[Frontispiece: The girls paused and waved their handkerchiefs.]
MARY AGNES BYRNE
AUTHOR OF "THE LITTLE WOMAN IN THE SPOUT," "LITTLE DAME TROT," "ROY AND ROSYROCKS," "THE FAIRY CHASES," ETC.
ANNA B. CRAIG
THE SAALFIELD PUBLISHING COMPANY
CHICAGO —— AKRON, OHIO —— NEW YORK
The Saalfield Publishing Co.
TO MY SISTER TRESS
I. PEGGY-ALONE II. UNCLE FRED III. GUMDROPS IV. THE GARDEN OF GOOD INTENTIONS V. A DISGUSTED POET VI. A SCORNFUL BEAUTY VII. THEATRICALS VIII. PICNICKING IX. TISSUE-PAPER HATS X. ALENE'S VISITORS XI. TAFFY PULLING XII. A STRING OF FISH XIII. A GIRLISH TIFF XIV. THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS XV. AFTER THE SHOW XVI. LAURA'S PROPOSITION XVII. IN THE BERRY PATCH XVIII. TO THE RESCUE XIX. THE BLUE BOX XX. MRS. KUMP'S BIRTHDAY XXI. TO CHINA IN A GLASS-BOAT XXII. VEXATIONS AND CONSOLATIONS XXIII. THE CRIMSON BAG XXIV. THE GARDEN PARTY XXV. IVY'S FRIEND XXVI. AN ADVENTURE XXVII. IN THE TOWER
High above the shrill exclamations of surprise and terror came that thin silvery command which the dog, great black fellow that he was, obeyed at once, and his flight in pursuit of those daring petticoats which had intruded on his master's orchard was brought to an ignominious end.
"Girls, say, girls, don't be frightened! He won't bite!"
One of the children had already scaled the wall, dropping her apron of apples on the way. She stood ready to help the second down, while the third and largest, who had kept in the rear between the smaller ones and their pursuer, waiting to see them safely over ere hastening her own steps, on hearing those friendly words paused and looked back.
Some distance away, under the apple trees on the grassy terrace, stood a little girl dressed all in white; a wreath of green ivy-vines crowded her glossy curls which fell to her waist and framed her thin face; one tiny hand was raised in a beckoning gesture and the other was placed firmly on the head of the dog.
Leading him, she approached the girl who waited in mute surprise.
"Do tell them not to go. They needn't be afraid of Prince now!"
"She says not to be afraid," hallooed the largest girl, whereupon the fugitives came back and seated themselves upon the wall overlooking the scene.
The girl with the dog had come forward. She stood looking half shyly, but with evident good-will, from the little maids on the wall to their friend who had turned after recalling the others, and came back a few steps to meet her.
"What are their names?" inquired the stranger.
"This is Ivy Bonner," the other said in a formal tone, pointing to her thinner companion, who swung her feet on the outside of the wall and, though she sat only half-facing them, seemed to see everything that went on. "And this is my sister Nettie," she continued, indicating the chubby, flaxen-haired party whose ruddy cheeks and great staring blue eyes reminded one of an over-grown doll-baby.
As each name was pronounced its owner gave a ceremonious little bow such as is always used in make-believe introductions, and the newcomer bowed gravely to each in acknowledgment. Then she turned again to the largest girl.
"I am Laura—Laura Lee."
"What's hers?" called Ivy, who felt that there was something lacking in the ceremony.
"Oh, my name's Alene Dawson," was the answer, and then, turning to Laura, she added with a somewhat rueful laugh, "but Uncle sometimes calls me Peggy-Alone."
"Why does he call you such a funny name?"
"Why, you see I'm so much by myself, now that mother and father went away and left me here with Uncle Fred. I get lonesome all by myself!"
"I should think you would!" cried Laura compassionately.
"Let's sit down," suggested Alene. They did so, side by side, on the grass, while Prince reclined lazily beside them.
"Do you live in the Big House?" inquired Laura, glancing toward a building which stood far up on the level ground overlooking the terraced hill; a substantial house whose gray stone walls and square tower were partly hid with vines. It was the most pretentious habitation in the town and occupied the most beautiful site. Laura and her friends regarded it somewhat as a fairy palace, around which they wove many fanciful romances.
"I'm a-visiting there now but when Uncle goes down town and the maids are all at work I don't know what to do with myself; and when I saw you all here among the trees I just hurried down, I was so glad to see a crowd of girls, but naughty Prince ran ahead and scared you away! What were you playing?"
"We weren't playing; we were just picking apples."
Alene looked horrified.
"You see, Mr. Dawson allows us to come in and take all we want," explained Laura hurriedly, while a shrill voice from the wall cried:
"We weren't stealing!"
"I never thought that!"
"Well, she looked as if she did," commented Ivy.
"I looked surprised because—well—to think you would eat such green apples."
This statement brought forth a ripple of amusement from the two critics and Alene with reddened cheeks turned to the girl at her side.
"Well, they are dangerous, aren't they?"
"Don't mind those kids, they giggle at 'most anything. You see we are used to eating them and they are not injurious if you eat 'em with salt," explained Laura, though not very clearly.
"She's to take the kids and the apples with a little salt!" cried Ivy.
"Just try one!"
Alene sank her teeth rather gingerly into the rounded green cheek of the proffered apple.
"It's rather sour!" she said, trying to repress a grimace but unable to keep the tears from her eyes.
Laura took from her apron pocket a tiny glass saltcellar and shook some of its contents lightly over the next bite which Alene heroically swallowed.
"It's not so very bad," she murmured. So intent was she on accepting Laura's intended kindness graciously that she envied the ease with which Ivy and Nettie disposed of the apples, biting off great mouthfuls and chewing them, core and all, with evident enjoyment.
Laura forgot to eat any herself, being content to watch Alene's performance and never dreaming what a task it was for her.
"Say, Laura!" came a voice in a loud, hissing tone intended for a whisper; "she's got lace on her petticoat."
"And silk stockings and slippers!"
"Hush—'tisn't polite to whisper before comp'ny," admonished Laura.
"I don't mind the little thing," said Alene in a confidential aside to Laura, regardless of the fact that the "little thing" was nearly as large as herself.
"But she acts years and years older," was Laura's inward comment. "I guess she's used to 'sociating with grown folks."
"I don't like to wear lace-trimmed things, either," continued Alene.
"Why, I think they're lovely," said Laura, tenderly fingering one of the flounces which billowed like waves against her own blue print.
"But you don't have to wear them and be 'called down' by your governess every minute for fear they'll get torn or dirty!"
"Have you a governess?" inquired Laura in a tone of awe.
"Yes, but she took sick just after mother went away and had to go to the hospital. You see mother expected her to come here and take care of me. Uncle hasn't told mother 'cause he don't want to spoil their trip and he thinks it won't hurt me to learn to take care of myself. It's the first time I ever went round without a nurse or someone tagging after me, telling me to do this or not to do that—it's lovely to be free, girls!"
"'Give me liberty or give me death!'" said Laura in a tragic tone, and Alene squeezed her hand.
"Oh, Laura, it's so nice to talk with someone who understands! But in spite of being so free, I get so lonely!"
Laura's eyes shone with sudden comprehension.
"Oh, you poor little lonely baby," she said to herself, and then aloud,
"Alene, I wish you could join the Happy-Go-Luckys."
"The Happy-Go-Luckys? What are they?"
"A kind of club—you know."
"A club," said Alene, in such a doubtful tone that Laura took a sudden fit of laughter.
"Oh, Alene, you're so funny! It's not a club to hit with, but just us—a crowd of girls—to go together for fun and to do things."
"Oh, Laura! Would you really let me join, if Uncle will allow?"
"I'd love to, but we have some rules and bylaws—to be eligible the candidate's age must be at least twelve!" Laura from long practice was able to repeat the big words glibly.
"And I won't be twelve till July the seventeenth! Oh, Laura!"
"That's not so far off!"
"But what'll become of me till then? I'll die of loneliness!"
"I was going to say that July seventeenth is so near, and you seem so much older, that we'll have a special election, and—well, we'll stretch the rules to let you in."
Alene gave a sigh of relief.
"As I'm not so very large, you won't have to stretch them very far," she said, encouragingly.
"If she's little, she's old, like Andy Daly's pig!" Again came that sibilant whisper.
"Alene, don't mind her!"
"But why does she say that?"
"It's an old Irish saying. You see, Andy Daly took his pig to market and they objected to its size—'If it's little, it's old' said Andy Daly; and so they say, 'If it's little, it's old, like Andy Daly's pig!'"
Alene laughed and called over to the whisperer:
"If I'm little, I'm old enough to be a Happy-Go-Lucky—so there!"
"Where is Peggy-Alone, Prince?" inquired Mr. Frederick Dawson.
The dog had come bounding over the grass to meet him at the Tower House gate, strange to say unaccompanied by the little girl who was usually the first to greet him each evening on his return from the office.
