Miss Brown was more pleased with it, if possible, than Dora had been. She said it explained why she was so contented and happy in her new home.
"My old aunt left me this house with all its contents on condition that I would occupy it. At first it seemed out of the question, but the more I thought of a home of my own the more I wanted to try it, and now I feel settled for life! You see," she went on, "how beautifully it came about this afternoon. Here I was feeling stupid and a little lonely; I looked at the Big Front Door, and presently it opened and you came out and straight over here, to make me cheerful again."
The children beamed on her with faces that said plainly: "Here is an appreciative person."
At this moment who should appear but Mary, with a plate of warm spicy cookies! The climax of sociability was reached!
"Miss Brown, is it hard to knit?—to learn, I mean," Louise asked presently, looking admiringly at the bright wools the lady was working with.
"Not at all; I learned when I was a little girl."
"I should like to know how, it is such pretty soft work," said Bess.
"I shall be very glad to teach you. We might have a knitting class for rainy afternoons."
"And after awhile perhaps we could make an afghan for Uncle William!" cried Louise delightedly. "Wouldn't that be fun, Bess?"
"If it would not be a trouble to Miss Brown."
"It would be a great pleasure to me," she answered, smiling at the bright faces.
"It would be nice—" Bess began.
"Well, dear, what?" as she hesitated.
"I don't know whether I ought to ask you, for it might be a bother to you, but I was thinking how nice it would be to have a club, and ask Dora and Elsie."
"Bess, that is a lovely plan!" exclaimed her sister.
Miss Brown thought so too, and said if the others would like it she should be glad to have them, and she suggested that they bring their friends to talk the matter over on the next Saturday afternoon.
In discussing the club Bess and Louise forgot their disappointment, and were astonished to find how late it was when Joanna came for them.
"There was a bright spot, after all," said Louise as they were putting on their waterproofs. "If we had gone to the country we might never have thought of the club."
Some days later the postman had three most important notes to deliver to Miss Dora Warner, Miss Elsie Morris, and Miss Constance Myer.
This is the way they read:
You are requested to be present at the Brown house next Saturday afternoon, to organize a knitting club. Please come early.
BESS HAZELTINE. LOUISE HAZELTINE.
Much time and thought were expended on these invitations, and the importance of the senders was only equalled by the curiosity and interest of the girls who received them.
Aunt Zelie insisted that five were as many as Miss Brown ought to have. "For you know she is not used to such lively young ladies as you and Elsie and Do—"
"Not Dora, Auntie!" cried Bess; "she is perfect, and never makes a noise."
Mrs. Howard laughed, and went to see the lady of the Brown house, fearing she was undertaking too much for her strength.
But Miss Brown was quite sure of herself.
"If you knew how like spring sunshine they are in my sober life, you would see that it can only be a benefit to me," she said.
"Of course I think they are dear children, but I may be partial," their aunt replied, smiling.
"I discovered one secret of their attractiveness some time ago—they are fortunate children," and Miss Brown looked admiringly into the sweet face before her.
Promptly at three on Saturday afternoon the invited guests appeared. They were a little shy and silent at first after Bess introduced them to their hostess, but this wore off very quickly at the sight of five pairs of needles with the knitting already begun in bright worsteds.
Dora, who had learned to knit in Germany, was made assistant teacher, and for an hour they worked away diligently.
Then Miss Brown said they had done very well for beginners, and that it was time to stop and decide upon a name for their club.
The work was hardly put away when Nannie, the new maid, came in, bringing some of Mary's delicious cakes, and chocolate which was served in the oddest little cups brought by Miss Brown's grandfather from India when she was a child. Chocolate had never before tasted so good.
"Did you have tea parties with them when you were a little girl, and never break any of them?" Constance asked with wide-open eyes, for she had broken half a dozen tea-sets in her short lifetime.
"You did not think then that when you were grown up you would give some other children chocolate in these cups, did you?" said Dora.
"If we should keep our things I wonder if they would be as funny and interesting to us when we are grown up?" Bess fingered one of the cups admiringly as she spoke.
"I never feel as if I'd care for things when I am old," said Elsie.
"I can remember when I used to feel so too, but it is a great mistake. Now I enjoy things which I have had for a long time, more than I do new ones. When I use my tea-set I always think of the days when my cousin Margaret and I used to play together."
"Couldn't you tell us about it, Miss Brown?—about your cousin and when you were a little girl?" asked Louise.
"Please, if it is not too much trouble," added Bess.
They all looked so eager she could not refuse.
"There is really not much to tell," she said. "Thirty years ago little girls were not very different from those I see now, though we had not half so many toys and books.
"This cousin and I lived with our grandmother. Margaret was a year younger than I, and a delicate child, while I was strong and well then. My father and mother died when I was a baby, and my grandmother's house in Philadelphia is the first place I remember. Margaret did not come to live with us till she was six years old. Her mother too was dead, and her father spent most of his time abroad. She used to talk a great deal of her home in the South, for she did not like the city, but longed for the country and the warm climate she was used to. I remember the stories she told me after we were in bed at night. Sometimes they were in rhyme and always about her beautiful southern home.
"Our grandmother was good to us, but she was strict too, and every day for an hour we sat beside her learning to sew and knit. Instead of going to school we had a governess. We took our exercise in the open square opposite our house, where there were trees and grass, and, best of all, squirrels. This tea-set which my grandfather brought to me the year before Margaret came to live with us was my greatest treasure, and I thought it a great treat to be allowed to play with it. When I was ten years old Margaret and I had measles, and one day when we were nearly well grandmother left us to go to a funeral. Our house servant happened to be sick, so there was no one in the house, besides ourselves, but the cook. Telling us on no account to leave the warm room, grandmother drove off. Then Margaret began to wish that we had asked to have the tea-set. I knew where it was kept and volunteered to get it, for it was mine and I thought I had a right to it.
"Next we began to wish for something to eat. The spirit of naughtiness possessed me, I think, for I determined to go downstairs and find something. I stole down to the dining-room, where I found nothing but bread—which we did not want—and doughnuts. I carried back half a dozen of these, and we had our feast.
"Before we finished grandmother came home. When we heard the carriage we had a great time getting the crumbs out of the way, and the dishes put in their place. In my hurry I dropped a cup and cracked it.
"When grandmother came in she found everything as usual, but that night Margaret was very ill; she had a relapse and came near dying. No doubt the doughnuts had something to do with this, and perhaps the excitement also. I confessed how naughty I had been, and my grandmother was very kind, for she knew how I loved Margaret, and how I should miss her if she died. However, she recovered, but I had the broken cup to remind me of my disobedience. It is there among the others now."
"Thank you for telling us," said Dora as the cup was passed around.
"Is Margaret alive now?" Bess asked.
"Yes, indeed; she is married and living in England, and has three great boys and one little daughter. And now let us find a name for our club."
It was difficult to suit everybody, till after a good deal of discussion Dora made a suggestion.
"Suppose we have a name not like any we ever heard of, and call ourselves the Merry Knitters."
Nobody could find any objection to this, so it was accepted.
"For we want to be knitters and we mean to be merry," said Louise.
"And let's not tell the boys what M.K. stands for," proposed Elsie.
A RIVAL CLUB.
It was the next Saturday afternoon, and Carl, Aleck, and Ikey sat in the star chamber busily discussing something.
"There they go!" Ikey exclaimed; and the others, looking over his shoulder, saw the M.Ks. filing up the Brown house walk.
"They think they are so clever," growled Aleck. Carl raised the window and called; "Never you mind, we'll get even!"
"We don't care," answered Elsie.
"You are welcome to," cried Dora gayly, waving her work-bag.
"You'd better not lean out so far," cautioned Bess, and then the door closed behind them.
As the girls had hoped, the boys were wildly curious about the mysterious letters "M.K." They made a great many absurd guesses, and Carl finally nicknamed it the "Club of Many Kinks," which he thought sounded like girls. But they only laughed, and wouldn't tell.
He tried to bribe Louise, or to extract it unawares from Bess. Aleck went to the length of offering Elsie a box of candy if she would give him so much as a hint, and they united their efforts upon Aunt Zelie, all to no purpose. Now they had come to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to start an opposition club, and in their turn arouse the curiosity of the girls.
Mrs. Howard sat in her own little study, a room over the front door, where she kept her special treasures, and was most likely to be found when she was at home. She was busily sorting letters and bills when Carl's face appeared at the half-open door.
"May we come in?" he asked.
"Who are 'we'?"
"Oh, only Aleck and Ikey," and he ushered in his companions without further ceremony.
"If you don't object to my going on with my work, I shall be glad to have you," she said.
"Can't we help you?" asked Aleck politely, dropping down among the cushions on the couch.
"No, I thank you, and please have some mercy on my new pillow."
Ikey, who admired pretty things, rescued the dainty white and yellow pillow, and modestly helped himself to a footstool.
