Chapter VII. Polly's Birthday: First Half in Which She Rejoices at the Mere Fact of Her Existence.
 

'"O frabjous day! Calooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.'

Polly's birthday dawned auspiciously. At six o'clock she was kissed out of a sound sleep by Bell and Margery, and the three girls slipped on their wrappers, and prepared to run through the trees for a morning plunge in Mirror Pool. Although it was August there was still water enough in Minnehaha Brook to give one a refreshing dip. Mirror Pool was a quarter of a mile distant and well guarded with rocks and deep hidden in trees; but a little pathway had been made to the water's edge, and thus the girls had easy access to what they called The Mermaid's Bath. A bay-tree was adorned with a little redwood sign, which bore a picture of a mermaid, drawn by Margery, and below the name these lines in rustic letters:-

      'A hidden brook,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.'

Laura had not lived long enough in the woods to enjoy these cold plunges; and, as her ideal was a marble tub, with scented water, and a French maid to apply the same with a velvet sponge, it is not much wonder. She insisted that, though it was doubtless a very romantic proceeding, the bottom and sides of the natural tub were quite too rocky and rough for her taste, and that she should be in constant terror of snakes curling round her toes.

'I've a great mind to wake Laura, just for once,' said Bell, opening the tent door. 'There never was such a morning! (I believe I've said that regularly every day; but I simply never can get used to it.) There must have been a wonderful sunrise, dears, for the glow hasn't faded yet. Not a bit of morning fog--that's good for Elsie. And what a lovely day for a birthday! Did they use to give you anything like this in Vermont, Polly?'

'Hardly,' said Polly, peering over Bell's shoulder. 'Let's see. What did they give us in Vermont this month? Why, I can't think of anything but dog-days, hot nights, and hay fever; but that sounds ungrateful. Why, Geoff's up already! There's Elsie's bunch of vines, and twigs, and pretty things hanging on her tent-door. He's been off on horseback. Just my luck to have him get up first. Jack always does, you know; and last night I sewed up the tent-opening with carpet-thread, good and tight, overhand--stitches I wouldn't be ashamed of at a sewing-school.'

'Oh you naughty girl!' laughed Bell. 'The boys could rip it open with a knife in half the time it took you to sew it.'

'Certainly. I didn't mean to keep them sewed up all day; but I thought I'd like Jack to remember me the first thing this morning.'

'Girls,' whispered Margery, excitedly, 'don't stand there mooning--or sunning--for ever! I thought there was a gopher in this tent last night. I heard something scratching, and I thought it was the dog outside; but just look at these two holes almost under Laura's pillow!'

'Let's fill them up, cover them over--anything!' gasped Bell. 'Laura will never sleep here another night if she sees them.'

'Nobody insured Laura against gophers,' said Polly. 'She must take the fortunes of war.'

'I wouldn't wake her,' said Margery. 'She didn't sleep well, and her face is flushed. Come, or we shall be late for breakfast.'

When they returned, fresh and rosy, from their bath, there was a stir of life in all the tents. Pancho had come from the stage-station with mail; an odour of breakfast issued from the kitchen, where Hop Yet was humming a fragment of Chinese song, that ran something like this,--not loud, but unearthly enough, as Bell used to say, to spoil almost any cooking:-

[Music follows]
Fong fong mongmong tiu he sun yi-u
sow chong how ki-u me yun tan-tar che ku choi song!

Dicky was abroad, radiant in a new suit of clothes, and Elsie pushed her golden head out between the curtains, and proclaimed herself strong enough for a wrestling-match with any boy or man about the camp.

But they found Laura sitting on the edge of her straw bed, directly over the concealed gopher-holes, a mirror in her hand and an expression of abject misery on her countenance.

'What's the matter?' cried the girls in one breath. But they needed no answer, as she turned her face towards the light, for it was plainly a case of poison-oak--one eye almost closed, and the cheek scarlet and swollen.

'Where do you suppose you got it?' asked Bell.

'Oh, I don't know. It's everywhere; so I don't see how I ever hoped to escape it. Yet I've worn gloves every minute. I think I must have touched it when I went up the mountain trail with Jack. I'm a perfect fright already, and I suppose it has only begun.'

'Is it very painful?' asked Polly, sympathetically. 'Oh, you do look so funny, I can hardly help laughing, but I'm as sorry as I can be.'

'I should expect you to laugh--you generally do,' retorted Laura. 'No, it's not painful yet; but I don't care about that--it's looking so ridiculous. I wonder if Dr. Winship could send me home. I wish now that I had gone with Scott, for I can't be penned up in this tent a week.'

'Oh, it won't hurt you to go out,' said Bell, 'and you can lie in the sitting-room. Just wait, and let mamma try and cure you. She's a famous doctor.' And Bell finished dressing hurriedly, and went to her mother's tent, while Polly and Margery smoothed the bed with a furtive kick of straw over the offending gopher-holes, and hung a dark shawl so as to shield Laura's eyes.

Aunt Truth entered speedily, with a family medical guide under one arm, and a box of remedies under the other.

