A Round Dozen
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"Are you quite sure they did not quarrel?" asked the wind-flower, anxiously. "It made me shiver to hear the others."
"No, they didn't quarrel. When the rest would not listen, they moved away and made their little plan in a whisper."
"And what was the plan?" inquired the bloodroot.
"Oh, they are wise little things. The others are going to have a 'celebration' on Saturday, with a great deal of pie and cake and fuss. I shall tell Mamma Spring to order up an east wind and freeze them well, little monsters! But my two are coming into the woods quietly to-morrow to search for flowers. I heard Charlie tell Winnie that she knew where the first May-flowers always come out, and they would look there. We know too, don't we? In the hollow behind the beech-wood, on the south bank."
"They're not there yet," said the columbine, yawning.
"No, but they're all packed and ready," said the lilac hepatica. "Do let us telegraph them to start at once. I somehow feel as if I should like to please Blossom too."
So the trillium, who was telegraph operator, stooped down and dragged up a thread-like root, fine as wire.
"What is the message?" he asked.
"Be – in – flower – by – to-morrow – noon – for – Charlie – and – Winnie," dictated the hepatica. "Precisely ten words."
"All right," responded the bloodroot, with his fingers on the wire. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap; the message was sent, and presently came an answering vibration.
"All right. We are off." It was the reply of the May-flowers.
"What a fine thing is the telegraph!" sighed a sentimental sand-violet, while the hepatica rubbed her little lilac palms gleefully, and exclaimed, —
"I flatter myself that job is as good as done. Hurrah for Queen Blossom!"
The other girls did not notice Winnie and Charlie particularly next day as they stole from the rest and crept away almost on tiptoe to the south bank, where the arbutus might be in bloom. Drifted leaves hid the bottom of the hollow. At first sight there was no promise of flowers; but our little maids were too wise to be discouraged. Carefully they picked their way down, brushed aside the brown leaves, and presently a shriek from both announced discovery.
"Oh, the darlings!" cried Winnie.
There they were, the prompt, punctual May-flowers, so lately arrived that only half their leaves were uncurled, and the dust of travel still lay on their tendrils. For all that, they were not too tired to smile at the happy faces that bent over them as the little girls lifted the leaf blankets and gently drew them from their hiding-place. Pale buds winked and brightened; the fuller flowers opened wide pink eyes; all shook their ivory incense-bottles at once, and sent out sweet smells, which mixed deliciously with the fragrance of fresh earth, of moving sap, and sun-warmed mosses.
"Shouldn't you think they had come out on purpose?" said Winnie, kissing one of the pinkest clusters.
"We did! we did!" cried the May-flowers in chorus.But the children did not understand the flower-language, though the flowers knew well what the children said. Flowers are very clever, you see; much cleverer than little girls.
Winnie and Charlie hid their treasures in a tin dinner-pail, pouring in a little water to keep them fresh, and carefully shutting the lid. They did not want to have their secret found out.
Going home, they met the others, looking somewhat disconsolate.
"Where have you been?" they cried. "We looked everywhere for you."
"Oh, in the woods," said Winnie, while Charlie asked, —
"Did you find any flowers?"
"Not one," cried Arabella, crossly; "the spring is so late; it's a shame. Carrie Briggs is chosen Queen, and Miriam Gray is going to lend us some paper flowers for the crown. They will do just as well."
"Paper flowers!" began Charlie, indignantly; but Winnie checked her, and pretty soon their path turned off from that of the others.
"Come early to-morrow and help us make the throne," called out Marianne.
"We can't: we've got something else to do," called back Charlie.
"We're going to see Blossom."
"Oh, pshaw! Do let that everlasting Sarah Jane alone, and come and have a good time," screamed Arabella after them.
Winnie laughed and shook her head. The others went on.
Blossom lay in bed next morning. She always lay in bed now, and it was pitiful to see what a pale blossom she had become. Only a year before her cheeks had been rosier, her limbs more active, than those of any of the children who daily passed her window on their way to school. One unlucky slip on the ice had brought all this to an end, and now the doctor doubted if ever she could get up and be well and strong as she used to be. The pretty name, given in her days of babyhood, sounded sadly now to the parents who watched her so anxiously; but no name could be too sweet, her mother thought, for the dear, patient child, who bore her pain so brightly and rewarded all care and kindness with such brave smiles. Blossom she was still, though white and thin, and Blossom she would always be, although she might never bloom again as once she did, until set in the Lord's garden, where no frosts come to hurt the flowers.
"Happy May-day," she said, as her mother came in. "I wonder what the girls are doing. Winnie didn't come yesterday. I don't even know who is to be Queen. Have you heard, mamma?"
