LITTLE MR. THIMBLEFINGER AND HIS QUEER COUNTRY
What the Children Saw and Heard there
JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS AUTHOR OF "UNCLE REMUS," ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY OLIVER HERFORD
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY The Riverside Press, Cambridge 1895
Copyright, 1894, BY JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS AND HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & CO.
All rights reserved.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A. Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton and Company
Books by Joel Chandler Harris.
NIGHTS WITH UNCLE REMUS. Illustrated. 12mo, $1.50; paper, 50 cents.
MINGO, AND OTHER SKETCHES IN BLACK AND WHITE. 16mo, $1.25; paper, 50 cents.
BALAAM AND HIS MASTER, AND OTHER SKETCHES. 16mo, $1.25.
UNCLE REMUS AND HIS FRIENDS. Illustrated. 12mo, $1.50.
LITTLE MR. THIMBLEFINGER AND HIS QUEER COUNTRY. Illustrated. Crown 8vo, $2.00
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & CO. BOSTON AND NEW YORK.
A LITTLE NOTE TO A LITTLE BOOK.
The stories that follow belong to three categories. Some of them were gathered from the negroes, but were not embodied in the tales of Uncle Remus, because I was not sure they were negro stories; some are Middle Georgia folklore stories, and no doubt belong to England; and some are merely inventions.
They were all written in the midst of daily work on a morning newspaper,—a fact that will account in some measure for their crude setting.
J. C. H. WEST END, ATLANTA, GA.
PAGE I. THE GRANDMOTHER OF THE DOLLS 5
II. MR. THIMBLEFINGER'S QUEER COUNTRY 17
III. MR. THIMBLEFINGER'S FRIENDS 33
IV. TWO QUEER STORIES 47
V. THE TALKING-SADDLE 61
VI. THE TALKING-SADDLE AND THE THIEF 73
VII. THE LADDER OF LIONS 86
VIII. BROTHER TERRAPIN'S FIDDLE-STRING 101
IX. THE LOOKING-GLASS CHILDREN 110
X. MR. RABBIT AS A RAIN-MAKER 121
XI. HOW BROTHER BEAR'S HAIR WAS COMBED 131
XII. A SINGING-MATCH 139
XIII. THE STRAWBERRY-GIRL 147
XIV. THE WITCH OF THE WELL 155
XV. THE BEWITCHED HUNTSMAN 165
XVI. THE THREE IVORY BOBBINS 175
XVII. "KEEN-POINT," "COB-HANDLE," AND "BUTCH" 185
XVIII. MRS. MEADOWS RESUMES HER STORY 195
XIX. A STORY OF THE RIVER 215
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
PAGE MR. RABBIT FELL KERTHUMP (Page 41) Frontispiece
RAG-TAG ROLLING OUT OF THE CORNER 10
THE GRANDMOTHER OF THE DOLLS AND THE BIG BLACK CAT 14
SWEETEST SUSAN WAKING UP 18
FOLLOWING LITTLE MR. THIMBLEFINGER 24
MR. RABBIT AND MRS. MEADOWS 36
MR. BILLY-GOAT AND MR. WOLF 52
MY MOTHER WASHING THE OLD MAN'S COAT AND WAISTCOAT 56
DRUSILLA WAITING ON MR. RABBIT 62
TIP-TOP AND THE MAYOR 68
THE MAYOR PARDONING THE THIEF 82
CHICKAMY CRANY CROW AND TICKLE-MY-TOES 84
MR. RABBIT BANDAGING BROTHER LION'S PAW 92
THE LADDER OF LIONS 98
MR. RABBIT FIDDLING FOR BROTHER TERRAPIN 104
BROTHER TERRAPIN TUMBLING INTO THE CREEK 108
SWEETEST SUSAN, MEETING HER REFLECTION 110
THEY ALL PLUNGED INTO THE LOOKING-GLASS 118
MR. RABBIT SAYING NOTHING 124
BROTHER BEAR ARGUING THE RAIN QUESTION 128
MRS. BEAR HANGING OUT CLOTHES 134
LITTLE MR. THIMBLEFINGER 140
THE SINGING-MATCH 144
GRANNY GRIM-EYE FINDS A BEAUTIFUL LITTLE GIRL ASLEEP 148
THE LITTLE OLD MAN DISCOVERS THE STRAWBERRY-GIRL 150
THE GOLDEN-HAIRED, BEAUTIFUL LITTLE GIRL 164
THE LITTLE OLD MAN, THREE WITS, AND THE STAG 174
THE STAG AND THE WITCH 180
THE LITTLE GIRL AND THE OLD MAN 192
VALENTINE SLAYING THE SPIDER 210
VALENTINE TALKING TO THE RIVER 220
BUSTER JOHN SHAKING HANDS WITH MR. RABBIT 228
LITTLE MR. THIMBLEFINGER AND HIS QUEER COUNTRY.
THE GRANDMOTHER OF THE DOLLS.
Once upon a time there lived on a plantation, in the very middle of Middle Georgia, a little girl and a little boy and their negro nurse. The little girl's name was Sweetest Susan. That was the name her mother gave her when she was a baby, and she was so good-tempered that everybody continued to call her Sweetest Susan when she grew older. She was seven years old. The little boy's name was Buster John. That was the name his father had given him. Buster John was eight. The nurse's name was Drusilla, and she was twelve. Drusilla was called a nurse, but that was just a habit people had. She was more of a child than either Sweetest Susan or Buster John, but she was very much larger. She was their playmate—their companion, and a capital one she made.
Sweetest Susan had black hair and dark eyes like her father, while Buster John had golden hair and brown eyes like his mother. As for Drusilla, she was as black as the old black cat, and always in a good humor, except when she pretended to be angry. Sweetest Susan had wonderful dark eyes that made her face very serious except when she laughed, but she was as full of fun as Buster John, who was always in some sort of mischief that did nobody any harm.
These children were not afraid of anything. They scorned to run from horses, or cows, or dogs. They were born on the big plantation, and they spent the greater part of the day out of doors, save when the weather was very cold or very wet. They had no desire to stay in the house, except when they were compelled to go to bed, and a great many times they fretted a little because they thought bedtime came too soon.
Sweetest Susan had a great many dolls, and she was very fond of them. She had a China Doll, a Jip-jap Doll, a Rag Doll, a Rubber Doll, a White Doll, a Brown Doll, and a Black Doll. Sometimes she and Drusilla would play with the Dolls out in the yard, and sometimes Buster John would join them when he had nothing better to do. But every evening Sweetest Susan and Drusilla would carry the Dolls into the bedroom and place them side by side against the wall. Sweetest Susan wanted them placed there, she said, so she could see her children the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning.
But one night Sweetest Susan went to bed crying, and this was so unusual that Drusilla forgot to put the Dolls in their places. Sweetest Susan's feelings were hurt. She had not been very good, and her mother had called her Naughty Susan instead of Sweetest Susan. Buster John, in the next room, wanted to know what the matter was, but Sweetest Susan wouldn't tell him, and neither would she tell Drusilla. After a while Sweetest Susan's mother came in and kissed her. That helped her some, but she lay awake ever so long sobbing a little and thinking how she must do so as not to be called Naughty Susan.
Drusilla lay on a pallet near Sweetest Susan's bed, but, for a wonder, Drusilla lay awake too. She said nothing, but she was not snoring, and Sweetest Susan could see the whites of her eyes shining. The fire that had been kindled on the hearth so as to give a light (for the weather was not cold) flickered and flared, and little blue flames crept about over the sputtering pine-knot, jumping off into the air and then jumping back. The blue flames flickered and danced and crept about so, and caused such a commotion among the shadows that were running about the room and trying to hide themselves behind the chairs and in the corners, that the big brass andirons seemed to be alive.
While Sweetest Susan was lying there watching the shadows and wondering when Drusilla would go to sleep, she heard a voice call out,—
"Oh, dear! I believe I've got smut all over my frock again!"
It was the queerest little voice that ever was heard. It had a tinkling sound, such as Susan had often made when she tied her mother's gold thimble to a string and struck it with a knitting-needle. Just as she was wondering where it came from, a little old woman stepped from behind one of the andirons and shook the ashes from her dress.
"I think I'd better stay at home," said the little old woman, "if I can't come down the chimney without getting smut all over my frock. I wonder where Mr. Thimblefinger is?"
"Oh, I'm here," exclaimed another tinkling voice from the fireplace, "but I'm not coming in. They are not asleep, and, even if they were, I see the big Black Cat in that chair there."
"Much I care!" cried the little old woman snappishly. "I'll call you when I want you."
Then she went around the room where Sweetest Susan's Dolls were scattered, and looked at each one as it lay asleep. Then she shook her head and sighed.
"They look as if they were tired, poor things!" she said. "And no wonder! I expect they have been pulled and hauled about and dragged around from pillar to post since I was here last."
Then the little old woman touched the Dolls with her cane, one by one. Each Doll called out as it was touched,—
"Is that you, Granny?"
And to each one she replied:—
"Reser, roser, rise! And rib and rub your eyes!"
Sweetest Susan was not at all alarmed. She felt as if she had been expecting something of the kind. The Dolls arose and ranged themselves in front of the fireplace—all except the Rag Doll.
"Where's Rag-Tag?" inquired the little old woman anxiously.
"Here I am, Granny!" replied the Rag Doll. "I'm lame in one leg and I can't walk with the other, and my arm's out of joint."
"Tut! tut!" said the little old woman. "How can you be lame in your legs when there's no bone in them? How can your arm be out of joint when there's no joint? Get up!"
Rag-Tag rolled out of the corner and tumbled across the floor, heels over head.
"Now, then," said the little old woman, opening her satchel, "what can I do for you?"
"She's pulled all my hair out!" whispered the China Doll.
"She's mashed my nose flat!" cried the Jip-jap Doll.
"She's put one of my eyes out!" whined the Brown Doll.
"She's put chalk all over me!" blubbered the Black Doll.
"She hasn't hurt me!" exclaimed the Rubber Doll.
"She's made a hole in my back, and the sawdust is all running out!" whined Rag-Tag.
"I'll attend to you first, before you bleed to death," said the little old woman, frowning. Then she rapped on the floor with her cane and cried out:—
"Long-Legged Spinner, Come earn your dinner!"
While Sweetest Susan was wondering what this meant, she saw a big Black Spider swing down from the ceiling and hang, dangling close to the little old woman's face. Its little eyes sparkled like coals of fire, and its hairy mouth worked as if it were chewing something. Sweetest Susan shivered as she looked at it, but she didn't scream.