With Prince barking and snapping at his hand, the young man hurried along the path and into the great hall.
"Yes, Prince, I know she's hiding somewhere, to jump out and scare her poor old Uncle and set his nerves all a-tremble! It was thoughtful of you to give me warning!" he said aloud. He hung up his hat, keeping a sharp lookout for the delinquent but she was nowhere in sight; no dancing footsteps were heard coming from any part of the house.
"I hope she isn't sick," he soliloquized, beginning to feel uneasy. "She's getting pale and listless. The poor little thing must be lonely here all day with no one but the servants. I wish she knew some children to play with! Confounded luck for the governess to fall sick and leave me as a sort of head nurse!" His grumbling anxious thoughts ended in an abrupt exclamation.
Through the open door of the library he saw a little white-robed maid, seated in a great leather revolving chair, with her eyes fixed upon an object on the table beside her. If she noticed the young man's entrance or heard his voice she gave no sign, nor did she pay any attention to Prince, who led the way into the room, and strove with a great show of canine solicitude, in merry barks and gambols, to attract his young mistress' attention.
"Alene!" her Uncle said sharply, but the silence remained unbroken.
Half alarmed, he came forward and shook her by the shoulder.
"For heaven's sake, child, is anything the matter?"
Still she made no reply; she kept gazing, gazing in one direction as though fascinated.
Following her glance, he saw the fragments of a fancy Mexican tobacco-jar, which he had shown to her only the day before.
"Alene, I'm ashamed of you!" he cried in an angry tone. "Has the breaking of this jar brought you to such a state as this? Why, anyone would think—I'd swear it was the truth myself were anyone else in question—yes, they would think me an ogre who ate little girls who chanced to break something!" Turning away, he paced the floor with rapid steps backward and forward. The longer he walked, the faster he went, and higher the angry red glowed in his cheeks.
For a time Alene kept her unaccountable position. Presently her eyes strayed sidewise toward her agitated companion, who, intent on his own angry mutterings, was unaware of her inspection. The gleam of mirth that overspread her countenance was quickly banished; she rose and stood beside her chair and then crossed the floor to his side.
A little hand stole into his, a pair of blue eyes gazed contritely upward.
"Oh, Uncle, you said it was a present and I felt so badly! You aren't angry?"
"Ain't I? Do I look as if I'd beat a child?"
Suddenly his angry mood passed away, and he threw himself into a chair, in a paroxysm of laughter.
"Oh, Polly-Wog, what shall I do to make you pay up for this?"
"The jar? Did it cost so awfully much?"
"The jar you gave me when I came in, I thought you were in a trance! I had a wild notion to lose no time in bringing the doctor!"
She glanced ruefully at the broken vase.
"I was just wondering if it could be pieced together again—"
"Before the ogre got back?"
Alene perched herself on the arm of his chair with one arm around his shoulders.
"You're more like a fairy godmother—father, I mean."
"How did the terrible accident occur?"
"I picked it up to admire it and my hand got sort o' dizzy and let it fall."
"And you didn't think of running away and pretending you knew nothing about it, or blaming it on the maid?"
"Now, Uncle Fred—as if I'd be so dishonorable!"
"Well, I might, if I had such an ogre for an uncle as yours appears to be! I shouldn't fancy being ground to sausages!"
"Like Andy Daly's pig was, I guess! I must tell you about him, but there's something else to ask you first—something very important! Since you're the good fairy, you ought to grant me three wishes but I'll let you off with one."
"I'll not insist on granting the three until I hear Number One—Here goes! One, two, three—"
"Can I—may I—join the Happy-Go-Luckys?" implored Alene in an impressive voice, with clasped hands.
"The Happy-Go-Luckys! You're sure you don't mean the Ku Klux Klan? Hark, there's Kizzie coming to announce dinner. Come along and you can tell me all about it while we eat."
She took his arm with a mock fine-lady air, and walked beside him with mincing steps across the hall to the dining-room.
It was a square apartment with windows opening upon a green vista of gardens, now shut away by latticed blinds, through which the fresh spring air found way.
The bay window was filled with immense potted palms; another window led to a balcony where baskets with myrtle and other vines hung round like a heavy green curtain. The room was finished in light colored woodwork. A square rug in a pattern of tiny green and white tiles partly covered the polished floor; in the center stood a cosy round table, whose snowy napery and old silver and china were lit by a bronze lamp with an ornamental shade that resembled a gorgeous peony.
Seated opposite her Uncle, Alene, in her eagerness to relate her afternoon's adventure, almost forgot to touch the tempting dishes which Kizzie, the maid, served so deftly.
Her usually pale cheeks glowed and her eyes beamed brightly while she told of her new friends and the club.
Mr. Dawson listened with flattering attention.
"You may, you shall, you must, join the Happy-Go-Luckys! As a society for the prevention of loneliness to Peggy-Alone or any other forlorn little girl, it strikes me as a good thing," he declared.
"Oh, Uncle, you're a dear old thing!"
"An article of virtu as it were. Be careful how you handle me!"
Alene gave him a reproachful look.
"There, don't start that deadly stare again! I'm not insinuating anything!"
His air of alarm amused Alene. She laughed merrily. Her joy over his permission to join the Happy-Go-Luckys banished from her Uncle's mind any doubts he may have had of her mother's approval. However, he knew something of Alene's new friends, being personally acquainted with Mr. Lee, whose work as a riverman allowed him little time at home, while Mrs. Bonner was a widow who kept a small boarding house; both families, though poor, were highly respectable.
"Since I'm left in charge of Alene, I'll use my own judgment, which tells me that it's the very thing for her. She looks improved already and I'll not let any snobbish question deprive her of happiness." Which settled the matter there and then for all concerned.
* * * * * *
"What's the matter now, Alene, that you pucker your brows over that ponderous tome?"
It was after supper, and Uncle Fred, seated in an easy chair beside the reading table in the library, was lazily puffing a pipe.
A stand near by held a large dictionary over whose pages Alene's head was bent.
Glancing up with a puzzled expression, she said: "I don't quite understand; this book says it means 'plain,' and I'm sure lots of children are quite ugly long before they are that age, and I don't think the girls are plain—Laura has lovely eyes and I never heard I was. Am I ugly, Uncle?"
"Well, one wouldn't pick you out in a crowd when all the lights were out, for a fright—"
"Oh, Uncle Fred, do be sober a minute!"
"Alene, I'm ashamed of you to hint that your guardian is ever anything else!"
"I mean grave!"
"A 'most potent, reverend and grave' old fellow am I!"
"Why, sometimes, Uncle Fred, you act as if you weren't any more than nine," said Alene, returning to the book with an air of tolerant resignation that amused the young man. He crossed to her side.
"Tell me what you are hunting; perhaps I can help you."
Alene ignored his air of exaggerated solemnity.
"You see, Laura said one must be twelve years old to be legible—to the Club, you know."
"Then if I'm not too old, I'm old enough to belong! But if I were you, I'd quit the L's and try something else very like it, with an E before," suggested Uncle Fred.
"Eligible, of course—how stupid of me!"
On the way upstairs that night Alene paused and gave way to a fit of laughter.
"What's the fun now?" called Uncle Fred from his cosy position by the table.
"It seems so funny to think that I," here came a series of mirthful sounds, "to think that you would think that I was afraid of you."
Uncle Fred's chair was overturned by his energetic uprising in pursuit of the little tease, who heeded the warning and was safely out of sight on the landing, with one parting giggle as the door of her room was shut with a resounding clap.
"Not a red gum drop was cast!" cried Laura as she jumped lightly from the garden wall and joined Alene, who for some time had been pacing the orchard impatiently with Prince jumping beside her.
Alene's look of pleased anticipation changed to dismay.
"I'm so sorry!"
"Why, Uncle Fred would have given me money to buy some, if I knew you wanted them!"
Laura's laugh rang out merrily.
"Why, Alene, it's votes! We don't buy them like 'lectioneers do—we get enough to give each member one red and one white gumdrop. Those who are for a candidate put in a white and those against her a red!"
Alene danced with joy.
"Then I'm elected!"
"You are now a member of the Happy-Go-Luckys and your name is duly inscribed on the books!" said Laura, in her judicial tone.
"And they all put in the white drops! How lovely of them!"
"Yes, all but Ivy; she put hers in her mouth to taste it, and before she knew, it was gone!"
"Dear me, and what did she do then?"
"She whispered it to me at the last minute, just after I got out the little mustard box where we cast our votes, and so I allowed her to put in a button instead. After it was over, some of us wanted to save the gumdrops for the first meeting you attended, but those greedy youngsters had devoured 'em all but two which I managed to keep."
Laura pressed into Alene's hand a small tinsel-paper package.
"You must eat half of each," said Alene, wisely surmising that it was Laura's own portion that had been saved, and resolving to leave for another day the blue ribbon-tied box of candy Uncle Fred had given her that morning, which she had just placed in the grass at the foot of a tree, awaiting Laura's arrival.
