Chapter II.


Our little Dolly was a late autumn chicken, the youngest of ten children, the nursing, rearing and caring for whom had straitened the limited salary of Parson Cushing, of Poganuc Center, and sorely worn on the nerves and strength of the good wife who plied the laboring oar in these performances.

It was Dolly's lot to enter the family at a period when babies were no longer a novelty, when the house was full of the wants and clamors of older children, and the mother at her very wits' end with a confusion of jackets and trowsers, soap, candles and groceries, and the endless harassments of making both ends meet which pertain to the lot of a poor country minister's wife. Consequently Dolly was disposed of as she grew up in all those short-hand methods by which children were taught to be the least possible trouble to their elders. She was taught to come when called, and do as she was bid without a question or argument, to be quenched in bed at the earliest possible hour at night, and to speak only when spoken to in the presence of her elders. All this was a dismal repression to Dolly, for she was by nature a lively, excitable little thing, bursting with questions that she longed to ask, and with comments and remarks that she burned to make, and so she escaped gladly to the kitchen where Nabby, the one hired girl, who was much in the same situation of repressed communicativeness, encouraged her conversational powers.

On the whole, although it never distinctly occurred to Dolly to murmur at her lot in life yet at times she sighed over the dreadful insignificance of being only a little girl in a great family of grown up people. For even Dolly's brothers nearest her own age were studying in the academy and spouting scraps of superior Latin at her to make her stare and wonder at their learning. They were tearing, noisy, tempestuous boys, good natured enough and willing to pet her at intervals, but prompt to suggest that it was "time for Dolly to go to bed" when her questions or her gambols interfered with their evening pleasures.

Dolly was a robust, healthy little creature, never ailing in any way, and consequently received none of the petting which a more delicate child might have claimed, and the general course of her experience impressed her with the mournful conviction that she was always liable to be in the way—as she commonly was, with her childish curiosity, her burning desire to see and hear and know all that interested the grown people above her. Dolly sometimes felt her littleness and insignificance as quite a burden, and longed to be one of the grown-up people. They got civil answers when they asked questions, instead of being told not to talk, and they were not sent to bed the minute it was dark, no matter what pleasant things were going on about them. Once Dolly remembered to have had sore throat with fever. The doctor was sent for. Her mother put away all her work and held her in her arms. Her father came down out of his study and sat up rocking her nearly all night, and her noisy, roistering brothers came softly to her door and inquired how she was, and Dolly was only sorry that the cold passed off so soon, and she found herself healthy and insignificant as ever. Being gifted with an active fancy, she sometimes imagined a scene when she should be sick and die, and her father and mother and everybody would cry over her, and there would be a funeral for her as there was for a little Julia Cavers, one of her playmates. She could see no drawback to the interest of the scene except that she could not be there to enjoy her own funeral and see how much she was appreciated; so on the whole she turned her visions in another direction and fancied the time when she should be a grown woman and at liberty to do just as she pleased.

It must not be imagined, however, that Dolly had an unhappy childhood. Indeed it may be questioned whether, if she had lived in our day when the parents often seem to be sitting at the feet of their children and humbly inquiring after their sovereign will and pleasure, she would have been much happier than she was. She could not have all she wanted, and the most petted child on earth cannot. She had learned to do without what she could not get, and to bear what she did not like; two sources of happiness and peace which we should judge to be unknown to many modern darlings. For the most part Dolly had learned to sail her own little boat wisely among the bigger and bustling crafts of the older generation.

There were no amusements then specially provided for children. There were no children's books; there were no Sunday-schools to teach bright little songs and to give children picnics and presents. It was a grown people's world, and not a child's world, that existed in those days. Even children's toys of the period were so poor and so few that, in comparison with our modern profusion, they could scarcely be said to exist.

