Inconsistencies in language and dialect found in the original book have been retained. Minor punctuation errors have been changed without notice. Printer errors have been changed and are listed at the end.
AND OTHER TALES
RUTH McENERY STUART
"A GOLDEN WEDDING" "THE STORY OF BABETTE" "CARLOTTA'S INTENDED" ETC.
NEW YORK HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS 1897
BY THE SAME AUTHOR.
CARLOTTA'S INTENDED, and Other Tales. Illustrated. Post 8vo, Cloth, $1 50.
THE GOLDEN WEDDING, and Other Tales. Illustrated. Post 8vo, Cloth, $1 50.
THE STORY OF BABETTE. Illustrated. Post 8vo, Cloth, $1 50.
PUBLISHED BY HARPER & BROTHERS, NEW YORK.
Copyright, 1896, by HARPER & BROTHERS.
All rights reserved.
MY DEAR NIECE
LITTLE MISS LEA CALLAWAY
SOLOMON CROW'S CHRISTMAS POCKETS 3
THE TWO TIMS 23
THE FREYS' CHRISTMAS PARTY 39
LITTLE MOTHER QUACKALINA 67
OLD EASTER 91
SAINT IDYL'S LIGHT 111
DUKE'S CHRISTMAS 165
UNCLE EPHE'S ADVICE TO BRER RABBIT 193
MAY BE SO 199
"'DIS HEAH'S A FUS-CLASS THING TER WORK OFF BAD TEMPERS WID'" Frontispiece
"'SHE OUGHT TO EAT CANARY-SEED AND FISH-BONE'" Facing p. 46
THE ITALIAN ORGAN-GRINDER " 62
"THE PROFESSOR NOT ONLY SANG, BUT DANCED" " 64
"THE FARMER'S BOY WAS A HUNTER" " 68
"SIR SOOTY HIMSELF ACTUALLY WADDLED INTO THE FARM-YARD" " 74
"'I'M GOIN' TO SWAP 'EM'" " 76
"MADE HER PUT OUT HER TONGUE" " 78
"HER OWN TEN BEAUTIFUL DUCKS WERE CLOSE ABOUT HER" " 86
OLD EASTER " 92
"'YAS, MISSY, I WAS TWENTY-FO' HOND'ED YEARS OLE, LAS' EASTER SUNDAY'" " 94
"'DE CATS? WHY, HONEY, DEY WELCOME TO COME AN' GO'" " 106
"'KEEP STEP, RABBIT, MAN!'" " 192
"'WELL, ONE MO' RABBIT FUR DE POT'" " 194
SOLOMON CROW'S CHRISTMAS POCKETS
SOLOMON CROW'S CHRISTMAS POCKETS
His mother named him Solomon because, when he was a baby, he looked so wise; and then she called him Crow because he was so black. True, she got angry when the boys caught it up, but then it was too late. They knew more about crows than they did about Solomon, and the name suited.
His twin-brother, who died when he was a day old, his mother had called Grundy—just because, as she said, "Solomon an' Grundy b'longs together in de books."
When the wee black boy began to talk, he knew himself equally as Solomon or Crow, and so, when asked his name, he would answer: "Sol'mon Crow," and Solomon Crow he thenceforth became.
Crow was ten years old now, and he was so very black and polished and thin, and had so peaked and bright a face, that no one who had any sense of humor could hear him called Crow without smiling.
Crow's mother, Tempest, had been a worker in her better days, but she had grown fatter and fatter until now she was so lazy and broad that her chief pleasure seemed to be sitting in her front door and gossiping with her neighbors over the fence, or in abusing or praising little Solomon, according to her mood.
Tempest had never been very honest. When, in the old days, she had hired out as cook and carried "her dinner" home at night, the basket on her arm had usually held enough for herself and Crow and a pig and the chickens—with some to give away. She had not meant Crow to understand, but the little fellow was wide awake, and his mother was his pattern.
But this is the boy's story. It seemed best to tell a little about his mother, so that, if he should some time do wrong things, we might all, writer and readers, be patient with him. He had been poorly taught. If we could not trace our honesty back to our mothers, how many of us would love the truth?
Crow's mother loved him very much—she thought. She would knock down any one who even blamed him for anything. Indeed, when things went well, she would sometimes go sound asleep in the door with her fat arm around him—very much as the mother-cat beside her lay half dozing while she licked her baby kitten.
But if Crow was awkward or forgot anything—or didn't bring home money enough—her abuse was worse than any mother-cat's claws.
One of her worst taunts on such occasions was about like this: "Well, you is a low-down nigger, I must say. Nobody, to look at you, would b'lieve you was twin to a angel!"
Or, "How you reckon yo' angel-twin feels ef he's a-lookin' at you now?"
Crow had great reverence for his little lost mate. Indeed, he feared the displeasure of this other self, who, he believed, watched him from the skies, quite as much as the anger of God. Sad to say, the good Lord, whom most children love as a kind, heavenly Father, was to poor little Solomon Crow only a terrible, terrible punisher of wrong, and the little boy trembled at His very name. He seemed to hear God's anger in the thunder or the wind; but in the blue sky, the faithful stars, the opening flowers and singing birds—in all loving-kindness and friendship—he never saw a heavenly Father's love.
He knew that some things were right and others wrong. He knew that it was right to go out and earn dimes to buy the things needed in the cabin, but he equally knew it was wrong to get this money dishonestly. Crow was a very shrewd little boy, and he made money honestly in a number of ways that only a wide-awake boy would think about.
When fig season came, in hot summer-time, he happened to notice that beautiful ripe figs were drying up on the tip-tops of some great trees in a neighboring yard, where a stout old gentleman and his old wife lived alone, and he began to reflect.
"If I could des git a-holt o' some o' dem fine sugar figs dat's a-swivelin' up every day on top o' dem trees, I'd meck a heap o' money peddlin' 'em on de street." And even while he thought this thought he licked his lips. There were, no doubt, other attractions about the figs for a very small boy with a very sweet tooth.
On the next morning after this, Crow rang the front gate-bell of the yard where the figs were growing.
"Want a boy to pick figs on sheers?" That was all he said to the fat old gentleman who had stepped around the house in answer to his ring.
Crow's offer was timely.
Old Mr. Cary was red in the face and panting even yet from reaching up into the mouldy, damp lower limbs of his fig-trees, trying to gather a dishful for breakfast.
"Come in," he said, mopping his forehead as he spoke.
"Pick on shares, will you?"
"Promise never to pick any but the very ripe figs?"
"Turn in, then; but wait a minute."
He stepped aside into the house, returning presently with two baskets.
"Here," he said, presenting them both. "These are pretty nearly of a size. Go ahead, now, and let's see what you can do."
Needless to say, Crow proved a great success as fig-picker. The very sugary figs that old Mr. Cary had panted for and reached for in vain lay bursting with sweetness on top of both baskets.
The old gentleman and his wife were delighted, and the boy was quickly engaged to come every morning.
And this was how Crow went into the fig business.
Crow was a likable boy—"so bright and handy and nimble"—and the old people soon became fond of him.
They noticed that he always handed in the larger of the two baskets, keeping the smaller for himself. This seemed not only honest, but generous.
And generosity is a winning virtue in the very needy—as winning as it is common. The very poor are often great of heart.
But this is not a safe fact upon which to found axioms.
All God's poor are not educated up to the point of even small, fine honesties, and the so-called "generous" are not always "just" or honest.
Poor little Solomon Crow! It is a pity to have to write it, but his weak point was exactly that he was not quite honest. He wanted to be, just because his angel-twin might be watching him, and he was afraid of thunder. But Crow was so anxious to be "smart" that he had long ago begun doing "tricky" things. Even the men working the roads had discovered this. In eating Crow's "fresh-boiled crawfish" or "shrimps," they would often come across one of the left-overs of yesterday's supply, mixed in with the others; and a yesterday's shrimp is full of stomach-ache and indigestion. So that business suffered.
In the fig business the ripe ones sold well; but when one of Crow's customers offered to buy all he would bring of green ones for preserving, Crow began filling his basket with them and distributing a top layer of ripe ones carefully over them. His lawful share of the very ripe he also carried away—in his little bread-basket.
This was all very dishonest, and Crow knew it. Still he did it many times.
And then—and this shows how one sin leads to another—and then, one day—oh, Solomon Crow, I'm ashamed to tell it on you!—one day he noticed that there were fresh eggs in the hen-house nests, quite near the fig-trees. Now, if there was anything Crow liked, it was a fried egg—two fried eggs. He always said he wanted two on his plate at once, looking at him like a pair of round eyes, "an' when dey reco'nizes me," he would say, "den I eats 'em up."
Why not slip a few of these tempting eggs into the bottom of the basket and cover them up with ripe figs?
One day, he did it.
He had stopped at the dining-room door that day and was handing in the larger basket, as usual, when old Mr. Cary, who stood there, said, smiling:
"No, give us the smaller basket to-day, my boy. It's our turn to be generous."
He extended his hand as he spoke.
Crow tried to answer, but he could not. His mouth felt as dry and stiff and hard as a chip, and he suddenly began to open it wide and shut it slowly, like a chicken with the gapes.
Mr. Cary kept his hand out waiting, but still Crow stood as if paralyzed, gaping and swallowing.
Finally, he began to blink. And then he stammered:
"I ain't p-p-p-ertic'lar b-b-bout de big basket. D-d-d-de best figs is in y'all's pickin'—in dis, de big basket."
