Hildegarde's Neighbors by Laura E. Richards
Chapter V. Tea at Roseholme.
On a certain lovely evening in June, Hildegarde left the house at six o'clock, or, to be precise, at five minutes before six, and took the path that led to Roseholme. It was her eighteenth birthday, and the Colonel was giving her a tea-party. This was a great event, for many years had passed since guests had been invited to Roseholme. The good Colonel, always delighted to be with Hildegarde and her mother, had still kept up his solitary habits at home, and save for little Hugh, who flitted about the dark old house like a sunbeam, it was a lonely place. Now, however, the Colonel had roused himself and declared that he, and no other, should give his young friend her birthday treat. The Merryweathers were invited, all except the two youngest, Will and Kitty. Mrs. Grahame was already there, having gone over early, at the Colonel's request, to help in arranging certain little matters which he considered beyond the province of his good housekeeper; and now it was time for the "beneficiary," as Gerald Merryweather called her, to follow.
Hildegarde was dressed in white, of course; she always wore white in the evening. Miss Loftus, her neighbour in the new stone house, sometimes expressed wonder at that Grahame girl's wearing white so much, when they hadn't means to keep so much as a pony to carry their mail; her wonder might have been set at rest if she could have peeped into the airy kitchen at Braeside, and seen Hildegarde singing at her ironing-table in the early morning, before the sun was hot. Auntie, the good black cook, washed the dresses generally, though Hildegarde could do that, too, if she was "put to it;" but Hildegarde liked the ironing, and took as much pride-- or nearly as much--in her own hems and ruffles as she did in the delicate laces which she "did up" for her mother. Her dress this evening was sheer white lawn, and she had a white rose in her hair, and another in her belt, and, altogether, she was pleasant to look upon. Gerald Merryweather, who with his brother was making his way along another path in the same direction, saw the girl, and straightway glowed with all the ardour of seventeen.
"I say!" he exclaimed, under his breath, "isn't she stunning? Look, Ferg, you old ape! Ever see anything like that?"
Ferguson, who was of a cooler temperament, replied without enthusiasm, maintaining that there had been, in the history of womankind, maidens as beautiful as Miss Grahame, or even more so. Becoming warm in the discussion, the two grappled, and rolled over and over at Hildegarde's feet. She gave a little scream, and then laughed. "Any one hurt?" she asked. "If not, perhaps I had better brush you off a bit before we go into the house."
"A nice opinion you will have of us, Miss Grahame," said Gerald, as he stood still to be brushed. "We can stand straight, and walk, too, like other people, though you may not believe it. But, you see, Ferguson is so exasperating that he disturbs my equilibrium, and then I have to disturb his, that we may continue in brotherly companionship. He was just saying that the sun was no brighter than the stars."
"No more it is, I suppose," said unconscious Hildegarde, "if you are only near enough to one, or far enough from the other. Shall I brush you, too, Mr. Ferg--I beg your pardon, Mr. Merryweather?"
"Oh," cried Gerald, dancing on one foot, "observe his blushes! Observe the cabbage rose in all its purple pride! Isn't he lovely? But you are not going to call us 'Mister,' in earnest, Miss Grahame? You cannot have the heart! We are not accustomed to it, and there is no knowing what effect it may have on my ardent nature, or on Ferguson's flabby disposition." Ferguson extended a long arm and shook his brother with calm energy, till his teeth rattled together.
"Really, if you wouldn't, please," he said, in his quiet voice. "Gerald is a lunatic, of course, and ought to be kept in a barrel and fed through the bung-hole,--only my mother has scruples; but we are 'just the boys,' and nobody ever does call us by handles, you see. So if you wouldn't mind--"
"I shall be delighted!" said Hildegarde. "Bell and I have already come to first names, and I am sure you boys are both too jolly to be ceremonious with; so--Gerald, here we are at the house, and now you really will have to stay right side up, with care."
They went together into the wide, bare hall, with its dark panels hung with family portraits. Colonel Ferrers came to meet them, erect and soldierly. He kissed Hildegarde's cheek, and greeted the boys with a cordial shake of the hand.