"Take the floor, Carl, it is the only safe place," murmured lazy Aleck.
"Somebody take it, please, and tell me the object of this call."
"We want to get even with the girls," began Carl, as his aunt leaned back in her chair, all attention.
"They think themselves so clever with their old club," said Aleck, his nose in the air.
"They are clever—quite as much so as boys." Aunt Zelie returned to her bills, and there was silence for a moment; then Ikey spoke:
"We thought it would be fun to have a club too, and not tell the girls the name. There isn't any harm in that, is there?" meekly.
"None whatever. What I do not like is that tone of lofty superiority. You do not realize how it sounds, and as I consider myself one of the girls I shall take such remarks as personal. Now tell me about the club; is it to be simply for fun?"
"We'd like a little fun, please," said Aleck.
"Aunt Zelie, we really don't know what we want, but we thought you could suggest something. You can think of scrumptious things when you try, and we can get ahead of the girls easily if we have you. So please, there's a dear," and Carl emphasized his request with a bear-like hug from behind.
There was no holding out against their entreaties, so she agreed to think it over.
"You may each invite one friend to a meeting in the star chamber next Friday evening, and in the meantime I'll do my best to think of something for you," she said, and very well satisfied the boys departed, to lie in wait for the M.Ks.
When they came to think of it, it was not easy to decide which of their friends to ask. Ikey finally settled upon his next best chum, Fred Ames. "Don't you think he will do?" he asked Carl as they walked home from school.
"Yes, of course; he is a very nice boy. I think I'll ask Jim Carter."
Ikey looked astonished. "Do you think he is the sort of a fellow your aunt will like?"
"I don't care; I like him and I am going to ask him," Carl replied positively. He thought best, however, to make some explanation.
"You see, Aunt Zelie," he said, finding her alone that evening, "Jim is a funny kind of a boy. Ikey doesn't like him, but I think there is a lot that is good in him. He is bright, I can tell you, and there is nothing really mean about him, but his father gives him too much money. I suppose that isn't ever good for a boy."
"I hardly think it is," she said, smiling at Carl's judicial manner.
"When he first came to school he thought he could get around anybody with his money, but he soon found the boys did not like it,—but perhaps I'd better not ask him."
"Ask him by all means if you think he would like to come. I am willing to trust your judgment."
There were many points of resemblance between Jim Carter and Carl. Both stood well in their classes, were independent and popular with their schoolmates, but their home surroundings were very different. Mr. Carter was deeply engrossed in making money, having become suddenly rich through a lucky speculation. Ambitious for his only son, he wished him to have all the advantages of education which he himself had missed. So Jim was sent to a good school, but was taught at home by precept and example that to get money was the chief thing.
Mrs. Carter was a good-natured, loud-voiced woman, who idolized her son, and could not deny him anything. It was the want of refinement, which Carl felt but could not express, and the utter lack of home training, that were responsible for Jim's faults.
His good-nature and real generosity won him friends among those who were at first disgusted by his boasting and display, and with a keen instinct for popularity Jim quickly learned the lesson.
He admired Carl Hazeltine and was flattered by his invitation.
"We want to get up a club," Carl said. "My aunt is going to help us, and we mean to have some fun; I'd like to have you, if you will come."
He accepted on the spot, though he wondered a little why an "aunt" should have anything to do with it. His experience with such relatives was limited to a middle-aged person who wore a shawl the year around, and regarded boys as necessary evils, to be sent upon as many errands as possible in the course of the day. Indeed, he would have considered his mother, of whom he was very fond, decidedly out of place among his friends.
He was the last to arrive on Friday evening, and he looked about him with some curiosity as Carl led the way to the star chamber. As they passed the library door he had a glimpse of a pleasant family group; Mr. Hazeltine with his paper, Bess and Louise studying their geography lesson, and Helen playing with Mr. Smith. An airy vision awaited them at the top of the first flight of steps; Carie in her nightgown, holding out her arms and calling, "I want to tiss you dood-night," while Sukey came running after.
"You naughty fairy," said her big brother, catching her and handing her over to mammy after the kiss was bestowed.
"What a pretty little thing!" Jim remarked admiringly.
"She is the sweetest baby in the town," Carl responded loyally.
In the star chamber they found the other boys. Ikey and his friend Fred Ames, Aleck and his special chum Will Archer, who was as quiet and steady-going as Aleck was mischievous and happy-go-lucky.
Jim was warmly welcomed, and Ikey gave him an ear of popcorn to shell. The rest were already at work seated on the rug before the fire. The old sofa was drawn up sociably, and a chair of state had been provided for Mrs. Howard.
When the door opened a few minutes later, they were all talking and laughing at once in a decidedly uproarious fashion.
"Here is Cousin Zelie!" cried Aleck, and there came a sudden lull as they scrambled to their feet. Jim was the only one she did not know, and for some reason the sight of this slender young woman in black, with a white rose in her dress, caused him a fit of unusual shyness. Ikey himself could not have been more abashed than he was when Carl introduced him.
"As the fire is in such fine condition, perhaps the popping had best go on while we talk," Aunt Zelie said, taking the chair; "then when business is over the refreshments will be ready."
Fred and Ikey were appointed a committee to attend to the corn, and when all were comfortably settled, she began:
"As you know, the object of this meeting is to hear suggestions for a club. I have been thinking about it for a week, and this is the best plan that has occurred to me: it is to have a Good Neighbors Club. The text Uncle William gave you children, Carl, suggested it to me. 'They helped every one his neighbor.' It would mean keeping our eyes open for ways of helping, and being careful to respect the property of others.
"You see I take it for granted that you want something besides fun, though I am sure we shall have a good time too."
"I don't think I understand what we are to do," said Will.
"You are not to break your neighbors' windows, for instance," replied Aleck, winking at Carl.
"There is no trouble about the helping," answered Mrs. Howard; "there are always opportunities for that, and on the other hand I am inclined to think that you all at times do things that, to say the least, do not improve the appearance of your neighborhood. For example—but I believe I'll let you find out for yourselves. Suppose for a week you try to discover what it means to be a good neighbor, and report next Friday. The rest of my plan is very simple. To hold meetings every week or once in two weeks, as you choose, and I have some fascinating work which I know you can learn to do, and surprise the girls. I shall have it ready for the next meeting, and while you work we can have reading, or you can select a subject to discuss. Now the meeting is open; please talk and ask questions."
Just here Ikey created a diversion by letting the pop-corn burn, whereupon Mrs. Howard took it from him, and, kneeling on the rug, popped the rest herself. Carl brought in a basket of apples, and drawing up in a sociable circle they soon became merry and very much at ease.
Aunt Zelie liked boys, and had a way of establishing friendly relations with them on short acquaintance. And this evening she made a special effort, for she wanted to know Carl's friends and make the new club a success. The boys were ready to adopt her plan without waiting, but she insisted upon their taking a week to think about it. Before they left she wrote out the text on a card for each of them, that they might keep it in mind.
"Isn't she splendid?" said Ikey to Jim as the door closed behind them, for ever since the day of his accident he had been her ardent worshipper. Jim assented rather coolly. In fact, he was a little dazed. He had had a good time, though now it was over he was inclined to wonder why. As for being a good neighbor, he thought it sounded silly; but before he went to bed he took out the card and read the text: "They helped every one his neighbor."
The Hazeltines' lot was a corner one, and Aunt Marcia, driving one afternoon along the street upon which their side gate opened, saw two boys seated on a box near the entrance to the alley that ran back of the stable.
"What can they be doing?" she asked herself, and not being able to imagine, she stopped the carriage and stepped out to investigate.
As she approached it became evident that one of the boys was Carl.
"What are you doing here I should like to know?" she demanded.
"We aren't doing any harm, Aunt Marcia," her nephew answered stoutly.
"An alley is no place to play in. Is that Louise?" as somebody peeped out of the stable door. "I am astonished; you must go in at once."
"I am going in directly, I am, indeed, Aunt Marcia; but please don't make the boys get up till they are sure it is quite dead." As she spoke Louise came out into full view.
"What are you talking about, and who is this boy?" Mrs. Hazeltine put up her glass, embarrassing Ikey greatly. "Oh, it is that Ford boy! Now tell me what you have in that box."
"A cat." Carl's eyes were full of mischief, though his tone was solemnity itself.
"Mercy upon us! Let it out at once!"
"We can't; it is dead."
"Dead? You wicked boys! Did you kill it?"
"Oh, Aunt Marcia," cried Louise before Carl could reply, "they had to do it, indeed, indeed they did! It was hurt; some boys shot it with a toy pistol, and it was dreadful; so we bought some chloroform and Ikey killed it because he knew how, and now they are sitting on the box to make sure!"
Horrified and astonished, Mrs. Hazeltine surveyed her young relatives in silence.
"Why couldn't you have James do it?" she inquired at length.
