Hildegarde's Neighbors by Laura E. Richards
Chapter VII. In Good Green Wood.
They were in the Roseholme woods, all four girls,--Hildegarde, Bell, Gertrude and little Kitty. Kitty was only eight years old, but she liked good times as well as if she were sixteen, and when the sisters said "Come along, Kitty," she had dropped her doll and flown like a bird to join them. Willy shouted after her, having designs on her in regard to tin soldiers; but for once Kitty was deaf to her Willy's voice. Now she was as happy as a child could be, sitting in a nest of warm pine needles, playing at "partridge mother."
The other girls sat near her, making oak wreaths and talking busily. Bell was telling of some college experiences.
"So we found we had not nearly green enough to trim the hall, and I volunteered to get some more, while the rest of the committee made the garlands. I had not far to go, only to the grove, about a mile beyond the campus; but it was growing dark, so I hurried as much as I could. I ran across Professor Thunder's yard, as that cut off nearly half the distance, and there my fate found me. Oh, dear! Hildegarde, you will never guess what I did."
"Nothing, I am sure," said Hildegarde, gravely, "that was not consistent with dignity and decorum. The college maiden is an awful person, I have always understood."
"You shall judge!" said Bell. "Remember that I was alone, with none to help me carry the boughs; that I was late, it being then six o'clock, and the dance beginning at eight. I had to get the greens, help put them up, get my supper, dress, and be there at eight to receive the juniors. And there--there, in the clear afternoon light on the lawn, stood the professor's wheelbarrow, saying as plainly as a wheelbarrow can, 'You'd better take me along to bring the things home in.' Could I resist that mute appeal? I could not. I saw, I took, I trundled! The thing went of its own accord, I believe; certainly I never before made such good time to the grove. Once there, it was a matter of only a few minutes to strip the boughs and fill the friendly barrow. But, oh! I filled it not wisely, but too well. It was all so green and pleasant, and the smell of the trees was so delightful, that I did not know when to stop. Soon the barrow was heaped high with all manner of pleasantness, and I started to return. Well, my dear, then the trouble began. In the first place, full barrows are different from empty ones. It was very heavy, and the boughs kept slipping this way, and sliding that way, and tumbling down every third second. I got cross--oh, so cross! and presently I passed the janitor's son, lounging along homeward, and he grinned, being an oaf, and said, 'Better let me help ye, hadn't ye?' Oh, no! he didn't mean to be rude, he really meant to help; but my blood was up, and my hair was down, and I was very short with him, I fear, and trundled off alone with my dignity. Then a branch fell out and got tangled in the wheel, and while I was getting it out a twig snapped into my eyes; and there was a stone in my shoe, and altogether,--well, it was only a mile to the grove, but it was twenty miles back, I can tell you. Before I reached the campus my arms were so sore, and my foot so lame, and my eye so painful, that my pride ran out at the heels of my boots, like the gunpowder. I was going pretty slowly, so as to keep the boughs from tumbling out more than was absolutely necessary,--and I heard the boy lumbering up behind me again. So, without turning round, I said, 'You shall help me now, if you please!' and--and--oh, Hildegarde! a deep voice answered, 'I shall be charmed to do so!' and I looked up and saw Professor Thunder!"
"Oh, Bell! oh, poor thing!" cried Hildegarde. "What did you do?"
"Do?" replied Bell. "I didn't do anything. He took the handles from me,--his own handles, mind you, of his own barrow,--and trundled it solemnly along. I was struggling with hysterics. I am not in the least hysterical by nature, but the combination--the professor taken for a lout and commanded to trundle his own barrow, stolen by a sophomore, the twig in my eye and the stone in my foot--was too much for me. Besides, there seemed nothing in particular to say. I could not begin 'Please, sir, I thought you were the janitor's boy!' nor did 'Please Professor Thunder, this is your wheelbarrow, which I have stolen,' seem exactly a happy opening for a conversation. So we went on in silence, and when the branches tumbled off, I picked them up without a word. How could I be such a dumb idiot? Don't ask me! If it had been any other professor I might have found courage to speak; but Jupiter Tonans was my terror and my hero; I sat at his feet, and the roll of his deep voice was music to my sophomoric ears. I had never spoken to him out of class, but only that morning he had praised my translation, he who seldom praised anything,--and now to come to this!
