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Under the Lilacs

Louisa May Alcott

  Produced by Joanne Hogan. HTML version by Al Haines.

  Under the Lilacs


  Louisa May Alcott







  The elm-tree avenue was all overgrown, the great gate was neverunlocked, and the old house had been shut up for several years.

  Yet voices were heard about the place, the lilacs nodded over the highwall as if they said, "We could tell fine secrets if we chose," and themullein outside the gate made haste to reach the keyhole, that it mightpeep in and see what was going on. If it had suddenly grown up like amagic bean-stalk, and looked in on a certain June day, it would haveseen a droll but pleasant sight, for somebody evidently was going tohave a party.

  From the gate to the porch went a wide walk, paved with smooth slabs ofdark stone, and bordered with the tall bushes which met overhead, makinga green roof. All sorts of neglected flowers and wild weeds grew betweentheir stems, covering the walls of this summer parlor with the prettiesttapestry. A board, propped on two blocks of wood, stood in the middle ofthe walk, covered with a little plaid shawl much the worse for wear, andon it a miniature tea-service was set forth with great elegance. To besure, the tea-pot had lost its spout, the cream-jug its handle, thesugar-bowl its cover, and the cups and plates were all more or lesscracked or nicked; but polite persons would not take notice of thesetrifling deficiencies, and none but polite persons were invited to thisparty.

  On either side of the porch was a seat, and here a somewhat remarkablesight would have been revealed to any inquisitive eye peering throughthe aforesaid keyhole. Upon the left-hand seat lay seven dolls, upon theright-hand seat lay six; and so varied were the expressions of theircountenances, owing to fractures, dirt, age, and other afflictions, thatone would very naturally have thought this a doll's hospital, and thesethe patients waiting for their tea.

  This, however, would have been a sad mistake; for if the wind had liftedthe coverings laid over them, it would have disclosed the fact that allwere in full dress, and merely reposing before the feast should begin.

  There was another interesting feature of the scene which would havepuzzled any but those well acquainted with the manners and customs ofdolls. A fourteenth rag baby, with a china head, hung by her neck fromthe rusty knocker in the middle of the door. A sprig of white and one ofpurple lilac nodded over her, a dress of yellow calico, richly trimmedwith red-flannel scallops, shrouded her slender form, a garland of smallflowers crowned her glossy curls, and a pair of blue boots touched toesin the friendliest, if not the most graceful, manner. An emotion ofgrief, as well as of surprise, might well have thrilled any youthfulbreast at such a spectacle; for why, oh! why, was this resplendent dollyhung up there to be stared at by thirteen of her kindred? Was she acriminal, the sight of whose execution threw them flat upon their backsin speechless horror? Or was she an idol, to be adored in that humbleposture? Neither, my friends. She was blonde Belinda, set, or ratherhung, aloft, in the place of honor, for this was her seventh birthday,and a superb ball was about to celebrate the great event. All wereevidently awaiting a summons to the festive board; but such was theperfect breeding of these dolls, that not a single eye out of the wholetwenty-seven (Dutch Hans had lost one of the black beads from hisworsted countenance) turned for a moment toward the table, or so much aswinked, as they lay in decorous rows, gazing with mute admiration atBelinda. She, unable to repress the joy and pride which swelled hersawdust bosom till the seams gaped, gave an occasional bounce as thewind waved her yellow skirts, or made the blue boots dance a sort of jigupon the door. Hanging was evidently not a painful operation, for shesmiled contentedly, and looked as if the red ribbon around her neck wasnot uncomfortably tight; therefore, if slow suffocation suited her, whoelse had any right to complain? So a pleasing silence reigned, not evenbroken by a snore from Dinah, the top of whose turban alone was visibleabove the coverlet, or a cry from baby Jane, though her bare feet stuckout in a way that would have produced shrieks from a less well-trainedinfant.

  Presently voices were heard approaching, and through the arch which ledto a side-path came two little girls, one carrying a small pitcher, theother proudly bearing a basket covered with a napkin. They looked liketwins, but were not, for Bab was a year older than Betty, though only aninch taller. Both had on brown calico frocks, much the worse for aweek's wear; but clean pink pinafores, in honor of the occasion, made upfor that, as well as the gray stockings and thick boots. Both had round,rosy faces rather sunburnt, pug noses somewhat freckled, merry blueeyes, and braided tails of hair hanging down their backs like those ofthe dear little Kenwigses.

  "Don't they look sweet?" cried Bab, gazing with maternal pride upon theleft-hand row of dolls, who might appropriately have sung in chorus, "Weare seven."

  "Very nice; but my Belinda beats them all. I do think she is thesplendidest child that ever was!" And Betty set down the basket to runand embrace the suspended darling, just then kicking up her heels withjoyful abandon.

