Nell Speed.

A House Party with the Tucker Twins



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Down at last! I felt like shouting for joy. Now began the ascent which was a small matter compared to the descent.

When the climber was about half-way up, I suddenly became aware of figures on the edge of the lawn. "The servants returning from church," I thought. Harvie had told me that "big meetin'" was going on and his aunt was quite concerned about her servants, as they had a way of taking French leave at "big meetin'" time. With the house-party in session, a paucity of servants would be quite serious. Extra inducements had been offered and the whole corps had promised to remain, taking turn about in getting off early for night church.

Anyone who has lived in the country, where colored servants are the only ones, knows what a serious time "big meetin'" can be. The whole negro population seems to go mad in a frenzy of religious fervor. Crops that are inconsiderate enough to ripen at that period remain ungathered; the washwoman lets soiled clothes pile up indefinitely; cooks refuse to cook; housemaids have a soul above sweeping; cows go dry for lack of milking; horses go uncurried and vehicles unwashed and ungreased.

I smiled when I saw that straggling group returning from church, knowing they would not be fit for any very arduous tasks the next day. I remembered how Mammy Susan used to berate our darkies for their delinquencies on days following meetings. As the churchgoers approached the house, which they had to pass to reach the quarters on the other side of the great house, they suddenly became aware of Mary's white figure hanging midway between heaven and earth.

Shouts and groans arose! One woman fell to the ground and, regardless of her finery, rolled on the grass imploring her Maker to save her. I trembled for fear Mary would fall, but she clung to the vine and scrambled up and in the window. The darkies ran like frightened rabbits.

"They thought you were a ghost, I believe."

"Well, I came mighty near giving up the ghost. When I heard those groans I thought something had me sure," panted the great actress, looking ruefully at a long rent in her very best nighty. "I did it all right, but being a great movie actress who is to play opposite Douglas Fairbanks is certainly hard on one's rags. Look, here's another tear! Another and another! I did that when the first darky squealed."

Of course we went to bed giggling.

"I wish Tweedles had seen you, but they would not have been willing to be mere audience. As for me, – I have no desire to be classified as a human fly. I wonder if we will hear some wild tale from those silly darkies."

But Mary was fast asleep before she could express her opinion. I could not sleep until I got the following limerick out of my system:

The Human Fly
 
Our Mary, an actress so flighty,
Scaled a wall in her very best nighty.
A nail proved a snag
And tore her fine rag,
She came back a la Aphrodite.
 

CHAPTER VI
"BIG MEETIN'"

I awakened early the next morning in spite of having been manager of a movie studio at all hours of the night.

Mary was sleeping heavily. After all, I fancy climbing up and down a brick wall is harder than merely watching someone else do it. She had a big scratch across her cheek and her thumb had bled on the pillow. She must have snagged it on the same nail she had her best nighty. I peeped out of my eastern window and found Dum Tucker was doing the same thing from hers.

"Hello, honey! I'm so glad you're awake," she whispered. "Let's dress and go out."

"Is Dee asleep?"

"Sound! And the Lady Jessie is likewise snoozing, not looking nearly so pretty with her hair up in curl papers and her face greased with cold cream. I bet I can beat you dressing!"

We sprang from our doors into the hall at the same time and feeling sure we were the only ones awake in all the great mansion, we had the never-to-be-scorned joy of sliding down the bannisters. I'd hate to think I could ever get so old I wouldn't like to slide down bannisters. Of course I know I shall some day get too old to do it, but not too old to want to.

We ran out the great back door which opened on the formal garden.

"My, I'm glad we waked! I was nearly dead to sit up all night," said Dum.

"Me, too! Mary and I were awake very late. Did you hear anything?"

"Did I!"

"What did you hear?"

"A strange scratching along the wall, – I thought it was a whole lot of snakes climbing up to our window. There is only one thing in the world I am afraid of, and that is snakes."

"Mammy Susan says that 'endurin' of the war, they is sho' to be mo' snakes than in peaceable times.' Of course she has no idea that this war is away off across the water, and if it were inclined to breed snakes, it wouldn't breed them over here. But that snake you heard last night was Mary Flannagan scaling the wall. She is practicing all the time for the movies."

"Pig, not to call us!"

"I was dying to, but was afraid of raising too much rumpus."

