Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter XXI. Cupid's Last Appearance
A picnic supper on the grass followed the games, and then, as twilight began to fall, the young people were marshalled to the coach-house, now transformed into a rustic theatre. One big door was open, and seats, arranged lengthwise, faced the red table-cloths which formed the curtain. A row of lamps made very good foot-lights, and an invisible band performed a Wagner-like overture on combs, tin trumpets, drums, and pipes, with an accompaniment of suppressed laughter.
Many of the children had never seen any thing like it, and sat staring about them in mute admiration and expectancy; but the older ones criticised freely, and indulged in wild speculations as to the meaning of various convulsions of nature going on behind the curtain.
While Teacher was dressing the actresses for the tragedy, Miss Celia and Thorny, who were old hands at this sort of amusement, gave a "Potato" pantomime as a side show.
Across an empty stall a green cloth was fastened, so high that the heads of the operators were not seen. A little curtain flew up, disclosing the front of a Chinese pagoda painted on pasteboard, with a door and window which opened quite naturally. This stood on one side, several green trees with paper lanterns hanging from the boughs were on the other side, and the words "Tea Garden," printed over the top, showed the nature of this charming spot.
Few of the children had ever seen the immortal Punch and Judy, so this was a most agreeable novelty, and before they could make out what it meant, a voice began to sing, so distinctly that every word was heard,--
"In China there lived a little man, His name was Chingery Wangery Chan."
Here the hero "took the stage" with great dignity, clad in a loose yellow jacket over a blue skirt, which concealed the hand that made his body. A pointed hat adorned his head, and on removing this to bow he disclosed a bald pate with a black queue in the middle, and a Chinese face nicely painted on the potato, the lower part of which was hollowed out to fit Thorny's first finger, while his thumb and second finger were in the sleeves of the yellow jacket, making a lively pair of arms. While he saluted, the song went n, --
"His legs were short, his feet were small, And this little man could not walk at all."
Which assertion was proved to be false by the agility with which the "little man" danced a jig in time to the rollicking chorus, --
"Chingery changery ri co day, Ekel tekel happy man; Uron odesko canty oh, oh, Gallopy wallopy China go."
At the close of the dance and chorus, Chan retired into the tea garden, and drank so many cups of the national beverage, with such comic gestures, that the spectators were almost sorry when the opening of the opposite window drew all eyes in that direction. At the lattice appeared a lovely being; for this potato had been pared, and on the white surface were painted pretty pink checks, red lips, black eyes, and oblique brows; through the tuft of dark silk on the head were stuck several glittering pins, and a pink jacket shrouded the plump figure of this capital little Chinese lady. After peeping coyly out, so that all could see and admire, she fell to counting the money from a purse, so large her small hands could hardly hold it on the window seat. While she did this, the song went on to explain, --
"Miss Ki Hi was short and squat, She had money and he had not So off to her he resolved to go, And play her a tune on his little banjo."
During the chorus to this verse Chan was seen tuning his instrument in the garden, and at the end sallied gallantly forth to sing the following tender strain, --
"Whang fun li, Tang hua ki, Hong Kong do ra me! Ah sin lo, Pan to fo, Tsing up chin leute!"
Carried away by his passion, Chan dropped his banjo, fell upon his knees, and, clasping his hands, bowed his forehead in the dust before his idol. But, alas! --
"Miss Ki Hi heard his notes of love, And held her wash-bowl up above It fell upon the little man, And this was the end of Chingery Chan,"
Indeed it was; for, as the doll's basin of real water was cast forth by the cruel charmer, poor Chan expired in such strong convulsions that his head rolled down among the audience. Miss Ki Hi peeped to see what had become of her victim, and the shutter decapitated her likewise, to the great delight of the children, who passed around the heads, pronouncing a "Potato" pantomime "first-rate fun."
Then they settled themselves for the show, having been assured by Manager Thorny that they were about to behold the most elegant and varied combination ever produced on any stage. And when one reads the following very inadequate description of the somewhat mixed entertainment, it is impossible to deny that the promise made was nobly kept.