  "The cake can be cooling while we fix the children. It does smellperfectly delicious!" said Bab, lifting the napkin to hang over thebasket, fondly regarding the little round loaf that lay inside.

  "Leave some smell for me!" commanded Betty, running back to get her fairshare of the spicy fragrance. The pug noses sniffed it up luxuriously,and the bright eyes feasted upon the loveliness of the cake, so brownand shiny, with a tipsy-looking B in pie-crust staggering down one side,instead of sitting properly a-top.

  "Ma let me put it on the very last minute, and it baked so hard Icouldn't pick it off. We can give Belinda that piece, so it's just aswell," observed Betty, taking the lead, as her child was queen of therevel.

  "Let's set them round, so they can see too," proposed Bab, going, with ahop, skip, and jump, to collect her young family.

  Betty agreed, and for several minutes both were absorbed in seatingtheir dolls about the table; for some of the dear things were so limpthey wouldn't sit up, and others so stiff they wouldn't sit down, andall sorts of seats had to be contrived to suit the peculiarities oftheir spines. This arduous task accomplished, the fond mammas steppedback to enjoy the spectacle, which, I assure you, was an impressive one.Belinda sat with great dignity at the head, her hands genteelly holdinga pink cambric pocket-handkerchief in her lap. Josephus, her cousin,took the foot, elegantly arrayed in a new suit of purple and greengingham, with his speaking countenance much obscured by a straw hatseveral sizes too large for him; while on either side sat guests ofevery size, complexion, and costume, producing a very gay and variedeffect, as all were dressed with a noble disregard of fashion.

  "They will like to see us get tea. Did you forget the buns?" inquiredBetty, anxiously.

  "No; got them in my pocket." And Bab produced from that chaotic cupboardtwo rather stale and crumbly ones, saved from lunch for the fete. Thesewere cut up and arranged in plates, forming a graceful circle around thecake, still in its basket.

  "Ma couldn't spare much milk, so we must mix water with it. Strong teaisn't good for childr
en, she says." And Bab contentedly surveyed thegill of skim-milk which was to satisfy the thirst of the company.

  "While the tea draws and the cake cools, let's sit down and rest; I'm sotired!" sighed Betty, dropping down on the door-step and stretching outthe stout little legs which had been on the go all day; for Saturday hadits tasks as well as its fun, and much business had preceded thisunusual pleasure. Bab went and sat beside her, looking idly down thewalk toward the gate, where a fine cobweb shone in the afternoon sun.

  "Ma says she is going over the house in a day or two, now it is warm anddry after the storm, and we may go with her. You know she wouldn't takeus in the fall, cause we had whooping-cough, and it was damp there. Nowwe shall see all the nice things; won't it be fun?" observed Bab, aftera pause.

  "Yes, indeed! Ma says there's lots of books in one room, and I can lookat 'em while she goes round. May be I'll have time to read some, andthen I can tell you," answered Betty, who dearly loved stories, andseldom got any new ones.

  "I'd rather see the old spinning-wheel up garret, and the big pictures,and the queer clothes in the blue chest. It makes me mad to have themall shut up there, when we might have such fun with them. I'd just liketo bang that old door down!" And Bab twisted round to give it a thumpwith her boots. "You needn't laugh; you know you'd like it as much asme," she added, twisting back again, rather ashamed of her impatience.

  "I didn't laugh."

  "You did! Don't you suppose I know what laughing is?"

  "I guess I know I didn't."

  "You did laugh! How darst you tell such a fib?"

  "If you say that again I'll take Belinda and go right home; then whatwill you do?"

  "I'll eat up the cake."

  "No, you won't! It's mine, Ma said so; and you are only company, soyou'd better behave or I won't have any party at all, so now."

  This awful threat calmed Bab's anger at once, and she hastened tointroduce a safer subject.

  "Never mind; don't let's fight before the children. Do you know, Ma saysshe will let us play in the coach-house next time it rains, and keep thekey if we want to."

  "Oh, goody! that's because we told her how we found the little windowunder the woodbine, and didn't try to go in, though we might have justas easy as not," cried Betty, appeased at once, for, after a ten years'acquaintance, she had grown used to Bab's peppery temper.

  "I suppose the coach will be all dust and rats and spiders, but I don'tcare. You and the dolls can be the passengers, and I shall sit up infront drive."

  "You always do. I shall like riding better than being horse all thetime, with that old wooden bit in my mouth, and you jerking my armsoff," said poor Betty, who was tired of being horse continually.

  "I guess we'd better go and get the water now," suggested Bab, feelingthat it was not safe to encourage her sister in such complaints.