Seated on the green beneath the trees, they ate the gumdrops, whose scarcity perhaps made them seem the more delicious, and exchanged confidences concerning themselves and the Happy-Go-Luckys.
Alene, who was an only child, envied Laura's claim to two small sisters and a baby brother and one brother older than herself.
"Ivy is the only girl in the Bonner family."
"Not quite—she has six brothers, four of them older than she is!"
"Gracious, I'd be lost in such a crowd of boys!"
As for the Club, it had formal meetings when an excursion to the woods or an exhibition was in view; then verbal notice was given to assemble at the home of one of the members. The other meetings were when two or more members met by chance or appointment for any object, whether study, play or conversation.
"So you see this is a meeting of two members, and I think I see a third," concluded the President, Miss Lee, craning her neck in the direction of the side street.
"Hello, Lol," cried a shrill voice, and Ivy's curly head peeped over the wall.
"I'll go and help her over," said Laura, rising quickly. As the wall was not very high, Alene idly wondered why such an active-looking girl should need assistance in scaling it.
"Why, I never dreamed she was lame," she murmured a moment later, swallowing something that seemed to choke her, when she saw Ivy coming forward on a pair of slender crutches. She strove to hide her emotion as she hurried down the grassy terrace to greet her.
Ivy may have noticed her start of surprise, for she said with a queer, unchildish laugh, as though she had read her thought:
"You didn't know I used these," with an expressive glance toward the crutches. "You see I kept 'em on the other side of the wall the other day. I wanted you to treat me as you would if I were like the rest, not handled gently and pitied!"
Alene tried to keep the pity from her countenance, for Ivy's words made her feel worse than ever. She wished she could run away somewhere, for a while, to have a good cry.
"Don't mind her, Alene! I do believe she talks that way to make us feel bad," said Laura in what Alene thought a very unfeeling manner; but she learned later that Laura's seeming harshness toward Ivy was only a cloak to hide her sympathy, and that it gave her an influence over the child who would otherwise use her infirmity to tyrannize over the others.
Ivy threw her crutches on the grass and sank down, saying,
"Horrid things! I hate them—and it makes me feel so mean to have to beg to get them back when the kids take 'em away from me!"
"Do they do that?" inquired Alene, indignantly.
"They have to do it sometimes, for she beats them with the crutches," explained Laura.
"That's the only way I can reach 'em!" said her friend, in self-defense.
Ivy was an elfin-looking creature with sparkling black eyes that seemed to see right through one; her small head was covered with a thick mop of curls of a blackness that, in some lights, had blue and green shades like the plumage of a bird; her wasted cheeks and brown, claw-like hands told pathetically of weary months on a sick-bed, which indeed she had only recently quitted, as Alene learned later.
"What a lovely sash you have on," she exclaimed, with a sudden change of mood, holding up an end of Alene's plaid sash. "It's like a baby rainbow stolen from a fairy sky and hung 'round your waist."
Alene glanced at her sash with a new interest. She cared little for pretty clothes and seldom noticed what those around her wore; that she was dressed finer and more fashionably than Laura and Ivy had not once occurred to her.
"That sounds like poetry," she observed.
"Yes, she writes poetry, too!" Laura returned proudly. "You must let Alene see some of it—and she keeps a book where she writes all about the sky when the sun sets—she sees lovely rivers and golden hills and ladies riding in skiffs—"
"Now, Lol!" cried Ivy with a hectic color reddening her cheeks. "It's just silly stuff, you know, that I put down to pass away the time when I'm laid up," she explained. "I thought of it one evening when the boarders were at supper; the boys were eating and mother of course too busy to stay with me. Hugh brought in my supper on a tray and hurried back to the dining-room and I sat there alone and ate my meal and watched the sky from my couch, which was drawn up close to the window. What wonderful things I saw then!"
"Tell me about them, won't you?" implored Alene.
"There were great purple mountains and emerald lakes and wonderful golden caves—people, too—angels with harps flying through the white clouds, ladies with crowns and long robes gliding along and little children swimming the river on the back of great swans like in the fairy books. Every evening it changed and at last I commenced to write about the different things I saw each day, and so I called it my Sunset Book. As for sunrises—" Ivy gave a sudden arch glance at Laura.
"Lazybones, I don't believe you ever saw one!"
"I'd love to see your book!" cried Alene; "and there are some beautiful sunsets looking from the Tower!"
Ivy glanced up toward the tower of the Big House that rose almost as high as a church spire from the top of the hill.
"I do believe one could see behind the hills over there in the west, to the other side of the world from those windows," she exclaimed.
"Well, you and Laura come up this evening and—"
"Won't your folks object?"
"There's no folks there but Uncle Fred and he's no objector. Promise to come and see how far we can see!"
"'Over the hills and far away.'"
"Yes, we promise," cried Laura.
THE GARDEN OF GOOD INTENTIONS
"Oh, Lol, I could hardly keep my face straight! To think we were actually invited up to the Big House really and truly, and were right there where we had so often pretended to live, you as Countess Terilla and I the Lady Clare-Come-to-See; I could hardly make this face of mine behave."
"Your eyes just shook inside; little, shining imps danced in them, wanting to come out. Yes, I saw them and—"
"And I was so glad of the chance to giggle out loud when you said something that wasn't at all funny but gave us a chance to pretend it was. I could have screamed!"
"After all, it wasn't near so fine as our palace, with its red room and its green room and its blue room with everything to match."
"But that library was beautiful. You couldn't help but see lovely things if you were writing there!"
"Alene is such a dear little thing! She never gave a thought to her home being so much finer than ours; she only thought of giving us a good time!" said Laura.
"She's no snob! She thinks people are what they are in themselves!"
"And thoughts are the most precious things—that's the reason she wanted to give you the pleasure of seeing His Gorgeous Lordship from the tower window!"
For a moment Ivy was silent; her gaze was far away; again she was looking from that little narrow window so close to the clouds.
"Do you know, Lol, if I owned the Big House I'd live in the tower when I wasn't in the library. But it wasn't me in particular, Lol, that Alene wanted. To her I'm only a lesser planet when you're near—it's hearts that count!"
"Yes, she's so good-hearted that you forget her pretty clothes and rich relations, and come to lock on her as just a little girl like the others!" Ivy smiled indulgently as Laura applied her remarks to Alene, and the unconscious Laura continued, "At first when I proposed that she should join the Happy-Go-Luckys, it was just because she looked so lonely with only the dog to play with, in that great house with its acres of grounds; and when she said her Uncle called her 'Peggy-Alone', I could see the tears back of her smile and it came to me, 'what if Nettie or Lois were to be left all alone?' They're so used to tagging after me all their lives, you know, and so I just asked her in, though I was dreadfully afraid you would all be against it."
"And so we were! Just because we knew she was rich and might be in the way when we wanted some fun, or would look down on us because we're poor. That," glancing at her crutches, "makes some people mild and sweet-tempered, they say, but it only makes me hatefuller and selfisher every day! Lol, I'm going to tell you something so you'll see what a selfish thing I am. I swallowed that gumdrop on purpose so I wouldn't have to vote! I didn't have the courage to vote against her because you were so eager to have her join."
"And then you got sorry as you always do."
"No, don't give me too much credit! I got ashamed when I compared my conduct with others; but you were unselfish—you didn't stop to consider the disadvantages to yourself. You only thought of her."
While Laura, with reddened cheeks, disclaimed this with as much earnestness as if taxed with a crime, Ivy went on unheeding:
"I thought it over this morning when I took out my Sunset Book, and instead of writing down what we saw from the tower window—which no one could describe, no painter nor poet that ever lived, glimpses of glory that God lets shine down, sometimes, when the Pearly Gate is opened just a narrow chink (to let some little white angel in perhaps) and the clouds reflect it, just as the river does the trees, you know—well, I wrote this instead!"
Laura took the precious book and perused it seriously.
"May I keep it and read it to Alene? I know she'd enjoy it!"
Ivy demurred, but at last consented and on Laura's next meeting with Alene she brought forth a green paper-covered copy-book and, with a few preliminary remarks, proceeded to read:
"'Once upon a time—'"
"It begins all right, anyway," interrupted Alene, settling herself comfortably against a tree, and half closing her eyes, as if to hear the better.
"'Once upon a time,'" Laura's voice went on, "'I wandered far away until I came to a narrow path, on one side of which was a beautiful garden blooming with flowers and fruit, with gay birds skimming through the air, while on the other side the grass and flowers lay withered, the trees leaned over, leafless and dead, and perched in their branches were mute, broken-winged birds. I went on until I came to the Witch of the Woods, who stood leaning on her hazel staff, with her red cloak wrapped around her, and her long, silvery hair falling, tangled, en her shoulders.
