Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter VIII. Miss Celia's Man
Ben was not too tired, and the clearing-up began that very night. None too soon, for in a day or two things arrived, to the great delight of the children, who considered moving a most interesting play. First came the phaeton, which Ben spent all his leisure moments in admiring; wondering with secret envy what happy boy would ride in the little seat up behind, and beguiling his tasks by planning how, when he got rich, he would pass his time driving about in just such an equipage, and inviting all the boys he met to have a ride.
Then a load of furniture came creaking in at the lodge gate, and the girls had raptures over a cottage piano, several small chairs, and a little low table, which they pronounced just the thing for them to play at. The live stock appeared next, creating a great stir in the neighborhood, for peacocks were rare birds there; the donkey's bray startled the cattle and convulsed the people with laughter; the rabbits were continually getting out to burrow in the newly made garden; and Chevalita scandalized old Duke by dancing about the stable which he had inhabited for years in stately solitude.
Last but by no means least, Miss Celia, her young brother, and two maids arrived one evening so late that only Mrs. Moss went over to help them settle. The children were much disappointed, but were appeased by a promise that they should all go to pay their respects in the morning.
They were up so early, and were so impatient to be off, that Mrs. Moss let them go with the warning that they would find only the servants astir. She was mistaken, however, for, as the procession approached, a voice from the porch called out, "Good-morning little neighbors!" so unexpectedly, that Bab nearly spilt the new milk she carried, Betty gave such a start that the fresh-laid eggs quite skipped in the dish, and Ben's face broke into a broad grin over the armful of clover which he brought for the bunnies, as he bobbed his head, saying briskly, --
"She's all right, miss, Lita is; and I can bring her over any minute you say."
"I shall want her at four o'clock. Thorny will be too tired to drive, but I must hear from the post-office, rain or shine;" and Miss Celia's pretty color brightened as she spoke, either from some happy thought or because she was bashful, for the honest young faces before her plainly showed their admiration of the white-gowned lady under the honeysuckles.
The appearance of Miranda, the maid, reminded the children of their errand; and having delivered their offerings, they were about to retire in some confusion, when Miss Celia said pleasantly, --
"I want to thank you for helping put things in such nice order. I see signs of busy hands and feet both inside the house and all about the grounds, and I am very much obliged."
"I raked the beds," said Ben, proudly eying the neat ovals and circles.
"I swept all the paths," added Bab, with a reproachful glance at several green sprigs fallen from the load of clover on the smooth walk.
"I cleared up the porch," and Betty's clean pinafore rose and fell with a long sigh, as she surveyed the late summer residence of her exiled family. Miss Celia guessed the meaning of that sigh, and made haste to turn it into a smile by asking anxiously, --
"What has become of the playthings? I don't see them anywhere."
"Ma said you wouldn't want our duds round, so we took them all home," answered Betty, with a wistful face.
"But I do want them round. I like dolls and toys almost as much as ever, and quite miss the little 'duds' from porch and path. Suppose you come to tea with me to-night and bring some of them back? I should be very sorry to rob you of your pleasant play-place."
"Oh, yes, 'm, we'd love to come! and we'll bring our best things."
"Ma always lets us have our shiny pitchers and the china poodle when we go visiting or have company at home," said Bab and Betty, both speaking at once.
"Bring what you like, and I'll hunt up my toys, too. Ben is to come also, and his poodle is especially invited," added Miss Celia, as Sancho came and begged before her, feeling that some agreeable project was under discussion.
"Thank you, miss. I told them you'd be willing they should come sometimes. They like this place ever so much, and so do I," said Ben, feeling that few spots combined so many advantages in the way of climbable trees, arched gates, half-a-dozen gables, and other charms suited to the taste of an aspiring youth who had been a flying Cupid at the age of seven.
"So do I," echoed Miss Celia, heartily. "Ten years ago I came here a little girl, and made lilac chains under these very bushes, and picked chickweed over there for my bird, and rode Thorny in his baby-wagon up and down these paths. Grandpa lived here then, and we had fine times; but now they are all gone except us two."