"A thimbleful of fresh cobwebs, Long-Legged Spinner!" said the little old woman, in a businesslike way.
Then the big Black Spider moved his legs faster than a cat can wink her eyes, and in a few seconds the fresh cobwebs were spun.
"That is very nice," said the little old woman. "Here's a fat Bluebottle for you."
The big Black Spider seized the Fly and ran nimbly to the ceiling again. The Fly buzzed and buzzed in a pitiful way, and Sweetest Susan thought to herself, "Oh, what should I do if that was poor me!"
Then the little old woman hunted in her satchel until she found a piece of mutton suet, and with this and the fresh cobwebs she quickly stopped the hole in Rag-Tag's back. This done, she went around and doctored each one. She glued more hair on the China Doll. She fixed the nose of the Jip-jap Doll. She gave a new blue eye to the Brown Doll.
"There!" she exclaimed when she had finished, "I think you look a little more like yourself now. But you would look a great deal better if you had any clothes fit to wear. Now pay attention! What is the name of this horrible giantess that drags you about and beats you so?"
"It's no giantess, Granny," replied Rag-Tag. "It's a little girl, and sometimes she's very, very good."
"Hush!" cried the little old woman. "Speak when you are spoken to."
"She is a giantess, Granny," said the Brown Doll. "She's taller than that chair yonder."
"Where is she now?" the little old woman asked fiercely.
"She's asleep in the bed, Granny," said the Brown Doll.
"Pinch her good, Granny!" cried the Wax Doll. "Put out her eyes!"
"Scratch her, Granny! Pull out her hair!" pleaded the Brown Doll.
"Bump her head against the wall, Granny! Mash her nose!" exclaimed the Jip-jap Doll.
The Rag-Tag Doll said not a word.
All this time the little old woman was searching in her satchel for something, and Sweetest Susan began to get frightened.
"I've come off without my specs," said the little old woman, "and I can't see a stiver with such a light as this."
Just then the big Black Cat that had been sleeping quietly in a chair rose and stretched himself and gaped, showing his long white teeth. He jumped to the floor and walked back and forth purring and rubbing against the little old woman in a friendly way.
"Get out! You'll push me over," she cried. "Oh, will you go away? I'll stick you with my needle! I certainly will! Keep your long tail out of my face! Oh, how can I see to do anything? Will you go away? I'll hit you as sure as I am standing here!"
"Don't," said the big Black Cat, stopping and looking straight at the little old woman. "Don't you know it brings bad luck to hit a black cat?"
"If I hit you, you'll feel it," cried the little old woman.
"Stop," exclaimed the big Black Cat. "I know what you are here for. Do you see my eyes? They are as green as grass. Do you see my teeth? They are as strong as iron. Do you see my claws? They are as sharp as needles. If I look at you hard you'll shiver; if I bite you you'll squall; if I scratch you you'll bleed."
The Grandmother of the Dolls looked at the big Black Cat long and hard.
"Do I know you?" she asked.
"I know you," replied the Black Cat.
"What is your name?" she asked.
"It is time for you to go hunting," she said. She wanted to get him out of the room.
"I have found what I was hunting for," said Billy-Billy Blackfoot.
"There's a rat gnawing in the pantry."
"He'll be fatter when I catch him."
"There's a piece of cheese in the dining-room."
"It won't spoil until I eat it."
"There's a pan of milk in the kitchen."
"It won't turn sour till I drink it."
"There's catnip in the garden."
"It will grow till I want it."
The Grandmother of the Dolls then made a cross-mark on the carpet and waved her cane in the air. This was done to put a spell on Billy-Billy Blackfoot, but before the spell could work Billy-Billy made a circle by chasing his tail around. Then he glared at the little old woman and slowly closed one eye. This was too much. The Grandmother of the Dolls seized her cane and made a furious attack on Billy-Billy Blackfoot, but he leaped nimbly out of the way and the cane fell with a whack on the bald head of the Brown Doll.
At this there was a tremendous uproar. The Brown Doll screamed: "Murder!" Billy-Billy Blackfoot's tail swelled to twice its natural size; the hair-brush fell on the floor; the dustpan rattled; the shovel and tongs staggered out from the chimney-corner and rolled over on the hearth; the Dolls scrambled and scurried under the bed, and the little old woman whisked up the chimney like a spark from a burning log.
When Sweetest Susan raised up in bed to look around she saw Drusilla sitting on her pallet rubbing her eyes, but Billy-Billy Blackfoot was sitting by the fireplace washing his face as quietly as if nothing had happened. At first it seemed to Sweetest Susan that it had all been a dream, but presently she heard a small voice that came down the chimney:
"Mr. Thimblefinger! Mr. Thimblefinger! It is nine minutes after twelve." There was a pause, and then the small voice sounded farther away, like an echo, "Nine minutes and two seconds after twelve!"
MR. THIMBLEFINGER'S QUEER COUNTRY.
The next morning Sweetest Susan was awake early. She wanted very much to turn over and go to sleep again, for her eyes were heavy and her body was tired. But the moment she remembered the wonderful events of the night before, she sat up in bed and looked around. Drusilla was still asleep and snoring very loudly, but Sweetest Susan jumped out of bed and shook her by the shoulder.
"Drusilla! Drusilla! wake up!" cried Sweetest Susan. Drusilla stopped short in her snoring and turned over with a groan. She kept her eyes closed, and in a moment she would have been snoring again, but Sweetest Susan continued to shake her and called her until she squalled out:—
"Who dat? What you want? Oh, Lordy!"
"Wake up, Drusilla," said Sweetest Susan, "I want to ask you something."
"Ain't I 'wake? How kin I be any 'waker when I'm 'wake? Oh, is dat you, honey? I wuz skeer'd 't was dat lil' bit er ol' 'oman. Whar she gone? Las' time I seed her she wuz des walkin' 'roun' here like she wuz gwine ter tromple on me. I laid low, I did."
Sweetest Susan clasped her hands together and cried: "Oh, wasn't it a dream, Drusilla? Did it all happen sure enough?"
Drusilla shook her head wildly. "How kin we bofe have de same kind er dream? I seed de 'oman gwine on, en you seed 'er gwine on. Uh-uh! Don't talk ter me 'bout no dreams."
The whole matter was settled when Buster John cried out from the next room: "What fuss was that you were making in there last night, squealing and squeaking?"
The matter was soon explained to Buster John, and after breakfast the children went out and sat on the big wood-pile and talked it all over. The boy asked a hundred questions, but still his curiosity was not satisfied.
All this time the birds were singing in the trees and the wood-sawyers sawing in the pine logs. Jo-reeter, jo-reeter, jo-ree! sang the birds. Craik, craik, craik, went the wood-sawyers.
"There are fifty dozen of them," said Buster John.
"Fifty-five thousand you'd better say," replied Sweetest Susan. "Just listen!"
"No needs ter listen," cried Drusilla. "You'd hear 'em ef you plugged up yo' years."
Buster John put his knife-blade under a thick piece of pine bark and pried it up to find one of the busy sawyers. The bark was strong, but presently it seemed to come up of its own accord, and out jumped the queerest little man they had ever seen or even heard of except in make-believe story-books. Buster John dropped his knife, and down it went into the wood-pile. He could hear it go rattling from log to log nearly to the bottom. Sweetest Susan gave a little screech. Drusilla sat bolt upright and exclaimed:—
"You all better come en go see yo' ma. I want ter see 'er myse'f."
But there was nothing to be frightened at. The tiny man had brushed the dust and trash from his clothes, and then turned to the children with a good-humored smile. He was not above four inches high. He had on a dress-coat. Drusilla afterward described it as a claw-hammer coat, velveteen knickerbockers, and silver buckles on his shoes. His hat was shaped like a thimble, and he had a tiny feather stuck in the side of it.
"I'm much obliged to you for getting me out of that scrape," he said with a bow to all the children. "It was a pretty tight place. I stayed out last night just one second and a half too late, and when I went to go home I found the door shut. So I just crawled under the bark there for a nap. The log must have turned in some way, for when I woke up and tried to crawl out I found I couldn't manage it. I wouldn't have minded that so much, but just then I saw one of those terrible flat-headed creatures making his way toward me. Why, his head was a sawmill! He was gnawing the wood out of his way and clearing a road to me. I tried to draw my sword, but I couldn't get it from under me. Then I felt the bark rising. I pushed as hard as I could, and here I am."
"Ax 'im his name," said Drusilla in an awe-stricken tone.
"Ah, I forgot," responded the little man. "I know you, but you don't know me. My name is Mr. Thimblefinger, and I shall be happy to serve you. Whenever you want me just tap three times on the head of your bed."
"Thank goodness! I don't sleep in no bed," exclaimed Drusilla.
"That makes no difference," said Mr. Thimblefinger. "If you sleep on a pallet just tap on the floor."
"Please, Mister, don't talk dat a-way," pleaded Drusilla, "kase I'll be constant a-projeckin' wid dat tappin', an' de fus' time you come I'll holler fire."
"Don't notice her," said Buster John, "she talks to hear herself talk."
"I see," replied Mr. Thimblefinger, tapping his forehead significantly and nodding his head.
"You kin nod," said Drusilla defiantly, "but my head got mo' in it dan you kin comb out."
"I believe you!" exclaimed Mr. Thimblefinger, "I believe you!" He spoke so earnestly that Sweetest Susan and Buster John laughed, and Drusilla laughed with them.
"You dropped your knife," said Mr. Thimblefinger. "I'm sorry of it. I can't bring it up to you, but I'll see if I can't crawl under and get it out."
With that he leaped nimbly from log to log and disappeared under the wood-pile. The children went down to see what he would do. They were so astonished at his droll appearance that they forgot their curiosity.
"Is that a fairy, brother?" asked Sweetest Susan in a low voice.
"No!" exclaimed Buster John with a lofty air, but not loudly. "Don't you see he's not a bit like the fairies we read about in books? Why, he was afraid of a wood-sawyer."
"That's so," Sweetest Susan rejoined.
"He's a witch, dat what he is," said Drusilla.
"Shucks!" whispered Buster John. He heard the voice of Mr. Thimblefinger under the wood-pile.
"I've found it, I've found it!" he cried. And presently he made his appearance, dragging the knife after him. He tugged at it until he got it out, and then he sat down on a chip, wiped the perspiration from his eyes, and fanned himself with a thin flake of pine bark no bigger than a bee's wing.
