THE LILAC LADY
THE SECOND OF THE PEACE GREENFIELD BOOKS
BY RUTH ALBERTA BROWN
Author of "At The Little Brown House," "Tabitha At Ivy Hall," "Tabitha's Glory," "Tabitha's Vacation," Etc.
THE SAALFIELD PUBLISHING COMPANY CHICAGO AKRON, OHIO NEW YORK
COPYRIGHT, MCMXIV By The Saalfield Publishing Co.
TO EDITH HASERICK MCFARLANE, THE SAINT ELSPETH OF MY GIRLHOOD, THIS STORY IS AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED.
I. EXPLORING THE NEW HOME
II. THE FLAG ROOM
III. CHRISTMAS DAY WITH THE CAMPBELLS
IV. A ZEALOUS LITTLE MISSIONARY
V. AN UNEXPECTED INVITATION
VI. PEACE'S SPRING VACATION
VII. A VOICE FROM THE LILAC BUSHES
VIII. A PICNIC IN THE ENCHANTED GARDEN
IX. GIUSEPPE NICOLI AND THE MONKEY
X. THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL
XI. PEACE FINDS NEW PLAYMATES
XII. A LITTLE CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM
XIII. CHILDREN'S DAY AT HILL STREET CHURCH
XIV. HOW THE FOURTH OF JULY MONEY WAS SPENT
XV. PEACE GIVES THE LILAC LADY AN IDEA
XVI. THE LILAC LADY FALLS ASLEEP
THE LILAC LADY
EXPLORING THE NEW HOME
Two days after the night of the memorable surprise party in the little brown house, the place stood dismantled and deserted under the naked, shivering trees, good-byes had been spoken, and the six smiling sisters had driven away from their Parker home amid much fluttering of handkerchiefs and waving of hands. Everyone was sorry to see them go, yet all rejoiced in the great good fortune which had befallen the little orphan brood. Even after the Judge's carriage, which was to take them to the station, disappeared around the bend of the creek road, the enthusiastic crowd of friends and neighbors clustered about the sagging gate continued to shout their joking warnings and happy wishes upon the crisp, frosty, morning air.
"There," breathed Peace, grinning from ear to ear, as she slowly unwound from the corkscrew twist she had assumed in her attempt to catch the last glimpse of the old home. "They're all out of sight now. I can't even see Hec Abbott any longer up in the tree with his dirty handkerchief. Oh, Mr. Judge, I forgot you were our coachman this morning, but his handkerchief is awful dirty! It always is. I guess his mother doesn't chase him up like Gail does us with clean ones. Faith Greenfield, what do you mean by kicking me like that? Ain't there room enough on that back seat for your big feet?"
"Little girls should be heard and not seen," quoted Cherry with her most sanctimonious air, noting the gathering frown on the older sister's face, and not quite understanding what had gone amiss.
"Yes, that's just what Peace believes, too," cried Hope with her happy, contagious laugh in which Gail and the Judge and even Faith joined, making the sharp air ring with their hilarity.
"Guess this ride must make you feel ticklish, too," suggested Peace, looking over her shoulder with a comical, self-complacent air at the crowded rear seat of the carryall. "I 'xpected to see some of you bawling about now—"
"Bawling!" echoed the girls in genuine surprise, while the old Judge chuckled to himself. "What for?"
"'Cause we've left Parker for good and all. We're never going to live there any more."
"But we shall visit there often. Grandpa said so," cried Hope, warmly. "It isn't as if we were bound for the poor-farm or some dreadful orphan home. We might have reason to cry then; but as it is, we're going to Martindale to live in a splendid great house with splendid, lovely people; and I can't help wanting to jump up and shout for gladness, even though we do love Parker and all the people there who have been so good to us—"
"Good for you, Miss Hope! Hip, hip, hurrah!" broke in the Judge, flapping the reins wildly as he doffed his hat and cheered heartily. "That's the proper spirit! We Parkerites don't expect you to break your hearts because you are going to a new home; we'd think it very queer indeed if you did. But we are glad to know this old town holds a tender spot in your memories. We shall miss you more than you will us, which is only natural; but as Hope says, you will be often among us as visitors, even though the little brown house will never be home to you again. Doctor and Mrs. Campbell have not only opened the door of their big house to you, but also the door of their hearts. Go in and take possession. You can make them the happiest people on earth if you want to—and I know you do. They intended to drive over after you this morning, but we villagers said no. They ought to be in Martindale to greet you, and we certainly deserved the privilege of escorting you to—"
"Ain't it nice to be pop'lar?" sighed Peace in ecstasy. "We're all bones of condescension today—now what are you laughing at?"
"Oh, we've reached the station already," chirped Allee with a suddenness which made everyone jump.
"And if there isn't Mr. Strong!" cried the older girls in astonishment. "How did you ever get here ahead of us? We left you sitting on Peace's gate-post."
"He sneaked," Peace declared without giving him a chance for reply. "He can sneak in anywhere. Oh, I didn't mean that as a complimemp, Mr. Preacher. You know I didn't! But you truly go so like a cat that people never know when you will jump out at them. Where is Elspeth—I mean Pet—I mean—Oh, there she is in the station house, and Miss Truesdale and Miss Dunbar and Dr. Bainbridge! We're much obliged that so many of you have come down to make sure we left town. Let me get out of here, Judge! I want to kiss Glen again." Scrambling excitedly out of her seat beside the dignified driver, she was over the wheels before he could stop her, and into the arms of the waiting friends.
None of the orphan sisters had expected such a glorious send-off—nor, indeed, had the Parker friends planned it beforehand. It was just one of those acts of kindness born of the impulse of the moment and made possible because of a shortcut to the station and the grocer's wagon which stood hitched in front of Mr. Hartman's door. But the sight of the little group of neighbors on the station platform was very gratifying to every one of the youthful Greenfields, and each proceeded to show her pleasure in her own characteristic way. This second farewell-taking was very brief, however, for down the tracks came the puffing train, stopping at the narrow platform only long enough for the laughing, chattering girls to climb aboard, before it glided away again, with Peace's shrill protests trailing off into silence: "I don't see why we have to take the train when it is such a teeny short ride. I'd rather go by street-car. I didn't kiss Elspeth but once, and the Judge looked as if he was dying for another—"
Silently, soberly, the gay little company at the railroad station dispersed to their various homes; but fortunately for the band of inexperienced travellers aboard the flying train, there was no time for serious thought, so brief was their journey. Scarcely were they settled with their hand-bags and grips when the brakeman threw open the door and strode down the aisle, bawling loudly, "Martindale, Martindale! Our next stop is Martindale Union Depot!" And before they could realize what was happening, the porter had bundled them off in the great, dark, noisy station-yard, filled with throngs of excited, hurrying people passing in and out of the heavy iron gates.
Caught in the jam, there was a moment of breathless bewilderment; a frantic disentangling of themselves from the pushing, shoving crowd; a hurried, frightened survey of the sea of unfamiliar faces around them, and then straight into the arms of the smiling college President the anxious sextette walked.
"Well, well, well!" he cried with boyish eagerness, trying to gather them all in one embrace. "Here you are at last! I've waited one solid hour for this train. Those Parker people tried to tell me it was my place to stand in the doorway over at the house and welcome you there, but blessed if I could wait! Neither could Grandma. I thought I had stolen away without anyone seeing me, but before I had reached the car-tracks, there she was right at my heels. Here, mother, are your—own!"
No welcome from the doorsteps of the great house could have warmed and thrilled those six hearts as did the husky, tremulous words of greeting in the dim, smoky station amid the clanging engines and shouted orders of trainmen. Home! Ah, what a glorious feeling of possession! The tears which had not come at thought of leaving the old home now welled up in the blue eyes and in the brown, but they were tears of joy and thanksgiving.
"I knew someone would do some bawling before we got through with this," sniffed Peace, searching in vain for the handkerchief which was never to be found in her pocket, and finally wiping her eyes on the august President's coat-sleeve. "Let's go home now. I want to see what it's like. You didn't bring the carriage, did you? It's just as well, I guess, for I s'pose we'll have lots of rides anyway. Only I wanted to see if the horses looked anything like Black Prince. Is this our car? Oak Street—I'll remember that; I may want to do some travelling all by myself some day. If you've got ten rooms in your house, how many are you going to turn over to us? For our very own, I mean. Three in a room makes things awfully crowded if the rooms are as teeny as they were in our house in Parker. 'Tisn't so bad in winter, but in summer we nearly roast to death nights. Do you have much comp'ny, and will we have to give up our rooms to them all the time? I forgot to ask you about these things before we said we'd come."
"Peace!" reproved Gail in an undertone, trying to check the flow of questions and information pouring so rapidly from the lively tongue. "Don't talk all the time. Give grandpa a chance to say a few words."
"Yes, I will," responded the child with angelic sweetness, in such loud tones that she could be heard all over the car. "I'm waiting for him to say a few words now. How about it, grandpa? Shall we each have a room or must we double up or thribble—"
"Peace!" called Allee in wild excitement, "there is Frances Sherrar's house!"
"Where? Is it, grandpa?" asked Cherry, a little twinge of envy seizing her as she remembered her younger sisters' visit there a few weeks before.