"Glad to see you, young people!" he said, in the gruff voice which held the very spirit of kindliness. "Glad to see you! Hildegarde, many happy returns of the day to you, my dear child! Take my arm, I beg!"
With Hildegarde on his arm, he led the way to the pretty drawing- room, all white and gold and yellow satin, which was seldom used in these days. Hildegarde had secretly hoped that they would sit in the library, a delightful brown-leather sort of room, to which she had grown well used; but she appreciated the compliment of opening the drawing-room, and put on her best smile and look of pleasure. Hugh Allen left his station by Mrs. Grahame's chair, and came running with open arms to meet his Beloved. "Oh, glory of the sunrise!" he exclaimed, as he threw his arms round her neck. "I hope you will live fifty thousand years, and have strawberry jam every single day of them!"
"Dear me!" cried Hildegarde. "I should beg for gooseberry once a week, dear boy, if it were going on quite so long as that. Well, my mother, you look like the Queen of Conspirators. What have you and Hugh been talking about, that you both look so guilty?"
"Guilty, my dear Hildegarde?" said Mrs. Grahame, drawing herself up. "The word is a singular one for a daughter to use to her mother."
"Yes," said Hildegarde, "it is! and the thing is a singular one for a mother to be toward her daughter. If ever I saw plot written all over an expressive countenance,--but no more of this! Dear Colonel Ferrers, how wonderful the roses are!"
Surely there never were so many roses as at Roseholme. The house had been ransacked for jars, vases and bowls to hold them, and every available surface was a mass of glowing blossoms. The girls hovered from vase to vase, exclaiming with delight at each new combination of beauties.
Now tea was announced, and this time Colonel Ferrers offered his arm to Mrs. Merryweather, as the stranger and new-comer in the neighbourhood; but the good lady protested against anyone but the "birthday child" being taken in by the host, and the Colonel yielded, it must be said with a very good grace.
Here, in the long, oak-panelled dining-room were more roses,-- ropes and garlands of them, hanging in festoons along the dark, shining panels, drooping from the Venetian lustres of the quaint chandelier. Even the moose's head on the wall behind the Colonel's chair had a wreath, cocked slightly on one side, which gave a waggish look to the stately creature. The huge antlers spread abroad, three feet on either side; the boys eyed the trophy with wondering delight."
"Oh, I say, sir!" cried Gerald, "did you shoot that moose? I never saw such a fellow. Why, Roger shot one last year that we thought was the grandfather moose of the world, but he was a baby to this one."
The Colonel smiled, well-pleased, and told the story of his shooting the great moose.
"And who is Roger?" he asked, then. "Have you yet more treasures, Mrs. Merryweather? Surely none old enough, to go moose-hunting?"
"Roger is not my own child, Colonel Ferrers," said Mrs. Merryweather, smiling. "I always have to remind myself of the fact, for he seems like my own. He is my husband's half-brother, many years younger than he,--the dearest fellow in the world, and really a delightful combination of son and brother. I hope he will be here before long. And that reminds me,--have I made my husband's apologies? I am so sorry he could not come!"
"I regret it heartily, my dear madam," said the Colonel, with a courtly bow; and he recalled how Mr. Merryweather had confided to him the other day that he drew the line at going out in the evening, and would not exchange his own fireside for the King of Dahomey's. He thought it probable that the excellent Miles was at this moment sitting with pipe and newspaper on the back veranda of his house; and if it had not been Hildegarde's birthday, the Colonel might have wished himself beside him. As it was, however, he devoted himself to his guests with such hearty good-will that the tea-table soon rang with merry talk and laughter.
The high-tea itself was beyond praise; Mrs. Beadle had seen to that. Mrs. Grahame's Auntie herself might have been jealous of the jellied chicken; and salad was green and gold, and rolls were snowy white, and strawberries glowed like sunset; and over all were roses, roses, making the whole table a floral offering, as Gerald said. Then, just before everybody had reached the "no more" point, the good Guiseppe, who had been standing, stately, behind his master's chair, darted out, and in a moment returned, bearing on a huge silver salver,--what was it? Behind Guiseppe was seen the portly form of good Mrs. Beadle, beaming under her best cap; Guiseppe's own face was one broad, dark smile. A general chorus broke from all save the host and Mrs. Grahame; Hugh gave a squeak of joy in which was no surprise.
