Nell Speed.

A House Party with the Tucker Twins



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CHAPTER IV
DEE TUCKER MAKES A SALE

"Page! I've been eavesdropping! I declare I never meant to do it. I got into the swim of the conversation and somehow couldn't get out of it," cried Dee, blushing furiously. "I don't know what Zebedee would say if he knew it."

"Why, honey, that isn't eavesdropping!" I laughed. "Country people always listen to everything they can over the 'phone. That is the only way we have of spreading the news. I can assure you that perfectly good church members in our county make a practice of running to the telephone every time a neighbor's bell rings. How many were on the line when you cut in?"

"Three or four, I should say, I couldn't quite tell."

Then Dee told me the conversation she had overheard, making me a party to the crime of eavesdropping.

"Here comes Dick now, I do believe. He was the one who was all cranked up ready to come."

There was a great buzzing and hissing on the road as a disreputable looking Ford came speeding down the hill. I have never seen such a dilapidated car, and still it ran and made good time, too. There was not a square inch of paint left on its faithful sides, and the top was hanging down on one side, giving it the appearance of a broken-winged crow. The doors flapped in the breezes, and the mud-guards were bent and twisted as though they had had many a collision.

Dick, however, was spruce enough to make up for the appearance of his car. He had on a bright blue suit, the very brightest blue one can imagine coming in any material but glass or china; a necktie made of a silk U. S. flag, with a scarf pin which looked very like an owl with two great imitation ruby eyes; but I found on inspection it was the American Eagle. His shoes were very gay yellow and his socks striped red and white, carrying out the color scheme of his cravat.

I ducked behind my side of the counter leaving the field clear for Dee. She stood to her guns and gave the newcomer a radiant smile. She was there to sell goods for Annie Pore and sell them she would.

"Evenin'!"

"How do you do? What can I do for you?"

"Pretty day!"

"Yes, fine! Is there something I can show you?"

"Not so warm as yesterday and a little bit cooler than the day before!"

"Yes, that is so. We've got in a fresh cheese, – maybe you would like a few pounds of it."

"Looks like rain but the moon hangs dry."

"Oh, I hope it won't rain, – but maybe it will – let me sell you an umbrella, – they are great when it rains."

"We don't to say need rain for most of the crops, but it wouldn't hurt the late potatoes."

"Oh, I'm glad of that!"

"But the watermelons don't need a drop more. They are ripening fine, – rain would make them too mushy like. I'm going to ship a load of them next week. I 'low I'll get about three hundred off of that sandy creek bottom."

"Fine! Watermelons are my favorite berry."

Right there I exploded and the young man let out a great haw! haw! too that helped to break the ice, and also enabled Dee to stop her painful rejoinders to his polite small talk, and then he began to buy.

I heard Annie and Sleepy as they hitched the horse at the post and I hoped devoutly the festive Dick would buy out the store before they got in.

Already he had purchased six cravats, a new coal skuttle, a much-decorated set of bedroom china, a bag of horse cakes, some canned salmon and a box of axle grease when Annie made her appearance.

She was looking so lovely that I did not blame Sleepy for having the expression of a hungry man. She was certainly good enough to eat.

"Oh, Page, we had such a wonderful drive! I am so afraid we were gone too long, but George simply would not turn around." Annie was the only person who always called Sleepy by his Christian name.

"He was quite right. I have had the time of my life. Dee is helping me. She is in the other room now, selling a young man named Dick everything in the store. Don't butt in on her; let her finish her sales. Here come the others! They said they would be back to see you."

In came all the house-party and such a hugging and kissing and handshaking ensued as I am sure that little country store had never before witnessed.

"Oh, Annie, we miss you so!" cried Mary.

"Indeed we do!" from the others.

"Maybe I can be with you in a day or so," said Annie. "Father is going to try to return in a very little while."

"Well, until he does come back one of us is going to be with you every day," declared Dum. "Page and Dee need not think they are the only ones who are going to help."

Annie's eyes were full of happy tears. "What have I done to deserve so many dear friends?" she whispered to me.

"Nothing but just be your sweet self!" I answered. "I must peep in and see what Dee is doing to that poor defenseless Dick. I bet she has sold him a kitchen stove by this time."

Annie and I made our way into the outer room, where at the far end we could see Dick and Dee in earnest converse.

"It is a very excellent one," she was declaiming. "In fact, I am sure there is not a better one to be bought. It is air tight and water tight; of the best material; the latest style; the workmanship on it is very superior; the price is ridiculously low. Really I think all country people ought to have one in the house for emergencies. One never can tell when one will be needed and sometimes they are so difficult to get in a hurry."