"He has taken the horses to be shod."
"Where is Zelie?"
"Gone to Chicago with Cousin Helen."
"Well, Louise must go in at once, and may I inquire how long it will be necessary for you to sit on that box in this damp place?"
"It must be dead now, I think," Ikey said, rising.
Carl was proceeding to make an investigation, when Aunt Marcia protested, "Wait till I'm gone, if you please; I don't care to have anything to do with such business," and drawing her skirts about her, she hastily retired.
"There never were such children!" she said to her husband that night. "Think of it—actually killing a cat—and Louise helping!"
"Don't you think it was better than letting the poor thing suffer?" asked tender-hearted Uncle William.
"I don't care, Carl, you needn't laugh," said Louise that same evening; "for cats are neighbors, father says so. Anything or anybody you can help, he said."
"All right, I'll tell Ikey to report it at the G.N. meeting."
"Oh, ho, Mr. Carl! Is that what you are going to do at your club?" cried both his sisters in the same breath.
"Pooh! that is nothing," said Carl, affecting great unconcern, but secretly very much provoked with himself; "we do a great deal more than that."
The girls were excessively pleased over his little slip, and he at last descended from his lofty pinnacle and humbly begged them not to tell Aleck.
The M.Ks. had in their turn christened the boys' club the "Great Noodles," a name in which it was thought Uncle William had a hand.
"Sounds like boys," Elsie remarked with much emphasis.
The next day after school, just as the group of boys on the corner began to separate in various directions, Jim Carter asked, "Have you fellows thought of anything for Friday night?"
"Ikey has," laughed Carl. "You couldn't guess what he did yesterday."
"Shut up! I'd like to know if you didn't help?" Ikey's strap full of books swung round in dangerous proximity to his friend's head.
"Full details of the sad occurrence given later," Carl called out as he ran for his life.
"I don't understand it, do you? I haven't any neighbors to help," Jim said, as he and Fred Ames walked on together.
"I don't know. I suppose it means not doing things too. Perhaps this is one thing," and Fred carried to the edge of the sidewalk the skin of the banana he was peeling, and dropped it on the pile of dust and dirt which had been swept up by the street cleaner.
"Do you think Mrs. Howard meant silly things like that?"
"Why not? I heard of an old man who slipped on a banana skin and broke his leg. It would not have seemed silly to him if someone had put it out of his way. But if she didn't mean such things, what did she mean? Perhaps you think you are improving the neighborhood." Fred glanced mischievously at his companion, who held a piece of chalk and was carelessly making a straggling-white line on everything he passed. Jim dropped his hand impatiently. "I don't think I'll belong," he said. He did not quite mean this. He was really curious to see what it would amount to, but at the same time he was not exactly pleased. He felt great scorn for what he considered trifles, and had a strong belief in his right to do as he pleased.
Thursday night of this week happened to be Hallowe'en. Jim, who had had almost unlimited freedom since his babyhood, had often gone about with a crowd of boys on this night ringing doorbells, carrying away door-mats, and turning on water. By the marauders it was looked upon as a grand frolic, and owners of missing mats and deluged yards might grumble as they pleased. He had even looked forward to the time when more daring exploits would be possible, and when some of his old companions came for him this evening he joined them as a matter of course.
"Let's give old Grandfather Clark a dose first, he is always as mad as fury," said one of the boys.
At this moment the motto of the club popped into Jim's head.
"They helped every one his neighbor." This was not helping. There came to him a sudden determination not to have anything to do with it. Not that he saw any special reason why they should not have fun at old Mr. Clark's expense, but rather because he wanted to go to the club at least once more; and, mingled with this, there was a feeling that the nicest fellows did not do things of this kind.
There could be no doubt as to the interest in the G.N.C. as the boys had begun to call it. On Friday night six eager faces greeted Mrs. Howard when she entered the star chamber, and there was an amiable scramble for the honor of giving her a chair.
"First we'll have reports and then begin work; that is, if you have decided that you like the plan." As she spoke she looked at Jim, who was nearest.
He had entirely recovered from his bashfulness, and was feeling rather well pleased with himself, so he answered promptly:
"I am not sure I understand it, Mrs. Howard, but I have thought of one thing. I suppose you would not call it being a good neighbor to go about on Hallowe'en as lots of boys do, carrying off gates and doing other mischief. I have done it myself, and I never thought there was much harm in it, but I suppose there is." He was astonished himself at this honest conclusion.
Mrs. Howard smiled. "Stopping to think makes such a difference," she said. "I should be sorry indeed to believe that any of you boys could take part in some of the wild pranks that are often played on Hallowe'en. My brother had a valuable young tree destroyed last night. Boys do such things for fun, they say, but it doesn't seem honest to make other people pay so dearly for their fun."
"I never thought of it in that way," said Fred.
"But how are you ever to have any fun if you must stop and think about things?" Jim asked, feeling ashamed in spite of himself as he remembered how near he had come to making one of such a crowd.
"Its being fun isn't any excuse. Suppose you thought it fun to steal somebody's pocketbook?" said Carl.
"That is a different thing."
"What is the real difference between stealing money and ruining something that cost money?" asked Will.
"Father says that in America people have less respect for public property than anywhere else in the world," remarked Fred.
"I am afraid it is true," replied Mrs. Howard, "and that is why I want you boys to think about it. Ikey, haven't you something to say?" This young gentleman, who had been fidgeting about like some uneasy insect, now became greatly embarrassed.
"I don't know whether it will count or not, and it is as much Carl's as mine," he began.
"It isn't at all; you thought of it—go on."
Aunt Zelie nodded encouragingly at him, though she had no idea what was coming, and after several beginnings Ikey managed to tell the story of the cat. Louise had found the poor thing, and had come in great distress to the boys. Ikey remembered seeing his father kill a pet dog with chloroform, and so volunteered to try it on the cat. Carl bought the chloroform, and, putting some cotton saturated with it in a paper bag, they drew this over the animal's head, covering all with a box made as air-tight as possible.
"But," said Ikey comically, "I don't know whether cats are neighbors."
"Indeed, they are most useful ones, and frequently unappreciated. It was a kind thing to do, and, now you know how easy it is, I hope you will all be ready to put any poor animal out of its misery when you find it hopelessly hurt."
"We had a beautiful funeral, Cousin Zelie, and are going to take up a collection for a tombstone," said Aleck.
They grew so merry over Ikey's story that it was difficult to come back to such commonplaces as writing on fences and walls, and scattering papers around.
"Everybody does such things, so what difference will our not doing them make?" asked Jim.
"Everything has to begin, and you don't know how contagious a good example is," replied Mrs. Howard.
"Let's have a penny fine for each time we do a thing of the sort," Carl suggested.
Last of all, Will Archer told about the little lame boy, son of the minister at the church on the corner.
"I think perhaps it would be a pleasure to him if some of us would go to see him occasionally. He hardly gets out at all in the winter, and he is a bright little fellow."
"That is a beautiful suggestion," said Mrs. Howard. "I am glad that you have thought of so many things good neighbors should and should not do. Taken all together it amounts to this: To be thoughtful for the rights of others, and ready to help. Now, what of our club? Shall we try this plan?"
It was unanimously adopted, and they all wrote their names under the text in a new blank-book which was handed over to Jim, who offered no objection to being made secretary.
"And now for our work," said Mrs. Howard. "Some years ago, when I spent a summer in Maine, I learned from an Indian woman to make baskets of sweet grass. This year I had a friend bring me some of this grass, and it occurred to me the other day that it would be just the work for you boys."
Carl brought in an armful of the fragrant material, and his aunt showed them how to fasten it to the frame she had had made for the purpose, and then braid it. Their fingers were awkward at first, but they soon learned to do it evenly, and found it pleasant work.
"What are we to do with them when they are done?" Ikey asked.
"Sell them, and help somebody with the money," was the reply.
The thought of making anything good enough to sell was inspiring, and they worked with a will till it was time to adjourn.
Talking it over with her brother after the boys were gone, Aunt Zelie said: "Perhaps our club is too comprehensive: a sort of Village Improvement, Humane and Missionary Society combined, but the boys thought of these things themselves. If we can only cultivate the spirit of helpfulness, perhaps it will find its own natural channel in each."
"You can't specialize in everything, life is too short," answered Mr. Hazeltine, laughing.
"I don't know what you mean by channels, and specializing, and all that," said Carl, looking in the door, "but I can tell you, Aunt Zelie, the boys like it, and Jim thinks you are tiptop. Hurrah for the G.N.C.!"
"Suppose we ask the boys to help us," said Bess, threading her needle, and carefully making a nice little knot.
"Oh, no!" objected Elsie, "let's do it all by ourselves."
"If the boys can help us to do something better than we can do without them, I think we ought to have them," said Dora wisely.
"It will be more fun too," said Louise, whose motto was "The more, the merrier."
