Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter I. A Mysterious Dog
The elm-tree avenue was all overgrown, the great gate was never unlocked, and the old house had been shut up for several years.
Yet voices were heard about the place, the lilacs nodded over the high wall as if they said, "We could tell fine secrets if we chose," and the mullein outside the gate made haste to reach the keyhole, that it might peep in and see what was going on. If it had suddenly grown up like a magic bean-stalk, and looked in on a certain June day, it would have seen a droll but pleasant sight, for somebody evidently was going to have a party.
From the gate to the porch went a wide walk, paved with smooth slabs of dark stone, and bordered with the tall bushes which met overhead, making a green roof. All sorts of neglected flowers and wild weeds grew between their stems, covering the walls of this summer parlor with the prettiest tapestry. A board, propped on two blocks of wood, stood in the middle of the walk, covered with a little plaid shawl much the worse for wear, and on it a miniature tea-service was set forth with great elegance. To be sure, the tea-pot had lost its spout, the cream-jug its handle, the sugar-bowl its cover, and the cups and plates were all more or less cracked or nicked; but polite persons would not take notice of these trifling deficiencies, and none but polite persons were invited to this party.
On either side of the porch was a seat, and here a somewhat remarkable sight would have been revealed to any inquisitive eye peering through the aforesaid keyhole. Upon the left-hand seat lay seven dolls, upon the right-hand seat lay six; and so varied were the expressions of their countenances, owing to fractures, dirt, age, and other afflictions, that one would very naturally have thought this a doll's hospital, and these the patients waiting for their tea.
This, however, would have been a sad mistake; for if the wind had lifted the coverings laid over them, it would have disclosed the fact that all were in full dress, and merely reposing before the feast should begin.
There was another interesting feature of the scene which would have puzzled any but those well acquainted with the manners and customs of dolls. A fourteenth rag baby, with a china head, hung by her neck from the rusty knocker in the middle of the door. A sprig of white and one of purple lilac nodded over her, a dress of yellow calico, richly trimmed with red-flannel scallops, shrouded her slender form, a garland of small flowers crowned her glossy curls, and a pair of blue boots touched toes in the friendliest, if not the most graceful, manner. An emotion of grief, as well as of surprise, might well have thrilled any youthful breast at such a spectacle; for why, oh! why, was this resplendent dolly hung up there to be stared at by thirteen of her kindred? Was she a criminal, the sight of whose execution threw them flat upon their backs in speechless horror? Or was she an idol, to be adored in that humble posture? Neither, my friends. She was blonde Belinda, set, or rather hung, aloft, in the place of honor, for this was her seventh birthday, and a superb ball was about to celebrate the great event. All were evidently awaiting a summons to the festive board; but such was the perfect breeding of these dolls, that not a single eye out of the whole twenty-seven (Dutch Hans had lost one of the black beads from his worsted countenance) turned for a moment toward the table, or so much as winked, as they lay in decorous rows, gazing with mute admiration at Belinda. She, unable to repress the joy and pride which swelled her sawdust bosom till the seams gaped, gave an occasional bounce as the wind waved her yellow skirts, or made the blue boots dance a sort of jig upon the door. Hanging was evidently not a painful operation, for she smiled contentedly, and looked as if the red ribbon around her neck was not uncomfortably tight; therefore, if slow suffocation suited her, who else had any right to complain? So a pleasing silence reigned, not even broken by a snore from Dinah, the top of whose turban alone was visible above the coverlet, or a cry from baby Jane, though her bare feet stuck out in a way that would have produced shrieks from a less well-trained infant.
Presently voices were heard approaching, and through the arch which led to a side-path came two little girls, one carrying a small pitcher, the other proudly bearing a basket covered with a napkin. They looked like twins, but were not, for Bab was a year older than Betty, though only an inch taller. Both had on brown calico frocks, much the worse for a week's wear; but clean pink pinafores, in honor of the occasion, made up for that, as well as the gray stockings and thick boots. Both had round, rosy faces rather sunburnt, pug noses somewhat freckled, merry blue eyes, and braided tails of hair hanging down their backs like those of the dear little Kenwigses.
"Don't they look sweet?" cried Bab, gazing with maternal pride upon the left-hand row of dolls, who might appropriately have sung in chorus, "We are seven."
"Very nice; but my Belinda beats them all. I do think she is the splendidest child that ever was!" And Betty set down the basket to run and embrace the suspended darling, just then kicking up her heels with joyful abandon.
