When Grandmamma Was New
THE STORY OF A VIRGINIA CHILDHOOD
By Marion Harland
BOSTON LOTHROP PUBLISHING COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1899, BY LOTHROP PUBLISHING COMPANY.
Norwood Press J. S. Cushing & Co.—Berwick & Smith Norwood Mass. U.S.A.
HORACE AND ERIC FRITZ, TERHUNE, AND STERLING
FIRST TOLD TO THEM OVER THE LIBRARY FIRE IN AUTUMN AND WINTER EVENINGS IS MOST LOVINGLY DEDICATED
SUNNYBANK, POMPTON, N.J.
It was Fritz who said it first, and when he was three years younger than he is now.
Somebody asked him what sort of stories he liked best. No doubt he ought to have said "Bible Stories," such as his mother tells on Sunday afternoons, and which he does love dearly. But he spoke out what he really thought and felt at the time of asking, and said, "I like, best of all, to hear about what happened when Grandmamma was New."
The phrase tickled my fancy, and, thenceforward, I would have no other title for the sight-draughts made by the boys upon my bank of memory. When these "vouchers" grew into a volume, no name would serve my turn except the mot de famille set in circulation by the quaint five-year-old.
My laddies are well trained. (Good children run in the family.) I record, pridefully, that the sunny head of the least of the band has never drooped drowsily while the tale went on, and that his chirp was distinct in the general plea for, "More—to-morrow night?" with which the conclave brought up at the call to prayers and to pillows. This has not so far flattered me out of my sober senses as to beget a hope that my reminiscences will find such loving interest and attention so rapt in the larger audience outlying our doors. Yet I dare believe that other grandparents will read and other children will listen to the real happenings of the Long Time Ago WHEN THIS GRANDMAMMA WAS NEW.
SUNNYBANK, May, 1899.
I. The Tragedy of Rozillah 11
II. A Prize Fight and a Race 28
III. Van Diemen's Land 45
IV. Oiled Calico 63
V. What was done with Musidora 78
VI. The Haunted Room 97
VII. Just for Fun 107
VIII. My First Lie, and what came of it 124
IX. My Pets 144
X. Circumstantial Evidence 164
XI. Frankenstein 182
XII. My Prize Beet 198
XIII. Two Adventures 215
XIV. Miss Nancy's Nerves 232
XV. "Side-blades" and Water-melons 246
XVI. Old Madam Leigh 257
XVII. Out into the World 282
When Grandmamma Was New
The Tragedy of Rozillah
"Just look at her now, Molly! Isn't she the sweetest thing you ever saw?"
Molly, that is, Myself, sitting on the door-step, elbows on knees and shoulders hunched sullenly up to my ears, did not budge or speak.
Before my gloomy eyes was the kitchen yard, a gray and gritty expanse, with never a tree or bush to shade it except the lilac hedge bounding it on the garden side, and one sickly peach tree growing at the corner of "the house." Three hens and one rooster were scratching about the flat stone at the kitchen door.
On the other three sides of the house were rustling boughs and cool grass and flower-beds. It suited my humor to sit in the scanty strip of shadow cast by the eaves, my feet upon the step that had soaked in the noonday heat, and to be as wretched as a five-year-old could make herself, with a sharp sense of injury boring like a bit of steel into her small soul. The room behind me was my mother's—the "chamber" of the Southern home. A big four-poster, hung with dimity curtains, stood in the farther corner. The dimity valance, trimmed, like the curtains, with ball fringe, hid the trundle-bed that was pulled out at night for Mary 'Liza and me to sleep in. At the foot of the bed was my baby brother's cradle. As Mam' Chloe was walking with him in the garden, it should have been empty. Whereas, Mary 'Liza was putting her doll-baby to sleep in it. We said "doll-baby" in those days. There was Musidora, my rag-baby, who was a beauty when she was new.
She was not old now, but Fate had been unkind to her. Twice I had left her out-of-doors all night. The first time was when I laid her at the foot of a particularly tall corn-stalk, telling her that I would return presently, but could not find her at all when I went back. I was up and out early next morning and "found her indeed, but it made my heart bleed," for a field mouse—with six acres of roasting-ears to choose from—had made his supper on the bran that served my poor Musidora for brains, nibbling a hole in the exact region of the medulla oblongata. My mother plugged the cranium with raw cotton and stitched up the wound, and the dear patient was doing better than could be expected, when there was a thunder-storm and Musidora was on a bench in the summer-house. The rain lasted all night, and I could not go out again.
One immediate and obvious consequence of this adventure was that there was nothing left of Musidora's features except her eyebrows, which were laid on with indelible ink instead of water-colors. She hung, head downward, in front of the kitchen fire for twelve hours before she was thoroughly dry. My mother "indicated" eyes, nose, and mouth with pen-and-ink, but the effect was flat and mournful.
While I sat in the door that evening, putting on Musidora's night-gown, I overheard Mam' Chloe say to my mother:—
"I declar' to gracious, Miss Ma'y Anna, you ought to buy that chile a sure-'nough doll-baby while you are in town. It f'yar breaks my heart to see how much store she sets by that po' wrack of a rag thing she's got thar."
My mother's reply was so low that I did not catch it, but her tone was not unpromising. I said nothing to her, or to anybody of what I had heard. Only, of course, Musidora and I talked it all over. I assured her that she was going to have a beautiful sister who would love her and play with her and tell her stories of the wonderful city, and of how happy we three should be together.
My father and mother went away to Richmond. They took the baby with them, and Mary 'Liza and I were sent to my Aunt Eliza Carter's to stay until they returned, when Cousin Molly Belle took us back home and told my mother before my face that I had been as "good as gold."
"I am very glad to hear it," said my mother, giving me a squeeze and kiss. "I was afraid she might be troublesome. She is not as steady as Mary 'Liza, you know. I have something nice in my trunk for each of my daughters."
She always spoke of us in that way, although Mary 'Liza was her niece, and an orphan. She was seven now, and the pattern child of the county. Pretty, too, with a fair skin and shiny braids of golden hair, and innocent blue eyes, and dimpled arms, and fluffy, kittenish ways, while I was as lean as a snake, as brown as a chinquapin, and as wild as a hawk. I was used to hearing myself compared to all three. Mary 'Liza could read in the New Testament without stopping to spell a word, at three, and write in a copy-book at five, and do sums on the slate at six, and at seven was as much company to my mother as if she had been seventeen. In a word, my cousin was "a comfort." I was often called "a plague."
Yet, as I can honestly affirm, I had never known, until this black day when Cousin Molly Belle took me home, what it was to be envious. I was not exactly fond of my cousin, yet we seldom disagreed openly. She wore clean frocks and liked to stay indoors and piece bedquilts and knit stockings and read aloud to my mother. I never willingly spent an hour in the house when I could get out, and had odd plays of my own which I kept secret from Mary 'Liza because I was sure she would be shocked, or laugh at them. I fully recognized the claims of orphanhood to the buttered side of life, and that a girl who had no father or mother deserved to be cared for by everybody else.
My parents had arrived late at night, and the trunk was unpacked with much ceremony the next morning. Under my mother's best new dresses was a long pasteboard box which she opened, smiling at our expectant faces. From it she drew the biggest, prettiest doll-baby we had ever seen, in a blue silk frock with a sash to match. She had real hair, curly and black as a coal, and round black eyes and a cherry-ripe mouth. I reached out both hands, and a cry of rapture rushed from my heart to my lips—an inarticulate gurgle of ineffable happiness.
My mother did not see my gesture. I hope she did not hear the cry. She laid the doll-baby in Mary 'Liza's arms.
"Mrs. Hutcheson, who was your mother's dearest friend, sent that to you with her love."
For me there was a trumpery book, with very few pictures, and a good deal of reading in it—also from Mrs. Hutcheson.
"She thought it might coax you to learn how to read. I was ashamed to have to say that my little girl does not know her letters yet," said my much-tried parent. "And your father brought you a Noah's Ark."
I received book and Ark without a word, and marched toward the door, my heart ready to break.
"What do you say for your presents, Molly?"
I stood stock-still, my eyes on the floor.
My mother quietly and sorrowfully took the painted Ark from my hand.
"When you can say 'thank you,' and stop pouting, you can have it back," she said, in gentle severity.
I dashed from the room around the house to the end porch. It was high enough for me to stand upright under it and the sides were screened by a climbing sweetbrier. I had often played Daniel in the lion's den there, assisted by a caste of small colored children. They were the lions, I, with the choice of parts, electing invariably to play the persecuted and finally triumphant biped. The fury of forty wild beasts was in my heart, as I pushed aside the prickly branches and crept into my lair. The den was paved with bricks, loosely laid. With a pointed stick I pried one up, and scooped out with my hands a grave deep enough to hold the hateful book with the few pictures and the much reading. I thrust it in without benefit of clergy, hustled the earth back upon it, pounded the brick into place, and lay flat down upon the dishonored tomb.
