Chapter VI. Queen Elsie Visits the Court
 

'An hour and friend with friend will meet,
Lip cling to lip and hand clasp hand.'

'Now, Laura,' asked Bell, when quiet was restored, 'advise us about Elsie's tent. We want it to be perfectly lovely; and you have such good taste!'

'Let me think,' said Laura. 'Oh, if she were only a brunette instead of a blonde, we could festoon the tent with that yellow tarlatan I brought for the play!'

'What difference does it make whether she is dark or light?' asked Bell, obtusely.

'Why, a room ought to be as becoming as a dress--so Mrs. Pinkerton says. You know I saw a great deal of her at the hotel; and oh, girls! her bedroom was the most exquisite thing you ever saw! She had a French toilet-table, covered with pale blue silk and white marquise lace,--perfectly lovely,--with yards and yards of robin's- egg blue watered ribbon in bows; and on it she kept all her toilet articles, everything in hammered silver from Tiffany's with monograms on the back,--three or four sizes of brushes, and combs, and mirrors, and a full manicure set. It used to take her two hours to dress; but it was worth it. Oh, such gorgeous tea-gowns as she had! One of old rose and lettuce was a perfect dream! She always had her breakfast in bed, you know. I think it's delightful to have your breakfast before you get up, and dress as slowly as you like. I wish mamma would let me do it.'

'What does she do after she gets dressed in her rows of old lettuce-- I mean her old rows of lettuce?' asked Polly.

'Do? Why really, Polly, you are too stupid! What do you suppose she did? What everybody else does, of course.'

'Oh!' said Polly, apologetically.

'How old is Mrs. Pinkerton?' asked Margery.

'Between nineteen and twenty. There is not three years' difference in our ages, though she has been married nearly two years. It seems so funny.'

'Only nineteen!' cried Bell. 'Why, I always thought that she was old as the hills--twenty-five or thirty at the very least. She always seemed tired of things.'

'Well,' said Laura, in a whisper intended to be too low to reach Mrs. Winship's tent, 'I don't know whether I ought to repeat what was told me in confidence, but the fact is--well--she doesn't like Mr. Pinkerton very well!'

The other girls, who had not enjoyed the advantages of city life and travel, looked as dazed as any scandalmonger could have desired.

'Don't like him!' gasped Polly, nearly falling off the stump. 'Why, she's married to him!'

'Where on earth were you brought up?' snapped Laura. 'What difference does that make? She can't help it if she doesn't happen to like her husband, can she? You can't make yourself like anybody, can you?'

'Well, did she ever like him?' asked Margery; 'for she's only been married a year or two, and it seems to me it might have lasted that long if there was anything to begin on.'

'But,' whispered Laura, mysteriously, 'you see Mr. Pinkerton was very rich and the Dentons very poor. Mr. Denton had just died, leaving them nothing at all to live on, and poor Jessie would have had to teach school, or some dreadful thing like that. The thought of it almost killed her, she is so sensitive and so refined. She never told me so in so many words, but I am sure she married Mr. Pinkerton to save her mother from poverty; and I pity her from the bottom of my heart.'

'I suppose it was noble,' said Bell, in a puzzled tone, 'if she couldn't think of any other way, but--'

'Well, did she try very hard to think of other ways?' asked Polly. 'She never looked especially noble to me. I thought she seemed like a die-away, frizzlygig kind of a girl.'

'I wish, Miss Oliver, that you would be kind enough to remember that Mrs. Pinkerton is one of my most intimate friends,' said Laura, sharply. 'And I do wish, also, that you wouldn't talk loud enough to be heard all through the canyon.'

The colour came into Polly's cheeks, but before she could answer, Mrs. Winship walked in, stocking-basket in hand, and seated herself in the little wicker rocking-chair. Polly's clarion tones had given her a clue to the subject, and she thought the discussion needed guidance.

