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   Chapter 21 BILLY'S PRAYER.

Cricket at the Seashore By Elizabeth Weston Timlow Characters: 18394

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

A little procession trailed slowly across the orchard, towards the cottage of the poor old woman in whom grandma was so much interested. The procession consisted of Hilda and Cricket, the latter walking very sedately along, because she had in charge a dish of something good to eat for the old woman; then the twins, with their arms tight around each other's necks, as usual; then old Billy, shambling along, his gaunt figure a little bent forward, and his hands clasped behind his back, under his coat tails, as he generally walked. Last of all came George W., stepping daintily along, his tail arching high over his back, his head cocked a little on one side, like a dog's, and his ears briskly erect.

George was not an invited member of the party, but from his favorite perch, the roof of the well-house-for George W. was always of an aspiring mind-having seen the party set out, he immediately scrambled down and trotted after. It was some time before he was discovered; not, indeed, till an apple, tumbling down from a branch of a tree, chanced to hit the very tip of his little gray nose. Thereupon he uttered a surprised "me-ow," with an accent that belonged to George W. alone.

"There's that cat, coming along, too," observed Hilda, "isn't he a little tag-tail?"

"See how pretty Martha looks waving over his back like an ostrich feather!" said Cricket, in reply, making a dive for her pet with her one free hand, and nearly meeting with an accident, for George W. preferred walking on his own four legs just then, and darted past her.

"There! you nearly lost your blanc-mange off the dish!" cried Hilda, rescuing it. "I knew I'd better carry it!"

"It's all right," said Cricket, hastily straightening it. "I'll carry it. We go this way now," as they turned out of the orchard into a lane. Grandma's poor woman, "Marm Plunkett," as the whole neighbourhood called her, was a forlorn old creature, nearly crippled with rheumatism, who lived in a tiny cottage in the fields, half a mile from anybody. She had a daughter who had to go to work nearly every day to earn money to support them both, so the old mother was alone most of the time. She had worked a good deal for Mrs. Maxwell, when she was strong, and Mrs. Maxwell did much to make her comfortable now. Edna had often been there, and lately the twins had been over with Eliza, to take things to her, since grandma had been disabled, but it chanced that Cricket had never been over there before.

The poor old soul was delighted to see them coming. The cottage was in such a lonely place that few persons came within sight of the windows.

"You're as welcome as the flowers in May," quavered the thin old voice, as the children went in. "I've been a-settin' here just a-pinin' fer some one to come along to visit with me a spell. Take cheers, won't you? Leastways, take what cheers there be."

There were only two to take, and one of them was seatless. Hilda dropped into the whole one. Billy sat down on the doorstep. The twins sat upon the board edge of the bottomless chair. Cricket remained standing, with the blanc-mange still in her hand. All of them, shy, as children always are in the presence of poverty and sickness, stared helplessly about.

"We've brought you some blanc-mange, marm-I mean Mrs. Plunkett"-for grandma did not like them to use the village nickname-said Cricket, after a moment, "and Auntie Jean will be here to-morrow."

"An' it's a pretty-spoken lady she is," answered Marm Plunkett. "But it's Mis' Maxwell that I allers wants ter see most. When'll she git to see me agin?"

Cricket coloured furiously.

"Grandma's lame, now," she said, speaking up bravely. "I was wrestling with her, and I threw her, and sprained her ankle. She can't stand on it much yet."

"Good Land o' Goshen! a-wrestlin' with Mis' Maxwell! you little snip of a gal! and throwed her! for goodness' sake! deary me! throwed her!"

"Yes," said Cricket, with the air of confessing to a murder, as she set down the blanc-mange. "I don't see how I could have done it. I just twisted my foot around her ankle. I was just as much surprised as if the-the church had tumbled over. It was a week ago Monday."

"Jest to think on 't! I never heerd the beat o' that! An' nobody hain't told me of it, nuther. 'Lizy was here yestiddy, and she hain't never let on a word."

"I guess grandma told her not to," said Cricket, blushing again.

"Let me see," said the old woman, suddenly, bending forward and peering into her face. "Which one be you? You ain't Miss Edny. Be you Miss Eunice?"