"Yes," he replied, glancing hastily out of the window, "I think very likely it was, as they live on the corner we have just passed, and the next street is where we get off. Press the button, Curlypate, or the conductor will carry us by. I didn't know you were acquainted with the Sherrars, Abigail. Frances is a student at the University; you will probably be in some of her classes. Give me your hand, Hope. There, mother, all our family are off. Right about face! One block west, and—here we are. Welcome home, my children! Peace, how do you like the looks of it?"
They had paused in front of a great, rambling, old house, set in the midst of a wide lawn, brown and sere now with approaching winter, and surrounded by huge, knotted, gnarled, old oaks, whose dry leaves still clung to the twisted branches and rustled in the crisp air. A fat, sleek, black Tabby lay asleep on the warm porch-rail; a gaunt, ungainly greyhound lay sunning himself on the door mat, and from inside somewhere came the sound of a canary's riotous song. The whole place breathed of home, and with a deep sigh of content, Peace lifted her great, brown eyes to the President's face and whispered, "It seems 'sif I b'longed already."
"You do," he murmured huskily. "This is home, dear."
Hand in hand they walked up the path and through the door into the big hall, flooded with warm sunshine and sweet with the smell of roses. Up the stairway they marched, followed by the other sisters, all silent, wondering, but happy, and paused in the doorway of a large, airy room, furnished with easy-chairs and couches, a tempting array of late books, and a dainty sewing-table, heaped with pretty materials such as young girls love. "This is mother's domain," the President announced, stepping aside to let them enter. "Hang your wraps in that closet for the time being, make yourselves presentable—there is a mirror on purpose for prinking—and then get acquainted with your new home. There is still an hour and a half before luncheon will be served, and that ought to give you quite an opportunity to make discoveries. Now away with you!"
"But—," "How," "What do you mean?" blurted out the astonished girls, wondering whether he was in earnest or just joking, for this seemed a queer way to introduce them to their new life.
"Just what I say," he laughed. "Mother thought we ought to conduct you about the place and explain all the different phases of your new home, but I am inclined to believe you will like it better if you can make the tour all by yourselves. Young folks usually glory in unexplored fields. Now to it, for time is fleeting! I shall call for a report of your discoveries at luncheon. A prize for the one who has seen the most."
"Do we have to go by ourselves?" Peace lingered to ask.
"As you wish," was the brief response; and with his hat in his hand, the busy President descended the stairs, leaving a very bewildered group in the sewing-room behind him.
"Well!" Gail ejaculated. "How shall we begin?"
"I saw a piano as we came through the hall below," Faith half whispered.
"And books! Everywhere!" cried Cherry, her eyes fastened longingly upon the little book-case in the corner. "Do they really belong to us now?"
"Yes, of course," answered Peace in business-like tones. "Come on, Allee; let's get to work and see what we can find before lunch time. This is a pretty big house, and we've got to hustle if we get all around it in an hour and a half. Wonder where grandpa and grandma went. Shall we commence at the bottom and work up, or start in at the attic? I guess the attic first will be best, seeing we've come up one flight of stairs already, and it would be just a waste of time to go down and have to climb them all again." Answering her own question, she clutched Alice's hand and disappeared in one direction, as the sisters, following her example, scattered about the great house on their tours of inspection.
The next ninety minutes were busy ones in the Campbell house, and it was necessary to ring the dinner bell twice before all members of the happy family were summoned to the table.
"Well, how goes it?" smiled the President. "Judging from the time it took to gather the clans, some of you must have been pretty busy."
"We were," dreamily murmured Cherry, who had been dragged bodily from the stacks of books in the library.
"Made any great discoveries?"
"Yes, indeed!" they cried in unison.
"Good! I'm all impatience! Relate your adventures. We are anxious to hear how you like your new home—mother and I. Abigail, you are the oldest; suppose you begin."
"I didn't get very far, I am afraid," said Gail modestly. "Just a peep into the rooms upstairs and a beginning down here when I found Gussie almost on the verge of tears because her dessert had burned black and she had no time to make any more; so I—"
"Bet our talking burned up her pies," Peace was heard to murmur remorsefully.
"—helped her out a little," continued Gail, "and by that time the bell rang, so there was no opportunity for any further investigations."
"Saint Elizabeth," said the President reverently, while the white-haired mistress of the house beamed her approval.
"Now, Faith,—but there is really no need of asking her about her discoveries. She got no further than the parlor with its piano. Now, did you?"
"No, grandpa," Faith confessed unblushingly. "I saw it when we came in, and I simply couldn't resist it a minute longer than was absolutely necessary. There will be lots of days for getting acquainted here, and besides, I knew Peace would carry off the prize—"
"Me carry off the prize!" Peace interrupted. "I've never got a prize for anything in my life—"
"Only because there never was one offered before for the person who could see the most or talk the longest," laughed Faith, and Peace subsided suddenly.
"Saint Cecilia,—she could not get past the piano," teased Dr. Campbell, when the shout of laughter at Faith's sally had died away. "Hope, what have you to say for yourself?"
"Not much. I visited all the rooms upstairs and down; fed the canary; got acquainted with Blinks, the cat, and Kyte, the hound; found Towzer and tried to make him be friends with Kyte, but he wouldn't be coaxed. Gussie said there were some kittens in the basement, so I went down there to find them, but the boy from the hardware store was there working on the furnace, and some way we fell to talking about studies, and he was so discouraged over his algebra lesson for night-school that I stopped to see if I could help him out a little, and the bell rang Just as we got the third problem worked."
"My gentle Saint Lucia," he said in praise, as he turned from her to the next sister in age. "Cherry, give an account of your wanderings."
"I wandered downstairs as far as the library—I guess that is what you call it."
"And then what?" for she stopped as if her tale were told.
"That's all. I stayed there."
"Oh!" The President wilted, Mrs. Campbell stared, and for a moment even the sisters were silent in surprise at the matter-of-fact tone of the narrator; then the whole assembly burst into another merry shout, much to the disgust of poor Cherry, who could see no cause for amusement, and voiced her sentiments by saying petulantly, "I don't see anything the matter with that! What difference is there between playing the piano all the morning and reading books?"
"It wasn't what you did that amused us," said Mrs. Campbell soothingly. "It was the way you told it. We won't laugh any more."
"Oh!" breathed the ruffled damsel in relief, "if that's all, I don't care how much you laugh. But you'll have a better chance with Peace—she never can tell anything straight."
"What kind of a saint is Cherry?" inquired the younger girl, ignoring the compliment she had just received. "If Gail is Saint 'Lizabeth and Faith is Saint Cecilia and Hope is Saint Lucy, what's Cherry?"
"Saint Bookworm, I guess, Miss Curiosity-Box. What have you been doing this morning?"
"Oh, lots of things," she sighed heavily. "Allee and me went together. We began with the attic, which is full of trunks of old clothes and battered-up furniture and cobwebs, and has two rooms for the hired girls to sleep in. Gussie's room is just suburb! It's dec'rated with the queerest looking old bird of a bedstead—"
"Peace! What slang!" cried Faith in genuine horror.
"It's no such thing! It is a bird! She calls it a swan, for it's got a tall, crooked neck for the foot-board, and if I had it in my room, I'd hang curtains on its tail. It could be done just splendid! I'll show you after lunch if you don't b'lieve me."
"Oh, we believe you! Go on. I'm interested in that room," begged Hope, wondering why she too had not begun with the attic.
"Then on the wall she has a great fish-net full of the prettiest postcards of Norway and Sweden and De'mark. She's a Swede, you know,—Gussie is; and her married brother and two sisters and grandmother still live over there. That's where the fish-net came from. I didn't have time to stop long to look at the cards 'cause there was so much else to do 'fore lunch time, but she's invited us to come up some evening when she's through work and then she'll tell all about them. There's the loveliest green and yellow quilt on her bed that she made all herself. She said grandma had a red one for her to use, but it seemed more like home with her own things, so she uses them instead of those that b'long to the house. But the prettiest of everything is a queer little piece of glass hanging in the window which makes her room look like a real rainbow on sunny days, 'cause the prison respects the light and sorts out all the colors. Oh, you needn't laugh and think you know better! Gussie told us all about it, didn't she, Allee?"
"Gussie did not call it a prison," Hope could not refrain from saying. "It is a prism, and it re—it isn't respects the light, grandpa—"
"No. Refracts is the word she wants to use. Peace tries to drink in so much information that she can't digest it all."
"Maybe that is what's the matter," Peace agreed thoughtfully. "Anyway, her room is a beauty—lots prettier that Marie's, though Marie has the same chance of making hers look nice that Gussie has. There's the same difference in the girls themselves that there is in their rooms, too."
"Why, what do you mean?" cried the astonished mistress of the house, while the President nodded his head in approval at the child's observations.
"Well, Gussie is good-natured and 'bliging, while Marie is cross and grouchy. We hadn't got the knob of her door turned before she ordered us out of her room and told us to mind our own business."
"Poor childie, I ought to have cautioned you not to go into either of those attic rooms without the girls' permission. You see, while they work here, that is the one place in the house which is really theirs, and they don't want the rest of the family intruding."