Mam' Chloe found me there at dinner-time, fast asleep. She dragged me back to consciousness and the open air by the heels. Not in wanton cruelty, but she was a large woman, and could get at me in no other way. While she washed and made me decent in clean frock, apron, and pantalettes, she scolded me for my "low-lived, onladylike ways," and warned me of her solemn intention to "tell my mother on me," the next time such a disgraceful thing happened. I did not mind the lecture. I knew Mam' Chloe, and she (Heaven rest her white, faithful soul in the Kingdom where the bond are free!) knew me, I verily believe, better than the mother that bore me.
Toilet and tirade ended, she slid me, as she might a proscribed book, through a crack in the side-door into the dining room, where Uncle Ike, her husband, was in waiting. He, in turn, smuggled me behind my mother's back to the side-table, there being no room for us children at the main board that day.
None of the dozen grown-up diners noticed me, or that Mary 'Liza, sitting prim and dainty on her side of our table, had her doll by her in another chair, and interrupted her meal, once in a while, to caress her or to re-arrange her curls and skirts. I affected not to see the pantomime, which I chose to assume was enacted for my further exasperation. I was apparently as indifferent to Uncle Ike's shameless partiality in loading my plate with choice tidbits, such as a gizzard, a merry-thought, or a cheese-cake, while Mary 'Liza had to ask twice for what she wanted. What was not tasteless was bitter to my palate. I wondered, dully, why the sight of the doll-baby and the fuss her owner made over her, turned me sick. As soon as I could get away, I slipped down, and out at the friendly side-door, and went to find Musidora. There was a new bond of union between us. She had no beautiful sister, I no beautiful daughter. Sitting down upon the hot step, before the kitchen yard, I hugged her hard and cried a little over her, in a brief, stormy way. The tears hurt me, as they came, and did not ease the hot ache in my chest or the lump in my throat.
At this juncture, when my misery was at its height, I heard Mary 'Liza in the chamber behind me, cooing to, and hushing her doll-baby, with tones and words copied faithfully from my mother's talk over my brother's cradle.
"Wouldn't you like to rock her a little while?" she called presently. "I wouldn't mind if you'd promise not to touch her. Sometimes your hands are not clean, you know."
I set my jaws savagely outside of my leaping tongue, not moving or looking up when I felt her standing close by me. Musidora had dropped from my lap, and lay, face downward, on the step. Mary 'Liza picked her up, and brushed the dust from her inexpressive visage.
"Poor thing!" purred she. "I hope nothing will ever happen to Rozillah. Isn't that a love-el-ly? I made it out of my own head from Rosa and Zillah, two love-el-ly girls I read of in a book."
"I think it is a nasty name," was my deliberate reply.
She recoiled with a fine horror which stung me like a nettle.
"Oh, Molly! what a word for a little lady to use!"
I looked up at her for the first time, my eyes burning in dry sockets.
"I think your doll-baby is nasty, and Rozillah is a nigger name! So there!"
I could command no worse language, for I knew none.
Mary 'Liza looked shocked and terrified. She glanced right and left and upward nervously, as fearing the punishment of heaven upon me.
"I am afraid that you are in a very bad humor," she faltered, her self-possession forsaking her for a moment. "I'd better leave you."
She had gone a dozen paces when she glanced over her shoulder to say, in her most grown-up and judicial manner:—
"I hope you will not make any noise and wake Rozillah up."
I rose and went straight to the cradle as soon as my cousin was out of sight. Cold, deadly fury possessed and filled me, casting out fear of consequences and routing the weakling conscience engendered and nourished by parental counsel. I plucked Rozillah from her downy bed and bore her into the air, cuffing her polished red cheeks soundly on the way. Then I stripped off her gay raiment and knotted the ribbon sash about her smooth neck. I had never tied a knot before, but this held, as did the loop I cast over a projecting branch of the sickly peach-sapling. Naked and forlorn, Rozillah dangled a foot and more from the ground. I fetched my father's riding-whip from the hall table, and the last feeble check upon my fury was released.
The next I knew a pair of cool, white arms closed about me and the whip together, and Cousin Molly Belle's voice, half-laughing, half-horrified, cried through the roaring in my ears:—
"Dear little Namesake! what has got into you?"
All at once, red mists parted and rolled away from my eyes, and I became conscious that Mary 'Liza was jumping up and down and screaming piteously, that everybody was on the spot—my father and mother and all the dinner company, and Mam' Chloe with the baby in her arms, and a ring of my small black servitors on the outside of the group; also that all eyes were focussed on me and what was left of Rozillah.
The lash had drawn sawdust at every blow. One arm and both legs were torn off and weltered in the scattered stuffing beneath; the crop of black curls was tangled in the topmost limb of the sapling. The blue silk gown would never fit the pliant waist again. Rozillah was beyond the possibility of reconstruction.
I threw my arms around Cousin Molly Belle's neck, and burst into a torrent of childish tears.
I think I must have been whipped for that afternoon's work. I ought to have been, and Solomon, as a disciplinarian, was in high repute in the family connection. I am sure that I was put forthwith to bed and left alone for an eternity without even Musidora to bear me company. I had an indefinite impression that they feared the effect of association with such a wicked child upon her morals and manners.
I recollect that my mother brought me the bread and milk which was all the supper I was to have, and talked me tenderly into tears.
But most vividly do I recall the apparition which stole into my solitude after supper—which I had scented longingly from afar. A wraith all in white—gown and neck and arms and face, the masses of fluffy hair making this last more wraith-like. It sank to the floor beside my low bed, and gathered me, miserable culprit, in a cuddling embrace, and bade me "tell Cousin all about it—the whole truly truth."
I could always talk to her, and I began at the beginning and went straight and steadfastly through to the nauseous end.
I did not cry while I talked, and when struck by her silence I raised a timid hand to her dear cheek and found it wet, I was surprised.
"Why, Cousin Molly Belle!" I stammered. "Are you so angry with me as that?"
"Angry? yes, Namesake, but not with you, poor little sinner! You and I are always getting into scrapes—aren't we? Maybe that is why I am going to ask your mother to let you sleep with me to-night."
Which delicious cup of happiness consoled the outgoing of the first tragical day of my life.
A Prize Fight and a Race
Cousin Molly and I were spending an afternoon in the Old Orchard. My mother had a houseful of company, a common circumstance in itself. This particular houseful was so little to Cousin Molly Belle's liking that she got away as soon as dinner was over, drawing me, a willing captive, in her train. Furthermore, she had stolen Bud, my baby brother, from the chamber floor where Mam' Chloe had deposited him and a string of spools, while she lent a hand with the dinner dishes to her butler husband.
Bud chuckled and crowed and squealed, as if he were the heart, head, and front of the joke, while we scampered down the middle garden walk, hidden by tall althea hedges, and gained the rail fence at the lower end without being challenged. My accomplice made me climb over first, and lowered her burden carefully into my arms, before she leaned her weight upon the two hands laid on the top rail, and whirled over like an acrobat—or a bird. She could outrun half the boys who had been her slaves and playfellows in childhood, and outjump three-fourths of them.
We were comparatively safe now, the ground dipping abruptly below the garden into a level stretch of "old field" where the broom straw came up to my armpits, the yellowing waves parting before, and closing behind, with the surge and "swish" of a gentle surf. They smelled sweet and they felt soft, and Cousin Molly Belle let Bud down from her shoulder, and making a hammock of her arms, swung him back and forth through the pliant stems until he choked with ecstasy.
Beyond the old field was the Old Orchard. The new orchard, planted nearer the house, was in full bearing, and my father made little account of such fruit—mostly choke-pears and apples from ungrafted limbs—as was enterprising enough to grow and ripen without tending or harvesting. The trunks of the neglected trees were studded with knobs like enormous wens, and the branches had a jaunty earthward cant that made climbing the easiest sort of work, and swinging an irresistible temptation. In the higher boughs were cosey crotches where one could sit, and read, and even sleep, without danger of falling. I and my court of small darkies had spent one whole July Saturday in and under the "big sweeting," when the apples were nominally ripe. I was Elijah, and my attendants were the ravens who plied me with sweetings in all stages of development until I could not have swallowed another to save the combined kingdoms of Judah and Israel. I was ill all night after the surfeit, but I bore the sweetings no grudge for my misplaced confidence in the human stomach.
We three runaways camped down under the brooding branches. The unshorn and uncropped turf was thick and dry as a parlor carpet. Bud crept lawlessly about, picking up twigs and pebbles, and trying his first four teeth upon them. He was a discreet baby, never swallowing what he could not bite into. His real names were William Skipwith Burwell. Somebody had dubbed him "Rosebud," in the first moon of his sublunary existence, and the abbreviation was inevitable. He would probably remain "Bud" until he entered Hampton Sidney. The chances were even that the alliterative temptation of "Bud Burwell" would tack the label upon him for life. Changes were troublesome, and Powhatan County people were opposed to taking trouble. The name of their own county usually lost the second syllable in sliding between their lips.
