Hildegarde's Neighbors by Laura E. Richards
Chapter III. Pumpkin House.
When Mrs. Grahame and Hildegarde went to call on their new neighbours, two days after the meeting in the garden, they found them already entirely at home, the house looking as if they had always lived in it. The furniture was plain, and showed marks of hard usage; but there were plenty of pictures, and the right kind of pictures, as Hildegarde said to herself, with satisfaction; and there were books,--books everywhere. In the wide, sunny sitting- room, into which they were ushered by a pleasant-faced maid, low bookcases ran all round the walls, and were not only filled, but heaped with books, the volumes lying in piles along the top. The centre-table was a magazine-stand, where Saint Nicholas and The Century, The Forum and The Scientific American jostled each other in friendly rivalry. Mrs. Merryweather sat in a low chair, with her lap full of books, and had some difficulty in rising to receive her visitors. Her hearty welcome assured them that they had not come a day too soon, as Mrs. Grahame feared.
"My dear lady, no! I am charmed to see you. Bell has had such pleasure in making friends with your daughter. Miss Grahame, I am delighted to see you!" and Mrs. Merryweather held out what she thought was her hand, but Hildegarde shook instead a small morocco volume, and was well content when she saw that it was the "Golden Treasury."
"Bell has had such pleasure that I have been most anxious to share it, and to know you and your daughter. Shall we be neighbourly? I am the most unceremonious person in the world. Dear me! isn't there a chair without books on it? Here, my dear Mrs. Grahame, sit down here, pray! It is Dr. Johnson himself who makes room for you, and you must excuse the great man for being slow in his movements."
With a merry smile, she offered the chair from which she had just removed a huge folio dictionary. Hildegarde found an ottoman which she could easily share with a volume of Punch, and Mrs. Merryweather beamed at them over her spectacles, and said again that she was delighted to see them.
"We are getting the books to rights gradually," she said, "but it takes time, as you see. I have to do this myself, with Bell's help. She will be down in a moment, my dear. We have established an overflow bookcase in a cupboard upstairs, and she has just gone up with a load. Ah! here she is. Bell, my dear, Mrs. and Miss Grahame. So kind of them to come and see us!"
Bell shook hands warmly, her frank, pleasant face shining with good-will. "I am so glad to see you!" she cried, sitting down by Hildegarde on a pile of Punches. "I hoped you would come to-day, even if the books are not in order yet. They are so dear, the books; they are part of the family, and we want to be sure that they have places they like. I suppose Punch ought by rights to go with people of his own sort--if there is anybody!--but one wants him close at hand, don't you think so? where one can take him up any time,--when it rains, or when things bother one. Do you remember that Leech picture?" and they babbled of Punch, their beloved, for ten minutes, and liked each other better at every one of the ten.
"Bell, I want Mrs. and Miss Grahame to see our other children," said Mrs. Merryweather, presently. "Where is Toots, and where are the boys?"
"Toots is upstairs, poor lamb!" Bell replied. "When Mary came to tell me of our visitors' arrival I was just putting away Sibbes's 'Soul's Conflict,' and various other dreadful persons whom you would not let me burn; so I dumped them in Toots's arms, and ran off and left her. Being a ''bedient old soul,' she is probably standing just where I left her. I will go--"
But at this moment Toots appeared,--a girl of fifteen, tall, shy and blushing, and was introduced as "my daughter Gertrude." She confessed, on interrogation, that she had dropped Sibbes's "Soul's Conflict" out of the window, and was on her way to pick it up.
"Why didn't you drop it down the well?" asked her sister. "It is so dry, I am sure a wetting would do it good!"
"Sit down, my dear!" said Mrs. Merryweather, comfortably. "One of the boys is sure to be about, and will bring in the book. Sibbes is a little dry, Bell, but very sound writing, much sounder than a good deal of the controversial writing of--bless me! what's that?"
Something resembling a human wheel had revolved swiftly past the window, emitting unearthly cries.
Hildegarde blushed and hesitated. "I--I think it was your brother Obadiah," she said to Bell.
The latter stared, open-eyed. "My brother Obadiah?" she repeated. "How did you know--I beg your pardon! but why do you say Obadiah?"
Hildegarde glanced at her mother, who was laughing openly. "You will have to make full confession, Hilda," she said. "I do not think Mrs. Merryweather will be very severe with you."
"It is a dreadful thing to confess," said Hildegarde, laughing and blushing. "I--to tell the truth, I happened to be walking in our garden, on the other side of the tall hedge, just when you drove up, the other day; and--there is a most convenient little peep- hole, and I wanted to see our new neighbours, and--and--I peeped! Are you much shocked, Mrs. Merryweather? I heard several names,-- Bell, and Toots, and--I--I heard the handsome red-haired boy called Obadiah."