"The cake can be cooling while we fix the children. It does smell perfectly delicious!" said Bab, lifting the napkin to hang over the basket, fondly regarding the little round loaf that lay inside.
"Leave some smell for me!" commanded Betty, running back to get her fair share of the spicy fragrance. The pug noses sniffed it up luxuriously, and the bright eyes feasted upon the loveliness of the cake, so brown and shiny, with a tipsy-looking B in pie-crust staggering down one side, instead of sitting properly a-top.
"Ma let me put it on the very last minute, and it baked so hard I couldn't pick it off. We can give Belinda that piece, so it's just as well," observed Betty, taking the lead, as her child was queen of the revel.
"Let's set them round, so they can see too," proposed Bab, going, with a hop, skip, and jump, to collect her young family.
Betty agreed, and for several minutes both were absorbed in seating their dolls about the table; for some of the dear things were so limp they wouldn't sit up, and others so stiff they wouldn't sit down, and all sorts of seats had to be contrived to suit the peculiarities of their spines. This arduous task accomplished, the fond mammas stepped back to enjoy the spectacle, which, I assure you, was an impressive one. Belinda sat with great dignity at the head, her hands genteelly holding a pink cambric pocket-handkerchief in her lap. Josephus, her cousin, took the foot, elegantly arrayed in a new suit of purple and green gingham, with his speaking countenance much obscured by a straw hat several sizes too large for him; while on either side sat guests of every size, complexion, and costume, producing a very gay and varied effect, as all were dressed with a noble disregard of fashion.
"They will like to see us get tea. Did you forget the buns?" inquired Betty, anxiously.
"No; got them in my pocket." And Bab produced from that chaotic cupboard two rather stale and crumbly ones, saved from lunch for the fete. These were cut up and arranged in plates, forming a graceful circle around the cake, still in its basket.
"Ma couldn't spare much milk, so we must mix water with it. Strong tea isn't good for children, she says." And Bab contentedly surveyed the gill of skim-milk which was to satisfy the thirst of the company.
"While the tea draws and the cake cools, let's sit down and rest; I'm so tired!" sighed Betty, dropping down on the door-step and stretching out the stout little legs which had been on the go all day; for Saturday had its tasks as well as its fun, and much business had preceded this unusual pleasure. Bab went and sat beside her, looking idly down the walk toward the gate, where a fine cobweb shone in the afternoon sun.
"Ma says she is going over the house in a day or two, now it is warm and dry after the storm, and we may go with her. You know she wouldn't take us in the fall, cause we had whooping-cough, and it was damp there. Now we shall see all the nice things; won't it be fun?" observed Bab, after a pause.
"Yes, indeed! Ma says there's lots of books in one room, and I can look at 'em while she goes round. May be I'll have time to read some, and then I can tell you," answered Betty, who dearly loved stories, and seldom got any new ones.
"I'd rather see the old spinning-wheel up garret, and the big pictures, and the queer clothes in the blue chest. It makes me mad to have them all shut up there, when we might have such fun with them. I'd just like to bang that old door down!" And Bab twisted round to give it a thump with her boots. "You needn't laugh; you know you'd like it as much as me," she added, twisting back again, rather ashamed of her impatience.
"I didn't laugh."
"You did! Don't you suppose I know what laughing is?"
"I guess I know I didn't."
"You did laugh! How darst you tell such a fib?"
"If you say that again I'll take Belinda and go right home; then what will you do?"
"I'll eat up the cake."
"No, you won't! It's mine, Ma said so; and you are only company, so you'd better behave or I won't have any party at all, so now."
This awful threat calmed Bab's anger at once, and she hastened to introduce a safer subject.
"Never mind; don't let's fight before the children. Do you know, Ma says she will let us play in the coach-house next time it rains, and keep the key if we want to."
"Oh, goody! that's because we told her how we found the little window under the woodbine, and didn't try to go in, though we might have just as easy as not," cried Betty, appeased at once, for, after a ten years' acquaintance, she had grown used to Bab's peppery temper.
"I suppose the coach will be all dust and rats and spiders, but I don't care. You and the dolls can be the passengers, and I shall sit up in front drive."
"You always do. I shall like riding better than being horse all the time, with that old wooden bit in my mouth, and you jerking my arms off," said poor Betty, who was tired of being horse continually.
"I guess we'd better go and get the water now," suggested Bab, feeling that it was not safe to encourage her sister in such complaints.
"It is not many people who would dare to leave their children all alone with such a lovely cake, and know they wouldn't pick at it," said Betty proudly, as they trotted away to the spring, each with a little tin pail in her hand.
