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   Chapter 2 AMPHIBIOUS.

We Girls: a Home Story By A. D. T. Whitney Characters: 30456

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"What day of the month is it?" asked Mrs. Holabird, looking up from her letter.

Ruth told.

"How do you always know the day of the month?" said Rosamond. "You are as pat as the almanac. I have to stop and think whether anything particular has happened, to remember any day by, since the first, and then count up. So, as things don't happen much out here, I'm never sure of anything except that it can't be more than the thirty-first; and as to whether it can be that, I have to say over the old rhyme in my head."

"I know how she tells," spoke up Stephen. "It's that thing up in her room,-that pious thing that whops over. It has the figures down at the bottom; and she whops it every morning."

Ruth laughed.

"What do you try to tease her for?" said Mrs. Holabird.

"It doesn't tease her. She thinks it's funny. She laughed, and you only puckered."

Ruth laughed again. "It wasn't only that," she said.

"Well, what then?"

"To think you knew."

"Knew! Why shouldn't I know? It's big enough."

"Yes,-but about the whopping. And the figures are the smallest part of the difference. You're a pretty noticing boy, Steve."

Steve colored a little, and his eye twinkled. He saw that Ruth had caught him out.

"I guess you set it for a goody-trap," he said. "Folks can't help reading sign-boards when they go by. And besides, it's like the man that went to Van Amburgh's. I shall catch you forgetting, some fine day, and then I'll whop the whole over for you."

Ruth had been mending stockings, and was just folding up the last pair. She did not say any more, for she did not want to tease Stephen in her turn; but there was a little quiet smile just under her lips that she kept from pulling too hard at the corners, as she got up and went away with them to her room.

She stopped when she got to the open door of it, with her basket in her hand, and looked in from the threshold at the hanging scroll of Scripture texts printed in large clear letters,-a sheet for each day of the month,-and made to fold over and drop behind the black-walnut rod to which they were bound. It had been given her by her teacher at the Bible Class,-Mrs. Ingleside; and Ruth loved Mrs. Ingleside very much.

Then she went to her bureau, and put her stockings in their drawer, and set the little basket, with its cotton-ball and darner, and maplewood egg, and small sharp scissors, on the top; and then she went and sat down by the window, in her white considering-chair.

For she had something to think about this morning.

Ruth's room had three doors. It was the middle room up stairs, in the beginning of the L. Mrs. Holabird's opened into it from the front, and just opposite her door another led into the large, light corner room at the end, which Rosamond and Barbara occupied. Stephen's was on the other side of the three-feet passage which led straight through from the front staircase to the back of the house. The front staircase was a broad, low-stepped, old-fashioned one, with a landing half-way up; and it was from this landing that a branch half-flight came into the L, between these two smaller bedrooms. Now I have begun, I may as well tell you all about it; for, if you are like me, you will be glad to be taken fairly into a house you are to pay a visit in, and find out all the pleasantnesses of it, and whom they especially belong to.

Ruth's room was longest across the house, and Stephen's with it; behind his was only the space taken by some closets and the square of staircase beyond. This staircase had landings also, and was lighted by a window high up in the wall. Behind Ruth's, as I have said, was the whole depth of a large apartment. But as the passage divided the L unequally, it gave the rooms similar space and shape, only at right angles to each other.

The sun came into Stephen's room in the morning, and into Ruth's in the afternoon; in the middle of the day the passage was one long shine, from its south window at the end, right through,-except in such days as these, that were too deep in the summer to bear it, and then the green blinds were shut all around, and the warm wind drew through pleasantly in a soft shade.

When we brought our furniture from the house in the town, the large front rooms and the open halls used it up so, that it seemed as if there were hardly anything left but bedsteads and washstands and bureaus,-the very things that make up-stairs look so very bedroomy. And we wanted pretty places to sit in, as girls always do. Rosamond and Barbara made a box-sofa, fitted luxuriously with old pew-cushions sewed together, and a crib mattress cut in two and fashioned into seat and pillows; and a packing-case dressing-table, flounced with a skirt of white cross-barred muslin that Ruth had outgrown. In exchange for this Ruth bargained for the dimity curtains that had furnished their two windows before, and would not do for the three they had now.

