Laddie, A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XI. Keeping Christmas Our Way
"I remember, I remember How my childhood fleeted by,-- The mirth of its December, And the warmth of its July."
When dusk closed in it would be Christmas eve. All day I had three points--a chair beside the kitchen table, a lookout melted through the frost on the front window, and the big sitting-room fireplace.
All the perfumes of Araby floated from our kitchen that day. There was that delicious smell of baking flour from big snowy loaves of bread, light biscuit, golden coffee cake, and cinnamon rolls dripping a waxy mixture of sugar, butter, and spice, much better than the finest butterscotch ever brought from the city. There was the tempting odour of boiling ham and baking pies. The air was filled with the smell of more herbs and spices than I knew the names of, that went into mincemeat, fruit cake, plum pudding, and pies. There was a teasing fragrance in the spiced vinegar heating for pickles, a reminder of winesap and rambo in the boiling cider, while the newly opened bottles of grape juice filled the house with the tang of Concord and muscadine. It seemed to me I never got nicely fixed where I could take a sly dip in the cake dough or snipe a fat raisin from the mincemeat but Candace would say: "Don't you suppose the backlog is halfway down the lane?"
Then I hurried to the front window, where I could see through my melted outlook on the frosted pane, across the west eighty to the woods, where father and Laddie were getting out the Christmas backlog. It was too bitterly cold to keep me there while they worked, but Laddie said that if I would watch, and come to meet them, he would take me up, and I might ride home among the Christmas greens on the log.
So I flattened my nose against the pane and danced and fidgeted until those odours teased me back to the kitchen; and no more did I get nicely located beside a jar of pudding sauce than Candace would object to the place I had hung her stocking. It was my task, my delightful all-day task, to hang the stockings. Father had made me a peg for each one, and I had ten feet of mantel front along which to arrange them. But it was no small job to do this to every one's satisfaction. No matter what happened to any one else, Candace had to be pleased: for did not she so manage that most fowls served on mother's table went gizzardless to the carving? She knew and acknowledged the great importance of trying cookies, pies, and cake while they were hot. She was forever overworked and tired, yet she always found time to make gingerbread women with currant buttons on their frocks, and pudgy doughnut men with clove eyes and cigars of cinnamon. If my own stocking lay on the hearth, Candace's had to go in a place that satisfied her--that was one sure thing. Besides, I had to make up to her for what Leon did, because she was crying into the corner of her apron about that.
He slipped in and stole her stocking, hung it over the broomstick, and marched around the breakfast table singing to the tune of--
"Ha, ha, ha, who wouldn't go-- Up on the housetop click, click, click? Down through the chimney, With good Saint Nick----"
words he made up himself. He walked just fast enough that she couldn't catch him, and sang as he went:
"Ha, ha, ha, good Saint Nick, Come and look at this stocking, quick! If you undertake its length to fill, You'll have to bust a ten-dollar bill. Who does it belong to? Candace Swartz. Bring extra candy,--seven quarts----"
She got so angry she just roared, so father made Leon stop it, but I couldn't help laughing myself. Then we had to pet her all day, so she'd cheer up, and not salt the Christmas dinner with her tears. I never saw such a monkey as Leon! I trotted out to comfort her, and snipped bites, until I wore a triangle on the carpet between the kitchen and the mantel, the mantel and the window, and the window and the kitchen, while every hour things grew more exciting.
There never had been such a flurry at our house since I could remember; for to-morrow would be Christmas and bring home all the children, and a house full of guests. My big brother, Jerry, who was a lawyer in the city, was coming with his family, and so were Frank, Elizabeth, and Lucy with theirs, and of course Sally and Peter--I wondered if she would still be fixing his tie--and Shelley came yesterday, blushing like a rose, and she laughed if you pointed your finger at her.
Something had happened to her in Chicago. I wasn't so sure as I had been about a city being such a dreadful place of noise, bad air, and wicked people. Nothing had hurt Shelley. She had grown so much that you could see she was larger. Her hair and face-- all of Shelley just shone. Her eyes danced, she talked and laughed all the time, and she hugged every one who passed her. She never loved us so before. Leon said she must have been homesick and coming back had given her a spell. I did hope it would be a bad one, and last forever. I would have liked for all our family to have had a spell if it would have made them act and look like Shelley. The Princess was not a speck lovelier, and she didn't act any nicer.
