IN THE LOFT
"I declare," said Miss Petingill, laying down her work, "if them children don't beat all! What on airth are they going to do now?"
Miss Petingill was sitting in the little room in the back building, which she always had when she came to the Carr's for a week's mending and making over. She was the dearest, funniest old woman who ever went out sewing by the day. Her face was round, and somehow made you think of a very nice baked apple, it was so criss-crossed, and lined by a thousand good-natured puckers. She was small and wiry, and wore caps and a false front, which was just the color of a dusty Newfoundland dog's back. Her eyes were dim, and she used spectacles; but for all that, she was an excellent worker. Every one liked Miss Petingill though Aunt Izzie did once say that her tongue "was hung in the middle." Aunt Izzie made this remark when she was in a temper, and was by no means prepared to have Phil walk up at once and request Miss Petingill to "stick it out," which she obligingly did; while the rest of the children crowded to look. They couldn't see that it was different from other tongues, but Philly persisted in finding something curious about it; there must be, you know—since it was hung in that queer way!
Wherever Miss Petingill went, all sorts of treasures went with her. The children liked to have her come, for it was as good as a fairy story, or the circus, to see her things unpacked. Miss Petingill was very much afraid of burglars; she lay awake half the night listening for them and nothing on earth would have persuaded her to go anywhere, leaving behind what she called her "Plate." This stately word meant six old teaspoons, very thin and bright and sharp, and a butter-knife, whose handle set forth that it was "A testimonial of gratitude, for saving the life of Ithuriel Jobson, aged seven, on the occasion of his being attacked with quinsy sore throat." Miss Petingill was very proud of her knife. It and the spoons travelled about in a little basket which hung on her arm, and was never allowed to be out of her sight, even when the family she was sewing for were the honestest people in the world.
Then, beside the plate-basket, Miss Petingill never stirred without Tom, her tortoiseshell cat. Tom was a beauty, and knew his power; he ruled Miss Petingill with a rod of iron, and always sat in the rocking-chair when there was one. It was no matter where she sat, Miss Petingill told people, but Tom was delicate, and must be made comfortable. A big family Bible always came too, and a special red merino pin-cushion, and some "shade pictures" of old Mr. and Mrs. Petingill and Peter Petingill, who was drowned at sea; and photographs of Mrs. Porter, who used to be Marcia Petingill, and Mrs. Porter's husband, and all the Porter children. Many little boxes and jars came also, and a long row of phials and bottles, filled with homemade physic and herb teas. Miss Petingill could not have slept without having them beside her, for, as she said, how did she know that she might not be "took sudden" with something, and die for want of a little ginger-balsam or pennyroyal?
The Carr children always made so much noise, that it required something unusual to make Miss Petingill drop her work, as she did now, and fly to the window. In fact there was a tremendous hubbub: hurrahs from Dorry, stamping of feet, and a great outcry of shrill, glad voices. Looking down, Miss Petingill saw the whole six—no, seven, for Cecy was there too—stream out of the wood-house door—which wasn't a door, but only a tall open arch—and rush noisily across the yard. Katy was at the head, bearing a large black bottle without any cork in it, while the others carried in each hand what seemed to be a cookie.
"Katherine Carr! Kather-ine!" screamed Miss Petingill, tapping loudly on the glass. "Don't you see that it's raining? you ought to be ashamed to let your little brothers and sisters go out and get wet in such a way!" But nobody heard her, and the children vanished into the shed, where nothing could be seen but a distant flapping of pantalettes and frilled trousers, going up what seemed to be a ladder, farther back in the shed. So, with a dissatisfied cluck, Miss Petingill drew back her head, perched the spectacles on her nose, and went to work again on Katy's plaid alpaca, which had two immense zigzag rents across the middle of the front breadth. Katy's frocks, strange to say, always tore exactly in that place!
If Miss Petingill's eyes could have reached a little farther, they would have seen that it wasn't a ladder up which the children were climbing, but a tall wooden post, with spikes driven into it about a foot apart. It required quite a stride to get from one spike to the other; in fact the littler ones couldn't have managed it at all, had it not been for Clover and Cecy "boosting" very hard from below, while Katy, making a long arm, clawed from above. At last they were all safely up, and in the delightful retreat which I am about to describe:
Imagine a low, dark loft without any windows, and with only a very little light coming in through the square hole in the floor, to which the spikey post led. There was a strong smell of corn-cobs, though the corn had been taken away, a great deal of dust and spiderweb in the corners, and some wet spots on the boards; for the roof always leaked a little in rainy weather.