"Yes, I know now. Gussie told me how it was when I spoke of Marie's being cross, but we never touched a thing; we just looked, didn't we, Allee? Marie had the tooth-ache, and that's enough to make anyone ugly. I got her some funny stuff that a shoemaker in Parker gave me once when I had the tooth-ache. After that she was a little pleasanter to us—that is, for a time. It did stop the aching right away, but it took all the skin off her cheek where she put the medicine—it is to be rubbed on outside. I forgot to tell her it would do that, so she didn't like it very well when her face began to peel off, 'cause she is going to the theatre tonight with her beau. But when she jawed about it, I told her I'd rather have a skinned face and a chance to go to the theatre, than an aching tooth any day of the week, and fin'ly she decided she would, too. I guess I'll like her in time, but I like Gussie better. Then we went on downstairs and 'xamined the rooms on that floor. The big front room is awfully pretty, and so is grandma's room where she sews, but the other three bedrooms are very bare and ugly-looking. Is that where you're going to put us, grandpa?"
"Peace!" shrieked the sisters in horrified chorus.
"Yes!" roared the delighted President, and even Mrs. Campbell joined in his merriment.
"Well, I s'pose it is healthy," Peace reluctantly admitted; then as if divining a joke somewhere, she smiled serenely and continued her recital. "We looked through the parlor and library and dining-room and where you put company when they come, and then we came to the kitchen. We got there ahead of Gail all right, for Gussie was just making some pies and reading a book at the same time."
"A book!" echoed Mrs. Campbell, a slight frown gathering on the usually placid forehead.
"Yes, it was a pome of some kind that she was trying to learn. She wants to be a neducated Swede. She got through High School, but she wants to know more'n that, so's she can be a teacher some day. That's how she comes to be cooking for other people. She is a good cook and can make pretty good money that way. She isn't a big spender, so every month she can put away 'most all of her wages towards going to Normal School. I always thought Normal School was where they sent bad boys and girls who couldn't be good at home, but she says I mean Reform School. I guess she'll get to Normal School all right. I told her Gail would help her with her lessons when they got too hard for her alone, 'cause Gail's to go to the University right away; but I didn't think Faith would be much good at that, as long's she isn't quite through High School herself. I told her Faith could make lovely fancy things to eat and would like awfully well to teach her when she had any spare time, and Gussie says she'll be tickled to learn, 'cause she is only a plain cook and not up on frills yet."
Faith and the President exchanged comical glances across the table, but Peace was too much interested in her cake and fruit to notice what was going on around her, and blissfully continued, "We went down in the basement, too, and saw that boy from Benton's. His name is Caspar Dodds. His father is dead—what a lot of dead folks there are in this world!—and he has to earn money to take care of his mother and two sisters. She does plain sewing, and I promised you'd hire her sometimes, grandma. They live on Sixteenth Street, just at the corner where the Pendennis car turns off from the bridge. He told me how to get there. He's going to night-school so's he can learn the education he's missing daytimes, and says he gets along well in everything but algebra. I guess that's how he came to speak to Hope about it. I told him she'd be glad to help him with 'xamples he couldn't do, 'cause she was Professor Watson's star scholar in that. Gussie told us about the kittens, too, so I knew Hope would be down to find them, and that way she'd see Caspar. She must have come along right after us or she wouldn't have found him, 'cause he was 'most ready to go when we went out to the barn.
"Jud had just brought in the horses from exercising them, and I told him I guessed likely we'd help him at that job after this, for all of us like to ride. At first he wasn't going to let us see the horses and we had to do a lot of talking 'fore he'd give in. He used awful poor grammar, and when he told us the stable wasn't the place for little girls and that we better go in the house and learn to cook like Gussie, I asked him why he didn't get some books and learn to speak right like Gussie, instead of sitting on an old box and reading yellow newspapers—well, it was yellow, just as yellow and musty and old as it could be! And he's too nice looking to be nothing but a horseman all his life. When I told him that, he got interested and fin'ly showed us some books he was trying to study, but he can't see sense in the grammar. Gussie promised to help him, but she never has much time for such things, and he thinks she thinks he's a plumb dunce. I promised to ask her if that's the way she felt, but he said I mustn't; so I did the next best I could think of—I told him Cherry would study grammar with him. She uses the same book he has in the barn, and—"
"Peace Greenfield, did you really tell him that?" gasped poor frightened Cherry, looking as if she had just heard her death sentence pronounced.
"Why, yes! I thought you'd be glad to help him out that much. I haven't got as far as grammar in school yet, or I'd teach him all myself; but I promised to talk proper grammar to him, so's to help all I could. What do you look so scared about, Cherry? He really wants to learn; he ain't fooling. And he's an awful nice man. He showed us the squirrels' hole in the vacant oak by the barn—I mean the hollow oak—and took us down to the boat-house on the river. You never told us anything about the river being so near here, grandpa. And he pointed out the University buildings through the trees, and promised to show us around the grounds right after lunch if you didn't have time to bother. He let us go up in the barn loft and says if you're willing, we can have a playhouse up there in the part with the window that looks out over the river. Then he pulled out his watch to let us know it was lunch time, but we told him right square out that there was one more thing we wanted to see, lunch time or no lunch time, and that was the horses. So after he grumbled some more about children being such nuisances, he took us downstairs again, and showed us your Marmalade and Champagne. Oh, but—"
"What?" shouted the whole family in shocked amazement.
"Marmalade and Champagne," Peace repeated more slowly. "That is what Jud called them. They aren't as pretty as our Black Prince, 'cause they are only red, and a red horse is never as nice as a black—"
"Horses! What funny names!" laughed Hope.
"She has made a mistake," smiled Mrs. Campbell. "They are Marmaduke and Charlemagne. My nephew's children named them, which accounts for their high-sounding titles. I am glad you like Marmaduke and Charlemagne, Peace. We think they are very intelligent animals. Jud has succeeded in teaching them several rather clever tricks."
"Yes, I like the horses and I like the people. It's going to be nice to live with such a neducated bunch. Marie's the only one that doesn't want to learn more, but p'raps she'll get over it. Who wins the prize, grandpa? That's all Allee and me saw. And what is the prize?"
"After dinner in the den tonight I'll tell you the secret," the President promised. "I had no idea it would take so long to recount your adventures, but my time is up now. I must go back to the University at once. And by the way, Peace, I am afraid Jud will have to show you around the campus if you must see it this afternoon. I have an important meeting at two o'clock."
THE FLAG ROOM
Scarcely had the dinner hour ended that evening when the hilarious trio of younger girls, followed by the more sedate, but no less eager older sisters, scurried down the long corridor toward the den where the President had already intrenched himself, waiting for the promised visit.
"Here we are, grandpa!" announced Allee, tumbling breathlessly through the doorway and into the nearest chair. "We raced and I beat."
"'Cause Cherry tripped me up," exploded Peace wrathfully. "It's no fair—"
"Tut, tut, my children!" Dr. Campbell interposed. "No scrapping allowed here. This is a home, not a kennel."
"Oh, we weren't scrapping," Peace hastily assured him, "but I'd have won if Cherry hadn't got her feet mixed up with mine, so's Allee got in ahead. I don't care, though. I can run the fastest of the bunch outdoors. Jud says I'm a racer, all right. Did I get the prize for talking the most this noon? Gail and Faith and all of them think I ought to have it—that is, Allee and me. We went together and saw the same things, though I did do all the telling."
The President laughed. "Yes, I believe you and Allee won the prize all right. Grandma thinks so, too, but that is just where the hitch comes; because, you see, the prize was just to be your choice of rooms upstairs, and with Peace in one room and Allee in another, how are we going to settle the question as to who has first choice?"
"Do you mean that the winner can choose which of those three bare rooms she wants for her very own?"
"That's it." His eyes twinkled merrily. Peace's untrammeled frankness furnished him much amusement.
"Well, then, why is Allee going to be in one room and me in another?"
"Why—why—why—" stammered the learned Doctor, at loss to know how to explain certain plans he and Mrs. Campbell had in mind. "We thought it would be best to pair you off so one of you younger girls roomed with one of the older sisters. Don't you?"
"No," was the emphatic reply. "It wouldn't do at all."
"Why not?" gently asked Mrs. Campbell, who had entered the room so quietly that none of the girls was aware of her presence.
"Well, s'pose you paired us off 'cording to our looks," Peace explained, without waiting for any of the sisters to register objections; "there'd be Hope and Allee together, for they are the lightest; and Gail and Cherry would have a room by themselves, 'cause they aren't either light or dark; and that would leave Faith and me to each other, being the darkest of them all. Now, Faith and me can't get along together two minutes. Ask Gail, ask Hope. Any of them will tell you so. It ain't because we like to fight, either. We just ain't made to suit each other, that's all. Mother used to say there are lots of people in the world like that, and the only way to get along is to make the best of it and agree to disagree. But it would never do to put us in the same room. That's too close. We don't like the same things, even. Faith'd be cross 'cause I'd want to put my b'longings certain places, and I'd get awful ugly if she took all the nice spots for her things.
"Then, s'posing you paired us off by ages—the youngest with the oldest, and the next youngest with the next oldest,—that would still leave Faith and me together. It wouldn't do at all, you see."
"How would you suggest dividing the rooms among you, then?" meekly inquired the President, casting a comical look of resignation at his puzzled wife.