'You were talking about Mrs. Pinkerton, girls,' she said, serenely. 'You say you are fond of her, Laura, dear, and it seems very ungracious for me to criticise your friend; that is a thing which most of us fail to bear patiently. But I cannot let you hold her up as an ideal to be worshipped, or ask the girls to admire as a piece of self-denial what I fear was nothing but indolence and self- gratification. You are too young to talk of these things very much; but you are not too young to make up your mind that when you agree to live all your life long with a person, you must have some other feeling than a determination not to teach school. Jessie Denton's mother, my dear Laura, would never have asked the sacrifice of her daughter's whole life; and Jessie herself would never have made it had she been less vain, proud, and luxurious in her tastes, and a little braver, more self-forgetting and industrious. These are hard words, dear, and I am sorry to use them. She has gained the riches she wanted,--the carriages and servants, and tea-gowns, and hammered silver from Tiffany's, but she looks tired and disappointed, as Bell says; and I've no doubt she is, poor girl.'

'I don't think you do her justice, Mrs. Winship; I don't, indeed,' said Laura.

'If you are really attached to her, Laura, don't make the mistake of admiring her faults of character, but try to find her better qualities, and help her to develop them. It is a fatal thing when girls of your age set up these false standards, and order their lives by them. There are worse things than school-teaching, yes, or even floor-scrubbing or window-washing. Lovely tea-gowns and silver- backed brushes are all very pretty and nice to have, if they are not gained at the sacrifice of something better. I should have said to my daughter, had I been Mrs. Denton, "We will work for each other, my darling, and try to do whatever God gives us to do; but, no matter how hard life is, your heart is the most precious thing in the world, and you must never sell that, if we part with everything else." Oh, my girls, my girls, if I could only make you believe that "poor and content is rich, and rich enough." I cannot bear to think of your growing year by year into the conviction that these pretty glittering things of wealth are the true gold of life which everybody seeks. Forgive me, Laura, if I have hurt your feelings.'

'I know you would never hurt anybody's feelings, if you could help it, Mrs. Winship,' Laura answered, with a hint of coldness in her voice, 'though I can't help thinking that you are a little hard on poor Jessie; but, even then, one can surely like a person without wishing to do the very same things she does.'

'Yes, that is true,' said Mrs. Winship, gravely. 'But one cannot constantly justify a wrong action in another without having one's own standard unconsciously lowered. What we continually excuse in other people we should be inclined by and by to excuse in ourselves. Let us choose our friends as wisely as possible, and love them dearly, helping them to grow worthier of our love at the same time we are trying to grow worthier of theirs; because "we live by admiration, hope, and love," you know, but not by admiring and loving the wrong things.

'But there is the horn, and I hear the boys. Let us come to luncheon, and tell our good news of Elsie.'

[Music follows]
With incredible energy.
The horn! The horn! The lus-ty, lus-ty horn! 'Tis
not a thing to laugh to scorn, A thing to laugh to scorn!

Long before the boys appeared in sight, their voices rang through the canyon in a chorus that woke the echoes, and presently they came into view, bearing two quarters and a saddle of freshly killed mutton, hanging from a leafy branch swung between Jack's sturdy shoulder and Geoff's.

'A splendid "still hunt" this morning, Aunt Truth!' exclaimed Jack. 'Game plenty and not too shy, dogs in prime condition, hunters ditto. Behold the result!'

The girls could scarcely tell whether or no Laura was offended at Aunt Truth's unexpected little lecture. She did not appear quite as unrestrained as usual, but as everybody was engaged in the preparations for Elsie's welcome there was a general atmosphere of hilarity and confusion, so that no awkwardness was possible.

The tool-shop resounded with blows of hammer and steel. Dicky was under everybody's feet, and his 'seven or ten frogs,' together with his unrivalled collection of horned toads, were continually escaping from their tin pails and boxes in the various tents, and everybody was obliged to join in the search to recover and re-incarcerate them, in order to keep the peace.