"We haven't much time either," Bess continued; "but Aunt Zelie will help us, and you too, won't you, Miss Brown?"
"I'll be glad to do anything I can," replied that lady, looking up from the feather-stitching she was showing Constance.
Christmas was coming. The fact could no longer be overlooked, and as usual everybody was feeling surprised at its nearness.
It was not a bit too near, the children thought, though even they had a great deal to do, and found the days all too short.
Miss Brown was full of suggestions for Christmas gifts, and most patient with awkward fingers, and the M.Ks. were very happy over the things she was helping them to make. Now, on top of all this they had found something else to talk about and work for.
One day when Bess and Louise were in the corner confectionery, the wife of the proprietor, as she handed them their package, held out a small bundle of edging, asking them to take it home and show it to their aunt. It was made, she said, by a young Italian girl who, though a cripple, was trying to support herself and some younger brothers and sisters.
As the trimming was pretty and strong, Mrs. Howard bought some for the children's aprons, and finding the girl worthy, gave her other work, which was carried back and forth by a little sister.
Louise saw this child waiting in the hall one Saturday morning, and went down to talk to her. Tina was pretty, with great black eyes and short dark curls, but Louise found her rather silent, for she was in fact rather awed by her surroundings. The wide hall with its polished floor and soft rugs seemed very grand to her unaccustomed eyes.
"I wish I could sew and embroider like your sister, then I could make some money," said Louise.
Tina wondered why she wanted money, but only answered, "So do I."
"Bess and I have never enough money for Christmas. Is that what you want it for?"
"No; I would give it to my father."
"Why, he wouldn't want it, would he? Hasn't he any money?"
Tina shook her head, and after some questioning she explained that her father was a member of a small string band. He played the harp, she said, and sometimes earned a good deal, but he had been sick, so he lent his harp to a man who promised to keep his place for him and pay him something besides. "But he was a bad man!" she exclaimed vehemently, "for he broke the harp, and then ran away and would not pay to have it mended; and now my father does not want to get well, he is sick with sorrow."
"But can't he get it mended himself, or find the bad man and make him pay for it?"
"It would cost a great deal of money,—fifteen dollars the music man told my sister,—and the man who broke it has gone away to the South."
"I am so sorry," was all Louise could say, for their talk was interrupted; but she ran upstairs immediately to tell Bess.
"Don't you wish we could have it mended for him?" she asked.
"Yes, indeed, but we haven't any money to spare from our Christmas things, and if we used it every bit it would not be enough."
"We might get somebody to help us; still that wouldn't be as nice as doing it ourselves."
"Perhaps we could have a fair, like the one Aunt Zelie had when she was a little girl. Let's ask her," proposed Bess, jumping up.
But their aunt thought it too great an undertaking. "I was several years older than you are," she said, "and we worked for six months to get ready. However," she added, seeing the disappointed faces, "you might do something else, tableaux or charades."
This idea pleased them, and they decided to talk it over at the club that afternoon.
There was no difficulty in interesting the M.Ks. They were all enthusiasm.
"We may not make enough," said Louise, "but that ought not to keep us from trying to help."
"If we could only give them the money for a Christmas gift," said Dora.
"I don't see how you could manage that, but a New Year's gift would be almost as good, would it not?" asked Miss Brown.
"There is Ikey now! I'll call to him to find the other boys and bring them over." Dora rapped on the window-pane with her knitting needle as she spoke.
Ikey, who had just vaulted over a hitching-post on his way down the street, came to a sudden halt.
"Find Carl and Aleck, and bring them here, that's a good boy; we want to consult you about something," she called.
He obeyed with soldierly promptness and was across the street in a second. A few minutes later Louise announced, "Here they come, and Aunt Zelie with them."
"I am one of the boys now, you know," said Mrs. Howard as she entered. "How cosey you look! I believe I should like to join your club too."
"Oh, do! Please do, Mrs. Howard!" came in a chorus from the M.Ks. as she sat down in the midst of them.
"We'll talk about that another time; at present we have something else to discuss. Sit down, boys, and listen while the girls tell you what they want. I already know about it."
Bess then told the story of the broken harp, and explained how anxious they were to earn money enough to have it mended.
"We intend to give an entertainment, and we want you to help," said Dora.
"What are you going to have?" Carl asked cautiously.
"We want you to help us to decide."
"We can help in one way, can't we?" Ikey exclaimed ecstatically, whereupon the other boys looked daggers at him, for the basket-making was kept a profound secret.
"I didn't tell anything, did I?" he inquired in an aggrieved tone.
"What does he mean, Aunt Zelie?" asked Louise.
"It is something we are not ready to tell just yet, but I have a plan to propose. I shall need all of you to help carry it out, and if you are willing to do a little work I am sure we can have a charming entertainment."
Profound interest reigned in Miss Brown's sitting-room for the next half hour, as Aunt Zelie unfolded her plan and explained what she wanted of each one. "And in the meantime you must not breathe a word about what we are to have, but excite every body's curiosity as much as possible," she said in conclusion.
"Won't it be lovely!" cried Elsie, clapping her hands.
"A great deal better than a fair, and more fun," said Louise.
In the pretty room which belonged to Bess and Louise sat a busy group one afternoon. Its owners were occupied with a tall scrap basket that was intended for Uncle William and Aunt Marcia. Aunt Zelie had donated the ribbons to trim it, and they were anxious to have it as handsome as possible. Helen and Carl were there too, the one making a bonnet for her doll, the other pasting in his scrap-book, sitting on the floor with a newspaper spread out before him. Dora had received a warm welcome when she came in with her work, as she often did. They all agreed in thinking that she could not come too often, and to Dora life in that house was a sort of enchantment. It seemed brighter, roomier, pleasanter there than anywhere else.
Her young friends did not dream of the cares already resting on her shoulders: the effort to cheer her mother, who was fast becoming an invalid, the life in the large boarding-house that neither of them liked.
"Do you think it will be pretty?" Bess asked, holding her basket at arm's length to see the effect of the golden-brown ribbon she was weaving in and out through the straw.
"It is a beauty," answered Dora admiringly.
"Yes, it is pretty, really," said Louise, whose fingers were trying to fashion what she called a stylish bow.
"Girls are funny, always sticking bows on things," observed Carl.
"If it is funny to like to make things look pretty, I am glad I am funny," said Dora severely.
"Dear me! Of course, I was not objecting in the least," replied the young gentleman, who rather enjoyed being taken to task by Dora.
"I am sorry to break up this pleasant party, but I am afraid I must," Aunt Zelie said, coming in.
"Why, Auntie?" asked Louise, looking up with three little wrinkles between her eyes, for the stylish bow would not be quite as she wanted it.
"Because I am in danger of losing my roses," answered her aunt, pinching Bess's cheek. "Yesterday they had no fresh air worth mentioning."
"Oh, please don't make us go!" cried Bess in a tone that was almost a wail. "We have so much to do!"
"I must finish my bow," Louise said positively.
"I shall not make you, but Joanna is going to Aunt Marcia's with a note, and I want you to go too because you need the air. I am sure Dora will take the walk with you, and on the way back suppose you stop and ask Mrs. Warner to let her stay to dinner. So fly now and get ready." She spoke so energetically that Dora began at once to roll up her work, and Bess dropped her scissors with a sigh of relief, but Louise held on to her bow desperately.
"I will finish it," she said to herself.
"Louise," her aunt said gently, "the reason you cannot make the bow to please you is because you are tired. Now, which will you do, put it away till to-morrow—when I am sure you will not have any trouble with it—and go to walk with the others, or stay here and grow more and more tired and cross, till you are not fit to come to dinner with the rest of us?"
She had a struggle with herself before she answered in a choked voice, "I guess I'll go, but I did want to finish it."
"Of course, but you will be glad by and by that you chose to do what was right, instead of what you wanted to do," and Aunt Zelie sent her off with a kiss.
The walk to Aunt Marcia's was not such a hardship after all, and when they reached home there was at least an hour for studying lessons before dinner, and that was followed by a grand frolic with Carie, lasting till it was time for Dora to go.
"I am sorry I was cross this afternoon," Louise said when she came for her good-night kiss.
"It was because you were tired, dear, I know. You and Bess must take care not to be too much occupied with Christmas. It will not do to neglect every-day duties even for that," replied her aunt.
CEDAR AND HOLLY.
One Saturday afternoon, about three weeks before Christmas, the boys marched triumphantly into Miss Brown's sitting-room with a large tissue-paper parcel. When this was undone, before the eager eyes of the M.Ks., there were four beautiful fragrant little baskets with tops of bright-colored silk.
"How pretty!"—"How lovely!"—"Where did you get them?"—"Surely you did not make them?"—"What are you going to do with them?"
"Why didn't we make them, I'd like to know?" asked Ikey proudly.
Certainly the boys had reason to be satisfied at the praise their work received.
"I know you did not sew on the silk," said Dora, examining one closely.