"Put the ones of us together that get along the best. Allee and me are chums, and Cherry and Hope, and Faith and Gail. Then we'd all be suited and there wouldn't be any fussing—'nless it was among the big girls."
The President coughed gently behind his hand, Mrs. Campbell bent over to straighten an imaginary wrinkle in the rug at her feet, while Gail and Hope were industriously studying a picture on the wall. But Faith readily seconded Peace's proposition, saying heartily, "What she says is true, grandpa. She and I can't seem to get along together at all, though we do love each other dearly. We never have been interested in the same things, and I don't believe we ever will be. We have always paired off the way she says, and get along famously that way."
"But how will you furnish the rooms that way?" wailed Mrs. Campbell suddenly. "I had planned it all out—the blondes together, the brunettes, and—"
"The blondes and brunettes?" repeated Cherry in bewilderment.
"Yes; fair-haired, blue-eyed people are blondes, while those with dark hair and eyes are brunettes," Hope explained.
"It would be so much easier to carry out a color scheme in each room if you girls were paired off according to looks," sighed the woman in disappointment.
"Colors wouldn't amount to much if we fought all the time," murmured Peace, trying hard to look cheerful even at the prospect of having to room with the one sister she could not understand or agree with.
"That's so," agreed the President, chasing away the disfiguring frown on his forehead with a bright smile. "Besides, mother, the girls may have altogether different plans for decorating their rooms than—Well, Peace and Allee have first choice of room then. Which shall it be?"
"The one with the teenty porch!" quickly responded the duet, as though the matter had already been privately discussed.
"Aha, conspirators! Had your minds all made up, did you?"
"Yes, grandpa," Peace answered. "We have both slid down the pillar into the garden—what was the garden—and clum up the trellis as easy! Just think how much time we can save going in and out that way instead of having to run clear down the hall to the stairs every time—"
"Peace!" screamed Mrs. Campbell in horror.
"Peace!" echoed the scandalized sisters.
But for a long moment the President only stared. Then he spoke. "Now, see here, children, if you have that balcony room for your own, you must promise one thing. Don't ever use the porch pillars for a stairway again, either to get inside the house or out. Do you understand?"
"Yes, grandpa," came the reluctant promise.
"You will not forget?"
"No, grandpa," with still more reluctance.
"If you do, you will forfeit that room, remember. Porch pillars were never made for such purposes. They are not only hard on your clothes, but think what would happen if you should slip and fall."
The whole group shuddered at this direful picture, and the chief culprit snuggled closer to this newly found guardian, and whispered contritely, "We didn't think of that before. We'll be good."
"That's my girlie! Now for the other matters we must consider. When it was settled that you were to come here to live, mother and I talked over plans for refurnishing the rooms you are to occupy, but somehow we could not come to any satisfactory conclusions, and finally decided it would be best and wisest to let you select your own furniture and arrange it to suit yourselves."
"Whee!" interrupted Peace with a delighted little hop. "Won't that be—"
"Don't say 'bully'," implored Cherry.
"No, I won't. I'll say jolly. Won't that be jolly? Hooray!" Her shout of joy ended in such a queer, shrill squeak that the little company burst into a gale of laughter, and it was some minutes before order was restored, but when at last the merriment had subsided, each duet found themselves holding a small slip of paper which quite took their breath away.
"What is it?" asked Allee, standing on tiptoe to get a better view of the yellow scrap in Peace's hand, though she could not read a word on it.
"Grandpa! Is it to furnish our rooms with?" cried Hope, impulsively dropping a kiss on the tip of Mrs. Campbell's nose.
"Oh, you precious people!" whispered Gail tremulously. "It is altogether too much. We ought not to spend all that just on our rooms."
"Now, look here, my dearies," interposed Mrs. Campbell, beaming benignly at the flushed, surprised faces of the six girls, "father and I figured it all out carefully, and that is the amount we decided upon as necessary for all the fixings you would want to make you cosy. And you will find it won't go so far after all; but I know you can trim up some very dainty, pretty rooms with that amount. The beds we already had, so we left them there, but all the other furniture has been removed to the attic or disposed of in other ways, so you can follow your own inclinations in refurnishing your boudoirs. That is why I was so anxious to have the blondes together, but—I don't believe it will matter much. You will find some way of getting around that."
"Of course they will, and the room that is fixed up the prettiest a week from today will be presented with an appropriate picture," declared the President, hugely enjoying the pleasure and surprise of his adopted family.
Silence for a breathless moment fell upon the eager group, then with characteristic energy, Peace grabbed Allee's hand and started for the door, saying, "Come on, sister, let's get to work right away. We've got to win that picture to go with our porch." Just at the threshold another thought occurred to her, and she faced about with the remark, "Say, grandpa, do we have to spend all this money for dec'rations?"
"No," he laughed. "If you can find anything in the attic which you can use, take possession of it."
"And the money we don't spend is ours?"
For a fraction of a second he hesitated, wondering what scheme was taking shape under the thatch of brown curls; then with a twinkle in his eyes he answered, "Yes, I reckon it is."
"But, Donald," whispered Mrs. Campbell in his ear, "they are too young to be intrusted with such a sum."
"Grandpa," Gail interrupted, looking thoughtfully at the check which Faith was still studying curiously; "must we do this without help from anyone else? Suppose we should all happen to choose the same plan?"
"Oh, there is no danger of that at all because your tastes are not all the same, so far as I can discover; but I think it might be a good plan to consult with some older or more experienced person—some one outside the family. Grandma and I are to be the judges, you know; so it would not be fair for us to know beforehand what you were intending to do."
"Oh, how splendid to have it all a secret from you two!" cried Hope. "But who will help us?"
"We shall ask Frances Sherrar," announced Gail after a whispered consultation with her room-mate. "She knows all about such things."
"Then let's us ask Mrs. Sherrar," suggested Cherry, anxious to have as good authority to back them in their plans.
"That's a good idea," Hope conceded readily. "Whom shall you choose, Peace?"
They all expected to hear her name Mrs. Strong, her patron saint, but to their utter amazement she promptly retorted, "Gussie!"
"But, Peace," they protested, "Gussie won't know—"
"Gussie thinks just like I do about colors and such things. That's why I chose her."
Nor could the sisters change her decision in the matter, but as the time was short and there were many other affairs demanding their attention, the girls soon forgot their concern over Gussie's barbaric tastes, and Peace and Allee were left to their own devices.
For the next three days they spent their leisure moments in wandering hand in hand about the house, looking very sober, and listening anxiously to the sound of hammers in the rooms adjoining theirs. Then a marked change came over them; there were many conferences with Gussie in the kitchen; much prowling about the attic in secret, and even two or three trips to the barn to interview Jud, the man of all work. The sound of hammer and saw could be heard at almost any hour of the day, hurried visits were made to the sewing-room when no one else was in sight, and the pungent smell of paint and paste filled the house.
But at last all three rooms were in spick-and-span order, and the two judges were summoned to behold the result of the week's labor. At the first door they halted, and the President turned to his wife with a ludicrous grimace as he said, "Dora, I am afraid I've got us into trouble. How in this wide world are we going to be able to decide which is the prettiest room! And if it should be easy to decide that question, how shall we ever make our peace with the occupants of the other two? Oh, Dora!"
"Open the door!" clamored the laughing girls. "You should have thought of these things before you made such a rash promise." And they pressed about him so relentlessly that he was forced to turn the knob and enter the first bower of loveliness.
It was indeed a bower, so refreshingly cool and beautiful with its color scheme of pink and green and brown that it required very little imagination to transport one into the heart of some enchanted woods; and instinctively the four younger girls as well as the judges burst into a long-drawn exclamation of wonder and delight.
"Oh, I can smell the flowers," cried Hope, sniffing the air hungrily as if expecting to find the woodland blossoms there.
"And hear the creek," added Peace.
"I suppose they have won the prize," sighed Cherry disconsolately, while behind their backs Gail and Faith ecstatically hugged each other.
"Don't decide the question until we have seen the other two," suggested Mrs. Campbell sagely, and the excited company flocked eagerly into the next room.
Here everything was in blue and gold, even to the dainty curtains at the windows. The walls were covered with a delicate blue paper, dotted with sprays of cheerful goldenrod; the dresser and table were decorated with blue silk scarfs embroidered with the same flower; gilt-framed pictures hung upon the walls; and from the head of each narrow, gilded bedstead floated soft draperies of blue.
"Sky and sunshine," murmured Gail, quick to feel the perfect harmony of the room. "Isn't it lovely?"
"Yes, and it is fully as pretty as ours," whispered Faith, "though I like ours best."
"Now for the last," Cherry urged eagerly, well content with the rapturous exclamations her room and Hope's had brought forth. "This will have to be awfully good to beat the other two."
"It is awfully good," Peace informed her. "I think it is the best."
"So do I!" "And I!" came the chorus of surprised voices as the last door swung open and the beauties of the third chamber burst upon their view.
"It makes me think of fire-crackers," Cherry pensively observed.
"Nobody but Peace would ever have thought of such a thing," Faith put in.
"A regular Fourth of July room," stuttered the President when he had recovered his voice enough to speak. "Girlies, how did you do it?"