Hop Yet was making a gold and silver cake, with 'Elsie' in pink letters on chocolate frosting. Philip had pitched the new tent so that in one corner there was a slender manzanita-tree which had been cropped for some purpose or other. He had nailed a cross-piece on this, so that it resembled the letter T, and was now laboriously boring holes and fitting in pegs, that Elsie might have a sort of closet behind her bed.

As for the rustic furniture, the girls and boys declared it to be too beautiful for words. They stood in circles about it and admired it without reserve, each claiming that his own special piece of work was the gem of the collection. The sunlight shining through the grey and green tints of the tent was voted perfection, Philip's closet a miracle of ingenuity, the green and white straw matting an inspiration.

The looking-glass had been mounted on a packing-box, and converted by Laura into a dressing-table that rivalled Mrs. Pinkerton's; for green tarlatan and white mosquito-netting had been so skilfully combined that the traditional mermaid might have been glad to make her toilet there 'with a comb and a glass in her hand.' The rest of the green and white gauzy stuff had been looped from the corners of the tent to the centre of the roof-piece, and delicate tendrils of wild clematis climbed here and there as if it were growing, its roots plunged in cunningly hidden bottles of water. Bell had gone about with pieces of awning cloth and green braid, and stitched an elaborate system of pockets on the inside of the tent wherever they would not be too prominent. There were tiny pockets for needle-work, thimbles, and scissors, medium-sized pockets for soap and combs and brushes, bigger pockets for shoes and slippers and stockings, and mammoth pockets for anything else that Elsie might ordain to put in a pocket.

By four o'clock in the afternoon Margery had used her clever fingers to such purpose that a white silesia flag, worked with the camp name, floated from the tip top of the front entrance to the tent. The ceremony of raising the flag was attended with much enthusiasm, and its accomplishment greeted by a deafening cheer from the entire party.

'Unless one wants Paradise,' sighed Margery, 'who wouldn't be contented with dear Camp Chaparral?'

'Who would live in a house, any way?' exclaimed Philip. 'Sniff this air, and look up at that sky!'

'And this is what they call "roughing it," in Santa Barbara,' quoth Dr. Winship. 'Why, you youngsters have made that tent fit for the occupancy of a society belle.'

'Now, let's organise for reception!' cried Geoffrey. 'Assemble, good people! Come over here, Aunt Truth! I will take the chair myself, since I don't happen to see anybody who would fill it with more dignity.'

'I am going to mount my broncho and go out on the road to meet my beloved family,' said Jack, sauntering up to the impromptu council- chamber.

'How can you tell when they will arrive?' asked Mrs. Winship.

'I can make a pretty good guess. They'll probably start from Tacitas as early as eight or nine o'clock, if Elsie is well. Let's see: it's about twenty-five miles, isn't it, Uncle Doc? Say twenty-three to the place where they turn off the main road. Well, I'll take a bit of lunch, ride out ten or twelve miles, hitch my horse in the shade, and wait.'

'Very well,' said Geoffrey. 'It is not usual for committees to appoint themselves, but as you are a near relative of our distinguished guests we will grant you special consideration and order you to the front. Ladies and gentlemen, passing over the slight informality of the nomination, all in favour of appointing Mr. John Howard Envoy Extraordinary please manifest it by the usual sign.'

Six persons yelled 'Ay,' four raised the right hand, and one stood up.

'There seems to be a slight difference of opinion as to the usual sign. All right.--Contrary minded!'

'No!' shouted Polly, at the top of her lungs.

'It is a unanimous vote,' said Geoffrey, crushingly, bringing down his fist as an imaginary gavel with incredible force and dignity. 'Dr. and Mrs. Winship, will you oblige the Chair by acting as a special Reception Committee?'

'Certainly,' responded the doctor, smilingly. 'Will the Chair kindly outline the general policy of the committee?'

'Hm-m-m! Yes, certainly--of course. The Chair suggests that the Reception Committee--well, that they stay at home and--receive the guests,--yes, that will do very nicely. All-in-favour-and-so-forth- it-is-a-vote-and-so-ordered. Secretary will please spread a copy on the minutes.' Gavel.