"Oh, well, Aunt Zelie and Cousin Helen did the sewing, of course, but we did all the rest," said Carl.
"And what do you mean to do with them?" asked Elsie.
"Sell them and give the money to the harp man."
They were so pretty there proved to be no trouble in disposing of them. Aunt Marcia, who was superintending a Christmas bazaar, offered to put them on one of her tables, where they sold the first evening for a dollar and a half apiece.
After this the meetings of the G.N. club had to give way to rehearsals for what Cousin Helen called "The Harp Man's Benefit," which was to occur on New Year's eve. In the meantime Uncle William had interested himself in the matter, and, through a friend who was a music dealer, a harp was lent to Mr. Finnelli till his own could be repaired.
"So we feel more comfortable about it now," said Louise, "and we think we'll make at least ten dollars at our entertainment."
Late in the afternoon of the day before Christmas Aunt Zelie sat alone in the library taking a moment's rest.
The sound of happy voices came through the open door. It was a custom in the family to decorate the hall on Christmas eve, and the children had been making wreaths and festoons of cedar, and having any amount of fun. They were now having a merry time over Ikey's suggestion to hang a holly wreath above the Big Front Door. From the top of the ladder Carl began:
"'Twas the night before Christmas,"
and the others chimed in:
"and all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."
A moment later Aunt Zelie's quiet was invaded.
"Nothing makes me feel more like Christmas than that old rhyme," she said, as the laughing children gathered around her.
"Talk to us about Christmas, Auntie, please," said Louise.
"Could you possibly talk about anything else?" she asked. "What is it that makes this such a happy time?"
"Why," answered Carl, "it is because it is such fun to give presents to people, and know you are sure to get a lot yourself."
"Yes, it is because every one tries to make some one else happy. Why do we keep Christ's birthday in this way?"
"Because he came to make us happy, I suppose," said Bess.
"Don't you wish you could have heard the angels sing? I like that part of the story best where the shepherds are out in the fields," said Louise.
"I like the wise men seeing the star and bringing gifts," said Carl.
"It is beautiful from beginning to end, and it is a true story, that is what makes it so dear to us," Aunt Zelie said, looking into the fire.
"I wish it came oftener, a whole year is so long to wait," sighed Bess.
"Dear me," laughed her aunt, "I don't. It would take all my time to get ready. I have ever so many things to do after you are snugly tucked in bed."
"I think I'll not go to bed to-night," remarked Carl.
Even he was tired, however, after they had helped their father and Uncle William trim the hall. So many small fingers were sometimes a hindrance, but then it was "such fun."
"Christmas belongs to the children, so let them have a good time in their own way," said their uncle.
To the older people the season was full of memories of those who used to take part in the happy festival, but were there no longer; for the children's sake, however, no difference was made in the old customs.
All was done at last, even to fastening the mistletoe in the chandelier, and it only remained to hang the stockings beside the nursery fireplace. Carie's was already there and she herself safe in dreamland.
"I just can't wait till morning," said Bess, as she put up her own.
"It is nice to know it is coming, I think," and Louise twirled around on her toes and dropped her stocking into the grate.
"What will Santa Claus put your things in now?" laughed Carl.
"It is only scorched," she said, snatching it from the fire, which was fortunately low.
After some laughing and whispering over a plan for waking before any one else, they separated and were soon so soundly asleep that even Christmas was forgotten.
It was beginning to be light next morning when Louise opened her eyes to find Carl standing beside her.
"How hard you are to wake," he said. "It is daylight, and everybody will be up directly."
They aroused Bess, and the three ran first to their father's door, then to Aunt Zelie's, giving half a dozen hearty raps, and calling "Merry Christmas" at the tops of their voices.
When Mrs. Howard opened her door she saw three airily attired figures flying up the third-story stairs.
Hurrying into her dressing-gown, she followed. She found them in the star chamber with the window wide open, shouting themselves hoarse at Ikey, who had been awakened by the telephone bell.
"You crazy children, you will take cold! Put the window down at once."
"Oh, Auntie, it was such fun! Ikey was so surprised!" they cried.
"I should imagine so," severely.
"You needn't pretend to look cross, Aunt Zelie, for you just can't," laughed Carl.
"Now for our stockings!" cried Bess, and there was a rush for the nursery.
Such laughing, such squeals of delight, such cries of admiration, as were to be heard there for the next half hour!
Carie in her long night-gown pranced wildly around a wonderful white bear, which moved its head and growled in a most natural manner when Carl wound it up. Helen hugged in one arm the beautiful doll Cousin Helen had dressed for her, while she dived into the toe of her stocking. Bess and Louise sat on their new sled and turned the pages of a story-book. Carie brought matters to a climax by backing into her bath-tub, which Aunt Sukey had just brought in and placed by the fire. She was rescued, dripping and somewhat aggrieved, amid great laughter. Such an every-day matter as breakfast was hardly worth thinking of, there was so much else in prospect. All the uncles and aunts and cousins were coming to dinner, and after that the tree! There was enough to keep them in a gale of excitement.
Bess and Louise had a plan of their own which no one else knew about, and after breakfast they stole off together.
Going into her little study not long after, Aunt Zelie found them there. Bess stood on a chair holding a vase which she had just filled with white roses; Louise stood beside her with some others in her hand.
"Oh, Auntie!" they both exclaimed, "we didn't want you to come till it was all done."
"Shall I go away?" she asked, smiling.
"We'll tell you about it now, shan't we, Bess?" said Louise. "You know," she continued, as her sister nodded approval, "we thought perhaps Uncle Carl would be glad if we remembered him on Christmas, and we couldn't think of anything but flowers."
Bess had placed the vase on a bracket beneath her uncle's portrait, and now came down from the chair, adding anxiously, "You like it, don't you, Aunt Zelie?"
"The vase wouldn't hold them all, so you must wear the rest," and Louise put them into her hand.
Aunt Zelie silently kissed them both.
There was something about this kiss that for a moment clouded the brightness of the day for Bess. "I wish people did not die," she exclaimed with almost a sob, as they went downstairs.
"What makes you look so sober, I should like to know?" demanded Uncle William, who, with Aunt Marcia, was the first of the guests to arrive.
"I was just thinking," she replied, and then, as Aunt Zelie came in with her usual bright face and the roses on her breast, she felt reassured and danced away to be as merry as anybody.
Dora and Ikey were the only outsiders invited to the tree, which was much like other trees, and so does not need to be described. It was perfectly satisfactory, however, and they all had exactly what they wanted. Dora was amazed at the number of things that fell to her share, most of all at a small gold bracelet with a daisy on the clasp, from Aunt Marcia.
"You may be sure she likes you after that," whispered Aleck.
"Let's go over and wish Miss Brown a Merry Christmas," proposed Carl, when the candles began to burn low.
"We will storm Nottingham castle!" cried Ikey. "Come on!"
They received a cordial welcome. "What good children you are to think of me to-day!" she said, laying down her book.
"We have had such a beautiful time we thought we would finish it by coming to see you," said Dora.
"And thank you for our work-bags," added Bess.
"You need not think you have had all the Christmas on your side of the street," said Miss Brown, pointing to a rose-bush in bloom in the window and to some new books on her table. "And I should like to know," she continued, "how five little girls happened to guess what would please me most."
The M.Ks., after much discussion about their gift to Miss Brown, had accepted Aunt Zelie's advice and had themselves photographed in a group.
"I shall never be lonely again with these bright faces to look at," she said, lifting the picture from the floor beside her sofa.
"Did you have Christmas trees when you were a little girl, Miss Brown?" Louise asked.
"No, my grandmother used to celebrate New Year's day as the great holiday; we had gifts then, but not a tree."
"I haven't had one since I was a very little girl," said Dora; and Ikey added, "And neither have I."
"Did you have one when you were a little girl, Ikey?" asked Aleck gravely, making everybody laugh.
After they were gone Miss Brown sat alone in the firelight, thinking that of all the blessings the year had brought her, not the least was the friendship of these girls and boys.
Of all the young people invited to Uncle William's party, no one was in such a flutter of delight as Dora. Affairs of this kind were new to her, and as the Hazeltines had talked so much about it, it was no wonder she felt eager and excited as she dressed next evening.
"I suppose Elsie wouldn't go if she had to wear such plain things as mine," she thought as she took out her white dress. "Louise said they were going to wear white. Oh, dear! I should like to have nice clothes, but I can't bother mamma about it." Dora sighed, for she liked pretty things as much as anybody.
All trace of anything like discontent had disappeared when she stood before her mother to have her sash tied.
"You should have had a new dress, poor child," Mrs. Warner said sadly.
"No, Mamma dear," was the cheerful answer, "you must not mind. It does not matter what I wear; I shall have a good time."