"I shouldn't think they'd want to have any Queen on such a cold day as this," replied mamma. "Look how the boughs are blowing in the wind. It feels like March out doors."
"Oh, they're sure to want a Queen," said Blossom. "May-day is such fun. I used to like it better than any day in the year."
"Somebody wants to spake to ye, ma'am, if you pl'ase," said Norah, putting her head in at the door.
"Very well. Blossom, dear, you don't mind being left alone for a minute?"
"Oh no, indeed. I've such a nice book here." But Blossom did not open her book after mamma went away, but lay looking out of the window to where the elm-boughs were rocking in the wind. Her face grew a little sad.
"How nice it used to be!" she said to herself.
Just then she heard a queer noise in the entry – drumming, and something else which sounded like music. Next, the door opened, and a procession of two marched in. Charlie was the head of the procession. She wore a pink-and-white calico, and tied about her neck with a pink string was Willie Smith's drum, borrowed for the occasion. Winnie, in her best blue gingham, brought up the rear, her mouth full of harmonica. Winnie also carried a flat basket, covered with a white napkin, and the two girls kept step as they marched across the room to Blossom's bedside, who lay regarding them with eyes wide open from amazement.
"Happy May-day, Queen Blossom," sang Charlie, flourishing her drumsticks.
"Happy May-day, Queen Blossom," chimed in Winnie, taking the harmonica from her mouth.
"Happy May-day," responded Blossom.
"But – how funny – what do you call me Queen Blossom for?"
"Because you are Queen, and we have come to crown you," replied Charlie. Then she laid down the drumsticks, lifted the white napkin, and in a solemn tone began to repeat these verses, which she and Winnie – with a little help from somebody, I guess – had written the evening before.
Charlie finished the verses with great gravity. Then, drawing the May-wreath from the basket, she put it on Blossom's head, after which, instead of kissing the royal hand, according to programme, she clapped both her own and began to dance about the bed exclaiming, —
"Wasn't that nice? Aren't they pretty? We made them up ourselves – Winnie and I. Why, Blossom, you're crying."
In fact, Queen Blossom was crying.
It was only a very little cry – just a drop or two, with a rainbow to follow. In another minute Blossom had winked the tears away, and was smiling brightly.
"I didn't mean to cry," she exclaimed, "only I was so surprised. I thought you would all be busy to-day, and nobody would come. I never dreamed that I should be made Queen of the May again. How kind you are, dear Charlie and Winnie, and where did you get the flowers – real May-flowers? Nobody has begun to look for them yet."
"They came out on purpose for you," persisted Charlie; and the May-buds smiled and nodded approvingly as she said so.
Next, Winnie opened her basket, and behold! a cake, with white icing, and in the middle a pink thing meant for a crown, but looking more like a cuttle-fish, because of the icing's having melted a little. Mrs. Boker had stayed up late the night before to bake and ice this May-day loaf. She, too, loved Blossom, and it pleased her that Winnie should plan for the enjoyment of her sick friend.
A knife was brought, and slices cut. Blossom lay on her pillows, nibbling daintily, as befits a Queen. Her subjects, perched on the bed, ate with the appetite of commoners. The sun struggled out, and, in spite of the east wind, sent a broad yellow ray into the window. Blossom's May-wreath made the air delicious; there could not have been found a merrier party.
"Please, dear Duchess, take off my crown for a minute," said Blossom, with a pretty air of command.
The Duchess, otherwise Charlie, obeyed, and laid the wreath on the coverlet just under the royal nose.
"How lovely, lovely, lovely it is!" said Blossom, with a long sigh of delight.
"The sun is streaming exactly into your eyes, dear," said her mother.
She opened the window to close the shutter. A sharp, sudden gust of wind blew in, and mamma pulled the sash down quickly lest Blossom should be chilled. Nobody noticed that one of the May-flowers, as if watching its chance, detached itself from the wreath, and flew out of window on the back of the interloping wind. But it did.
The wind evidently knew what was expected of it, for it bore the May-flower along to the woods, and laid it on the brown earth in a certain sunny spot. Then, like a horse released from rider, it pranced away, while the flower, putting her pink lips to the ground, called in a tiny voice, —
"Hepatica – Hepsy dear, are you there?"
"Yes; what is it?" came back an answering voice, which sounded very close. It was the voice of the lilac hepatica. She and her companions were much nearer the surface than they had been two days before.
"It has all gone off so nicely," went on the May-blossom. "We were there in time, and I must say I never saw nicer children than that Winnie and Charlie. They picked us so gently that it scarcely hurt at all. As for Blossom, she's a little dear. Her eyes loved us, and how tenderly she handled our stems. I really wanted to stay with her, only I had such a good chance to go, and I thought you would all want to hear. It was the nicest May-day party I ever saw."