Then she shut herself up one day in her room, and made them all go round by the hall and passage, back and forth; and worked away mysteriously till the middle of the afternoon, when she unfastened all the doors again and set them wide, as they have for the most part remained ever since, in the daytimes; thus rendering Ruth's doings and ways particularly patent to the household, and most conveniently open to the privilege and second sight of story-telling.

The white dimity curtains-one pair of them-were up at the wide west window; the other pair was cut up and made over into three or four things,-drapery for a little old pine table that had come to light among attic lumber, upon which she had tacked it in neat plaitings around the sides, and overlapped it at the top with a plain hemmed cover of the same; a great discarded toilet-cushion freshly encased with more of it, and edged with magic ruffling; the stained top and tied-up leg of a little disabled teapoy, kindly disguised in uniform,-varied only with a narrow stripe of chintz trimming in crimson arabesque,-made pretty with piles of books, and the Scripture scroll hung above it with its crimson cord and tassels; and in the window what she called afterward her "considering-chair," and in which she sat this morning; another antique, clothed purely from head to foot and made comfortable beneath with stout bagging nailed across, over the deficient cane-work.

Tin tacks and some considerable machining-for mother had lent her the help of her little "common sense" awhile-had done it all; and Ruth's room, with its oblong of carpet,-which Mrs. Holabird and she had made out before, from the brightest breadths of her old dove-colored one and a bordering of crimson Venetian, of which there had not been enough to put upon the staircase,-looked, as Barbara said, "just as if it had been done on purpose."

"It says it all, anyhow, doesn't it?" said Ruth.

Ruth was delightedly satisfied with it,-with its situation above all; she liked to nestle in, in the midst of people; and she never minded their coming through, any more than they minded her slipping her three little brass bolts when she had a desire to.

She sat down in her considering-chair to-day, to think about Adelaide Marchbanks's invitation.

The two Marchbanks houses were very gay this summer. The married daughter of one family-Mrs. Reyburne-was at home from New York, and had brought a very fascinating young Mrs. Van Alstyne with her. Roger Marchbanks, at the other house, had a couple of college friends visiting him; and both places were merry with young girls,-several sisters in each family,-always. The Haddens were there a good deal, and there were people from the city frequently, for a few days at a time. Mrs. Linceford was staying at the Haddens, and Leslie Goldthwaite, a great pet of hers,-Mr. Aaron Goldthwaite's daughter, in the town,-was often up among them all.

The Holabirds were asked in to tea-drinkings, and to croquet, now and then, especially at the Haddens', whom they knew best; but they were not on "in and out" terms, from morning to night, as these others were among themselves; for one thing, the little daily duties of their life would not allow it. The "jolly times" on the Hill were a kind of Elf-land to them, sometimes patent and free, sometimes shrouded in the impalpable and impassable mist that shuts in the fairy region when it wills to be by itself for a time.

There was one little simple sesame which had a power this way for them, perhaps without their thinking of it; certainly it was not spoken of directly when the invitations were given and accepted. Ruth's fingers had a little easy, gladsome knack at music; and I suppose sometimes it was only Ruth herself who realized how thoroughly the fingers earned the privilege of the rest of her bodily presence. She did not mind; she was as happy playing as Rosamond and Barbara dancing; it was all fair enough; everybody must be wanted for something; and Ruth knew that her music was her best thing. She wished and meant it to be; Ruth had plans in her head which her fingers were to carry out.

But sometimes there was a slight flavor in attention, that was not quite palatable, even to Ruth's pride. These three girls had each her own sort of dignity. Rosamond's measured itself a good deal by the accepted dignity of others; Barbara's insisted on its own standard; why shouldn't they-the Holabirds-settle anything? Ruth hated to have theirs hurt; and she did not like subserviency, or courting favor. So this morning she was partly disturbed and partly puzzled by what had happened.

Adelaide Marchbanks had overtaken her on the hill, on her way "down street" to do some errand, and had walked on with her very affably. At parting she had said to her, in an off-hand, by-the-way fashion,-

"Ruth, why won't you come over to-night, and take tea? I should like you to hear Mrs. Van Alstyne sing, and she would like your playing. There won't be any company; but we're having pretty good times now among ourselves."