"I knew they would like it!" he cried, clapping his hands. "I knew they would be surprised, and that the hair of their scalps would be uplifted. It is yours, Beloved; it is for you!"
A cake! Who had ever seen such a cake? It must have been baked in the biggest cheese-frame that the dairy could supply; or the rim of a cart-wheel might have been used to frame its monstrous circle. Certainly, as Guiseppe set it down before Hildegarde, it seemed to cover the whole width of the great table. On its top the frosting was piled high, in fantastic shapes. There seemed to be little hills and valleys; and from among these peeped--and did they only seem to move?--a number of tiny figures in green and gold. One sat astride of a snowy pinnacle, another lay stretched at full length in a hollow, his pretty face only peering out; some were chasing each other among the elfin hills, others were standing at ease, their hands on their hearts, their forms bent gracefully as if in salutation. In the middle rose a white throne, and on this sat the prettiest fairy of all, with a crown on her head and a wand in her hand; she was dressed in white and gold, and round her danced a circle of elves; and every elf held a tiny blazing candle.
"Are you too old for dolls, Hildegarde?" asked the Colonel, puffing with pleasure as he saw the delight in the girl's face. "These are birthday fairies, you observe. There are eighteen of them, and every one of them wishes you good luck, my dear, and every happiness, every blessing that Heaven can bestow."
The good Colonel had begun merrily enough, but before the end of his little speech his deep voice trembled, and the tears stood in Hildegarde's eyes. She tried to speak, but the words did not come; so, leaving her seat, she went quietly up to the Colonel and kissed his forehead. "Thank you, dear friend!" she said; and it was all she could say.
"There! there!" said the Colonel, recovering himself at once. "Glad you like it, my child! Glad you like it! The fancy was my mother's; she had a poetic taste, madam." He turned to Mrs. Merryweather, who was beaming with admiration and delight. "She had these little figures made long ago,--for another eighteenth birthday,--a dear young friend of hers. Yes, yes! They have been kept in cotton-wool forty years, madam. Little candle holders, you perceive. A pretty fancy, eh? I happened to remember them the other day,--hunted 'em up,--the result, thanks to Mrs. Grahame and Elizabeth Beadle. Mrs. Beadle, ma'am, I desire that you will come in, and not skulk in the doorway there, as if you had reason to be ashamed of your handiwork. My housekeeper, Mrs. Beadle, ladies and gentlemen: a good woman, if she will allow me to say so, and a good cook. Now, Guiseppe, a knife for Miss Grahame, and we will test the quality of this same cake. Plenty of citron, I trust, Elizabeth Beadle? No little skimpy bits, but wedges, slabs of citron? Ha! that is as it should be. She wanted to make a white cake, my dear,--a light, effervescent kind of thing, that can hardly be tasted in the mouth; but I refused to insult either you or my traditions in such a manner. A birthday cake, Mrs. Grahame, my dear madam, should be as rich as spices and plums, brandy and citron,--especially citron, which I take to be an epitome of the Orient, gastronomically speaking,--as rich as all manner of good things can make it. You agree with me, my young friend?" He nodded to Gerald, whose eyes met his, flaming with approval.
"Oh, don't I, sir!" cried Gerald. "When they talk about wholesomeness and that sort of r--of thing,--well, I beg your pardon, mater dear, but you know you do, sometimes, in a manner to turn gray the hair,--when they do, I always think it's a dreadful shame to have wholesome things on your birthday. And--oh, I say!" Here he relapsed into silence, as the first slice dropped from the side of the great cake, revealing depth upon depth of richness. The two mothers shuddered slightly, and exchanged deploring smiles; but Hugh clasped his hands in rapture, and lifted up his voice and spoke.
