Desire Ledwith, a girl of sixteen, spoke suddenly from a corner where she sat with a book,—
"I do wonder who 'they' are, mamma!"
"Who?" said Mrs. Ledwith, half rising from her chair, and letting some breadths of silk slide down upon the floor from her lap, as she glanced anxiously from the window down the avenue. She did not want any company this morning.
"Not that, mamma; I don't mean anybody coming. The 'theys' that wear, and don't wear, things; the theys you have to be just like, and keep ripping and piecing for."
"You absurd child!" exclaimed Mrs. Ledwith, pettishly. "To make me spill a whole lapful of work for that! They? Why, everybody, of course."
"Everybody complains of them, though. Jean Friske says her mother is all discouraged and worn out. There isn't a thing they had last year that won't have to be made over this, because they put in a breadth more behind, and they only gore side seams. And they don't wear black capes or cloth sacks any more with all kinds of dresses; you must have suits, clear through. It seems to me 'they' is a nuisance. And if it's everybody, we must be part, of it. Why doesn't somebody stop?"
"Desire, I wish you'd put away your book, and help, instead of asking silly questions. You can't make the world over, with 'why don'ts?'"
"I'll rip," said Desire, with a slight emphasis; putting her book down, and coming over for a skirt and a pair of scissors. "But you know I'm no good at putting together again. And about making the world over, I don't know but that might be as easy as making over all its clothes, I'd as lief try, of the two."
Desire was never cross or disagreeable; she was only "impracticable," her mother said. "And besides that, she didn't know what she really did want. She was born hungry and asking, with those sharp little eyes, and her mouth always open while she was a baby. 'It was a sign,' the nurse said, when she was three weeks old. And then the other sign,—that she should have to be called 'Desire!'"
Mrs. Megilp—for Mrs. Megilp had been in office as long ago as that—had suggested ways of getting over or around the difficulty, when Aunt Desire had stipulated to have the baby named for her, and had made certain persuasive conditions.
"There's the pretty French turn you might give it,—'Desiree.' Only one more 'e,' and an accent. That is so sweet, and graceful, and distinguished!"
"But Aunt Desire won't have the name twisted. It is to be real, plain Desire, or not at all."
Mrs. Megilp had shrugged her shoulders.
"Well, of course it can be that, to christen by, and marry by, and be buried by. But between whiles,—people pick up names,—you'll see!"
Mrs. Megilp began to call her "Daisy" when she was two years old. Nobody could help what Mrs. Megilp took a fancy to call her by way of endearment, of course; and Daisy she was growing to be in the family, when one day, at seven years old, she heard Mrs. Megilp say to her mother,—
"I don't see but that you've all got your Desire, after all. The old lady is satisfied; and away up there in Hanover, what can it signify to her? The child is 'Daisy,' practically, now, as long as she lives."
The sharp, eager little gray eyes, so close together in the high, delicate head, glanced up quickly at speaker and hearer.
"What old lady, mamma, away up in Hanover?"
"Your Aunt Desire, Daisy, whom you were named for. She lives in Hanover. You are to go and see her there, this summer."
"Will she call me Daisy?"
The little difficulty suggested in this question had singularly never occurred to Mrs. Ledwith before. Miss Desire Ledwith never came down to Boston; there was no danger at home.
"No. She is old-fashioned, and doesn't like pet names. She will call you Desire. That is your name, you know."
"Would it signify if she thought you called me Daisy?" asked the child frowning half absently over her doll, whose arm she was struggling to force into rather a tight sleeve of her own manufacture.
"Well, perhaps she might not exactly understand. People always went by their names when she was a child, and now hardly anybody does. She was very particular about having you called for her, and you are, you know. I always write 'Desire Ledwith' in all your books, and—well, I always shall write it so, and so will you. But you can be Daisy when we make much of you here at home, just as Florence is Flossie."
"No, I can't," said the little girl, very decidedly, getting up and dropping her doll. "Aunt Desire, away up in Hanover, is thinking all the time that there is a little Desire Ledwith growing up down here. I don't mean to have her cheated. I'm going to went by my name, as she did. Don't call me Daisy any more, all of you; for I shan't come!"
The gray eyes sparkled; the whole little face scintillated, as it were. Desire Ledwith had a keen, charged little face; and when something quick and strong shone through it, it was as if somewhere behind it there had been struck fire.
She was true to that through all the years after; going to school with Mabels and Ethels and Graces and Ediths,—not a girl she knew but had a pretty modern name,—and they all wondering at that stiff little "Desire" of hers that she would go by. When she was twelve years old, the old lady up in Hanover had died, and left her a gold watch, large and old-fashioned, which she could only keep on a stand in her room,—a good solid silver tea-set, and all her spoons, and twenty-five shares in the Hanover Bank.
Mrs. Megilp called her Daisy, with gentle inadvertence, one day after that. Desire lifted her eyes slowly at her, with no other reply in her face, or else.
"You might please your mother now, I think," said Mrs. Megilp. "There is no old lady to be troubled by it."
"A promise isn't ever dead, Mrs. Megilp," said Desire, briefly. "I shall keep our words."
"After all," Mrs. Megilp said privately to the mother, "there is something quietly aristocratic in an old, plain, family name. I don't know that it isn't good taste in the child. Everybody understands that it was a condition, and an inheritance."
Mrs. Megilp had taken care of that. She was watchful for the small impressions she could make in behalf of her particular friends. She carried about with her a little social circumference in which all was preeminently as it should be.
But,—as I would say if you could not see it for yourself—this is a digression. We will go back again.
"If it were any use!" said Desire, shaking out the deep plaits as she unfastened them from the band. "But you're only a piece of everybody after all. You haven't anything really new or particular to yourself, when you've done. And it takes up so much time. Last year, this was so pretty! Isn't anything actually pretty in itself, or can't they settle what it is? I should think they had been at it long enough."
"Fashions never were so graceful as they are this minute," said Mrs. Megilp. "Of course it is art, like everything else, and progress. The world is getting educated to a higher refinement in it, every day. Why, it's duty, child!" she continued, exaltedly. "Think what the world would be if nobody cared. We ought to make life beautiful. It's meant to be. There's not only no virtue in ugliness, but almost no virtue with it, I think. People are more polite and good-natured when they are well dressed and comfortable."
"That's dress, too, though," said Desire, sententiously. "You've got to stay at home four days, and rip, and be tired, and cross, and tried-on-to, and have no chance to do anything else, before you can put it all on and go out and be good-natured and bland, and help put the beautiful face on the world, one day. I don't believe it's political economy."
"Everybody doesn't have to do it for themselves. Really, when I hear people blamed for dress and elegance,—why, the very ones who have the most of it are those who sacrifice the least time to it. They just go and order what they want, and there's the end of it. When it comes home, they put it on, and it might as well be a flounced silk as a plain calico."
"But we do have to think, Mrs. Megilp. And work and worry. And then we can't turn right round in the things we know every stitch of and have bothered over from beginning to end, and just be lilies of the field!"
"A great many people do have to wash their own dishes, and sweep, and scour; but that is no reason it ought not to be done. I always thought it was rather a pity that was said, just so," Mrs. Megilp proceeded, with a mild deprecation of the Scripture. "There is toiling and spinning; and will be to the end of time, for some of us."
"There's cauliflower brought for dinner, Mrs. Ledwith," said Christina, the parlor girl, coming in. "And Hannah says it won't go with the pigeons. Will she put it on the ice for to-morrow?"
"I suppose so," said Mrs. Ledwith, absently, considering a breadth that had a little hitch in it. "Though what we shall have to-morrow I'm sure I don't know," she added, rousing up. "I wish Mr. Ledwith wouldn't send home the first thing he sees, without any reference."
"And here's the milkman's bill, and a letter," continued Christina, laying them down on a chair beside her mistress, and then departing.
Great things come into life so easily, when they do come, right alongside of milk-bills and cabbages! And yet one may wait so long sometimes for anything to happen but cabbages!
The letter was in a very broad, thick envelope, and sealed with wax.
Mrs. Ledwith looked at it curiously before she opened it. She did not receive many letters. She had very little time for correspondence. It was addressed to "Mrs. Laura Ledwith." That was odd and unusual, too.
Mrs. Megilp glanced at her over the tortoise-shell rims of her eye-glasses, but sat very quiet, lest she should delay the opening. She would like to know what could be in that very business-like looking despatch, and Laura would be sure to tell her. It must be something pretty positive, one way or another; it was no common-place negative communication. Laura might have had property left her. Mrs. Megilp always thought of possibilities like that.
