Chapter XI.


Yes. Spring was coming; the little blue herald was right, though he must have chilled his beak and frozen his toes as he sat there. But he came from the great Somewhere, where things are always bright; where life and summer and warmth and flowers are forever going on while we are bound down under ice and snow.

There was a thrill in the hearts of all the children that day, with visions of coming violets, hepaticas and anemones, of green grass and long bright sunny rambles by the side of the Poganuc river.

The boys were so premature in hope as to get out their store of fish-hooks, and talk of trouting. The Doctor looked over his box of garden seeds, and read the labels. "Early Lettuce," "Early Cucumbers," "Summer Squashes"—all this was inspiring reading, and seemed to help him to have faith that a garden was coming round again, though the snow banks yet lay over the garden-spot deep and high. All day long it thawed and melted; a warm south wind blew and the icicles dripped, so that there was a continual patter.

Two circumstances of importance in Dolly's horoscope combined on this happy day: Hiel invited Nabby to an evening sleigh-ride after supper, and Mrs. Davenport invited her father and mother to a tea-drinking at the same time.

Notwithstanding her stout words about Hiel, Nabby in the most brazen and decided manner declared her intention to accept his invitation, because (as she remarked) "Hiel had just bought a bran new sleigh, and Almiry Smith had said publicly that she was going to have the first ride in that air sleigh, and she would like to show Almiry that she didn't know every thing." Nabby had inherited from her father a fair share of combativeness, which was always bubbling and boiling within her comely person at the very idea of imaginary wrongs; and, as she excitedly wiped her tea-cups, she went on:

"That air Almiry Smith is a stuck-up thing; always turning up her nose at me, and talking about my being a hired gal. What's the difference? I live out and work, and she stays to home and works. I work for the minister's folks and get my dollar a week, and she works for her father and don't git nothin' but just her board and her keep. So, I don't see why she need take airs over me—and she sha'n't do it!"

But there was a tranquilizing influence breathing over Nabby's soul, and she soon blew off the little stock of spleen and invited Dolly into her bed-room to look at her new Leghorn bonnet, just home from Miss Hinsdale's milliner-shop, which she declared was too sweet for anything.

Now, Leghorn bonnets were a newly-imported test of station, grandeur and gentility in Poganuc. Up to this period the belles of New England had worn braided straw, abundantly pretty, and often braided by the fair fingers of the wearers themselves, while they studied their lessons or read the last novel or poem.

But this year Miss Hetty Davenport, and Miss Ellen Dennie, and the blooming daughters of the governor, and the fair Maria Gridley had all illuminated their respective pews in the meeting-house with Leghorn flats—large and fine of braid, and tremulous with the delicacy of their fiber. Similar wonders appeared on the heads of the juvenile aristocracy of the Episcopal church; and the effect was immediate.

Straw bonnets were "no where." To have a Leghorn was the thing; and Miss Hinsdale imported those of many qualities and prices, to suit customers. Nabby's was not of so fine a braid as that of the governor's daughters; still it was a real Leghorn hat, and her soul was satisfied. She wanted a female bosom to sympathize with her in this joy, and Dolly was the chosen one.

Proud of this confidence, Dolly looked, exclaimed, admired, and assisted at the toilette-trial—yet somewhat wondering at the facility with which Nabby forgot all her stringent declarations of the morning before.

"You don't suppose he would dare to kiss you again, Nabby?" Dolly suggested timidly, while Nabby stood at the glass with her bonnet on, patting her curls, shaking her head, pulling into place here a bow and there a flower.

"Why, Dolly Cushing," said Nabby, laughing; "what a young 'un you are to remember things! I never saw such a child!"

"But you said"——cried Dolly,—

"Oh, never mind what I said. Do you suppose I can't keep that fellow in order? I'd just like to have him try it again—and see what he'd get! There now, what do you think of that?" And Nabby turned round and showed a general twinkle of nodding flowers, fluttering ribbons, bright black eyes, and cheeks with laughing dimples which came and went as she spoke or laughed.