"Well," confessed Peace, meditatively chewing her finger in her endeavor to appear modest in the midst of such unstinted praise, "at first we didn't know what to do. The other girls kept talking about 'propriate colors for their complexions. Faith is all blunette and she looks best in pink. Hope is all blonde and blue is her best color, while Gail and Cherry have blunette hair and blonde eyes, and they chose yellow and green. I didn't know it then, but that is what they did. Anyway, they talked about the different colors till I thought we ought to have our rooms fixed up in things that fitted us. That made it hard for Allee and me, you see, 'cause she is all blonde and I'm all blunette. To fit her, the room would have to be all blue, and to fit me it would be all red. Gussie said it wasn't stylish to use red and blue together any more, so we didn't know what to do until one day when we were rummelging through the attic we found heaps and heaps of perfectly whole bunting and two great, big flags. That decided us to make a flag room of ours, and Gussie said it was a splen-did idea. So that's how it happened.
"Allee and me'd rather sleep together so's we can talk when we are awake, instead of having to holler our thoughts clear across the room from one bed to the other whenever we want to talk secrets; so we traded beds with Gussie. She said she was willing, and I always did want that bird of a bed after I saw it in her room. But the curtains wouldn't hang from its tail like I thought they would, and we—"
"Stole my Paris doll to hold 'em up with!" cried Cherry, spying for the first time the beautiful waxen image dressed to represent the Goddess of Liberty, which stood on a tiny mantel over the quaint little bed, and held the bunting curtains in one hand.
"We borrowed it," Peace corrected. "We couldn't very well ask you 'bout it without your teasing to know why, and Allee and me didn't have a decent doll among us. Besides, you never play with it any more, and like as not grandpa or some other person that's got money will give us one of our own for Christmas. Then you can have yours back again. I guess you can wait that long, can't you? We wanted the walls striped with red and white, but Gussie thought that would look too much like a barber shop, so we just had white paper. It doesn't much matter, for the flags cover most of that wall, and Martha and George—we found them in the attic—Washington take up all the space on that side under the eagle—we got that out of the glass case that stands in the barn loft. We were going to see if we couldn't find some rugs with flags in them, but Gussie said it wasn't nice to walk on our country's flag, so we chose this red carpet that used to be on this floor."
"But where did you get such cute, quaint furniture?" asked Faith who was trying the white enameled chairs one after another.
"Oh, that all came from the attic, too. Didn't cost us anything. It was a dull, ugly brown—"
"Mother's mahogany set," whispered Mrs. Campbell to the amused doctor standing at her side.
"—but a little white varnish made it just what we wanted."
"Did you do the painting?" asked Cherry, testing it with her finger to see if it stuck.
"No; we tried, but it looked so streaked we thought we sure had spoiled it. Gussie didn't have time to do a good job on it, either; so we asked Jud to help us out, and he said he would if Gussie—" There was a movement at the door, and the company glanced over their shoulders just in time to see Gussie's dress whisk out of sight down the hall. "—would give him a kiss. So you see we got that work done dirt cheap, too. Altogether, we spent nine dollars and ninety-one cents of the money grandpa gave us. Gussie kept the list. That's what the paper and white paint and ribbons for tying back our curtains—oh, yes, and the curtains themselves came to. They are just dotted Swish and we got it at a sale, so it didn't cost us much. Mrs. Grinnell says always watch for sales, 'cause lots of bargains can be picked up that way, and we remembered it this time. We spent the extra nine cents—to make just an even ten dollars—for candy to treat Gussie and Jud, seeing they wouldn't take any money for their work, but they didn't eat it all; so Allee and me had the rest."
"Did you make the curtains yourselves?" asked Cherry, the inquisitive.
"Well, mostly. Gussie cut them for us, and I held them straight in the machine while Allee made the pedal go. The seams ain't very crooked, but sometimes the needle would hit a lump in the pattern and teeter out around it, in spite of all I could do. But the made-up curtains at the store cost lots more than the raw cloth and weren't half so pretty, so Gussie said she'd help us make our own. Didn't we do well?"
"You certainly did," was the unanimous verdict. "The prize is yours."
"And children," said the President impressively, as they still lingered in the quaintly furnished room; "I hope every time you enter this door, the spirit of patriotism, the love of country, will grow stronger and greater in your hearts."
"Yes, grandpa, I guess it will," answered Peace in all seriousness, "'cause we'll always be thinking of the rest of that check money which we've saved from dec'rating our room so's we could buy fire-crackers and rockets for next Fourth of July."
CHRISTMAS DAY WITH THE CAMPBELLS
The days which followed the advent of the orphan sisters in the great house were happy ones. Oh, so happy! How can they be described? The two lonely old hearts which had hungered all these long years for the little children who had so early left them thrilled with gladness at every sound of the eager, girlish voices. Boundless content reigned in their hearts as they watched each expressive face and studied each different character; and they wondered openly how they had ever managed to live without this precious band of granddaughters, as they insisted upon calling their charges.
And the girls were equally happy. Gail felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, as if her soul had been suddenly freed from a dark prison. The care-worn look vanished from the thin face; the big, gray-blue eyes sparkled with animation; her heart bubbled over with gratitude and love; and in every possible way she tried to show these new guardians how deeply and tenderly she loved them. And her attitude was that of the other sisters also, except that each took her own method of showing it. The Campbells were well satisfied with their experiment and were never tired of saying to each, other, "They are ours now."
"Yes," Peace had answered them once when she had overheard these words; "we are yours now, but it seems to me 'sif we had always belonged to you. Some way, we fit in just as slick! 'Sif we had only been away on a vacation and just got home again, and you're tickled to see us and we're tickled to see you. Only—s'posing we really had been your granddaughters, s'posing you had been our Grandpa Greenfield, I bet you'd never have named me Peace."
"No," Dr. Campbell replied gravely, but with a quick thrill of tenderness in his heart for this little scapegrace who seemed to win from everyone an extra share of love; "no, I don't think I should have named you Peace—that is, if I could have foreseen what the blossom was to be when the bud unfolded. I should have called you Joy."
"Joy?" repeated Peace. "Humph! That sounds like a heathen name. We've got a story book about Hop Loy, a Chinaman who was born on Christmas Day and never saw a Christmas tree until he was older'n Cherry. Why-ee! Ain't that terrible! I used to think I'd like to have my birthday come on Christmas, but now I'm glad it doesn't, for then everybody'd make one present do for the two days, and I'd get only half as many pretty things as other children have. It's bad enough as 'tis, being born on New Year's Day, for by that time most folks have spent all their money on Christmas doings."
"Oho," he mocked, "is that what is bothering you? Well, now, don't you worry! You shall have your share of birthday gifts as well as heaps of Christmas presents as long as you live with us. This year Christmas will be doubly merry, for it is the first holiday season we have had any young folks to help us celebrate since the days when Dora's nephew used to spend his vacations with us."
"Why doesn't he come any more?" asked Cherry curiously.
"Oh, he is a gray-haired man now with children of his own," laughed grandma, then sighed, for the rollicking Ned who had been the life of so many vacations with them had married a society dame whose one aim was to see how many social victories she could score, and the poor children of the family fared as best they could in the great, loveless palace which they called home.
"Do they live in Martindale?" asked Hope, eager to add to her list of acquaintances any whom the Campbells loved.
"No, their home is in Chicago now. That is a photograph of the children." She pointed to a group picture on the fireplace mantel, and the girls clustered about it with inquisitive eyes.
"What a sad-faced child the smaller one is," observed Faith. "How old is she?"
"Six or seven weeks younger than Peace, I believe. She was born on Valentine Day."
"How lovely!" Peace cried joyfully. "But I'd like it better if it was the boy who was almost my age. He looks the nicest of the bunch. The big girl is homely—"
"Well, it ain't her fault, I know, and I wouldn't mind how homely she was if she looked sweet, but she doesn't. She looks 'sif she thought she owned the earth and I never did like a darnimeering person. Now Tom—his name is Tom, isn't it?"
"No, dear, it is Henderson. Henderson Meadows."
"Oh! Why, I was sure it was Tom; he has such a Tom-ish look—"
A shout of derision interrupted her, but she stoutly declared, "Well, he has! Boys named Tom are always nice—all I ever knew. I'm sorry his name is Henderson. It doesn't sound a bit like him."
"You are a queer chick," said the President indulgently, "but I quite agree with you in regard to Henderson. He is a splendid fellow, however, in spite of his long name. They ought to have called him Ned Junior. He is big Ned all over again, just as Belle the second is the counterpart of her mother. Lorene is the odd piece. Every family has one odd one, I believe. Lorene is like neither her father nor mother."
"What funny names! They are as bad as ours. But I should like to know the children—the folks, I mean. I s'pose Belle is too old to be called a child any longer, ain't she?"
"Yes, Belle is sixteen and stylish," he answered grimly, as if that told the story, and it really did, for little more could be said of the frivolous, society-loving girl, brought up to follow in the footsteps of her worldly mother.
"Do they come here often?" ventured Gail, still studying the group, none of whom looked really happy.
"No, oh no," Mrs. Campbell answered hastily. "Martindale is too quiet for Mrs. Meadows. Ned sent Henderson and Lorene up here for a month last summer, but Belle has never been our guest. Grandpa and I have visited them twice in Chicago, but that is all we have ever seen them."