When Laura Ledwith had unfolded the large commercial sheet, and glanced down the open lines of square, upright characters, whose purport could be taken in at sight, like print, she turned very red with a sudden excitement. Then all the color dropped away, and there was nothing in her face but blank, pale, intense surprise.
"It is a most wonderful thing!" said she, at last, slowly; and her breath came like a gasp with her words. "My great-uncle, Mr. Oldways."
She spoke those four words as if from them Mrs. Megilp could understand everything.
Mrs. Megilp thought she did.
"Ah! Gone?" she asked, pathetically.
"Gone! No, indeed!" said Mrs. Ledwith. "He wrote the letter. He wants me to come; me, and all of us,—to Boston, to live; and to get acquainted with him."
"My dear," said Mrs. Megilp, with the promptness and benignity of a Christian apostle, "it's your duty to go."
"And he offers me a house, and two thousand dollars a year."
"My dear," said Mrs. Megilp, "it is emphatically your duty to go."
All at once something strange came over Laura Ledwith. She crumpled the letter tight in her hands with a clutch of quick excitement, and began to choke with a little sob, and to laugh at the same time.
"Don't give way!" cried Mrs. Megilp, coming to her and giving her a little shake and a slap. "If you do once you will again, and you're not hystericky!"
"He's sent for Frank, too. Frank and I will be together again in dear old Boston! But—we can't be children and sit on the shed any more; and—it isn't dear old Boston, either!"
And then Laura gave right up, and had a good cry for five minutes. After that she felt better, and asked Mrs. Megilp how she thought a house in Spiller Street would do.
But she couldn't rip any more of those breadths that morning.
Agatha and Florence came in from some calls at the Goldthwaites and the Haddens, and the news was told, and they had their bonnets to take off, and the dinner-bell rang, and the smell of the spicy pigeon-stew came up the stairs, all together. And they went down, talking fast; and one said "house," and another "carpets," and another "music and German;" and Desire, trailing a breadth of green silk in her hand that she had never let go since the letter was read, cried out, "oratorios!" And nobody quite knew what they were going down stairs for, or had presence of mind to realize the pigeons, or help each other or themselves properly, when they got there! Except Mrs. Megilp, who was polite and hospitable to them all, and picked two birds in the most composed and elegant manner.
When the dessert was put upon the table, and Christina, confusedly enlightened as to the family excitement, and excessively curious, had gone away into the kitchen, Mrs. Ledwith said to Mrs. Megilp,—
"I'm not sure I should fancy Spiller Street, after all; it's a sort of a corner. Westmoreland Street or Helvellyn Park might be nice. I know people down that way,—Mrs. Inchdeepe."
"Mrs. Inchdeepe isn't exactly 'people,'" said Mrs. Megilp, in a quiet way that implied more than grammar. "Don't get into 'And' in Boston, Laura!—With such an addition to your income, and what your uncle gives you toward a house, I don't see why you might not think of Republic Avenue."
"We shall have plenty of thinking to do about everything," said Laura.
"Mamma," said Agatha, insinuatingly, "I'm thinking, already; about that rose-pink paper for my room. I'm glad now I didn't have it here."
Agatha had been restless for white lace, and rose-pink, and a Brussels carpet ever since her friend Zarah Thoole had come home from Europe and furnished a morning-room.
All this time Mr. Grant Ledwith, quite unconscious of the impending changes with which his family were so far advanced in imagination, was busy among bales and samples in Devonshire Street. It got to be an old story by the time the seven o'clock train was in, and he reached home. It was almost as if it had all happened a year ago, and they had been waiting for him to come home from Australia.
There was so much to explain to him that it was really hard to make him understand, and to bring him up to the point from which they could go on together.
The Ledwiths took apartments in Boston for a month. They packed away the furniture they wanted to keep for upper rooms, in the attics of their house at Z——. They had an auction of all the furniture of their drawing-room, dining-room, library, and first floor of sleeping-rooms. Then they were to let their house. Meanwhile, one was to be fixed upon and fitted up in Boston. In all this Mrs. Megilp advised, invaluably.
"It's of no use to move things," she said. "Three removes are as bad as a fire; and nothing ever fits in to new places. Old wine and new bottles, you know! Clear all off with a country auction. Everybody comes, and they all fight for everything. Things bring more than their original cost. Then you've nothing to do but order according to your taste."
Mr. Oldways had invited both his nieces to his own house on their arrival. But here again Mrs. Megilp advised,—so judiciously.
"There are too many of you; it would be a positive infliction. And then you'll have all your running about and planning and calculating to do, and the good old gentleman would think he had pulled half Boston down about his ears. Your sister can go there; it would be only generous and thoughtful to give way to her. There are only three of them, and they are strange, you know, to every thing, and wouldn't know which way to turn. I can put you in the way of rooms at the Bellevue, exactly the thing, for a hundred and fifty a month. No servants, you see; meals at the restaurant, and very good, too. The Wedringtons are to give them up unexpectedly; going to Europe; poor Mrs. Wedrington is so out of health. And about the house; don't decide in a hurry; see what your uncle says, and your sister. It's very likely she'll prefer the Aspen Street house; and it would be out of the way for you. Still it is not to be refused, you know; of course it is very desirable in many respects; roomy, old-fashioned, and a garden. I think your sister will like those things; they're what she has been used to. If she does, why it's all comfortably settled, and nobody refuses. It is so ungracious to appear to object; a gift horse, you know."
"Not to be refused; only by no means to be taken; masterly inactivity till somebody else is hooked; and then somebody else is to be grateful for the preference. I wish Mrs. Megilp wouldn't shine things up so; and that mother wouldn't go to her to black all her boots!"
Desire said this in secret, indignant discomfort, to Helena, the fourth in the family, her chum-sister. Helena did very well to talk to; she heard anything; then she pranced round the room and chaffed the canary.
"Chee! chee! chee! chiddle, iddle, iddle, iddle, e-e-ee! Where do you keep all your noise and your breath? You're great, aren't you? You do that to spite people that have to work up one note at a time. You don't take it in away down under your belt, do you? You're not particular about that. You don't know much, after all. You don't know how you do it. You aren't learning of Madame Caroletti. And you haven't learned two quarters, any way. You were only just born last spring. Set up! Tr-r-r-r-e-e-ee! I can do that myself. I don't believe you've got an octave in you. Poh!"
Mrs. Ripwinkley came down from the country with a bonnet on that had a crown, and with not a particle of a chignon. When she was married, twenty-five years before, she wore a French twist,—her hair turned up in waves from her neck as prettily as it did away from her forehead,—and two thick coiled loops were knotted and fastened gracefully at the top. She had kept on twisting her hair so, all these years; and the rippling folds turned naturally under her fingers into their places. The color was bright still, and it had not thinned. Over her brows it parted richly, with no fuzz or crimp; but a sweet natural wreathing look that made her face young. Mrs. Ledwith had done hers over slate-pencils till she had burned it off; and now tied on a friz, that came low down, for fashion's sake, and left visible only a little bunch of puckers between her eyebrows and the crowsfeet at the corners. The back of her head was weighted down by an immense excrescence in a bag. Behind her ears were bare places. Mrs. Ledwith began to look old-young. And a woman cannot get into a worse stage of looks than that. Still, she was a showy woman—a good exponent of the reigning style; and she was handsome—she and her millinery—of an evening, or in the street.
When I began that last paragraph I meant to tell you what else Mrs. Ripwinkley brought with her, down out of the country and the old times; but hair takes up a deal of room. She brought down all her dear old furniture. That is, it came after her in boxes, when she had made up her mind to take the Aspen Street house.
"Why, that's the sofa Oliver used to lie down on when he came home tired from his patients, and that's the rocking-chair I nursed my babies in; and this is the old oak table we've sat round three times a day, the family of us growing and thinning, as the time went on, all through these years. It's like a communion table, now, Laura. Of course such things had to come."
This was what she answered, when Laura ejaculated her amazement at her having brought "old Homesworth truck" to Boston.
"You see it isn't the walls that make the home; we can go away from them and not break our hearts, so long as our own goes with us. The little things that we have used, and that have grown around us with our living,—they are all of living that we can handle and hold on to; and if I went to Spitzbergen, I should take as many of them as I could."
The Aspen Street house just suited Mrs. Ripwinkley, and Diana, and Hazel.
In the first place, it was wooden; built side to the street, so that you went up a little paved walk, in a shade of trees, to get to the door; and then the yard, on the right hand side as you came in, was laid out in narrow walks between borders of blossoming plants. There were vines against the brick end of the next building,—creepers and morning-glories, and white and scarlet runners; and a little martin-box was set upon a pole in the still, farther corner.
The rooms of the house were low, but large; and some of the windows had twelve-paned sashes,—twenty-four to a window. Mrs. Ripwinkley was charmed with these also. They were like the windows at Mile Hill.
