Hildegarde's Neighbors by Laura E. Richards
Chapter X. A New Life.
"Bell," said Hildegarde, "I really think I must be a cat in disguise."
"What do you mean, dear?" inquired Bell, looking up from her dishpan.
"Why, I have had so many lives. This is the fifth, at the least computation. It is very extraordinary."
Quiet Bell waited, seeing that more was coming. The two girls were sitting on the end of a wharf, in the sparkling clearness of a September morning. Before them stretched a great lake, a sheet of silver, dotted as far as the eye could see with green islands. Behind lay a pebbly beach, and farther up, nestled among a fringe of forest trees, stood a bark hut, with broad verandahs and overhanging eaves. Hildegarde looked up and around, her face shining with pleasure.
"They have all been so happy--the lives," she said. "But this surely is the most beautiful to look at. You see," here she turned again to her companion, "first I was a little girl, and then a big one, at home in New York; and a very singularly odious specimen of both I was."
"Am I expected to believe this?" asked Bell, quietly.
"Oh yes! because I know, you see, and I remember just how detestable I was. Children are so sometimes, you know, even with the very best parents, and I certainly had those. Well, at last I grew so unbearable that I had to be sent away. Oh, you need not raise your eyebrows, my dear! It's very nice of you, but you never saw me then. I don't mean that I was sent to the Reform School; but my father and mother had to go to California, and I was not strong, so the journey was not thought best for me; and besides, dear mamma saw that if I was ever going to amount to anything I must be taken away from the fashionable school and the set of girls I was getting intimate with. I wasn't intimate with mamma then; I didn't want to be. The other girls were not, and I thought it would be silly; think of it, Bell! Well, I was sent, a forlorn and furious child (fifteen years old though, the same age as dear, sweet Gertrude), to my mother's old nurse in the country,--a farmer's wife, living on a small farm, twenty miles from a city. There, my dear, I first learned that there was a world outside the city of New York. I must tell you all about it some day,--the happy, blessed time I had with those dear people, and how I learned to know my own dearest ones while I was away from them. I buried that first Hildegarde, very dead, oh, very dead indeed! Then the next summer I went to a new world, and my Rose went with me. I have told you about her, and how sweet she is, and how ill she was, and now how she is going to marry the good doctor who cured her of her lameness. We spent the summer with Cousin Wealthy Bond, a cousin of my mother's,--the loveliest old lady, living down in Maine. That was a very new world, Bell; and oh! I have a child there, a little boy, my Benny. At least, he is Cousin Wealthy's Benny now, for she is bringing him up as her own, and loves him really as if he were; but I always think of him as partly mine, because Rose and I found him in the hospital where we used to go to carry flowers. He had been very ill, and we got Cousin Wealthy to let him come to her house to get well. And through, that, somehow, there came to be a little convalescent home for the children from the hospital,--oh, I must tell you that story too, some day, and it is called Joyous Gard. Yes, of course I named it, and I was there for a month this spring, before you came, and had the most enchanting time. I took Hugh with me, and the only trouble was that Benny was madly jealous of him, and gave him no peace. Poor Benny! he is a dear, nice little boy, but not like Hugh, of course, and that exasperated him past belief. It was just like Lord Lardy and the waiter in the Bab Ballad, for Hugh was entirely unconscious, and would smile peacefully at Benny's demonstrations of wrath, thinking it all a joke.
"Oh, I could talk all day about Benny and Cousin Wealthy, and nice, funny Mrs. Brett, and all of them. Well, then, two years ago came our trouble, you know. Dear papa died, and we came out here, feeling very strange and lost. It was sad at first, of course; but oh, we have had such peace and happiness together, my mother dear and I! The last year, when we had grown used to doing without the dear one, and knew--but mamma always knew it--that we must make happiness for each other,--the last year has been a most lovely time. But sweet and happy as it has all been, Bell, still I have always had a small circle to love and to be with. Mamma, bless her, and at one time one set of dear friends, and at another time another; never many people at once, and life peaceful and lovely, but one day pretty much like another, you see. But since you all came, I have been in a new world altogether,--a great, merry, laughing world, with such lots of children and fun--"
"And noise!" put in Bell. "We are a dreadfully noisy set, I fear."