"I wish they lived nearer," sighed Peace. "We never had any cousins of our own, but maybe they'd adopt us too, like you did; then we'd know what it feels like to have real relations."
"Suppose you write Lorene. I think she would enjoy getting letters from a little girl so near her own age."
"That would be nice, s'posing I liked to write letters," Peace assented, "but I don't. I'll send her a Christmas present, though; and a valentine when it comes time, and a birthday gift, too. She will like that, won't she? What street does she live on in Chicago? It'll have to go pretty soon if it gets there in time for Christmas. That's only a week off. Mercy! What a lot of work we'll have to do before then, getting ready for the parties. I do love parties! But I don't see what you wanted to make two for. One would have been a plenty, and not near so much work."
Mrs. Campbell laughed comfortably. "The house isn't large enough to accommodate all we want to invite, so we had to make two parties. Besides, the evening party is a sort of 'coming out' affair for my older girls—"
"Coming out of what?"
"Oh, introducing them into college society—"
"And we littler girls ain't worth coming out for? Is that it?"
"Oh dear no! But little girls don't come out into society. They have to wait until they are grown up. Even Gail and Faith are too young for the social whirl as the world understands that phrase. They must wait until they are through with school and college life before they take up social duties. But they have met so very few of our young people since coming here to Martindale to live that we are giving this party to introduce them to their own classmates really. Do you understand now?"
Peace did not, but she vaguely felt that she ought to, so she bobbed her head slowly and fell to puzzling over the queer ways of the world. Fortunately for the whole household, the last week of preparation for the holiday season was a very busy one, so Peace had little time to think of all these perplexing questions; and when Christmas Day dawned at length, everyone thought she had forgotten her grievance over not being invited to attend the evening party for the older sisters. But Peace remembered, and in the gray of the early dawn before anyone else was awake in the great house, the door of the flag room burst open with a jerk and a joyous voice shrieked through the gloom:
"What have you got in your stockings, girls? Mine is stuffed so full it fell off the nail, and one chair and half the dresser is loaded with the left-over packages. And Allee's got as many as I have. There's a doll for each of us—they beat yours all hollow, Cherry. Now we've got a Goddess of Liberty all our own and you can have yours as soon as ever you want it. And I've got seven books. Guess Santa must have mixed me up with you again, Cherry. There are three puzzles and five games and a lot of handkerchiefs and ribbons, two sashes, and oh, the loveliest white dress for winter wear, all trimmed with the softest velvet—just the thing for your party tonight, Faith, s'posing I was invited. And there's a plaid dress and a plain red one and a brown one and a dark blue—six in all—and two coats. Two! Think of that! Mercy, ain't we rich now? Are you awake, all of you? Are you listening? Ain't this different from last year?"
Ah, how well they all remembered that last Christmas, and what a hymn of praise and thanksgiving went up from each of those six hearts for the joy and good tidings this Christmas had brought them!
Before Peace had finished shouting her catalog of gifts, the other sisters were awake—and indeed, the whole household was astir—examining the generous remembrances loving hands had heaped around their beds as they slept. And what a merry time they made of it! Gussie could scarcely prevail upon anyone to touch her tempting breakfast, for excitement had dulled the usually hearty appetites; the young folks found their treasures more alluring than any breakfast table could possibly be, and the President and his wife hovered over them to enjoy the sight of their joy.
"A body'd think they had never seen a Christmas Day before," muttered Marie, waiting impatiently in her snowy cap and apron to serve the rapidly cooling breakfast.
"It's many a long day since they have seen one like this," said Gussie loyally, smiling gratefully as she thought of the liberal number of packages old Santa had left hanging to her door during the night. But at length the meal was ended, Marie had carried the dishes away, Jud appeared with a step-ladder and hammer, and the younger trio were banished upstairs to amuse themselves until the last of the party decorations were put in place. This was not a hard thing to do, fortunately, and for once not one of them raised any objection to being exiled in this fashion.
"Why, I've enough things of my own to look at and think about to last me a week," Cherry breathed ecstatically.
"Yes, and s'posing you did get tired of that," spoke up Peace, "there's all the rest of the girls' bundles to 'xamine. They've each got a hundred 'most near, I sh'd think."
So for a long time they fluttered from room to room, admiring the pretty things that were now their own, nibbling chocolate drops, or discussing the party scheduled for two o'clock that afternoon. Then gradually conversation flagged; each girl sought a favorite retreat, and surrounded by her pile of belongings, sat down to gloat over them. Silence fell upon the rooms, broken only by the sound of rustling ribbons caressed by admiring hands, the opening and shutting of boxes, the fluttering of story-book leaves, the protesting squeak of Queen Helen's bisque arms and legs, and the rattle of mysterious puzzles.
Cherry had retired to her own domain to regale herself with certain tempting volumes, and Peace and Allee were alone in the flag room when the older girl suddenly dropped the book in which she had been lost for a full half hour, and said eagerly, "Allee, this is the most interesting story I ever read. It tells how the little Swede children give the birds a Christmas. Think of that! The birds! We tried to make it happy for everyone we knew—Jud and Gussie and Marie and the flirty chimney-sweep who goes by here every morning, and the washwoman who lives in the alley, and the milk-boy who comes so far through the cold to bring us our milk, and Caspar Dodds' family—and—and—all of them; and we even remembered the canary and the dogs, but we never thought of the birds outdoors."
"No, we didn't," Allee agreed, pausing in her occupation of undressing the gorgeous Queen Helen to stare fixedly at her sister as if trying to fathom her thoughts. "We might ask Gussie for some crumbs. It ain't too late yet."
"Crumbs wouldn't do at all. The book says they tie a sheaf of wheat to a tall pole in the yard so the birds will see it and come down and eat. See, there is the picture."
"Um-hm. But we haven't any tall pole in our yard, 'cept the flag-pole and that's on the roof."
"No, we haven't any pole like the book shows, but we could hitch the wheat on our balcony-rail knobs and when the birds came down to get it, we could watch them from this window. See?"
"Where'll you get the wheat?"
"From the barn. Jud's got a lot of different kinds of grain out there."
"But we can't go downstairs until party time. Even lunch is to be brought up here, grandma said."
"That's so. But I don't think they'd care if we just slipped down the stairs and straight out of the front door. It wouldn't take us but a minute to get the wheat and come right back again."
"Grandma said if we went downstairs before she gave us leave, we couldn't go to the party at all."
"Then how can we feed those birds?"
"I guess we can't feed them this year—'nless we do it tomorrow."
"Tomorrow won't be Christmas. We've got to do it today. Just think how nice it will be to play we are little Swedes and how pleased Gussie'll be to think we did something her people do."
"Why do just Swedes feed the birds?" inquired Allee, still a trifle dubious about entering into Peace's plan, in view of the risk involved.
"Oh, I s'pose they thought of it first. Every kind of people do something queer at Christmas which they call a custom. The Holland children put out their shoes on Christmas Eve for Santa Claus to fill, instead of hanging up their stockings."
"Their shoes?" Allee's eyes were as round as saucers with astonishment.
"Yes. They wear big, wooden boats for shoes. I guess their feet must be extra big—anyway, their shoes are simply e-mense and will hold a lot. Then there's the French people,—they always save up all the fusses and scraps they have had with other folks during the year, and on Christmas Day they go around and get forgiven. Wonder what Gail would think of that! And the Irish folks stay up all night to hear the horses talk."
"Peace, you're fooling!"
"Allee Greenfield, do I ever fool you?"
"N—o, you never have."
"And I ain't beginning now. That is just what this book says."
"But horses don't talk!"
"Only at Christmas time."
"I don't b'lieve they do then. Did you ever hear them!"
"N—o, but I'm going to stay up tonight and listen."
"Oh, we can't. This is party night and what would grandma say?"
"We'll never know if they talk unless we do stay up and listen—and I'd like to find out what they say. It's just at midnight. That ain't long. We go to bed at eight, and midnight is only twelve o'clock. We could stay awake easily till then, 'cause the people who are invited will be leaving just about that time. I heard grandma say so. We'll just skip away to the barn and see if Duke and Charley are talking, and then we'll come back before anyone knows we're gone."
The plan was truly very fascinating, but Allee still looked very doubtful, and after a silent moment Peace broke out in an aggrieved tone, "I don't see what is the matter with you, Allee. You are getting to be just like Cherry. She always sets down on my plans. You won't help me hang up the wheat for the Swedes or listen to the Irish horses. You never used to be like that."
"I will too help you!" cried Allee, hurt at her boon companion's words and tone. "I'll do anything you want me to, only I don't see how we can carry out either one of those. We'll surely get scolded if we go downstairs now, and it would be dreadful if we couldn't go to either party."
Peace walked to the balcony window and threw up the sash, murmuring, "If only grandpa hadn't made us promise not to slide down the pillars! Oh, I've got it, Allee! Look here!"
Allee scrambled up from the floor and hurried to her side, shivering in the cold blast that blew in through the open window, bearing with it a few feathery flakes, for it was trying hard to snow. "See that piece of the wall that sticks out there, and—"
"But how can you walk on that little mite of a piece?" gasped Allee, growing pale at the very thought. "And how would you get down to the ground?"
