E-text prepared by Al Haines
PRUDENCE OF THE PARSONAGE
With Illustrations by Arthur William Brown
[Frontispiece: "What did you put in this soup, Prudence?"]
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers Copyright 1915 The Bobbs-Merrill Company
TO MY MOTHER
WHO DEVOTED HER LIFE TO REARING
A WHOLE PARSONAGE-FULL OF ROLLICKING
I INTRODUCING HER II THE REST OF THE FAMILY III THE LADIES' AID IV A SECRET SOCIETY V THE TWINS STICK UP FOR THE BIBLE VI AN ADMIRER VII LESSONS IN ETIQUETTE VIII THE FIRST DARK SHADOW OF WINTER IX PRACTISING ECONOMY X A BURGLAR'S VISIT XI ROMANCE COMES XII ROUSED FROM HER SLUMBER XIII SHE ORDERS HER LIFE XIV SHE COMES TO GRIEF XV FATE TAKES CHARGE
"What did you put in this soup, Prudence?" . . . . Frontispiece
"If you'll shut the door one minute, we'll have everything exactly as you left it."
"Yes, and have refreshments for just you two?"
"She predicted I'm to fall in love with you."
PRUDENCE OF THE PARSONAGE
None but the residents consider Mount Mark, Iowa, much of a town, and those who are honest among them admit, although reluctantly, that Mount Mark can boast of far more patriotism than good judgment! But the very most patriotic of them all has no word of praise for the ugly little red C., B. & Q. railway station. If pretty is as pretty does, as we have been told so unpleasantly often, then the station is handsome enough, but as an ornament to the commonwealth it is a dismal failure,—low, smoky and dust-grimed. In winter its bleakness and bareness add to the chill of the rigorous Iowa temperature, and in summer the sap oozing through the boards is disagreeably suggestive of perspiration. The waiting-room itself is "cleaned" every day, and yet the same dust lies in the corners where it has lain for lo, these many years. And as for the cobwebs, their chief distinction lies in their ripe old age. If there were only seven spiders in the ark, after the subsiding of the waters, at least a majority of them must have found their way to Mount Mark station in South-eastern Iowa.
Mount Mark is anything but proud of the little station. It openly scoffs at it, and sniffs contemptuously at the ticket agent who bears the entire C., B. & Q. reputation upon his humble shoulders. At the same time, it certainly does owe the railroad and the state a debt of gratitude for its presence there. It is the favorite social rendezvous for the community! Only four passenger trains daily pass through Mount Mark,—not including the expresses, which rush haughtily by with no more than a scornful whistle for the sleepy town, and in return for this indignity, Mount Mark cherishes a most unchristian antipathy toward those demon fliers.
But the "passengers"—ah, that is a different matter. The arrival of a passenger train in Mount Mark is an event—something in the nature of a C., B. & Q. "At Home," and is always attended by a large and enthusiastic gathering of "our best people." All that is lacking are the proverbial "light refreshments!"
So it happened that one sultry morning, late in the month of August, there was the usual flutter of excitement and confusion on the platform and in the waiting-room of the station. The habitues were there in force. Conspicuous among them were four gaily dressed young men, smoking cigarettes and gazing with lack-luster eyes upon the animated scene, which evidently bored them. All the same, they invariably appeared at the depot to witness this event, stirring to others no doubt, but incapable of arousing the interest of these life-weary youths. They comprised the Slaughter-house Quartette, and were the most familiar and notorious characters in all the town.
The Daily News reporter, in a well-creased, light gray suit and tan shoes, and with eye-glasses scientifically balanced on his aquiline nose, was making pointed inquiries into the private plans of the travelers. The Daily News reporters in Mount Mark always wear well-creased, light gray suits and tan shoes, and always have eye-glasses scientifically balanced on aquiline noses. The uninitiated can not understand how it is managed, but there lies the fact. Perhaps The News includes these details in its requirements of applicants. Possibly it furnishes the gray suits and the tan shoes, and even the eye-glasses. Of course, the reporters can practise balancing them scientifically,—but how does it happen that they always have aquiline noses? At any rate, that is the Mount Mark type. It never varies.
The young woman going to Burlington to spend the week-end was surrounded with about fifteen other young women who had come to "see her off." She had relatives in Burlington and went there very often, and she used to say she was glad she didn't have to exchange Christmas presents with all the "friends" who witnessed her arrivals and departures at the station. Mount Mark is a very respectable town, be it understood, and girls do not go to the station without an excuse!
The Adams Express wagon was drawn close to the track, and the agent was rushing about with a breathless energy which seemed all out of proportion to his accomplishments. The telegraph operator was gazing earnestly out of his open window, and his hands were busily moving papers from one pigeon-hole to another, and back again. Old Harvey Reel, who drove the hotel bus, was discussing politics with the man who kept the restaurant, and the baggage master, superior and supremely dirty, was checking baggage with his almost unendurably lordly air.
This was one of the four daily rejuvenations that gladdened the heart of Mount Mark.
A man in a black business suit stood alone on the platform, his hands in his pockets, his eyes wandering from one to another of the strange faces about him. His plain white ready-made tie proclaimed his calling.
"It's the new Methodist preacher," volunteered the baggage master, crossing the platform, ostensibly on business bound, but really to see "who all" was there. "I know him. He's not a bad sort."
"They say he's got five kids, and most of 'em girls," responded the Adams Express man. "I've ordered me a dress suit to pay my respects in when they get here. I want to be on hand early to pick me out a girl."
"Yah," mocked the telegraph operator, bobbing his head through the window, "you need to. They tell me every girl in Mount Mark has turned you down a'ready."
But the Methodist minister, gazing away down the track where a thin curl of smoke announced the coming of Number Nine, and Prudence,—heard nothing of this conversation. He was not a handsome man. His hair was gray at the temples, his face was earnest, only saved from severity by the little clusters of lines at his eyes and mouth which proclaimed that he laughed often, and with relish.
"Train going east!"
The minister stood back from the crowd, but when the train came pounding in a brightness leaped into his eyes that entirely changed the expression of his face. A slender girl stood in the vestibule, leaning dangerously outward, and waving wildly at him a small gloved hand. When the train stopped she leaped lightly from the steps, ignoring the stool placed for her feet by the conductor.
"Father!" she cried excitedly and small and slight as she was, she elbowed her way swiftly through the gaping crowd. "Oh, father!" And she flung her arms about him joyously, unconscious of the admiring eyes of the Adams Express man, and the telegraph operator, and old Harvey Reel, whose eyes were always admiring when girls passed by. She did not even observe that the Slaughterhouse Quartette looked at her unanimously, with languid interest from out the wreaths of smoke they had created.
Her father kissed her warmly. "Where is your baggage?" he asked, a hand held out to relieve her.
"Here!" And with a radiant smile she thrust upon him a box of candy and a gaudy-covered magazine.
"Your suit-case," he explained patiently.
"Oh!" she gasped. "Run, father, run! I left it on the train!"
Father did run, but Prudence, fleeter-footed, out-distanced him and clambered on board, panting.
When she rejoined her father her face was flushed. "Oh, father," she said quite snappily, "isn't that just like me?"
"Yes, very like," he agreed, and he smiled. "Where is your umbrella?"
Prudence stopped abruptly. "I don't know," she said, with a stony face. "I can't remember a blessed thing about the old umbrella. Oh, I guess I didn't bring it, at all." She breathed long in her relief. "Yes, that's it, father, I left it at Aunt Grace's. Don't you worry about it. Fairy'll bring it to-morrow. Isn't it nice that we can count on Fairy's remembering?"
"Yes, very nice," he said, but his eyes were tender as he looked down at the little figure beside him.
"And so this is Mount Mark! Isn't it a funny name, father? Why do they call it Mount Mark?"
"I don't know. I hadn't thought to inquire. We turn here, Prudence; we are going north now. This is Main Street. The city part of the town—the business part—is to the south."
"It's a pretty street, isn't it?" she cried. "Such nice big maples, and such shady, porchy houses. I love houses with porches, don't you? Has the parsonage a porch?"
"Yes, a big one on the south, and a tiny one in front. The house faces west. That is the college there. It opens in three weeks, and Fairy can make freshmen all right, they tell me. I wish you could go, too. You haven't had your share of anything—any good thing, Prudence."
"Well, I have my share of you, father," she said comfortingly. "And I've always had my share of oatmeal and sorghum molasses,—though one wouldn't think it to look at me. Fairy gained a whole inch last week at Aunt Grace's. She was so disgusted with herself. She says she'll not be able to look back on the visit with any pleasure at all, just because of that inch. Carol said she ought to look back with more pleasure, because there's an inch more of her to do it! But Fairy says she did not gain the inch in her eyes! Aunt Grace laughed every minute we were there. She says she is all sore up and down, from laughing so much."
"We have the house fixed up pretty well, Prudence, but of course you'll have to go over it yourself and arrange it as you like. But remember this: You are not allowed to move the heavy furniture. I forbid it emphatically. There isn't enough of you for that."
"Yes, I'll remember,—I think I will. I'm almost certain to remember some things, you know."
"I must go to a trustees' meeting at two o'clock, but we can get a good deal done before then. Mrs. Adams is coming to help you this afternoon. She is one of our Ladies, and very kind. There, that is the parsonage!"
Prudence gazed in silence. Many would not have considered it a beautiful dwelling, but to Prudence it was heavenly. Fortunately the wide, grassy, shaded lawn greeted one first. Great spreading maples bordered the street, and clustering rose-bushes lined the walk leading up to the house. The walk was badly worn and broken to be sure,—but the roses were lovely! The grass had been carefully cut,—the father-minister had seen to that. The parsonage, to Prudence's gratified eyes, looked homey, and big, and inviting. In fact, it was very nearly gorgeous! It needed painting badly, it is true. The original color had been a peculiar drab, but most of it had disappeared long before, so it was no eyesore on account of the color. There were many windows, and the well-known lace curtains looked down upon Prudence tripping happily up the little board walk,—or so it seemed to her.
