Eight Cousins; Or, The Aunt-Hill, Page 2Louisa May Alcott
ROSE sat all alone in the big best parlor, with her little handkerchieflaid ready to catch the first tear, for she was thinking of hertroubles, and a shower was expected. She had retired to this room as agood place in which to be miserable; for it was dark and still, full ofancient furniture, sombre curtains, and hung all round with portraits ofsolemn old gentlemen in wigs, severe-nosed ladies in top-heavy caps, andstaring children in little bob-tailed coats or short-waisted frocks. It_was_ an excellent place for woe; and the fitful spring rain thatpattered on the window-pane seemed to sob, "Cry away: I'm with you."
Rose really did have some cause to be sad; for she had no mother, andhad lately lost her father also, which left her no home but this withher great-aunts. She had been with them only a week, and, though thedear old ladies had tried their best to make her happy, they had notsucceeded very well, for she was unlike any child they had ever seen,and they felt very much as if they had the care of a low-spiritedbutterfly.
They had given her the freedom of the house, and for a day or two shehad amused herself roaming all over it, for it was a capital oldmansion, and was full of all manner of odd nooks, charming rooms, andmysterious passages. Windows broke out in unexpected places, littlebalconies overhung the garden most romantically, and there was a longupper hall full of curiosities from all parts of the world; for theCampbells had been sea-captains for generations.
Aunt Plenty had even allowed Rose to rummage in her great chinacloset,--a spicy retreat, rich in all the "goodies" that children love;but Rose seemed to care little for these toothsome temptations; and whenthat hope failed, Aunt Plenty gave up in despair.
Gentle Aunt Peace had tried all sorts of pretty needle-work, and planneda doll's wardrobe that would have won the heart of even an older child.But Rose took little interest in pink satin hats and tiny hose, thoughshe sewed dutifully till her aunt caught her wiping tears away with thetrain of a wedding-dress, and that discovery put an end to the sewingsociety.
Then both old ladies put their heads together and picked out the modelchild of the neighborhood to come and play with their niece. But AnnabelBliss was the worst failure of all, for Rose could not bear the sight ofher, and said she was so like a wax doll she longed to give her a pinchand see if she would squeak. So prim little Annabel was sent home, andthe exhausted aunties left Rose to her own devices for a day or two.
Bad weather and a cold kept her in-doors, and she spent most of her timein the library where her father's books were stored. Here she read agreat deal, cried a little, and dreamed many of the innocent brightdreams in which imaginative children find such comfort and delight. Thissuited her better than any thing else, but it was not good for her, andshe grew pale, heavy-eyed, and listless, though Aunt Plenty gave heriron enough to make a cooking-stove, and Aunt Peace petted her like apoodle.
Seeing this, the poor aunties racked their brains for a new amusement,and determined to venture a bold stroke, though not very hopeful of itssuccess. They said nothing to Rose about their plan for this Saturdayafternoon, but let her alone till the time came for the grand surprise,little dreaming that the odd child would find pleasure for herself in amost unexpected quarter.
Before she had time to squeeze out a single tear a sound broke thestillness, making her prick up her ears. It was only the soft twitter ofa bird, but it seemed to be a peculiarly gifted bird, for while shelistened the soft twitter changed to a lively whistle, then a trill, acoo, a chirp, and ended in a musical mixture of all the notes, as if thebird burst out laughing. Rose laughed also, and, forgetting her woes,jumped up, saying eagerly,--
"It is a mocking-bird. Where is it?"
Running down the long hall, she peeped out at both doors, but sawnothing feathered except a draggle-tailed chicken under a burdock leaf.She listened again, and the sound seemed to be in the house. Away shewent, much excited by the chase, and following the changeful song it ledher to the china-closet door.
"In there? How funny!" she said. But when she entered, not a birdappeared except the everlastingly kissing swallows on the Canton chinathat lined the shelves. All of a sudden Rose's face brightened, and,softly opening the slide, she peered into the kitchen. But the music hadstopped, and all she saw was a girl in a blue apron scrubbing thehearth. Rose stared about her for a minute, and then asked abruptly,--
"Did you hear that mocking-bird?"
"I should call it a phebe-bird," answered the girl, looking up with atwinkle in her black eyes.
"Where did it go?"
"It is here still."
"In my throat. Do you want to hear it?"
"Oh, yes! I'll come in." And Rose crept through the slide to the wideshelf on the other side, being too hurried and puzzled to go round bythe door.
The girl wiped her hands, crossed her feet on the little island ofcarpet where she was stranded in a sea of soap-suds, and then, sureenough, out of her slender throat came the swallow's twitter, therobin's whistle, the blue-jay's call, the thrush's song, the wood-dove'scoo, and many another familiar note, all ending as before with themusical ecstasy of a bobolink singing and swinging among the meadowgrass on a bright June day.
Rose was so astonished that she nearly fell off her perch, and when thelittle concert was over clapped her hands delightedly.
"Oh, it was lovely! Who taught you?"
"The birds," answered the girl, with a smile, as she fell to workagain.
"It is very wonderful! I can sing, but nothing half so fine as that.What is your name, please?"
"I've heard of phebe-birds; but I don't believe the real ones could dothat," laughed Rose, adding, as she watched with interest the scatteringof dabs of soft soap over the bricks, "May I stay and see you work? Itis very lonely in the parlor."
"Yes, indeed, if you want to," answered Phebe, wringing out her cloth ina capable sort of way that impressed Rose very much.
"It must be fun to swash the water round and dig out the soap. I'd loveto do it, only aunt wouldn't like it, I suppose," said Rose, quite takenwith the new employment.
"You'd soon get tired, so you'd better keep tidy and look on."
"I suppose you help your mother a good deal?"
