Nell Speed.

A House Party with the Tucker Twins



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"I have never been an adept at the domestic arts," she said somewhat stiffly. "I could not cook or wash dishes if my life depended on it."

"Humph!" sniffed Dum, "I reckon you could if you got good and hungry. Of course you couldn't do it well, that is, not as well as Page, for she can't be equalled. As for washing dishes, – you can take your first lesson after Page and Mary and Dee finish breakfast. All of these dishes have to be washed and there is no one to do it but the house-party."

"Well, I guess not!" and Jessie looked at her pretty soft, beringed hands.

"Very well then, you can do the upstairs work! Beds must be made, you know!"

"Absurd! Do you take me for a housemaid?"

"No, I wouldn't have you for one, but you might get a job for a few hours before the folks found out about you."

Dum's tone was rollicking and good-natured. She seemed to have no idea that she was insulting the pretty Jessie. It never entered Dum's head that anyone would shirk a duty that was so apparent as taking the work of Maxton in hand.

I enjoyed that breakfast very much. Harvie baked waffles for us and Wink White brought them in. The young men from Kentucky ran back and forth waiting on us, all of them making more noise and having more collisions than would have been the case had a regiment been feeding.

Shorty had already begun to grease the buck-saw preparatory to sawing up wood for Miss Maria. He and Rags had volunteered to supply the fuel. Then the cows must be milked; the horses curried and fed; in fact, all the farm work must be done.

I never saw nicer, more considerate boys than were on that party. They vied with one another in briskness and efficiency. They wanted to help us with dishwashing and housework, but there was enough outside work to keep them busy, and with all good intentions in the world, most men-folks are a hindrance rather than a help when it comes to so-called woman's work.

How we did fly around! Miss Maria got real gay and giddy in the general whirlwind that ensued. Dum and Mary undertook to be housemaids, and such a spreading up of beds and flicking of dusters was never known. The beds did look a little bumpy, but what difference did it make? The dust they swished off with the feather dusters settled quietly back on the things, but why not? Maxton was beautifully kept and very clean but there is always dust on furniture in the morning, no matter how well it has been cleaned the day before. Jessie's bed they left unmade, declaring that she could sleep in the same hole for a month before they would even spread it up for her.

"Lazy piece!" cried Dum. "I actually believe she does not mean to turn a hair."

That young lady had taken herself off to the parlor where she was singing in the most operatic manner with a very well-trained strong voice with about as much sweetness to it as cut glass. The accompaniment she was rendering on the piano was brilliantly executed, so much so that I thought for a moment she had in a pianola record.

I peeped in the parlor and smiled at her, fearing somehow that she must feel herself to be an outsider and that was why she was not entering into the fun of helping. I got no answering smile but something of a cold stare, so I beat a hasty retreat and hastened off to consult with Miss Maria about future meals.

I found that lady sitting on a bench in the covered passage leading to the kitchen. Her spirit was willing but her flesh was too much for her. She must rest. I sank by her, not sorry at all to indulge in a little sly resting of my own. Cooking is great fun but certainly exhausting.

"What for dinner, Miss Maria?"

"Oh, my dear, I can't contemplate your helping about dinner, too!"

I couldn't help having a little inward fun with myself over her speaking of my helping. I had certainly cooked breakfast myself, but since she fooled herself into thinking that I had only helped to cook it, it made no difference to me.

"But someone will have to cook it unless the servants are miraculously cured in time for it."

"That's so!" and she sighed a great sigh.

"I know you wish we would all of us go home, but please don't wish it. We are having such a good time and don't want to leave one little bit."

"Oh, my dear! Don't think I could have such inhospitable sentiments. My brother would be deeply distressed if he thought you thought I thought such things."

Both of us laughed at her complicated thinks and then began the serious matter of dinner.

"Thank goodness, I had those trifling creatures dress the chickens yesterday. That, at least, is out of the way."

"Oh, good! Have you got them all dressed? Then let's have chicken gumbo. If we make enough of it, it will be the dinner, with a great dish of rice to help in each soup plate."

"Splendid!" declared Dee, pausing for a moment to listen to the proposed menu. "And it will be such an economy in dishes, too. Just a plate and spoon all around and no frills."

Dee had been as busy as possible washing dishes while Miss Maria wiped, and I cleared the table.

"But, child, can you make a gumbo? It is very difficult, I am afraid."

"Not a bit of it. I have Mammy Susan's recipe tucked away somewhere in my brain. I can get to work on it immediately and then it will be done for dinner. It can't cook too long."