"Two whole stories, and an attic besides! Not to mention the bathroom! Oh, father, the night after you wrote there was a bathroom, Constance thanked God for it when she said her prayers. And I couldn't reprove her, for I felt the same way about it myself. It'll be so splendid to have a whole tub to bathe in! I spent half the time bathing this last week at Aunt Grace's. A tub is so bountiful! A pan is awfully insufficient, father, even for me! I often think what a trouble it must be to Fairy! And a furnace, too! And electric lights! Don't you think there is something awe-inspiring in the idea of just turning a little knob on the wall, and flooding a whole room with light? I do revel in electric lights, I tell you. Oh, we have waited a long time for it, and we've been very patient indeed, but, between you and me, father, I am most mightily glad we've hit the luxury-land at last. I'm sure we'll all feel much more religious in a parsonage that has a bathroom and electric lights! Oh, father!"
He had thrown open the door, and Prudence stood upon the threshold of her new home. It was not a fashionable building, by any means. The hall was narrow and long, and the staircase was just a plain businesslike staircase, with no room for cushions, and flowers, and books. The doors leading from the hall were open, and Prudence caught a glimpse of three rooms furnished, rather scantily, in the old familiar furniture that had been in that other parsonage where Prudence was born, nineteen years before.
Together she and her father went from room to room, up-stairs and down, moving a table to the left, a bed to the right,—according to her own good pleasure. Afterward they had a cozy luncheon for two in the "dining-room."
"Oh, it is so elegant to have a dining-room," breathed Prudence happily. "I always pretended it was rather fun, and a great saving of work, to eat and cook and study and live in one room, but inwardly the idea always outraged me. Is that the school over there?"
"Yes, that's where Connie will go. There is only one high school in Mount Mark, so the twins will have to go to the other side of town,—a long walk, but in good weather they can come home for dinner.—I'm afraid the kitchen will be too cold in winter, Prudence,—it's hardly more than a shed, really. Maybe we'd——"
"Oh, father, if you love me, don't suggest that we move the stove in here in winter! I'm perfectly willing to freeze out there, for the sake of having a dining-room. Did I ever tell you what Carol said about that kitchen-dining-room-living-room combination at Exminster? Well, she asked us a riddle, 'When is a dining-room not a dining-room?' And she answered it herself, 'When it's a little pig-pen.' And I felt so badly about it, but it did look like a pig-pen, with stove here, and cupboard there, and table yonder, and—oh, no, father, please let me freeze!"
"I confess I do not see the connection between a roomful of furniture and a pig-pen, but Carol's wit is often too subtle for me."
"Oh, that's a lovely place over there, father!" exclaimed Prudence, looking from the living-room windows toward the south. "Isn't it beautiful?"
"Yes. The Avery family lives there. The parents are very old and feeble, and the daughters are all—elderly—and all school-teachers. There are four of them, and the youngest is forty-six. It is certainly a beautiful place. See the orchard out behind, and the vineyard. They are very wealthy, and they are not fond of children outside of school hours, I am told, so we must keep an eye on Connie.—Dear me, it is two o'clock already, and I must go at once. Mrs. Adams will be here in a few minutes, and you will not be lonely."
But when Mrs. Adams arrived at the parsonage, she knocked repeatedly, and in vain, upon the front door. After that she went to the side door, with no better result. Finally, she gathered her robes about her and went into the back yard. She peered into the woodshed, and saw no one. She went into the barn-lot, and found it empty. In despair, she plunged into the barn—and stopped abruptly.
In a shadowy corner was a slender figure kneeling beside an overturned nail keg, her face buried in her hands. Evidently this was Prudence engaged in prayer,—and in the barn, of all places in the world!
"A—a—a—hem!" stammered Mrs. Adams inquiringly.
"Amen!" This was spoken aloud and hurriedly, and Prudence leaped to her feet. Her fair hair clung about her face in damp babyish tendrils, and her face was flushed and dusty, but alight with friendly interest. She ran forward eagerly, thrusting forth a slim and grimy hand.
"You are Mrs. Adams, aren't you? I am Prudence Starr. It is so kind of you to come the very first day," she cried. "It makes me love you right at the start."
"Ye—yes, I am Mrs. Adams." Mrs. Adams was embarrassed. She could not banish from her mental vision that kneeling figure by the nail keg. Interrogation was written all over her ample face, and Prudence promptly read it and hastened to reply.
"I do not generally say my prayers in the barn, Mrs. Adams, I assure you. I suppose you were greatly surprised. I didn't expect to do it myself, when I came out here, but—well, when I found this grand, old, rambling barn, I was so thankful I couldn't resist praying about it. Of course, I didn't specially designate the barn, but God knew what I meant, I am sure."
"But a barn!" ejaculated the perplexed "member." "Do you call that a blessing?"
"Yes, indeed I do," declared Prudence. Then she explained patiently: "Oh, it is on the children's account, you know. They have always longed for a big romantic barn to play in. We've never had anything but a shed, and when father went to Conference this year, the twins told him particularly to look out for a good big barn. They said we'd be willing to put up with any kind of a parsonage, if only we might draw a barn for once. You can't imagine how happy this dear old place will make them, and I was happy on their account. That's why I couldn't resist saying my prayers,—I was so happy I couldn't hold in."
As they walked slowly toward the house, Mrs. Adams looked at this parsonage girl in frank curiosity and some dismay, which she strongly endeavored to conceal from the bright-eyed Prudence. The Ladies had said it would be so nice to have a grown girl in the parsonage! Prudence was nineteen from all account, but she looked like a child and—well, it was not exactly grown-up to give thanks for a barn, to say the very least! Yet this girl had full charge of four younger children, and was further burdened with the entire care of a minister-father! Well, well! Mrs. Adams sighed a little.
"You are tired," said Prudence sympathetically. "It's so hot walking, isn't it? Let's sit on the porch until you are nicely rested. Isn't this a lovely yard? And the children will be so happy to have this delicious big porch. Oh, I just adore Mount Mark already."
"This is a fine chance for us to get acquainted," said the good woman with eagerness.
Now if the truth must be told, there had been some ill feeling in the Ladies' Aid Society concerning the reception of Prudence. After the session of Conference, when the Reverend Mr. Starr was assigned to Mount Mark, the Ladies of the church had felt great interest in the man and his family. They inquired on every hand, and learned several interesting items. The mother had been taken from the family five years before, after a long illness, and Prudence, the eldest daughter, had taken charge of the household. There were five children. So much was known, and being women, they looked forward with eager curiosity to the coming of Prudence, the young mistress of the parsonage.
Mr. Starr had arrived at Mount Mark a week ahead of his family. The furniture had been shipped from his previous charge, and he, with the assistance of a strong and willing negro, had "placed it" according to the written instructions of Prudence, who had conscientiously outlined just what should go in every room. She and the other children had spent the week visiting at the home of their aunt, and Prudence had come on a day in advance of the others to "wind everything up," as she had expressed it.
But to return to the Ladies,—the parsonage girls always capitalized the Ladies of their father's church, and indeed italicized them, as well. And the irrepressible Carol had been heard to remark, "I often feel like exclamation-pointing them, I promise you." But to return once more.
"One of us should go and help the dear child," said Mrs. Scott, the president of the Aids, when they assembled for their business meeting, "help her, and welcome her, and advise her."
"I was thinking of going over," said one, and another, and several others.
"Oh, that will not do at all," said the president; "she would be excited meeting so many strangers, and could not properly attend to her work. That will never do, never, never! But one of us must go, of course."
"I move that the president appoint a committee of one to help Miss Prudence get settled, and welcome her to our midst," said Mrs. Barnaby, secretly hoping that in respect for her making this suggestion honoring the president, the president would have appreciation enough to appoint Mrs. Barnaby herself as committee.
The motion was seconded, and carried.
"Well," said Mrs. Scott slowly, "I think in a case like this the president herself should represent the society. Therefore, I will undertake this duty for you."
But this called forth a storm of protest and it became so clamorous that it was unofficially decided to draw cuts! Which was done, and in consequence of that drawing of cuts, Mrs. Adams now sat on the front porch of the old gray parsonage, cheered by the knowledge that every other Lady of the Aid was envying her!
"Now, just be real sociable and tell me all about yourself, and the others, too," urged Mrs. Adams. "I want to know all about every one of you. Tell me everything."
"There isn't much to tell," said Prudence, smiling. "There are five of us; I am the oldest, I am nineteen. Then comes Fairy, then the twins, and then the baby."
"Are the twins boys, or a boy and a girl?"
"Neither," said Prudence, "they are both girls."
"More girls!" gasped Mrs. Adams. "And the baby?"
"She is a girl, too." And Prudence laughed. "In short, we are all girls except father. He couldn't be, of course,—or I suppose he would, for our family does seem to run to girls."
"Prudence is a very nice name for a minister's daughter," said Mrs. Adams suggestively.
"Yes,—for some ministers' daughters," assented Prudence. "But is sadly unsuitable for me. You see, father and mother were very enthusiastic about the first baby who hadn't arrived. They had two names all picked out months ahead,—Prudence and John Wesley. That's how I happen to be Prudence. They thought, as you do, that it was an uplifting name for a parsonage baby.—I was only three years old when Fairy was born, but already they realized that they had made a great mistake. So they decided to christen baby number two more appropriately. They chose Frank and Fairy,—both light-hearted, happy, cheerful names.—It's Fairy," Prudence smiled reflectively. "But things went badly again. They were very unlucky with their babies. Fairy is Prudence by nature, and I am Fairy. She is tall and a little inclined to be fat. She is steady, and industrious, and reliable, and sensible, and clever. In fact, she is an all-round solid and worthwhile girl. She can do anything, and do it right, and is going to be a college professor. It is a sad thing to think of a college professor being called Fairy all her life, isn't it? Especially when she is so dignified and grand. But one simply can't tell beforehand what to expect, can one?