Crow's appearance was conviction itself. Without more ado, Mr. Cary grasped his arm firmly and fairly lifted him into the room.
"Now, set those baskets down." He spoke sharply.
The boy obeyed.
"Here! empty the larger one on this tray. That's it. All fine, ripe figs. You've picked well for us. Now turn the other one out."
At this poor Crow had a sudden relapse of the dry gapes. His arm fell limp and he looked as if he might tumble over.
"Turn 'em out!" The old gentleman shrieked in so thunderous a tone that Crow jumped off his feet, and, seizing the other basket with his little shaking paws, he emptied it upon the heap of figs.
Old Mrs. Cary had come in just in time to see the eggs roll out of the basket, and for a moment she and her husband looked at each other. And then they turned to the boy.
When she spoke her voice was so gentle that Crow, not understanding, looked quickly into her face:
"Let me take him into the library, William. Come, my boy."
Her tone was so soft, so sorrowful and sympathetic, that Crow felt as he followed her as if, in the hour of his deepest disgrace, he had found a friend; and when presently he stood in a great square room before a high arm-chair, in which a white-haired old lady sat looking at him over her gold-rimmed spectacles and talking to him as he had never been spoken to in all his life before, he felt as if he were in a great court before a judge who didn't understand half how very bad little boys were.
She asked him a good many questions—some very searching ones, too—all of which Crow answered as best he could, with his very short breath.
His first feeling had been of pure fright. But when he found he was not to be abused, not beaten or sent to jail, he began to wonder.
Little Solomon Crow, ten years old, in a Christian land, was hearing for the first time in his life that God loved him—loved him even now in his sin and disgrace, and wanted him to be good.
He listened with wandering eyes at first, half expecting the old gentleman, Mr. Cary, to appear suddenly at the door with a whip or a policeman with a club. But after a while he kept his eyes steadily upon the lady's face.
"Has no one ever told you, Solomon"—she had always called him Solomon, declaring that Crow was not a fit name for a boy who looked as he did—it was altogether "too personal"—"has no one ever told you, Solomon," she said, "that God loves all His little children, and that you are one of these children?"
"No, ma'am," he answered, with difficulty. And then, as if catching at something that might give him a little standing, he added, quickly—so quickly that he stammered again:
"B-b-b-but I knowed I was twin to a angel. I know dat. An' I knows ef my angel twin seen me steal dem aigs he'll be mightly ap' to tell Gord to strike me down daid."
Of course he had to explain then about the "angel twin," and the old lady talked to him for a long time. And then together they knelt down. When at last they came out of the library she held the boy's hand and led him to her husband.
"Are you willing to try him again, William?" she asked. "He has promised to do better."
Old Mr. Cary cleared his throat and laid down his paper.
"Don't deserve it," he began; "dirty little thief." And then he turned to the boy: "What have you got on, sir?"
His voice was really quite terrible.
"N-n-n-nothin'; only but des my b-b-b-briches an' jacket, an'—an'—an' skin," Crow replied, between gasps.
"How many pockets?"
"Two," said Crow.
"Turn 'em out!"
Crow drew out his little rust-stained pockets, dropping a few old nails and bits of twine upon the floor as he did so.
"Um—h'm! Well, now, I'll tell you. You're a dirty little thief, as I said before. And I'm going to treat you as one. If you wear those pockets hanging out, or rip 'em out, and come in here before you leave every day dressed just as you are—pants and jacket and skin—and empty out your basket for us before you go, until I'm satisfied you'll do better, you can come."
The old lady looked at her husband as if she thought him pretty hard on a very small boy. But she said nothing.
Crow glanced appealingly at her before answering. And then he said, seizing his pocket:
"Is you got air pair o' scissors, lady?"
Mrs. Cary wished her husband would relent even while she brought the scissors, but he only cried:
"Out with 'em!"
"Suppose you cut them out yourself, Solomon," she interposed, kindly, handing him the scissors. "You'll have all this work to do yourself. We can't make you good."
When, after several awkward efforts, Crow finally put the coarse little pockets in her hands, there were tears in her eyes, and she tried to hide them as she leaned over and gathered up his treasures—three nails, a string, a broken top, and a half-eaten chunk of cold corn-bread. As she handed them to him she said: "And I'll lay the pockets away for you, Solomon, and when we see that you are an honest boy I'll sew them back for you myself."
As she spoke she rose, divided the figs evenly between the two baskets, and handed one to Crow.
If there ever was a serious little black boy on God's beautiful earth it was little Solomon Crow as he balanced his basket of figs on his head that day and went slowly down the garden walk and out the great front gate.
The next few weeks were not without trial to the boy. Old Mr. Cary continued very stern, even following him daily to the banquette, as if he dare not trust him to go out alone. And when he closed the iron gate after him he would say in a tone that was awfully solemn:
That was all.
Little Crow dreaded that walk to the gate more than all the rest of the ordeal. And yet, in a way, it gave him courage. He was at least worth while, and with time and patience he would win back the lost faith of the friends who were kind to him even while they could not trust him. They were, indeed, kind and generous in many ways, both to him and his unworthy mother.
Fig-time was soon nearly over, and, of course, Crow expected a dismissal; but it was Mr. Cary himself who set these fears at rest by proposing to him to come daily to blacken his boots and to keep the garden-walk in order for regular wages.
"But," he warned him, in closing, "don't you show your face here with a pocket on you. If your heavy pants have any in 'em, rip 'em out." And then he added, severely: "You've been a very bad boy."
"Yassir," answered Crow, "I know I is. I been a heap wusser boy'n you knowed I was, too."
"What's that you say, sir?"
Crow repeated it. And then he added, for full confession:
"I picked green figs heap o' days, and kivered 'em up wid ripe ones, an' sol' 'em to a white 'oman fur perserves." There was something desperate in the way he blurted it all out.
"The dickens you did! And what are you telling me for?"
He eyed the boy keenly as he put the question.
At this Crow fairly wailed aloud: "'Caze I ain't gwine do it no mo'." And throwing his arms against the door-frame he buried his face in them, and he sobbed as if his little heart would break.
For a moment old Mr. Cary seemed to have lost his voice, and then he said, in a voice quite new to Crow:
"I don't believe you will, sir—I don't believe you will." And in a minute he said, still speaking gently: "Come here, boy."
Still weeping aloud, Crow obeyed.
"Tut, tut! No crying!" he began. "Be a man—be a man. And if you stick to it, before Christmas comes, we'll see about those pockets, and you can walk into the new year with your head up. But look sharp! Good-bye, now!"
For the first time since the boy's fall Mr. Cary did not follow him to the gate. Maybe this was the beginning of trust. Slight a thing as it was, the boy took comfort in it.
At last it was Christmas eve. Crow was on the back "gallery" putting a final polish on a pair of boots. He was nearly done, and his heart was beginning to sink, when the old lady came and stood near him. There was a very hopeful twinkle in her eye as she said, presently: "I wonder what our little shoeblack, who has been trying so hard to be good, would like to have for his Christmas gift?"
But Crow only blinked while he polished the faster.
"Tell me, Solomon," she insisted. "If you had one wish to-day, what would it be?"
The boy wriggled nervously. And then he said:
"You knows, lady. Needle—an' thrade—an'—an'—you knows, lady. Pockets."
"Well, pockets it shall be. Come into my room when you get through."
Old Mrs. Cary sat beside the fire reading as he went in. Seeing him, she nodded, smiling, towards the bed, upon which Crow saw a brand-new suit of clothes—coat, vest, and breeches—all spread out in a row.
"There, my boy," she said; "there are your pockets."
Crow had never in all his life owned a full new suit of clothes. All his "new" things had been second-hand, and for a moment he could not quite believe his eyes; but he went quickly to the bed and began passing his hands over the clothes. Then he ventured to take up the vest—and to turn it over. And now he began to find pockets.
"Three pockets in de ves'—two in de pants—an'—an' fo', no five, no six—six pockets in de coat!"
He giggled nervously as he thrust his little black fingers into one and then another. And then, suddenly overcome with a sense of the situation, he turned to Mrs. Cary, and, in a voice that trembled a little, said:
"Is you sho' you ain't 'feerd to trus' me wid all deze pockets, lady?"
It doesn't take a small boy long to slip into a new suit of clothes. And when a ragged urchin disappeared behind the head of the great old "four-poster" to-day, it seemed scarcely a minute before a trig, "tailor-made boy" strutted out from the opposite side, hands deep in pockets—breathing hard.
As Solomon Crow strode up and down the room, radiant with joy, he seemed for the moment quite unconscious of any one's presence. But presently he stopped, looked involuntarily upward a minute, as if he felt himself observed from above. Then, turning to the old people, who stood together before the mantel, delightedly watching him, he said:
"Bet you my angel twin ain't ashamed, ef he's a-lookin' down on me to-day."
THE TWO TIMS
THE TWO TIMS
As the moon sent a white beam through the little square window of old Uncle Tim's cabin, it formed a long panel of light upon its smoke-stained wall, bringing into clear view an old banjo hanging upon a rusty nail. Nothing else in the small room was clearly visible. Although it was Christmas eve, there was no fire upon the broad hearth, and from the open door came the odor of honeysuckles and of violets. Winter is often in Louisiana only a name given by courtesy to the months coming between autumn and spring, out of respect to the calendar; and so it was this year.