"At last, after about three hours of dreadful silence, he opened his lips and spoke: 'The greens are for decorational purposes, I presume, Miss Merryweather?' Oh, and I had hoped he would not remember who I was.
"'Yes, sir,' I said. 'For the sophomore reception this evening.'
"'Ah!' he said, 'in that case, it will be well for us to hasten.'
"Silence again, while we quickened our pace, making the branches fall off more than ever. Then--'The wheelbarrow,' said the professor, 'amazes us by its combined simplicity and perfection. The conception of a man of universal genius and vast erudition,--I allude to Leonardo da Vinci, the marvellous Florentine,--it has for upwards of three hundred years served mankind as a humble but valued ally. In every rank of life it finds its place. This barrow, for example--'
"My heart came into my mouth. 'Professor Thunder,' I said, 'this is your wheelbarrow. I came across your lawn, and saw it standing there, and--I took it.'
"'Yes, my child,' he said, 'I saw you take it.'"
"Oh, oh!" moaned the two girls. "Poor Bell! oh, poor Bell!"
"Then I broke down and cried, and told him all about it, and how I had taken him for the janitor's boy, and all. Girls, he was perfectly angelic! He made me sit down on the bank to rest, and talked to me, oh, so kindly! and was glad I had taken the barrow, and all. And--it is too dreadful to tell, but--I had dropped my handkerchief, and he gave me his, about three square yards of finest cambric,--I shall never smell orris again without thinking of that moment,--and said--you won't think me vain to repeat this, Hildegarde?--said that he could not have his best pupil spoil her eyes, as it would interfere with her Greek. And then we came to the campus, and the girls standing in the door of the Gym saw Professor Thunder wheeling the wheelbarrow fall of greens, and me walking meekly by his side. I shall never forget their faces; one moment, and then they turned and fled. It was base, but I could not blame them; the sight was not one to induce composure, as the Professor himself would say. So I thanked him as well as I could for the dumbness and heat that were on me; and he took off his hat and made a grand bow, and then he shook hands--oh, so cordially! and begged to present me with the freedom of the wheelbarrow; and then he went away. There, Hildegarde! You wanted a college story, and you have had one."
The girls laughed heartily at Bell's adventures, and Hildegarde declared that she should never fear a college girl again, as it was evident that they were girls of like passions, getting into scrapes like their sisters.
While talking, the girls had been busily plaiting garlands of oak leaves, and now they proceeded to crown each other, and hang long wreaths on neck and arm.
"Hildegarde shall be the fairy queen," said Gertrude "and we her attendant fays. Hail, Queen!"
"Oh yes, that is all very well for you!" said Bell; "you don't weigh one hundred and thirty pounds. A fine sylph I should make! Hilda is perfect for the queen, however."
Certainly Hilda did look very lovely, with the green chaplet crowning her fair locks, and the afternoon sunlight sifting through the leaves, checkering her white dress with light and shade. Roger Merryweather, coming through the wood in his quiet way, with his tin plant-box slung over his shoulder, thought he had never seen a fairer sight, and paused to enjoy it before announcing his presence to the girls. As he stood there, motionless, and screened by the broad leaves of a great chestnut- tree, a frightful scream was heard, a ferocious yell, which made the whole wood vibrate with horrid sound. The girls sprang to their feet in terror; little Kitty ran to Bell and hid in her gown, while the older girls with one accord turned at bay, ready to face they knew not what peril. Even Roger was startled for the moment, and was about to step hastily forward, when a second shriek rang out. He recognized the voice, and stood still, unwilling to spoil sport. And now from the thicket burst two wild forms, blanketed and feathered, uttering hideous yells, and brandishing glittering weapons over their heads. Kitty shrieked, but after one moment Bell burst into laughter.
"You imps!" she cried. "You wicked, wicked little wretches, to frighten us so! Kitty darling, it is the boys. Look up, darling! Don't you see? It is our naughty, naughty boys, playing Indian. After them, Toots! after them, Hilda! We'll give them a lesson they shall not forget."
"Huh! huh!" shouted the Indians. "Big Chief Hop-toad! big Medicine-man Put-Squills-In-His-Tea! gobble up the white squaws for supper! Huh! huh!"
And now the quiet spectator saw a merry sight. The girls flew in pursuit, the boys fled before them. In and out of the trees, laughing, shrieking, they doubled and twisted. Hildegarde ran well, and Bell had not had two years of basket-ball for nothing. As for Gertrude, she was lithe and long-limbed as a young greyhound; but even so, they could not catch their tormentors.