"More – tell us more," said the underground flowers.
"There is no more to tell," replied the May-flower, faintly. "It is cold out here, and I am growing sleepy. Good-night."
After that there was silence in the woods.
Winnie and Charlie never knew how the dear little flower-people had conspired to make their May-day happy. Perhaps Blossom guessed, for when she laid aside her wreath that night she kissed the soft petals, which had begun to droop a little, and whispered gently, —
"Thank you, darlings."
A SMALL BEGINNING
A LITTLE ground-floor room, a little fire in a small stove, burning dully as fires are apt to do at times when their blaze might be worth something in the way of cheer; out doors the raw gray of a spring thaw; on the window-seat two girls crouched together and looking out with faces as disconsolate as the weather. Such was the picture presented at No. 13 Farewell Street, three years ago last March.
Farewell Street was so named because of its being the customary route of exit from the old cemetery, the point where mourners were supposed to turn for a last look at the gates which had just shut in the newly buried friend; and this association, as well as the glimpse of tall cemetery fence, topped with mournful evergreens which bounded the view, did not tend to make the sad outlook any the less sad on that dismal day. For it was only a fortnight since Delia and Hetty Willett, the girls on the window-seat, had left within those gates the kind old grandmother who for years had stood to them in the stead of father and mother both.
"The Willetts," as the neighbors called them, using the collective phrase always, were twins, and just eighteen years old. Bearing to each other even a stronger personal likeness than twins customarily possess, they were in other points curiously unlike. Delia was soft and clinging, Hetty vigorous and self-reliant. Delia loved to be guided, Hetty to guide; the former had few independent views and opinions, the latter was brimful of ideas and fancies, plans and purposes; some crude, some foolish, but all her own. Yet, oddly enough, it was Delia, very often, who gave the casting vote in their decisions, for Hetty's love for her slender twin was a sentiment so deep and intense that she often yielded against her own better sense and judgment, simply for the pleasure of yielding to what Delia wished. Delia in return adored her sister, waited on her, petted, consoled, "exactly as if she were Hetty's wife," Aunt Polly said, "and the worst was they suited each other so well that no one else would ever suit either of them, and they were bound to die old maids in consequence!"
But eighteen can laugh at such auguries, and there was no thought or question of marriage in the minds of the sisters as they crouched that afternoon close together on the old window-seat.
A very different question absorbed them, and a perplexing one; how they were to live, namely, and to keep together while doing so, which meant pretty much the same thing to them both. Grandmother's death had left them with so very, very little. Her annuity died with her. There was the old house, the plain, worn furniture to which they had been accustomed all their lives, and about a hundred dollars a year! What could they do with that?
"If one of us only happened to be clever," sighed Delia. "If I could paint pictures, or you had a talent for writing, how easy it would be!"
"I don't know as to that," responded Hetty. "Seems to me I've heard of people who did those things, and yet didn't find it so mighty easy to get along. Somebody's got to buy the pictures after they're painted, you know, and read the books, and pay for them." She spoke in an absent tone, and her brow was knitted into the little frown which Delia knew betokened that her twin was puzzling hard over something.
"Don't scowl, it'll spoil your forehead," she said, smoothing out the objectionable frown with her fingers.
"Was I scowling? Well, never mind. I'm trying to think, Dely. You can't paint and I can't write. The question is, What can we do?"
"That is a question," said a voice at the door. It was Aunt Polly's voice. She managed on most days to drop in and "give a look to them, the lonely little creeturs," as she would have expressed it.
"You're consultin', I see," she said, taking in the situation at a glance: the dismal room, the depressive and tearful cheeks of the two girls, the lack of comfort and cheer. She twitched open the stove door as she passed, threw in a stick of wood, twirled the damper, and gave a brisk, rattling shake to the ashes, – all with a turn of her hand as it were, – attentions to which the stove presently responded with a brisk roar. "Well, it's time you did. I was planning to have a talk with you before long, for you ought to settle to something. Pull the blind down, Dely, and, Hetty, you light the lamp, and come to the fire, both of you, and let's see what we can make of it. It's a tangled skein enough, I don't deny it; but most skeins are that, and there's always a right end somewhere, if the Lord'll give us sense enough to get hold of it and keep on pulling out and winding up."
Presently the girls were seated close to Aunt Polly's rocking-chair. The room looked more cheerful now with the lamplight and the yellow glow from the stove, and both were conscious of a sense of hopefulness.
"Now – what can you do?" demanded Aunt Polly, whirling round in her chair so as to face them.
"We hadn't got so far as that when you came in," replied Hetty; "I suppose we must do what other people do in the same circumstances."