"'What ails the little maiden that she looks so puzzled? Perhaps I can smooth the wrinkles from her brow!' she said in a harsh, cracked voice.
"'Oh, wise woman!' I cried, for I felt so badly about what I had seen that I never thought of being afraid—'please tell me the mystery of the blighted garden!'
"'My child, you have come through the Garden of Good Intentions—on one side are those which never came to blossom but died in the bud, whilst on the other are those which sprouted and grew and bloomed in beauty year after year, evergreen—'
"'And the voiceless birds?'
"'The mute birds of the broken wings are kind deeds, thought of, but left undone, while those performed multiply and fly, gay singing-birds, making many hearts glad!'"
The reader's voice ceased; the book fell in her lap; a silence followed; Prince lay blinking in the sunshine; the birds and insects gave no token of their presence—even the leaves of the trees hung motionless.
The girls, sitting in the shade side by side, vaguely realized the calm; the heat gave them only a sense of well-being; their thoughts were at first too shadowy for words.
Alene was thinking of Ivy's story. It reminded her of the text she had heard the previous Sunday in the little vine-covered church on the crest of the hill; "Be ye kind one to another, merciful, forgiving one another even as God hath forgiven you in Christ." She wished that she too might go through the Garden of Good Intentions whilst flowers sprang up and birds sang sweetly round about her. But what could she do, what deed of kindness perform, however small, that might perhaps bloom as a wild flower by the wayside to gladden the passer-by?
She gave a start when with a sudden bark Prince leaped up and ran to chase some stray chickens; a breeze blew up till every leaf and blade of grass quivered with joy; a bird twittered softly and was answered by his mate and presently from each bush and tree came the voices of its lodgers in a song of praise.
Then Laura spoke, showing that her thoughts had divined Alene's in a sympathetic wave.
"Now, what do you think, Alene, of a 'Kind Deeds' article in the Happy-Go-Luckys' constitution, pledging each member to the sending out of little birds with strong wings that can fly?"
"And planting seeds to spring up in fragrant flowers? Oh, Laura!" cried Alene, "that would be beautiful!"
A DISGUSTED POET
When Laura rashly undertook the role of stage manager, or to say more truly, when the position devolved upon her as a matter of course, because she was the president of the Happy-Go-Luckys, she accepted the honor and the duties in blithe confidence, never dreaming of difficulties.
For a time everything went smoothly, and that lively sympathy for others in like position which marked her after years would never, perhaps, have been called forth was it not for her discovery one day in the attic of an old reader which contained something she thought could be used as a dialogue in the coming exhibition.
It was a poem in which each of four children expresses a cherished ambition to the mother, who comments on the wish with approval or censure.
The piece required two boys, and Laura's brother Mat and his chum, Hugh Bonner, were called upon, and after some grumbling on their part and as much coaxing on the part of the girls they "came in to help the Happy-Go-Luckys out," as they expressed it.
They were assigned their characters; Laura took the role of mother, giving the girls' parts to Alene and Ivy.
"I ask for beauty, for an eye Bright as the stars in yonder sky; For tresses on the air to fling And put to shame the raven's wing; Cheeks where the lily and the rose Are blended in a sweet repose; For pearly teeth and coral lip, Tempting the honey bee to sip, And for a fairy foot as light As is a young gazelle's in flight, And then a small, white, tapering hand— I'd reign, a beauty, in the land!"
This was Alene's verse, but Ivy read it over and over instead of her own, and the oftener she read, the more discontented she grew.
"Why should Alene wish for 'a fairy foot, as light as is the young gazelle's in flight' when she has one already—two of 'em for that matter?" she thought. "The other wish is fine, I know—'a noble gift,' the mother says, but I don't care, I can't do justice to it as I could to the other! Of course, I don't care much for the 'eye, bright as the stars,' and all that rubbish, but I can imagine being light and gay and dancing!"
Although Ivy learned her part she went through it at rehearsal in such a spiritless way that Laura could not have failed to remark it if she were not occupied with so many other things.
When Alene's turn came and she stepped forward rather timidly to recite, Ivy listened eagerly to her rendition. It proved to be letter-perfect but expressionless. Ivy was justified in thinking that she herself could have done much better.
"She says it just in the way you might wish for a piece of plum cake or another gum-drop," she mused bitterly.
No one suspected her dissatisfaction except Hugh, who someway understood all the moods of the frail little sister whom he worshiped.
In her sick spells, dating from a fall five years before, no one could move her so tenderly, nor place her in so comfortable a position as this sturdy lad of fifteen.
He resented Ivy's affliction even more than she did herself.
"I don't see why it couldn't have been one of us big lubbers of boys instead of her," he grumbled to his mother. "She seems to be made to run and dance and play—almost to fly like a bird."
"It's the Lord's will," returned Mrs. Bonner with a sigh.
"Umph! I don't know! When doctors fail to cure a disease, it seems pesky mean to blame it on the Lord! If we were only rich enough, I bet we could find some clever doctor who could make her O.K.! Why couldn't it have been a rich girl instead of her?"
"Oh, Hugh! That is wrong! Why need it be any poor little creature?" said the mother, who thought to herself that in this case money would indeed be a desirable thing; she never envied the rich except when she thought of Ivy.
But the boy, with all youth's revolt, hated the seeming injustice and his resentment often extended to those whose wealth made the difference so marked.
When Ivy, trying to conceal her own disapproval, spoke of Alene's joining the Happy-Go-Luckys, Hugh was opposed to it.
"I know just how it will be, and you girls are makin' a big guess when you take her in," he had warned.
"But she seemed so lonely, and Laura wanted it so much—"
"So did that city chap who used to go with us boys. He looked all right, but my, nothin' suited him. He laughed at our dug-bait, and fishin' rods, and our old-fashioned skiff and things, and talked about his pa's yacht and motor-cars and his ma's diamonds, until we were sick of 'em all!"
"But Alene is different," replied Ivy, and her brother said no more but wore a look of "just wait and you'll find out that I told you so," that was exasperating.
As time passed and he heard nothing but praises of Alene, and saw for himself her unassuming manners and her evident good will, he was obliged to confess that she was a good little thing in spite of her citified dress and her haughty relations; but in this dialogue affair he thought it too bad that the fortunate little maid, who had everything else, should stand in Ivy's way.
"I'll give a hint to Laura," he suggested.
"Oh, no, no, Hugh! Don't say a word to anyone! Not for the world!"
"After all, your part is fine. The other is silly stuff—sounds like some empty-headed thing!"
"Oh, Hugh, it's beautiful! Anyway, I could just enter into part of it! I'm tired of being tied to crutches and people thinkin', because of them, one never even wants any foolishness and fun, like other girls!"
Hugh looked troubled.
"It's a wonder Laura didn't think you might—"
"Laura didn't think anything about it! She just saw it was about a poet, and so the very thing for me!"
"Maybe Alene would—"
"Yes, I know she'd give it up if she knew I wanted it! She's an unselfish little thing. She took it because it was all that was left when Laura disposed of the 'soulful poet' part," Ivy said. Then after a silence, "I wonder why bad health makes me cranky and selfish and envious, instead of patient and meek, like the little girls in story books!"
Hugh smiled. He couldn't imagine his sprightly sister in the story book role of uncomplaining heroine, and he wouldn't wish to have her so, not for the world. Ivy was Ivy with all her faults; he wouldn't wish to have her otherwise except a happier Ivy, with the blessing of health and strength, flitting gaily through life, having part in the work and the play of the world.
A SCORNFUL BEAUTY
Ivy could not have complained of Alene's want of animation had she followed her home after rehearsal one afternoon a few days later.
She entered the library, threw her hat on a chair and herself upon a snug little sofa that stood invitingly in the embrasure of a window, which, by drawing the crimson curtains, could be shut off from the rest of the room, leaving a cosy den—her favorite place for dreaming and reading, where her eyes, straying from her book, rested on an ever-varying picture of sky and river, which the window framed.
To-day, not waiting to shut herself away, and paying no attention to the smiling landscape, she opened a sheet of foolscap paper that she had held clasped tightly in her hand, and gravely perused the lines of Ivy's angular writing which covered it. A similar sheet had been given to the other actors in the dialogue so that each might learn his part at leisure.
"'I ask for beauty—' yes, you little numskull, ask for it,—that's all people think you're good for! Laura, of course, never thought of it that way but others will! And I don't wish for it, I'd rather be a poet any day!
'I ask the poet's gift, the lyre, With skillful hand to sweep each wire, I'd pour my burning thoughts in song, In lays deep, passionate and strong, Till heart should thrill at every word As mind is thrilled at song of bird! Oh, I would die and leave some trace That earth had been my dwelling place, Would live in hearts forevermore When this frail, fitful life is o'er! Oh, for the gifted poet's power— This is my wish, be this my dower!"
Alene jumped to her feet, and standing in the window facing the room, recited the words with a dash and a fire that brought forth a "Bravo!" from Uncle Fred, who on his way through the hall had heard her voice and, stopping softly at the door, witnessed her performance.