"Father and mother were quite discouraged by that time. They hardly knew what to do. But anyhow they were sure the next would be a boy. Every one predicted a boy, and so they chose a good old Methodist name,—Charles. They hated to give it John Wesley, for they had sort of dedicated that to me, you know,—only I happened to be Prudence. But Charles was second-best. And they were very happy about it, and—it was twin girls! It was quite a blow, I guess. But they rallied swiftly, and called them Carol and Lark. Such nice musical names! Father and mother were both good singers, and mother a splendid pianist. And Fairy and I showed musical symptoms early in life, so they thought they couldn't be far wrong that time. It was a bitter mistake. It seemed to turn the twins against music right from the start. Carol can carry a tune if there's a strong voice beside her, but Lark can hardly tell the difference between Star Spangled Banner and Rock of Ages.
"The neighbors were kind of amused by then, and mother was very sensitive about it. So the next time she determined to get ahead of Fate. 'No more nonsense, now,' said mother. 'It's almost certain to be a boy, and we'll call him William after father,—and Billy for short.' We all liked the name Billy, mother especially. But she couldn't call father anything but William,—we being parsonage people, you know. But she kept looking forward to little Billy,—and then they changed it in a hurry to Constance. And after that, father and mother gave the whole thing up as a bad job. There aren't any more of us. Connie settled the baby business in our family."
Mrs. Adams wiped her eyes, and leaned weakly back in her chair, gasping for breath. "Well, I swan!" was all she could say at that moment.
While giving herself time to recover her mental poise she looked critically at this young daughter of the parsonage. Then her eyes wandered down to her clothes, and lingered, in silent questioning, on Prudence's dress. It was a very peculiar color. In fact, it was no color at all,—no named color. Prudence's eyes had followed Mrs. Adams' glance, and she spoke frankly.
"I suppose you're wondering if this dress is any color! Well, I think it really is, but it isn't any of the regular shades. It is my own invention, but I've never named it. We couldn't think of anything appropriate. Carol suggested 'Prudence Shade,' but I couldn't bring myself to accept that. Of course, Mrs. Adams, you understand how parsonage people do with clothes,—handing them down from generation unto generation. Well, I didn't mind it at first,—when I was the biggest. But all of a sudden Fairy grew up and out and around, and one day when I was so nearly out of clothes I hardly felt that I could attend church any more, she suggested that I cut an old one of hers down for me! At first I laughed, and then I was insulted. Fairy is three years younger than I, and before then she had got my handed-downs. But now the tables were turned. From that time on, whenever anything happened to Fairy's clothes so a gore had to be cut out, or the bottom taken off,—they were cut down for me. I still feel bitter about it. Fairy is dark, and dark blues are becoming to her. She handed down this dress,—it was dark blue then. But I was not wanting a dark blue, and I thought it would be less recognizable if I gave it a contrasting color. I chose lavender. I dyed it four times, and this was the result."
"Do the twins dress alike?" inquired Mrs. Adams, when she could control her voice.
"Yes,—unfortunately for Connie. They do it on purpose to escape the handed-downs! They won't even have hair ribbons different. And the result is that poor Connie never gets one new thing except shoes. She says she can not help thanking the Lord in her prayers, that all of us outwear our shoes before we can outgrow them.—Connie is only nine. Fairy is sixteen, and the twins are thirteen. They are a very clever lot of girls. Fairy, as I told you, is just naturally smart, and aims to be a college professor. Lark is an intelligent studious girl, and is going to be an author. Carol is pretty, and lovable, and kind-hearted, and witty,—but not deep. She is going to be a Red Cross nurse and go to war. The twins have it all planned out. Carol is going to war as a Red Cross nurse, and Lark is going, too, so she can write a book about it, and they are both going to marry soldiers,—preferably dashing young generals! Now they can hardly wait for war to break out. Connie is a sober, odd, sensitive little thing, and hasn't decided whether she wants to be a foreign missionary, or get married and have ten children.—But they are all clever, and I'm proud of every one of them."
"And what are you going to be?" inquired Mrs. Adams, looking with real affection at the bright sweet face.
But Prudence laughed. "Oh, dear me, Mrs. Adams, seems to me if I just get the others raised up properly, I'll have my hands full. I used to have aims, dozens of them. Now I have just one, and I'm working at it every day."
"You ought to go to school," declared Mrs. Adams. "You're just a girl yourself."
"I don't want to go to school," laughed Prudence. "Not any more. I like it, just taking care of father and the girls,—with Fairy to keep me balanced! I read, but I do not like to study.—No, you'll have to get along with me just the way I am, Mrs. Adams. It's all I can do to keep things going now, without spending half the time dreaming of big things to do in the future."
"Don't you have dreams?" gasped Mrs. Adams. "Don't you have dreams of the future? Girls in books nowadays dream——"
"Yes, I dream," interrupted Prudence, "I dream lots,—but it's mostly of what Fairy and the others will do when I get them properly raised. You'll like the girls, Mrs. Adams, I know you will. They really are a gifted little bunch,—except me. But I don't mind. It's a great honor for me to have the privilege of bringing up four clever girls to do great things,—don't you think? And I'm only nineteen myself! I don't see what more a body could want."
"It seems to me," said Mrs. Adams, "that I know more about your sisters than I do about you. I feel more acquainted with them right now, than with you."
"That's so, too," said Prudence, nodding. "But they are the ones that really count, you know. I'm just common little Prudence of the Parsonage,—but the others!" And Prudence flung out her hands dramatically.
THE REST OF THE FAMILY
It was Saturday morning when the four young parsonage girls arrived in Mount Mark. The elderly Misses Avery, next door, looked out of their windows, pending their appearance on Main Street, with interest and concern. It was a serious matter, this having a whole parsonage-full of young girls so close to the old Avery mansion. To be sure, the Averys had a deep and profound respect for ministerial households, but they were Episcopalians themselves, and in all their long lives they had never so much as heard of a widower-rector with five daughters, and no housekeeper. There was something blood-curdling in the bare idea.
The Misses Avery considered Prudence herself rather a sweet, silly little thing.
"You have some real nice people in the Methodist church," Miss Dora had told her. "I dare say you will find a few of them very likeable."
"Oh, I will like them all," said Prudence quickly and seriously.
"Like them all!" echoed Miss Dora. "Oh, impossible!"
"Not for us," said Prudence. "We are used to it, you know. We always like people."
"That is ridiculous," said Miss Dora. "It is absolutely impossible. One can't! Of course, as Christians, we must tolerate, and try to help every one. But Christian tolerance and love are——"
"Oh, excuse me, but—really I can't believe there is such a thing as Christian tolerance," said Prudence firmly. "There is Christian love, and—that is all we need." Then leaning forward: "What do you do, Miss Avery, when you meet people you dislike at very first sight?"
"Keep away from them," was the grim reply.
"Exactly! And keep on disliking them," said Prudence triumphantly. "It's very different with us. When we dislike people at first sight, we visit them, and talk to them, and invite them to the parsonage, and entertain them with our best linen and silverware, and keep on getting friendlier and friendlier, and—first thing you know, we like them fine! It's a perfectly splendid rule, and it has never failed us once. Try it, Miss Avery, do! You will be enthusiastic about it, I know."
So the Misses Avery concluded that Prudence was very young, and couldn't seem to quite outgrow it! She was not entirely responsible. And they wondered, with something akin to an agony of fear, if the younger girls "had it, too!" Therefore the Misses Avery kept watch at their respective windows, and when Miss Alice cried excitedly, "Quick! Quick! They are coming!" they trooped to Miss Alice's window with a speed that would have done credit to the parsonage girls themselves. First came the minister, whom they knew very well by this time, and considered quite respectable. He was lively, as was to be expected of a Methodist minister, and told jokes, and laughed at them! Now, a comical rector,—oh, a very different matter,—it wasn't done, that's all! At any rate, here came the Methodist minister, laughing, and on one side of him tripped a small earnest-looking maiden, clasping his hand, and gazing alternately up into his face, and down at the stylish cement sidewalk beneath her feet. On the other side, was Fairy. The Misses Avery knew the girls by name already,—having talked much with Prudence.
"Such a Fairy!" gasped Miss Millicent, and the others echoed the gasp, but wordlessly.
For Fairy for very nearly as tall as her father, built upon generous lines, rather commanding in appearance, a little splendid-looking. Even from their windows they could discern something distinctly Juno-like in this sixteen-year-old girl, with the easy elastic stride that matched her father's, and the graceful head, well carried. A young goddess,—named Fairy!
Behind them, laughing and chattering, like three children, as they were,—came the twins with Prudence, each with an arm around her waist. And Prudence was very little taller than they. When they reached the fence that bordered the parsonage, the scene for a moment resembled a miniature riot. The smaller girls jumped and exclaimed, and clasped their hands. Fairy leaned over the fence, and stared intently at this, their parsonage home. Then the serious little girl scrambled under the fence, followed closely by the lithe-limbed twins. A pause, a very short one,—and then Prudence, too, was wriggling beneath the fence.
"Hold the wire up for me, papa," cried Fairy, "I'm too fat." And a second later she was running gracefully across the lawn toward the parsonage. The Methodist minister laughed boyishly, and placing his hands on the fence-post, he vaulted lightly over, and reached the house with his daughters. Then the Misses Avery, school-teachers, and elderly, looked at one another.
"Did you ever?" whispered the oldest Miss Avery, and the others slowly shook their heads.
Now, think! Did you ever see a rector jumping a three-wire fence, and running full speed across his front yard, in pursuit of a flying family? It may possibly have occurred,—we have never seen it. Neither had the Misses Avery. Nor did they ever expect to. And if they had seen it, it is quite likely they would have joined the backsliders at that instant.
But without wasting much time on this gruesome thought, they hurried to a window commanding the best view of the parsonage, and raised it. Then they clustered behind the curtains, and watched, and listened. There was plenty to hear! From the parsonage windows came the sound of scampering feet and banging doors. Once there was the unmistakable clatter of a chair overturned. With it all, there was a constant chorus of "Oh, look!" "Oh! Oh!" "Oh, how sweet!" "Oh, papa!" "Oh, Prudence!" "Look, Larkie, look at this!"