If I could have painted, I'd have made a picture of Shelley with a circle of light above her head like the one of the boy Jesus where He talked with the wise men in the temple. I asked father if he noticed how much prettier and nicer she was, and he said he did. Then I asked him if he thought now, that a city was such a bad place to live in, and he said where she was had nothing to do with it, the same thing would happen here, or anywhere, when life's greatest experience came to a girl. That was all he would say, but figuring it out was easy. The greatest experience that happened to our girls was when they married, like Sally, so it meant that Shelley had gone and fallen in love with that lawyer man, and she liked sitting on the sofa with him, and no doubt she fixed his ties. But if any one thought I would tell anything I saw when he came they were badly mistaken.
All of us rushed around like we were crazy. If father and mother hadn't held steady and kept us down, we might have raised the roof. We were all so glad about getting Leon and the money back; mother hadn't been sick since the fish cured her; the new blue goose was so like the one that had burst, even father never noticed any difference; all the children were either home or coming, and after we had our gifts and the biggest dinner we ever had, Christmas night all of us would go to the schoolhouse to see our school try to spell down three others to whom they had sent saucy invitations to come and be beaten.
Mother sat in the dining-room beside the kitchen door, so that she could watch the baking, brewing, pickling, and spicing. It took four men to handle the backlog, which I noticed father pronounced every year "just a little the finest we ever had," and Laddie strung the house with bittersweet, evergreens, and the most beautiful sprays of myrtle that he raked from under the snow. Father drove to town in the sleigh, and the list of things to be purchased mother gave him as a reminder was almost a yard long.
The minute they finished the outdoor work Laddie and Leon began bringing in baskets of apples, golden bellflowers, green pippins, white winter pearmains, Rhode Island greenings, and striped rambos all covered with hoarfrost, yet not frozen, and so full of juice you had to bite into them carefully or they dripped and offended mother. These they washed and carried to the cellar ready for use.
Then they cracked big dishes of nuts; and popped corn that popped with the most resounding pops in all my experience--popped a tubful, and Laddie melted maple sugar and poured over it and made big balls of fluff and sweetness. He took a pan and filled it with grains, selected one at a time, the very largest and whitest, and made an especial ball, in the middle of which he put a lovely pink candy heart on which was printed in red letters: "How can this heart be mine, yet yours, unless our hearts are one?" He wouldn't let any of them see it except me, and he only let me because he knew I'd be delighted.
It was almost dusk when father came through the kitchen loaded with bundles and found Candace and the girls still cooking.
We were so excited we could scarcely be gathered around the supper table, and mother said we chattered until she couldn't hear herself think. After a while Laddie laid down his fork and looked at our father.
"Have you any objection to my using the sleigh to-morrow night?" he asked.
Father looked at mother.
"Had you planned to use it, mother?"
Mother said: "No. If I go, I'll ride in the big sled with all of us. It is such a little way, and the roads are like glass."
So father said politely, as he always spoke to us: "Then it will give me great pleasure for you to take it, my son."
That made Leon bang his fork loudly as he dared and squirm in his chair, for well he knew that if he had asked, the answer would have been different. If Laddie took the sleigh he would harness carefully, drive fast, but reasonably, blanket his horse, come home at the right time, and put everything exactly where he found it. But Leon would pitch the harness on some way, race every step, never think of his steaming horse, come home when there was no one so wild as he left to play pranks with, and scatter the harness everywhere. He knew our father would love to trust him the same as he did Laddie. He wouldn't always prove himself trustworthy, but he envied Laddie.
"You think you'll take the Princess to the spelling bee, don't you?" he sneered.
"I mean to ask her," replied Laddie.
"Maybe you think she'll ride in our old homemade, hickory cheesebox, when she can sail all over the country like a bird in a velvet-lined cutter with a real buffalo robe."
There was a quick catch in mother's breath and I felt her hand on my chair tremble. Father's lips tightened and a frown settled on his face, while Laddie fairly jumped. He went white to the lips, and one hand dropped on the table, palm up, the fingers closing and unclosing, while his eyes turned first to mother, and then to father, in dumb appeal. We all knew that he was suffering. No one spoke, and Leon having shot his arrow straight home, saw as people so often do in this world that the damage of unkind words could not easily be repaired; so he grew red in the face and squirmed uncomfortably.