"You are King Solomon to-day, Guardian, aren't you,--instead of other kings, as sometimes you are? And my great-aunt is the Queen of Sheba. And--'there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. And gold, and precious stones, and knops and flowers'--oh, see them all! And, Guardian,--I mean King Solomon, do you think there might be an almug tree in the garden?"
When tea was over, the Colonel bowed the ladies out of the room with punctilious courtesy, and motioned to Hugh to follow them; then he turned to the two Merryweather boys.
"May I offer you cigars, young gentlemen?" he asked; and he took a couple of cheroots from the mantel-piece.
The boys blushed bravely, but Phil said, quietly, "No, thank you, sir. We are not going to smoke till we are twenty-one. Father thinks that is soon enough."
The Colonel nodded approvingly. "Your father is right!" he said. "Very right, indeed, my young friend. I beg you to take notice that, though obliged by the laws of hospitality to offer you cigars, I should have thought it unsuitable if you had accepted them. Thirty years ago I should have been obliged to offer you wine, also, but happily that is no longer necessary. Forty years ago,--hum, ha! If you will permit me, I will smoke a cheroot for the party. Your father prefers a pipe, I believe, but give me a Manilla cheroot, and I am satisfied."
"Excuse me, sir," said Gerald, "but weren't you going to say something else?"
Colonel Ferrers smiled. "You are quick, my boy," he said. "I was indeed thinking of something that happened forty years ago,--of my first smoke. Possibly you might be amused to hear about it?"
The boys seemed to think there was no doubt about their being amused; they drew up two ottomans beside the Colonel's armchair, and prepared to listen, open-mouthed.
"Forty years ago, then," said the Colonel, "or, to be more exact, forty-five years, I was a lad of fifteen."
He paused, and smoked in silence for some minutes. Gerald could not help thinking of Alice and the Mock Turtle, and wondered what would happen if he should get up and say, "Thank you, sir, for your interesting story." But he held his peace, and waited.
"Fifteen years old, young gentlemen, and a sad scapegrace, I am sorry to say. My poor mother had an anxious time of it with me. I was in the water, or in the fire, or in the clouds from morning till night, as it seems on looking back. But with all my vagaries, I had one great desire which had never been gratified,--that was, to smoke a cigar. My father was a clergyman, and though he had never forbidden my smoking, I should never have dared to suggest such a thing to him, for he was strict in his notions, in many ways. Not too strict, sir, not too strict, by any means, though he may have seemed so to me then.
"To make a long story short, I fell in with some lads of my own way of thinking, and we determined to have a smoke. We gathered sweet fern and dried it, and rolled cigars for ourselves; odd- looking things they were, but we were vastly proud of them. When all was ready, we chose a dry, warm spot behind a dyke (for it was the fall of the year, and the days growing cold), and there we lighted our cigars and fell to work, puffing away in mighty fine style. Well, sir, they were horrible things, as you may well imagine; not one of us, I'll go bail, liked them in his heart, but we all pretended our best, and praised the cigars, and said what a fine thing it was to smoke, and thought ourselves men, as sure as if we had felt our beards pushing.
"By-and-by--I have the feeling of it still, when I think of it--I chanced to look up, and saw my father standing over the top of the dyke, looking down on us. The other boys, catching sight of my face, lifted their eyes and saw him, too; and there was a pretty moment. He said never a word for some time; no more did we. At last, 'What are you smoking, boys?' he asked, speaking in his usual even voice; yet I did not like the sound of it, somehow.
"So we told him, sweet fern; but he shook his head at that. 'That is poor stuff, indeed,' he said. 'Now, if you must smoke, here is something worth your while. Take these, Thomas, and share them with your friends; they are genuine, and I hope you may enjoy them.'
"With that he took a parcel of cigars from his pocket, and handed them to me; then bowed to us all very grand, and marched off, never looking behind him.
"I was not comfortable in my mind at this, for I knew my father pretty well, and had looked for something different; but the other lads were in high feather, and lighted their cigars on the instant, bidding me do likewise, and crying out that my father was a fine old buck, and that I was a lucky fellow to have such a parent. I could not be behind the rest, so I lit up, too, and for a few minutes all was as gay as a feast. But, Harry Monmouth, sir! in half an hour we were the sickest boys in Westchester County. It was all we could do to crawl home to our beds; and not one of us but was sure he was dying, and cried to his mother to send for the doctor before it was too late."