Cousin Molly Belle threw herself down at full-length on the grass, pillowed her bright head upon her arms, and stared contentedly into the apple boughs.
"This is what I call taking one's comfort!" she breathed.
I sat down by her, my short legs tucked under me, Bedouin-wise. That was one good thing—among many—about being out-of-doors with nobody by but her or the colored children. I could sit cross-legged. If I forgot my manners and did it in the house, my mother, or Mam' Chloe, pulled my legs out straight in front of me, or shook them down, and reminded me that I was going to be a young lady before long. As if that were my fault, or as if it could be helped! My heart glowed with gratification in observing that Cousin Molly Belle had laid one slim ankle over the other. I hitched myself a little nearer to her and lapsed into the confidential tone she encouraged in our tete-a-tetes.
"Don't you just love to cross your—feet?"
My modest hesitation was not lost upon her. She laughed.
"I like to cross my legs—and I do it!"
"Mam' Chloe says people ought to think little ladies haven't any legs,—that their feet are just pinned to the bottom of their pantalettes."
"Mam' Chloe is an—echo!"
"That wasn't what you began to say,—was it?" asked I, diffidently.
She laughed again, tweaking my ear, affectionately, and telling me that I was a "monkey, and too sharp to be safe."
Her eyes were full of laughter and laziness; the color in her cheeks was that of a velvet perpetual rose, shading into peach-blow, then into pure white that never took freckle or tan from the hottest sun.
Have I said that her hair was auburn, and curled like grape tendrils, from the nape of the neck to the forehead? The color was singular. In the shade it was that of a perfectly groomed bay horse. When the sun struck it, it got all alive, as if there were light under it, as well as over it, and was, unmistakably, red. She made more fun of it than anybody else, but at heart she loved her hair, and would not have exchanged it for paley-gold or ebony tresses. Bud had fastened his chubby hands in it to steady himself on his perch, as she ran, and pulled some of it loose from her comb. A thick curl strayed over her arm, bare almost to the shoulder, as was the warm-weather custom of young ladies of that time. She drew it around before her eyes, thinning it into a silky veil, holding it high up and letting it slip, strand by strand, between her and the light.
A notion—indefinable in words—that a wealth of charms was wasted upon one observant little girl and a non-observant baby, led me to inquire:—
"Would you, sure enough, rather be out here than in the house, talking to them all?"
"I am tired of 'them all,' Molly. They tire me to death."
"Some grown people are not tiresome," I essayed. "There's Mr. Frank Morton, now. I like him!"
"Oh, you do—do you? Why?" still shredding the veil of curls between her and the sun.
"Well, one thing is, he talks straight. He doesn't talk 'round about, and sideways, and crossways, to children. Nor make fun of my questions. He just answers right along and plain."
"I don't think I quite know what you mean, Namesake."
"Why, you see it's this way,—the other day I asked him if he didn't think you were a heap prettier than any other lady he ever saw, and he never so much as cracked a smile. He just put his arm 'round me—he never did that but twice before—and he said up-and-down, as serious as anything—'Yes, I do, Molly!' And he does make the beautifullest chinquapin whistles! They go on whistling after they are dry. You see, the trouble with the whistles other people make for me, is that they shrivel all up by next day, and there isn't a bit of whistle left in them."
"That's the way with most of my whistles, too, Namesake. And then I throw them away and want new ones. Heigh-ho! What's the use of a whistle when all the whistle has gone out of it? I must ask Mr. Frank Morton how he makes his."
I gave a jump and a little squeak.
"Oh, Cousin Molly Belle! there's a great, big race-horse on you!"
He had tumbled out of the apple boughs upon the folds of her skirt and before I could capture him, a second fell after him. I was upon my feet in a twinkling, seized first one, then the other, by their attenuated middles, and held them up, all kicking and sprawling, between a thumb and finger of each hand. I knew the tricks and the manners of what I learned, many years later, that naturalists describe as the mantis religiosa, or praying-mantis, because in off-hours,—i.e. when they are not foraging or fighting—they will sit upon their hind quarters and "fold the stout anterior legs in a manner suggesting hands folded in prayer."
I had caught dozens of them and fed them for days in a box with coarse lace tied over the top to prevent escape, and studied their habits, and humored their propensities by putting several together in the prison that forthwith became an arena, in which duello and general scrimmage relieved one another in enchanting succession.
I explained now, to my diverted companion, that I held them by their backs so that they could not bite me, and pointed out the wicked heads turning almost quite around in their savage efforts to avenge their capture. I was sure, I said excitedly, that these two were fighting up in the tree, and that was the way they happened to drop so close together. Had she never seen devil's race-horses fight? Mother didn't like that name for them, so I 'most always said just "race-horses" plain, so. Only, when they were very cross, the other word would slip out.
"If I were to let them go this minute, they'd begin to fight, 'stead of running away," I concluded. "S'pose we try them."
Entering into my humor, she improvised a cockpit by spreading her pocket-handkerchief upon the ground, and I liberated the gladiators.
They more than justified my account of their ferocity by grappling on the instant, each rising to his full height and hurling himself at his opponent's throat.
"You see they are acquainted with one another," I commented, as umpire and manager. "They just begin where they left off up in the tree."
It was an exciting display. Cousin Molly Belle raised herself upon her elbow; I doubled tightly under me what I now let myself think of as my legs, and spread both hands flat on the grass, to lean over the arena. In the hush that followed the onslaught the babbling song Bud crooned to himself as he crawled over the sun-and-shade dappled turf harmonized with the sleepy shaking of the leaves about us. Such another happy-hearted baby was never seen. And so wise, as I have said, for a yearling! never getting into mischief, and afraid of nothing.
I peeped through a kinetoscope last winter at a prize fight. I have never beheld anything that so closely and humiliatingly resembled the battle on the cambric square under the big sweeting. The wary advance after the recoil from the first encounter; the circling about at close quarters, each watching for his antagonist's weak point, the sudden clutch, embrace, and wrestle, which I, with umpiric instinct, interrupted, once and again, to prolong the combat,—none of these were wanting from either exhibition.
At length, I left the combatants to follow the bent of native savagery, and then came such warm and inartistic work as patrons of the human ring would decry as barbarous and out-of-date. They bit venomously, below the belt, they grabbed at and hung on to any part of the body that came handy; they rolled over and over, intertwined so closely as to appear like one convulsed, centipedal monster. Finally, one half of the creature gave a violent kick and was still. As the victor shook himself free of the carcass we saw the head he had bitten from the other's neck roll from under the survivor. Withdrawing an inch or two from the remains, he sat up on his hind quarters, and "folded his stout anterior legs" sanctimoniously in a battle-prayer. His devotions ended, he proceeded to lick his wound and readjust himself generally.
"I'm sorry I didn't separate them," said Cousin Molly Belle, shaking her handkerchief with coy finger-tips. "I don't think I care to see such another fight. It gives me the creeps."
"I think it is very interesting," replied I. "'Tisn't as if they had souls, you see. They just die and don't go anywhere."
A disagreeable noise joined Bud's cooing and babbling, and made us turn quickly. Right before us, and within six feet of the helpless baby, who had sat up to regard the phenomenon with innocent wonder, was an enormous sow with a brood of hungry young ones at her heels. Her vicious grunt, her gloating eyes, her dripping jaws, and projecting tusks, bespoke her dangerous. Only yesterday I had seen her, prowling in the barn-yard, seize and devour, one after another, three downy ducklings before the stable-boys could beat her off. In the terror of this moment, the scene flashed back to me, and I seemed to hear again the crunching of those slavering jaws.
Cousin Molly Belle swooped down upon Bud, and had him upon her shoulder before I could join my piping cry to her shout that rang out like a silver trumpet. The huge beast halted, made as though she would turn, then gave an angry, squealing grunt, and lunged toward us. Not a loose stick or stone was within reach. If there had been, there was not time to pick it up.
"Run for the fence! Run!" called the brave girl to me, and met the voracious brute with a kick, so well aimed that the high heel of her shoe struck full upon the eye next to her. In the respite gained by the sow's stagger and recoil, our defender overtook me, caught my hand, and fled along the path traced in the trampled broom-straw, through which we had waded merrily awhile ago. We had not taken a dozen steps when we heard the enemy roaring behind us.
"Oh!" gasped I, running with all my might meanwhile. "She will eat up Bud! Like she—ate—up—the—little—ducks!"
"She shall eat me first!"
I knew she meant it, and that it was true. The fence was not more than fifty yards away. It looked a mile off, and the wild grass was as tough and treacherous as it had been pliant and sweet when we had danced through it. I was a swift runner and my limbs obeyed me well. I was conscious, moreover, of the strong upbearing of my companion's hand that lent wings to my feet. If I were to stumble, she would not let me fall. This persuasion kept mind and heart in me.
Yet the sow would have caught up with us had not a pig set up a piteous squeal, as it lost its way or was entangled by the grass. The mother went back to reassure it with a series of staccato gruntings, very unlike those with which she renewed the chase.