After some delay and several crashes behind the curtain, which mightily amused the audience, the performance began with the well-known tragedy of "Bluebeard;" for Bab had set her heart upon it, and the young folks had acted it so often in their plays that it was very easy to get up, with a few extra touches to scenery and costumes. Thorny was superb as the tyrant with a beard of bright blue worsted, a slouched hat and long feather, fur cloak, red hose, rubber boots, and a real sword which clanked tragically as he walked. He spoke in such a deep voice, knit his corked eye-brows, and glared so frightfully, that it was no wonder poor Fatima quaked before him as he gave into her keeping an immense bunch of keys with one particularly big, bright one, among them.
Bab was fine to see, with Miss Celia's blue dress sweeping behind her, a white plume in her flowing hair, and a real necklace with a pearl locket about her neck. She did her part capitally, especially the shriek she gave when she looked into the fatal closet, the energy with which she scrubbed the tell-tale key, and her distracted tone when she called out: "Sister Anne, O, sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?" while her enraged husband was roaring: "Will you come down, madam, or shall I come and fetch you?"
Betty made a captivating Anne, -- all in white muslin, and a hat full of such lovely pink roses that she could not help putting up one hand to feel them as she stood on the steps looking out at the little window for the approaching brothers who made such a din that it sounded like a dozen horsemen instead if two.
Ben and Billy were got up regardless of expense in the way of arms; for their belts were perfect arsenals, and their wooden swords were big enough to strike terror into any soul, though they struck no sparks out of Bluebeard's blade in the awful combat which preceded the villain's downfall and death.
The boys enjoyed this part intensely, and cries of "Go it, Ben!" "Hit him again, Billy!" "Two against one isn't fair!" "Thorny's a match for 'em." "Now he's down, hurray!" cheered on the combatants, till, after a terrific struggle, the tyrant fell, and with convulsive twitchings of the scarlet legs, slowly expired while the ladies sociably fainted in each other's arms, and the brothers waved their swords and shook hands over the corpse of their enemy.
This piece was rapturously applauded, and all the performers had to appear and bow their thanks, led by the defunct Bluebeard, who mildly warned the excited audience that if they "didn't look out the seats would break down, and then there'd be a nice mess."
Calmed by this fear they composed themselves, and waited with ardor for the next play, which promised to be a lively one, judging from the shrieks of laughter which came from behind the curtain.
"Sanch 's going to be in it, I know; for I heard Ben say, 'Hold him still; he won't bite,'" whispered Sam, longing to "jounce up and down, so great was his satisfaction at the prospect, for the dog was considered the star of the company.
"I hope Bab will do something else, she is so funny. Wasn't her dress elegant?" said Sally Folsum, burning to wear a long silk gown and a feather in her hair.
"I like Betty best, she's so cunning, and she peeked out of the window just as if she really saw somebody coming," answered Liddy Peckham, privately resolving to tease mother for some pink roses before another Sunday came.
Up went the curtain at last, and a voice announced "A Tragedy in Three Tableaux." "There's Betty!" was the general exclamation, as the audience recognized a familiar face under the little red hood worn by the child who stood receiving a basket from Teacher, who made a nice mother with her finger up, as if telling the small messenger not to loiter by the way.
"I know what that is!" cried Sally; "it's 'Mabel on Midsummer Day.' The piece Miss Celia spoke; don't you know?"
"There isn't any sick baby, and Mabel had a 'kerchief pinned about her head.' I say it's Red Riding Hood," answered Liddy, who had begun to learn Mary Howitt's pretty poem for her next piece, and knew all about it.
The question was settled by the appearance of the wolf in the second scene, and such a wolf! On few amateur stages do we find so natural an actor for that part, or so good a costume, for Sanch was irresistibly droll in the gray wolf-skin which usually lay beside Miss Celia's bed, now fitted over his back and fastened neatly down underneath, with his own face peeping out at one end, and the handsome tail bobbing gayly at the other. What a comfort that tail was to Sancho, none but a bereaved bow-wow could ever tell. It reconciled him to his distasteful part at once, it made rehearsals a joy, and even before the public he could not resist turning to catch a glimpse of the noble appendage, while his own brief member wagged with the proud consciousness that though the tail did not match the head, it was long enough to be seen of all men and dogs.