"I'm Cricket," said that young lady, quite at her ease now. "Most probably you've never heard of me before. We're all grandma's grandchildren, and are spending the summer here. At least, we're all grandchildren but Hilda. She's visiting me. She is going home to-morrow, and I'm awfully sorry."

Marm Plunkett paid no attention to the end of this speech. She was bending eagerly forward, looking at Cricket through her big steel-bowed glasses.

"Have-I-seen-Miss-Cricket! Have-I-seen-her!" came slowly from the old woman's lips, as she clasped her hands over her staff, still gazing at her as if she were a rare, wild animal. Cricket felt somewhat disconcerted.

"Yes, I'm Cricket," she repeated, uncomfortably, feeling guilty of something. She felt as if she were confessing to being an alligator, for instance.

Mrs. Maxwell had often amused the old woman by tales of her grandchildren, and as Cricket always had more accidents and disasters than all the rest of the family put together, she had naturally figured largely in her grandmother's stories.

"Have-I-seen-Miss-Cricket!" repeated the old woman, stretching out her hand as if she wanted to touch her to make sure she was flesh and blood. Cricket went towards her, rather reluctantly. Marm Plunkett laid her shaking claws on her hands, felt of her arms, and even laid the point of her withered finger in the dimple of the round, pink cheek. Cricket winced. She felt as if she were a chicken, which the cook was trying, to see if it were tender.

"I-I-didn't know you knew me," she said, trying to be polite and not pull away.

"I-have-seen-Miss-Cricket," declared Marm Plunkett, triumphantly, at last. "Who'd 'a' thought it! She's come to see me. Won't Cindy be glad an' proud to hear of this honour."

"Dear me!" said Cricket, trying not to laugh. "I'd have come before, if I'd known you'd wanted to see me so much."

"Would you really, my pretty? Now, ain't that sweet of her?" admiringly, to Hilda.

Hilda sat looking on in dumb amazement. She was so accustomed to feeling a little superior to Cricket, on account of her orderliness and generally good behaviour, that she was struck with surprise at the old woman's joy over seeing her little friend, while she sat by unnoticed. She did not know how many a laugh and pleasant hour the stories of Cricket's mishaps had given the lonely old woman.

"Yer favour yer ma, I see," said Marm Plunkett, still holding Cricket's sleeve. "Dear! dear! she was a pretty one, that she was! You've got shiny eyes like her'n, but yer hair's a mite darker, ain't it? My! ain't them curls harndsome!" touching very gently one of the soft rings of Cricket's short hair. It was never regularly curled, but had a thorough brushing given it by Eliza every morning, and, five minutes after, the dampness or the summer heat made her like a Gloriana McQuirk.

Cricket looked dreadfully embarrassed, and hadn't the least idea what to say to this peculiar old woman, who repeated, softly, with no eyes for the rest:


Fortunately, here a howl from Zaidee created a diversion. She had pushed herself too far back on the bottomless chair, and had suddenly doubled up like a jack-knife into the hole. As Hilda and Cricket hastily turned, nothing was visible but a pair of kicking feet, for her little short petticoats had fallen back over her head, entirely extinguishing her. Helen instantly lifted up her voice and wept.

Cricket seized Zaidee's feet and Hilda her shoulders, and together they tried to pull her up. But she was a plump little thing, and was so firmly wedged in, that the chair rose as they pulled her.

"Billy, come hold the chair down, please," called Cricket. So, with Billy to brace his huge foot on the round of the chair, and to hold down the back with his hands, Cricket and Hilda, with another vigorous pull, managed to undouble Zaidee.

Marm Plunkett had been sitting in a state of great excitement, while the rescue was going on, and leaned back with a sigh of relief when the little girl was finally straightened out. Zaidee took it very philosophically.

"Stop crying, Helen," she said, "you are such a cry-baby. This is a very funny chair, Marm Plunkett. How do people sit down on it? Do you like it that way? I 'xpect I'm so little that I can't keep on the outside of it. I guess I don't want to sit down any more, any way."

Marm Plunkett cackled a thin, high laugh.