We were at the fence. I scrambled over, spent and shaking, hardly able to receive the precious load that was lowered to me. As Cousin Molly Belle dropped after us, our pursuer's snout was poked between the lower rails in a last and futile attempt to get at the baby's fat legs.
"Then I got mad all through!" Cousin Molly Belle told my mother, in recounting the adventure.
Her white face flamed scarlet in a second. A pile of disused pea sticks lay in the fence corner. She seized one, and jumped over the fence again. Wielding her weapon as if it were a flail, she brought it down upon the ugly head and raw-boned body; and as the sow turned tail to run, belabored her through the orchard to the gap by which she had entered.
The conqueror returned to me, flushed, but unsmiling. I had Bud tight in my arms, and was laughing and crying together.
"It was funny to see you lam her and to see her run," I sobbed between giggles that hurt me more than the sobs.
She sat down on the grass, and clasped the baby to her heart. He cooed joyously, and held up a sweet open mouth for a kiss. He got, not one, but twenty kisses upon his wet lips, his pink face, his curly head, and the bonny eyes that were bluer than the sky. Then she bent to give me one—so long and tender that it checked sob and giggle.
"We will never make devil's race-horses fight again, Namesake. They have a right to their lives. And a life is a very precious thing!"
Van Diemen's Land
I learned to read that winter. How nobody knew, and I least of all. Looking backward, I seem to have gone to sleep one night, an ignoramus, and awakened next morning knowing letters, yet never having learned.
Cousin Molly Belle's solution of the puzzle submitted to her by my mystified mother was characteristic:—
"It is the fable of Munchausen's frozen horn over again. All the learning you have been pumping into the poor child for two years has thawed out. I always told you that she had brains if you would wait until they woke up."
I might speak of that enchanted season as my birth-winter. My mental awakening was into another world, so much wider and fuller than that with which I had been well content up to this time, that life was a continual ecstasy. I discovered, early in December, that, as Mr. Wegg was to immortalize himself by saying a quarter-century later—"all print was open" to me. By the middle of February I had gone three times through the inimitable classic, Cobwebs-to-catch-Flies, and read at least six other books through twice, besides being up to my eyes and over the head of my understanding in Sandford and Merton, that most fascinating of prosy impossibilities. Beside the classic I have named, and Rosamond, Harry and Lucy, Berquin's Children's Friend, Mrs. Sherwood's Little Henry and His Bearer and Fairchild Family, Anna Ross and Helen Maurice, we had no books that were written expressly for children. No prepared pap being at hand, we expressed real nourishment for the mind—relishful juices that made intellectual bone and muscle—from the strong meat upon which our elders fed.
Did we comprehend all, or one-third of what we read, or heard read?
Less, probably, than one-sixth, but we got far more than would seem credible to one who has been led up a graciously inclined plane of learning. Our manner of receiving and digesting mind-food was very much like Bud's way of testing unknown substances that might be edible. We rejected what hurt our teeth. What we got we kept.
The current of my outer life was quiet to apparent dulness. After breakfast Mary 'Liza and I had our lessons with my mother in "the chamber." In another year we would have a governess, but the mothers of that time always taught their children to read and write, to spell and cipher through Emerson's First Arithmetic. I have known several who never sent their boys and girls to school, even preparing the lads for college. We had our reading, beginning with a chapter in the Bible, then, our spelling and writing, and sums. After these, my mother read aloud from Grimshaw's History of England, simplifying the language when she considered it necessary, which was not often, while Mary 'Liza made up the first set of chemises (in the vernacular "shimmys,") she had undertaken for herself, and I knit twenty rounds on a stocking. My mother put in a "mark" of black silk every morning from which I could count the rounds upward. Mary 'Liza had knit a dozen pairs in all. In the tops of six, she had knit in openwork her initials "M. E. B." I had no ambitions in that direction. My views on the subject of ornamental initials and sampler autographs were put into pregnant English at a subsequent date by the elder Weller. He professed to have received at second-hand from the charity-boy, set to con the alphabet, what the retired stage-driver applied to matrimony—to wit, that it was not worth while to go through so much to get so little. Knitting delighted not me, nor stitching either.
Lessons and work over, the day began for me in joyful earnest. The rest of the morning and all the evening were mine to use, or abuse, as I liked. We applied "evening" to the hours between the three o'clock dinner and bedtime. We may have caught the phrase from our Bible readings. The morning and the evening were the day.
Early in the fall I had begged permission from my mother to utilize a deserted chicken-house as a play-room. It was long and narrow; one side was barred with upright slats that admitted light and air to the former inmates; one end was taken up by the door; the other and the back were solid boards, the house having been built in the angle of a fence. My mother had the interior cleaned and whitewashed. I think she was glad to provide a decent "den" for me nearer home than the Old Orchard and the more distant woods, and she was losing hold of her hope of making me into a pattern daughter. It gives me a twinge to recollect how thanklessly I accepted what must have been an act of self-denial on her part, perhaps even a compromise with conscience. Mam' Chloe—by my mother's orders, as I know now—hunted up some breadths of faded carpet in the garret, Uncle Ike beat the dust out of them, then nailed them up along the slatted side to keep the wind away. These I called my "arras," having picked up the word from hearing my father read Shakespeare aloud at night after we were in the trundle-bed. Other breadths covered the rough flooring, and I had a castle of which I was the undisputed mistress—a court where I reigned, a queen.
Enthroned in a backless chair, I was, by turns, Mrs. Burwell (my own mother), Helen Maurice's Aunt Felix, Rosamond's mother, Rebecca, the Lady Rowena (my father began Ivanhoe in January), Mrs. Fairchild, Deborah, Mrs. Murray of Anna Ross, Naomi, and Ophelia. Once, I "did" Job by wrapping a meal-sack—for sackcloth—about me, and, sitting upon the ground, throwing ashes over my head and into the air, the while four colored boys, previously instructed, burst in one by one, with news of the mischief wrought by Sabean, lightning, Chaldean, and cyclone. A dramatization of Queen Esther, upon which I had set my heart, was, at last, given up because I could not be King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther at one and the same time.
When the castle was too bleak for even child-comfort, Aunt 'Ritta, the cook, let us heat bricks in the kitchen fire, and showed us how to wrap them in rags to keep in the warmth. Clad in my red cloak, a wadded hood of the same color tied over my ears, and my feet upon a swathed brick, I was in no danger of taking cold.
Mary 'Liza put her neat little nose in at the door one raw day when she was walking for exercise, and wondered, gently, "how I could stand it."
"I am afraid the smell would give me a headache, and the cold would give me a sore throat," she said still gently.
I never had either from the time the leaves fell until they came again. Except when, about once a month, some matron from a near or distant plantation brought one or more of her children with her when she drove over to "spend the day" with my mother, I had no white playfellow near my own age. Mary 'Liza "was not fond of playing," although she would do it when we had company who could be entertained in no other way. As a rule, when not engaged with lessons and chemises, she took care in a matronly way of Dorinda, Rozillah's successor, and "behaved."
On the Sundays when we did not go to church because the weather was bad, or there was no preaching within twenty miles of us, or my mother was not well, or the roads were impassable with mire or frost, Mary 'Liza and I learned two questions in the Shorter Catechism, and she learned the references as well. We also committed a hymn to memory, and five verses of a psalm. Beyond this, no religious exercise was binding upon us, and there was a great deal of the day to be got rid of. Mary 'Liza read the memoirs of Mary Lothrop and Nathan W. Dickerman, seated upright on her cricket at one corner of the chamber fireplace, and in the evening, if the day were pleasant, took her Bible to Mam' Chloe's room or even as far as "the quarters," and read aloud to the servants whole chapters out of Jeremiah and Paul's Epistles. They used to predict that she would marry a preacher (which, by the way, she did in the fulness of time, a red-headed widower preacher, with five boys).
I liked to go to church, because I saw there people dressed in their prettiest clothes, and they sang hymns. Prayers and sermon were attendant and unavoidable evils. My legs went to sleep, and a big girl "going on six" was too old to follow suit. We read none but good books on Sunday. Little Henry and His Bearer, Anna Ross, and Helen Maurice were allowed; the memoirs I have named were advised. The Fairchild Family "partook too much of the nature of fiction to be quite suitable for Sabbath reading." So Rev. Cornelius Lee, our pastor, had decided when the doubtful volume was submitted to him. After that, it was locked up Saturday night, along with Sandford and Merton and Miss Edgeworth's Moral Tales.
I minded the deprivation less after I converted the playhouse into a family chapel, and held services there on stay-at-home Sundays. My audience comprised all the small negroes on the place,—about twenty in number,—and they were willing attendants. A barrel was set, the whole head up, at the upper end of the room; upon this was my chair. I sat in it during the singing, and mounted upon it while reading and exhorting. Subtle reverence, which I could not analyze, held me back from "offering prayer." What we were doing was only "making believe" after all, and belief in the All-seeing Eye, the All-hearing Ear, the Judge of idle words and blasphemous thoughts, was as old as my knowledge of my own being. But sing we could and did, and I read from the Scriptures of the Old and the New Testaments, usually from the narrative portions, with a psalm or two to "beat the upward flame" in our hearts.