"Nabby, I do declare, you are splendid," said Dolly. "Hiel said once you was the handsomest girl in Poganuc."

"He did, did he? Well, I'll let him know a thing or two before I've done with him; and Almiry Smith, too, with her milk-and-water face and stringy curls."

"Did that bonnet cost a great deal?" asked Dolly.

"What do you mean, child?" asked Nabby, turning quickly and looking at her.

"Nothing, only Mrs. Davenport said that hired girls were getting to dress just like ladies."

Nabby flared up and grew taller, and seemed about to rise from the floor in spontaneous combustion.

"I declare!" she said. "That's just like these 'ere stuck-up Town Hill folks. Do they think nobody's to have silk gowns and Leg'orn bonnets but them? Who 's a better right, I should like to know? Don't we work for our money, and ain't it ourn? and ain't we just as good as they be? I'll buy just such clothes as I see fit, and if anybody don't like it why they may lump it, that's all. I've a better right to my bonnet than Hetty Davenport has to hers, for I earned the money to pay for it, and she just lives to do nothing, and be a bill of expense to her folks."

Dolly cowered under this little hurricane; but, Poganuc being a windy town, Dolly had full experience that the best way to meet a sudden gust is to wait for it to blow itself out, as she did on the present occasion. In a minute Nabby laughed and was herself again; it was impossible to be long uncomfortable with a flower garden on one's head.

"I shall be lonesome to-night without you, Nabby," said Dolly; "the boys talk Latin to me and plague me when I want to play with them."

"Oh, I heard Mis' Cushing say she was going to take you to the tea-party, and that'll be just as good for you."

Dolly jumped up and down for joy and ran to her mother only to have the joyful tidings confirmed. "I shall never leave Dolly alone in the house again, with nobody but the boys," she said, "and I shall take her with us. It will be a lesson in good manners for her."

It may have been perceived by the intimations of these sketches hitherto that there were in the town of Poganuc two distinct circles of people, who mingled in public affairs as citizens and in church affairs as communicants, but who rarely or never met on the same social plane.

There was the haute noblesse—very affably disposed, and perfectly willing to condescend; and there was the proud democracy, prouder than the noblesse, who wouldn't be condescended to, and insisted on having their way and their say, on the literal, actual standpoint of the original equality of human beings.

The sons and daughters of farmers and mechanics would willingly exchange labor with each other; the daughters would go to a neighboring household where daughters were few, and help in the family work, and the sons likewise would hire themselves out where there was a deficiency of man-power; but they entered the family as full equals, sharing the same table, the same amusements, the same social freedoms, with the family they served.

It was because the Town Hill families wished to hire servants, according to the Old-World acceptation of the term, that it became a matter of exceeding difficulty to get any of the free democratic citizens or citizenesses to come to them in that capacity.

Only the absolute need of money reconciled any of them to taking such a place, and then they took it with a secret heart-burning and a jealous care to preserve their own personal dignity.

Nabby had compromised her pride in working for "the minister," for the minister in early New England times was the first gentleman of the parish, and a place in his family was a different thing from one in any other.

Nevertheless, Nabby required to be guided with a delicate hand and governed with tact and skill. There were things that no free-born American girl would do, and Mrs. Cushing had the grace not to expect those things. For instance, no Yankee girl would come at the ringing of a bell. To expect this would, as they held it, be to place them on a level with the negroes still retained as servants in some old families. It was useless to argue the point. Nabby's cheeks would flush, and her eyes flash, and the string of her tongue would be loosed, and she would pour forth torrents of declamation if one attempted to show that calling by a bell was no worse than calling by the voice or sending out one of the children. Mrs. Cushing did not try to do it.

