Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter II. Where They Found His Master
Neither spoke for a minute, astonishment being too great for words; then, as by one impulse, both stole up and touched the cake with a timid finger, quite prepared to see it fly away in some mysterious and startling manner. It remained sitting tranquilly in the basket, however, and the children drew a long breath of relief, for, though they did not believe in fairies, the late performances did seem rather like witchcraft.
"The dog didn't eat it!"
"Sally didn't take it!"
"How do you know?"
"She never would have put it back."
"Can't tell, but I forgive 'em."
"What shall we do now?" asked Betty, feeling as if it would be very difficult to settle down to a quiet tea-party after such unusual excitement.
"Eat that cake up just as fast as ever we can", and Bab divided the contested delicacy with one chop of the big knife, bound to make sure of her own share at all events.
It did not take long, for they washed it down with sips of milk, and ate as fast as possible, glancing round all the while to see if the queer dog was coming again.
"There! now I'd like to see any one take my cake away," said Bab, defiantly crunching her half of the pie-crust B.
"Or mine either," coughed Betty, choking over a raisin that wouldn't go down in a hurry.
"We might as well clear up, and play there had been an earthquake," suggested Bab, feeling that some such convulsion of Nature was needed to explain satisfactorily the demoralized condition of her family.
"That will be splendid. My poor Linda was knocked right over on her nose. Darlin' child, come to your mother and be fixed," purred Betty, lifting the fallen idol from a grove of chickweed, and tenderly brushing the dirt from Belinda's heroically smiling face.
"She'll have croup to-night as sure as the world. We'd better make up some squills out of this sugar and water," said Bab, who dearly loved to dose the dollies all round.
"P'r'aps she will, but you needn't begin to sneeze yet awhile. I can sneeze for my own children, thank you, ma'am," returned Betty, sharply, for her usually amiable spirit had been ruffled by the late occurrences.
"I didn't sneeze! I've got enough to do to talk and cry and cough for my own poor dears, without bothering about yours," cried Bab, even more ruffled than her sister.
"Then who did? I heard a real live sneeze just as plain as anything," and Betty looked up to the green roof above her, as if the sound came from that direction.
A yellow-bird sat swinging and chirping on the tall lilac-bush, but no other living thing was in sight. Birds don't sneeze, do they?" asked Betty, eying little Goldy suspiciously.
"You goose! of course they don't."
"Well. I should just like to know who is laughing and sneezing round here. "May be it is the dog," suggested Betty looking relieved.
"I never heard of a dog's laughing, except Mother Hubbard's. This is such a queer one, may be he can, though. I wonder where he went to?" and Bab took a survey down both the side-paths, quite longing to see the funny poodle again.
"I know where I 'm going to," said Betty, piling the dolls into her apron with more haste than care. "I'm going right straight home to tell Ma all about it. I don't like such actions, and I 'm afraid to stay."
"I ain't; but I guess it is going to rain, so I shall have to go any way," answered Bab, taking advantage of the black clouds rolling up the sky, for she scorned to own that she was afraid of any thing.
Clearing the table in a summary manner by catching up the four corners of the cloth, Bab put the rattling bundle into her apron, flung her children on the top and pronounced herself ready to depart. Betty lingered an instant to pick up and ends that might be spoilt by the rain, and, when she turned from taking the red halter off the knocker, two lovely pink roses lay on the stone steps.
"Oh, Bab, just see! Here's the very ones we wanted. Wasn't it nice of the wind to blow 'em down?" she called out, picking them up and running after her sister, who had strolled moodily along, still looking about for her sworn foe, Sally Folsom. The flowers soothed the feelings of the little girls, because they had longed for them, and bravely resisted the temptation to climb up the trellis and help themselves, since their mother had forbidden such feats, owing to a fall Bab got trying to reach a honeysuckle from the vine which ran all over the porch.
Home they went and poured out their tale, to Mrs. Moss's great amusement; for she saw in it only some playmate's prank, and was not much impressed by the mysterious sneeze and laugh.
"We'll have a grand rummage Monday, and find out what is going on over there," was all she said. But Mrs. Moss could not keep her promise, for on Monday it still rained, and the little girls paddled off to school like a pair of young ducks, enjoying every puddle they came to, since India-rubber boots made wading a delicious possibility. They took their dinner, and at noon regaled a crowd of comrades with an account of the mysterious dog, who appeared to be haunting the neighborhood, as several of the other children had seen him examining their back yards with interest. He had begged of them, but to none had he exhibited his accomplishments except Bab and Betty; and they were therefore much set up, and called him "our dog" with an air. The cake transaction remained a riddle, for Sally Folsom solemnly declared that she was playing tag in Mamie Snow's barn at that identical time. No one had been near the old house but the two children, and no one could throw any light upon that singular affair.