Mrs. Ledwith, although greatly relieved by her sister's prompt decision for the house which she did not want, felt it in her conscience to remonstrate a little.
"You have just come down from the mountains, Frank, after your twenty-five years' sleep; you've seen nothing by and by you will think differently. This house is fearfully old-fashioned, fearfully; and it's away down here on the wrong side of the hill. You can never get up over Summit Street from here."
"We are used to hills, and walking."
"But I mean—that isn't all. There are other things you won't be able to get over. You'll never shake off Aspen Street dust,—you nor the children."
"I don't think it is dusty. It is quiet, and sheltered, and clean. I like it ever so much," said Mrs. Ripwinkley.
"O, dear, you don't understand in the least! It's wicked to let you go on so! You poor, dear, simple little old soul!"
"Never mind," said Mrs. Megilp. "It's all well enough for the present. It pleases the old gentleman, you know; and after all he's done, he ought to be pleased. One of you should certainly be in his neighborhood. He has been here from time immemorial; and any place grows respectable by staying in it long enough—from choice. Nobody will wonder at Mrs. Ripwinkley's coming here at his request. And when she does move, you see, she will know exactly what she is about."
"I almost doubt if she ever will know what she is about," said Laura.
"In that case,—well,"—said Mrs. Megilp, and stopped, because it really was not in the least needful to say more.
Mrs. Megilp felt it judicious, for many reasons, that Mrs. Ripwinkley should he hidden away for awhile, to get that mountain sleep out of her eyes, if it should prove possible; just as we rub old metal with oil and put it by till the rust comes off.
The Ledwiths decided upon a house in Shubarton Place that would not seem quite like taking old Uncle Titus's money and rushing away with it as far as city limits would allow; and Laura really did wish to have the comfort of her sister's society, in a cozy way, of mornings, up in her room; that was her chief idea about it. There were a good many times and things in which she scarcely expected much companionship from Frank. She would not have said even to herself, that Frank was rusty; and she would do her faithful and good-natured best to rub her up; but there was an instinct with her of the congruous and the incongruous; and she would not do her Bath-brick polishing out on the public promenade.
They began by going together to the carpet stores and the paper warehouses; but they ended in detailing themselves for separate work; their ideas clashed ridiculously, and perpetually confused each other. Frank remembered loyally her old brown sofa and chairs; she would not have gay colors to put them out of countenance; for even if she re-covered them, she said they should have the same old homey complexion. So she chose a fair, soft buff, with a pattern of brown leaves, for her parlor paper; Mrs. Ledwith, meanwhile, plunging headlong into glories of crimson and garnet and gold. Agatha had her blush pink, in panels, with heart-of-rose borders, set on with delicate gilt beadings; you would have thought she was going to put herself up, in a fancy-box, like a French mouchoir or a bonbon.
"Why don't you put your old brown things all together in an up-stairs room, and call it Mile Hill? You could keep it for old times' sake, and sit there mornings; the house is big enough; and then have furniture like other people's in the parlor?"
"You see it wouldn't be me." said Mrs. Ripwinkley, simply.
"They keep saying it 'looks,' and 'it looks,'" said Diana to her mother, at home. "Why must everything look somehow?"
"And everybody, too," said Hazel. "Why, when we meet any one in the street that Agatha and Florence know, the minute they have gone by they say, 'She didn't look well to-day,' or, 'How pretty she did look in that new hat!' And after the great party they went to at that Miss Hitchler's, they never told a word about it except how girls 'looked.' I wonder what they did, or where the good time was. Seems to me people ain't living,—they are only just looking; or is this the same old Boston that you told about, and where are the real folks, mother?"
"We shall find them," said Mrs. Ripwinkley, cheerily; "and the real of these, too, when the outsides are settled. In the meantime, we'll make our house say, and not look. Say something true, of course. Things won't say anything else, you see; if you try to make them, they don't speak out; they only stand in a dumb show and make faces."
"That's looking!" said Hazel. "Now I know."
"How those children do grow!" said Mrs. Ripwinkley, as they went off together. "Two months ago they were sitting out on the kitchen roof, and coming to me to hear the old stories!"
"Transplantin'," said Luclarion. "That's done it."
At twelve and fourteen, Hazel and Diana could be simple as birds,—simpler yet, as human children waiting for all things,—in their country life and their little dreams of the world. Two months' contact with people and things in a great city had started the life that was in them, so that it showed what manner of growth it was to be of.
And little Hazel Ripwinkley had got hold already of the small end of a very large problem.
But she could not make it out that this was the same old Boston that her mother had told about, or where the nice neighbors were that would be likely to have little tea-parties for their children.
EAVESDROPPING IN ASPEN STREET.
Some of the old builders,—not the very old ones, for they built nothing but rope-walks down behind the hill,—but some of those who began to go northwest from the State House to live, made a pleasant group of streets down there on the level stretching away to the river, and called them by fresh, fragrant, country-suggesting names. Names of trees and fields and gardens, fruits and blossoms; and they built houses with gardens around them. In between the blocks were deep, shady places; and the smell of flowers was tossed back and forth by summer winds between the walls. Some nice old people stayed on there, and a few of their descendants stay on there still, though they are built in closely now, for the most part, and coarse, common things have much intruded, and Summit Street overshadows them with its palaces.
Here and there a wooden house, set back a little, like this of the Ripwinkleys in Aspen Street, gives you a feeling of Boston in the far back times, as you go by; and here and there, if you could get into the life of the neighborhood, you might perhaps find a household keeping itself almost untouched with change, though there has been such a rush and surge for years up and over into the newer and prouder places.
At any rate, Titus Oldways lived here in Greenley Street; and he owned the Aspen Street house, and another over in Meadow Place, and another in Field Court. He meant to stretch his control over them as long as he could, and keep them for families; therefore he valued them at such rates as they would bring for dwellings; he would not sell or lease them for any kind of "improvements;" he would not have their little door-yards choked up, or their larger garden spaces destroyed, while he could help it.
Round in Orchard Street lived Miss Craydocke. She was away again, now, staying a little while with the Josselyns in New York. Uncle Titus told Mrs. Ripwinkley that when Miss Craydocke came back it would be a neighborhood, and they could go round; now it was only back and forth between them and him and Rachel Froke. There were other people, too, but they would be longer finding them out. "You'll know Miss Craydocke as soon as you see her; she is one of those you always seem to have seen before."
Now Uncle Titus would not have said this to everybody; not even if everybody had been his niece, and had come to live beside him.
Orchard Street is wide and sunny and pleasant; the river air comes over it and makes it sweet; and Miss Craydocke's is a big, generous house, of which she only uses a very little part herself, because she lets the rest to nice people who want pleasant rooms and can't afford to pay much rent; an old gentleman who has had a hard time in the world, but has kept himself a gentleman through it all, and his little cheery old lady-wife who puts her round glasses on and stitches away at fine women's under-garments and flannel embroideries, to keep things even, have the two very best rooms; and a clergyman's widow, who copies for lawyers, and writes little stories for children, has another; and two orphan sisters who keep school have another; and Miss Craydocke calls her house the Beehive, and buzzes up and down in it, and out and in, on little "seeing-to" errands of care and kindness all day long, as never any queen-bee did in any beehive before, but in a way that makes her more truly queen than any sitting in the middle cell of state to be fed on royal jelly. Behind the Beehive, is a garden, as there should be; great patches of lily-of-the valley grow there that Miss Craydocke ties up bunches from in the spring and gives away to little children, and carries into all the sick rooms she knows of, and the poor places. I always think of those lilies of the valley when I think of Miss Craydocke. It seems somehow as if they were blooming about her all the year through; and so they are, perhaps, invisibly. The other flowers come in their season; the crocuses have been done with first of all; the gay tulips and the snowballs have made the children glad when they stopped at the gate and got them, going to school. Miss Craydocke is always out in her garden at school-time. By and by there are the tall white lilies, standing cool and serene in the July heats; then Miss Craydocke is away at the mountains, pressing ferns and drying grasses for winter parlors; but there is somebody on duty at the garden dispensary always, and there are flower-pensioners who know they may come in and take the gracious toll.
Late in the autumn, the nasturtiums and verbenas and marigolds are bright; and the asters quill themselves into the biggest globes they can, of white and purple and rose, as if it were to make the last glory the best, and to do the very utmost of the year. Then the chrysanthemums go into the house and bloom there for Christmas-time.