'I rise to a point of order,' said Jack, sagely. 'There is no secretary and there are no minutes.'

'Mere form,' said the Chair; 'sit down; there will be minutes in a minute,--got to do some more things first; that will do, SIT DOWN. Will the Misses Burton and Messrs. Burton and Noble kindly act as Committee on Decoration?'

'Where's the Committee on Music, and Refreshments, and Olympian Games, and all that sort of thing?' interrupted Polly, who had not the slightest conception of parliamentary etiquette; 'and why don't you hurry up and put me on something?'

'If Miss Oliver refuses to bridle her tongue, and persists in interrupting the business of the meeting, the Chair will be obliged to remove her,' said Geoffrey, with chilling emphasis.

Polly rose again, undaunted. 'I would respectfully ask the Chair, who put him in the chair, any way?'

'Question!' roared Philip.

'Second the motion!' shrieked Bell, that being the only parliamentary expression she knew.

'Order!' cried Geoffrey in stentorian accents. 'I will adjourn the meeting and clear the court-room unless there is order.'

'Do!' remarked Polly, encouragingly. 'I will rise again, like Phoebus, from my ashes, to say that--'

Here Jack sprang to his feet. 'I would suggest to the Chair that the last speaker amend her motion by substituting the word "Phoenix" for "Phoebus."'

'Accept the amendment,' said Polly, serenely, amidst the general hilarity.

'Question!' called Bell, with another mighty projection of memory into a missionary meeting that she had once attended.

'I am not aware that there is any motion before the house,' said Geoffrey, cuttingly.

'Second the motion!'

'Second the amendment!' shouted the girls.

'Ladies, there IS no motion. Will you oblige the Chair by remaining quiet until speech is requested?'

'Move that the meeting be adjourned and another one called, with a new Chair!' remarked Margery, who felt that the honour of her sex was at stake.

'Move that this motion be so ordered and spread upon the minutes, and a copy of it be presented to the Chairman,' suggested Philip.

'Move that the copy be appropriately bound in CALF,' said Jack, dodging an imaginary blow.

'Move that the other committees be elected by ballot,' concluded Scott Burton.

'This is simply disgraceful!' exclaimed the Chair. 'Order! order! I appoint Miss Oliver Committee on Entertainment, with a view of keeping her still.'

This was received with particular as well as general satisfaction.

'Miss Winship, we appoint you Committee on Music.'

'All right. Do you wish it to be original?'

'Certainly not; we wish it to be good.'

'But we only know one chorus, and that's "My Witching Dinah Snow."'

'Never mind; either write new words to that tune or sing tra-la-la to it. Mr. Richard Winship, the Chair appoints you Committee on Menagerie, and suggests that as we have proclaimed a legal holiday, you give your animals the freedom of the city.'

'Don't know what freedom of er city means,' said Dicky, who feared that he was being made the butt of ridicule.

'Why, we want you to allow the captives to parade in the evening, with torch-lights and mottoes.'

'All right!' cried Dicky, kindling in an instant; ''n' Luby, 'n' the doat, 'n' my horn' toads, all e'cept the one that just gotted away in Laura's bed; but may be she'll find him to-night, so they'll be all there.'

This was too much for the various committees, and Laura's wild shriek was the signal for a hasty adjournment. A common danger restored peace to the assembly, and they sought the runaway in perfect harmony.

'Well,' said Jack, when quiet was restored, 'I am going a little distance up the Pico Negro trail; there are some magnificent Spanish bayonets growing there, and if you'll let me have Pancho, Uncle Doc, we can bring down four of them and lash them to each of the corners of Elsie's tent,--they'll keep fresh several days in water, you know.'

'Take him, certainly,' said Dr. Winship.

'Do let me go with you!' pleaded Laura, with enthusiasm. 'I should like the walk so much.'

'It's pretty rough, Laura,' objected Margery. 'If you couldn't endure our walk this morning, you would never get home alive from Pico Negro.'

'Oh, that was in the heat of the day,' she answered. 'I feel equal to any amount of walking now, if Jack doesn't mind taking me.'