"Pick me up and let's go on top of the wood-pile," said Mr. Thimblefinger after a while. "It's suffocating down here. Ouch! don't tickle me, if you do I shall have a fit." Buster John had lifted him by placing a thumb and forefinger under his arms. "And don't squeeze me, neither," the little man went on. "I was cramped under that bark until I'm as sore as a boil all over. Goodness! I wish I was at home!"
"Where do you live?" asked Sweetest Susan when they were once more seated on the wood-pile.
"Not far from here, not very far," replied Mr. Thimblefinger, shaking his head sagely, "but it is a different country—oh, entirely different."
Sweetest Susan edged away from the little man at this, and Drusilla stretched her eyes.
"What is it like?" asked Buster John boldly.
Mr. Thimblefinger reflected a while, and then shook his head. "I can show it to you," he said, "but I can't describe it."
"Pick 'im up an' show 'im to your ma!" exclaimed Drusilla suddenly.
"No, no, no!" cried Mr. Thimblefinger, leaping to his feet. "That would spoil everything. No grown person living in this country has ever seen me. No, no! don't try that. It would spoil your luck. I wouldn't be here now if the Dolls' Grandmother hadn't begged me to come with her last night. But I'll come to see you,"—he pointed at Drusilla. "I'll come often."
"I des said dat fer ter see what you'd say," protested Drusilla. "You wan' gwine ter take 'im, wuz you, honey?" This question was addressed to Buster John, who scorned to answer it.
"Grown people wouldn't understand me," Mr. Thimblefinger explained. "They know a great deal too much to suit me."
"How do you get to your country?" inquired Buster John, who was keen for an adventure.
"The nearest way is by the spring," replied Mr. Thimblefinger. "That is the only way you could go."
"Can I go too?" asked Sweetest Susan. "And Drusilla?"
"Oh, of course," said Mr. Thimblefinger, shrugging his shoulders. "One can go or all can go."
"Do you go down the spring branch?" asked Buster John.
"No, no," replied Mr. Thimblefinger. "Below the spring and below the branch."
"Do you mean under the spring?" Sweetest Susan inquired, with some hesitation.
"That's it," cried Mr. Thimblefinger. "Right down through the spring and under it."
"Why, we'd drown," said Sweetest Susan. "The spring is deep."
"Well, you'll ha' ter 'skuze me," exclaimed Drusilla. "Dat water's too wet fer me."
Buster John waited for an explanation, but none was forthcoming.
"We couldn't go through the spring, you know," he said presently.
"How do you know?" asked Mr. Thimblefinger slyly. "Did you ever try it?"
He asked each of the children this, and the reply was that none of them had ever tried it.
"I put my foot in it once," said Buster John, "and the water was just like other spring water. I know we can't go through it."
"Come now!" Mr. Thimblefinger suggested, "don't say you know. Sometimes people live to be very old and don't know the very things they ought to know."
"But I know that," replied Buster John confidently.
"Very well, then," said Mr. Thimblefinger, pulling out a tiny watch, "did you ever feel of the water in the spring at precisely nine minutes and nine seconds after twelve o'clock?"
"N-o-o-o," replied Buster John, taken by surprise, "I don't think I ever did."
"Of course not!" cried Mr. Thimblefinger gayly. "You had no reason. Well, at nine minutes and nine seconds after twelve o'clock the water in the spring is not wet. It is as dry as the air we breathe. It is now two minutes after twelve o'clock. We'll go to the spring, wait until the time comes, and then you will see for yourselves."
As they went toward the spring—Mr. Thimblefinger running on before with wonderful agility—Drusilla touched Sweetest Susan on the arm. "Honey," said she, "don't let dat creetur pull you in de spring. Goodness knows, ef he puts his han' on me I'm gwine ter squall."
"Will you hush?" exclaimed Buster John impatiently.
"Watch out, now," said Drusilla defiantly. "Ef you gits drownded in dar I'll sho' tell yo' ma."
Fortunately, there was no one near the spring, so Mr. Thimblefinger advanced boldly, followed closely by the children, though Drusilla seemed to hang back somewhat doubtfully. When they arrived there Mr. Thimblefinger took out his tiny timepiece and held it in his hand. The children watched him with breathless interest, especially Buster John, who was thrilled with the idea of having an adventure entirely different from any that he had read of in the story-books.
As the little man stood there holding his watch and looking at it intently, the dinner-bell rang, first in the hallway and then in the back porch. The children remembered it afterward.
"You all better go git yo' dinner 'fo' it git col', stidder projeckin' 'roun' here wid you dunner what," remarked Drusilla.
"Now!" exclaimed Mr. Thimblefinger, "put your hand in the spring."
Buster John did as he was bid, and, to his amazement, he could feel no water. He could see it, but he couldn't feel it. He turned pale with excitement and withdrew his hand. Then he put his other hand in, but the result was the same. He plunged his arm in up to the elbow, but his sleeve remained perfectly dry.
"Try it, sis," he cried.
Sweetest Susan did so, and boldly declared there was no water in the spring. She wanted Drusilla to try to wet her hand, but Drusilla sullenly declined.
Mr. Thimblefinger settled the matter by walking into the spring.
"Now, then, if you are going, come along," he cried. "You have just seventeen and a half seconds." He waved his hand from the bottom of the spring and stood waiting. A spring lizard ran near him, and he drew his sword and chased it into a hole. A crawfish showed its head, and he drove it away. Then he waved his hand again. "Come on, the coast is clear."
Buster John put his hand in the water again, and this seemed to satisfy him. He stepped boldly into the spring, and in a moment he stood by Mr. Thimblefinger, laughing, but still excited by the novelty of his experience. He called to his sister:—
"Come on, sis. It's splendid down here."
"Is it wet?" she asked plaintively. "Is it cold?"
"No!" replied Buster John impatiently. "Don't be a baby."
"Come on, Drusilla! You've got to come. Mamma said you must go wherever we went," cried Sweetest Susan.
"No, ma'am!" exclaimed Drusilla, with emphasis. "She ain't tol' me ter foller you in de fier an' needer in de water!"
But Sweetest Susan didn't wait to hear. She jumped into the spring with a splash and then stood by her brother very red in the face.
"Five more seconds!" cried Mr. Thimblefinger in a businesslike way.
Drusilla looked in the spring and hesitated. She could see the water plain enough, but then she could also see Sweetest Susan and Buster John, and they seemed to be very comfortable.
"I'm comin'," she yelled, "but ef you all make me git drownded in dry water I'll ha'nt you ef it's de las' thing I do!"
Then she shut her eyes tight, put her fingers in her ears, and leaped into the spring. She floundered around with her eyes still shut, and gasped and caught her breath just like a drowning person, until she heard the others laughing at her, and then she opened her eyes with astonishment.
Suddenly there was a loud, splashing sound heard above and around them and under their feet.
"Watch out!" cried Mr. Thimblefinger. "Run this way! The water is getting wet again!"
The way seemed to widen before them as they ran, and in a moment they found themselves below the "gum," or "curb," of the spring and beyond it. But as they went forward the bottom of the spring seemed to grow and expand, and the sun shining through gave a soft light that was very pleasant to the eye. The grass was green and the leaves of the trees and the flowers were pale pink and yellow.
Mr. Thimblefinger seemed to be very happy. He ran along before the children as nimbly as a killdee, talking and laughing all the time. Presently Drusilla, who brought up the rear, suddenly stopped in her tracks and looked around. Then she uttered an exclamation of fright. Sweetest Susan and Buster John paused to see what was the matter.
"Wharbouts did we come in at?" she asked.
Then, for the first time, the children saw that the bottom of the spring had seemed to expand, until it spread over their heads and around on all sides as the sky does in our country.
"Don't bother about that," said Mr. Thimblefinger. "No matter how big it looks, it's nothing but the bottom of the spring after all."
"But how are we to get out, please?" asked Sweetest Susan.
"The same way you came in," said Mr. Thimblefinger.
"I tol' you! I tol' you!" exclaimed Drusilla, swinging her right arm up and down vigorously. "Ef you kin fly you kin git out, an' you look much like flyin'. Dat what you git by not mindin' me an' yo' ma!"
"Tut! tut!" exclaimed Mr. Thimblefinger. "I'll 'sicc' the Katydids on you if you don't stop scaring the little girl. Come! we are not far from my house. We'll go there and see what the neighbors have sent in for dinner."
Buster John followed him as readily as before, but Sweetest Susan and Drusilla were not so eager. They had no device, however, and Drusilla made the best of it.
"I ain't skeered ez I wuz. He talk mo' and mo' like folks."
So they went on toward Mr. Thimblefinger's house.
MR. THIMBLEFINGER'S FRIENDS.
"I hope you are not tired," said Mr. Thimblefinger to Sweetest Susan when they had been on their way for some little time. "Because if you are you can rest yourself by taking longer steps."
Buster John was ready to laugh at this, but he soon discovered that Mr. Thimblefinger was right. He found that he could hop and jump ever so far in this queer country, and the first use he made of the discovery was to jump over Drusilla's head. This he did with hardly any effort. After that the journey of the children, which had grown somewhat tiresome (though they wouldn't say so), became a frolic. They skimmed along over the gray fields with no trouble at all, but Drusilla found it hard to retain her balance when she jumped high. Mr. Thimblefinger, who had a reason for everything, was puzzled at this. He paused a while and stood thinking and rubbing his chin. Then he said that either Drusilla's head was too light or her heels too heavy—he couldn't for the life of him tell which.
There was one thing that bothered the children. If Mr. Thimblefinger's house was just big enough to fit him (as Buster John expressed it), how could they go inside? Sweetest Susan was so troubled that she asked Drusilla about it. But Drusilla shook her head vigorously.
"Don't come axin' me," she cried. "I done tol' you all right pine-blank not ter come. Ef de house lil' like dat creetur is, what you gwine do when night come? En den spozen 'pon top er dat dat a big rain come up? Oh, I tol' you 'fo' you started! Who in de name er sense ever heah talk er folks gwine down in a spring? You mought er know'd sump'in gwine ter happen. Oh, I tol' you!"
There was no denying this, and Sweetest Susan and her brother were beginning to feel anxious, when an exclamation from Mr. Thimblefinger attracted their attention.
"We are nearly there," he shouted. "Yonder is the house. My! won't the family be surprised when they see you!"