"We haven't got any father, either," said Bab, for something in Miss Celia's face made her feel as if a cloud had come over the sun.
"I have a first-rate father, if I only knew where he'd gone to," said Ben, looking down the path as eagerly as if one waited for him behind the locked gate.
"You are a rich boy, and you are happy little girls to have so good a mother; I've found that out already," and the sun shone again as the young lady nodded to the neat, rosy children before her.
"You may have a piece of her if you want to, 'cause you haven't got any of your own," said Betty with a pitiful look which made her blue eyes as sweet as two wet violets.
"So I will! and you shall be my little sisters. I never had any, and I'd love to try how it seems;" and Celia took both the chubby hands in hers, feeling ready to love every one this first bright morning in the new home, which she hoped to make a very happy one.
Bab gave a satisfied nod, and fell to examining the rings upon the white hand that held her own. But Betty put her arms about the new friend's neck, and kissed her so softly that the hungry feeling in Miss Celia's heart felt better directly; for this was the food it wanted, and Thorny had not learned yet to return one half of the affection he received. Holding the child close, she played with the yellow braids while she told them about the little German girls in their funny black-silk caps, short-waisted gowns, and wooden shoes, whom she used to see watering long webs of linen bleaching on the grass, watching great flocks of geese, or driving pigs to market, knitting or spinning as they went.
Presently "Randa," as she called her stout maid, came to tell her that "Master Thorny couldn't wait another minute;" and she went in to breakfast with a good appetite, while the children raced home to bounce in upon Mrs. Moss, talking all at once like little lunatics.
"The phaeton at four, -- so sweet in a beautiful white gown, -- going to tea, and Sancho and all the baby things invited. Can't we wear our Sunday frocks? A splendid new net for Lita. And she likes dolls. Goody, goody, won't it be fun!"
With much difficulty their mother got a clear account of the approaching festivity out of the eager mouths, and with still more diffculty, got breakfast into them, for the children had few pleasures, and this brilliant prospect rather turned their heads.
Bab and Betty thought the day would never end, and cheered the long hours by expatiating on the pleasures in store for them, till their playmates were much afflicted because they were not going also. At noon their mother kept them from running over to the old house lest they should be in the way; so they consoled themselves by going to the syringa bush at the corner and sniffing the savory odors which came from the kitchen, where Katy, the cook, was evidently making nice things for tea.
Ben worked as if for a wager till four; then stood over Pat while he curried Lita till her coat shone like satin, then drove her gently down to the coach-house, where he had the satisfaction of harnessing her "all his own self".
"Shall I go round to the great gate and wait for you there, miss?" he asked, when all was ready, looking up at the porch, where the young lady stood watching him as she put on her gloves.
"No, Ben, the great gate is not to be opened till next October. I shall go in and out by the lodge, and leave the avenue to grass and dandelions, meantime," answered Miss Celia, as she stepped in and took the reins, with a sudden smile.
But she did not start, even when Ben had shaken out the new duster and laid it neatly over her knees.
"Isn't it all right now?" asked the boy, anxiously.
"Not quite; I need one thing more. Can't you guess what it is?" and Miss Celia watched his anxious face as his eyes wandered from the tips of Lita's ears to the hind-wheel of the phaeton, trying to discover what had been omitted.
"No, miss, I don't see -- " he began, much mortified to think he had forgotten any thing.
"Wouldn't a little groom up behind improve the appearance of my turnout?" she said, with a look which left no doubt in his mind that he was to be the happy boy to occupy that proud perch.
He grew red with pleasure, but stammered, as he hesitated, looking down at his bare feet and blue shirt, --
"I ain't fit, miss; and I haven't got any other clothes."
Miss Celia only smiled again more kindly than before, and answered, in a tone which he understood better than her words, -- "A great man said his coat-of-arms was a pair of shirt-sleeves, and a sweet poet sang about a barefooted boy; so I need not be too proud to ride with one. Up with you, Ben, my man, and let us be off, or we shall be late for our party."