"Oh, noise is good," cried Hildegarde, "such happy, healthy noise as this. I love it, though it did startle me at first. It seemed pleasant enough to have you all next door; but then came this last development,--Cousin Wealthy's illness, and her sending for mamma, and your mother's kindness in bringing me out to this delightful place. It is all like a fairy tale. I used to hear of people's camping out, but I always thought I should hate it. Hate this!"
She looked up at the brilliant sky above her, and around at the shining lake, the dark trees drooping to the water's edge, the green islands sleeping in the sunshine. "Oh, pleasant place!" she sighed.
They were silent for a few moments; Bell was scouring dishpans till they shone like silver, while Hildegarde thoughtfully wrung out the dishcloths that she had been washing as she talked.
"I suppose," said Bell, slowly, "life is always good, when we want to make it so. There are so many different kinds of life,--I have known so many in the short time I have been alive, and it didn't seem to make much difference about the outside of them. Some of the poorest and most suffering lives have been the happiest and blessedest, and again some that have money and health and everything that so many people sigh for, are miserable, for one reason or another. I can't bear to hear girls say, 'Oh, if I only had money! I would do so much, and be so good, and all that sort of thing.' I always want to say, 'Why don't you begin with what you have?' I did say it once to a girl, and she has hardly spoken to me since. She had been wishing that she had a hundred dollars to give to the Mission Society, and when I asked her for ten cents (I was the collector) she said she had only one dime, and she must get some soda water, or she should die."
"The creature! what did you say to her?"
"I said, 'Possibly the world would continue to revolve if you did!' and stalked away. Oh, I cannot stand that sort of thing, you know! And if you are a girl, you can't knock people down when they are cads."
Bell spoke regretfully, and Hildegarde could not help laughing at her friend's angry eyes and kindling cheek. The strong white bare arms, the deep chest and square shoulders, looked as if Bell would be no mean antagonist.
"I should not like to have you knock me down, my dear!" said Hilda.
"You never would need it," said Bell. "But I can tell you, Hilda, there are times when I feel as if a blow from the shoulder would be the best argument in the world. I love fighting! and I think I am rather a bonny fighter, as Alan Breck says. Roger taught me to box."
Hildegarde opened her eyes a little at this, boxing never having come within her horizon of feminine accomplishments.
"Does Professor Merryweather know how to do everything?" she asked. "He seems to be the Admirable Crichton come to life again."
"Nearly everything," said Bell, with judicious candour. "He cannot write verses, and he does not like dancing; those are the only things I can think of just now."
A birch canoe glided silently round the point; Roger was kneeling in the stern, paddling, Indian fashion, while Will and Kitty were curled up like two kittens in the bow. Hildegarde thought to herself that he was the handsomest man she had ever seen, so strong, so gentle, so perfectly graceful; but she did not say so.
"What luck?" cried Bell, as the Cheemaun came alongside the wharf. Roger held up a string of gleaming fish, two of them long, deep- bodied fellows, striped with pink and silver. Willy was happy with three hideous horned pouts, which he declared were the best fish that swam.
"Oh, pickerel! how delightful!" cried Bell, as she took the beauties from her brother's hands. "We will bake them for supper, Hilda; it is our turn, isn't it?"
"Oh!" said Willy, "I thought it was Toots' and Roger's turn. Toots makes the best griddle-cakes, and she ought always to get supper."
"Willy, you ungrateful little monster!" cried Bell. "And you said only last night that my biscuits were a dream of joy. You won't find me baking an extra pan for you, if you are going to turn upon me in this way."
"Oh yes! so you did, sister," said Willy, penitently. "But you see, I am griddle-cake hungry to-day, and yesterday I wasn't."
"Come, Hilda! we'll make our little gentleman pickerel-hungry before he is an hour older!" and the two girls hurried into the house.
Inside the camp was a large, low room, with a huge open fireplace filling nearly one side. A plain table stood in the middle; two hammocks were slung against the walls, which were hung with guns and fishing-rods. A bookcase in one corner, and Mrs. Merryweather's workstand in another, completed the furniture of the primitive parlour. On one side a door opened into the tiny kitchen, and hither the girls now betook themselves, after reminding Will and Kitty that it was their turn to set the supper table. The fire was soon burning brightly in the stove, the kettle put on to boil, and Hildegarde, rolling up her sleeves, set to work mixing and moulding biscuits, while Bell devoted herself to the stuffing and dressing of the big fish.
