate's got two daughters of her own, about Molly's age, and she wants 'em to come there and board, and go to school at Miss Webster's. I don't know's I wonder, for I don't suppose there's any schools in them little western towns; but Mis' Hapgood's all upset about it. I told her she'd better take 'em, and charge a good, round price for 'em; but she says she hasn't much room, and then she don't know how they'd get along with Molly."
"Do you think they'll come?" inquired Polly eagerly.
"I don't know," answered Miss Bean coldly. "Mis' Hapgood hasn't made up her mind. She sets great store by Kate, being her only sister," she went on, turning back to the doctor; "and so I shouldn't much wonder if she took 'em, after all. They say his father shot himself, and—"
"Have some of these preserved plums, Miss Bean," said Mrs. Adams, lifting the spoon persuasively.
"No, thank you. Preserves isn't very hulsome, and I don't go much on them, excepting pie-plant and molasses," answered Miss Bean, as she poured out her coffee into her saucer.
At this somewhat unexpected response, Jean pinched Polly's hand under the table, and they both giggled.
"Some folks," continued Miss Bean reflectively, "say it's a coward that commits suicide; but, my soul and body! I think it's just the other way; I never should get up spunk enough." Then, with an abrupt change of subject, she added: "Speaking of folks dying, I see Mr. Solomon Baxter as I was coming along. He's aged a good deal since his wife died, and no wonder, poor man! with all his six children to look out for. He shook hands with me, and he seemed so all cut up when I told him how lonesome he looked, that I says to him: 'Mr. Baxter, why don't you get married again? There's lots of good women left, as many as there ever was. Why don't you take Miss Roberts, now? She'd manage your children for you, I'll warrant.'"
This was too much for the doctor and the girls, and they burst out laughing, while Aunt Jane remarked stiffly,—
"Thank you, Miss Bean; but I have no present desire to be married."
"Well, I didn't know but what you might think 'twas a case of duty," responded Miss Bean grimly.
As soon as the meal was over, Polly and Jean adjourned to the lawn again, and sat down to discuss the situation, for they were both much excited over the possible coming of Molly's cousins.
"I saw some pictures of them, once," said Polly, as she settled herself in the hammock. "They were pretty, and they were just elegantly dressed, with piles of lace and things, and gold chains round their necks."
"Miss Bean said they had lots of money," said Jean thoughtfully.
"Yes," answered Polly; "and they looked as if they had it all on.. Mamma says 'tisn't a good idea for young girls to wear jewelry, and she won't let me have any at all, but just these." As she spoke, Polly touched the string of gold beads that lay closely about her throat. They had been her great-grandmother's beads, and Polly had received them for her name.
"I shouldn't wonder if they did that more out West," said Jean. "How old are they, Polly?"
"One is older than Molly," answered Polly "and the other is about Alan's age. Molly hasn't ever seen them, for they've always lived out there I hope they won't come, though," she added emphatically.
"Why not?" inquired Jean. "If they're nice I think it would be fun to have them here."
"I don't," said Polly. "There are just enough of us, as it is; and if they were here, we shouldn't get any good of Molly."
"It won't make any difference, if they don't go to the same school with us. And besides, you said this morning that you couldn't bear Molly," said Jean a little maliciously.
"You know I never meant any such thing, Jean," said Polly impatiently. "I like Molly Hapgood better than any other girl in this town, and you know that just as well as I do."
"What about me?" inquired Jean, laughing, for she was accustomed to Polly's moods, and was by no means angry at the alarming frankness of her reply, as she said tragically,—
"I like you ever so much, Jean; but, honestly, I like Molly better, when she's nice, for we've always been together; and I don't want these dreadful girls to come in between us."
"I don't believe they will, any more than Florence and I do," said Jean soothingly.
At the mention of Florence's name, Polly straightened up, and looked right into Jean's eyes.
"Jean Dwight," said she, "if you'll never, never tell, I am going to say something to you that I never told anybody before."