Dee and Wink undertook to gather the vegetables, but they took so long that a relief and search party had to be sent to the garden after them.

They were so busy discussing the different kinds of bandages that they had forgotten their mission. Wink had taken a leaf from Adam's-and-Eve's-needle-and-thread and was demonstrating on Dee's arm the reverse bandage. Her other arm was already decorated with the figure eight style made from a long green corn leaf. How I wished Wink would treat me as sensibly as he did Dee. They seemed to be having such a good time as I, who was one of the search party, discovered them in the tomato patch solemnly debating the values of the various styles. Now if Wink had ever agreed to discuss such a thing as that with me he would have felt compelled to say all kinds of silly things, and as for bandaging my arm, – it would have been out of the question, as he would have felt it necessary to ask to kiss my hand or some such stuff.

The right kind of gumbo must have tomatoes, okra, potatoes, onions and corn in it, and anyone who has served apprenticeship under Mammy Susan will make the right kind of gumbo. Miss Maria and I started in preparing those vegetables at nine o'clock and it took us one solid hour to finish, working as hard as we could go. I was beginning to be very fond of the old lady. She was so gentle and sweet. I asked her many questions about Maxton and its history, and since, like many gentlewomen of her age, she lived in the past, she was most happy to recount to me tales of the lovely old place and its aristocratic founders.

"Oh, yes, we have a ghost," she laughed, when I asked her to tell me if there were any such inhabitants. "It is a lady ghost, too, and inhabits your wing of the house, as is the way with all the ladies of Maxton. It is the young sister of my great grandfather, – that makes her my great, great aunt."

"Oh, please tell me about her!"

"Well, all right, if you promise not to get scared. The darkies keep such tales going. They firmly believe in ghosts, and when they tell a ghost story they always say either they themselves have seen the dread shape or they know someone who has seen it. This ghost has not been seen at Maxton in my generation, but Jasper and Milly have heard the tale from their grandparents and they see that it is duly handed down to their grandchildren. The appearance of this spectre is supposed to presage dire calamity."

"Do you know anyone who has seen it?" I asked, testing the skillet to see if it was hot enough to begin frying the chicken. Chicken for gumbo must be fried before you start the soup, if anything so rich and thick as gumbo could be called soup.

"I knew an old man who thought he had seen it. Well, to go on with my tale: – this young great, great aunt of mine was engaged to be married to a gentleman of high degree, much older than herself. This of course was back in Colonial days. She had consented to the match in obedience to her father's commands, but she evidently did not relish it very much. The day came for the wedding and she was dressed in her white gown and veil. The company had assembled from miles around. A boat load of guests from Williamsburg had arrived and the feasting and dancing had begun. Among them was a young blade from over the seas who had paid court to the fair Elizabeth, – that was her name. It was whispered that she returned his love and that was the real reason for her reluctance to mating with the lord of high degree.

"After being clothed in the wedding gown, Elizabeth had sent the women from her room on a plea that she must be alone to pray. She locked the door the moment they were gone and rushed to the window which was open, it being a warm moonlight night. Standing below the window was the lover. He called up to her to come down to him. The ivy was thick on the wall, as it is now, and for an agile young girl I fancy it was not such a very difficult climb. It must have taken a brave soul though to make the start. Many a time in my youth," and here Miss Maria blushed as red as one of the tomatoes she was peeling, "I have sat in that window, it is the room you are occupying, and tried how it would seem to climb down that wall. I have never done more than poke my foot out about an inch, though. Perhaps if the lover had been calling to me, it might have given me courage. Elizabeth got about half-way down when her long satin dress and veil got caught on a nail or snag of some sort, and no matter how she pulled she could not get loose. Just think of it! There the poor girl hung, with her lover frantically calling to her and the precious moments flying. Already they were knocking on the door of her chamber and crying out for admission. His steed was ready to fly with her if only she could get the gown loose. Material in those days was stouter than now. I'll wager anything that a piece of white satin could not be found now that would not tear, or any other material, for that matter."

Remembering Mary's gown of the night before, I readily agreed with her.

"Before the miserable lover could mount to her side to cut the dress loose, the plot was discovered and the poor girl had the agony of seeing her true love killed by the infuriated bridegroom to be. She swooned and it is said she never regained consciousness. Her poor little heart must have snapped in two. And now it is said that sometimes her white figure can be seen hanging from the ivied wall. Once in my youth the darkies thought they saw it as they were coming home from church on a moonlight night, but on investigation it turned out to be a towel that had blown out of the window and hung, perhaps on the identical nail that was the undoing of poor Elizabeth. I remember well," and she laughed like a girl again, "how scared they all of them were. It was in slave days and they were forced to come to work the next day, but nothing but being slaves could have made them come."