"Oh, that's easy! The rain-pipe is fastened just high enough for me to hang onto, and 'sides, the trellis goes part of the way to the porch roof, and Jud hasn't taken down the ladder he put up there yesterday."
"Yes, but s'posing you should fall," wailed Allee in sudden terror, for the water-pipe looked like a very frail support even for a child as small and light of foot as was Peace, and the corner with the projecting porch roof seemed so far away.
"There's snow on the ground. I wouldn't get hurt. But you needn't think I'm going to fall. I've clum lots harder places than that before. You stay here and when I get back you can tack up the wheat on the rail post."
Carefully she stepped out on the balcony, slipped over the low railing and set out on her perilous journey along the narrow coping, clinging tightly to the rain-trough with one hand, and hanging onto the trellis supports with the other till at last she was safe on the porch roof at the corner. With an exultant shout she turned and waved her hand at rigid, white-lipped Allee in the window, then slid lightly down the ladder and out of sight. She was gone a long time, and the small watcher above was becoming alarmed at her stay, fearing that the daring acrobat had been caught at her pranks, and wondering what punishment would befall her in such an event, when the bare, brown head appeared over the low porch roof once more, and Peace inquired in a worried tone, "Do you know whether birds eat hay? 'Cause I can't find any whole wheat out there. It's all shocked."
"Why, I never watched them long enough to see," began Allee, eyeing the great twisted wisp the older child had in her hand.
"Well, I brought some grain, too, but I don't know how we can tie that to a pole, 'nless we leave it in the bag, and then how can the birds get at it!"
"We might throw it along the rail—it's wide enough to hold quite a little—"
"Course! What a nijut I am not to think of that myself!"
Slinging the bag of grain over one arm, and still clutching the hay firmly in the other hand, she began her slow creeping along the coping back to the balcony window. The rain-pipe shook threateningly under her weight, and even the trellis supports swayed uncomfortably when once she slipped and almost lost her frail footing. Allee gave a low moan of horror and shut her eyes, but the daring climber did not fall, and when next the watcher looked, she beheld the curly, brown head bobbing over the balcony rail, as Peace swung up to safety beside her, and dropped the burden—the birds' Christmas dinner—into her trembling hands.
Nor was Allee the only one who trembled. On the snowy walk below, approaching the house with rapid strides, came the dignified President, hand in hand with two children, a bright-eyed, black-haired boy of perhaps a dozen years, and an under-sized, gipsy-like little girl, both chattering like magpies as they raced along beside the tall, erect old man, when suddenly the girl screamed faintly, "Oh, Uncle Donald, look!"
But he had caught sight of the apparition even before she spoke, and halted abruptly, breathlessly, terror clutching at his heart. The boy followed the gaze of his two petrified companions, and ejaculated in amazed admiration, "Golly, but she's got grit! Why, Uncle Donald, that's your house! That must be one of the girls you were telling us about. Is it Peace?"
The President nodded his head mechanically, not knowing that he had heard the question, but the next moment the frozen horror of his face melted. The climber had reached the balcony and was unconcernedly scattering a handful of grain over the narrow railing, while Allee securely bound the wisp of hay to the balcony post. A great sigh of relief escaped the watchers below, their hearts began to beat once more and the red blood pounded through their veins.
"Oh," gasped the girl, "I thought sure she'd fall!"
"I didn't," declared the boy with a wise shake of his head. "She's a reg'lar cat. I believe she could climb a wall. She's like that 'human fly' the papers are always telling about. I'd like jolly well to see him do some of his stunts, you better believe!"
The President said nothing, but his mouth set in grim lines and a look of determination replaced the fearful pallor of his face. Forgetful of the guests he had in tow, he marched into the house and straight up the stairway with the children still at his heels. At the door of the flag room he knocked, then without waiting for a summons from within, he entered.
The two scatterers of Christmas cheer had finished their work by this time and were now gleefully watching the feathered folk of the air settling about the unexpected repast, so they scarcely heard the steps in the hall or the creak of the opening door. But at the peculiar sound of the voice speaking to them, both girls wheeled quickly, and Peace asked in guilty haste, "Did you want us, grandpa?"
"Yes, come here, both of you."
They went and stood at his knee, a secret fear tugging at each little heart as they saw the unusually stern look he bent upon them.
"Is—is—what—why—," stammered Peace, wishing he would smile a little to relieve the keenness of his glance.
"What were you doing just now?"
"Feeding the birds like the Swedes do on Christmas Day, only we didn't have a pole to hitch our wheat to, and all our wheat was in kernels anyway, and we were told not to go downstairs until Jud and the girls were through dec'rating, so we clum out of the window and I got some hay and grain just as slick! Don't the birds look as if they were enjoying their Christmas dinner?" Peace rattled on, speaking so rapidly that the words fairly tumbled out of her mouth.
"Didn't I tell you when you chose this room for your own that you would forfeit it the first time you used the window for the stairway?"
"No, grandpa," came the astounding reply from both eager little girls. "You said porch, pillars, and we have never used them for stairways since the time we told you about. We 'membered that carefully, and this time we used that wide piece that sticks out of the wall, and then clum down Jud's ladder from the back porch roof. That ain't the balcony pillars, grandpa. You never said we couldn't go down that way."
In absolute amazement the learned Doctor of Laws gazed long and silently into the anxious, upturned faces. Allee's lips began to tremble, and even Peace, remembering the Doctor's words in regard to lickings the night of the surprise party in the little brown house, shook in her shoes; but she steadfastly returned his gaze, and quietly repeated, "You know you didn't, grandpa!"
"No," he said at last. "I did not forbid your going down that way, but it was only because I never dreamed you or anyone else would ever try such a feat." Suddenly his sternness vanished, he stooped quickly and gathered the scared little souls in his arms, choking huskily, "My little girlies, if you knew what a fright you have given your old grandpa—"
"Oh, grandpa," quavered Allee from her retreat on his shoulder, "we'll never do it again, truly!"
"And you won't take this darling room away from us this time, will you?" wheedled Peace, her equilibrium restored at sight of this unusual display of emotion.
"No," he promised, "not this time. We'll try you again, but remember—no more window climbing of any kind."
"Not even out onto the balcony?" wailed Peace in dismay.
There was a sound of suppressed laughter from the hall, and as the girls in the flag room whirled about to discover the cause, the President suddenly remembered his new guests and rose hurriedly to his feet. But Peace had reached the door in a bound and with a cry of delight dragged forth the embarrassed strangers, exclaiming, "It's Henderson and Lorene, grandpa! They look 'xactly like their picture, don't they, only not quite so grumpy? Grandma said I better write Lorene and I did and I invited her to come up for my party. That's how they happen to be here. Now we'll get acquainted with our relations, won't we? I invited Belle, too. Why didn't she come?"
"Belle and mamma went to Evanston last week," Lorene explained bashfully.
"And they let you come all alone?"
"They don't know yet that we aren't in Chicago," chuckled Henderson. "Dad let us come. It's only a twelve-hour ride and we don't change cars at all. Pooh! We've gone longer ways than that alone."
"But not when mamma knew it," supplemented Lorene. "She'd have insisted upon sending Nurse with us—if she had let us come at all. Where shall we put our wraps? It's hot in here."
"Oh, I forgot!" cried Peace, abruptly recalled to her duties as hostess, for dazed Dr. Campbell had gone in search of his wife the minute he saw that the children were sufficiently introduced.
"Hang your coat on the hall-tree, Henderson; and Lorene, bring your things in here. It's pretty near lunch time already, and then we must dress for the party."
So in spite of their very unexpected arrival, the two strangers received a royal welcome, and were soon very much at home with the six merry girls whom they promptly adopted as cousins, just as Peace had hoped they would. And how quickly the hours flew by! Before anyone realized it, the great clock in the hall struck two, and promptly the small guests began to arrive. Happy voices filled the house, happy faces beamed from every corner, happy hearts beat high with Christmas cheer; the very air seemed charged with happiness. The four younger sisters made charming hostesses, Grandma Campbell proved to be a rare entertainer, and the dignified President won everlasting fame as a story-teller and leader in games.
"Everything was a success," as Hope thankfully declared when the last guest had departed, and the happy group had congregated in grandma's room to talk things over while Jud and his corps of helpers were setting things to rights for the evening party.
"Yes," Peace reluctantly conceded, "but think how much nicer it would have been if we could have had it in the evening like grown-up folks."
"Still harping about that?" laughed Faith, pausing in the doorway with her arms full of holly wreaths ready to be hung. "Daytime is made for children. Gail and I didn't intrude at your party."
"That ain't 'cause you wasn't invited," Peace replied pointedly.
"But we couldn't very well come," Faith answered hastily. "There were so many things we had to get ready for our tree tonight."
"Getting things ready for a tree ain't like having to lie in bed and hear all the noise and music and know you can't have any share at all in them," Peace persisted; but Faith had already vanished down the stairway, and only a tantalizing laugh floated back in reply.
A hush fell over the little company in the cosy room, each busy with happy thoughts or rosy day-dreams, as she stared at the glowing embers in the great fireplace or watched the white flakes drifting down through the early twilight outside. Then there was a firm step on the stair, a cheery voice from the hallway broke the spell, and six pair of eyes were lifted to greet the busy President as he briskly entered the room and paused to survey the pretty scene.