There is nothing else like Miss Craydocke's house and garden, I do believe, in all the city of the Three Hills. It is none too big for her, left alone with it, the last of her family; the world is none too big for her; she is glad to know it is all there. She has a use for everything as fast as it comes, and a work to do for everybody, as fast as she finds them out. And everybody,—almost,—catches it as she goes along, and around her there is always springing up a busy and a spreading crystallizing of shining and blessed elements. The world is none too big for her, or for any such, of course, because,—it has been told why better than I can tell it,—because "ten times one is always ten."
It was a gray, gusty morning. It had not set in to rain continuously; but the wind wrung handfuls of drops suddenly from the clouds, and flung them against the panes and into the wayfarers' faces.
Over in the house opposite the Ripwinkley's, at the second story windows, sat two busy young persons. Hazel, sitting at her window, in "mother's room," where each had a corner, could see across; and had got into the way of innocent watching. Up in Homesworth, she had used to watch the robins in the elm-trees; here, there was human life, in little human nests, all about her.
"It's the same thing, mother," she would say, "isn't it, now? Don't you remember in that book of the 'New England Housekeeper,' that you used to have, what the woman said about the human nature of the beans? It's in beans, and birds, and bird's nests; and folks, and folks' nests. It don't make much difference. It's just snugness, and getting along. And it's so nice to see!"
Hazel put her elbows up on the window-sill, and looked straight over into that opposite room, undisguisedly.
The young man, in one window, said to his sister in the other, at the same moment,—
"Our company's come! There's that bright little girl again!"
And the sister said, "Well, it's pretty much all the company we can take in! She brings her own seat and her own window; and she doesn't interrupt. It's just the kind for us, Kentie!"
"She's writing,—copying something,—music, it looks like; see it there, set up against the shutter. She always goes out with a music roll in her hand. I wonder whether she gives or takes?" said Diana, stopping on her way to her own seat to look out over Hazel's shoulder.
"Both, I guess," said Mrs. Ripwinkley. "Most people do. Why don't you put your flowers in the window, Hazel?"
"Why, so I will!"
They were a great bunch of snowy white and deep crimson asters, with green ivy leaves, in a tall gray glass vase. Rachel Froke had just brought them in from Miss Craydocke's garden.
"They're looking, mother! Only I do think it's half too bad! That girl seems as if she would almost reach across after them. Perhaps they came from the country, and haven't had any flowers."
"Thee might take them over some," said Mrs. Froke, simply.
"O, I shouldn't dare! There are other people in the house, and I don't know their names, or anything. I wish I could, though."
"I can," said Rachel Froke. "Thee'll grow tall enough to step over pebbles one of these days. Never mind; I'll fetch thee more to-morrow; and thee'll let the vase go for a while? Likely they've nothing better than a tumbler."
Rachel Froke went down the stairs, and out along the paved walk, into the street. She stopped an instant on the curb-stone before she crossed, and looked up at those second story windows. Hazel watched her. She held up the vase slightly with one hand, nodding her little gray bonnet kindly, and beckoned with the other.
The young girl started from her seat.
In another minute Hazel saw them together in the doorway.
There was a blush and a smile, and an eager brightness in the face, and a quick speaking thanks, that one could read without hearing, from the parted lips, on the one side, and the quiet, unflutterable gray bonnet calmly horizontal on the other; and then the door was shut, and Rachel Froke was crossing the damp pavement again.
"I'm so glad Aspen Street is narrow!" said Hazel. "I should hate to be way off out of sight of people. What did you say to her, Mrs. Froke?" she asked, as the Friend reentered. Hazel could by no means take the awful liberty of "Rachel."
"I said the young girl, Hazel Ripwinkley, being from the country, knew how good flowers were to strangers in the town, and that she thought they might be strange, and might like some."
Hazel flushed all up. At that same instant, a gentle nod and smile came across from window to window, and she flushed more, till the tears sprung with the shy, glad excitement, as she returned it and then shrunk away.
"And she said, 'Thank her, with Dorris Kincaid's love,'" proceeded Rachel Froke.
"O, mother!" exclaimed Hazel. "And you did it all, right off so, Mrs. Froke. I don't see how grown up people dare, and know how!"
Up the stairs ran quick feet in little clattering heeled boots. Desire Ledwith, with a purple waterproof on, came in.
"I couldn't stay at home to-day," she said, "I wanted to be where it was all-togetherish. It never is at our house. Now it's set up, they don't do anything with it."
"That's because it 'looks'—so elegant," said Hazel, catching herself up in dismay.
"It's because it's the crust, I think," said Desire. "Puff paste, like an oyster patty; and they haven't got anything cooked yet for the middle. I wonder when they will. I had a call yesterday, all to myself," she went on, with a sudden change of tone and topic. "Agatha was hopping and I wouldn't tell her what I said, or how I behaved. That new parlor girl of ours thinks we're all or any of us 'Miss Ledwith,' mamma included, and so she let him in. He had on lavender pantaloons and a waxed moustache."
"The rain is just pouring down!" said Diana, at the garden window.
"Yes; I'm caught. That's what I meant," said Desire. "You've got to keep me all day, now. How will you get home, Mrs. Froke? Or won't you have to stay, too?"
"Thee may call me Rachel, Desire Ledwith, if thee pleases. I like it better. I am no mistress. And for getting home, it is but just round the corner. But there is no need yet. I came for an hour, to sit here with friend Frances. And my hour is not yet up."
"I'm glad of that, for there is something I want you to tell me. I haven't quite got at it myself, yet; so as to ask, I mean. Wait a minute!" And she put her elbows up on her knees, and held her thumbs against her ears, and her fingers across her forehead; sitting squarely opposite the window to which she had drawn up her chair beside Diane, and looking intently at the driving streams that rushed and ran down against the glass.
"I was sitting in the bay-window at home, when it began this morning; that made me think. All the world dripping wet, and I just put there dry and safe in the middle of the storm, shut up behind those great clear panes and tight sashes. How they did have to contrive, and work, before there were such places made for people! What if they had got into their first scratchy little houses, and sat behind the logs as we do behind glass windows and thought, as I was thinking, how nice it was just to be covered up from the rain? Is it all finished now? Hasn't anybody got to contrive anything more? And who's going to do it—and everything. And what are we good for,—just we,—to come and expect it all, modern-improved! I don't think much of our place among things, do you, Mrs. Froke?—There, I believe that's it, as near as I can!'"
"Why does thee ask me, Desire?"
"I don't know. I don't know any whys or what fors. 'Behold we know not anything,'—Tennyson and I! But you seem so—pacified—I suppose I thought you must have settled most things in your mind."
"Every builder—every little joiner—did his piece,—thought his thought out, I think likely. There's no little groove or moulding or fitting or finish, but is a bit of somebody's living; and life grows, going on. We've all got our piece to do," said Rachel.
"I asked Mrs. Mig," Desire pursued, "and she said some people's part was to buy and employ and encourage; and that spending money helps all the world; and then she put another cushion to her back, and went on tatting."
"Perhaps it does—in spite of the world," said Rachel Froke, quietly.
"But I guess nobody is to sit by and only encourage; God has given out no such portion as that, I do believe. We can encourage each other, and every one do his own piece too."
"I didn't really suppose Mrs. Mig knew," said Desire, demurely. "She never began at the bottom of anything. She only finishes off. She buys pattern worsted work, and fills it in. That's what she's doing now, when she don't tat; a great bunch of white lilies, grounding it with olive. It's lovely; but I'd rather have made the lilies. She'll give it to mother, and then Glossy will come and spend the winter with us. Mrs. Mig is going to Nassau with a sick friend; she's awfully useful—for little overseeings and general touchings up, after all the hard part is done. Mrs. Mig's sick friends always have nurses and waiting maids—Mrs. F—— Rachel! Do you know, I haven't got any piece!"
"No, I don't know; nor does thee either, yet," said Rachel Froke.
* * * * *
"It's all such bosh!" said Kenneth Kincaid, flinging down a handful of papers. "I've no right, I solemnly think, to help such stuff out into the world! A man can't take hold anywhere, it seems, without smutting his fingers!"
Kenneth Kincaid was correcting proof for a publisher. What he had to work on this morning was the first chapters of a flimsy novel.
"It isn't even confectionery," said he. "It's terra alba and cochineal. And when it comes to the sensation, it will be benzine for whiskey. Real things are bad enough, for the most part, in this world; but when it comes to sham fictions and adulterated poisons, Dorris, I'd rather help bake bread, if it were an honest loaf, or make strong shoes for laboring men!"
"You don't always get things like that," said Dorris. "And you know you're not responsible. Why will you torment yourself so?"
"I was so determined not to do anything but genuine work; work that the world wanted; and to have it come down to this!"
"Only for a time, while you are waiting."