"What is it?" asked Jean curiously.
"You promise not to tell?"
"Why, of course, if you don't want me to."
"Well," said Polly, in a whisper, "I think Florence is a perfect little flat. There! I suppose mamma would say I was as bad as Miss Bean, with all her gossip, but I can't help it, it's true. But don't let's talk about it any more, it makes me so cross. Perhaps they won't come, anyway."
"Here comes Alan," said Jean, glancing up as the boy turned in at the gate; "maybe he can tell us something about them." In fact, the lad had come to see Polly for no other purpose than to talk the matter over with her, for Polly was his truest friend in the V, and the two children exchanged confidences with the same simple good-fellowship they might have shown, had they both been girls. Polly never snubbed Alan because he was younger, as Molly did, but invariably stood as his champion when the other girls scolded him, and tried to send him away; and Alan, on his side, never rubbed Polly the wrong way, but respected her quick temper. Of course he teased her, as every natural boy teases the girls with whom he is thrown; but it was a gay, good-natured sort of teasing that never irritated Polly in the least. During his long, rheumatic fever of the winter before, she had been a most devoted friend, dropping in to see him at all sorts of odd hours, to amuse him with her merry nonsense, and had greatly disgusted the girls by frankly announcing her preference for his society over their own. And Alan returned the compliment with interest, declaring that he would "rather have Poll in one of her tantrums than the rest of them with all their best manners."
He came deliberately across the lawn, with his black and white striped cap cocked on the very back of his head, and his hands in the side pockets of his gray coat, and calmly disregarding the curiosity of the girls, he made no attempt to speak until he had comfortably settled himself on the grass at their feet.
"Well," he inquired at length, after he had arranged himself to his liking, with his hands clasped under his yellow head; "what is it you want to know?"
"Everything," demanded Polly, comprehensively.
"All right," he answered, lazily shutting his eyes. "The earth is the planet on which we live, and is about twenty-five thousand miles round; a decimal fraction is one whose denominator is ten, one hundred, one thousand, or and so forth; America was discovered in—"
"Oh, Alan, do be sensible if you can," said Jean. "We know all that stuff. What we want is to hear about these cousins of yours that are coming."
"How did you know anything about them?" asked the boy, in surprise.
"Miss Bean is here," answered Polly. "She went to see your mother on the way, and heard about it." "Oh."
There was a world of disgust in Alan's tone. Presently he went on,—
"Well, everybody will have to hear of it now. I came over to tell you, Poll, but it seems that old woman is in ahead."
"Are they really coming, then?" asked Polly anxiously.
"Hope not," said Alan, rolling over on his face and pulling up a handful of grass; "girls enough round already."
"That's not polite," returned Polly; "but go on."
"There isn't any on," said Alan. "All there is about it is that they want to come, and I'm afraid mother is going to let them. Molly likes it, but I don't want them round in the way. I know they'll be prim and fussy, without any fun in them. I believe I'll come over here and live."
"Come on," said Polly hospitably; then she proceeded in a moral tone, "But, Alan, you ought not to talk so about them, for they're your cousins, and you ought to like your relations, you know."
"Do you like Aunt Jane?" inquired Alan, suddenly rolling over to face her once more.
But Polly was spared the necessity of making any reply, by a sudden voice behind her.
"And so this is your garden, Mrs. Adams! It's a likely place for petunias and sweet williams, but I don't think much of those new- fangled things," pointing to a brilliant bed of dwarf nasturtiums near by. Then she went on in a sing-song tone,—
"'So I've come out to view the land Where I must shortly lie.'"
"Needn't think I expect to lie in your garden, though," she hastily added, evidently fearful of being misunderstood.
"Hush, Alan! you must not laugh at her," said Polly, stifling her own merriment as best she could.
But Miss Bean, absorbed in her eloquence, had passed on out of hearing, and Jean returned to the charge.
"Come, Alan, there's a dear boy," she began persuasively, "tell us about the girls."