Dolly, however, had her playthings, as every child of lively fancy will. Childhood is poetic and creative, and can make to itself toys out of nothing. Dolly had the range of the great wood-pile in the back yard, where, at the yearly "wood-spell," the farmers deposited the fuel needed for the long, terrible winters, and that woodpile was a world of treasure to her. She skipped, and sung, and climbed among its intricacies and found there treasures of wonder. Green velvet mosses, little white trees of lichen that seemed to her to have tiny apples upon them, long grey-bearded mosses and fine scarlet cups and fairy caps she collected and treasured. She arranged landscapes of these, where green mosses made the fields, and little sprigs of spruce and ground-pine the trees, and bits of broken glass imitated rivers and lakes, reflecting the overshadowing banks. She had, too, hoards of chestnuts and walnuts which a squirrel might have envied, picked up with her own hands from under the yellow autumn leaves; and she had—chief treasure of all—a wooden doll, with staring glass eyes, that had been sent her by her grandmother in Boston, which doll was the central point in all her arrangements. To her she showed the chestnuts and walnuts; she gave to her the jay's feathers and the bluebird's wing which the boys had given to her; she made her a bed of divers colors and she made her a set of tea-cups out of the backbone of a codfish. She brushed and curled her hair till she took all the curl out of it, and washed all the paint off her cheeks in the zeal of motherly ablutions.

In fact nobody suspected that Dolly was not the happiest of children, as she certainly was one of the busiest and healthiest, and when that evening her two brothers came in from the Academy, noisy and breezy, and tossed her up in their long arms, her laugh rung gay and loud, as if there were no such thing as disappointment in the world.

She pursed her mouth very tight for fear that she should let out something on the forbidden subject at the supper-table. But it was evident that nothing could be farther from the mind of her papa, who, at intervals, was expounding to his wife the difference between natural and moral inability as drawn out in a pamphlet he was preparing to read at the next ministers' meeting—remarks somewhat interrupted by reproof to the boys for giggling at table and surreptitiously feeding Spring, the dog, in contravention of family rules.

It is not to be supposed that Will and Tom Cushing, though they were minister's boys, were not au courant in all that was going on note-worthy in the parish. In fact, they were fully versed in all the details of the projected ceremonies at the church and resolved to be in at the show, but maintained a judicious reticence as to their intentions lest, haply, they might be cut short by a positive interdict.

The Episcopal church at Poganuc Center was of recent origin. It was a small, insignificant building compared with the great square three-decker of a meeting-house which occupied conspicuously the green in Poganuc Center. The minister was not a man particularly gifted in any of those points of pulpit excellence which Dr. Cushing would be likely to appreciate, and the Doctor had considered it hitherto too small and unimportant an affair to be worth even a combative notice; hence his ignorance and indifference to what was going on there. He had heard incidentally that they were dressing the church with pines and going to have a Christmas service, but he only murmured something about "tolerabiles ineptiæ" to the officious deacon who had called his attention to the fact. The remark, being in Latin, impressed the Deacon with a sense of profound and hidden wisdom. The people of Poganuc Center paid a man a salary for knowing more than they did, and they liked to have a scrap of Latin now and then to remind them of this fact. So the Deacon solemnly informed all comers into the store who discussed recent movements that the Doctor had his eyes open; he knew all about these doings and they should hear from him yet; the Doctor had expressed his mind to him.

The Doctor, in fact, was far more occupied with a certain Dr. Pyncheon, whose views of moral inability he expected entirely to confound by the aforesaid treatise which he had been preparing.

So after supper the boys officiously harnessed and brought up the horse and sleigh destined to take their parents to North Poganuc school-house, and saw them set off—listening to the last jingle of the sleigh bells with undisguised satisfaction.

"Good! Now, Tom, let's go up to the church and get the best places to see," exclaimed Bill.

"Oh, boys, are you going?" cried Dolly, in a piteous voice. "Oh, do take me! Nabby's going, and everybody, and I want to go."

"Oh, you mustn't go; you're a little girl and it's your bed-time," said Tom and Bill, as with Spring barking at their heels they burst in a windy swoop of noise out of the house, boys and dog about equally intelligent as to what it was all about.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook