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Shawl-Straps, Page 2

Louisa May Alcott



  'On the first day of February we three will sail from Boston forMessina, in the little fruit-ship "Wasp." We shall probably be a monthgoing, unless we cross in a gale as I did, splitting sails every night,and standing on our heads most of the way,' said Amanda, folding up hermaps with an air of calm decision.

  'Hurrah! what fun!' cried Matilda, waving a half-finished dressing-caseover her head.

  But Lavinia, with one sepulchral groan, fell flat upon her bed, and laythere, dumb with the horrors of such a voyage.

  'Just the thing for you, my poor old dear. Think of the balmy airs ofSicily, the oranges, the flowers. Then a delicious month or two atSorrento, with no east winds, no slush, no spring cleaning. We shall beas merry as grigs, and get as buxom as dairy-maids in a month,' said thesprightly Amanda.

  'You promised to go, and if you back out we are lost, for we _must_ havea duenna. You can lie round in Europe just as well as here, and I haveno doubt it will do you a world of good,' added Matilda.

  'I shall keep my word; but you will bury me in the Atlantic, so make upyour minds to it. Do you suppose that I, a poor, used-up old invalid,who can't look at a sail-boat without a qualm, can survive thirty daysof standing on my head, and thirty nights of sail-splitting, as we goslamming and lurching across two or three awful oceans?' demandedLavinia, with the energy of despair.

  Before anyone could reply, Amanda's little Mercury appeared with a note.

  'The "Wasp" will _not_ take passengers, and no other fruit-ship sailsthis spring,' read Amanda.

  'Oh dear!' sighed Matilda.

  'Saved!' cried Lavinia.

  'Be calm: we shall go, sooner or later, if I buy a ship and sail hermyself;' with which indomitable remark Amanda went forth to grapple withand conquer untoward circumstances.

  A month of plans, vicissitudes, and suspense followed, during whichAmanda strove manfully; Matilda suffered agonies of hope and fear; andLavinia remained a passive shuttlecock, waiting to be tossed whereverFate's battledore chose to send her.

  'Exactly two weeks from to-day, we sail with a party of friends in theFrench steamer "Lafayette," from New York for Brest. Will you be ready?'demanded Amanda, after a protracted wrestle with aforesaid adversecircumstances.

  'But that is exactly what we didn't mean to do. It's expensive andfashionable; France and not Italy, north and not south.'

  'That's because I'm in the party. If you take a Jonah nothing will gowell. Leave me behind, and you will have a charming trip,' said Lavinia,who had an oyster-like objection to being torn from her bed.

  'No matter, we are going, live or die, sink or swim; and I shall expectto meet you, all booted and spurred and fit for the fight, Aprilfirst,' said the unwavering Amanda.

  'A most appropriate day for three lone women to start off on awild-goose chase after health and pleasure,' groaned Lavinia from amongher pillows.

  'Very well, then; I leave you now, and shall expect to meet on theappointed day?'

  'If I'm spared,' answered the sufferer.

  'I'll bring her, never fear,' added the sanguine Mat, as she rattled thetrays out of an immense trunk.

  How they ever did it no one knows; but in a week everything was ready,and the sisters had nothing left to do but to sit and receive thepresents that showered upon them from all quarters. How kind everyonewas, to be sure! Six fine dressing-cases arrived, and were hung upon thewalls; four smelling-bottles--one for each nostril; bed-socks,rigolettes, afghans, lunch-baskets, pocket-flasks, guide-books,needle-cases, bouquets in stacks, and a great cake with their names ontop in red and blue letters three inches long.

  Friendly fingers sewed for them; even the gentlemen of the house--andthere were eight--had a 'bee,' and hemmed handkerchiefs for Mat, markedtowels; and one noble being actually took off his coat and packed thetrunks in layers of mosaic-work wonderful to behold. A supper celebratedthe last evening; and even the doleful Lavinia, touched by suchkindness, emerged from her slough of despond and electrified the ball bydancing a jig with great spirit and grace.