"I haven't got any folks."
"Why, where do you live, then?"
"I'm going to live here, I hope. Debby wants some one to help round, andI've come to try for a week."
"I hope you _will_ stay, for it is very dull," said Rose, who had takena sudden fancy to this girl, who sung like a bird and worked like awoman.
"Hope I shall; for I'm fifteen now, and old enough to earn my ownliving. You have come to stay a spell, haven't you?" asked Phebe,looking up at her guest and wondering how life _could_ be dull to a girlwho wore a silk frock, a daintily frilled apron, a pretty locket, andhad her hair tied up with a velvet snood.
"Yes, I shall stay till my uncle comes. He is my guardian now, and Idon't know what he will do with me. Have you a guardian?"
"My sakes, no! I was left on the poor-house steps a little mite of ababy, and Miss Rogers took a liking to me, so I've been there eversince. But she is dead now, and I take care of myself."
"How interesting! It is like Arabella Montgomery in the 'Gypsy's Child.'Did you ever read that sweet story?" asked Rose, who was fond of talesof foundlings, and had read many.
"I don't have any books to read, and all the spare time I get I run offinto the woods; that rests me better than stories," answered Phebe, asshe finished one job and began on another.
Rose watched her as she got out a great pan of beans to look over, andwondered how it would seem to have life all work and no play. PresentlyPhebe seemed to think it was her turn to ask questions, and said,wistfully,--
"You've had lots of schooling, I suppose?"
"Oh, dear me, yes! I've been at boarding-school nearly a year, and I'malmost dead with lessons. The more I got, the more Miss Power gave me,and I was so miserable I 'most cried my eye
s out. Papa never gave mehard things to do, and he always taught me so pleasantly I loved tostudy. Oh, we were so happy and so fond of one another! But now he isgone, and I am left all alone."
The tear that would not come when Rose sat waiting for it came now ofits own accord,--two of them in fact,--and rolled down her cheeks,telling the tale of love and sorrow better than any words could do it.
For a minute there was no sound in the kitchen but the little daughter'ssobbing and the sympathetic patter of the rain. Phebe stopped rattlingher beans from one pan to the other, and her eyes were full of pity asthey rested on the curly head bent down on Rose's knee, for she saw thatthe heart under the pretty locket ached with its loss, and the daintyapron was used to dry sadder tears than any she had ever shed.
Somehow, she felt more contented with her brown calico gown andblue-checked pinafore; envy changed to compassion; and if she had daredshe would have gone and hugged her afflicted guest.
Fearing that might not be considered proper, she said, in her cheeryvoice,--
"I'm sure you ain't all alone with such a lot of folks belonging to you,and all so rich and clever. You'll be petted to pieces, Debby says,because you are the only girl in the family."
Phebe's last words made Rose smile in spite of her tears, and she lookedout from behind her apron with an April face, saying in a tone of comicdistress,--
"That's one of my troubles! I've got six aunts, and they all want me,and I don't know any of them very well. Papa named this place theAunt-hill, and now I see why."
Phebe laughed with her as she said encouragingly,--
"Every one calls it so, and it's a real good name, for all the Mrs.Campbells live handy by, and keep coming up to see the old ladies."
"I could stand the aunts, but there are dozens of cousins, dreadful boysall of them, and I detest boys! Some of them came to see me lastWednesday, but I was lying down, and when auntie came to call me I wentunder the quilt and pretended to be asleep. I shall _have_ to see themsome time, but I do dread it so." And Rose gave a shudder, for, havinglived alone with her invalid father, she knew nothing of boys, andconsidered them a species of wild animal.
"Oh! I guess you'll like 'em. I've seen 'em flying round when they comeover from the Point, sometimes in their boats and sometimes onhorseback. If you like boats and horses, you'll enjoy yourselffirst-rate."
"But I don't! I'm afraid of horses, and boats make me ill, and I _hate_boys!" And poor Rose wrung her hands at the awful prospect before her.One of these horrors alone she could have borne, but all together weretoo much for her, and she began to think of a speedy return to thedetested school.
Phebe laughed at her woe till the beans danced in the pan, but tried tocomfort her by suggesting a means of relief.
"Perhaps your uncle will take you away where there ain't any boys. Debbysays he is a real kind man, and always brings heaps of nice things whenhe comes."
"Yes, but you see that is another trouble, for I don't know Uncle Alecat all. He hardly ever came to see us, though he sent me pretty thingsvery often. Now I belong to him, and shall have to mind him, till I ameighteen. I may not like him a bit, and I fret about it all the time."
"Well, I wouldn't borrow trouble, but have a real good time. I'm sure Ishould think I was in clover if I had folks and money, and nothing to dobut enjoy myself," began Phebe, but got no further, for a sudden rushand rumble outside made them both jump.
"It's thunder," said Phebe.
"It's a circus!" cried Rose, who from her elevated perch had caughtglimpses of a gay cart of some sort and several ponies with flying manesand tails.
The sound died away, and the girls were about to continue theirconfidences when old Debby appeared, looking rather cross and sleepyafter her nap.
"You are wanted in the parlor, Miss Rose."
"Has anybody come?"
"Little girls shouldn't ask questions, but do as they are bid," was allDebby would answer.
"I do hope it isn't Aunt Myra; she always scares me out of my witsasking how my cough is, and groaning over me as if I was going to die,"said Rose, preparing to retire the way she came, for the slide, beingcut for the admission of bouncing Christmas turkeys and puddings, wasplenty large enough for a slender girl.
"Guess you'll wish it _was_ Aunt Myra when you see who has come. Don'tnever let me catch you coming into my kitchen that way again, or I'llshut you up in the big biler," growled Debby, who thought it her duty tosnub children on all occasions.