That was a pretty picture, for the little maid came walking in with the basket on her arm, and such an innocent face inside the bright hood that it was quite natural the gray wolf should trot up to her with deceitful friendliness, that she should pat and talk to him confidingly about the butter for grandma, and then that they should walk away together, he politely carrying her basket, she with her hand on his head, little dreaming what evil plans were taking shape inside.
The children encored that, but there was no time to repeat it, so they listened to more stifled merriment behind the red table-cloths, and wondered whether the next scene would be the wolf popping his head out of the window as Red Riding Hood knocks, or the tragic end of that sweet child.
It was neither, for a nice bed had been made, and in it reposed the false grandmother, with a ruffled nightcap on, a white gown, and spectacles. Betty lay beside the wolf, staring at him as if just about to say, "Why, grandma, what great teeth you've got!" for Sancho's mouth was half open and a red tongue hung out, as he panted with the exertion of keeping still. This tableau was so very good, and yet so funny, that the children clapped and shouted frantically; this excited the dog, who gave a bounce and would have leaped off the bed to bark at the rioters, if Betty had not caught him by the legs, and Thorny dropped the curtain just at the moment when the wicked wolf was apparently in the act of devouring the poor little girl, with most effective growls.
They had to come out then, and did so, both much dishevelled by the late tussle, for Sancho's cap was all over one eye, and Betty's hood was anywhere but on her head. She made her courtesy prettily, however; her fellow-actor bowed with as much dignity as a short night-gown permitted, and they retired to their well-earned repose.
Then Thorny, looking much excited, appeared to make the following request: "As one of the actors in the next piece is new to the business, the company must all keep as still as mice, and not stir till I give the word. It's perfectly splendid! so don't you spoil it by making a row."
"What do you suppose it is?" asked every one, and listened with all their might to get a hint, if possible. But what they heard only whetted their curiosity and mystified them more and more. Bab's voice cried in a loud whisper, "Isn't Ben beautiful?" Then there was a thumping noise, and Miss Celia said, in an anxious tone, "Oh, do be careful," while Ben laughed out as if he was too happy to care who heard him, and Thorny bawled "Whoa!" in a way which would have attracted attention if Lita's head had not popped out of her box, more than once, to survey the invaders of her abode, with a much astonished expression.
"Sounds kind of circusy, don't it?" said Sam to Billy, who had come out to receive the compliments of the company and enjoy the tableau at a safe distance.
"You just wait till you see what's coming. It beats any circus I ever saw," answered Billy, rubbing his hands with the air of a man who had seen many instead of but one.
"Ready! Be quick and get out of the way when she goes off!" whispered Ben, but they heard him and prepared for pistols, rockets or combustibles of some sort, as ships were impossible under the circumstances, and no other "She" occurred to them.
A unanimous "O-o-o-o !" was heard when the curtain rose, but a stern "Hush!" from Thorny kept them mutely staring with all their eyes at the grand spectacle of the evening. There stood Lita with a wide flat saddle on her back, a white head-stall and reins, blue rosettes in her ears, and the look of a much-bewildered beast in her bright eyes. But who the gauzy, spangled, winged creature was, with a gilt crown on its head, a little bow in its hand, and one white slipper in the air, while the other seemed merely to touch the saddle, no one could tell for a minute, so strange and splendid did the apparition appear. No wonder Ben was not recognized in this brilliant disguise, which was more natural to him than Billy's blue flannel or Thorny's respectable garments. He had so begged to be allowed to show himself "just once," as he used to be in the days when "father" tossed him up on the bare-backed old General, for hundreds to see and admire, that Miss Celia had consented, much against her will, and hastily arranged some bits of spangled tarlatan over the white cotton suit which was to simulate the regulation tights. Her old dancing slippers fitted, and gold paper did the rest, while Ben, sure of his power over Lita, promised not to break his bones, and lived for days on the thought of the moment when he could show the boys that he had not boasted vainly of past splendors.