Sitting in the open doorway, his outline lost in the deep shadows of the vine, was old Uncle Tim, while, upon the floor at his side lay little Tim, his grandson. The boy lay so still that in the dim half-light he seemed a part of the floor furnishings, which were, in fact, an old cot, two crippled stools, a saddle, and odds and ends of broken harness, and bits of rope.
Neither the old man nor the boy had spoken for a long time, and while they gazed intently at the old banjo hanging in the panel of light, the thoughts of both were tinged with sadness. The grandfather was nearly seventy years old, and little Tim was but ten; but they were great chums. The little boy's father had died while he was too young to remember, leaving little Tim to a step-mother, who brought him to his grandfather's home, where he had been ever since, and the attachment quickly formed between the two had grown and strengthened with the years.
Old Uncle Tim was very poor, and his little cabin was small and shabby; and yet neither hunger nor cold had ever come in an unfriendly way to visit it. The tall plantation smoke-house threw a friendly shadow over the tiny hut every evening just before the sun went down—a shadow that seemed a promise at close of each day that the poor home should not be forgotten. Nor was it. Some days the old man was able to limp into the field and cut a load of cabbages for the hands, or to prepare seed potatoes for planting, so that, as he expressed it, "each piece 'll have one eye ter grow wid an' another ter look on an' see dat everything goes right."
And then Uncle Tim was brimful of a good many valuable things with which he was very generous—advice, for instance.
He could advise with wisdom upon any number of subjects, such as just at what time of the moon to make soap so that it would "set" well, how to find a missing shoat, or the right spot to dig for water.
These were all valuable services; yet cabbages were not always ready to be cut, potato-planting was not always in season. Often for weeks not a hog would stray off. Only once in a decade a new well was wanted; and as to soap-making, it could occur only once during each moon at most.
It is true that between times Uncle Tim gave copious warnings not to make soap, which was quite a saving of effort and good material.
But whether he was cutting seed potatoes, or advising, or only playing on his banjo, as he did incessantly between times, his rations came to the little cabin with clock-like regularity. They came just as regularly as old Tim had worked when he was young, as regularly as little Tim would when he should grow up, as it is a pity daily rations cannot always come to such feeble ones as, whether in their first or second childhood, are able to render only the service of willingness.
And so we see that the two Tims, as they were often called, had no great anxieties as to their living, although they were very poor.
The only thing in the world that the old man held as a personal possession was his old banjo. It was the one thing the little boy counted on as a precious future property. Often, at all hours of the day or evening, old Tim could be seen sitting before the cabin, his arms around the boy, who stood between his knees, while, with eyes closed, he ran his withered fingers over the strings, picking out the tunes that best recalled the stories of olden days that he loved to tell into the little fellow's ear. And sometimes, holding the banjo steady, he would invite little Tim to try his tiny hands at picking the strings.
"Look out how you snap 'er too sudden!" he would exclaim if the little fingers moved too freely. "Look out, I say! Dis ain't none o' yo' pick-me-up-hit-an'-miss banjos, she ain't! An' you mus' learn ter treat 'er wid rispec', caze, when yo' ole gran'dad dies, she gwine be yo' banjo, an' stan' in his place ter yer!"
And then little Tim, confronted with the awful prospect of death and inheritance, would take a long breath, and, blinking his eyes, drop his hands at his side, saying, "You play 'er gran'dad."
But having once started to speak, the old man was seldom brief, and so he would continue: "It's true dis ole banjo she's livin' in a po' nigger cabin wid a ole black marster an' a new one comin' on blacker yit. (You taken dat arter yo' gran'mammy, honey. She warn't dis heah muddy-brown color like I is. She was a heap purtier and clairer black.) Well, I say, if dis ole banjo is livin' wid po' ignunt black folks, I wants you ter know she was born white.
"Don't look at me so cuyus, honey. I know what I say. I say she was born white. Dat is, she descended ter me f'om white folks. My marster bought 'er ter learn on when we was boys together. An' he took book lessons on 'er too, an' dat's how come I say she ain't none o' yo' common pick-up-my-strings-any-which-er-way banjos. She's been played by note music in her day, she is, an' she can answer a book note des as true as any pianner a pusson ever listened at—ef anybody know how ter tackle 'er. Of co'se, ef you des tackle 'er p'omiskyus she ain't gwine bother 'erse'f ter play 'cordin' ter rule; but—
"Why, boy, dis heah banjo she's done serenaded all de a'stocercy on dis river 'twix' here an' de English Turn in her day. Yas, she is. An' all dat expeunce is in 'er breast now; she 'ain't forgot it, an' ef air pusson dat know all dem ole book chunes was ter take 'er up an' call fur 'em, she'd give 'em eve'y one des as true as ever yit.
"An' yer know, baby, I'm a-tellin' you all dis," he would say, in closing—"I'm a-tellin' you all dis caze arter while, when I die, she gwine be yo' banjo, 'n' I wants you ter know all 'er ins an' outs."
And as he stopped, the little boy would ask, timidly, "Please, sir, gran'dad, lemme tote 'er an' hang 'er up. I'll step keerful." And taking each step with the utmost precision, and holding the long banjo aloft in his arms as if it were made of egg-shells, little Tim would climb the stool and hang the precious thing in its place against the cabin wall.
Such a conversation had occurred to-day, and as the lad had taken the banjo from him the old man had added:
"I wouldn't be s'prised, baby, ef 'fo' another year passes dat'll be yo' banjo, caze I feels mighty weak an' painful some days."
This was in the early evening, several hours before the scene with which this little story opens. As night came on and the old man sat in the doorway, he did not notice that little Tim, in stretching himself upon the floor, as was his habit, came nearer than usual—so near, indeed, that, extending his little foot, he rested it against his grandfather's body, too lightly to be felt, and yet sensibly enough to satisfy his own affectionate impulse. And so he was lying when the moon rose and covered the old banjo with its light. He felt very serious as he gazed upon it, standing out so distinctly in the dark room. Some day it would be his; but the dear old grandfather would not be there, his chair would be always empty. There would be nobody in the little cabin but just little Tim and the banjo. He was too young to think of other changes. The ownership of the coveted treasure promised only death and utter loneliness. But presently the light passed off the wall on to the floor. It was creeping over to where little Tim lay, but he did not know it, and after blinking awhile at long intervals, and moving his foot occasionally to reassure himself of his grandfather's presence, he fell suddenly sound asleep.
While these painful thoughts were filling little Tim's mind the old man had studied the bright panel on the wall with equal interest—and pain. By the very nature of things he could not leave the banjo to the boy and witness his pleasure in the possession.
"She's de onlies' thing I got ter leave 'im, but I does wush't I could see him git 'er an' be at his little elbow ter show 'im all 'er ways," he said, half audibly. "Dis heah way o' leavin' things ter folks when you die, it sounds awful high an' mighty, but look ter me like hit's po' satisfaction some ways. Po' little Tim! Now what he gwine do anyhow when I draps off?—nothin' but step-folks ter take keer of 'im—step-mammy an' step-daddy an' 'bout a dozen step brothers an' sisters, an' not even me heah ter show 'im how ter conduc' 'is banjo. De ve'y time he need me de mos' ter show 'im her ins an' outs I won't be nowhars about, an' yit—"
As the old man's thoughts reached this point a sudden flare of light across the campus showed that the first bonfire was lighted.
There was to be a big dance to-night in the open space in front of the sugar-house, and the lighting of the bonfires surrounding the spot was the announcement that it was time for everybody to come. It was Uncle Tim's signal to take down the banjo and tune up, for there was no more important instrument in the plantation string-band than this same old banjo.
As he turned backward to wake little Tim he hesitated a moment, looking lovingly upon the little sleeping figure, which the moon now covered with a white rectangle of light. As his eyes rested upon the boy's face something, a confused memory of his last waking anxiety perhaps, brought a slight quiver to his lips, as if he might cry in his sleep, while he muttered the word "gran'dad."
Old Uncle Tim had been trying to get himself to the point of doing something which it was somehow hard to do, but this tremulous lisping of his own name settled the question.
Hobbling to his feet, he wended his way as noiselessly as possible to where the banjo hung, and, carrying it to the sleeping boy, laid it gently, with trembling fingers, upon his arm.
Then, first silently regarding him a moment, he called out, "Weck up, Tim, my man! Weck up!"
As he spoke, a loud and continuous explosion of fire-crackers—the opening of active festivities in the campus—startled the boy quite out of his nap.
He was frightened and dazed for a minute, and then, seeing the banjo beside him and his grandfather's face so near, he exclaimed: "What's all dis, gran'dad? Whar me?"
The old man's voice was pretty husky as he answered: "You right heah wid me, boy, an' dat banjo, hit's yo' Christmas gif', honey."
Little Tim cast an agonized look upon the old man's face, and threw himself into his arms. "Is you gwine die now, gran'dad?" he sobbed, burying his face upon his bosom.
Old Tim could not find voice at once, but presently he chuckled, nervously: "Humh! humh! No, boy, I ain't gwine die yit—not till my time comes, please Gord. But dis heah's Christmas, honey, an' I thought I'd gi'e you de ole banjo whiles I was living so's I could—so's you could—so's we could have pleasure out'n 'er bofe together, yer know, honey. Dat is, f'om dis time on she's yo' banjo, an' when I wants ter play on 'er, you can loan 'er ter me."