It formed a pretty picture, the little tragedienne, standing where the crimson draperies made an effective background for her slender, white-robed figure, with the long strands of rumpled brown hair straying over her shoulder, and her earnest, gray eyes deepening to black or sparkling into blue, her whole face lit with passion.
"You do your part well, Peggy," said the young man.
Alene's blushes of pleasure faded suddenly.
"But it's not my part, it's Ivy's! Why does everyone think when you're rich that's all you are good for or can wish for! This is my part," and she pointed tragically at the detested verse.
"Ah, I see," said Uncle Fred, glancing at the lines. "It's a pretty thing. 'Tis a pity to have it spoiled, as I fear it will be, since you dislike it. "Why not suggest a change?"
"I'm afraid Laura would feel hurt; besides it is more suitable to Ivy as she is a poet!"
"The very reason she may wish for something else!"
"Anyway, she said the verse in a sing-song style that just spoiled it!" declared Alene.
"Poor stage manager! It's almost as bad as being the leader of a choir! Pity Laura's not a mind reader! But why not be perfectly honest with her, and tell her how you feel about it; perhaps Ivy has no preference in the matter."
Alene thought that was out of the question; besides it would be selfish to want Ivy's part, just because she herself preferred it; poor Ivy, who, though so clever, was never quite happy.
"Then act on the Golden Rule; but don't spoil it by murdering the dialogue in revenge," said Uncle Fred. To which Alene assented, though she declared it was very hard.
"Since Laura's stars refuse to shine, why doesn't she call on me? Now, I rather fancy the part," said the young man; and taking the paper with an air of solemnity that the twinkling of his eyes belied, he proceeded to read the verse with an exaggerated air, emphasizing the wrong words and using gestures which seemed so funny to Alene that she threw herself on the rug and screamed with laughter. The noise attracted Mrs. Major and Kizzie, who reached the door in time to witness the bewildering wind-up, as the actor, dwelling softly on the words,
"And for a fairy foot as light As is the young gazelle's in flight."
gave his right foot an upward movement bringing his toe in contact with the chandelier, and then executed a backward kicking act I am sure no gazelle, old or young, would wish to emulate.
The rehearsals went on. Alene and Ivy recited their parts in the dialogue in the same listless way, secretly criticising each other's rendition, but Laura, busy in directing and arranging so many things, failed to notice the discontent of those two important members of the Company.
It was only their love of the manager that kept them silent, and even then it was a hard task, considering Alene's ingenuousness and Ivy's impulsiveness, both traits alike foes to concealment.
At the last meeting before the great event, everything seemed to go wrong; the little ones forgot their lines or refused to obey the stage manager, declaring she was cranky, and threatening to throw up their parts and go out on the hillside to play; the boys were in a mischievous mood and teased their sisters unmercifully; Laura was on the point of tears, which fact Alene discovered by her unusual rigidity of countenance.
Laura crying would be something terrible! Alene had seen the others whimper and complain. She had been present when Ivy, in her sudden fierce passions of anger, would attack the little ones viciously with her crutches, unless they had previously stolen them away; in which event she would gnash her teeth, and stamp her feet, in powerless rage, and only Laura could bring peace by banishing her tormentors. But no matter what happened, Laura seemed a rock upon which to lean, and if, in adjusting a grievance, she sometimes failed to use tact, and the remedy proved worse than the disease, they knew in their hearts she was acting in good faith, trying to do what was right.
Therefore it behooved Alene upon this occasion to redouble her efforts to be helpful and cheering.
She won over the babies by promising them each a beautiful doll out of the trunkful she had at home; whereupon the big boys promised to be good if she would give them one also, but Alene took their chaffing good-naturedly and things began to proceed more smoothly.
The last thing on the program, "The Wishes," was called.
Laura, strange to say, for the first time found fault.
"Oh, Ivy, do put a little animation into it! One would think you were delivering a funeral oration," she cried testily.
Ivy's nerves, overwrought by the preceding irritations, gave way:
"Well, no wonder, for I hate it!"
"Hate that? Why, it's the finest thing in the whole piece; even the mother says 'a noble gift,' while she chides Alene for wanting mere beauty!"
Ivy's thin cheeks were like crimson roses. "I'd rather be a dancing beauty than a broken-winged robin!" she declared defiantly.
"And I'd rather be a poet than go mincing through the world with just a pretty face!" exclaimed Alene.
"Oh, Alene, would you really like my part?" cried the astonished Ivy. "Why didn't you say so?"
"Why, because I thought anyone would prefer it to that detestable beauty part! Why didn't you speak out?"
Now it would have taken quite a long explanation, each having, as we know, several reasons for not having spoken, so they only looked at each other and laughed.
Laura glanced from one speaker to the other, her look of surprise changing to compunction.
"Oh, girls, why didn't I ask you which verse you preferred instead of portioning it off as I thought you would like?" she queried ruefully. While they sought to reassure her, Mrs. Lee entered the room, and learning the cause of the excitement, said:
"That's just like Laura! The other morning I heard a great uproar. In I came to find Laura helping to dress Lois, insisting upon putting a certain shoe on her foot, while she cried against it. I investigated and found—"
"That I was bent on cramming her fat little footsie into a shoe two sizes too small for her—I had picked up Elmer's shoe in mistake!"
Although Ivy and Alene were somewhat embarrassed when they rehearsed the dialogue after exchanging roles and did not render the new parts with the power of which they were capable, the improvement was marked and brought forth much applause, which however was not to be compared with the hand clappings received the night of the performance—but that is another story.
Mrs. Bonner's double parlors were used, the front for the audience, which filled the room. All of the boarders attended, and the neighbors came, bringing their own chairs. The back parlor, ordinarily used as a dining-room, was the stage, the sliding doors making a good substitute for a curtain.
Mat had a funny speech by way of introduction; then Lois was called for a song about lovers meeting at the garden gate, which in her baby English she rendered, "Meet me at the Garbage Gate." An original poem by Laura was unexpectedly brought to light by a mischievous friend, and read in a sing-song style by Lafe Bonner:
"That poor old slate I always did hate, But I had to use it At any rate. One day by accident (?) It fell on the floor, It broke to pieces, And I saw it no more."
Fortunately the author's blushes were hidden along with herself back in a corner of the stage. "It's the only 'pome' I ever executed and I felt like executing Lafe when I heard him reciting it," she explained later.
Nettie, looking more than ever like a great waxen doll in her pink gingham and golden curls, brought down the house by her recitation:
"Little Bobby, come to daddy! Holdy up his tiny paddy, Did he hurt his blessed heady? Darling, come and get some bready, Don'ty cry, poor little laddie, Come and kiss his precious daddy."
Baby Elmer represented Bobby, and the little maid went through the piece with appropriate gestures, unconscious of her audience and not forgetting a word,—to the joy of her instructor, Laura, whose heart beat nervously while she watched the performance.
Mr. Frederick Dawson and a few of his companions had come in rather late and seats were found for them in the rear, as they refused to allow any at the front to be vacated for them. It was just before the doors opened on the great dialogue where Laura was the mother, in a neat wrapper and gray wig and spectacles, standing in the midst of an interesting family. The back of an easy chair served to support Ivy, who was dressed in white, with red sash and hair ribbons.
What spirit she put in her lines, all leading up to, and centering in, the wish for the young gazelle's light footfall, the rest being only a prelude to that!
Then the other little white-robed girl from her seat in the big chair rose to declare her wish. A color that was not all excitement glowed in her cheeks, thrilling Uncle Fred with the conviction that the Happy-Go-Luckys by banishing loneliness had brought the blessing of health to Alene.
It was her first appearance before the public, and the thought of it had brought her much nervous apprehension that she might forget her lines, falter, or even run away at the last moment. To perform even before the other boys and girls at rehearsal had always brought a preliminary nerve tension which she had tried to conceal. This, however, was nothing compared with her dread of the great night when she thought of facing a whole roomful of people; but now, strange to say, all her tremors died away. She found it less difficult to recite before the crowd than at rehearsal; she forgot herself in the joy of her lines. That she recited even better, if anything, than when her Uncle had overheard her in the library is all that need be said.
When the ensuing applause died away and the doors refused to open again, Uncle Fred noticed the lips of a small boy seated near him puffed out in disdain. Stooping with a show of solicitude to learn the cause, he heard him say to a companion:
"'A lip to tempt the honey-bee to sip'—I bet she never felt a stinger or she wouldn't wish for such a silly thing!"
"I don't see why that Dawson girl wants the poet's gift, 'the liar!' Do all poets tell whoppers, I wonder?" said the other boy, looking up into Uncle Fred's face with wide, wondering eyes.
Such a merry crowd of Happy-Go-Luckys they were as they came marching along the country road that summer day, wearing gay caps of tissue-paper with floating streamers, while their brothers' hats were decorated with rosettes of the same material.