"How fortunate it is that Dora cares so little about dress!" her mother thought as her daughter kissed her and ran down to the parlor, where Carl was waiting with a bunch of roses which he presented with much grace. The girls were in the carriage outside, and the drive through the streets, where the electric lights were just appearing, was no small part of the pleasure. Helen said it was like grown people going to a party. "But it is more fun to be children, I think," said Dora, burying her face in her flowers.
It was not quite like a grown-up party, for Uncle William's guests were invited to come at the sensible hour of six o'clock, but the beautiful house was all thrown open for their entertainment.
Dora forgot her dress as they went up the steps and were ushered into the brilliantly lighted hall.
They were the first arrivals, for the Hazeltine children were to assist in receiving the others, so when they came downstairs there were only Aunt Marcia, handsome and stately as usual, and Cousin Helen, looking exceedingly pretty in her pale-blue gown. The next comer was a tall gentleman whom Bess and Louise seemed to know very well. They called him Mr. Caruth, and were evidently delighted to see him.
"I am glad you came home in time for the party," Louise said to him; and Carl with an eye to business added, "You must come to our entertainment on New Year's eve, Mr. Caruth."
"What do you charge for reserved seats?" asked the gentleman, laughing.
"Suppose we give him an arm-chair and make him pay a dollar for it," suggested Miss Hazeltine.
"He is a very nice man," Bess whispered to Dora. "We wish he would marry Cousin Helen, for then he would be related to us."
"Upon my word!" Miss Hazeltine exclaimed, so suddenly that Bess gave a guilty start, "I have forgotten my office; come here and be decorated before any more arrive." From a basket she took a handful of badges.
"What are these for?" Louise asked as her cousin pinned one on her shoulder.
"You will find out by and by," said Uncle William, coming in with a red rose in his buttonhole.
And now the fun began. The children came in so rapidly that Cousin Helen had to have an assistant to fasten on the badges, and Mr. Hazeltine was here, there, and everywhere, seeing that no one was left out of the good time. They played games and danced, grown people and all, and later in the evening Mr. Frank Hazeltine actually induced Aunt Marcia to take part in "Tucker," to the delight of her young relatives.
It was particularly exciting when Uncle William was "Tucker." They came through the grand right and left positively breathless, and everybody was glad of a few minutes' rest before supper.
"Isn't it strange that Dora does not have prettier dresses?" Elsie Morris whispered to the girl next her. "I like her ever so much, but she wears the plainest clothes."
As she spoke Dora passed to join Bess, who was beckoning to her from the other side of the room. She heard enough of what was said to make her color deepen as she went straight on.
"Elsie, she knew you were talking about her," cried Constance Myer.
"No, she didn't," Elsie insisted, feeling very much ashamed.
"She won't have any use for you after this," remarked Jim Carter, who was standing near. He found that he was mistaken, however. When they were decorating themselves with the tissue-paper caps and favors found in the bonbons, Elsie, who was a most fastidious little mortal, exclaimed, "I wish my cap was not green. I can't wear it with a blue dress."
"I'll change with you, for mine is blue and I like green quite as well."
It was Dora who stood beside her, holding out the cap. Poor Elsie was greatly abashed and couldn't say a word, but Dora insisted.
"Please take it; I want you to have it, you will look so pretty in it."
She was exceedingly surprised when Elsie put her arms around her neck and kissed her, saying:
"You are the best girl in the world."
It was a small thing, for Dora had spoken truly when she said that she liked one as well as the other, but it made a deep impression upon two people. Elsie began from that moment to be more careful and kind in her criticisms, and Jim rather reluctantly came to the conclusion that this was better and finer than showing resentment.
When supper was over the company was pervaded by a feeling that something interesting was about to happen.
"What is on hand, Louise, do you know?" Aleck asked, and at that moment Uncle William was heard making an announcement. He had had an interview with Santa Claus, he said, as the old gentleman was passing through the city in a hurry to get home, and after some persuasion he had prevailed upon him to wait over and receive any of the young people present who cared to call on him.
This occasioned great applause, and all were eager to pay their respects to jolly St. Nicholas.
Half a dozen at a time, according to the numbers on their badges, were conducted to a curtained doorway and told to enter. They all seemed to enjoy the interview, for they came out with smiling faces, and not empty-handed either.
The children of the family were, of course, the last to go in, and Dora waited for them.
The room was one which Uncle William called his den, and the figure in the arm-chair would have been recognized anywhere by his rosy countenance and long white beard. He wore his fur great-coat, and his cap and gloves lay on the table.
He gave them a friendly greeting, saying, "So you are the last? It is a fortunate thing, for if I wait much longer I shall miss my train."
"I did not know you travelled in that way," said Carl mischievously.
"Dear me, boy! How could I manage with a sleigh and reindeer in this mud? I save those for colder climates. Now, before I am off, I think I have something left in my bag."
Opening a large satchel, he brought out half a dozen packages, and then taking up his cap and gloves and wishing them a Happy New Year, he was off before they could say "Jack Robinson."
"He is a fine old fellow," said Carl, examining the gun he had been wishing for.
"Indeed he is!" echoed Dora, taking a peep at the beautiful illustrated copy of "Little Women," and then she was called to lead in the closing Virginia reel with Uncle William.
"Well, how did you like the party?" Carl asked her as they drove home.
"I have had the best time I ever had in my life," she answered with a happy laugh.
THE HARP MAN'S BENEFIT.
"Where is my wig?"
"I have lost my banner!"
"Tell Ikey to hurry, he has to go on first. Do you think that chimney will stand?"
There was such confusion behind the scenes on New Year's eve that Cousin Helen put her hands over her ears when she came in.
"It is time to begin," she said. "Ikey and Helen are first."
The performers had advertised their entertainment very thoroughly, and as a result a large and interested audience of young people had assembled before eight o'clock.
When at length the curtain rose in response to vigorous clapping, it brought to view a fine stage, on which was a cottage with a window and door and a lifelike chimney, and everything was covered with glistening snow. After the audience had had time to admire this scene sufficiently, a boy and girl entered, dressed in outdoor costume. They looked sad, and the girl took her handkerchief from her muff and held it to her eyes. Her companion begged her not to cry, for Father Time would surely help them. Then he knocked at the door of the cottage. It opened at once and out came a veritable Father Time, leaning on his staff. His long white beard, his scythe and hourglass, all proved his identity. Looking at the children he asked:
"Who is it knocks at my door to-day? Speak to me quickly, I cannot stay."
The little girl replied:
"Dear Father Time, we've come to you, Perhaps you'll tell us what to do. Our teacher says that in the year Too many holidays appear. She says we must at least drop one, And she'd be glad if there were none."
And the boy added:
"It is hard to know what day to choose, When there isn't one you care to lose."
In great astonishment Father Time exclaimed:
"To drop a holiday! Absurd! Impossible! Upon my word! Affairs like this belong to me, As I'll soon let this teacher see."
He rapped on the ground with his staff and a small page appeared, wearing a pointed cap and carrying a tin horn. Bowing low before Father Time, he was instructed to call the Holidays together. He withdrew and was heard blowing his horn in the distance. Presently music sounded, and the eight Holidays came marching in, with banners, singing:
"Joyous Holidays, Full of gayety, Bringing happy hours, Merry days are we.
"Children love us well, Surely they have reason. Happiness and mirth Bring we every season.
"Father Time, we've come, Answering to your call, Glad to do your will Are we one and all."
After marching twice around the stage they took their stand in a semicircle before Father Time and the children.
Father Time: "These children have come to me in deep distress, because their teacher (a most singular person) says there are too many Holidays, and one of them must be given up. I have sent for you to reassure them; speak for yourselves."
The Holidays looked at each other in dismay, and exclaimed:
"Holidays are we, And we've come to stay, Caring not a whit What such people say."
Boy and girl (clapping their hands): "Oh, dear Holidays, we are so glad! But are you sure she can't send any of you away?"
New Year's day now stepped forward. It was Jim Carter, whose suit of cotton batting, decorated with tinsel and cedar, was most becoming. Banner in hand he recited:
"First upon the list, I'd be greatly missed. Pages fresh and new, Resolutions true, Wishes for good cheer In the coming year, Where would these all be, Were it not for me?"
"No matter what the teachers say, We can't give up our New Year's Day."
Next came Elsie, looking exceedingly like a valentine in her gauzy dress, her fair hair waving over her shoulders. In her own airy way she recited:
"Surely you know, if you are not quite stupid, That I belong to that gay god Cupid. Send me away and I very much fear You'll find him infesting each day of the year."
"We never could endure to part From you who lie so near our heart."
The next Holiday excited great laughter and applause as he came forward. It was Aleck, in powdered wig, velvet coat, knee breeches, silk stockings, and shining shoe-buckles. In one hand he carried a small hatchet. The occasion was almost too much for him, and he spoke his lines with difficulty:
"My very great importance To see you cannot fail, I point a useful moral And adorn a thrilling tale. And with my honored hatchet I'm sure you'll ever find I make a good impression Upon the youthful mind."