"An'—an' you—you sho' you ain't gwine die, gran'dad?"
"I ain't sho' o' nothin', honey, but I 'ain't got no notion o' dyin'—not to-night. We gwine ter de dance now, you an' me, an' I gwine play de banjo—dat is ef you'll loan 'er ter me, baby."
Tim wanted to laugh, and it seemed sheer contrariness for him to cry, but somehow the tears would come, and the lump in his throat, and try hard as he might, he couldn't get his head higher than his grandfather's coat-sleeve or his arms from around his waist. He hardly knew why he still wept, and yet when presently he sobbed, "But, gran'dad, I'm 'feered you mought die," the old man understood.
Certainly, even if he were not going to die now, giving away the old banjo seemed like a preparation for death. Was it not, in fact, a formal confession that he was nearing the end of his days? Had not this very feeling made it hard for him to part with it? The boy's grief at the thought touched him deeply, and lifting the little fellow upon his knee, he said, fondly:
"Don't fret, honey. Don't let Christmas find yon cryin'. I tell you what I say let's do. I ain't gwine gi'e you de banjo, not yit, caze, des as you say, I mought die; but I tell you what I gwine do. I gwine take you in pardners in it wid me. She ain't mine an' she ain't yoze, and yit she's bofe of us's. You see, boy? She's ourn! An' when I wants ter play on 'er I'll play, an' when you wants 'er, why, you teck 'er—on'y be a leetle bit keerful at fust, honey."
"An' kin I ca'y 'er behine de cabin, whar you can't see how I'm a-holdin' 'er, an' play anyway I choose?"
Old Tim winced a little at this, but he had not given grudgingly.
"Cert'n'y," he answered. "Why not? Git up an' play 'er in de middle o' de night ef you want ter, on'y, of co'se, be keerful how you reach 'er down, so's you won't jolt 'er too sudden. An' now, boy, hand 'er heah an' lemme talk to yer a little bit."
When little Tim lifted the banjo from the floor his face fairly beamed with joy, although in the darkness no one saw it, for the shaft of light had passed beyond him now. Handing the banjo to his grandfather, he slipped naturally back of it into his accustomed place in his arms.
"Dis heah's a fus'-class thing ter work off bad tempers wid," the old man began, tightening the strings as he spoke. "Now ef one o' deze mule tempers ever take a-holt of yer in de foot, dat foot 'll be mighty ap' ter do some kickin'; an' ef it seizes a-holt o' yo' han', dat little fis' 'll be purty sho ter strike out an' do some damage; an' ef it jump onter yo' tongue, hit 'll mighty soon twis' it into sayin' bad language. But ef you'll teck hol' o' dis ole banjo des as quick as you feel de badness rise up in you, an' play, you'll scare de evil temper away so bad it daresn't come back. Ef it done settled too strong in yo' tongue, run it off wid a song; an' ef yo' feet's git a kickin' spell on 'em, dance it off; an' ef you feel it in yo' han', des run fur de banjo an' play de sweetes' chune you know, an' fus' thing you know all yo' madness 'll be gone.
"She 'ain't got no mouf, but she can talk ter you, all de same; an' she 'ain't got no head, but she can reason wid you. An' while ter look at 'er she's purty nigh all belly, she don't eat a crumb. Dey ain't a greedy bone in 'er.
"An' I wants you ter ricollec' dat I done guv 'er to you—dat is, yo' sheer [share] in 'er, caze she's mine too, you know. I done guv you a even sheer in 'er, des caze you an' me is gran'daddy an' gran'son.
"Dis heah way o' dyin' an' leavin' prop'ty, hit mought suit white folks, but it don't become our complexioms, some way; an' de mo' I thought about havin' to die ter give de onlies' gran'son I got de onlies' prop'ty I got, de miser'bler I got, tell I couldn't stan' it no mo'."
Little Tim's throat choked up again, and he rolled his eyes around and swallowed twice before he answered: "An' I—I was miser'ble too, gran'dad. I used ter des look at 'er hangin' 'g'inst de wall, an' think about me maybe playin' 'er, an' you—you not—not nowhar in sight—an'—an' some days seem like I—I des hated 'er."
"Yas, baby, I know. But now you won't hate 'er no mo', boy; an' ef you die fus'—some time, you know, baby, little boys does die—an' ef you go fus', I'll teck good keer o' yo' sheer in 'er; an' ef I go, you mus' look out fur my sheer. An' long as we bofe live—well, I'll look out fur 'er voice—keep 'er th'oat strings in order; an' you see dat she don't git ketched out in bad comp'ny, or in de rain, an' take cold.
"Come on now. Wash yo' little face, and let's go ter de dance. Gee-man! Lis'n at de fire-crackers callin' us. Come on. Dat's right. Pack 'er on yo' shoulder like a man."
And so the two Tims start off to the Christmas festival, young Tim bearing his precious burden proudly ahead, while the old man follows slowly behind, chuckling softly.
"Des think how much time I done los', not takin' 'im in pardners befo', an' he de onlies' gran'son I got!"
While little Tim, walking cautiously so as not to trip in the uneven path, turns presently and calls back:
"Gran'dad, I reckon we done walked half de way, now. I done toted 'er my sheer. Don't you want me ter tote 'er yo' sheer?"
And the old man answers, with another chuckle, "Go on, honey."
THE FREYS' CHRISTMAS PARTY
THE FREYS' CHRISTMAS PARTY
There was a great sensation in the old Coppenole house three days before Christmas. The Freys, who lived on the third floor, were going to give a Christmas dinner party, and all the other tenants were invited.
Such a thing had never happened before, and, as Miss Penny told her canary-birds while she filled their seed-cups, it was "like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky."
The Frey family, consisting of a widow and her brood of half a dozen children, were as poor as any of the tenants in the old building, for wasn't the mother earning a scant living as a beginner in newspaper work? Didn't the Frey children do every bit of the house-work, not to mention little outside industries by which the older ones earned small incomes? Didn't Meg send soft gingerbread to the Christian Woman's Exchange for sale twice a week, and Ethel find time, with all her studies, to paint butterflies on Swiss aprons for fairs or fetes?
Didn't everybody know that Conrad, now but thirteen, was a regular solicitor for orders for Christmas-trees, palmetto palms, and gray moss from the woods for decorative uses on holiday occasions?
The idea of people in such circumstances as these giving dinner parties! It was almost incredible; but it was true, for tiny notes of invitation tied with rose-colored ribbons had been flying over the building all the afternoon. The Frey twins, Felix and Felicie, both barefoot, had carried one to each door.
They were written with gold ink on pink paper. A water-colored butterfly was poised in midair somewhere on each one, and at the left lower end were the mysterious letters "R.S.V.P."
The old Professor who lived in the room next the Frey kitchen got one, and Miss Penny, who occupied the room beyond. So did Mademoiselle Guyosa, who made paper flowers, and the mysterious little woman of the last, worst room in the house—a tiny figure whose face none of her neighbors had ever seen, but who had given her name to the baker and milkman as "Mamzelle St. John."
And there were others. Madame Coraline, the fortune-teller, who rented the hall room on the second floor, was perhaps more surprised at her invitation than any of the rest. No one ever asked her anywhere. Even the veiled ladies who sometimes visited her darkened chamber always tiptoed up the steps as if they were half ashamed of going there.
The twins had a time getting her to come to the door to receive the invitation, and after vainly rapping several times, they had finally brought a parasol and hammered upon the horseshoe tacked upon the door, until at last it opened just about an inch. And then she was invited.
But, indeed, it is time to be telling how the party originated.
It had been the habit of the Frey children, since they could remember, to save up spare coins all the year for a special fund which they called "Christmas money."
The old fashion of spending these small amounts in presents for one another had long ago given place to the better one—more in the Christmas spirit—of using it to brighten the day for some one less blessed than themselves.
It is true that on the Christmas before the one of this story they had broken the rule, or only strained it, perhaps, to buy a little stove for their mother's room.
But a rule that would not stretch enough to take in such a home need would be a poor one indeed.
This year they had had numerous schemes, but somehow none had seemed to appeal to the stockholders in the Christmas firm, and so they had finally called a meeting on the subject.
It was at this meeting that Meg, fourteen years old, having taken the floor, said: "Well, it seems to me that the worst kind of a Christmas must be a lonely one. Just think how nearly all the roomers in this house spent last Christmas—most of 'em sittin' by their lone selves in their rooms, and some of 'em just eatin' every-day things! The Professor hadn't a thing but Bologna-sausage and crackers. I know—'cause I peeped. An' now, whatever you all are goin' to do with your money, mine's goin' right into this house, to the roomers—some way."
"If we knew what we could do, Meg?" said Ethel.
"If we knew what we could do or how we could do it," interrupted Conrad, "why, I'd give my eighty-five cents in a minute. I'd give it to the old Professor to have his curls cut."
Conrad was a true-hearted fellow, but he was full of mischief.
"Shame on you, Buddy!" said Meg, who was thoroughly serious. "Can't you be in earnest for just a minute?"
"I am in earnest, Meg. I think your scheme is bully—if it could be worked; but the Professor wouldn't take our money any more'n we'd take his."
"Neither would any of them." This was Ethel's first real objection.
"Who's goin' to offer 'em money?" rejoined Meg.
"I tell you what we might do, maybe," Conrad suggested, dubiously. "We might buy a lot of fine grub, an' send it in to 'em sort o' mysteriously. How'd that do?"