At last Laddie drew a deep, quivering breath. "I never thought of that," he said. "She has seemed happy to go with me several times when I asked her, but of course she might not care to ride in ours, when she has such a fine sleigh of her own."
Father's voice fairly boomed down the length of the table.
"Your mother always has found our sleigh suitable," he said.
The fact was, father was rarely proud of it. He had selected the hickory in our woods, cut it and hauled it to the mill, cured the lumber, and used all his spare time for two winters making it. With the exception of having the runners turned at a factory and iron-bound at a smithy, he had completed it alone with great care, even to staining it a beautiful cherry colour, and fitting white sheepskins into the bed. We had all watched him and been so proud of it, and now Leon was sneering at it. He might just as well have undertaken to laugh at father's wedding suit or to make fun of "Clark's Commentaries."
Laddie appealed to mother: "Do you think I'd better not ask her?"
He spoke with an effort.
"Laddie, that is the first time I ever heard you propose to do any one an injustice," she said.
"I don't see how," said Laddie.
"It isn't giving the Princess any chance at all," replied mother "You've just said that she has seemed pleased to accompany you before, now you are proposing to cut her out of what promises to be the most delightful evening of the winter, without even giving her the chance to say whether she'd go with you or not. Has she ever made you feel that anything you offered her or wanted to do for her was not good enough?"
"Never!" exclaimed Laddie fervently.
"Until she does, then, do you think it would be quite manly and honourable to make decisions for her? You say you never thought of anything except a pleasant time with her; possibly she feels the same. Unless she changes, I would scarcely let a boy's foolish tongue disturb her pleasure. Moreover, as to the matter of wealth, your father may be as rich as hers; but they have one, we have many. If what we spend on all our brood could be confined to one child, we could easily duplicate all her luxuries, and I think she has the good sense to realize the fact as quickly as any one. I've no doubt she would gladly exchange half she has for the companionship of a sister or a brother in her lonely life."
Laddie turned to father, and father's smile was happy again. Mother was little but she was mighty. With only a few words she had made Leon feel how unkind and foolish he had been, quieted Laddie's alarm, and soothed the hurt father's pride had felt in that he had not been able to furnish her with so fine a turnout as Pryors had.
Next morning when the excitement of gifts and greetings was over, and Laddie's morning work was all finished, he took a beautiful volume of poems and his popcorn ball and started across the fields due west; all of us knew that he was going to call on and offer them to the Princess, and ask to take her to the spelling bee. I suppose Laddie thought he was taking that trip alone, but really he was surrounded. I watched him from the window, and my heart went with him. Presently father went and sat beside mother's chair, and stroking her hand, whispered softly: "Please don't worry, little mother. It will be all right. Your boy will come home happy."
"I hope so," she answered, "but I can't help feeling dreadfully nervous. If things go wrong with Laddie, it will spoil the day."
"I have much faith in the Princess' good common sense," replied father, "and considering what it means to Laddie, it would hurt me sore to lose it."
Mother sat still, but her lips moved so that I knew she was making soft little whispered prayers for her best loved son. But Laddie, plowing through the drift, never dreamed that all of us were with him. He was always better looking than any other man I ever had seen, but when, two hours later, he stamped into the kitchen he was so much handsomer than usual, that I knew from the flush on his cheek and the light in his eye, that the Princess had been kind, and by the package in his hand, that she had made him a present. He really had two, a beautiful book and a necktie. I wondered to my soul if she gave him that, so she could fix it! I didn't believe she had begun on his ties at that time; but of course when he loved her as he did, he wished she would.
It was the very jolliest Christmas we ever had, but the day seemed long. When night came we were in a precious bustle. The wagon bed on bobs, filled with hay and covers, drawn by Ned and Jo, was brought up for the family, and the sleigh made spick-and- span and drawn by Laddie's thoroughbred, stood beside it. Laddie had filled the kitchen oven with bricks and hung up a comfort at four o'clock to keep the Princess warm.