Girl and boy:
"Indeed, we do not doubt you; We could never do without you."
Washington's Birthday was of course followed by April Fool's Day. This part was taken by Fred Ames, in a suit of figured chintz, with cap and bells. He recited:
"Don't think I'm the one to be laid on the shelf; I have a few words now to say for myself. To nonsense each one at some time must give vent; To furnish you with an excuse I am sent. To give you a day without precept or rule, In which you may each be a gay April Fool."
"Though not the most important on the list, We know, dear April Fool, you would be missed."
Next came Constance, with a garland of roses on her head, and her white dress trimmed with flowers. She recited:
"When first the flowers begin to show Their happy little faces, And tiny leaves begin to grow, To make us shady places, 'Tis then I sing in merry tune— Sweet Summer's coming very soon."
"Pretty May-Day must not go, We have always loved her so."
After Constance came Louise, who made a charming Goddess of Liberty, dressed in stars and stripes, with a flag in her hand. She said:
"I come to tell the story Of the birthday of our land, To remind you of her glory, And to help you understand How by good men, brave and true, This great land was won for you."
"Dear Fourth, we love your fun and noise, You're ever dear to girls and boys."
Thanksgiving Day was represented by Dora, dressed as a Puritan maiden, carrying a basket of apples and a sheaf of wheat. She made a pleasant picture as she recited:
"When wintry days once more appear, I come well laden with good cheer. You can't lose me at any rate, For I'm appointed by the State."
"As long as we're living We'll keep dear Thanksgiving."
Last of all came Christmas Day. This was Carl, in white, like New Year's, with trimmings of holly and mistletoe. A brave young Holiday he looked, as he repeated:
"Last comes to you the merry day O'er which St. Nicholas holds sway; A day that's sent your hearts to fill With peace and joy and glad goodwill. And down through all the centuries long Echo the angel words and song, And every year again I tell The old sweet story, loved so well."
As he finished, the children said eagerly:
"Dear Holidays, we love you all; You're good and true and gay, And we hope, as you have said, That all have come to stay. But though we value all the rest, 'Tis Christmas Day we love the best."
At this the other Holidays stepped out, and bowing to Christmas, said:
"We all unite in words of praise, And crown him king of Holidays."
Then New Year's Day placed a crown on his head, May-Day gave him a rose, Fourth of July, a flag, Thanksgiving, an apple, Washington's Birthday offered his hatchet, and St. Valentine gave him a sugar heart; and joining hands the children and the Holidays danced around him, singing:
"We all unite in words of praise, And crown him king of Holidays."
The curtain fell on a tableau: the Holidays, with their flags and banners, old Father Time, and the happy children.
The applause was so vehement it had to rise again for a moment, and then there was an intermission while some of the actors changed their costumes.
When the curtain went up for the last time the cottage was gone, and in its place appeared a row of high-backed chairs on which were seated five little ladies in the quaintest of short-waisted gowns, each with a reticule on her arm, from which she took her needles and began to knit. Then Bess, who sat at one end of the line, looked up, and said in her own sweet little way:
"We're learning to knit, you see, because We wish to be nice grandmammas; You would not care, I'm sure, a bit For a grandmamma who couldn't knit."
Dora, who came next, continued:
"How daintily warm, how soft and sweet, The tiny socks for baby's feet. Nothing you'll find in all the land Fashioned like these by grandma's hand."
Here Elsie took it up:
"All the older children too can tell How grandma's stockings wear so well, And how she makes, with greatest pains, Comforters, afghans, balls, and reins."
Louise had just made a discovery that surprised her, and with shining eyes she recited:
"There's nothing so good, the children know, As grandmamma's stories of long ago. Empty-handed she could not tell All the dear old stories half so well."
Constance sat at the end of the row, and looking at the others she said:
"When she was a girl like you and me, 'Twas then she learned to knit, you see. So like her now we must begin Carefully putting the stitches in."
Then together they recited:
"Our shining needles we gayly ply, Getting ready for by and by. Aren't you glad to know there'll be Five old ladies as nice as we?"
At the last line they rose, each dropped a profound courtesy and marched from the stage. The enthusiastic audience recalled them half a dozen times, till Mr. Hazeltine was obliged to announce that the entertainment was over.
No one had enjoyed it more than a person who sat in an easy-chair, where without any effort she could see all that went on.
Here the children gathered when it was over, exclaiming, "Why, Miss Brown, we did not know you were coming! How did you get here, and how did you like it?"
It was of no use to try to answer so many questions, so she only laughed and said she had enjoyed herself immensely.
Then they must rush off to see how much money had been taken in.
Mr. Caruth, who had been pressed into service as doorkeeper by Cousin Helen, was in the hall with Aunt Zelie.
"Here are nine dollars and a half for you, Grandma," he said, putting a box into Louise's hands.
"Oh, thank you! Then that will be enough with the basket money. Don't you think our entertainment was pretty good, Mr. Caruth?" she asked.
"Delightful! I was just telling Mrs. Howard that it was a star performance," he answered.
"I don't know what that is, but Aunt Zelie and Cousin Helen made it all up, every bit," Bess said proudly.
The performers were so enchanted with the evening's fun that they refused to take off their gay costumes, and declared one and all that they meant to see the old year out.
The Father of his Country forgot his dignity, and cut up all sorts of antics with April Fool's Day. Even Father Time joined in the fun, and Christmas and New Year bestrewed the floor with cotton batting as they danced with the old ladies.
But they were tired out before midnight, and when the city bells rang in the new year they were all sound asleep and heard not a bit of it.
And this is what came of it:
Of course in the first place the harp was mended and paid for, and its owner was able once more to earn something for his family. With her burden thus made lighter, Marie worked away cheerfully at her embroidery, and Tina went happily to school in the warm dress Mrs. Howard gave her. Many were the blessings invoked on the heads of the young people who had helped them!
"But after all," said Bess, "it was only fun for us."
In the second place Uncle William was so pleased with the five old ladies that a charming idea came into his head. After a consultation with Miss Brown, he sent them one Saturday afternoon a note and a big bundle. Here is the note:
MY DEAR LITTLE FRIENDS: I was delighted the other night to find that your small fingers were already learning to be useful, and I take the liberty of giving them some more work to do. I know an old colored woman who, after spending most of her life in taking care of little children, is now paralyzed, and can only lie in bed. Nothing pleases her so much as bright colors, so I want you to make her a gay afghan. She will not mind any uneven stitches if they happen to put in, and will be very proud of it.
I send the yarn of which to make it. There are to be five stripes, one for each of you.
Hoping that you will enjoy the work, and at the same time the thought that it is to please a poor old invalid, I am affectionately your friend,
WILLIAM S. HAZELTINE.
The bundle when it was unrolled was found to contain some of the oddest-looking balls of yarn that ever were seen.
"I think he must have wound them himself," remarked Louise, shaking her head over the lumpy, unsymmetrical ball she held.
However, Miss Brown said the shape did not matter, and work was begun, with great interest. Dora was the first to make a discovery, perhaps because she could knit more rapidly than the others. One of the lumps in her ball proved to be caused by something rolled in tissue paper. Feeling sure that this was the key to one of Uncle William's surprises, they looked on eagerly while she pulled the paper off and found a gold thimble with her name on it. Not long after Elsie found a tiny pair of scissors. Never had any work been so delightful! It usually happened that some one of the gay balls yielded a prize each Saturday afternoon. Sometimes only a big sugar plum, but oftener something pretty and useful. A tiny book of texts, a dainty handkerchief rolled into smallest compass, rings of twisted gold with the letters M.K. on bangles attached to them,—these were some of the things found in the wonder balls, for that is what they are called in Germany, where Mr. Hazeltine first heard of them.
"It is so exactly like him, I thought he must have invented it himself," said Dora.
The beautiful snow-storm which came two weeks after Christmas seemed to be the cause of all the unhappiness, though the real reason for it was to be found in quite another quarter.
A deep snow followed by a week of clear cold weather seldom came more than once during the winter in this part of the country, and the children were wild with delight. Aunt Zelie was obliged to do a little of the curbing that Aunt Marcia so often advised, and Bess and Louise thought it hard that they were not allowed to hitch their sleds behind wagons as Carl and Ikey did.
The boys first got into trouble. They began at once building forts in their playground at school, and were soon divided into two opposing forces, each with one of the older boys for captain.
For a time things went very well, and Carl and Ikey, though they belonged to different sides, could discuss their battles good-naturedly. But this did not last. One day the cry of "Not fair" arose; someone was hurt and resented it, his friends took it up, and all good feeling went to the winds. When the bell called them in there were some bad bruises, and, worse still, angry looks and accusations.
On the way home the dispute ran high between Carl and Ikey. The first-named in particular was very much excited, and declared he wanted nothing more to do with cheats. Ikey retorted warmly, with natural indignation, and so they parted.