"'Twouldn't do at all," Meg replied. "The idea! Who'd enjoy the finest Christmas dinner in the world by his lone self, with nothin' but a lookin'-glass to look into and holler 'Merry Christmas' to?"
Conrad laughed. "Well, the Professor's little cracked glass wouldn't be much of a comfort to a hungry fellow. It gives you two mouths."
Conrad was nothing if not facetious.
"There you are again, Buddy! Do be serious for once." And then she added, desperately, "The thing I want to do is to invite 'em."
Such was the chorus that greeted Meg's astounding proposition.
"Why, I say," she explained, nothing daunted, "let's put all our Christmas money together and get the very best dinner we can, and invite all the roomers to come and eat it with us. Now I've said it! And I ain't foolin', either."
"And we haven't a whole table-cloth to our names, Meg Frey, and you know it!" It was Ethel who spoke again.
"And what's that got to do with it, Sisty? We ain't goin' to eat the cloth. Besides, can't we set the dish-mats over the holes? 'Twouldn't be the first time."
"But, Meg, dearie, you surely are not proposing to invite company to dine in the kitchen, are you? And who'd cook the dinner, not to mention buying it?"
"Well, now, listen, Sisty, dear. The dinner that's in my mind isn't a society-column dinner like those Momsy writes about, and those we are going to invite don't wear out much table-linen at home. And they cook their own dinners, too, most of 'em—exceptin' when they eat 'em in the French Market, with a Chinaman on one side of 'em and an Indian on the other.
"I'm goin' to cook ours, and as for eatin' in the kitchen, why, we don't need to. Just see how warm it is! The frost hasn't even nipped the banana leaves over there in the square. And Buddy can pull the table out on the big back gallery, an' we'll hang papa's old gray soldier blanket for a portiere to keep the Quinettes from lookin' in; and, Sisty, you can write the invitations an' paint butterflies on 'em."
Ethel's eyes for the first time sparkled with interest, but she kept silent, and Meg continued:
"An' Buddy'll bring in a lot of gray moss and latanier to dec'rate with, an'—"
"An' us'll wait on the table!"
"Yes, us'll wait on the table!" cried the twins.
"But," added Felix in a moment, "you mus'n't invite Miss Penny, Meg, 'cause if you do F'lissy an' me 'll be thest shore to disgrace the party a-laughin'. She looks thest ezzac'ly like a canary-bird, an' Buddy has tooken her off till we thest die a-laughin' every time we see her. I think she's raised canaries till she's a sort o' half-canary herself. Don't let's invite her, Sisty."
"And don't you think Miss Penny would enjoy a slice of Christmas turkey as well as the rest of us, Felix?"
"No; I fink she ought to eat canary-seed and fish-bone," chirped in Dorothea.
Dorothea was only five, and this from her was so funny that even Meg laughed.
"An' Buddy says he knows she sleeps perched on the towel-rack, 'cause they ain't a sign of a bed in her room."
The three youngest were fairly choking with laughter now. But the older ones had soon grown quite serious in consulting about all the details of the matter, and even making out a conditional list of guests.
When they came to the fortune-teller, both Ethel and Conrad hesitated, but Meg, true to her first impulse, had soon put down opposition by a single argument.
"It seems to me she's the special one to invite to a Christmas party like ours," she pleaded. "The lonesomer an' horrider they are, the more they belong, an' the more they'll enjoy it, too."
"Accordin' to that," said Conrad, "the whole crowd ought to have a dizzy good time, for they're about as fine a job lot of lonesomes as I ever struck. And as for beauty! 'Vell, my y'ung vriends, how you was to-morrow?'" he continued, thrusting his thumbs into his armholes and strutting in imitation of the old Professor.
Meg was almost out of patience. "Do hush, Buddy, an' let's talk business. First of all, we have to put it to vote to see whether we want to have the party or not."
"I ain't a-goin' to give my money to no such a ugly ol' party," cried Felix. "I want pretty little girls with curls an' wreafs on to my party."
"An' me, too. I want a heap o' pretty little girls with curls an' wreafs on—to my party," echoed Felicie.
"An' I want a organ-grinder to the party that gets my half o' our picayunes," insisted Felix.
"Yas, us wants a organ-grinder—an' a monkey, too—hey, F'lix?"
"Yes, an' a monkey, too. Heap o' monkeys!"
Meg was indeed having a hard time of it.
"You see, Conrad"—the use of that name meant reproof from Meg—"you see, Conrad, this all comes from your makin' fun of everybody. But of course we can get an organ-grinder if the little ones want him."
Ethel still seemed somewhat doubtful about the whole affair. Ethel was in the high-school. She had a lofty bridge to her nose. She was fifteen, and she never left off her final g's as the others did. These are, no doubt, some of the reasons why she was regarded as a sort of superior person in the family. If it had not been for the prospect of painting the cards, and a certain feeling of benevolence in the matter, it would have been hard for her to agree to the party at all. As it was, her voice had a note of mild protest as she said:
"It's going to cost a good deal, Meg. How much money have we? Let's count up. I have a dollar and eighty-five cents."
"And I've got two dollars," said Meg.
"How is it you always save the most? I haven't saved but ninety cents." Conrad spoke with a little real embarrassment as he laid his little pile of coins upon the table.
"I reckon it's 'cause I've got a regular plan, Buddy. I save a dime out of every dollar I get all through the year. It's the best way. And how much have you ponies got?"
"We've got seventy cents together, an' we've been a-whiskerin' in our ears about it, too. We don't want our money put-ed in the dinner with the rest. We want to see what we are givin'."
"Well, suppose you buy the fruit. Seventy cents 'll get bananas and oranges enough for the whole party."
"An' us wants to buy 'em ourselfs, too—hey, F'lix?"
"Yes, us wants to buy 'm ourselfs, too."
"And so you shall. And now all in favor of the party hold up their right hands."
All hands went up.
"Contr'ry, no!" Meg continued.
"Contr'ry, no!" echoed the twins.
"Hush! You mus'n't say that. That's just what they say at votin's."
"Gee-man-tally! But you girls 're awfully mixed," Conrad howled, with laughter. "They don't have any 'contr'ry no's' when they vote by holdin' up right hands. Besides, Dorothea held up her left hand, for I saw her."
"Which is quite correct, Mr. Smartie, since we all know that Dolly is left-handed. You meant to vote for the party, didn't you, dearie?" Meg added, turning to Dorothea.
For answer the little maid only bobbed her head, thrusting both hands behind her, as if afraid to trust them again.
"But I haven't got but thest a nickel," she ventured, presently. "F'lix says it'll buy salt."
"Salt!" said Conrad. "Well, I should smile! It would buy salt enough to pickle the whole party. Why, that little St. Johns woman goes out with a nickel an' lays in provisions. I've seen her do it."
"Shame on you, Buddy!"
"I'm not jokin', Meg. At least, I saw her buy a quartie's worth o' coffee and a quartie's worth o' sugar, an' then ask for lagniappe o' salt. Ain't that layin' in provisions? She uses a cigar-box for her pantry, too."
"Well," she protested, seriously, "what of it, Conrad? It doesn't take much for one very little person. Now, then, the party is voted for; but there's one more thing to be done before it can be really decided. We must ask Momsy's permission, of course. And that is goin' to be hard, because I don't want her to know about it. She has to be out reportin' festivals for the paper clear up to Christmas mornin', and if she knows about it, she'll worry over it. So I propose to ask her to let us give her a Christmas surprise, and not tell her what it is."
"And we know just what she'll say," Conrad interrupted; "she'll say, 'If you older children all agree upon anything, I'm sure it can't be very far wrong or foolish'—just as she did time we put up the stove in her room."
"Yes, I can hear her now," said Ethel. "But still we must let her say it before we do a single thing, because, you know, she mightn't. An' then where'd the party be?"
"It would be scattered around where it was last Christmas—where all the parties are that don't be," said Conrad. "They must be the ones we are always put down for, an' that's how we get left; eh, Sisty?"
"Never mind, Buddy; we won't get left, as you call it, this time, anyway—unless, of course, Momsy vetoes it."
"Vetoes what, children?"
They had been so noisy that they had not heard their mother's step on the creaking stairs.
Mrs. Frey carried her pencil and notes, and she looked tired, but she smiled indulgently as she repeated, "What am I to veto, dearies—or to approve?"
"It's a sequet! A Trismas sequet!"
"Yes, an' it's got owanges in it—"
"Hush, you ponies! And, Dolly, not another word!" Meg had resolutely taken the floor again.
"Momsy, we've been consulting about our Christmas money, and we've voted to ask you to let us do something with it, and not to tell you a thing about it, only "—and here she glanced for approval at Ethel and Conrad—"only we ought to tell you, Momsy, dear, that the surprise isn't for you this time."
And then Mrs. Frey, sweet mother that she was, made just the little speech they thought she would make, and when they had kissed her, and all, even to Ethel, who seemed now as enthusiastic as the others, caught hands and danced around the dinner table, she was glad she had consented.
It was such a delight to be able to supplement their scant Christmas prospects with an indulgence giving such pleasure.