"Yes; people must eat while they are waiting; that's the—devil of it! I'm not swearing, Dorris, dear; it came truly into my head, that minute, about the Temptation in the Wilderness." Kenneth's voice was reverent, saying this; and there was an earnest thought in his face.
"You'll never like anything heartily but your Sunday work."
"That's what keeps me here. My week-day work might be wanted somewhere else. And perhaps I ought to go. There's Sunday work everywhere."
"If you've found one half, hold on to it;" said Dorris. "The other can't be far off."
"I suppose there are a score or two of young architects in this city, waiting for a name or a chance to make one, as I am. If it isn't here for all of them, somebody has got to quit."
"And somebody has got to hold on," repeated Dorris. "You are morbid, Kent, about this 'work of the world.'"
"It's overdone, everywhere. Fifth wheels trying to hitch on to every coach. I'd rather be the one wheel of a barrow."
"The Lord is Wheelwright, and Builder," said Dorris, very simply. "You are a wheel, and He has made you; He'll find an axle for you and put you on; and you shall go about his business, so that you shall wonder to remember that you were ever leaning up against a wall. Do you know, Kentie, life seems to me like the game we used to play at home in the twilight. When we shut our eyes and let each other lead us, until we did not know where we were going, or in what place we should come out. I should not care to walk up a broad path with my eyes wide open, now. I'd rather feel the leading. To-morrow always makes a turn. It's beautiful! People don't know, who never shut their eyes!"
Kenneth had taken up a newspaper.
"The pretenses at doing! The dodges and go-betweens that make a sham work between every two real ones! There's hardly a true business carried on, and if there is, you don't know where or which. Look at the advertisements. Why, they cheat with their very tops and faces! See this man who puts in big capitals: 'Lost! $5,000! $1,000 reward!' and then tells you, in small type, that five thousand dollars are lost every year by breaking glass and china, that his cement will mend! What business has he to cry 'Wolf!' to the hindrance of the next man who may have a real wolf to catch? And what business has the printer, whom the next man will pay to advertise his loss, to help on a lie like this beforehand? I'm only twenty-six years old, Dorris, and I'm getting ashamed of the world!"
"Don't grow hard, Kenneth. 'The Son of Man came not to condemn the world, but to save it.' Let's each try to save our little piece!"
We are listening across the street, you see; between the windows in the rain; it is strange what chords one catches that do not catch each other, and were never planned to be played together,—by the players.
Kenneth Kincaid's father Robert had been a ship-builder. When shipping went down in the whirlpool of 1857, Robert Kincaid's building had gone; and afterward he had died leaving his children little beside their education, which he thanked God was secured, and a good repute that belonged to their name, but was easily forgotten in the crowd of young and forward ones, and in the strife and scramble of a new business growth.
Between college and technical studies Kenneth had been to the war. After that he had a chance to make a fortune in Wall Street. His father's brother, James, offered to take him in with him to buy and sell stocks and gold, to watch the market, to touch little unseen springs, to put the difference into his own pocket every time the tide of value shifted, or could be made to seem to shift. He might have been one of James R. Kincaid and Company. He would have none of it. He told his uncle plainly that he wanted real work; that he had not come back from fighting to—well, there he stopped, for he could not fling the truth in his uncle's face; he said there were things he meant to finish learning, and would try to do; and if nobody wanted them of him he would learn something else that was needed. So with what was left to his share from his father's little remnant of property, he had two years at the Technological School, and here he was in Boston waiting. You can see what he meant by real work, and how deep his theories and distinctions lay. You can see that it might be a hard thing for one young man, here or there, to take up the world on these terms now, in this year of our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty-nine.
Over the way Desire Ledwith was beginning again, after a pause in which we have made our little chassee.
"I know a girl," she said, "who has got a studio. And she talks about art, and she knows styles, and who has done what, and she runs about to see pictures, and she copies things, and she has little plaster legs and toes and things hanging round everywhere. She thinks it is something great; but it's only Mig, after all. Everything is. Florence Migs into music. And I won't Mig, if I never do anything. I'm come here this morning to darn stockings." And she pulled out of her big waterproof pocket a bundle of stockings and a great white ball of darning cotton and a wooden egg.
"There is always one thing that is real," said Mrs. Ripwinkley, gently, "and that shows the way surely to all the rest."
"I know what you mean," said Desire, "of course; but they've mixed that all up too, like everything else, so that you don't know where it is. Glossy Megilp has a velvet prayer-book, and she blacks her eyelashes and goes to church. We've all been baptized, and we've learned the Lord's Prayer, and we're all Christians. What is there more about it? I wish, sometimes, they had let it all alone. I think they vaccinated us with religion, Aunt Frank, for fear we should take it the natural way."
"Thee is restless," said Rachel Froke, tying on her gray cloak. "And to make us so is oftentimes the first thing the Lord does for us. It was the first thing He did for the world. Then He said, 'Let there be light!' In the meantime, thee is right; just darn thy stockings." And Rachel went.
They had a nice morning, after that, "leaving frets alone," as Diana said. Diana Ripwinkley was happy in things just as they were. If the sun shone, she rejoiced in the glory; if the rain fell, it shut her in sweetly to the heart of home, and the outside world grew fragrant for her breathing. There was never anything in her day that she could spare out of it, and there were no holes in the hours either. "Whether she was most bird or bee, it was hard to tell," her mother said of her; from the time she used to sweep and dust her garret baby-house along the big beams in the old house at Homesworth, and make little cheeses, and set them to press in wooden pill-boxes from which she had punched the bottoms out, till now, that she began to take upon herself the daily freshening of the new parlors in Aspen Street, and had long lessons of geometry to learn, whose dry demonstrations she set to odd little improvised recitatives of music, and chanted over while she ran up and down putting away clean linen for her mother, that Luclarion brought up from the wash.
As for Hazel, she was only another variation upon the same sweet nature. There was more of outgo and enterprise with her. Diana made the thing or the place pleasant that she was in or doing. Hazel sought out new and blessed inventions. "There was always something coming to the child that wouldn't ever have come to no one else," Luclarion said. "And besides that, she was a real 'Witch Hazel;' she could tell where the springs were, and what's more, where they warn't."
Luclarion Grapp would never have pleaded guilty to "dropping into poetry" in any light whatsoever; but what she meant by this was not exactly according to the letter, as one may easily see.
What was the use of "looking," unless things were looked at? Mrs. Ledwith found at the end of the winter that she ought to give a party. Not a general one; Mrs. Ledwith always said "not a general one," as if it were an exception, whereas she knew better than ever to undertake a general party; her list would be too general, and heterogeneous. It would simply be a physical, as well as a social, impossibility. She knew quantities of people separately and very cordially, in her easy have-a-good-time-when-you-can style, that she could by no means mix, or even gather together. She picked up acquaintances on summer journeys, she accepted civilities wherever she might be, she asked everybody to her house who took a fancy to her, or would admire her establishment, and if she had had a spring cleaning or a new carpeting, or a furbishing up in any way, the next thing was always to light up and play it off,—to try it on to somebody. What were houses for? And there was always somebody who ought to be paid attention to; somebody staying with a friend, or a couple just engaged, or if nothing else, it was her turn to have the sewing-society; and so her rooms got aired. Of course she had to air them now! The drawing-room, with its apricot and coffee-brown furnishings, was lovely in the evening, and the crimson and garnet in the dining-room was rich and cozy, and set off brilliantly her show of silver and cut-glass; and then, there was the new, real, sea-green China.
So the party was had. There were some people in town from New York; she invited them and about a hundred more. The house lit up beautifully; the only pity was that Mrs. Ledwith could not wear her favorite and most becoming colors, buff and chestnut, because she had taken that family of tints for her furniture; but she found a lovely shade of violet that would hold by gas-light, and she wore black Fayal lace with it, and white roses upon her hair. Mrs. Treweek was enchanted with the brown and apricot drawing-room, and wondered where on earth they had got that particular shade, for "my dear! she had ransacked Paris for hangings in just that perfect, soft, ripe color that she had in her mind and never could hit upon." Mrs. MacMichael had pushed the grapes back upon her plate to examine the pattern of the bit of china, and had said how lovely the coloring was, with the purple and pale green of the fruit. And these things, and a few more like them, were the residuum of the whole, and Laura Ledwith was satisfied.
Afterward, "while they were in the way of it," Florence had a little musicale; and the first season in Shubarton Place was over.
It turned out, however, as it did in the old rhyme,—they shod the horse, and shod the mare, and let the little colt go bare. Helena was disgusted because she could not have a "German."
"We shall have to be careful, now that we have fairly settled down," said Laura to her sister; "for every bit of Grant's salary will have been taken up with this winter's expenses. But one wants to begin right, and after that one can go on moderately. I'm good at contriving, Frank; only give me something to contrive with."