The garden was beautiful at all times, but at that early hour it was so lovely it made us gasp. A row of stately hollyhocks separated the flower garden from the vegetables. Banked against the hollyhocks were all kinds of old-fashioned garden flowers: bachelor's buttons, wall-flowers, pretty-by-nights, love-in-a-mist, heliotrope, verbena, etc. There was a thick border of periwinkle whose glossy dark green leaves enhanced the brilliancy of the plants beyond. One great strip was given up entirely to roses, – and such roses!

"Gee! This is the life!" cried Dum, kneeling down among the roses, going kind of mad as usual over the riot of color. Dum's love of color and form amounted to a passion. "Only look at the shape of this bud and at the color way down in its heart. Oh, Page, I am so glad we came out! Only think, this rosebud might have opened and withered with not a soul seeing it if we had not happened along:

 
"'Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear —
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.'"
 

"I wonder where the servants are?" I queried. "At this hour in the country they are usually beginning to get busy. I tell you, Mammy Susan has 'em hustling by this time at Bracken."

"I'm hungry as a bear! Don't you think we might get the old cook to hand us out a crust?" suggested Dum. "Getting up early always makes me famished."

"Sure! She is a nice-looking old party and no doubt would be as pleasant as she looks. Her name is Aunt Milly."

We made our way to the kitchen, determined to return to the garden to enjoy the crust or whatever the cook might see fit to give us. A covered way connected the summer kitchen with the wing of the house where the dining-room was. This open passage was covered with a lovely old vine, one not seen in this day and generation except in old places: Washington's bower. It is a very thick vine that sends forth great shoots that fall in a shower like a weeping willow. It has a dainty little purple blossom that the bees adore, and these turn later into squishy, bright red berries. The trunk of this vine is very thick and sturdy and twists itself into as many fantastic shapes as a wisteria.

The kitchen was built of logs; in fact it was the original homestead of the family, having been erected by the earliest settlers at Price's Landing. Later on it had been turned into a kitchen when the mansion had been built. The great old fireplace with its crane and Dutch oven was still there, although the cooking was now done on a modern range. This black abomination of art, but necessity of the up-to-date housekeeper, was smoking dismally as we came in.

"Aunt Milly, please give me a biscuit!" cried Dum to a fat back bending over the table.

The owner of the back straightened up and turned. It was not Aunt Milly, but Miss Maria Price!

"Oh!" was all we could say.

The sedate black-silked and real-laced lady of the day before presented a sad spectacle when we made that early morning raid on the Maxton larder. In place of the handsome black silk she wore a baggy lawn kimono, and the fine lace cap had given place to a great mob cap that set off her moon-like face like a sunflower. Her countenance was so woebegone that it distressed us and two great tears were squeezing their way from her sad eyes.

"Why, Miss Price! Please excuse us," I said, seeing that Dum was speechless.

"Oh, my dear, it is all right now that you have seen me out here in this wrapper. These good-for-nothing darkies have one and all sent me word they are sick this morning and cannot come to work, and here I am with no breakfast cooked. I am so distressed that Harvie's friends should not be well served. What shall I do? What shall I do?"

"Do! Why, let all of us help," exclaimed Dum.

"Let his guests help! Why, my dear, I could not bear to do such a thing."

"Well, you could bear to let us help a great deal better than we could bear having you work yourself to death and let us be idle," said I, putting my arm around her fat neck, that was just about the right height to put one's arm around. Her waist was out of the question, being not only so low down that I should have had to stoop to reach it but invisible at that, since it was, as I have said before, only an imaginary line.

"I have never before in all the fifty years I have been keeping house at Maxton had to make a fire. I have done the housekeeping since Ma died. My sister-in-law, Harvie's grandmother, was too delicate to keep house, so I have always done it. I know exactly how things should be done but I have never had to do them. There has always been a cook in the kitchen at Maxton. – This is the first time. – And to think it should come to pass when Harvie's friends are here. I was opposed to having the house-party during big meeting. There is never any depending on the darkies at that time. – Oh me! Oh me!"

"Now, Miss Price," I said, placing a chair behind her and gently pushing her heaving bulk into it, "you are to sit right here and tell Dum Tucker and me what to do. We love to do it."

"But, child – "

"First, let me pull out the dampers," I suggested, suiting the action to the word and thereby stopping the smoking of the range. "Now mustn't the rolls be made down?" I asked, seeing a great pan on the table with the lid sitting rakishly on one side of a huge mass of dough, already risen beyond its bounds.