"Teach something, or sew, I suppose."
"Sewing's slow starvation, in my opinion, unless you've got a machine, which you haven't, and not much better then. What do you know that you can teach?"
"Not much," replied Hetty, humbly, while Delia added hesitatingly, "We could teach children their letters, perhaps."
"I presume you could," responded Aunt Polly, dryly. "But, though you mayn't know it, perhaps, there are about fifty women in this town can do the same, and who mean to do it, what's more. And most of 'em have got the start of you in one way or another, so what's your chance worth? No, girls, sewing and teaching are played out. They are good things in their way, but every woman who's got her living to earn thinks of them the very first thing and of nothing else, and the market is always overstocked. My advice to you is, to think up something you can do better than other people– that's what gives folks a real chance! Now, what is there?"
"There isn't anything I can do better than other people," cried the dismayed Delia. "Nor Hetty either – except make gingerbread," she added, with a faint little laugh. "Hetty beats everybody at that, grandmother always said."
"Very well; make gingerbread then. That's your thing to do," said Aunt Polly.
Hetty looked at her with incredulous eyes.
"You're not in earnest, are you?" she said.
"I am. In dead earnest."
"But, Aunt Polly, gingerbread! Such a little thing as that! Who ever heard of a girl's doing such a thing?"
"All the better if they never did. A new trade has a double chance. As for the 'little,' great things often come from small beginnings. Fortunes have been made out of gingerbread before now, I'll be bound, or if not that, out of something no bigger. No, Hetty, depend upon it, if your gingerbread is best, folks will want it. And if your teaching or sewing is only second best, they won't. It's the law of human nature, and a very good law, too, though it cuts the wrong way sometimes, like all laws."
"Aunt Polly, you're a genius!" cried Hetty, warmed into sudden glow by this vigorous common sense. "I can make good gingerbread, and it's just as you say, neither of us know enough to teach well, and we are both poor hands at sewing, and we should have a much better chance if we tried to do what we can and not what we can't. Why shouldn't I make gingerbread? Dely'd help me, and if folks liked our things and bought them, we could live and keep together. We could make a kind of shop of this room, couldn't we? What do you think?"
"'Tisn't a bad place for such a trade," said Aunt Polly, slowly, measuring the room with her eyes. "Being on a corner is an advantage, you see; and there's that double winder on the street gives a first-rate chance to show what you've got to sell. I never did see no use in that winder before. My father, he had it cut for a kind of a whim like, and we all thought it was notional in him; but, as they say, keep a thing long enough and a use'll turn up. It's a sort of a gain for you, too, having the house so old-fashioned. Folks has a hankering for such things, nowadays – the Lord knows why. I hear 'em going on about it when I'm out tailorin', calling ugly things 'quaint,' and lovely, because they're old. Hetty," – with sudden inspiration, – "here's an idea for you, be 'quaint'! Don't try for a shop, keep the room a room, and make it as old-fashioned-looking as you can, and I'll bet a cookie that your gingerbread'll be twice as popular with one set of folks, and if it's first-rate gingerbread, the other set who don't care for old things will like it just as well."
What a bracing thing is a word in season! Aunt Polly's little seed of suggestion grew and spread like Jack's fabled bean-stalk.
"Your light biscuits always turn out well," said Delia.
"And my snaps. Grandmother liked them so much. And you're a good hand at loaf bread, you know. Aunt Polly – I seem to smell a fortune in the air. We will begin at once, just as soon as I can get a half-barrel of flour and put an advertisement in the paper."
Hetty had a ready wit, and Aunt Polly's hint as to "quaintness" was not lost upon her. The advertisement when it appeared the next day but one ran thus: —
"After Monday next, the Old-Time Bakery, corner of Farewell and Martin Streets, will be prepared to furnish, to order, fresh bread, buns, biscuits, and grandmother's gingerbread, all home-made."
People smiled over the little notice, but the odd wording stuck in their memories as odd things will, and more than one person went out of his way during the next week to take a look into the wide, low window, within which, on a broad, napkin-covered shelf, stood rows of biscuits, light and white, buns, each glazed with shining umber-brown, and loaves of gingerbread whose complexion and smell were enough to vouch for their excellence. Acting on Aunt Polly's suggestion, Hetty had set forth her wares on plates of the oldest and oddest pattern which could be found in grandmother's closet. A queer, tall pitcher flanked them on either side, and round the window-frame she had twined the long, luxuriant shoots of a potted ivy. Altogether the effect was pretty, and no one need be told that the pitchers had for years been consecrated to the reception of yeast and corks, or that the plates had long since been relegated to kitchen use as too shabby for better occasions.
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