"Isn't it a responsibility," Frank ventured, "to think what we shall contrive for?"
"Of course," returned Mrs. Ledwith, glibly. "And my first duty is to my children. I don't mean to encourage them to reckless extravagance; as Mrs. Megilp says, there's always a limit; but it's one's duty to make life beautiful, and one can't do too much for home. I want my children to be satisfied with theirs, and I want to cultivate their tastes and accustom them to society. I can't do everything for them; they will dress on three hundred a year apiece, Agatha and Florence; and I can assure you it needs management to accomplish that, in these days!"
Mrs. Ripwinkley laughed, gently.
"It would require management with us to get rid of that, upon ourselves."
"O, my dear, don't I tell you continually, you haven't waked up yet? Just rub your eyes a while longer,—or let the girls do it for you,—and you'll see! Why, I know of girls,—girls whose mothers have limited incomes, too,—who have been kept plain, actually plain, all their school days, but who must have now six and eight hundred a year to go into society with. And really I wouldn't undertake it for less, myself, if I expected to keep up with everything. But I must treat mine all alike, and we must be contented with what we have. There's Helena, now, crazy for a young party; but I couldn't think of it. Young parties are ten times worse than old ones; there's really no end to the expense, with the German, and everything. Helena will have to wait; and yet,—of course, if I could, it is desirable, almost necessary; acquaintances begin in the school-room,—society, indeed; and a great deal would depend upon it. The truth is, you're no sooner born, now-a-days, than you have to begin to keep up; or else—you're dropped out."
"O, Laura! do you remember the dear little parties our mother used to make for us? From four till half-past eight, with games, and tea at six, and the fathers looking in?"
"And cockles, and mottoes, and printed cambric dresses, and milk and water! Where are the children, do you suppose, you dear old Frau Van Winkle, that would come to such a party now?"
"Children must be born simple, as they were then. There's nothing my girls would like better, even at their age, than to help at just such a party. It is a dream of theirs. Why shouldn't somebody do it, just to show how good it is?"
"You can lead a horse to water, you know, Frank, but you can't make him drink. And the colts are forty times worse. I believe you might get some of the mothers together for an ancient tea-drink, just in the name of old association; but the babies would all turn up their new-fashioned little noses."
"O, dear!" sighed Frau Van Winkle. "I wish I knew people!"
"By the time you do, you'll know the reason why, and be like all the rest."
Hazel Ripwinkley went to Mrs. Hilman's school, with her cousin Helena. That was because the school was a thoroughly good one; the best her mother could learn of; not because it was kept in parlors in Dorset Street, and there were girls there who came from palaces west of the Common, in the grand avenues and the ABC streets; nor did Hazel wear her best gray and black velvet suit for every day, though the rich colored poplins with their over-skirts and sashes, and the gay ribbons for hair and neck made the long green baize covered tables look like gardenplots with beds of bloom, and quite extinguished with their brilliancy the quiet, one skirted brown merino that she brushed and folded every night, and put on with fresh linen cuffs and collar every morning.
"It is an idiosyncrasy of Aunt Frances," Helena explained, with the grandest phrase she could pick out of her "Synonymes," to cow down those who "wondered."
Privately, Helena held long lamentations with Hazel, going to and fro, about the party that she could not have.
"I'm actually ashamed to go to school. There isn't a girl there, who can pretend to have anything, that hasn't had some kind of a company this winter. I've been to them all, and I feel real mean,—sneaky. What's 'next year?' Mamma puts me off with that. Poh? Next year they'll all begin again. You can't skip birthdays."
"I'll tell you what!" said Hazel, suddenly, inspired by much the same idea that had occurred to Mrs. Ripwinkley; "I mean to ask my mother to let me have a party!"
"You! Down in Aspen Street! Don't, for pity's sake, Hazel!"
"I don't believe but what it could be done over again!" said Hazel, irrelevantly, intent upon her own thought.
"It couldn't be done once! For gracious grandmother's sake, don't think of it!" cried the little world-woman of thirteen.
"It's gracious grandmother's sake that made me think of it," said Hazel, laughing. "The way she used to do."
"Why don't you ask them to help you hunt up old Noah, and all get back into the ark, pigeons and all?"
"Well, I guess they had pretty nice times there, any how; and if another big rain comes, perhaps they'll have to!"
Hazel did not intend her full meaning; but there is many a faint, small prophecy hid under a clover-leaf.
Hazel did not let go things; her little witch-wand, once pointed, held its divining angle with the might of magic until somebody broke ground.
"It's awful!" Helena declared to her mother and sisters, with tears of consternation. "And she wants me to go round with her and carry 'compliments!' It'll never be got over,—never! I wish I could go away to boarding-school!"
For Mrs. Ripwinkley had made up her unsophisticated mind to try this thing; to put this grain of a pure, potent salt, right into the seethe and glitter of little Boston, and find out what it would decompose or precipitate. For was not she a mother, testing the world's chalice for her children? What did she care for the hiss and the bubble, if they came?
She was wider awake than Mrs. Ledwith knew; perhaps they who come down from the mountain heights of long seclusion can measure the world's paces and changes better than they who have been hurried in the midst of them, on and on, or round and round.
Worst of all, old Uncle Titus took it up.
It was funny,—or it would have been funny, reader, if anybody but you and I and Rachel Froke knew exactly how,—to watch Uncle Titus as he kept his quiet eye on all these things,—the things that he had set going,—and read their revelations; sheltered, disguised, under a character that the world had chosen to put upon him, like Haroun Alraschid in the merchant's cloak.
They took their tea with him,—the two families,—every Sunday night. Agatha Ledwith "filled him in" a pair of slippers that very first Christmas; he sat there in the corner with his old leather ones on, when they came, and left them, for the most part, to their own mutual entertainment, until the tea was ready. It was a sort of family exchange; all the plans and topics came up, particularly on the Ledwith side, for Mrs. Ripwinkley was a good listener, and Laura a good talker; and the fun,—that you and I and Rachel Froke could guess,—yes, and a good deal of unsuspected earnest, also,—was all there behind the old gentleman's "Christian Age," as over brief mentions of sermons, or words about books, or little brevities of family inquiries and household news, broke small floods of excitement like water over pebbles, as Laura and her daughters discussed and argued volubly the matching and the flouncing of a silk, or the new flowering and higher pitching of a bonnet,—since "they are wearing everything all on the top, you know, and mine looks terribly meek;" or else descanted diffusely on the unaccountableness of the somebodies not having called, or the bother and forwardness of the some-other-bodies who had, and the eighty-three visits that were left on the list to be paid, and "never being able to take a day to sit down for anything."
"What is it all for?" Mrs. Ripwinkley would ask, over again, the same old burden of the world's weariness falling upon her from her sister's life, and making her feel as if it were her business to clear it away somehow.
"Why, to live!" Mrs. Ledwith would reply. "You've got it all to do, you see."
"But I don't really see, Laura, where the living comes in."
Laura opens her eyes.
"Slang?" says she. "Where did you get hold of that?"
"Is it slang? I'm sure I don't know. I mean it."
"Well, you are the funniest! You don't catch anything. Even a by-word must come first-hand from you, and mean something!"
"It seems to me such a hard-working, getting-ready-to-be, and then not being. There's no place left for it,—because it's all place."
"Gracious me, Frank! If you are going to sift everything so, and get back of everything! I can't live in metaphysics: I have to live in the things themselves, amongst other people."
"But isn't it scene and costume, a good deal of it, without the play? It may be that I don't understand, because I have not got into the heart of your city life; but what comes of the parties, for instance? The grand question, beforehand, is about wearing, and then there's a retrospection of what was worn, and how people looked. It seems to be all surface. I should think they might almost send in their best gowns, or perhaps a photograph,—if photographs ever were becoming,—as they do visiting cards."
"Aunt Frank," said Desire, "I don't believe the 'heart of city life' is in the parties, or the parlors. I believe there's a great lot of us knocking round amongst the dry goods and the furniture that never get any further. People must be living, somewhere, behind the fixings. But there are so many people, nowadays, that have never quite got fixed!"
"You might live all your days here," said Mrs. Ledwith to her sister, passing over Desire, "and never get into the heart of it, for that matter, unless you were born into it. I don't care so much, for my part. I know plenty of nice people, and I like to have things nice about me, and to have a pleasant time, and to let my children enjoy themselves. The 'heart,' if the truth was known, is a dreadful still place. I'm satisfied."
Uncle Titus's paper was folded across the middle; just then he reversed the lower half; that brought the printing upside down; but he went on reading all the same.
"I'm going to have a real party," said Hazel, "a real, gracious-grandmother party; just such as you and mother had, Aunt Laura, when you were little."