"Yes, but I – "

"Let me do that. I love to fool with dough."

"But do you know how?"

"Of course I know how."

After a scrubbing of hands made grubby by a weed I had pulled up in the garden, I began to make down the rolls after the manner approved by Mammy Susan, that most exacting of teachers.

"Now what can I do?" demanded Dum.

"You must sit still and tell us what next, and after we get things under way if you want the other girls to help, I'll call them."

"The breakfast table must be set, – but, my dears, I can't bear to have guests working! Such a thing has never been known at Maxton!"

Dum hastened to the dining-room where she exercised her own sweet will in the setting of the table. First she had the joy of cutting a bowl of roses for the center. She found mats and napkins in the great old Sheraton sideboard, and Canton china that Miss Price told her was the kind to use. The silver was still in the master's chamber where it was taken every night by the butler and brought out every morning by that dignified functionary. I think the non-appearance of the butler was almost as great a blow to Miss Price as the defection of the cook.

"Jasper has been with us since before the war and the idea of his behaving this way!" she moaned. "I did not expect anything more from these flighty maids and the yard boy, – they have only been here five or six years, – but Milly and Jasper!"

"But maybe they are ill," I said, trying to soothe her hurt feelings.

"I don't believe a word of it! How could five of them get ill at once? More than likely that trifling Willie, the yard boy, has got religion. Milly told me he was 'seeking' and I have known there was something the matter with him lately, he has been so utterly worthless," and our hostess heaved a sigh with which I could thoroughly sympathize. I well knew that a "seeking" servant was but a poor excuse.

"How well you do those rolls, my child! Who taught you?"

Then I told Miss Maria of my old mammy who had been mother and teacher and nurse for me since I was born.

I shaped pan after pan of turnovers and clover-leaves and put them aside for the second rising.

"What next?"

Miss Maria had decided to give over sighing and bemoaning, also apologizing for letting us work. She evidently came to the conclusion that the headwork had to go on and it was up to her to get busy in that line, at least. Dum and I were vastly relieved that she consented to sit still, as she took up so much room when she moved around that she retarded our progress quite a good deal. Seated in a corner by the table, she could tell us what to do without interrupting traffic.

Herring must be taken out of soak and prepared for frying; batter bread must be made; apples must be fried (she did the slicing); coffee must be ground; chicken hash must be made after a recipe peculiar to Maxton, with green peppers sliced in it and a dash of sherry wine.

The cooking part was easy, but keeping up the fire has always been too much for my limited intelligence. Wood and more wood must be poked in the stove at every crucial moment. In the midst of beating up an omelette one must stop and pile on more fuel. Peeping in the oven the rolls may be rising in regular array with a faint blush of brown appearing on each rounded cheek; the batter bread may be doing as batter bread should do: the crust rising up in sheer pride of its perfection sending forth a delicious odor a little like popcorn; – but just then the joy of the vainglorious cook will take a tumble, – the fire must be fed.

"Now is this what you had planned for breakfast, Miss Maria? You see we have got everything under way, and if there was anything else I can do it," I asked.

"Of course no breakfast is really complete without waffles," sighed the poor lady, "at least, that is what my brother thinks. He will have to do without them this morning, though."

"Why? I can make them and bake them!"

"But, child, you must be seated at the table with the other guests. I could not let you work so hard."

"But I love to cook! Please let me!"

"All right, but who can bring the hot ones in? It takes two to serve waffles. I, alas, am too fat to go back and forth."

"Of course I am going to wait on the table," cried Dum, "and when I drop in my tracks, the other girls can go on with the good work."

"Well, well, what good girls you are! I have been told that the girls of the present time are worthless and I am always reading of their being so inferior to their mothers, but I believe I must have been misinformed."

"I hope you have been," laughed Dum. "My private opinion is that we are just about the same, – some good and some not so good; some bad and some not so bad. Anyhow, I am sure that there is not a girl on this party who would not be proud to help you, or boy, either, for that matter."

"We shall have to call the boys to our aid, too, I am afraid," said Miss Maria, glancing ruefully at the wood-box. "The wood is low and we can't cook without wood, eh, Page?"

"Won't I love to see them go to work," and Dum danced up and down the kitchen waving a dish-cloth.