"Oh, Miss Maria, Miss Maria!" I cried, dropping the potato I was peeling, "I know now what is the matter with your servants. They are not ill but they have seen the ghost!"

And I told her about Mary's ambition and her escapade of the night before. The old lady almost rolled off her chair she laughed so. She was not one bit shocked but vastly interested.

"To think of her doing it! No lover was calling her, either."

"I don't know about that. How about it, Mary?" I called to my friend who had come down to help pick up chips now that the chamber work was accomplished.

When I told Mary about the family ghost story and that she was no doubt responsible for the non-appearance of the servants, she was overcome with confusion. Miss Maria begged her to treat the matter as a joke.

"Why, my dear, I never would have known all you dear girls as I now do if it had not happened. You would have come and gone as nothing but Harvie's guests, and now you are my own true friends. I am glad the reason why is unearthed, though, because now we can at least make those good-for-nothings come and wash the dinner dishes." She drew Mary down beside her on the bench.

"But, Mary, you didn't answer me," I teased. "I asked you if a lover was calling you when you climbed down the wall."

"Yes! He is calling me all the time!" cried Mary, striking an attitude of one being called by a lover. "His name is Douglas Fairbanks."

"Douglas Fairbanks? I don't know the family," said dear old puzzled Miss Maria. "Who is Douglas Fairbanks?"

"Why, Miss Maria, he is a movie actor, the very best ever!" explained Mary.

"Where did you get to know him, child? Who introduced you?"

"I don't know him, never saw him except on the screen!"

"Ah, I see, a hero of romantic fiction!"

"But he's not fiction – he's the realest flesh and blood person you ever saw in your life."

Then Mary tried to tell our hostess of the wonders of the movie where Douglas was the star. The old lady endeavored to take it all in, but not having been to the city since the perfecting of the cineomatograph, it was up-hill work. Of course she knew that movies existed, but she could not grasp the joy of them, as she had nothing to go upon but the memory of a magic lantern.

"Don't you like the theatre?" I asked.

"Yes, indeed, I like it very much. To be sure I have never seen but two performances, but I got great enjoyment from them. You must remember, my dears, that I am country bred and have had little chance to see the city sights."

I never realized before how cut off from the world persons are who depend on steamboats. Here was this dear lady, born and bred one of the finest ladies of the land, but being of a naturally retiring disposition and always having been occupied from her girlhood with keeping house she had let the world pass her by.

"What were the two things you saw, Miss Maria?" asked Mary gently.

"Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch and the Old Homestead. I was quite shocked at the latter, was really glad I was with a lady. I think I would have sunk through the floor from mortification had there been a gentleman with me."

"The Old Homestead shocking?" I asked wonderingly. "Not the Old Homestead! It must have been something else."

"Oh, no, I remember the title distinctly. It was when they had that scene with that naked statue in the parlor. It was terrible to me."

What a compliment to have paid the author and actor of that time-honored play! Actually the statue of the Venus de Milo had shocked this simple soul from the country just exactly as Denman Thompson had made it do the old man in the melodrama. Mary and I didn't laugh, but we almost burst from not doing so.

"And now I must send Harvie down to the quarters to make those good-for-nothings return. Sick, indeed! I intend to make every last one of them take a dose of castor oil and turpentine!"

And the intrepid lady was as good as her word.

CHAPTER VIII
THE CIRCUS

The gumbo being made and nothing to do but cook it, and that quite slowly, I was able to run from my self-imposed duties for a while and join the crowd that had formed to go to the negro quarters and persuade them that they were not sick, that there was no ghost, and that their duty and interests lay at Maxton.

The cabins were at least a quarter of a mile from the great house, and very comfortable and picturesque they were. The road lay through a beautiful oak forest and then skirted a corn field. Each cabin had a good piece of ground around it and from every chimney there arose a curl of blue smoke. They were evidently expecting a visit from the family, because there were several little pickaninnies waiting at a turn in the road, and when they saw us they set off in a great hurry shouting:

"Dey's a-comin'! Dey's a-comin'!"

"That's to give them time to get into bed before we get there," said Harvie sagely. "I wish I knew Latin and Greek as well as I do the coloreds' methods."

Sure enough, we could see the little nigs running from house to house shouting the warning.

"I reckon we would all learn Latin and Greek if it was as simple as our friends' machinations," I said. "I bet you this minute Aunt Milly is stirring up a cake or something for big meetin' and she will have to hurry up and get it out of sight."