Her Aunt Laura laughed good-naturedly.
"I guess you'll have to go round and knock up the grandmothers to come to it, then," said she. "You'd better make it a fancy dress affair at once, and then it will be accounted for."
"No; I'm going round to invite; and they are to come at four, and take tea at six; and they're just to wear their afternoon dresses; and Miss Craydocke is coming at any rate; and she knows all the old plays, and lots of new ones; and she is going to show how."
"I'm coming, too," said Uncle Titus, over his newspaper, with his eyes over his glasses.
"That's good," said Hazel, simply, least surprised of any of the conclave.
"And you'll have to play the muffin man. 'O, don't you know,'"—she began to sing, and danced two little steps toward Mr. Oldways. "O, I forgot it was Sunday!" she said, suddenly stopping.
"Not much wonder," said Uncle Titus. "And not much matter. Your Sunday's good enough."
And then he turned his paper right side up; but, before he began really to read again, he swung half round toward them in his swivel-chair, and said,—
"Leave the sugar-plums to me, Hazel; I'll come early and bring 'em in my pocket."
"It's the first thing he's taken the slightest notice of, or interest in, that any one of us has been doing," said Agatha Ledwith, with a spice of momentary indignation, as they walked along Bridgeley Street to take the car.
For Uncle Titus had not come to the Ledwith party. "He never went visiting, and he hadn't any best coat," he told Laura, in verbal reply to the invitation that had come written on a square satin sheet, once folded, in an envelope with a big monogram.
"It's of no consequence," said Mrs. Ledwith, "any way. Only a child's play."
"But it will be, mother; you don't know," said Helena. "She's going right in everywhere, with that ridiculous little invitation; to the Ashburnes and the Geoffreys, and all! She hasn't the least idea of any difference; and just think what the girls will say, and how they will stare, and laugh! I wish she wasn't my cousin!"
Mrs. Ledwith spoke with real displeasure; for she was good-natured and affectionate in her way; and her worldly ambitions were rather wide than high, as we have seen.
"Well, I can't help it; you don't know, mother," Helena repeated. "It's horrid to go to school with all those stiffies, that don't care a snap for you, and only laugh."
"Laughing is vulgar," said Agatha. If any indirect question were ever thrown upon the family position, Agatha immediately began expounding the ethics of high breeding, as one who had attained.
"It is only half-way people who laugh," she said. "Ada Geoffrey and Lilian Ashburne never laugh—at anybody—I am sure."
"No, they don't; not right out. They're awfully polite. But you can feel it, underneath. They have a way of keeping so still, when you know they would laugh if they did anything."
"Well, they'll neither laugh nor keep still, about this. You need not be concerned. They'll just not go, and that will be the end of it."
Agatha Ledwith was mistaken. She had been mistaken about two things to-night. The other was when she had said that this was the first time Uncle Oldways had noticed or been interested in anything they did.
COCKLES AND CRAMBO.
Hazel Ripwinkley put on her nankeen sack and skirt, and her little round, brown straw hat. For May had come, and almost gone, and it was a day of early summer warmth.
Hazel's dress was not a "suit;" it had been made and worn two summers before suits were thought of; yet it suited very well, as people's things are apt to do, after all, who do not trouble themselves about minutiae of fashion, and so get no particular antediluvian marks upon them that show when the flood subsides.
Her mother knew some things that Hazel did not. Mrs. Ripwinkley, if she had been asleep for five and twenty years, had lost none of her perceptive faculties in the trance. But she did not hamper her child with any doubts; she let her go on her simple way, under the shield of her simplicity, to test this world that she had come into, for herself.
Hazel had written down her little list of the girls' names that she would like to ask; and Mrs. Ripwinkley looked at it with a smile. There was Ada Geoffrey, the banker's daughter, and Lilian Ashburne, the professor's,—heiresses each, of double lines of birth and wealth. She could remember how, in her childhood, the old names sounded, with the respect that was in men's tones when they were spoken; and underneath were Lois James and Katie Kilburnie, children of a printer and a hatter. They had all been chosen for their purely personal qualities. A child, let alone, chooses as an angel chooses.
It remained to be seen how they would come together.
At the very head, in large, fair letters, was,—
Down at the bottom, she had just added,—
"MR. KINCAID AND DORRIS."
"For, if I have some grown folks, mother, perhaps I ought to have other grown folks,—'to keep the balance true.' Besides, Mr. Kincaid and Dorris always like the little nice times."
From the day when Dorris Kincaid had come over with the gray glass vase and her repeated thanks, when the flowers had done their ministry and faded, there had been little simple courtesies, each way, between the opposite houses; and once Kenneth and his sister had taken tea with the Ripwinkleys, and they had played "crambo" and "consequences" in the evening. The real little game of "consequences," of which this present friendliness was a link, was going on all the time, though they did not stop to read the lines as they folded them down, and "what the world said" was not one of the items in their scheme of it at all.
It would have been something worth while to have followed Hazel as she went her rounds, asking quietly at each house to see Mrs. This or That, "as she had a message;" and being shown, like a little representative of an almost extinct period, up into the parlor, or the dressing-room of each lady, and giving her quaint errand.
"I am Hazel Ripwinkley," she would say, "and my mother sends her compliments, and would like to have Lilian,"—or whoever else,—"come at four o'clock to-day, and spend the afternoon and take tea. I'm to have a little party such as she used to have, and nobody is to be much dressed up, and we are only to play games."
"Why, that is charming!" cried Mrs. Ashburne; for the feeling of her own sweet early days, and the old B—— Square house, came over her as she heard the words. "It is Lilian's music afternoon; but never mind; give my kind compliments to your mother, and she will be very happy to come."
And Mrs. Ashburne stooped down and kissed Hazel, when she went away.
She stood in the deep carved stone entrance-way to Mrs. Geoffrey's house, in the same fearless, Red Riding Hood fashion, just as she would have waited in any little country porch up in Homesworth, where she had need indeed to knock.
Not a whit dismayed was she either, when the tall manservant opened to her, and admitted her into the square, high, marble-paved hall, out of which great doors were set wide into rooms rich and quiet with noble adorning and soft shading,—where pictures made such a magic upon the walls, and books were piled from floor to ceiling; and where her little figure was lost as she went in, and she hesitated to take a seat anywhere, lest she should be quite hidden in some great arm-chair or sofa corner, and Mrs. Geoffrey should not see her when she came down.
So, as the lady entered, there she was, upright and waiting, on her two feet, in her nankeen dress, just within the library doors, with her face turned toward the staircase.
"I am Hazel Ripwinkley," she began; as if she had said, I am Pease-blossom or Mustard-seed; "I go to school with Ada." And went on, then, with her compliments and her party. And at the end she said, very simply,—
"Miss Craydocke is coming, and she knows the games."
"Miss Craydocke, of Orchard Street? And where do you live?"
"In Aspen Street, close by, in Uncle Oldways' house. We haven't lived there very long,—only this winter; before that we always lived in Homesworth."
"And Homesworth is in the country? Don't you miss that?"
"Yes; but Aspen Street isn't very bad; we've got a garden. Besides, we like streets and neighbors."
Then she added,—for her little witch-stick felt spiritually the quality of what she spoke to,—"Wouldn't Mr. Geoffrey come for Ada in the evening?"
"I haven't the least doubt he would!" said Mrs. Geoffrey, her face all alive with exquisite and kindly amusement, and catching the spirit of the thing from the inimitable simplicity before her, such as never, she did believe, had walked into anybody's house before, in this place and generation, and was no more to be snubbed than a flower or a breeze or an angel.
It was a piece of Witch Hazel's witchery, or inspiration, that she named Miss Craydocke; for Miss Craydocke was an old, dear friend of Mrs. Geoffrey's, in that "heart of things" behind the fashions, where the kingdom is growing up. But of course Hazel could not have known that; something in the lady's face just made her think of the same thing in Miss Craydocke's, and so she spoke, forgetting to explain, nor wondering in the very least, when she was met with knowledge.
It was all divining, though, from the beginning to the end. That was what took her into these homes, rather than to a score of other places up and down the self-same streets, where, if she had got in at all, she would have met strange, lofty stares, and freezing "thank you's," and "engagements."
"I've found the real folks, mother, and they're all coming!" she cried, joyfully, running in where Mrs. Ripwinkley was setting little vases and baskets about on shelf and table, between the white, plain, muslin draperies of the long parlor windows. In vases and baskets were sweet May flowers; bunches of deep-hued, rich-scented violets, stars of blue and white periwinkle, and Miss Craydocke's lilies of the valley in their tall, cool leaves; each kind gathered by itself in clusters and handfuls. Inside the wide, open fireplace, behind the high brass fender and the shining andirons, was a "chimney flower pot," country fashion, of green lilac boughs,—not blossoms,—and woodbine sprays, and crimson and white tulips. The room was fair and fragrant, and the windows were wide open upon vines and grass.