Alas, for the faith of these too confiding mammas! They were gone about five minutes, and when they returned a sight met their astonished eyes which produced a simultaneous shriek of horror. Flat upon their faces lay the fourteen dolls, and the cake, the cherished cake, was gone.
For an instant the little girls could only stand motionless, gazing at the dreadful scene. Then Bab cast her water-pail wildly away, and, doubling up her fist, cried out fiercely, --
"It was that Sally! She said she'd pay me for slapping her when she pinched little Mary Ann, and now she has. I'll give it to her! You run that way. I'll run this. Quick! quick!"
Away they went, Bab racing straight on, and bewildered Betty turning obediently round to trot in the opposite direction as fast as she could, with the water splashing all over her as she ran, for she had forgotten to put down her pail. Round the house they went, and met with a crash at the back door, but no sign of the thief appeared.
"In the lane!" shouted Bab.
"Down by the spring!" panted Betty; and off they went again, one to scramble up a pile of stones and look over the wall into the avenue, the other to scamper to the spot they had just left. Still, nothing appeared but the dandelions' innocent faces looking up at Bab, and a brown bird scared from his bath in the spring by Betty's hasty approach.
Back they rushed, but only to meet a new scare, which made them both cry "Ow!" and fly into the porch for refuge.
A strange dog was sitting calmly among the ruins of the feast, licking his lips after basely eating up the last poor bits of bun, when he had bolted the cake, basket, and all, apparently.
"Oh, the horrid thing!" cried Bab, longing to give battle, but afraid, for the dog was a peculiar as well as a dishonest animal.
"He looks like our China poodle, doesn't he?" whispered Betty, making herself as small as possible behind her more valiant sister.
He certainly did; for, though much larger and dirtier than the well-washed China dog, this live one had the same tassel at the end of his tail, ruffles of hair round his ankles, and a body shaven behind and curly before. His eyes, however, were yellow, instead of glassy black, like the other's; his red nose worked as he cocked it up, as if smelling for more cakes, in the most impudent manner; and never, during the three years he had stood on the parlor mantel-piece, had the China poodle done the surprising feats with which this mysterious dog now proceeded to astonish the little girls almost out of their wits. First he sat up, put his forepaws together, and begged prettily; then he suddenly flung his hind-legs into the air, and walked about with great ease. Hardly had they recovered from this shock, when the hind-legs came down, the fore-legs went up, and he paraded in a soldierly manner to and fro, like a sentinel on guard. But the crowning performance was when he took his tail in his mouth and waltzed down the walk, over the prostrate dolls, to the gate and back again, barely escaping a general upset of the ravaged table.
Bab and Betty could only hold each other tight and squeal with delight, for never had they seen any thing so funny; but, when the gymnastics ended, and the dizzy dog came and stood on the step before them barking loudly, with that pink nose of his sniffing at their feet, and his queer eyes fixed sharply upon them, their amusement turned to fear again, and they dared not stir.
"Whish, go away!" commanded Bab.
"Scat!" meekly quavered Betty.
To their great relief, the poodle gave several more inquiring barks, and then vanished as suddenly as he appeared. With one impulse, the children ran to see what became of him, and, after a brisk scamper through the orchard, saw the tasselled tail disappear under the fence at the far end.
"Where do you s'pose he came from?" asked Betty, stopping to rest on a big stone.
"I'd like to know where he's gone, too, and give him a good beating, old thief!" scolded Bab, remembering their wrongs.
"Oh, dear, yes! I hope the cake burnt him dreadfully if he did eat it," groaned Betty, sadly remembering the dozen good raisins she chopped up, and the "lots of 'lasses" mother put into the dear lost loaf.
"The party's all spoilt, so we may as well go home; and Bab mournfully led the way back. Betty puckered up her face to cry, but burst out laughing in spite of her woe.
"It was so funny to see him spin round and walk on his head! I wish he'd do it all over again; don't you?"
"Yes: but I hate him just the same. I wonder what Ma will say when - why! why!" and Bab stopped short in the arch, with her eyes as round and almost as large as the blue saucers on the tea-tray.
"What is it? oh, what is it?" cried Betty, all ready to run away if any new terror appeared.
"Look! there! it's come back!" said Bab in an awe-stricken whisper, pointing to the table. Betty did look, and her eyes opened even wider, -- as well they might, -- for there, just where they first put it, was the lost cake, unhurt, unchanged, except that the big B had coasted a little further down the gingerbread hill.