"Well, well," he said bluffly, "what's the difficulty? Quarrelling?"
"No, sir!" they shouted emphatically.
"We were just thinking—" Henderson began.
"How nice it would be if little folks were invited to grown-up parties," finished Peace, who seemed possessed of only that one idea.
"That's just what I have been thinking, too," was the surprising confession from the tall man on the hearth rug.
"Well, when mother and I came to think over the subject seriously, we both agreed that it did not seem exactly fair to put three, no, four such charming little maids to bed—for of course Lorene would share your fate, too—when there were to be such festive doings downstairs, although neither one of us believes in late hours for children. I presume we are very old-fashioned in some things—"
"No, you aren't," chorused the loyal girls.
"No? True patriots! And yet didn't you think grandma and I were just the least teenty bit hard on you to make you go to bed at the regulation hours tonight when it is Christmas?"
"W-e-ll, we would like awfully much to stay up and see if Gail and Faith do as good entertaining their comp'ny as we did," confessed Peace with unusual hesitation.
"Supposing I should tell you that we have decided to let you stay up an hour or two longer?"
"Oh, grandpa, what a darling you are!"
"No, you must thank Faith. She begged so hard that we have had to give in to satisfy her."
"Faith?" Peace was so completely dumbfounded that they had to laugh at her.
"Yes, dear, Faith. She says you are so dreadfully anxious to see what a grown-up Christmas party is like that she is afraid you will die of curiosity if you can't have that wish fulfilled."
"Grandpa, you are just joking," Cherry reproved.
"I am thoroughly in earnest, I assure you. To be sure, Faith used somewhat different words, but she sympathized so heartily with you that we decided to let you enjoy part of the evening's program. In fact, the only reason we planned two parties in the first place was because the old house wouldn't hold at one time all we wanted to invite; and we thought it would be a great deal easier to entertain our guests if we had the big folks at one party and the little people at another. Do you understand now?"
"Yes, and I'll bet you've been figuring on letting us go all the while we were stewing about it," cried Peace, the irrepressible.
"Maybe you are right," he chuckled.
She bounced off the floor with a squeal of delight, clutched Allee with one hand and Lorene with the other, and rushed out of the room, calling back over her shoulder, "Now, I'm surblimely happy! You better go dress, Cherry! Dinner will soon be ready and there won't be much time after that before the party begins."
They had been happy before, but the granting of this one dear wish transported them to such heights of bliss that they seemed to be walking on clouds, and went about in such a state of rapture that it was ludicrous as well as delightful to behold their antics.
Evening came, the guests arrived, music sounded, carols were sung, and Peace, entranced, moved about through the gay, light-hearted throng like one in a dream. To be sure, it was just as the President had prophesied—little attention was paid to the children of the party, but it was glorious fun just to watch the changing scenes and be a part of them, instead of lying tucked away in bed upstairs listening with ever-increasing curiosity and longing to the sounds of merrymaking below.
With a happy sigh of content at the realization of her great ambition, Peace dropped down upon a pile of cushions by one of the long French windows, leaned her forehead against the cool pane and looked out into the night, where by the flickering light of the street-lamps she could see the white snowflakes drifting slowly, lazily downward.
"My, but hasn't this been a happy Christmas!" she said aloud, though no one was near enough to hear her words. "Who'd ever have thought last Christmas that we'd be here tonight? Do you s'pose the angels know we don't live in Parker any more? We might set a lamp in the window so's they'd see it and be sure. Gail says mother always did that when papa was out after night, so he could find his way home all right. I'll tell Allee and when we go to bed we'll just remind the angels that we don't need so much looking after now that we're living here. I'll never forget how s'prised Hec Abbott was when he found out that we'd all been 'dopted together. I wonder what Hec is doing about now? He can't brag any more about the good times they have at his house. We are just—what in the world is that coming up the steps?"
Mechanically she rose to her feet, her nose still pressed flat against the window-pane as she studied the huge, misshapen figure already on the wide veranda. The footman who had ushered in the guests of the evening was at that moment occupied in fastening up a strand of evergreen which had fallen close above a gas-jet; the President was at the furthest corner of the great parlor engaged in an animated discussion with a pale-faced professor of Greek; and Mrs. Campbell was nowhere in sight. With a wildly beating heart, Peace seized the door-knob, and not waiting for the queer stranger outside to ring the bell, she flung wide the door and confronted him.
"Why, it's Santa Claus!" they heard her say, for the sudden sharp blast of winter air had drawn a crowd to the door to see what had happened. "Don't you know, sir, that you can't come in this way? Go up to the roof and climb down the chimbley, like you do at other houses," she commanded, and in the face of the amazed Saint Nick she slammed the door.
"Peace, what have you done?" cried Gail aghast, as she caught a glimpse of the fat, knobby pack disappearing down the steps.
"It was just that Santa Claus forgot to go down the chimbley," she explained. "He ought to have remembered that!"
A shout from the adjoining room cut short her defense, and as the crowd surged forward in that direction, she beheld the jolly old Saint shuffling across the floor dragging his heavy pack which certainly looked as sooty and dirty as if he had really plunged down the tall chimney and through the fireplace. Straight to her corner he came, and fumbling in his sack, drew forth a tiny statue of the Goddess of Liberty, which he presented with an elaborate bow, saying in a deep, rumbling voice, "To the defender of all childhood traditions—Liberty enlightening the world!" His words were greeted with mad applause, for by this time everyone had heard the story of the flag room and peeped at its quaint furnishings; but the laugh was quickly turned from one to another, for St. Nick had remembered well the pet foibles of each guest present, and had brought with him appropriate gifts for all.
Much too soon the hands of the clock crept around to the hour of half past ten, and with sighs of resignation and disappointment, the four smaller girls, Cherry, Peace, Lorene and Allee, slipped quietly away to bed.
"I did so want to hear the rest of the carols," murmured Cherry, yawning so widely that she nearly swallowed the rest of the exiled group.
"We can hear them after we're in bed," said Peace, rubbing her eyes which were growing very heavy in spite of her efforts to stay awake. "Gussie promised to leave our doors open until time for the folks to go home. It's the charades I wanted to see."
"Charades?" questioned Lorene. "Were they going to have charades, too?"
"She means tableaux," explained Cherry. "She's crazy about them. They make me cough too much—the lights they use, I mean. Come on, Lorene, sleep with me tonight until Hope comes up to bed. Do, please! It isn't fair for you three to stick in here and leave me all by myself in the other room."
Lorene glanced hesitatingly from one sister to the other, and seeing no opposition, answered, "All right, Cherry, I'll stay with you till the folks go. You don't care, do you, girls?"
"Not for that long," Peace magnanimously replied, for a daring plan had just popped her eyes wide open, and Lorene might hinder its fulfillment. So they separated, and in a few short moments four white-robed figures were tucked snugly under the coverlets, the lights turned out, and the two doors left ajar that the sleepy exiles might hear the strains of music floating up the wide staircase. There was the soft sound of whispered words from bed to bed like the sleepy twitterings of birdlings in their nests, and then silence. Cherry and Lorene were fast asleep. Downstairs the carols ceased, the wail of violin and guitar died away, and the murmur of voices was again borne to the straining ears of the conspirators in the flag room.
"Do you s'pose they have begun tableauing?" asked Allee, after what seemed an eternity of listening.
"Not yet; they have lights. There, that must be one. See how queer the hall looks through the crack of the door? I guess it's time now. Come on, but be awful still."
"It's cold after being in that warm bed," protested Allee as her bare feet touched the polished floor in the hall.
"We'll get some wraps in here," Peace answered, inspired by a happy thought to seize upon two beautiful white opera robes belonging to some of the guests below, and with these heavy garments trailing behind them, they stole softly down the wide stairway almost to the landing, where, out of sight from the company massed in the parlor and adjoining rooms, they could still see the tableaux taking place in the reception hall below.
Fortunately for their health's sake, this part of the program was brief, and had it not been for the very last scene pictured, no one would have dreamed of their presence behind the palings. But it happened that the girls had chosen as a climax for the evening the tableau of the first Christmas Eve; and Hope, arrayed as the angel of good tidings, appeared on the stairs just as Jud touched off the weird red light on the landing,—for neither actor nor servant had discovered the hidden culprits until too late to utter any words of warning or reproof. Startled beyond measure at the sudden glow almost at their elbow, the two conspirators scrambled to their feet and vanished hastily up the stairway as the chorus below took up the song,
"Angels ascending and descending, Chanted the wond'rous refrain, 'Glory to God in the Highest, Peace and good will toward men.'"
The long, fur-lined opera cloaks streamed out behind them like misty clouds in the unearthly glow of the sulphur light, and it seemed as if they were really a part of the beautiful tableau, which brought forth such thunderous applause from the delighted audience that it had to be repeated. This Peace and Allee did not know, however, for with chattering teeth and trembling limbs, they had fled to the refuge of their room, pausing only long enough to drop their borrowed finery where they had found it; and they were crawling underneath the covers once more when Peace hissed sharply in her sister's ear, "What about the horses?"