Then the thud of many feet speeding down the stairs, and the slam of a door, and the slam of a gate. The whole parsonage-full had poured out into the back yard, and the barn-lot. Into the chicken coop they raced, the minister ever close upon their heels. Over the board fence they clambered to the big rambling barn, and the wide door swung closed after them. But in a few seconds they were out once more, by the back barn door, and over the fence, and on to the "field." There they closed ranks, with their arms recklessly around whoever was nearest, and made a thorough tour of the bit of pasture-land. For some moments they leaned upon the dividing fence and gazed admiringly into the rich orchard and vineyard of the Avery estate. But soon they were skipping back to the parsonage again, and the kitchen door banged behind them.
Then the eldest Miss Avery closed the window overlooking the parsonage and confronted her sisters.
"We must just make the best of it," she said quietly.
But next door, the gray old ugly parsonage was full to overflowing with satisfaction and happiness and love.
The Starrs had never had an appointment like this before. They had just come from the village of Exminster, of five hundred inhabitants. There the Reverend Mr. Starr had filled the pulpits of three small Methodist churches, scattered at random throughout the country,—consideration, five hundred dollars. But here,—why, Mount Mark had a population of fully three thousand, and a business academy, and the Presbyterian College,—small, to be sure, but the name had a grand and inspiring sound. And Mr. Starr had to fill only one pulpit! It was heavenly, that's what it was. To be sure, many of his people lived out in the country, necessitating the upkeep of a horse for the sake of his pastoral work, but that was only an advantage. Also to be sure, the Methodists in Mount Mark were in a minority, and an inferiority,—Mount Mark being a Presbyterian stronghold due to the homing there of the trim and orderly little college. But what of that? The salary was six hundred and fifty dollars and the parsonage was adorable! The parsonage family could see nothing at all wrong with the world that day, and the future was rainbow-tinted.
Every one has experienced the ecstatic creepy sensation of sleeping in a brand-new home. The parsonage girls reveled in the memory of that first night for many days. "It may be haunted for all we know," cried Carol deliciously. "Just think, Connie, there may be seven ghosts camped on the head of your bed, waiting——"
When the family gathered for worship on that first Sabbath morning, Mr. Starr said, as he turned the leaves of his well-worn Bible, "I think it would be well for you girls to help with the morning worship now. You need practise in praying aloud, and—so we will begin to-day. Connie and I will make the prayers this morning, Prudence and Carol to-morrow, and Fairy and Lark the next day. We will keep that system up for a while, anyhow. When I finish reading the chapter, Connie, you will make the first prayer. Just pray for whatever you wish as you do at night for yourself. I will follow you."
Connie's eyes were wide with responsibility during the reading of the chapter, but when she began to speak her voice did not falter. Connie had nine years of good Methodist experience back of her!
"Our Father, who art in Heaven, we bow ourselves before Thy footstool in humility and reverence. Thou art our God, our Creator, our Saviour. Bless us this day, and cause Thy face to shine upon us. Blot out our transgressions, pardon our trespasses. Wash us, that we may be whiter than snow. Hide not Thy face from the eyes of Thy children, turn not upon us in wrath. Pity us, Lord, as we kneel here prostrate before Thy majesty and glory. Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. And finally save us, an unbroken family around Thy throne in Heaven, for Jesus' sake. Amen."
This was followed by an electric silence. Prudence was biting her lips painfully, and counting by tens as fast as she could. Fairy was mentally going over the prayer, sentence by sentence, and attributing each petition to the individual member in the old church at Exminster to whom it belonged. The twins were a little amazed, and quite proud. Connie was an honor to the parsonage,—but they were concerned lest they themselves should do not quite so well when their days came.
But in less than a moment the minister-father began his prayer. His voice was a little subdued, and he prayed with less fervor and abandon than usual, but otherwise things went off quite nicely. When he said, "Amen," Prudence was on her feet and half-way up-stairs before the others were fairly risen. Fairy stood gazing intently out of the window for a moment, and then went out to the barn to see if the horse was through eating. Mr. Starr walked gravely and soberly out the front door, and around the house. He ran into Fairy coming out the kitchen door, and they glanced quickly at each other.
"Hurry, papa," she whispered, "you can't hold in much longer! Neither can I!"
And together, choking with laughter, they hurried into the barn and gave full vent to their feelings.
So it was that the twins and Connie were alone for a while.
"You did a pretty good job, Connie," said Carol approvingly.
"Yes. I think I did myself," was the complacent answer. "But I intended to put in, 'Keep us as the apple of Thy eye, hold us in the hollow of Thy hand,' and I forgot it until I had said 'Amen.' I had a notion to put in a post-script, but I believe that isn't done."
"Never mind," said Carol, "I'll use that in mine, to-morrow."
It can not be said that this form of family worship was a great success. The twins were invariably stereotyped, cut and dried. They thanked the Lord for the beautiful morning, for kind friends, for health, and family, and parsonage. Connie always prayed in sentences extracted from the prayers of others she had often heard, and every time with nearly disastrous effect.
But the days passed around, and Prudence and Carol's turn came again. Carol was a thoughtless, impetuous, impulsive girl, and her prayers were as nearly "verbal repetitions" as any prayers could be. So on this morning, after the reading of the chapter, Carol knelt by her chair, and began in her customary solemn voice:
"Oh, our Father, we thank Thee for this beautiful morning." Then intense silence. For Carol remembered with horror and shame that it was a dreary, dismal morning, cloudy, ugly and all unlovely. In her despair, the rest of her petition scattered to the four winds of heaven. She couldn't think of another word, so she gulped, and stammered out a faint "Amen."
But Prudence could not begin. Prudence was red in the face, and nearly suffocated. She felt all swollen inside,—she couldn't speak. The silence continued. "Oh, why doesn't father do it?" she wondered. As a matter of fact, father couldn't. But Prudence did not know that. One who laughs often gets in the habit of laughter,—and sometimes laughs out of season, as well as in. Finally, Prudence plunged in desperately, "Dear Father"—as she usually began her sweet, intimate little talks with God,—and then she paused. Before her eyes flashed a picture of the "beautiful morning," for which Carol had just been thankful! She tried again. "Dear Father,"—and then she whirled around on the floor, and laughed. Mr. Starr got up from his knees, sat down on his chair, and literally shook. Fairy rolled on the lounge, screaming with merriment. Even sober little Connie giggled and squealed. But Carol could not get up. She was disgraced. She had done a horrible, disgusting, idiotic thing. She had insulted God! She could never face the family again. Her shoulders rose and fell convulsively.
Lark did not laugh either. With a rush she was on her knees beside Carol, her arms around the heaving shoulders. "Don't you care, Carrie," she whispered. "Don't you care. It was just a mistake,—don't cry, Carrie."
But Carol would not be comforted. She tried to sneak unobserved from the room, but her father stopped her.
"Don't feel so badly about it, Carol," he said kindly, really sorry for the stricken child,—though his eyes still twinkled, "it was just a mistake. But remember after this, my child, to speak to God when you pray. Remember that you are talking to Him. Then you will not make such a blunder.—So many of us," he said reflectively, "ministers as well as others, pray into the ears of the people, and forget we are talking to God."
After that, the morning worship went better. The prayers of the children changed,—became more personal, less flowery. They remembered from that time on, that when they knelt they were at the feet of God, and speaking direct to Him.
It was the hated duty of the twins to wash and dry the dishes,—taking turns about with the washing. This time was always given up to story-telling, for Lark had a strange and wonderful imagination, and Carol listened to her tales with wonder and delight. Even Connie found dish-doing hours irresistible, and could invariably be found, face in her hands, both elbows on the table, gazing with passionate earnestness at the young story-teller. Now, some of Lark's stories were such weird and fearful things that they had seriously interfered with Connie's slumbers, and Prudence had sternly prohibited them. But this evening, just as she opened the kitchen door, she heard Lark say in thrilling tones:
"She crept down the stairs in the deep darkness, her hand sliding lightly over the rail. Suddenly she stopped. Her hand was arrested in its movement. Ice-cold fingers gripped hers tightly. Then with one piercing shriek, she plunged forward, and fell to the bottom of the stairs with a terrific crash, while a mocking laugh——"
The kitchen door slammed sharply behind Prudence as she stepped into the kitchen, and Connie's piercing shriek would surely have rivaled that of Lark's unfortunate heroine. Even Carol started nervously, and let the plate she had been solemnly wiping for nine minutes, fall to the floor. Lark gasped, and then began sheepishly washing dishes as though her life depended on it. The water was cold, and little masses of grease clung to the edges of the pan and floated about on the surface of the water.
"Get fresh hot water, Lark, and finish the dishes. Connie, go right up-stairs to bed. You twins can come in to me as soon as you finish."
But Connie was afraid to go to bed alone, and Prudence was obliged to accompany her. So it was in their own room that the twins finally faced an indignant Prudence.
"Carol, you may go right straight to bed. And Lark—I do not know what in the world to do with you. Why don't you mind me, and do as I tell you? How many times have I told you not to tell weird stories like that? Can't you tell nice, interesting, mild stories?"
"Prudence, as sure as you live, I can't! I start them just as mild and proper as can be, but before I get half-way through, a murder, or death, or mystery crops in, and I can't help it."
"But you must help it, Lark. Or I shall forbid your telling stories of any kind. They are so silly, those wild things, and they make you all nervous, and excitable, and— Now, think, Larkie, and tell me how I shall punish you."
Lark applied all the resources of her wonderful brain to this task, and presently suggested reluctantly: "Well, you might keep me home from the ice-cream social to-morrow night." But her face was wistful.
"No," said Prudence decidedly, to Lark's intense relief. "I can't do that. You've been looking forward to it so long, and your class is to help with the serving. No, not that, Larkie. That would be too mean. Think of something else."