"And I'm glad it isn't for me, children," she added, as soon as the hubbub gave her a hearing. "I'm very glad. You know you strained a point last year, and I'm sure you did right. My little stove has been a great comfort. But I am always certain of just as many home-made presents as I have children, and they are the ones I value. Dolly's lamp-lighters are not all used up yet, and if she were to give me another bundle this Christmas I shouldn't feel sorry. But our little Christmas money we want to send out on some loving mission. And, by-the-way, I have two dollars which may go with yours if you need it—if it will make some poor body's bed softer or his dinner better."
"Momsy's guessed!" Felix clapped his hands with delight.
"'Sh! Hush, Felix! Yes, Momsy, it 'll do one of those things exactly," said Meg. "And now I say we'd better break up this meeting before the ponies tell the whole business."
"F'lix never telled a thing," chirped Felicie, always ready to defend her mate. "Did you, F'lixy? Momsy said 'dinner' herself."
"So I did, dear; but who is to get the dinner and why you are going to send it are things mother doesn't wish to know. And here are my two dollars. Now off to bed, the whole trundle-bed crowd, for I have a lot of copy to write to-night. Ethel may bring me a bite, and then sit beside me and write while I sip my tea and dictate and Meg puts the chickens to roost. And Conrad will keep quiet over his books. Just one kiss apiece and a hug for Dolly. Shoo now!"
So the party was decided.
* * * * *
The Frey home, although one of the poorest, was one of the happiest in New Orleans, for it was made up of cheery workers, even little Dorothea having her daily self-assumed tasks. Miss Dorothea, if you please, dusted the banisters round the porch every day, straightened the rows of shoes in mother's closet, folded the daily papers in the rack, and kept the one rug quite even with the front of the hearth. And this young lady had, furthermore, her regular income of five cents a week.
Of course her one nickel contributed to the party had been saved only a few hours, but Dorothea was only five, and the old yellow praline woman knew about her income, and came trudging all the way up the stairs each week on "pay-day."
Even after the invitations were sent it seemed to Dolly that the "party-day" would never come, for there were to be "three sleeps" before it should arrive.
It was Ethel's idea to send the cards early, so as to forestall any home preparation among the guests.
But all things come to him who waits—even Christmas. And so at last the great day arrived.
Nearly all the invited had accepted, and everything was very exciting; but the situation was not without its difficulties.
Even though she was out every day, it had been so hard to keep every tell-tale preparation out of Mrs. Frey's sight. But when she had found a pan of crullers on the top pantry shelf, or heard the muffled "gobble-gobble" of the turkey shut up in the old flour-barrel, or smelt invisible bananas and apples, she had been truly none the wiser, but had only said, "Bless their generous hearts! They are getting up a fine dinner to send to somebody."
Indeed, Mrs. Frey never got an inkling of the whole truth until she tripped up the stairs a half-hour before dinner on Christmas day to find the feast all spread.
The old mahogany table, extended to its full length, stood gorgeous in decorations of palmetto, moss, and flowers out upon the deep back porch, which was converted into a very pretty chamber by the hanging curtain of gray.
If she had any misgivings about it, she betrayed them by no single word or look, but there were bright red spots upon her usually pale cheeks as she passed, smiling, into her room to dash into the dinner dress Ethel had laid out for her.
To have her poverty-stricken home invaded by a host of strangers was striking a blow at the most sensitive weakness of this proud woman. And yet the loving motive which was so plain through it all, showing the very spirit in her dear children for which she had prayed, was too sacred a thing to be chilled by even a half-shade of disapproval.
"And who are coming, dear?" she asked of Meg, as soon as she could trust her voice.
"All the roomers, Momsy, excepting the little hunchback lady and Madame Coraline."
"Madame Coraline!" Mrs. Frey could not help exclaiming.
"Yes, Momsy. She accepted, and she even came, but she went back just now. She was dressed terribly fine—gold lace and green silk, but it was old and dowdy; and, Momsy, her cheeks were just as red! I was on the stepladder tackin' up the Bethlehem picture, Sisty was standin' on the high-chair hanging up the star, and Buddy's arms were full of gray moss that he was wrappin' round your chair. But we were just as polite to her as we could be, and asked her to take a seat. And we all thought she sat down; but she went, Momsy, and no one saw her go. Buddy says she's a witch. She left that flower-pot of sweet-basil on the table. I s'pose she brought it for a present. Do you think that we'd better send for her to come back, Momsy?"
"No, daughter, I think not. No doubt she had her own reasons for going, and she may come back. And are the rest all coming?"
"Yes'm; but we had a time gettin' Miss Guyosa to come. She says she's a First Family, an' she never mixes. But I told her so were we, and we mixed. And then I said that if she'd come she could sit at one end o' the table and carve the ham, while you'd do the turkey. But she says Buddy ought to do the turkey. But she's comin'. And, Momsy, the turkey is a perfect beauty. We put pecans in him. Miss Guyosa gave us the receipt and the nuts, too. Her cousin sent 'em to her from his plantation. And did you notice the paper roses in the moss festoons, Momsy? She made those. She has helped us fix up a lot. She made all the Easter flowers on St. Joseph's altar at the Cathedral, too, and—"
A rap at the door announcing a first guest sent the little cook bounding to the kitchen, while Ethel rushed into her mother's room, her mouth full of pins and her sash on her arm.
She had dressed the three little ones a half-hour ago; and Conrad, who had also made an early toilet, declared that they had all three walked round the dinner table thirty-nine times since their appearance in the "dining-room." When he advanced to do the honors, the small procession toddling single file behind him, somehow it had not occurred to him that he might encounter Miss Penny, the canary lady, standing in a dainty old dress of yellow silk just outside the door, nor, worse still, that she should bear in her hands a tiny cage containing a pair of young canaries.
He said afterwards that "everything would have passed off all right if it hadn't been for the twins." Of course he had forgotten that he had himself been the first one to compare Miss Penny to a canary.
By the time the little black-eyed woman had flitted into the door, and in a chirpy, bird-like voice wished them a merry Christmas, Felix had stuffed his entire handkerchief into his mouth. Was it any wonder that Felicie and Dorothea, seeing this, did actually disgrace the whole party by convulsions of laughter?
They were soon restored to order, though, by the little yellow-gowned lady herself, for it took but half a minute to say that the birds were a present for the twins—"the two little ones who brought me the invitation."
Such a present as this is no laughing matter, and, besides, the little Frey children were at heart polite. And so they had soon forgotten their mirth in their new joy.
And then other guests were presently coming in, and Mrs. Frey, looking startlingly fine and pretty in her fresh ruches and new tie, was saying pleasant things to everybody, while Ethel and Meg, tripping lightly in and out, brought in the dishes.
As there was no parlor, guests were received in the curtained end of the gallery. No one was disposed to be formal, and when the old Professor entered with a little brown-paper parcel, which he declared, after his greetings, to contain his dinner, everybody felt that the etiquette of the occasion was not to be very strict or in the least embarrassing.
Of course Mrs. Frey, as hostess, "hoped the Professor would reconsider, and have a slice of the Christmas turkey"; but when they had presently all taken their seats at the table, and the eccentric guest had actually opened his roll of bread and cheese upon his empty plate, over which he began to pass savory dishes to his neighbors, she politely let him have his way. Indeed, there was nothing else to do, as he declared—declining the first course with a wave of his hand—that he had come "yust for de sake of sociapility."
"I haf seen efery day doze children work und sing so nize togedder yust like leetle mans und ladies, so I come yust to eggsbress my t'anks for de compliment, und to make de acquaintance off doze nize y'ung neighbors." This with a courtly bow to each one of the children separately. And he added in a moment: "De dinner iss very fine, but for me one dinner iss yust like anudder. Doze are all externals."
To which measured and kindly speech Conrad could not help replying, "It won't be an external to us, Professor, by the time we get through."
"Oho!" exclaimed the old man, delighted with the boy's ready wit. "Dot's a wery schmart boy you got dhere, Mrs. Vrey."
At this exhibition of broken English the twins, who were waiting on the table, thought it safe to rush to the kitchen on pretence of changing plates, while Dorothea, seated at the Professor's left, found it necessary to bite both lips and to stare hard at the vinegar-cruet for fully a second to keep from laughing. Then, to make sure of her self-possession, she artfully changed the subject, remarking, dryly,
"My nickel buyed the ice."
This was much funnier than the Professor's speech, judging from the laughter that followed it. And Miss Dorothea Frey's manners were saved, which was the important thing.
It would be impossible in this short space to give a full account of this novel and interesting dinner party, but if any one supposes that there was a dull moment in it, he is altogether mistaken.
Mrs. Frey and Ethel saw to it that no one was neglected in conversation; Meg and Conrad looked after the prompt replenishing of plates, though the alert little waiters, Felix and Felicie, anticipated every want, and were as sprightly as two crickets, while Dorothea provoked frequent laughter by a random fire of unexpected remarks, never failing, for instance, to offer ice-water during every "still minute"; and, indeed, once that young lady did a thing that might have proved quite terrible had the old lady Saxony, who sat opposite, been disagreeable or sensitive.
What Dorothea said was innocent enough—only a single word of two letters, to begin with.
She had been looking blankly at her opposite neighbor for a full minute, when she suddenly exclaimed,
That was all, but it made everybody look, first at Dolly and then across the table. Whereupon the little maid, seeing her blunder, hastened to add:
"That's nothin'. My grandma's come out too."