This was the place, which for some reason I have never been able to find out, the Carr children preferred to any other on rainy Saturdays, when they could not play out-doors, Aunt Izzie was as much puzzled at this fancy as I am. When she was young (a vague, far-off time, which none of her nieces and nephews believed in much), she had never had any of these queer notions about getting off into holes and corners, and poke-away places. Aunt Izzie would gladly have forbidden them to go the loft, but Dr. Carr had given his permission, so all she could do was to invent stories about children who had broken their bones in various dreadful ways, by climbing posts and ladders. But these stories made no impression on any of the children except little Phil, and the self-willed brood kept on their way, and climbed their spiked post as often as they liked.
"What's in the bottle?" demanded Dorry, the minute he was fairly landed in the loft.
"Don't be greedy," replied Katy, severely; "you will know when the time comes. It is something delicious, I can assure you.
"Now," she went on, having thus quenched Dorry, "all of you had better give me your cookies to put away: if you don't, they'll be sure to be eaten up before the feast, and then you know there wouldn't be anything to make a feast of."
So all of them handed over their cookies. Dorry, who had begun on his as he came up the ladder, was a little unwilling, but he was too much in the habit of minding Katy to dare to disobey. The big bottle was set in a corner, and a stack of cookies built up around it.
"That's right," proceeded Katy, who, as oldest and biggest, always took the lead in their plays. "Now if we're fixed and ready to begin, the Fête (Katy pronounced it Feet) can commence. The opening exercise will be 'A Tragedy of the Alhambra,' by Miss Hall."
"No," cried Clover; "first 'The Blue Wizard, or Edwitha of the Hebrides,' you know, Katy."
"Didn't I tell you?" said Katy; "a dreadful accident has happened to that."
"Oh, what?" cried all the rest, for Edwitha was rather a favorite with the family. It was one of the many serial stories which Katy was forever writing, and was about a lady, a knight, a blue wizard, and a poodle named Bop. It had been going on so many months now, that everybody had forgotten the beginning, and nobody had any particular hope of living to hear the end, but still the news of its untimely fate was a shock.
"I'll tell you," said Katy. "Old Judge Kirby called this morning to see Aunt Izzie; I was studying in the little room, but I saw him come in, and pull out the big chair and sit down, and I almost screamed out 'don't!'"
"Why?" cried the children.
"Don't you see? I had stuffed 'Edwitha' down between the back and the seat. It was a beautiful hiding-place, for the seat goes back ever so far; but Edwitha was such a fat bundle, and old Judge Kirby takes up so much room, that I was afraid there would be trouble. And sure enough, he had hardly dropped down before there was a great crackling of paper, and he jumped up again and called out, 'Bless me! what is that?' And then he began poking, and poking, and just as he had poked out the whole bundle, and was putting on his spectacles to see what it was, Aunt Izzie came in."
"Well, what next?" cried the children, immensely tickled.
"Oh!" continued Katy, "Aunt Izzie put on her glasses too, and screwed up her eyes—you know the way she does, and she and the judge read a little bit of it; that part at the first, you remember, where Bop steals the blue-pills, and the Wizard tries to throw him into the sea. You can't think how funny it was to hear Aunt Izzie reading 'Edwitha' out loud—" and Katy went into convulsions at the recollection "where she got to 'Oh Bop—my angel Bop—' I just rolled under the table, and stuffed the table-cover in my mouth to keep from screaming right out. By and by I heard her call Debby, and give her the papers, and say: 'Here is a mass of trash which I wish you to put at once into the kitchen fire.' And she told me afterward that she thought I would be in an insane asylum before I was twenty. It was too bad," ended Katy half laughing and half crying, "to burn up the new chapter and all. But there's one good thing—she didn't find 'The Fairy of the Dry Goods Box,' that was stuffed farther back in the seat.