Sure enough there was the house, and it was not a small one, either. Drusilla said it looked more like a barn than a house, but Buster John said it didn't make any difference what it looked like so long as they could rest there and get something to eat, for they had had no dinner.
"I hope dey got sho' 'nuff vittles—pot-licker an' dumplin's, an' sump'in you kin fill up wid," said Drusilla heartily.
Mr. Thimblefinger, who had been running a little way ahead, suddenly paused and waited for the children to come up.
"Come to think of it," he remarked, "you may have heard of some of my family. I call them my family, but they are no kin to me. We just live together in the same house for company's sake."
"They are not fairies?" suggested Sweetest Susan.
Mr. Thimblefinger shook his head. "Oh, no! Just common every-day people like myself. We put on no airs. Did you ever hear of Mrs. Meadows? And Mr. Rabbit? And Mrs. Rabbit?"
"Dem what wuz in de tale?" asked Drusilla.
"Yes," said Mr. Thimblefinger, "the very same persons."
"Sho' 'nuff!" exclaimed Drusilla. "Why, we been hear talk er dem sence 'fo' we wuz knee-high."
Sweetest Susan and Buster John said they had often heard of Mr. Rabbit and Mrs. Meadows. This seemed to please Mr. Thimblefinger very much. He smiled and nodded approval.
"Did they ever have you in a story?" asked Buster John.
"No, no!" replied Mr. Thimblefinger. "I was so little they forgot me." He laughed at his own joke, but it was very plain that he didn't relish the idea of not having his name in a book.
Presently the children came to the house, but they hesitated at the gate and stood there in fear and trembling. What they saw was enough to frighten them. An old woman was sitting in a chair knitting. She was not different from many old women the children had seen, but near her sat a Rabbit as big as a man. He was a tremendous creature, grizzly and gray, and watery-eyed from age. He sat in a rocking-chair smoking a pipe.
"Le' 's go back," whispered Drusilla. "Dat ar creetur bigger dan a hoss. Ef he git a glimp' us we er gone—gone!"
Sweetest Susan shivered and looked at Buster John, and Buster John looked at Mr. Thimblefinger. But Mr. Thimblefinger ran forward, crying out:—
"Howdy, folks, howdy! I've brought some friends home to dinner." He beckoned to the children. "Come on and see Mrs. Meadows and Mr. Rabbit."
Mrs. Meadows immediately dropped her knitting in her lap, and threw her hands up to her head, as if to arrange her hair.
"Come in," said Mr. Thimblefinger to the children.
"Yes, come on," exclaimed Mr. Rabbit in a voice that sounded as if he had a bad cold.
"I'm in no fix to be seen," said Mrs. Meadows, "but I'm glad to see you, anyhow. Come right in. Take off your things and make yourself at home. How did you get here? I reckon that little trick there has been telling tales out of school." She pointed at Mr. Thimblefinger and laughed.
"He brought us," said Sweetest Susan. "I'm sorry we came."
"Now, don't say that," remarked Mrs. Meadows kindly. "What are you afraid of?"
"Of him," replied Sweetest Susan, nodding her head toward Mr. Rabbit.
"Is that all?" exclaimed Mrs. Meadows. "Why, he's as harmless as a kitten."
"Yes, yes!" said Mr. Rabbit complacently. "No harm in me—no harm in old people. Just give us a little room in the corner—a little place where we can sit and nod—and there's no harm in us. I'm just as glad you've come as I can be. I see you've brought the Tar Baby. She's grown some since I saw her last." Mr. Rabbit looked at Drusilla with considerable curiosity. "I hope she's not as sticky as she used to be."
"Hey!" cried Buster John, laughing. "Mr. Rabbit thinks Drusilla is the Tar Baby!"
Drusilla tossed her head scornfully. "Huh! I ain't no Tar Baby. I may be a nigger, an' I speck I is, but I ain't no Tar Baby. My mammy done tol' me 'bout de Tar Baby in de tale, an' she got it fum her gran'daddy. Ef I'm de Tar Baby, I'm older dan my mammy's gran'daddy."
Mr. Rabbit took off his spectacles and wiped them on his coat-tail. "My eyes are getting very bad," he said, by way of apology. "But you certainly look very much like the Tar Baby. If you were both together in the dark, nobody could tell you apart. Well, well! I'm getting old."
"You ain't no older dan you look," said Drusilla spitefully under her breath.
"Hush!" whispered Sweetest Susan. "He'll eat us up."
Mrs. Meadows laughed. "Don't worry, child. Mr. Rabbit loves his pipe and a joke, but he'll never hurt you. Never in the world."
"But this isn't in the world," suggested Buster John.
"Well, it's next door, as you may say," Mrs. Meadows replied.
Just then Mr. Rabbit slowly raised himself from his chair and examined the seat closely. "I missed Mr. Thimblefinger," he said, "and I was afraid I had sat on him."
"Oh, no!" cried Mr. Thimblefinger, coming out from under the steps; "I was just resting myself."
"Mr. Thimblefinger will take care of himself, I'll be bound," exclaimed Mrs. Meadows. "He's little; but is a mountain strong because it is big?"
"Why, that puts me in mind of the story—But never mind! I'm always thinking about old times." Mr. Rabbit sighed as he said this.
"Oh, please tell us the story," pleaded Sweetest Susan, anxious to make friends with Mr. Rabbit.
He shook his head. "Mrs. Meadows can tell it better than I can."
"Dinner!" cried Mr. Thimblefinger. "What about dinner?"
"Dinner'll be ready directly," replied Mrs. Meadows.
"But the story?" Sweetest Susan said.
THE STRONGEST—WHO? OR WHICH?
"Well," replied Mrs. Meadows, "it was like this: One time in the country where we came from—the country where you live now—there chanced to be a big frost, and the mill-pond froze over. Mr. Rabbit ran along that way and found that the pond had this bridge across it."
"Was it this Mr. Rabbit here?" asked Buster John.
Mrs. Meadows folded her hands in her lap and looked at them. "Well," she said, "I never talk about folks behind their backs. You must do your own guessing. Anyway, Mr. Rabbit found the ice bridge over the pond, and as he was in something of a hurry he skipped across it. I mean he skipped a part of the way. The Ice was so slippery that when he got about halfway, his feet slipped from under him and he fell kerthump! He got up and rubbed himself as well as he could, and then he thought that the Ice must be very strong to hit him so hard a lick. He said to the Ice, 'You are very strong.'
"'I am so,' replied the Ice.
"'Well, if you are so strong, how can the Sun melt you?'
"The Ice said nothing, and so Mr. Rabbit asked the Sun, 'Are you very strong?'
"'So they tell me,' replied the Sun.
"'Then how can the Clouds hide you?'
"The Sun was somewhat ashamed and had nothing to say. So Mr. Rabbit looked at the Clouds.
"'Are you very strong?'
"'We have heard so,' replied the Clouds.
"'How can the Wind blow you?'
"The Clouds sailed away, and Mr. Rabbit asked the Wind, 'Are you very strong?'
"'I believe you,' said the Wind.
"'Then how can the Mountain stand against you?'
"The Wind blew itself away, and then Mr. Rabbit asked the Mountain, 'Are you very strong?'
"'So it seems,' replied the Mountain.
"'How can the Mouse make a nest in you?'
"The Mountain was mum. So Mr. Rabbit asked the Mouse, 'Are you very strong?'
"'I believe so,' replied the Mouse.
"'How can the Cat catch you?'
"The Mouse hid in the grass. Mr. Rabbit asked the Cat, 'Are you very strong?'
"'Yes, indeed,' replied the Cat.
"'How can the Dog chase you?'
"The Cat began to wash her face. Then Mr. Rabbit said to the Dog, 'Are you very strong?'
"'I certainly am,' replied the Dog.
"'Then why does the Stick scare you?'
"The Dog began to scratch the fleas off his neck, and Mr. Rabbit said to the Stick, 'Are you very strong?'
"'Everybody says so.'
"'Then how can the Fire burn you?'
"The Stick was dumb, and Mr. Rabbit asked the Fire, 'Are you very strong?'
"'Anybody will tell you so,' the Fire answered.
"'How can the Water quench you?'
"The Fire hid behind the smoke. Then Mr. Rabbit asked the Water, 'Are you very strong?'
"'Strong is no name for it,' said the Water.
"'How can the Ice cover you?'
"The Water went running down the river, and after it had gone the Ice said to Mr. Rabbit, 'You see you had to come back to me at last.'
"'Yes,' replied Mr. Rabbit, 'and now I am going away. You are too much for me.' Then Mr. Rabbit loped off, rubbing his bruises."
"Was it really you, Mr. Rabbit?" asked Sweetest Susan.
Mr. Rabbit rubbed his mustache with the end of his pipe-stem. "Well, I'll tell you the truth. I was mighty foolish in my young days. But now all I want to do is to eat breakfast, and then wait until dinner is ready, and then sit and wait until supper is put on the table."
Mrs. Meadows winked at the children and then turned to Mr. Rabbit.
"Now," said she, "I've told the story you ought to have told, for you know more about it than anybody else. It's as little as you can do to sing the old song that you sung when you used to go frolicking."
"Why, it's about myself!" exclaimed Mr. Rabbit. "At my time of life it would never do."
"Please make him sing it," said Sweetest Susan, who was much given to getting her own way by the pretty little art of coaxing.
"Oh, he'll sing it," replied Mrs. Meadows confidently. "He can't refuse."
Mr. Rabbit shook his head, and then seemed to fall into a brown study, but suddenly, seeing that they were all waiting for the song, he cleared up his throat, and after several false starts sang this song:—
OH, THIS IS MR. RABBIT!
Oh, this is Mr. Rabbit, that runs on the grass, So rise up, ladies, and let him pass; He courted Miss Meadows, when her ma was away, He crossed his legs, and said his say. He crossed his legs, and he winked his eye, And then he told Miss Meadows good-by. So it's good-by, ducky, And it's good-by, dear! I'll never come to see you Until next year! For this is Mr. Rabbit, that runs on the grass, So rise up, ladies, and let him pass.
And he cried from the gate, so bold and free: "I know you are glad to get rid of me." And then Miss Meadows shook her head— "If you stay too long you'll find me dead. And it's good-by, ducky, And it's good-by, dear! You'll find me dead When you come next year!" For this is Mr. Rabbit, that runs on the grass, So rise up, ladies, and let him pass.