Because he had to drive out of the way to bring her, Laddie wanted to start early; and when he came down dressed in his college clothes, and looking the manliest of men, some of the folks thought it funny to see him carefully rake his hot bricks from the oven, and pin them in an old red breakfast shawl. I thought it was fine, and I whispered to mother: "Do you suppose that if Laddie ever marries the Princess he will be good to her as he is to you?"
Mother nodded with tear-dimmed eyes, but Shelley said: "I'll wager a strong young girl like the Princess will laugh at you for babying over her."
"Why?" inquired Laddie. "It is a long drive and a bitter night, and if you fancy the Princess will laugh at anything I do, when I am doing the best I know for her comfort, you are mistaken. At least, that is the impression she gave me this morning."
I saw the swift glance mother shot at father, and father laid down his paper and said, while he pretended his glasses needed polishing: "Now there is the right sort of a girl for you. No foolishness about her, when she has every chance. Hurrah for the Princess!"
It was easy to see that she wasn't going to have nearly so hard a time changing father's opinion as she would mother's. It was not nearly a year yet, and here he was changed already. Laddie said good-bye to mother--he never forgot--gathered up his comfort and bricks, and started for Pryors' downright happy. We went to the schoolhouse a little later, all of us scoured, curled, starched, and wearing our very best clothes. My! but it was fine. There were many lights in the room and it was hung with greens. There was a crowd even though it was early. On Miss Amelia's table was a volume of history that was the prize, and every one was looking and acting the very best he knew how, although there were cases where they didn't know so very much.
Our Shelley was the handsomest girl there, until the Princess came, and then they both were. Shelley wore one of her city frocks and a quilted red silk hood that was one of her Christmas gifts, and she looked just like a handsome doll. She made every male creature in that room feel that she was pining for him alone. May had a gay plaid frock and curls nearly a yard long, and so had I, but both our frocks and curls were homemade; mother would have them once in a while; father and I couldn't stop her.
But there was not a soul there who didn't have some sort of gift to rejoice over, and laughter and shouts of "Merry Christmas!" filled the room. It was growing late and there was some talk of choosers, when the door opened and in a rush of frosty air the Princess and Laddie entered. Every one stopped short and stared.
There was good reason. The Princess looked as if she had accidentally stepped from a frame. She was always lovely and beautifully dressed, but to-night she was prettier and finer than ever before. You could fairly hear their teeth click as some of the most envious of those girls caught sight of her, for she was wearing a new hat!--a black velvet store hat, fitting closely over her crown, with a rim of twisted velvet, a scarlet bird's wing, and a big silver buckle. Her dress was of scarlet cloth cut in forms, and it fitted as if she had been melted and poured into it. It was edged around the throat, wrists, and skirt with narrow bands of fur, and she wore a loose, long, silk-lined coat of the same material, and worst of all, furs--furs such as we had heard wealthy and stylish city ladies were wearing. A golden brown cape that reached to her elbows, with ends falling to the knees, finished in the tails of some animal, and for her hands a muff as big as a nail keg.
Now, there was not a girl in that room, except the Princess, an she had those clothes, who wouldn't have flirted like a peacock, almost bursting with pride; but because the Princess had them, and they didn't, they sat stolid and sullen, and cast glances at each other as if they were saying: "The stuck-up thing!" "Thinks she's smart, don't she?"
Many of them should have gone to meet her and made her welcome, for she was not of our district and really their guest. Shelley did go, but I noticed she didn't hurry.
The choosers began at once, and Laddie was the first person called for our side, and the Princess for the visitors'. Every one in the room was chosen on one side or the other; even my name was called, but I only sat still and shook my head, for I very well knew that no one except father would remember to pronounce easy ones for me, and besides I was so bitterly disappointed I could scarcely have stood up. They had put me in a seat near the fire; the spellers lined either wall, and a goodly number that refused to spell occupied the middle seats. I couldn't get a glimpse of Laddie or the home folks, or worst of all, of my idolized Princess.