"I wish I had Izaak Walton here!" she said, as she mixed the bread stuffing.
"Father Izaak pleasant company would be at any moment," Hilda assented; "but what do you want him for just now? To cook the fish for you?"
"Not exactly; I doubt if he was as good in the kitchen as by the brookside; but to give me his famous receipt for cooking pickerel. I should like to astonish the family with it. I remember that it has thyme in it, and sweet marjoram and summer savory, not to mention oysters and anchovies, a pound of butter, a bottle of claret and three or four oranges; he gives you your choice about two cloves of garlic, and says you need not have them unless you like. Perhaps on the whole it is just as well not to try the dish at present; the anchovies were left behind, and the orange trees are not bearing very well this year."
"Dear me!" said Hildegarde. "That is as bad as my Southern receipt for wedding cake. Two hundred and one pounds of flour and fruit, and ten eggs to the pound; and if it isn't rich enough then, you can add two pounds of currants and one of raisins for each pound of flour. That would make,--let me see! I worked it all out once: two hundred and seventy pounds of things, and two thousand seven hundred eggs. What do you suppose they baked it in?"
"In the well!" said Bell. "That would hold it. Or else they built a pavilion round it, and had the bride and groom dance a minuet on the top after the ceremony. What fun cook-books are! Any more pleasantnesses in your Southern friend?"
"Oh, all kinds of good things! I remember the receipt for Seminole soup; we ought to try that out here, if we could find the ingredients. 'Take a squirrel, cut it up and put it on to boil. When the soup is nearly done add to it one pint of picked hickory- nuts and a spoonful of parched and powdered sassafras leaves, or the tender top of a young pine tree, which gives a very aromatic flavour to the soup.'"
"Oh, do somebody get us a pine tree!" cried Bell. "That is truly delightful! We must try it some day. Now it is my turn. I quote from Mrs. Rundell the glorious. This is what she gives to the poor; I don't want to be poor in Mrs. Rundell's parish.
"'Cut a very thick upper crust of bread, and put it into the pot where salt beef is boiling and near ready; it will attract some of the fat, and, when swelled out, will be no unpalatable dish to those who rarely taste meat.' That is called a brewis, my dear; suppose we give it to our pampered family here some day, and see what they say. How nearly are your biscuits done? I hear the people growling inside, like hungry bears. Uncle Pickerel is beginning to smell very good."
"Another five minutes will give them the requisite 'beautiful light brown'" said Hildegarde, peeping into the oven. "And the tea is made, and the potatoes are tearing off their jackets in impatience to be eaten."
"Are we going to have any supper?" asked Phil, looking in from the dining-room. "Roger has fainted with hunger, and lies a pallid heap on the floor, and Obadiah is gnawing his boots in his agony."
"As long as he does not swallow the nails," said Bell, calmly, "it will do him no harm. Have the babes got the table ready?"
"All ready, sister!" cried Kitty. "Cups and saucers and plates, and--oh, Willy, we have forgotten the butter! Why do we always forget the butter?"
In five minutes the whole family were seated round the table, with the lamp burning brightly above their heads. Bell came in triumphantly, bearing the mighty pickerel in their glory, on a huge platter decorated with green leaves and golden-rod. Hildegarde followed, flushed and sparkling, with her biscuits and coffee; and every one fell to with right good will.
"Why is it that everything tastes so good here?" demanded Will. "At home I can't always eat as much as I want to, and here I can always eat more than there is; and yet there is lots!" he added, surveying the broad table, heaped with substantial victuals of every sort.
"Ah! that's the beauty of it!" cried Gerald, spearing a potato. "The human capacity enlarges, my son, with every mile one retires from civilisation. When I was a Kickapoo Indian, Willy, I ate for three weeks without stopping, and I had three buffaloes at a--"
"Gerald, my dear!" said Mrs. Merryweather.
"Yes, Mater, my dear!" said the unblushing Gerald. "I was only trying to expand his mind, like the Ninkum. Excellent biscuits, Miss Hilda! three more, if you please."