"It looks like you, mother, just as Mrs. Geoffrey's house looks like her. Houses ought to look like people, I think."
"There's your surprise, children. We shouldn't be doing it right without a surprise, you know."
And the surprise was not dolls' pelerines, but books. "Little Women" was one, which sent Diana and Hazel off for a delicious two hours' read up in their own room until dinner.
After dinner, Miss Craydocke came, in her purple and white striped mohair and her white lace neckerchief; and at three o'clock Uncle Titus walked in, with his coat pockets so bulgy and rustling and odorous of peppermint and sassafras, that it was no use to pretend to wait and be unconscious, but a pure mercy to unload him so that he might be able to sit down.
Nobody knows to this day where he got them; he must have ordered them somewhere, one would think, long enough before to have special moulds and implements made; but there were large, beautiful cockles,—not of the old flour-paste sort, but of clear, sparkling sugar, rose-color, and amber, and white, with little slips of tinted paper tucked within, and these printed delicately with pretty rhymes and couplets, from real poets; things to be truly treasured, yet simple, for children's apprehension, and fancy, and fun. And there were "Salem gibraltars," such as we only get out of Essex County now and then, for a big charitable Fair, when Salem and everywhere else gets its spirit up to send its best and most especial; and there were toys and devices in sugar—flowers and animals, hats, bonnets, and boots, apples, and cucumbers,—such as Diana and Hazel, and even Desire and Helena had never seen before.
"It isn't quite fair," said good Miss Craydocke. "We were to go back to the old, simple fashions of things; and here you are beginning over again already with sumptuous inventions. It's the very way it came about before, till it was all spoilt."
"No," said Uncle Titus, stoutly. "It's only 'Old and New,'—the very selfsame good old notions brought to a little modern perfection. They're not French flummery, either; and there's not a drop of gin, or a flavor of prussic acid, or any other abominable chemical, in one of those contrivances. They're as innocent as they look; good honest mint and spice and checkerberry and lemon and rose. I know the man that made 'em!"
Helena Ledwith began to think that the first person, singular or plural, might have a good time; but that awful third! Helena's "they" was as potent and tremendous as her mother's.
"It's nice," she said to Hazel; "but they don't have inch things. I never saw them at a party. And they don't play games; they always dance. And it's broad, hot daylight; and—you haven't asked a single boy!"
"Why, I don't know any! Only Jimmy Scarup; and I guess he'd rather play ball, and break windows!"
"Jimmy Scarup!" And Helena turned away, hopeless of Hazel's comprehending.
But "they" came; and "they" turned right into "we."
It was not a party; it was something altogether fresh and new; the house was a new, beautiful place; it was like the country. And Aspen Street, when you got down there, was so still and shady and sweet smelling and pleasant. They experienced the delight of finding out something.
Miss Craydocke and Hazel set them at it,—their good time; they had planned it all out, and there was no stiff, shy waiting. They began, right off, with the "Muffin Man." Hazel danced up to Desire:—
"O, do you know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man? O, do you know the Muffin Man That lives in Drury Lane?"
"O, yes, I know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man, O, yes, I know the Muffin Man That lives in Drury Lane."
And so they danced off together:—
"Two of us know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man, Two of us know the Muffin Man That lives in Drury Lane."
And then they besieged Miss Craydocke; and then the three met Ada Geoffrey, just as she had come in and spoken to Diana and Mrs. Ripwinkley; and Ada had caught the refrain, and responded instantly; and four of them knew the Muffin Man.
"I know they'll think it's common and queer, and they'll laugh to-morrow," whispered Helena to Diana, as Hazel drew the lengthening string to Dorris Kincaid's corner and caught her up; but the next minute they were around Helena in her turn, and they were laughing already, with pure glee; and five faces bent toward her, and five voices sang,—
"O, don't you know the Muffin Man?"
And Helena had to sing back that she did; and then the six made a perfect snarl around Mrs. Ripwinkley herself, and drew her in; and then they all swept off and came down across the room upon Mr. Oldways, who muttered, under the singing, "seven women! Well, the Bible says so, and I suppose it's come!" and then he held out both hands, while his hard face unbent in every wrinkle, with a smile that overflowed through all their furrowed channels, up to his very eyes; like some sparkling water that must find its level; and there were eight that knew the Muffin Man.
So nine, and ten, and up to fifteen; and then, as their line broke away into fragments, still breathless with fun, Miss Craydocke said,—her eyes brimming over with laughing tears, that always came when she was gay,—
"There, now! we all know the 'Muffin Man;' therefore it follows, mathematically, I believe, that we must all know each other. I think we'll try a sitting-down game next. I'll give you all something. Desire, you can tell them what to do with it, and Miss Ashburne shall predict me consequences."
So they had the "Presentation Game;" and the gifts, and the dispositions, and the consequences, when the whispers were over, and they were all declared aloud, were such hits and jumbles of sense and nonsense as were almost too queer to have been believed.
"Miss Craydocke gave me a butter firkin," said Mrs. Ripwinkley. "I was to put it in the parlor and plant vanilla beans in it; and the consequence would be that Birnam Wood would come to Dunsinane."
"She gave me a wax doll," said Helena. "I was to buy it a pair of high-heeled boots and a chignon; and the consequence would be that she would have to stand on her head."
"She gave me," said Mr. Oldways, "an iron spoon. I was to deal out sugar-plums with it; and the consequence would be that you would all go home."
"She gave me," said Lois James, "Woman's Rights. I shouldn't know what to do with them; and the consequence would be a terrible mortification to all my friends."
"She gave me," said Hazel, "a real good time. I was to pass it round; and the consequence would be an earthquake."
Then they had "Scandal;" a whisper, repeated rapidly from ear to ear. It began with, "Luclarion is in the kitchen making tea-biscuits;" and it ended with the horrible announcement that there were "two hundred gallons of hot pitch ready, and that everybody was to be tipped into it."
"Characters," and "Twenty Questions," and "How, When, and Where," followed; and then they were ready for a run again, and they played "Boston," in which Mr. Oldways, being "Sceattle," was continually being left out, whereupon he declared at last, that he didn't believe there was any place for him, or even that he was down anywhere on the map, and it wasn't fair, and he was going to secede; and that broke up the play; for the groat fun of all the games had come to be Miss Craydocke and Uncle Titus, as it always is the great fun to the young ones when the elders join in,—the older and the soberer, the better sport; there is always something in the "fathers looking on;" that is the way I think it is among them who always do behold the Face of the Father in heaven,—smiling upon their smiles, glowing upon their gladness.
In the tea-room, it was all even more delightful yet; it was further out into the garden, shaded at the back by the deep leafiness of grape-vines, and a trellis work with arches in it that ran up at the side, and would be gay by and by with scarlet runners, and morning-glories, and nasturtiums, that were shooting up strong and swift already, from the neatly weeded beds.
Inside, was the tall old semicircular sideboard, with gingerbread grooves carved all over it; and the real brass "dogs," with heads on their fore-paws, were lying in the fire-place, under the lilac boughs; and the square, plain table stood in the midst, with its glossy white cloth that touched the floor at the corners, and on it were the identical pink mugs, and a tall glass pitcher of milk, and plates of the thinnest and sweetest bread and butter, and early strawberries in a white basket lined with leaves, and the traditional round frosted cakes upon a silver plate with a network rim.
And Luclarion and Mrs. Ripwinkley waited upon them all, and it was still no party, to be compared or thought of with any salad and ice-pudding and Germania-band affair, such as they had had all winter; but something utterly fresh and new and by itself,—place, and entertainment, and people, and all.
After tea, they went out into the garden; and there, under the shady horse-chestnuts, was a swing; and there were balls with which Hazel showed them how to play "class;" tossing in turn against the high brick wall, and taking their places up and down, according to the number of their catches. It was only Miss Craydocke's "Thread the Needle" that got them in again; and after that, she showed them another simple old dancing game, the "Winding Circle," from which they were all merrily and mysteriously untwisting themselves with Miss Craydocke's bright little thin face and her fluttering cap ribbons, and her spry little trot leading them successfully off, when the door opened, and the grand Mr. Geoffrey walked in; the man who could manage State Street, and who had stood at the right hand of Governor and President, with his clear brain, and big purse, and generous hand, through the years of the long, terrible war; the man whom it was something for great people to get to their dinners, or to have walk late into an evening drawing-room and dignify an occasion for the last half hour.