  Devoted beings were up at dawn to share the early breakfast, lug trunks,fly up and down with last messages, cheer heartily as the carriagedrove off, and then adjourn _en masse_ to the station, there to shakehands all round once more, and wave and wring handkerchiefs as the trainat last bore the jocund Mat and the resigned Lavinia toward thetrysting-place and Amanda.

  All along the route more friends kept bursting into the cars as theystopped at different places; more gifts, more hand-shakes and kisses,more good wishes and kind prophecies, till at last in a chaos of smiles,tears, smelling-bottles, luncheon, cloaks, books, and foot-warmers, thetravellers left the last friendly face behind and steamed away to NewYork.

  'How de-licious this is!' cried the untravelled Matilda, as they steppedupon the deck of the 'Lafayette,' and she sniffed the shippy fragrancethat caused Lavinia to gasp and answer darkly,--

  'Wait till to-morrow.'

  While Mat surveyed the steamer under the care of Devoted Being No. 10,who appeared to see them off, Lavinia arranged the stateroom, stowingaway all useless gear and laying forth dressing-gowns, slippers,pocket-handkerchiefs, with an anguished smile. _She_ had crossed theocean twice, and was a wiser, sadder woman for it. At eight she turnedin, and ten minutes later Amanda came aboard with a flock of gayfriends. But no temptations of the flesh could lure the wary spinsterfrom her den; for the night was rough and cold, and the steamer a Babelof confusion.

  'It's perfectly delightful! I wish you'd been there, Livy. We hadsupper, and songs, and funny stories, and all sorts of larks. There arequantities of nice people aboard, and we shall have a perfectly splendidtrip. I shall be up bright and early, put on my scarlet stockings, mynew boots, and pretty sea-suit, and go in for a jolly day,' said theardent Matilda, as she came skipping down at midnight and fell asleepfull of rosy visions of the joys of a

  Life on the ocean wave.

  'Deluded child!' sighed Lavinia, closing her dizzy eyes upon the swayinggarments on the wall, and feebly wishing she had hung herself along withthem.

  In the gray dawn she was awakened by sounds of woe, and peering forthbeheld the festive Matilda with one red stocking on and one off, herblonde locks wildly dishevelled, her face of a pale green, and her handsclasping lemons, cologne, and salts, as she lay with her brow upon thecool marble of the toilet-table.

  'How do you like it, dear?' asked the unfeeling Lavinia.

  'Oh, what is it? I feel as if I was dying. If somebody would only stopthe swing _one_ minute. Is it sea-sickness? It's awful, but it will dome good. Oh, yes! I hope so. I've tried everything, and feel worse andworse. Hold me! save me! Oh, I wish I hadn't come!'

  'Shipmates ahoy! how are you, my loves?' and Amanda appeared, rosy,calm, and gay, with her pea-jacket on, skirts close reefed, hat well towindward, and everything taut and ship-shape; for she was a fine sailor,and never missed a meal.

  Wails greeted her, and faint inquiries as to the state of things in theupper world.

  'Blowing a gale; rain, hail, and snow,--very dirty weather; and we areflying off the coast in fine style,' was the cheerful reply.

  'Have we split any sails?' asked Lavinia, not daring to open her eyes.

  'Dozens, I dare say. Shipping seas every five minutes. All thepassengers ill but me, and every prospect of a north-easter all the wayover,' continued the lively Amanda, lurching briskly about the passagewith her hands in her pockets.

  Matilda dropped her lemons and her bottles to wring her hands, andLavinia softly murmured--

  'Lord, what fools we mortals be, That we ever go to sea!'

  'Breakfast, ladies?' cried the pretty French stewardess, prancing inwith tea-cups, bowls of gruel, and piles of toast balanced in somemiraculous manner all over her arms.

  'Oh, take it away! I shall never eat again,' moaned Matilda, clingingfrantically to the marble, as the water-pitcher went down the middlewith a hair-brush, and all the boots and shoes had a grand promenaderound t
he room.

  'Don't speak to me; don't look at me; don't even _think_ of me for threedays at least. Go and enjoy yourself, and leave us to our doom;' withwhich tragical remark Lavinia drew her curtains, and was seen no more.