The quiet mansion was astir now. The rising bell had routed the sleepy heads out of their beds, and from the boys' wing came shouts of the guests who were playing practical jokes on one another or merely making a noise from the joy of living. Dee and Mary found us in the kitchen and roundly berated us for not calling them in time to help. Dee reported that Jessie Wilcox was still in the throes of dressing.

"One of you might go pull some radishes and wash them and peel them," suggested Miss Maria.

Dee was off like a flash and came back with some parsley, too, to dress the dishes.

"Mary, get the ice and see to the water," was the next command from our general. "I must go now and put on something besides this old wrapper," and our aristocratic hostess sailed to the house, her lawn wings spread.

Our next visitor was General Price himself, very courtly and very apologetic and very admiring. He had just learned of the defection of the servants when he called for his boots and they were not forthcoming. Jasper had blacked his boots and brought them to his door every morning for half a century, but no Jasper appeared on that morning. The boots remained unblacked.

Another duty of the hitherto faithful butler had been to concoct for his master and the guests a savory mint julep in a huge silver goblet. This was sent to the guest chambers and every lady was supposed to take a sip from the loving cup. It was never sent to the boys, as General Price frequently asserted that liquor was not intended for the youthful male, and that he for one would never have on his soul that he had offered a drink to a young man. He seemed to have a different feeling in regard to the females, thinking perhaps that beautiful ladies (and all ladies were beautiful ladles in his mind) would never take more than the proffered sip.

On that morning during the big meeting General Price must make his own julep. This he did with much pomp and ceremony, putting back breakfast at least ten minutes while he crushed ice and measured sugar and the other ingredients which shall be nameless. A wonderful frost on the silver goblet was the desired result of the crushed ice. The mint protruding from the top of the goblet looked like innocence itself. The odor of the fresh fruit mingling with the venerable concoction of rye was delicious enough to make the sternest prohibitionist regret his principles.

"Now a sip, my dear; the cook must come first," he said, proffering me the completed work of art.

"Oh no, General Price! I might not take even a sip if I am to cook waffles. I might fall on the stove."

"A sip will do you good, just a sip!" he implored.

It was good and just a sip did not do me any harm. I had not the heart to deny the courtly old man the pleasure of indulging in this rite that was as much a part of the daily routine as having his boots blacked and brought to his door or conducting family prayers.

"Delicious!" I gasped.

"More delicious now than it was," he declared, "since those rosy lips have touched the brim," and then he quoted the following lines with old-fashioned gallantry:

 
"'Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
 
 
"'I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honoring thee
As giving it a hope that there
It could not withered be;
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent'st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself but thee!'"
 

He bowed low and handed me a beautiful rosebud, the same, I believe, before which Dum had stood so enthralled earlier in the morning. I took a long sniff and then pinned it in my hair, much to the old gentleman's delight.

He turned away to have another fair guest take the prescribed sip, and that naughty Mary Flannagan buried her nose in my beautiful rose and whispered:

 
"But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent'st it back to me;
Since when it blows and smells I swear,
Not of itself but whiskee!"
 

CHAPTER VII
THE REASON WHY

That was a very merry breakfast. From my kitchen fastness I could hear the peals of laughter as Mary pretended to be a field hand, brought into the dining-room for the first time, to wait on the table. I even left my waffles for a moment to peep in the door. Dee, who was helping with the waiting, spied me and gave the assembled company the tip, and before I could get away they grabbed me and pulled me into the room where I had to listen to three rousing cheers for the cook. A batch of waffles burnt up in consequence, although I ran down the covered way like Cinderella when the clock struck twelve. A warning smell of something burning gave me to understand my time was up.

Baking waffles is a very exciting pastime. The metamorphosis that batter undergoes in almost a twinkling of an eye into beautiful crisp brown beauties is a never ending delight and joy to the cook. With irons just hot enough (and that is very hot indeed) and batter smooth and thin, smooth from much beating and thin from much milk and many eggs, I believe a baker of waffles can extract as much pure pleasure from her profession as a great musician can from drawing his bow across a choice Cremona; or a poet can from turning out successful verse; or a painter from watching his picture grow under his skilled hands.

The house-party was full up at last, and then the cook and waitress must be seated in the places of honor and be waited on by the whole crowd. Not quite all of the crowd, I should have said, as Jessie was superior to waiting on anybody. She seemed quite scornful of us for being able to help Miss Maria.



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