About the same time discord arose among the girls.
Mr. Hazeltine had had a slide made for the children in the back yard. It was built from the top of the stable loft, and was as good a substitute for a hill as such an affair could be. Here they had a grand time till one day when Elsie insisted it was her turn to slide.
"No, it is Dora's," objected Louise. "Isn't it, Constance?"
But Constance, always devoted to Elsie, was not sure. Bess and Helen both agreed with Louise.
"I am sure it is my turn to slide," said Dora, "but if Elsie thinks it is hers, I'd rather have her take it."
Bess had very positive ideas of fairness, however, and would not give up. "No," she declared, "it is her turn, and we must play fair or it isn't any fun."
"But I know it is my turn," said Elsie, equally stubborn; "Connie thinks so too."
"Never mind, Bess," pleaded Dora.
"I shall mind; for when Louise and Helen and I all say it is your turn, and only Constance thinks it is Elsie's, you have a—a majority, and she ought to see it."
"Yes," added Louise, admiring her sister's big word; "I think you ought, Elsie."
"And it is our slide," put in Helen very unwisely.
"That doesn't make any difference," Bess hastened to say; but the mischief was done.
"Then keep your old slide," Elsie cried angrily. "I wouldn't be so selfish. Come, Constance, let's not stay where they don't want us."
"Don't go, Elsie; it is not worth quarrelling about," urged Dora; but she wouldn't listen and walked off with an air of offended dignity, followed rather reluctantly by Constance. Dora wanted to go after her, but Louise held her fast.
"Don't go, Dody; it won't do a bit of good. If she is mad, she can just be mad."
They took a few more slides, finding it not half so much fun as before. Dora looked very sober, for quarrelling was something she was not accustomed to, and after a visit to Carie, who was sick with a cold, she went home feeling exceedingly uncomfortable. Perhaps it would be all right to-morrow, she thought, but that did not prove to be the case.
When they met at school Elsie entirely ignored Bess and Louise, who in their turn treated her with a lofty indifference wonderful to behold.
"I am not at all mad at you, Dora," Elsie said to her; "but I am at Bess and Louise, for they were impolite. I am not going to speak to them till they say they are sorry."
"Oh, dear! I feel as though it were my fault in some way. It will spoil our club and everything," sighed Dora.
How long this unhappy state of affairs might have continued had not the Big Front Door taken matters in hand, it is impossible to say.
On the afternoon of the quarrel Elsie had a story book with her, which in her hasty departure she forgot. She remembered it before she reached home, but did not like to go back. The next day she planned a very cold note which was to be carried by one of the servants. Mrs. Morris, however, saw no reason why her daughter should not do her own errand, and all arguments were in vain. Finding that it was of no use to plead, after some rebellious tears she decided to go for her book herself.
Bess, Louise, and Dora were studying their history lesson together, when Joanna came in to say that Elsie was downstairs and wanted the book she had left.
"I wonder," said Bess, when it had been found and sent down, "if she will come to the club."
After they went back to their lessons Dora's thoughts kept wandering off to that miserable quarrel, and she said, as she put on her hat, "If Elsie were willing to make up, you would be, wouldn't you?"
"Oh, yes," they both answered readily, Louise adding, "but she doesn't want to."
Elsie felt rather uncomfortable as she sat in the library. She hoped that none of the children would come in and find her there. She could not help remembering the pleasant time she had had in that very room a few weeks ago, getting ready for the New Year's eve entertainment, and for a moment she was sorry about the quarrel.
When Joanna brought her the book she hurried away, and, opening the front door for herself, pulled it to behind her with a bang, when to her dismay she found herself held fast. The door had closed on her dress. She pulled and twisted, but it was of no use—she was a prisoner. She could not reach the bell, and only a dead latch-key would open it from the outside. It was late in the afternoon and few people were passing; then too she did not like to call for help. The poor child felt herself to be in a somewhat ridiculous position, and if she dreaded anything it was being made fun of.
Suppose Carl should come in and find her! He was such a tease he would tell the other boys, and they would think it a great joke. The wind was so cold and penetrating that after a little Elsie forgot her fear of being laughed at, and began to long for anybody who would release her. All the passers-by seemed to be on the other side of the street. Once she called to a colored boy, but he only looked at her stupidly and went on.
"Oh, dear! what shall I do!" she cried, sinking down on the cold marble step. "I wish I had never thought of my book."
She wondered what Bess and Louise would think if she were found frozen to death on their doorstep. Her mother would be sorry she had not allowed one of the servants to take her note. There was some comfort in this thought. Then—was that really someone coming down the walk at the side of the house? She held her breath. Yes, it certainly was. She immediately returned to life.
It was Dora on her way home, so busy thinking that she started when Elsie called her.
"Why, Elsie Morris," she exclaimed as she caught sight of the forlorn figure on the doorstep.
"Oh, Dora, please help me. I am caught and can't get out."
"Have you been here all this time?" Dora asked, running up the steps in great surprise. "Shall I ring the bell or go around?" pausing with her hand on the knob.
"You'd better ring. I don't want to see the girls."
Dora's hand still rested on the bell, but she hesitated. "Elsie," she said, "I just believe this has happened so we can make up. Won't you? I know that Bess and Louise will if you will. Think how unhappy we are! We can't have any more good times." Dora felt that she had the advantage.
"No," said Elsie crossly; "and I wish you would ring that bell; I am as cold as I can be. It was my turn, and it was selfish and mean in them not to let me have it."
"Oh, Elsie, they are not selfish; they are always ready to do what we like, but they thought it was my turn. That is why I feel so badly about it; for if it had been her own turn I think Bess would have given up. Please, please promise to make up."
That Dora cared a great deal was plain, for her eyes were full of tears, and those tears did much towards gaining the victory.
"I am not the least bit mad with you, Dora," Elsie hastened to say, "but I am with Bess. Please ring the bell."
"In one minute, if you will only promise to make up."
"Dora Warner, I tell you I can't," stamping her foot. "I can't say it wasn't my turn, for that would be a story."
"That won't make any difference, for you need not say anything about it, only that you are willing to make up. You think you were right, and Bess thinks she was right, so all you have to do is not to say anything about it. Please, Elsie."
Dora's logic may not have been altogether convincing, but her earnestness was not to be resisted.
"Well," began the prisoner, "I suppose I shall freeze to death if I don't, so I will only—"
Dora waited for nothing more, but gave the bell a joyous pull.
Louise, who was on her way upstairs, ran back to see who was at the door.
"Why, it is Dora!" she exclaimed, opening it.
It did not take long to explain, and Elsie was glad to sit down by the register in the hall and make it up in earnest.
Bess, who heard them talking and ran down, was quite ready to meet her more than half way, and no one would have guessed, seeing their friendliness, that an hour ago they were not on speaking terms.
Elsie was pitied and petted to her heart's content, while Dora beamed on them like a genial little sun which had at last made its way through the clouds.
Aunt Zelie heard the whole story that night.
"Wasn't it funny, Elsie's getting caught?" said Louise. "I believe it is really a magic door; Dora thinks so too."
"I don't know. It seems to me if the rest of you had been as anxious for peace as she was, the door need not have come to your relief. If you had each been trying to help," said her aunt.
"I believe I have been forgetting the text," Bess said gravely.
If only the quarrel between Carl and Ikey could have been settled as quickly. A week passed and matters did not mend. The walk to and from school was now taken alone, and neither made any sign of recognition when they met. Ikey was miserable at the sight of Carl's intimacy with Jim, and he imagined, too, that Mrs. Howard took her nephew's part, and this was hardest of all.
The fact was Aunt Zelie knew little or nothing about it. She had a house full of company, and Carie was sick besides.
In spite of appearances to the contrary, Carl was no happier than his friend, and quite as keenly missed the daily companionship in lessons and play. It had its effect in making him overbearing and fault-finding in an unusual degree. The family began to wonder what had happened to merry, good-tempered Carl, when one Saturday morning matters reached a climax. As he came upstairs from the library where he had been copying a composition, his father called to him from the hall below. Running into the girls' room, he laid his paper on the table there, with strict injunctions to them not to touch it.
Some minutes passed before his return, and Helen, who was apt to be attracted by forbidden fruit, could not resist going over to look at it. "I only want to see if I can read it," she said in reply to a warning word from Bess, who passed through the room on her way to the star chamber, where she and Louise were busy.
Helen, left to herself, was seized with a desire to make a capital S like Carl's. Finding a pen and some ink, she set to work, forgetting everything else till Bess, returning for something, exclaimed, "Why, Helen, what are you doing? Here he comes."
Very much startled, she looked around quickly, and the pen fell from her unaccustomed fingers upon the composition, scattering ink in every direction. At this moment her brother entered the room, and at one glance took in Helen's frightened look and the blotted paper.