  Great heavens, what a week that was! Rain, wind, fog; creak, pitch,toss; noise, smells, cold. Broken sleep by day, woe in every variety bynight; food and drink a delusion and a snare; society an affliction;life a burden; death a far-off blessing not to be had at any price.Slowly, slowly the victims emerge from the lower depths of gloom, feeblysmile, faintly joke, pick fearfully but wistfully at once-rejecteddishes; talk about getting up, but don't do it; read a little, look attheir sallow countenances in hand-glasses, and speculate upon the goodeffects of travel upon the constitution. Then they suddenly becomedaring, gay, and social; rise, adorn themselves, pervade the cabins,sniff the odours of engine and kitchen without qualms, play games, go totable; and, just as the voyage is over, begin to enjoy it.

  Alas for poor Lavinia! no such resurrection was possible for her. Longafter Mat had bravely donned the scarlet hose, cocked up her beaver andgone forth to festive scenes, her shipmate remained below in chrysalisstate, fed by faithful Marie, visited by the ever-cheerful Amanda, andenlivened by notes and messages from fellow-sufferers in far-off cells.

  Mr. and Mrs. Harry Walmars, jun., called, and had private theatricals inthe passage. Dried-ginger parties were held about the invalid's berth,poems were composed, and conundrums circulated. A little newspaper wasconcocted, replete with wit and spirit, by these secluded ladies, andcalled the 'Sherald,' to distinguish it from the 'Herald,' got up bysundry gentlemen whose shining hours were devoted to flirtation, cards,and wine.

  'Perfect gentlemen, I assure you, my dear; for, drunk or sober, theywear yellow kids from morning till night, smoke the best cigars, anddance divinely,' as Mrs. Twaddle said, sitting erect in the saloon,shrouded in fur and velvet, with five diamond-rings well displayed, asshe recounted the diseases she had enjoyed, and did the honours of aremarkable work-basket, containing eight different sorts of scissors.

  'We shall be in to-morrow, so you'd better be digging up the treasuresyou have buried, you old magpie,' said Mat, appearing to the pensiveLivy on the eleventh day.

  'The sun is out; come on deck, and help us get up the last edition ofour paper. How will this do? Query--If steamers are named the "Asia,"the "Russia," and the "Scotia," why not call one the "Nausea?"' addedAmanda, popping her head into the den. Lavinia threw a pillow at her,but the undaunted joker continued--

  'Also this: Financial--This being a feminine paper, gold is no longer atPa, but at Ma.'

  'Good! Add this: Argument in favour of the Superiority of Women--Thesluggard was _not_ told to go to his uncle.'

  'Thank you,' and Amanda departed to twine with her forty-third bosomfriend, while Lavinia disinterred, from holes and corners of her berth,money, nuts, and raisins; books, biscuits, and literary efforts much theworse for deluges of soap and daubs of butter.

  The cry of 'Land!' on the morrow caused passengers unseen before toappear like worms after a shower; all heroically did up their back hair,put on their best suits, and walked forth with the delusive hope that noone would know how ill they had been.

  A French Marquis, with a sickly little son, whose diet of fried potatoesand sour wine accounted for his having the temper of a young fiend,appeared, and were made much of by dear, title-loving Americans.

  A Spanish opera-singer, stout, saffron-coloured, and imperious, likewiseemerged from obscurity, with a meek little husband, who waited on herlike a servant, and a big bald parrot, who swore like a trooper.

  Several nuns languished in corners of the saloon, surveying thevanities of life with interest, and telling their beads devoutly whenthey saw anyone looking at them.

  A mysterious lady in green velvet with many diamonds, and a shabby,speechless companion, sailed about the ship, regardless of the rumourstold of her--deserted husbands, stolen jewellery, lovers waiting on theother side, and many equally pleasant little tales.

  The gentlemen with orange gloves and copper-coloured noses gotthemselves up in the most superb style, though few were going to land atBrest, and took tender farewells of such ladies as did, each professingdesolation and despair at the termination of a twelve days' flirtation.

  'I am not fond of dirt, but I could kneel down and kiss this mud, sograteful am I to feel solid ground under my feet, after leading thelife of a fly for so long,' said Lavinia with emotion, as the threetrudged up the wharf at Brest into a sort of barn which served for acustom-house.

