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A Little Girl in Old New York By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 22516

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

When they reached the barn they saw Aunt Mary carrying a great platter of corn up to the house. The little girl washed her hands and her face, that was quite rosy now, and followed. How delicious it all looked! White bread, corncake, cold chicken, pot-cheese in great creamy balls, and a hot molasses cake to come on with the berries.

The little girl always sat beside her mother, and Margaret on the boys' side, to help them. There were four boys and two hired men.

Mrs. Underhill was a notable housekeeper. She was a little sharp in the temper, but Mr. Underhill was so easy that some one had to uphold the family dignity. She complained that 'Milyer spoiled the children, but they were good-natured and jolly, and quite up to the average.

After supper the cows were milked, the horses fed and bedded, Margaret and her mother packed up the dishes in a big basket, and the boys took them down to Mary. Mrs. Underhill looked after the milk.

The little girl went out on the wide porch and studied her lessons. There were two long lines in Webster's elementary spelling-book to get by heart, for the teacher "skipped about." The children went up and down, and it was rare fun sometimes. The little girl had been out of the Baker class a long while. They call it that because the first column began with that easy word. She was very proud of having gone in the larger class. Her father gave her a silver dollar with a hole punched through it, and Steve brought her a blue ribbon for it. She wore it on state occasions. She studied Peter Parley's geography and knew the verses beginning:

"The world is round and like a ball,

Seems swinging in the air."

How it could be puzzled her. She asked her father, for she thought he knew everything. He said he believed it was, but he could never make it seem so.

Aunt Mary strenuously denied it. "Sta'ns to reason de folks would fall off w'en it went swirlin' round. De good Lord He knows His business better'n dat. Jes don't mind any sech foolin', honey! Its clear agin de Bible dat speaks ob de sun's risin' an' settin', an' de Lord nebber makes any mistake 'bout dat ar Bible."

The little girl studied her lesson over four times. Then Jim came up and they had a game of tag. Dave Andrews and Milton Scott sat out under the old apple-tree smoking their pipes and talking politics. One was a Whig and the other a Democrat who believed that we had never had a President worth mentioning since Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory as he was often called.

When her father came round the corner of the house she stopped running after Jim and held out both hands to him. Her cheeks were like wild roses and her eyes shone with pleasure. They sat down on the step, and he put his arm about her and "cuddled" her up to his side. She told him she had gone up three in saying seven times in the multiplication table, and four in spelling "tetrarch." Then when Charley Banks was reading he said "condig-en" and the class laughed. She also told him she had been studying about Rhode Island and Roger Williams, and all the bays and inlets and islands. She made believe comb his hair with her slim little fingers and once in a while he opened his lips like a trap and caught them, and they both laughed.

Presently Mrs. Underhill, who sat by the window knitting in the twilight, said: "'Milyer, that child must go to bed."

She felt she had to issue this mandate two of three times, so she began early.

They hugged each other and laughed a little. Then he said: "All the chickens right?"

"Yes, I counted them. They're so cunning and lovely."

"I hope they'll get their feather cloaks on before cold weather," said her father.

"'Milyer, that child must go to bed! I don't see why you want to keep her up all hours of the night."

They hugged each other a little closer this time and did not laugh, but just kissed softly. It was beginning to grow dusky. The peeps and crickets and katydids were out in force. The katydids told you there would be frost in six weeks.

When her mother added in a dignified tone, "Come, Hannah Ann," the little girl took one last hug and came into the room. Margaret had lighted the candles in their polished brass candlesticks. One stood on the hall table, one on the stand in the middle of the room. Mrs. Underhill had knit past the seam in her stocking and pulled out a few stitches. Then she laid it down and unfastened the little girl's frock and said, "Now run to bed this minute." Margaret was reading, but she glanced up and smiled.

The candle made a vague yellowish light on the stairs. There were people who burned lamp-oil, as the oil from whales was called. The little girl held it in curious awe, associating it with the story of Jonah. Mrs. Underhill despised the "ill-smelling stuff" and would not have it in the house. She made beautiful candles. Oil-wells had hardly been thought of, except that some one occasionally brought a bottle from Pennsylvania for rheumatism.

The little girl had slept in her mother's room, which answered to the back parlor, until this spring when she had gone up to Margaret's room. There were four large chambers on the second floor and a spacious clothes-room with a closet for bedding. Up above was an immense garret with four gables. The three younger boys and the two hired men slept there.

The little girl didn't mind going to bed alone, but her mother generally found some good reason for going up-stairs. On cool nights she was afraid the little girl wasn't well covered; and to-night she looked in and said:

"I hope you're not bundled up in a blanket this hot night, Hannah Ann! Children seem to have such little sense."