"Well,—you might make me wash and dry the dishes all alone—for a week, Prudence, and that will be a bad punishment, too, for I just despise washing dishes by myself. Telling stories makes it so much—livelier."
"All right, then," said Prudence, relieved in turn, "that is what I will do. And Carol and Connie must not even stay in the kitchen with you."
"I believe I'll go to bed now, too," said Lark, with a thoughtful glance at her two sisters, already curled up snugly and waiting for the conclusion of the administering of justice. "If you don't mind, Prudence."
Prudence smiled a bit ruefully. "Oh, I suppose you might as well, if you like. But remember this, Lark: No more deaths, and murders, and mysteries, and highway robberies."
"All right, Prudence," said Lark with determination. And as Prudence walked slowly down-stairs she heard Lark starting in on her next story:
"Once there was a handsome young man, named Archibald Tremaine,—a very respectable young fellow. He wouldn't so much as dream of robbing, or murdering, or dying."
Then Prudence smiled to herself in the dark and hurried down.
The family had been in the new parsonage only three weeks, when a visiting minister called on them. It was about ten minutes before the luncheon hour at the time of his arrival. Mr. Starr was in the country, visiting, so the girls received him alone. It was an unfortunate day for the Starrs. Fairy had been at college all morning, and Prudence had been rummaging in the attic, getting it ready for a rainy-day and winter playroom for the younger girls. She was dusty, perspirey and tired.
The luncheon hour arrived, and the girls came in from school, eager to be up and away again. Still the grave young minister sat discoursing upon serious topics with the fidgety Prudence,—and in spite of dust and perspiration, she was good to look upon. The Reverend Mr. Morgan realized that, and could not tear himself away. The twins came in, shook hands with him soberly, glancing significantly at the clock as they did so. Connie ran in excitedly, wanting to know what was the matter with everybody, and weren't they to have any luncheon? Still Mr. Morgan remained in his chair, gazing at Prudence with frank appreciation. Finally Prudence sighed.
"Do you like sweet corn, Mr. Morgan?"
This was entirely out of the line of their conversation, and for a moment he faltered. "Sweet corn?" he repeated.
"Yes, roasting-ears, you know,—cooked on the cob."
Then he smiled. "Oh, yes indeed. Very much," he said.
"Well," she began her explanation rather drearily, "I was busy this morning and did not prepare much luncheon. We are very fond of sweet corn, and I cooked an enormous panful. But that's all we have for luncheon,—sweet corn and butter. We haven't even bread, because I am going to bake this afternoon, and we never eat it with sweet corn, anyhow. Now, if you care to eat sweet corn and butter, and canned peaches, we'd just love to have you stay for luncheon with us."
The Reverend Mr. Morgan was charmed, and said so. So Prudence rushed to the kitchen, opened the peaches in a hurry, and fished out a clean napkin for their guest. Then they gathered about the table, five girls and the visiting minister. It was really a curious sight, that table. In the center stood a tall vase of goldenrod. On either side of the vase was a great platter piled high with sweet corn, on the cob! Around the table were six plates, with the necessary silverware, and a glass of water for each. There was also a small dish of peaches at each place, and an individual plate of butter. That was all,—except the napkins. But Prudence made no apologies. She was a daughter of the parsonage! She showed the Reverend Mr. Morgan to his place as graciously and sweetly as though she were ushering him in to a twenty-seven course banquet.
"Will you return thanks, Mr. Morgan?" she said. And the girls bowed their heads. The Reverend Mr. Morgan cleared his throat, and began, "Our Father, we thank Thee for this table."
There was more of the blessing, but the parsonage girls heard not one additional phrase,—except Connie, who followed him conscientiously through every word. By the time he had finished, Prudence and Fairy, and even Lark, had composed their faces. But Carol burst into merry laughter, close upon his reverent "Amen,"—and after one awful glare at her sister, Prudence joined in. This gaiety communicated itself to the others and soon it was a rollicking group around the parsonage table. Mr. Morgan himself smiled uncertainly. He was puzzled. More, he was embarrassed. But as soon as Carol could get her breath, she gasped out an explanation.
"You were just—right, Mr. Morgan,—to give thanks—for the table! There's nothing—on it—to be thankful for!"
And the whole family went off once more into peals of laughter.
Mr. Morgan had very little appetite that day. He did not seem to be so fond of sweet corn as he had assured Prudence. He talked very little, too. And as soon as possible he took his hat and walked hurriedly away. He did not call at the parsonage again.
"Oh, Carol," said Prudence reproachfully, wiping her eyes, "how could you start us all off like that?"
"For the table, for the table!" shrieked Carol, and Prudence joined in perforce.
"It was awful," she gasped, "but it was funny! I believe even father would have laughed."
A few weeks after this, Carol distinguished herself again, and to her lasting mortification. The parsonage pasture had been rented out during the summer months before the change of ministers, the outgoing incumbent having kept neither horse nor cow. As may be imagined, the little pasture had been taxed to the utmost, and when the new minister arrived, he found that his field afforded poor grazing for his pretty little Jersey. But a man living only six blocks from the parsonage had generously offered Mr. Starr free pasturage in his broad meadow, and the offer was gratefully accepted. This meant that every evening the twins must walk the six blocks after the cow, and every morning must take her back for the day's grazing.
One evening, as they were starting out from the meadow homeward with the docile animal, Carol stopped and gazed at Blinkie reflectively.
"Lark," she said, "I just believe to my soul that I could ride this cow. She's so gentle, and I'm such a good hand at sticking on."
"Carol!" ejaculated Lark. "Think how it would look for a parsonage girl to go down the street riding a cow."
"But there's no one to see," protested Carol. And this was true. For the parsonage was near the edge of town, and the girls passed only five houses on their way home from the meadow,—and all of them were well back from the road. And Carol was, as she had claimed, a good hand at "sticking on." She had ridden a great deal while they were at Exminster, a neighbor being well supplied with rideable horses, and she was passionately fond of the sport. To be sure, she had never ridden a cow, but she was sure it would be easy.
Lark argued and pleaded, but Carol was firm. "I must try it," she insisted, "and if it doesn't go well I can slide off. You can lead her, Lark."
The obliging Lark boosted her sister up, and Carol nimbly scrambled into place, riding astride.
"I've got to ride this way," she said; "cows have such funny backs I couldn't keep on any other way. If I see any one coming, I'll slide for it."
For a while all went well. Lark led Blinkie carefully, gazing about anxiously to see that no one approached. Carol gained confidence as they proceeded, and chatted with her sister nonchalantly, waving her hands about to show her perfect balance and lack of fear. So they advanced to within two blocks of the parsonage.
"It's very nice," said Carol, "very nice indeed,—but her backbone is rather—well, rather penetrating. I think I need a saddle."
By this time, Blinkie concluded that she was being imposed upon. She shook her head violently, and twitched the rope from Lark's hand,—for Lark now shared her sister's confidence, and held it loosely. With a little cry she tried to catch the end of it, but Blinkie was too quick for her. She gave a scornful toss of her dainty head, and struck out madly for home. With great presence of mind, Carol fell flat upon the cow's neck, and hung on for dear life, while Lark, in terror, started out in pursuit.
"Help! Help!" she cried loudly. "Papa! Papa! Papa!"
In this way, they turned in at the parsonage gate, which happily stood open,—otherwise Blinkie would undoubtedly have gone through, or over. As luck would have it, Mr. Starr was standing at the door with two men who had been calling on him, and hearing Lark's frantic cries, they rushed to meet the wild procession, and had the unique experience of seeing a parsonage girl riding flat on her stomach on the neck of a galloping Jersey, with another parsonage girl in mad pursuit.
Blinkie stopped beside the barn, and turned her head about inquiringly. Carol slid to the ground, and buried her face in her hands at sight of the two men with her father. Then with never a word, she lit out for the house at top speed. Seeing that she was not hurt, and that no harm had been done, the three men sat down on the ground and burst into hearty laughter.
Lark came upon them as they sat thus, and Lark was angry. She stamped her foot with a violence that must have hurt her.
"I don't see anything to laugh at," she cried passionately, "it was awful, it was just awful! Carrie might have been killed! It—it——"
"Tell us all about it, Lark," gasped her father. And Lark did so, smiling a little herself, now that her fears were relieved. "Poor Carol," she said, "she'll never live down the humiliation. I must go and console her."
And a little later, the twins were weeping on each other's shoulders.
"I wouldn't have cared," sobbed Carol, "if it had been anybody else in the world! But—the presiding elder,—and—the president of the Presbyterian College! And I know the Presbyterians look down on us Methodists anyhow, though they wouldn't admit it! And riding a cow! Oh, Larkie, if you love me, go down-stairs and get me the carbolic acid, so I can die and be out of disgrace."
This, however, Lark stoutly refused to do, and in a little while Carol felt much better. But she talked it over with Prudence very seriously.
"I hope you understand, Prudence, that I shall never have anything more to do with Blinkie! She can die of starvation for all I care. I'll never take her to and from the pasture again. I couldn't do it! Such rank ingratitude as that cow displayed was never equaled, I am certain."
"I suppose you'll quit using milk and cream, too," suggested Prudence.
"Oh, well," said Carol more tolerantly, "I don't want to be too hard on Blinkie, for after all it was partly my own fault. So I won't go that far. But I must draw the line somewhere! Hereafter, Blinkie and I meet as strangers!"
THE LADIES' AID
"It's perfectly disgusting, I admit, father," said Prudence sweetly, "but you know yourself that it very seldom happens. And I am sure the kitchen is perfectly clean, and the soup is very nice indeed,—if it is canned soup! Twins, this is four slices of bread apiece for you! You see, father, I really feel that this is a crisis in the life of the parsonage——"
"How long does a parsonage usually live?" demanded Carol.
"It wouldn't live long if the ministers had many twins," said Fairy quickly.
"Ouch!" grinned Connie, plagiarizing, for that expressive word belonged exclusively to the twins, and it was double impertinence to apply it to one of its very possessors.
"And you understand, don't you, father, that if everything does not go just exactly right, I shall feel I am disgraced for life? I know the Ladies disapprove of me, and look on me with suspicion. I know they think it wicked and ridiculous to leave the raising of four bright spirits in the unworthy hands of a girl like me. I know they will all sniff and smile and—Of course, twins, they have a perfect right to feel, and act, so. I am not complaining. But I want to show them for once in their lives that the parsonage runs smoothly and sweetly. If you would just stay at home with us, father, it would be a big help. You are such a tower of strength."
"But unfortunately I can not. People do not get married every day in the week, and when they are all ready for it they do not allow even Ladies' Aids to stand in their way. It is a long drive, ten miles at least, and I must start at once. And it will likely be very late when I get back. But if you are all good, and help Prudence, and uphold the reputation of the parsonage, I will divide the wedding fee with you,—share and share alike." This was met with such enthusiasm that he added hastily, "But wait! It may be only a dollar!"
Then kissing the various members of the parsonage family, he went out the back door, barnward.
"Now," said Prudence briskly, "I want to make a bargain with you, girls. If you'll stay clear away from the Ladies, and be very good and orderly, I'll give you all the lemonade and cake you can drink afterward."
"Oh, Prudence, I'm sure I can't drink much cake," cried Carol tragically, "I just can't imagine myself doing it!"
"I mean, eat the cake, of course," said Prudence, blushing.
"And let us make taffy after supper?" wheedled Carol.
Prudence hesitated, and the three young faces hardened. Then Prudence relented and hastily agreed. "You won't need to appear at all, you know. You can just stay outdoors and play as though you were model children."
"Yes," said Carol tartly, "the kind the members used to have,—which are all grown up, now! And all moved out of Mount Mark, too!"
"Carol! That sounds malicious, and malice isn't tolerated here for a minute. Now,—oh, Fairy, did you remember to dust the back of the dresser in our bedroom?"
"Mercy! What in the world do you want the back of the dresser dusted for? Do you expect the Ladies to look right through it?"
"No, but some one might drop something behind it, and it would have to be pulled out and they would all see it. This house has got to be absolutely spotless for once,—I am sure it will be the first time."
"And the last, I hope," added Carol sepulchrally.
"We have an hour and a half yet," continued Prudence. "That will give us plenty of time for the last touches. Twins and Connie, you'd better go right out in the field and play. I'll call you a little before two, and then you must go quietly upstairs, and dress—just wear your plain little ginghams, the clean ones of course! Then if they do catch a glimpse of you, you will be presentable.—Yes, you can take some bread and sugar, but hurry."
"You may take," said Fairy.
"Yes, of course, may take is what I mean.—Now hurry."
Then Prudence and Fairy set to work again in good earnest. The house was already well cleaned. The sandwiches were made. But there were the last "rites," and every detail must be religiously attended to.
It must be remembered that the three main down-stairs rooms of the parsonage were connected by double doors,—double doors, you understand, not portieres! The front room, seldom used by the parsonage family, opened on the right of the narrow hallway. Beyond it was the living-room, which it must be confessed the parsonage girls only called "living-room" when they were on their Sunday behavior,—ordinarily it was the sitting-room, and a cheery, homey, attractive place it was, with a great bay window looking out upon the stately mansion of the Averys. To the left of the living-room was the dining-room. The double doors between them were always open. The other pair was closed, except on occasions of importance.
Now, this really was a crisis in the life of the parsonage family,—if not of the parsonage itself. The girls had met, separately, every member of the Ladies' Aid. But this was their first combined movement upon the parsonage, and Prudence and Fairy realized that much depended on the success of the day. As girls, the whole Methodist church pronounced the young Starrs charming. But as parsonage people,—well, they were obliged to reserve judgment. And as for Prudence having entire charge of the household, it must be acknowledged that every individual Lady looked forward to this meeting with eagerness,—they wanted to "size up" the situation. They were coming to see for themselves! Yes, it was undoubtedly a crisis.
"There'll be a crowd, of course," said Fairy. "We'll just leave the doors between the front rooms open."
"Yes, but we'll close the dining-room doors. Then we'll have the refreshments all out on the table, and when we are ready we'll just fling back the doors carelessly and—there you are!"
So the table was prettily decorated with flowers, and great plates of sandwiches and cake were placed upon it. In the center was an enormous punch-bowl, borrowed from the Averys, full of lemonade. Glasses were properly arranged on the trays, and piles of nicely home-laundered napkins were scattered here and there. The girls felt that the dining-room was a credit to them, and to the Methodist Church entire.
From every nook and corner of the house they hunted out chairs and stools, anticipating a real run upon the parsonage. Nor were they disappointed. The twins and Connie were not even arrayed in their plain little ginghams, clean, before the first arrivals were ushered up into the front bedroom, ordinarily occupied by Prudence and Fairy.
"There's Mrs. Adams, and Mrs. Prentiss, and Mrs.——," began Connie, listening intently to the voices in the next room.
"Yes," whispered Carol, "peek through the keyhole, Lark, and see if Mrs. Prentiss is looking under the bed for dust. They say she——"
"You'd better not let Prudence catch you repeating——"
"There's Mrs. Stone, and Mrs. Davis, and——"
"They say Mrs. Davis only belongs to the Ladies' Aid for the sake of the refreshments, and——"
"Carol! Prudence will punish you."
"Well, I don't believe it," protested Carol. "I'm just telling you what I've heard other people say."
"We aren't allowed to repeat gossip," urged Lark.
"No, and I think it's a shame, too, for it's awfully funny. Minnie Drake told me that Miss Varne joined the Methodist church as soon as she heard the new minister was a widower so she——"
Carol whirled around sharply, and flushed, and swallowed hard. For Prudence was just behind her.
"I—I—I—" but she could get no further.
Upon occasion, Prudence was quite terrible. "So I heard," she said dryly, but her eyes were hard. "Now run down-stairs and out to the field, or to the barn, and play. And, Carol, be sure and remind me of that speech to-night. I might forget it."
The girls ran quickly out, Carol well in the lead.
"No wedding fee for me," she mumbled bitterly. "Do you suppose there can be seven devils in my tongue, Lark, like there are in the Bible?"
"I don't remember there being seven devils in the Bible," said Lark.
"Oh, I mean the—the possessed people it tells about in the Bible,—crazy, I suppose it means. Somehow I just can't help repeating——"
"You don't want to," said Lark, not without sympathy. "You think it's such fun, you know."
"Well, anyhow, I'm sure I won't get any wedding fee to-night. It seems to me Prudence is very—harsh sometimes."
"You can appeal to father, if you like."
"Not on your life," said Carol promptly and emphatically; "he's worse than Prudence. Like as not he'd give me a good thrashing into the bargain. No,—I'm strong for Prudence when it comes to punishment,—in preference to father, I mean. I can't seem to be fond of any kind of punishment from anybody."
For a while Carol was much depressed, but by nature she was a buoyant soul and her spirits were presently soaring again.
In the meantime, the Ladies of the Aid Society continued to arrive. Prudence and Fairy, freshly gowned and smiling-faced, received them with cordiality and many merry words. It was not difficult for them, they had been reared in the hospitable atmosphere of Methodist parsonages, where, if you have but two dishes of oatmeal, the outsider is welcome to one. That is Carol's description of parsonage life.
But Prudence was concerned to observe that a big easy chair placed well back in a secluded corner, seemed to be giving dissatisfaction. It was Mrs. Adams who sat there first. She squirmed quite a little, and seemed to be gripping the arms of the chair with unnecessary fervor. Presently she stammered an excuse, and rising, went into the other room. After that, Mrs. Miller tried the corner chair, and soon moved away. Then Mrs. Jack, Mrs. Norey, and Mrs. Beed, in turn, sat there,—and did not stay. Prudence was quite agonized. Had the awful twins filled it with needles for the reception of the poor Ladies? At first opportunity, she hurried into the secluded corner, intent upon trying the chair for herself. She sat down anxiously. Then she gasped, and clutched frantically at the arms of the chair. For she discovered at once to her dismay that the chair was bottomless, and that only by hanging on for her life could she keep from dropping through. She thought hard for a moment,—but thinking did not interfere with her grasp on the chair-arms,—and then she realized that the wisest thing would be to discuss it publicly. Anything would be better than leaving it unexplained, for the Ladies to comment upon privately.
So up rose Prudence, conscientiously pulling after her the thin cushion which had concealed the chair's shortcoming. "Look, Fairy!" she cried. "Did you take the bottom out of this chair?—It must have been horribly uncomfortable for those who have sat there!—However did it happen?"
Fairy was frankly amazed, and a little inclined to be amused.
"Ask the twins," she said tersely, "I know nothing about it."
At that moment, the luckless Carol went running through the hall. Prudence knew it was she, without seeing, because she had a peculiar skipping run that was quite characteristic and unmistakable.
"Carol!" she called.
And Carol paused.
"Carol!" more imperatively.
Then Carol slowly opened the door,—she was a parsonage girl and rose to the occasion. She smiled winsomely,—Carol was nearly always winsome.
"How do you do?" she said brightly. "Isn't it a lovely day? Did you call me, Prudence?"
"Yes. Do you know where the bottom of that chair has gone?"
"Why, no, Prudence—gracious! That chair!—Why, I didn't know you were going to bring that chair in here—Why,—oh, I am so sorry! Why in the world didn't you tell us beforehand?"
Some of the Ladies smiled. Others lifted their brows and shoulders in a mildly suggestive way, that Prudence, after nineteen years in the parsonage, had learned to know and dread.
"And where is the chair-bottom now?" she inquired. "And why did you take it?"
"Why we wanted to make——"
"You and Lark?"