Mr. Owl called out from the top of the tree, "Oh, who? Oh, who?" and "He-he-he!" Mr. Fox slipped off in the woods and cried; Mr. Coon's broken heart caused a pain in his side. For it's good-by, ducky, And it's good-by, dear! If you ever come to see me, Come before next year! For this is Mr. Rabbit, that runs on the grass, So rise up, ladies, and let him pass.
Mr. Rabbit looked around, and saw all the trouble, And he laughed and he laughed till he bent over double. He shook his head, and said his say— "I'll come a-calling when to-morrow is to-day. For when you have a ducky, Don't stay—don't stay— Go off and come again When to-morrow is to-day." For this is Mr. Rabbit, that runs on the grass, So rise up, ladies, and let him pass.
TWO QUEER STORIES.
There is no doubt the children were very much surprised to see Mr. Rabbit. They were astonished to find that he was so large and solemn-looking. When the negroes on the plantation told them about Mr. Rabbit—or Brother Rabbit, as he was sometimes called—they had imagined that he was no larger than the rabbits they saw in the sedge-field or in the barley-patch, but this Mr. Rabbit was larger than a dozen of them put together.
In one way or another Sweetest Susan and Buster John and Drusilla showed their amazement very plainly—especially Drusilla, who took no pains to conceal hers. Every time Mr. Rabbit moved she would nudge Sweetest Susan or Buster John and exclaim: "Look at dat!" or, "We better be gwine!" or, "Spozen Brer Fox er Brer Wolf come up an' dey er dat big!"
Mrs. Meadows noticed this; indeed, she could not help noticing it. And so she said:—
"I reckon maybe you expected to find Mr. Rabbit no bigger than the rest of his family that live in your country."
Before the children could make any answer, Mr. Rabbit began to chuckle, and he chuckled so heartily that Sweetest Susan was afraid he would choke.
"I don't wonder you laugh," said Mrs. Meadows, elevating her voice a little, as if Mr. Rabbit were a little deaf.
"It may not be polite to laugh in company," replied Mr. Rabbit, "but I am obliged to do it." His voice was wheezy, and he nodded his head vigorously. "Yes, I am obliged to do it. Why, I could put one of those poor creatures in my coat-pocket. They are not Rabbits. They are Runts. Yes, Runts. That's what they are. And to think, too, that their great-grandparents might have come here when I did. But, no! They wouldn't hear to it. No new country for them, they said. And so they stayed where they were, and the breed has dwindled down to—to nothing. I'll be bound they have forgotten how to talk." He turned to the children with a look of inquiry.
"Why, of course, rabbits can't talk," said Buster John.
Mr. Rabbit shook his head sadly and put his hand to his eyes. "Well, well, well!" he exclaimed after a while. "Can't talk! But I might have known it. The family's gone to seed. I'm glad I'm not there to see it all. A neighbor here and there does no harm, but when people began to crowd in I concluded to move, and I'm glad I did. I'm old and getting feeble, but, thank gracious, I'm not a Runt."
"I don't see but you're as nimble as ever you were," remarked Mrs. Meadows soothingly.
"I know—I know!" Mr. Rabbit insisted; "I may be as nimble, but I'm not as keen for a frolic as I used to be. The chimney-corner suits me better than a barbecue." Mr. Rabbit closed his big eyes and sighed. "Well, well—everybody to his time, everybody to his taste!"
Mrs. Meadows nodded her head approvingly. "Yes; between first one thing and then another, there's lots of time and a heap of tastes."
"They tell me," remarked Mr. Rabbit suddenly, "that things have got to that pass in the country we came from that even Mr. Billy-Goat, who used to eat meat, has dwindled away in mind and body till he hangs around the stable doors and eats straw for a living. That's what Mr. Thimblefinger says, and he ought to know. I suppose Billy is still bob-tailed? I remember the very day he had his tail broken off."
"Tell us about it," remarked Buster John.
WHY MR. BILLY-GOAT'S TAIL IS SHORT.
"Oh, it doesn't amount to much," said he. "It's hardly worth talking about. I think it was one Saturday. In those days, you know, we used to have a half-holiday every Saturday. We worked hard all the week, and we tried to crowd as much fun into a half-holiday as possible. Well, one Saturday afternoon Mr. Billy-Goat and Mr. Dog were walking arm in arm along the road, talking and laughing in a sociable way, when all of a sudden a big rain came up. Mr. Billy-Goat said he was mighty sorry he left his parasol at home, because the rain was apt to make his horns rust. Mr. Dog shook himself and said he didn't mind water, because when he got wet the fleas quit biting.
"But Mr. Billy-Goat hurried on and Mr. Dog kept up with him until they came to Mr. Wolf's house, and they ran into the front porch for shelter. The door was shut tight, but Mr. Billy-Goat had on his high-heel shoes that day, and he made so much noise as he tramped about that Mr. Wolf opened his window and looked out. When he saw who it was, he cried out:—
"'Hallo! this is not a nice day to pay visits, but since you are here, you may as well come in out of the wet.'
"But Mr. Dog shook his head and flirted up dirt by scratching on the ground with his feet. He had smelled blood. Mr. Billy-Goat saw how Mr. Dog acted, and he was afraid to go in. So he shook his horns.
"'You'd just as well come in and sit by the fire,' said Mr. Wolf, unlatching the door.
"But Mr. Dog and Mr. Billy-Goat thanked him kindly, and said they didn't want to carry mud into the house. They said they would just stand in the porch till the shower passed over. Then Mr. Wolf took down his fiddle, tuned it up, and began to play. In his day and time few could beat him playing the fiddle. And this time he played his level best, for he knew that if he could start Mr. Billy-Goat to dancing he'd have him for dinner."
"I don't see how," said Buster John.
"Well," exclaimed Mr. Rabbit, "if Mr. Billy-Goat began to dance he would be likely to dance until he got tired, and then it would be an easy matter for Mr. Wolf to outrun him."
"Of course," said Sweetest Susan.
"Well," Mr. Rabbit continued, "Mr. Wolf kept on playing the fiddle, but Mr. Billy-Goat didn't dance. Not only that, he kept so near the edge of the porch that the rain drifted in on his horns and ran down his long beard. But he kept his eye on Mr. Wolf. After playing the fiddle till he was tired, Mr. Wolf asked:—
"'How do you get your meat, my young friends?'
"Mr. Dog said he depended on his teeth, and Mr. Billy-Goat, thinking to be on the safe side, said he also depended upon his teeth.
"'As for me,' cried Mr. Wolf, 'I depend on my feet!' and with that he dropped his fiddle and jumped at Mr. Billy-Goat. But he knocked the broom down and the handle tripped him. It was all very sudden, but by the time Mr. Wolf had recovered himself Mr. Billy-Goat and Mr. Dog had gone a considerable distance.
"They ran and ran until they came to a big creek. Mr. Billy-Goat asked Mr. Dog how he was going to get across.
"'Swim,' said Mr. Dog.
"'Then I'll have to bid you good-by,' replied Mr. Billy-Goat, 'for I can't swim a stroke.'
"By this time they had arrived at the bank of the creek, and they could hear Mr. Wolf coming through the woods. They had no time to lose. Mr. Dog looked around on the ground, gathered some jan-weed, yan-weed, and tan-weed, rubbed them together, and squeezed a drop of the juice on Mr. Billy-Goat's horns. He had no sooner done this than Mr. Billy-Goat was changed into a white rock.
"Then Mr. Dog leaped into the creek and swam across. Mr. Wolf ran to the bank, but there he stopped. The water was so wide it made tears come in his eyes; so deep that it made his legs ache; and so cold that it made his body shiver.
"When Mr. Dog arrived safely on the other side he cried out, 'Aha! you are afraid! You've drowned poor Mr. Billy-Goat, but you are afraid of me. I dare you to fling a rock at me!'
"This made Mr. Wolf so mad that he seized the white rock and threw it at Mr. Dog with all his might. It fell near Mr. Dog, and instantly became Mr. Billy-Goat again. But in falling a piece was broken off, and it happened to be Mr. Billy-Goat's tail. Ever since then he has had a very short tail."
"Were you there, Mr. Rabbit?" asked Sweetest Susan bluntly.
"I was fishing at the time," replied Mr. Rabbit. "I heard the noise they made, and I turned around and saw it just as I've told you."
Drusilla touched Buster John on the arm. "We ain't dreamin', is we, honey?"
Buster John looked at her scornfully. "What put that in your head?" he asked.
"Suppose the rock had hit Mr. Dog?" suggested Sweetest Susan.
"Now, that's so!" exclaimed Mr. Thimblefinger. "And it reminds me of a little accident that happened in my mother's family. But it's hardly worth telling."
"Well, tell it, anyhow," said Mrs. Meadows.
"Yes," remarked Mr. Rabbit, "the proof of the pudding is in chewing the bag."
"Well," said Mr. Thimblefinger, "as far back as I can remember, and before that, too, my mother was a widow, and she had a great many children to take care of. The reason she had so many children was because she was poor. I have noticed all my life that when people are very poor they happen to have more children than they know what to do with. This was the way with my mother. She had a houseful of children, and she found it a hard matter to get along.
"One day she went down to the creek to wash the clothes, such as she and the children had, and when she got there she found an old man sitting on the bank. He said, 'Howdy,' and she said, 'Good-morning,' and then he asked her if she would be so good as to wash his coat and his waistcoat. She said she would be glad to do so, and the old man said he would be very much obliged. So my mother washed the coat and waistcoat. Then he asked her if she would comb his hair for him, and she did so.
"The old man thanked her kindly, and took from his pocket a string of red beads and made her a present of them. Then he told her to go out behind the house when she got home, and there she'd find a pumpkin-tree growing. He said that she must bury the string of beads at the foot of the tree.
"'That's a pity,' exclaimed my mother; 'they are so beautiful.'
"But the old man declared that she must do as he said, and after that she was to go to the pumpkin-tree every day and ask for as many pumpkins as she wanted.
"My mother went home and found the pumpkin-tree where never a tree had been growing before, and at its roots she buried the string of beads. Next morning, bright and early, she went to the pumpkin-tree and called for one pumpkin. Down it dropped from the tree. For a long time my mother and her children were happy and growing fat. Every day a big pumpkin would be cooked, and as my mother had to leave us so as to attend to her work, enough pumpkin would be left in the pot to last us all day.