It produced a great effect, however; for even "teacher" was interested, and told such amazing tales of a juggler she once saw, that doughnuts were left forgotten in dinner-baskets, and wedges of pie remained suspended in the air for several minutes at a time, instead of vanishing with miraculous rapidity as usual. At afternoon recess, which the girls had first, Bab nearly dislocated every joint of her little body trying to imitate the poodle's antics. She had practised on her bed with great success, but the wood-shed floor was a different thing, as her knees and elbows soon testified.
"It looked just as easy as any thing; I don't see how he did it," she said, coming down with a bump after vainly attempting to walk on her hands.
"My gracious, there he is this very minute!" cried Betty, who sat on a little wood-pile near the door. There was a general rush, -- and sixteen small girls gazed out into the rain as eagerly as if to behold Cinderella's magic coach, instead of one forlorn dog trotting by through the mud.
"Oh, do call him in and make him dance!" cried the girls, all chirping at once, till it sounded as if a flock of sparrows had taken possession of the shed.
"I will call him, he knows me," and Bab scrambled up, forgetting how she had chased the poodle and called him names two days ago.
He evidently had not forgotten, however; for, though he paused and looked wistfully at them, he would not approach, but stood dripping in the rain, with his frills much bedraggled, while his tasselled tail wagged slowly, and his pink nose pointed suggestively to the pails and baskets, nearly empty now.
"He's hungry; give him something to eat, and then he'll see that we don't want to hurt him," suggested Sally, starting a contribution with her last bit of bread and butter.
Bab caught up her new pail, and collected all the odds and ends; then tried to beguile the poor beast in to eat and be comforted. But he only came as far as the door, and, sitting up, begged with such imploring eyes that Bab put down the pail and stepped back, saying pitifully, --
"The poor thing is starved; let him eat all he wants, and we won't touch him."
The girls drew back with little clucks of interest and compassion; but I regret to say their charity was not rewarded as they expected, for, the minute the coast was clear, the dog marched boldly up, seized the handle of the pail in his mouth, and was off with it, galloping down the road at a great pace.
Shrieks arose from the children, especially Bab and Betty, basely bereaved of their new dinner-pail; but no one could follow the thief, for the Ben rang, and in they went, so much excited that the boys rushed tumultuously forth to discover the cause. By the time school was over the sun was out, and Bab and Betty hastened home to tell their wrongs and be comforted by mother, who did it most effectually.
"Never mind, dears, I'll get you another pail, if he doesn't bring it back as he did before. As it is too wet for you to play out, you shall go and see the old coach-house as I promised, Keep on your rubbers and come along."
This delightful prospect much assuaged their woe, and away they went, skipping gayly down the gravelled path, while Mrs. Moss followed, with skirts well tucked up, and a great bunch of keys in her hand; for she lived at the Lodge, and had charge of the premises.
The small door of the coach-house was fastened inside, but the large one had a padlock on it; and this being quickly unfastened, one half swung open, and the little girls ran in, too eager and curious even to cry out when they found themselves at last in possession of the long-coveted old carriage. A dusty, musty concern enough; but it had a high seat, a door, steps that let down, and many other charms which rendered it most desirable in the eyes of children.
Bab made straight for the box and Betty for the door; but both came tumbling down faster than they went up, when from the gloom of the interior came a shrill bark, and a low voice saying quickly, "Down, Sancho! down!"
"Who is there?" demanded Mrs. Moss, in a stern tone, backing toward the door with both children clinging to her skirts.
The well-known curly white head was popped out of the broken window, and a mild whine seemed to say, "Don't be alarmed, ladies; we won't hurt you." Come out this minute, or I shall have to come and get you," called Mrs. Moss, growing very brave all of a sudden as she caught sight of a pair of small, dusty shoes under the coach.
"Yes, 'm, I'm coming, as fast as I can," answered a meek voice, as what appeared to be a bundle of rags leaped out of the dark, followed by the poodle, who immediately sat down at the bare feet of his owner with a watchful air, as if ready to assault any one who might approach too near.
"Now, then, who are you, and how did you get here?" asked Mrs. Moss, trying to speak sternly, though her motherly eyes were already full of pity, as they rested on the forlorn little figure before her.