And then, of course, every one noticed that old lady Saxony held her dainty hemstitched handkerchief quite over her mouth. Fortunately Mrs. Saxony's good sense was as great as her appreciation of humor, and, as she shook her finger threateningly at Dorothea, her twinkling eyes gave everybody leave to laugh. So "Dolly's terrible break," as Conrad called it, really went far to making the dinner a success—that is, if story-telling and laughter and the merry clamor such as distinguish the gayest of dinner parties the world over count as success.
It was while the Professor was telling a funny story of his boy life in Germany that there came a rap at the door, and the children, thinking only of Madame Coraline, turned their eyes towards the door, only to see the Italian organ-grinder, whom, in the excitement of the dinner party, they had forgotten to expect. He was to play for the children to dance after dinner, and had come a little early—or perhaps dinner was late.
Seeing the situation, the old man began bowing himself out, when the Professor, winking mysteriously at Mrs. Frey and gesticulating animatedly, pointed first to the old Italian and then to Madame Coraline's vacant chair. Everybody understood, and smiling faces had already shown approval when Mrs. Frey said, quietly, "Let's put it to vote. All in favor raise glasses."
Every glass went up. The old Italian understood little English, but the offer of a seat is a simple pantomime, and he was presently declining again and again, bowing lower each time, until before he knew it—all the time refusing—he was in the chair, his plate was filled, and Dolly was asking him to have ice-water. No guest of the day was more welcome. None enjoyed his dinner more, judging from the indications. And as to Meg, the moving spirit in the whole party, she was beside herself with delight over the unexpected guest.
The dinner all through was what Conrad called a "rattlin' success," and the evening afterwards, during which nearly every guest contributed some entertainment, was one long to be remembered. The Professor not only sang, but danced. Miss Penny whistled so like a canary that one could really believe her when she said she always trained her young birds' voices. Miss Guyosa told charming folk-lore anecdotes, handed down in her family since the old Spanish days in Louisiana.
The smiling organ-grinder played his engaged twenty-five cents' worth of tunes over and over again, and when the evening was done, persistently refused to take the money until Felix slipped it into his pocket.
The Frey party will long be remembered in the Coppenole house, and beyond it, too, for some very pleasant friendships date from this Christmas dinner. The old Professor was just the man to help Conrad with his German lessons. It was so easy for Meg to send him a cup of hot coffee on cold mornings. Mrs. Frey and Miss Guyosa soon found many ties in common friends of their youth. Indeed, the twins had gotten their French names from a remote creole cousin, who proved to be also a kinswoman to Miss Guyosa. It was such a comfort, when Mrs. Frey was kept out late at the office, for the children to have Miss Guyosa come and sit with them, telling stories or reading aloud; and they brought much brightness into her life too.
Madame Coraline soon moved away, and, indeed, before another Christmas the Freys had moved too—to a small cottage all their own, sitting in the midst of a pretty rose-garden. Here often come Miss Guyosa and the Professor, both welcome guests, and Conrad says the Professor makes love to Miss Guyosa, but it is hard to tell.
One cannot keep up with two people who can tell jokes in four languages, but the Professor has a way of dropping in as if by accident on the evenings Miss Guyosa is visiting the Freys, and they do read the same books—in four languages. There's really no telling.
When the Frey children are playing on the banquette at their front gate on sunny afternoons, the old organ-grinder often stops, plays a free tune or two for them to dance by, smilingly doffs his hat to the open window above, and passes on.
LITTLE MOTHER QUACKALINA
LITTLE MOTHER QUACKALINA
STORY OF A DUCK FARM
The black duck had a hard time of it from the beginning—that is, from the beginning of her life on the farm. She had been a free wild bird up to that time, swimming in the bay, playing hide-and-seek with her brothers and sisters and cousins among the marsh reeds along the bank, and coquettishly diving for "mummies" and catching them "on the swim" whenever she craved a fishy morsel. This put a fresh perfume on her breath, and made her utterly charming to her seventh cousin, Sir Sooty Drake, who always kept himself actually fragrant with the aroma of raw fish, and was in all respects a dashing beau. Indeed, she was behaving most coyly, daintily swimming in graceful curves around Sir Sooty among the marsh-mallow clumps at the mouth of "Tarrup Crik," when the shot was fired that changed all her prospects in life.
The farmer's boy was a hunter, and so had been his grandfather, and his grandfather's gun did its work with a terrific old-fashioned explosion.
When it shot into the great clump of pink mallows everything trembled. The air was full of smoke, and for a distance of a quarter of a mile away the toads crept out of their hiding and looked up and down the road. The chickens picking at the late raspberry bushes in the farmer's yard craned their necks, blinked, and didn't swallow another berry for fully ten seconds. And a beautiful green caterpillar, that had seen the great red rooster mark him with his evil eye, and expected to be gobbled up in a twinkling, had time to "hump himself" and crawl under a leaf before the astonished rooster recovered from the noise. This is a case where the firing of a gun saved at least one life. I wonder how many butterflies owe their lives to that gun?
As to the ducks in the clump of mallows that caught the volley, they simply tumbled over and gave themselves up for dead.
The heroine of our little story, Lady Quackalina Blackwing, stayed in a dead faint for fully seventeen seconds, and the first thing she knew when she "came to" was that she was lying under the farmer boy's coat in an old basket, and that there was a terrific rumbling in her ears and a sharp pain in one wing, that something was sticking her, that Sir Sooty was nowhere in sight, and that she wanted her mother and all her relations.
Indeed, as she began to collect her senses, while she lay on top of the live crab that pinched her chest with his claw, she realized that there was not a cousin in the world, even to some she had rather disliked, that she would not have been most happy to greet at this trying moment.
The crab probably had no unfriendly intention. He was only putting up the best hand he had, trying to find some of his own kindred. He had himself been lying in a hole in shallow water when the farmer's boy raked him in and changed the whole course of his existence.
He and the duck knew each other by sight, but though they were both "in the swim," they belonged to different sets, and so were small comfort to one another on this journey to the farm.
They both knew some English, and as the farmer's boy spoke part English and part "farm," they understood him fairly well when he was telling the man digging potatoes in the field that he was going to "bile" the crab in a tomato can and to make a "decoy" out of the duck.
"Bile" and "decoy" were new words to the listeners in the basket, but they both knew about tomato cans. The bay and "Tarrup Crik" were strewn with them, and the crab had once hidden in one, half imbedded in the sand, when he was a "soft-shell." He knew their names, because he had studied them before their labels soaked off, and he knew there was no malice in them for him, though the young fishes who have soft outsides dreaded their sharp edges very much. There is sometimes some advantage in having one's skeleton on the surface, like a coat of mail.
And so the crab was rather pleased at the prospect of the tomato can. He thought the cans grew in the bay, and so he expected presently to be "biled" in his own home waters. The word "biled" probably meant dropped in. Ignorance is sometimes bliss, indeed.
Poor little Quackalina, however, was getting less comfort out of her ignorance. She thought "decoy" had a foreign sound, as if it might mean a French stew. She had had relations who had departed life by way of a puree, while others had gone into a saute or pate. Perhaps a "decoy" was a pate with gravy or a puree with a crust on it. If worse came to the worst, she would prefer the puree with a crust. It would be more like decent burial.
Of course she thought these things in duck language, which is not put in here, because it is not generally understood. It is quite a different thing from Pidgin-English, and it isn't all "quack" any more than French is all "au revoir," or Turkey all "gobble, gobble," or goose only a string of "S's," or darkey all "howdy."
The crab's thoughts were expressed in his eyes, that began coming out like little telescopes until they stood quite over his cheeks. Maybe some people think crabs have no cheeks, but that isn't so. They have them, but they keep them inside, where they blush unseen, if they blush at all.
But this is the story of the black duck. However, perhaps some one who reads it will be pleased to know that the crab got away. He sidled up—sidled is a regular word in crab language—until his left eye could see straight into the boy's face, and then he waited. He had long ago found that there was nothing to be gained by pinching the duck. It only made a row in the basket and got him upset. But, by keeping very still and watching his chance, he managed to climb so near the top that when the basket gave a lurch he simply vaulted overboard and dropped in the field. Then he hid between three mushrooms and a stick until the boy's footsteps were out of hearing and he had time to draw in his eyes and start for the bay. He had lost his left claw some time before, and the new one he was growing was not yet very strong. Still, let us hope that he reached there in safety.
The duck knew when he had been trying to get out, but she didn't tell. She wanted him to go, for she didn't like his ways. Still, when he had gone, she felt lonely. Misery loves company—even though it be very poor company.
But Quackalina had not long to feel lonely. Almost any boy who has shot a duck walks home with it pretty fast, and this boy nearly ran. He would have run if his legs hadn't been so fat.
The first sound that Quackalina heard when they reached the gate was the quacking of a thousand ducks, and it frightened her so that she forgot all about the crab and her aching wing and even the decoy. The boy lived on a duck farm, and it was here that he had brought her. This would seem to be a most happy thing—but there are ducks and ducks. Poor little Quackalina knew the haughty quawk of the proud white ducks of Pekin. She knew that she would be only a poor colored person among them, and that she, whose mother and grandmother had lived in the swim of best beach circles and had looked down upon these incubator whitings, who were grown by the pound and had no relations whatever, would now have to suffer their scorn.
Even their distant quawk made her quake, though she feared her end was near. There are some trivial things that are irritating even in the presence of death.
But Quackalina was not soon to die. She did suffer some humiliations, and her wing was very painful, but a great discovery soon filled her with such joy that nothing else seemed worth thinking about.