And then I would preach a sermon.
Our chapel had been in good running order for over two months, when on a certain drizzly Sunday early in March, I arose discreetly upon my ticklish pulpit to announce through my nose, "We will commence our services by singing the three-hundredth-and-thirty-third hymn—'Come thou Fount of every blessing.'"
As mine was the only hymn-book in the assembly, the mention of the number was a bit of supererogatory business. The omission of the formula would have been a breach of chapel etiquette. I raised the tune, and every other pair of lungs there joined in without fear of criticism or favor of his neighbors' ears. Some of the duller and lesser children smothered or decapitated a word here and there in the main body of the hymn. All knew the chorus, and it shook the unceiled roof:—
"Away, away, away to glory! My name's written on the throne. My home's in yonder worl' o' glory, Where my Redeemer reigns alone."
Warmed by the vigorous preliminary, I read the sixth chapter of Revelation, still through my nose, catching my breath audibly at the end of each clause. This oratorical touch was copied with ludicrous accuracy from Rev. Wesley Greene, a circuit-rider who had conducted an "arbor-meeting" at Fine Creek meeting-house last summer. Our negroes were all Baptists, and considered themselves remiss, as devout hearers of aught that partook of the nature of a religious service, if they did not respond at intervals with groans and pious ejaculations. Their children, as gravely imitative as juvenile Simiae, came up nobly to their parts in our exercises.
The acknowledged leader in the responses, and my Grand Vizier in the ordering of my small kingdom, my stage-manager and lieutenant-general, was a girl of twelve, Mariposa by name. She received the fanciful title from a young visitor to the plantation who had studied Spanish. "Mariposa" meant butterfly, she told the baby's mother, who gratefully accepted the compliment to her newly born daughter. The mother and her mates called her "Mary Posy." The mistress, who was fond of the madcap sponsor, retained the original pronunciation.
Mariposa was as black as tar, and to-day was clothed in a yellow homespun frock. Her hair was twisted and bound into two upright tags that projected above her temples. Altogether, she was not unlike a gigantic black-and-tan moth, a resemblance heightened by the aforementioned antennae, albeit lessened by the baby she always carried on some portion of her wiry frame. She was the toughest, most supple, and most versatile creature I ever saw, of any color or clime. The baby was disposed decorously across her knees on this occasion, and she was one of the five auditors who had brought along their own crickets or chairs. She had confiscated some older woman's splint-bottomed rocking-chair and lugged it to the very front, as she had a right to do.
I had heard Mam' Chloe say of one of Rev. Wesley Greene's sermons, "I tell you, Miss Ma'y, the Sperrit struck him that day, an' he jes' r'arred!"
Something struck my worthy lieutenant during my reading of the white, red, black, and pale horses of the Apocalypse and their awesome riders, and the others following her lead, my voice was drowned by the "Hum-hums!" and "Glorys!" and "Hallelujahs!" and "Bless de Lords!" arising from all sides.
"It isn't polite for folks in the seats to talk louder than the preacher," I had to admonish them in my natural voice and manner. "I hope you won't be so noisy while I'm preaching."
Nevertheless, when I gave out my text, the struck Mariposa, rolling from side to side with the motion of a "weaving" horse on her rocking-chair—that squeaked dismally—was so wrought upon by the ring of unknown and high-sounding syllables as to set up a dreary drone like the hum of an exaggerated bumblebee, and to keep it up. This did not disconcert me. I had expected to stir the imagination of my hearers, for my own was aglow.
Mary 'Liza, in reciting her geography lesson on Friday, had several times spoken of "Van Diemen's Land." Without the remotest conception of where or what it was—whether continent, or island, or town—I fastened, in fancy, upon her words, and constructed a hypothesis relative to the mysterious locality. Why I should have strung it upon the same strand of condemnation and doom with Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon, Capernaum and Chorazin, I may have known then. I have no idea now why this was done, or the derivation of the inclusive curse.
Van Diemen's Land, thus damned, fell naturally into line with the "Come and see!" of the "living creatures," and the "Death and Hell," and the prophecy of killing with sword and with famine and the wild beasts of the field. I was in a quiver of excitement that made my head and heart hot, and my feet and hands cold, as I fairly shouted my text:—
"For oh! Van Diemen's Land shall be no more!"
Mariposa's rhythmic hum was broken into irregular bars by groans and gruntings and sighings—all, I was gratified to note, modulated to the standard of civility I had indicated. I had made a hortatory hit, and it was encored. I spread wide my hands, in one of which was the New Testament, and reiterated the text with greater unction and volume:—
"For, oh, my brethren! Van Diemen's Land shall be no more!"
The chair careened under my ill-advised energy; the barrel toppled forward, and I shot, like a rocket, clear over Mariposa's head, breaking my fall somewhat upon another girl and baby, and landing in the middle of the congregation, with my nose against one of the swathed bricks.
I seldom cried when hurt, Cousin Molly Belle having told me long ago that a brave soldier made no noise when his head was shot off. But I screamed lustily now in the belief that my nose was broken and I bleeding to death. The deluge of gore was frightful to inexperienced eyes.
My father's voice, kindly authoritative, bidding me "be still!" hushed my roaring. As tears and blood were stanched, I saw his face bending over me, full of concern that yet fought with amusement I did not comprehend. I could not doubt that he pitied me, when he carried me, bloody and dirty as I was, into the chamber, and stood by while my mother and Mam' Chloe set me to rights. The shock of the fall and the fright left me sick and trembling. The trundle-bed was drawn out to half its width and I was laid upon it, wrapped in my little dressing-gown, a bottle of camphor in my nerveless hand.
"I am afraid you were playing on Sunday," said my mother, more in sorrow than in anger.
"Indeed, and indeed, mother, I was not playing!" I broke forth, earnestly, my swollen nose making the pious twang involuntary and full of unction. "I was preaching!"
My father walked to the fireplace to hide the laugh he could no longer suppress.
"It is true, my dear!" my over-quick ears caught his remark as she followed him. "I heard the singing, and went to see what was going on."
His voice sank into a low, rapid recitation, and I lost the rest until it rose upon another laugh.
"She and Van Diemen's Land went down together!"
A few days after the disaster in the family chapel, my mother's cousin, Mrs. Bray, came to see us, bringing her daughter Lucy. Their home had been in Henrico County, but Mr. Bray had "the western fever." My mother and Aunt Eliza Carter said so in my hearing before the Brays' visit, and when they arrived I was surprised to see him looking so well and strong and that he had a hearty appetite. They were on their way to Ohio, travelling in their own carriage, and having also along with them a huge covered wagon, drawn by four fine horses, and packed full of furniture. This wagon was rolled into an empty carriage-house and kept there, locked up, while they stayed.
They had planned to spend Sunday with us, just to say "Good-by," and to move on, on Monday. On Saturday night, Cousin Mary Bray was taken ill, and before morning the tiniest baby I ever saw was born. It was very weak, too, and cried like a kitten all the time it was awake. The mother had to be kept perfectly quiet. The dogs were sent to "the quarters," and everybody went about on tiptoe and talked in whispers. It was very dreadful until Monday morning, when an enchanting change was made in domestic arrangements.
The house was a rambling building, with three separate staircases—none of them back stairs—and two wings, besides what I made my father laugh by calling "the tail," in which was "the chamber." Cousin Mary Bray's room was in the second story of the south wing, which was connected by a corridor with the main house. In the north wing was a lumber room that had once been used as a bedroom, and had a good fireplace. Mam' Chloe set a couple of men to pile trunks, old chairs, bedsteads, and the like, in one corner, and two maids to sweeping and cleaning up the dust; and when half of the room was empty and "broom-clean," had a fire kindled, and our playthings and ourselves taken over to that end of the house. In the corner farthest from the fire were heaped a mattress, a feather-bed, some old blankets and comfortables, and this became, forthwith, our favorite resort. Even Mary 'Liza entered into the fun of climbing upon the pile that let us sink down, down, ever so far, and, pulling the blankets over us, making believe that we were in a big covered wagon, and going to Ohio. Our dolls, and a few other toys, went with us, and we munched ginger cakes and apples, and played that it was night and we were to sleep in the wagon, and that the wind howling under the eaves was wolves, roaring 'round and 'round the camp-fire, looking for little girls to eat. Mary 'Liza was Mr. Bray, I was Cousin Mary, Lucy was just herself, and she did her part well.
