Nell Speed.

A House Party with the Tucker Twins



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At this point Mary poked her head out of the window and Shorty appeared below brave in all his finery, although it was not of pure gold as in Lady John's version. This was some astonishment to the old tale teller and he stopped in his narrative.

"Hist!" called the bride to Shorty below. "Are you there, sweetheart?"

"Aye, aye!" answered the future bluejacket. "Can you climb down the wall or shall I come up to you and carry you off in my flying machine?"

"I am coming down!" choked Mary. "But, Algernon, I cannot scale the fearsome wall in shoes and hose; what must I do?"

"Take them off, fair Lizzy Betty, and throw them down to me."

With that, Mary threw down to the faithful Shorty some huge tennis shoes, the property of Harvie. Shorty caught them, one at a time, and each catch felled him to the earth, much to the delight of the audience.

Then began the dangerous act. The agile Lizzy Betty was out of the window in a twinkling of an eye. Her mosquito net veil floated in the breezes. Her satin train she managed with great dexterity, kicking it from her, thereby disclosing to view the blue serge gym bloomers she was wearing. She swung herself down until midway she came upon the fated snag; there she paused and deliberately hooked her veil in the nail.

Here old Lady John, seeing his chance, took up the tale and began:

"As Miss Lizzy Betty was a-hurryin' down, an' she sho' could clam like a cat, she got her finery cotched on a rusty nail, an' thar she hung as helpless as a ol' coon skin tacked on de barn do'. De beau lover he dance up an' down like he goin' crazy."

Shorty began to prance and cry out to his lady love; but she hung there weeping in loud boo hoos.

"Bymby ol' Marse Price 'gun ter 'spicion sompen, an' he up'n bang on de chamber do'. 'Hyar there, Lizzy Betty! Come on an' git married! The victuals is a-gittin' col' whilst you is a-prayin'.' Po' Miss Lizzy Betty could a-hear 'em hollerin' and beatin' an' bangin', an' still her dress it cotch on de nail. Jes' then de rich ol' bridegroom come a-shamblin' roun' de house, an' he an' de beau lover clasp one anudder in mortal death grips. De ol' man, he got so clost to him dat de sword what was as long as a hoe han'le didn' do de beau lover no good whatsomever, but de lil' penknife what de ol' man carry for to whittle with went clean home to de beau lover's heart."

At the proper cue, Wink, who had submitted to be dressed up in a red table cover with a Santa Klaus beard made out of a switch borrowed from Miss Maria, came sidling around the house.

"Vilyun!" he cried, and grabbing Shorty around the waist, they wrestled and swayed until Shorty's long silk stockings, borrowed from Dum, came down and hung around his feet, and his fancy trunks, nothing more nor less than a bathing suit carefully rolled up, came unrolled and hung down in a most ludicrous manner. Finally the deadly penknife was dug into his ribs and he expired, calling to the lovely Lizzy Betty.

"An' de lubly Miss Lizzy Betty, she tuk a fit then an' thar an' if'n her paw hadn't er got a ladder an' gone up'n unhooked her, she'd a-been hangin' thar yit, same as in dis hyar circus," and Lady John pointed impressively at the bunchy figure of Mary clinging to the ivy with fingers, teeth and toe-nails.

The applause could have been heard down at the landing, I am sure.

Mary unfastened her mosquito net veil from her head and finished her descent, leaving the veil caught to the snag.

"Now, you black rascals," cried General Price, "you can see the ghost any night you've a mind. There she hangs, and I reckon I'll leave her there to shame you with. Now get to work!"

His words were stem but his face wore a smile and his tone was kindly. The field hands went off to work, the uninvited guests melted away, and the house servants took up their tasks where we had left off.

Willie, the yard boy, wore a broad grin on his countenance. I heard him say to one of the housemaids:

"I done mist my chanst for de kingdom dis year. I 'lowed I'd come through to-night, but these hyar carryin's on done flimflammed me. I been a-laughin' an' singin' an' what's more a-dancin', an' 'twarn't no David a-dancin' befo' de Lord, nuther. 'Twas jes' a-pattin' an' Clar de Kitchen dance. I hear rumors of gumbo for dinner, too, an' I sho' is glad I done turned from grace. I hope de young misses what concocted of de gumbo done put my name in de pot. Dis here seekin' is pow'ful appetizin'."

Our circus had been a decided success. Old and young, black and white had enjoyed it. Mary felt that she had redeemed herself. Had she not scared the servants off and then wiled them back? Had she not held thousands thrilled and breathless while she made her perilous descent?