There were three other black ducks on the farm, and they hastened to tell her that they were already decoys, and that the one pleasant thing in being a decoy was that it was not to be killed or cooked or eaten.
This was good news. The life of a decoy-duck was hard enough; but when one got accustomed to have its foot tied to the shore, and shots fired all around it, one grew almost to enjoy it. It was so exciting. But to the timid young duck who had never been through it it was a terrible prospect.
And so, for a long time, little Quackalina was a very sad duck. She loved her cousin, Sir Sooty, and she loved pink mallow blossoms. She liked to eat the "mummy" fish alive, and not cooked with sea-weed, as the farmer fed them to her.
But most of all she missed Sir Sooty. And so, two weeks later, when her wing was nearly well, in its new, drooping shape, what was her joy when he himself actually waddled into the farm-yard—into her very presence—without a single quack of warning.
The feathers of one of his beautiful wings were clipped, but he was otherwise looking quite well, and he hastened to tell her that he was happy, even in exile, to be with her again. And she believed him.
He had been captured in a very humiliating way, and this he made her promise never to tell. He had swum so near the decoy-duck that his foot had caught in its string, and before he could get away the farmer had him fast. "And now," he quacked, "I'm glad I did it," and Quackalina quacked, "So am I." And they were very happy.
Indeed, they grew so blissful after a while that they decided to try to make the best of farm life and to settle down. So they began meandering about on long waddles—or waddling about on long meanders—all over the place, hunting for a cozy hiding-place for a nest. For five whole days they hunted before Quackalina finally settled down into the hollow that she declared was "just a fit" for her, under the edge of the old shanty where the Pekin feathers were stored.
White, fluffy feathers are very beautiful things, and they are soft and pleasant to our touch, but they are sad sights to ducks and geese, and Quackalina selected a place for her nest where she could never see the door open into this dread storehouse.
It was, indeed, very well hidden, and, as if to make it still more secure, a friendly golden-rod sprang up quite in front of it, and a growth of pepper-grass kindly closed in one side.
Quackalina had never been sent out on decoy duty, and after a time she ceased to fear it, but sometimes Sir Sooty had to go, and his little wife would feel very anxious until he came back.
There are some very sad parts in this little story, and we are coming to one of them now.
The home-nest had been made. There were ten beautiful eggs in it—all polished and shining like opals. And the early golden-rod that stood on guard before it was sending out a first yellow spray when troubles began to come.
Quackalina thought she had laid twice as many as ten eggs in the nest, but she could not be quite sure, and neither could Sir Sooty, though he thought so, too.
Very few poetic people are good at arithmetic, and even fine mathematicians are said to forget how to count when they are in love.
Certain it is, however, that when Quackalina finally decided to be satisfied to begin sitting, there were exactly ten eggs in the nest—just enough for her to cover well with her warm down and feathers.
"Sitting-time" may seem stupid to those who are not sitting; but Quackalina's breast was filled with a gentle content as she sat, day by day, behind the golden-rod, and blinked and reflected and listened for the dear "paddle, paddle" of Sir Sooty's feet, and his loving "qua', qua'"—a sort of caressing baby-talk that he had adopted in speaking to her ever since she had begun her long sitting.
Quackalina was a patient little creature, and seldom left her nest, so that when she did so for a short walk in the glaring sun, she was apt to be dizzy and to see strange spots before her eyes. But this would all pass away when she got back to her cozy nest in the cool shade.
But one day it did not pass away—it got worse, or, at least, she thought it did. Instead of ten eggs in the nest she seemed to see twenty, and they were of a strange, dull color, and their shape seemed all wrong. She blinked her eyes nineteen times, and even rubbed them with her web-feet, so that she might not see double, but it was all in vain. Before her dazzled eyes twenty little pointed eggs lay, and when she sat upon them they felt strange to her breast. And then she grew faint and was too weak even to call Sir Sooty, but when he came waddling along presently, he found her so pale around the bill that he made her put out her tongue, and examined her symptoms generally.
Sir Sooty was not a regular doctor, but he was a very good quack, and she believed in him, which, in many cases, is the main thing.
So when he grew so tender that his words were almost like "qu, qu," and told her that she had been confined too closely and was threatened with foie gras, she only sighed and closed her eyes, and, keeping her fears to herself, hoped that the trouble was all in her eyes indeed—or her liver.
Now the sad part of this tale is that the trouble was not with poor little Quackalina's eyes at all. It was in the nest. The same farmer's boy who had kept her sitting of eggs down to ten by taking out one every day until poor Quackalina's patience was worn out—the same boy who had not used her as a decoy only because he wanted her to stay at home and raise little decoy-ducks—this boy it was who had now chosen to take her ten beautiful eggs and put them under a guinea-hen, and to fetch the setting of twenty guinea eggs for Quackalina to hatch out.
He did this just because, as he said, "That old black duck 'll hatch out as many eggs again as a guinea-hen will, an' the guinea 'll cover her ten eggs easy. I'm goin' to swap 'em." And "swap 'em" he did.
Nobody knows how the guinea-hen liked her sitting, for none but herself and the boy knew where her nest was hidden in a pile of old rubbish down by the cow-pond.
When a night had passed, and a new day showed poor Quackalina the twenty little eggs actually under her breast—eggs so little that she could roll two at once under her foot—she did not know what to think. But like many patient people when great sorrows come, she kept very still and never told her fears.
She had never seen a guinea egg before in all her life. There were birds' nests in some of the reeds along shore, and she knew their little toy eggs. She knew the eggs of snakes, too, and of terrapins, or "tarrups," as they are called by the farmer folk along the bay.
When first she discovered the trouble in the nest she thought of these, and the very idea of a great procession of little turtles starting out from under her some fine morning startled her so that her head lay limp against the golden-rod for fully thirteen seconds. Then she got better, but it was not until she had taken a nip at the pepper-grass that she was sufficiently warmed up to hold up her head and think. And when she thought, she was comforted. These dainty pointed eggs were not in the least like the soft clumsy "double-enders" that the turtles lay in the sand. Besides, how could turtle-eggs have gotten there anyway? How much easier for one head to go wrong than twenty eggs.
She chuckled at the very folly of her fears, and nestling down into the place, she soon began to nod. And presently she had a funny, funny dream, which is much too long to go into this story, which is a great pity, for her dream is quite as interesting as the real story, although it is not half so true.
Sitting-time, after this, seemed very long to Quackalina, but after a while she began to know by various little stirrings under her downy breast that it was almost over. At the first real movement against her wing she felt as if everything about her was singing and saying, "mother! mother!" and bowing to her.
Even the pepper-grass nodded and the golden-rod, and careless roosters as they passed seemed to lower their combs to her and to forget themselves, just for a minute. And a great song was in her own bosom—a great song of joy—and although the sound that came from her beautiful coral bill was only a soft "qua', qua'," to common ears, to those who have the finest hearing it was full of a heavenly tenderness. But there was a tremor in it, too—a tremor of fear; and the fear was so terrible that it kept her from looking down even when she knew a little head was thrusting itself up through her great warm wing. She drew the wing as a caressing arm lovingly about it though, and saying to herself, "I must wait till they are all come; then I'll look," she gazed upward at the moon that was just showing a rim of gold over the hay-stack—and closed her eyes.
There was no sleep that long night for little mother Quackalina.
It was a great, great night. Under her breast, wonderful happenings every minute; outside, the white moonlight; and always in sight across the yard, just a dark object against the ground—Sir Sooty, sound asleep, like a philosopher!
Oh yes, it was a great, great night. Its last hours before day were very dark and sorrowful, and by the time a golden gleam shot out of the east Quackalina knew that her first glance into the nest must bring her grief. The tiny restless things beneath her brooding wings were chirping in an unknown tongue. But their wiry Japanesy voices, that clinked together like little copper kettles, were very young and helpless, and Quackalina was a true mother-duck, and her heart went out to them.
When the fatal moment came and she really looked down into the nest, her relief in seeing beautiful feathered things, at least, was greater than any other feeling. It was something not to have to mother a lot of "tarrups," certainly.
Little guineas are very beautiful, and when presently Quackalina found herself crossing the yard with her twenty dainty red-booted hatchlings, although she longed for her own dear, ugly, smoky, "beautiful" ducklings, she could not help feeling pleasure and pride in the exquisite little creatures that had stepped so briskly into life from beneath her own breast.
It was natural that she should have hurried to the pond with her brood. Wouldn't she have taken her own ducklings there? If these were only little "step-ducks," she was resolved that, in the language of step-mothers, "they should never know the difference." She would begin by taking them in swimming.
Besides, she longed for the pond herself. It was the place where she could best think quietly and get things straightened in her mind.
Sir Sooty had not seen her start off with her new family. He had said to himself that he had lost so much rest all night that he must have a good breakfast, and so, at the moment when Quackalina and the guineas slipped around the stable to the cow-pond, he was actually floundering in the very centre of one of the feed-troughs in the yard, and letting the farmer turn the great mass of cooked "feed" all over him. Greedy ducks often act that way. Even the snow-white Pekins do it. It is bad enough any time, but on the great morning when one becomes a papa-duck he ought to try to be dignified, and Sir Sooty knew it. And he knew full well that events had been happening all night in the nest, and that was why he said he had lost rest. But he hadn't. A great many people are like Sir Sooty. They say they lose sleep when they don't.