The day was a perfect one for their picnic; sudden, saucy breezes tempered the warm atmosphere, making the paper ribbons dance merrily around the heads of the girls.
As they came along with dancing steps and smiling faces, and lips of laughter and song, the sight of them was enough to lighten the heart of an onlooker and bring to his mind the shepherds and shepherdesses of old, who surely could not have been merrier nor a whit more picturesque.
But suddenly the gay voices fell to murmurs. A whispered command was borne along the line even to the last straggler. Laura's voice, low but impressive, said, "Hats off!" and off came those gay bonnets and the rosette-trimmed hats, and along the road the children went in solemn silence, with stately step; for over the hill alongside the road they saw a neat little house whose upper windows overlooked the road, all the blinds upstairs and down were closed, and on the door swung long bands of black crepe.
It was this sad emblem which had curbed so suddenly the mirth of the Happy-Go-Luckys, and made them pay respect in their own childish but expressive way to the grief of the mourners; and it was not until the little house had been left far behind that the awe was lifted from their spirits, and the joy of childhood reasserted itself.
They had reached a road bordered with trees that almost met above them, forming a long green arbor into which the sunlight stole through every little chink, and Ivy was moving along almost forgetful of her crutches, her eyes intent on the green loveliness of the place and the pretty pink parasol with white lace trimmings which Alene carried, when suddenly the latter gave a shrill scream and threw the parasol away from her as far as she could.
Immediately the others gathered around, while she stood grimacing, saying nothing but "Ugh! Ugh!" to all their questions. They were greatly puzzled, until someone picked up the pink parasol at which its owner pointed so tragically, to find that all the fuss was caused by two caterpillars which had fallen from the trees.
"'Fraid cat!" said Hugh, contemptuously; "I've seen little tads of four and five let 'em crawl up their bare arms!"
"I'm not a 'fraid cat! But those ugly, crawly things make me feel creepy!" Alene returned with crimsoning cheeks.
"Those ugly things, as you call them, turn into beautiful butterflies!" returned Hugh, in a tone that to Alene sounded offensively preacher-like.
"Well, let them wait until they are butterflies before perching on my parasol," she retorted.
"It's just one's nerves! They are ugly things, and Alene's not used to seeing them," said Laura.
"And they say the great Napoleon couldn't bear to touch velvet, and he was no coward!" cried Ivy, who felt that her brother was often unjust to Alene.
In spite of their protests, Hugh had his own opinion in the matter. There are some boys to whom Alene's timidity would have appealed, but he was not one of that kind. He was the most outspoken and the least gentle of all the boys with whom the Happy-Go-Luckys associated. But his downright honesty and fearlessness, his renown among the boys as an athlete, and especially his devotion to his little sister which Laura dilated upon, and of which new proofs were daily shown, had awakened Alene's admiration, and made her the more resent his calling her a coward.
"I've stumbled over my toe!" wailed little Lois, carrying the stubbed toe and tearstained face to Laura for repairs.
Mat ran to stroke the offending stone with an exaggerated air of sympathy.
"Naughty girl! The poor stone was standing in the road, never moving until you came along and gave it a kick," he said reproachfully, at which they all laughed, and the caterpillar affair was forgotten for the time by all except Alene, who had picked up her parasol and walked along with an air of unconcern that gave her friends no hint of the tears so bravely forced back.
"'Fraid cat!" her thoughts ran; "why couldn't Hugh have been polite enough to keep from that slighting remark or at least laugh good-naturedly with the rest, and paid no more attention to it, instead of making so much of such a trivial affair!"
She felt at first that the day was spoiled so far as she was concerned; but the gay chatter of the others, the new experience of tramping the country paths, climbing fences and crossing runs, discovering new beauties at every step, made her presently forget her chagrin.
As the day wore on, the smaller children cast wistful glances toward the baskets, and even went so far as to peek through any little opening to make sure that certain favorite morsels, which they had seen put in, had not mysteriously disappeared.
"Laura, you and mother must have loaded this basket with cobblestones," cried Mat with a groan, leaning sideways almost to the ground.
"Cobblestones! You take very good care not to call them that when you're begging mother to cut her fresh pies! I'll tell her what you call 'em in company!"
"Well, it's funny how heavy this basket's grown in the last half hour!"
"I've noticed they always do grow heavier toward noon," commented Hugh. "Can't we lighten 'em some way?"
"Can't we? Just let me try! Keep off, Nettie, or I'll eat you up—I'm as hungry as Red Riding-hood's famous—or infamous—bear!"
"It was a wolf!" declared Nettie, in the tone of one who knew.
"So much the better to eat you up, my honey!" Mat smacked his lips voraciously, displaying two rows of firm white teeth, and made a dart at the little girl. She ran screaming to Laura, who, Ivy often declared, was the children's real and truly Noah's ark of refuge.
Everybody was hungry and they only waited to reach a suitable place for lunch.
"I know the very spot," said Hugh, leading the way.
"Behold a Moses to lead us out of the wilderness!" cried Mat.
"And behold the Promised Land!" Ivy screamed in delight, as her brother set his basket among the great knotted roots of a tree that helped to shade a stretch of green-sward which extended gradually to the river.
"This Moses remains to dine," said Hugh.
The girls spread a white cloth on the ground and proceeded to unpack the baskets.
Although they had made frequent stops on the road, Laura feared the walk had over-taxed Ivy's strength, and wished her to rest; but she refused to be left out of any activity. She it was who sat, a spirit of prodigality, in the midst of the baskets, dealing out the good things one by one, while Alene and Laura arranged them artistically, piling in the center a pyramid of fruit, and placing the cakes and pies and pickles in the most tempting proximity, not forgetting sandwiches, and plain bread and butter. Indeed, as Mat remarked when he came up from the spring with a pail of cold water, "The very look of it was enough to give an imaginative person the nightmare."
"Then don't eat any of it, Mr. Matthew," cried Ivy.
"Thank heaven, I'm not imaginative! I think I'll try a snack of that jelly-roll," he returned, reaching for the cake in Ivy's hand.
"I think you won't! Why, even those greedy children haven't been allowed a taste of anything, though it's a wonder their eyes have left a morsel! What are you laughing at?" she inquired, as Mat's glance strayed beyond her.
Net waiting for an answer she turned her head to find her little brother Claude standing at her shoulder, balancing in his out-stretched palm a slice of brown bread from which he had just taken a huge bite, whose buttered and jellied traces were seen on his plumped-out cheeks. Not far away was Lois with a monster pickle. At a distance, with backs discreetly turned, were two other small sinners whom Ivy eyed suspiciously, and she turned at last with a hopeless shake of her head to Laura, whom she suspected was to be blamed. But she was mistaken in her surmise for Alene was the real offender. Not being used to the always hungry state of a half dozen small brothers and sisters, she could not withstand the children's pathetic glances.
"You don't suppose it will spoil their appetite for dinner?" she inquired anxiously, when the truth was disclosed.
"I haven't the faintest fear that it will," returned Ivy, in a dry tone.
"The wisdom of the innocents! Wish I had tackled Alene instead of you," deplored Mat.
At that moment he was hailed by Hugh:
"Come along, Mat! We boys are going to pick some wild strawberries for dessert. I noticed some vines up there over the hill as we came along."
"That will be lovely; run along, little boy," said Ivy, and Mat, with a last despairing glance at the feast, was gone, leaving her free to resume her task.
Although there was quite a crowd, almost a dozen young people to feed, the baskets seemed to disgorge enough for twenty. But then they were Happy-Go-Lucky baskets!
"Leagues and Clubs someway have a selfish sound—as though everyone outside didn't count for anything," Ivy said one day. "We mustn't let ourselves get narrow that way," and they did not, for as Laura remarked later, "When it came to picnics and good times generally, the Happy-Go-Luckys was very 'stretchible'—it took in all the kids!"
While the girls proceeded blithely to get lunch, helped or hindered by the younger children, loud voices were heard and presently a crowd of ragged boys appeared on the upper road.
The girls, expecting them to go on their way, paid no attention to them, but the lads attracted by the bounteous display of dainties, at once gave notice of the find, and with whoops of delight came running down the hillside and attacked the spread.
The girls were alarmed but stood their ground nobly.
"You had better go! Hugh Bonner and the other boys will soon be here!" said Laura warningly.
"I've heard of the redoubtable Hughie—we ain't goin' to force our company, we just want them cakes an' things! Come on, boys! Hurry!"
Laura stood guard over the table and Ivy raised a crutch to strike the foremost but both girls were swept aside.
Some of the little ones turned to Laura for protection, while the others ran screaming in the direction of the berry-patch, and a moment later the berry-pickers were seen on the side of the hill.
Hugh, being somewhat in advance, saw the whole engagement.
When Laura and Ivy were routed, he noticed Alene turning as if for flight. However, instead of running away as he had expected, she stooped, picked up the pail of water left by Mat, and, turning back with a sudden movement, dashed the fluid into the boys' faces.
