Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
XXXIV. Nancy Comes Out
Nancy's seventeenth birthday was past, and it was on the full of the August moon that she finally "came out" in the Hamilton barn. It was the barn's first public appearance too, for the villagers had not been invited to the private Saturday night dances that took place during the brief reign of the Hamilton boys and girls. Beulah was more excited about the barn than it was about Nancy, and she was quite in sympathy with this view of things, as the entire Carey family, from mother to Peter, was fairly bewitched with its new toy. Day by day it had grown more enchanting as fresh ideas occurred to one or another, and especially to Osh Popham, who lived, breathed, and had his being in the barn, and who had lavished his ingenuity and skill upon its fittings. Not a word did he vouchsafe to the general public of the extraordinary nature of these fittings, nor of the many bewildering features of the entertainment which was to take place within the almost sacred precincts. All the Carey festivities had heretofore been in the house save the one in honor of the hanging of the weather vane, which had been an out-of-door function, attended by the whole village. Now the community was all agog to disport itself in pastures new; its curiosity being further piqued by the reception of written invitations, a convention not often indulged in by Beulah.
The eventful day dawned, clear and cool; a day with an air like liquid amber, that properly belonged to September,--the weather prophet really shifting it into August from pure kindness, having taken a sticky dogday out and pitchforked it into the next month.
The afternoon passed in various stages of plotting, planning, and palpitation, and every girl in Beulah, of dancing age, was in her bedroom, trying her hair a new way. The excitement increased a thousand fold when it was rumored that an Admiral (whatever that might be) had arrived at the hotel and would appear at the barn in full uniform. After that, nobody's braids or puffs would go right!
Nancy never needed to study Paris plates, for her hair dressed itself after a fashion set by all the Venuses and Cupids and little Loves since the world began. It curled, whether she would or no, so the only method was to part the curls and give them a twist into a coil, from which vagrant spirals fell to the white nape of her neck. Or, if she felt gay and coquettish as she did tonight, the curls were pinned high to the crown of her head and the runaways rioted here and there, touching her cheek, her ear, her neck, never ugly, wherever they ran.
Nancy had a new yellow organdy made "almost to touch," and a twist of yellow ribbon in her hair. Kathleen and Julia were in the white dresses brought them by Cousin Ann, and Mrs. Carey wore her new black silk, made with a sweeping little train. Her wedding necklace of seed pearls was around her neck, and a tall comb of tortoise shell and pearls rose from the low-coiled knot of her shining hair.
The family "received" in the old carriage house, and when everybody had assembled, to the number of seventy-five or eighty, the door into the barn was thrown open majestically by Gilbert, in his character as head of the house of Carey. Words fail to describe the impression made by the barn as it was introduced to the company, Nancy's debut sinking into positive insignificance beside it.
Dozens of brown japanned candle-lanterns hung from the beamed ceiling, dispensing little twinkles of light here and there, while larger ones swung from harness pegs driven into the sides of the walls. The soft gray-brown of the old weathered lumber everywhere, made a lovely background for the birch-bark brackets, and the white birch-bark vases that were filled with early golden-rod, mixed with tall Queen Anne's lace and golden glow. The quaint settles surrounding the sides of the room were speedily filled by the admiring guests. Colonel Wheeler's tiny upright piano graced the platform in the "tie up." Miss Susie Bennett, the church organist, was to play it, aided now and then by Mrs. Carey or Julia. Osh Popham was to take turns on the violin with a cousin from Warren's Mills, who was reported to be the master fiddler of the county.
When all was ready Mrs. Carey stood between the master fiddler and Susie Bennett, and there was a sudden hush in the room. "Friends and neighbors," she said, "we now declare the Hall of Happy Hours open for the general good of the village. If it had not been for the generosity of our landlord, Mr. Lemuel Hamilton, we could never have given you this pleasure, and had not our helpers been so many, we could never have made the place so beautiful. Before the general dancing begins there will be a double quadrille of honor, in which all those will take part who have driven a nail, papered or painted a wall, dug a spadeful of earth, or done any work in or about the Yellow House."