"That's so!" agreed the enamored Dick. "But I reckon I could get this any time from old man Pore if I should need it."

"Oh, no! You see this is the only one in stock and somebody might come for this this very night, and then where would you be if you needed it? Then even if you could get another one, it might not be nearly so attractive as this one. They are going up, too, all the time, – effect of the war. Of course this was bought when they were not so high, and I am letting you have advantage of the price we paid for it. After this they will be up at least forty per cent. – that's the truth. The war prices are something fierce."

"Ain't it the truth?"

"Yes, and then you might not be able to get another lavender one. I just know lavender would be becoming to you. I'd like to see you in a lavender one."

"Would you really now? That settles it then! I'll have to get old Pore to trust me, though, until I sell my melons."

"Oh, that's all right. Just whenever you feel like paying."

I was completely mystified. What on earth was that ridiculous girl selling to the young farmer? Annie was reduced to the limpness of a wet dishrag by what we had overheard. The giggles had her in their clutches and she could not speak.

"Do you think you can help me out with it?" asked the young man.

"Sure! It is not heavy yet."

Around the labyrinth made by the farming implements, stoves, etc., came the buyer and seller, he backing and she carefully guiding him. Between them they carried a long something; I, at first, could not make out what.

"A coffin!" I gasped.

Through the door they made their way into the store proper. Some colored customers had just come in and these fell back with expressions of curiosity and awe equally mingled on their black faces.

"Who daid? Who daid?" they whispered, but no one vouchsafed any information. Dee looked supernaturally solemn and Dick only wanted to get his latest purchase safely landed in his car.

The house-party had adjourned to the porch in front, and when the lugubrious procession emerged from the store the gaiety suddenly ceased. As Dick backed out, the young men doffed their caps and the girls bowed their heads. What was their amazement when Dee turned out to have hold of the other end. Every man sprang forward to take her place, but she sadly shook her head and held on to her job.

"It isn't heavy," she whispered.

Dum's eyes filled with tears. She thought with sadness that in a short while it would be heavy when it fulfilled its destiny. She was very proud of her twin that she should be so kind and helpful at such a time. How like Dee it was to be assisting this poor young man, who had perhaps lost some one near and dear to him!

No one spoke, but all remained reverently uncovered while the coffin was hoisted on the back seat of the ragged old car. The young men assisted in this, although Dee would not resign her place as chief mourner.

"Who daid? Who daid?" clamored the darkies who seemed to spring up from the ground, such a crowd of them appeared in the twinkling of an eye.

"I don't know," said Dum in a teary voice, "but isn't it sad?"

"'Tain't Miss Rena Lee 'cause I jes' done seed her headin' fer the sto'," declared a little pickaninny.

"She ain't a-trus'in' her bones ter Mr. Dick's artermobe. She done sayed she gonter dribe her ole yaller mule whar she gwinter go."

"Ain't de Lees got a boardner? Maybe it's de boardner," suggested a helpful old woman.

"Well, I wonder if it is! Here he come! I'm a-gwinter arsk him."

Dick came out laden with his other purchases.

"Lawsamussy! It mus' be de boardner an' all er her folks is a-comin' down, 'cause how come Mr. Dick hafter buy all them things otherwise? Look thar chiny an' coal skuttles an' what not!"

"Who daid, Mr. Dick? Who daid?"

"Nobody I know of!" grinned the young man.

"Ain't it de boardner?"

"What boarder?"

"Miss Rena's boardner!"

"Sister Rena hasn't any boarder that I know of. Here, get out of the road or I'll let you know who is dead!"

He took a fond farewell of Dee and cranking up his noisy car, he jumped to his seat and speeded home with the coffin and the coal skuttle bouncing up and down right merrily.

"Ain't nobody daid?" grieved a sad old woman.

"No! Nobody ain't daid!" snapped an old man. "Nobody ain't eben a-dyin'. Now that thar Dick Lee done bought up th' only carsket in the sto' an' my Luly is mighty low – mighty low."

"Sho-o' nuf I ain't heard tell of it. Is she in de baid?"

"Well, not ter say in de baid – but on de baid, on de baid. Anyhow 'tain't safe to count on her fer long. White folks is sho' graspin' these days. They is sho' graspin'."

The old man departed on his way grumbling.

"Caroline Tucker, what did you sell that coffin to that young man for?" demanded Dum sternly.

"Just to see if I could, Virginia Tucker. I told him I'd like to see him in a coffin lined with lavender, and he was so complimented, he immediately bought it to keep for a rainy day."

Dee and I had made so many sales that Annie had to send a telegram informing her father of the diminished stock. It was necessary to order another coffin immediately in case the ailing Luly might need it.

