An Old-Fashioned Girl, Page 2Louisa May Alcott
"What did you do to set him going? Don't scream so, you 'll frighten Polly!" and Fan gave the cherub a shake, which produced an explanation.
"I only said we had cold cweam at the party, last night, and he laughed!"
"Ice-cream, child!" and Fanny followed Tom's reprehensible example.
"I don't care! it was cold; and I warmed mine at the wegister, and then it was nice; only, Willy Bliss spilt it on my new Gabwielle!" and Maud wailed again over her accumulated woes.
"Do go to Katy! You 're as cross as a little bear to-day!" said Fanny, pushing her away.
"Katy don't amoose me; and I must be amoosed, 'cause I 'm fwactious; mamma said I was!" sobbed Maud, evidently laboring under the delusion that fractiousness was some interesting malady.
"Come down and have dinner; that will amuse you;" and Fanny got up, pluming herself as a bird does before its flight.
Polly hoped the "dreadful boy" would not be present; but he was, and stared at her all dinner-time, in a most trying manner. Mr. Shaw, a busy-looking gentleman, said," How do you do, my dear? Hope you 'll enjoy yourself;" and then appeared to forget her entirely. Mrs. Shaw, a pale, nervous woman, greeted her little guest kindly, and took care that she wanted for nothing. Madam Shaw, a quiet old lady, with an imposing cap, exclaimed on seeing Polly, "Bless my heart! the image of her mother a sweet woman how is she, dear?" and kept peering at the new-comer over her glasses, till, between Madam and Tom, poor Polly lost her appetite.
Fanny chatted like a magpie, and Maud fidgeted, till Tom proposed to put her under the big dish-cover, which produced such an explosion, that the young lady was borne screaming away, by the much-enduring Katy. It was altogether an uncomfortable dinner, and Polly was very glad when it was over. They all went about their own affairs; and after doing the honors of the house, Fan was called to the dressmaker, leaving Polly to amuse herself in the great drawing-room.
Polly was glad to be alone for a few minutes; and, having examined all the pretty things about her, began to walk up and down over the soft, flowery carpet, humming to herself, as the daylight faded, and only the ruddy glow of the fire filled the room. Presently Madam came slowly in, and sat down in her arm-chair, saying, "That 's a fine old tune; sing it to me, my dear. I have n't heard it this many a day." Polly did n't like to sing before strangers, for she had had no teaching but such as her busy mother could give her; but she had been taught the utmost respect for old people, and having no reason for refusing, she directly went to the piano, and did as she was bid.
"That 's the sort of music it 's a pleasure to hear. Sing some more, dear," said Madam, in her gentle way, when she had done.
Pleased with this praise, Polly sang away in a fresh little voice, that went straight to the listener's heart and nestled there. The sweet old tunes that one is never tired of were all Polly's store; and her favorites were Scotch airs, such as, "Yellow-Haired Laddie," "Jock o' Hazeldean," "Down among the Heather," and "Birks of Aberfeldie." The more she sung, the better she did it; and when she wound up with "A Health to King Charlie," the room quite rung with the stirring music made by the big piano and the little maid.
"By George, that 's a jolly tune! Sing it again, please," cried Tom's voice; and there was Tom's red head bobbing up over the high back of the chair where he had hidden himself.
It gave Polly quite a turn, for she thought no one was hearing her but the old lady dozing by the fire. "I can't sing any more; I 'm tired," she said, and walked away to Madam in the other room. The red head vanished like a meteor, for Polly's tone had been decidedly cool.
The old lady put out her hand, and drawing Polly to her knee, looked into her face with such kind eyes, that Polly forgot the impressive cap, and smiled at her confidingly; for she saw that her simple music had pleased her listener, and she felt glad to know it.
"You must n't mind my staring, dear," said Madam, softly pinching her rosy cheek. "I have n't seen a little girl for so long, it does my old eyes good to look at you."
Polly thought that a very odd speech, and could n't help saying, "Are n't Fan and Maud little girls, too?"
"Oh, dear, no! not what I call little girls. Fan has been a young lady this two years, and Maud is a spoiled baby. Your mother 's a very sensible woman, my child."
"What a very queer old lady!" thought Polly; but she said "Yes 'm" respectfully, and looked at the fire.