On Tuesday, which I heard Mam' Chloe say to my mother in a solemn sort of way was "the third day," our dinner was brought upstairs. We set the table for ourselves by covering a packing-box with an old sheet, and putting our plates and mugs and the dishes holding our food upon it. Mary 'Liza was at the foot of the table, I at the head, and Lucy sat up, prim and well-behaved, at the side, saying, "Yes, ma'am," to me and, "No, thank you, sir," to Mary 'Liza. We were making merry over the feast when the door opened and my mother came in with her maid Marthy, who had a plate in her hand with three round cakes on it. Pound-cake, baked in little pans, and warm from the oven! I danced and screamed for joy. Mary 'Liza sat still, her hands in her lap, and said, "Thank you," when her cake was put on her plate. Lucy laughed all over her face without saying anything, but when my mother sat down on a chair to rest after climbing the stairs, the child ran to her and put both arms around her neck and laid her cheek on her shoulder.
I can see her now—the picture was so pretty! Her hair was dark brown and waved naturally away from her forehead, making her face rather oval than round; her gray eyes were clear and large, and, when she was not smiling or talking, there was a serious shadow far down in them. She had a dear little mouth, and I liked to make her laugh that I might see the dimples come and go in her cheeks.
Her frock was a new material to Mary 'Liza and me,—bright red, with a tiny black clover leaf dotting it. They called the stuff "oiled calico," and, by putting my nose close to it, I could distinguish an odor that was something like oil. What we knew as "Turkey red," many years later, resembled it somewhat, but the oiled calico was much finer and softer.
My mother lifted the slight figure to her lap, and I pressed close to her other side, nibbling my cake, crumb by crumb, to make it last longer. I had a habit of swallowing my goodies as soon as I got them. Mary 'Liza always put aside part of hers "until next time."
At Christmas I had made a valiant effort to be economical and forehanded, and got the plantation carpenter to knock together a savings-bank for me, with a hole in the top. Into this I put half of the candy, raisins, and almonds given to me in the holidays and for a fortnight afterward. The self-denial went hard with me, but I consoled myself each night with the anticipation of opening day. The end of the fortnight arrived at last. I promised my sable cohort such a spread in the playhouse as it and they had never beheld. Barratier, Mariposa's brother, borrowed a hammer and chisel from "the shop," and pried off the lid. All crowded close to peep in. The box was almost full. Sticks of peppermint candy, with ribbons of red and white winding about them (a barber's pole reminds me of them to this hour); lollipops, also of peppermint, that would just go into my mouth and let the roof down and the teeth meet; cubes of amber lemon candy; and, most delicately delicious of all, squares of pink rose-candy that dissolved upon the tongue and smelt like the Vale of Cashmere to the very last grain; bunches of raisins, which we—and Jacky Horner—called "plums"; almonds, palm-nuts, filberts; small ginger cakes of a cut and size that Aunt 'Ritta would not make for us unless she were in a particularly good humor;—the sight called forth a round-eyed and round-mouthed "Aw-w-w!" from the heads packed in a solid circle, as necks craned eagerly forward.
For five heavenly minutes I was a fairy-godmother, a Lady Bountiful, with whom the ability to give was coequal with the desire. I made them sit down in rows on the carpeted boards. I hope there was not sacrilege in thinking, as I gave the order, how and where a similar command had been spoken. Beginning with the babies, I put a bit of candy upon each greedy palm, bidding my pensioners wait until I gave the signal to eat it. Then I took a pink cube between my thumb and finger, waved it theatrically above my head, and popped it into my mouth. Every other mouth opened simultaneously.
Even now I hurry over the telling. The treasure-chest was of green pine boards. The contents were so strongly impregnated with turpentine that not a morsel was eatable. The weest pickaninny spat it out and squalled because the turpentine burned his tongue.
I could dwell tearfully—possibly profitably—upon the moral of the adventure, had I not left Lucy Bray all this time on my mother's lap, and myself fingering the oiled calico in covetous admiration.
"Mother," I said, "I wish, next time you go to Richmond, you would buy me a frock like this. Don't you think it is pretty?"
"Very pretty, Molly. But I do not like to have you wear cotton in the winter. I am afraid you might catch fire. Haven't you a worsted frock that you can put on to-morrow, Lucy? It would be safer while you children are up here so much alone."
Lucy was an old-fashioned little body from being the only child for so long and being so much with her mother. Instead of answering directly, she stopped to think, a pucker drawn between her brows with the effort.
"I don't believe I have, Cousin Mary," she said slowly. "'Most all my best clothes are packed up, and the trunks are in the wagon. We didn't mean to stay here more than two days, you know. It wouldn't be worth while to unpack the trunks, I s'pose? Mamma will be well enough to go on to Ohio pretty soon, won't she?"
"I hope so, dear."
My mother drew her up to her and kissed the brown head. She, too, was thoughtful. I supposed that she was wondering if she would better unpack those trunks. I was not glad that Cousin Mary Bray was sick, but I was in no hurry for her to get well enough to travel. I had never had another visitor whose ways of playing suited me as well as Lucy's. She was a year older than I, and a year younger than Mary 'Liza, and she got along beautifully with both of us. Then there was her cat, Alexander the Great, that she was taking to Ohio with her. He was the biggest cat any of us had ever known, with a coat of the longest, softest fur you can imagine, all pure gray, without a white or black hair on him, and he had lots of fun and sense. Mary 'Liza wanted, at first, to make believe that he was a hungry wolf, but Lucy would not hear of it until I proposed he should be a tame wolf we had taken when he was a baby and trained to defend us. He really seemed to understand what was expected of him, and when we lay down in the feather-bed and huddled close together under the covers, and whispered, as the wind screamed around the corners of the house:—
"There they are again! Don't you s'pose they'll be afraid of the fire? Wolves always are, you know,"—and Lucy would answer:—
"Faithful Alexander will take care of us."
Alexander would prowl up and down the room and stalk around the bed, never offering to get upon it, until we called out to one another:—
"Another morning, and we are still safe!"
Then, he would leap into Lucy's arms, and purr, and tickle her nose with his whiskers, until she couldn't speak for laughing. She had had him ever since he was born, and he slept on the foot of her bed at night. While she sat in my mother's lap, he was winding himself in and out between her feet, his tail carried aloft like a soldier's plume, and purring almost as loudly as a watchman's rattle. My mother looked down, presently, at him, and checked the absent-minded passes of her hand over Lucy's hair.
"Give him some milk, Marthy," she said, smiling. "I wish you had a coat like his, Lucy. I shouldn't be afraid then of your taking cold, or of your going too near the fire. Marthy! to-morrow you must hunt up a fender to put here, and see if one of your Miss Mary 'Liza's last winter's frocks won't fit Miss Lucy. It would do very well for her to play in. We must take good care of her while—this bad weather lasts."
I fancy she would have finished the sentence differently but for fear of saddening the child by intimating that her mother might be ill for a long time. She kissed Lucy in putting her down, and patted my shoulder, telling me to "be a good girl and very kind to my cousin."
"I am glad you all are so comfortable and happy here," she added. "I could not have you downstairs just now. Carry these things down, Marthy, and run up every little while to see how the young ladies are getting on. Be sure and keep up a good fire, Mary 'Liza, my dear. I trust you to look after the other children."
When she had gone I went to the window and flattened my nose against the glass to peer into the storm. It was a dormer-window, and the March snow was drifted high upon the roof on both sides of it, and upon the jutting eaves above it, until I looked out, as through a tunnel, into the jutting tree-tops. Beyond was a mad whirl of snowflakes that hid the nearest hills. The wind whined and scolded, and now and then arose into a hoarse bellow. I shivered, and slipped my cold hands up the sleeves of my stuff frock. We had circassian frocks for every day, and merino for Sundays. Our under petticoats were of flannel, and we wore, outside of these, quilted skirts interlined with wool. My mother had a nervous dread of fire.
A shriek of laughter turned me to the more cheerful scene behind me. Alexander the Great was chasing his own tail as violently as if he had just discovered it and considered it as an offence to his dignity. Lucy was clapping her hands to egg him on, and Mary 'Liza had sat down upon the pile of bedding to laugh at her ease. Before leaving the room Marthy had piled wood upon the andirons as high as she could reach up the chimney-throat without grazing her hands in withdrawing them, as was the rule in fire-architecture on Virginia plantations. The March wind, finding its way through many a crack and cranny, beat at the flames until they flared this way and that. The cat dashed dizzily across the hearth, and Lucy, with a cry of alarm, darted forward to snatch him from the dangerous neighborhood. She caught hold of him, and pulled him away, and the draught whipped her skirts into the hottest heart of the fire.
It was the work of an instant. The oily dressing of the cotton fabric may have made it the more inflammable. Rooted to the floor by horror, I saw a column of flame flash past me to the door, and heard the piercing wail grow fainter down the stairs.
My mother heard it in the distant room where the sick woman was sleeping quietly, the tiny baby on her arm. Shutting the door as she came out, the hostess flew across the house to the north wing, and met the burning child on the stairs. Eluding her by keeping close to the wall, she gained the upper room, saw, at one wild glance that her own little ones were safe, tore a blanket from the bed, overtook Lucy at the stair-foot, and smothered the flames with it.