CHAPTER V
THE HUMAN FLY

General Price was vastly amused over the account of Dee's sale of the coffin to the amiable Dick. Miss Maria was frankly shocked, and Miss Wilcox amazed and a little scornful.

"I never cared for slumming," she announced that night when we had retired to the girls' wing.

"But helping Annie Pore keep store is not slumming," said Dee, the dimple in her chin deepening.

Dee Tucker had a dimple in her chin just like her father. When father and daughter got ready for a fight, those dimples always deepened.

"Most kind of you, I am sure, although that sort of adventure never appealed to me. I have taught in the mission school in New York's East Side, but when the class is over I always leave. I can't bear to mix with the lower classes. It is all right to help them but not by mixing."

"But you don't understand, – Annie Pore is one of our very best friends. She is not the lower classes. She is better born than any of us and prettier and better bred and more accomplished – "

"Ah, indeed! I should like to behold this paragon."

"Well, you shall behold her all right! She is going to join us here in a day or so."

Jessie Wilcox looked very much astonished and quite haughty. She could not understand the Prices asking such a person to meet her. The daughter of a country storekeeper was hardly one whom she cared to know socially. Dee had gone about it the wrong way to make the spoiled beauty look with favor on the little English girl: – prettier, better born, better bred, indeed! As for accomplishments: what accomplishments could a dowdy little country girl have that she had not?

The Tuckers and Jessie Wilcox were not hitting it off very well in the great bedroom which they shared. Dum had declared she would not move the fluffy finery which was spread out on her bed and she stuck to her word.

"What are you going to do with these duds?" she asked rather brusquely.

"Oh, you just put them back in my trunk," drawled the spoiled roommate.

"Humph! You had better ring for your maid. I'm not much on doing valet work."

With that she caught hold of the four corners of the bedspread and with a yank deposited the whole thing adroitly on the floor, butter side up.

Dee told me afterwards that Jessie's expression was one of complete astonishment. She was not used to being treated like the common herd. Much Dum cared! She got into the great four-posted bed with perfect unconcern, while Dee tactfully helped the pouting Jessie to hang up her many frocks.

"She had better be glad I didn't go to bed on them," stormed the unrepentant Dum when she told me about it. "As for Dee: I was disgusted with her for being so mealy-mouthed. Catch me hanging up anybody's clothes! I bet you one thing, – I bet you she keeps her fripperies off my bed after this."

I was in a way sorry for Jessie. I know it must be hard to be a spoiled darling turned loose with the Tucker twins. They were always perfectly square and fair in all their dealings, but they demanded squareness and fairness in others. Jessie was evidently accustomed to being waited on and admired, and the Tuckers refused to do either of these things necessary for the happiness of their roommate. She had always chosen her friends with a view to setting off her own charms, girls who were homely, less vivacious, duller. It did not suit her at all to be outshone in any way. She was certainly the prettiest girl in the house-party, that is, before Annie arrived, but she was not the most attractive. There never were more delightful girls in all the world than the Tucker twins, witty, charming, vivacious, and very handsome. I could see their development in the two years I had known them and realized that they were growing to be very lovely women.

Mary Flannagan was nobody's pretty girl but she had something better than beauty, at least something that proves a better asset in life: extreme good nature and a sense of humor that embraced the whole universe. She had humor enough to see a joke on herself and take it. That, to me, is the quintessence of humor. Wherever Mary was there also were laughter and gaiety. She had a heart as big as all Ireland, from which country she had inherited her wit as well as her name.

Mary was not quite so bunchy as she had been. Two years had stretched her out a bit, but she would always be something of a rolypoly. She was as active as a cat, and so determined was she to end up as a character movie actress she never stopped her limbering-up exercises. After I would get in bed at night she would begin. She would turn somersaults, stand on her head, walk on her hands, do cart-wheels, bend the crab, fall on the floor at full length and do a hundred other wonderful stunts.

"I am so plain I'll have to go in for slap-stick comedy and maybe work up to the legit., but go in I will. Why, Page, there is oodlums of money in movies and think of the life!"

"I can see you, Mary, as a side partner to Douglas Fairbanks. Can you climb up a wall like a fly?" I laughed.

"No-o, not yet but soon! I can't get much practice in wall scaling. I am dying to try this wall outside our window. It is covered with ivy and would be easy as dirt, I know," and she poked her head out the window, gazing longingly at the tempting perpendicularity of the wall beneath.