'Delighted, of course, Miss Laura. You'll be willing to carry home one of the trees, I suppose, in return for the pleasure of my society?'

'Snub him severely, Laura,' cried Bell; 'we never allow him to say such things unreproved.'

'I think he is snubbed too much already,' replied Laura, with a charming smile, 'and I shall see how a course of encouragement will affect his behaviour.'

'That will be what I long have sought,
And mourned because I found it not,'

sang Jack, nonchalantly.

'Oh, Laura,' remonstrated Bell, 'think twice before you encourage him in his dreadful ways. We have studied him very carefully, and we know that the only way to live with him is to keep him in a sort of "pint pot" where we can hold the lid open just a little, and clap it down suddenly whenever he tries to spring out.'

'Do not mind that young person, Miss Laura, but form your own impressions of my charming character. Excuse me, please, while I put on a celluloid collar, and make some few changes in my toilet necessary to a proper appearance in your distinguished company.'

'I prefer you as you are,' answered Laura, laughingly. 'Let us start at once.'

'Do you hear that, young person? She prefers me as I are! Now see what magic power her generosity has upon me!' And he darted into the tent, from which he issued in a moment with his Derby hat, a manzanita cane, a pocket-handkerchief tied about his throat, and a flower pinned on his flannel camping-shirt--a most ridiculous figure, since nothing seems so out of place in the woods as any suggestion of city costumes or customs. Laura was in high good-humour, and looked exceedingly brilliant and pretty, as she always did when she was the central figure of any group or the bright particular star of any occasion.

'Be home before dark,' said Dr. Winship. 'Pancho, keep a look-out for the pack-mule. Truth, one of the pack-mules has disappeared.'

'So? Dumpling or Ditto?'

'Ditto, curiously enough. His name should have led him not to set an example, but to follow one.'

Elsie came.

Perhaps you thought that this was going to be an exciting story, and that something would happen to keep her at the Tacitas ranch; but nothing did. Everything came to pass exactly as it was arranged, and Jack met his mother and sister at twelve o'clock some four miles from the camp, and escorted them to the gates.

'Welcome' had been painted on twenty different boards or bits of white cloth and paper, and nailed here and there on the trees that lined the rough wood-road; the strains of an orchestra, formed of a guitar, banjo, castanets, Chinese fiddle, and tin cans, greeted them from a distance, but were properly allowed to die away in silence when the guest neared the tents. Everything wore a new and smiling face, and Elsie never came more dangerously near being squeezed to death.

Elsie, in the prettiest of gingham dresses, and her cloud of golden hair braided in two funny little pugs to keep it out of the dust; Elsie, with a wide hat that shaded her face, already a little tanned and burned, no longer colourless; Elsie, with no lines of pain in her pretty forehead, and the hollow ring gone from her voice; Elsie, who jumped over the wheel of the wagon, and hugged her huggers with the strength of a young bear! It was too good to believe, and nobody did quite believe it for days.

At three o'clock the happiest party in the world assembled at the rough dining-table under the sycamore-trees.

Elsie beamed upon the feast from the high-backed manzanita chair, a faint colour in her cheeks, and starry prisms of light in a pair of eyes that had not sparkled for many a weary month. Hop Yet smiled a trifle himself, wore his cap with a red button on the top to wait upon the table, and ministered to the hungry people with more interest and alacrity than he had shown since he had been dragged from Santa Barbara, his Joss, and his nightly game of fantan. And such a dinner as he had prepared in honour of the occasion!--longer by four courses than usual, and each person was allowed two plates in the course of the meal.

BILL OF FARE FOR HER MAJESTY'S DINNER

Quail Soup.          Crackers.
         Chili Colorado.
(Mutton stew, in Spanish style,
      with Chili peppers, tomatoes,
          and onions.)
Cold Boiled Ham.       Fried Potatoes.
   Apples and Onions stewed together.
Ginger-snaps.          Pickles.
  Peaches, Apricots, and Nectarines.
California Nuts and Raisins.
             Coffee.