"You don't understand what I mean, do you?" asked Madam, still holding her by the chin.
"No 'm; not quite."
"Well, dear, I 'll tell you. In my day, children of fourteen and fifteen did n't dress in the height of the fashion; go to parties, as nearly like those of grown people as it 's possible to make them; lead idle, giddy, unhealthy lives, and get blasé at twenty. We were little folks till eighteen or so; worked and studied, dressed and played, like children; honored our parents; and our days were much longer in the land than now, it seems to, me."
The old lady appeared to forget Polly at the end of her speech; for she sat patting the plump little hand that lay in her own, and looking up at a faded picture of an old gentleman with a ruffled shirt and a queue.
"Was he your father, Madam?
"Yes, dear; my honored father. I did up his frills to the day of his death; and the first money I ever earned was five dollars which he offered as a prize to whichever of his six girls would lay the handsomest darn in his silk stockings."
"How proud you must have been!" cried Polly, leaning on the old lady's knee with an interested face.
"Yes, and we all learned to make bread, and cook, and wore little chintz gowns, and were as gay and hearty as kittens. All lived to be grandmothers and fathers; and I 'm the last, seventy, next birthday, my dear, and not worn out yet; though daughter Shaw is an invalid at forty."
"That 's the way I was brought up, and that 's why Fan calls me old-fashioned, I suppose. Tell more about your papa, please; I like it," said Polly.
"Say 'father.' We never called him papa; and if one of my brothers had addressed him as 'governor,' as boys do now, I really think he 'd have him cut off with a shilling."
Madam raised her voice in saying this, and nodded significantly; but a mild snore from the other room seemed to assure her that it was a waste of shot to fire in that direction.
Before she could continue, in came Fanny with the joyful news that Clara Bird had invited them both to go to the theatre with her that very evening, and would call for them at seven o'clock. Polly was so excited by this sudden plunge into the dissipations of city life, that she flew about like a distracted butterfly, and hardly knew what happened, till she found herself seated before the great green curtain in the brilliant theatre. Old Mr.
Bird sat on one side, Fanny on the other, and both let her alone, for which she was very grateful, as her whole attention was so absorbed in the scene around her, that she could n't talk.
Polly had never been much to the theatre; and the few plays she had seen were the good old fairy tales, dramatized to suit young beholders, lively, bright, and full of the harmless nonsense which brings the laugh without the blush. That night she saw one of the new spectacles which have lately become the rage, and run for hundreds of nights, dazzling, exciting, and demoralizing the spectator by every allurement French ingenuity can invent, and American prodigality execute. Never mind what its name was, it was very gorgeous, very vulgar, and very fashionable; so, of course, it was much admired, and every one went to see it. At first, Polly thought she had got into fairy-land, and saw only the sparkling creatures who danced and sung in a world of light and beauty; but, presently, she began to listen to the songs and conversation, and then the illusion vanished; for the lovely phantoms sang negro melodies, talked slang, and were a disgrace to the good old-fashioned elves whom she knew and loved so well.
Our little girl was too innocent to understand half the jokes, and often wondered what people were laughing at; but, as the first enchantment subsided, Polly began to feel uncomfortable, to be sure her mother would n't like to
have her there, and to wish she had n't come. Somehow, things seemed to get worse and worse, as the play went on; for our small spectator was being rapidly enlightened by the gossip going on all about her, as well as by her own quick eyes and girlish instincts. When four-and-twenty girls, dressed as jockeys, came prancing on to the stage, cracking their whips, stamping the heels of their topboots, and winking at the audience, Polly did not think it at all funny, but looked disgusted, and was glad when they were gone; but when another set appeared in a costume consisting of gauze wings, and a bit of gold fringe round the waist, poor unfashionable Polly did n't know what to do; for she felt both frightened and indignant, and sat with her eyes on her play-bill, and her cheeks getting hotter and hotter every minute.
"What are you blushing so for?" asked Fanny, as the painted sylphs vanished.
"I 'm so ashamed of those girls," whispered Polly, taking a long breath of relief.
"You little goose, it 's just the way it was done in Paris, and the dancing is splendid. It seems queer at first; but you 'll get used to it, as I did."