"Ef children don't beat the Dutch! Wisht I hed some a-runnin' in an' out to kinder chirk me up a bit when Cindy's away."

"I want a drink, please," announced Zaidee.

"Bless yer leetle heart! You shall hev a drink right outen the northeast corner of our well, where it's coldest. Take the dipper, Billy, an' give the leetle dears a good cold drink all around."

"I want one, too," said Cricket, and all the children trooped after Billy.

The well had the old-fashioned well-sweep.

It was always a mysterious delight to the children to see the water drawn from one of these, as the great end went slowly up and the bucket dipped, and then came down again with a stately, dignified sweep.

Cricket darted forward.

"I've always wanted to ride up on that end," she said, to herself, "and now I'm going to."

Quick as a flash she had jumped astride the end, grasping the pole with both hands. George W. instantly sprang lightly up in front of her, just out of her reach, poising himself with "Martha" arching over his back. The twins and Hilda, hanging over the edge and looking down on the mossy stones, did not notice her.

"Get it out of the northeast corner, she said," ordered Zaidee. "Which is the northeast corner, Billy? Is it where the water comes in? Billy, there aren't any corners. It's all round."

Billy was tugging at the slender pole that held the bucket.

"Goes down hard enough. Seems to want ilin' or suthin'. Land o' Jiminy!" He chanced to turn his head and saw Cricket calmly ascending as the pole went higher and higher. It was a wonder he did not lose his hold.

"Don't let go, Billy," Cricket screamed. "If you do, I'll go kerflump."

Billy grasped the pole tighter.

"You'll-you'll fall," he stammered.

"Course I will if you let go. Go on! Let the bucket down. I'm having a fine ride. Do you like it, George Washington?"

George Washington walked a step or two further down the beam. He was not at all sure he did like it. As there did not seem to be room enough for him to turn around and run back to Cricket, as he very much wanted to do, he stood still, mewing uncertainly. Billy, in agony of soul, but obedient as ever, lowered the pole carefully, casting reproachful glances over his shoulder. Hilda and the twins stood in fascinated silence, looking at Cricket getting such a beautiful high ride. As for George Washington, as the pole slanted more and more, making his head lower and his rear higher, he made a few despairing steps forward. Lower went the bucket, and George W.'s Martha lost her proud arch, and George stuck his claws deep into the wood.

"Oh-ee!" squealed Cricket, suddenly beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable herself. The ground looked very far below her, and she began to feel as if she were pitching headforemost. She held on with her hands, as tightly as George Washington did with his claws. Then the bucket hit the water, splash. Dipping it made the big pole dance a little.

"Oh-ee," squealed Cricket, again, clinging tighter. "Hurry up, Billy, bring me down."

"Miau-au," wailed George Washington, suddenly, giving a mighty spring of desperation. Alas! he missed his calculation, if he had time to make any, and disappeared from the eyes of the children into the dark depths of the well. Cricket, forgetting her own precarious position, involuntarily gave a little grasp after him, thus losing her own hold, lost her balance, and over she went,-and if she had fallen that fifteen feet to the hard ground below, it might have brought to a sudden end her summer at Marbury.

As it fortunately happened, however, she caught at the pole as she went over, grasped it, and hung suspended by her strong little hands. Frightened Billy had been holding the smaller pole all this time, in a vise-like grip.

"Let me down!" screamed Cricket. "Carefully, Billy!" and Billy, stiff with terror, nevertheless had the sense to obey. He raised the small pole steadily, lest the other, with Cricket's added weight, should come down too fast. In a moment more she was near enough to the ground to drop lightly down.

A tremendous splashing and mewing had been going on in the well, but the children had been too much absorbed in Cricket to notice it.

"'Tisn't as much fun as I thought it would be," was all she said, as she darted forward to look down the well after her pet. "Let the bucket down again, Billy, and see if he'll cling to it. Oh, you poor, poor George Washington. Billy, do hurry up! Why, he'll drown."

But Billy had given out. He was so thoroughly frightened when he discovered Cricket on her lofty perch, that, now that she was safely down, he was shaking like a leaf. Cricket pushed him unceremoniously away, as she peered down.