"It is wonderful for you to be able to climb that way," said our courtly host. "I have never seen a young lady so agile."

"But I shall have to learn to climb in shoes," sighed our movie star. "Douglas Fairbanks can."

CHAPTER XI
THE PICNIC

When a crowd of young people get together there is sure to be a picnic if there is a spark of life in them. There were many sparks of life in this crowd, enough to supply many picnics.

We had been at Maxton ten days when the picnic came off, and we had had ten days of unalloyed fun. Of course, we had many gags on each other and jokes that were only jokes because we were on a house-party together. Those jokes if told would sound very flat, indeed. I believe there is no bore so great as the person who has been off with a crowd for a fortnight and comes back and tries to bring to life all the silly jokes that were perpetrated. They may have been brilliant and witty at the time, but it takes the setting and the circumstance to make them appear so to someone not blessed with an invitation to said house-party.

Mr. Tucker had come and gone and come again when we decided to go on the picnic. His faithful Henry Ford could bring him to Price's Landing in about one-fourth of the time it took if one trusted to the deliberate meanderings of the steamboat. He was a favorite with all of the party, young and old, and his arrival was hailed with delight. Miss Maria put on her best and filmiest lace cap for his benefit, and to her delight, that wonderful man noticed it and talked to her about old lace with a knowledge that astounded her.

He told me afterwards he found lace a topic which always interested old ladies, so he had deliberately made it his business to find out about lace and be prepared to converse on the subject. He also had some general knowledge of crochet stitches, and knew how much yarn it took to knit a sweater. It was too ludicrous to see him solemnly talking fancy work with some ancient dame. Tweedles and I have been sent off into hysterics when we have found him bending over a rainbow afghan, with some old lady eagerly asking his advice as to the depth of the border or something else equally feminine. He seldom went home, after a week-end spent at some resort, that he did not have a commission to match embroidery silk for some lady who had calculated wrong, or send back a bale of wool for some energetic person who had suddenly decided to knit socks for the poor Belgians or a sweater for a long-suffering male relative. Certainly Zebedee's interest and knowledge on the subject of lace caps would have won Miss Maria's affections had they not already been his.

General Price was as glad to see him as was his old sister. Of course, the European war was of paramount interest to everyone during those years, and Jeffry Tucker always brought some item of news to be recounted and discussed. He came laden with newspapers and magazines, and the general would bury himself under them, only emerging for meals. He and Zebedee would spend hours discussing the situation. Topographical maps were studied until one would think those two gentlemen could have found their way blindfolded over every inch of the western front.

The Mexican situation, too, must be thoroughly threshed out. The old warrior was like some ancient war horse that sniffs the battle from afar. As a veteran of the Civil War he had many experiences to recount and analogies to bring forth. Mr. Tucker listened to him with an attention that was most flattering. Naturally General Price freely announced that Tucker was the most agreeable man of his acquaintance.

Mr. Arthur Ponsonby Pore spent one evening with us at Maxton and the general and Zebedee hoped to get some new outlook from their English acquaintance on the subject of the war that so nearly touched him, since many of his kinsmen must surely be in the trenches; but Mr. Pore's interest seemed purely academic, and as his knowledge was principally gained from two– and three-week-old London Graphics, those voracious gentlemen got but little satisfaction from the hours spent with Arthur Ponsonby.

"He cares more about what language will finally be spoken on the Servian border than he does about the submarine menace!" cried Zebedee indignantly, coming out on the gallery where I was getting a breath of air after a particularly trying dance with poor Wink, who never had learned how. We danced almost every night at Maxton, – tread many a measure, as our dear old host put it. Dee said she thought Wink was a good dancer and she seemed to be able to keep step with him very well, but the Gods evidently had ordained that Wink and I could do nothing in harmony. He either stepped on my toes or I stepped on his, – the latter arrangement I much preferred.

"Well, when you come right down to it," I said, defending poor Mr. Pore, "that is, after all, a very important thing. What language is to be spoken there will mean which side is victorious."

"I know that, little Miss Smarty, but I also know if I have to listen any longer to that Britisher's rounded periods, what language will be spoken here, – it will not be fit to print, either. How can a man sit still down on the banks of a river in a foreign country and feel that it is not up to him to do a single thing for his country when her very existence is in peril!"

"But what can he do?"

"Do? Heavens, Page, he can do a million things!"

"He is too old to fight."