"And now," continued the mistress of ceremonies, "we will begin. Miss Hall will please rise."
"Miss Hall," much flustered at her fine name, got up with very red cheeks.
"It was once upon a time," she read, "Moonlight lay on the halls of the Alhambra, and the knight, striding impatiently down the passage, thought she would never come."
"Who, the moon?" asked Clover.
"No, of course not," replied Cecy, "a lady he was in love with. The next verse is going to tell about her, only you interrupted.
"She wore a turban of silver, with a jewelled crescent. As she stole down the corregidor the beams struck it and it glittered like stars.
"'So you are come, Zuleika?'
"'Yes, my lord.'
"Just then a sound as of steel smote upon the ear, and Zuleika's mail-clad father rushed in. He drew his sword, so did the other. A moment more, and they both lay dead and stiff in the beams of the moon. Zuleika gave a loud shriek, and threw herself upon their bodies. She was dead, too! And so ends the Tragedy of the Alhambra."
"That's lovely," said Katy, drawing a long breath, "only very sad! What beautiful stories you do write, Cecy! But I wish you wouldn't always kill the people. Why couldn't the knight have killed the father, and—no, I suppose Zuleika wouldn't have married him then. Well, the father might have—oh, bother! why must anybody be killed, anyhow? why not have them fall on each other's necks, and make up?"
"Why, Katy!" cried Cecy, "it wouldn't have been a tragedy then. You know the name was A Tragedy of the Alhambra."
"Oh, well," said Katy, hurriedly, for Cecy's lips were beginning to pout, and her fair, pinkish face to redden, as if she were about to cry; "perhaps it was prettier to have them all die; only I thought, for a change, you know!—What a lovely word that was—. 'Corregidor'—what does it mean?"
"I don't know," replied Cecy, quite consoled. "It was in the 'Conquest of Granada.' Something to walk over, I believe."
"The next," went on Katy, consulting her paper, "is 'Yap,' a Simple Poem, by Clover Carr."
All the children giggled, but Clover got up composedly, and recited the following verses:
"Did you ever know Yap?
The best little dog
Who e'er sat on lap
Or barked at a frog.
"His eyes were like beads,
His tail like a mop,
And it waggled as if
It never would stop.
"His hair was like silk
Of the glossiest sheen,
He always ate milk,
And once the cold-cream
"Off the nursery bureau
(That line is too long!)
It made him quite ill,
So endeth my song.
"For Yappy he died
Just two months ago,
And we oughtn't to sing
At a funeral, you know."
The "Poem" met with immense applause; all the children laughed, and shouted, and clapped, till the loft rang again. But Clover kept her face perfectly, and sat down as demure as ever, except that the little dimples came and went at the corners of her mouth; dimples, partly natural, and partly, I regret to say, the result of a pointed slate-pencil, with which Clover was in the habit of deepening them every day while she studied her lessons.
"Now," said Katy, after the noise had subsided, "now come 'Scripture Verses,' by Miss Elsie and Joanna Carr. Hold up your head, Elsie, and speak distinctly; and oh, Johnnie, you mustn't giggle in that way when it comes your turn!"
But Johnnie only giggled the harder at this appeal, keeping her hands very tight across her mouth, and peeping out over her fingers. Elsie, however, was solemn as a little judge, and with great dignity began:
"An angel with a fiery sword,
Came to send Adam and Eve abroad
And as they journeyed through the skies
They took one look at Paradise.
They thought of all the happy hours
Among the birds and fragrant bowers,
And Eve she wept, and Adam bawled,
And both together loudly squalled."
Dorry snickered at this, but sedate Clover hushed him.
"You mustn't," she said; "it's about the Bible, you know. Now John, it's your turn."
But Johnnie would persist in holding her hands over her mouth, while her fat little shoulders shook with laughter. At last, with a great effort, she pulled her face straight, and speaking as fast as she possibly could, repeated, in a sort of burst:
"Balaam's donkey saw the Angel,
And stopped short in fear.
Balaam didn't see the Angel,
Which is very queer."
After which she took refuge again behind her fingers, while Elsie went on—
"Elijah by the creek,
He by ravens fed,
Took from their horny beak
Pieces of meat and bread."