Ruth knew what the "no company" meant; just that there was no regular inviting, and so no slight in asking her alone, out of her family; but she knew the Marchbanks parlors were always full of an evening, and that the usual set would be pretty sure to get together, and that the end of it all would be an impromptu German, for which she should play, and that the Marchbanks's man would be sent home with her at eleven o'clock.

She only thanked Adelaide, and said she "didn't know,-perhaps; but she hardly thought she could to-night; they had better not expect her," and got away without promising. She was thinking it over now.

She did not want to be stiff and disobliging; and she would like to hear Mrs. Van Alstyne sing. If it were only for herself, she would very likely think it a reasonable "quid pro quo," and modestly acknowledge that she had no claim to absolutely gratuitous compliment. She would remember higher reason, also, than the quid pro quo; she would try to be glad in this little special "gift of ministering"; but it puzzled her about the others. How would they feel about it? Would they like it, her being asked so? Would they think she ought to go? And what if she were to get into this way of being asked alone?-she the very youngest; not "in society" yet even as much as Rose and Barbara; though Barbara said they "never 'came' out,-they just leaked out."

That was it; that would not do; she must not leak out, away from them, with her little waltz ripples; if there were any small help or power of hers that could be counted in to make them all more valued, she would not take it from the family fund and let it be counted alone to her sole credit. It must go with theirs. It was little enough that she could repay into the household that had given itself to her like a born home.

She thought she would not even ask Mrs. Holabird anything about it, as at first she meant to do.

But Mrs. Holabird had a way of coming right into things. "We girls" means Mrs. Holabird as much as anybody. It was always "we girls" in her heart, since girls' mothers never can quite lose the girl out of themselves; it only multiplies, and the "everlasting nominative" turns into a plural.

Ruth still sat in her white chair, with her cheek on her hand and her elbow on the window-ledge, looking out across the pleasant swell of grass to where they were cutting the first hay in old Mr. Holabird's five-acre field, the click of the mowing-machine sounding like some new, gigantic kind of grasshopper, chirping its tremendous laziness upon the lazy air, when mother came in from the front hall, through her own room and saw her there.

Mrs. Holabird never came through the rooms without a fresh thrill of pleasantness. Her home had expressed itself here, as it had never done anywhere else. There was something in the fair, open, sunshiny roominess and cosey connection of these apartments, hers and her daughters', in harmony with the largeness and cheeriness and clearness in which her love and her wish for them held them always.

It was more glad than grand; and she aimed at no grandness; but the generous space was almost splendid in its effect, as you looked through, especially to her who had lived and contrived in a "spy-glass house" so long.

The doors right through from front to back, and the wide windows at either end and all the way, gave such sweep and light; also the long mirrors, that had been from time unrememberable over the mantels in the town parlors, in the old, useless, horizontal style, and were here put, quite elegantly tall,-the one in Mrs. Holabird's room above her daintily appointed dressing-table (which was only two great square trunks full of blankets, that could not be stowed away anywhere else, dressed up in delicate-patterned chintz and set with her boxes and cushions and toilet-bottles), and the other, in "the girls' room," opposite; these made magnificent reflections and repetitions; and at night, when they all lit their bed-candles, and vibrated back and forth with their last words before they shut their doors and subsided, gave a truly festival and illuminated air to the whole mansion; so that Mrs. Roderick would often ask, when she came in of a morning in their busiest time, "Did you have company last night? I saw you were all lit up."

"We had one candle apiece," Barbara would answer, very concisely.

"I do wish all our windows didn't look Mrs. Roderick's way," Rosamond said once, after she had gone.

"And that she didn't have to come through our clothes-yard of a Monday morning, to see just how many white skirts we have in the wash," added Barbara.

But this is off the track.

"What is it, Ruth?" asked Mrs. Holabird, as she came in upon the little figure in the white chair, midway in the long light through the open rooms. "You didn't really mind Stephen, did you?"

"O no, indeed, aunt! I was only thinking out things. I believe I've done, pretty nearly. I guess I sha'n't go. I wanted to make sure I wasn't provoked."

"You're talking from where you left off, aren't you, Ruthie?"

"Yes, I guess so," said Ruth, laughing. "It seems like talking right on,-doesn't it?-when you speak suddenly out of a 'think.'