"I don't know much about them," answered Alan. "Katharine is the older one, about fifteen, and Jessie is just my age. Her birthday is the third and mine the seventh. I suppose they're well enough, but their pictures look a little toploftical, and I'm not over fond of that kind. They are going to bring their pony, if they come, and that will be fun, if mother will only let me ride him."
"You'll get your neck broken," predicted Polly. "Do you remember the day we tried to ride Job, and he lay down and rolled us off?"
"That was your fault," returned Alan; "if you hadn't gripped his mane so, he'd have been all right. Well," he added, sitting up and stretching himself, "mother sent me to the market, and I s'pose I must go, but I thought I'd just stop in a minute."
"Oh, dear! how I wish I had a brother!" sighed Polly, watching his boyish figure, as he sauntered away across the grass.
"Yes," said Jean slowly, as she thought of the four little brothers at home, "it is nice, but it has its drawbacks, Polly. When they all want to do the same thing at the same time, and can't wait a minute, why, then it doesn't seem quite so agreeable."
In the warm twilight, Mrs. Adams and Polly sat on the broad piazza. Miss Bean had taken her departure, long before, and Jean had gone home to help her mother get supper and put the younger children to bed. The birds were twittering their last sleepy good nights, and two or three little stars were faintly showing in the blue sky above the dark mountain, while scores of tiny fireflies were dotting the air below.
"There, Jerusalem!" Polly was saying triumphantly, as she perched herself on the broad arm of her mother's piazza chair; "now everybody is out of the way, and I can have you all to myself."
"What is it to-night?" inquired Mrs. Adams, laughing, as she pulled her light shawl over her shoulders to keep out the evening air.
"Lots of things, mamma," answered Polly, with a sudden thoughtfulness; "there's been a good deal to-day."
"About Molly's cousins, for instance?" asked Mrs. Adams.
"Yes," replied Polly; "I don't think we want them, mamma. I know they won't fit in a bit. And Alan says he doesn't want them."
"That's not quite fair of Alan," said her mother: "he oughtn't to say so without knowing anything more about them. But, Polly, you may find them pleasant friends, and like them better than you do Molly."
Polly shook her head with decision.
"I'm sure I shan't. But I'm afraid Molly will like them better than she does us."
"Jealous, Polly?" And there was a tone of regret in her mother's voice as she went on: "I am a little disappointed in my daughter. Of course, Polly, Molly will be thrown with them a great deal, much more than with you; and, so long as they are her cousins, she will probably be fond of them. But, after all these years, can't you trust Molly's friendship enough to believe that it won't make any difference in her feeling to you, but that she can love and care for you all, at the same time?"
"Sometimes I think she can, and sometimes I think she can't,'" said Polly slowly. "Once in a while, when we have had a 'scrap,' as Alan calls it, I think she doesn't care a bit about me."
"Whose fault is it, when you quarrel?" asked Mrs. Adams, smoothing the short curls. "I don't think it is all Molly's fault, any more than it is all yours. If my small daughter wants her friends to care for her, she must govern that temper and study self-control."
"I know that, mamma," broke in Polly impetuously; "but you don't have any idea how hard 'tis, nor how sorry I am after it is over."
"It is just because I do know it so well, my dear, that I keep saying this to you; for I hope I can save you from a part, at least, of the pain I have suffered in just this same way. I have been through it all, Polly, and I know that every time you give up to your temper, it is just so much easier to do it again; and if you were to go on long enough, in time you would get to where it would be impossible to stop yourself, and you would do something that might be a sorrow to you, through all your life. It is just so with every habit; the more you give way to it, the more it becomes a part of your nature. That is the reason I am trying to help you form the habit of a quiet, even temper. And now," added Mrs. Adams, changing the subject, "what else was there that we wanted to talk over?"
"'Twas Jean," said Polly, as she slipped down on the floor at her mother's feet. "Miss Bean was twitting her to-day because she wasn't rich." And Polly repeated the little conversation which had taken place under the trees.