And last of all, a surprise of Bell's, flapjacks, long teased for by the boys, and prepared and fried by her own hands while the merry party waited at table, to get them smoking hot.

She came in flushed with heat and pride, the prettiest cook anybody ever saw, with her hair bobbed up out of the way and doing its best to escape, a high-necked white apron, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and an insinuating spot of batter in the dimple of her left cheek.

'There!' she cried, joyfully, as she deposited a heaping plate in front of her mother, and set the tin can of maple syrup by its side. 'Begin on those, and I'll fry like lightning on two griddles to keep up with you,' and she rushed to the brush kitchen to turn her next instalments that had been left to brown. Hop Yet had retired to a distant spot by the brook, and was washing dish-towels. All Chinese cooks are alike in their horror of a woman in the kitchen; but some of them will unbend so far as to allow her to amuse herself so long as they are not required to witness the disagreeable spectacle.

Bell delicately inserted the cake-turner under the curled edges of the flapjacks and turned them over deftly, using a little too much force, perhaps, in the downward stroke when she flung them back on the griddle.

'Seems to me they come down with considerable of a thud,' she said, reflectively. 'I hope they're not tough, for I should never hear the last of it. Guess I'll punch one with the handle of this tin shovel, and see how it acts. Goodness! it's sort of--elastic. That's funny. Well, perhaps it's the way they ought to look.' Here she transferred the smoking mysteries to her plate, passed a bit of pork over the griddles, and, after ladling out eight more, flew off to the group at the table.

'Are they good?' she was beginning to ask, when the words were frozen on her lips by the sight of a significant tableau.

The four boys were standing on the bench that served instead of dining-chairs, each with a plate and a pancake on the table in front of them. Jack held a hammer and spike, Scott Burton a hatchet, Geoffrey a saw, and Philip a rifle. Bell was nothing if not intuitive. No elaborate explanations ever were needed to show her a fact. Without a word she flung the plate of flapjacks she held as far into a thicket as she had force to fling it, and then dropped on her knees.

"'Shoot, if you must, this old grey head,
But spare my flapjacks, sirs," she said!

'What's the matter with them? Tough? I refuse to believe it. Your tools are too dull,--that's all. Use more energy! Nothing in this world can be accomplished without effort.'

'They're a lovely brown,' began Mrs. Winship, sympathetically.

'And they have a very good flavour,' added Elsie.

'Don't touch them, dearest!' cried Bell, snatching the plate from under Elsie's very nose. 'I won't have you made ill by my failures. But as for the boys, I don't care a fig for them. Let them make flapjacks more to their taste, the odious things! Polly Oliver, did you put in that baking powder, as I told you, while I went for the pork?'

Polly blanched. 'Baking powder?' she faltered.

'Yes, baking powder! B-A-K-I-N-G P-O-W-D-E-R! Do I make myself plain?'

'Oh, baking powder, to be sure. Well, now that you mention the matter, I do remember that Dicky called me away just as I was getting it; and now that I think of it, Elsie came just afterwards, and--and- -'

'And that's the whole of my story, O,' sang Jack. 'I recommend the criminal to the mercy of the court.'

'A case of too many cooks,' laughed Dr. Winship. 'Cheer up, girls; better fortune next time.'

'There are eight more of them burning on the griddles this moment, Polly,' said Bell, scathingly; 'and as they are yours, not mine, I advise you to throw them in the brook, with the rest of the batter, so that Hop Yet won't know that there has been a failure.'

'Some people blight everything they touch,' sighed Polly, gloomily, as she departed for the kitchen.

'But when I lie in the green kirkyard -

'Oh, Polly, dear,' interrupted Margery, 'that apology will not serve any longer; you've used it too often.'

'This is going to be entirely different,' continued Polly, tragically.

'But when I lie in the green kirkyard,
      With the mould upon my breasts
Say not that she made flapjacks well,
      Only, she did her best.'

'We promise!' cried Bell.