I wonder what alone really means. It doesn't ever quite seem alone. Something thinks alongside always, or else you couldn't keep it up."

"Are you making an essay on metaphysics? You're a queer little Ruth."

"Am I?" Ruth laughed again. "I can't help it. It does answer back."

"And what was the answer about this time?"

That was how Ruth came to let it out.

"About going over to the Marchbanks's to-night. Don't say anything, though. I thought they needn't have asked me just to play. And they might have asked somebody with me. Of course it would have been as you said, if I'd wanted to; but I've made up my mind I-needn't. I mean, I knew right off that I didn't."

Ruth did talk a funny idiom of her own when she came out of one of her thinks. But Mrs. Holabird understood. Mothers get to understand the older idiom, just as they do baby-talk,-by the same heart-key. She knew that the "needn't" and the "didn't" referred to the "wanting to."

"You see, I don't think it would be a good plan to let them begin with me so."

"You're a very sagacious little Ruth," said Mrs. Holabird, affectionately. "And a very generous one."

"No, indeed!" Ruth exclaimed at that. "I believe I think it's rather nice to settle that I can be contrary. I don't like to be pat-a-caked."

She was glad, afterward, that Mrs. Holabird understood.

The next morning Elinor Hadden and Leslie Goldthwaite walked over, to ask the girls to go down into the wood-hollow to get azaleas.

Rosamond and Ruth went. Barbara was busy: she was more apt to be the busy one of a morning than Rosamond; not because Rosamond was not willing, but that when she was at leisure she looked as though she always had been and always expected to be; she would have on a cambric morning-dress, and a jimpsey bit of an apron, and a pair of little fancy slippers,-(there was a secret about Rosamond's slippers; she had half a dozen different ways of getting them up, with braiding, and beading, and scraps of cloth and velvet; and these tops would go on to any stray soles she could get hold of, that were more sole than body, in a way she only knew of;) and she would have the sitting-room at the last point of morning freshness,-chairs and tables and books in the most charming relative positions, and every little leaf and flower in vase or basket just set as if it had so peeped up itself among the others, and all new-born to-day. So it was her gift to be ready and to receive. Barbara, if she really might have been dressed, would be as likely as not to be comfortable in a sack and skirt and her "points,"-as she called her black prunella shoes, that were weak at the heels and going at the sides, and kept their original character only by these embellishments upon the instep,-and to have dumped herself down on the broad lower stair in the hall, just behind the green blinds of the front entrance, with a chapter to finish in some irresistible book, or a pair of stockings to mend.

Rosamond was only thankful when she was behind the scenes and would stay there, not bouncing into the door-way from the dining-room, with unexpected little bobs, a cake-bowl in one hand and an egg-beater in the other, to get what she called "grabs of conversation."

Of course she did not do this when the Marchbankses were there, or if Miss Pennington called; but she could not resist the Haddens and Leslie Goldthwaite; besides, "they did have to make their own cake, and why should they be ashamed of it?"

Rosamond would reply that "they did have to make their own beds, but they could not bring them down stairs for parlor work."

"That was true, and reason why: they just couldn't; if they could, she would make up hers all over the house, just where there was the most fun. She hated pretences, and being fine."

Rosamond met the girls on the piazza to-day, when she saw them coming; for Barbara was particularly awful at this moment, with a skimmer and a very red face, doing raspberries; and she made them sit down there in the shaker chairs, while she ran to get her hat and boots, and to call Ruth; and the first thing Barbara saw of them was from the kitchen window, "slanting off" down over the croquet-ground toward the big trees.

Somebody overtook and joined them there,-somebody in a dark gray suit and bright buttons.

"Why, that," cried Barbara, all to herself and her uplifted skimmer, looking after them,-"that must be the brother from West Point the Inglesides expected,-that young Dakie Thayne!"

It was Dakie Thayne; who, after they had all been introduced and were walking on comfortably together, asked Ruth Holabird if it had not been she who had been expected and wanted so badly last night at Mrs. Marchbanks's?

Ruth dropped a little back as she walked with him, at the moment, behind the others, along the path between the chestnut-trees.

"I don't think they quite expected me. I told Adelaide I did not think I could come. I am the youngest, you see," she said with a smile, "and I don't go out very much, except with my-cousins."