The long gray legs twinkled like lightning over the ground. Phil paused from time to time to shout his warhoop, and Gerald, when he could find breath, chanted wild scraps of song, accompanied by frantic gestures:
"My tom, my tom, my tommy-hawk, With thee I'll make the pale-face squawk: With thee I'll make them cry 'Oh, lawk!' My tom, my tom, my tommy-hawk."
Circling round a great tree, he came full upon Hilda, flying in the other direction, and made a snatch at her green wreath.
"Pale-face squaw shall lose her hat, Medicine-man will see to that,"
"Will he, indeed?" cried Hildegarde. "Catch me if you can, you odious redskin! I defy you in every withering term that a Cooper maiden ever invented!"
"Ho! if you are a Cooper maiden, you are nothing but a female!" said Gerald. "Aha! she turns, she flies! she feels the scalp a-wr- r-r-r-r-iggling on her head! she fears she'll soon be a female dead! Ho, ho! Medicine-man! Big Injin! Ho!"
Flying breathless now, Hildegarde darted hither and thither, hiding under the leaves, dodging behind the tree trunks. Finally, seeing her foe pausing for an instant behind the bole of a huge nut-tree, she rushed upon him, and seizing him, shook him violently. Then she let go her hold and screamed, for it was not Gerald that she was shaking.
Roger Merryweather stepped forward, unable to keep from smiling at her face of horror. He felt a little "out of it," perhaps, and twenty-four seemed a long way from seventeen; but he should not have watched the girls, he told himself with some severity, without letting them know he was there. Now this pretty child regarded him as a double eavesdropper and spy. But his apology was drowned in the shouts of the boys.
"Hi! here's Roger! hurrah! Roger, Roger! my scientific codger, come and play Big Injin! The pale-faces are uncommonly game, but we shall have them all the same. Hi! there goes Dropsy!"
Indeed, at this moment Gertrude tripped over a tree root and fell headlong; as she fell she caught at Phil's ankle, just as he was in the act of grasping Bell by the flying tail of her gown; another moment, and all three were on the ground together in a confused heap.
"Anybody hurt?" asked Roger, going to pick them up.
"Oh no!" said Bell, sitting up and shaking the pine needles from her hair. "Toots was underneath, and she makes a noble cushion. All right, Toots? and how do you come here, Professor?" The three fallen ones righted themselves, and sat up and panted; seeing which, the others came and sat down, too, and for a space no one spoke, for no one had any breath save Roger, and he was laughing.
"I have been botanizing," he said at last. "I was coming quietly along, when suddenly Bedlam broke loose, and I have been standing by to go about ever since. No extra lunatics seemed to be needed, or I should have been charmed to assist."
By this time Hildegarde had recovered her composure. It was her fate, she reflected, to run into people, and be found in trees, and be caught playing "Sally Waters;" she could not help her fate. But her hair was all down her back, and she could help that. She began to knot it up quietly, but Gerald raised a cry of protest.
"What, oh what is she doing that for? Don't, Miss Hildegarde, please! I was just thinking how jolly it looked, let alone the chances for scalping."
"Thank you!" said Hildegarde, as she wound up the long locks and fastened them securely. "I have no fancy for playing Absalom all the way home. Have you hurt your foot, Phil?" for Phil was rubbing his ankle vigorously, and looking rather uncomfortable.
"I stumbled over Dropsy's nose," he said, ruefully. "When she fell down, her nose reached all the way round the tree, and tripped me up. I wish you would keep your nose in curl-papers, Dropsy."
Dropsy beat him affectionately, and helped rub his ankle. They were silent for a moment, being too comfortable to speak, each one thought to himself. The sunbeams flickered through the leaves; the pine needles, tossed into heaps by the hurrying feet, gave out their delicious fragrance; overhead the wind murmured low in the branches. It was a perfect time, and even Gerald felt the charm and was silent, throwing acorns at his sisters.
"Sing, Roger," said Bell, at length, softly. "Sing 'Robin Hood!'"
So Roger sang, in a noble baritone voice, that joyous song of the forest, and the woods rang to the chorus:
"So, though bold Robin's gone, Yet his heart lives on, And we drink to him with three times three."