"I 'll never come again," said Polly, decidedly; for her innocent nature rebelled against the spectacle, which, as yet, gave her more pain than pleasure. She did not know how easy it was to "get used to it," as Fanny did; and it was well for her that the temptation was not often offered. She could not explain the feeling; but she was glad when the play was done, and they were safe at home, where kind grandma was waiting to see them comfortably into bed.
"Did you have a good time, dear?" she asked, looking at Polly's feverish cheeks and excited eyes.
"I don't wish to be rude, but I did n't," answered Polly. "Some of it was splendid; but a good deal of it made me want to go under the seat. People seemed to like it, but I don't think it was proper."
As Polly freed her mind, and emphasized her opinion with a decided rap of the boot she had just taken off, Fanny laughed, and said, while she pirouetted about the room, like Mademoiselle Therese, "Polly was shocked, grandma. Her eyes were as big as saucers. her face as red as my sash, and once I thought she was going to cry. Some of it was rather queer; but, of course, it was proper, or all our set would n't go. I heard Mrs.
Smythe Perkins say, 'It was charming; so like dear Paris;' and she has lived abroad; so, of course, she knows what is what."
"I don't care if she has. I know it was n't proper for little girls to see, or I should n't have been so ashamed!" cried sturdy Polly, perplexed, but not convinced, even by Mrs.
"I think you are right, my dear; but you have lived in the country, and have n't yet learned that modesty has gone out of fashion." And with a good-night kiss, grandma left Polly to dream dreadfully of dancing in jockey costume, on a great stage; while Tom played a big drum in the orchestra; and the audience all wore the faces of her father and mother, looking sorrowfully at her, with eyes like saucers, and faces as red as Fanny's sash.
2. New Fashions
"I 'M going to school this morning; so come up and get ready," said Fanny, a day or two after, as she left the late breakfast-table.
"You look very nice; what have you got to do?" asked Polly, following her into the hall.
"Prink half an hour, and put on her wad," answered the irreverent Tom, whose preparations for school consisted in flinging his cap on to his head, and strapping up several big books, that looked as if they were sometimes used as weapons of defence.
"What is a wad?" asked Polly, while Fanny marched up without deigning any reply.
"Somebody's hair on the top of her head in the place where it ought not to be;" and Tom went whistling away with an air of sublime indifference as to the state of his own "curly pow."
"Why must you be so fine to go to school?" asked Polly, watching Fan arrange the little frizzles on her forehead, and settle the various streamers and festoons belonging to her dress.
"All the girls do; and it 's proper, for you never know who you may meet. I 'm going to walk, after my lessons, so I wish you 'd wear your best hat and sack," answered Fanny, trying to stick her own hat on at an angle which defied all the laws of gravitation.
"I will, if you don't think this is nice enough. I like the other best, because it has a feather; but this is warmer, so I wear it every day." And Polly ran into her own room, to prink also, fearing that her friend might be ashamed of her plain costume. "Won't your hands be cold in kid gloves?" she said, as they went down the snowy street, with a north wind blowing in their faces.
"Yes, horrid cold; but my muff is so big, I won't carry it. Mamma won't have it cut up, and my ermine one must be kept for best;" and Fanny smoothed her Bismark kids with an injured air.
"I suppose my gray squirrel is ever so much too big; but it 's nice and cosy, and you may warm your hands in it if you want to," said Polly, surveying her new woollen gloves with a dissatisfied look, though she had thought them quite elegant before.
"Perhaps I will, by and by. Now, Polly, don't you be shy. I 'll only introduce two or three of the girls; and you need n't mind old Monsieur a bit, or read if you don't want to. We shall be in the anteroom; so you 'll only see about a dozen, and they will be so busy, they won't mind you much."
"I guess I won't read, but sit and look on. I like to watch people, everything is so new and queer here."
But Polly did feel and look very shy, when she was ushered into a room full of young ladies, as they seemed to her, all very much dressed, all talking together, and all turning to examine the new-comer with a cool stare which seemed to be as much the fashion as eye-glasses. They nodded affably when Fanny introduced her, said something civil, and made room for her at the table round which they sat waiting for Monsieur. Several of the more frolicsome were imitating the Grecian Bend, some were putting their heads together over little notes, nearly all were eating confectionery, and the entire twelve chattered like magpies. Being politely supplied with caramels, Polly sat looking and listening, feeling very young and countrified among these elegant young ladies.