The Colonel laughed heartily, the boys chiming in with a merry peal.
"What were the cigars?" asked Phil.
"The strongest Havanas that were made,--that was all. Fine cigars, I have no doubt; but I was forty years old before I touched tobacco again, and I have never smoked anything less delicate than a Manilla."
He puffed in silence, chuckling to himself now and then; the boys meditated on the tale they had heard.
"Colonel Ferrers," said Gerald, at last.
"Yes, my boy. You are thinking that it is tune to join the ladies? Quite right; we will go in at once."
"I wanted to ask," said Gerald, "if you don't mind telling us, that is--well--I was only thinking that perhaps those cigars you offered us--were they very mild ones, Colonel Ferrers?"
The Colonel looked grave for a moment, then he gave way and laughed aloud.
"Found me out, hey?" he said. "Well, since you ask me, Master Merryweather, I believe they were--not--the mildest that are made. But you--hark! what was that?"
From the next room came the sound of a crash, and then a cry.
"I am very sorry, sir," said the boys in a breath. "It is probably our sister Gertrude, who has broken something."
"She has no fingers to her thumbs," added Gerald, "and the result is destruction."
They passed into the next room, and found that there had indeed been an accident. Gertrude had knocked down a great pink vase, and broken it into fifty pieces; she had also fallen over it, and now sat among the ruins on the floor, too frightened to cry, while the others picked up the pieces as best they might.
"Colonel Ferrers, what will you think of us?" cried Mrs. Merryweather, looking up as her host entered the room. "This unlucky child of mine has done something dreadful. Get up, Gerty, and let me get the pieces from under you. I do so hope it may be mended."
"Heaven forefend," said Colonel Ferrers, hastily. "Is it--I can hardly hope it--is it truly the pink vase, the pink vase with the stag's head on it?"
"Ye--yes!" sobbed poor Gertrude, getting up from the floor, and seeking vainly for her handkerchief. "Oh, I am so sorry!"
"My dear child," cried the Colonel, and he took Gertrude by both hands, "my dear young benefactress, how can I ever thank you! You have relieved me of a heavy burden."
"Why? what?" cried all.
The Colonel pointed to the broken china, and gave a great sigh of relief. "You behold there," he said, "now happily in fragments, the bane of my existence. That--that horror--was given me three years ago by a valued servant and friend, my man Guiseppe. He bought it for my birthday; spent ten of his hard-earned dollars on it, foolish, faithful creature that he is. What could I do? It was,--the enormity you perceive. I was obliged to give it a place of honour,--fortunately, I seldom use this room when I am alone; I was forced to praise its tint, which I abominate, and its shape, which is wholly detestable. What would you? I could not wound my good Guiseppe; the vase has remained, the chief ornament--in his eyes--of my drawing-room. Now, thanks to you, my charming child, I am delivered of this encumbrance, and my poor white and gold can appear without this hideous blot on its purity."
Gertrude wiped her eyes, much relieved at this novel view of her infirmity, and all the others laughed heartily.
"And now," said the good Colonel, "is it not time for some games, Hilda, or something of the kind? Command me, young people. Shall I be blind man, at your service?"
It was a pleasant sight to see the Colonel, a silk handkerchief tied over his eyes, chasing the young folks hither and thither; pulled this way, twitched that, but always beaming under his bandage, and shouting with merriment. It was a pleasanter sight, later in the evening, to see him leading out Hildegarde for a quadrille, and taking his place at the head of the figure with stately, old-fashioned grace. Mrs. Grahame, turning round a moment from her place at the piano, saw his fine face aglow with pleasure, and felt a corresponding warmth at her own heart. She thought of the gloomy, solitary man he had been a year ago, living alone with his servants, scarcely seeing or speaking to a soul outside his own grounds. And who shall blame the mother for saying in. her heart, with a little thrill of pride, "It was my child who helped him, who brought the sunshine into this good man's life. It was my Hildegarde!"