"Well, yes,—but it was really all my fault, you know. We wanted to make a seat up high in the peach tree, and we couldn't find a board the right shape. So she discovered—I mean, I did—that by pulling out two tiny nails we could get the bottom off the chair, and it was just fine. It's a perfectly adorable seat," brightening, but sobering again as she realized the gravity of the occasion. "And we put the cushion in the chair so that it wouldn't be noticed. We never use that chair, you know, and we didn't think of your needing it to-day. We put it away back in the cold corner of the sitting—er, living-room where no one ever sits. I'm so sorry about it."
Carol was really quite crushed, but true to her parsonage training, she struggled valiantly and presently brought forth a crumpled and sickly smile.
But Prudence smiled at her kindly. "That wasn't very naughty, Carol," she said frankly. "It's true that we seldom use that chair. And we ought to have looked." She glanced reproachfully at Fairy. "It is strange that in dusting it, Fairy—but never mind. You may go now, Carol. It is all right."
Then she apologized gently to the Ladies, and the conversation went on, but Prudence was uncomfortably conscious of keen and quizzical eyes turned her way. Evidently they thought she was too lenient.
"Well, it wasn't very naughty," she thought wretchedly. "How can I pretend it was terribly bad, when I feel in my heart that it wasn't!"
Before long, the meeting was called to order, and the secretary instructed to read the minutes.
"Oh," fluttered Miss Carr excitedly, "I forgot to bring the book. I haven't been secretary very long, you know."
"Only six months," interrupted Mrs. Adams tartly.
"How do you expect to keep to-day's minutes?" demanded the president.
"Oh, I am sure Miss Prudence will give me a pencil and paper, and I'll copy them in the book as soon as ever I get home."
"Yes, indeed," said Prudence. "There is a tablet on that table beside you, and pencils, too. I thought we might need them."
Then the president made a few remarks, but while she talked, Miss Carr was excitedly opening the tablet. Miss Carr was always excited, and always fluttering, and always giggling girlishly. Carol called her a sweet old simpering soul, and so she was. But now, right in the midst of the president's serious remarks, she quite giggled out.
The president stared at her in amazement. The Ladies looked up curiously. Miss Carr was bending low over the tablet, and laughing gaily to herself.
"Oh, this is very cute," she said. "Who wrote it? Oh, it is just real cunning."
Fairy sprang up, suddenly scarlet. "Oh, perhaps you have one of the twins' books, and they're always scribbling and——"
"No, it is yours, Fairy. I got it from among your school-books."
Fairy sank back, intensely mortified, and Miss Carr chirped brightly:
"Oh, Fairy, dear, did you write this little poem? How perfectly sweet! And what a queer, sentimental little creature you are. I never dreamed you were so romantic. Mayn't I read it aloud?"
Fairy was speechless, but the Ladies, including the president, were impatiently waiting. So Miss Carr began reading in a sentimental, dreamy voice that must have been very fetching fifty years before. At the first suggestion of poetry, Prudence sat up with conscious pride,—Fairy was so clever! But before Miss Carr had finished the second verse, she too was literally drowned in humiliation.
"My love rode out of the glooming night, Into the glare of the morning light. My love rode out of the dim unknown, Into my heart to claim his own. My love rode out of the yesterday, Into the now,—and he came to stay. Oh, love that is rich, and pure, and true, The love in my heart leaps out to you. Oh, love, at last you have found your part,— To come and dwell in my empty heart."
Miss Carr sat down, giggling delightedly, and the younger Ladies laughed, and the older Ladies smiled.
But Mrs. Prentiss turned to Fairy gravely. "How old are you, my dear?"
And with a too-apparent effort, Fairy answered, "Sixteen!"
"Indeed!" A simple word, but so suggestively uttered. "Shall we continue the meeting, Ladies?"
This aroused Prudence's ire on her sister's behalf, and she squared her shoulders defiantly. For a while, Fairy was utterly subdued. But thinking it over to herself, she decided that after all there was nothing absolutely shameful in a sixteen-year-old girl writing sentimental verses. Silly, to be sure! But all sixteen-year-olds are silly. We love them for it! And Fairy's good nature and really good judgment came to her rescue, and she smiled at Prudence with her old serenity.
The meeting progressed, and the business was presently disposed of. So far, things were not too seriously bad, and Prudence sighed in great relief. Then the Ladies took out their sewing, and began industriously working at many unmentionable articles, designed for the intimate clothing of a lot of young Methodists confined in an orphans' home in Chicago. And they talked together pleasantly and gaily. And Prudence and Fairy felt that the cloud was lifted.
But soon it settled again, dark and lowering. Prudence heard Lark running through the hall and her soul misgave her. Why was Lark going upstairs? What was her errand? And she remembered the wraps of the Ladies, up-stairs, alone and unprotected. Dare she trust Lark in such a crisis? Perhaps the very sight of Prudence and the Ladies' Aid would arouse her better nature, and prevent catastrophe. To be sure, her mission might be innocent, but Prudence dared not run the risk. Fortunately she was sitting near the door.
"Lark!" she called softly. Lark stopped abruptly, and something fell to the floor.
There was a muttered exclamation from without, and Lark began fumbling rapidly around on the floor talking incoherently to herself.
The Ladies smiled, and Miss Carr, laughing lightly, said, "She is an attentive creature, isn't she?"
Prudence would gladly have flown out into the hall to settle this matter, but she realized that she was on exhibition. Had she done so, the Ladies would have set her down forever after as thoroughly incompetent,—she could not go! But Lark must come to her.
"Lark!" This was Prudence's most awful voice, and Lark was bound to heed.
"Oh, Prue," she said plaintively, "I'll be there in a minute. Can't you wait just five minutes? Let me run up-stairs first, won't you? Then I'll come gladly! Won't that do?"
Her voice was hopeful. But Prudence replied with dangerous calm:
"Come at once, Lark."
"All right, then," and added threateningly, "but you'll wish I hadn't."
Then Lark opened the door,—a woeful figure! In one hand she carried an empty shoe box. And her face was streaked with good rich Iowa mud. Her clothes were plastered with it. One shoe was caked from the sole to the very top button, and a great gash in her stocking revealed a generous portion of round white leg.
Poor Prudence! At that moment, she would have exchanged the whole parsonage, bathroom, electric lights and all, for a tiny log cabin in the heart of a great forest where she and Lark might be alone together.
And Fairy laughed. Prudence looked at her with tears in her eyes, and then turned to the wretched girl.
"What have you been doing, Lark?"
The heart-break expressed in the face of Lark would have made the angels weep. Beneath the smudges of mud on her cheeks she was pallid, and try as she would, she could not keep her chin from trembling ominously. Her eyes were fastened on the floor for the most part, but occasionally she raised them hurriedly, appealingly, to her sister's face, and dropped them again. Not for worlds would she have faced the Ladies! Prudence was obliged to repeat her question before Lark could articulate a reply. She gulped painfully a few times,—making meanwhile a desperate effort to hide the gash in one stocking by placing the other across it, rubbing it up and down in great embarrassment, and balancing herself with apparent difficulty. Her voice, when she was able to speak, was barely recognizable.
"We—we—we are making—mud images, Prudence. It—it was awfully messy, I know, but—they say—it is such a good—and useful thing to do. We—we didn't expect—the—the Ladies to see us."
"Mud images!" gasped Prudence, and even Fairy stared incredulously. "Where in the world did you get hold of an idea like that?"
"It—it was in that—that Mother's Home Friend paper you take, Prudence." Prudence blushed guiltily. "It—it was modeling in clay, but—we haven't any clay, and—the mud is very nice, but—Oh, I know I look just—horrible. I—I—Connie pushed me in the—puddle—for fun. I—I was vexed about it, Prudence, honestly. I—I was chasing her, and I fell, and tore my stocking,—and—and—but, Prudence, the papers do say children ought to model, and we didn't think of—getting caught." Another appealing glance into her sister's face, and Lark plunged on, bent on smoothing matters if she could. "Carol is—is just fine at it, really. She—she's making a Venus de Milo, and it's good. But we can't remember whether her arm is off at the elbow or below the shoulder——" An enormous gulp, and by furious blinking Lark managed to crowd back the tears that would slip to the edge of her lashes. "I—I'm very sorry, Prudence."
"Very well, Lark, you may go. I do not really object to your modeling in mud, I am sure. I am sorry you look so disreputable. You must change your shoes and stockings at once, and then you can go on with your modeling. But there must be no more pushing and chasing. I'll see Connie about that to-night. Now——"
"Oh! Oh! Oh! What in the world is that?"
This was a chorus of several Ladies' Aid voices,—a double quartette at the very least. Lark gave a sharp exclamation and began looking hurriedly about her on the floor.
"It's got in here,—just as I expected," she exclaimed. "I said you would be sorry, Prue,—Oh, there it is under your chair, Mrs. Prentiss. Just wait,—maybe I can shove it back in the box again."
This was greeted with a fresh chorus of shrieks. There was a hurried and absolute vacation of that corner of the front room. The Ladies fled, dropping their cherished sewing, shoving one another in a most Unladies-Aid-like way.
And there, beneath a chair, squatted the cause of the confusion, an innocent, unhappy, blinking toad!
This was a prolonged wail.
"It's all right, Prue, honestly it is," urged Lark with pathetic solemnity. "We didn't do it for a joke. We're keeping him for a good purpose. Connie found him in the garden,—and—Carol said we ought to keep him for Professor Duke,—he asked us to bring him things to cut up in science, you remember. So we just shoved him into this shoe box, and—we thought we'd keep him in the bath-tub until morning. We did it for a good purpose, don't you see we did? Oh, Prudence!"
Prudence was horribly outraged, but even in that critical moment, justice insisted that Lark's arguments were sound. The professor had certainly asked the scholars to bring him "things to cut up." But a toad! A live one!—And the Ladies' Aid! Prudence shivered.
"I am sure you meant well, Larkie," she said in a low voice, striving hard to keep down the bitter resentment in her heart, "I know you did. But you should not have brought that—that thing—into the house. Pick him up at once, and take him out-of-doors and let him go."