I never could bear to find a fault with Laddie, but I sadly reflected that he might as well have left me at home, if I were to be buried where I could neither hear nor see a thing. I was just wishing it was summer so I could steal out to the cemetery, and have a good visit with the butterflies that always swarmed around Georgiana Jane Titcomb's grave at the corner of the church. I never knew Georgiana Jane, but her people must have been very fond of her, for her grave was scarlet with geraniums, and pink with roses from earliest spring until frost, and the bright colours attracted swarms of butterflies. I had learned that if I stuck a few blossoms in my hair, rubbed some sweet smelling ones over my hands, and knelt and kept so quiet that I fitted into the landscape, the butterflies would think me a flower too, and alight on my hair, dress, and my hands, even. God never made anything more beautiful than those butterflies, with their wings of brightly painted velvet down, their bright eyes, their curious antennae, and their queer, tickly feet. Laddie had promised me a book telling all about every kind there was, the first time he went to a city, so I was wishing I had it, and was among my pet beauties with it, when I discovered him bending over me.
He took my arm, and marching back to his place, helped me to the deep window seat beside him, where with my head on a level, and within a foot of his, I could see everything in the whole room. I don't know why I ever spent any time pining for the beauties of Georgiana Jane Titcomb's grave, even with its handsome headstone on which was carved a lamb standing on three feet and holding a banner over its shoulder with the fourth, and the geraniums, roses, and the weeping willow that grew over it, thrown in. I might have trusted Laddie. He never had forgotten me; until he did, I should have kept unwavering faith.
Now, I had the best place of any one in the room, and I smoothed my new plaid frock and shook my handmade curls just as near like Shelley as ever I could. But it seems that most of the ointment in this world has a fly in it, like in the Bible, for fine as my location was, I soon knew that I should ask Laddie to put me down, because the window behind me didn't fit its frame, and the night was bitter. Before half an hour I was stiff with cold; but I doubt if I would have given up that location if I had known I would freeze, because this was the most fun I had ever seen.
Miss Amelia began with McGuffey's spelling book, and whenever some poor unfortunate made a bad break the crowd roared with laughter. Peter Justice stood up to spell and before three rounds he was nodding on his feet, so she pronounced "sleepy" to him. Some one nudged Pete and he waked up and spelled it, s-l-e, sle, p-e, pe, and because he really was so sleepy it made every one laugh. James Whittaker spelled compromise with a k, and Isaac Thomas spelled soap, s-o-a-p-e, and it was all the funnier that he couldn't spell it, for from his looks you could tell that he had no acquaintance with it in any shape. Then Miss Amelia gave out "marriage" to the spooniest young man in the district, and "stepfather" to a man who was courting a widow with nine children; and "coquette" to our Shelley, who had been making sheep's eyes at Johnny Myers, so it took her by surprise and she joined the majority, which by that time occupied seats.
There was much laughing and clapping of hands for a time, but when Miss Amelia had let them have their fun and thinned the lines to half a dozen on each side who could really spell, she began business, and pronounced the hardest words she could find in the book, and the spellers caught them up and rattled them off like machines.
"Incompatibility," she gave out, and before the sound of her voice died away the Princess was spelling: "I-n, in, c-o-m, com, in com, p-a-t, pat, incompat, i, incompati, b-i-l, bil, incompatibil, i, incompatibili, t-y, ty, incompatibility."
Then Laddie spelled "incomprehensibility," and they finished up the "bilities" and the "alities" with a rush and changed McGuffey's for Webster, with five on Laddie's side and three on the Princess', and when they quit with it, the Princess was alone, and Laddie and our little May facing her.
From that on you could call it real spelling. They spelled from the grammars, hyperbole, synecdoche, and epizeuxis. They spelled from the physiology, chlorophyll, coccyx, arytenoid, and the names of the bones and nerves, and all the hard words inside you.
They tried the diseases and spelled jaundice, neurasthenia, and tongue-tied. They tried all the occupations and professions, and went through the stores and spelled all sorts of hardware, china and dry goods. Each side kept cheering its own and urging them to do their best, and every few minutes some man in the back of the house said something that was too funny. When Miss Amelia pronounced "bombazine" to Laddie our side cried, "Careful, Laddie, careful! you're out of your element!"
And when she gave "swivel-tree" to the Princess, her side whispered, "Go easy! Do you know what it is? Make her define it."