'The doctor has told me just what to do, and he will see you after breakfast himself. It doesn't look so very bad a case, dear; don't run about in the sun for a day or two, and we'll bring you out all right. The doctor has had us all under treatment at some time or other, because of that troublesome little plant.'

'I don't want to get up to breakfast,' moaned Laura.

'Just as you like. But it is Polly's birthday, you know (many happy returns, my sweet Pollykins), and there are great preparations going on.'

'I can't help it, Mrs. Winship. The boys would make fun of my looks; and I shouldn't blame them.'

'Appear as the Veiled Lady,' suggested Margery, as Mrs. Winship went out.

'I won't come, and that's the end of it,' said Laura. 'Perhaps if I bathe my face all the morning I can come to dinner.'

After breakfast was cleared away, Hop Yet and Mrs. Howard's little China boy Gin were given a half-holiday, and allowed to go to a-- neighbouring ranch to see a 'flend' of Hop Yet's; for it was a part of the birthday scheme that Bell and Geoffrey should cook the festival dinner.

Jack was so delighted at the failure of Polly's scheme to sew him in his tent, that he simply radiated amiability, and spent the whole morning helping Elsie and Margery with a set of elaborate dinner- cards, executed on half-sheets of note-paper.

The dinner itself was a grand success. Half of the cards bore a caricature of Polly in the shape of a parrot, with the inscription 'Polly want a cracker?' The rest were adorned with pretty sketches of her in her camping-dress, a kettle in one hand, and underneath,

'Polly, put the kettle on, We'll all have tea.'

This was the bill of fare arranged by Bell and Geoffrey, and written on the reverse side of the dinner-cards

DINNER A LA MOTHER GOOSE.
CAMP CHAPARRAL.
August 15, 18-.

'Come with a whoop, come with a call;
Come with a good will, or not at all.'

'VICTUALS AND DRINK.'

BEAN SOUP.
'She gave them some broth, she gave them some bread.'
SALT CODFISH.
'You shall have a fishy
In a little dishy.'
ROAST MUTTON A LA VENISON.
'Dear sensibility, O la!
I heard a little lamb cry ba-a!'
POTATOES IN JACKETS.
'The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker,
All jumped out of a roasted potato.'
STEWED BEANS.
'You, nor I, nor nobody knows,
Where oats, peas, beans, and barley grows.'
CHICKEN AND BEEF SANDWICHES.
'Hickety, pickety, my pretty hen
Laid good eggs for gentlemen.'
Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief,
Taffy came to my house and stole a piece of beef.'
LEMON PIE.
'A pie sat on a pear-tree.'
PLUM TARTS.
'The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts,
All on a summer's day.'
FRUIT, NUTS, AND RAISINS.
'You shall have an apple,
You shall have a plum.'
'I had a little nut-tree, nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg and a golden pear.'
BREAD AND CHEESE.
'When I was a bachelor I lived by myself,
And all the bread and cheese I got I put upon the shelf.'
COFFEE AND LEMONADE.
'One, two, three, how good you be!
I love coffee and Billy loves tea.'
'Oranges and lemons,
Says the bell of St. Clemen's.'

'What they ate I can't tell,
But 'tis known very well
That none of the party grew fat.'

Bell and Geoff took turns at 'dishing up' in the kitchen, and sat down at the table between whiles; and they barely escaped being mobbed when they omitted one or two dishes on the programme, and confessed that they had been put on principally for the 'style' of the thing,--a very poor excuse to a company of people who have made up their mouths for all the delicacies of the season.

Jack was head waiter, and having donned a clean white blouse of Hop Yet's and his best cap with the red button, from which dangled a hastily improvised queue of black worsted, he proceeded to convulse everybody with his Mongolian antics. These consisted of most informal remarks in clever pigeon English, and snatches of Chinese melody, rendered from time to time as he carried dishes into the kitchen. Elsie laughed until she cried, and Laura sat in the shadiest corner, her head artistically swathed in white tarlatan.

Polly occupied the seat of honour at the end of the table opposite Dr. Winship, and was happier than a queen. She wore her new green cambric, with a bunch of leaves at her belt. She was sun-burned, but the freckles seemed to have disappeared mysteriously from her nose, and almost any one would have admired the rosy skin, the dancing eyes, and the graceful little auburn head, 'sunning over with curls.'

When the last bit of dessert had been disposed of, and Dicky had gone to sleep in his mother's lap, like an infant boa-constrictor after a hearty meal, the presentation of gifts and reading of poems took place; and Polly had to be on the alert to answer all the nonsensical jokes that were aimed at her.

Finally, Bell crowned the occasion by producing a song of Miss Mulock's, which had come in the morning mail from some girl friend of Polly's in the East, who had discovered that Polly's name had appeared in poetry and song without her knowledge, and who thought she might be interested to hear the composition. With the aid of Bell's guitar and Jack's banjo the girls and boys soon caught the pretty air, and sung it in chorus.