"No one is ever too old to fight, – that is, to put up some kind of a fight. He does not even contribute to a relief fund! He as good as told me he did not. He says he is afraid that what he sent might fall into the hands of the Germans and help them, so he considers it more patriotic not to send anything. I've been taking up for that man against Tweedles, but ugh! I'm through now."

"Oh no, you are not," I laughed; "if Mr. Pore should come out on the porch this minute and ask a favor of you, I bet you would be just as nice to him as you always have been."

"Never! Five pounds of Huyler's if I am not as cold as a fish to His Nibs!"

At this psychological moment His Nibs appeared.

"Aw, I say, Mr. Tucker, when you return to Richmond, will you be so kind as to do a little commission for me?"

Zebedee made inarticulate noises in his throat and Mr. Pore continued:

"Some freight has gone astray and if you could look it up from that end, it would be of great assistance to me."

"Have you written about it?" Zebedee's manner was not quite so Zebedeeish as I could have wished, since five pounds of Huyler's was at stake.

"No, I have not corresponded with the wholesale firm from whom I purchased the goods, as I heard from my daughter that you were expected, and I considered that it would be much more satisfactory to all concerned if you could give it your personal attention."

As soon as Mr. Pore mentioned Annie, Zebedee seemed to have a change of heart. He evidently felt that Annie's father must be cajoled into good behavior, and nothing must be done or said to make that stubborn parent have an excuse for taking any pleasures from Annie.

"Certainly, Mr. Pore," he said politely, if a little distantly. "Just give me your bill of lading and I will look into the matter for you."

In my mind's eye I saw the five pounds of candy. I had certainly won. But was it fair of me to take advantage of poor Zebedee's tender heart? Certainly not!

"Shall it be chocolates?" he asked, when Mr. Pore had finished his transaction and taken himself off.

"It shall be nothing!" I exclaimed. "Don't you know I know why you were decent to the old fish? It was not just plain politeness that made you do it, it was your feeling for Annie, poor little thing!"

"How do you know so much?"

"Why, I saw you change your mind the moment he dragged in Annie, and I knew what you were thinking just as much as though you had said it aloud: 'Don't do anything to make things hard for Annie.' Now isn't that so?"

"Page, you are uncanny! Can you read everybody's mind?"

"Of course not! Only yours," I laughed.

"Do you know what I am thinking now?" He looked at me very intently. The light from the hall was flooding the gallery and I could see way down into his clear blue eyes.

"N-o!" I hesitated, and I am afraid blushed, too. "But I wish you would think that it would be nice to go try that new wiggly dance Jessie Wilcox has just brought from New York."

"I see, if you can't read my mind all the time, you can at least make me think what you want me to. Come on, honey, and show me the dance."

I got the candy in spite of my protestations of not deserving it.

The picnic was to be at Croxton's Ford, a beautiful spot about three miles down the river. The naphtha launch held eight quite comfortably and the rest were to go in rowboats. Mary and Shorty insisted upon paddling the canoe, although they were warned that it would be a tiring job, especially coming back.

Miss Maria had planned to go with us although an all day picnic was a great undertaking for one of her shape, but she was very particular with girls intrusted to her and chaperoned most religiously. On the very morning of the picnic, sciatica seized her and she simply could not get out of bed. The general had business at the court-house and was off very early in the morning, so his going was out of the question. Miss Maria lay there groaning and moaning, miserable that her conscience could not consent to our going on such a jaunt, unchaperoned. As Tweedles and I had never been overchaperoned, in fact knew very little about such necessities, it seemed absurd to us.

"Do you really mean we can't go without a chaperone?" wailed Dum, who had set her heart on a long row in a little red boat that appealed to her especially.

"My dear, I am so sorry! I would get up if I could."

"But I wouldn't have you get up, dear Miss Maria. I just want you to lie still and get well. We don't need a chaperone!"

"I know you don't need one, my child, but I have never heard of a picnic at Croxton's Ford without a chaperone."

"But Zebedee's a grand chaperone," put in Dee. "He is that particular! Why, Dum and Page and I have never been chaperoned in our lives."

"Zebedee's the strictest thing!" maintained Dum.

"So he may be," smiled the old lady, although one could see that the twinges in her poor hip were giving her great agony, "but as perfect as he is, he is not a woman."

"No, – he is certainly not that."

"Jessie Wilcox has never been on a picnic in her life without a chaperone, and I could not consent to one from Maxton unless it was perfectly regular."

A tap on the door disclosed the sympathetic Zebedee.

"Please let me come in," he begged.