Another point was the right to enter the house by the front door. Now, as Nabby's work lay in the kitchen and as her sleeping-room was just above, it was manifestly an inconvenience to enter by any other than the kitchen door. Nevertheless, she had heard the subject discussed among other girls, and had admired the spirit shown by her intimate friend, Maria Pratt, when Mrs. Israel Deyter pointed out to her the propriety of entering by the back door,—"Mrs. Deyter, do you think there will be a back and a front door to heaven?"

But Mrs. Cushing avoided the solution of this theological problem by looking on with a smile of calm amusement when Nabby very conspicuously and perseveringly persisted in entering by the front door the first week of her engagement with the family. As nothing was said and nothing done about it, Nabby gradually declined into doing what was most convenient—went the shortest way to her work and room. Nabby was in her way and place a person worth making concessions to, for she was a workwoman not to be despised. Her mother, Mrs. Higgins, was one of those almost fabulous wonders of household genius who by early rising, order, system, neatness and dispatch reduced the seemingly endless labors of a large family to the very minimum of possibility. Consequently there was little occasion for the mistress of a family to overlook or to teach Nabby. When she entered the household she surveyed the situation with trained eyes, took an account of all work to be done, formed her system and walked through it daily with energetic ease, always securing to herself two or three hours of leisure every day in which to do her own cutting, fitting and sewing. According to the maxims in which she had been brought up, a girl that did not "do up her work in the morning," so as to have this interval of leisure, was not mistress of her business. On washing days Nabby's work began somewhere in the latter part of the night, and daylight saw her flags of victory waving on the lines in the shape of renovated linen, and Nabby with great composure getting breakfast as on any other day.

She took all her appointed work as a matter of course. Strong, young, and healthy, she scarcely knew what fatigue was. She was cheerful, obliging, and good tempered, as thoroughly healthy people generally are. There was, to be sure, a little deposit of gunpowder in Nabby's nature, and anybody who chose to touch a match to her self-esteem, her sense of personal dignity or independence, was likely to see a pretty lively display of fireworks; but it was always soon over, and the person making the experiment did not generally care to repeat it.

But Hiel Jones found this chemical experiment irresistibly fascinating, and apparently did not care how often he burned his fingers with it. Hiel was somewhat blasé with easy conquests.

The female sex have had in all ages their spoiled favorites, who are ungrateful just in proportion to the favors bestowed upon them; and Hiel was in his circle as much courted and pursued with flattering attentions as any spoiled tenor of the modern opera. For him did Lucinda and Jane bake surreptitious mountains of sponge cake. Small tributes of cream, butter, pies of various name and model, awaited him at different stopping-places, and were handed him by fair hands with flattering smiles. The Almira of whom Nabby discoursed with such energetic vehemence had knit Hiel a tippet, worked his name on a pocket-handkerchief with her hair, and even gone so far as to present him with one of the long yellow curls which Nabby was pleased to call "stringy." Nabby's curls certainly could not have merited any such epithet, as every separate one of them had a will and a way of its own, and all were to the full as mutinous as their mistress. Yet Hiel would have given more for one of those rebellious curls than for all Almira's smooth-brushed locks, and although a kiss from Nabby was like a kiss from one on an electric stool, snapping and prickling at every touch, yet somehow the perverse Hiel liked the excitement of the shock.

Hiel's tactics for the subjugation of a female heart were in the spirit of a poet he never heard of:

"Pique her, and soothe in turns;

Soon passion crowns thy hopes."

He instituted a series of regular quarrels with Nabby, varied by flattering attentions, and delighted to provoke her to anger, sure that she would say a vast deal more than she meant, and then, in the reaction which is always sure to follow in the case of hot-tempered, generous people, he should find his advantage.

So, when the stars looked out blinking and winking through a steel-blue sky, Nabby, in the fascinating new bonnet, was handed into the smart new sleigh, tucked in with Hiel under a profusion of buffalo robes, and went jingling away. A supper and a dance awaited them at a village tavern ten miles off, and other sleighs and other swains with their ladies were on the same way, where we take our leave of them to follow our little Dolly into the parlors of the haute noblesse.

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