They branched over the country. May met her Jonah on the mountains. Katahdin was too much for her, and Laddie and the Princess were left to fight it out alone. I didn't think Laddie liked it. I'm sure he never expected it to turn out that way. He must have been certain he could beat her, for after he finished English there were two or three other languages he knew, and every one in the district felt that he could win, and expected him to do it. It was an awful place to put him in, I could see that. He stood a little more erect than usual, with his eyes toward the Princess, and when his side kept crying, "Keep the prize, Laddie! Hold up the glory of the district!" he ground out the words as if he had a spite at them for not being so hard that he would have an excuse for going down.
The Princess was poised lightly on her feet, her thick curls, just touching her shoulders, shining in the light; her eyes like stars, her perfect, dark oval face flushed a rich red, and her deep bosom rising and falling with excitement. Many times in later years I have tried to remember when the Princess was loveliest of all, and that night always stands first.
I was thinking fast. Laddie was a big man. Men were strong on purpose so they could bear things. He loved the Princess so, and he didn't know whether she loved him or not; and every marriageable man in three counties was just aching for the chance to court her, and I didn't feel that he dared risk hurting her feelings.
Laddie said, to be the man who conquered the Princess and to whom she lifted her lips for a first kiss was worth life itself. I made up my mind that night that he knew just exactly what he was talking about. I thought so too. And I seemed to understand why Laddie--Laddie in his youth, strength, and manly beauty, Laddie, who boasted that there was not a nerve in his body--trembled before the Princess.
It looked as if she had set herself against him and was working for the honours, and if she wanted them, I didn't feel that he should chance beating her, and then, too, it was beginning to be plain that it was none too sure he could. Laddie didn't seem to be the only one who had been well drilled in spelling.
I held my jaws set a minute, so that I could speak without Laddie knowing how I was shivering, and then I whispered: "Except her eyes are softer, she looks just like a cardinal."
Laddie nodded emphatically and moving a step nearer laid his elbow across my knees. Heavens, how they spelled! They finished all the words I ever heard and spelled like lightning through a lot of others the meaning of which I couldn't imagine. Father never gave them out at home. They spelled epiphany, gaberdine, ichthyology, gewgaw, kaleidoscope, and troubadour. Then Laddie spelled one word two different ways; and the Princess went him one better, for she spelled another three.
They spelled from the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar, Potiphar, Peleg, Belshazzar, Abimelech, and a host of others I never heard the minister preach about. Then they did the most dreadful thing of all. "Broom," pronounced the teacher, and I began mentally, b-r- o-o-m, but Laddie spelled "b-r-o-u-g-h-a-m," and I stared at him in a daze. A second later Miss Amelia gave out "Beecham" to the Princess, and again I tried it, b-e-e-c-h, but the Princess was spelling "B-e-a-u-c-h-a-m-p," and I almost fell from the window.
They kept that up until I was nearly crazy with nervousness; I forgot I was half frozen. I pulled Laddie's sleeve and whispered in his ear: "Do you think she'll cry if you beat her?"
I was half crying myself, the strain had been awful. I was torn between these dearest loves of mine.
"Seen me have any chance to beat her?" retorted Laddie.
Miss Amelia seemed to have used most of her books, and at last picked up an old geography and began giving out points around the coast, while Laddie and the Princess took turns snatching the words from her mouth and spelling them. Father often did that, so Laddie was safe there. They were just going it when Miss Amelia pronounced, "Terra del Fuego," to the Princess. "T-e-r-r- a, Terra, d-e-l, del, F-i-e-u-g-o," spelled the Princess, and sat down suddenly in the midst of a mighty groan from her side, swelled by a wail from one little home district deserter.
"Next!" called Miss Amelia.
"T-e-r-r-a, Terra, d-e-l, del, F-e-u-g-o," spelled Laddie.
"Wrong!" wailed Miss Amelia, and our side breathed one big groan in concert, and I lifted up my voice in that also. Then every one laughed and pretended they didn't care, and the Princess came over and shook hands with Laddie, and Laddie said to Miss Amelia:
"Just let me take that book a minute until I see how the thing really does go." It was well done and satisfied the crowd, which clapped and cheered; but as I had heard him spell it many, many times for father, he didn't fool me.