After a hasty donning of boudoir cap and bed sacque, he was admitted.

"Mr. Tucker, I am so sorry, but I cannot let the girls go on a picnic without a chaperone," said the old lady.

"Of course not!" and his eyes twinkled. "I'm going, though, and I am a perfect ogre of a chaperone, eh, Page?"

"Yes, something fierce, but Miss Maria says you are not a woman."

"That's so!" he said, puckering up his brows. We were mortally sure he was going to find a way. He always did. "How about Aunt Milly? She is perfectly respectable and would guard the young ladies like gold, I am sure."

"We-ll, I remember before the war we often went great distances with our maids. I think she would do. Please send her to me."

Zebedee rushed to do her bidding, but he evidently had an interview with Aunt Milly before he sent her to Miss Maria, as that old darky entered the bed chamber in a broad grin, tying something up in the corner of her bandanna handkerchief as she came.

"Milly, I want you to chaperone for me to-day," said the poor invalid, groaning as she tried to move a bit in her great mahogany bed.

"Sho', Miss Maria! Does you want me to do it wif goose grease? Or maybe you'd like dat mixture er coal ile an' pneumonia? Dat's a great mixture. 'Twill bun you up but it sho' do scatter de pain."

"I don't mean massage, I said chaperone," and Miss Maria laughed in spite of her sciatic nerve.

"Yassum! I 'lowed you meant rub, an' I's mo'n willin' to rub. You'll hab to 'splain. I ain't quite sho' in my min' what shopper-roonin' is, but if it'll ease yo' pain, you kin jes' call on ol' Milly."

"It would ease my pain greatly if you would go with the young ladies on the picnic."

"Cook for 'em?"

"Oh no, Aunt Milly," I interrupted, "we never let the chaperone cook, – just to look after us and keep us straight."

"Lawsamussy, chile! You all don't need nobody to keep you straight. Th' ain't nothin' wrong wid you all but jes' you's a little coltish."

"I know they don't need anyone, Milly, but I have never heard of a picnic at Croxton's Ford without a chaperone, and I wouldn't be willing for them to go without one."

"All right, Miss Maria! But you ain't thinkin' 'bout sendin' me nowhar in one er them thar skifty boats, is you?"

"Oh no, Aunt Milly!" said Dee reassuringly. "You must have a comfortable seat in the stern of the naphtha launch. We will give you the place Miss Maria would have had could she have gone."

"Well, Gawd save us! I ain't nebber set foot on or in the ribber in all my life an' I been born an' bred on its banks, too," and the old woman drew forth a big red bandanna handkerchief and wiped her eyes.

As she did so she came upon the something round and hard tied up in its corner, and at the same time she glanced up at Mr. Tucker. He, in a seemingly absent-minded way, put his hand in his pocket and jingled his keys and coin.

"Well, all right, Miss Maria! If you say I mus' go, I reckon 'tain't fer me to gainsay you. Who gonter do my wuck at home?"

"There won't be much work to do, Milly, since all of the young people are going away, and the general has planned to spend the day at the court-house. The lunch baskets are ready, are they not?"

"Yassum! I been up sence sunup a-packin' 'em. It seemed like ol' times to be a-packin' all them victuals. I 'member what a gret han' you was for pickaniggers whin you was a gal. I reckon it's a-cuttin' all them samwidges yistiddy dat done combusticated yo' hip now. You better let me rub you befo' I go a shopper-roonin'."

"Thank you, Milly, but if you chaperone, that will be work enough for you for to-day. You had better get ready now. Tell Willie to take you to your cabin in the buggy and wait and drive you back. You must hurry and not keep the young ladies waiting."

Aunt Milly waddled off, filled with importance and pride but secretly dreading a water trip. Dee insisted upon massaging the poor invalid, who really was suffering intensely. Dee was a born nurse and was never so happy as when she could take command in a sick room. She drove all of us out, insisting the patient must be quiet. Wink, who was really and truly a doctor now, was called in and readily prescribed and what's more produced the medicine from a little kit he carried about with him. Dee rubbed and rubbed until it was time to start on the picnic. Miss Maria was so soothed that she dozed off and Dee tiptoed out of the room without making a sound.

No doubt the poor old lady enjoyed her day of quiet and rest. We must have been a great trial to her, because we were a noisy, hoydenish lot. Those of us who didn't sit up late at night making a racket, got up early in the morning to do so, and vice versa. She was so sweet and good-natured about us that she never let us feel we were a nuisance, but I am sure we must have been.



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