  'Now let each sit upon her luggage and clamour till some one comes andexamines it, else it will get whisked away heaven only knows where,'ordered Amanda, who was the leader in right of her knowledge of tongues.

  Each perched accordingly on her one big trunk, and tried to 'clamour.'But nothing came of it save loss of time and temper, for no one paid theslightest heed to them; and it was maddening to see trunk after trunkpassed and sent off, followed by its rejoicing owner. Especially hard tobear was the sight of the green-velvet sinner, who, with a smile or two,won the sternest official to pass her five trunks without turning akey, and sailed away with a scornful glance at the virtuous Threeplanted on their property and feebly beckoning for help.

  'I shall bear this no longer. Mat, sit there and guard the small things,while you and I, Livy, charge boldly among these imbeciles and drag themto their duty;' and Amanda marched away to clutch a cockaded victim bythe shoulder with an awe-inspiring countenance.

  Lavinia picked out a feeble, gray officer, and dogged him like anIndian, smiling affably, and pointing to her luggage with a persistentmildness that nearly drove the poor man mad.

  No matter where he went, or what he did; no matter how thick the crowdabout him, or how loud the din; still, like a relentless ghost, thatmild old lady was ever at his side, mutely pointing and affablysmiling. Of course he gave in, lifted one tray, saw much flannel, nearlyblew his venerable nose off sniffing at one suspicious bottle, andslamming down the lid, scrawled a mysterious cross, bowed and fled.

  Proudly returning to Amanda, the victorious one found her friend in ahigh state of indignation; for no officer there would touch her trunkbecause some American Express had put little leaden stamps here andthere for some unknown purpose. Not even in her best French could theirate lady make the thick-headed men understand that it was not a highcrime against the nation to undo a strap till some superior officerarrived to take the responsibility of so rash a step.

  If they had comprehended the dire threats, the personal remarks, andunmitigated scorn of those three fair travellers, the blue-coatedimbeciles would have been reduced to submission. Fortunately the greatman came in time to save them from utter rout; for the ladies were justtrying to decide whether to go and leave the luggage to its fate, or tohaul it forth and depart _vi et armis_, when a stout old party came,saw, said, 'It is nothing; pass the trunk; a thousand pardons, Madame,'and peace was restored.

  Instantly the porters, who till then had stood back, eyeing theinnocent, black ark, as if it was an infernal machine liable to explodeat a touch, threw themselves upon it, bore it forth, and heaving it atopof an omnibus, returned to demand vast sums for having waited so long.

  Then was Amanda sublime; then did her comrades for the first time learnthe magnitude of her powers, and realise the treasure they possessed.Stowing Matilda and the smaller traps in the bus, and saying to Lavinia,'Stand by me,' this dauntless maid faced one dozen blue-bloused,black-bearded, vociferous, demonstrative Frenchmen; and, calmly offeringthe proper sum, refused to add one sou more.

  Vainly the drivers perjured themselves in behalf of the porters; vainlythe guard looked on, with imposing uniforms, and impertinentobservations; vainly Mat cried imploringly, 'Pay anything, and let usget off before there is a mob'--still the indomitable Amanda held forththe honest franc; and, when no one would take it, laid it on the post,and entering the omnibus, drove calmly away.

  'What should we do witho
ut you?' sighed Lavinia, with fervent gratitude.

  'Be cheated right and left, and never know it, dear,' responded Amanda,preparing for another fight with the omnibus-driver.

  And she had it; for, unwarned by the fate of the porters, thisshort-sighted man insisted on carrying the ladies to a dirty littlehotel to dine, though expressly ordered to go at once to the station.Nothing would induce them to alight, though the landlord came out inperson and begged them to do so; and, after a protracted struggle and adrive all over the town, they finally reached the depot.

  Here another demand for double fare was promptly quenched by an appealto the _chef de station_, who, finding that Mademoiselle was wide awake,crushed the driver and saw justice done.

  Exhausted but triumphant, the three at length found themselves rollingslowly towards Morlaix through a green and blooming country, so unlikethe New England they had left behind, that they rejoiced likebutterflies in the sunshine.