"Girls, do you know that Carrie has gone abroad? There has been so much talk, her father could n't bear it, and took the whole family off. Is n't that gay?" said one lively damsel, who had just come in.
"I should think they 'd better go. My mamma says, if I 'd been going to that school, she
'd have taken me straight away," answered another girl, with an important air.
"Carrie ran away with an Italian music-teacher, and it got into the papers, and made a great stir," explained the first speaker to Polly, who looked mystified.
"How dreadful!" cried Polly.
"I think it was fun. She was only sixteen, and he was perfectly splendid; and she has plenty of money, and every one talked about it; and when she went anywhere, people looked, you know, and she liked it; but her papa is an old poke, so he 's sent them all away. It 's too bad, for she was the jolliest thing I ever knew."
Polly had nothing to say to lively Miss Belle; but Fanny observed, "I like to read about such things; but it 's so inconvenient to have it happen right here, because it makes it harder for us. I wish you could have heard my papa go on. He threatened to send a maid to school with me every day, as they do in New York, to be sure I come all right.
Did you ever?" "That 's because it came out that Carrie used to forge excuses in her mamma's name, and go promenading with her Oreste, when they thought her safe at school. Oh, was n't she a sly minx?" cried Belle, as if she rather admired the trick.
"I think a little fun is all right; and there 's no need of making a talk, if, now and then, some one does run off like Carrie. Boys do as they like; and I don't see why girls need to be kept so dreadfully close. I 'd like to see anybody watching and guarding me!"
added another dashing young lady.
"It would take a policeman to do that, Trix, or a little man in a tall hat," said Fanny, slyly, which caused a general laugh, and made Beatrice toss her head coquettishly.
"Oh, have you read 'The Phantom Bride'? It 's perfectly thrilling! There 's
a regular rush for it at the library; but some prefer 'Breaking a Butterfly.' Which do you like best?"
asked a pale girl of Polly, in one of the momentary lulls which occurred.
"I have n't read either."
"You must, then. I adore Guy Livingston's books, and Yates's. 'Ouida's' are my delight, only they are so long, I get worn out before I 'm through."
"I have n't read anything but one of the Muhlbach novels since I came. I like those, because there is history in them," said Polly, glad to have a word to say for herself.
"Those are well enough for improving reading; but I like real exciting novels; don't you?"
Polly was spared the mortification of owning that she had never read any, by the appearance of Mousieur, a gray-headed old Frenchman, who went through his task with the resigned air of one who was used to being the victim of giggling school-girls. The young ladies gabbled over the lesson, wrote an exercise, and read a little French history. But it did not seem to make much impression upon them, though Monsieur was very ready to explain; and Polly quite blushed for her friend, when, on being asked what famous Frenchman fought in our Revolution, she answered Lamartine, instead of Lafayette.
The hour was soon over; and when Fan had taken a music lesson in another room, while Polly looked on, it was time for recess. The younger girls walked up and down the court, arm in arm, eating bread an butter; others stayed in the school-room to read and gossip; but Belle, Trix, and Fanny went to lunch at a fashionable ice-cream saloon near by, and Polly meekly followed, not daring to hint at the ginger-bread grandma had put in her pocket for luncheon. So the honest, brown cookies crumbled away in obscurity, while Polly tried to satisfy her hearty appetite on one ice and three macaroons.
The girls seemed in great spirits, particularly after they were joined by a short gentleman with such a young face that Polly would have called him a boy, if he had not worn a tall beaver. Escorted by this impressive youth, Fanny left her unfortunate friends to return to school, and went to walk, as she called a slow promenade down the most crowded streets. Polly discreetly fell behind, and amused herself looking into shop-windows, till Fanny, mindful of her manners, even at such an interesting time, took her into a picture gallery, and bade her enjoy the works of art while they rested. Obedient Polly went through the room several times, apparently examining the pictures with the interest of a connoisseur, and trying not to hear the mild prattle of the pair on the round seat. But she could n't help wondering what Fan found so absorbing in an account of a recent German, and why she need promise so solemnly not to forget the concert that afternoon.