Choked and blinded by the unexpected assault, they fell back.
The smallest boy, who had been in the rear, was the first to recover from the sudden bath. With uplifted hand he made an angry dash at Alene.
"Don't you dare to strike that girl!" cried a boy who came running down from the road. He evidently belonged to the gang but had only appeared on the scene in time to witness their rout. He was a well-built lad of fifteen, with a bearing that showed him to be above his associates, of whom he proclaimed himself the leader by collaring the angry boy who had made the attack on Alene. Then the berry-pickers came hurrying along with cries of, "A rescue, a rescue!" and the strange boys fled, leaving the girls mistresses of the field.
Alene was surprised to find herself a heroine. The girls declared the day lost but for her, and the boys, who had all witnessed the last of the engagement, were loud in her praises.
"I heard that big boy say you were a brave little thing and I agree with him," declared Hugh, who had experienced a sudden compunction for his hasty judgment in the caterpillar affair.
Whereupon the last vestige of Alene's resentment vanished.
"I think I'm entitled to some of the glory," remarked Mat modestly, joining the group around the re-arranged feast. "Didn't I, with remarkable foresight, provide the pail of water for Alene to drown the enemy in?"
Blame it all on those tissue-paper hats; the surprise and horror of good Mrs. Ramsey when she beheld Alene Dawson among that madcap crowd, skipping along gaily intent on her play, unobserving the pained expression of the portly lady who was coming up the other side of the street. Mrs. Ramsey had stopped suddenly, "so flustrated by the sight," as she said later, that she had not the strength to hail Alene and when her breath came it was too late, the happy crowd had passed from sight around the corner leading to the fields, and her feeble, "Why, Alene Dawson, I'll tell your Uncle about this!" sounded no farther than her own ears.
Panting with indignation and the heat of the day, she resumed her way up the steep street and in due time reached her home, a showy, buff brick house with fancy turrets and pointed roofs and tiny windows with wooden ornamentations, that gave warning of the interior, where none of the rooms was of good size or well proportioned. Most of the space on the first floor was taken by the reception hall which was not often used and the whole gave the impression of being built to show off the hall, of which its owner was very proud.
She was also very proud of her two daughters, Hermione and Vera, whom she found on this occasion sitting in the study, a tiny alcove on the second story, which overlooked the garden. They were apparently deep in the mysteries of a French grammar which Vera had seized on hearing the click of the gate announcing Mrs. Ramsey's return, while Hermione busied herself in hiding under the cushion of her chair two borrowed books of fairy tales which their mother had denounced and forbidden and banned and would have burned with a zeal like to that which animated the burners of the witches.
"When I was your age I never cared for reading. I knew most books were lies from beginning to end. You couldn't hire me to read about goblins and witches," she often declared.
"What a dull, tiresome girl mamma must have been," said Vera in a low aside.
"But she didn't have to play exercises on the piano!" returned Hermione.
"No, nor try to parlez vous with a gibbering foreigner."
"I don't see any use for foreign babbling. As the nurse in the French tale says to the little girl who is studying English, 'Since the bon dieu wrote the Bible in French, it shows that he thought it good enough for anybody,'" said Hermione, laughing, and Vera continued,
"Grandpa was too poor to pay for extras, I guess."
"I almost wish we could say the same of Pa Ramsey, only I'd hate to be poor—I don't see how poor people can stand it!"
"Oh, they are used to it. They don't mind it," returned Vera with a yawn.
"Tissue-paper hats!" they cried when their fond parent, sinking on a lounge, had recovered sufficient breath to relate her adventure; "Tissue-paper hats!"
Hermione's thoughts flew to her own room where, reposing in a box, was her best hat, a huge affair of fine white straw, with ribbons and flowers galore, whose glories made Alene's headgear appear the more offensive. She was wishing she had been along with Alene, wearing her own hat, of course, until her mother went on to say:
"That wasn't the worst of it! What can Frederick Dawson mean to allow Alene to associate with the town children!"
"Town children, mamma! Do you mean from the poorhouse?"
"No, Miss Density, mamma means that Lee girl and Ivy Bonner and—"
"Oh, them! They go to our room! That Bonner girl is awfully bright but so sarcastic, and Laura Lee is all right!"
Mrs. Ramsey shook her head.
"This comes of the public schools, where the president's child is made to rub shoulders with the miner's!"
"And the miner's child often beats him in his lessons and the rest of the scholars are apt to remark and remember it," said Hermione. "Only for that, the rich boys could pose as being extra smart!"
"I should have got you girls a governess only papa said he couldn't possibly afford it, as times are dull; when the children are grown it's embarrassing to know how to meet their former schoolmates!"
"Nothing easier! Just turn your shoulder or look straight ahead!" Vera stood up, and, using a chair to represent the offending party, illustrated her remarks with appropriate gestures.
"Yes, but the girls aren't like that chair. They wouldn't be sat upon so easily!" exclaimed Hermione.
"They would understand the next time unless they were unusually dense," retorted Vera.
"I can imagine I see you trying to cut Ivy Bonner that way! She would toss up her head and give you the 'icy stare'. As for Laura, she wouldn't understand; she'd only think it a pity you were so near-sighted!"
"Well, girls, don't get to quarreling," interrupted their mother. "I'll make it a point to warn Alene's uncle. I'm sure her mother would have collapsed had she been in my place to-day! I'm afraid the Dawsons will be vexed because I've not had her over here to get better acquainted with you girls!"
"You have asked her often enough, dear knows, and she never came, yet she seems very intimate with those other girls!" commented Hermione.
"I admire her taste," said Vera. "It's all because her mother's not here to look after her. Some men are queer. Very likely her uncle never sees the difference between those town girls and others!"
"Well, what difference is there, except that Ivy and Laura are more clever than the average?"
"Hermione, you talk like a—a socialist! The barriers between the classes must be preserved, especially in these times when education is trying to sweep them away! Else where would we land?"
"We, the royal family," muttered Hermione in an aside to Vera. "Don't you remember Grandpa Green's prize pigs?"
Vera pretended not to hear, and their mother, taking breath, continued, "There's no use talking, girls, those children are not in the Dawson set! The idea of wearing tissue-paper hats on the street in broad daylight!" So saying, she sailed from the room and the hidden books were promptly brought forth and the interrupted reading resumed.
"Alene, Mrs. Ramsey stopped in the office yesterday to lecture me on the criminality of tissue-paper hats," said Uncle Fred at supper the next evening. Although his voice was solemn, the twinkle in his eyes told much to the observant Alene.
"Tissue-paper hats! Why, Uncle!"
"She was surprised, or I should say scandalized, when I remarked that I had superintended the putting on of yours, and that I was sorry I was too young, or not old enough, to go along with you."
"Oh, Uncle Fred, you are just the right age for—anything; but we couldn't coax you to go that day!" Alene protested.
"And then I told her of my surprise when I reached the office that morning to find my hat adorned with a red-white-and-blue rosette, which horrified her so much that I was glad—I mean sorry, that she hadn't met me wearing it."
"I wish she had, meddling thing!"
"She thinks I'm very lax in my duty to allow you on the street without a chaperone. Alene, I'm a failure as a stern old guardian! I think, to put myself right with the townspeople, I'll have to get arrested for beating my incorrigible niece!"
"If they find fault with you, just send them to me and I'll—I'll settle them," cried Alene, with angry vehemence, holding her fork in such a threatening position that Kizzie, coming in with the tray, half paused.
"Don't be alarmed, Kizzie. She's not going to attack you or me; she's only indignant because everyone doesn't agree with her in holding me up as a model guardian!"
"Oh, Mr. Fred, how you do go on!" returned Kizzie with a laugh and a blush, giving Alene a glance that showed upon whose side she stood.
"But I haven't come to the end of my tale. It seems that Mrs. Ramsey's real object in paying me a visit was not to lecture me, as I supposed, but to say that her two daughters are coming to visit you to-morrow afternoon."
"Oh, bother! Laura and Ivy promised to come and stay for tea!" grumbled Alene.
"Well, the more the merrier. The Ramsey girls seem to be amiable enough," returned Mr. Dawson who failed to see any reason for the little girl's vexation. Indeed, Alene herself could not define what was, in reality, the dismay any hostess might feel if called upon to entertain a group of people which she knows to be utterly uncongenial.
"Don't worry, child! Just do the best you can," was the advice of the housekeeper, when Alene, kneeling on a chair at the window next morning, viewed the forbidding, rain-soaked grounds.
"But I depended on the garden to help me out," said she, giving a reproachful glance at the soggy grass and dripping trees. "The girls could swing and run about in the grass, and now we'll all have to stay cooped together in the house! I wouldn't mind it a bit with Laura and Ivy. We could do lots of things inside—but the Ramsey girls!"