"I remember that time very well," Mr. Thimblefinger continued, with a sigh, "for I was getting fat and growing to be almost as large as the rest of the children. But one day, as my mother was going out to work she found a hamper basket on the gate-post, and in that basket was a baby. So she carried the baby in the house, gave it something to eat, and then put it on the floor to play with the rest. But as soon as she got out of the yard the baby crawled to the pot where the cooked pumpkin was, and ate and ate until there was no pumpkin left. Of course, the rest of the children had to go hungry. And when my mother came home she had to go hungry, too.
"She was very much surprised. She found all the pumpkin gone and the children crying for something to eat, and the stray baby was crying louder than any. She said we were the greediest children she had ever seen.
"The next day she cooked two pumpkins, but the same thing happened. The baby went to the pot and ate both. The children told her how it happened, but she wouldn't believe them. She said she couldn't be made to believe that one puny little baby could eat two whole pumpkins—and it is very queer, when you come to think about it.
"The next day she cooked three pumpkins, but the same thing happened. Then four, then five, then six. But it was always the same. No matter how many pumpkins were cooked, the stray baby would eat them all, and the rest of the children would have to go hungry. You see how small I am," said Mr. Thimblefinger, suddenly pausing in the thread of his story. "Well, the reason of it is that I was starved out by that pumpkin-eating baby. My brothers and sisters and myself were just as large and as healthy as any other children until that baby was found on the gate-post, and from that day we began to dwindle and shrink away.
"Well, we starved and starved until at last my mother could very plainly see that something was the matter. So she set a trap for the baby and baited it with pumpkins. She hadn't got out of hearing before the baby put his head in the pot and got caught in the trap. It stayed there all day, and when mother came home at night she found it there. She was very much surprised, but she saw she must get rid of the baby. She said that any creature that could manage to eat like that was able to take care of itself, and so she carried it off down the road and left it there.
"Now this Pumpkin-Eater was a witch baby, and as soon as it thought my mother was out of sight and hearing it changed itself into a tall, heavy man."
"'T wuz feedin' de big man all de time," exclaimed Drusilla.
"Certainly," replied Mr. Thimblefinger. "My mother was watching it, and she followed to see where it would go. It went down to the bank of the river. There it found the old man who had given my mother the string of beads, and asked him for something to eat.
"'Comb my hair for me,' said the old man.
"But it refused, and then the old man told it to go to the pumpkin-tree and ask for twenty pumpkins. The greedy thing was glad to do this. It went to the tree and called for twenty pumpkins, and down they fell on its head."
"What then?" asked Buster John, as Mr. Thimblefinger paused. "Was it hurt?"
"Smashed!" exclaimed Mr. Thimblefinger. "Knocked flatter than a pancake! Broke into jiblets!"
"It was a great waste of pumpkins," remarked Mrs. Meadows.
Just then Mrs. Meadows smoothed out her apron and rose from her chair.
"I smell dinner," she said, "and it smells like it is on the table. Let's go in and get rid of it."
She led the way, and the children followed. The dinner was nothing extra,—just a plain, every-day, country dinner, with plenty of pot-liquor and dumplings; but the children were hungry, and they made short work of all that was placed before them. Drusilla waited on the table, as she did at home, but she didn't go close to Mr. Rabbit. She held out the dishes at arm's length when she offered him anything, and once she came very near dropping a plate when he suddenly flapped his big ear on his nose to drive off a fly.
Mrs. Meadows was very kind to the children, but when once the edge was taken off their appetite they began to get uneasy again. There were a thousand questions they might have asked, but they had been told never to ask questions in company. Mr. Thimblefinger, who had a keen eye for such things, noticed that they were beginning to get glum and dissatisfied, and so he said with a laugh:—
"I've often heard in my travels of children who talked too much, but these don't talk at all."
"Oh, they'll soon get over that," Mrs. Meadows remarked. "Everything is so strange here, they don't know what to make of it. When I was a little bit of a thing my ma used to take me to quiltings, and I know it took me the longest kind of a time to get used to the strangers and all."
"This isn't a quilting," said Sweetest Susan, with a sigh; "I wish it was."
"I don't!" exclaimed Buster John plumply.
"Once when I was listening through a keyhole," said Mr. Thimblefinger, placing his tiny knife and fork crosswise on his plate, "I heard a story about a Talking-Saddle."
"Tell it! tell it!" cried Buster John and Sweetest Susan.
"I suppose you have no pie to-day?" said Mr. Rabbit.
"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Meadows, "we'll have the pie and the story, too."
Mr. Thimblefinger smacked his lips and winked his eye in such comical fashion that the children laughed heartily, but they didn't forget the story.
"I don't know that I can remember the best of it," said Mr. Thimblefinger. "The wind was blowing and the keyhole was trying to learn how to whistle, and I may have missed some of the story. But it was such a queer one, and I was listening so closely, that I came very near falling off the door-knob when some one started to come out. I think we'd better eat our pie first. I might get one of those huckleberries in my throat while talking, and there's no doctor close at hand to keep me from choking to death."
So they ate their huckleberry-pie, and then Mr. Thimblefinger told the story.
"Once upon a time a farmer had five sons. He was not rich and he was not poor. He had some land, and he had a little money. He divided his land equally among his four oldest sons, giving each just as much as he could till. To each, he also gave a piece of money. Then he called his youngest son, and said:—
"'You have sharp eyes and a keen wit. You want no land. All you need is a saddle. That I will give you.'
"'A saddle! What will I do with a saddle?' asked the youngest son, whose name was Tip-Top.
"'Make your fortune with it.'
"'If I had a horse—'
"'A head is better than a horse,' the father replied.
"Not long after, the old man died. The land was divided up among the four older sons, and Tip-Top was left with the saddle. He slung it on his back and set out to make his fortune. It was not long before he came to a large town. He rested for a while and then he went into the town. He remembered that his father had said a head was better than a horse, so, instead of carrying the saddle on his back, he put it on his head. At first the people thought he was carrying the saddle because he had sold his horse for a good price, or because the animal had died. But he went through street after street still carrying the saddle on his head, never pausing to look around or to speak to anybody, and at last the people began to wonder. Some said he was a simpleton, some said he was a saddle-maker advertising his wares, and some said he was a tramp who ought to be arrested and put in the workhouse.
"This talk finally reached the ears of the Mayor of the town, and he sent for Tip-Top to appear before him."
"What is a Mayor?" asked Sweetest Susan suddenly.
"He de head patter-roller," said Drusilla, before anybody else could reply.
"That's about right," Mr. Thimblefinger declared. "Well, the Mayor sent for Tip-Top. But instead of going to the place where the Mayor held his court, Tip-Top inquired where his house was and went there. Now, when Tip-Top knocked at the Mayor's door the servant, seeing the man with a saddle on his head, began to scold him.
"'Do you think the Mayor keeps his harness in the parlor? Go in the side gate and carry the saddle in the cellar where it belongs. Hang it on the first peg you see.'
"Tip-Top tried to say something, but the servant shut the door with a bang. Then Tip-Top did as he was bid. He went through the side gate, and found the cellar without any trouble, but instead of hanging the saddle on a peg, he placed it on the floor and sat on it.
"After waiting patiently a while, wondering when the Mayor would call him, Tip-Top heard voices on the other side of the wall. He listened closely, and soon found that the housemaid who had driven him away from the Mayor's door was talking to her brother, who had just returned from a long journey.
"'The Mayor has gold,' said the brother. 'You must tell me where he keeps it. I have a companion in my travels, and to-night we shall come and take the treasure.'
"For a long time the housemaid refused to tell where the Mayor kept his gold, but the brother threatened and coaxed, and finally she told him where the treasure lay.
"'It is in a closet by the chimney in the first room to the right at the head of the stairs. The gold is in an iron box and it is very heavy.'
"'My companion has long hair and a strong arm,' said the brother. 'He is cross-eyed and knock-kneed. It wouldn't do for you to meet him in the hallway. Go to bed early and lock your door, and if you hear any outcry during the night cover your head with a pillow and go to sleep again.'
"Then the housemaid and her brother went away.
"'Well,' said Tip-Top, 'this is no place for me.'
"He waited a while, and then went out of the cellar into the yard with his saddle on his head. The cook, seeing him there, told him to carry the saddle to the stable where the horses were kept. Tip-Top went to the stable, placed his saddle in an empty stall, and sat on it.
"After a while he heard two persons come in from the street. They went into a stall near by and began to talk. One was the coachman and the other was his nephew, who had just returned from a long journey.
"'The Mayor has fine horses,' said the nephew. 'I must have two of them to-night, otherwise I am ruined forever.'
"The coachman refused to listen at first, but after a while he consented. He told his nephew that the stable-boy slept in the manger.
"'I have a companion in my travels,' said his nephew, 'and to-night we shall come and take the horses away. My companion has short hair and a heavy hand. Close your eyes and cover your head with straw if you hear any outcry.'
"After a while the coachman and his nephew went out into the street again, and then Tip-Top came forth from the stable with the saddle on his head. The Mayor had just come in, and was standing at his window. He saw the man in the yard with the saddle on his head, and sent a servant to call him.
"'What is your name?' asked the Mayor.
"'Tip-Top, your honor.'
"'I didn't ask after your health; I asked for your name,' said the Mayor.
"'It is Tip-Top, your honor.'
"'Your name or your health?'
"'Both, your honor.'
"'What are you doing here?'
"'His honor, the Mayor, sent for me, your honor.'
"'What were you doing just now?'
"'Waiting to be sent for, your honor.'
"'Where is your horse?' asked the Mayor.
"'I have no horse, your honor.'
"'Why do you carry your saddle?'
"'Because no one will carry it for me, your honor.'
"'Why do you not sell it and be rid of it, ninny?'
"'Few are rich enough to buy it, your honor.'
"'How much money is it worth?'
"'Two thousand pieces of gold, your honor.'
"'Are you crazy?' cried the Mayor. 'Why is it so valuable?'
"'It is a Talking-Saddle, your honor.'
"'What does it say?'
"'Everything, your honor. It warns, it predicts, and it gives advice.'
"'Let it talk for me,' said the Mayor, full of curiosity.
"'Your honor would fail to understand its language,' replied Tip-Top.
"'Let it talk and do you tell me what it says.'
"Tip-Top placed his saddle on the carpet and pressed his foot against it until the leather made a creaking noise.
"'I am waiting,' said the Mayor. 'What does the saddle say?'
"'It says, your honor, that you must call the housemaid.'