Before the delighted children could get their breath, Lita gave signs of her dislike to the foot-lights, and, gathering up the reins that lay on her neck, Ben gave the old cry, "Houp-la!" and let her go, as he had often done before, straight out of the coach-house for a gallop round the orchard.
"Just turn about and you can see perfectly well, but stay where you are till he comes back," commanded Thorny, as signs of commotion appeared in the excited audience.
Round went the twenty children as if turned by one crank, and sitting there they looked out into the moonlight where the shining figure flashed to and fro, now so near they could see the smiling face under the crown, now so far away that it glittered like a fire-fly among the dusky green. Lita enjoyed that race as heartily as she had done several others of late, and caracoled about as if anxious to make up for her lack of skill by speed and obedience. How much Ben liked it there is no need to tell, yet it was a proof of the good which three months of a quiet, useful life had done him, that even as he pranced gayly under the boughs thick with the red and yellow apples almost ready to be gathered, he found this riding in the fresh air with only his mates for an audience pleasanter than the crowded tent, the tired horses, profane men, and painted women, friendly as some of them had been to him.
After the first burst was over, he felt rather glad, on the whole, that he was going back to plain clothes, helpful school, and kindly people, who cared more to have him a good boy than the most famous Cupid that ever stood on one leg with a fast horse under him.
"You may make as much noise as you like, now; Lita's had her run and will be as quiet as a lamb after it. Pull up, Ben, and come in; sister says you'll get cold," shouted Thorny, as the rider came cantering round after a leap over the lodge gate and back again.
So Ben pulled up, and the admiring boys and girls were allowed to gather about him, loud in their praises as they examined the pretty mare and the mythological character who lay easily on her back.
He looked very little like the god of love now; for he had lost one slipper and splashed his white legs with dew and dust, the crown had slipped down upon his neck, and the paper wings hung in an apple-tree where he had left them as he went by. No trouble in recognizing Ben, now; but somehow he didn't want to be seen, and, instead of staying to be praised, he soon slipped away, making Lita his excuse to vanish behind the curtain while the rest went into the house to have a finishing-off game of blindman's-buff in the big kitchen.
"Well, Ben, are you satisfied?" asked Miss Celia, as she stayed a moment to unpin the remains of his gauzy scarf and tunic.
"Yes, 'm, thank you, it was tip-top."
"But you look rather sober. Are you tired, or is it because you don't want to take these trappings off and be plain Ben again?" she said, looking down into his face as he lifted it for her to free him from his gilded collar.
"I want to take 'em off; for somehow I don't feel respectable," and he kicked away the crown he had helped to make so carefully, adding with a glance that said more than his words: "I'd rather be 'plain Ben' than any one else, for you like to have me."
"Indeed I do; and I'm so glad to hear you say that, because I was afraid you'd long to be off to the old ways, and all I've tried to do would be undone. Would you like to go back, Ben?" and Miss Celia held his chin an instant, to watch the brown face that looked so honestly back at her.
"No, I wouldn't -- unless -- he was there and wanted me."
The chin quivered just a bit, but the black eyes were as bright as ever, and the boy's voice so earnest, she knew he spoke the truth, and laid her white hand softly on his head, as she answered in the tone he loved so much, because no one else had ever used it to him, --
"Father is not there; but I know he wants you, dear, and I am sure he would rather see you in a home like this than in the place you came from. Now go and dress; but, tell me first, has it been a happy birthday?"
"Oh, Miss Celia! I didn't know they could be so beautiful, and this is the beautifulest part of it; I don't know how to thank you, but I'm going to try --" and, finding words wouldn't come fast enough, Ben just put his two arms round her, quite speechless with gratitude; then, as if ashamed of his little outburst, he knelt down in a great hurry to untie his one shoe.
But Miss Celia liked his answer better than the finest speech ever made her, and went away through the moonlight, saying to herself, --
"If I can bring one lost lamb into the fold, I shall be the fitter for a shepherd's wife, by-and-by."