"Your cousins? I fancied you were all sisters."

"It is all the same," said Ruth. "And that is why I always catch my breath a little before I say 'cousins.'"

"Couldn't they come? What a pity!" pursued this young man, who seemed bent upon driving his questions home.

"O, it wasn't an invitation, you know. It wasn't company."

"Wasn't it?"

The inflection was almost imperceptible, and quite unintentional; Dakie Thayne was very polite; but his eyebrows went up a little-just a line or two-as he said it, the light beginning to come in upon him.

Dakie had been about in the world somewhat; his two years at West Point were not all his experience; and he knew what queer little wheels were turned sometimes.

He had just come to Z-- (I must have a letter for my nameless town, and I have gone through the whole alphabet for it, and picked up a crooked stick at last), and the new group of people he had got among interested him. He liked problems and experiments. They were what he excelled in at the Military School. This was his first furlough; and it was since his entrance at the Academy that his brother, Dr. Ingleside, had come to Z--, to take the vacant practice of an old physician, disabled from continuing it.

Dakie and Leslie Goldthwaite and Mrs. Ingleside were old friends; almost as old as Mrs. Ingleside and the doctor.

Ruth Holabird had a very young girl's romance of admiration for one older, in her feeling toward Leslie. She had never known any one just like her; and, in truth, Leslie was different, in some things, from the little world of girls about her. In the "each and all" of their pretty groupings and pleasant relations she was like a bit of fresh, springing, delicate vine in a bouquet of bright, similarly beautiful flowers; taking little free curves and reaches of her own, just as she had grown; not tied, nor placed, nor constrained; never the central or most brilliant thing; but somehow a kind of life and grace that helped and touched and perfected all.

There was something very real and individual about her; she was no "girl of the period," made up by the fashion of the day. She would have grown just as a rose or a violet would, the same in the first quarter of the century or the third. They called her "grandmotherly" sometimes, when a certain quaint primitiveness that was in her showed itself. And yet she was the youngest girl in all that set, as to simpleness and freshness and unpretendingness, though she was in her twentieth year now, which sounds-didn't somebody say so over my shoulder?-so very old! Adelaide Marchbanks used to say of her that she had "stayed fifteen."

She looked real. Her bright hair was gathered up loosely, with some graceful turn that showed its fine shining strands had all been freshly dressed and handled, under a wide-meshed net that lay lightly around her head; it was not packed and stuffed and matted and put on like a pad or bolster, from the bump of benevolence, all over that and everything else gentle and beautiful, down to the bend of her neck; and her dress suggested always some one simple idea which you could trace through it, in its harmony, at a glance; not complex and bewildering and fatiguing with its many parts and folds and festoonings and the garnishings of every one of these. She looked more as young women used to look before it took a lady with her dressmaker seven toilsome days to achieve a "short street suit," and the public promenades became the problems that they now are to the inquiring minds that are forced to wonder who stops at home and does up all the sewing, and where the hair all comes from.

Some of the girls said, sometimes, that "Leslie Goldthwaite liked to be odd; she took pains to be." This was not true; she began with the prevailing fashion-the fundamental idea of it-always, when she had a new thing; but she modified and curtailed,-something was sure to stop her somewhere; and the trouble with the new fashions is that they never stop. To use a phrase she had picked up a few years ago, "something always got crowded out." She had other work to do, and she must choose the finishing that would take the shortest time; or satin folds would cost six dollars more, and she wanted the money to use differently; the dress was never the first and the must be; so it came by natural development to express herself, not the rampant mode; and her little ways of "dodging the dressmaker," as she called it, were sure to be graceful, as well as adroit and decided.

It was a good thing for a girl like Ruth, just growing up to questions that had first come to this other girl of nineteen four years ago, that this other had so met them one by one, and decided them half unconsciously as she went along, that now, for the great puzzle of the "outside," which is setting more and more between us and our real living, there was this one more visible, unobtrusive answer put ready, and with such a charm of attractiveness, into the world.

Ruth walked behind her this morning, with Dakie Thayne, thinking how "achy" Elinor Hadden's puffs and French-blue bands, and bits of embroidery looked, for the stitches somebody had put into them, and the weary starching and ironing and perking out that must be done for them, beside the simple hem and the one narrow basque ruffling of Leslie's cambric morning-dress, which had its color and its set-off in itself, in the bright little carnations with brown stems that figured it. It was "trimmed in the piece"; and that was precisely what Leslie had said when she chose it. She "dodged" a great deal in the mere buying.