"There's the tower room and the wide halls. Surely you can play some games there! It does seem unfortunate how things turn out sometimes, but we must just bear it!" said Mrs. Major.
"That's what makes it so much harder, we must bear it! Ivy says if we could take our burdens just because we wanted to for a noble cause, like some of the martyrs did, it wouldn't be half so hard as when they are put on one!" grumbled Alene. "But there, I'm not going to cry about it!"
"I wouldn't, either," cried Kizzie, broom in hand, her face glowing from an attack on the upstairs carpets. "It would only make things damper!"
The smiling visage of the plump little maid seemed to have captured some of the sunshine hidden away by the clouds; it radiated from her blue eyes, her yellow hair, her round rosy cheeks; Alene, turning from the depressing outside where the rain was steadily falling, felt an answering glow when she met that sunny gaze, and retorted gaily:
"Does she mean to be profane or funny, or only puny!"
"I mean to tell you what I was thinkin' about! Wouldn't it be fun for you and the girls to make taffy this afternoon?"
Alene clapped her hands.
"Oh, Kizzie, the very thing! And please, please let me be chief cook—I think it would be lovely to potter round the pans and things!"
"I could come in and show you how, only Mrs. Major let me off this afternoon and my sister's expecting me—but I might send her word," said Kizzie.
"No, you mustn't do that. Just tell me how much to use and where to find the stuff—but I don't want anyone to help me!"
So Alene listened solemnly, with a delightful sense of responsibility, to the directions given by Kizzie and the housekeeper. It seemed so easy, just so many cups of sugar, so much vinegar and water, a lump of butter not too large and enough vanilla to make it taste; then the greased pans and the flour to use in pulling it.
"Oh, I know it by heart! Don't say another word till I bring you some upstairs to the sewing-room this afternoon! And I'll save some for Kizzie when she comes."
As the girls intended coming at one o'clock to stay not later than five, Alene felt secure in having provided something that would pass the greater part of the time, so she paid no more attention to the weather. It could not interfere with the taffy pulling.
She flew happily round making her preparations and it did not seem any time until Prince gave a joyous bark to notify her of the near approach of friends.
She ran to the door. Sure enough, it was Laura and Ivy making their way through the rain; they were coming around the curve of the walk which led from the front gate.
"And Laura's holding the umbrella over Ivy so that she herself gets nothing but the drippings," Alene observed. She seized an umbrella from the rack and hastened to meet them, while Prince ran on ahead to assure them of a welcome.
The barking of the dog and the chatter of the girls made such a din that it reached Mrs. Major, who came and stood in the hall, enjoying the excitement.
After greeting the visitors she went upstairs, feeling a pleasant glow in the consciousness that the little girl, whose loneliness had been a source of anxiety to the older inmates of the house, was now light-hearted and happy with companions of her own age.
"Girls, girls, I'm so glad you've come in spite of the rain!" cried the beaming Alene, dancing round, more of a hindrance than an aid in her endeavors to help them off with their things.
"Mother was against my going out in the rain, but Hugh knew how much I wanted to come, and just as he was coaxing her, Laura came in, and they hustled me off!"
"It's well I did, or the Bonners would have had a weeping Ivy on their hands, and dear knows it's moist enough without that, so I carried her away just for pity!" explained Laura, who stood before the rack mirror surveying a few locks of straight hair which stuck to her forehead. "I was just telling Ivy it's good there's no lightning; but the rain does take the starch out of things. Just look at my poor hair, while Ivy's curls are kinkier than ever!"
"Poor Lol, I'd gladly turn some of the kinks over to you if I could," cried Ivy with a laugh, as she gave her mop of curls a vigorous smoothing, trying in vain to make them lie closer to her head. "But talking of lightning, when I was quite small I remember one day in school it stormed hard. The thunder rolled and the lightning flashed and one of the girls got frightened and began to cry, which surprised me very much; not because she cried, but because she was a doctor's daughter—I don't know why I thought a doctor's daughter should be braver than anyone else's child!"
"It's funny the thoughts we have and the queer things we believe when we're small," returned Alene. "A girl told me one day if you put beads in the oven more beads would grow. So I put in my string of pink coral but it only got hot and didn't grow a bit bigger! I never believed in that girl again!"
"I never told you of the spring that Ivy and I made when we were little. We thought it would be so nice to have cold water handy, so we dug a hole in the cellar, big enough to put a good-sized tin pan in, and filled the pan with water. We put pebbles in the bottom and moss around the rim and thought we had a perpetual well; but when we came back to it the old pan was dry. The water had leaked through the holes! We were awfully disappointed that no other water had run in!"
As Laura completed her contribution to ancient history, divested of their rain-coats, hats and rubbers, they were ready to follow Alene into the library.
"Ivy's brought a book along, 'Tales of the Angels.' Let's read turn about," proposed Laura.
Sitting close together, Ivy half reclining among the cushions of the little sofa and Alene upon a leather arm chair with Laura between them on a hassock, all shut in by the crimson curtains of the cosy corner, where the rain beat against the window panes and the vines stirred in the wind emphasizing the comfort of their snug retreat, they spent a happy time reading and talking over the beautiful little stories until Prince's renewed barking attracted their attention.
"Somebody's coming," announced Ivy, peering through the blurred window pane.
"I guess it's the Ramseys," said Alene, going out to meet them.
"I hoped the rain would keep them away," murmured Ivy with a grimace.
"So did I," answered Laura. "I felt like turning back when Alene said they were coming, but I hated to hurt her feelings!"
They heard Alene greeting the new-comers, then footsteps and voices in the hall, and presently the three girls came in together.
The sisters were in the midst of an argument. Vera had found a small rent in her silk umbrella for which she declared Hermione's umbrella responsible.
"But I was walking ahead of you all the way, not near enough for the rib to touch your umbrella! It must have been done when you crowded up against the fence to let Mrs. Park and her baby carriage go past."
"Well, I couldn't go in the muddy street, could I? I don't see why they bring babies out on such a day as this, brushing others up against damp walls! But it's just a little cut such as only an umbrella point could give. It never touched the fence!" Vera's grumbling came to a sudden pause—"Oh say, Alene, I didn't know you had company!"
"I had no chance to tell you on the way in."
"No, Vera gives no one a chance when she has a grievance to air!" said Hermione. "Howdy'do, girls!"
She crossed the room and sat beside Ivy and Laura. Vera took an easy chair near the table, somewhat apart from the group, and gave all her attention to the careful removing of her kid gloves. The conversation with her mother as to the manner in which to meet her poorer schoolmates in society was fresh in her mind. Now was the opportunity to act upon her convictions. She resolved to be very cool in her treatment of Laura and Ivy.
The other girls chattered away, apparently unmindful of her abstraction. Alene was showing them some sheet music which had come in the mail a few days before.
"Here's the new Raindrop two-step. How appropriate for to-day," cried Hermione. "Have you tried it yet?"
"Yes, it's real sweet! Would you like to come into the music room and hear it?"
They all assented, and presently from the little room opening off the library came the notes of a piano.
"I'd like to try the step," said Hermione, "if only there was someone to dance with!"
"Sulking in the library, I guess. Come, Laura, won't you?"
Laura hesitated until Ivy joined in, "Do, Lol! She dances beautifully, Hermione, only she—she won't sometimes," and as the two girls paired off, "When I'm along she seems to think I'll mind it more because—"
"Yes, I know," returned Alene, slipping her hand from the keyboard to give Ivy's brown fingers a sympathetic squeeze.
"But I won't let her; I don't want to be a bete noire to my friends!" said Ivy, leaning her head against the piano and letting her eyes stray from Alene's nimble fingering to the graceful swaying of the girls in the dance. Around the room they circled, out along the hall, and presently back again through the library.
Vera found that being cool was very dull. Besides, it had no effect upon the others. As time went by and the gay strains of the piano mingled with talk and laughter filled the air, and the dancing began, and the two girls whirled by, their twirling skirts almost brushing hers, it dawned upon her that she was being left out in the cold! Her coolness was reacting upon herself! If Alene had helped her by devoting herself to her, to the exclusion of the others, she felt that she might have carried out her original program. As it was, she came to the conclusion that Alene was too stupid to perceive her superiority.
Shortly after the dancers had sunk on a divan near the piano, Vera came in from the library, declaring that she too wished to dance; but the girls failed to respond to the invitation, saying they were tired.
Presently with a smile she slipped up to Alene and gave her what on the surface seemed a playful pinch on the arm but Alene drew back with a rueful glance while tears of pain came into her eyes, and when she thought herself unobserved she pulled up her sleeve and found a great bruised spot already getting black and blue.
"Oh!" the watchful Ivy commenced but she checked herself and pretended not to have seen this little by-play. Somewhat later when Alene was sitting beside Ivy, whose arm was around her waist, Vera came again to Alene and with some humorous remark reached out to give her another pinch. As Alene shrank back, Vera gave a scream and turned suddenly away.