Mr. Thomas Hawkins, alias Shorty, thought Mary was just about the best chum a fellow could have, and great was his joy when Fate landed him at the same country house with the inimitable Mary. Shorty, too, had made out to grow a bit since first we saw him make the great play in the football game at Hill Top. He was a very engaging lad with his tousled mane, rosy cheeks and clear boy's eyes.

"Is Shorty going to get into the movies, too?" I teased.

"No, – navy!"

"Oh, how splendid! I didn't know he had decided."

"Yes! He has talked to me a lot about it," said Mary quite soberly.

"What do you think about it?"

"Me? Why, I think our navy is going to have to be enlarged and I can't think of anybody better suited to it than Shorty. He is a descendant of Sir John Hawkins, you know, and that means seafaring blood in his veins."

How little did Mary and I think, as we lay in that great four-post bed and wisely discussed preparedness, that our country would really be at war in not so very many months, and that Shorty's entering the navy would be a very serious matter to all of his friends, if not to him.

No thoughts of war were disturbing us. The great war was going on, but then we were used to that and we were too young and thoughtless for it to bother us. It was across the water and no one we knew personally was implicated. Maxton was too peaceful a spot for one to realize that such a thing as bloodshed could go on anywhere in all the world. Our great room with its two huge beds and massive wardrobe, bureau and washstand, had once sheltered Washington and later on Lafayette; and then as the ages had rolled by, General Lee had visited the Prices and had slept in the very bed where Mary and I were lying so sagely and smugly arguing for preparedness. Perhaps the mocking-bird that every now and then gave forth a silvery trill in the holly tree near our window was descended from the same mocking-bird that no doubt had sung to the great warrior as he lay in the four-poster.

How quiet it was! A whippoorwill gave an occasional cry away off in the woods, and once I heard the chugging of a small steamboat puffing its way up the river, and then a little later the swish swash on the shore of the waves made by the stern wheel. But for that, the night was absolutely still.

"Page," whispered Mary, "are you asleep?"

"Fortunately not, or I'd be awake," I laughed.

"I'm thinking about getting up and trying to scale that wall. I am 'most sure I could do it with all that ivy to dig my toes in."

"Why don't you wait until morning?"

"Because I don't want an audience. It is best to practice these stunts without anyone looking."

"Suppose you fall!"

"That's something movie actresses have to expect. I won't fall far if I do fall."

"Will you mind if I look on?"

"No, indeed! I can pretend you are the director."

Everything was as quiet as the grave when Mary bounced out of bed to practice her stunt. I followed, nothing loath to see more of the wonderful night. Some nights are too beautiful to waste in sleeping. It has always seemed such a pity to me that we could not fill up on sleep in disagreeable weather, and then when a glorious moonlight night arrives, be able to draw on that reserve fund of sleep and just sit up all night.

"Isn't it splendid out on the lawn? And only look at the river in the moonlight. I'd certainly like to be out there in a boat this minute with some very nice interesting person to recite poetry to me," I mused.

"I heard Wink White begging you to take a row with him."

"Yes, but I see myself doing it."

"Don't you like him?" asked Mary, sitting in the window ready for the trial descent.

"Of course I like him, but he's such a goose."

"Shorty thinks he is grand."

"So he is – grand, gloomy, and peculiar. If he'd only not be so sad and lonesome when he is with me."

"Of course all of us have noticed how different he is with you, never laughing and joking as he does with us but sighing like a furnace. But here goes! This is no time for analyzing the character of young Doctor Stephen White, – this is a play of action."

"But, Mary, ought you try to climb down in your nighty? It might get tangled around your feet."

"Oh, but the movie ladies always have to get out of windows in their nighties. I must practice in costume to get used to it."

"Barefooted, too?"

"Of course! I need all these toes to hang on by. Next time I am going to have my ch-e-i-ild, but this first time perhaps I had better not try to carry anything."

"I should think not, – but, Mary, do be careful."

I was looking down the perpendicular wall and it began to seem to me to be a crazy undertaking. The vines were very thick and would no doubt offer a foot-rest to the daring girl, but suppose she lost her head or the vine pulled loose from the wall!

It is a much easier matter to climb up and get in a window than it is to get out of one and climb down. There is something very scary about projecting one's bare foot into the unknown. Mary, however, was too serious in her desire to perfect herself for her chosen profession to stop and wiggle her toes with indecision. She was out of the window in a moment. I held my breath.

"Oh, God save her! Oh, God save her!" I whispered.

"Fireman, save my ch-e-i-ild!" came back in sibilant tones from Mary.

I couldn't help laughing although I was trembling with fright. I almost beat Mary to the ground I leaned so far out of the window. Sometimes the thick ivy hid her from my sight and again she would loom out very white in the moonlight.



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