It so happened Aunt Milly's house was the first one we entered. Harvie knocked on the door gently and then more briskly when there was no answer. Finally a smothered sound penetrated the closed door and windows. "Ummmm! Ummmm!" Taking it to mean we must enter, we opened the door. I sniffed pound cake.

Aunt Milly's cabin boasted but one room and an attic and a lean-to kitchen. The old woman, whose bulk was only equalled by Miss Maria's, was lying in bed. Her coal black face had no look of illness but one of extreme determination. She was showing the whites of her eyes like a stubborn horse.

"How you do, Mr. Harbie?" she said thickly. "An' all de yuthers ob you? Won't you take some cheers and set a while?"

"No, thank you, Aunt Milly, we only came to see how you were getting on and to tell you that Aunt Maria hopes you will be up in time to wash the dinner dishes."

"Me? No, Mr. Harbie! I'm feared I is seen my last days er serbice."

"Why, Aunt Milly, are you so ill as all that?"

"Yessir! Yessir! I got a mizry in my back an' my haid is fittin' tow bus'. I ain't been able to tas'e a mouthful er victuals sence I don' know whin. My lim's is all of a trimble and looks lak my blood is friz in my gizzard."

"Have you had the doctor?"

"No, not to say recent! I was that sorry tow lay up whin yo' comp'ny was a-visitin' of yo' grandpaw, but whin mawnin' come I jes' warn't fitten tow precede."

"It is strange that all of you should have got sick the same day, Aunt Milly," said Harvie, his eyes twinkling with his knowledge of the subject.

"You don't say that that there Jasper an' them gals didn't go do they wuck?" asked the old woman, but her tone was somewhat half-hearted. She was evidently not an adept at dissembling.

"Now, Aunt Milly, you know that not a single servant turned up at the great house this morning, and these young ladies had to do all the cooking and housework, and we boys did the outside work. You need not try to make me think you didn't know it. We know exactly what is the matter with all of you – "

"Laws-a-mussy, Mr. Harbie! Th' ain't nuthin' 'tall the matter with me, but I's plum wo' out. I been a-cookin' nigh onter mos' a hunnerd years."

"But all these other servants haven't been cooking or anything else anywhere near that long. We all of us know what is the matter: last night coming home from big meeting there wasn't a thing the matter. You all of you meant to come back to work this morning. You came home late, but you had promised Aunt Maria to stay on while my guests were here, and you meant to do it. The moon was shining bright and just as you came over the hill and got out of that bit of pine woods, off there towards the landing, you saw a ghost – "

"Gawd in heaben, Mr. Harbie! Did you see her, too?" Poor old Aunt Milly's eyes were almost popping out of her head.

"No, I didn't see her; I wish I had," and Harvie gave Mary a nudge. "But Miss Page Allison here saw it, and Miss Mary Flannagan knows all about it because she was the ghost."

"She – she – she was which?"

"It was this way, Aunt Milly," said Mary, going over close to the old woman's bed. "I wanted to see if I could climb down the ivy on the wall outside of our window, and just as all of you came home from church my – my – garment got hung on a nail and I couldn't budge for a moment. I snagged my thumb, too, see!"

"Well, if that don't beat all!" was all the old woman had strength to say. She threw back the bedclothes and disclosed her ample person fully clothed in a purple calico dress. "Hyar, gimme room tow git out'n this hyar baid. I's got a poun' cake a-cookin' in de oben an' I s'picion it nigh 'bout time ter take it out." She rolled out of bed and waddled to the stove. "I's moughty skeered the fire done gonter git low while Mr. Harbie was a-argufyin'. It would 'a' made a sad streak in my cake, an' that there is somethin' I ain't never been guilty ob yit."

"Now, Aunt Milly," said Harvie, when our minds were set at rest as to the perfection of the cake which was done to a beautiful golden brown, "you send for the rest of the servants and tell them the truth about the ghost and let them know they must be up at the great house within an hour."

"Sho'! Sho', child!" she assured him.

Grabbing a broom from the corner she jabbed it under the bed, thereby causing much squealing. Three little darkies rolled out, looking very much like moulting chickens from the combination of dust and feathers they had picked up from their hiding place.

"Here you lim's er Satan! Run an' fotch all de niggers on de plantation and tell 'em I say come a-runnin' tow my cabin as fas' as they laigs kin a carry 'em. You kin tell 'em I'se in a fit an' that'll fetch 'em." She chuckled and sank on a chair to have her laugh out.



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