"Come, Johnnie," said Katy, but the incorrigible Johnnie was shaking again, and all they could make out was—
"The bears came down, and ate———and ate."
These "Verses" were part of a grand project on which Clover and Elsie had been busy for more than a year. It was a sort of rearrangement of Scripture for infant minds; and when it was finished, they meant to have it published, bound in red, with daguerreotypes of the two authoresses on the cover. "The Youth's Poetical Bible" was to be the name of it. Papa, much tickled with the scraps which he overheard, proposed, instead, "The Trundle-Bed Book," as having been composed principally in that spot, but Elsie and Clover were highly indignant, and would not listen to the idea for a moment.
After the "Scripture Verses," came Dorry's turn. He had been allowed to choose for himself, which was unlucky, as his taste was peculiar, not to say gloomy. On this occasion he had selected that cheerful hymn which begins—
"Hark, from the tombs a doleful sound."
And he now began to recite it in a lugubrious voice and with great emphasis, smacking his lips, as it were, over such lines as—
"Princes, this clay shall
be your bed,
In spite of all your towers."
The older children listened with a sort of fascinated horror, rather enjoying the cold chills which ran down their backs, and huddling close together, as Dorry's hollow tones echoed from the dark corners of the loft. It was too much for Philly, however. At the close of the piece he was found to be in tears.
"I don't want to st-a-a-y up here and be groaned at," he sobbed.
"There, you bad boy!" cried Katy, all the more angry because she was conscious of having enjoyed it herself, "that's what you do with your horrid hymns, frightening us to death and making Phil cry!" And she gave Dorry a little shake. He began to whimper, and as Phil was still sobbing, and Johnnie had begun to sob too, out of sympathy with the others, the Feet in the Loft seemed likely to come to a sad end.
"I'm goin' to tell Aunt Izzie that I don't like you," declared Dorry, putting one leg through the opening in the floor.
"No, you aren't," said Katy, seizing him, "you are going to stay, because now we are going to have the Feast! Do stop, Phil; and Johnnie, don't be a goose, but come and pass round the cookies."
The word "Feast" produced a speedy effect on the spirits of the party. Phil cheered at once, and Dorry changed his mind about going. The black bottle was solemnly set in the midst, and the cookies were handed about by Johnnie, who was now all smiles. The cookies had scalloped edges and caraway seeds inside, and were very nice. There were two apiece; and as the last was finished, Katy put her hand in her pocket, and amid great applause, produced the crowning addition to the repast—seven long, brown sticks of cinnamon.
"Isn't it fun?" she said. "Debby was real good-natured to-day, and let me put my own hand into the box, so I picked out the longest sticks there were. Now, Cecy, as you're company, you shall have the first drink out of the bottle."
The "something delicious" proved to be weak vinegar-and-water. It was quite warm, but somehow, drank up there in the loft, and out of a bottle, it tasted very nice. Beside, they didn't call it vinegar-and-water—of course not! Each child gave his or her swallow a different name, as if the bottle were like Signor Blitz's and could pour out a dozen things at once. Clover called her share "Raspberry Shrub," Dorry christened his "Ginger Pop," while Cecy, who was romantic, took her three sips under the name of "Hydomel," which she explained was something nice, made, she believed, of beeswax. The last drop gone, and the last bit of cinnamon crunched, the company came to order again, for the purpose of hearing Philly repeat his one piece,—
"Little drops of water,"
which exciting poem he had said every Saturday as far back as they could remember. After that Katy declared the literary part of the "Feet" over, and they all fell to playing "Stagecoach," which, in spite of close quarters and an occasional bump from the roof, was such good fun, that a general "Oh dear!" welcomed the ringing of the tea-bell. I suppose cookies and vinegar had taken away their appetites, for none of them were hungry, and Dorry astonished Aunt Izzie very much by eyeing the table in a disgusted way, and saying: "Pshaw! only plum sweatmeats and sponge cake and hot biscuit! I don't want any supper."
"What ails the child? he must be sick," said Dr. Carr; but Katy explained.
"Oh no, Papa, it isn't that—only we've been having a feast in the loft."
"Did you have a good time?" asked Papa, while Aunt Izzie gave a dissatisfied groan. And all the children answered at once: "Splendiferous!"