  "It is not many people who would dare to leave their children all alonewith such a lovely cake, and know they wouldn't pick at it," said Bettyproudly, as they trotted away to the spring, each with a little tin pailin her hand.

  Alas, for the faith of these too confiding mammas! They were gone aboutfive minutes, and when they returned a sight met their astonished eyeswhich produced a simultaneous shriek of horror. Flat upon their faceslay the fourteen dolls, and the cake, the cherished cake, was gone.

  For an instant the little girls could only stand motionless, gazing atthe dreadful scene. Then Bab cast her water-pail wildly away, and,doubling up her fist, cried out fiercely,--

  "It was that Sally! She said she'd pay me for slapping her when shepinched little Mary Ann, and now she has. I'll give it to her! You runthat way. I'll run this. Quick! quick!"

  Away they went, Bab racing straight on, and bewildered Betty turningobediently round to trot in the opposite direction as fast as she could,with the water splashing all over her as she ran, for she had forgottento put down her pail. Round the house they went, and met with a crash atthe back door, but no sign of the thief appeared.

  "In the lane!" shouted Bab.

  "Down by the spring!" panted Betty; and off they went again, one toscramble up a pile of stones and look over the wall into the avenue, theother to scamper to the spot they had just left. Still, nothing appearedbut the dandelions' innocent faces looking up at Bab, and a brown birdscared from his bath in the spring by Betty's hasty approach.

  Back they rushed, but only to meet a new scare, which made them both cry"Ow!" and fly into the porch for refuge.

  A strange dog was sitting calmly among the ruins of the feast, lickinghis lips after basely eating up the last poor bits of bun, when he hadbolted the cake, basket, and all, apparently.

  "Oh, the horrid thing!" cried Bab, longing to give battle, but afraid,for the dog was a peculiar as well as a dishonest animal.

  "He looks like our China poodle, doesn't he?" whispered Betty, makingherself as small as possible behind her more valiant sister.

  He certainly did; for, though much larger and dirtier than thewell-washed China dog, this live one had the same tassel at the end ofhis tail, ruffles of hair round his ankles, and a body shaven behind andcurly before. His eyes, however, were yellow, instead of glassy black,like the other's; his red nose worked as he cocked it up, as if smellingfor more cakes, in the most impudent manner; and never, during the threeyears he had stood on the parlor mantel-piece, had the China poodle donethe surprising feats with which this mysterious dog now proceeded toastonish the little girls almost out of their wits. First he sat up, puthis forepaws together, and begged prettily; then he suddenly flung hishind-legs into the air, and walked about with great ease. Hardly hadthey recovered from this shock, when the hind-legs came down, thefore-legs went up, and he paraded in a soldierly manner to and fro, likea sentinel on guard. But the crowning performance was when he took histail in his mouth and waltzed down the walk, over the prostrate dolls,to the gate and back again, barely escaping a general upset of theravaged table.

  Bab and Betty could only hold each other tight and squeal with delight,for never had they seen any thing so funny; but, when the gymnasticsended, and the dizzy dog came and stood on the step before them barkingloudly, with that pink nose of his sniffing at their feet, and his queereyes fixed sharply upon them, their amusement turned to fear again, andthey dared not stir.

  "Whish, go away!" commanded Bab.

  "Scat!" meekly quavered Betty.

  To their great relief, the poodle gave several more inquiring barks, andthen vanished as suddenly as he appeared. With one impulse, the childrenran to see what became of him, and, after a brisk scamper through theorchard, saw the tasselled tail disappear under the fence at the farend.

  "Where do you s'pose he came from?" asked Betty, stopping to rest on abig stone.

  "I'd like to know where he's gone, too, and give him a good beating, oldthief!" scolded Bab, remembering their wrongs.

  "Oh, dear, yes! I hope the cake burnt him dreadfully if he did eat it,"groaned Betty, sadly remembering the dozen good raisins she chopped up,and the "lots of 'lasses" mother put into the dear lost loaf.

  "The party's all spoilt, so we may as well go home; and Bab mournfullyled the way back. Betty puckered up her face to cry, but burst outlaughing in spite of her woe.

  "It was so funny to see him spin round and walk on his head! I wishhe'd do it all over again; don't you?"

  "Yes: but I hate him just the same. I wonder what Ma will saywhen--why! why!" and Bab stopped short in the arch, with her eyes asround and almost as large as the blue saucers on the tea-tray.

  "What is it? oh, what is it?" cried Betty, all ready to run away if anynew terror appeared.

  "Look! there! it's come back!" said Bab in an awe-stricken whisper,pointing to the table. Betty did look, and her eyes opened evenwider,--as well they might,--for there, just where they first put it, wasthe lost cake, unhurt, unchanged, except that the big B had coasted alittle further down the gingerbread hill.