1. Pretty Pol-ly Ol-i-ver, will you be my own?
Pret-ty Pol-ly Ol-i-ver, as cold as a
stone; But my love has grown warm-er as
cold-er you've grown, O Pret-ty Pol-ly
Ol-i-ver, will you be my own?

2. Pret-ty Pol-ly Ol-i-ver, I love you so dear!
Pret-ty Pol-ly Ol-i-ver, my hope and my
fear; I've wait-ed for you, sweet-heart, this
many a long year; For Pret-ty Pol-ly
Ol-i-ver, I've loved you so dear!

3. Pret-ty Pol-ly Ol-i-ver, I'll bid you good bye:
Pret-ty Pol-ly Ol-i-ver, for you I'll not
die; You'll nev-er get a tru-er true
lov-er than I, So Pret-ty Pol-ly
Ol-i-ver, good-bye, love, good-bye!

At the end, Dr. Winship raised his glass of lemonade, and proposed to drink Miss Oliver's health. This was done with enthusiasm, and Geoffrey immediately cried, 'Speech, speech!'

'I can't,' said Polly, blushing furiously.

'Speech!' sung Jack and Philip vociferously, pounding on the table with knife-handles to increase the furore.

'Speech!' demanded the genial doctor, going over to the majority, and smiling encouragingly at Polly, who was pushed to her feet before she knew very well what she was doing. 'Oh, if Laura were not looking at me,' she thought, 'I'd just like to speak right out, and tell them a little bit of what is in my heart. I don't care--I will!'

'I know you are all in fun,' she said, looking bravely into the good doctor's eyes, 'and of course no one could make a proper speech with Jack grinning like a Cheshire cat, but I can't help telling you that this is the happiest summer and the happiest birthday of my whole life, and that I scarcely remember nowadays that I have no father and no brothers and sisters, for I have never been alone or unhappy since you took me in among you and Bell chose me for her friend; and I think that if you knew how grateful I am for my beautiful summer, dear Dr. Paul and Aunt Truth, you would be glad that you gave it to me, and I love you all, dearly, dearly, dearly!' Whereupon the impulsive little creature finished her maiden speech by dashing round the table and giving Mrs. Winship one of her 'bear hugs,' at which everybody laughed and rose from the table.

Laura Burton, who was thoroughly out of conceit with the world, and who was never quite happy when other people seemed for the moment to be preferred to herself, thought this burst of affection decidedly theatrical, but she did not know of any one to whom she could confine her opinions just then; indeed, she felt too depressed and out of sorts to join in the general hilarity.

Dinner being over, Dr. Paul and the boys took the children and sauntered up the canyon for a lazy afternoon with their books. Elsie went to sleep in the new hammock that the doctor had hung in the sycamores back of the girls' sleeping-tent, and Mrs. Winship lay down for her afternoon nap. Pancho saddled the horses for Bell and Margery, who went for a gallop. Polly climbed into the sky-parlour to write a long letter to her mother, and Laura was left to solitude in the sleeping-tent. Now everybody knows that a tent at midday is not a particularly pleasant spot, and after many a groan at the glare of the sun, which could not be tempered by any system of shawls, and moans at the gopher-holes which she discovered while searching for her ear-ring, and repeated consultations with the hand-glass at brief intervals, during which she convinced herself that she looked worse every minute,--she finally discovered a series of alarming new spots on her neck and chin. She felt then that camping out was a complete failure, and that she would be taken home forthwith if it could be managed, since she saw nothing before her but day after day of close confinement and unattractive personal appearance. 'It's just my luck!' she grumbled, as she twisted up her hair and made herself as presentable as possible under the trying circumstances. 'I don't think I ever had a becoming or an interesting illness. The chicken- pox, mumps, and sties on my eyes--that's the sort of thing I have!'

'I feel much worse, Mrs. Winship,' she said, going into the sitting- room tent and waking Aunt Truth from a peaceful snooze. 'If you can spare Pancho over night, I really think I must trouble you to send Anne and me home at once. I feel as if I wanted to go to bed in a dark room, and I shall only be a bother if I stay.'

'Why, my child, I'm sorry to have you go off with your visit unfinished. You know we don't mind any amount of trouble, if we can make you comfortable.'

'You are very kind, but indeed I'd rather go.'

'I hardly dare let you start in the hot sun--without consulting the doctor, and everybody is away except Polly; they will feel badly not to say good-bye.'

'It is nearly three o'clock now, so the worst of the sun is over, and we shall be at the ranch by eight this evening. I feel too ill to say good-bye, any way, and we shall meet Bell and Margery somewhere on the road, for they were going to the milk ranch.'

'Very well, my dear, if you've made up your mind I must yield,' replied Mrs. Winship, getting up and smoothing her hair. 'I don't dare wake Elsie, she has had such an exciting day; but I'll call Polly to help you pack, and then tell Pancho to find Anne and harness the team. While he is doing that, I'll get you a little lunch to take with you and write a note to your mother. Perhaps you can come again before we break camp, but I'm sorry to send you home in such a sad plight.'