With one bound the new groom was in his place, sitting very erect, with his legs stiff, arms folded, and nose in the air, as he had seen real grooms sit behind their masters in fine dog-carts or carriages. Mrs. Moss nodded as they drove past the lodge, and Ben touched his torn hat-brim in the most dignified manner, though he could not suppress a broad grin of delight, which deepened into a chuckle when Lita went off at a brisk trot along the smooth road toward town.
It takes so little to make a child happy, it is a pity grown people do not oftener remember it and scatter little bits of pleasure before the small people, as they throw crumbs to the hungry sparrows. Miss Celia knew the boy was pleased, but he had no words in which to express his gratitude for the great contentment she had given him. He could only beam at all he met, smile when the floating ends of the gray veil blew against his face, and long in his heart to give the new friend a boyish hug, as he used to do his dear 'Melia when she was very good to him.
School was just out as they passed; and it was a spectacle, I assure you, to see the boys and girls stare at Ben up aloft in such state; also to see the superb indifference with which that young man regarded the vulgar herd who went afoot. He couldn't resist an affable nod to Bab and Betty, for they stood under the maple-tree, and the memory of their circulating library made him forget his dignity in his gratitude.
"We will take them next time, but now I want to talk to you," began Miss Celia, as Lita climbed the hill. "My brother has been ill, and I have brought him here to get well. I want to do all sorts of things to amuse him, and I think you can help me in many ways. Would you like to work for me instead of the Squire?
"I guess I would!" ejaculated Ben, so heartily that no further assurances were needed, and Miss Celia went on, well pleased: --
"You see, poor Thorny is weak and fretful, and does not like to exert himself, though he ought to be out a great deal, and kept from thinking of his little troubles. He cannot walk much yet, so I have a wheeled chair to push him in; and the paths are so hard, it will be easy to roll him about. That will be one thing you can do. Another is to take care of his pets till he is able to do it himself. Then you can tell him your adventures, and talk to him as only a boy can talk to a boy. That will amuse him when I want to write or go out; but I never leave him long, and hope he will soon be running about as well as the rest of us. How does that sort of work look to you?"
"First-rate! I'll take real good care of the little feller, and do every thing I know to please him, and so will Sanch; he's fond of children," answered Ben, heartily, for the new place looked very inviting to him. Miss Celia laughed, and rather damped his ardor by her next words.
"I don't know what Thorny would say to hear you call him 'little.' He is fourteen, and appears to get taller and taller every day. He seems like a child to me, because I am nearly ten years older than he is; but you needn't be afraid of his long legs and big eyes, he is too feeble to do any harm; only you mustn't mind if he orders you about."
"I'm used to that. I don't mind it if he won't call me a 'spalpeen,' and fire things at me," said Ben, thinking of his late trials with Pat.
"I can promise that; and I am sure Thorny will like you, for I told him your story, and he is anxious to see 'the circus boy' as he called you. Squire Allen says I may trust you, and I am glad to do so, for it saves me much trouble to find what I want all ready for me. You shall be well fed and clothed, kindly treated and honestly paid, if you like to stay with me."
"I know I shall like it -- till father comes, anyway. Squire wrote to Smithers right off, but hasn't got any answer yet. I know they are on the go now, so may be we won't hear for ever so long," answered Ben, feeling less impatient to be off than before this fine proposal was made to him.
"I dare say; meantime, we will see how we get on together, and perhaps your father will be willing leave you for the summer if he is away. Now show me the baker's, the candy-shop, and the post-office," said Miss Celia, as they rattled down the main street of the village.
Ben made himself useful; and when all the other errands were done, received his reward in the shape of a new pair of shoes and a straw hat with a streaming blue ribbon, on the ends of which shone silvery anchors. He was also allowed to drive home, while his new mistress read her letters. One particularly long one, with a queer stamp on the envelope, she read twice, never speaking a word till they got back. Then Ben was sent off with Lita and the Squire's letters, promising to get his chores done in time for tea.