"The Mayor, to humor the joke, did so. The housemaid came, grumbling. She looked at the saddle, at Tip-Top, and then at the Mayor.
"'Now what does the saddle say?' asked the Mayor.
"'It says, your honor, that this woman has a brother, who has just returned from a journey in strange lands. The saddle says, your honor, that this woman's brother has a companion who has long hair and a strong arm.'
"'Is that all?' asked the Mayor.
"'No, your honor, it is not half.'
"'It is very strange,' said the housemaid.
"'The saddle says, your honor, that if you will sit in the closet by the chimney, in the first room to the right, where there is an iron box that is very heavy, you will receive a visit to-night from this woman's brother and his companion.'
"The Mayor was very much astonished, but before he could open his lips the woman fell on her knees and confessed all. The Mayor called an officer and sent her away. Then he turned to Tip-Top, and asked:—
"'Is that all?'
"'By no means, your honor. The saddle says send for the coachman.'
"The Mayor did so, and the coachman came, bowing and smiling.
"'How much is the saddle worth?' the Mayor asked him.
"'Master, it is worthless,' replied the coachman, with a sneer.
"'Let us see,' said the Mayor. Then, turning to Tip-Top: 'What does the saddle say?'
"'It says, your honor, that this coachman here has a nephew, who has just returned from a long journey. It says that the nephew has a companion who has short hair and a heavy hand.'
"'The saddle says, your honor, that if you will sleep in the manger where your two finest horses feed, you will receive a visit from the coachman's nephew and his traveling companion.'
"The coachman implored his master's mercy, and told all. Of course, the Mayor was very much astonished. He turned his unfaithful servants over to an officer, and that night had a watch set around his house and stable, and caught the thieves and their companions."
"But the saddle didn't talk," said Sweetest Susan. "So the man didn't tell what was true." She made this remark with so much dignity that Mrs. Meadows laughed.
But Buster John was quite impatient.
"This isn't a girl's story," he exclaimed.
"Oh, yes," replied Mrs. Meadows. "It is for girls as well as boys. Sometimes people tell stories just to pass the time away, and if the stories have little fibs in 'em, that don't do anybody any harm, they just keep them in there. If they didn't, the story wouldn't be true."
"Is that the end of the story of the Talking-Saddle?" asked Buster John.
"No! Oh, no!" Mr. Thimblefinger answered. "I was just going to tell you the rest."
But before he could go on with it, the noise of laughter was heard at the door, and then there came running in a queer-looking girl and a very queer-looking boy.
THE TALKING-SADDLE AND THE THIEF.
The queer-looking girl was running from the very queer-looking boy, and both were laughing loudly. When they saw the children sitting at the table they both stopped suddenly. The queer-looking girl turned and made a wry face at the very queer-looking boy. At this both burst out laughing, and suddenly stopped again.
"Be ashamed of yourselves!" exclaimed old Mr. Rabbit, rapping on the floor with his cane. "Be ashamed! Where are your manners? Go and speak to our friends and make your best bow, too,—don't forget that!" Mr. Rabbit appeared to be very indignant.
Mrs. Meadows was in a better humor. "This," she said, as the queer-looking girl came forward, "is Chickamy Crany Crow, and this," as the very queer-looking boy came timidly up, "is Tickle-My-Toes."
They bowed, and then went off a little way, looking very solemn and comical. They didn't dare glance at each other for fear they would begin laughing again. The reason they looked so queer was because, although they acted like children, they were old in appearance,—as old as a person past middle age.
"They are country-raised, poor things! You'll have to excuse them. They don't know any better." Mr. Thimblefinger sighed as he said this, and looked thoughtful.
"What about the Talking-Saddle?" Buster John inquired. "You said the story wasn't finished."
"To be sure! To be sure!" Mr. Thimblefinger cried. "My mind is like a wagon without a tongue. It goes every way but the right way. Where was I? Oh, yes, I remember now."
"Well, the Mayor was very thankful to Tip-Top for saving his treasure and his horses, but he wasn't satisfied about the saddle. He was worried. Now, you know when a child is worried it cries, but when a grown man is worried he sits down and looks away off, and puts his elbow in his hand and his finger to his nose—so."
"Oh, I've seen papa do that," laughed Sweetest Susan.
"Yes, that's the way the Mayor did," Mr. Thimblefinger continued. "There was a great thief in that country who had never been caught. He didn't care for judges and juries and courthouses. He always sent the Mayor word when he was coming to the city and when he was going away.
"Now, the Mayor had received a letter from this man just the day before Tip-Top came. The thief said he was coming after a fine race-horse that was owned by the Mayor's brother. So the Mayor sat and thought, and finally he asked Tip-Top if his Talking-Saddle could catch a famous thief.
"'It has just caught four common rogues, your honor,' replied Tip-Top, 'and I think it can catch one uncommon thief.'
"Then the Mayor told Tip-Top that the most famous thief in all that country intended to steal his brother's race-horse. Tip-Top said he must see the horse, and together they went to the stable where it was kept. The horse was already guarded. Two servants sat in the stall, two sat outside, and two remained near the door. The Mayor's brother was also there.
"'What is this?' the brother asked.
"'This fellow wants to sell his saddle,' replied the Mayor.
"'Then arrest him,' cried the brother, 'for he is the thief.'
"'Nonsense,' replied the Mayor. 'He is a very honest man and I will vouch for him.'
"Then the Mayor called his brother aside and told him why the man with the saddle had come to see the horse.
"Tip-Top talked with the men who had been set to guard the horse, and he soon found that one of them was an accomplice of the thief. This man made a swift sign to Tip-Top, and placed his finger on his mouth. Tip-Top replied by closing his eyes with his fingers, as if to show that he saw nothing. When he had an opportunity he said to this man:—
"'Tell your master I will be willing to sell the saddle to-night. I will sleep with it under my head on the next corner. It is worth one thousand pieces of gold.'
"Then he returned to the Mayor, and they went away. Tip-Top laughed as they walked along. 'This thief,' he remarked, 'is a fool. It is so easy to steal a horse that he will not buy a saddle. He will try to steal mine. Then we shall catch him. He will get the horse—'
"'What!' cried the Mayor; 'get the horse?'
"'Certainly; nothing is easier,' replied Tip-Top. 'He will get the horse, and then he will want a saddle. He will be passing the wall here. He will see me sleeping with my head on my friend and then he will attempt to steal it, but the surcingle will be buckled around my body, and I will awake and cry blue murder. Then you and your brother can come forward from the vacant house yonder and seize him.'
"'Where did you learn all this?' asked the Mayor. He began to suspect that his brother was right when he said that Tip-Top was the thief.
"'My saddle told me,' Tip-Top answered.
"'Well,' said the Mayor, 'your plan is as good as any, but how will the thief get the horse that is so well guarded?'
"'Ah!' Tip-Top exclaimed, 'if I were to tell you, we should never catch the thief.'
"So it was all arranged. Tip-Top was to sleep on his Talking-Saddle, near the wall and the Mayor and his brother were to watch from the windows of the vacant house opposite.
"When night came, the watchers who had been set to guard the horse were very anxious. They were ready to arrest any one who might chance to enter. Whenever they heard footsteps approaching they seized their clubs and stood on the defensive. Sometimes a passer-by would pause, look in, and ask what the trouble was. Then the watchers would reply that they were waiting for the great thief who was coming to steal the fine horse. Thus the hours passed, but no thief came. Then the watchers began to get tired.
"'We are crazy,' said one. 'How can a thief steal this horse, even if he were to come in here? We are four to one. Two of us should sleep a while, and thus we can take turns in watching.' This was agreed to, and two of the guards stretched themselves on the straw and prepared to sleep. But just then they heard some one singing far down the street. It was a jolly song, and the sound of it came louder and louder. As the singer was going by, the light in the stable caught his eye, and he paused and looked in, but still kept up his singing.
"'Friends,' he said when his song was done, 'what is the trouble?'
"'We are watching a horse.'
"'Is he sick? Perhaps I can aid you. I have doctored many a horse in my day.'
"'He is not sick,' replied the watchers. 'He is well and taking his ease. We are watching to prevent a thief from stealing him.'
"Then they told him the threat the thief had made.
"'Come, that is too good,' cried the newcomer. 'This thief will be worth looking at when four such stout lads as you get through with him. When does he show himself?'
"'That is what we are to find out,' replied the watchers.
"'Very well,' the newcomer said; 'I'll stay, by your permission, and see you double him up.'
"The watchers gave their consent gladly, for the newcomer had a lively manner and a rattling tongue. He sang songs and told stories for an hour or more, and then pulled a bottle from under his coat.
"'A little wine,' he said, 'will clear the fog from our throats.' He passed the bottle around, and all drank except the guard who was watching in the stall.
"Now the man who had come singing up the street was the thief himself, and the guard in the stall was his companion. The wine was drugged, and in a very few minutes three of the watchers were fast asleep. Then the thief and his companion took the horse from the stall.
"'I shall have to remain here and pretend to be asleep,' said the companion. 'You will find a saddle around the corner.' He then told the thief about the man with the saddle.
"'You are a fool, my friend,' said the thief. 'It is a trick—a trap.'
"But when he had carried off the horse and hid it at the house of an acquaintance, the thought of the man with the saddle worried him so that he went back to satisfy himself. Tip-Top and his saddle were there, and Tip-Top had slept so soundly that his head had rolled from his pillow. The thief thought it would be a good stroke of business to take the saddle along, but when he tried to lift it, Tip-Top awoke and seized him, and cried 'Murder!' at the top of his voice.
"The Mayor and his brother rushed from their place of concealment, and soon the thief was bound.
"'Where is the horse?' cried the Mayor.
"'What horse?' exclaimed the thief. 'Do you think I carry horses in my pocket?'
"'What were you doing here, then?'
"'This fellow's head had slipped from its pillow, and when I tried to put it back he seized me and yelled that I was murdering him! I saw no horse under the saddle.'
"'Wait here a little,' said Tip-Top. 'Hold this thief till I return.'
"He went to the stable, woke the thief's accomplice, who by this time was really asleep, and told him his companion had been captured. 'If I can find the horse and hide it our friend will be safe, for nothing can be proved on him.'
"The man was so frightened that he told Tip-Top where he had arranged to meet the thief the next day. Then Tip-Top returned to the Mayor and his brother, who still held the thief, and took them to the house where the horse had been stabled.
"When the horse had been found and restored to its owner the Mayor said to Tip-Top that he would not only reward him handsomely but grant any request he might make.