What Was Done With Musidora
The details of Lucy Bray's death were told to me by others. My childish recollection held every feature of that first awful scene as tenaciously as if the flames had kindled upon me, and not upon my hapless playfellow. What followed is a hazy kaleidoscope, lurid and vague, until my scattered thoughts settled to the perception that I was making a long visit at Uncle Carter's and sharing Cousin Molly Belle's room and bed.
She made me a new rag-doll-baby while I was there. That was the first thing that "brought me round," as Aunt Eliza phrased it. For one whole day when it was raining and blowing out of doors, I had eyes and thoughts for nothing except the evolution of that miraculous doll-baby, as she grew and glowed into an entity under the fingers of my best-beloved crony. She was a blonde after she ceased to be a blank. Her eyes were blue, her cheeks were shaded carmine; she had a real nose raised above the dead level of her countenance, stuffed artistically, and kept in shape by well-applied stitches. Finally,—and half a century thereafter I thrill in thinking of it,—an intellectual cranium was covered with a cunningly fashioned wig of Cousin Molly Belle's own silky auburn hair.
This last and transcendent touch was added after I went to bed one night. The superb creation, arrayed in a lovely light purple French calico frock that could be taken off at night and put on in the morning, and sure enough underclothes, all tucked and trimmed, smiled from my pillow into my eyes when I unclosed them at the touch of the morning light.
I christened my beauty "Mollabella," and would not change the name for her maker's gentle remonstrances and all my college cousin Burwell's teasing.
Musidora had lapsed, little by little, into chronic invalidism, spending much of her time in bed. She was uncomely to any eyes but mine, and I would not subject her to unkind criticism. Her case was made hopeless by the officious kindness of Argus, a Newfoundland puppy, in bringing her to the playhouse one day after I had purposely left her tucked up snugly under three blankets inside of my reversed cricket by the dining-room fire. The attention was well meant, and he could not be expected to know that to drag sickly Musidora by the left leg through the mud until the infirm member parted company with the body, and to finish the journey with the head between his teeth, was not a happy device by which to win her owner's regard. I forgave him, in time, but Musidora was, after this last misadventure, a problem. I wondered much, sadly and silently, what other little girls did with doll-babies who died natural deaths. Not like Rozillah, who was never mentioned in my hearing, unless I were very naughty indeed, and heroic treatment was indicated.
The day after my return home, the question was solved.
In the fortnight of my absence great changes had befallen our household. Lucy and her mother and the tiny scrap of a baby had died, and been laid under the snow in the Burwell burying-ground on the hillside beyond the Old Orchard. Mr. Bray had gone to Ohio along with the big covered wagon. Alexander the Great went with him in the carriage. With tears in her sweet eyes, my mother told me how fond the father was of Lucy's pet, and how strangely the cat had acted in staying on Lucy's grave all the time until Mr. Bray took him away by force and carried him off in the carriage with him.
From my retinue of vassals I had, in the chicken playhouse, a fuller and more circumstantial account of all that had passed during those gloomy days. The pleasant weather that succeeded the March snowstorm had given place to a cold, sweeping rain. I scampered as fast as I could across the yard to my castle, my red cloak over my head, and we had to shut the door to exclude the slant sheets of rain. All gathered in the upper end of the room where my chair stood, the only seat there except the floor. To the accompaniment of hissing rain and angry winds, the gruesome particulars of the triple funeral were narrated. Mariposa—with the baby on her lap—was chief spokeswoman, but nearly every one present had some item of his own, authentic or imaginary, to add. All were sure that the three whose fate had aroused the whole county to a passion of pity and regret were angels in heaven.
"Mammy, she say, s'long as po' Miss Lucy was bu'n' so bad, 'twas mussiful fur to let her go," said Mariposa, rolling the baby over on his pudgy stomach, and patting his back to "bring up the wind." "She say, ef one o' we-alls was to get bu'nt or cripple', or pufformed, or ennything like that, she's jes' pray all night an' all day—'Good Lord, take 'em! Heavenly Marster! put 'em out o' they mizzry!' An' Ung' Jack, he say, seems ef everything that's put in the groun' comes up beautifuller 'n 'twas when it went in. He tell how the seeds, they tu'n into flowers, an' apples an' watermillions, an' all that, an' how folks tu'n inter angills."
I cried myself to sleep that night. My mother, kept wakeful, doubtless, by her own sad thoughts, heard the sobs I tried to stifle with the bedclothes, and came to me with talk of the dear Saviour who had taken little Lucy to his arms, and of her happiness in being forever with the Lord.
I did not tell her—what child would?—that, while I missed and grieved for the companion of those three happy days, a deeper heartache forced up the tears.
For I knew now what must be done with Musidora.
I had taken her to bed with me that night for the first time in many weeks. Mary 'Liza was amused, in an amiable way, when she saw the bundle done up in red flannel—Musidora's rheumatism was awful!—that I hugged up to me.
"I never let Dorinda sleep with me," she observed. "I am afraid of hurting her. But I suppose you can't hurt Musidora. Why don't you give her to one of the colored children? She is really a sight."
"Nobody asked you to look at her!" retorted I, crossly, putting my hand over the unfeatured face. "Mam' Chloe says, 'Handsome is as handsome does.' Anyhow, my doll-baby doesn't say mean things to folks."
The little bout raised the tear-level nearer to the escape-pipe. It was easy to cry when Mary 'Liza's breathing assured me that she was asleep. It also confirmed my resolution to have the poor, deformed dear dead and buried without useless delay.
I cannot decide what moved me to bear her off secretly to the seldom-used staircase in the north wing to prepare her for her last long sleep. I escaped thither the next morning, as soon as lessons were over, and seated myself half-way up the steep staircase. It was scarred in many places by fire and smoke. No amount of scrubbing could quite efface the traces of the catastrophe. I looked at them for a long time before beginning my sad task, and did not shrink from the sight. My state of mind was distinctly morbid. Children were not reckoned to have nerves at that date, and little notice was taken of their silent moods. That I should voluntarily seek a solitary quarter of the house, which was shunned by others, never entered my mother's or my nurse's mind.
I had abundance of time in which to be as miserable as I thought I ought to be, and diligently nursed such sickly, sentimental fancies as ought to be foreign to a healthy young mind, while I divested maimed and sightless Musidora of her flannel mufflings and dressed her in a clean night-gown. Without saying what I meant to do with it I had begged a square of white cambric from Mam' Chloe, and set about notching it with a pair of blunt scissors. Mariposa had described a winding-sheet minutely to me, and I meant that my dead doll-baby should be decently laid out. The notching took a tedious time, and the bows of the blunt scissors left purple furrows upon thumb and fingers. Uncle Ike had given me an empty raisin box. I lined it with Musidora's own mattress and quilt, spread the "pinked" cambric on them, laid the remains (no figurative phrase in this connection) upon this bed, folding the one arm left to the unfortunate across her breast, and wrapped the edges of the winding-sheet over her face. With difficulty I coaxed the points of four projecting nails left in the lid into corresponding holes in the box, and having no hammer, sat down upon the top to make them fast, bouncing up and down a few times to make a good job of it.
I sat still awhile after closing the casket, and rehearsed mentally the order of the obsequies. I had, thus far, made no arrangements for them beyond instructing the colored children to meet me in the Old Orchard under the big sweeting when the sun reached the "noonmark" my father had, to please me, cut in the fence by the playhouse door. They would be there in force and on time. I would get myself and burden out of the end door of the north wing and steal around the yard fence to the back of the garden without being seen. I knew how Mary 'Liza would smile and hitch up her straight, clean nose at the box and its contents, and I had a boding fear lest grown people might disapprove of and forbid the funeral.
Upon that my heart was fully set. The grief of losing the ceremony would be harder to endure than the delicious mournfulness with which I had systematically imbued my soul. I chose four boys of uniform size for pall-bearers; Barratier was to have a spade ready and to dig the grave, and when it was filled in we would sing a hymn. Mourning garments were the knotty point. I, as Musidora's mother, could not appear at her funeral in the crimson circassian frock I wore at present. That would upset everything.
A happy thought struck me. I recollected to have seen in the lumber-room, hanging upon some pegs high upon the wall, a row of old bonnets, and a black one among them. Other black things could be had for the hunting. I was a fanciful child, too used to conjuring up weird situations and make-believe happenings to be easily scared by what other children might dread. Nor was I then, or ever, a physical coward. As soon as the idea of visiting that upper room came to me I acted upon it. Tripping up the narrow stairs, I pushed hard against the door. It stuck in the frame, and I was fearing it might be locked when it gave way suddenly and I almost fell into the chamber. It was a dreary place, although the spring sunshine poured broadly from wall to wall. The charred brands of the fire that had wrought such woe were cold in the corners of the hearth, having toppled, head-foremost and backward, over the andirons after burning through in the middle. The old blankets and comfortables were huddled upon the mattress and trailed upon the floor, as my mother had left them in snatching one to throw about Lucy. A ball with which Alexander the Great had played was in a corner. But for the dead fire and the living sunshine and the stillness that met me on the threshold like a draught of icy air, we might have left the place not three minutes ago.