Mrs. Adams listened thoughtfully. When Polly had finished, she said decidedly,—
"That was rather uncalled for, I think, Polly. Whatever Jean's parents may be, they are really refined people, and Jean is at heart a lady."
"What difference does it make, anyway?" asked Polly impatiently.
"Not so much as most people think," said Mrs. Adams. "If your parents are cultivated people, it helps you to make something of yourself; and whatever teaching you get from them is so much stock in trade, just as money would be, if you were starting in business. If, when you have this start, you don't make the most of it, it shows that you are unworthy of it; and if you become a grand woman without it, then you deserve ever so much more credit than the people who have had everything in their favor. Do you understand me, Polly?"
"Yes, I think I do," said Polly. "And it doesn't make any difference whether we are rich or poor, does it?"
Her mother paused for a moment, as if the question were a hard one to answer. Polly had a way of asking deeper questions than she realized. Mrs. Adams rocked back and forth in silence two or three times; then she said,—
"Yes and no, Polly. Money in itself doesn't make the least bit of difference; but people that have it can make more of themselves,— I don't say that they do, remember. If Jean didn't have to wash so many dishes nor mend so many stockings, she could give more time to study and reading every year. But, after all, I don't believe she would be half so fine, unselfish a girl as she is now, when she has to give up doing what she likes, to help her mother. It is just the same whether it is money, or family, or a fine mind, or beauty; the more that is given you, the more you are expected to make of it, and the more the shame to you if you neglect it. But we're getting into very deep subjects for so near bed-time. What did Alan come for?"
"Just to tell me about the girls," said Polly. "He says they're going to have a pony, and everything."
"How well Alan has been, all summer," remarked her mother.
There was a sudden click of the gate-latch, and a tall figure came up the walk.
"Sitting here in the damp, Isabel, and catching your death of cold! I can't afford time to sit around in the dark doing nothing, when I think of all the good that can be done around us." And Aunt Jane stalked past them into the house, and sat down to cut the leaves of the last scientific magazine.
However, though Mrs. Adams did not reply, she had made up her mind that her usual goodnight talk with Polly was far more important than all the clubs in the world, and no words from Aunt Jane could induce her to give up her nightly habit.
TWO MORE GIRLS.
"It does seem as if to-morrow afternoon never would come," Molly was saying, as she and Polly stood leaning on the fence in the early twilight.
"What time will they get here?" Polly asked her.
"Three o'clock, and I just feel as if I couldn't wait, when I think how every minute is bringing them along. It's going to be splendid to have them here. You must come over to see them the very first thing, Polly, for I want them to know my best friend right away."
"I do hope they'll be nice," said Polly thoughtfully.
"Nice!" echoed Molly. "Of course they are. I'll tell you what, Polly, Alan has been running them down to you. He is so queer about it; I should think he'd like to have them come. They're just as pretty as they can be, and boys always like pretty girls."
"Oh, dear," sighed Polly; "how nice it would be to be pretty!"
"Why, you aren't so bad, Polly." And Molly surveyed her with frank criticism. "If only your nose wasn't quite so puggy, and you didn't have quite so many freckles, you'd be real good-looking. Besides, Alan says he likes your looks better than he does Florence's."
"Does he?" And Polly flushed with pleasure.
"Yes, he told mamma so the other day; you know boys have queer tastes," answered Molly flatteringly.
"But I wish I did know of something to take off freckles and tan," said Polly, rubbing her cheeks with a vicious force. "Aunt Jane wants me to wear a veil and keep white; but I'd rather be black and speckled all over, than make a mummy of myself. I think fresh air and sunshine were made to be enjoyed, and not to be peeked out at through a rag."
"It must be horrid to freckle," said Molly sympathetically. "Did you ever try anything for it, Poll?"
"No, only lemon juice once, and it all ran into my eyes and made them smart; but it didn't touch the freckles any."