"'Then, your honor,' replied Tip-Top, 'give this man his liberty.'
"'Why?' asked the Mayor, much astonished.
"'Because, your honor, he is my brother.'
"The thief was as much astonished as the Mayor at this turn in his affairs, but he had no difficulty in recognizing Tip-Top as his younger brother.
"'He certainly is a man of talent,' said the Mayor, 'and it is a pity that he should be executed.'
"Then the thief fell on his knees and begged the Mayor to pardon him, promising him to live and die an honest man. And he kept his promise. He engaged in business, and, aided by Tip-Top's advice and influence, made a large fortune."
"What became of the Talking-Saddle?" asked Buster John.
"Well," replied Mr. Thimblefinger, "Tip-Top hung the saddle in his front porch, as you have seen farmers do. He thought a great deal of it."
"I've read something about the great thief," remarked Buster John. "But the story didn't end that way. The thief escaped every time."
"Oh, well, you know how some people are," exclaimed Mrs. Meadows. "They want everything to happen just so; even a thief must be a big man if he's in a story; but I don't believe anybody ever stole anything yet without getting into trouble about it."
"Who is that crying?" Mr. Rabbit suddenly exclaimed.
"I hear no crying," said Mrs. Meadows.
"I certainly thought I heard crying," persisted Mr. Rabbit.
"It is Chickamy Crany Crow and Tickle-My-Toes singing. Listen!"
Sure enough the queer-looking boy and the queer-looking girl were singing a song. One sang one line and the other the next line, and this made the song somewhat comical. The words were something like these:—
CHICKAMY CRANY CROW.
Oh sing it slow, This song of woe, Of the girl who went to wash her toe! Her name was Chick— (Oh run here quick— The word's so thick)— Chickamy—Chickamy Crany Crow!
Chickamy what? and Chickamy which? She went to the well and fell in the ditch; What o'clock, old Witch?
The clock struck one And bowed to the sun; But the sun was fast asleep you know; And the moon was quick, With her oldtime trick— To hide from Chick— Chickamy—Chickamy Crany Crow!
Chickamy what? and Chickamy which? She went to the well and fell in the ditch; What o'clock, old Witch?
Oh, sad to tell! She went to the well— The time was as close to eve as to dawn— To Chickamy Chick, So supple and slick, The clock said "Tick!" But when she came back her chicken was gone!
Oh, whatamy, whichamy, chickamy, oh! Moonery, oonery, tickamy Toe! Wellery, tellery, gittery go! Witchery, itchery, knitchery know.
"What kinder gwines on is dat?" exclaimed Drusilla, whose mind had never been quite easy since she walked through the dry water in the spring without getting drowned. "We all better be makin' our way to'rds home. Time we git dar—ef we ever is ter git dar—it'll be dark good. Den what yo' ma gwine to say? She gwine ter talk wid de flat er her han'—dat what she gwine ter talk wid. Come on!"
"Can't you be quiet?" cried Buster John. "It's nothing but a song."
"Oh, you kin stay, an' I'll stay wid you," said Drusilla; "but when Mistiss git you in de wash-room, don't you come sayin' dat I wouldn't fetch you home."
"I want to see everything," said Buster John.
"I done seed much ez I want ter see," replied Drusilla, "an' now I want ter live ter tell it."
Before Buster John could say anything more, everything suddenly grew a little darker, and in the middle of the sky—or what ought to have been the sky, but which was the enlarged bottom of the spring—there was a huge shadow. The children looked at it in silence.
THE LADDER OF LIONS.
The shadow that seemed to fall over everything caused Buster John and Sweetest Susan and Drusilla to run to the door. It was not a very dark shadow, but it was dark enough to attract their attention and excite their alarm. They were not yet used to their surroundings, for, although a great many things they saw and heard were familiar to them, they could not forget that they had come through the water in the spring. They could not forget that Mr. Thimblefinger was the smallest grown person they had ever seen,—even if he were a grown person,—nor could they forget that they had never seen a rabbit so wonderfully large as Mr. Rabbit. Drusilla expressed the feelings of all when she remarked that she felt "skittish." They were ready to take alarm at anything that might happen. Therefore they ran to the door to see what the shadow meant. Finally they looked up at the sky, or what seemed to be the sky, and there they saw, covering a large part of it, the vague outline of a huge jug. The shadow wobbled about and wavered, and ripples of light and shadow played about it and ran down to the horizon on all sides.
An astronomer, seeing these fantastic wobblings and waverings of light and shadow in our firmament, would straightway send a letter or a cable dispatch to the newspapers, declaring that an unheard-of convulsion was shaking the depths of celestial space. And, indeed, it was all very puzzling, even to the children, but Drusilla, who had less imagination than any of the rest, accounted for it all by one bold stroke of common sense.
"Shuh! 'T ain't nothin' 't all!" she exclaimed. "Dey done got froo wid dinner at home, an' ol' Aunt 'Cindy done put de buttermilk-jug back in de spring."
Sweetest Susan caught her breath with a gasp, and laughed hysterically. She had been very much alarmed.
"I expect that's what it is," said Buster John, but there was some doubt in his tone. He turned to Mr. Thimblefinger, who had followed them. "What time is it, please?"
Mr. Thimblefinger drew his watch from his pocket with as much dignity as he could assume, and held his head gravely on one side. "It is now—let me see—ahem!—it is now precisely thirteen minutes and eleven seconds after one o'clock."
"Is that the jug in the spring?" asked Sweetest Susan, pointing to the huge black shadow that was now wobbling and wavering more slowly.
Mr. Thimblefinger shaded his eyes with his hand and examined the shadow critically. "Yes, that is the jug—the light hurts my eyes—yes, certainly, that is the jug."
Presently a volume of white vapor shot out from the shadow. It was larger than the largest comet, and almost as brilliant.
"What is that?" asked Sweetest Susan.
Mr. Thimblefinger felt almost as thoughtful as a sure-enough man of science.
"That," said he, "is an emanation—an exhalation, you might say—that we frequently witness in our atmosphere."
"A which?" asked Buster John.
"Well," replied Mr. Thimblefinger, clearing his throat, "it's—er—an emanation."
"Huh!" cried Drusilla, "'t ain't no kind er nation. It's des de milk leakin' out'n dat jug. I done tol' Aunt 'Cindy 'bout dat leakin' jug."
Mr. Rabbit and Mrs. Meadows had come out of the house in time to hear this, and they laughed heartily. In fact, they all laughed except Mr. Thimblefinger and Drusilla.
"It happens every day," said Mrs. Meadows. "We never notice it. I suppose if it happened up there where you children live, everybody would make a great to-do? I'm glad I don't live there where there's so much fussing and guessing going on. I know how it is. Something happens that doesn't happen every day, and then somebody'll guess one way and somebody another way, and the first thing you know there's a great rumpus over nothing. I'm truly glad I came away from there in time to get out of the worst of it. You children had better take a notion and stay here with us."
"Oh, no," cried Sweetest Susan. "Mamma and papa would want to see us."
"That's so," said Mrs. Meadows. "Well, I just came out here to tell you not to get too near the Green Moss Swamp beyond the hill yonder. There's an old Spring Lizard over there that might want to shake hands with you with his tail. Besides it's not healthy around there; it is too damp."
"Oh, we are not going anywhere until we start home," Sweetest Susan remarked.
"How large is the Spring Lizard?" inquired Buster John.
"He's a heap too big for you to manage," replied Mrs. Meadows. "I don't know that he'd hurt you, but he's slept in the mud over there until he's so fat he can't wallow scarcely. He might roll over on you and hurt you some."
"Are there any lions over there?" inquired Sweetest Susan.
"No, honey, not a living one," said Mrs. Meadows.
By this time Mr. Rabbit had come out on the piazza, bringing his walking-cane and his pipe. He presently seated himself on the steps, and leaned his head comfortably against one of the posts.
"Well, well, well," he exclaimed. "It has been years and years since I've heard the name of Brother Lion. Is he still living and doing well?" Mr. Rabbit turned an inquiring eye on Sweetest Susan.
"She doesn't know anything about lions," said Buster John.
"Why, I do!" cried Sweetest Susan. "I saw one once in a cage."
"In a cage? Brother Lion in a cage?" Mr. Rabbit raised his hands and rolled his eyes in astonishment. "What is the world coming to? Well, I've said many and many a time that Brother Lion was not right up here." Mr. Rabbit tapped his forehead significantly. "In a cage! Now, that pesters me. Why, he used to go roaring and romping about the country, scaring them that didn't know him mighty nigh to death. And so Brother Lion is in a cage? But I might have known it. I wonder how the rest of the family are getting on? Not that they are any kin to me, for they are not. I called him Brother Lion just to be neighborly. Oh, no! He and his family are no kin to me. They are too heavy in both head and feet for that."
Mr. Rabbit closed his eyes as if reflecting, and patted the ground softly with his foot.
"Well, well! I remember just as well as if it were yesterday the day I told Brother Lion that if he wasn't careful, Mr. Man would catch him and put him in a cage for his children to look at. But he just hooted at it—and now, sure enough, there he is! I mind the first time he began his pursuit of Mr. Man. That was the time he got his hand caught in the split of the log."
"I done hear my daddy tell dat tale," remarked Drusilla.
"Yes," said Mr. Rabbit, "it soon became common talk in the neighborhood. Brother Lion had come a long way to hunt Mr. Man, and as soon as he got his hand out of the split in the log he started to go home again. I went part of the way with him, and then it was that I told him he'd find himself in a cage if he wasn't careful. I made a burdock poultice for his hand the best I could—"
"And it's mighty good for bruises, I tell you now!" exclaimed Mrs. Meadows.
"And then Brother Lion went on home, feeling better, but still very mad. Crippled as he was, he was a quick traveler, and it was not long before he came to his journey's end.
"Well, when his mother saw him she was very sorry. But when he told her what the matter was she was vexed. 'Aha!' said she, 'how often have I told you about meddling with somebody else's business! How often have I told you about sticking your nose into things that don't concern you! I'm not sorry for you one bit, because if you had obeyed me you wouldn't be coming home now with your hand mashed all to flinders. But, no! daddy-like, you've got to go and get yourself into trouble with Mr. Man, and now you see what has come of it. I'm not feeling at all well myself, but now I've got to go to work and make a whole parcel of poultices and tie your hand up and nurse you—and I declare somebody ought to be nursing me this very minute.'