I learned, subsequently, that my mother had been sadly prostrated by the terrible threefold disaster, and had never had the nerve to re-visit the place where it began. None of the servants would have gone near it of their own free will. A queer, unfamiliar tremor I did not recognize as superstitious dread contracted my heart, and arrested me just within the doorway. The box, from which we had eaten our dinner, was in the middle of the floor, the three crickets pushed a little way back from it, and half-way between the fireplace and a window in the gable was the rocking-chair my mother had occupied while she held Lucy on her lap. Faded calico covered the seat, a valance of the same hung about the legs; two of the upright spindles were missing from the back. I took in every feature of the haunted room before I rushed over to the wall where the bonnets hung, climbed upon a chair, grabbed the black bonnet, and espying a black silk apron dependent from another peg, jerked it down, and ran off shakily, with my booty. The queer trembling had got into my legs, and as I went downstairs I steadied myself against the wall, avoiding, as I had not thought of doing as I went up, the scorched streaks on the walls and the stains on the steps. Even after I stood in the safe shelter of the garden fence, my heart beat so loudly that I put the raisin box down upon the grass, and pulled myself together.
The sunshine was genial to my chilled frame; through the palings I could see double rows of hyacinths, tulips, and butter-and-eggs, edging the walks, and bushes of lilacs and snowballs almost in bloom, just as they had looked before I went up to the lumber-room. The serene naturalness of it all restored my wits to me; I unrolled the apron which I had wrapped about the bonnet, and reawakened, as from a nightmare, to the business of the hour.
When I presented myself to the group awaiting me under the big sweeting, a low, but fervent, groan of admiration broke forth as from one breast. The bonnet covered my head generously, jutting six inches beyond my nose. The crepe curtain at the back descended to my shoulder-blades and flapped at the sides like the wings of a dejected crow. I had made a mourning-cloak of the apron by tying it, hind part before, about my neck, whence it drooped to my heels. Mariposa said—respectful of the genius manifest in my caparison—that I looked "mos' ezzac'ly like a real, sure-'nough widder." The boys were impressed into gravity becoming the occasion, and obeyed, with never a snicker or a grimace, my instructions as to the conduct of the ceremony.
I walked directly behind the coffin; Mariposa, with the baby on her left hip, marched next, arm-in-arm with another girl, who carried her baby—a very young one—over her shoulder, its head wobbling helplessly as she walked. The rest came after us, two-and-two, through the Old Orchard, out through the draw-bars at the lower end, and into the graveyard beyond.
It was a retired, and not an unlovely spot. A brick wall, splashed with ochre and gray lichens, enclosed six generations of dead Burwells and their next of kin. A locked gate kept out trespassers. Long streamers of brier and wild berry bushes, purple and ashy with the mantling sap drawn upward by the March sunshine, were matted over the older graves; a spreading "honey-shuck" tree arose near the middle of the badly kept square, and smaller trees flourished here and there. An apple tree, flushed with blossoms, leaned over the wall above the place selected for Musidora's grave.
Barratier struck his perpendicular spade into the black soil in a truly workmanlike manner, utilizing the foundation of the wall as one side of the oblong pit. The coffin was lowered into place by means of tow-strings, provided by thoughtful Mariposa. There was no reason, save her punctilio of "doin' things jes' like folks," why Barratier, or I, for that matter, should not have stooped and laid the casket in the eighteen-inch-deep hole with our bare hands. But lowered it was in funereal style, and covered with apple blossoms, before the bearers returned the black earth to the excavation and mounded it into proper shape. I stood at the head of the grave, my handkerchief at my eyes, trying with all my might to feel sorry enough to cry. The excitement of the conventional ceremonies, and the complacent consciousness of being the principal actor in it, and doing the thing creditably, drew the sting out of what would have been real grief had the flutter of my spirits allowed me to think. I believe that, if maturer mourners would be as frank as I, we should find that my experience was not singular, nor my reluctant composure unnatural.
Mariposa had her emotions better in hand. She sobbed volubly, wiping away real tears with the baby's calico slip, and three other girls accomplished commendable snivels. An embarrassing halt brought down my handkerchief and hushed audible mourning. The affair was not over. Every eye was riveted expectantly upon me, and I had forgotten what came next. Mariposa plucked my cloak and whispered in my ear:—
"Thar oughter be a pra'ar now!"
The propriety of the suggestion was obvious. I had seen pictures of funerals and knew how the officiating clergyman appeared in committing "dust to dust, ashes to ashes." But there was the fear aforementioned of breaking a Commandment by addressing the Almighty in a make-believe service.
"'Tain't a fun'ral 'thout thars a pra'ar!" Mariposa muttered insistently.
Nerved by the exigency, I lifted both hands and eyes toward the sky:—
"World without end, Amen and Amen!"
"A-a-men!" groaned my faithful lieutenant. Her emphasis assured me that the inspiration I had obeyed was a felicitous touch. She pressed still closer to me, mindful of my dignity, and prompted me further, in an artistic mutter, without using her lips.
"The services o' this solemn 'casion will be close' by er hymn."
I uttered it as if she had not given the cue, and "lined out" the hymn I had pitched upon as eminently appropriate for the "solemn 'casion."
"When I can read my title clear To mansions in the skies."
Mariposa raised the tune and carried it, the rest of the band screaming in her wake.
"I'll bid farewell to every fear And wipe my weeping eyes,"
I continued in a nasal sing-song.
The chorus was plain sailing before a spanking breeze;
"And wipe my weeping eye-eye-eyes! And wipe my weeping eye-er-ese! I'll bid farewell to every fear And wipe my weeping eyes."
Like the echo of the final screech a fearsome wail arose from within the enclosure,—a long-drawn cry, repeated while we stared into one another's blanched faces, too affrighted for words.
Mariposa was the first to recover the use of her tongue and limbs.
"Th' ghos' o' the little baby!" she yelled, and took to her nimble heels at a rate that made it impossible for the fleetest of her fellow fugitives to overtake her.
I was left all alone.
Leaning against the outside of the brick wall, too stunned to join in my companions' stampede, I yet did not lose my senses. Neither did I cry out or whimper. Children have gone into convulsions and become idiotic for less cause. I was phenomenally healthy, and, as I have said, no coward. Before the hindmost deserter gained the draw-bars my reason was on the return path. I had the signal advantage above my comrades of not believing in ghosts. My father had asserted to me positively, once and again, that no such things existed, and put himself to much trouble to explain natural phenomena that are often misinterpreted by the ignorant and superstitious into supernatural manifestations. His orders were strict that the servants should never retail ghost stories in our hearing; and he was obeyed by the elder negroes. Mam' Chloe, whatever may have been her reserved rights of private judgment, backed him up dutifully with the epigram:—
"Folks that's gone to the bad place can't get out to come back, an' them that's in heaven don't want to."
The cry I had heard certainly sounded like the weak wail of Cousin Mary Bray's skinny little baby, but God and the dear angels would never let the helpless, tiny mite wander back to earth alone. My mother had said to me, last night, that it would never cry any more.
"It was in pain all the while it was here," she reminded me. "It never awoke that it did not begin to cry. Think how sweet it must be for it not to suffer now. I think that God sent for it to come to heaven because He was so sorry for it."
Strength flowed into my soul with the recollection. My mother never said what was not exactly true. Happy, safe, and saving faith of childhood in a parent's wisdom, a parent's word, a parent's power!
Curious, rather than frightened, I stepped over Musidora's grave, and hurried around to the locked gate. Two unsodded mounds were near the entrance. One was long, and one short. Stretched upon this last was something that moved slightly and cried again, yet more piteously, when I called to it. The sight sent me flying like a flushed partridge through the Old Orchard to the garden fence, over it and up the middle walk of the garden. While yet afar off, I saw my father standing there talking with the gardener. Evidently the scattered horde had not spread an alarm. My father turned at my loud panting, and eyed me with astonishment. Without pausing to consider why he should be amazed, I caught hold of him and shrieked my news:—
"Father! father! it is Alexander the Great come back to look for Lucy!"
My father seldom scolded. He more rarely punished without inquiry. He was stern now and spoke sharply.
"What is the meaning of this nonsense, Molly? You are forever getting up some new sensation. There is such a thing as having too much 'make-believe.' I would rather have a little sensible truth now and then."
"But, father, really and truly—" chokingly, for his words were as drawn swords to my loving heart.
He pushed my hand away from his arm.
"When you look and behave less like a crazy child, I will hear what you have to say. Where did you get those things?"
I wished that the ground would open and swallow me away from his cold, contemptuous eye. I had forgotten my ridiculous costume entirely. The shame and humiliation of having exposed myself to his just criticism, the added disgrace of the grinning gardener's enjoyment of the figure I had cut—the absurd coal-scuttle of a bonnet hanging down my back, the black silk apron streaming behind me like a half-inflated balloon—overwhelmed me with speechless confusion. I hung my head in an agony.