"Oh no, I have only the sheet over me." But the little girl raised up and held out her arms, and her mother gave her a soft squeeze and patted the pillow and said:

"Now you must go to sleep like a good little girl;" quite as if she was in the habit of being bad and not going to sleep, but they both understood.

You may think the little girl's life was dull with lessons and sewing and going to bed at dusk. But she found no end of fun. Now and then a host of cousins came, and they climbed trees, ran races, waded in the brooks, went off to the woods and swung in the wild grape-vines. Sometimes they walked out on the end of a wide-spreading branch, holding to the one above, and when they began to "teeter" too much they gave a spring and came down on the soft ground. The little girl could go out a long way because she was so light and fearless. They never broke their necks or their limbs. They laughed and shouted and turned summersaults and ran races. No day was ever long enough.

The school was a good mile away, but on very stormy days they were taken in the covered wagon. They studied with a will, just as they played, and you heard nothing about nerves in those days.

Some of the parents came that last day at school. Jim acquitted himself creditably in his "Ode to Columbia," and the little girl recited with a rose in her hand, though Margaret had quite a trouble to find one for her. Roses didn't bloom all the year round as they do now. When the children were dismissed they went out and gave some deafening hurrahs for the two weeks' vacation. Oh, what throats and lungs they had!

When the little girl reached home she found a houseful of company. When families have lived from one to two hundred years in one section of the country, they get related to almost everybody. And though Aunt Becky Odell was a second cousin of her mother's, she was aunt to the little girl all the same. She had come up from West Farms to spend a few days and brought her two little girls. Some other relatives had come from Tarrytown.

The little girl greeted everybody, took off her Sunday white frock that had a needleworked edge that her mother had worn twenty years and more ago. Then she took the little girls out to see the chickens and hunt some eggs and have a good play on the hay in the barn.

"Oh, ain't you just crazy to go to New York to live?" cried Polly Odell. "The stores are so beautiful! When I go down I just don't want to come back!"

"You was homesick at Aunt Ph[oe]be's, you know you was," said her sister, with small regard for her tense.

"Well, I didn't like Aunt Ph[oe]be one bit. She's old and cross, and she isn't our own aunt either. She won't let you stand by the window les' you breathe on the glass, and she won't let you rock on the carpet nor run up and down stairs, nor touch a book, and makes you get up at five in the morning when you're so sleepy. She wanted me to stay 'cause she said 'I was handy to wait on her.' And it wasn't truly New York but way up by the East River. I wouldn't have stayed for a dollar. I just jumped up and down when poppy came, and she said, 'For goodness' sake! don't thrash out all my carpet with your jouncin' up an' down.' You can just go yourself, Janey Odell, and see how you like it!"

"I'm sure I don't want to go. But you just jumped at it!"

"Well, I thought it would be nice. But oh, Hanneran, it's just splendid here! And to-morrow Uncle 'Milyer's going to take us out riding. He said so. Oh, Hanneran, wasn't you awful 'fear'd to speak a piece before all the folks at school?"

Polly Odell looked at her in amazement.

"Well-just at first--"

"I wouldn't dast to for a dollar!" cried Janey.

They went on with their play, now and then stumbling against a discussion that never really reached the height of a dispute. Margaret came to hunt them up presently that they might have their tousled heads smoothed and their hands and faces washed.

The little girl was always interested when they had a high tea in the sitting-room. The best old blue china was out, the loaf sugar, and the sugar-tongs that the little girl watched breathlessly lest her mother should lose the lump of sugar before it reached the cup.

The men and boys were having supper in the other room, but the little girls waited on the porch. They were so quiet and kept so tidy that Mrs. Underhill gave them a lump of sugar in each glass of milk, and took it up with the sugar-tongs, to the little girl's great delight.

She couldn't help hearing the talk as they all sat out on the porch. Uncle Faid had really sold his farm, stock, and crops, and was to give possession in September. Then they would visit their two sons and some of Aunt Betsey's people in Michigan, and get on about Christmas.

"It's a shame to have to give up the house," declared Cousin Odell. "Can't you keep it, 'Milyer?"

"A bargain's a bargain. Faid did a fair thing when he went away, and I can't do less than a fair thing now. If he'd died, his share in the house would have been offered to me first. I dare say we could put on an addition and live together without quarrellin', but the boys want to go to New York, and they couldn't all stay here and make a living. The young folks must strike out, and I tell mother if she don't get to feeling at home I'll come back and build her a house."