Laddie and the Princess drew slips for the book and it fell to her. He was so pleased he kissed me as he lifted me down and never noticed I was so stiff I could scarcely stand--and I did fall twice going to the sleigh. My bed was warm and my room was warm, but I chilled the night through and until the next afternoon, when I grew so faint and sleepy I crept to Miss Amelia's desk, half dead with fright--it was my first trip to ask an excuse--and begged: "Oh teacher, I'm so sick. Please let me go home."
I think one glance must have satisfied her that it was true, for she said very kindly that I might, and she would send Leon along to take care of me. But my troubles were only half over when I had her consent. It was very probable I would be called a baby and sent back when I reached home, so I refused company and started alone. It seemed a mile past the cemetery. I was so tired I stopped, and leaning against the fence, peeped through at the white stones and the whiter mounds they covered, and wondered how my mother would feel if she were compelled to lay me beside the two little whooping cough and fever sisters already sleeping there. I decided that it would be so very dreadful, that the tears began to roll down my cheeks and freeze before they fell.
Down the Big Hill slowly I went. How bare it looked then! Only leafless trees and dried seed pods rattling on the bushes, the sand frozen, and not a rush to be seen for the thick blanket of snow. A few rods above the bridge was a footpath, smooth and well worn, that led down to the creek, beaten by the feet of children who raced it every day and took a running slide across the ice. I struck into the path as always; but I was too stiff to run, for I tried. I walked on the ice, and being almost worn out, sat on the bridge and fell to watching the water bubbling under the glassy crust. I was so dull a horse's feet struck the bridge before I heard the bells--for I had bells in my ears that day--and when I looked up it was the Princess--the Princess in her red dress and furs, with a silk hood instead of her hat, her sleigh like a picture, with a buffalo robe, that it was whispered about the country, cost over a hundred dollars, and her thoroughbred mare Maud dancing and prancing. "Bless me! Is it you, Little Sister?" she asked. "Shall I give you a ride home?"
Before I could scarcely realize she was there, I was beside her and she was tucking the fine warm robe over me. I lifted a pair of dull eyes to her face.
"Oh Princess, I am so glad you came," I said. "I don't think I could have gone another step if I had frozen on the bridge."
The Princess bent to look in my face. "Why, you poor child!" She exclaimed, "you're white as death! Where are you ill?"
I leaned on her shoulder, though ordinarily I would not have offered to touch her first, and murmured: "I am not ill, outdoors, only dull, sleepy, and freezing with the cold."
"It was that window!" she exclaimed. "I thought of it, but I trusted Laddie."
That roused me a little.
"Oh Princess," I cried, "you mustn't blame Laddie! I knew it was too cold, but I wouldn't tell him, because if he put me down I couldn't see you, and we thought, but for your eyes being softer, you looked just like a cardinal."
The Princess hugged me close and laughed merrily. "You darling!" she cried.
Then she shook me up sharply: "Don't you dare go to sleep!" she said. "I must take you home first."
Once there she quieted my mother's alarm, put me to bed, drove three miles for Dr. Fenner and had me started nicely on the road to a month of lung fever, before she left. In my delirium I spelled volumes; and the miracle of it was I never missed a word until I came to "Terra del Fuego," and there I covered my lips and stoutly insisted that it was the Princess' secret.
To keep me from that danger sleep on the road, she shook me up and asked about the spelling bee. I thought it was the grandest thing I had ever seen in my life, and I told her so. She gathered me close and whispered: "Tell me something, Little Sister, please."
The minx! She knew I thought that a far finer title than hers.
"Would Laddie care?" I questioned.
"Not in the least!"
"Well then, I will."
"Can Laddie spell `Terra del Fuego?'" she whispered.
"Are you sure?"
"I have heard him do it over and over for father."
The Princess forgot I was so sick, forgot her horse, forgot everything. She threw her head back and her hands up, until her horse stopped in answer to the loosened line, and she laughed and laughed. She laughed until peal on peal re-echoed from our Big Woods clear across the west eighty. She laughed until her ringing notes set my slow pulses on fire, and started my numbed brain in one last effort. I stood up and took her lovely face between my palms, turning it until I could see whether the thought that had come to me showed in her eyes, and it did.
"Oh you darling, splendid Princess!" I cried. "You missed it on purpose to let Laddie beat! You can spell it too!"