Leslie and Ruth got together in the wood-hollow, where the little vines and ferns began. Leslie was quick to spy the bits of creeping Mitchella, and the wee feathery fronds that hid away their miniature grace under the feet of their taller sisters. They were so pretty to put in shells, and little straight tube-vases. Dakie Thayne helped Rose and Elinor to get the branches of white honeysuckle that grew higher up.

Rose walked with the young cadet, the arms of both filled with the fragrant-flowering stems, as they came up homeward again. She was full of bright, pleasant chat. It just suited her to spend a morning so, as if there were no rooms to dust and no tables to set, in all the great sunshiny world; but as if dews freshened everything, and furnishings "came," and she herself were clothed of the dawn and the breeze, like a flower. She never cared so much for afternoons, she said; of course one had got through with the prose by that time; but "to go off like a bird or a bee right after breakfast,-that was living; that was the Irishman's blessing,-'the top o' the morn-in' till yez!'"

"Won't you come in and have some lunch?" she asked, with the most magnificent intrepidity, when she hadn't the least idea what there would be to give them all if they did, as they came round under the piazza basement, and up to the front portico.

They thanked her, no; they must get home with their flowers; and Mrs. Ingleside expected Dakie to an early dinner.

Upon which she bade them good by, standing among her great azalea branches, and looking "awfully pretty," as Dakie Thayne said afterward, precisely as if she had nothing else to think of.

The instant they had fairly moved away, she turned and ran in, in a hurry to look after the salt-cellars, and to see that Katty hadn't got the table-cloth diagonal to the square of the room instead of parallel, or committed any of the other general-housework horrors which she detailed herself on daily duty to prevent.

Barbara stood behind the blind.

"The audacity of that!" she cried, as Rosamond came in. "I shook right out of my points when I heard you! Old Mrs. Lovett has been here, and has eaten up exactly the last slice of cake but one. So that's Dakie Thayne?"

"Yes. He's a nice little fellow. Aren't these lovely flowers?"

"O my gracious! that great six-foot cadet!"

"It doesn't matter about the feet. He's barely eighteen. But he's nice,-ever so nice."

"It's a case of Outledge, Leslie," Dakie Thayne said, going down the hill. "They treat those girls-amphibiously!"

"Well," returned Leslie, laughing, "I'm amphibious. I live in the town, and I can come out-and not die-on the Hill. I like it. I always thought that kind of animal had the nicest time."

They met Alice Marchbanks with her cousin Maud, coming up.

"We've been to see the Holabirds," said Dakie Thayne, right off.

"I wonder why that little Ruth didn't come last night? We really wanted her," said Alice to Leslie Goldthwaite.

"For batrachian reasons, I believe," put in Dakie, full of fun. "She isn't quite amphibious yet. She don't come out from under water. That is, she's young, and doesn't go alone. She told me so."

You needn't keep asking how we know! Things that belong get together. People who tell a story see round corners.

The next morning Maud Marchbanks came over, and asked us all to play croquet and drink tea with them that evening, with the Goldthwaites and the Haddens.

"We're growing very gay and multitudinous," she said, graciously.

"The midshipman's got home,-Harry Goldthwaite, you know."

Ruth was glad, then, that mother knew; she had the girls' pride in her own keeping; there was no responsibility of telling or withholding. But she was glad also that she had not gone last night.

When we went up stairs at bedtime, Rosamond asked Barbara the old, inevitable question,-

"What have you got to wear, Barb, to-morrow night,-that's ready?"

And Barbara gave, in substance, the usual unperturbed answer, "Not a dud!"

But Mrs. Holabird kept a garnet and white striped silk skirt on purpose to lend to Barbara. If she had given it, there would have been the end. And among us there would generally be a muslin waist, and perhaps an overskirt. Barbara said our "overskirts" were skirts that were over with, before the new fashion came.

Barbara went to bed like a chicken, sure that in the big world to-morrow there would be something that she could pick up.

It was a miserable plan, perhaps; but it was one of our ways at Westover.

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