But this was not readily done. In spite of her shame and deep dismay, Lark refused to touch the toad with her fingers.
"I can't touch him, Prudence,—I simply can't," she whimpered. "We shoved him in with the broom handle before."
And as no one else was willing to touch it, and as the Ladies clustered together in confusion, and with much laughter, in the far corner of the other room, Prudence brought the broom and the not unwilling toad was helped to other quarters.
"Now go," said Prudence quickly, and Lark was swift to avail herself of the permission.
Followed a quiet hour, and then the Ladies put aside their sewing and walked about the room, chatting in little groups. With a significant glance to Fairy, Prudence walked calmly to the double doors between the dining-room and the sitting-room. The eyes of the Ladies followed her with interest and even enthusiasm. They were hungry. Prudence slowly opened wide the doors, and—stood amazed! The Ladies clustered about her, and stood amazed also. The dining-room was there, and the table! But the appearance of the place was vastly different! The snowy cloth was draped artistically over a picture on the wall, the lowest edges well above the floor. The plates and trays, napkin-covered, were safely stowed away on the floor in distant corners. The kitchen scrub bucket had been brought in and turned upside down, to afford a fitting resting place for the borrowed punch bowl, full to overflowing with fragrant lemonade.
And at the table were three dirty, disheveled little figures, bending seriously over piles of mud. A not-unrecognizable Venus de Milo occupied the center of the table. Connie was painstakingly at work on some animal, a dog perhaps, or possibly an elephant. And——
The three young modelers looked up in exclamatory consternation as the doors opened.
"Oh, are you ready?" cried Carol. "How the time has flown! We had no idea you'd be ready so soon. Oh, we are sorry, Prudence. We intended to have everything fixed properly for you again. We needed a flat place for our modeling. It's a shame, that's what it is. Isn't that a handsome Venus? I did that!—If you'll just shut the door one minute, Prudence, we'll have everything exactly as you left it. And we're as sorry as we can be. You can have my Venus for a centerpiece, if you like."
Prudence silently closed the doors, and the Ladies, laughing significantly, drew away.
"Don't you think, my dear," began Mrs. Prentiss too sweetly, "that they are a little more than you can manage? Don't you really think an older woman is needed?"
"I do not think so," cried Fairy, before her sister could speak, "no older woman could be kinder, or sweeter, or more patient and helpful than Prue."
"Undoubtedly true! But something more is needed, I am afraid! It appears that girls are a little more disorderly than in my own young days! Perhaps I do not judge advisedly, but it seems to me they are a little—unmanageable."
"Indeed they are not," cried Prudence loyally. "They are young, lively, mischievous, I know,—and I am glad of it. But I have lived with them ever since they were born, and I ought to know them. They are unselfish, they are sympathetic, they are always generous. They do foolish and irritating things,—but never things that are hateful and mean. They are all right at heart, and that is all that counts. They are not bad girls! What have they done to-day? They were exasperating, and humiliating, too, but what did they do that was really mean? They embarrassed and mortified me, but not intentionally! I can't punish them for the effect on me, you know! Would that be just or fair? At heart, they meant no harm."
It must be confessed that there were many serious faces among the Ladies. Some cheeks were flushed, some eyes were downcast, some lips were compressed and some were trembling. Every mother there was asking in her heart, "Did I punish my children just for the effect on me? Did I judge my children by what was in their hearts, or just by the trouble they made me?"
And the silence lasted so long that it became awkward. Finally Mrs. Prentiss crossed the room and stood by Prudence's side. She laid a hand tenderly on the young girl's arm, and said in a voice that was slightly tremulous:
"I believe you are right, my dear. It is what girls are at heart that really counts. I believe your sisters are all you say they are. And one thing I am very sure of,—they are happy girls to have a sister so patient, and loving, and just. Not all real mothers have as much to their credit!"
A SECRET SOCIETY
Carol and Lark, in keeping with their twin-ship, were the dearest of chums and comrades. They resembled each other closely in build, being of the same height and size. They were slender, yet gave a suggestion of sturdiness. Carol's face was a delicately tinted oval, brightened by clear and sparkling eyes of blue. She was really beautiful, bright, attractive and vivacious. She made friends readily, and was always considered the "most popular girl in our crowd"—whatever Carol's crowd at the time might be. But she was not extremely clever, caring little for study, and with no especial talent in any direction. Lark was as nearly contrasting as any sister could be. Her face was pale, her eyes were dark brown and full of shadows, and she was a brilliant and earnest student. For each other the twins felt a passionate devotion that was very beautiful, but ludicrous as well.
To them, the great rambling barn back of the parsonage was a most delightful place. It had a big cow-shed on one side, and horse stalls on the other, with a "heavenly" haymow over all, and with "chutes" for the descent of hay,—and twins! In one corner was a high dark crib for corn, with an open window looking down into the horse stalls adjoining. When the crib was newly filled, the twins could clamber painfully up on the corn, struggle backward through the narrow window, and holding to the ledge of it with their hands, drop down into the nearest stall. To be sure they were likely to fall,—more likely than not,—and their hands were splinter-filled and their heads blue-bumped most of the time. But splinters and bumps did not interfere with their pursuit of pleasure.
Now the twins had a Secret Society,—of which they were the founders, the officers and the membership body. Its name was Skull and Crossbones. Why that name was chosen perhaps even the twins themselves could not explain, but it sounded deep, dark and bloody,—and so was the Society. Lark furnished the brain power for the organization but her sister was an enthusiastic and energetic second. Carol's club name was Lady Gwendolyn, and Lark's was Sir Alfred Angelcourt ordinarily, although subject to frequent change. Sometimes she was Lord Beveling, the villain of the plot, and chased poor Gwendolyn madly through corn-crib, horse stalls and haymow. Again she was the dark-browed Indian silently stalking his unconscious prey. Then she was a fierce lion lying in wait for the approaching damsel. The old barn saw stirring times after the coming of the new parsonage family.
"Hark! Hark!" sounded a hissing whisper from the corn-crib, and Connie, eavesdropping outside the barn, shivered sympathetically.
"What is it! Oh, what is it?" wailed the unfortunate lady.
"Look! Look! Run for your life!"
Then while Connie clutched the barn door in a frenzy, there was a sound of rattling corn as the twins scrambled upward, a silence, a low thud, and an unromantic "Ouch!" as Carol bumped her head and stumbled.
"Are you assaulted?" shouted the bold Sir Alfred, and Connie heard a wild scuffle as he rescued his companion from the clutches of the old halter on which she had stumbled. Up the haymow ladder they hurried, and then slid recklessly down the hay-chutes. Presently the barn door was flung open, and the "Society" knocked Connie flying backward, ran madly around the barn a few times, and scurried under the fence and into the chicken coop.
A little later, Connie, assailed with shots of corncobs, ran bitterly toward the house. "Peaking" was strictly forbidden when the twins were engaged in Skull and Crossbones activities.
And Connie's soul burned with desire. She felt that this secret society was threatening not only her happiness, but also her health, for she could not sleep for horrid dreams of Skulls and Crossbones at night, and could not eat for envying the twins their secret and mysterious joys. Therefore, with unwonted humility, she applied for entrance. She had applied many times previously, without effect. But this time she enforced her application with a nickel's worth of red peppermint drops, bought for the very purpose. The twins accepted the drops gravely, and told Connie she must make formal application. Then they marched solemnly off to the barn with the peppermint drops, without offering Connie a share. This hurt, but she did not long grieve over it, she was so busy wondering what on earth they meant by "formal application." Finally she applied to Prudence, and received assistance.
The afternoon mail brought to the parsonage an envelope addressed to "Misses Carol and Lark Starr, The Methodist Parsonage, Mount Mark, Iowa," and in the lower left-hand corner was a suggestive drawing of a Skull and Crossbones. The eyes of the mischievous twins twinkled with delight when they saw it, and they carried it to the barn for prompt perusal. It read as follows:
"Miss Constance Starr humbly and respectfully craves admittance into the Ancient and Honorable Organization of Skull and Crossbones."
The twins pondered long on a fitting reply, and the next afternoon the postman brought a letter for Connie, waiting impatiently for it. She had approached the twins about it at noon that day.
"Did you get my application?" she had whispered nervously.
But the twins had stared her out of countenance, and Connie realized that she had committed a serious breach of secret society etiquette.
But here was the letter! Her fingers trembled as she opened it. It was decorated lavishly with skulls and crossbones, splashed with red ink, supposedly blood, and written in the same suggestive color.
"Skull and Crossbones has heard the plea of Miss Constance Starr. If she present herself at the Parsonage Haymow this evening, at eight o'clock, she shall learn the will of the Society regarding her petition."
Connie was jubilant! In a flash, she saw herself admitted to the mysterious Barnyard Order, and began working out a name for her own designation after entrance. It was a proud day for her.
By the time the twins had finished washing the supper dishes, it was dark. Constance glanced out of the window apprehensively. She now remembered that eight o'clock was very, very late, and that the barn was a long way from the house! And up in the haymow, too! And such a mysterious bloody society! Her heart quaked within her. So she approached the twins respectfully, and said in an offhand way:
"I can go any time now. Just let me know when you're ready, and I'll go right along with you."
But the twins stared at her again in an amazing and overbearing fashion, and vouchsafed no reply. Connie, however, determined to keep a watchful eye upon them, and when they started barnward, she would trail closely along in their rear. It was a quarter to eight, and fearfully dark, when she suddenly remembered that they had been up-stairs an unnaturally long time. She rushed up in a panic. They were not there. She ran through the house. They were not to be found. The dreadful truth overwhelmed her,—the twins were already in the haymow, the hour had come, and she must go forth.
Breathlessly, she slipped out of the back door, and closed it softly behind her. She could not distinguish the dark outlines of the barn in the equal darkness of the autumn night. She gave a long sobbing gasp as she groped her way forward. As she neared the barn, she was startled to hear from the haymow over her head, deep groans as of a soul in mortal agony. Something had happened to the twins!