"It'll never be like this one," said Mrs. Underhill sharply.

"The world is full of changes," declared the Tarrytown cousin.

The little girl sat in her father's lap and listened until she went soundly asleep

. Janey Odell leaned against the porch column and almost tumbled over. Mrs. Underhill sprang up.

"Mercy on us! These children ought to be in bed. Wake up, Hannah Ann!"

"I'll carry her up-stairs," said her father, and he kissed her tenderly as he laid her on the bed. Her mother undressed her and patted down her pillow. She flung her arms about her mother's neck.

"Oh, mother!" she cried softly, wonderingly, "do you want to go to New York?"

"Child dear, I don't know what I want," and there was a muffled sound in her voice. "There, go to sleep, dear. Don't worry."

They inspected the pretty knoll the next day where Mrs. Underhill was to have her new house built if they didn't take root in New York. Were not her children dearer to her than any spot of ground? And if they were all going away--

The children had a very jolly time. On Monday the Odells went home, and the little girl hated to say good-by. Cousin Famie Morgan, her real name was Euphemia, wanted to go to White Plains to visit a while with Aunt Ann and David, and Cousin Joanna would stay a few days longer and go to New York to do some shopping. Margaret would go with Cousin Famie. The little girl wanted to go too, and take her patchwork. She had only six blocks to do now.

Grandmother was very glad to see her, and praised her without stint. Uncle David and Aunt Eunice had some grandchildren. Two sons and one daughter were married, and one son and daughter were still at home. Aunt Eunice was a very placid, sweet body, and still clung to her Quaker dress and speech, though she went to the old Episcopal church with her husband. Her folks lived up in Putnam County.

Grandmother would have spoiled the little girl if such a thing had been possible. She would help her with the patchwork, and then she brought out some lovely red French calico that was soft and rich, and began to join it. They had some nice drives, and one day they took Cousin Morgan home and stayed to dinner. There were three single women living together in a queer rambling house that had been added to, and raised in places. Mr. Erastus Morgan and his wife lived in Paris, and once a year or so there would come a package of pretty things-china and ornaments of various kinds, odd pieces of silk and brocade for cushions, gloves, and fans and laces and silk for gowns, as if they were still quite young women.

Uncle David had the "Knickerbocker History of New York," which everybody now knew was written by Mr. Washington Irving, and various members of the family were settled about Tarrytown, and many others in the Sleepy Hollow graveyard. The very next day the little girl began to read the history, for she wanted to know about New York. They had a delightful visit with grandmother and Aunt Eunice. Uncle David was seven years older than her father. The little girl concluded she liked him very much.

When she and Margaret went home everything was going on just the same. The little girl was somewhat amazed. No one said a word about moving. She had expected to see everything packed. The children started for school as usual. Then Mrs. Underhill went down to the city and stayed a fortnight and came home looking worn and worried. The impending change weighed upon her. But the little girl was so interested in Mr. Dederich Knickerbocker which she was reading aloud to her father that changes hardly mattered.

Early in December Mr. Frederic Underhill with his wife and daughter came to hand. He was thin and stooped a good deal, and looked older than Uncle David. Aunt Crete's name was Lucretia, and the little girl was amazed to learn that. She was tall and thin and wore a black lace sort of cap to cover the bald spot on her head. Then she had a false front of dark hair. Her own was very thin and white. She had been a great sufferer from 'ager,' as she called it, and the doctors said only an entire change of climate would break it up. And goodness only knew how glad she was to get back East.

Lauretta-Retty as she was called-was about twenty-two, a good, stout, common-place girl who made herself at home at once. She had a lover who was coming on in the spring when they would be married, and he expected "to help Pop farm. Pop was pretty well broken down with hard work, and he'd about seen his best days. He'd been awful anxious to get back among his own folks, and she, Retty, hoped now he'd take things kinder easy."

Grandmother and Uncle David's family came down to welcome them. All the country round seemed to turn out. And just before Christmas, with all the rest of the work, the little girl's quilt was put in. Some of the older people came the first day and had a fine supper. Next afternoon it was the young people's turn.

The little girl had a blue-and-white figured silk frock made from a skirt of her mother's. The tops of the sleeves were trimmed with four or five ruffles and there were two ruffles around the neck. She wore her gold beads, and Margaret curled her hair. Everybody praised her and she felt very happy. Some of the young men came in while they were taking the quilt out of the frame, and oh, what a tussle there was! The girl who could wrap herself first in it was to be married first. Such pulling and laughing, such a din of voices and struggle of hands-you would have thought all the girls wild to get married. The little girl looked with dismay, for it seemed as if her quilt would be torn to pieces.