The Merryweathers laughed merrily, and Mrs. Merryweather was about to speak, when a voice was heard in the hall, chanting in a singular, nasal key,--
"Dropsy dropped a book, And she's going to be shook! Dropsy dropped a volume, Which makes her very solume!"
The door was pushed open, and the handsome red-haired boy entered, walking on his hands, holding aloft between his feet the missing "Soul's Conflict."
"My son Gerald," said Mrs. Merryweather, with a wicked smile. "Gerald, my love, Mrs. and Miss Grahame."
If Hildegarde was crimson (and she undoubtedly was), Gerald Merryweather was brilliant scarlet when he rose to his feet and saluted the strangers; but he was also atwinkle with laughter, the whole lithe, graceful body of him seeming to radiate fun. One glance at Bell, another at Hildegarde, and the whole party broke into peal on peal of merriment.
"How do you do?" said Scarlet to Crimson, holding out a strong brown hand, and gripping hers cordially. "Awfully glad! Please excuse me, Mrs. Grahame, for coming in like that. I thought there was no one here but the mother, and she is as used to one end of me as the other."
"So you are Gerald, and not Obadiah." said Mrs. Grahame. "I congratulate you on the prettier name."
"Oh, Ferguson calls me Obadiah!" said Gerald, laughing again. "He's the other of me, you know. Beg pardon! you don't know, perhaps. We are twins, Ferguson and I."
"And Ferguson, my dear Mrs. Grahame," interposed Mrs. Merryweather, "is my son Philip. Why these boys cannot call each other by their rightful names is a family mystery; but so it is."
"Is your brother Fer--Philip like you?" asked Hildegarde, feeling sure that he was not, as the other boy she had seen certainly had not red hair.
"Not a bit!" replied Gerald, cheerfully. "No resemblance, I believe. 'Beauty and the Beast' we call each other, too. Sometimes I am Beauty, and more times I am the Beast; depends on which has had his hair cut last."
"Or brushed," said Bell, glancing at the curly hair, which was certainly in rather a wild condition.
"Oh, yes! beg pardon!" said Gerald, glancing ruefully at the mirror, and running his hand through his curly mop.
"Beast this time, and no mistake. Grass rather long, you see, and tore my locks of gold. Happy thought! Desiring to tear your hair in sorrow, walk on hands through long grass; effect admirable. Wonder Hamlet never tried it!"
"Hamlet's hair was black," said Toots, seriously.
"And therefore he could not walk on his hands," said Gerald. "I see! Dropsy, you are a genius; that's the trouble with you."
A long gray leg appeared at the open window, and after waving wildly for a moment, disappeared suddenly.
"Ferguson!" said Gerald, turning to Hildegarde. "His mountain way! Becoming aware of your presence, he has retired, to reverse legs, and will shortly reappear, fondly hoping that you did not see him before."
Sure enough, in a few moments another tall boy entered, looking preternaturally grave, with his hair scrupulously smooth.
"Been upstairs, you see," said the irrepressible Gerald, "and slicked himself all up. Quite the Beauty, Fergs."
"Gerald, do be quiet!" said Mrs. Merryweather. "This is Philip, my other twin boy, Mrs. Grahame."
Philip greeted Hildegarde and her mother with grave courtesy, taking no notice of his brother's gibes.
"You find us in a good deal of confusion," he said to Hildegarde, sitting down on a table, the only available seat. "It takes a long time to get settled, don't you think so?"
"Oh--yes!" said Hildegarde, struggling for composure, and conscious of Gerald's eyes fixed intently on her. "But you all look so home-like and comfortable here."
"Especially Ferguson!" broke in Gerald, sotto voce. "How comfortable he looks, doesn't he, Miss Grahame? No use, Fergs! We marked your little footprints in the air, my son."
"Oh!" said Philip, looking much discomposed. "Well, I'll punch your head, Obe, anyhow."
"Suppose we come out and look at the tennis-court," said Bell. "I am sure you play tennis, Miss Grahame."
"Indeed I do," said Hildegarde, heartily. "I have often looked longingly at that nice smooth lawn, and I hoped you were going to lay it out for a court."
"Phil," said Gertrude aside to her brother, who was still blushing and uncomfortable, "you needn't mind a bit. Jerry came in walking on his hands, right into the room, before he saw them at all; and they are so nice, they didn't care; they liked it."
"Did they?" said Phil, also in a whisper. "Well, that's some comfort; but I'll punch his head for him, all the same."
And Gerald cried aloud,--
"Away, away to the mountain's brow, For Ferguson glares like an angry cow. He'll punch my head, and kill me dead, Before I have time to say 'Bow-wow.'"
And the five young people went off laughing to the tennis-court.