George Washington looked like a good-sized muskrat, as they saw him clinging to the wet, mossy stones, meowing pitifully. He was either too frightened or too cold to make any effort to climb up. Perhaps he could not have done so anyway. Cricket lowered the bucket again herself, till it struck the water. The splash seemed to frighten George Washington only the more, for his cries were redoubled.

"What a stupid cat!" cried Hilda. "Why doesn't he take hold and come up?"

"He's frightened to death down there in the cold. He's never stupid, are you, George W.? I'm so afraid he'll die of getting wet and cold before we can save him!" cried Cricket, anxiously, flopping the bucket about. "Do take hold of it, George! dear George, do!"

But Cricket's most coaxing tones availed nothing. George only meowed and meowed in accents that grew more pitiful every minute.

"Do run and tell Marm Plunkett that the kitten's in the well, Hilda," said Cricket, at last. "Perhaps she'll know something to do. Look out, children! don't lean over so far, else the first thing you know you'll be down there, too. Oh, George Washington, please take hold!"

Hilda ran off, and came back a moment later with rather a scared face.

"I told her, Cricket, and what do you think she said? That we must be sure not to let it die there, 'cause it would poison the water! She seemed dreadfully frightened about it, and tried to get up, but of course she couldn't, and then she said-she said-she'd pray for us." Hilda's voice sank to an awed whisper. Cricket looked blank.

Billy caught up the word eagerly.

"Yes, yes, children, that's right o' Marm Plunkett. It's allers good to pray," and down went simple old Billy on his knees. "You keep on a-danglin' that ere bucket, and I'll pray fur ye, young uns. That'll fetch him." He clasped his hands and shut his earnest eyes.

The children stood in awed silence. Billy, swaying back and forth in his eagerness, began in a high-keyed voice, sounding unlike his ordinary tones:

"'How dothe the little busy bee

Improve each shining hour;

And gather honey all the day

From every fragrant flower'-Amen."

Poor old Billy! this scrap of a rhyme, learned in his far-away boyhood, was the one bit that had stuck in his clouded mind all these years, and had served this pious soul for a prayer ever since. Every night, kneeling reverently by his bedside, he had said it, and every morning when he arose; only then he added the petition, "God bless Mrs. Maxwell, and make Billy good."

Cricket and Hilda, too much amazed to speak, but too much impressed with Billy's earnestness to laugh, stood stock-still as they were; Hilda in the act of stretching out her hands to draw Zaidee back from the well-curb,-where she hung, in imminent danger of following George W.,-and Cricket, still grasping the pole, and looking back over her shoulder, and Helen staring with her great eyes.

As Billy ceased, there was an oppressive moment of silence. He remained on his knees, swaying his gaunt frame slightly, with his eyes still closed. Suddenly Cricket felt the bucket lurch as it lay on the surface of the water below. She looked quickly over the well-curb.

"Oh, Hilda! Billy, hurrah! he's climbed upon the bucket at last! He's way up on it. Now, we'll have him!" and with Hilda to help, she began cautiously to raise the bucket.

Billy slowly got up from the ground, and dusted off his trouser knees.

"It's allers wuth while a-prayin' for things," he remarked.

In a few minutes the bucket was on a level with the well-curb, and while Hilda held the pole, Cricket drew out her dripping, shivering pet.

Such a rubbing as he got in Marm Plunkett's little kitchen! He was very much exhausted with his cold bath, and I'm afraid that a very few minutes longer in the icy water would have ended one of George Washington's nine lives.

"All the curl has gone out of Martha, even," remarked Cricket, mournfully, surveying his straight tail.

"His tail will curl over again, when he begins to chirk up a bit," said Marm Plunkett, comfortingly. "He'd orter hev a dish of milk het up for him right away," she added. "Wisht I hed some to offer you."

"I'll go right home with him, then, Marm Plunkett, and I'll run all the way. I'll borrow this little shawl of yours, if you'll let me, to keep him warm. Now, I'm going to run, but the rest of you needn't come so fast. Good-by, Marm Plunkett. I'll come and see you again, some other day;" and off darted Cricket, followed more leisurely by the rest, leaving Marm Plunkett still murmuring,-


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