"Three cheers for Mrs. Carey!" called Bill Harmon, and everybody complied lustily.
"Three cheers for Lemuel Hamilton!" and the rafters of the barn rang with the response.
Just then the Admiral changed his position to conceal the moisture that was beginning to gather in his eyes; and the sight of a personage so unspeakably magnificent in a naval uniform induced Osh Popham to cry spontaneously: "Three cheers for the Admiral! I don't know what he ever done, but he looks as if he could, all right!" at which everybody cheered and roared, and the Admiral to his great surprise made a speech, during which the telltale tears appeared so often in his eyes and in his voice, that Osh Popham concluded privately that if the naval hero ever did meet an opposing battleship he would be likelier to drown the enemy than fire into them!
The double quadrille of honor passed off with much elegance, everybody not participating in it being green with envy because he was not. Mrs. Carey and the Admiral were partners; Nancy danced with Mr. Popham, Kathleen with Digby, Julia with Bill Harmon. The other couples were Mrs. Popham and Gilbert, Lallie Joy and Cyril Lord, Olive and Nat Harmon, while Mrs. Bill led out a very shy and uncomfortable gentleman who had dug the ditches for Cousin Ann's expensive pipes.
Then the fun and the frolic began in earnest. The girls had been practising the old-fashioned contra dances all summer, and training the younger generation in them at the Vacation School. The old folks needed no rehearsal! If you had waked any of them in the night suddenly they could have called the changes for Speed the Plough, The Soldier's Joy, The Maid in the Pump Room, or Hull's Victory.
Money Musk brought Nancy and Mr. Henry Lord on to the floor as head couple; a result attained by that young lady by every means, fair or foul, known to woman; at least a rudimentary, budding woman of seventeen summers! His coming to the party at all was regarded by Mother Carey, who had spent the whole force of her being in managing it, as nothing short of a miracle. He had accepted partly from secret admiration of his handsome neighbor, partly to show the village that he did not choose always to be a hermit crab, partly out of curiosity to see the unusual gathering. Having crawled out of his selfish shell far enough to grace the occasion, he took another step when Nancy asked him to dance. It was pretty to see her curtsey when she put the question, pretty to see the air of triumph with which she led him to the head of the line, and positively delightful to the onlookers to see Hen Lord doing right and left, ladies' chain, balance to opposite and cast off, at a girl's beck and call. He was not a bad dancer, when his sluggish blood once got into circulation; and he was considerably more limber at the end of Money Musk, considerably less like a wooden image, than at the beginning of it.
In the interval between this astounding exhibition and the Rochester Schottisch which followed it, Henry Lord went up to Mrs. Carey, who was sitting in a corner a little apart from her guests for the moment.
"Shall I go to South America, or shall I not?" he asked her in an undertone. "Olive seems pleasantly settled, and Cyril tells me you will consent to take him into your family for six months; still, I would like a woman's advice."
Mother Carey neither responded, "I should prefer not to take the responsibility of advising you," nor "Pray do as you think best"; she simply said, in a tone she might have used to a fractious boy:
"I wouldn't go, Mr. Lord! Wait till Olive and Cyril are a little older. Cyril will grow into my family instead of into his own; Olive will learn to do without you; worse yet, you will learn to do without your children. Stay at home and have Olive come back to you and her brother every week end. South America is a long distance when there are only three of you!"
Prof. Lord was not satisfied with Mrs. Carey's tone. It was so maternal that he expected at any moment she might brush his hair, straighten his necktie, and beg him not to sit up too late, but his instinct told him it was the only tone he was ever likely to hear from her, and so he said reluctantly, "Very well; I confess that I really rely on your judgment, and I will decline the invitation."
"I think you are right," Mrs. Carey answered, wondering if the man would ever see his duty with his own eyes, or whether he had deliberately blinded himself for life.