Retty wound one corner around herself, and two of the young men rolled Margaret and several of the other girls in the other end amid the shouts of the lookers-on.

Then grandmother shook it out and folded it.

"There!" she exclaimed, "to-morrow I'll put on the binding. And, Hannah Ann, you have a good beginning. Not every little girl can show such a quilt as that, pieced all by herself before she was eight years old!"

"But you helped, grandmother--"

"Nonsense, child! Just a piece now and then! And I've a nice pair of wool blankets I'm saving up for you that I spun myself. You'll have a good many things saved up in a dozen years."

What fun they had afterward! There were two black fiddlers in the hall; one was Cato, Aunt Mary's grandson, a stylish young fellow much in demand for parties. They danced and danced.

Steve took his little sister out several times, and John danced with her. Her father thought her the very prettiest one in the crowd. Her mother let her stay up until eleven.

"I'm so sorry you are going away," said Retty, the next morning. "I never did have such a good time in my life. I don't see why we can't all live together in this big house!"

In the new year the real business of changing began. It was hard to select a house. Joe said all New York was going up-town, and that before many years the lower part of the city would be given over to business. Bond and Amity Street, around St. John's Park and East Broadway were still centres of fashion. The society people had come up from the Bowling Green and the Battery, though there were still some beautiful old houses that business people clung to because they wanted to be near to everything. Harlem and Yorkville were considered country. Up on the east side as far as Eightieth or Ninetieth Street there were some spacious summer residences with beautiful grounds. A few fine mansions clustered about University Square. City Hall Park was still covered with fine growing shade-trees. There was such a magnificent fountain that Lydia Maria Child, describing it, said there was nothing to equal it in the Old World.

Still, the unmistakable trend was up-town. Grace Church was agitating a new building at Tenth Street. Rows of houses were being put up on the new streets, though down-town people rather scoffed and wondered why people were not going up to Harlem and taking their business places along.

After much discussion the Underhills settled upon First Street. Stephen made the decision, though he had great faith in "up-town." This was convenient. Then they could buy through to Houston Street, and there was a stable and sort of storehouse on the end of the lot. And though you wouldn't think it now, it was quite pretty and refined then, from Avenue A out to the Bowery. They were in a row of nice brick houses, quite near First Avenue, on the lower side of the street. Opposite it was well built for quite a space, and then came the crowning glory of the block. About a dozen houses stood thirty or so feet back from the street and had lovely flower-gardens in front. Stephen would have liked one of these, but the houses were not roomy enough. And in their own place they had a nice grass-plot, some flower-beds, and several fruit-trees, beside a grape-trellis. He thought his mother would be less homesick if she could see some bloom and greenery.

It was the last of March, 1843, that the little girl came to New York. Mrs. Underhill believed it only an experiment. When the boys were grown up and married, settled in their own homes, she and 'Milyer would go back to Yonkers on their part of the farm and have a nice big house for their old age and for the grandchildren. In her motherly heart she hoped there would be a good many of them. She couldn't have spared any of her eight children.

The house in First Street seemed very queer. It had a front area and two basements, two parlors on the next floor with folding-doors and a long ell-room, rather narrow, so that it would not darken the back room too much. Up-stairs there were three large chambers and one small one, and on the fourth floor, that did not have full-size windows, three more. That there was no "garret" caused endless lamentation.

They could not bring old Mary, indeed she would not come, but they had a rather youngish countrywoman whose husband had deserted her, and who was looking for a good home. Mary thought she would stay a while with the "new folks" and get them "broke in," as she phrased it, and then go and live with her son.

The little girl stood on her own front stoop looking up and down the street. It was queer the houses should be just alike-six brown-stone steps, and iron side railings, and an iron railing to the area, that was paved with brick. You would always have to be thinking of the number or you might get into the neighbor's house. Oh, no. Here was a sure sign, the bright silver door-plate with black lettering-"Vermilye F. Underhill." She looked at it in amazement. It made her father suddenly grand in her estimation. Could she sit in his lap just the same and twist his whiskers about her fingers and comb his hair and read out of her story-books to him? And where would she go to school? Were there any little girls around to play with? How could she get acquainted with them?

While she was considering this point, two girls went by. Both had straw gypsy hats with flowers and ruffled capes of black silk. They looked up at her. She was going to smile down to them in the innocent belief that all little girls must be glad to see each other. One of them giggled-yes, she absolutely did, and said:

"Oh, what a queer-looking thing! Her frock comes down to her shoe-tops like an old woman's and that sun-bonnet! Why she must have just come in from the backwoods!"

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